House debates

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Governor-General's Speech


12:52 pm

Photo of Kelvin ThomsonKelvin Thomson (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Politics is possibly the only profession for which no preparation is considered necessary. I said 'possibly'! I have clocked up 20 years as the member for Wills, and I thank the voters of Wills for the confidence that they have shown in me, in good times and in bad, and the support and the encouragement that they have given me. It has been a great honour and a privilege to represent them, but you have to know when to fold them, and for me that time has come.

I thank the Australian Labor Party for the support it has shown me for a very long time, including endorsing me to stand in the forthcoming election. I was first elected as a Labor representative in the Coburg council in 1981 and re-elected in 1982 and 1985. I was elected to the Victorian parliament in 1988 and re-elected in 1992. I was elected here first in 1996 and re-elected in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013. So I have 35 years of representing the Labor Party at one level or another, from age 25 to age 60.

You know your time is up when your office rings the solicitor of a constituent to follow-up their case and the solicitor says: 'Does Kelvin remember going on the ducking school at Moonee Ponds West Primary School? Tell him I was the kid who ducked him.'

It would not have been possible without the great support of my family, friends, staff, colleagues and volunteer campaign workers, and I owe them a great debt of gratitude. I had a tough year personally last year, with a heart attack and the loss of a number of family members, and it is now time for me to attend to other priorities in life.

I want to thank my family for their great support. My partner, Kerry, is in the gallery. Kerry's love, good humour and support for me have been invaluable. Kerry said she is looking forward to divorcing the federal member for Wills and her new relationship with Kelvin Thomson, who in her words is 'a good bloke if only he'd spend more days at home'. I am told that quality time will include cooking lessons—now there is something to look forward to! I thank my son, Ben, and my daughter, Naomi. There are plenty of challenges involved in growing up in a political household, and I thank them for their patience and support. I am very proud of their perseverance in their chosen careers of aviation and animal welfare. I thank my father, Allan, OAM, a man of great character and integrity and a wonderful role model. He is also in the gallery, and that means a lot to me. My late mother, Dorothy—you know what mums are like—wanted me to become Prime Minister. So too did my grandmother on my father's side, but she was a branch secretary to Malcolm Fraser in the electorate of Wannon and thought I should be a Liberal Prime Minister. That would have been a number of bridges too far!

I thank my brothers, Lex and Daryl, and my sister, Jacqui, and their families for their support. I thank my office staff: Mimi Tamburrino, Tim Hamilton, who is here, Mark O'Brien, Julie Ryan, Cate Hall, Nosrat Hosseini and many others who have served over the past two decades. Mark had a stroke in the office just prior to Australia Day and has not been able to return to work, so we are all thinking of him. I ended up in the same hospital on the same day—naturally I took some files in for Mark to work on! Singling people out is a bad idea, but I got terrific value out of Robert Larocca and Anthony Cianflone, who both would be very good as MPs themselves. My office was a training ground for the Victorian Labor ministers Tony Robinson, Christine Campbell, John Eren and Luke Donnellan. Indeed, for a while when I was a state MP, I had the now member for Batman on my books. I am not sure that I can back up a claim that he worked for me, but he was there!

My staff could easily fill a valedictory speech themselves with their stories of constituents, such as the man, unlucky in love with four runaway brides, battling the immigration department to be allowed to sponsor a fifth. A couple of times my office was contacted by people asking us to draw up a will for them. When my staff demurred, the disappointed constituents said, 'But isn't Kelvin Thomson the member for Wills?'

I thank the Labor Party members and volunteers in Wills. They are an outstanding group of people who have always given much more than they ever got back. I thank the trade union movement—Ged Kearney and Dave Oliver at the ACTU, Ben Davis and his team at the AWU, Tony Sheldon and his team at the TWU, Glenn Thompson and the Manufacturing Workers' Union, Earl Setches at the plumbers, Dave Noonan at the CFMEU, the Institute of Marine and Power Engineers and many more. I thank the non-government organisations, who play such an important role in defending the public interest and reminding us that life is not all about money. I have worked closely with Animals Australia, the RSPCA, World Animal Protection, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Humane Society International, the WWF and many others. I acknowledge the work of the Accountability Round Table in defending and advancing high standards of ethics and integrity in public life. I also thank business leaders like Dick Smith, Robert Rio from the Rio Industrial Group, Hugh Middendorp from Middendorp Electrical, and Flight Centre, amongst others, for their encouragement, support and leadership. To all of you, thank you for the chance to do this.

I thank my colleagues both present and past for their company, their wise counsel and their friendship. You are a very talented group of people and the Australian political system is very much the better for your contribution and your efforts. The funniest person on this side of the House has been the member for Bruce. He specialises in blue-on-blue attacks. One of his targets was the Labor MP Dr Andrew Theophanous. When the House was amused to learn one question time that Dr Theophanous had been one of Peter Costello's lecturers at Monash, and Dr Theophanous volunteered that he had given Peter Costello high marks, Alan said, 'Yes, but he gave high marks to all the tall blondes.' And when Dr Theophanous did indeed marry a tall, blonde archaeologist, Alan said he was not so much a husband as a research project. To another colleague he apologised for not being able to attend his third wedding but said he would try very hard to get to the next one. Most of Alan's interjections are quite unfit to be recorded by Hansard, so he says them under his breath, but because I sit next to him I get to hear them. If only he were here more often. Today will be the last Griffin Watch. That is it. Perhaps the best interjection I ever heard—it was not here; it was in the Victorian parliament—was when then Premier Kennett developed an animosity to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Bernard Bongiorno, and was taking action to get rid of him, and the state member for Melbourne, Neil Cole, observed that the Premier was the only person in the world who thought that 'Bongiorno' meant goodbye!

I want to thank those opposite for their friendship also. People see us on the TV getting stuck into each other during question time and do not realise that we do a lot of constructive work in committees, on delegations and through multiparty parliamentary friendship groups, problem-solving and promoting worthwhile causes. The nature of Canberra necessarily brings people together from across the aisle. When I was in the Victorian parliament, you did not necessarily have much to do with opposing MPs, but here we have to travel to and from Canberra in the same planes and so on. One time a journalist talked me into bagging Petro Georgiou for giving very few speeches in the chamber. Karma decreed that, the next time that I travelled to Canberra, Petro and I would be seated together.

I want to thank the staff of Parliament House. It is a small city and it is a great place to work, particularly when parliament is not sitting. It is a bit like that efficient hospital with no patients in Yes, Minister. I thank the clerks, the Serjeant-at-Arms and the attendants. Luch was mentioned before. I think he has a twin or a clone, because everywhere you go he seems to be there. I thank Hansard and the Library, who provide professional and politically proper advice. I thank the Comcar drivers, the catering staff and the cleaners. I thank the outdoor staff. They keep the grounds in fantastic condition. As one MP who knows the difference between a Grevillea and an Eremophila, I have sometimes found the grounds a source of solitude and recovery after the mayhem and madness of question time.

I thank the MPs, senators and staff who have accompanied me on delegations and made them so entertaining. It will be a long time before I forget the look on the face of the OPEC official in Vienna, who was almost certainly wearing a real Rolex, when one of our senators took his watch off post briefing and said that it was an Australian custom to swap watches at the conclusion of a meeting! One time one of the border security people looked at my passport photo and said, 'Sir, are you well enough to travel?' On any delegation I went on, MPs and senators had very full itineraries and precious little time for sightseeing or relaxation. I am not sure I could say the same about all delegation secretaries. As soon as we got to one destination, our secretary went down to the beach, put on her bikini, spread herself out like a starfish and pretty much maintained that pose for the remainder of the delegation.

The parliamentary committee secretariats do great work. While I have served on many committees, I have put far and away my greatest effort into the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. It recently clocked up 20 years here too, and I am its longest serving chair and the only member to have been both chair and deputy chair. The treaties committee has done quite a lot of work on trade treaties. We have done a lot of work on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the TPPA, but we will not get to report on it before the parliament is dissolved, and it will fall to the next treaties committee to complete that task.

These days, everyone declares themselves to be in favour of free trade, but I wonder how many Australians are aware that the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is about much more than tariffs and quotas. It contains so many provisions restricting governments in their migration, foreign ownership, copyright and so on—so many other policies—that it is a handcuff on future governments and the right of Australians to democratically determine their future. I have heard the TPPA described as standing for 'taking people's power away'. It is noteworthy that the three remaining candidates in the US presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have all disowned the TPPA. Australia should certainly go no further down the path of ratifying this treaty until the US path becomes clear and, in the meantime, we should have a proper cost-benefit analysis carried out by the Productivity Commission. Members opposite regard Alfred Deakin and Sir Robert Menzies as their heroes—great Victorians they were, too—but I urge them to actually read what they said about the world, particularly about manufacturing. It is no good to invoke their names while trashing their legacy and their achievements.

People who know me know that I am not in the starry eyed, rose coloured glasses camp of politicians who say that the world is becoming a better place and that our best days are ahead of us. But I have worked as hard as I can to make the electorate of Wills a better place to live and to protect the good things about it.

One of my key objectives from the time I became a federal MP was to get our unemployment down from the terrible level of 20 per cent at the start of the 1990s—and it did come down too, right down to five per cent. But I never accepted that we should accept a degraded environment as the price of employment. In fact, I believed it was the other way around—the better we could make our environment the more working people would want to live here. So I supported local residents on issues with noise and fumes from places like the Essendon Airport and the Colonial chicken farm in Hadfield.

I wanted the public open spaces to be as attractive as they could be, so I fought successfully against proposals for freeways down creek valleys, like the F2 freeway reservation in the Merri Creek valley and the East West Link through Royal Park and the Moonee Ponds Creek. I fought successfully against the sale of public open space in the Moonee Ponds Creek valley, in areas like Moonee Boulevard and Pascoe Vale Road, and against selling public open space in the Merri Creek valley too. I set up Friends of Moonee Ponds Creek, which has done terrific work revegetating the Moonee Ponds Creek valley and establishing the Jacana wetlands. I actively supported Friends of Merri Creek and the Friends of Edgar's Creek, who have transformed these great open-space assets.

As early as my state parliament days I worked on getting the trucks off Pascoe Vale Road and getting rid of the Strathmore escarpment freeway reservation. I worked on maintaining bus services in Pascoe Vale South and cleaning up local railway stations, and I supported successful campaigns to stop the Upfield railway line from being closed by two different state Liberal governments. We were certainly on the right side of history there—the problem nowadays is that the carriages are full and people down the line cannot get on!

A critical component of living conditions is neighbourhood character and the planning rules. I have fought hard—although not as successfully as I would have wished— to give residents a genuine say in the character of their street and their community.

Education is crucial to our life chances. I supported the successful 'High school for Coburg' campaign. And I am proud to have been a member of a Labor government that put over $100 million into both primary and secondary school buildings in Wills, setting up our schools to offer quality education to the next generation and sparing us from the fate of trying to educate our children in the run-down, dilapidated buildings and classrooms which were thrown up hurriedly in the postwar years and were very much in need of renovation.

Beyond education, employment and environment, I have greatly enjoyed working with local people to build and strengthen the rich community life of Wills—its sporting clubs, RSLs and community organisations. In recent years I have held forums designed to shine a light on some of our darker corners and send a message that some things are just not okay. We had a forum on domestic violence, a forum after the Ford closure announcement, a forum about Sydney road safety, a forum after the killing of Jill Meagher and we had forums on the ice epidemic and on unemployment in Wills.

When I arrived here in 1996 I was young, enthusiastic, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—as I see a number of you here are now. It is true! Many of my older colleagues were downcast by the comprehensive shellacking of the 1996 election which brought John Howard to power with a majority of basically 100 seats to 50. But I was more cheerful. I had taken a real risk in giving up a safe Labor seat in the Victorian parliament to campaign for a seat which we did not hold, having lost it to Independent Phil Cleary in 1992. So I was pretty pleased just to be here.

I admit that when I moved to the federal parliament in 1996 it was part of my political calculus that Victorian Labor—the so-called guilty party—was seriously discredited and destined for a long time in opposition. I was surprised that we were able to regain government just three years later in 1999. I also thought that federal Labor, despite the big loss in 1996, was in pretty good working order. So I was also surprised that it took us 11 years to regain government. But, having spent 15 years in opposition at state and federal levels, it was terrific to win in 2007, but I was not prepared for the selfishness and poor judgement which came from within both those Labor governments in the ensuing years. I was not prepared for the machinations, the leaking, the backgrounding and the lack of loyalty to colleagues, which was unworthy of us. It drowned out our achievements and let down our supporters. I was more than surprised by this; I was appalled. But I was not surprised—and neither was anyone else—at the verdict of the electorate on this self-indulgence in 2013. We learned some lessons the hard way during that time.

I became a shadow parliamentary secretary the year after I arrived and shadow Assistant Treasurer after the 1998 federal election, which we narrowly lost. One of my campaigns in that period was for minimum quarterly, rather than annual, superannuation guarantee payments, and it was good that the Howard government picked it up.

I thought the year 2000, with the Sydney Olympic Games, and that innocence we had before September 11 was a great time to be an Australian. The Olympic torch passed through Wills one Saturday morning, and I joined a large crowd waiting for it at the North Essendon Junction around 7 am. There were two pubs back then at the junction, and in a driveway next to one of them was an old white Holden with two young blokes asleep inside who had clearly put in an all-nighter next door. One of them woke up and got up on the bonnet to get a better view and started jumping up and down on it in an unsuccessful effort to rouse his sleeping mate, singing out, 'Wake up, Donger, you'll miss the parade!' I thought it was a great time to be an Australian.

Labor looked good in 2000 and 2001, off the back of the government's problems in implementing the GST, particularly the extra work for small business, but we made the mistake of thinking we would surf into government on this issue and became a small target, rolling out very little policy of consequence. If Tony Abbott had been in our shoes he would have promised to get rid of the GST, but we did not.

Into this vacuum sailed Tampa, and after the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 the mood of the country changed and the government was returned. Australians abandoned their customary scepticism and irreverence about governments. They were genuinely horrified by Islamist terrorism and locked in behind the government and hoped it was up to the task of protecting them. Labor went through tough years of leadership instability and division over policy and strategy. During those years one of our colleagues died in tragic circumstances. Before he was even buried I was asked by a young aspirant whether I would have any objection to their taking his place. I said that was fine with me but it was not really my call—that they would have to ask the undertaker.

After 2001 I became shadow environment minister. A number of the key climate change policies I promoted in this role—ratification of the Kyoto protocol, an emissions trading scheme, and increasing the renewable energy target—were adopted as policy and later implemented when we came to government. I also pushed on issues like water for the Murray-Darling Basin and marine national parks. I had some success, but it did feel like hand-to-hand combat both within and outside the Labor Party.

We were defeated again in 2004, and I was not surprised to be moved from environment and was sufficiently worn down by the battles of the previous three years not to put up a fight over it. I was given regional development, amongst other things, and had a lot of fun exposing the regional rorts. I turned some of the regional rorts into poems and nursery rhymes and felt that I was making use of both the forensic and the more creative sides of my character.

When Kim Beazley returned to the leadership I was given the portfolios of public accountability and human services. I told Kim I would support his return to the leadership but that he needed to speak in language that ordinary people understood and could relate to. He replied that he was determined to be 'less prolix and verbose', and my head dropped a little. In retrospect I and the others who shifted our support to Kevin Rudd in 2006 may have done Kim a disservice. At the time I thought John Howard had his measure, but, looking back, perhaps the electorate would have been ready for change come 2007. And, looking back, I believe Kim would have made a better Prime Minister than either of his Labor successors.

Kevin Rudd made me shadow attorney-general. The biggest issue in this portfolio at the time was David Hicks. When he was first arrested there was very little sympathy for him in Australia, but after he had spent five years in Guantanamo Bay Australians were becoming restless. I promoted a two-word slogan in relation to him: fair trial. It was wrong to detain him indefinitely without trial and wrong not to allow him a trial before a real jury, not a military one.

In March 2007 my glorious career came to an abrupt dead end. In the political game of snakes and ladders, I hit the big snake. I was contacted by Kevin Rudd's office and advised that they had been told that I had written a reference for Tony Mokbel. I thought this was unlikely but naturally offered to check my office to see. After several hours of searching, my staff and I had found nothing and I was increasingly confident that it was a hoax, like the letter Ralph Willis produced in the 1996 election. But one of my staff eventually found the letter and brought my world crashing down. It is a tough business, politics. After I resigned as shadow Attorney-General I was depressed and miserable. But then I turned it around—and became miserable and depressed! It is said, 'Show me someone who hasn't made a mistake and I'll show you someone who hasn't done anything.' The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, and I sought to do that.

It is a great honour to be a member of the federal parliament, and I was determined not to waste it. I subscribe to the Edmund Burke view that we owe it to those who vote for us to tell them what we ourselves believe and try to add the value of our own experience rather than all the time simply parroting the party line. I also subscribe to the George Bernard Shaw view that, while reasonable people adapt themselves to suit the world, the unreasonable person insists on trying to adapt the world to suit them—therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable person. In that sense, I have been unreasonable for much of the past decade.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to be Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and later on Parliamentary Secretary for Schools, and for those opportunities I thank former Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

As a backbencher I have been a contributor to national policy debates about Australia's rapid population growth, the exploitation of migrant workers and international students, trade and the future of the manufacturing industry, animal welfare, industrial fishing by supertrawlers and more.

One thing I have been increasingly concerned about, and would spend more time on if I was doing it all over again, is the integrity of the political process itself. The recent revelations about the use of Panama by large corporates and powerful individuals to dodge tax and hide ill-gotten gains; the corruption in the oil industry revealed by the Unaoil revelations; the scandals in New South Wales, involving both sides of politics, over retail leases and coal tenements and illegal campaign donations by property developers—all of these things suggest to me that a concerted push to clean up the political system is needed. I have called before for a national independent commission against corruption, and it is an idea whose time has come. The Senate crossbenchers are right about this.

We should make campaign donation disclosures in real-time, so you have to disclose a donation on your website within, say, a week of receiving it. We should make political lobbying more transparent. The Queensland model is a good one. Ministers must publish their external diaries every month. Registered lobbyists must also publish their meetings with ministers. They must file on the Integrity Commissioner's website, no later than 15 days after the end of each month, information on every lobbying contact with a government or opposition representative.

The New South Wales ICAC has recommended that meetings and phone conversations with lobbyists be the subject of a written record, with the date, venue, duration, names of attendees, subject matter and meeting outcomes being disclosed. As ICAC put it in 2010:

Lack of transparency in the current lobbying regulatory system is a major corruption risk, and contributes significantly to public distrust.

The US requires public officials to disclose details of their appointment diaries in a timely manner.

One anticorruption measure which people may be surprised to hear me advocate for the return of is the defined benefit superannuation scheme for members of parliament. Labor should never have proposed its abolition, and the Howard government should not have taken the bait. It is not in the public interest for MPs and senators to be making decisions about issues where billions of dollars are involved—such as listing PBS items, communications infrastructure, Defence projects or road projects—when those MPs have no financial security and therefore a healthy interest in what work opportunities they will have after parliament. One day some of you younger MPs should get together across the chamber and put the old scheme back.

Some people will ask, 'What about the double-dipping where an MP gets the superannuation and goes to work for a large foreign corporation anyway?' I agree that that is an issue, and I would cheerfully support more robust measures by way of cooling-off periods for former ministers, for example. This is also an issue for public servants, by the way.

If members opposite should read more Deakin and Menzies, members on this side should read more Gough Whitlam. They do those surveys asking, 'Who has been our best Prime Minister?'

The correct answer is Gough. His towering intellect and basic decency changed Australia unquestionably for the better. The Prime Minister says there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. Yes, there has: 1972 to 1975, by a mile. Frankly, with the greatest of respect to Gough's successors on both sides of the fence, it has been all downhill since then. He delivered free postsecondary education, and we should never have let that achievement go. Bruce Billson, the member for Dunkley, said that we risk being the first generation to fail to live up to Australia's great promise that each generation will have it better than the one before. That was a point reinforced today by the member for Chisholm.

Many of you know that I think that the greatest driver of this failure is rapid population growth. I think this is true both globally and nationally. Globally, there are people still alive who were born into a world of two billion people, when we are now over seven billion and headed for nine billion to 10 million mid-century, with no credible sign of slowing down. A key driver of the shocking spectre of terrorism, of millions of boat people, of endless wars, is conflict over access to scarce resources—too many people and not enough arable land, water and food to go around. We all need to get serious, through the UN and every other relevant global avenue at our disposal, about reducing the global birthrate.

As to the ongoing asylum seeker crisis in Europe, the United States, Australia and beyond, the countries of the United Nations should together require the permanent members of the UN Security Council to provide refugee camps on their own soil that could accommodate all those who flee conflict zones and last for at least the duration of the conflict. That would act as a real incentive to the UN Security Council permanent members to resolve conflicts, rather than letting them fester for years, and encourage them to do a lot more to stop conflicts breaking out in the first place. The UN, its Security Council and its High Commissioner for Refugees have conspicuously failed to do what they were set up to do—prevent conflict and make the world safe for everyone. Real power resides with the permanent members of the Security Council, and they should be made to carry out the role for which they were given this power and made accountable for their decades of failure.

Nationally, for the last decade we have been growing at a rate of a million every three years. People who think that Australia is sparsely populated are ecologically illiterate. They do not realise that most of Australia is desert and uninhabitable, except at quite unsustainable levels of energy and water use. Rapid population growth is undermining the future of the next generations—fitting them up with job insecurity, housing unaffordability and student debt.

If we shy away from slowing down Australia's rapid population growth, and the media keep giving us policy advice from economists rather than ecologists, we will fail the next generation. We will pass on to them an unworthy legacy. We also risk an uprising by those we have let down. It is all very well for mainstream political forces to have a gentlemen's agreement that some issues are not to be touched, but nature abhors a vacuum. The commentators can look down their noses at Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or UKIP or the push for a Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn or the European populist antimigration parties, but, if you refuse to pay attention to what voters want, if you dismiss the voters as ignorant or rednecks, you take a real risk. It is better to be less greedy and more willing to give the voters what they want.

We have recently remembered 101 years since Anzac Day at Gallipoli. We know that each generation has its own battles to fight, its own challenges to confront. In the face of the global threats and challenges facing us now, it is easy for people to be passive, throwing their hands up in the air and saying, 'What can I achieve? The challenge is so massive and I am but one person.' But this was precisely the situation facing the Anzacs at Gallipoli. The courage and character they showed back then is not some museum piece to be taken down, dusted off and admired once a year and then put back on the shelf. It should inspire us to fight the battles of our own time.

Endeavour was of course the name of the ship Captain James Cook sailed in in his voyage of discovery to the Southern Hemisphere in 1770, and just this week the Endeavour itself was apparently rediscovered off Rhode Island after going missing in the 18th century. If we can rediscover the Endeavour after 200 years, surely there is still some endeavour waiting to be discovered in each of us.

It is said that a politician thinks about the next election, whereas a statesman thinks about the next generation. Somewhat immodestly then, I try to think about the next generation. But if I keep talking, some of you will conclude that I am intending to speak until the arrival of my audience, so I will stop now. It has been extraordinary privilege and, again, I thank everyone who has contributed to either giving me this opportunity or sharing the journey. I wish all of you, including my prospective successor, Peter Khalil, all the best for the future.


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