House debates

Monday, 5 September 2022

Governor-General's Speech


4:33 pm

Photo of Keith WolahanKeith Wolahan (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you to my children, who have come back, and for everyone's patience. I really appreciate it.

I address this house with gratitude for what has been and a sense of duty for what we have to do. Menzies is an electorate from the great southern city of Melbourne. It is an electorate named after the founder of the Liberal Party and our longest serving Prime Minister. Few in history get to shape the destiny of a nation. Robert Menzies was one of them.

I thank the community I am here to represent: 170,000 people, 50,000 families, 44 schools, small shops, places of worship, sporting clubs, Scouts, Rotaries, volunteers and carers—each a Victorian, each an Australian. This is and always will be about them. They have placed their trust in me, and in return I owe them my best effort and selfless judgment.

I thank the people who are sitting in the gallery and watching at home. You are my party, my supporters, my friends, my family. I would not be here without you. Before I sit I hope to properly thank you through words, and before this all ends I hope to properly thank you through deeds.

Two others have come before me: Neil Brown and Kevin Andrews. Both served with distinction as members and ministers. Kevin had the added honour of being the Father of the House. I thank them both for their service.

I have always loved maps. I remember turning the first page of The Hobbit and staring at that sketch of the Lonely Mountain. To me, maps represent landscapes of adventures gone and adventures to come. If you look closely at the map of Menzies, you will see both dense development and wide open shades of green. You will see a place where the city meets the country. My party is at its best when it is a voice for both. The Yarra River, save for one exception, is our northern boundary; from Warrandyte to Wonga Park, to Templestowe and to Bulleen, the Yarra has been a sanctuary like no other. For thousands of years it was a meeting place and provider of food. The Wurundjeri people call it Birrarung, meaning 'river of mists and shadows'. From the First Australians to the first find of gold and to the darker days of the pandemic, the Yarra has been a source of prosperity, happiness and solace.

If you follow the Yarra west you will find the Heide Museum of Modern Art. It occupies the site of a former dairy farm. Young painters flocked to Heide, including Sidney Nolan, John Percival, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester. The original farmhouse still stands, and in the living room hangs one of Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings. It's a series he created in that very room. And outside the kitchen stands a giant oak tree, under which Sarah and I were married.

As you move through the suburbs of Doncaster, Donvale, Park Orchards, Box Hill, Blackburn, Nunawading and Mitcham, contours in our landscape give way to the diversity of people. Almost 70 per cent of the people of Menzies are first- or second-generation migrants. Each has a story that began in another country. I am one of them. I was born in Ireland, to young and loving parents. Mum helped support us by working late nights, managing a bar. That meant dad got us to sleep with stories. The ones we liked the most were about his travels, and one place stood out: dad spoke of a land that was full of adventure, beauty and opportunity. It was clear to us that he had fallen in love with Australia and was sure that we would too. And so in 1988 we landed in Melbourne, with our first night at the Nunawading Motor Inn—a motel that sits within the seat of Menzies. Both my parents worked hard. Dad started his own roof-plumbing business and mum worked for a small company that assembled electronic exit signs. My parents encouraged us to put our hands up to speak and to serve. All of those opportunities were there for me at Ringwood Secondary College, a wonderful public school.

Henry Kissinger once said: 'Don't be too ambitious. Do the most important thing you can think of and your career will take care of itself.' For a long time the most important thing I could think of was getting into law school and becoming a barrister. Then, one night, Sandra Sully broke the news of a plane crash in New York. What was previously important suddenly wasn't. I was moved by a speech that the British Prime Minister delivered days later, where he said:

This is a moment to seize. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.

I had already qualified as an officer in the reserves and had recently passed commando selection. I was now determined to complete that training and get to Afghanistan before the pieces settled again. Little did I know how long that would take and how much it would impact my life. I qualified as a commando and deployed to that country three times. My greatest honour was leading a platoon of Australian soldiers in combat. They were brave, they were kind and they did Australia proud. I have recently learned that for a brief period in October 2009, the members for Herbert, Canning and Menzies were all deployed to Afghanistan at the same time. I am proud to serve with them.

We have a duty here to take stock of our longest war. The stocktake starts with a solemn truth: that young Australians of every generation are capable of the most extraordinary bravery and sacrifice, that behind each of the 102,000 names on our War Memorial is a family.

Marcus Case and Greg Sher were my friends from 2nd Commando Company who were killed in Afghanistan. In the gallery is Marcus's closest friend, Matt Rowland, who now teaches here in Canberra. I'm honoured to have Marcus's parents, Bernard and Lee, as constituents. Also here are Greg Sher's parents, Felix and Yvonne, and brother Barry. You too once called Menzies home after migrating from South Africa. Next to you is a good friend, Jeremy Lanzer, and I know watching from home are those who loved him, and were with him when he died, including my friend Andrew James.

One night after a long day of pre-poll, Barry turned to me after I thanked him and he said this: 'I'll never ask you for anything, but, whenever you can, say his name.' And in that moment I learnt something about the words 'lest we forget'. It is more than a line at the end of a Kipling poem; it is a heartfelt plea, a plea to let the lives that were cut short live on, to let their memory be a national blessing.

The stocktake must also preference truth-telling over myth-making. From the allegations in the Brereton report to the fall of Kabul, we have a duty to face up to all that happened. Twenty-one years later, we can fairly ask: how did we reorder the world around us? If we answer that question with humility, then we will recognise the limits of military power alone. If we answer that question with honesty, then we will have demonstrated that ours is an open and accountable democracy. That is something worth fighting for.

I have not come here to make a career; I've come here to make a difference. Moved by gratitude, I have not come here to tear down institutions but to nourish them. Moved by duty, I have not come to act in my interest but the national interest.

We will be tested, and we will make decisions. You are entitled to know how I will find my way. When you look to a map to guide you, there is a choice to be made. Shall I use magnetic or true north? Magnetic north is easily distracted, including by devices. From time to time you may find yourself with a crowd but you might be lost. True north is a fixed point and never shifts, even if you find yourself standing alone. My true north will always be family and the values of free enterprise and individual freedom.

To put it another way, I believe in democratising prosperity and democratising power, to making sure the spirit of happiness resides in the people, that we trust them to assess risk, that we trust them to speak their mind so that the accident of birth will never be the dominant factor in whether a person makes it or not. These are the dreams of opportunity that drive people to come here, to ache for control of their own lives. They are not values to be junked in times of emergency, whether it be war or pandemic. They are values to double down on when our nation is tested, and I believe they play a key role in keeping us safe.

As a child of the eighties, I remember a moment when the cartoon I was watching was interrupted with the newsflash. I thought, 'This was how we find out war has come and humanity ends.' It should concern us that in 2022, the risk of conflict is closer to midnight. We have a duty to respond; to ensure our military power has the sting of a bee; to build an industry that is resilient, one that has the structure of a hive; to honour our alliances and stand by our friends. It is at this point that students of strategy and history may ask, 'What about the security dilemma?' If our adversaries feel insecure, then we will be insecure. If we act, they will counteract. This is not a dilemma to ignore. The path to World War I should never be forgotten. But we should analyse the source of that insecurity. It is not that liberal democracy will destroy nations; it is that we exist. When viewed this way, their counteraction is to throw sand in the gears of democratic systems, to feed off our own distrust in democratic institutions. That is why the way we practise democracy matters. The power of our example is a strategic asset. We will be safer if we believe that ours is a nation worth fighting for. Right now, that self-belief is in need of care.

Every four years the US National Intelligence Council publishes the Global trends report. It is intended to provide a review of shared global challenges. One observation stands out: our task is made harder by the division of society into identity affiliations. It is a paradox that at the very time we have grown more connected through technology that very connectivity has divided us. People are gravitating to information silos, where beliefs are reinforced and truth is subjective. This fragmentation has in part led to a gap between what people demand and what governments can deliver. Trapped in our silos, we are tempted to exaggerate our own virtue and see the other as a cartoon villain. This is not healthy for our democracy.

So let me step out of my silo. The census told us many things about ourselves, including that the cohort born between 1981 and 1996 are now our largest generation. I once looked that generation in the eye and asked them to do things that meant they might not live to see 30. I know they are called orders, but that is not why they acted. They did their duty because they believe in this country, and that is a belief I intend to repay. I want to look them in the eye and say that integrity does matter. We may find it in institutions, and we will have that debate, but it must always reside in the hearts of the people we send here and be reflected in what we do, not what we say. I want to look them in the eye and say that, when it comes to the environment, living off the dividends and not the principle is a value every generation should aspire to. I want to look them in the eye and say democratising prosperity is about you. It is about taking less of your pay as tax, feeling confident to open your own business, making firms compete for you and not rent-seek with us, and government living within its means so you can expand yours. I want to look them in the eye and say that homeownership is core business for my party. But we have urgent work to do.

It was Robert Menzies who spoke in the darkest days of World War II not just of the forgotten people but of what every generation desires—a home of their own 'to which we can withdraw and in which we can be among our friends'. But I have a plea in return—to join more things. Join a Rotary. Join the Country Fire Authority. Coach a sporting team. Run the sausage sizzle. And maybe even join a political party. If you do, you will see firsthand that the democratisation of power is not a gift from above but the proper design of a society that is driven by people who have the courage to turn up. If you choose my party, you won't find a box for 'moderate' or a box for 'conservative'. You will find a movement that welcomes you with open arms, that can be proud of its history and learn from its mistakes—one that has a true north of principle over power, of hope over anguish.

How do I possibly do justice to the people who turned up for me? To those who fought for party democracy: you demonstrated that values are meaningless unless we practise them. To the preselection delegates: thank you for placing your trust in me. To the late Hal Grix, who showed me what it is like to live a life of service; to the people who donated; to my field officers; to my staff; to the secretariat, led by Sam McQuestin and Robert Clark; and to my campaign team, led by Stephen Carter and Ian Quick: thank you.

The volunteers bled blue and have surnames I'm proud to say reflect our community. Let me give you some: from Jurcevic to Eminagov to Jakupi, from Wooldridge to Reinehr to Italiano, from Harvey to Tang to Hegde, from Smith to Fakhri to Lam, from Ryan to Roy to Rixon, from Beraldo to De Stefano to Grivokostopoulos, from Palmer to Khoury to Kounelis, from White to Dyson to Oberoi, from Drivas to Lai to Dell'Orso, from Kelly to Pyrros to Barr, from Davies to Gilmour to Connolly, from Greenstein to Mirabella to Byrne, and from Diamante to Dimitroff to Dawei—and so many more. Ours was a grassroots movement too, and I will never forget it.

To the members of the Victorian Bar: you are the custodians of a noble institution. For over a decade I was one of your members and will be shaped by my many mentors, including John Dever, Stuart Wood and David McLure. In this place, and always, I will defend the rule of law.

To the members of 2 Commando Company: you took me in as a kid and turned me into a man. I thank the wider commando family, including my friends James Judge and John Lewis. I will be a commando for life.

My brothers are here today. We really are a family of talkers. Lee, with the beard, is a negotiator with Victoria Police and Owen is a barrister. I am proud of you and your wonderful families.

To my mum and dad, Philomena and Oliver Wolahan: everyone has the best parents, but I really do. I love you more than you know.

Over 20 years ago Gil and Nigel Weinberg invited me to dinner at their home in Heathmont. Later that evening the door burst open as their daughter Sarah came home from a debating tournament. I had never met anyone so captivating. Thank you for being my partner in life and for every step of this journey. I love you.

To our children, Leo and Eva: the title I cherish most is that I am your dad. My greatest joy is that pause just before I crack the door of home, knowing you will come running yelling, 'Daddy.' I love you.

This can be a confusing building. There is comfort in company. I'm grateful to have shared this journey with the members for Casey, Flinders, Hughes and Bowman, as well as my friend Senator Paterson. And if we ever lose our map, let us stand at the main entrance. At that point you will see a road that draws a long line to names on a wall. These are the names of Australians who traded all their tomorrows so that we may have today. These are the names that take me back to that newsflash in 1986. It didn't break to news of war. Instead, I saw the smoke of the Challenger space shuttle explosion. On board were astronauts and a teacher.

Hours later President Ronald Reagan spoke directly to the children who watched it live. Looking down the camera, he said:

I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.

I thank the House.


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