Monday, 24 June 2013
The chance to make a valedictory speech is a rare opportunity for a member of parliament and one I know that I should be embracing and enjoying. As the time has approached, I was finding it harder and harder to get my thoughts and feelings onto the page. I finally realised it was because I was not being honest with myself about what is going on here today. If I was not being honest with myself, then it meant I was not being honest with the people I have represented here for the past 15 years and the colleagues I have served with and who have done me the great honour today of coming in to listen to this my last contribution to this chamber. I really do appreciate it and I think I owe you a genuine account about how I feel about ending my time here as the member for Capricornia and a proud member of the Labor caucus.
The truth is it is very hard to make a valedictory speech when I am still torn about my decision to stand down. I know I have made a decision that is right for me and my family and the Labor Party in Capricornia—and it is that but which hangs over this speech. But I am still young. At 43, it does not feel quite right to be bringing down the curtain on any kind of career, let alone one that holds such a special place in the life of our country. But there is more that I would love to do in a political career.
I never felt like I could admit it but becoming a parent in my second term, for all its joys, did floor me. I had a newborn baby and a marginal electorate bigger than the state of Victoria. So many years of my career were just about survival and holding it all together. With those days behind me, part of me would love to be thinking about the next phase of my career, not the end of it.
But there is still a fight to be had. Whenever there is a battle of ideas, Labor will always be on the side of fairness and on the side of the future. An election about better education funding, boosting superannuation, managing the transition of our economy in the interests of working people and investing in infrastructure is one that Labor has to win and one that I would relish if I thought I was still the best person to do that job for Labor in Capricornia. I feel better knowing that our candidate, Peter Freeleagus, is a true-blue Labor bloke, with a ton of experience in local government and a champion of Central Queensland.
But I cannot stop asking myself why I have not been able to figure out how to be the member of parliament I want to be and to be the mother I want to be. I happily handed over my life to my branch members and then to my constituents for so many years and it felt like I was letting them down every time I chose to spend time with my family. How though to explain that to my children, who wanted me to be there for them when I came home from Canberra? Well a choice had to be made, and it was. It is bittersweet, but milestones in life usually are and if I have learnt anything in my 15-year parliamentary career, it is the importance of keeping things in perspective and staying focused on what is really behind my purpose here—not me but my electorate.
It is advice I gave myself in my first speech on 23 November 1998. I was elected to parliament in October that year. It was an interesting time in Queensland. In the wake of the 1998 state election, the message to major parties in our state was clear and unmistakable: we could not take our traditional support base or electorates for granted. Those early days as a candidate in what felt like a new and challenging political environment—I had not seen anything yet—have always stayed with me. I have always felt very strongly the need to demonstrate in everything I do that I am firmly focused on serving my electorate rather than it serving my ambitions.
Luckily for me, the people of Central Queensland and the individual communities that have made up Capricornia in its various dimensions have always responded to that approach. They responded most obviously by voting Labor in big enough numbers to return me at five elections. They have also responded by accepting me as someone who is genuinely part of their community and their endeavours and aspirations. It is something I will always be grateful for.
On the face of it that is not such a big deal. It is part and parcel of an MP's job. I know all of you would say the same thing about your own electorates. What is so remarkable in retrospect and why I make particular mention of it today is the size and diversity of the electorate of Capricornia. Back in 1998 there were outback Queensland mayors, Bowen Basin coalminers, central highlands graziers, local school principals, Rockhampton meatworkers, Capricorn Coast pineapple growers and countless community organisations working across Central Queensland faced with this young and, let us face it, very inexperienced new MP representing them in the federal parliament. To their great credit, never once did any of those groups prejudge me or my abilities. Instead, they took me at face value when I said I wanted to listen, learn and try to help.
They took the time to make me part of their communities and teach me about their industries and interests. I was invited to council meetings and aged-care homes, was taken through underground coalmines, sugar mills, railway workshops and meatworks, and was driven around cattle properties and cane farms. In some ways it was a great advantage to be as young as I was. Nobody expected me to know anything about these industries or remote parts of the electorate so I was never tempted to bung it on and pretend to have all the answers. If I had, there is no way I would be standing here today.
Of course, I was also invited to take part in community events of all shapes and sizes from one end of Capricornia to the other—and those ends kept changing with each redistribution. Through those many and varied encounters I got to know the heart and soul of Central Queensland. It was really only then, despite my official starting date of 3 October 1998, that I truly felt that I was the member for Capricornia. It was a huge privilege to be given that chance to prove myself and to have the help and support of so many people to gain that understanding of the region and its challenges and opportunities.
The other thing I made very clear in my first speech is that, while I had to get my head wrapped around the business of Canberra, my feet were to stay firmly planted in regional Australia. I have always identified first and foremost as a regional MP. I have always been driven by the potential I see in our regions and the gaps in infrastructure and services that too often have held us back or created inequality in the opportunities available to those of us who live outside the capital cities.
Entering the parliament, I wanted to see rural and regional Australians getting all the advantages of living in this wonderful country, and that needed the support of the federal government. Well, I was a long time waiting for a federal government that was interested in making those things happen in my electorate. I spent nine years in opposition and I can only remember a couple of things of any significance that the Howard government delivered to my electorate in that whole time.
It has been a very different story since Labor came to power in 2007. In regional Australia, a big part of lifting living standards is about closing the gap between services and opportunities in cities and those available in our regions. As a new member making my first speech, I pledged to do that, and I can stand here today proud of what we, this Labor government, have done in Capricornia. The Rockhampton Base Hospital now has the MRI machine we promised at the 2007 election. We have contributed $76 million to the redevelopment of that base hospital. That has allowed for the construction of a whole new building which, among other things, will house the MRI and, my proudest announcement, the regional cancer centre.
The centre will be fully operational next year. I look forward to the day when cancer sufferers in Central Queensland will not be faced in their darkest hour with the prospect of travelling away from their family and the comforts of home to undergo lengthy periods of treatment in far off Brisbane. We lost our dad to cancer and my mother has just ended her own treatment for breast cancer, so this project above all others means a lot to me personally. I think it will make a real difference to the experience of those living with cancer in Central Queensland and to the success of their treatment too.
This government is also making a real difference to the medical workforce in Central Queensland—doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. In partnership with the University of Queensland, we have funded a fantastic new facility in Rockhampton for the Rural Clinical School that brings UQ medical students to Central Queensland to complete the final two years of their medical degree. Of course, after two years, they cannot resist the charms of our great region and a high proportion of those doctors stay on after graduation to start their careers in our local hospitals—a huge boost to our medical workforce.
Our government has also invested in the allied health clinic at Central Queensland University. Students in podiatry, oral health, nutrition, physiotherapy and other disciplines are doing their clinical placements alongside Queensland Health staff so that, by the time they graduate, they have the clinical experience they need to be fully fledged allied health professionals. Local people are getting better access to health services at the clinic at the same time as we are training the people who will fill the shortages in allied health professionals that have been a chronic problem across regional Queensland.
This is just one of many, many improvements to the facilities at Central Queensland University in both Rockhampton and Mackay—a new library and accommodation in Mackay, and a total upgrade of the engineering building and the library in Rockhampton. There is more to come at Central Queensland University, with our government providing $73 million towards further developments at the university in support of its merger with the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE to become Queensland's first dual-sector university—an important step in providing opportunities for local people to meet the demand for skilled workers in our growing region.
Our Medicare Local is doing great work delivering primary health care services, often filling gaps left by the withdrawal of funding by the conservative state government. It has just been confirmed as the successful bidder to run the headspace youth mental health centre coming to Rockhampton.
This Labor government has been a very generous sponsor for the international beef expo held in Rockhampton every three years—an iconic event for our city, the beef capital of Australia, and a showcase for the nation's beef industry, which leads the world in quality and innovation. There has been further support for the beef industry through the funding our government has made available to the meatworks in my electorate to modernise their facilities. This will see reduced carbon emissions and dramatically lower energy costs for these companies.
Mackay Sugar has seized a similar opportunity, presented by our agenda of reducing carbon and boosting renewable energy, by investing in new equipment that will burn the waste product from sugar processing and generate the equivalent of one-third of Mackay's electricity needs. It is presently Australia's biggest co-generation project and is increasing the returns to cane growers, recognising that they are now producing energy as well as an important agricultural export.
How can I go any further on that list without talking about road funding—and the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport has come into the chamber just in time. If you are a regional MP, it does not matter what else you might do for your electorate: if people think the roads are crook then you are not doing a good job. I can remember my feeling of triumph when, after a ferocious campaign by mayors and local media—happily egged on by me—the Howard government announced that they would put $6 million towards an upgrade of the Peak Downs Highway between Mackay and the Bowen Basin coal mines. This is a 200-kilometre road, mind you, that links our major export industry to support services and much of its workforce in Mackay. So good of the Liberal National government to find $6 million for it.
Last election in 2010, I stood with the Treasurer at the start of that same highway for the announcement of $120 million to improve its safety and efficiency. That is the difference between our commitment to infrastructure and those opposite. There has been a huge investment into the Bruce Highway around Central Queensland. There has been almost constant work resurfacing and widening the highway from Rockhampton to Sarina and major improvements on the Sarina to Mackay stretch of that road.
Of course, there is the big one—the lifting of the highway at the southern entrance to Rockhampton. Those who tuned in to the coverage of the 2011 Rockhampton floods would know this place as the9 ocean of brown water with a statue of a bull sticking out of it. If you go there now, you will see construction crews hard at work building a massive bridge metres above the existing road and that work will continue until there is a section of highway bridged right across the Yeppen flood plain.
No longer will Rockhampton and the northern half of Queensland be cut off for weeks when the Fitzroy breaks its banks. No longer will workers be cut off from their jobs and businesses cut off from their customers and suppliers. This has caused massive disruption and distress at an individual and regional level and I am so pleased that this government has been dedicated to helping me find and fund a solution for the communities of Central Queensland.
These are just some of the biggest projects that come to mind since 2007. What they have in common with all of the initiatives and programs I have not mentioned is that they always involved a partnership between community, the government and me. Whether it was Mackay Sugar, headspace, Lakes Creek meatworks or the Road Accident Awareness Group, I always loved being brought in to understand an issue or idea, advise on the best way forward and then take up the advocacy to get a project across the line.
I want to take the opportunity here to thank the Prime Minister, my ministerial colleagues and their staff who always without exception made the time, took my calls, heard me out and helped me to do the best I could for my electorate.
During my time in the parliament I served my electorate, but I campaigned for the Australian Labor Party. In my first speech I described how it was the Labor government of Gough Whitlam that shaped my aspirations and the Labor government of Hawke and Keating that gave me opportunity. Other members have spoken about how humbling it is to rise in here for the first time and I remember that very clearly.
What I also found humbling was going back to read my first speech. I was humbled by the strength of my conviction powered by a belief in Labor's cause. It was a belief that a Labor government would always make Australia a better place for families like the one I grew up in and for regions like the one I represent. Believe me there is nothing humble about the pride I feel in what this Labor government has achieved and continues to strive for.
These achievements include keeping the people of Central Queensland in work and making sure the doors of local businesses stayed open during the global financial crisis; the apology to the stolen generation giving us the opportunity for genuine and meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous people; having the courage to stand up to the tobacco companies and become the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes; increasing the number of people from regional Australia going to university, including their own local universities that have been supported by this government's investments in new world-class facilities; paid parental leave giving families those precious first months with their babies; establishing the world's biggest network of marine parks; putting a price on carbon so our children are not stuck with an old economy while the rest of the world moves on; finding a way to keep the Murray Darling Basin productive while protecting its environmental values; giving people with disability and their families and carers the hope of a decent, dignified and fulfilling life; taking our place in the world as a member and now host of the G20 and sitting on the United Nations Security Council; developing a deeper understanding of what the future holds for us and embracing the challenges and opportunities of the Asian century; building on those great Labor reforms of the past with measures to strengthen superannuation and broaden Medicare. And there is, of course, our vision for a school education system that is funded to meet the needs of every child in every school so our Australian students reach their full potential and are able to match the best in the world. It is a worthy list of achievements and a powerful argument why this Labor government deserves the chance to do more.
Back in 1998 I believed in what a Labor government could do—now I know.
I thank my colleagues who have shared this incredible journey with me, and I thank you, Julia, for your support as a friend and as a leader who has always inspired me with the force of your commitment to fairness and opportunity, and your determination to prevail in the name of those values.
I heard the advice last week of two wise women whom I greatly admire, Sharon Grierson and Nicola Roxon, to put my thank yous and tributes to those I love at the start. I have not taken that advice, so I have no-one else but myself to blame if it all falls apart. I want to say thank you to my staff, represented in the gallery here today by Sarah Byrne. I have had so many good people work in my office in the past 15 years. They have been dedicated to serving the people of Capricornia and loyal to the cause of the Labor Party. Together we won five elections for Labor, and each victory was as much theirs as it was mine. My current staff—Soe, Sarah and Katelyn—are a fantastic team. It is great to be surrounded by young people who are so bright and motivated and always supportive.
Then of course there is Barry Large—the one and only—
who is not quite as young, yes—who is technically a member of my staff, but is so much more. Barry has been there from the start: my campaign manager in 1998 and a source of advice and support on just about everything ever since. Without the benefit of his experience, the last 15 years probably would not have been as successful and they definitely would not have been as much fun.
We had a function a month or so ago where I thanked the branch members and Labor Party supporters, including the National Union of Retired Workers, for their hard work and belief in me over all these years. I will never be able to thank them enough, and will be beside them in the coming months while we take up the fight once again to keep Capricornia in Labor's hands. We have been inspired by my good friend Bill Byrne, the state member for Rockhampton, who showed us how to keep the faith in tough times when he won against the odds last year.
Canberra took some getting used to in the early years, so I feel very lucky to have been taken under the wing of Michelle O'Byrne and Jane O'Dwyer. We shared what must have been the coldest house in Canberra for those first few years. Literally, I was Queenslander moving into a house with no central heating, but Jane and Michelle more than made up for that. I was very happy when Jane met her husband Marco, mainly because he is a great bloke but also because he is a fellow Queenslander and he insisted on moving to a house with proper central heating, which was set at a constant 25 degrees. In recent years I have stayed with my sister Heidi and my brother-in-law Chris. It really is my second home and I appreciate the welcome I get each Sunday night, and their brilliant cooking.
I have spent too little time with my friends outside the parliament, but it has been so great to know they have been there supporting me no matter what. My friend Majella has truly special place in my life because she has been part of every important thing that has happened to me for the past 20 years. My mum and my other sister Sascha and her family have been a constant source of support. I have always thought of my dad's death in 1981 as a defining moment in my life, but in truth it was the love and security that mum gave to my sisters and me in the years that followed that has really made me who I am. I hope to be a calmer and more thoughtful daughter when this is over.
In my first speech I thanked my husband, Craig, and said I could not have done it without him, by which I meant campaign for a year and win the seat. Well five elections and two children later, what can I possibly say to adequately express what he has done for me and for our family? He keeps this show on the road every single day and still has time to make sure we are having fun.
Patrick and Alexandra, this is as much an ending for you as it is for me. Those years of bringing babies to Canberra were extremely stressful at the time, but they feel very special now and our family will always treasure the way we were made to feel so welcome by colleagues, by the staff of the parliament and especially the ever-patient and friendly Comcar drivers. The other person who gave me those precious years with my babies in Canberra is Paula Austin, who was our nanny for about a day before becoming a much loved part of our family. Patrick and Alexandra also insisted that I thank our dog, Maisie. In a contest for the affections of my children I would not like to test my numbers against Maisie, but now is my chance to turn that around.
Colleagues, I thank you sincerely for being here today and throughout my parliamentary career. I might not be nominating for this election, but I will be campaigning for Labor and I wish every one of you on this side of the House the victory that you deserve.
Speaker, how do I follow that? Little Ms Perfect, Little Ms Organised. Here I am, Mr Grumpy, Mr Disarray. The best advice I have had for this speech is 'wing it', because there is no speech. In any case, first lyric:
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain …
But 27½ years is a long time and I really don't know where to start. So, second lyric:
Let's start at the very beginning
A very good place to start …
In 1986 at Canberra airport I came down the stairway, across the tarmac, through the tin shed that was the terminal and outside to the open carport as the tractor brought the luggage in. You searched on the trailer, found your luggage and got the assistance of the ever-attendant Comcar drivers. First thank you: thank you, Comcar drivers, you are legends. Now we have Canberra 'International Airport', replete with street art. What a change!
I arrived here to this chamber—not particularly this chamber, the one down at Old Parliament House, the provisional Parliament House—and it was a very different chamber. There were no females as clerks at the table and there was one female attendant. I was going to say that that was balanced by the fact that Hansard reporters were predominantly female, but that may not have been the case because I have since researched that the first female Hansard reporter started in 1969 so it had only been two decades. But Hansard came in and it was taken in shorthand or with cumbersome machines. How the world has changed.
The first female Serjeant-at-Arms had just been appointed. And, of course, the circumstances that led me to being elected to this place, to taking my place, were the same that had led to the election of the first female Speaker of this place, the late Joan Child. And how proud am I that I will leave this place with the second female Speaker presiding—and, Speaker Burke, you are doing an wonderful job.
The next lyric that we go to is:
Most people I know think that I'm crazy and
I know at times I act a little hazy …
Well, the only reason I am here giving this speech is that Michele Jenkins—nee Sharp—exists. Without her I would not be here. I owe her all. Third lyric:
Michele, ma belle. These are words that go together well—
I know that members would expect me to hash a foreign language, so the words go on:
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble.
Michele, like many spouses of members, has really had to share a great load.
Of course, we are not the only profession that is on the road, that travels and is away from home, but when you are in the public spotlight it is a bit different. The family does not stand for election, but they are still in the glare. In the sense that Michele has been a single parent, she can look with great pride at Ben, Emlyn and Amanda. Em has turned up out of the blue; I did not even know he was going to be here. He has a great streak of social justice. Ben is the father of our two darling granddaughters. Amanda has been so inspired by the achievements of many of my female colleagues in this place.
I thank my parents-in-law, Cliff and the late Barbara Sharp. It has been a bit tough for us over the last few weeks with asbestos matters being talked about, as my mother-in-law died of peritoneal mesothelioma. I thank Michele's brothers and sister for their support. To my family, of course I owe a lot. To my parents, the late Dr Harry and my mum, Wendy: I often say that, whilst I have been fortunate enough to represent part of the northern suburbs of Melbourne in which I grew up, I recognise that mine was a privileged background compared to those whom I represent. My father was first a general practitioner and then went on to be a state parliamentarian and then a federal parliamentarian.
Both mum and dad were active in the community. Both mum and dad were active within the Australian Labor Party, but at no stage did they ever say to us that this was how we had to move, that this was the path we had to follow. We were given ample opportunity to make those decisions ourselves. I think that is very important.
Whilst mum is very overly protective and takes on anybody who is the least bit critical of me, I know that that is from her sheer pride, and I thank her for that. To my two brothers and my sister and to their families: I congratulate you on your achievements. I ask you to be very proud of what you do. I thank you for your love and support.
Most members of parliament would agree that we are only really able to look as good as we might look by the deeds of our staff. There have been a lot of them over 27½ years in the electorate office when I was the Deputy Speaker, the Second Deputy Speaker and Speaker. I think the churning and turnover has been minimal. I am not sure why so many of them have been so loyal. Some have gone on to better things—to be professors at the ANU, to be chiefs of staff of ministers at both state and federal levels, to be important executive assistants to the great. I think these things are really important.
I only want to mention one by name, and that is the late Nick Ascenzo. Nick and I were elected to the then shire of Whittlesea in August 1979, so I have had 34 years as a public office holder as a preselected ALP candidate. I entered local government with Nick. Nick had come here as a four-year-old with his family from Italy. He was very much salt of the earth. A group of us all thought we knew how to change the world and what was required in local government. Because of the predominant migrant population of the southern end of the then shire of Whittlesea we said: 'We have to translate all of the information into the languages in the community. This will be a big step forward.'
Nick was very down to earth. We would be listening to 3LO 774 and he would be listening to 3AW when it was 1278 because he said: 'That's what the punters we are representing are listening to, so we better understand.' So we would be reading The Ageand they would be reading the Herald Sun, because that is what the punters in my electorate read. Senior journalists always remind me, when they want to get a comment from me, that it should be given to the Herald Sun! But one day Nick said, 'Listen, all you guys; you think you know what's going on. All this translating stuff—there's just one problem: people like my father are illiterate in Italian. Since the age of eight, I've had to do all the form filling-in, answering the questions. That's the real issue.' It is people like Nick Ascenzo that were very important in making me understand what was important in seeking to meet the aspirations of those we represent.
Nick was there for me when I had great self-doubt. When my father stepped down and nominations for preselection were being made, he was the one that convinced me to give it a go. I do not think that he envisaged the circumstances where I could come up through the middle in a three-person contest to be victorious. But, in any case, I owe him a lot. He was taken from us much too early, and there are not many days where I do not think, 'What would Nick expect of us? What would he want me to do?' And I am very grateful for that. It is a story of the comradeship of the Australian Labor Party: it is very much a story of the importance of being part of a movement that has collective action as its core.
I went down to the caucus room this morning and I looked at the photographs of the leaders on the wall. There have been 20 leaders of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Since Arthur Calwell, I have known all of them personally. I met Frank Forde on one occasion; but, from Arthur onwards, I have known them personally. Gough Whitlam will always be the great man; he will always be the person that I look up to for what the Labor Party can achieve. Having said that, I know that, administratively and in their management, the Whitlam governments were not all that great. But they had waited those 27 years, and there was a lot to be done—and it was done. Bill Hayden was one of those unlucky leaders.
There was Bob Hawke—Hawkies, Hawkie. The first occasion that I had to do something official after being elected Speaker, I got sent off to the inauguration of the Korean president, and Bob was there because of his special relationship through APEC. All of a sudden, he says, 'I want to speak to you.' I thought, 'I'm in for it now.' But, knowing in the good Confucian way that I should respect my elders, I waited around until he had dealt with some things and sat down with him. He absolutely covered me in cigar smoke, but I put up with it because you respect your elders. He was larger than life, but Labor right through to the sinews of his body.
We then have PJ Keating—never got a vote out of me on an election ballot, but I have to say that, upon reflection, many of the things that he did were extraordinarily great. Bill Kelty tells of the story during the Mabo decision—or it might have been Wik—when things looked really bleak. The Left sat around and said, 'This is taking too much political skin; is it really worth it?' and even conveyed that to Keating. Keating said: 'No. We're going to move on.' I remember that Christmas, as we broke up for the holidays, that he simply said, 'It was the right thing to do; it was the Labor thing to do,' and everybody knew what he meant.
Kim Beazley and Simon Crean were two of the most unlucky leaders you would ever see. They were absolutely decent to the core. Perhaps that was the reason they were not successful—but, again, go through the things they championed. The great success in parliament this year has been the NDIS and DisabilityCare. I remember Beazley as leader championing that as a cause. Why did he champion it as a cause? He had sent out caucus members in working parties to look at issues—and that was the response we got from elderly parents with disabled children. Sorry, Em, I got that wrong. I mean 'children with disabilities'. He always corrects my terminology.
The thing was that we discussed these things. Then, when we won government, we were able to act. Instead of wasting the time we were in opposition moping around, we investigated what things were important—so that we were able to act when we returned to government. When we did return to government, that was important.
Leaders—the Lord Voldemort of leaders was Mark Latham. Even with Mark, though, if you really drilled down, among the policy issues were, from time to time, things that really challenge us. We should not dismiss those things. We should go forward, discuss and analyse.
We then come to the modern era. Nothing can be taken away from Kevin. He won the election and we formed government. The greatest moment of my 27½ years here was the morning of the apology to the stolen generation. You cannot understate the way this place buzzed—throughout the grand halls and right down to the mall. People were energised and excited. These are important things.
Then we had Julia as our Prime Minister and leader. All you have to do is look at the achievements of this period. Despite a hung parliament, a minority government, we have put through so many positive things, many of which we managed to get through because of her determination and her skills as a negotiator.
But when we talk about leadership, we—especially those of us on this side of the place—owe it to the people we represent to remember that we are here collectively. There is an onus on us to show collective leadership, to be proud of those things we have achieved, to take ownership of those things we have achieved and to ensure that they are explained—because we are one. United we stand; divided we fall. That is clear.
The motto is: unity is strength. I have to explain that there was a period when I did not actually use 'unity is strength' as my motto. This goes back to the dim, dark history of Victorian Labor around the time of the intervention which was the precursor to the election of the Whitlam government. The two major factions were the great Socialist Left and Centre Unity, which is another name for the Right. Centre Unity shortened its name to Unity—with a capital U—so I could never say, 'Unity is strength'. But I have moved on. It is important, though: unity is strength. That is what we as a caucus, as the federal parliamentary Labor Party—and the collection of other candidates who will go into the field for us—must remember.
I go back to the lyrics: 'I have travelled each and every highway.' I hear the sniggers and I hear the voices saying, 'Yes, he had a toothbrush, he had passport and he travelled well.' But I just want to use that to remind people that this is a national parliament. If we do not expose ourselves to things that are different—whether it is visiting Cox's Bazar, a camp with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people; whether it is going to a camp on the Thai-Burmese border and meeting with Karen people, whose simple message to us as we left was, 'Come back and visit us. Come back and visit us in Burma'—we will not be prepared to have proper debate.
I have gone to the camps of Palestinians in Jordan, where they have lived for generations. I have visited Malta and been at a Jesuit NGO as Somali refugees, who have just been acknowledged as refugees, receive a kit to set them up in a home. Why were they in Malta? Because there is a trade in illegal passage across the Mediterranean. People buy a position on a rubber dinghy to get them to Italy: no crew, a mobile phone and when the dinghy flounders, because Malta has responsibility for search and rescue, they end up in Malta to be processed. I have been on the Green Line in Cyprus and told, 'Over that mountain to the north, you're an hour's flight from Syria'. And we think that we have ownership of the challenge of asylum seekers on our own. Well let's wake up: this is much bigger than us, and if we do not challenge ourselves by ensuring that we discuss this widely, globally and regionally, then it is a nonsense.
I have visited the Afghan parliament, I have met female members of that parliament, female members of parliament who live in fear of what might happen as the international forces withdraw. We stand here, so soon after the fortieth death of an Australian in Afghanistan, and we remember those sacrifices and the sacrifices of those who have been injured, and we must ensure that as we move from that military engagement to that civil engagement, that we remember we have that investment and that those sacrifices demand we do not move away from helping Afghanistan and the Afghan people in what they hope to achieve.
Speaker, back to the lyrics.
Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do …
Do not mourn for me about anything that happened to me earlier in this parliament. I have been around politics long enough. I knew that some other possibilities were inevitable. I accept responsibility. I signed the resignation as Speaker. I attended the meeting with the Governor-General to hand it in. In attending the Governor-General, I am very pleased that there was a military band to play as I came in. I was a bit disappointed when I was told it was for the ambassadors who were handing in their papers—and doubly shattered when I was shown the 'Malcolm Fraser' door to go! Came through the front door, left by the side door! But never have any regrets do I!
Quickly, Speaker—because I am pushing your indulgence, because I am Mr Disarray and shambolic!—I want to state why I do not have any regrets. I first saw members of parliament when my father entered the Victorian caucus back in 1961, and they were so bitter. I later realised that that was six years after the split, so perhaps these blokes had reason to be bitter. They were turtlebacks, shellbacks, moping around. When I saw them, I decided I never, ever wanted to be like that, not only because it makes life miserable for others but also because it must be so miserable for the person themselves. That is why I want to stress optimism. The Brisbane Lions were 52 points down seven minutes before three-quarter time but had a five-point win. So just remember: it's not over till it's over! It is a long bow to draw, I know, between one AFL game and an election, but it is not over till it is over.
There is a lot that I could say about the parliament—what a wonderful institution it is. Over my time in this parliament, I think it has run well. Some have confused their political difficulties with criticisms of the parliament, but it has functioned really well, and that is a great credit to people like Bernard Wright and David Elder and their predecessors. I am a bit embarrassed to be a museum piece, part of history, upon the 25th anniversary of Parliament House, given that there are only four or five of us members and senators, and 70 others, that have worked here for the whole 25 years. That is probably how I knew it was time to make the decision to pull up stumps and move on!
There have been only four members for Scullin. Ted Peters was the original member for an electorate called Scullin, with very different boundaries. Between us, my father and I have represented the electorate for the last 44 years. I am not demanding that Andrew Giles change his name! He will be a great member—I expect him to be elected—and he will make a very great contribution to the people of Scullin, to the Australian Labor Party here in this parliament and to the nation more widely. I thank the people of Scullin for entrusting me with the role of their representative in this place.
For the achievements of this government over not only this parliament but also the parliament before, I refer you to the speeches of my fellow voluntary Labor departers of 2013, the member for Batman, the member for Gellibrand, the member for Newcastle, the member for Bendigo and, in particular, the member for Capricornia. Kirsten made a wonderful speech, where she set out everything that has been spectacularly good about Labor in power.
I simply say to the people of Scullin that to leave this place at a time there has been so much interest and investment from a federal government is extraordinary. Scullin being a safe Labor seat, I could never have expected it, but this is a government that has distributed its program resources in a very fair way. We see that when we open a super clinic, when we look at opening another trade-training centre next week and when we consider the investment in schools through the BER, which was not just about the building but about the psyche. The fact that the people and schools of Scullin have been recognised and assisted is something you cannot put into a budget; there is no way that you can allocate a value to that. But it is tangible. It is what happens here. The National Broadband Network is an extraordinarily popular program, and the take-up has been extraordinary, in the electorate of Scullin.
In my first speech, I indicated that the epitaph on the memorial of James Henry Scullin would guide me in this place. The words are, simply:
Justice and humanity demand interference whenever the weak are being crushed by the strong.
That really did make it easy to journey through this place, to know what was required of me. Now, as I get towards the conclusion, another lyric:
Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye
Cheerio, here I go, on my way
And to paraphrase some other lyrics, I will go placidly amid the noise and haste, and I will remember what peace there may be in silence, and:
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
Madam Speaker, it would be fair to say that I have had an interesting and stimulating adult life. Very few things have been denied me by a loving God, who has given me just about everything I have ever asked for, though, as I said in my first speech, it was generally in his time frame not mine.
I have had three careers: one in theatre, one in regional development and one in representative politics. In the early sixties, I joined the Arts Council of Australia in Brisbane as its first full-time CEO. At that time, it was separating from the New South Wales division. My role was to tour theatrical, musical, visual and educational shows and exhibitions to 57 centres in Queensland. I toured the Australian Ballet; the Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company, now Opera Australia; JC Williamson's stage shows; plays; jazz; and art exhibitions. It was incredibly satisfying work, sharing the culture art of Australia with regional and rural Australians; so many talented singers, dancers, actors and artists engaging with country people.
If I could make an observation in passing, more in sorrow than in anger: despite the advances in transport and the electronic age, there is less touring of country centres today than there was 45 years ago. But it is not surprising that some of the sense of the dramatic, the timing and the storytelling rubbed off on me and has served me well in this place. Madam Speaker, if you would allow me the indulgence of another theatrical analogy: this speech today marks the end of the season and like the actor on stage for the last time the curtain is coming down, and I am filled with a mixture of elation and sadness.
From live theatre, I moved on to cinema and to Bundaberg with Birch Carroll and Coyle, where my longstanding friend and mentor was Terry Jackman, who has gone on to play significant roles in the promotion of Australian movies, cinema and tourism. Also, for a short time, I was a partner in a drive-in theatre, but the stories thereupon will be kept for another day. They were great days in cinema, when the theatres were grappling with television. I played a part in the funding of Michael Pate's The Mango Tree, which was shot in Bundaberg, Gayndah and Wallaville. Our local theatre hosted the world premiere a day ahead of its Australian release. So it is pleasant for me to see the current revival in Australian filmmaking and the role our talented actors and filmmakers play on the international stage. We should not be shy in promoting and funding them.
Anyone who thinks they come to this place solely on his own merits deludes himself. For most of us, we come here because of family, supporters and party, and the goodwill those three components generate in our electorates. We should ever be conscious of the great gift our electors have extended to us. It is a remarkable statistic that in the 112 years since Federation only 1,093 people have sat on the floor of the House of Representatives and only 866 at the time when I first joined the team in 1993. Of my seven elections, three were perilously close—under 450 votes, in fact, and one of them was 69 votes, and thanks to a 5½-week recount, Simon, 64 votes.
As the goodwill of the people of Hinkler grew, the seat moved to a 10.4 per cent margin with the LNP eventually taking every booth, even traditional Labor ones. That was in 2010 and, although I was not subjected to any pressure, it was obvious that these were the circumstances where one could move on confidently. In that spirit, I wish my endorsed successor, Keith Pitt, every success.
I will miss this place, its all-consuming atmosphere and, of course, all of you on both sides. Yes, the hours are long, the travel is extensive, the complexity of constituent work daunting and the righting of injustices that come across our desks challenging if not stressful. Yet, its very demanding complexity has its own reward. That is not to say that the life is not rewarding; it is. The friendships on both sides have a character, warmth and respect of their own.
Strangely, I have never been thrown out of this place, though there was one time I was perilously close. At one particular question time, the Labor opposition was in a very restless mood and I took three attempts to ask my question. On the third attempt, the Second Deputy Speaker Harry Jenkins said, 'Ah, tell 'em the frog joke!' This was a reference to a particularly dull night in Seoul, South Korea, where the Australian and Canadian delegations decided to liven up a reception. Yours truly was grappling with suitable clean jokes that would not offend the local South Korean sensibilities. They loved the frog joke.
An opposition member: Put it in Hansard.
I will. As Harry spoke, I got the giggles. I could not stop laughing. The tears ran down my face. I could not read the question, much less ask it. The Speaker, David Hawker, was not impressed and gave me one last chance before I blurted out the question.
And so the frog joke: Nanna was visiting for the first time in four years and little Johnny had never met Nana, and it was a great event. So it was decided after a very happy weekend that on Monday, when the parents had gone to work and the other kids had gone to school, that Johnny would bond with Nanna. They had a marvellous day. They brought in the paper, watered the plants and made pikelets, and at that point Johnny said to Nanna, 'Nanna, when are you going to turn into a frog and we are going to live in a new house?' She said, 'Darling, no you're not. Mummy told me last night you loved this house.' 'No, Nanna,' he said. 'You're going to turn into a frog and we're going to live in a new street.' And she said, 'No, Johnny.' He tried three or four times and she was getting a bit twitchy with him, and she said, 'Johnny, what makes you say that?' And he said, 'Well, last night as I was going to the bathroom I walked past Mummy's and Daddy's room and I heard Daddy say to Mummy, "You know, when the old girl croaks we'll be on easy street." ' That nearly got me thrown out of the parliament!
My wife Margaret, who is in the gallery, worked beside me from the night I was offered the endorsement in 1992—door-to-door, backs of trucks, stalls and markets and endless public meetings. But it was her from-the-heart undoctored handwritten letters to the electorate that won me more votes than you can possibly imagine. You would go to a function after one of her letters went out and no-one would want to talk to me but, 'Is your wife here? How are the two sets of twins?' et cetera, et cetera. She also had a very good nose for trends in political life. As a result of door-knocking in Biloela one Sunday morning, she correctly predicted the start of the Hanson phenomenon.
But one incident sticks in my mind following that first election. I was bemused why five of the 75 booths in the electorate had swung against me in 1993. One of these was Ambrose, which sits between Gladstone and Rockhampton. It is a small community built on either side of the Bruce Highway. En route to a wedding at Rockhampton we resolved to call in to Ambrose to see why. It was mid-Saturday morning; there was no-one in the pub; there was no-one in the shops; there was no-one in the streets on the eastern side of the town. So we went over to the western side of the town where the atmosphere was similar, but as we came around the state school and down a hill, up loomed the CWA hall with 50 or 60 cars around it. Here was our big chance. We could engage with the whole town in one hit. Margaret felt that the locals might be getting ready for a wedding or a dance that night, so bold as brass and full of confidence, I bounced in and said to women who were running feverishly hither and yon, 'Well, girls, what's on here today?' Do you know where I was? I, a lone male, had just gatecrashed a country pap-smear clinic. Margaret says I never learn, but let it be said that Paul Neville went literally everywhere for a vote.
I have been blessed with a loving and supportive family. My twin sons Peter and Paul, were with me on my first speech—and Paul is here in the gallery today with his wife Cait and three of my six grandchildren, Georgie, Angus and Hugh. I know my other children, Gavin, Gaye, Peter and Sally, who is in China, are with me in spirit. I also acknowledge my landlord Mac Howell who, with his wife Marilyn, made my last 13 years in Canberra a happy, relaxed and welcoming experience overlaid by generous hospitality and far too much red wine. With me too is long-term friend and political warrior Michael Evans, who is the architect of so many of the stunning Joh campaigns. Here for this—and for other serious state-federal horticultural matters later today—is one of my three immediate state colleagues, Steve Bennett, the member for Burnett, and in the gallery is my friend of 40 years, Everald Compton.
Coming to this place owes everything to a band of friends and campaign workers but pre-eminent amongst them was Rod Wilson of Calliope who was my campaign director for seven—note, seven—campaigns. He had a superb nose for local political sentiment, a rare and authoritative organising ability, a sense of advertising effectiveness and his own system of statistical analysis, to say nothing of his ability to fundraise. I will forever be in his debt.
Our organisational 'light on the hill', to use a Labor analogy, has always been Dick Bitcon, who has given 50 years to the National Party in Queensland and Victoria. I rate him as a close friend and a confidant over many years. In the 14 years that I represented Gladstone, I had a marvellous team of Graham Wilson, Greg McCann, Graham Fenton, Tony Goodwin, Ken O'Dowd, who is now the member for Flynn, and deputy campaign director Don Holt, whom I can say with great confidence can mount a corflute sign anywhere—even the top of a 50 foot tree or places where he should not put them.
In Childers, Fred Henke, the ever-reliable Alf Bonanno and my current FDC Chair, Bill Trevor, who has the rare art of being able to take the community pulse, have all served me well. In Hervey Bay, Steve Dixon, Norma Hannant, Brendon Falk and Len Fehlhaber have also served me well. I reserve a special place for Lin and Jan Powell. When an unexpected redistribution gave me Hervey Bay six years ago, Lin, a former MLA, Speaker and Queensland education minister, literally came out of retirement, assumed the role of deputy campaign director for Hervey Bay and eased me into Hervey Bay. This reciprocated the role I played for him two decades earlier in the eighties.
I have also valued the corporate and business advice from Bill Moorheadin Bundaberg, Glenn Winney and Graham Cockerill in Hervey Bay and Graham McVean in Gladstone. Graham, Kevin Campbell from Perth and I spend every Easter on Witt Island in Gladstone Harbour, where I refocus and renew myself for the coming year, albeit with copious quantities of mud crab and a certain red cordial.
Cooperative state colleagues are a vital ingredient of this job. Over the years, I have worked with Doug Slack, Jeff Seeney, Liz Cunningham, Anne Maddern, Chris Foley, Ted Sorensen, Jack Dempsey and Steve Bennett, who, as I have said, is in the gallery today. Two of these were conservative independents and the others National LNP. There were good Labor friends as well: Trevor Strong, Nita Cunningham, Andrew McNamara, and the former member for Hinkler, Brian Courtice, once my nemesis but now a friend and, would you believe, a supporter.
One could not have had a better leader, mentor, close friend and electoral neighbour than Warren Truss, whom I have known for some 40 years. In all that time, across a wide range of roles, I have never known a person more across his brief than Warren nor a hostess as charming and welcoming as Lyn.
That brings me to the team, or should I say my other family with whom I sit in this place, the Nationals. It is 56 years since, as a 17-year-old, I joined the predecessor organisation of the Country Party. Earlier, at 12 years of age and pre TV, I would sit up on election nights with a pad and pencil, writing down the figures as they came over the radio, trying to assess who would win what seat. I got very good at it and thought I would not mind doing that some time. From the YCP I went on to be its state president and to contest Wide Bay in 1969, then to win the endorsement for Hinkler in 1992. That brought me to this place and the fulfilment of my long-held dreams.
I will miss this family, its trust and its camaraderie. We Nationals are a diverse lot with a common love of rural and provincial Australia. I hope I have played my part to make this a better place to live and to achieve the Australian dream. I have been fortunate to campaign with giants like McEwen, Anthony, Sinclair and Nixon in 1969 and to serve under the leadership of Tim Fischer, John Anderson, Mark Vaile and Warren Truss, all men of high integrity and purpose.
It would be fair to say that the high point of my career was the 11½ years of the Howard government. It was exhilarating and one had a sense that as the debt was paid off the country was moving to a new beginning to be led by John Howard, Peter Costello and the previously mentioned Nationals leaders. I think history will treat that 11½ years very well. It will show that the focus on policy and positioning Australia for the long term, bolstered by Howard's strong commitment, not only gave the country a cohesive feel about it but also brought the Liberal and National Parties closer together.
Within this framework I developed a taste for communications, broadcasting, transport and health. I served on various iterations of the transport and infrastructure committee where my mentor was Peter Morris, the then ALP member for Shortland. Pre politics he had helped me and the Hinkler House Committee in Bundaberg develop aspects of Hinkler's house, its history and the botanical precinct including the building of a full-size replica of Bert Hinkler's amphibian, the Ibis. Later, as chair of that committee, I led several inquiries resulting in Planning not Patching, Tracking Australia, Beyond the Midnight Oil and The Great Freight Task. These were challenging reports and they took us to highways, roads, ports and airports across Australia from cities to the most remote locations.
I remember one day very well during the Beyond the Midnight Oilinquiry. We were having a public hearing here in Canberra and we had the RAAF before us explaining how they handled fatigue and the treatment of airmen. I asked one officer to explain the sleep apnoea machine. He described the facial mask, tubing akin to a vacuum cleaner pipe and a blowing machine, all of which delivered a constant stream of filtered air to the apnoea subject's face. And I said, 'How many hours a night do they wear this device?' 'Oh', he said, 'All night.' At which point a member of the committee, Colin Hollis, in one of his fractious moods that day, chipped in, 'I bet it does wonders for their sex life.' That was deleted from Hansard.
Honourable members interjecting—
Not surprisingly, but it is back in. It is obvious we can construct roads and highways better in Australia and some of the newer Western Australian roads are testament to that. We waste a fortune on merely patching, overlaying asphalt over poor asphalt. Rail is also sorely neglected. Suburban rail in most states is not keeping up with the urban sprawl. Worse still, we have talked for nearly two decades about an inland rail from Melbourne to Brisbane. We have spent at least $30 million on studies and reports to no avail. It could be done for $1½ billion—$300 or $400 million over four years—or even less as a PPP with the government carrying out corridor and native title facilitation. Let me put it another way: if we spent about an eighth of what we spent on school halls and pink batts—and that is not said with any vindictive spirit—just an eighth of what we spend on those, this project would now be half complete: our freight would be moving faster and cheaper, our roads would be safer, road maintenance would be less and a corridor would exist through the most productive part of Australian. This is the type of vision that Australians crave, not the spin that suggests that we will have a super east coast railway in 2050. But if it does happen, my kids have promised me a trip for my 110th birthday present—literally, it would be my 110th birthday. We have to get better than that, colleagues.
Most of you know I have loved media and communications. I have taken some pride in sandbagging the two-out-of-three rule in media ownership. We do not need corporate or regional barons controlling all three forms of media, and the days of that happening in Launceston should still be vivid in our minds. We should also see radio broadcasting licences as a privilege and responsibility. I am appalled by excessive networking of regional radio and I am pleased there is an obligation to present locally devised and presented local programs and news. That is the very least country people deserve.
I have been singularly blessed with a marvellous staff who have been in all respects a third family. In 20 years. I cannot remember a serious fight or disagreement in my office. I have a happy workplace supported by a voracious appetite for constituent work and the pursuit of electorate infrastructure projects. Though never solicited, it is not uncommon to find flowers or boxes of chocolates on the front counter from some constituent who never expected to see his or her seemingly insurmountable problem solved. This sense of family, and satisfaction of work, has led to a very low turnover of staff. My chief of staff, who is in the gallery today, Heather, has been with me for 20 years; Lesley Smith, my former whip's clerk, 16 years; Leanne Ruge, now with Senator Bridget McKenzie, 12 years; Janelle Geddes, with a great sense of legal writing, an invaluable resource, six years; Darlene Dobson, with wide experience in printing, four years. All of them have made coming to work a pleasure not a chore.
I have been singularly blessed with exceptionally talented media advisers: Brendan Eagan, Scott Whitby, Tim Langmead, Kate Barwick and presently Cathy Heidrich. Brendan, Scott, Tim and Kate all went on to work in the offices of deputy prime ministers or premiers. Two of them have successfully moved to the corporate world. I was fortunate to be surrounded by so much loyal and accomplished talent.
This parliament is well served by its officers and staff. I have the utmost respect for Bernard Wright, David Elber, Robert McClelland, my entitlements manager Debbie whose patience I try, the serjeants, Hansard, library, security staff, dining staff, especially Kate in earlier days and Tim at present, to say nothing of Greg and the transport office staff and Comcar. They weave the strands of a cohesive web that wraps itself around this place and makes it function so beautifully. One person who is often forgotten is Peter Rose, our Chaplain, who quietly and unobtrusively goes about the role of counselling, comforting and leading. He assists in the national prayer breakfast and ceremonies for the opening of parliament and the start of each parliamentary year. Some of us in the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship gain strength from Peter's Tuesday morning prayers in the meditation room.
I am an unapologetic admirer of Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, a saint and a patron of politicians. More, as portrayed by Robert Bolt, said: 'When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.' Colleagues, how true is that today? We have seen it, as politicians, in the collapses through the GFC, in the horrors in the Balkans and in the aftermath of the Arab spring. We have seen the truth of these words in our own state and federal politics, especially over the last decade. I will not spell it out; you all know it. Little wonder so many say that they do not trust politicians.
As I leave this parliament I pray that in subsequent governments we will see a return to civility in this place. Surely it is not beyond our capacity to make question time what it should be: quite simply, an eliciting of information rather than a forum for meaningless spin and invective. Like it or not, it is the vehicle by which the public judge us, because it is the forum of the parliament they get to see most often. Surely we can do as good a job as New Zealand, Canada, the UK and France. Despite the expectations of the new paradigms, it has been getting progressively worse from parliament to parliament.
And so I look back over this 20 years feeling the exhilaration of success, the stings of failure, the warmth of colleagues on both sides and the common humanity of the people I have been privileged to serve. But I know it is now time to move on. Being, as I am, of National Party roots, I seek the comfort of a country setting. Like the observer in Thomas Gray's beautiful elegy, I symbolically look out through the fading sunset to the cattle returning home and the end of a day's work. As Thomas Gray put it:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Thank you. God bless. Remember me in your prayers.
I also congratulate the member for Hinkler for the valedictory speech. I also commend him on the wonderful work he has done in this place and on committees, and his great advocacy for the people of rural and regional Australia. I also advise the member for Hinkler that, whilst there are no Hansard reporters in the chamber these days, it is all done on voice recognition from below this chamber so it will be interesting to see how the two wonderful jokes that we heard—giving a real sense of the member's humour—are recorded and whether there was an inaudible point in some of those jokes.
I say farewell to this House after being a member for over 23 years. That period of time effectively represents a generation. In 1990 I was only the 845th to be elected to this parliament, this House of Representatives, in 89 years. I believe that number is just over 1,000 now. We are a pretty exclusive lot of people honoured to be in this place. It is with some sadness of course I retire. But I am doing so of my own accord and in my own time because I believe in change and renewal. I have been honoured to serve the electorate of Fairfax with its constant and vast boundary changes for those 23 years. I recognise that it is time for fresh blood and time for new ideas.
When I entered parliament in 1990, things were different. There were no such things as Facebook and Twitter. MPs did not have faxes. Of course there were mobile phones then—it was just that you could not fit them in your briefcase, let alone your pocket. Travelling parliamentarians could always be seen looking for a phone box to stay in touch. Interestingly, I am the longest-serving Liberal from the great state of Queensland, which is why I have chosen to wear this tie. I was going to wear a maroon tie but I could not find it in this morning. Trust me, there is no subliminal message in my choice of tie!
I also consider myself Australia's most accidental parliamentarian, in that I was preselected by the Liberal Party without contest for the seat of Fairfax. I was considered more of a sacrificial lamb then a legitimate threat. In fact, the banner headline in the local newspaper the day after I won the election—and it was a National Party seat; sorry about that, boys—was: 'John Stone loses election'. When I was preselected, the Liberal Party only had 22 members on the whole of the Sunshine Coast. The National Party, on the other hand, had 23 branches to help John Stone win the election. That is why I say I was an accidental member. Politics is never predictable. I retire not only never having lost an election, but not having faced preselection either—not unique I am sure, but I believe it certainly is rare. It is not bad as a seemingly accidental career for a former refugee kid.
I can assure you that my retirement is on purpose and with a purpose. The purpose is to spend more time with my wife, Jenny, who is up in the gallery, and with my family—daughters Michelle and Victoria and son Mark, who, with their respective spouses, John, Ross and Deanne, have blessed me with five beautiful grandchildren.
Jenny and I met in Canberra more than 40 years ago. We were married at St Christopher's in Manuka in 1970. Her support, love and devotion have sustained me through the turbulence of my professional life. Our backgrounds could not have been much more different. She was a country girl from the Darling Downs in Queensland where her family had lived for generations. I arrived in Australia as part of a refugee family, escaping from a then communist country. After I became a minister in the Howard government, my late father-in-law who was a bit iffy about new Australians, made a major concession. He said to Jenny when I was sworn in by the Governor-General, 'This bloke might turn out all right after all.'
Those here today who have children know that it can be tough on our kids. My children have always been unwavering in their support and fiercely defensive particularly when there may have been episodes with negative publicity, which hurts us all and is inevitable in politics. All of my three children are now adults with families and successful careers of their own and I am so very, very proud of them. The wonderful thing about kids, though, is that they can keep you grounded. Mine certainly did. In the best of times, they are a great antidote to any head-swelling, and at the worst of times your children show you just what the best things in life really are.
When my parents brought my brother and me to Australia in July 1949, they had fled Hungary with nothing. My father was fleeing torture and incarceration, but I am sure that they were also looking for better opportunities for their children. They escaped from a communist regime in Hungary to a UN refugee camp in Naples where they waited for transport to a new life in Australia.
I can still remember as a three-year-old arriving in Sydney aboard the USS General Harry Taylor, a US troop ship, and sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. After docking in Sydney we were taken to a migrant camp in Bathurst. Some might consider these fairly inauspicious beginnings, but I am very proud to be the first person who came to this country as a refugee to be elected to this parliament.
All of his working life, my father worked two jobs in order to provide for and educate his family so they could grasp the vast opportunities Australia had to offer. He did not own a car—he could not afford one. He rode a pushbike or caught public transport everywhere. My father was taken too soon but he lived long enough to see my election to this House.
My mother was able to share more of my parliamentary experiences. She came down to listen to my maiden speech, and that day the tactics committee were kind enough to give me a question at question time, because she was in the gallery. Of course when I asked my question of Prime Minister Bob Hawke and he responded, there was raucous behaviour in the chamber as we see from time to time.
My mother was horrified at the lack of respect in the House and, when I went out to Mum after question time, I asked, 'Mum, what did you think of that?' She said, 'If I ever see you being disrespectful to the Prime Minister of this country again, I will disown you.' She was adamant that I must always show respect to this chamber and for all those within it, regardless of their politics.
To this day, I honour my late mother—this will not win me many brownie points, but I have never moved a point of order, although I have four days left. I have never been brought to order by the Speaker and I have never been asked to leave the chamber. I have never been warned. If we, as members, do not demonstrate our respect for this House, its office bearers and rules, how can we expect others to do so? I fear that my mother must look down and wonder about the further decline in the standards of parliamentary behaviour over the years; however, her code of etiquette has served me well and I recommend it: good manners and respect are never unfashionable.
After graduating from the ANU in Canberra, I sampled government and political life from the other side as a public servant and, eventually, as chief of staff to Evan Adermann, who was the only National Party minister within the Fraser government.
I will be like Paul Neville and tell a little story. I had a reputation of being somewhat of a raconteur and most ministers, when they were about to make a speech somewhere that had a theme, used to say to me, 'Hey, have you got a yarn that tells a story about this?' Doug Anthony sent me a note saying, 'I'm making a speech in Alice Springs and the theme is things are not always what they appear to be. Can you give me a joke or a story?' I wrote to him and I told him the story about the blind man at the pedestrian crossing with his seeing-eye dog. The seeing-eye dog leads the man across the street against the red light. Cars toot their horns and run up onto the footpath, and he calmly walks across the other side of the street, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dog biscuit. He is about to give it to the dog when someone in a car yells out, 'Hey, mate! You're not going to reward that dog after what he just did, are you?' The man replies, 'No, I'm trying to find his head so I can kick him in the backside.' That went over very well in Alice Springs where Doug was, but he flew from there to Thailand and tried tell the same joke through an interpreter in Thailand and it wasn't funny.
Those were the days when the party room was sacrosanct. Anyone who worked in the old House will know that staff did not go into the party room. Walking into the party room after my election in 1990, I really felt that I had made it. I sat down next to Michael Baume, a senator from New South Wales and said, 'Michael, who's taking minutes?' He said, 'Mate, we don't take minutes in here; we get it out of The Herald tomorrow.' I then took my place in the back row, partly because of my recognition of my fledgling status but mostly from the advice in politics: never let anyone sit behind you.
While I stand here as a veteran—and I hope as a Liberal elder of some sort—in my first term, I was simply another young member on a steep learning curve, and maybe the difference was that I knew it. I was appointed secretary to shadow cabinet in my first term and then was deeply involved in policy development. This appointment provided a valuable foundation for the rest of my parliamentary life both in parliament and in Fairfax.
The bookends of my political career are such that I came to the parliament as a member of the then opposition and now leave it as a member of the opposition team. The years in between have been defined by many triumphs, particularly during the Howard era, as Paul Neville mentioned, from the years 1996 to 2007.
The pinnacle of my career was my appointment in 1997 as Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government. In a ministerial capacity, you are able to influence and introduce policies and strategies that ultimately drive outcomes.
Regional issues were at the heart of my own electorate, and I made it my task to make them a mindset for all of government. There was one instance with Peter Costello as Treasurer when I had to argue with him on behalf of regional Australia. I said to him, 'Peter, it's different for you living in the city: you can run around your electorate three times before breakfast. It takes me eight hours to drive across mine and back.' He said, 'Hmm. I used to have a car like that once.'
The Regional Solutions Program, which evolved to become Regional Partnerships, was crafted during my ministerial watch. This initiative was an economic lifeline for regional communities throughout Australia and provided valuable funding for its infrastructure beyond our capital cities. This was at a time when regional communities were being abandoned by banks and other services, and Rural Transaction Centres were being established.
It was an honour and a privilege to be appointed a minister, and I am eternally thankful for the opportunity to serve in that capacity. In one way, I got to play for Australia—anyone who is a minister in this House is really playing for Australia.
In the last term of the Howard government, I was fortunate to be able to bring my background in health financing to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing. The passion, professionalism and dedication of members of that bipartisan committee formed for that inquiry is a memory that has not faded, and I congratulate them all. The document produced from that inquiry, The blame game, remains a model for health funding today. It was tabled on a game-changing day—the day that Kevin Rudd became Leader of the Opposition. The blueprint not only survived a change in government but it lives on, and I am pleased that the recommendations continue to be actioned.
The health and ageing committee was also to be the genesis of an investigation into the health benefits of breastfeeding. Behind the often melodramatic scenes of federal politics that we see played out in the media, the reality is that a lot of exceptional work does happen at a parliamentary committee level. It can sometimes go unnoticed in the mainstream, but its impacts are far reaching. The inquiry into the benefits of breastfeeding is a strong case in point. Yet again, the subsequent report, Best start, has been a trigger for initiatives that have been introduced Australia wide as the National Breastfeeding Strategy. As chair and a strong advocate of that inquiry into the health benefits of breastfeeding, a misogynist I am not.
After 11 years in government under John Howard came the stark reality of being in opposition. As Chief Opposition Whip for three years, I embarked on another learning curve. I learnt that the job also entailed being counsellor, confidant, organiser, shop steward and, most of all, a friend. I served under three leaders. I served under Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Roger Price, the government whip, and I were the respective shop stewards for our parties. Together we negotiated many conditions for the parliament, including, among other things—and I know this will please some people—payment for shadow ministers. I have also been a trustee of the Parliamentary Superannuation Trust for six years.
When I was first elected I promised myself that I would never do the things people hate about politics. People hate deceit and untrustworthiness in their politicians—perceived or real. My word is my bond and I can honestly say that, in my 23 years in parliament, I have never betrayed a confidence—yet. These values were integral to my work as Chief Opposition Whip. I take this opportunity to thank the special staff who worked with me during that time: Nathan Winn, who is in the gallery today and who has come all the way from Darwin to help me celebrate this day; Robert Hardie; Suzanne Newbury; and Denise Picker.
My parliamentary career has been punctuated by my own health challenges. Whether all my professional aspirations may have been realised had I not endured a stroke in 1993 followed by two lots of heart bypass surgeries, seven angioplasties, a pacemaker, diabetes and cancer in subsequent years—they call me lucky—I will never know. But they say what does not kill you makes stronger. Despite the illnesses, as debilitating as they were, I always continued on with my work here in parliament and in my electorate. Sometimes I just had to do things a little differently. I had to learn to speak again after my stroke. For some time my speech was slow and difficult, but that taught me some valuable lessons about life. It taught me not to take everyday things like the ability to walk or speak for granted; it taught me to be more understanding and compassionate for those with a disability; and it forced me to listen more than I talked.
The people of Fairfax have been extraordinary in their support. Whilst some of the faces and communities have changed over the years with the constant boundary changes, I have been blessed with an electorate that has returned me to office time and time again with increasing margins. I have seen many thousands of constituents during my time as a member, and I have found that the small differences that you can make to people's lives inevitably have the greatest impact on you. I am reminded of Albert Einstein's quote: 'Strive not for success, but rather to be of value.' I like to think that I have been of value to many in my electorate who sought my help over the years. To the people of Fairfax: thank you for standing by me and believing in me regardless of political persuasion.
How do you condense 24 years of signature activities in an electorate into a few words? I will try to remember some of the achievements. The Sunshine Coast University would not have happened if it were not for my intervention. Simon Crean, the member for Hotham, actually gave the initial approval for the Sunshine Coast University to be built in his term as education and training minister. I was responsible for referring the Traveston Dam to the Commonwealth under the EPBC Act, which resulted in that dam not going ahead and not being built, and for funding for the Nambour, Yandina and Cooroy bypasses. There have been many others, and I am proud of this legacy.
Fairfax is a place that deserves respect and attention, but not as a platform for political stunts. It is not a plaything for billionaires—and we have got one up there that is well known—and I am sure that the people of the electorate will discern the difference between the genuine and the opportunistic.
Longevity in politics is not possible without the great support of many people. You are not elected to parliament on your own. I acknowledge the enduring support and genuine friendships of the party, the branches, the campaign teams and the volunteers. Thank you so very much. Similarly, longevity in the electorate workplace is impossible without loyal, committed and excellent staff. So often I have been complimented on the customer service and competency of my team. I will mention Roz and Lorraine, who are in the gallery, Gillian, Cynthia and Kathy. Lorraine has been with me on and off for 20 years. Gillian has been with me for six years. I can tell the House that she is a cousin of Wayne Swan. She went to Nambour High School, as did Wayne. So that brings about some interesting conversations.
Canberra was once home to me, and there are people who have worked in this House that I have known for 40 years. I will not go through them, in case I miss somebody. I will mention the parliamentary staff; Tim, in the Members Dining Room, who has been excellent in looking after our guests that we take up there; and the long-suffering Comcar drivers and the transport office. Most of all, I want to mention one Comcar driver: Anne Lymberry. Anne Lymberry has provided me with accommodation for the past 11 or 12 years, and it has been great to be able to go home to a family atmosphere.
To my colleagues in this esteemed environment: thank you for your friendship and wisdom. Wisdom is only acquired through time and experience. You cannot learn it from a book and it is not conferred with a university degree—though often it seems to arrive with grey hair. I believe it is a dangerous mistake for leaders to assume that all wisdom in this House lies on their front bench—it does not. Whether you are on the front bench or the back bench, each member has much to offer and, collectively, you have the knowledge, the talent and the wisdom to make extraordinary contributions to this nation and this parliament.
Yes, we need the energy and fresh ideas of younger generations, but we also need to balance that with the experience and wisdom of those who have served in the longer term. I will leave you today with my plea for all of you—like Paul Neville said—to act to restore the respect, trust and confidence of the Australian people in our parliament. I will also leave you with a quote that Jenny gave me from Dr Seuss: 'Don't cry because it is over, smile because it happened.' Thank you.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!