Monday, 15 June 2009
Member for Higgins
On indulgence, Mr Speaker, today is a momentous day in the history of our parliament and in the history of our country. The member for Higgins, the Hon. Peter Costello, has announced that he will renom—
Government members interjecting—
he will not renominate for preselection as the member for Higgins. I am pleased the members opposite are so readily amused, because for 11½ years this country had the great gift of a Treasurer who took our nation from having $96 billion of debt to having no debt at all. He took our nation from a stage where it was putting heavier and heavier burdens on the shoulders of children and grandchildren yet to come, to one where it was putting money away in the bank in the Future Fund to relieve them of that burden. It was a period of unparalleled prosperity and unparalleled economic growth. And it could not have happened—it would never have happened—without the contribution of the member for Higgins.
If I may, in this brief moment—recognising that there will be many other occasions to acknowledge the contribution of the member for Higgins at greater length and to do him greater justice—I ask you to cast your minds back to his maiden speech in 1990, when he said:
When we talk of creating a fairer and more compassionate society, what do we mean? Over decades arguments have raged over which system of government best creates such a society. Some have argued that a society where government controls industry and controls and directs the production and distribution of goods is a society that is inherently more compassionate and fair. Others have argued the converse. In this century the argument has raged between those who believe that by enhancing government power it, the government, can deliver fairness and compassion to its citizens and others who have maintained that in the interests of fairness the power of government itself must be curtailed and the compassionate resources of our citizens released.
Peter Costello, for all his years in this parliament—20 years—has stood on the side of freedom and of enterprise. He has served our nation well. We salute him and we thank him for his service.
Mr Speaker, if I may I will add to those remarks, on indulgence. I am advised that the member for Higgins has indicated that he will not be seeking re-election at the next federal election, nor will he be seeking preselection for the seat of Higgins—a seat, of course, which we still hold out hopes of winning one day for the Labor Party! It was a joke, Malcolm; it was a joke!
Can I say something about what is an important milestone in any member of parliament’s career. We enter this place with aspirations and hopes, and all the expectations of our families, our communities and ourselves that we bring here. It is an important day when you are elected to this place. Each of us can cast our minds back to when we first stood in the House of Representatives and the enormous pride which we felt in being elected and so representing our political party and our community.
There is another equally important day, and that is when we choose to exit this place, and it should be marked appropriately as well, in terms of the contributions that have been made to public life. And this is one such day in the career of a member of this place—and a most notable member at that, the member for Higgins. To have been a member of this parliament for 20 years is, of itself, a significant achievement. For that, in itself, the member should be commended—for having represented his constituency for such an extended period of time. Secondly, for having been Treasurer of the Commonwealth for virtually 12 years is, of itself, a further credit to the individual member’s talents and abilities. He would not have been put in that position by his political party, nor nominated by my predecessor Mr Howard, had confidence not been expressed in him by his party and by the leadership of his party in his considerable intellectual skills and the policy skills which he brings to the public policy debate in Australia. And for that he should be commended as well.
On top of that I will add some remarks about his contribution to Australia’s place in our international economic engagements through the IMF and beyond. The Treasurer, as he was then—Mr Costello, the member for Higgins—was Australia’s representative on the IMF and, through his occupancy of that position, other international financial institutions for which Australia has representation. I would make two particular points about the IMF. One is that in the deliberations following the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, the decision at that stage to establish the G20 finance ministers meeting was something in which the member for Higgins—the Treasurer as he was at the time—played a role.
The establishment of the G20 finance ministers meeting from that time on, and the events of the last 12 months in turn, provided a platform through which we, together with other governments, were able to elevate it to a heads of government meeting. That is now the G20 summit, which served this nation well in the meeting held in Washington at the end of last year and in London most recently, and will again, prospectively, in Pittsburgh this September. It has been an important vehicle for global economic governance. It had its foundations in the fact that we did have a body established at the finance ministers and treasurers level across 20 of the world’s leading economies back then. In those deliberations at the time, the Treasurer, as he was then, the member for Higgins, played a significant role.
The further point I would make in that respect is that off the back of the Asian financial crisis at the time, significant decisions were made here to intervene and support various of our neighbouring economies that were experiencing difficulties—from memory, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea. Decisions were taken by the then government, led by the Treasurer, as he was then, to provide significant offers of financial assistance to assist those economies through that difficult time. These were correct decisions in the national interest. They were correct decisions as good neighbours of these countries. And they were correct decisions, I would remind the House, which are not forgotten today. The fact that we have good relations with the countries which I have just listed is in part anchored by decisions taken back then, and I would like to make appropriate recognition of that in the House today.
I will make one final point about the importance of family in a place like this. The nearly 20 years that the member for Higgins has been in this House—as other members who have been here for an extended period of time will understand—has obviously been an extraordinary burden for his wife, his partner, as well as his children to bear. That is a burden which those of us who have been here for some time fully recognise and understand.
I would say to the member for Higgins, on behalf of his confreres and great mates here in the Australian Labor Party, that we wish him well and we wish his family well, after what has been a quite extraordinary career in Australian public life.
On indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I say I did not think I would ever see the day where both sides of this parliament would say nice things about me! It is just possible that both sides of the dispatch box are happy with the announcement that I have made. I want to thank both the Leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, and the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, for their very kind words.
Woody Allen was once asked what he hoped to hear people say at his funeral, and he said, ‘As I’m lying there at my funeral I would hope to hear somebody say, “Look, he’s still moving!”‘ It is a very nice thing to come here, not being quite departed, and hear the kind of speeches one usually only hears as eulogies. In fact, I might come back tomorrow for a little more, I am enjoying it so much!
The Prime Minister, rightly, I think, talked about Australia’s role in the formation of the G20. The G20 would not have happened without Australia. It brought together the developed world and the developing world, and Australia as neither—we came in as an honest broker because we stood in Asia’s hour of need as the only country, along with Japan, that came to the rescue of those crisis affected economies. I do not need to say that, from our perspective, a seat at the table which represents 90 per cent of global GDP is a very, very important diplomatic position for us and for our country. It has moved up a notch now with the leader’s summit. I think the role that it played when it was convened by President Bush and also by Prime Minister Gordon Brown shows just how important it is. I do think that this is something Australia must never let go of. There will be others that will try and refashion a G-something else—a G8, a G7, a G13, a G14. Bear in mind the G20 is a forum where Australia can play a role, and it always has. We have chaired it; we have hosted it here in Australia. It will be integral, I think, to the shape of the future global economy.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for mentioning our achievements in the economic sphere. Of course, those on the other side will not want to refer to them as much, for obvious reasons, but I will make one point. It is a point I have actually made in the new chapter of the forthcoming paperback edition of my book. I do not know if I mentioned that the hardback copy has sold out, and we are publishing a paperback edition with a new chapter. The point I have made is that the strength of Australia’s position in terms of its debt-to-GDP ratio has nothing to do with the journey in the last year but everything to do with the starting point. If we had not had a starting point of a net negative debt—that is, an asset position—then our debt position would be ending up where the Europeans, the Americans and the British are. It was the strength of the starting point that gave Australia ammunition that could be unloaded and unlocked in the current situation. Every now and then it is worth paying credit to the people who put in place important reforms before your time. None of us come to politics in the year zero. There is always something that has gone on before. I have always paid credit, because I think they were right, to Hawke and Keating for the liberalisation of the financial markets and the cutting of tariffs, and there are things that we could also be given credit for, I think, by the current government. It will make Australia stronger if we do that.
In that maiden speech that I gave so many years ago I said these words: ‘I believe in the parliament.’ And I do, and, although it was my privilege to be a minister for a very long period of time, the parliament is still important. There is no person in this place that is not important. Everybody had something that got them here and got them elected and everybody has a view that has to be listened to. We are lucky to have a parliament. That is why I very consciously decided after the election that I would stay in the parliament—because the parliament is an institution that should be preserved and valued, not just the ministry. It has been my privilege to be in this parliament for 20 years—what I consider the best years of my life.
I also want to say I think Australia’s best years can still be in front of it. This is still a young country with wonderful opportunity and, properly governed, there are greater things in store for us.
The Prime Minister was very generous in his words. I thank him for those words. On this occasion he did not come the raw prawn; he gave a fair suck of the sauce bottle! And I appreciate the statement that he gave.
Family means everything to me. You cannot imagine the strength that a strong family gives a person. I thank my family and my colleagues, my branch members and my electorate committee for everything they have given me. It has been an honour and a privilege to serve in this parliament.