Monday, 14 February 2022
Others will judge our time here. It's customary to thank friends and colleagues, but we can do that over a 'Lukiatto' or a late-night dinner. It's customary to hold our family tight and say thank you for the remarkable opportunity, but we can do that at home. This opportunity I want to devote to thousands of Australians who never lost faith in what we do here and at a time when so often—perennially—in Australia we are tempted to dismiss, discard or disparage democracy. There are so many people out there, colleagues, that cannot count their time here in days or months or years or even decades. They were never here, but they fought and provided the basis of this pyramid that we enjoy of democracy, whose apex is right at that dispatch box. They weren't just our campaigners—they were anyone who cared enough to fill out a petition; bang the table; dare I say, glue their hands; burn the doors. Whatever their passion about federal issues, I need to say in your own way, thank you, because it may be ugly but it's our ugly.
I've got a friend, Geoff Redpath, known as Twinks. He lived in Anzac Avenue, Camp Hill, and with his piercing blue eyes he would look at me as I would try to explain to him my shortcomings in this place, and he would ask me about what happens down here. He desperately wanted to know about the ifs, the buts, the workarounds, the expedience, the flexible and malleable morality that's on show here sometimes, and I would just try and try and explain. Geoff will be remembered as an unsuccessful LNP preselection candidate, and if you go on the web you'll see on the ECQ website that he ran in an unbelievably close Division 6 election for local government on the Fraser Coast, where three candidates all got 33 per cent. He led by 50 votes after prepoll and fell short by about that margin, and within months—no wife should come home to find a lifeless husband in the backyard shed. But he never lost hope; he wanted to fight to the end for this great nation in his own way. If I could talk to Twinks now—and there are so many of his mates that will grasp for answers and perhaps never get them—I just want to say: by never giving up he gave us an opportunity to do what we do here.
All around outer metro Australia, a place that didn't really ever coalesce any political power when I got here 20 years ago, is now a place that seems to determine election results. In that time I've been proud to see two outer metro prime ministers do amazing things for this nation. Those busy outer metro people that so many of you will know who are busy commuting and driving—we often observe they drive into the left-wing water bubblers and pot plants only to drive home to the real thing at night: real water and real bushland. There's not a lot of headroom there for global issues for them. They're busy and they care about population, roads, jobs and development, and it's over and over again. Those conversations of outer metro Australia are now a serious force.
I look around Team Queensland and I'm inspired by Dryden: some of them were princes of their land. Those ranked Team Queensland stood a team so variable that it seemed to me:
Not one, but all mankind's epitome;
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts—
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon.
All of us together—like you can't choose your family, you can't choose Team Queensland—are a ragtag band who do great stuff down here, and in your own way you cut a cloth that works for your electorate. I was inspired by Don Randall, the great WA MP, who didn't give much for the pomp and the procedure down here. One day, when he was driving around his electorate, doing what he did so well, he pulled over to one side when he didn't feel well and he died in his car serving his electorate. He was, I argue—perhaps Ross Cameron's an exception—one of those first outer metro MPs who was here for there. This place is made by those people, and long may it stay that way. All of you, wherever you are, whether you're sitting in tea rooms recruiting membership or filling out the petitions that got us a defence force recommendation for a next-of-kin medal—Kay and Kerry Danes—and whatever you did, that's what makes it special and that's why I'm so delighted to have been here. Outer metro Australia is not deeply ideological. So, when you drive out from whatever city skyline you might inhabit and you head out to those parts, those expectations are simple, but if they see you doing the right thing they'll adopt you.
I want to say a little word about social policy and a little bit about the place of activism on the Right. Social policy is very important to me. I find economic policy sometimes a little formulaic. My apologies to the member for Fenner who has exceptional expertise in that area. In social policy, the decision in 2001 was: do we join a party of economic credentials and fight silently on social policy? In two decades that has changed. Forgive the partisan comment, but I would argue that it is now this side of politics that is potentially the most progressive in reforming and rebuilding and reimagining social policy. We just don't fight for inputs but we fight for outcomes, and I think that's so important. When we arrived, the member for New England was speaking up in the party room in a way that absolutely captivated me.
I took a different path and started working on pharmaceutical policy, something I knew a bit about, with Chris Bilkey and Professor Philip Clarke from the University of Melbourne. We mapped out a way to save the nation about three-quarters of a billion dollars every year. I didn't believe those figures at the start. The minister didn't believe those figures at the start, but, to his credit, he took on that idea before we lost power, and to Labor's credit they continued it. To this day, that one single backbencher policy saves this nation three-quarters of a billion dollars a year and another $60 billion to $70 billion of out-of-pockets for non-concessional cardholders who paid way too much for drugs for their kids. That's what we're here for.
We fought hard for education so that teachers in the poorest areas of Australia can have the gains they achieve in NAPLAN and ATAR recognised. We still don't have those metrics. In welfare, it's been about work for the dole. It's been about making sure we get value for money and the principle of mutual obligation—that you're not paid a welfare payment as some sort of automatic right but there's an expectation that if you can give you should give. So much credit goes to the former member of Warringah in those areas.
In housing, a very, very understated, quiet former adviser, Carolyn Rosario, said to me in 2018, 'What's your government got for people my age?' I reached for her speaking notes, and she said: 'What you need is to help us with deposits. In a Canberra rental market you can never ever save for a deposit with the rents we pay.' We sat down and did a one-page summary. We sat down with the Banking Association and ironed out the glitches, took it to the Assistant Treasurer and to Treasury, and, without me knowing—and we can argue over the provenance—our leader announced it. The campaign launched in 2019. Since then, 56,000 families that would be renting today are in their own home and they don't have to ask a landlord if they want to put a nail in the wall to hang up their young child's merit prize from school. We know how transforming that is. The Reserve Bank governor, just last week, was saying that it's about income. It's about raising household income, and everything else is so able to follow.
In Indigenous policy, these have been long and trying debates, colleagues. You'd be right to say not much has changed. I spent a year in a semi-desert community, Lajamanu, and we pioneered a breakthrough drug that's now a standard treatment for trachoma. What I learned there is that we must never, ever forget the needs of remote Australia where the Indigenous languages are still spoken at home and never let that be washed away by general Indigenous statistics that don't reflect the true suffering in remote Australia. We, colleagues, are marked on what we're doing in the farthest corners of Australia—a globally unique political challenge and an immeasurably hard one. If, in the next few months, we can terminate and complete successfully a 20-year journey to allow a young Indigenous couple wanting to take out a loan from a bank to build a home on native title land—I cannot believe we haven't achieved that in the last 20 years. But I have to walk away from this place saying, 'Not yet.' It's remarkable that we haven't found a way to bring lenders to the table to make that possible.
In welfare reform, it was about keeping Work for the Dole tacked together under significant attacks, but we saw the PaTH program expand that. One day I saw that the department, before Easter and Christmas, would routinely pay welfare cheats and people who were not compliant bonuses that the minister's office didn't even know about. I worked to make sure that stopped. To our credit, that has also happened. This touches on the role of activism. It's probably a little bit too strong to say that that has been an important part of my time here, but I firmly believe there's a role for activism on the Right. How you define it is a different question, but I want to say that we have brought through, in this party room now, many strong social policy reformers and many people prepared to be activist. You might say that it may impede our path to government or keeping in government. But, if there are some little things that in your heart you feel you've got to fight for, I'm just saying: 'Fight for it!' Let people know how passionate you are about it.
The best example was from 2019. Our training providers and RTOs all over the country—Bernard and Daman Malik are here with me today—came to me and said, 'We're being driven into the ground, potentially, by an overly heavy and unreasonable bureaucracy.' I'm not speaking on Mr Malik's behalf but, in many cases, there was the perception that, simply, the chief officer wanted fewer RTOs in this country because other countries had fewer. We are the nation of small business. Those RTOs in every corner of regional Australia are providing the training and the vocational skills outside of TAFE. Eighty-five per cent of that training is private, and, to be driven off to court to the AAT and be told to muscle up with a barrister and find a hundred grand to keep your family business open when there was a chance to work together with RTOs was devastating.
As an MP, you can give a speech here in the tiny Federation Chamber, snip it on YouTube and send it out to the people that matter. Two months and a week later, that chief executive was gone. Since then—thank you to the member for Swan—things are way better in the training space. Don't for a minute think that that's not important, because our greatest export is people, and one of our greatest service exports is training and educating overseas students. I will provocatively say that, more than submarines and tanks, our best foreign policy tool is to educate South-East Asia in the highest-quality, English-speaking vocational modules and university courses. That does us an enormous diplomatic advantage, and we need to make sure we are a major slice of international education.
As we move through activism, there was also some crazy, stupid stuff—like the cruise ships. You remember getting booted out of here for 24 hours by Speaker Bishop for the bunker oil that was spilt in the chamber here. Who benefited from that, politically? Was I going to get a couple of votes from Balmain mums or a few people who live around ocean cruise ship terminals? But, honestly, for those companies to burn clean fuel in ports in every corner of the world except Australia—because we didn't mandate it—and to keep burning the disgusting stuff here, I thought, was disgusting. So speak up on it! I finally dragged the table to do it.
If there is a way of being activist about small things, I think that makes a huge difference. We saw in Logan, streets torn apart and fence palings ripped off and everyone mugging each other. It wasn't, in these interracial fights, the case that we needed more social workers. I made the obvious observation that they needed jobs and opportunity. If you connect the disadvantaged and the dispossessed with work, that's the difference. I was absolutely ratioed for it, but months later, after the dust had settled, all the inquiries said just that. If we can start to think about the importance of connection to the economy as the solution, I think that's really important.
For our South African colleagues, when I saw the farmers being murdered and mutilated, I asked a fair question: is it completely mutually exclusive to be white and a refugee? It isn't, and it was important to ask that question of DFAT, and I give them credit: they looked at that hard. We've also had designated area migration agreements that have provided a partial solution to this most complex of social issues. But these elements are utterly ones that we can all choose in our own time to fight.
Now is the time for the sealed section. There are only people sitting around me because I promised to read out a few of the myths that deserve to be busted today, and in most cases the answers are going to be yes. It is true that I broke into a biohazard area during a white powder scare in my time in a ministerial office, purely because I wanted to check my emails. That is true. I then had 12 hours in there being fed McDonald's Big Mac meals by a dude in a biohazard suit. The only upside was getting a biohazard suit.
I was doing my best for the Howard government. I remember Mr Howard asked me, 'What do I need to know about meningococcal?' I said, 'Prime Minister, there are only three things you need to know.' Before you ever say that to a prime minister, make sure you know what the third thing is! I was writing a speech for the Prime Minister and for my boss in the Senate, and I had the strange failing of writing that this vaccine would be funded for those 18 and under, instead of those under 18. A colleague of mine was listening and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Which one was it?' We realised we had just spent, without any authority, about $20 million on meningococcal vaccine delivery to 18-year-olds. Thank you to my team for finding some kind of workaround.
Of course, I also need to fess up here about my leadership aspirations and my leadership challenge in 2007. It was messy. I was tired of what was happening between Howard and Costello, and I decided I would announce my leadership bid the following day at the party room. I thought I would run those lines by a few staffers at the Holy Grail, and only later was I told that one of those in the group was John Howard's son. As I walked away to the sound of my own footsteps, I'm sure the first words were, 'Who is that guy?' It was neither good nor pretty.
But inside this building there are some special memories as well. The first one is that we may hold the record for making a division in this chamber from the furthest distance. I was in Civic on the corner of Constitution Avenue and London Circuit, luckily in a car. We got green lights, and if you can do it at all you can do it with ease. But I was hurting inside. That's a record for you to break. I am looking to Angus Taylor for that. I've perennially raced him up and down that bloody Red Hill, and, when I asked him, 'Mate, what's your best time?' and he told me, I went out and broke it by 10 seconds. He then revised his time and said, 'I told you the wrong one.' He told me he was actually five seconds faster than what I'd just run. I said, 'Mate, I want to see the metadata.' It's never been forthcoming.
Comcars have been an important part of our lives, and I must confess: yes, it is true that, I having lost my phone down into a storm drain when getting out of a Comcar, the driver dismantled the storm water drain and lowered me head first in, holding onto my belt, while I foraged around to find the device. We did, and I nominated him for Comcar driver of the year. He came second. It was rigged.
We move forward to the media. I have an apology to the Melbourne Age, on not one but two occasions. First of all, when they phoned up and said they had identified what they believed to be a first-term MP wearing board shorts after midnight with a mattress on his head in Howitt Street, Kingston, we said, 'Deny, deny, deny,' but I was completing a move between apartments. We simply said they had no DNA evidence, and they elected not to go to print. Likewise, in Bougainville, when I for some reason jumped into the back of a truck full of Bougainvillean rebels and put my arm around them and did a Black Power salute with my white hand, again it was, 'Deny, deny, deny; it was simply the arm of a lightly complexioned Bougainvillean,' and they were told to ignore the fact that the latest model of iPhone was in that hand.
It is true we have done some pretty silly handstand sculls, the first of which, again, was at the Holy Grail, pre smartphone. I said, 'I'm sure I can get away with it,' and knocked down a beer. The only way you should do it Down Under, Hawkie, is upside down. Every journo, of course, had no camera with them. They proceeded to report the story and simply used my parliamentary photograph in the newspaper upside down.
Lastly, we do mow lawns in Bowman to get votes. I do want to confess: the 'Lam mow' was launched in the back of a utility. We had a mower. Many argued there was no motor in it, but it's true: I did mow one lawn in every suburb on one day. It is true I didn't completely have consent to mow the lawn from the homeowner. I had what I believed was a single mum who sounded like she desperately needed a mow. I didn't realise the partner was at home with his size 12 boots, and midway through the mowing he came out, opened a stubby, popped out a chair and watched me mow his lawn. It wasn't good, and, from now on, I've promised that, if ever someone says, 'Please come and mow my lawn,' I'll make sure that I have consent from every adult in the household. So that's the end of my confessions. There was one final one about writing op-eds, and one would have wondered whether they were actually going to lead to us getting into government from opposition or not. But that one contributed by my friend the member for Dickson: everything you said last night was dead right.
In concluding, I want to mention some special people. We all have incredible offices behind us, don't we? I want to mention my team: Sonia Bryant, Stephanie Eaton and Penny Donald, and, more recently, Mitchell Dickens and Peter Nugent. But I'd also like to mention the young ones who came through our offices, where we provided platforms for them to go off to great things, like Matt McEachan, Mitchell Redford, Marty Kennedy and Shane Goodwin. There are those in Queensland who are passionate people, as I described earlier, from the president, Lawrence Springborg, to Lincoln Folo, Guelf Scassola, Con Galtos and Craig Luxton. Those people all exist in every one of our lives.
In this chamber, of course, I have referenced 'Team Queensland'. I've loved talking welfare with the member for Pearce, who is someone that I think will be greatly missed in this place. On the other side, the member for Fenner, I always remind you, sir, that it took you four times as long as it took me to get your Harvard degree. After 12 months, they said that there was nothing else they could teach me. Then, of course, there's the deputy chair, Lisa Chesters, who has done an awesome job standing by the work of the committee, and there's my neighbour Maria Vamvakinou. Further afield, there's Gareth Ward MLA, a man of impeccable character in the New South Wales parliament, and Steven Marshall MLA, the Premier of South Australia, who took me to sailing lessons where we rammed straight into the marina's rocks with a journalist onboard. Thank you for that, Steven.
To be honest, I've thought hard about just how inconsolable I would be at the time I talk about family. But I've been nothing but elated, and I want to celebrate and thank this incredible time I've had with my family through this job. Either I need more empathy training or my time at home has been truly incredible. To all the dads out there, there's nothing better than coming home 18 times a year and getting that massive groundhog day hug, like you've genuinely been missed. There's nothing better than to have your daughters say, 'Dad, you're back already,' 'Yes, darling, it's a short sitting week,' and then after a couple of days they say, 'Dad, when are you going again?' They have an incredible place to grow up at home, thanks to my lovely wife. I want to say to Olesja: our community has given us incredible support, and we have got through that, and your story, which is an amazing one, is now inextricably woven into the story of Australia. I dumped you into the WorkChoices election in 2007. You had no idea what was going on, but you roadside with me, something we've pioneered from Bowman that has now afflicted every campaign in Queensland. I can remember my wife coming to me and saying, 'Darling, they all seem to know your L name.' And I remember a tradie driving in his ute. His window came down, and he clearly wanted to say something. It could have been good or bad. He looked me right in the eye, and he went like that, thumbs down, and then he pointed at Olesja, and he went like that, thumbs up, and he drove off—I thought 'Whatever it takes.'
Olesja, your story is remarkable. Your grandmother was a Belarusian partisan who basically lived in a burrow while the Nazis overran the country. Her husband went out briefly to try and find some supplies. When he came back, his wife and children were gone. They'd been found by the Nazis. It's a hard story. That mum looked after her two babies as well as she could, but they perished in her arms one by one from starvation on a forced march. She could have been liberated to the West when the Americans arrived. They gave her the choice of any Allied country in the world to live in. She said, 'No, I'm going back into Stalin's Russia to find my husband.' And she did. They spent winters eating bark, but they were together. She had more kids. That's why you're with me, darling. They're your elders, and those elders and that history is now part of this incredible social experiment we call Australia. I think that is truly, truly remarkable.
I quoted Robert Kennedy. I remember that PM Howard leant across to Christopher Pyne and said, 'Clearly one of yours, Christopher.' In that fabulous South African speech in 1966, he said that every time a person stands up for a principle and acts to look after the lot of another, or take on an injustice or stand up to it, there's a tiny ripple of hope. Every time they do that, there is a tiny ripple of hope that is sufficient to sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. They were words designed for South Africa, but I thought it was still an utterly reasonable test for what we do here. They may not be mighty walls in Bowman, but they can seem pretty impervious down here. Those tiny cracks of opportunity that come along every now and then are the ones you grab to make this country a little bit fairer and a little bit more understanding for the people who most need it. Never underestimate those people. It doesn't matter if they vote for you or not; you make an incredible difference in their lives.
I talk about ugly, but it's our ugly. I talk about never dismissing, disparaging or abandoning what we do here. Today I want to talk to all of those people who do that and give us the opportunity to be here. If I could be judged on those grounds, so I will: #jobdone, no fuss.