Thursday, 17 March 2016
Social Services Legislation Amendment (Interest Charge) Bill 2016; Second Reading
With the indulgence of the House, I will make my valedictory speech. I would like to thank all of the staff who have ever worked for me, ever kept me on time, ever kept me up to the mark and ever kept me being as good as I could ever be in this role. I thank the attendants, the clerks, the cleaners, the Comcar drivers and everyone else who works in this place to make this terrific institution as good as it can be.
I also thank a former senator, a fellow called Bob Collins, who gave me my first job in politics, in the early 1980s, in Darwin. That is where I met Warren Snowdon and began a lifelong combat with him which resulted in Warren winning on most occasions and one of the most enduring friendships of my life.
I thank Hansard. I thank the shadow ministers with whom I serve. I thank my party for both its support and its tolerance. I thank my voters for their incredible tolerance, and my supporters, both physical and emotional. In particular, I thank the financial supporters of my campaigns.
I thank those ministerial staff who have worked with me. I have always thought that you should select ministerial staff who complement your own views and do not reinforce them—staff who will challenge you and whose instinctive reactions are not your own. I have been blessed with those staff choices.
I thank the industries with whom I have worked—tourism, resources, small business, energy and the portfolio of northern Australia. They were all fantastic and wonderful opportunities given to me by Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard.
I want to thank the public servants with whom I have worked. Our Australian Public Service is a unique institution. There are 160,000—at least, there used to be; it is probably now 140,000—Australians working in the interests of our nation. They are working every hour of every day somewhere in the world to support our country and our people. I thank them for the work that they do, and I thank them for the work that they did to make me look as good as I could be.
I thank my personal staff—in particular, Helen Hansen. To be a staffer of a parliamentarian is a tough gig. Staffers must always be there, and Helen always has been—not simply in Rockingham but here in Canberra and wherever we needed her to be. Energy, loyalty, dedication and devotion are important in our staff, and I count myself as being very lucky that my electorate staff have been so stable and thoughtful, thanks to the work that Helen has put in to make my local operation work.
I thank Kim Beazley. Kim bequeathed me a seat that was held by Labor, and I feel privileged to be handing that seat on to Madeleine King, who will hold that seat in the next parliament and make a wonderful contribution. Madeleine will be joined by Tim Hammond. With Madeleine and Tim, we will renovate the face of Labor in Canberra. From Western Australia, a new generation is coming through to make their mark. I am so pleased to be a part of that generational change.
I have always thought that diversity in advice was important. As a parliamentarian, a party member and a party leader, I have always thought that being a mentor is important. I have always thought that being outcomes focused is important and that you come here to do your work as well as you possibly can. I apologise to those electors who thought that my job was to come here and do their work. I came here to do mine, and I am proud of that. I came here to work hard and to be as fair as I could be. I came here to be, wherever possible, as polite as I could be to those people with whom I worked.
I thank my mum, who, in July, will celebrate 50 years of being in Australia. My father died in 2009, but mum continues to live in Whyalla, and my twin sister continues to share that town with mum. My brother, David, is in Brisbane. I thank all of them for their support, care and consideration through my life and through my time in parliament. I was lucky to grow up in a family which was overwhelmingly political.
Peter Walsh made a terrific contribution to this place in the other chamber. Peter was frugal and fair and, in a double-dissolution election in July 1987, amidst declining outlays, increased the Labor primary vote and the Labor preferred vote. That achievement in a double-dissolution election in July 1987—on Gough Whitlam's birthday—is perhaps one of the finest achievements of that Labor government. I became a big fan of double-dissolution elections in July!
What can you say, when you are about to finish up in this place, to your wife, who has put up with everything? I can only say thank you. To my children—Riley, Darcy and Toby—who fell asleep when I made my first speech: you are my heroes.
I thank, in particular, every single member of the parliamentary Labor Party. I thank Bill Shorten, who will be the Prime Minister of this country and who will be a good Prime Minister. Our country is particularly blessed in that we have as leader of the Liberal Party a decent man and we have as leader of the Labor Party—the future Prime Minister—a person in whom we can believe and in whom I believe. I will also say this: friendships get stressed in politics, but real affection never gets broken. I thank you all, and that is that.
I join with my colleagues in saying that I strongly support the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Interest Charge) Bill 2016. In supporting that, it does remind me that over the last 15 or so years it has been an incredible thing to be, initially, the member for Parkes and now, over the last nine years, the member for Calare. Western New South Wales is an incredible place, and I think I have probably been the member for most of it over the various redistributions that have happened. When I think about it, I have no doubt that I am the only person at the state or federal level who has been the member for both Broken Hill and Lithgow, which is right on the mountains. They are over 1,000 kilometres apart, which is a long way in New South Wales. It is not very far in Western Australia, but it is a long way in New South Wales.
When I think about the differences over those years, what happens in that part of the world is quite phenomenal. The most remote town in New South Wales is Tibooburra. It is a place that maybe runs one sheep to every 20 or 25 acres. At the other end, in the central west you have got areas running over five sheep to an acre. That is such an incredible variation in climate, in temperature and certainly in rainfall. Processing in the far west at Milparinka was a roo works. Processing in the east in Blayney and in Bathurst is Nestle and Mars. That is the incredible variation that you see in what is obviously the oldest and, to me, the most precious part of this country.
My first three years as the member for Parkes were an absolute ball. That is when you get to know your people. It is when you get to know your LGAs, your local governments. It is when you get to know the heart and soul of it. After that, you do not quite have the same amount of time. I guess I am pretty much an expert at small towns. I grew up at Mount Hope, which, when I was young, had a pub, a store, post office and about four houses. Now it has just got a pub. The houses and the post office and the store seem to have gone.
What I did learn in the far west of New South Wales is that they are the toughest, the most resilient, the most adaptable people and they make their own fun. When you do not have much you have just got to make do with what you have got. In most of those small towns and those places, if you want to see people you go to the pub, and I am pretty good at that. My staff and I used to leave Dubbo and go away for a week, and we would come back a bit the worse for wear—headaches and all. But by God we knew our place, we knew our country and we knew our people.
The western region of New South Wales is a very special place. It is a tough place, and I will talk a little about the problems it has had in the last decade in a moment.
When we come here, we owe our first duty to our country. We all do. I do not care what your political persuasion is; you have to put your country first. After that, you have to put your people and your electorate—what they do is what really matters. It is the country that Lawson and Banjo talked about, wrote about and sang about. When I think about it, I have Broken Hill in the far west, which, I guess, is the most famous mining town in Australia. It was a very Labor place in those days, but they were so honest and so up-front. It was just fantastic. If you did something for them, if you were able to, they would thank you. They would thank you publicly. They would not vote for you, but they would thank you in public, on the air or on TV. They are just wonderful people.
Lithgow, at the other extreme, is kind of similar, but different. They were both mining towns: one was copper, zinc, lead and all those strange minerals, and the other, Lithgow, is a coalmine. Lithgow had the first iron ore smelter in Australia. It had the early coalmines, and they brought the coal to Lithgow. Not only that, Lithgow had Australia's first serious munitions factory. It is still there, with the most talented, special tradespeople you will ever see in your life. One town was isolated mentally and physically, and the other—maybe Lithgow is a little mentally isolated, but aren't we all? We all like where we are.
As I said, they are the toughest, most resilient, adaptable people, but what I really have not said is that they are also the most hospitable, wonderful people that you will ever come across. They were so good to me. I will die thinking that western New South Wales is the best place, whether it is the driest at Tibooburra or the wettest at Oberon. Talk about different—Tibooburra is probably the hottest place in New South Wales, and Oberon is almost a country town lichen, right up against the mountains. They are people who are into forestry—some of the best forestry in the country is at Oberon. Aside from the Snowy scheme, probably the highest dam in Australia is at Oberon. Let me tell you, it is also one of the coldest places in Australia. When it blows, you know it.
But they are doers. In all the part of Australia I am talking about, they are not paper shufflers. They are not looking to avoid this or that. They grow things. They mine things. They export things. We do things. That is why it is so special. It does not matter where you are; they are not whingeing about the fact that there are a few pigs nearby or the fact that all that smoke is going up; that is what life is and that is what we do. Whether it is Lithgow and Oberon in the east or Tibooburra and Broken Hill in the west, they are just the most tough, wonderful people you will ever come across.
Originally my electorate was Dubbo, Forbes, Parkes and everything west, so I never, ever dreamt that I would also, two redistributions later, be the member for where I was born—Bathurst. Bathurst is a very historical place. It is much older than Melbourne and much older than Brisbane. It is the third oldest city in Australia, after Sydney and Hobart. I guess Parramatta might have some claims, but we will not worry about that. It is where mining started. It is where gold was found. That is where Hargraves got paid for finding gold. They actually found it quite a long time before that, but they did want competition so they did not tell anyone. It is where agriculture got serious in Australia—and irrigation and the whole lot. That is where it started. Since European settlement, that is where Australia really got going, and in those days, without ag, you had nothing.
As I said, at that stage, when I became the member for Calare instead of Parkes, suddenly I had three cities instead of one—Lithgow, Bathurst and Orange—and I suddenly realised too that I had the best country in Australia. Some of you might argue about that, but I would not argue too hard. You have to remember that we were growing things before you guys even found your country. As I said, in the east of the electorate there is gold, and wine! I did my best to check it all out—you cannot skite about your country if you have not tried what it does, and I have tried most of them. In the last 25 years, Orange has gone from being unheard of to having some of the best wineries in the country, and now they are adding Mudgee to it, so it will be pretty hard to toss Calare in the future. As I said before, it is just amazing—the fat lambs, the mining—it is just a wonderful part of Australia and it has been an amazing privilege to look after it. And to be looked after by it, I might add.
The thing which strikes me most about my time in this place is the almost decade-long drought that we had. Whereas drought is no stranger to Tibooburra or even Condobolin and all the Western Division and even much further in, it is not often places like Orange and Molong cop a drought, but they copped that one. The 1982-83 drought is the worst drought I ever struck in my life, but it did not go on for the best part of a decade. There were no allocations on the Lachlan for seven years, and irrigation had never been affected like that before—not in my lifetime. I have to tell you I was proudest of our government, of our party and of our leaders in the way we dealt with that drought.
It started off, in an official sense, when John Anderson and I met John Howard in Cobar on the plane. We drove him out just south of Cobar to Frosty Singleton's place. Frosty has since passed on. He was not that wrapped with us, because he was a real rifle man and he was not keen about the 2006 deals on firearms, but he rose above that because he knew there were was a much bigger issue involved. He took us out to his place, and he actually took us to the wrong dam. He wanted to show us how the water was bad and the stock were bad, but he took us to the wrong one. I think I was driving, which worried the Federal Police a bit because they did not like the way I did it—they are nervous lot. Anyway, we went to this dam and Ando and I were in front. We walked up and damn me if there was very little water in this dam and a heap of mud. A few hundred sheep took off, but there was a lamb stuck in it. Without thinking, we both walked down. I lent over and grabbed this thing. Ando held onto me, and Howard came down, and that became quite a famous photo. Everyone thought we set it up—you do not know much about farmers and stock if you think you deliberately drop a lamb in the mud. But that was kind of when Howard accepted that this drought was here to stay and that it was a really bad one. The two of them made sure that, as the drought got worse, so the government got more generous. It was answering the call when we needed to. I think he came out to my electorate four times in the course of that drought.
The last time the two Johns came out was at Forbes, and that was when the irrigation was in it up to its neck and everything was very crook. I remember this day particularly well. A friend of mine I went to school with—from further out west; it does not matter where—and his wife had lost a son and they had lost a neighbour. I said to John, 'There are two people I really want you to talk to.' He said, 'What about?' I said, 'Look, they have lost a son and a neighbour and they want to talk to you about depression.' Drought does not cause depression but it certainly exacerbates it. I should say at this point in time that, if it is possible for any good to come out of bad, what came out of that decade of drought was that farmers and country people accepted that depression was an issue that had to be dealt with, and they started talking about it. That was the only good thing out of a very bad few years. Nowadays people will put their hand up a lot of the time and talk about it, whereas once that did not happen in the bush. No-one accepted that depression even happened.
That day John said, 'Where are they?' I introduced him to them and—I can still see him—he put an arm around each of them, walked away and talked to them for about a quarter of an hour about it. It was a pretty good thing for a PM to do. The issue was huge, but he accepted that at that point in time talking to those people was the biggest thing he was going to do that day. Out of that we got special funding for people with real issues—and not just farmers either—to help them deal with those issues. I have never forgotten that day and thinking that it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I thank John Howard for that and I thank both John Howard and John Anderson for their support through what was the worst period in the bush that I ever saw.
I do want to mention a few people. Firstly I thank Sue Sillovich and the Nats out at Broken Hill. When those guys started with the National Party branch at Broken Hill it was not the popular thing to do. It was serious country in those days, but those guys toughed it out to the point where we had both a state and a federal member. I do not care what people's political persuasion is, the further west you go the more fantastic people can sometimes be. Places like Condo and Dubbo were just fantastic. Pauline McAllister and all the Nats in Dubbo, who now look after Mark Coulton—and they will do that very well—are just wonderful people. I also have to thank Mark Olsen at Parkes and Yvonne Glasson from Forbes.
I was in agripolitics for a long time before I got into politics. Agripolitics taught me about western New South Wales, but politics taught me to be intimate with it. You learn about everything. You learn that it is no good saying someone is useless or asking, 'Why do they do it?' Saying that does not solve a problem. What you do learn in politics, which you do not really learn outside of it, is that problems are not insurmountable but they are there, and talking about them without trying to do anything about them is a total waste of time—whether it is getting a settlement with Aboriginal people or whatever it might be. Something that has been talked a lot about lately is domestic violence. Talking about those things does not prove much; we just have to do them.
I have met some incredible people. I inherited a woman called Evelyn Barber, who ran my Dubbo office. Mark inherited her from me and, as far as I know, she is still looking after him and probably will see him out. Both now and during my time as a minister some of the people who have been really fantastic are Ron Kelly, Joy Thomas and Anne Filmer. There are a lot of other people, and I am not going to try to name them all because there are too many. All those who are connected with this parliament look after us far better than we look after them. I thank Caroline MacSmith, Melissa Inwood and all the staff I have had over time. With the changes in electoral boundaries and one thing and another, I think I have had five different homes—and I suppose I still have a couple. It is a very strange life that we live and when you are on the front bench it is an absolutely crazy life, but it is for a purpose. Let's face it: this chamber is not about running Australia; it is about giving democracy a name and people having something to look at and being able to say, 'That's our member,' or, 'That's our minister.' The work goes on outside irrespective of what we do and say. All I can tell you about all of that is that you are defined by the people you represent and woe betide you the minute you forget that.
You find that there are so many incredible people, with the experiences they give you and the funny things you see. I remember being in the Tibooburra pub one night—just the once. I forget what year it was, but it was the night we won the third State of Origin game.
There are some awfully rude people around here! We actually won, but, in fact, we were quite frightened because we were so close to the Queensland border that there were far more of them in the pub than there were of us. It is called the 'two-storeys hotel' and it has a lean on it. It is totally illegal, but it has a lean on it—and we had a lean on us by the time we got out of there.
You do see some incredible things. There is a place called Glen Davis, north of Lithgow. You would not believe it. Back during the war, they started mining shale oil for fuel and they put this pipeline through the most inhospitable country you will ever see anywhere you go. They gave it away not that long after the war, but there are things that exist in our country that we never know till we actually come across them.
I have four daughters and three stepdaughters and a swag of grandchildren—I am not going to start naming all of them because I will forget one and then I really will be in trouble! When I was preselected for the seat of Parkes, the preselection was held in Dubbo. I was later accused of intimidation because all seven of the girls were there, their husbands were there and their kids were there. A lot of them had little kids then; they are big kids now. I was accused of intimidation for it, but I do thank them. Obviously they were good at intimidation, because I won the preselection. When you are in this place, it means that you are a very bad grandfather. I think the one thing none of us ever really admit to ourselves in the way that we should is that, when you are in public life, particularly in this place, whether you like it or not you put your family second. If they actually accept that, it is a pretty big thing for them to do. I must thank my ex-wife, Gai, who was really good. When I entered parliament, she supported me totally and I do still thank her for that very much.
There is so much you learn. There are so many friends you make. There are so many people you may never become friends with, but, by God, they teach you a lot. I thank the constituents of Parkes and Calare for teaching me so much and for giving me some incredible memories. I would be very upset if one of them ever said, 'He wouldn't see me because I was not a Nat,' or, 'He wouldn't take any notice of what I needed.' That would really upset me because I do not think I ever thought in my life, when somebody came into my office, 'What's your political persuasion?' I do not really care when somebody needs me.
I cannot see where Lisa is, but she was good enough during the cricket this year to marry me. She does not realise what she has taken on! I guess she should.
I guess what is so wonderful about it is that I got a lot of experience—political experience, that is—when I got her, because she had looked after two senators, one of whom is up there, for something like 13 years before she actually decided it was time to take me in hand. It has been wonderful—and it will be wonderful when I get out of here with her!
To get a little more serious, I will just quickly—and no, I am not going to keep you here much longer—say a few things. I have always considered that we owe our first responsibility to the country as a whole and, when it comes to security and those sorts of things, of course that is extremely true. When you talk about country and regional Australia, do not ever forget that we live and exist, most of us, because we trade things, whether it is iron ore, coal, agricultural products, forest products—whatever it is. That is what defines us: the fact that we are traders. Look on the bright side of that: it is bringing foreign money in, and that is what we need to do. And the more we can sell our things overseas, the less we can be dictated to by the Coles and Woolworths of the world. We may need them, but they need us, too. So, as far as I am concerned, trade is not just the heart and soul of what we do; it gives us independence.
I would like to say a couple of other things. I hope that those of you who are here for the next five, 10 or 20 years do not ever forget that, while China, Japan and the US are great, close to home we have Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, with an enormous number of people. We forget Indonesia at our peril. There is a lot of them. They are very close. And, as far as Australia is concerned, we need to be one heck of a lot closer to them.
Some people are quick to say that we are too close to America. I think events of the last decade have made them realise: you need to remember who your friends are. I think it will be to our peril if we ever forget how close we are to America and how much we have in common with them. We may choose our leaders a little differently, but that is what it is.
I just want to finish by saying this. I think that we are not here to tell people how to live their lives. We are here to help them live the life they want to live. We are not here to make people recipients of programs and of social services. We are here to help people help themselves.
First of all, I want to pay my regards to all of those members who have spoken before me and regaled the parliament and the public with their incredible journeys in this place, how they came here and what they have achieved, and obviously I wish them all well into the future. As Cobby just said, western New South Wales is rugged. Whenever you want a break, come to the Sunshine Coast, mate!
Folks, my journey started 21 years ago. And I have got to be honest with you: when I came to this place my greatest fear was that I would be an embarrassment. I figured everyone in this joint would be a Rhodes scholar and a brilliant orator, and I just wanted to make sure that I did not let the people of Longman down. That is a statement of fact.
When I stood for preselection there were nine candidates. You might notice that I have a couple of notes here because, as usual, I am really well prepared! The first speech I ever gave, I was very fortunate. For everyone, the most important speeches you give are your preselection speech—and you worry about every word—and your first speech in this place. I turned up there. There were nine candidates, as I said, in the memorial hall at Caboolture. It was pouring with rain. There was no speaker and no-one could hear anything, so that was a damned good thing, and I came on about eighth. I read my first page and I flicked to page 2—and it was about page 8. I became very calm and I just kept flicking and kept talking—and then I realised that I did not even have the other pages. The brilliance of that for me was that everyone thought I was this great orator who did not need notes, and it paid to my favour.
Many of us in this place will remember John Howard walking up to a lectern—if you had the pleasure of sitting near enough to him—and pulling this bit of paper out of his pocket. I have seen him pull it out. I hope I am not going to be in trouble here for holding up props, but he would hold up something with as much on it as on this piece of paper here and he would put it down and then he would speak for 40 minutes, and it would be the most coherent speech you have ever heard.
I am not going to be long tonight. I am sure you are all grateful for that, because you get to get out of here when I am finished. My staff are sitting back in the electorate office tonight and they have just messaged me to say, 'When the hell are you going to speak?' They do not normally listen to me. So, given that they are there, I first of all want to acknowledge Helen, who has been with me in both Longman and Fisher. She is just a powerhouse. This is a woman who gives so much. She has had many challenges in her personal life but she never brings them to work and she is always there as a loyal servant of to the people that I was proud enough to represent and to represent me. She is there with Annette, who also was with me previously. Again, she is just a wonderful woman. Family is everything to her. In more recent times, Leah and Sophie have been there.
Like so many people in life's journey, all of these people have had their own struggles. I think sometimes we forget that and we get so absorbed in what we do that sometimes it takes something to make us step back and reflect upon the people who are closest to us. So, to all of you sitting up there watching tonight: yes, thank you; I appreciate it, and I know you are hanging on every word.
I also have to tell you that it is really strange here tonight. If any of the public are listening—and there is no-one left in the gallery because I am speaking—they must really be confused. Everyone sat here respectfully for the last few hours listening—or at least pretending to listen—and commenting positively about the opposition. They must be saying, 'What is going wrong here?' And they would like to see a bit more of it. We all know that this place is one of combativeness, but let's all do our best to do a little more for each other in this joint and be a little less combative, because it does not do any of us justice. Here endeth the lesson.
As I said, there were nine candidates in my first preselection, and I was the interloper from the Sunshine Coast into Caboolture. I did not know anything about numbers—since then I have been accused of knowing a bit about numbers over the years—and I just thought, 'Be yourself and run.' I later found out that a fellow called Bob Tucker, who was the party president, had a little bit to say. He knew about numbers and he helped me. But along with that is a person I know who has helped Wyatt Roy: Beth Harris and her husband Peter. They showed faith in me at that time, and I thank them for putting me on this journey. It has been an incredible journey. It has been over 21 years, with a hiatus of six years in between. I think I am the only person who is sitting in this place right now who has not had a day in opposition. I knew when to leave and I knew when to come back.
An honourable member: A fair weather sailor!
A fair weather sailor! Walk in these shoes, old son. I know you are only kidding. I want to thank Bob Tucker. Another person who was in the House again this week and is known to many of you is Everald Compton. Everald Compton was asked by John Howard to help 12 members to get elected, because he was the world's first international fundraiser, and when I was first preselected there were 30 members of the electorate—Liberal Party members in those days—and there was no money in the bank. So when I was told this fellow called Everald Compton who raises hundreds of millions of dollars around the world was coming I thought, 'You beauty.'
I will never forget the meeting. He was sitting there and he said, 'Well, son,' and I said, 'Well, what do you do?' And he said, 'It's like this: you ask for it.' I said, 'Go on,' and he said, 'No, that's it,' and I was gobsmacked. But he was right. Have yourself a proposition—a proposition of 'Do you want to change the country?' in this case, because Keating was the Prime Minister. It was not 'What policy do you want?' It was 'Do you want to make a difference? Do you want to change the country?' 'Yes.' 'Well, it's going to cost you money. Are you willing to put it up.' And to my great surprise people did. I thank them for it and for showing faith in all of us.
I will quickly mention two other families who have been on this journey with me almost from the start. One is the McMahon family—Terry and Bev—just the most wonderful people, out of Brisbane. They are farmers now up in Wide Bay. They are the salt of the earth. To you and your families, I say: the love, respect and support you have given Sue and me over two decades will never be forgotten. There is also their very good mate Louis Bickle, known to many in this place. I went to his 70th birthday party and became paralytic. He owned the club, so I did not get kicked out! He is a wonderful man and a quintessential Australian, who now, at age 73, is looking for the world's new opportunities. In fact, he probably thinks there is no better time to be an Australian.
Who else? When I came up into Fisher, there were a bunch of old Liberals there. I do not mean old as in age; I mean old as in they were former Liberals. They used to come down occasionally and support me in Longman. They are the Gowers, the Stephens and the Smiths. I just want to put on the record my thanks to them for showing support for me in what was a very challenging time and sticking loyally to us.
I want to thank the party membership and the wider friendship group that everyone else has also reflected upon. I thank them for being on the journey with us through the highs and the lows, and this place has both. I did not get a chance to give a valedictory speech in 2007, and I knew I was gone. For those of you who are facing election in marginal seats—and a lot of people have reflected today on marginal seats—it is character building. In 1998, with Sue, I remember precisely where I was sitting on election night. We were in tears and saying, 'We could not have done any more,' and it is not enough. You are lost for words because you think that giving everything—and your kids give up an enormous amount, as you all know; you are not there for anything. Then the last booth came in—it was Maleny—and I went ahead by 0.1 of a per cent. I went, 'I'm in,' because I knew we would win the postal votes and the pre-polls. But it is those moments when you think that it was maybe something you did as a team—it is nothing that you do as an individual—that just pulled those few more people together and those votes that got you across the line. It allowed me to go on a journey which has enriched my life, and I hope, in some small way, we have helped to enrich a few others.
There are couple of other people to thank. Phil Barassi got married, as someone said, the other day. Teresa and I were there, and, thank God, he did get married! Good luck to his wife! No, no, they are a lovely couple. Phil said to me one day, 'You're a miserable bastard.' He was probably not the only one to say that, because I do not go out drinking and partying here, and I will tell you why—I have no disrespect for anyone else who does—but my wife was home with three young kids. I used to think 'If I go home and say, "What a great night I had last night out on the turps at Manuka," she is at home with that responsibility.' So I took the decision that it was really important that I was on that journey with her.
Phil said to me, 'You love touch footy, mate,' and we started playing touch. Not long after, Andy Turnbull turned up, and now you have the parliamentary sports group. Chris is sitting over there. We used to play touch footy together and with so many others. You build up friendships and learn things about people on a sporting field that you will never learn around in a bar or when they give speeches in this joint. That is on both sides. Thanks to everyone who has come down over the years—in particular, Joe Hockey and I. As long as Hockey was on the other side, I only had one rule: it was my ball, they were my cones, they were my rules and I refereed. You are not forgotten over there in the US, mate. We know well the contribution you have made.
I have a few things to say on policy, very briefly. The veterans have always been very important to me. Rick, Louis, Pattle and Ako at the Mooloolaba Surf Club are still doing a great job with our new vets, and I thank them for what they are doing. It is the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, and Harry and the boys will go back there. They have recently had a hearing where people have told some really hard home truths about that battle and some of the awards that were given. I will say no more about that. Suffice to say it has been a privilege to know these men and to count them as friends. I think all of us in this place who are touched by the military feel the same way.
When I travelled with John Howard to spend Anzac Day in Iraq was one of those memories of my life. I do not want to detain you, but I think you will appreciate this story. We were flying out of Baghdad in a C130, I had General Cosgrove on my left, and I was the only one with headphones in the back. O'Leary was sitting there—he did not like flying—and the PM was up the front. I want to tell you what I could hear. The pilot said, 'Welcome, Prime Minister,' and he said, 'Oh, yeah, good to be with you!' I do not know how Hansard is going to handle my impersonation or how John is going to handle that either, just quietly! I always used to like imitating you, John, but with the most dearest respect.
We had been flying for a short period of time—Cosgrove was looking out the porthole and I could not see—when the pilot went, 'Powerlines coming up front left. Train front right', and I was thinking, 'Aren't we in the air?' So I went to Cosgrove, who said, 'We are on the ground', and I went, 'How good is this?' Then the pilot went, 'Missile front left!'—there was a bit of a change in his voice. It is bizarre what you think. I put my feet up and went 'Well, bugger me. This is how it ends', because there is nothing you can do. It was not because I am a hero, trust me. Then I heard the SAS guys at each corner say, 'No missile front left. No missile back right', and I went, 'Ah, enough excitement for one day.' We ended up flying up high, and I went to the front and said to John, 'Well, how was that?' and he went, 'Manoeuvrable, isn't it? Manoeuvrable, isn't it! The man of steel. Seriously!
While I am on John Howard: thank you for the opportunities you gave me as a minister and the trust you placed in me. The respect that I have for you is immense—as is everyone else's here. But I was also privileged to serve with Peter Costello and Peter Reith as their junior ministers, and that was an incredible experience as well.
Indigenous affairs was a big part of my life, and it will be a big part of my life to the day I die. I came back to this place because my wife had unfinished business with Indigenous affairs. I have never told this story publicly, but she has been moved beyond belief and wanted to do more for children who had been hurt. Little over a week ago it was reported that a 10-year-old girl had committed suicide. If that girl had been white and been living in Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne, it would have been worldwide news. It hardly made the news here. It did not make our parliament. That is a reflection on all of us. I do not know what the answers are, but I do know that collectively we need to do more than care; we need to actually address it. These are tragedies in our backyard, and we collectively are responsible. That affected my wife greatly, and she wanted me to come back to continue what we tried to do earlier on. That was not to be. I never expected it to be. But I just commend her for her passion for her fellow Australians.
On that, I had the most memorable meeting with Professor Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu up at a Galarrwuy's joint on Ski Beach. We talked about things that mattered to people's lives but also the symbolism. We went back and spoke to John Howard and he announced that within 18 months a re-elected coalition government would address the issue of Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. Of course, we were not re-elected. But here we are eight years later and we are still talking about it. It will not fix the lives of children who have been hurt, but what it will do is fix a wrong that has been part of our Constitution from the start. We are far more enlightened today, so I just implore you all to do what you can to make sure that we fix that wrong and that we move forward as a nation of one people.
To my class of '96: Bob Baldwin; Bruce Billson; Teresa Gambaro; Andrew Southcott; Sharman Stone, who will be the only one after this term from the class of '96 to have completed 20 years—and who will continue on; Don Randall, our great friend, who he is still part of us here today—a great loss; and Joe Hockey. We were all here together at the start. As you know, two of them are, for different reasons, no longer with us. But to all of you: thank you. It was a great class, and it was a great privilege to be part of that journey.
To the people who helped and supported me to return here, particularly Glenn Ferguson, Tony Riddle and Tony Davies: I pay my greatest respect to all of you for what you do in the community on the Sunshine Coast and how you have supported me on the journey.
Finally to my wife, who went home on a plane this afternoon: I do not think she would have wanted to have been here. She wanted me back here to do a job. She was never about the pomp and ceremony. She was never comfortable here. She is at home, and I will soon be joining her. When I do we will be with our grandchildren. We are looking forward to the next phase of our life.
Thank you all for what you do for Australia. Make sure that you continue to make Australia a great nation. That is our first and last duty, and I hope that you embrace it with all your heart.
I thank all members for their contributions—and remarkably colourful contributions they were in the circumstances—on a bill that deals with a general interest charge on recipient debt in the social welfare system. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on me to briefly summarise at the finality of the second reading debate.
The bill introduces the legislative amendments required to apply an interest charge to former recipients of social welfare payments who have outstanding debts and who have failed to enter into or have not complied with an acceptable payment arrangement. The interest charge will apply to social security, family assistance, child care, paid parental leave and student assistance debts. The rate of the proposed interest charge of approximately nine per cent will be based on the 90-day bank-accepted bill rate of approximately two per cent plus an additional seven per cent as is routinely applied by the Australian Taxation Office. Under the Taxation Administration Act 1953 the bill will strengthen the integrity of Australia's welfare system.
At the end of June 2015, there were over one million debts with a value of $3.04 billion. Those debts have increased by almost 10 per cent in value since June 2014. The average value of the social welfare debt held by individuals is about $2,357. The average length of debt is over three years, making the repayment figure, based on the average Australian wage, about $60 per fortnight over 18 months if time-to-pay arrangements are entered into. The government does not consider this to be unreasonable. However, individuals are able to negotiate a lower repayment rate should their financial circumstances require it.
A debt to the Commonwealth occurs when a welfare recipient receives an overpayment of payments, to which they are not entitled. The government is taking steps to ensure that people pay back those welfare debts if they have received payments they are not entitled to. The number of debts, the size of debts and the duration of outstanding debts is a cause of some concern. One per cent of Australia's population have received money they are not entitled to and owe a debt to the other 99 per cent of Australians, a debt that in too many instances they are making no effort to repay.
There are $870 million worth of debts held by about 270,000 people who are in the welfare system who have received overpayments and then have left the welfare system. There have to be concerted efforts made to recoup that debt wherever reasonably possible. Importantly, current recipients of social welfare payments who also have a social security or family assistance debt have their welfare payments reduced until their debts are paid. The critical issue pertinent to this bill is that there is no similar arrangement in place to recover debts, naturally enough, once a person no longer requires social welfare or family assistance payments. In fact, not only is there no incentive for former recipients who are no longer dependent on the welfare system to repay their debts, some, unfortunately, actively avoid repayment.
The introduction of the interest charge will ensure that people who once received social welfare payments do not receive an unfair advantage by having received what is, in effect, an interest-free loan from the government. Debtors who are no longer eligible to receive financial support through social welfare payments are arguably more likely to have the financial capacity to make repayments than those in receipt of income support or family assistance. The interest charge will provide an incentive for responsible self-management of debts and encourage debtors to repay their debts in a timely manner where they have the financial capacity to do so. To ensure that all debtors are treated consistently and fairly, the interest charge will also apply to those receiving only childcare assistance and/or paid parental leave payments, and no other social welfare payment, with outstanding debts. These debtors are not subject to deductions from their payments and should be required to enter into an acceptable repayment arrangement to repay their debts, as with other debtors.
Debtors will receive a letter seeking repayment of the debt in full to avoid the application of the interest charge. Where the debtor cannot repay the debt in full, the letter will encourage the debtor to contact the Department of Human Services within 28 days to negotiate an acceptable repayment arrangement
If no arrangement is made within 28 days, the interest charged will then be applied to the full balance of the debt accruing on a daily basis until an acceptable debt repayment arrangement has been entered into. In cases of severe financial hardship, a thorough review of a debtor's capacity to repay will be considered. The debt might be waived or temporarily written off until the debtor's financial circumstances improve. Alternatively, a reduced rate of recovery might be applied. No interest charge would be applied for that period of time.
It is important to reiterate that only former recipients of social security and family assistance who have a debt to the Commonwealth—that is, they have received a payment to which they are not entitled—and who do not enter into or who are not honouring an acceptable repayment arrangement will have this interest charge applied. There is nothing fair about former recipients failing to repay or failing enter into a repayment plan for a debt to the Commonwealth resulting from them being in receipt of a payment to which they were not entitled. This bill simply levels the playing field to ensure that former welfare recipients with a debt to the Commonwealth are subject to the same requirement to repay the debt as expected of current welfare and family payment recipients and, indeed, any other Australian with a lawful civil debt.
The bill is expected to achieve savings in the fiscal balance of $24.4 million over four years from 1 July 2016, with underlying cash savings of $416.5 million. This bill provides long-needed incentives for people to repay their debt to the Commonwealth taxpayer so that we can ensure the sustainability of the welfare system and continue to provide assistance to those who need it the most. On that basis, I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.