Monday, 17 September 2007
Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007
Debate resumed from 13 September, on motion by Mr McGauran:
That this bill be now read a second time.
Tonight, I rise in support of the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007. The purpose of this bill is to enable a commission of inquiry into the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia to operate under the Quarantine Act 1908 but with powers under the Royal Commission Act 2002. A public inquiry into the outbreak of EI is obviously called for because of the serious effects of the current outbreak and the need to ensure that quarantine measures are being adequately undertaken and enforced. As this is my last speech in the House, in expressing my support for the bill I would like to reflect on my journey to this House and give thanks to those who took the ride with me.
It was a unique and interesting political journey that took this girl from Lota who left school at just 13 to the hallowed halls of the national parliament just over 11½ years ago. My story says a lot about the wonderful nature of our democracy here in Australia. It was a special honour to have chaired the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training, having never attained a university degree myself. That says a lot about our egalitarian society. We value ability and judge people for who they are and not for the letters that they have after their name.
I gained preselection 12 years ago without the backing of any faction within my party, without the support of any special interest groups and without having to be indebted to anyone. I had absolutely no financial resources behind me. With a very large family, money was, understandably, always extremely tight. Forde is a lower socioeconomic area and our campaigns have always been run on a shoestring. They have always been about grassroots, community based campaigning. This is in stark contrast to the way politics is conducted in most countries around the world, where financial backing and huge budgets are crucial—just take a look at the current US elections. I am proud that it has never been about money; I am proud that it has never been about status or social standing. Again, that is something that is very uniquely Australian.
I stood in this place 11½ years ago and proudly explained my working-class origins as one of nine children, having left school early to help out my dad when he took sick. Like many of the Howard government’s class of ’96 I came to this place from the real world, from a real job raising funds for the disabled. I knew all about the challenges families face, having raised eight children through the tough times under Labor. Politics was never going to be my career but it was a way I could further serve my community. I am pleased to be able to stand in this place today and say that I have done my very best for my community over the past 11½ years. I also believe that as a member of the Howard government I have made a very significant contribution to the future of Australia.
The biggest change I have seen in my local area is among those in the lower socioeconomic areas. I have seen the way those who previously struggled to find work are now in well-paying jobs. I have seen the way this has translated to a pride in themselves and their communities and how they have been uplifted and strive to achieve even more. That is the proudest achievement, in a social sense, of this government.
The achievements of this government are many; it would take more time than we have today to list them all. We have brought some really positive programs to the political landscape like Work for the Dole, Green Corps, Volunteer Small Equipment Grants, reinstating the black spots program and recently the hugely successful Investing in Our Schools Program.
By paying back the $96 billion debt that Labor left behind we have delivered consistently lower interest rates. They have basically stayed between six and eight per cent for the past 10 years. I am well aware that the recent interest rate increases have impacted on family budgets. That is regrettable and I do understand that it is a concern for many people. But it is also important that we look at this in perspective. Interest rates have gone up by just one per cent since December 2003. That is one per cent in nearly four years. Under Labor, interest rates increased by 3.5 per cent in just one year and hit a massive 17 per cent. I remember it well because, like many other families, David and I took out a second mortgage to keep our home at that particular time. So I do have to say I find Kevin Rudd’s ‘mortgage stress’ concerns, and the hype and anxiety being whipped up at the moment, as just a bit rich. Interest rates will never stay the same but they will stay lower under a Howard government. Our track record has proven that.
I am proud of the fact that the Howard-Costello team have managed the economy in a way that has allowed people to own their own homes and businesses and to plan for the future with certainty. The quarter percent rises are certainly regrettable but I think they are a lot more manageable than what we experienced under Labor. Under Labor, interest rates did not increase in small increments; they went up by whole percentage points—in fact, by a whopping two per cent in one month. And there is plenty to suggest that Labor will put pressure on interest rates again. I am deeply concerned that the state Labor governments are going into debt again around the nation, at a time of prosperity. They are racking up debt; not just one or two—most of the Labor state governments are running deficits. It is clear evidence that Labor just cannot manage money. It is clear evidence that now is not the time to switch to a federal Labor government.
That said, I do not want to take up a huge part of my last speech in this House debating political issues or the outcome of the coming election. That is for the Australian people to decide. I do know that the Howard government still has the passion, the drive and the right vision for Australia. While several of my colleagues from the class of ’96 are also retiring, that simply gives us an opportunity to refresh and renew our ranks with new people and new ideas that will take us into the future.
In my own electorate of Forde I am pleased that my good friend Wendy Creighton has been selected to represent our party. I know that, with the support of the people of Forde, Wendy will make an enormous contribution to this place. She is a strong woman. She runs her own small business as well as being a driving force in our local community. She also has six boys, so she will have no problem dealing with the sometimes blokey nature of this place. I take this opportunity to wish Wendy well. She knows I am behind her 100 per cent and will always be here to offer help and guidance if she wants it. But I know she will make her own positive contribution. She is a strong lady with a determined nature. If there are ministers out there breathing a sigh of relief that I will no longer be persistently knocking on their doors, I want to assure them that Wendy is just as determined as I am. She will not take no for an answer when it comes to getting the right outcome for the people of Forde. That is the way it should be. That is what being a good member is all about.
Today is an opportunity for me to say thanks to the many people who have supported and encouraged me over the years. A few weeks ago I was honoured when a farewell community afternoon tea was hosted by my local FEC. I was joined by over 350 local residents. It was a superb afternoon, one I shall never forget. It reminded me of the reason we are all in this job: to make a difference and to support others who are working in our local community with the same aim. I have been very privileged to get to know some true community heroes over the past 11½ years—the voluntary workers who keep the wheels turning for all our local community and sporting organisations and charities. Once again there are far too many to list, and I would not want to leave anyone out. They know who they are and I thank each and every one of them today.
When this job finishes it will be a pleasure for me to join their ranks and to work in a voluntary capacity to help others and ensure our local communities continue to offer support, friendship and important services. One of the most positive things our government has done is support these local community groups through the Volunteer Small Equipment Grants. They really make a difference and they allow us to recognise the valuable contribution that is made by our volunteers at CWAs, Soroptimists, Rotary clubs, seniors citizens clubs, PCYC, Quota, chambers of commerce, Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, hospital auxiliaries, RSLs, P&Cs, rural fire brigades, Landcare, sporting clubs, community centres, Blue Care, the Salvation Army, St Vincent’s drought relief, arts centres, theatre groups, Lions clubs, progress associations, the RSPCA, WIRES, Bays, Lead On, the SES—and the list could go on and on. To all the wonderful people in these groups who give their time so generously, a big thankyou. It has been a privilege working with you. To those who go that extra mile in their chosen professions—the policemen, the business men and women, the veterans, the nurses, the teachers, the fire fighters, the ambos, the members of our Defence Force—and to all the good people who give a little more and who genuinely care, I say thanks on behalf of our community and our government.
There is a special group of people who give up their time to make a difference who have provided me with constant feedback, advice and hands-on support. I want to send a very warm thankyou to the local members of the Liberal Party in Forde. I have been very lucky to have had many terrific people with me from the very beginning, and some wonderful people came on board throughout the last 11½ years. There are a few people for whom I will take time to make special mention of today. Firstly, thanks to John Wallerstein. John was treasurer of my first campaign and he served many years in various positions on the FEC. John has always been passionate about his politics. He has been a terrific driving force of the local party and I know many branch members will join me in thanking him for his valuable contribution over the years. There are some others who were with me during that first campaign and each one since: Ken and Patricia Turnbull; Bert and Vivienne Bowman; Tom Plunkett; Joy and Ross McDougall; and my current FEC chairman, Lin Petterwood, and his wife, Barb. I know there are others and I apologise in advance to those I miss for not having the time here today to list them all.
I want to send an extra special thankyou to and to recognise a special group of Liberal Party members who have been fantastic volunteers in my office. Firstly, there is Shirley Bertoldo, who was with me in the very beginning and has helped wherever possible, including by sewing several hundred aprons for election days. Then there is my terrific trio, Barrie Smith, John Skeers and Jerry Nowakowski. Barrie has been with me from the early days, always ready to lend a hand. Despite significant health challenges, Barrie has been a constant in the Liberal Party for many years, including recently taking on the role of FEC secretary. Thanks a million, Barrie. John and Jerry are permanent volunteers in my office—ever dependable and crucial to the smooth running of the office. John is also the treasurer of the FEC and the most efficient money man you could ever find. These guys are a true godsend. These three extraordinary men have been gifted with wonderful wives, who also pitch in regularly and are a delight to be around. Barrie and Elaine, John and Gwendoline, Jerry and Claire—all six of you are beloved by my staff team and of course by David and me, and I thank you so much.
I know there have been many others who have volunteered over the years: Reg and Delaune Pollard, Brian Fletcher, Mark Boothman, Sylvia Seaton, Penny Lumley, Andrew and Phylis Hopkins, and Elizabeth Jobson. I send a very special thanks for and recognise in this place the inspirational Phil German, who passed away last year. Phil was a foundation and life member of the Liberal Party and the first person on deck whenever there were envelopes to be stuffed or a job to be done. We all miss him, and I want to acknowledge what an important member he was of our FEC.
And when it comes to my team, I have also had the greatest group of hardworking electorate office staff anyone could ever wish for. It was a special thrill for me when so many former staffers came along to my farewell and read out messages of support from my colleagues. To Margaret, Nikki, Megan, Aidan, Andrew, Bev, Desley and Alicia I say thank you for your help over the many years. To Cay McVeigh, who was a remarkable whips clerk for me and now does an incredible job as the chief whip’s clerk, I have a huge thankyou to say to you, Cay. To my current staff—Cherry Adams, Jasmine Smits, Lynette Skeers-Fulwood, Pam Hardgrave, Maureen Logan and Selma Schuller—I say I will always be immensely grateful for what you have done for me. Maureen has been with me for many years and her husband, David, and I were state candidates in adjoining electorates together back in 1992. I thank Maureen and David for their many years of support and service.
Selma has been with me every step of the way. In fact, she is the one who encouraged me to stand for preselection for Forde and has run my campaigns for preselection and for every election campaign since. She is a talented electorate office staffer who was in this business before I was elected, and she also happens to be my eldest daughter. Both Selma and her husband, Andrew, have been such a big part of my political career. Their advice, support and hard work are greatly appreciated. They are a fantastic political team together and I have been pleased to have them in my corner. They are a couple who are fiercely patriotic and, I have to say, committed to doing their duty for this country. They have taken the Treasurer’s advice to heart: in fact, they have had one child for Mum, one child for Dad and three for the country!
That neatly leads me into the one big team that I give greatest thanks to. That is my family: Selma and Andrew, Kellie and Stuart, Billy, Eddie and Samantha, George and Kristy, Davie, Johllene and Talena, and my wonderful 15 grandchildren—Jasmine, Jesse, Nicholas, Caitlyn, Jillian, Georgia, Clancy, Ryan, Edward, Alissa, Natalie, Emily, Jordyn, Haydon and Kaylee. I should point out that we have No. 16 due next month. I am very proud of that.
David and I count our blessings every day that we have such a large, close-knit and incredibly supportive family. We have faced some challenges together, particularly in recent years, but our love and commitment for each other has always helped us through the tough times and made our bond even stronger. They have all supported me every step of the way on my political journey. Some of them have a keen interest in politics; others don’t, but every one of them has worked for me at every election day since 1996 and has helped me before then.
While I am so proud to have represented my community in the federal parliament, my biggest achievement in life will always be my children and grandchildren. My best decision would have to have been marrying David and spending my life with this great man. No woman could ask for a more supportive, encouraging and loving husband. He has always been 100 per cent behind me every step of the way. He has a deep commitment to the Liberal Party, a fierce love of our great country and a strong sense of decency and of the family values that we hold so dear. He is a rock, and I am so glad he is my rock. I do look forward to what the next chapter of our life together holds for us. I take this opportunity to thank David from the bottom of my heart and to let him know that I never would have got to this place without his encouragement, his support and his love. It has been very much a team effort.
I would like to place on record my gratitude and thanks to Brian Gassman, Warren Morten, John Dyer, Tony and Gail Stevens, Peter and Marjorie, and Howard Lawrence for their support over many years. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to be a member of the federal parliament. I want to thank the men and women who work in this building and keep the wheels turning: the attendants, the clerks, the cleaners, and our special Linda and staff of the cafeteria. Special thanks for all their assistance especially go to Ian Harris and Bernard Wright, gentlemen in the true form.
I want to very quickly thank my colleagues in this place—I have made some very good friends here and shared some unique experiences—especially those on both sides of the House whom I have travelled on delegations and committees with. I do not want to single out people for fear of missing someone—there are many people I have lots of time for and respect greatly—but I do want to thank Jo Gash for her friendship over the years and I want to thank and acknowledge David Jull, who is also retiring at this election. He is an icon in Queensland. When David and I first joined the Liberal Party we were members of his branch. I want to thank Brendan Nelson, who I think has a wonderful future in our party. He has been a friend to many and has one of the most positive, compassionate and constructive attitudes of anyone in this place. And of course I want to thank and acknowledge our Prime Minister, John Howard, for his remarkable leadership. I am amazed by his stamina, his patience and his commitment. Having worked closely with him for the past 11½ years, I believe that he is the genuine article: he is totally committed to doing what is right for Australia and our country. I thank him for the time he has given me and the respect he has always shown me.
Finally, I thank the voters of Forde who have put their confidence in me and in the Howard government at the last four elections. I appreciate the opportunity I was given and I thoroughly enjoyed working with you all. I want to particularly thank my daughter Talena, who has come here tonight too. May the Forde electorate continue to grow and prosper, making our special part of Queensland an even better place to live in for our children and grandchildren.
I congratulate the member for Forde on her contribution to this parliament and on the speech she has just given to it.
The Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 is legislation the opposition intends to support in the main. It forms part of the government’s response to the equine influenza outbreak that was revealed by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on 23 August 2007. According to the minister’s second reading speech:
The purpose of the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908 to allow for a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the August 2007 outbreak and spread of equine influenza in Australia.
The inquiry is to be headed by a former Justice of the High Court, Ian Callinan, and has been given the specific powers and protections of a royal commission, within the quarantine-specific context of the Quarantine Act. It is indeed a curious structure in which the inquiry will be undertaken. I am not sure that the minister has adequately explained to this parliament, to the industry and to the Australian community his reasons for going down this path. I am aware that the minister has stated that Commissioner Callinan will have access to quarantine officers already working on internal investigations into the outbreak and that independent people engaged by the Commonwealth can be made available to the commissioner to help him undertake his inquiry.
I note the presence in the chamber tonight of the honourable member for Corangamite. He knows more about sheep than he does about horses, but our respective histories go back a long way as far as horses are concerned. I could elaborate on that in this speech but I will not. Needless to say, on this side of the House we rode the horses. We rode the horses in our family, and I am privileged that my forebears appear in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Queensland. They developed their horse-riding skills, indeed their buck-jumping skills, down on the property of the honourable member for Corangamite. Yes, in some strange and twisted way the fates of the two members who represent the Geelong region in this place are entwined. But getting back to the speech—
You would not have lasted a second on Curio; let’s face it! If the great Curio had been around today, under the incompetence of your minister it would probably have picked up equine influenza and nobody would have ridden it—not my forebears, not yours. Be that as it may, we have before us a bill to establish an inquiry, and I am sure that the honourable member for Corangamite will make a contribution to the debate.
The structure proposed is an interesting one, to say the least. It is appropriate as an opposition that we point out areas of potential concern. We know from past experience that an inquiry process can be nobbled—if I can use horsing parlance—by this government and that terms of reference can be structured to insulate ministers and the government from being fully accountable for their actions or lack of them. The minister states:
These amendments will enable a comprehensive, independent and quarantine specific inquiry to be conducted. As well as providing the commissioner with all the necessary powers of a royal commission, it makes available the unfettered expertise of experienced quarantine officers and other quarantine-specific powers under the Quarantine Act.
The operative words here are ‘quarantine specific inquiry’. The minister obviously will seek in this process to insulate himself and the government from anyone questioning their administrative competence in the matter. As we know, this government has a sorry record when it comes to quarantine. We all remember the black sigatoka outbreak that cost the Queensland banana industry in excess of $40 million, and the citrus canker outbreak that cost the industry across Australia—not only in Queensland—tens of millions more. We have also had outbreaks of fire ants.
We all remember the celebrated lashing the previous minister for agriculture got from one of his own side, Senator ‘Wild Bill’ Heffernan, who found Brazilian beef had been dumped on the Wagga tip at a time when that country was having problems with foot-and-mouth disease. I cannot verify this but there is a ‘stranger’ in the House, Senator Macdonald, who might be able to clarify this matter for us. It is rumoured that ‘Wild Bill’ would have dumped the minister on the Wagga tip if he had got hold of him after that particular outbreak. I hope the stranger in the House can clarify that particular point, because it was a significant breach of protocol for suspect beef to find its way onto the Wagga tip. Senator Heffernan may want to revisit this issue after the next election, because there will be a political carcass he can dump on the Wagga tip and that will be of the previous minister, who had an appalling record in quarantine matters.
This government has real form—if I can use another term from racing parlance. It has a horse in the political stakes; it is called Sheer Incompetence! Sheer Incompetence ought to be the name of the government’s horse in the quarantine stakes. Over on this side of the House, we will enter one too. It will be called Eternal Vigilance, because we have been vigilant on quarantine matters over the past decade. While this government has dithered and failed to do very important things in the quarantine area, we in the opposition have led the policy debate on quarantine matters. We have led the policy debate and the government has played catch-up all along the way.
If it is a race between Eternal Vigilance and Sheer Incompetence today the government may well win, but let me tell the honourable member for Corangamite, it is about the only race it will win in the political stakes coming up. We know about the interest of the member for Corangamite in the horseracing industry and we know about his interest in the sheep industry. He is going to take a very active interest in them after the next election because he may not be in this House.
The importance of the equine industry to regional and national economies was eloquently outlined to the House by the member for Hotham on 13 September 2007. I have to congratulate the member for Hotham for his contribution on that day. We all know—and the member for Corangamite knows—that he is an ardent Shinboner fan, and barely four days after the lashing that they got at the hands of Geelong, he was able to come into this House and articulately pick the government’s arguments to pieces on this particular bill. He also offered us a snapshot, in statistical terms, of how important this industry is.
We are talking about an equestrian industry worth $1 billion a year. Some 70,000 horses are registered nationally in that industry. We are talking about a racing industry that, according to the Australian Racing Board, will have a direct input into the Australian economy of some $41 billion over the next five years. Some $1.6 billion comes into federal and state coffers as a result of this industry. It is estimated that some 77,000 people are employed in the racing industry. So when we talk about this industry we are talking about an industry that, I believe, is the fourth largest in the Australian economy. It reaches into every region of Australia, particularly into the rural sector and regional areas, and it is of national economic significance. When we have an outbreak of equine influenza of the type that we have just witnessed we see very quickly and clearly the economic impacts of a quarantine breach on local economies and on the national economy.
Given the economic impacts, it is not hard to appreciate why many Australians, particularly in regions such as mine, have more than a passing interest in this matter. In the Geelong region we are blessed with a very strong equine industry. The Geelong Racing Club holds the Geelong Cup and that is a very important part of the social calendar which is coming up. Its race meets are run throughout the year and, as we know, there are many enterprises and many individuals who derive their livelihoods from the racing industry in Geelong. The Geelong Harness Racing Club at Beckley Park stages events that are also an important part of Geelong’s sporting calendar.
Also coming up is the Geelong Show. The honourable member for Corangamite and I, over many years, have delivered our bipartisan support to this very important event in the cultural calendar of the Geelong region. As we know, the show and the racing club are going to be affected by this outbreak. We do not know yet what the impact will be on the Geelong Racing Club carnival but we hope that it will be minimal. Then there are the recreational riders in the pony clubs around Geelong. They are very strong indeed. Of course, many young people learn their skills, first up, on their farms before going into other areas of activity in the industry. So this industry is very important to the Geelong economy and we were particularly concerned when we heard about this outbreak.
In my electorate, Animal Health Australia is charged with the responsibility of identifying these diseases and the particular strains. That scientific input is critical to the strategies that are mounted under AUSVETPLAN to contain the disease and to eradicate it. AUSVETPLAN is quite specific on the strategies required to contain an outbreak once it has occurred. They say:
Because of the rapid spread of EI in susceptible equine populations and the high level of horse movements, the most important initial priority is to minimise disease spread (ie containment). Containment relies on the following principles:
- quarantine of cases and in-contact horses;
- immediate imposition of horse movement controls until the extent of the outbreak is clarified—
I will come back to this particular point. They go on:
- once the extent of the outbreak is clarified, effective movement controls over horses, equipment and fomites in declared areas; and
- effective tracing and surveillance.
I issued a press release on 4 September that was picked up by the local and national media. It related to the institution of the horse standstill under the AUSVETPLAN in response to the minister’s announcement. I was particularly concerned about a talkback caller to ABC radio, who claimed to have watched horse floats travelling south along the Hume Highway on Saturday and Sunday, 25 and 26 August. This was after horse movements were prohibited for 72 hours in the proclamation on 24 August.
Let us go back to that important element in the AUSVETPLAN in containing the disease outbreak: immediate imposition of horse movement controls until the extent of the outbreak is clarified. That particular caller, apparently, had a farm very close to the Hume Highway and was very experienced in this industry. He was appalled by the movement of horse floats over those two days and questioned whether in fact we could contain the outbreak in Victoria. But, more importantly, when you dig deeper into this matter and you ask why the floats were not intercepted by the police in response to the AUSVETPLAN, we have a problem here which goes back to 1991. The AUSVETPLAN has indicated that the Achilles heel in all of this is the powers of police to intercept and to stop the movement of such floats and horses once this proclamation is made. Of course, this is a very important matter, because if you are going to contain the spread of such a virulent disease and limit its impacts then you have to clarify the roles of police, their powers of interception and their powers to stop the movement of stock.
We on this side of the House are very concerned about the minister’s reporting requirements to the parliament. We will be taking up the matter in amendments which are being proposed by the opposition. It is important that we are able to bring any minister of any political persuasion on the floor of this House to account for their actions, or lack thereof, in these matters.
I read with interest the interjections of the minister when the member for Hotham was talking. He asked the member for Hotham to raise the matter of Reins of Fire. We want to talk about the rings of incompetence, not the Reins of Fire. There are some big rings of incompetence around these ministers when it comes to quarantine matters. I know the honourable members in this chamber representing Queensland know exactly what I am talking about—and I am not talking about Liberal ministers here. I can see the smile is broadening on the face of the honourable member for Leichhardt. He knows, as I know, just how incompetent these National Party ministers have been in these portfolios, particularly when it comes to quarantine matters. We are not interested in Reins of Fire; we are interested in rings of incompetence which surround these particular ministers.
The inquiry and the $110 million that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has announced are welcome. We will not complain about that. But we on this side of the House have been proposing a major inquiry and overhaul of Australia’s quarantine processes for many years. We all know that the trading environment of Australia has changed dramatically. We are now in a global trading environment. That puts particular pressures on our quarantine service that were not there previously. We know that the transmission of exotic pests and diseases is now much easier and that there are more virulent strains of these diseases which are wreaking havoc on plants and animals in other parts of the world. We know about the mass movements of people and that these particular diseases can be transmitted not only by equipment and fomites but also by people. We also know that the international movement of animals is quite substantial and that we are in an era of bioterror. So it puts an enormous strain on Australia’s quarantine service.
Labor proposed many years ago that a major inquiry and overhaul be undertaken so that we could address some of these rather significant issues. I am rather disappointed that we get to this point with an EI outbreak and that the minister is proposing what we consider to be a limited inquiry that will effectively shield him from accountability on this and other matters. We will be raising these concerns and amendments later on in the debate.
I rise tonight to speak in support of the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007, the purpose of which is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908 to enable a comprehensive independent inquiry to be conducted on the recent outbreak of equine influenza, which has had such a devastating effect on Australia. I take the opportunity, given that this will be my last speech in this place, to reflect on my time here and to share some of the events in which I have a great amount of pride. I also wish to reflect on a couple of areas where I am a little disappointed I have not been able to achieve as much as I would have liked, but I will keep working on that.
I was first elected to parliament in 1996. I am one of the class of ’96 and forever proud. It was a wonderful group of Australians who came into this place almost 12 years ago. I have enjoyed my time here immensely, and it is with a certain degree of pride but also sadness that I make this, my final speech. In the time I have been here, initially I had the privilege of serving as Chair of the Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund and the somewhat contentious debate on native title and the Wik legislation. In 1998 I was appointed to the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. In 2001 I was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources. I served in that position until I stood down in 2006—and I see that my good friend Bob Baldwin is here, who followed in my much smaller shoes, but I am sure he is doing a great job.
I was sitting here earlier listening to Kay Elson, one of my many friends and a colleague from 1996. I gave my maiden speech before she gave hers, and I took great pride in saying that I started working late in my 14th year cleaning toilets in railway stations. I thought, ‘Beat that’. Kay gave her speech right after me, and she said, ‘I’ve got eight kids and I left school at 13’—so I just got blown out of the water. That reflects the immensely diverse backgrounds of so many of us in that particular intake.
I raised many issues in my maiden speech. One of them was mobile phone, television and radio reception, which was almost nonexistent at that time. I can remember saying that if you had a mobile phone and you were more than five or 10 kilometres from the CBD of Cairns, you could not use it. In 151,000 square kilometres there was a lot of area there where it was not possible. The same could be said for basics like radio and television. Outside of Cairns and the coastal inhabited areas, when you get into the cape, other than the ABC there were no other radio or television services available, and in some places there was not even that. As for the internet, I think they were still working on it. It almost did not exist. Here we are 11½ years later and now I can stand on Saibai Island or Boigu Island, less than three kilometres from the mainland of Papua New Guinia, and make a mobile phone call. I can go down to the local community hall and get on the internet, and I can watch a number of television stations and listen to both commercial and public radio broadcasts. That is a huge step forward and I think we can take a great deal of pride in what we have been able to achieve in that area.
I also raised issues related to security in Cape York. Around the time I got into this place there was a boat washed up on the shores of Holloways Beach, about eight or 10 kilometres from the CBD of Cairns. On the boat was a load of Chinese migrants who were dressed in white shirts and trousers, ready to become Australian citizens. Unfortunately for many of them, the information that they were given was quite wrong, and they had tickets arranged for them on the Kuranda tourist train, headed north instead of south. The system that we inherited in 1996 was not really effective, but I can assure you that there have been very significant changes and there are many people in remote areas who sleep a lot more safely and who are a lot more comfortable with the changes that we have introduced.
I mentioned in my speech a dear old friend called Ettie Pau. He was a member of the first Torres Strait Light Infantry, and he shared a story with me about the first Torres Strait Light Infantry Batallion and how all the Torres Strait Islanders who served on it had never been recognised for their contribution. One of my great achievements was to get the Pacific Star medal awarded to those veterans. Unfortunately, of the 850 who served only about 80 were still alive at the time. Nevertheless, their families were very proud to receive the medals, and it was a major achievement.
Another achievement that many of my colleagues would recall was in the area of mental health. I tend to take things and become almost obsessive about them, and I tend to repeat myself time and time again almost ad nauseam. When the announcement came that there was $1.9 billion for mental health, that was a wonderful achievement. When we talk about achievements of this government, I think that is one of the great ones. Unfortunately I do not think the states have stepped up to the plate to the degree that they should have, and I would hope that eventually they will find the conscience to do that. Rather than looking for opportunities to blame others, I would hope that they would put their hands in their pockets and contribute, particularly in relation to accommodation, which is desperately needed in that area.
Another area that I raised in my maiden speech was the imbalance of family support, family law matters et cetera, and I think we have come a long way to restoring balance in that area. I think we can draw a tremendous amount of pride from what we have been able to achieve in that area, and this is going to be a very positive thing for a lot of the children who will now have the opportunity to spend a bit more time with both parents.
There are a lot of areas where I can walk away and say, ‘Yes, we have achieved significant results,’ and they are areas that I am very proud of. In my own electorate there have been a whole range of areas where I have gone in to bat: from cattle yards in the Port of Weipa, to $19 million for the esplanade, to a whole heap of funding for Peninsula Development Road, and of course we started the floodproofing of the Bruce Highway. A significant amount of money has been spent, and as quickly as the state government agencies can do the work the money is there for them. I do wish, however, that we could look at a process whereby we could start putting a lot of this work out for tender so that we would not be locked into state government bureaucracies. If they could tender along with private enterprise I would bet that we would get a lot more bitumen for our bucks. I think that is something that we should be working on.
I also look at a lot of the smaller things that I have done. I recall the compensation package that I got for banana growers for the loss of their crops through black sigatoka, and the package for the tobacco growers, which meant a hell of a lot to a small group of people. It was something that I did with a great deal of pride. In the broader picture, there are achievements that I think will have long-term and very positive impacts on our country. I have to say that some of these were not necessarily popular, but I think they were right and necessary at the time. All of us who were here in 1996 can remember the gun laws. I can assure you that, within my electorate, they were not real popular. Nevertheless, I can tell you now that, on reflection, there are a lot more kids in my area who have never seen a gun—growing up in households where they do not exist anymore. Over time, I think we are starting to break down that gun culture, which I think will reflect very positively on our community as a whole.
Of course, there was the liberation of East Timor, tax reform and all the other things that we have done, many of which caused us some grief at the time but I believe were the right decisions. Industrial relations reform was another correct decision. I watch all the stuff on TV about industrial relations. I do not know where they drag these people from to do cameo performances about how dreadfully they are treated. They do not come through my electorate office—and I have 80-odd thousand people in my electorate. Two years after the fact, you do not see them coming into my office complaining about it. So I just wonder where all those people are from. Maybe they are members of Actors Equity. I am just not too sure.
Another decision, which is probably rather contentious but I will also mention it, was the decision to go into Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a decision that I supported at the time and I stand by that decision. I think it was the right decision. It was a very difficult decision but, given the circumstances, I think in time you will find that we made the right decision. I do not step back from that decision for one moment.
It is important that we recognise that we are living in a very different place now economically compared to when we came here in 1996—zero debt, continual budget surpluses and five consecutive tax cuts. It is pretty positive stuff. I can remember sitting down and watching TV on budget nights and thinking, ‘What are they going to hit now—cigarettes, alcohol, petrol?’ One would never think that we were going to get tax cuts. We really have changed things and, in some ways, we have probably created a bit of a rod for our own backs—because there is an expectation. Nevertheless, I think that, under good fiscal management, we will be able to continue to offer benefits for the Australian people—as we promised we would.
There are a few areas that I would like to briefly mention where I wish that I could have done better. One relates to a small population in the north of the Daintree who have been very badly treated over a long period of time and vilified because they live in a very special area. One of the things that I have been able to achieve from a federal perspective is to get recognition that residents in these types of communities who contribute positively to their community are in fact part of the solution and should not be seen as part of the problem. For that I am very proud, but they still have a very difficult life in dealing with a lot of the things that we take for granted. For example, the state government has legislated to prevent them having mains power. Hopefully, at some stage, that injustice can be resolved.
Another one relates to the representative areas in the Great Barrier Reef and bureaucracies and agencies providing very dishonest advice to the minister. What was suggested was going to be a $1.5 million impact is so far $200 million and still growing. But the money side really is irrelevant when you have a look at the destruction of their lifestyles. Hopefully in time we can deal with that. Another area of course is social and economic equity for same-sex couples, and I make no apology for that. I wish I could have done more in that area. This is not a morals issue; it is a social justice issue—and it is one that I will continue to push. Hopefully we will get some changes on that in the not too distant future.
We do not come into this place and achieve what we do without the tremendous support of those who work with us. At this point I would like to first of all acknowledge my office staff: my senior electorate officer, Lyn Warwick, who has been with me almost as long as I have been in this place—probably nine or 10 years; my media adviser, Shar Lindsay; Clare Zappala, my executive assistant, is sitting here in the chamber—and it is lovely to see you in here, Clare; Colleen Lubomirski, Arlene Amey and Kimberley See Kee, who mans my office up in the Torres Strait. Without their support and the work that they do behind me, there is no way in the world we could have achieved the things we did. I also acknowledge those staff who worked with me prior to my present staff, because they also played a very significant role.
In acknowledging the staff, I also acknowledge the volunteers I have had in my office and the party members who have stuck with me through thick and thin, some of whom were there when I got preselected as the most unlikely Liberal candidate back in 1996. I also acknowledge my colleague Brendan Nelson, who continually used to change my speeches when he sat beside me to embarrass me profoundly—nothing has changed; Faye and Hal Westaway, who gave me very strong support in the early days; Gladys Potter, who was the chairman of the women’s council and has been a very supporter; and Henry Pain, whose claim to fame was, he told me, that he had John Hewson preselected. He said that he saw something in me that he thought was worthy of support and he got in behind me when we did not think it was going to happen.
At this time I would also like to acknowledge my family. The reason that I am leaving this place is my family. I have a 13-year-old son who is in desperate need of his dad. Every time I sit back and worry about the consequences of my leaving—sometimes I feel it might be a little bit premature—I think of the fact that the basis on which I am making this decision is that my son, after living away from me since he was two, moved back with me permanently at Easter time. It was on the basis that if I was prepared to sacrifice the time or give up my career he wanted to come back and live with his dad. I am very proud of that. I am enjoying my son’s company immensely.
I have another son, who is working very hard trying to establish his own business, three of the most wonderful grandchildren and a daughter-in-law, Amanda, whom I am very proud of—Jason, with his business, Steven and Harley and, of course, the love of my life, none other than my first granddaughter, Sarah Victoria, who is just over two years old. I thought we could not have girls on my side of the family, but my son did very well and I am very proud of her. She is a beautiful young child. I would also like to recognise my partner, Elle Taylor. I am wearing a badge that she acquired for me for my valedictory speech today. It is a medallion that was minted in 1927 and was issued to all the members and senators in commemoration of the opening of the first national parliament of Australia. I do not know where she found it, but she did. Only 114 were minted at the time, and this one was worn by somebody. She found it in some obscure antique place somewhere outside Canberra. She also insisted that I wear another tie that was not quite as outlandish as those that I have.
Finally, thank you very much to all of my colleagues and my friends, particularly those who were part of the dinners for orphans, which we have regularly on Thursday nights. I am going to miss those. And thank you to the staff as well. I see that two very dear friends, Anne-Maree from Alex Somlyay’s office and Lorraine, are in the chamber. We never differentiated between staff and members at these functions and enjoyed it immensely. To all of my colleagues here, it has been a wonderful journey and one that I would not have missed for quids. I am going to miss it. I work through my life in about 10-year intervals. I am looking forward to the next 10 years which, if they are half as productive as these 10 years have been, will be something special. Thank you and good luck.
in reply—I thank the member for Leichhardt for that very personal and moving valedictory speech to this parliament. As both the member for Leichhardt and as a parliamentary secretary in various responsibilities, he has accumulated a distinguished record of service. On behalf of his colleagues on this side of the House and the wider parliament and community, I thank and congratulate him and wish him all the very best with his extended family.
Turning to the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 before the House, I reiterate the government’s intention and resolve to get to the bottom of how the outbreak of equine influenza occurred in Australia. Even with the most cursory examination of the bill, no-one could conclude otherwise. The bill allows for a full and independent inquiry, which needs to be formally commenced as quickly as possible. I am therefore anxious that the bill proceed through the House to the other place and come into force without any further delay so that the Hon. Ian Callinan can commence his responsibilities and duties as commissioner. Mr Callinan is a jurist of the highest order with a good working knowledge of the horse industry. He is eminently qualified for this role and he is ideally placed to conduct a thorough and searching inquiry into the outbreak. Through the bill, Mr Callinan will be provided with all the necessary powers and protections of a royal commission. He will also have access to all of the relevant quarantine specific powers that are already contained in the Quarantine Act 1908. The commissioner will have the power to hold public meetings, to compel witnesses and the production of documents, to direct Quarantine officers to assist his investigation and to direct his own independent investigators.
The effects of the outbreak of equine influenza have been severely felt across horse related industries. In New South Wales alone thousands of people have been affected by the outbreak in the most harsh of economic terms. Queensland has also not been spared great financial and, at times, emotional hardship. The government is providing much needed assistance to the tune of $110 million to those people and businesses that have been directly affected, not just in the thoroughbred industry—although that is the largest commercial entity of the horse industry—but also, just as importantly, the harness and equestrian industries.
It is also essential that the bill be passed as quickly as possible so that this comprehensive, independent inquiry, which has been so sought after by those who have been directly and indirectly affected, can commence its operations. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.