Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Today's address-in-reply is my last opportunity to speak to the parliament and say a few words of thanks. When I was first elected in October 1998, Oxley was a very different place and I was a very different person. Just as the electorate of Oxley in the western corridor off Ipswich and Brisbane has grown and developed, so have I. For a start I had a full head of hair—well, almost—and there seemed to be more time to do things and interact with people; and the parliament seemed to be a much more generous place. Perhaps it wasn't, but there certainly was more camaraderie and a different kind of exchange than I experience today. But maybe it is just me. Whether it is social media or a quickening pace of life or just the characters and institutions changing over time, this place certainly does feel different.
It is incredible honour and privilege to be elected to serve our national parliament and represent my own community. Personally, I have always felt very lucky to represent the community which I grew up in and was shaped by. Having that honour to serve my country and my community for even one term would have been enough, but to have that distinction for six parliaments and almost 18 years means that I also feel very humbled. I feel humbled by the experience and thankful for it. When you are young migrant boy growing up in Inala, learning to speak English, you can only ever dream of bigger things and of making your parents proud that the decision they made to come to Australia was in fact the right one.
Hard work is never easy for anyone wanting to do something different. None of us get to this place, or anywhere else for that matter, without some hard work, some long hours, lots of support and a real dedication and passion for a cause and a belief. For me, that core belief was the Labor Party and what it represented, although that is not where I started. For me, working life began in the Royal Australian Air Force and then as an apprentice electrician and night school to finish year 12 before getting my electrical ticket, followed by a whirlwind ride to university to study business and find my real passion in politics and community.
It is interesting when you look back at the opportunities, the forks and the road and all the places you took a wrong turn, but, regardless of all of that, the road I took still led me right here, albeit a little sooner than I expected—helped along by the unlikely loss of Oxley for Labor in 1996. All of you, I am sure, remember the previous member for Oxley as she certainly was a riot and created the opportunity for a fresh candidate in Oxley. I do feel very proud that I had that chance to win back Oxley for Labor and for my community.
I want to say thank you to the Labor Party and all of its members—that very large and broad church made up of so many wonderful people and fascinating characters. At its core it has a belief in helping people, lifting people, giving people more opportunity and helping people help themselves. That is what I believe. It is simple but it is a great set of core values and one that can carry the Labor Party forward for another hundred years. I want to sincerely say thank you to my supporters and branch members in the seat of Oxley, who have been tireless campaigners, workers, sausage sizzlers, letterbox stuffers and, in the old days, folders and envelope lickers. How times have changed—all replaced by fast and very efficient machines, but it is certainly not as much fun. There have been many of you, and too many to possibly mention by name, who I thank for your hard work and your commitment to our community—well before I came along, during my term and I know well and truly after I leave.
I have many great memories filled with very large characters. They have made my life very exciting and challenging and at other times just plain torturous as hell. But all of it—the special people, the challenging processes, the endless meetings, the sometimes pointless debates and the ongoing campaigns—have made me who I am today. Again, I say thank you. Special mention and thanks must go to my fabulous staff. A very dedicated and wonderful group of individuals, they deserve recognition for their skills and talents. I am very lucky to count many of them as friends. I have been very lucky from my first days in the job to have great people who have supported me, understood the community and their needs and managed to keep me on track. They have come and gone and come back; many have gone on to greater things. I wish all of them very well for the future. Thanks to the current crew: Winston, Chris, Maxine, Naomi and Paula and, of course, Pam and Amy who have recently moved on to greater things. I want to thank the federal parliamentary caucus and all my friends. My dad was fond of saying that, if you can count your real friends on one hand, you are very lucky. In my case, I feel exceptionally lucky. We all have friends, especially in politics, but it is only through the passage of time and life's difficulties that you get to count them properly.
The caucus has been an experience. If we are meant to be a reflection of the broader community, then we are that on steroids, and it is a good thing. The caucus has changed incredibly in the past 18 years. We have changed in the way we do business and in the way we interact, but we have not changed in the way that we bring our passion to and always fight for a better deal in the parliament. I am proud to have been part of a group of people that believe so strongly in a set of core values. I want to especially thank Labor leader Bill Shorten for his respect for our caucus, and for his leadership over the past 2½ years. Back then, no-one would have given us a chance, yet here we are today, on election eve, and we are in the game. Bill, you have achieved something that many thought impossible: you herded the cats and got us to sing in tune.
My caucus colleagues can also breathe a sigh of relief, as I will not be writing any tell-all books or complaining about events of the past. I have nothing to complain about. Not everything went to plan and not everyone held up their end of the bargain, but that is life. We will make decisions based on our views of and our belief in what is right at the time, and I respect that. I can say that it has been interesting to be in a caucus that like to write books about policy, about ourselves and about different versions of history. I have collected all of them, and I even promise to read them—one day! I appreciate the time I have had here and all my incredible colleagues, even if there are one or two whose names, when mentioned, still cause a small reaction. I will leave the caucus with some great memories and some great friends. Thank you very much.
I have also had the great fortune of political and local support from communities in my region. They have become more like friends, and I feel very much part of their world in so many different ways. I am very lucky that the western corridor of Ipswich and Brisbane is not only my home but also home to many migrants wanting a better life for their families. It has never been easy for migrants to make a new life in a foreign country, but the electorate of Oxley continues to be a great place to forge a new beginning, just as it was for my family back in 1971, when we moved to the Wacol migrant camp—when we had those sorts of things—and then to our housing commission home in Inala. I say to my many communities and friends from New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Vietnam, India, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Laos, Thailand, China, Africa, Sri Lanka and many parts of Europe, just to name a few that have made Ipswich and Brisbane their new home: welcome.
There is a lot we can learn from each other as we adopt each other's culture and history. There is no greater evidence of that exchange than the many restaurants, events and celebrations we see in the western corridor. How poor Oxley would be without the Vietnamese Children's Festival or Moon Festival; Chinese New Year; Pacific Islander events; the Indian festival of lights, Diwali; or our own Christmas celebrations. I have always had the view that, when you come to Australia, you need to learn the language, learn the customs, obey the laws and become a little bit Aussie. My view is that, through that process of 'Australianisation', we must also keep our identity through links to the home country, retain our first language and maintain our culture. That is the Australia of today and the Australia I am proud to call home. I sincerely thank all my communities, who have taught me so much about their countries, their people and their culture.
I want to thank the many and varied RSL branches and subbranches for their work and support for our veterans and for the great work they do in commemorating Anzac Day and Vietnam Veterans Day, and in supporting commemorations for our allies. You have been a great source of community grounding and pride, and helped to bind our history with our present.
As I said earlier, Oxley has changed a lot. When I grew up in Inala, there was an enormous piece of land just behind our house. My dad used to say, 'One day that'll be a big suburb.' That endless piece of bush is now a suburb called Forest Lake and is home to more than 25,000 people. The even bigger bit of bushland now called Greater Springfield was state forestry land and a tip at the end of Logan Road. Today it is a thriving satellite city of more than 30,000 people. It is also my home. It has more than a dozen schools, dozens of restaurants, shops, a hospital, two state-of-the-art train stations, a water park to rival that of South Bank in Brisbane, a Greg Norman signature golf course—if that is what you like!—and a community that is thriving and, in time, will grow to more than 100,000 people.
In 1998, when I started campaigning for Oxley, the Ipswich Motorway was not much more than a bumpy goat track. At the time, I managed to secure an enormous commitment from Labor, $40 million, to get it started. Through successive leaders and governments, with support and opposition and alternative plans, we finally got our upgrade some 10 years later—and for a mere $1.8 billion!—delivered well under budget and on time. It was worth every dollar, and the money could not have been spent in a better place.
In my first speech, I talked about my electorate, the people and who we were. Back then, I said:
Government must lay the foundations for a caring society. It must support us in our endeavours to support each other.
Further, I said:
We are not battlers in Oxley. We are pensioners, we are returned service men and women, we are families with sick children, and we are sole parents struggling on low incomes. We are casual and part-time workers desperate to find full-time work … We are all this and … more.
Some things may have changed, but in Oxley, like other parts of the country, much has not.
In 2011 my electorate, along with 80 per cent of Queensland, saw one of its greatest natural disasters in the form of a flood even more catastrophic than the great flood of 1974, with all of its devastation of our lives and our economy. That flood in 2011 resulted in the complete loss of my electorate office, and I understand I am the only member ever to have lost their electorate office to a natural disaster. What a great privilege! That was a very small price to pay, though, compared to the losses experienced by so many families, who lost their homes, their businesses and their jobs. In all this tragedy, we also witnessed some of the most profound and generous displays of community and of support from individuals, businesses and government. Neighbours helped neighbours, friends helped each other, and strangers helped those in need. Ordinary people rose up to become extraordinary heroes. This defining event in my electorate, through the western corridor, brought out the best in people and demonstrated what we can do as a community when called upon to help each other in times of need.
Finally, of course, I want to thank my family. I thank my mum and dad, Suzanne and Andre, who are no longer with us, for their incredible support. Belonging to three countries in a lifetime is a big challenge, but they did it, and they ended up where they felt most at home and at peace. I want to give special thanks to Margy and our three wonderful children, Tim, Emily and Madeline. I could not have achieved the things I have done without your support and commitment, and I am truly thankful. Being a part-time dad is a feature of this job for which there are no excuses; suffice to say that we choose the path we walk and gladly volunteer ourselves for this life. Our three children have grown into beautiful and good young people with a great outlook on life and all it has to offer. It would also appear that none of them harbour any political aspirations, for which I am truly grateful Thank you and I am so proud of you.
In my life I have been called many things, not all nice. You might expect that with a name like Bernard Fernand Ripoll. But I call myself an Australian, French born of Algerian parents and with Spanish heritage—only in Australia! While a piece of paper may be the hard-copy evidence that stipulates a person's citizenship, and mine in 1974, of itself it can never confer the commitment felt inside one's head and heart. This is the commitment my family made to our new country, Australia, when we took up citizenship. But nor should that piece of paper ever take away your history, culture or sense of belonging to more than one place.
Finally, to our candidate in Oxley, Milton Dick: I wish you very well in the election on 2 July. I leave the electorate of Oxley in as good, if not, I believe, better condition than when I became its custodian for the Labor Party. I now you will do a fine job and that Oxley will continue to grow and help make all of its constituents better off for choosing it as the place they call home. Thank you.
Can I begin by saying that timetables have got a little disorderly today, but, nonetheless, I know that I am to be joined by one of my daughters and my granddaughter on the floor, which is a great privilege. My other daughter, when I was first sworn in in the Senate, in fact, was unable to attend because she was doing her German orals and on this occasion she cannot be with me because she is away on business. But, nonetheless, I have my daughter Angela and my granddaughter Amelia with me, and many friends and former employees as well as current employees, and I find it wonderful to have them around me on this occasion.
I set out on this journey when I was 17 years old. I decided that I wanted to be a member of parliament. The reason that I thought that this is what I wanted to be was that I had been studying history—studying history for the leaving certificate, as it was. Studying history taught me that individuals could make a difference, but that difference could be for good or for evil. Hitler was a strong, powerful leader for evil. Churchill was a strong, powerful leader for good. So I decided that I really wanted to have a say in what happened to my country. This is a country I love greatly, and the more I have served the greater I love it. I thought that, if I wanted to serve, what I needed to do was to be properly equipped. I thought that, if I wanted to make the laws of the land, it was probably a good idea if I understood them, so I decided to study law, which I did. I still hold a current practising certificate as a solicitor to this day.
I joined the Liberal Party because it was closest to the things in which I believed, including the principles of free enterprise, which are as immutable as the laws of gravity. They tell me that the business of government is to do those things which the private sector cannot or will not do and to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. That is the business of government. But it goes hand in hand with the philosophy of individualism, in which I also believe. That is distinct from the concept of the collective, which is the other alternate philosophy. The philosophy of individualism says that every individual Australian should have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential—not just the brightest in the land but also somebody most ordinary, somebody who has a disability or somebody who is disadvantaged. Very often, people who try to dismiss this philosophy say it is selfish—'It's all about me.' No, it is not, because it imposes an obligation on each and every one of us to reach out our hand to our neighbour to ensure that that neighbour gets that opportunity. Collectivism, on the other hand, is all about ruling for the collective, and the individual can be sacrificed to the collective wish. And so it was those beliefs that I joined the Liberal Party, because, as I said, it was closest to the things that I believed in.
I joined the Young Liberals initially. That is, I guess, where Philip Ruddock and I first met. I was in Killara Young Liberals and he was in Pennant Hills Young Liberals. But, interestingly enough, the branch to which I belonged had a set of subrules that said that only a bloke could be the president. So I was a vice-president, but I set out to change those things. At that time, the number of women in this federal parliament was virtually nil. I think it is interesting to realise that we did not elect one woman to this parliament until 1943, the year after I was born. When I was elected to the Senate in 1987, I became the first woman from any political party to be elected to the Senate for New South Wales. It took 86 years. But in the interim I worked my way up through the party ranks, through branch president, conference president, convention chairman and vice-president, and one of the dirtiest fights I think I ever had to be in was the fight to become president of the party.
It was the ordinary people in the party who saw that I should be elected to president of the party. I set up an office in Parramatta because I really believed that the people of the west of Sydney were aspirational people. They were people who believed that they could achieve and had a lot to contribute. I set up an office of the Liberal Party in Parramatta because I had seen the practice over years of sending out some nice young person from the north or somewhere to be a candidate out there, with nothing to connect to the wishes and the hopes and the aspirations; it had to come from within. Those people supported me very strongly and I did, indeed, become president of the party and kept my office there. When I stood for the Senate and was duly endorsed, I always said that I would open my office in Parramatta, and I did that. I was the first senator to move out of the CBD, because I believed that is where we needed to be, with the people. I regarded the great area of western Sydney as my electorate—all one million people of them—because Liberals were very scarce on the ground. I still have an enormous affection for the people of western Sydney and I am so delighted to see, these days, that we have a member for Lindsay and other members in the west of Sydney. I opened Jackie Kelly's first campaign at St Marys Band Club, and I knew we were making progress because we had two Liberals on the board of the St Marys Band Club.
It was a long journey, but it was a most rewarding journey. I remember, when I finally moved to the House of Representatives and became the member for Mackellar, Laurie Oakes saying, 'One of the hardest things you will have to do is stop being an Eels supporter and become a Manly supporter.' And he was right! But one of the things that I did manage to do was bring them together to have lunch. These days I am a very strong supporter of the Sea Eagles, but I still have very fond memories of Peter Sterling—with hair—and I still listen to my good friend Denis Fitzgerald, who was on the radio this morning talking about the problem of Parramatta losing so many points.
Nonetheless, when I was serving in the Senate we did change things with regard to the way things worked, particularly estimates committees. I remember being told that I had to go onto an estimates committee, and I said, 'What on earth is that?' I went along, and we sat there, and people asked questions—it did not matter what the answers were; they kept asking the questions—and then we wrote a report that said: we came, we sat, we went. It seemed to me that we should do a little more. So I went to see Harry Evans and said, 'Harry, what can we do to make this more enlivened and relevant?' and he said, 'Well, first of all you can write a reservation.' He said, 'You have the opportunity of getting a snapshot across every aspect of government once a year, and then at supplementary estimates; use it.' So we did.
One of the things I remember most was the Midford Paramount case. I first picked up that something was wrong when I read a report in the paper that said that customs officers had been in Malaysia looking at a factory belonging to Australians. I followed it through and found that this firm, Midford Paramount, which made every kid's pyjamas, school shirts and uniforms, had had $1.8 million worth of products seized because of some allegation that it has not paid I think it was $83,000 of duty. It went on: they were prosecuted; four hundred people lost their jobs; the family and their customs agent were persecuted—and this seemed wrong to me.
We pursued it through estimates, and then I thought: this really needs to go to the joint standing committee of public accounts, where I also sat. But I had to get the agreement of the Senate to refer it—there was no way the government was going to refer it—so I had to do a deal with the Democrats and convince them. On the morning it was due to go to the Senate to be referred I saw some weak-kneed wobbling going on. I went in and saw a particular senator and said, 'Change anything you like in the wording of the motion—just vote for it.' We went in and we did vote for it, and the public accounts committee inquiry went ahead. That then gave me the opportunity to ask and cross-reference questions in the estimates and public accounts committees. It became the first electronically recorded evidence that was taken. At that stage we had been wheeling it around in truckloads because there was so much of it. The upshot of that case, which took four years—two parliaments—was that that family was awarded $25 million in compensation. It was a benchmark case, and it really did show that this parliament can really deliver for individuals.
Again and again in my office people would come to me, as they come to all of you, with a desperate case. You and I can pick up the telephone because we know where we can get an answer to the problem that they cannot. That is such an important aspect of all the work that we do—that understanding, that sort of knowledge and the contacts that I made through those estimates committees and the public servants who would come and give testimony. I heard that the tax office made a video to train people—I am not sure that it is not still around—on how to give evidence before an estimates committee. It spread. I even had inquiries from other countries in the Pacific about whether or not they could set up a similar checks and balances committee.
One of the things that was ironical was that at the time we had a boat bounty system. By doing our research we found that one of the people receiving a bounty was a New York Mafioso boss who was building a floating palace. We exposed this and then took it to A Current Affair with Jana Wendt, who somehow managed to get him to agree to be interviewed on the program. The interview was a fairly structured event, but afterwards all the sound equipment stayed live, and he actually made a confession or two. He thought the program had finished. We put it to air. So there were many ways in which you could bring about good outcomes for the country, so that these things did not get repeated.
There then came the time for me to look at the possibility of coming to this House. At that stage there was a lot of talk about my becoming the leader of the party and becoming the first female prime minister. Jim Carlton then announced that he would be retiring, and so I stood for preselection for Mackellar—that was in November 1993—and I was endorsed. I did not get a by-election until March, which meant I could not get in here until May. I do not think that Mr Keating or Dr Hewson much wanted me here at that stage.
I do remember one wonderful jibe with Paul Keating, who was quite an amusing man in many ways. I was opening something, and somebody bowled up and said: 'Paul Keating has just called you a firecracker, along with half of the other frontbench. What do you say about that? He called you a Catherine wheel. You roll and roll and roll.' 'Really,' I said, 'Perhaps all I can say is that Mr Keating reminds me of a sparkler. He is all froth and fire, and then he goes out—and all that is left is a thin, black stick.' There were many sparring moments and enjoyable moments in the past. Back in the Senate, I used to spar with John Button quite a lot. He sent me a card from China. He said: 'Attended a public hanging. Thinking of you!' So there were many moments—and I guess I sent him a few back.
But then I entered this chamber. I had been a shadow minister in the Senate when Andrew Peacock was the leader. Andrew Peacock had been a very fine friend for many, many years and I believe he would have made a very fine Prime Minister. It was interesting that I was minister for Commonwealth-state relations, local government and something else and we fought that 1990 campaign saying we were utterly opposed to the introduction of the assets test. Andrew won 51 per cent of the vote. We did not get a result for weeks. Finally, Bob Hawke was returned. But it was a very fine campaign that Andrew ran. As I said, in my view he would have made a very fine Prime Minister. But it was not to be. He subsequently left the parliament and was very successful in business.
In May 1994, John Hewson called a spill. I was up in the Northern Territory. Alexander Downer said he would run. I got off the plane and there was a galaxy of people asking me what I was going to do. I said I would back Downer and not run myself. Mistake. However, one does make mistakes in this place, and through life. We subsequently went on to see John Howard become leader of the party and become a fine Prime Minister and lead the country well. I had the honour of serving in his first ministry as Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel. As I have been cleaning out my office, I happened to find this defence industry strategic policy statement, which was the first defence industry policy that we made. I even found a copy of an old press release that said this was the first time we would see the defence industry as part of national security. I am so pleased to see the current white paper and the direction we are going in, because I introduced what were known as the Bishop rules for foreign firms doing business in Australia. They had to follow these rules in order to get contracts. I thought it was quite improper in our defence area that we could possibly deploy people and they would be unable to be supported from home. I thought we had a moral obligation to be able to supply our deployed troops at all times with kit, materiel, that we controlled.
And so the rules were these: any firm wanting to do business here had to have significant investment in facilities and plant; significant employment of Australian citizens; successful participation in major defence contracts demonstrating that the company was here for the long haul; a significant level of R&D investment and development in Australia; a demonstrated ability to penetrate their parent firm's market; and, lastly, no vertical integration—they had to be willing to take small Australian firms to be part of a contract. Those rules, because they were firm and believed, resulted in much investment coming into this country. The French put enormous amounts into this country. That was when they were still Thomson—before they became Thales. I remember Mr Fischer, who was the head of Raytheon, which was a very small outfit, making the statement that he would not have invested in this country if it were not for the rules. In defence we break every rule of competition—we are a monopsony purchaser, we collude, we talk with people overseas so that we can have interoperability. But we have to have a firm commitment to this country. It is a moral obligation, in my view.
That leads me to something of which I am quite proud, and that is the Bushmaster. The first thing I had to do was go and look at the three prototypes for the contract. There were three putting in: ADI; a consortium of people who were utilising the model that was used in the townships in South Africa; and British Aerospace. And so out I went with my ADC. We arrived. I got in one of these prototypes and drove around the track. I thought, 'That's terrific.' We came back and we had a conversation. I said, 'I presume these vehicles can withstand a mine blast'—to which my then ADC, who these days is a colonel, said, 'No Ma'am, they're just a taxi.' I said, 'That's ridiculous.' So we went back and I said, 'I think we'll change the specification'—and that is what we did. That is how the V-form was developed, and it saved countless lives. I know that the whip saw it in action in Afghanistan when she was there. It is a magnificent vehicle that has saved many, many lives. And we did one other thing: we took out the regular transmission and put in an automatic transmission because it is less wear and tear. It was a hugely successful vehicle. We then sold 40 of them and started exporting.
Those things I am very proud of. But something that gave me great sadness and will remain with me forever is the Black Hawk disaster, in which 18 people were killed in a night exercise out of Townsville where two helicopters collided—15 SAS and three from 5th Aviation Regiment. I had been at the Opera House. I had come out, and I had the message about what had happened. I knew I had to get a message out there because I believed in our people. They were putting their lives on the line in training just as much as they ever would when deployed. I did not want any criticism saying that they had erred and were to be criticised. I knew I had to have that story out. So all the way home I was thinking of my words of praise for these men and what they were doing at the cutting edge and what skills they had. I got home before midnight and I hit all the radio networks, because I knew that story would run every half-hour and, if we were still up at six o'clock, I knew that people would regard it the right way—and they did.
But the aftermath—of having to talk to the men, of having to talk to their families, of seeing the inadequacy of the compensation scheme, of seeing the profound difficulties that were thrown up—was something that determined me that we had to provide much better for widows and children as well as for partners of serving personnel. So I brought through a package which indeed gave extra money for widows and for children, for their education. That began the process of seeing a much better compensation scheme for our serving personnel, and that was taken on by ministers subsequent to me.
It was a wonderful experience to be the Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel, and it did have its amusing moments. I did get to fly an F111. When I went out to get my suit on, they said: 'Two things, Minister: no hairpins and no hairspray.' I said, 'Why is that?' They said, 'Hairspray is flammable, and pins, with G forces, can be damaging.' So off we went. We were up for an hour and a half. We broke the sound barrier, which is not all that exciting—really!—but we then went and did a mock bombing raid, which was lots of fun. We went in low—because the F111, of course, does low-terrain flying—dropped our payload and did a barrel roll, low-terrain flying. We came up, and the pilot said to me, 'Would you like have a go?' I said, 'Would I what!' So he let me take it. We went back and we came in for another raid. Pulling 4½ Gs, I did the barrel roll, and it was just fantastic. Then I got out and I must say I was determined I was not going to be sick, because somebody had told me that Kim Beazley had been. But I went back and I walked into morning tea and I felt very pleased with myself that I had kept a solid stomach.
Then I went on to be the first woman to go to sea—and I use this preposition advisedly—in a submarine. When I came back, I used a different preposition and said on national television that I had done something else. My press secretary said to me, 'Have you any idea what you just said on national television?' And I said, 'I will remember well and long the difference between the prepositions 'in' and 'on'!' Having done that, I then found that a young female engineer had wanted to go to sea for the sea trials and she had not been permitted to, but, after I had been to sea, she was allowed to go to sea. The reason I went to sea was that I had had all these letters telling me what was wrong with the boats, and I thought, 'The only way I'm going to know is if I go to sea and take a look myself.' And that is exactly what I did, and I did find problems. Many of those things had been true, and we had to set about fixing them. Not long after that, I made a decision which I think has been very important, and that was to send women submariners to sea, and we have that today. There were a few retired admirals who were not terribly pleased about that, but it worked. The other thing that I learnt very well was that women at sea in ships works, as long as the company is about 30 per cent. The critical mass matters, and then the whole company improves.
Having had the excitement of all that, and firing cannons and all sorts of things, we then had to get back out on the track to win the 1998 election and again sell the GST, and I became the Minister for Aged Care. It was also the International Year of Older Persons. I thought, 'We have to do a lot of work here,' so I commissioned Access Economics to do research about the importance of the older population and the ageing of the population, with its resources, where the wealth was. The concluding paragraph said, 'Silver goes platinum,' meaning that the so-called grey generation actually was holding the wealth of the nation, was very important financially, should be thought of in those terms and was too valuable to waste.
I raised all the questions of employment of older Australians, and, when I became shadow minister for seniors, we put a lot of that into policy work. It began there, but I thought, 'Also we need to honour them,' so I created the position of Senior Australian of the Year, which we now celebrate every year. The first one was Slim Dusty, and he was a fantastic advocate. The third one was very important—Graeme Clark, the inventor of the bionic ear. He was such an idol because he was a man who had been told by his peers that what he was trying to do was impossible. 'Don't listen to him,' they said. But he persevered and he succeeded. When somebody said to him, 'Are you thinking of retiring?' he said, 'Certainly not; I have far too much work to do,' and he still does—an amazing man.
There was the difficulty in the aged-care area in that the standards were appalling—not in every home but in too many. I remember visiting homes and I would walk in and almost faint from the smell. We had a commitment that we were going to change things. It fell to me to bring in accreditation. Originally people thought that might be a cup of tea and a chat and, 'We'll do things better.' But I thought, 'No, no, no; we are going to have strict standards that must be adhered to, and, if you cannot meet the standards, you're out.' My opening statement was that, as Minister for Aged Care, I would be here to look after residents, not to prop up poor providers. That did not give me a good ride with certain parts of the industry, but it was the core of what I believed in—those principles of free enterprise and individualism. It was the individuals where the policy had to focus, and that has always been my guide.
So we went through starting the process of recruiting people to do evaluations. I worked with the Democrats, because I knew that I would have to get their support to get the principles in place. I worked with Senator Lyn Allison every step of the way, kept her in the loop. The day I signed them off, I asked her over and we drank a glass of champagne, because she believed we were doing something good. Well, we got them through and we started the process—and then we had Riverside and the nurse who had been putting a capful of kerosene into the bath and then putting through resident after resident.
I determined then and there that this home had to close. It had never been done before. We engaged outside lawyers because I wanted someone who had expertise in the field because I knew they would take me to court because what they stood to lose was millions of dollars. The day we closed it and moved them, it was an awful, awful day. But, once it was closed—and they did take me to court and tried to get an interlocutory injunction, which they failed to do—once we had achieved that, then the industry knew that it was for real. Every home did get accredited, and I now see people who are proud to work in the industry instead of ashamed, because we not only got rid of Riverside; we got rid of 200 others as well who had no right to be there.
From there on, it was back to doing important committee work—the adoption report, where I formed a firm friendship with people who are working in the adoption field as much as I am. There were other reports that were important as well, which I perhaps do not have the time to speak about.
But I do have the time to speak about that time as the shadow minister for seniors and then becoming the Speaker of the House. I have to say that becoming the Speaker of the House was a very proud moment. Perhaps I can say slightly differently that, with the juggling when you are being taken up to the chair, perhaps the risk is not anymore, as it used to be back in the early centuries, that you might lose your head because the king would order it but because maybe it was an expense problem or two. But nonetheless it was a wonderful opportunity.
I just want to say that it is so much more than presiding. That is the public face of it. I see the same people getting chucked out, really, from time to time—recalcitrants, Mr Speaker, that I had and you had, but nonetheless I have come to know and quite like from time to time.
Government members interjecting—
But the other aspects of the job I think are just as important and need to be more known. Firstly, there is the job as a minister. Within certain pieces of legislation, that is how the Speaker is referred to—and the Presiding Officer equally in the Senate—in running departments to run this place. There were very big issues that had to be solved in this building, about which I still cannot talk—big issues that were departmental issues and had to be dealt with.
Then there is the question of the international role and the diplomacy side, receiving ambassadors and attending various international conferences like the IPU and like the Pacific conferences, where our influence is so important, reaching out to women members of parliament, which was equally important, and assisting them with the troubles that they had.
I also had the opportunity to be of assistance with our very important free trade agreements. I was going to Japan and to Korea. I had spoken with Andrew Robb and said that, if I could be of any assistance in getting those through their parliaments—that is, the Japanese and Korean parliaments—before Christmas, I would be honoured if I could assist in that way. Andrew briefed me, and I had a meeting with Prime Minister Abe in Japan and talked very much about the importance of those agreements going through before Christmas because advantages flowed from that. They were very concerned about the TPP at that stage and thought that perhaps that would be enough. I was able to talk with them and say, no, it was important that this agreement had advantages for both of us.
And then I went on to Korea, where the Koreans were very much concerned with a very bad ferry accident where 300 people had drowned, and they really were not interested in our free trade agreement as members of the parliament. And that is the difference. When a member of the executive speaks to a member of the executive, that is where the parlance takes place. But, when you go as the Speaker, you are talking to members of parliament, and it is a very important aspect that can be used in so many ways. So I was able to talk with the leaders of different parties in Korea.
I am pleased to say that both those agreements were signed before Christmas, and I had a little bit of influence in that. I would not for a moment think it was anywhere near the magnificent work that Andrew did, but I am saying that that diplomatic role in the Speaker's role is a very important one.
Equally, in South America, when I was there and I was in Peru, I got on very well with the speaker, who was very close to the parliament. She gave me an undertaking that they would indeed support us with regard to the Great Barrier Reef because we had supported them with regard to Machu Picchu. It did mean that I had to walk around Machu Picchu again, but I did it.
In heels? Well, nearly. So that role is very important too—as was getting up an urgency motion which we had passed ultimately by the entire IPU, including Islamic countries. It was to condemn ISIS and Boko Haram and what they had done with women and girls in particular. The Whip was with me, and we were very successful in getting that through. At the end, one of the Iranian women delegates, who was all in black, just came across and hugged me and said, 'That was so important for women and girls.' So there are moving moments. It is a very important role, Mr Speaker, and one I hope you will enjoy in those other ways.
That came to an end when I was asked to resign to protect Tony Abbott, someone whom I had assisted and worked with and respected for many years. There is much more than meets the eye in that saga, but not for now.
I want to say now how grateful I am to my family. I want to say how grateful I am to staff who are still with me and those who have worked for me previously; to the members of my conference, who supported me through the recent preselection—it was the outsiders who did not—and to the people of my electorate of Mackellar, an electorate I love with passion, the people I love with a passion; to surf-lifesaving, which is just such a wonderful, altruistic movement; to our Rural Fire Service; to so many service clubs, including Rotary, who all work—and we will still work—for the Red Cross and the Red Shield Appeal, which is coming up; and to the community which it was my honour and pleasure to serve.
There is so much more to be done. People are concerned about our country. They know that there are, perhaps, rugged times ahead and I truly believe that the principles of free-enterprise is the way for us to go. There is much more for me to do. This journey is not coming to an end. It is a journey I wish to continue and to continue to serve the people in this wonderful country of mine, Australia.
I say thank you to everyone in this House who has been of assistance: the attendants; the COMCAR drivers; the clerks, and it is lovely to see Bernard here as well, and it was my great pleasure to appoint a great clerk in David Elder. I say thank you to Luch, who was so good to me in my period. If I were a judge he would be my tipster! I say to my colleagues—so many of you have been kind enough to turn out—I have formed good friendships, ones which will be enduring. I am sad that the corridor of the BBs is no longer: Bruce Billson, Bob Baldwin and Bronwyn Bishop. It was our corridor. The white rose—the Don—was a dear and good friend and is much missed. There are many of you I call friends—my lovely friend from Bennelong, my lovely friend Ann from Gilmore, and Lucy from Robertson—people who I hope I will still be able to assist and work with.
In thanking everyone for the time and assistance they have given me, I simply reflect that as a woman in this wonderful country I am given an opportunity that most women in the world are denied: freedom. Today I am wearing a pendant that my father gave my mother in 1941, before I was even a twinkle. I remember—every day—that my father and his generation gave me and my generation a wonderful gift: freedom, and the right as an individual woman to say, 'I can aspire.'
I am so conscious of that, every day, that we—all of us—have an obligation to ensure that the next generation—my daughter's generation and my granddaughter's generation—have at least as good a gift as the one that was given to me. That is an awesome task and one that I know those of you who will continue to serve will carry out, because we love the country Australia.
Thank you, one and all. I will miss this place. But, as I said, it is not the end. It is, simply, a change of course, and I look forward to serving further. Thank you.
After so many lengthy careers that we have been seeing off, in this place, over the last week, it feels a little self-indulgent to be delivering a valedictory after such a short stint in this place. But I feel that I owe it to the people who elected me, three years ago, to give an account of myself and I cannot resist putting my two bobs worth in to the general philosophical issues that face us.
I give my thanks to the punters of Perth for backing me. It truly has been a privilege to work with you and represent you in this place. I like to think that I have thrown everything at ensuring you have a voice in this place, and it is great to have had a role representing our great state of Western Australia more generally. I believe I have done that enthusiastically, sometimes to the chagrin of some of my colleagues from other states, but that is absolutely necessary.
Why am I going? Some of you will be aware that I was happily ensconced as the mayor of Vincent when I was asked to stand for Perth, shortly before the last election—after the much respected Stephen Smith unexpectedly retired. I was a little hesitant, but I agreed to do it for a number of reasons. Firstly, I felt I owed it to the party, which had given me great opportunities, to make sure that we held that critical seat of Perth and that we could rebuild our party in Western Australia. Secondly, I knew that dealing with climate change was the great moral challenge of our time and that was at the very heart of the contest at that election. I did manage to hold onto that seat for Labor, and I can take some pride in being part of the team that has seen off a great—but certainly not the only—political obstacle to meeting that moral challenge of climate change. I also take some pride in the campaigns against some of the very dark places to which this country was being taken in the first two years of the current government and in our campaigns to see off much of the destructive 2014 budget. These battles are not over. It is extraordinary that last night's budget made no reference and no commitment to tackling climate change. How can you have an economic plan that ignores the greatest economic threat to our country? Given this, if I had been at the start of my political career I would have been very excited at the opportunities that I have been given.
You can never complain about being given the great honour of being elected to this place. I absolutely love the job when I am out and about, but I do not think I have been able to influence policy to the extent that I need to keep my motivation up. So I will hand on the baton to the very able Labor candidate, Tim Hammond, who will have more time to patiently build up influence in this place. I am certain that Tim will join the long line of members for Perth, who include, in my lifetime, Tom Burke, Joe Berinson, Ric Charlesworth and, of course, Stephen Smith, all of whom have served in this place with great distinction. I am very pleased that we are fielding a fantastic Labor team at the next election, led by Patrick Dodson, of whom we are also very proud. I will be working very hard to see Anne Aly, Matt Keogh and Tammy Solonec—all people I highly regard—elected to this place.
I do want to say that I think there is a problem with the way we distribute power within this parliament and within the major parties. I have to be frank: often in this place it feels like one is just an extra in the pyramid-building scenes of that Ben Hurblockbuster—do you remember all those little people just rushing around? I am realistic. I absolutely understand there will always be a decision-making hierarchy, but I do believe that members should be considered more than just bums on seats. I do think that, even within our parliamentary system, there are other parliaments where members are accorded a greater and a stronger role. At the highest level—and I think this issue was raised by the member for Fremantle this afternoon—critical issues like war powers are issues where there should be engagement with the parliament. At a day-to-day level, there are parliamentary structures that could be so much better at giving members more of a role in this place, a greater role than being an extra. There are other parliaments, for example, where backbenchers can raise grievances with ministers that ministers must respond to, where bills undergo a consideration in detail process which is actually consideration in detail and where ministers actually respond to questions raised by members. Likewise with the estimates process, which, I have to say, in this place is a meaningless farce. We have delays in answering questions in writing and a culture of resisting the release of documents which make it very difficult to do the forensic work that enhances accountability. The committees, as advisory committees to the minister, really largely fail to provide any greater accountability in government. Just at the edges, there are a number of processes that could be changed to ensure that being a member in this place is more meaningful and to give more people the opportunity to participate. Of course, I believe a cultural change also has to be made across the party hierarchy to ensure that we respect all members and allow them to really share in the engagement in the contest of ideas in this place.
However, although I think the committees are a pale copy of what they should be under the Westminster process, they can help educate members about important matters. If you are on a committee, you get to see a great many people and details about this country that are important in ensuring that we know more about the community that we are representing. Under the right leadership, committees can create a collegiality across party lines. I think that collegiality is indeed very important if we are to persuade the public that this place is truly a forum for the contest of ideas and not just a bad rerun of Celebrity Survivor. We are going to have to do more to transform our parliament.
Outside our parliament, collaboration is the new norm. We all get up here in this place and we really like to talk about how we see collaboration and innovation occurring in our community and in the private sector, but we are very much, in my view, in danger of becoming irrelevant if we stick with our unreformed 20th century adversarial model. I know it is not easy to make profound structural changes to the way in which we do government, but, as we demand innovation and agility from the private sector and from the community generally, we must acknowledge that we need to change. We must acknowledge that we are simply not optimising the performance of those in this place and we are discouraging many other talented Australians of goodwill from joining us. We have stuck doggedly to structures devised more than a century ago, with an odd tweak here and there. Quite frankly, I think that we need a more radical makeover to enable us to meet the needs of our community. I accept that rethinking democracy is put at the very edge of political life. It is seen to be self-indulgent navel gazing, but I do not think it is. I sometimes think that we in political life are bit like the taxi industry—we are batting away attempts to reform our models and one day we will see ourselves blindsided by an Uber. We truly risk losing our community's commitment to democracy, unless we are able to do democracy better.
I do hope that the Parliamentary Friends of Democratic Renewal, which I co-convene with a very bipartisan Craig Laundy, will continue in some form, because we can do better and must do better. I want to particularly commend Luca Belgiorno-Nettis for his generous support of the new democracy movement. Although this is a somewhat unfashionable cause, I think it is one that is critical for us to address because we are going to have to do a lot better in dealing with the great challenges to our civilisation that will accelerate over the next 20 years. It is not just climate change; it is the new social landscape that technology and science is creating. It is an exciting time, generally, to be an Australian, but there are very real challenges, particularly in ensuring that, as more tasks—skilled and unskilled—can be performed without human labour, we think about how we distribute the fruits of that productivity. How are we going to be able to protect the dignity and the livelihoods of each citizen when the demand for labour radically declines? This will require a dramatic remake of our economic structures and big, big thinking. I am not sure that we have really commenced that task or that we are aware of how rapidly that challenge will come upon us.
There are many things I feel that I have left unfinished. One is the need to grasp the nettle in respecting that most Australians want the opportunity to die with dignity and that it is wrong that we deny them that right. I know that there are colleagues on all sides who will continue this fight, and I want to acknowledge the work in particular of Dr Richard Di Natale in that regard. I can assure him that I will be supporting this cause from the outside.
Let me also reflect on some of the happier stuff. Some of the best parts of the job have been getting around this beautiful country and seeing the creativity, enterprise and compassion of so many people. This has involved meeting people like the Rusca Brothers in the Northern Territory—Aboriginal entrepreneurs who are creating extraordinary opportunities for Aboriginal people to carve out independence while maintaining culture. It has also involved meeting Australian manufacturers like Hoffman Engineering and the Centre for Advanced Transport Engineering and Research in Perth—an outfit that produces ultrasonic rail testing equipment for around the world—and Redarc in Adelaide and Textor Technologies in Melbourne. All of them are exporting sophisticated, innovative products around the world. They give me great confidence that we can be a manufacturing nation. We need to support our manufacturers. Again, I am proud to have been on the team that has fought hard to ensure that we use our defence procurement to maximise capacity in building an Australian industry. We just need to make sure that Western Australia gets its fair share, and a state Labor government will help us wrest some of these projects back from South Australia. I am sure my colleagues, including the member for Forrest on the other side, will support us in that.
It has been brilliant to see the work of CSIRO and the science institutions around Australia. I would strongly encourage them to continue to have that engagement process with parliamentarians, where they come here and show us what can be done, for example, with the 3D printing of titanium and how we can produce aircraft parts in that way or how they can manufacture grain so that we can produce bread and other grain products that reduce the incidence of bowel cancer—and many, many more things. There are fantastic programs across the scientific field. This is what is going to build the necessary support in this place for investment in science and technology.
While travelling around I saw the great visions in our agricultural areas—Jack Burton at Yeeda, Bruce Cheung with Pilbara Beef at Pardoo Station, as well as the Kimberley Agriculture Investment group in Kununurra, who are doing amazing things. They are focusing on proper scientific research and strategic positioning within marketplaces to ensure that not only do we have an industry that produces commodities but that we value add and market Australian food, not just an Australian commodity.
I want to acknowledge the work that we have done with union members and their officials. We see a lot of negativity about our union leaders touted in this place; but, overwhelmingly, these are people who have a passionate commitment to Australian industry and an absolutely passionate interest in ensuring decency in the workplace. These are overwhelmingly good people, many of whom are also doing fantastic work in the international space. I want to give a special mention to the Transport Workers Union. I have a very strong and long history with the Vietnamese community, and I think it is fantastic to be able to see the work that the TWU has been doing with Vietnamese unions to help them gain justice and human rights for the people in Vietnam.
One of the great delights and indeed comforts as I depart has been to come to understand the extraordinary quality of so many of the colleagues that I am surrounded by—and I say this very genuinely. I am not the type given to howling, even though I am feeling a little bit emotional now. These are people who are smart, hardworking and, most importantly, deeply concerned about the people that they represent, who are fighting with intelligence and passion for an Australia which offers a place in the sun to every one of our children and who resist the growing economic and social inequality that will undermine the very fabric that is Australia. I want to give a very big shout-out to team 2013. It has been absolutely great to watch these people over the last three years grow so spectacularly—not in size, but in their ability to really show us their passion and commitment for their communities. I know that I leave this place in strong hands.
I have to say that I believe the structural reform in Labor around leadership has been a success. It has made us focus on policy to capture the public imagination rather than the constant search for a new messiah. It has contributed to Labor embracing gutsy meaningful policies that will take this country forward, particularly in climate change, industry and taxation reform.
I am also proud that Labor has committed to settle the boundary issue with Timor-Leste in accordance with international law. That is an issue very dear to my heart. I hope that we will soon achieve a similar positive change for another small, struggling nation and respectfully recognise the Republic of Macedonia.
To Bill and the team, I just want to assure you that I will be backing you 100 per cent, all the way to the next election. Your victory would be a good thing for this country.
Now I would like to give some brief thankyous. Everyone says this is a really dangerous thing, but just let me name a few people. It is a bit like being at school in this place sometimes. That is true in more ways than one, but one way is that you can make great friends by the random assignment of seats. I will particularly miss my fellow GI Geraldine, particularly through our period of immersion in the Army, Gai Brodtmann. You have been fantastic, Gai, and you are a good cook—it is much better than my takeaway. I will also miss my equal first favourite Muslim, Eddy Husic. I have put money on you at Ladbrokes, Eddy, so I am going to be following your career. There are many others, but it has been great to work with my fellow pro-Macedonian, Stephen Jones. I thank my fellow independent, Andrew Leigh, and Nova Peris—we are a little group. I also thank Melissa Parke for all her friendship and support. My most unexpected comrade is Joel Fitzgibbon. Is he here? Has he disappeared?
Opposition members: He's here.
I sometimes think he was the officially designated 'Alannah whisperer', assigned that very thankless task of keeping me in line.
Mr Husic interjecting—
That is right. I was his next job. Anyhow, whatever the motivation, Joel, I have really appreciated the advice and friendship. You and I share some very fringe views on things like foreign policy and also our never-to-be-forgotten Thelma and Louise trip through WA's wheat belt.
We did not—but later, who knows? I will not single out the many shadow ministers I have enjoyed working with and whom I deeply respect, but I will mention a few staff: Damian O'Connor from Albo's office, who is a great guy; Mocca and Ian McNamara from the leader's office; and Bronwyn Taylor from Tanya Plibersek's office. They have just been fantastic to us and I really appreciate it. To all of the very kind attendants here in Parliament House constantly getting us glasses of water and finding my lost glasses, I really appreciate that. To the very welcoming and amusing staff in the dining room, thank you, and thank you to the COMCAR team.
Returning to Perth, I want to, first of all, thank all the branches. We have a magnificent set of branches in Perth. Many of the members there I have worked with literally for decades. I want to thank them—you do keep the dream alive. I thank my great staff. I cannot mention all of them by name, but Colleen Thornton-Ward has been with me for three years. She is totally OCD in keeping books, which is a very useful thing, as we all appreciate as members of parliament—so Colleen, great stuff. Karissa Domondon, who has being there for the whole three years, has done a great job in research and is about to embark on a stint in New York. I say thank you to Prue, Ryan, Tess and the many others over the three years who have come and gone throughout that lively place that is our office. It has always been so engaging, and open and welcoming to the public—you have done a great job. But, of course, I have to give a special thanks to Mark Scott. He was an unbelievable find, entering our office posing as a constituent, and was so good that we just had to offer him a job. Mark, you have given a huge amount and thank you very much. But, to all of you guys, we have had a great time together. 'I love youse all,' as we like to say in Perth.
Of course, my extended family have been very generous in their support over the many decades, one of whom, my sister, Anthea, is in the gallery today. They now will rightfully expect that I will give them more attention after 25 years of elected office—although, I have to admit, some are now having reservations. My grandson, Atlas, was confidently telling me on Sunday that I was leaving parliament to spend more time with him. I had to say, 'Well, kid, be careful what you wish for. I am going to be the ultimate tiger grandmother. There will be two hours maths homework each night and no electronics. You will be learning Chinese and there will be compulsory piano practice.' I now understand that he and his sister, Umi, are trying to persuade me to stay in politics, but I am going.
I love this wide brown land—this land of an ancient people whose connection with country adds value to us all; a land that has a proud history of pioneering institutions of egalitarianism; a country of good, fair-minded and generous people. I just want to say: good luck to you all that remain to guide this great country forward. Thank you.
May I thank the House for giving me this opportunity, during the debate on the address in reply, to say thank you and farewell to my colleagues in the parliament and to the people of Wide Bay. I am very grateful to those people for having elected me to the parliament over the last 26 years. Wide Bay is one of the original Federation seats. In all that time, there have only been two members for Wide Bay who have been ministers. The first was Andrew Fisher, who was the Labor Prime Minister of Australia and, indeed, the first Prime Minister to actually have a majority in Australia, back in about 1910 to 1913. I am the second, and I had the privilege to become deputy Prime Minister. So it has been a long contribution for me in the parliament. There have been many highlights, things that I would like to have done better and things that I think have made a difference to the country, which have left me with many enduring and very important memories.
My time in the ministry was interrupted by a period in opposition. Opposition is not a particularly rewarding or fulfilling occasion. For those that are new to the House and having their first experience in the parliament as members of the government, I hope that they will appreciate very much this time, how valuable it is and how often you will want to keep it. I did not really think it was a great problem for me to have my first six years in opposition, because it is a learning time. You learn a lot from opposition as well. Then followed the better times. I had then a succession of opportunities in the ministry. Indeed, there has only been one Queenslander, Sir Littleton Groom, who has spent more time in the ministry than I have, and that was 100 years ago. So I think most people have forgotten that.
My 26 years in the federal parliament were proceeded by 14 in local government, so it is now 40 years in elected office, and that is a long time. I enjoyed my time in local government, and particularly the seven years as mayor. It was a time when a lot of things were happening in Kingaroy, with the development of the Tarong Power Station. We built a new airport, raised the dam wall, brought in the first shire plan. It was indeed a period of substantial progress and development for the region. I had also been actively involved in agricultural politics, if you like. I was President of the Australian Council of Rural Youth. All of that, I guess, provided me with a wonderful background and an opportunity to engage with my local community.
My first ministry was actually Customs and Consumer Affairs, and in my first cabinet submission I brought forward a proposal for Australia's first country-of-origin labelling laws. I recall it quite well. I did not have any trouble in cabinet getting it through. In fact, as I walked in the door the Prime Minister was already telling everybody that it a good submission and that it was one we had to have. So I did not have to use any debating skills to get it through. Of course, I think that legislation set in place the concept that Australian consumers had a right to know where their products were coming from and also that that would be clearly identified for them. I still do not think there was all that much wrong with it, other than that it was never properly policed. That is a real issue with the federal-state arrangement, because the responsibility for policing these regulations actually rests with the state, even though the Commonwealth passed the law, and the states generally pass it onto local government. But most local government have never realised that it is their responsibility. So nobody was looking after it. So I wish the new minister great success with the new laws, and I hope that their quality will be reinforced by the fact that they will be appropriately policed and that, therefore, people will know in fact what is happening.
I then became the minister for Centrelink in the Social Security portfolio. I was the first minister with specific responsibility in that area. It was a challenging time, because this new organisation was set up with a board and a corporate type structure, yet the people who were working in it were former social security department employees and former Commonwealth Employment Service employees, and they were not feeling all that cooperative towards this venture. But, as we won the next election and people realised this organisation was here to stay, we did, I think, build a very worthwhile organisation, and it is obviously part of Australia's social infrastructure at the present time.
One of the difficulties we had to face was trying to get the call centres to work. There were long delays. I, at one stage, as minister, had come to the conclusion that call centres of this scale could not be made to work. I visited New Zealand, where they had a fraction of the staff doing twice as much work and happy customers, and I realised that our problem was management and the way in which it was run. So we did have some good years, but I think there is probably a need again now for some extra staff in Centrelink, because the call centres have become so busy. It is, I understand, just about the biggest call centre network in the world.
The other really great thing about the Centrelink call system is that so many of the call centres are in regional communities. They are major employers, but they are very successful centres because, by country standards, the jobs are well paid and they attract good people. Many of the Centrelink staff have been there in those call centres for decades. That means they understand their work as well.
I then moved into the portfolio of agriculture and, having come from the farm sector, it was not one that I was particularly looking forward to. I had been on the Graingrowers' Association State Council with Ian Macfarlane. We were the two youngest members on the state council. I can recall one occasion when Ian Sinclair was the minister and we invited him to address our state council. We gave him a terrible time! I felt embarrassed by the grilling that he received. I said to myself then, 'That's one job I never want in my life.' Of course, when I became minister I experienced a few of those grillings myself. Farmers expect a great deal of their agriculture minister, particularly if they are a National. It was also a time when we enjoyed some good seasons, but then followed the millennium drought—probably the worst drought in our nation's history. As a result of significant governance initiatives in areas like the establishment of exceptional circumstances assistance, which became a multibillion-dollar program by the time it was concluded, many farmers were able to see their way through that drought and were able to actually then go on to have prosperous years subsequently. In spite of the pain and hardship at the time, I think that was a worthwhile initiative. It certainly helped many people who otherwise would not have survived that drought.
We also had major restructuring in the dairy and the sugar industries in particular. Again, they were very difficult times. The states undertook this deregulation, not the Commonwealth, but we were expected to help out those who were damaged and hurt by the restructuring arrangement. It would be true to say that the dairy industry, particularly in states other than Victoria and Tasmania, has never really fully recovered from the arrangements that were put in place at that time. But, again, the Commonwealth was there. A $2 billion assistance program was funded by the levy on milk. It was something that had never been done previously, but I think it did help many people through those problems where otherwise they could not have succeeded.
The sugar industry also received a lot of assistance and had a quite miraculous turnaround. The assistance, over $400 million, was offered and provided when the price was down to 4c a pound—just an absolutely rock bottom price way below the cost of production. As soon as we introduced the assistance and made it available to farmers in the industry, the price of sugar gradually went up. Within about 12 months, it was at 18c a pound—the best prices they had ever had. So it was a very successful program, but I suspect the taxpayers' money did not make all that much difference in the end to the revitalisation of that industry.
There are many other memories, particularly in the live animal trade with the famous Cormo Express incident, where we had 57,000 sheep on a ship for three months looking for a home after they were rejected in Saudi Arabia. If I was to start telling that story today, we would be here for a very long time. I may one day write a book, and it might take the whole of the book to tell the whole Cormo Express story. It is an extraordinary story of interaction between countries, saving face and the importance of the industry. But we learnt a lot of lessons from it all, and I think the trade has been very much the better as a result.
As trade minister, it was a pretty unrewarding period. The world was still trying to make a success of the Doha Round, but it was getting nowhere. Clearly, it should have been put to death at that stage, rather than waiting another seven or eight years. As I said previously, while some preparation work was done by others, Andrew Robb's role in his couple of years as trade minister was simply without precedent and deserving of enormous credit. While I had a role in the establishment—the starting up—of the China and Japan free trade agreement talks, we had only dealt with the easy issues by the time that I left, and there was a long gap then before we were able to come to a conclusion.
Perhaps the most exciting and interesting portfolio from my perspective was transport—a portfolio I held in government and in opposition for almost 10 years. It is an exciting portfolio because you are building a lot of things. The $50 million infrastructure program that the Abbott government implemented has, I think, been the most important infrastructure initiative a federal government has ever taken. It was really exciting to be involved. There were big projects in every capital city, but there were also important projects in regional committees. Big projects like this, inevitably, are going to cross governments. I guess one of my regrets at leaving now is that so many of the projects for which I turned the first sod I will not be there for the conclusion. And I acknowledge that I opened projects that the previous government had started, because they go that long. They need to have a degree of bipartisan support. That is why the events of the Melbourne East West project and the Brisbane BaT tunnel were such shattering blows to the construction industry. The reality is: we have to honour contracts. We have to proceed even if we sometimes think that there are better options. We do need to maintain the confidence of the sector.
We committed to complete the Pacific Highway project by 2020, and we will do that. The last project is underway. That was a particular thrill—to advance the 80/20 funding and to make it all happen. In my own state, there was the $8.7 billion committed for the Bruce Highway. Perhaps the best news story out of all of that was the award that the Queensland government recently received for the safety outcomes for the work on the Bruce Highway. There was an average of 55 fatalities a year on the Bruce Highway. That is now down to 17, even though the volume of traffic has doubled. It is not just big expensive four lanes; it is also wider centre lines and more safety rails, and things of that nature. That is the real result of investment in infrastructure. It is the kind of social outcome that you get on top of the economic outcome.
But that portfolio has a lot more than roads, of course. The aviation sector is perhaps its most challenging area. There are a lot of characters in aviation. We have some of the most remarkable aviators in the world. Our history is dotted with famous people. One of them, of course, is Dick Smith, who would deserve a chapter in any book about Australian aviation. But he can also be a bit of a trying character, as ministers for aviation find out very quickly. Indeed, when I was first appointed Minister for Transport, I was in China at the time with my previous portfolio. We did not have mobile phones with message banks in those days. So it was only when I got back to Sydney that I turned on my phone. The very first message on the phone was from Dick Smith. He had my mobile number. He has everybody's mobile number! He was calling me to offer his services and to tell me that he wanted to make a further contribution to the aviation industry. He is a great character, and I admire him enormously. But he has been given plenty of opportunities in this field, and he has made a contribution. I think it is, perhaps, time now for others to be making that contribution. I think the member for Perth, who just spoke, might be one of those who might agree with me on that score.
The aviation sector also has had its challenges. We did the big security review under Sir John Wheeler and then the review of CASA. CASA really has needed reform and to have a culture change. I think that is now well underway. I think the most moving part of my whole time in the portfolio was the loss of MH370. One of the things I regret most is that I am leaving the office and the search is nearly completed but we have not found the aircraft. Even though the experts have agreed that there is a 95 per cent chance that we are searching in the right area we have not found it. That is a tragedy for the families and it is a tragedy for the industry not to be able to get finality about what has happened. While there are plenty of theories—another chapter in my book—it will never be properly resolved until we are able to locate a significant part of the wreckage. It was particularly moving to be involved with the Australian families who were affected by MH370, particularly one family that lost loved ones on both MH370 and then in the subsequent MH17 disaster. Everyone felt especially for them. I had given them my mobile phone number, so I was able to keep in regular contact with them through that whole exercise. I am really sorry that I have not been able to make the calls to them to say it is found and we now have the answers.
It has been a pleasure always to be a part of the National Party. I have very much enjoyed the camaraderie of my colleagues. I have appreciated the privilege of being a leader and having the opportunity to work with some really, really great people. My interest in politics, though, I have to honestly attribute to Gough Whitlam. Like many people on both sides of the House, he got me interested in politics. However, I was not attracted to his version of the way in which the country should be run, and at that time joined the Nationals. In fact, I still have my original membership receipt from the old Australian Country Party. It is not as though I have it framed on the wall; I found it in the clean up that is going on at the present time. I became, therefore, an active member of the party way before I was even interested in political office. I think I have attended pretty well all of the state conferences since that day. I am grateful to the many people within the party who have nurtured me and given me opportunities. Next Saturday there is a meeting of the Wide Bay Divisional Council. I think it will be the first one I will have missed in 30 years. The party has meant a lot to me at branch and local level. I have held most of the offices, and the support has been much appreciated.
I have also appreciated the relationship I have been able to have with the Nationals in other states. We are an affiliation of state parties rather than a national party divided into state branches. That can be tough. Our state branches are very independent. They do things their way and it works for them in their way, but it has always been a major task for the Nationals to run a national organisation that works effectively.
Some may consider us to be a conservative party but we have been a progressive party. We had the first woman national president and state president of a party, and there have been quite a number since. The first Aboriginal ever elected to parliament came from the National Party in Queensland. We have been at the forefront also of social issues, although often taking, I acknowledge, the conservative side.
I think it is a party that still has a great deal to contribute. There have been those who have predicted its doom for many, many decades, and we have been through some difficult times. While many people think Wide Bay is a relatively secure seat, there was one election that nobody expected me to win. That was the one immediately after the gun laws were introduced, which we have been recognising recently. They were very popular through most of the country but devastating for our constituency. Indeed, the party lost close to half its membership during that period, and since our party is based very much on grassroots membership that mattered a great deal to us and affected our capacity to do things in the future. It was a long recovery, but bit by bit we have grown and become strong. I am pleased that the party I am leaving behind is bigger than the one I led when I first became leader. It is substantially larger, and I hope that at the election coming up it will be even bigger and able to make an even more substantial contribution to our country.
Our objective in particular has always been to help those people who live outside the capital cities and to address disadvantage for those who live in the country. There has been an enormous amount achieved. We have obviously got better roads and the installation of the NBN. The wireless and satellite coming on-stream last weekend has regional Australia with telecommunications of very similar quality to what people have in the middle of the cities and at about the same time. I can remember with the member for Maranoa when the big issue was can we just get local calls to our business centre? That was a huge issue. Now we can call the world for the same price as anyone else in the country. So we have been able to achieve a great deal.
There is still too big a gap between the country and the city. It is a big continent, and 80 per cent of the people live in the cities, but a lot of our national wealth, probably the majority of our national wealth, is still produced in the country. Even though I know we are transitioning to a broader economy, never forget that the traditional industries located in regional Australia are going to be a vital part of the economy in the future. We still have hundreds of years of supply of minerals that the world wants and will be paying higher prices for in the future. The only reason why we will not be making a lot of money out of coal for generations ahead is if we decide of our own accord not to do it. I think that would be a silly thing to do. Iron ore and others are the same. But our wealth is also in agriculture, where I think there are enormous opportunities in whatever economy. In my maiden speech, I made reference to the fact that we were living in the fastest-growing sector of the globe. I predicted:
Within my lifetime this South East Asian quarter will be the most important economic arena in the world. It has a huge population and escalating demand. There is only one country in this area that has a land mass which even approaches Australia and that is China. It reproduces our population every 42 weeks.
Australia has bountiful resources and is a natural supplier of raw materials, primary products, food and fibre, education and tertiary services for this next economic beehive of the world. We have another opportunity for national greatness but only if we are prepared to grasp it, to encourage industry and initiative, and to support those who are prepared to give it a go.
It was a bit controversial, actually, to talk about coming closer to Asia 26 years ago, but I do not think anyone would any longer call it visionary. It has already happened with the free trade agreements. The opportunities that are there are just so enormous that our capacity as a country to remain strong and to continue to deliver a quality of life to our people is simply abundant.
But we do need to remember that people who live in rural areas are also Australians and we have a right to expect a fair share of our nation's growth and prosperity. Currently, the APN newspapers—70 of them—are running a campaign demanding a fair go for rural Australia. I would be a bit more sympathetic to them if they would do something to stop the running down of their own local news desks, getting rid of their printing presses and taking everything on syndication from the cities—in other words, if they were doing their bit to maintain strong country communities—but they have raised some very valid points over the last few days. For instance, it is simply not reasonable for people to accept a situation where the life expectancy of a child born in my electorate is five years lower than someone born two hours down the road in Brisbane. It is unacceptable that the average income in my electorate is half the average income in Canberra. It is unacceptable that we should have unemployment rates double that of Brisbane. It is also unacceptable that you have eight times less chance of reaching level 12 from level 10 in Maryborough than you have in Brisbane.
We have made a lot of progress, but these are social justice issues that are on our own back doorstep. We are often very good at saying what should happen in other parts of the world, but these are some things we need to do in our own country. I acknowledge that progress has been made, and I do not regard my time here as a total failure. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot more for my successor to do when he comes into the parliament. As a country, we offer so much and it is something that we need to share with all Australians, including those who live outside the capital cities. When I hear people in the cities complaining about having to pay $2 million for a house, I say to them: 'Well, come and live in my electorate. You can have a whole street for that!' If they are complaining about traffic jams, I can show them a road to their office where there will be a couple of traffic lights but there will not be any congestion. You can walk where you like, ride your bike where you like and enjoy the lifestyle that a country community can offer.
Finally, let me say that one area where I think we have so much more to do is in the lot of the Australian Aboriginal people. We really have not been successful in bridging the gap. There have been plenty of pious words spoken and there have been plenty of attempts to try and do something—I am not questioning the integrity and the determination of everybody. There is a sincerity about trying to do something to improve the lot of the Australian Aboriginal people, but we have not been successful. I have been here for apologies, I have seen land rights and I have seen the setting up of companies and grants to buy land. I can remember Ian McLachlan saying at the time when the government introduced an annual payment so that Aborigines could buy land, 'With this amount of money, the Aborigines should be able to buy the whole of Australia within one generation.' It has not happened because so many things have not been well managed. We have to address the issues. I think Nigel Scullion is just about the best Aboriginal affairs minister we have had in a long time because what he is trying to do is to get Aborigines to school and get them involved in their communities. The reality is that Europeans, other Australians, cannot make this transition for Aborigines. They have to want to do it themselves. They have to have the determination to make things better. I have a significant Aboriginal community in my electorate. It is a town of about 2,000 people. It has every imaginable facility. It is, without question, the best-equipped country town in my electorate, but it is still a place where there is serious violence and a lack of industry and where things fail the moment the subsidies stop. We have to help those people. Most of the girls are pregnant by the time they are able to be pregnant and the boys rush off to Musgrave Park in Brisbane. The families have broken down. The structures are there, but the elders no longer have the authority. There are some really beautiful people, but I think, as a nation, Aborigines themselves have to want to take control of their own destiny and do it for themselves. It is going to be a challenging task because we have not made enough progress in the past. We need to in the future.
Finally, I want to say thank you to all of those who have been good to me and have helped me during my time in the parliament. There are so many colleagues and friends and so many people in the parliament itself. I think frequently of those who greet us at the door, always with a friendly smile, reinforced these days, unfortunately, by bevies of security. There was no security when I came into this place—well, I guess there was, but we did not notice it—26 years ago. There was no screening at the doors et cetera. I think it is a pity that we have had to get to that stage, but that is a new part of our life.
To the Serjeant-at-Arms and the Clerks, thank you so much for your support—you have been great friends to us all—and Tim and the dining room staff and the cleaners, particularly the cleaners in the ministerial wing; they were always cheery, and maybe the ministerial wing is dirtier than the other places so they are needed there more often. They have been great, as have the people in No. 34 Squadron and the COMCAR drivers—and in my case I particularly acknowledge those who have undertaken the seven-hour return journey to get me home in the middle of the night from Brisbane when that has been necessary.
I acknowledge particularly my staff. In Canberra I have had only two chiefs of staff, and they are David Whitrow and Cheryl Cartwright. I think they are both here tonight. They have been loyal and faithful over a long period of time. But it has been a really big team, a really great team, some of whom have gone on to be very successful in other careers subsequently, and I congratulate and thank them for all they have done. I would like to particularly mention Cecily Werder, who has been on my electorate staff for all 26 years that I have been in the parliament. Indeed, I inherited her from my predecessor. She is going to retire as well, and who can blame her?
MaryAnn Boldery has been with me for most of the 26 years, other than a break for children. She worked for my predecessor as well. I might add that the third staff member who I inherited from my predecessor was my wife, Lyn. As some of you probably know, the first thing I did was sack her!—because I believe it is not a good idea for members' families to be a part of the staff. So I guess I have had a free staff member ever since, and she has been absolutely wonderful to me. Di Green is also currently on my staff, and has been for 15 or 20 years. I have been blessed to have people who put up with me for a long period of time.
I acknowledge my local LNP people: Guy Burnett and Bill Hovard in particular—people who have been my campaign directors—and now Llew O'Brien, who has been endorsed as the party's candidate for this seat and will be an excellent member if the people of Wide Bay choose to elect him, and I will be recommending that course of action.
I actually met Lyn because she was secretary of the divisional council and I was the president, so ours is actually a relationship born of the party. She has been a wonderful support through all of that time, and I am very grateful for it.
I acknowledge also on the other side the shadow ministers I have worked with. I am particularly grateful to my departmental staff, especially Mike Mrdak and Mike Taylor, who have seemed to follow me from portfolio to portfolio. They are two outstanding public servants, but there are many others. The public of Australia is well served by the Commonwealth service here, who deal with governments of all political persuasions and do it with competence and a great deal of skill.
So, thank you very much to all of those people. Thank you to the staff who joined me in the gallery today. It is clearly the end of an era for me, but it is the beginning of an era for someone else who will take my place. Thank you all, to those who are in the chamber tonight, for your friendship and your courtesy. Thank you for the opportunities that have been given to me. Thank you to the people of Wide Bay, who faithfully returned me time and time again. I hope my representation of that area has delivered real benefits, even though I know there are still some tasks left for my successor to take up. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—and while I am on the topic of 'Mr Speaker', I will just acknowledge our very longstanding and strong friendship and also the pride I have had in the way in which you have conducted yourself as Speaker of this House. It has been, in my view, outstanding, and I cannot recall anyone who was better than you in that chair. So, congratulations, and well done.
I had the privilege on 11 February, when it was announced that I was not going to recontest the next election, of saying a few words in this House. I will probably cover some of the topics again, but not all of them. I consider that in future I will read at least, if no-one else will. I will read both in conjunction as my contribution to my valedictory speech. It is not often you get two bites of the cherry—certainly in this place.
I think it is true that every person's life is like a kaleidoscope: a rollercoaster of events, experiences, emotions and challenges. But I must say, after 12 years in this place I have discovered that the kaleidoscope is turbocharged. Juggling the electorate representation of 66,000 families, 6,000 to 7,000 businesses, 50 schools, 900 community groups, along with 20 weeks in parliament, endless media engagements, a ministry or extensive committee work, endless hours on a plane, as well as the needs of your family and friends, I have found it involves a combination of exhilaration, despair, guilt, exhaustion, robust debate, disappointment and enormous satisfaction, and all that can happen in one normal day. When you think about it, it is a huge commitment by everyone in this place. I am sure very few people really do understand it, but that is the nature of so many jobs in life. You just need to take pride and satisfaction in the opportunities that we have been given to be here.
The job does require a huge commitment of time, but not just from us politicians; it critically includes your professional staff, your family members, your party supporters and members of the party machine at both state and federal levels. It is very much a team game. Even around each individual, a lot of team effort needs to go into that person being as effective as they possibly can. I have been blessed with outstanding personal staff throughout my 12 years, and quite a number of them have done me the honour of being here tonight in the chamber. I thank them for that.
There are, perhaps, too many staff that I have been associated with to mention. I would hate to inadvertently overlook anyone. I just want all of them to know the enormous gratitude that I have for their efforts, their professionalism and the friendship that we have enjoyed; the absence of office politics, which has been a real blessing for the me, in our office—it can make things so much more difficult if there are tensions running throughout the team; the loyalty that I have received; the intellect of those that I have worked with; the esprit de corps; and the sheer decency of those from both my parliamentary and my electorate offices. They have been a very, very big part of any of the achievements that I may have been able to make over the last 12 years.
I move to the bureaucracy. I think they get nearly as many brickbats as politicians. However, from my experience with various departments over my 12 years, I have got to say that the experience I have had has been most positive—some outstanding people, endless good intent, commitment and, in most cases, teamwork. But I found that if a minister does not provide leadership the department will take over the reins, and thank God they do at times. However, where leadership and clear direction is provided, I have found that the capacity of our federal departments and agencies to provide effective implementation of projects to be exceptional. For me, in all my experience, that is what they excel at: when given something with clear instructions, clear parameters and timelines, they carry it out in a way that I suspect no other group could do.
Our Public Service might be less well equipped, perhaps, in terms of coming up with new ideas. That is probably the biggest mistake that has been made with the placement of our capital in Canberra—so removed from so many other parts of our community, and we have now got third- and fourth-generation public servants from this city. They have got exceptional skills, excellent education, good values and all of the rest, but a lot of them have never sat on train with a person in a blue singlet. It is, in my view, something that we cannot change—the capital—but we ought to think about how we might change the experience of some of these exceptional public servants that I think do such a good job. I have found them less well equipped to come up with new ideas, but their ability to identify the weakness and risk of any new proposal that is flagged with them is very impressive indeed. That is important. People may say, 'They're just stoppers,' but, as someone such as myself who is forever on the lookout for problems to fix or new opportunities to progress and promote, I have always appreciated the capacity of the Public Service to critically assess the merit of suggested new initiatives. I think they often may have been somewhat frustrated by me having another idea. Their day was already full without me coming up with another idea for them to give me some feedback on, but they have saved me from myself on many occasions. They have also given me the confidence to drive on with some initiatives, if those initiatives survived their scrutiny. It is a good team effort. It is a good marriage of skills and strengths and it has been an important part of my experience with the Public Service. I thank the many public servants who have assisted me and the government so effectively. In this regard, I would like to make special reference to those at DFAT and Austrade. They are the department and agency that I have had the most time with over the last three years—the most time in any period during the 12 years.
Trade negotiations can be very gruelling and intellectually very challenging. The skills and persistence of those supporting me in negotiating the three free trade agreements and the Trans-Pacific Partnership has, I think, led to our trade team establishing an outstanding global reputation for excellence and achievement. I recall that the last of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations—we had many, many sessions over the last two years lasting days on end—was excruciating. It went on for days. On some issues there was just us negotiating with the US. The talent of our young lawyers was unbelievable. They armed me every day and every night. I think we had 10 negotiations in 2½ half days and seven hours of sleep. We came back again and again. They were lining up against some of the US's best people, people with 20 years more experience than our team had. And yet the quality of our people was such that they delivered. They delivered under the pressure and all the sense of authority coming from the other side of the table. It was a great thing for our country. That is the point. They did the job for us.
That showed that you can give a lot of responsibility to younger people. In so many cases, they will stand up to it. We need to keep our eyes open for that. That is another thing to watch for in the Public Service. I observe in so many different departments that so much is focused on seniority and not on potential. We have to back some young talent some of the time. If they do not live up to it, so be it. But many of them will, and we will be the better for it.
I must say in regard to those agreements that in the years to come I really am optimistic that these agreements will be viewed as a very positive legacy of this government in terms of making a very material contribution to our long-term prosperity. All of those who have been involved—and there have been literally hundreds—from my personal office through to the department should be very proud. A lot of the industry groups put in serious amounts of time. You hear all this business about negotiating in secrecy, but we had thousands of consultations. My office alone had hundreds. Then there were the officials we had who were experts in different areas across all portfolios talking to people. You cannot negotiate something of enormously complicated structure and content across dozens of different industry sectors, service operations and all the rest without having expertise, knowledge and experience from practitioners giving you advice and saying, 'That won't work. That will work.' It is a very iterative process. It is just those who really are opposed to trade who are picking up slogans and notions to try to do anything in their power to ensure that we do not seek to pursue more trade and investment opportunities.
As with DFAT, Austrade have truly excelled in their efforts to support me as the first ever federal minister with trade and investment responsibilities. That inclusion of investment in the portfolio I think has been an inspired initiative. They are two sides of the same coin. I found that the trade work was almost all government to government. If the trade work was all I did I would have been in a position where I would hardly have ever met any of the senior business people from other parts of the world. I would know those from Australia but not other parts of the world. The trade agreements and the investment role and the capacity of Austrade to ramp up with very senior people in that role has meant that I now have personal friends from most of the very big companies that are important to us from so many countries of the world. I met with them sometimes two, three or four times, if not more. The potential then to help other colleagues and other businesses in Australia and be a facilitator and also to do my job on trade was greatly expanded. All of that intelligence is extraordinarily important. I think that must become an ongoing feature.
Bear in mind that Austrade had never really done things on the scale we did them before. In China they met with 700 people in 2014. In India they met with 450 people in eight cities over a week in 2015. In Indonesia they met with 350 business people across five cities. In the US this year they met with 320 people across nine cities. Then the team led by Steven Ciobo met with 1,000 people in China across 12 cities. The response was unbelievable. The capacity of Austrade to line up business people from the Chinese side with seniority and a level of enthusiasm to do business was just incredible. That is the consistent message I got back from so many of them. We had 350 investors from 20 countries at a major conference for northern Australia last year in Darwin, with over 100 investment-ready projects. I have had 80 investment roundtables in 28 countries. That was all structured and all those people identified by Austrade. They know their patch.
It is the only area of government that has a truly commercial interface. The rest of the Public Service have some other very important roles, but I think you have to protect Austrade at all costs and bolster it. At different times the Prime Minister, the finance minister, the Treasurer and many other ministers need that sort of advice. If we have a significant cell of investment expertise which is keeping us in touch with the world it can provide a great opportunity for us. For all of that, I am very grateful for their professionalism and the extent of the support I have been given.
I just want to reflect on the fact that there have been some agreements et cetera which we have been fortunate enough to conclude, but there is still so much more to do.
The opportunity in our region, you have heard me say it at other times and I will not go on about it, for the first time since European settlement we have got all the drivers—not all the drivers, but most of the drivers—of global growth in our region, in our backyard instead of 12,000 miles away. This is extraordinarily important, and it is going to be that way for the rest of this century, if not much longer. India and China are inexorably going back to where they were for 18 of the last 20 centuries: as part of the centre of economic and political gravity in the world. They are heading back in that direction; they will share it with the United States, in my view. It has all sorts of consequences. We have to keep an eye on all these things from a security point of view and other points, but it is full of opportunity—unbelievable opportunity. We are in the same time frame, we complement greatly what they want we need. We want to sell our services and our products—they are clean green healthy products. They all need to move to services based economies because that is where the jobs are. There are still hundreds of millions in so many of those countries around us who are coming into, and wanting to come into, the middle class. It is something that has to be sung from the rooftops.
It is one thing to have some architecture in place; it is another thing for that to be taken up. For a lot of that architecture we have concessions that no other country has. In time they will give these concessions to others. We have a first-mover advantage which we have to take advantage of. One of the reasons I am stepping down and going to the private sector is to try and do whatever I can to promote Australian companies going into the region, especially the services companies and to promote companies from the region to come into Australia with trade and investment. Otherwise these things can just drift and others can take up the opportunities and we will miss it. We could set ourselves up for a century of very significant contributions to our prosperity and a lot of opportunities for our young people.
I would also like to say that I have also been blessed with an extraordinarily supportive party membership. I have nearly 700 members in my electorate. From the time I arrived it was only nine weeks before the election in 2004 and there was not a lot of time but there was so much experience in my electorate in running campaigns. They just took over; I was a figurehead. Their machine just worked, and I did not have to spend a minute on a lot of the logistics or any of those things. It all just happened, and that has been the experience ever since. They will do another great job this time around with Tim Wilson, my successor, who will be a very good member in this House. As always, you cannot take a seat for granted. We have to get on with the job and get him there, but he has the backing of so many. There are the chairs of my electorate council, those who have volunteered for the executive committee over the years, others who have been members of my campaign committee, the branch chairs, the hundreds of booth workers, Tim Wildash, Tammy van Weiss and other members of the Bayside Forum. They have all contributed enormously to my effectiveness by taking many, many loads off me. Having been federal Director and involved with that lot of marginal seats in particular, where there were not big party bases, I know the prospective candidate had so much to do in the mechanics—everything to do, to manage, to organise—and to get the horsepower out there. I have had none of that to do. It is unbelievably beneficial in freeing up your time to do all the other things I mentioned right at the outset in terms of our formal job as a representative for that seat. I thank all of those people again—too many to mention by name. I really value them; I value their friendship, I value their commitment to the Liberal Party and the sacrifices they make. So many of them just want to see a good country for their kids and their families and they are prepared to go that extra mile to do it. I really admire what they do.
I have greatly enjoyed the interaction with my constituents. I think I said last time, on 11 February, that you just do not know—if you have been in local government, you may have some idea—how you will get on with all this meet and greet and all the rest of it. I have thoroughly enjoyed it; it is almost relaxation from me from other things to go and have a beer down at the yacht club, as we do in the Bayside. You can all eat your hearts out, but it is a lovely part of the world. There are so many times that my wife Maureen and I have pinched ourselves at the good fortune of being part of that community. I want to put that on the record.
As I said earlier, I have had the opportunity on 11 February to make some remarks. In those comments by express sentiments my wife and family. I can't think of any better way of saying what I wanted to say than what came off the top of my head that afternoon. With your indulgence, could I just read that paragraph again, because I think it is worth my wife and family hearing it.
I thank in particular my wife of 42 years, Maureen. I can remember what my father said when I told my parents that, at the tender age of 23—
she was actually 21, but I was 23—
Maureen and I had got engaged. My father is not one to give a lot of advice or anything, but he said to me, 'Son, you've chosen a very accomplished partner. You're going somewhere—I don't know where it is—but you've got an accomplished partner who will be able to travel with you.' How very true that has been. She is a woman of great consequence, in my view and I think in the view of others—
Some in this place know her very well—
She is an elegant person who has been a great support. I have done well over 7,000 domestic flights in my career and now a few international flights have been added to that list. She is quite an independent person who, more than anything, brought up our kids and was a very good English teacher at the same time.
We are a very close family. We are very proud of our three kids. They have all made their own way, but they have been enormously supportive. In fact, we left them in Sydney when we went to Melbourne. They were all living with us when the opportunity came up. We had three nights to make a decision. We had not been in Melbourne for 20 years. We had been in Canberra and then Sydney. They had never lived in Melbourne. They were all in their first jobs, more or less. We had three nights to decide, and they supported us. Actually, it is worth thinking about, for some of you, because it made them stand on their own two feet very quickly—and they were old enough to do it. But it cost me a fair bit in subsidies for rent for a couple of years! But we are very close and I am very proud of them, and they have been so supportive all the way through. Pip, my daughter, gets very defensive if there is any bad press around. That is a nice feature. I tell her it is just part of the job. Their three respective partners are very lovely people. In the last two years, they have produced four grandchildren, which is a new stage in our life which I am really enjoying.
I would also like to acknowledge my beloved parents, who at 92 and 87 are still going strong. In fact, the old man bought a new car at 90, after he had his knee done. And he picked the sports model, so he has a spoiler and mag wheels, which my sisters in particular are not too keen on.
I have had lots of opportunities in this place, on the backbench economics committee, initially, then as chair of the Howard government's Taskforce on Workplace Relations; parliamentary secretary for immigration, Minister for Vocational and Further Education; shadow minister for foreign affairs, for infrastructure and for climate change; chair of the Coalition Policy Development Committee, along with shadow minister for finance; and of course, for the last three years, Minister for Trade and Investment. It has been a roller-coaster for me, but it is the nature of my skill set in many ways, as a sort of generalist, to get across a lot of things. I have enjoyed it all immensely.
Being in opposition for those six years reminded me again—like my time as federal director, which was mainly when we were in opposition—what a soul-destroying experience that is and, when you do get into government, how much you need to really value it. By God, value it, because you have so many opportunities—and you have none on the other side of this chamber—to fulfil what you came here to do, and that is to make life better for our community. It is a great privilege. There is often anxiety and all the usual things associated with making progress and getting things done, but once you have done it, if it works out, it is enormously satisfying. It is like a Melbourne Cup: they can never take it off you. They cannot take it off you. You have it there and, when things get worse in life, as it does at times, you can draw strength from your achievements in this place. It is a real privilege for us all.
In the middle of all those different roles, I had that problem with mental health. I will not go over it to any extent again, because I did on 11 February. I want to acknowledge Malcolm, and Tony Abbott; they were both enormously supportive and understanding. They gave me the space to try and get on top of it, which I was determined to do, after finally confronting something I had had for 43 years. The six months of experimentation with different medication, the side-effects and all the rest, straddled the time between Malcolm's first leadership experience and Tony Abbott taking over, so they both had big input at different stages. I also want to acknowledge all my colleagues, including the other side of the chamber, for the sort of 'business as usual' approach that people took. It was very important to me. I was able to do what I had to do but I was also able to come back and be judged only for what I was doing, not for what had happened during that period. The support of my personal staff during that time and the unrelenting support of my wife were very important, of course.
I achieved what I wanted to achieve early on, and that was to beat this damn thing and be able to demonstrate that, if you cannot beat it, you can manage it. That is as good as beating it. In 85 per cent of cases, you can manage it so that you can lead a normal life. Younger people can actually can beat it. If you get it early, and in most cases it starts in the teenage years or early adulthood—75 per cent of cases start then—it is a lot easier to resolve permanently. But, for older people and for some of those younger ones as well, in 85 per cent of cases you can manage it. If you think of the hundreds of thousands who are out there avoiding the issue, not admitting to it and not wanting to, afraid of the stigma, their lives would be materially different if they just picked up the phone and found a psychiatrist or psychologist, made an appointment and saw where they could go from there. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that you could do that.
After getting management of that problem, the trust placed in me after I came back from that and, again, the way in which everyone just got on with it enabled me to have other positions and perhaps to get to the job I have had for the last three years, which, when I look back, is probably the job that I have been training for for 30 years—the sweet spot for me, in some regards. As the Reverend Bill Crews said to me not so long ago, 'You once had a secret; now you've got a story.' It is a lovely line, because that story can help a lot of others.
In conclusion, colleagues, after 35 years in and around politics, 12 in this place, I do view this profession as a very noble profession. I just ignore all the commentary and the cheap shots and all the rest. This is a very noble profession. This is a place where you are doing significant things—both sides are. Being in opposition is a soul-destroying but very important part of this. We have been there; Labor is there at the moment. That is the way it goes. But I am enormously proud just to have been part of this institution, if you like, and this profession. Every day, our job is to reconcile hundreds of competing interests, and it is no easy task, as we all know, but it is so unbelievably satisfying when you get it right. And we are getting a lot right, and I hope we are going to see the rewards.
To the Prime Minister, to senior colleagues and to all of us: I hope that you all see the rewards for the work. I will just be a Joe Citizen at that stage. As I said before, I have such enthusiastic and significant belief in the quality of the team that we have—not just the team we have in the executive positions but the backbench is the most talented backbench I have seen in my 35 years. They will keep the pressure on the frontbench but will also move through the ranks in time. It could mean that, if we do the job properly on this side of politics, we can be a big part of the next 20 to 25 years of government in this country. So good luck with all of that. I will be cheering from the bleachers.
I not only thank my colleagues for the friendship and the support in so many ways, as I have referred to, but also acknowledge the intent and the efforts of those on the other side of the chamber. We all come here with an intent to do good—well, almost everybody. I think that is true of equal numbers on the other side. It is a very important part of the process, this Westminster system. It is a system which pits one against the other. So does our legal system and many parts of our systems. But it works, though sometimes it looks a bit messy.
I also acknowledge, as others have: the clerks, the attendants, the Comcar drivers, the dining room staff, the cleaners and Domenic and his team from Aussie's—all part of this institution and all make it so much easier for us to do our job. I very much admire the contribution they make and the pride they take in what they do around here. You can see it. You can see how they feel. They know they are part of something significant here and it is reflected in the pride they take in their work and the pride they take in looking after us.
I said in my maiden speech:
From as early as I can remember, my mother and father instilled in me and my eight brothers and sisters that opportunity and freedom would come through education, personal responsibility and self-belief; that our destiny was largely in our own hands—how hard we studied and worked, the opportunities we took, how we dealt with people. I grew to believe that I was responsible for charting my own course—that I was free to follow my dreams, make my own mistakes, take the consequences of my decisions.
I feel satisfied that I leave this place having remained true to those sentiments and undertakings, but I also feel immense gratitude for the opportunities that have been provided to me over these 12 years. I will miss it, but I am also excited about the next chapter. I look forward to maintaining strong contact and very strong support from my colleagues. I wish you all the best, Prime Minister, for the upcoming election. You are putting an enormous amount into it. I thought yesterday's document was a cracker. It starts to show that we have a plan and we can deliver the stability and we can maintain the prosperity. Bear in mind that we are still the strongest growing developed country in the world. We often forget that, or many do. So, thank you. It has been a privilege and a great pleasure.
As this is my last speech in this place, I have to say that I rise with a sense of emotion, pride and humility. It is an absolute privilege to serve in the Parliament of Australia and, can I say, being only one of nine people since Federation to represent the seat of Maranoa, I find it hard to find the words to express the gratitude that I feel and the thanks that I owe to so many people for my time in this place. I say 'emotion' because I thought long and hard about whether I would retire. Also, there are some people in those dreadful drought areas in the west of my electorate who are going into their fourth year of drought, where their properties are destocked and their communities are wondering whether it will ever rain again or whether they will ever recover. The last thing I wanted them to feel was that I was abandoning them. We have done a lot. We were able to achieve a lot. We were able to get some programs in place that will help those on the land and those in the towns who are feeling the continued effect of a long drought that shows no sign of breaking.
I grew up in western Queensland. I was born in Roma. Actually, some of you would know Roma for other reasons. It is the great rugby league town, with players such as Willy Carne, Darren Lockyer, Ray Higgs and, of course, Artie Beetson. I went to school with Artie in my very early days in Roma. In fact, I still recall taking a sandwich to school for Artie. We would sit down together under a tree and have lunch. Artie being of an Indigenous background experienced extreme disadvantage. As little kids it was good to be able to sit down together, as we did in those days. There was not the sort of discrimination then that some communities have today. I remember later in life telling my young sons, who were playing rugby league for the little under six-stone Greens or at a carnival down at the Redcliff Peninsula, how I knew Artie Beetson. They said, 'Oh, dad, you must be joking.' It was not until we were walking across an oval one day and Artie was walking towards me and he said 'G'day, Scottie. How are you?' that my little boys believed me. Dad does not tell stories like that; it was a true story.
Before I came into this place in 1990, I had had a background in running a property and growing up on the land. I had been to school in Roma. We went out onto land at Muckadilla. There was the Muckadilla State School, which is one of those schools that has a composite class—seven grades in one classroom, with one teacher. There were four ponies in the school ground, one of them being mine. It was a typical scene in many country towns when I was growing up in western Queensland. I grew up on the land and so I know what it is like to have to send your children away to get an education beyond year 7 and the cost associated with that. I think the member for Wide Bay, the former Deputy Prime Minister, touched briefly on this. There is a lot more work to do in this space, as he outlined. I also know the wonderful joy you feel when you have a good season and also the heartbreak when the season turns against you or international commodity prices are corrupted and you are at the end of the line and feel the effect of that.
I have to say that when I entered this place there were floods right across western Queensland. Charleville was well and truly under water. I had been appointed to do something overseas at that time. I was visiting what was called in those days the USSR. I was behind the Iron Curtain. So I knew nothing of the fact that my electorate was under water. John Kerin, the agriculture minister at the time, had sent me to do a genetic comparison trial between Australian merinos and Russian merinos. The other thing that happened very quickly at that time was the collapse of the Reserve Price Scheme, which then saw the collapse of the wool industry. We, in opposition, and the government had to look at how we could deal with a scheme that had been reasonably successful for a long time but it had built up a stockpile of wool which was going to mean that prices may not return to levels to meet that Reserve Price Scheme for some time. The moment we started to talk about it was the moment that the buyers around the world ceased to buy wool. They knew the day that we in the opposition or the government lowered support for that scheme, which was operated by the Australian Wool Corporation, would be the day that someone else would get wool cheaper than them. So the discussion was: how do you deal with the four million bale stockpile? Do you take it down to the Pacific Ocean? Some said we should burn it. I said, 'You don't do that.' Others said: 'We've got 180 million sheep in Australia. That is twice as many as we really need. There is a lack of confidence. Maybe we should shoot 30 or 40 million sheep.' Maybe that was part of a solution. Being a woolgrower myself and knowing what the wool industry meant to so many of my western Queensland towns, it was something that I would never, ever support.
The western Queensland towns that were dependent on the wool industry—the many shearers, their teams, their families—have never recovered. We have lost the shearers. We have lost their families. Many of the communities out there are half the size they were 20 years ago. Whether we can recover them in the future is still open for discussion. Outback tourism is going to be part of the solution. People have adjusted into other enterprises in the pastoral zone, but that will not take up the slack in employment that the wool industry was able to provide and that underpinned the economies of so many western Queensland towns.
Further east, there was an opportunity to farm the land, to move into cereal production. Where there is irrigation potential, as the now Deputy Prime Minister would be aware, in the St George, Condamine and Balonne area and across the rich soils of the Darling Downs there are other opportunities. I had to bring my boys to Canberra. They were very, very tough times indeed, because I felt I had to be the voice of these people and bring their concerns to the parliament. I was only one amongst 150 voices. Many sought my counsel but found it difficult to understand how we might be able to find a new way forward.
I had the enormous privilege of being awarded a Nuffield scholarship whilst I was still on the land. That took me to the United kingdom and Europe to study the common agricultural policy of Europe. The large bulk of our commodities, particularly raw wool product, was sold there. For me, it was a life-changing experience. I still very proudly wear the Nuffield tie, which I have on tonight. I say to anyone out there involved in agriculture or associated with agriculture: if you are given the opportunity and awarded a Nuffield scholarship, take it with both hands. I do encourage young farmers to take it up. Jim Gelch, the director of Nuffield Australia, now Nuffield International, has scholars on a global focus tour in the Americas. It really was one of the most life-changing experiences for me. It enabled me to look outside of my own community at the global opportunities that were presenting themselves and continue to present themselves and allowed me to think a little differently to the way I had been, perhaps—not being insular but looking at Australia's market potential only.
The electorate at Maranoa is the largest in Queensland and people often say to me, 'Well, how big is that?' I have very good colleagues and friends from Victoria who ask me. I say, 'Let me put it this way. When I'm in the largest town in my electorate'—Warwick, on the New England Highway, in the east of the electorate—'it's actually a shorter drive to Melbourne than it is to the west of my electorate.' It is three times the size of Victoria, and I have been privileged to have many of you visit my electorate. Prime Minister, it is further from Warwick to Birdsville than it is from Warwick to Melbourne. When the sun is rising Warwick, it will be 56 minutes before it rises in Birdsville, and yet it only takes 24 hours to go around the world. But stretched across that vast land are mineral wealth, agricultural wealth and enormous opportunity. As you said, Prime Minister, 'There has never been a more exciting time to be in government;' nor has there ever been a more exciting time for many parts of my electorate with the opportunities that are in front of us, and I am just as excited about them as well.
I want to talk a little about the great outback. I talk about the great, rich soils of the Darling Downs. My colleagues across the border, including the Deputy Prime Minister, would say, 'Your soils are not as good as ours,' but that is a debate we will have outside of this place. I know the member for Parkes would say that about his electorate, but I can assure you that the rich Darling Downs contain magnificent soils—and I have little story to tell about them.
But the great outback, where the inland rivers run into great Lake Eyre—the Diamantina, the Georgina, the Thomson and the Barcoo, all of those great rivers out there that empty sometimes, with a little bit this year going into Lake Eyre—form part of, I think, the character of us as Australians. In fact, that part of Australia inspired some of our great bush ballads to be written, and I refer particularly to Banjo Paterson. When he was at Dagworth Station in 1895, north-west of Winton in the electorate of Maranoa on the Diamantina, he sat down one night with Christina Macpherson, who played a Scottish tune, Craigielea, and he put words to that tune, the great tune that we call Waltzing Matilda. Prime Minister, I note also that, whilst it is our unofficial national anthem, it is so often used. Indeed, it was used on Anzac Day this year, when you were given the salute as you arrived at the parade ground for the Anzac Day service at the Australian War Memorial—a few bars of Waltzing Matilda were heard. I think it grabs all of us from time to time, because there is a story there to be told in that song.
But I raise it tonight for another purpose, because the custodian of that song is the Winton Shire Council. About 15 months ago, tragically, the centre that they had established in town to collect the artefacts and the stories and tell the history, as part of a tourism venture for people to visit and learn more about the story of Waltzing Matilda, was burnt down—but their spirit has not burnt down with it. They are going to rebuild that centre. They do have insurance money, and they have applied for some money under our Stronger Regions program. During this campaign, I will be supporting their quest for some money to help that community re-establish the heart of the Waltzing Matilda Centre again. I use this time, Prime Minister, tonight to highlight that as an opportunity, but I say it could come from both sides of the House. I think we all see Waltzing Matilda as our national song; $6 million would make all the difference—they have $12 million of their own money. The other thing it would do, with this dreadful drought that still prevails out there, is bring job opportunities in the construction phase. Purchasing products locally is one of the things we are doing now, but rebuilding that centre would support a community to re-establish the heart and soul of the story behind Waltzing Matilda, which Banjo Paterson sat down in the electorate of Maranoa—which I am so proud to represent for another day or so—in 1895 and wrote the words for. I will leave it for others to see what they think of that.
Another story I wanted to touch on is the great story of Qantas. The first Qantas board meeting was in Winton. Its heritage now rests in Longreach. They used to make their aircraft at Longreach in the early days—they actually made them there, constructing them out of timber and fabric. There is a story there. It was the inspiration of McGinness, Fysh and McMaster, three veterans of the First World War who came back to Australia after Gallipoli. They flew in a light aircraft in those very intrepid early days and thought, 'Maybe one day we'll be able to fly around the world'—and so we do. I am so proud of Qantas, with its birthright in the electorate of Maranoa. In four years time it will celebrate 100 years. It is the oldest continuous airline in the world and I think we are all proud of the service it gives to us. You step on board a flight when you are overseas, and it does feel like home when you get on, and you know you will get home with the wonderful record that they have as an airline. I will leave it, perhaps, for others to look at whether we can support that, but I would say there is an opportunity there to look at how we can support Qantas. I have spoken to Alan Joyce about this and I think the Qantas board must also step forward and help with the centre in Longreach, where the wonderful story of Qantas, of the history and the heritage, is told. Indeed, that story also forms part of our nation's heritage.
Prior to the last election, when Tony Abbott was our Leader of the Opposition, he will recall that we committed $6 million to the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre to establish and build on the history of the stockmen and the heritage of our outback, including some recent additions to the gallery—the story of the Aboriginal stockmen. We have been able to capture their stories. The walkout at Wave Hill from the Vesteys property has now been recorded. Maybe it was down here in some of the archives, but it is now being told out where it should be told—out in the outback. There is a great story there. We look at our national institutions here in Canberra and in our capital cities, which we do support, and we should support rightly some of the institutions out there where communities are doing a great deal, putting in a lot of their own money through councils and other ways to preserve what is an essential and important part of our nation's heritage.
Prime Minister, Mr Speaker and my colleagues here, I had a long fight and a long battle, you might say, to see that the outback of my electorate was connected to the main optic fibre network. I have to say that the contracts were signed last week. It is a great example of three levels of government working together—Commonwealth government, state government and local government. Also, the contractors here are Telstra. I know when we lost government in 2007 we had plans to do it. We were going to use the Future Fund to do things like that into the future. We have had difficulties in convincing some people. For towns of only a couple of hundred people, maybe satellite can deal with that into the future. But satellite was not going to satisfy the councils in the Barcoo and Diamantina shires and it was not going to satisfy the member for Maranoa. On 1 July I think they kick off construction.
Let me give you an example of the sort of population that can swell into those communities. Early in July, Jimmy Barnes and Paul Kelly are going to be raising money for type 1 diabetes research. They are a holding a big two-day concert on Big Red, the last big sand dune in the Simpson Desert. They have had to cut off the tickets they have sold to that at 5,500 people. They are coming from all over Australia. So it is not a community of 180 or 200. It will be a community of over 6,500 when you count the children as well. In 12 months time, people there will be able to enjoy better communications than are there now. I use that as an example of the fact that for many of the communities we look at we cannot look at the static population as the census figures; we have to look at the transient population that comes from time to time, particularly during our tourism season. So I am delighted that we have made a great deal of progress in that area.
I wanted to touch on the great soils of the inner part of the electorate—Darling Downs down through Stanthorpe, the wine and tourism area of the Granite Belt and Kingaroy, the South Burnett, which is also in the electorate of Maranoa and, of course, has the farm of the member for Wide Bay. I have been making sure that it is well cared for in his so-frequent absence, as the member for his family in that area.
I want to touch on the resource companies. We have had a lot of difficulty with those resource companies. In the early days with coal seam gas they believed that they had more rights to the land than the title deed holders. We took on a battle there where the coal mines wanted to mine coal at Warra and a place called Haystack. The member for Groom would know it well and would know many of the grain growers in that area. I will never forget we had to take them on because that was soil that was prime agricultural land. There are lands that we must reserve, put a circle around and say, 'We will not be mining those areas to extract coal.' There are other areas where we can, where there is lesser soil. There was a campaign which I supported which was run by that community. I think we mustered about 700 or 800 people in a meeting in Dalby one day to start the planning process. They said, 'You can't eat coal for breakfast.' But I know what you can eat for breakfast; it is the food that is produced from that soil. I have to say we won the debate. It is classified as prime agricultural land. And we must never lose that commitment to support prime agricultural land. Where the reason is good prime agricultural land will prevail. I am sure you, Prime Minister, will know of some of the debates that have been in the Hunter Valley recently. I think we have to draw a line sometimes, and say, 'That's it; we'll go elsewhere,' until it is absolutely essential and technology will allow it, if we really do need what is under that prime agricultural soil to be mined.
I want to touch on my time as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the minister for defence personnel. It was a huge privilege to have been appointed a minister by John Howard and Tim Fischer, as Deputy Prime Minister. I had more than 350,000 entitled veterans to look after. I never saw myself as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs but rather as the veterans' minister, because it was their voice that I needed to bring to cabinet to make sure that we were, as we often said, looking after the veterans. We had to deal in those early days with the issue of PTSD. It was not really recognised as a war related injury. I well remember going to America, looking at what the US was doing and talking about whether it could be acknowledged as a true causal effect of service in a war zone.
We had to deal with the privatisation of the veteran hospitals. Concord went to the state of New South Wales. Daw Park in South Australia went to the state government. But the one in Greenslopes in Hollywood in Western Australia was sold to the Ramsay Group. The veterans came with us. That is what was important. When we had completed that process, the department was actually the purchaser of health care for veterans not the provider of health care for veterans. We were spending something like $9 billion a year purchasing health care for veterans, under the entitlement and under Medicare item numbers, where we had agreements with doctors and providers of health care for veterans.
I was also struck by the wonderful people whom I had the responsibility for to be their voice here. We did a number of pilgrimages to Hellfire Pass, scene of the horror of Hellfire Pass in Thailand, where we established a commemorative pavilion. I remember taking a pilgrimage to Sandakan—to the death march—where 1,850 were interned at the prisoner of war camp that was under the control of the Japanese. But I will never forget, in my very first year as the minister, leading a pilgrimage to Vietnam to the battlefield of Long Tan on 18 August 1996—30 years on from that battle. We had people who were young children when they lost their father—they never knew their father; killed in Vietnam. You could probably tell that story throughout history, with many of the other wars and conflicts of which we have been involved in. But I will never forget standing at the Long Tan Cross for a very simple service on 18 August 1996 with veterans and a war widow. We had a very simple service. The war widow came over to me and put her arms around me. She said, 'Minister, thank you for bringing me here. This means so much to me.' It was on that day 30 years earlier that she lost her husband on that very battlefield. She felt a spiritual connection to him. It was very much a healing process for her. I learned a great deal from her at that time.
We talk of loss. I contrasted her loss with my life. That was the year that Joan and I were planning our wedding. We had had the joy of watching our own children come into the world, grow up and have a business. We had had a wonderful life together. She had had 30 years as a war widow, being cared for by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. So it bought into very sharp focus my responsibility to the veterans, the war widows and the children that were left behind. So when we talk of loss, it just reminded me every day, as I was the minister, of my real responsibility to ensure that we always erred on the side of generosity with the entitlements that we provided to our veterans and war widows.
I will never forget meeting with Vivian Bullwinkel, the sole survivor of a massacre on Bangka Island. She came to me with those beautiful blue eyes she had—I will never forget them—and she said, 'Minister, do you think we could have a memorial on Anzac Parade just for service nurses?' I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'Well, service chiefs don't it, chief ministers don't want it, the National Capital Authority don't want it.' I said, 'I'll see what I can do. It will cost money.' She said, 'We might be able to raise some.' Vivian was the sole survivor of the massacre on Bangka Island. She was one of 23 nurses who had got ashore at Bangka Island from the Vyner Brookewhich is scuttled off Borneo. They were ordered into the ocean by a patrol of Japanese who picked them up, and they were machine gunned from behind. She miraculously survived. She was wounded but lay there in the water until dark, enabling the story to be told of the horror of that massacre.
I went up to the War Memorial one Sunday afternoon, as I was want to do some times, just to look around. I hoped that staff would not see me because I did not need staff to say, 'Minister, can we help you?' I went to the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier and I looked down Anzac Parade over the tomb and along the national axis through to Parliament House. I looked up at one of the 15 great stain-glassed windows. The central figure there is a nurse with a white veil and a red cape. I thought to myself: she is standing there right on the central axis. They have always been there. The simple inscription underneath her said, 'Devotion'. From that point, I went forward and I said, 'We are going to have to give this money, Prime Minister.' And we did. It is their memorial on Anzac Parade. I am very proud to say that it is their memorial. It honours the service nurses. If we think about our history, many of them in the First World War paid their own way to go to Gallipoli, Egypt and the Western Front to serve and to look after the sick, the dying and the wounded. So I believed it was more than appropriate that they be recognised on Anzac Parade.
I just want to end on a couple of points. I think the future for agriculture is extremely bright, with our free trade agreements that we signed with China, Korea and Japan. Only today I tabled a report into the inquiry we conducted into trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East. It really is an exciting time ahead for agriculture and for many of our other resources that we have in Australia. So it is going to be wonderful for, I believe, any primary producers, but they need to know that, at the end of the day, we will have competition from other countries. So the reforms that we do in this country in taxation and regulation, and in ensuring that our country is protected from the possible incursion of exotic diseases, are going to be extremely important into the future. The world does want our food. It is clean, it is green and it is fresh, and it is going to come into increasing demand in the future.
On that note, I just wanted to say something about the decision by the Treasurer to not support the sale of Sidney Kidman's pastoral empire. I have to say that I agree with that decision. I had already been to see the Deputy Prime Minister in a bit of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, saying, 'I think we have a problem here.' I am not anti-foreign investment. In fact, the oldest investment that has ever come into Australia was through the Australian Agricultural Company, which was given a grant in 1824. It is now a publicly listed company. You can buy shares in it on the Australian Stock Exchange. I supported the sale of Cubbie to foreign interests—a Chinese private company, with an Australian company, Lempriere Australia, taking a 20 per cent interest in it.
Lempriere have been here since 1858. They are a wool-buying and mixed enterprise in agriculture and processing here and in New Zealand. They are a business operating in Australia. One of the concerns I had, as I know it—I am not on the Foreign Investment Review Board, nor have I been privy to any of the information the Treasurer may have been—is that a large parcel of these properties are in my electorate. There is capacity of over 70,000 head of cattle on those properties. People said to me, 'What is the business case that they have for this enterprise?' At Cubbie they have continued to produce cotton on those properties. They have purchased a cotton gin. They have expanded the operation. Lempriere Australia, with a business base in Australia, manages Cubbie with the private enterprise investment coming from China.
The Kidman purchase offer was from a Chinese government owned business enterprise with 20 per cent support from a rural property investment trust in Australia. It was not an operating business. The question I have been asked by constituents is: do they intend to continue the sort of operation they have or, as some have suggested, will they be taking most of the cattle live to China where, rather than here in Australia, they will add the real value in processing and feedlotting? I do not have these answers, but maybe we will find out whether there is any validity in them. There are suggestions that some of the business inputs—motor vehicles, steel and all the other inputs to a large cattle enterprise—might perhaps be imported directly out of China to these properties, so the stock and station agent in the towns would no longer be a provider of those and the motor machinery dealer would not be a provider of motor vehicles and repairs and tyres. These are questions I have been asked, Prime Minister, and I have said that I do not have the answer. I think that with any of these foreign investments we need to know the business case of what they are proposing behind it to ensure we do not see stranded assets as a result of an enterprise. I put that on the table tonight, not being opposed to foreign investment—in fact, I am a great supporter of it. As I said, I supported the sale of Cubbie almost to my political death, because I believed it was right and the business model was right.
I have to say some thankyous. I, like Warren Truss, found in a bit of clean up recently my first receipt, for joining the Young Country Party. It was probably more of a social club in those days, but we had a lot of fun. I think that was where we started to cut our teeth in terms of an interest in conservative politics. I want to pay tribute to those people who were with me then, who signed my receipt for 10 and sixpence—Philippa Henzel. I applied and joined voluntarily. The one ticket I cannot find is from when I was on cattle camps. The union official arrived at Kynuna Station, and tickets had to be written out for all the workers. We had to join; we had no option. I am really still searching for that AWU ticket. I had no choice in that, but I did have a choice in joining the Young Country Party and have voluntarily been a member ever since.
I pay tribute to some of the early presidents and the people who kept the party together through very difficult times: Sir Robert Sparkes, Don McDonald, David Russell and Jenny Russell. They were there because they believed in the conservative cause. I had a term as president of the National Party when Warwick Parer was president of the Liberal Party. Having both been in parliament we understood the importance of working together rather than fighting each other on the same side, which had been almost a sport for many years and kept us out of government in Queensland.
I acknowledge the great support that I have had from people in my home town of Roma. People who supported me way, way back when I joined the Country Party are still there today. It is truly a humbling experience to have people who have been with you so long, who are so loyal, handing out how-to-vote cards and still believing in you. It is extremely humbling to have them still supporting you so long later.
Thank you to my staff. Sandra Baker joined me not long after I became the member. She has been my chief of staff for almost all these 26 years. It is an extraordinary commitment to make to a member. One of the things I often say about staff is that they make you look good. It has been a full-time job for Sandra and other members of my staff to make me look good. I say thank you to all my ministerial staff in the department. They really are so good. Once again, they make you look good. They deal with the difficulties from time to time. They do not even bring it to you sometimes, but they are wonderful people and they have been so supportive over such a long time.
I want to touch on some other people: Allison Armstrong, the late Alf Golder and Lindsay Reardon, and Philippa House and Anne Gibbes from my home town. They have been underscoring my campaigns. It was nothing for them to do a thousand-kilometre round trip on a weekend to attend a divisional council meeting, using their own money and their own time. I thank them and recognise them.
We have a great candidate, David Littleproud, to run in the seat of Maranoa. I am looking forward to getting behind him and making sure that he does win. In my first term I went to second preferences to get elected. I said to him that he must not do that. He is working hard and he will be a great addition, and if he is elected he will be a great member for Maranoa.
Finally, when I think of achievements in Maranoa and achievement in life I think my greatest achievement is that of my family, who join me tonight. My wife, Joan, my daughter and son-in-law, my son who has come from Hong Kong, and another son who is in New York. It is a little far to travel but I know he is over there listening to us tonight online. Without their support I could never have done this job. My wife, Joan, is successful in her own life. She has broken three glass ceilings. She is the very first woman ever elected to the local council in my area and rose to be the deputy chairman of the Bungil shire council. Those were the days. When she first became the member, the men did not quite know how they were going to deal with a women on council—and they did not for a while, either. They would go to lunch at the club, go to the bar and Joan would sit outside, until they thought that there must be a better way, and there was. She was the first women ever to be appointed to the Rural Lands Protection Board in Queensland, dealing with obnoxious weeds, and also the first woman elected to the royal national association at the Brisbane Ekka. I am very proud of her achievements, not in the name of women but because of the respect that people have had for her and for her opinions. She has always been prepared to ask the question that needs to be asked. She has never been afraid to ask that question. She has been a great strength of mine. She has been the supporter of our children when I have not been there.