House debates

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Governor-General's Speech


6:21 pm

Photo of Andrew RobbAndrew Robb (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—and while I am on the topic of 'Mr Speaker', I will just acknowledge our very longstanding and strong friendship and also the pride I have had in the way in which you have conducted yourself as Speaker of this House. It has been, in my view, outstanding, and I cannot recall anyone who was better than you in that chair. So, congratulations, and well done.

I had the privilege on 11 February, when it was announced that I was not going to recontest the next election, of saying a few words in this House. I will probably cover some of the topics again, but not all of them. I consider that in future I will read at least, if no-one else will. I will read both in conjunction as my contribution to my valedictory speech. It is not often you get two bites of the cherry—certainly in this place.

I think it is true that every person's life is like a kaleidoscope: a rollercoaster of events, experiences, emotions and challenges. But I must say, after 12 years in this place I have discovered that the kaleidoscope is turbocharged. Juggling the electorate representation of 66,000 families, 6,000 to 7,000 businesses, 50 schools, 900 community groups, along with 20 weeks in parliament, endless media engagements, a ministry or extensive committee work, endless hours on a plane, as well as the needs of your family and friends, I have found it involves a combination of exhilaration, despair, guilt, exhaustion, robust debate, disappointment and enormous satisfaction, and all that can happen in one normal day. When you think about it, it is a huge commitment by everyone in this place. I am sure very few people really do understand it, but that is the nature of so many jobs in life. You just need to take pride and satisfaction in the opportunities that we have been given to be here.

The job does require a huge commitment of time, but not just from us politicians; it critically includes your professional staff, your family members, your party supporters and members of the party machine at both state and federal levels. It is very much a team game. Even around each individual, a lot of team effort needs to go into that person being as effective as they possibly can. I have been blessed with outstanding personal staff throughout my 12 years, and quite a number of them have done me the honour of being here tonight in the chamber. I thank them for that.

There are, perhaps, too many staff that I have been associated with to mention. I would hate to inadvertently overlook anyone. I just want all of them to know the enormous gratitude that I have for their efforts, their professionalism and the friendship that we have enjoyed; the absence of office politics, which has been a real blessing for the me, in our office—it can make things so much more difficult if there are tensions running throughout the team; the loyalty that I have received; the intellect of those that I have worked with; the esprit de corps; and the sheer decency of those from both my parliamentary and my electorate offices. They have been a very, very big part of any of the achievements that I may have been able to make over the last 12 years.

I move to the bureaucracy. I think they get nearly as many brickbats as politicians. However, from my experience with various departments over my 12 years, I have got to say that the experience I have had has been most positive—some outstanding people, endless good intent, commitment and, in most cases, teamwork. But I found that if a minister does not provide leadership the department will take over the reins, and thank God they do at times. However, where leadership and clear direction is provided, I have found that the capacity of our federal departments and agencies to provide effective implementation of projects to be exceptional. For me, in all my experience, that is what they excel at: when given something with clear instructions, clear parameters and timelines, they carry it out in a way that I suspect no other group could do.

Our Public Service might be less well equipped, perhaps, in terms of coming up with new ideas. That is probably the biggest mistake that has been made with the placement of our capital in Canberra—so removed from so many other parts of our community, and we have now got third- and fourth-generation public servants from this city. They have got exceptional skills, excellent education, good values and all of the rest, but a lot of them have never sat on train with a person in a blue singlet. It is, in my view, something that we cannot change—the capital—but we ought to think about how we might change the experience of some of these exceptional public servants that I think do such a good job. I have found them less well equipped to come up with new ideas, but their ability to identify the weakness and risk of any new proposal that is flagged with them is very impressive indeed. That is important. People may say, 'They're just stoppers,' but, as someone such as myself who is forever on the lookout for problems to fix or new opportunities to progress and promote, I have always appreciated the capacity of the Public Service to critically assess the merit of suggested new initiatives. I think they often may have been somewhat frustrated by me having another idea. Their day was already full without me coming up with another idea for them to give me some feedback on, but they have saved me from myself on many occasions. They have also given me the confidence to drive on with some initiatives, if those initiatives survived their scrutiny. It is a good team effort. It is a good marriage of skills and strengths and it has been an important part of my experience with the Public Service. I thank the many public servants who have assisted me and the government so effectively. In this regard, I would like to make special reference to those at DFAT and Austrade. They are the department and agency that I have had the most time with over the last three years—the most time in any period during the 12 years.

Trade negotiations can be very gruelling and intellectually very challenging. The skills and persistence of those supporting me in negotiating the three free trade agreements and the Trans-Pacific Partnership has, I think, led to our trade team establishing an outstanding global reputation for excellence and achievement. I recall that the last of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations—we had many, many sessions over the last two years lasting days on end—was excruciating. It went on for days. On some issues there was just us negotiating with the US. The talent of our young lawyers was unbelievable. They armed me every day and every night. I think we had 10 negotiations in 2½ half days and seven hours of sleep. We came back again and again. They were lining up against some of the US's best people, people with 20 years more experience than our team had. And yet the quality of our people was such that they delivered. They delivered under the pressure and all the sense of authority coming from the other side of the table. It was a great thing for our country. That is the point. They did the job for us.

That showed that you can give a lot of responsibility to younger people. In so many cases, they will stand up to it. We need to keep our eyes open for that. That is another thing to watch for in the Public Service. I observe in so many different departments that so much is focused on seniority and not on potential. We have to back some young talent some of the time. If they do not live up to it, so be it. But many of them will, and we will be the better for it.

I must say in regard to those agreements that in the years to come I really am optimistic that these agreements will be viewed as a very positive legacy of this government in terms of making a very material contribution to our long-term prosperity. All of those who have been involved—and there have been literally hundreds—from my personal office through to the department should be very proud. A lot of the industry groups put in serious amounts of time. You hear all this business about negotiating in secrecy, but we had thousands of consultations. My office alone had hundreds. Then there were the officials we had who were experts in different areas across all portfolios talking to people. You cannot negotiate something of enormously complicated structure and content across dozens of different industry sectors, service operations and all the rest without having expertise, knowledge and experience from practitioners giving you advice and saying, 'That won't work. That will work.' It is a very iterative process. It is just those who really are opposed to trade who are picking up slogans and notions to try to do anything in their power to ensure that we do not seek to pursue more trade and investment opportunities.

As with DFAT, Austrade have truly excelled in their efforts to support me as the first ever federal minister with trade and investment responsibilities. That inclusion of investment in the portfolio I think has been an inspired initiative. They are two sides of the same coin. I found that the trade work was almost all government to government. If the trade work was all I did I would have been in a position where I would hardly have ever met any of the senior business people from other parts of the world. I would know those from Australia but not other parts of the world. The trade agreements and the investment role and the capacity of Austrade to ramp up with very senior people in that role has meant that I now have personal friends from most of the very big companies that are important to us from so many countries of the world. I met with them sometimes two, three or four times, if not more. The potential then to help other colleagues and other businesses in Australia and be a facilitator and also to do my job on trade was greatly expanded. All of that intelligence is extraordinarily important. I think that must become an ongoing feature.

Bear in mind that Austrade had never really done things on the scale we did them before. In China they met with 700 people in 2014. In India they met with 450 people in eight cities over a week in 2015. In Indonesia they met with 350 business people across five cities. In the US this year they met with 320 people across nine cities. Then the team led by Steven Ciobo met with 1,000 people in China across 12 cities. The response was unbelievable. The capacity of Austrade to line up business people from the Chinese side with seniority and a level of enthusiasm to do business was just incredible. That is the consistent message I got back from so many of them. We had 350 investors from 20 countries at a major conference for northern Australia last year in Darwin, with over 100 investment-ready projects. I have had 80 investment roundtables in 28 countries. That was all structured and all those people identified by Austrade. They know their patch.

It is the only area of government that has a truly commercial interface. The rest of the Public Service have some other very important roles, but I think you have to protect Austrade at all costs and bolster it. At different times the Prime Minister, the finance minister, the Treasurer and many other ministers need that sort of advice. If we have a significant cell of investment expertise which is keeping us in touch with the world it can provide a great opportunity for us. For all of that, I am very grateful for their professionalism and the extent of the support I have been given.

I just want to reflect on the fact that there have been some agreements et cetera which we have been fortunate enough to conclude, but there is still so much more to do.

The opportunity in our region, you have heard me say it at other times and I will not go on about it, for the first time since European settlement we have got all the drivers—not all the drivers, but most of the drivers—of global growth in our region, in our backyard instead of 12,000 miles away. This is extraordinarily important, and it is going to be that way for the rest of this century, if not much longer. India and China are inexorably going back to where they were for 18 of the last 20 centuries: as part of the centre of economic and political gravity in the world. They are heading back in that direction; they will share it with the United States, in my view. It has all sorts of consequences. We have to keep an eye on all these things from a security point of view and other points, but it is full of opportunity—unbelievable opportunity. We are in the same time frame, we complement greatly what they want we need. We want to sell our services and our products—they are clean green healthy products. They all need to move to services based economies because that is where the jobs are. There are still hundreds of millions in so many of those countries around us who are coming into, and wanting to come into, the middle class. It is something that has to be sung from the rooftops.

It is one thing to have some architecture in place; it is another thing for that to be taken up. For a lot of that architecture we have concessions that no other country has. In time they will give these concessions to others. We have a first-mover advantage which we have to take advantage of. One of the reasons I am stepping down and going to the private sector is to try and do whatever I can to promote Australian companies going into the region, especially the services companies and to promote companies from the region to come into Australia with trade and investment. Otherwise these things can just drift and others can take up the opportunities and we will miss it. We could set ourselves up for a century of very significant contributions to our prosperity and a lot of opportunities for our young people.

I would also like to say that I have also been blessed with an extraordinarily supportive party membership. I have nearly 700 members in my electorate. From the time I arrived it was only nine weeks before the election in 2004 and there was not a lot of time but there was so much experience in my electorate in running campaigns. They just took over; I was a figurehead. Their machine just worked, and I did not have to spend a minute on a lot of the logistics or any of those things. It all just happened, and that has been the experience ever since. They will do another great job this time around with Tim Wilson, my successor, who will be a very good member in this House. As always, you cannot take a seat for granted. We have to get on with the job and get him there, but he has the backing of so many. There are the chairs of my electorate council, those who have volunteered for the executive committee over the years, others who have been members of my campaign committee, the branch chairs, the hundreds of booth workers, Tim Wildash, Tammy van Weiss and other members of the Bayside Forum. They have all contributed enormously to my effectiveness by taking many, many loads off me. Having been federal Director and involved with that lot of marginal seats in particular, where there were not big party bases, I know the prospective candidate had so much to do in the mechanics—everything to do, to manage, to organise—and to get the horsepower out there. I have had none of that to do. It is unbelievably beneficial in freeing up your time to do all the other things I mentioned right at the outset in terms of our formal job as a representative for that seat. I thank all of those people again—too many to mention by name. I really value them; I value their friendship, I value their commitment to the Liberal Party and the sacrifices they make. So many of them just want to see a good country for their kids and their families and they are prepared to go that extra mile to do it. I really admire what they do.

I have greatly enjoyed the interaction with my constituents. I think I said last time, on 11 February, that you just do not know—if you have been in local government, you may have some idea—how you will get on with all this meet and greet and all the rest of it. I have thoroughly enjoyed it; it is almost relaxation from me from other things to go and have a beer down at the yacht club, as we do in the Bayside. You can all eat your hearts out, but it is a lovely part of the world. There are so many times that my wife Maureen and I have pinched ourselves at the good fortune of being part of that community. I want to put that on the record.

As I said earlier, I have had the opportunity on 11 February to make some remarks. In those comments by express sentiments my wife and family. I can't think of any better way of saying what I wanted to say than what came off the top of my head that afternoon. With your indulgence, could I just read that paragraph again, because I think it is worth my wife and family hearing it.

I thank in particular my wife of 42 years, Maureen. I can remember what my father said when I told my parents that, at the tender age of 23—

she was actually 21, but I was 23—

Maureen and I had got engaged. My father is not one to give a lot of advice or anything, but he said to me, 'Son, you've chosen a very accomplished partner. You're going somewhere—I don't know where it is—but you've got an accomplished partner who will be able to travel with you.' How very true that has been. She is a woman of great consequence, in my view and I think in the view of others—

Some in this place know her very well—

She is an elegant person who has been a great support. I have done well over 7,000 domestic flights in my career and now a few international flights have been added to that list. She is quite an independent person who, more than anything, brought up our kids and was a very good English teacher at the same time.

We are a very close family. We are very proud of our three kids. They have all made their own way, but they have been enormously supportive. In fact, we left them in Sydney when we went to Melbourne. They were all living with us when the opportunity came up. We had three nights to make a decision. We had not been in Melbourne for 20 years. We had been in Canberra and then Sydney. They had never lived in Melbourne. They were all in their first jobs, more or less. We had three nights to decide, and they supported us. Actually, it is worth thinking about, for some of you, because it made them stand on their own two feet very quickly—and they were old enough to do it. But it cost me a fair bit in subsidies for rent for a couple of years! But we are very close and I am very proud of them, and they have been so supportive all the way through. Pip, my daughter, gets very defensive if there is any bad press around. That is a nice feature. I tell her it is just part of the job. Their three respective partners are very lovely people. In the last two years, they have produced four grandchildren, which is a new stage in our life which I am really enjoying.

I would also like to acknowledge my beloved parents, who at 92 and 87 are still going strong. In fact, the old man bought a new car at 90, after he had his knee done. And he picked the sports model, so he has a spoiler and mag wheels, which my sisters in particular are not too keen on.

I have had lots of opportunities in this place, on the backbench economics committee, initially, then as chair of the Howard government's Taskforce on Workplace Relations; parliamentary secretary for immigration, Minister for Vocational and Further Education; shadow minister for foreign affairs, for infrastructure and for climate change; chair of the Coalition Policy Development Committee, along with shadow minister for finance; and of course, for the last three years, Minister for Trade and Investment. It has been a roller-coaster for me, but it is the nature of my skill set in many ways, as a sort of generalist, to get across a lot of things. I have enjoyed it all immensely.

Being in opposition for those six years reminded me again—like my time as federal director, which was mainly when we were in opposition—what a soul-destroying experience that is and, when you do get into government, how much you need to really value it. By God, value it, because you have so many opportunities—and you have none on the other side of this chamber—to fulfil what you came here to do, and that is to make life better for our community. It is a great privilege. There is often anxiety and all the usual things associated with making progress and getting things done, but once you have done it, if it works out, it is enormously satisfying. It is like a Melbourne Cup: they can never take it off you. They cannot take it off you. You have it there and, when things get worse in life, as it does at times, you can draw strength from your achievements in this place. It is a real privilege for us all.

In the middle of all those different roles, I had that problem with mental health. I will not go over it to any extent again, because I did on 11 February. I want to acknowledge Malcolm, and Tony Abbott; they were both enormously supportive and understanding. They gave me the space to try and get on top of it, which I was determined to do, after finally confronting something I had had for 43 years. The six months of experimentation with different medication, the side-effects and all the rest, straddled the time between Malcolm's first leadership experience and Tony Abbott taking over, so they both had big input at different stages. I also want to acknowledge all my colleagues, including the other side of the chamber, for the sort of 'business as usual' approach that people took. It was very important to me. I was able to do what I had to do but I was also able to come back and be judged only for what I was doing, not for what had happened during that period. The support of my personal staff during that time and the unrelenting support of my wife were very important, of course.

I achieved what I wanted to achieve early on, and that was to beat this damn thing and be able to demonstrate that, if you cannot beat it, you can manage it. That is as good as beating it. In 85 per cent of cases, you can manage it so that you can lead a normal life. Younger people can actually can beat it. If you get it early, and in most cases it starts in the teenage years or early adulthood—75 per cent of cases start then—it is a lot easier to resolve permanently. But, for older people and for some of those younger ones as well, in 85 per cent of cases you can manage it. If you think of the hundreds of thousands who are out there avoiding the issue, not admitting to it and not wanting to, afraid of the stigma, their lives would be materially different if they just picked up the phone and found a psychiatrist or psychologist, made an appointment and saw where they could go from there. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that you could do that.

After getting management of that problem, the trust placed in me after I came back from that and, again, the way in which everyone just got on with it enabled me to have other positions and perhaps to get to the job I have had for the last three years, which, when I look back, is probably the job that I have been training for for 30 years—the sweet spot for me, in some regards. As the Reverend Bill Crews said to me not so long ago, 'You once had a secret; now you've got a story.' It is a lovely line, because that story can help a lot of others.

In conclusion, colleagues, after 35 years in and around politics, 12 in this place, I do view this profession as a very noble profession. I just ignore all the commentary and the cheap shots and all the rest. This is a very noble profession. This is a place where you are doing significant things—both sides are. Being in opposition is a soul-destroying but very important part of this. We have been there; Labor is there at the moment. That is the way it goes. But I am enormously proud just to have been part of this institution, if you like, and this profession. Every day, our job is to reconcile hundreds of competing interests, and it is no easy task, as we all know, but it is so unbelievably satisfying when you get it right. And we are getting a lot right, and I hope we are going to see the rewards.

To the Prime Minister, to senior colleagues and to all of us: I hope that you all see the rewards for the work. I will just be a Joe Citizen at that stage. As I said before, I have such enthusiastic and significant belief in the quality of the team that we have—not just the team we have in the executive positions but the backbench is the most talented backbench I have seen in my 35 years. They will keep the pressure on the frontbench but will also move through the ranks in time. It could mean that, if we do the job properly on this side of politics, we can be a big part of the next 20 to 25 years of government in this country. So good luck with all of that. I will be cheering from the bleachers.

I not only thank my colleagues for the friendship and the support in so many ways, as I have referred to, but also acknowledge the intent and the efforts of those on the other side of the chamber. We all come here with an intent to do good—well, almost everybody. I think that is true of equal numbers on the other side. It is a very important part of the process, this Westminster system. It is a system which pits one against the other. So does our legal system and many parts of our systems. But it works, though sometimes it looks a bit messy.

I also acknowledge, as others have: the clerks, the attendants, the Comcar drivers, the dining room staff, the cleaners and Domenic and his team from Aussie's—all part of this institution and all make it so much easier for us to do our job. I very much admire the contribution they make and the pride they take in what they do around here. You can see it. You can see how they feel. They know they are part of something significant here and it is reflected in the pride they take in their work and the pride they take in looking after us.

I said in my maiden speech:

From as early as I can remember, my mother and father instilled in me and my eight brothers and sisters that opportunity and freedom would come through education, personal responsibility and self-belief; that our destiny was largely in our own hands—how hard we studied and worked, the opportunities we took, how we dealt with people. I grew to believe that I was responsible for charting my own course—that I was free to follow my dreams, make my own mistakes, take the consequences of my decisions.

I feel satisfied that I leave this place having remained true to those sentiments and undertakings, but I also feel immense gratitude for the opportunities that have been provided to me over these 12 years. I will miss it, but I am also excited about the next chapter. I look forward to maintaining strong contact and very strong support from my colleagues. I wish you all the best, Prime Minister, for the upcoming election. You are putting an enormous amount into it. I thought yesterday's document was a cracker. It starts to show that we have a plan and we can deliver the stability and we can maintain the prosperity. Bear in mind that we are still the strongest growing developed country in the world. We often forget that, or many do. So, thank you. It has been a privilege and a great pleasure.


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