House debates

Thursday, 10 February 2022

Parliamentary Representation


9:50 am

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

And he is not a bad tennis player either! He tells me his golf is something special!

I rise here today to speak as a result of a strange series of events and a great number of people who have initiated, cajoled, encouraged, mentored and worked with me to win back Bennelong, hold it through five campaigns and engage in work to address challenges where answers must be found. I've often been asked what the difference is between my first career as a tennis player and this. My quick response is that the game of tennis starts at love all. Ponder that. In my time on the tour, tennis went open, allowing the professionals entry into the grand slams, and the tour events became prize money tournaments rewarding performance regardless of reputation or standing. The equitable breakdown was initiated unselfishly by Ken Rosewall, who was then the king of the pros. The best events welcomed the best players, and tennis became a performance based profession with an equitable distribution of funds—a meritocracy in its purest form. Tennis since that time has grown and prospered beyond the wildest expectations. If our arena in this chamber had the same basis for meritocracy and fairness and a true contest of vision and ideas, imagine what could be achieved.

I was attracted to enter the political world after conversations with Brendan Nelson and John Howard, who were both keen to attract people with real life experience who could contribute to the development of policy. My summation of their advice was that a party should only win office on the basis of the policies, plans and vision they present and that governments should only hold on to office on delivering on those undertakings. The year 2010 was good for the coalition, and I was one of many to win a seat in parliament. I was delighted to find I had some 80-plus new friends with a common thread uniting us. We formed friendships quickly, and these bonds have endured. I became besties with the Wyatts—Ken Wyatt and Wyatt Roy—even though my shoes were older than Wyatt Roy, and they still are! However, Ken tested our friendship with his maiden speech. It was magnificent, moving, insightful and hopeful—and totally inconsiderate of those who had to follow! In truth, the real reason why I am retiring now is so that I don't have to follow him again.

When elected in 2010, I likened it to being selected to represent your country in sport. Initially, there is a euphoric moment of elation, but then very quickly it dawns on you that the responsibility of representation is now yours. The electorate of Bennelong is named after a man who symbolises first contact between the English settlers and the First Nations people—the commencement of multiculturalism in this country—so it is appropriate that it is now one of the most multicultural communities in Australia. Our schools are diverse, with distinctly unique characteristics, and our communities are multicultural and vibrant. Our strength and character are built on this diversity. Macquarie Park, Macquarie University and the CSIRO are at the cutting edge of innovation, and it's amazing how many life-changing and life-saving developments have come from this quarter. Our suburbs hold families both old and young, established and, now, many moving into new apartments in Epping, North Ryde and Meadowbank.

Since 2010, I've survived five elections, against a high-profile journalist, an international businessman, a former premier, Australia's best neurosurgeon and—perhaps best of all—a local mum. We kept winning, I believe, because we listened and understood local problems and set out to address them. In visiting schools I was made aware of concerns that a lack of participation in traditional Australian sports was leaving some students out of games but also, more importantly, the friendships that would be made by participating in sport. Thanks to the generosity of Hyundai we put table tennis tables in all 40 schools, providing a sport that every student could play. With the help of Hugh Lee of the AAAB and Andrew Hill, the Bennelong Cup was up and running—and still is. Thousands of children have made friends through this initiative, and I'm grateful to every school that has taken part. A collateral benefit is that we've also produced quite a number of ranked players.

In 2010, small businesses were really struggling with the effects of the global financial crisis and unfair competition from the major players with their $2 milk. We set out to encourage people to support their local businesses through the Bennelong Village Businesses campaign. In this, we were aided with marketing assistance provided by Boehringer Ingelheim and their CEO, Wes Cook; and the support of our local paper, the Weekly Times, and its legendary editor John Booth. We're about to celebrate John's 90th birthday. Unfortunately, he finds himself in hospital after a late-night fall after working—he works seven days a week. Get well soon, John, and go the Tigers! They're his favourite football team.

We've brought our local schools closer to our innovative businesses in Macquarie Park by setting up the Bennelong STEM Challenge with the generous support of Medtronic. I was inspired to run this as a kind of tournament for the brain, and I've been genuinely surprised and impressed by the collegiate nature of the students participating and the way they discuss and engage with each other to expand and improve their projects.

I've walked nearly every street of the electorate through doorknocking and three 100-kilometre walks across Bennelong to raise money for life-saving charities Motor Neurone Disease NSW, the Leukemia Foundation and Rare Voices. We've had some big wins, on 18C, saving Tennis World and making Eastwood safer for residents, and some important invisible ones like securing funding for the life-changing work of RASAID and helping Youthsafe keep our youth, well, safe. These little victories, the ones that don't make headlines but make a real, tangible difference to a small group of people, are as precious as anything.

Armed with the advice that government should only be won by better policies, the first step was to really understand the issues in Bennelong. So our three rules of engagement were to listen, listen and then listen again. People were concerned about house prices as Bennelong recorded the strongest growth of any electorate in the mid-decade housing boom, locking first homebuyers out of the suburbs they grew up in and excluding essential workers like teachers, nurses and police from living in the communities that they served. They were also concerned about overdevelopment and traffic congestion, as Bennelong is bisected by five of the 10 most congested roads in the state. Like in much of Sydney, high rises are coming to dominate our suburbs, putting pressure on roads, schools and living standards.

This struck a chord with my experience. In my maiden speech I talked about my time living in Atlanta, Georgia and the extraordinary growth of the US's Sun Belt cities from Florida to California. This growth had been implemented by visionary local authorities, who set out to sell Atlanta to the world on the basis of building infrastructure which provided quick connectivity to all of the east coast. 'Where is our Atlanta?' I asked in my maiden speech. I wanted this chamber to be an arena for a contest of ideas and vision like I had seen in America. I wanted our members and leaders to be armed with the courage to achieve bold visions not mired in petty, non-productive denigration of each other, as had been the trend. The extreme growth of the American Sun Belt was in stark contrast to the imbalance of settlement that was stifling our growth. Strategic decentralisation was what America did so well and what would be an answer to our local housing and congestion challenges. As a result, I have devoted much of my time to finding ways to plan settlement and, importantly, fund the infrastructure that will realise the creation of new cities. In the absence of a plan, Sydney and Melbourne have grown exponentially and created a great imbalance of settlement.

Our major cities are amongst the most expensive in the world, are congested, and the cost of refitting infrastructure is prohibitive. We must create a plan of settlement and design infrastructure which will facilitate a strategic decentralisation that creates smart, environmentally friendly cities, leveraging off our economic powerhouse CBDs within commutable times, which would be possible when connected by fast mass transport. Initially, growth would be driven by connectivity but eventually these cities would reach a critical mass to be sustainable in their own right, forming mega regions that will drive our economic growth while providing affordable housing and better quality of life for future generations. When funded by a reasonably equitable share of the uplifted value of the land, this infrastructure can be fairly, sustainably and fully funded. Every day we do not act on this raises the cost involved and sets Australia back further.

I am pleased to see that we have made some small steps on these fronts. I have chaired inquiries that have called for the creation of a minister for housing, an agency to examine better ways to fund infrastructure and an agency that looks into faster and high-speed rail, which became the Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency and the National Faster Rail Agency respectively. I now look forward to these groups actually doing something. The work has led to numerous in-depth, fruitful discussions with outside groups that support these policies, not just experts and academics but business leaders, engineers, bankers and ambassadors. The community will is there. We just need political leadership and a vision.

Unfortunately, vision that plans for decades into the future is at odds with a political system that resets every three years and is obsessed with the narrative of the day. In this House, where the main game is all too often to denigrate and name call, the contest of ideas is the first casualty. If I could change one thing about our system, it would be the way it segregates ministers from the parliament; opportunities are lost through this.

Our democracy is not only representative because it incorporates every citizen, but, because of our diversity, the members of this parliament are more representative of Australia than ever before. This legislature is a valuable resource for government because we all represent our communities and our own personal histories but too often parliament and its work are dismissed by government, and committees are seen as ways to occupy backbenchers. I am immensely proud of the work that my colleagues and I have done on backbench committees. Our backbench committees utilise the knowledge and expertise of their members and engage with world-leading experts from across the country. We find the facts that then build the solid foundation of reasoned recommendations to form evidence based policies for our leaders to absorb and use yet, once tabled, the reports sit in at ministerial drawers to gather dust and eventually receive a token response that does not engage with the scholarship within.

It is often said that these committees are where we do our best work in this place, and that has certainly been my experience. This good work is only possible through the parliamentary staff who manage us, educate us and draft our reports. I have been incredibly lucky to have the great support of a number of committee staff, particularly Killian Perrem, Lynley Ducker, Bill Pender, Samantha Mannette and Lachlan Wilson. Thank you all for your hard work and your scholarship. Great friendships have been made with co-chairs of these committee—Jim Chalmers, Sharon Bird, Luke Gosling and all the members. I am proud of the camaraderie we have maintained and the bipartisan nature we have always upheld. I am also pleased to have never had a dissenting report on any inquiry report that I have tabled. It is frustrating that, although we have many friends across this aisle, all the public sees is question time, showing us to be aggressive and divided. The low standard of public discourse is high on the list of reasons why Australians are losing trust in politics. A true contest of ideas is not one that relies on the destruction of the opposing view to then win by default. In thousands of conversations in Bennelong, the overwhelming interest of people is on plans and ideas, not political denigration.

The Menzies-Calwell Club was formed in 2013, following a magnificent valedictory speech by widely respected Martin Ferguson and the generous response of the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott. I have vivid memories of my dad telling me that Bob Menzies and Arthur Calwell had lunch each Friday after sitting weeks to find agreement on the best courses of action. In their image our club meets each Tuesday for lunch and leaves politics at the door. Arthur Calwell never made it to Prime Minister, but through these lunches he had an inordinate amount of sway from the opposition benches. It's a surprise that, at a time when we look back on this gilded age, for many it was also a high mark for bipartisanship.

Bipartisanship starts with all of us. Each Thursday morning we play tennis on the parliamentary courts—it's open to everyone: Peter Khalil, Anthony Albanese, Kevin Hogan—what a great partner! They're regulars. Of course now, with Anthony the Leader of the Opposition, he can't always make it. Kevin and I are not overly competitive, but we do take every no-show as a default. Bipartisanship has its limits.

At this point, I'd hoped to turn to a packed gallery and thank my friends who were watching up there—people like the candidate chosen to be my successor, except one hasn't been chosen yet. So, COVID has ruined yet another thing, and the galleries are much barer than I'd hoped. However, I suppose this isn't a bad thing as all of the people I have to thank and friends made over the past 11 years wouldn't fit into these galleries and so, sadly, won't all fit into this speech, but I'll try.

Thanks to all my supporters. Back in 2010, we gathered 600 people to help us out in the election, and I'm amazed that so many of those people are still campaigning for us today. To every person who passed out a how-to-vote card, stood before the sun came up at a freezing train station, hammered in a lawn sign or helped in any one of an infinite number of ways: thank you; I am only here because of your generosity.

Thanks, also, to my close friends, the late Bill Gough, Craig Brown and Josh Bihary who formed my initial support team; Caroline Currie who insisted I meet with the Brendan Nelson which started this political ball rolling, and Mitch Geddes who led me to doorknock over 9,000 homes in the first campaign.

Josh had called me after an incorrect report that I was running for preselection for Bradfield, divulging that his first love was politics and offering to be my campaign manager for this preselection. I looked forward to finding out what a preselection was as I knew not. Josh became my senior adviser, and we remain great friends. He's sitting up there today with Jonathon, my current senior adviser and friend. I always muse: isn't it funny that my senior advisers look so much younger than I? I'm tall for my age.

I've been fortunate to have incredible mentors who guided me in my good friend Victor Dominello and the then Father of the House, Philip Ruddock. They, and many others, have provided me with guidance, especially through the first few cautious years of learning—thank you all so much.

My good fortune extends to the local conference led over the years by Artin Etmekdjian, the late Peter Graham and currently James Wallace with passionate and helpful executive teams that are too large to mention here. Thank you all for your support and guidance, and good luck leading our team in the foreseeable future.

To the people I work with: everybody in this room knows how much we rely on our officers, and I am no different. Our office has been like a home, a family. In the five years between 2016 and when I announced my retirement, we had only one member of staff leave us—for a very large amount of money—which I think speaks more to the camaraderie of the office than anything else.

Some time ago, I looked up the definition of team. Essentially, a team is a group of individuals who join to achieve a common purpose, bringing together complementary skills to form a force greater than the sum total of its parts. I've been privileged to be part of this team, united in the quest for fairness, opportunity and equity, and genuinely seeking what is best for our community and our country with an uncompromised integrity.

Thank you to everyone who has worked in the office—those who were there at the beginning: Josh, Jen, Peter, Jacquie, Suzanne and Belinda; those who came in between: Sarah, Marie, Edwina, Molly, Jacob, Ursula, Simone and Tim; and those who are here now: Frances; Brendan; Daniel; Kendal and Madison, the twins; Wally and Jonathon. They all work really hard, except for Wally. He's useless, he's a dog—but very good for morale. As with my own family, I love each of you, and this will remain so. Working with you has been a joy, and I am proud of what our team has achieved together.

My partner, Gill, daughter Emily and son, Charlie, were able to come to my maiden speech—Charlie still in his school uniform. However, Georgia was in England doing a gap year. All three of my children and Gill are here today, as well as my sister Annette. Thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedules. And it is interesting to note that, last night, or earlier today, when I was going to bed, you were waking up. Funny how times have changed and tables have turned!

My other sisters, Pam and Susan, are unfortunately unable to be here today. My first racquet was inherited from Pam; Annette threw me the first balls to try to hit; and my first taste of real competition was trying to beat my sister Susan, which took years.

The demands of this job are such that, too often, I've allowed my pursuits to distract from what is really important, and for these lapses I am sorry. My father, a romantic, often said, 'The pursuit of anything but love, laughter and happiness is futile.' Now, without this job, I will be a better partner and dad. To my children: while I am proud of your success, I am more proud of how hard you have worked and persevered to earn your success. The real value of our family, as with all families, is: when we suffer failure, we are comforted by each other, and when there are victories, we're all there to celebrate with you—the more so because you deserve it.

And finally, thank you to the people of Bennelong for your trust and support in having me represent you. I hope I'm followed by a candidate who is able to represent you with all of their focus, as I have tried to.

To close, in keeping with the advice I received from John Howard, I want this place to be an arena where ideas, plans and visions will be contested, with the best winning and all Australians benefiting. Those involved in achieving such outcomes, whether in government or opposition, will be proud of their contribution, and Australians will be proud of their elected representatives. If this place could agree on common goals and we combine to bring all that we have to achieve these goals on behalf of the Australian people, maybe we could earn their trust and respect. So my wish, on the eve of an election being called, is: make this a contest of ideas, plans and vision that will uplift our people and give them hope for the future and opportunities for all. I thank the House for your indulgence.


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