Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Let me commence by saying thank you to the very people who allowed me to be the member for Paterson: my constituents. It has been an honour, it has been a pleasure to serve you, but now is the time to say goodbye. But whilst I am retiring from politics, I am not retiring from life.
Just on 25 years ago I was out fishing with my very good friend Mike Warczak. My twin boys, Robbie and David, had just been born—a life-changing event by any means. The nation's economy was in a fine mess and the future for our youth was not all that inspiring—well, not to a new dad of twin boys. So, I was complaining, complaining and complaining, when Mike turned around and said words to the effect of, 'Shut up and fish or go into politics yourself and fix it.' It was an epiphany of sorts. I decided, on the spot, to do something about it. The passion was ignited. And so the long journey began. And here I am today, and the time has now come to reverse the scenario and to shut up and go fishing.
You see, back in February I fished the New South Wales Game Fishing Association Interclub out of Port Stephens—in which, by the way, we were just lucky enough to win champion boat, and I was crowned champion angler; just lucky, I guess—but it was not a celebration as much as a feeling of guilt that overcame me: a guilt that I should have been working for my electorate, not having those weekends off to fish. So, after all this time in politics as a candidate, as a member, I have decided it is time for some 'me time', without the associated guilt. And the only way I can do that as a marginal-seat member is to retire.
I remember vividly, just after the 1996 election, gathering just down the corridor in the government party room and then venturing into these halls of power, into this very chamber, scared and definitely shaking. I was standing there with my very dear friend Dr Brendan Nelson, the then member for Bradfield, and Joe Hockey, the then member for North Sydney—the three amigos, or so we were called. And I was struck in absolute awe at just being here at the very centre of all decisions for our nation—an immigrant boy who came to Australia at the age of three, whose life in Australia started at the Villawood migrant settlement camp with his struggling parents, Dave and Betty, and three siblings—and I see my sister Trish in the gallery today. We lived in a six-metre by 3.6-metre garage. It was called a 'temporary dwelling'. How could I be elected into these corridors of power in our nation's parliament?
Life was never easy for our family. Everything—and I mean everything—came through plain hard work and personal sacrifice. I might be a conservative Liberal, but I can guarantee you that there were no silver spoons in our household. I was asked at the time—sincerely, I guess—whether I was happy with my allocated parliamentary office. I immediately replied, 'I would have been happy to sit on a fruit box with a clipboard as my desk, such is the honour to be the 889th person ever elected to the House of Representatives in just on 95 years.'
As I said, I went into politics to make a difference—a difference not just for my children but for every child. All children need the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential. That is the strong part of the Liberal ethos, and nothing less is acceptable. Remember that no child is ever born bad. They are the result of the environment that we as parents—and in particular politicians—create for them. That is why I thought that the focus of last night's budget's was absolutely on track—supporting our young people to reach their maximum potential but providing real incentive and opportunity, providing the tax breaks so SMEs can grow and employ those young people. Government does not create the jobs; it simply provides the necessary pathway for businesses to do so.
Despite running in Dobell in 1993 I was first elected in 1996 as the member for Paterson, as part of that Howard class of '96—in fact, jointly with Nick Dondas. I had the most marginal seat here then, with a 622-vote margin. Who would have guessed that I would be the last of the New South Wales class of '96 in this parliament?
Redistributions have never gone well for me—losing the safer grounds and inheriting the harder areas. But somehow I still managed to grow my personal vote. The personal elation I felt back in 2004 to finally win the seat on primary vote alone, with 51.99 per cent of the electorate, was a feeling that was just too hard to describe or to dare ever imagine. And then to grow that to 53.86 per cent of the primary vote at the last election was beyond any comprehension. Again, I say thank you to my constituents.
I took a forced sabbatical in 1998, and then I was re-elected in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010 and again in 2013. The 'forced sabbatical'—which is my term for an election loss—in 1998 was actually a blessing in disguise, because, in 1996 when I was first elected, I entered into this parliament as a politician and I thought, like many others who come into this House, that I was someone important. It went to my head. However, the humility of losing in 1998 made me determined to come back in 2001 as a local member—always putting my constituency first. It is what built the strong bond between the late Don Randall and myself: sharing the common experience of both victory and defeat in marginal seats.
Bill Clinton, during his election for President of the USA, had a simple sign in his office, and it was: 'It's the economy, stupid.' In a marginal seat the sign, the slogan, is: 'It's the constituents, stupid.' You see, it is all about the constituents. For my constituents I have always had an open desk policy: I will meet with anyone on any issue at any time, whether it be state, federal or local government issues. Why? Because my constituents sought me out because they thought I might be able to help fix their problems. At times they just did not understand the difference between the levels of government or were simply so frustrated by the system, but they knew that the issue was so big for them that they needed help, my help. It was an honour and it was a privilege to have helped as much as I could. To each and every one of them I say, 'Thank you for putting your trust and your confidence in me and my team to do our best for you.'
My loss in 1998 was a mixture of GST, mostly guns and an awful lot of Pauline Hanson. The 1998 loss was also a blessing for another reason: it allowed me to reconnect with my three children, David, Robbie and Samantha—the very reason I went into politics. I acknowledge them in the gallery today. Those who are in safer seats may not realise that marginal seat politics is all consuming of both time and finances, sadly at the family's expense.
There have been so many local issues over the years. Within days of being elected I was contacted by local chicken grower John Wilkinson about a government regulation allowing for the importation of chicken meat—something that was signed off in the dying days of the former Labor government. The biosecurity concerns could have devastated our local chicken industry. They needed a champion so I donned the jersey. It was a bruising experience for me: my inexperience being carpeted by ministers and prime ministers, but it did not dampen my resolve. I had to stick up for my constituents, and I won. I won because we proved the protein testing presumptions were absolutely wrong.
The issues of RAAF Base Williamtown have been a long and continuing saga, whether it was fighting originally for the BAE lead-in fighter contract to be established at Williamtown or the continuing saga of aircraft noise. That was felt nowhere more on a constant basis than in Steele Street, Moxy Street and Slades Road at the very end of the runway. I acknowledge that Brendan Nelson, who was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence at the time, gave me the opportunity to do the right thing by my constituents and have them voluntarily acquired. Living under each and every fighter plane's take-off and landing is not a pleasant experience. Those houses were there before the airport. It now continues with the PFOS contamination emanating from Lake Cochrane at RAAF Base Williamtown. There is a lot of work to be done; there is a long way to go. As I have said in this House before, the government need to stop the seepage from Lake Cochran as a priority and clean the base up first. Only then can they work on the downstream solution.
There were issues such as fighting for road funding for the Pacific Highway, Buckets Way, Lakes Way or our local roads. It is always a challenge and there is never enough money. Also, there was the issue of fighting for shipbuilding and securing the purchase of the Tomago shipyard for Steve Forgacs from the Australian Submarine Corporation. The former member for Newcastle Alan Morris just sat back and watched, kind of like fiddling on the hill like Nero whilst Rome burnt. The same could be said for his successors in Newcastle. They are always happy to complain when in opposition but are never there to do the heavy lifting when needed in government.
The building of the Thornton Aspect school was a personal highlight of my career because it involved my community and its spirit more than any government or its funding. I remember clearly when Tim Austin came to my office during the 2010 election campaign with his young son, Joe, because there was no suitable school for his autistic son. I had read an article the day before that the Aspect school was being kicked out of a public school ground because of the Rudd BER program needing the space at the school grounds for a new building. As a parent who went into politics to make a difference for all kids, this was my personal test—the actual measure that I would be judged against. So, while Tim sat opposite me in my office, I called a person whom I am very proud to call a personal friend—family of sorts—for over 20 years, and that is Hilton Grugeon. I acknowledge Hilton and Bev in the gallery today. After outlining the issue, I asked Hilton if he knew where I could get a block of land to build a school. After a minute's very deafening silence, he said, 'Yep.' We call him 'grumble bum' by the way because he grumbles so much! Then he asked, 'How much money do you have?' and I said, 'Nothing.' There was silence again and then he said, 'Okay.' I thought I would push the boundaries a little further and I said, 'Hilton, would you mind helping to build the school?' After another very long minute of extremely deafening silence, he said, 'Well, how much money have they got?' I said, 'Very little, but this is important.' He said, 'Okay, we'll build a school.' He also said to Tim, 'With friends like Baldwin, who needs enemies?' So the Aspect autistic school was built. It was built in record time, in just over six months, by Hilton Grugeon and our community. People gave their products, their labour, their time, their money and their support. I say to everyone involved: thank you from the very bottom of my heart. You could imagine how we were all shocked and devastated when Tim succumbed to depression ended his own life.
As a former builder, I spent a fair while on the tools with my son, David, building and erecting the internal frames of the school. It was a great honour to work beside my son who had just finished his apprenticeship. He wanted to put something back into our community. I had forgotten how long my hamstrings once were as a former builder!
I have also taken pride in working with St Phillips at Salamander Bay, Medowie Christian School, the Maitland Christian School and my friend Ray Collins from Catholic Education—and I extend my best wishes to Ray as he has now announced that he is retiring—when we have established new schools and expanded schools.
I have also worked with the New South Wales government to fund new schools, such as the Tomaree Education Centre, the Great Lakes campus and the Bulahdelah Central School, as well as the many upgrades to existing schools in Paterson. Investing in a child's education is important, as is parental choice in education. An education invested in a child is the one thing that can never be taken away from a child, no matter what they do in life.
Yes, there have been challenges. I have had to work on many doctor shortages over the years, whether it be in Karuah, Bulahdelah, Dungog or Medowie to name but a few. The system of RRMA arrangements is just so wrong, but somehow with the support of various ministers through the years we have achieved results for our communities. I also enjoyed working with Dr Arn Sprogis, the then head of the Hunter division of general practitioners to establish a pilot program, the after-hours GP program, in Maitland in 1998—a program by which others can be measured.
I have always looked for a challenge. When I met the lovable 'Fat Freddy', the late Ross Presgrave, he was a champion of young people facing a challenge, whether it was diabetes or cancer. So the seed was sown for the Ronald McDonald beach house retreat at foster. We worked extremely hard together and secured both government funding and community support for the beach houses. I thank Tony Abbott as the then health minister for providing so much necessary funds. While I miss my good mate Ross, I thank him each and every time I drive across the bridge at Foster for the legacy that he created for the families of sick kids.
In my electorate we have had our fair share of natural disasters, from severe windstorms to floods to fires. Windstorms of the like never seen before wreaked havoc in Metford in 1998, a community I was living in. That havoc was replicated just a few years later up at the Barrington Tops and then at Bucketts Way. So many trees came down it could have kept the timber industry going for many, many years. But the greenie controlled ALP state government would not have a bar of it. They would not let the lumber industry go in and recover the fallen timber, instead preferring to shut down the industry in Gloucester, Bulahdelah and Dungog. It destroyed the lives of so many of the people who for generations had been in the lumber industry that supported our communities.
The many bushfires have always taken a large toll on my rural community. But my community has always grown from the experience stronger than ever before. Then there were the severe floods in 2007, 2015 and 2016, almost equalling the 1955 floods of Maitland. The loss of property does not even begin to compare with the loss of life experienced in the floods just a little over 12 months ago. It takes time to rebuild lives, confidence and infrastructure. We have amazing communities—strong and resilient—and they are rebuilding. Whether it was the visits by then Prime Minister Howard in June 2007 or then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015, these efforts let the community know that we cared and that we were trying to understand what they were going through.
We have amazing volunteer communities in Paterson. Whether it is the SES, the Rural Fire Service or Marine Rescue, each and every one of them inspire me when they put their lives on the line to help others. I am so grateful to them and so proud of them. It has been an honour to work with and for them. I salute their service. As I said, our communities are resilient and tough—but they need both moral and financial support when fires and floods ravage them.
There have been so many more issues that I could have gotten into today, but time will escape me. But I need to recognise that Lyme disease is a real disease affecting people in Australia and that appropriate funding for diabetes, particularly juvenile diabetes, needs to be secured. I was also very proud of securing the seed finances for our now world-famous Hunter Medical Research Institute at the John Hunter Hospital. I acknowledge it has been supported financially by both sides of parliament in this House, but it has also been built by our community. I dare to name the person who undertook the building at great personal cost. His name was Hilton Grugeon. I thank him.
There are many more issues that I could keep going on with and that I have raised in this House before, whether it is the way marine parks are structured or the supertrawler, the Geelong Star, which is just so wrong on so many fronts. That is my opinion. Over the years I have found that the bureaucracy does not always get it right. The role of a minister is to steer and direct policy to the bureaucracy in the national interest, not to be steered by the bureaucracy. I would say to ministers: just remember that bureaucracy is always in government, never in opposition.
I have had a very fortunate career, a career that I have enjoyed so much, particularly when I served the nation at a higher order. I was deeply honoured when then Prime Minister Howard called and asked me to be Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources. It was a whole new direction in my life, working on the action agendas then under Ian Macfarlane, my colleague sitting in front of me. There were new challenges. I took them in my stride, whether it was working on the JSF program, advanced manufacturing or the restaurant and catering industry and the furniture industry, to name a few. I acknowledge John Hart from the restaurant and catering industry in the gallery. He has been an absolute standout advocate for his industry. I was also able to go in part back to my natural home, the tourism industry. As a former operator who had some very, very serious skin in the game over the years, it was a challenge and an opportunity and I embraced it wholeheartedly.
Then after the 2007 election the then Leader of the Opposition, Dr Brendan Nelson, called and asked me to serve as the shadow minister for defence personnel and assistant minister for defence. I had the opportunity to hold Joel Fitzgibbon, the member for Hunter, to account over pay issues surrounding the SAS as well as his being compromised over using his official position for the benefit of others. He was the minister who started the Labor Defence budget cuts that ultimately led to the recent Newcastle shipbuilding closure and who, I must say, was aptly joined by the then member for Charlton, Greg Combet, as his junior Defence minister. As usual, Labor did nothing in government and then complained when in opposition.
I again remind the House that no new prime shipbuilding contracts were issued during the six years of a Labor government—none. That is why we have had the valley of death in shipbuilding. Contrast that with the three years of the coalition, where we have had the offshore patrol boats, the future frigates, the submarines—programs that are all on the go.
It was not just the ALP members who were silent about the lack of action, but their brothers in arms, the union movement, who said absolutely nothing during the six years of Labor only to find their voice when a change of government occurred. I say, 'Shame on these charlatans who take workers' hard-earned money and deliver absolutely nothing in return.' I also remember on the floor of this House holding Greg Combet personally to account over the cadmium issue in the Collins Class submarine. For a person who was so committed to workers' rights and safety, he sure dropped the ball when it came to military personnel and their safety!
It was also during this time as the shadow minister that it became my darkest hour. As shadow minister for Defence personnel my very first speech on the opening day of 42nd Parliament on 12 February 2008 was a condolence motion for Trooper David Pearce, Special Forces Sergeant Matthew Locke and Special Forces Commando Luke Worsley. This was to be followed sadly by many, many more—too many, in fact. It was not the speeches that affected me as much as attending the solemn ramp ceremonies and funerals, where at best I could describe myself as totally useless, other than to provide a strong shoulder to lean on in support of the families and friends gathered.
The one death that had the deepest effect on me was the loss of Sapper Darren Smith. I met Darren and his dog Herbie in Tarin Kowt in 2010 when I visited as part of a parliamentary exchange program. Darren was charged with the responsibility of explaining to me, the member for Fadden, the member for Wakefield and Senator Hutchens all about detecting and clearing of the IEDs. His role was to detect, to protect and to save the lives of his mates. Who would imagine that some two months later I would be attending his funeral? All I could say was that I was sorry and thank you for the sacrifice. Words are just never enough as you feel and share the pain.
Just as I will never forget the final Saturday night in Tarin Kowt when the Dutch forces group were hit by an IED and then the coalition response. All of a sudden war became very real; lives were lost yet the work had to be done to save the wounded and recover the dead. Most importantly, in the rebuilding of a sense of purpose, the esprit de corps to move on, remembering the very purpose for being there in the first place, I witnessed a camp go from shock to realisation to recovery all in a matter of hours. I have to say that just sitting behind a desk trying to develop or understand policy will never ever teach you that.
I also remember being in the Q store Tarin Kowt, hearing of how essential supplies—tourniquets, special dressings, bandages—were all being held up and then ringing the then Defence minister's office and advising that I had a press release ready to go in 48 hours, unless there was action on the hold-ups. I am glad to say that press release never had to go out. I also remember coming back to the Defence committee of this parliament and raising the question about the need for short barrels for the Styres for our troops and night-vision glasses that only required one hand to use, not two. This was a request from those on the front line, in harm's way. They wanted immediate solutions. I could never accept the answers from those who just sat behind desks and whose greatest danger was stabbing themselves with a pen.
During this time I also worked with my friend and colleague, Louise Markus, the member for Macquarie, on the Defence Force Death Benefits Scheme and the inequities. Labor, under Minister Snowdon, had promised action under the Podger review, yet, despite six years, delivered absolutely nothing except excuses. It took a coalition government to deliver the promises. I am so proud to have co-written the policy with my colleague. I do not make promises lightly.
I have always enjoyed the long and challenging journey with the Joint Strike Fighter, in particular the in excess of $1 billion that is being spent on RAAF base Williamtown redeveloping and preparing for its introduction. I really look forward to the first Royal Australian Air Force badged Joint Strike Fighter arriving at Williamtown in my electorate.
As I said previously, tourism is one of my natural fits. When the then opposition leader Tony Abbott offered me the opportunity to shape the coalition's tourism policy in 2010, I jumped at the chance. Immediately, I developed tourism roundtables; I relentlessly engaged stakeholders; I worked through all the issues. Together we developed a strong policy that the industry owned, because the industry developed it. I acknowledge one of my staff, Alistair Mitchell, who is here today and who was a key part of that. It is the very policy that has been introduced by the coalition that is ensuring that we grow our share of the international tourism pie.
Policies that moved tourism into its natural home, away from industry into foreign affairs and trade, that froze the passenger movement charge for three years, that saw the end to dabbling in domestic tourism market—which is the responsibility of the states—to become more internationally focused. It is a policy that saw an end to just backing winners to backing the industry as a whole, to funding that supported demand driven infrastructure, a policy that opened up new horizons with China, with easier multi-entry visa access.
But more, much more, needs to be done in such a dynamic, evolving market. Government needs to continue listening to and working with the industry, the very people with the skin in the game, who create the opportunities for our nation. They need to be listened to about penalty rates on weekends, which are killing the tourism experience. Let me make it very clear: tourism is all about the experience!
With Nola Marino, the member for Forrest, I went down to Margaret River as the shadow minister. That is a world-class destination, second only to Port Stephens, but it actually survives on a domestic tourism market from Perth—if my memory serves me correctly around 65 per cent of its market. On any Sunday or public holiday, many of the cafes; restaurants are shut. Why? Because they cannot afford the loss of penalty rates on these days, when there is a non-critical scale mass market—it depends on the weather.
I put this to the Leader of the Opposition: how would he feel if he went away for a weekend to a regional or rural area—he and his family arrive on the Friday night, and all is good; they go about their business on Saturday, and all is good—and he gets up late on Sunday and goes out for lunch or brunch but finds that all the cafes and that are closed? They simply cannot afford to open on a Sunday or a public holiday because, as I said, there is just not the secure, critical mass to rely on.
There are no second chances at first impressions. Not having a great tourism experience because of closures on Sundays and public holidays starts a never-ending spiral downwards. We need to improve it. Imagine how many jobs in regional and rural tourism areas could be created with the right policy. We need to understand that 75 per cent of something is better than 100 per cent of nothing. The reality is that Labor misses the point, and tourists miss the opportunity.
As I said, I was privileged to work with the industry to deliver the policy that that industry created and owned—a policy that is delivering in spades back to the industry through the growth in international visitors. I thank Ian Macfarlane, who was then the minister, who delegated absolute control and responsibility to me. He said, 'Baldwin, it's all yours. It's on your head if you bugger it up! It's all yours.' I thank him for the opportunity.
After the election in 2013 I was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, where I had the opportunity to continue to work with the then minister, again Mr Macfarlane. We had the opportunity to reshape our Anti-Dumping Commission and push the legislation to the very edges allowable under the World Trade Organisation arrangements, supporting Australian industry. Working with the steel and aluminium industries, and with the tomato and other agricultural industries on antidumping reforms, supporting Australian jobs, was an honour and a pleasure. I acknowledge my staff member from then, Aaron Parnell, who worked on that. Sadly, my colleague Fiona Scott made the mistake of marrying him!
It was also an honour to work with the Building Ministers' Forum to shape new directions, standards and, in particular, accountability. The move to online access for the Building Code of Australia was an expensive but a necessary benefit to the building industry. But much more needs to be done to enforce compliance with the standards for products being used in our building industry. People's lives depend on it.
The work that I was tasked with on the Rudd pink batts saga allowed me to utilise the skills that I had learnt as a licensed builder and as a building investigator for the former New South Wales Building Services Corporation. Having had hands-on experience, it was easy to grasp the issue and work towards realistic outcomes. It was also funny that I finished up my time as parliamentary secretary for industry doing work on the pink batts issue only to find myself with the task of cleaning up the environment side of it when I became parliamentary secretary for the environment. Talk about consistency.
There was no bigger shock to my system then being made parliamentary secretary for the environment in 2014. Perhaps the only people who got a greater shock were the greenies! In particular, I was charged with the responsibility for our nation's water. While I have spent an awful lot of my life underwater, in the diving industry, managing it from the surface was a whole new ball game. But I undertook a pragmatic, not a populist, approach to the issues. I negotiated the successful passage through the Senate of the bill abolishing the National Water Commission, because there was no further need for the commission—that had failed so many times before.
I also successfully negotiated the passage of the 1,500-gigalitre cap on buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin, which was important to all of the communities. I got this through both the ministerial council and the Senate, and had the agreement of the Labor Party—and I acknowledge the then shadow minister, the member for Blaxland, who is at the table. We did it because we showed them what was in it for them, not just what was in it for the government. We managed to take everyone on the journey with us; it was not us in isolation.
I also had to clean up issues with the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, where the right building was being located in the wrong spot. Using prime community land for a private aged-care facility was just wrong on so many fronts. I respected the applicant and I respected their position, and I was more than happy that a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement was able to be achieved.
I also had the opportunity to commence the rebuilding of the tourism markets in our national parks in Kakadu and Uluru, where numbers had been steadily falling. I enjoyed talking to people, particularly the local Indigenous people, on the mutual journey to success.
Perhaps one of the most challenging jobs I have had has been the work on synthetic greenhouse gases and CFCs. Minister Greg Hunt has been masterful in pushing the agenda for phasing out synthetic greenhouse gases and CFCs globally. But for some in the industry it is not hard enough or fast enough. Whilst the passion and commitment are there, we all have to recognise that at an international level we can contribute to the leadership direction but we cannot dictate it. I think Mr Hunt has done an amazing job as the minister. It was an absolute pleasure to work with him. He delegated responsibilities to me and let me get on with them. I say to Greg Hunt: thank you, my friend.
Now my time as the member for Paterson is coming to an end, I am excited to be handing over the opportunity to someone with fresh passion, ambition, dedication and determination—a wonderful young lady called Karen Howard, who will seek to uphold the work levels, the commitment and the passion that I have put into Patterson for nearly 20 years. I with all of my friends will do everything we can to make sure that we hold this bastion, because when I go, from the Central coast to the Queensland border, there will be no more Liberals.
I have been asked: what will I do? I will look for challenges ahead in life. As Zig Ziglar said, and it is one of my favourite quotes, 'Please, Lord, don't let me die before I'm dead.' I will work towards something that provides mental stimulation along with job satisfaction. As I have said, I am retiring from politics, not from life. So now I leave this amazing house of power. To quote Sinatra, 'Regrets, I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention.'
Before I go, I need to thank some people. Again, I thank my constituents for their support—but you know I always tried my best for you. To the literally thousands of my volunteers and supporters over the 20 years: without you, I could not have achieved what we have achieved together.
I say to my family, who are here today to hear my final words in