Thursday, 17 February 2022
on indulgence—I have just broken one of my fundamental rules, with my first word, in fact. That rule is: never start a sentence with the word 'I'. It's a rule that I have tried to live by since my election way back in 2004, and its purpose is simple—to remind me several times a day exactly who this position I hold serves, its purpose, who it's actually there for, and who actually does the work of building community. In the simplest examples, it's not, 'I had a great time at the event,' it's, 'You guys did a great job of organising it.'
The positions we hold here are fundamentally and profoundly not about us. In an electorate like Parramatta, one that is so diverse, when you put it all together, it nets in the middle—it nets marginal—with such diversity in life experience, it is not only about what I believe and my perceptions of the world but also about finding a common path, quite often by using our different cultural perspectives and the skills we have at looking at the world from more than one perspective to find that path.
When you represent a community where one in two people you see in the street do not share your view of the world sufficiently to vote for you—damn it—you learn very quickly that, when you unravel the knot of disagreement, we quite often agree on what the problem is. We're arguing about the solutions we have come up with, the solutions we're vested in, the path we're on, rather than the destination or the outcome that we seek. There are times when the person in me was quietly screaming, 'How can you believe that?'—and worse—but the position I hold was quietly acknowledging that a good person sits opposite me with a different view and is trying to find the middle ground.
An electoral office is, or, at least, should be, a resource for democracy, of finding that common ground. The role our offices play in democratic processes, in finding common ground in local decision-making, in participatory democracy, in using the unique knowledge that, as members of parliament, we have of our electorates to empower us, is an important one, and one that I've seen decline in recent years as we have all stepped in to stem the bleeding in the NDIS, Centrelink and immigration.
In many ways, we've become arms of government—or, in many ways, government failure—helping people in crisis. Of course, we'll always do that first. That's who we are. The reality for me, though, and my staff, is that we spend at least 60 per cent of our resources, and, at times, as high as 80 per cent, helping individual people when they have nowhere else to go. These people find my office: homeless pensioners; two kids who couldn't go to school because of their parents' visa status; two others who've been here since before they could walk, and even as teenagers they're about to be deported because their mother, who was a visa applicant, died; Centrelink delays; real issues with the NDIS; the crisis in Afghanistan; no internet connection for businesses for weeks; people who speak other languages trying to navigate My Aged Care; and people separated from loved ones, including their newborn children, for months or years during COVID. These are not unusual problems these days; they're common. These problems are not caused by a lack of care by public servants—and I want to make that clear—but by bad policy and under-resourcing.
Similarly, we've been overwhelmed by the impact on people of bungled policy development on marriage equality and freedom of religion—government processes that left people afraid and feeling unable to participate in an informed debate, and with people on both sides of both debates personally hurt by things said and not said. My office is overwhelmed because people in the community know my amazing staff help. They really do. In fact, there are people who pretend they come from the electorate, when they don't, to come and see my staff. They really do. A school even told me they were in my electorate the other day. I said, 'No, you're not.' They said, 'Yes, we are!' 'No, you're not.'
We are overwhelmed because people know that, if you come to my staff, they are there for you. I acknowledge the impact on my staff of working with people on the worst day of their life, day after day after day. Not all of them have done well with that. Some have struggled quite significantly. But I want to thank them: Launa, Paul, Alayna, Ama, Catherine, Katerina, Pauli, Hala and Durga. And I thank past staff, and I can't name them all: Himawan, Bela, Alison, Kallista, Semane, among the many others. I and my staff will always prioritise the person who comes to me for help. That's who we are. But there should be other solutions. There are examples in democratic systems elsewhere in the world—solutions not just for the people who manage to find my office for help but for the many others who didn't and who struggled without help.
Running parallel to the failure in government policy that electorate offices are picking up, there's been a weakening in community cohesion over several years, due to structural changes in the economy that have reduced the capacity for communities to engage with each other and find common answers and opportunities. When I'm out talking to my community from individuals on their doorstep to community organisations working with youth, domestic violence or bush care, the common theme is a lack of community cohesion—of the connections that allow ideas to emerge, take root and grow. I suspect the rise of the Independents that promised their community greater participation is a reflection that many in our community know of that missing element—community led democracy and problem-solving. Our offices can do better if we refocus our attention on the role of an electorate office, which is democracy, not government. It's democracy—quite a difference.
The community I've been privileged to represent is extraordinary in what it is and in what it can and should become. I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to them. To my community: over the last 18 years, I have come to know you as a community filled with opportunity and gifts, which speaks every language and which views the world from a range of cultural perspectives of people who have lived and found solutions in remote villages and in the world's biggest cities. We have the world in us, with all the perspectives and experiences and with concepts that are easily expressed in one language and have no equivalent in another. In a rapidly changing world that is shrinking in distance and separateness and, at the same time, expanding in opportunities and possibilities, we are exactly who you want to be in the modern world. We have everything we need to do well in a changing world, if only we could see ourselves clearly enough to exploit our strengths.
Working with you now over 17 years, there is so much more to you than you know. I've been privileged to be invited in, so let me tell you what I see when I look at you. Let me start with some of the patterns that have revealed themselves to me over the last 17 years. I'm going to start by walking down the Parramatta River—not all of it, but between about one kilometre and 1½ kilometres. We start at the confluence of Darling Mills and Toongabbie creeks where the river starts, where Governor Phillip landed and began the walk that he documented in his diaries—the beginning of the dispossession of the Dharug people and a place that is largely neglected, unvisited and unrecognised. The first part of the walk was closed for nearly 200 years. It's government land—mainly health; mainly mental health—but you don't have far to reach the Crescent, which is part of Parramatta Park now—the first gazetted public park in the world. It was Governor Macquarie's domain and it was the meeting place of the Dharug people, including the Burramattagal and the Tugagal clan of Toongabbie. The male place on the hill became Old Government House but, across the river on the female sacred site where the birthing stones are, we built the female convict factory and then the mechanical institute for girls and the Parramatta Girls Home, where we incarcerated the stolen generation. It became a place of incarceration of women for over 200 years—a female sacred site. Go a little bit further and you see one of the last remaining colonies of endangered flying foxes, which a lot of people hate, but I kind of like them.
Then there's Little Coogee, where, in early colonial times, people swam. Then you pass the stadium—some of us try not to look—and go under the Bernie Banton Bridge, named for the asbestos campaigner, an extraordinary man. Then you go under the Lennox Bridge, where you find the spot where the Buddhist community celebrates Loy Krathong. They let their flowers and candles float on the river. Loy Krathong is a beautiful festival. If you go 100 metres further, under the oar bridge, you'll find the place where the Hindu community celebrates the Ganesh festival. They're still seeking permission to immerse their clay model of Ganesha in the river. I'm sure they will get that soon.
A little further along, there's the St Ioannis or St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. They're building a new one on the banks of the Parramatta River. Where else would St John the Baptist have his church? A little further along is a place that is sacred to the Maori community of Australia but also incredibly important to the Dharug people, which is Rangihou Reserve, where the children of Maori nobles were buried in colonial times. It's a very sacred site.
If you walk down the Parramatta River as a whole and you don't know about or haven't been to all those events, you don't see it. You don't see this extraordinary history that unravels in that kilometre and a half. From the dispossession of the Indigenous people right through to the arrival of migration, it's all there. So is the first public school. It's all there in that first kilometre and a half.
It's not the only thing that flows through Parramatta. The train lines are pretty cool, too. For food: Auburn, Turkish and Chinese; Granville, Nepalese and Lebanese; Merrylands, increasingly Afghani; Lidcombe, African; Harris Park, Indian in all its variety, including Telugu, Gujarat and Malayali—you name it and it's there; and Wentworthville, Sri Lankan. It's absolutely extraordinary food. Slightly outside of the electorate: Eastwood, Korean; and Cabramatta, Vietnamese. It's an extraordinary trip if you take that train trip and have a look at what is there. It's not just the food. It's the fashion. It's the cultural life. It's extraordinary. We live in this place where these transport lines flow from one community to another in the most extraordinary way. It's a gift.
We also have creeks flowing through our community. In fact, in my first election, I counted them. There were 30. My electorate boundaries have changed, but it's just about back to that now. We have 30 creeks, but we built our cities with our backs to them in colonial times. They were drains. So, unless you go to the north part of the electorate, which was built later, where there are wonderful assets of trees and open space, they're essentially drains. But they flow from Blacktown to Parramatta. Toongabbie Creek flows the whole way. They are amazing assets—overgrown, undervalued and ignored. You can't pass through most of them, but they are still there waiting to turn this section of Western Sydney into the extraordinary green paradise that it actually is. It's just waiting to be done. It's not cheap. It's not easy. It can't be done with a one-off. It's hard. By—my God!—what an asset we have there. It is still there.
We have the wisdom of every religion. On my first day in my new office, my Hindu community representatives came to me and gave me a small statue of Ganesha, which I still have on a table of its own, as it should be. They explained to me that Ganesha was the god for overcoming obstacles. I thought: 'Woohoo! I have a few of those.' They went, 'No, Julie—obstacles within.' I thought, 'Oh, okay.' I keep that Ganesha there to remind me that most of the things that we don't do are actually not because of barriers outside. They are actually choices we make to do one thing and not another. So I keep that.
Not long after that, at the Buddhist temple down in Cowper Street in Granville, the abbess there gave me a small glass lotus flower and she literally said, 'The lotus flower, like politicians, grows in the slime and the mud, but the lotus flower remains pure.' I carried that little lotus flower hanging off my handbag until the string broke for about four years and touched it every now and again and went, 'Stay pure; stay pure.' I hope I did.
I was talking to a Muslim friend of mine at Ramadan. His six-year-old son was learning to delay breakfast. Six-year-old kids don't fast. That would be ridiculous. But he was learning to wait just half an hour for breakfast. He really wanted to fast with his dad, by the way, but no. We were talking about it and he explained to me that the purpose of it and the purpose of Ramadan is to learn restraint. Children, as they get older, learn to say, 'I want that; so what?' They learn restraint. I thought how interesting that was. So I've learned so much.
And it was my Hindu community, again, who talked to me at length about simplifying life. In some cultures, if you want to do better, you do more. In other cultures, religion says if you want to be a better person you do less, you simplify. They were talking to me about the difference between East and West where, if you want to lose weight, you go and do stuff—anyway, you know what I'm saying. So I tried it. And I thank them for it because the thing that I discovered, having spent some time in silence—and this might sound weird—is how extraordinary the floors of Parliament House are. I'm not kidding. You should all do it one time. Meditate and then take a walk around the halls, take a walk from the House of Reps across to the Senate and up the Senate side and down and have a look at the floor. The work that went into it is truly astonishing. In fact, I did that walk several times a day, for a number of weeks, just noticing the variation in it, the care and attention. It is the most extraordinary thing. For 17 years I hadn't noticed—and, suddenly, there I was, noticing that I'd been surrounded by it. That's probably the thing I'm going to most miss about this place—noticing that sometimes there's a bit of brass laid in the floor, sometimes the bricks go this way. It's a truly amazing thing. Have a look. Thank you, Hindu community, for showing me one of the most extraordinary things about this building. If you talk to the cleaners, you'll find the man cleaning the floor in the Great Hall, who has been cleaning the floor since the building opened. It is extraordinary. It is one of those secret things of the parliament that we miss.
Going back briefly to our creeks: if you turn north at the confluence of Darling Mills and Toongabbie and go north about a kilometre, if you walk up Darling Mills and then Hunts Creek you'll arrive at Lake Parramatta. It's a beautiful place with 4½ kilometres of walk and a 25-kilometre-long walk. It's just gorgeous. It wasn't the first water source for the new colony but it was the first substantial one. You can't actually walk up that creek, by the way, because it is overgrown. But it links Parramatta Park, one of our great open spaces, with Lake Parramatta, one of our other great open spaces. In fact, I often wonder why the triathlon doesn't exist. They do biathlons at Parramatta Park and swimming carnivals at Lake Parramatta but the two do not join. There is about a kilometre of missing creek bank, that's all. It's still there, it's just the missing link. The possibilities of being able to walk from one great space to another is just amazing.
We have cultural differences in the perceptions of time. This is a weird thing for me to talk about in this place. But one of the things about being a musician, learning music as I did from the age of three, is that you spend your life learning to manage the process of thought in real time. That's essentially what you do. You figure out what you have to think of and when, what you have to trust your fast brain to do without thinking. You design a process that allows you to play a piece that lasts 45 minutes, that takes a year to learn, in real time. So the process of thinking, and what you think of and when, is absolutely all I do. That is what I learned do when I was three and it is absolutely all I do. Back when I was at university doing my masters I did a paper on cultural differences in perceptions of time. That was about 35 years ago and there was virtually no writing on it at all except for abnormal psychology and perceptions of time among people who had been persecuted and, at the very beginning of perceptions of time, in advertising, on how long it takes a person to respond to an advertisement. But there was virtually nothing. It is an area that has intrigued me since then.
In an electorate like Parramatta, where we have such a diverse range of people that come from different cultures, that come from different geographic areas, the perceptions of time are different and the way they experience time, and value events in time, is different. For me it has been endlessly fascinating. It has been endlessly fascinating in a positive way and also in the less-positive way of meeting people whose lives have been ripped apart so many times that they no longer believe they have power over time. They are no longer going to enrol in a university course that might take them six years to complete because they don't necessarily believe they have the power over their own time line. They expect that the ground will be ripped away at any moment. So they leave school at 15 and take six bucks an hour as a gyprocker—not because they are dumb, not because they are not smart, but because culturally they do not believe they have power over time. They don't believe, as I do, that they can spend 10 years doing something. I can spend 10 years saving. My world won't fall apart. Theirs will.
There are extraordinary differences in the way people think and we as a parliament need to acknowledge that we have in our community people who have different ways of thinking about reward and punishment in real life. They don't have the capacity that most of us in here have, of a believing you can achieve what you want to achieve by working for it. In fact, the early work that I found 35 years ago said that in communities that are extremely persecuted the smarter the person is, the quicker they learn they don't have the power. These are amazingly important things. I've been lucky, being a person who cares about time and perceptions of time, to be surrounded by this amazing difference, but all of us need to understand just what that means.
Western Sydney is by far the biggest food processor in Australia by economic impact. As the supply chains fragment, we know that the big companies are starting to use small businesses. CC doesn't make its own spice blends; it uses small businesses. We have an opportunity, at this point in time, in Western Sydney to become part of the global supply chains because our own sector is making that change, but we don't have temperature controlled warehouses. We have far too many fabulous small businesses that are stuck within their own cultural community. We have some of the best chilli makers, we have some of the best bread in the world—literally. We have idli batter. We have stuff that should be exported to the world because it's clean Australian food, but it's stuck within its own community. We have an extraordinary opportunity to take ourselves to the world, on food alone. It is amazing food—lucky me!
Thanks to all the Indian aunties who gave me all their cheats. I was talking to an Indian chef recently—he was over from India—and he told me the book of recipes is this big and the book of cheats is like this! So thank you for introducing me to the ways to cheat when I'm cooking Indian food, because it's quite fabulous. Pickled beef, chutneys, Filipino milk candy—you name it, we make it. And we make it incredibly well, but we don't have a path to go from the microbusiness to the small business to the giant business, and we need to do that as a community.
I'm going to talk about art, music, literature and poetry—again, my background. I used to manage the music grants program for the Australia Council. I'd go to four to six concerts a week. I've been to some of the best concerts in the world. Some of the best ones, the really extraordinary ones, were in Parramatta. Again, they're concerts that most people wouldn't recognise. In my first weeks in the job there I saw a sign on a lamppost for Sivan Perwer, a Kurdish artist. I went 'wow' and I went to the concert. There were about 2,000 people there. I was the only white girl there. It was entirely within its community. This man is one of the great artists of the world. I've been to see Sufi bands. I've been to Punjabi poetry. I was lucky enough to hear Mohammad Imran Pratapgarhi—a poet that none of you have probably ever heard of—and I could have sat there for days listening to Urdu poetry. Truly, truly amazing stuff.
My community has introduced me to writers that I'd never heard of. We know the great speeches. Well we think we know the great speeches, but we don't know the ones that aren't in English. I've been introduced to the speech of Bangabandhu, for example. Just amazing speeches that the vast majority of people who stay within their own cultural worlds will never hear or see. I've been introduced to the music of Rabindranath Tagor. This is a gift for a person like me, a gift, but it should be a gift for more people. Again, we're staying within our own communities, when I know, from working in that field, that the Sydney Improvised Music Association would probably love to go and hear the improvisation of the Hindu temple that goes on for 12 days—I know I did! They probably would too.
An opposition member interjecting—
Yes, I did. So, again, there's this extraordinary capacity we have that we're not really exploiting yet.
Fashion? Parramatta? What can I say! We really do have an amazing group of designers in Parramatta that, again, don't have a pathway from being a microbusiness to a small business. They don't really have a distribution channel. The most common question I get asked is, 'Where did you get that?' And usually I say, 'At a market.' If you don't know the designer, you won't find her work. This jacket, for example, is made from a blanket from Africa. It is made out of a blanket. I've had some extraordinary—the garage sale is going to be enormous after I retire, by the way. Send me an email if you want to go! It will take me days to remove most of the stuff.
We should be a leader of urban agribiz. There is a bit of research that for every car in a city there are about 13 parking spaces usually vacant, waiting for a car to arrive in a street, undercover, at Woolies—you name it. We know that in 10 to 15 years we will not have that many cars; there will be self-driving vehicles. There will be less. We already know that around the world there are countries trying to figure out what to do with their car spaces. It is the perfect opportunity for urban agribiz. In Parramatta it's a question of whether, when we do start our city agribusinesses—and Western Sydney is doing really good work on this—they're companies that come in from outside or whether it's us, whether it's perilla, tulsi, galangal, curry leaves, methi or sukuma wiki—that's the Kenyans' name for kale. The Kenyans will look at you and say 'You do what with kale?' because they've been eating it for years. They have several varieties. We have African heirloom vegetables. The question is whether, in 10 years time, when agribiz is big in Parramatta, it is ours or it is dumped on us from somewhere else. I'm hoping it's ours. Western Sydney is doing incredibly important work for that.
I will briefly refer to solar panels. Parramatta has one of the lowest uptakes of solar panels in the country because it has strata. And what an opportunity that is. Whether it's business strata or house strata, it doesn't have solar because no-one has worked out how to do it. What an opportunity sitting right there in Western Sydney right now. We are at about 12 per cent take-up, by the way, as opposed to 30 per cent—so it's really, really massive.
I'm going to move on, because I'm running out of time and I'm being a bit naughty! I'm going to ask the question of my community of what the system looks like that creates the networks that allow these opportunities to be exploited. How do you create that community brain, with the centres of shared knowledge, that allows communities to think—information flow, linkages, neurons et cetera—particularly in a world where funding support these days is increasingly based on projects piecemeal? Quite often, we still have governments deciding what the answer is and putting out a grant program. If you all fit in that box, it's fine. But we don't have grant programs that ask the big question: what would it look like if? What can you do? What would you do? We don't have those grant programs, and we don't have the coordinators and the people sitting in rooms with the capacity to think it through and make it happen.
Over the decades we have had people in every community in the country lending their capacity to people in crisis. Capacity is one of those interesting things—at the time you most need it is the time you lose it. When you've got friends, money and security, and you need to change something, you can do it. But if you've just been ill or you've lost a family member or you've been wiped out by grief or loss, your capacity to make a difference disappears. At the time you need it most you don't have it. For years and decades we've had people in our communities loaning their capacity to people who need it to help them change their lives. And that is an extraordinary contribution.
Now we need people to loan their capacity to solve some common good, to solve some social good. As the communities have changed, as our economy has changed, we are not all the same anymore. We don't have the same childcare needs. We have people on split shifts who work 16-hour days because of a split shift that are one hour from home. We have all sorts of people living different lives who work from home and who don't. Their needs are not the same anymore. One-size-fits-all solutions from the government down or grant programs do not necessarily deliver the range of answers that sit within communities like mine right now. We don't have enough parking at the stations; you have to get to the station at seven o'clock in order to get a parking space. The government solution is to spend $60,000 per parking space to take 250 cars and maybe save 15 minutes; I think I could do better with that, by the way! I think my community could do better with that. I think my community could find a range of solutions that don't fix the parking problem but make sure there are fewer cars there. The problem isn't that people can't park; the problem is that too many people are trying. We have so many solutions in us to that. We can do that right now. Get together, guys, and lend your capacity to people who are looking for solutions on a community-wide basis.
Leaders are defined by who they empower, and my one hope is that when I leave this place in my community my legacy is that I have left a level of civility, that we don't play politics in Parramatta very hard at all. It's not wise in a marginal seat anyway, but we essentially don't. State matters—out of respect for the people who voted for that state member, I tend to leave the state issues alone. Not out of respect for the state member, by the way, but out of respect for the people of Parramatta who elected him. So there's a level of civility, and I hope that remains when I leave.
I finally want to finish by thanking three groups. All the people in the electorate who've been in touch, and most have, by the way—every now and then I do a search on who hasn't; yes, it's like a KPI, a key performance indicator on how many still haven't!—thank you. It actually keeps me in touch with the things that matter to you on your ordinary day, and we build our lives in our ordinary day. Thank you also to the branch members and volunteers who have been extraordinary. I thanked them in my first valedictory, and I will be around to thank you all personally. I want to thank the staff in this place. Because of the all the places that I've worked, and I've been a manager of sometimes hundreds of people at a time, this is perhaps one of the best managed and staffed places I have ever encountered—really exceptional, exceptional recruitment, exceptional training and exceptional service. Without fail for me, I have to say that I have never been disappointed or dissatisfied with the service I have received from any level, whether it's the cleaner or the clerks, ever in this place. It's truly amazing, and I congratulate every one of the staff of this place and the people who manage them and do so so well.
That's about all I have to say, but I promised a constituent that I'd end this way, so: 'That'll do, little pig. That'll do.'
on indulgence—I congratulate the member for Parramatta on a very fine speech. While I've done so privately, this is my first opportunity in this place to congratulate you on your promotion to high office. I know that you will do all you can to maintain the dignity of this House, a subject you know I'm very interested in. And I thank the whip and the member for Macquarie for allowing me to deliver a few thoughts this morning from this place. Of course, in COVID some of us don't have a permanent home in this chamber. I did contemplate seeking permission to share my thoughts from the dispatch box, where I spent most of my time here—sadly, the one nearer rather to me than the one closer to the member for New England—but then I thought it might be even more appropriate if I deliver my speech from this place where I delivered my first speech almost 26 years ago.
For the interested of—I was going to say younger members—all members, other than a few of us, sitting immediately to my right was the Hon. David Beddall, former member for Rankin, just to my left was Ralph Willis, the former member for Gellibrand and former Treasurer, and directly in front of me was the Hon. Robert McClelland, still a great mate of mine, a former Attorney-General and now, of course, Deputy Chief Justice in the family court—or whatever it's called now after the most recent reforms. The member for Grayndler was roughly where the member for Lingiari was sitting. That's not a reflection of seniority in any sense. I think it's more a reflection of marginality, and, of course, Anthony Albanese had a very safe seat, and I think he delivered his first speech from that place as well. Sitting where he is now, of course, was Kim Beazley, and where the member for New England is was our newly elected Prime Minister, John Howard. It seems an eternity ago, and I suppose it was.
They were very tough and dark days for the Labor Party. We had been reduced at that election to just 49 seats, and to put that into perspective or context for those who might be watching or listening, the Labor Party currently has 68 seats, and you need 76 seats to form that magic majority in this place, so we were a pretty small team. Heads were down and there was a lot of soul-searching going on around the place. But, interestingly, the class of '96 was a large class, numbering 11. I'll note that one of those 11 was our great mate Greg Wilton, who sadly took his own life, I think in 2000 or 2001. We spent a whole day in this place and into the night eulogising Greg's life and expressing deep regret about the loss. We still miss him.
It was a heavy defeat after the long reign of the Hawke and Keating governments. I just want to put on the record that the Hawke and then the Keating governments didn't lose in 1996 because of any of its substantial reforms; rather, it lasted so long so because of the success of its very important and substantial reforms. The fact is that every government runs out of life at some point, at least as long as the other party doesn't gift them government for another term, which the Labor Party has been capable of doing, I have to say, from time to time, but I won't dwell on that point.
Interestingly, while heads were down, the class of 1996—although I probably shouldn't speak for all of them—were feeling pretty happy, because we were here, and it didn't seem to matter who was in government, at least not to me. I was here, and that was pretty exciting. I think the attitude might have been slightly different if (1) we'd known then just how miserable opposition is, and (2) we'd known how long we would be in opposition, which was, in the end, 11½ years, so it was a long time. I think we were also buoyed by the idea that it was a very small caucus and that a lot of experienced people had left—and that a lot of experienced people were likely to leave in the not-too-distant future because most believed we would be in opposition for a period of time with 49 seats—and therefore our prospects of advancement were pretty good, you might have thought.
Some of us didn't have to wait. For example, Martin Ferguson and Jenny Macklin went straight to the front bench. They came straight into the parliament and straight onto the front bench, which is pretty unusual. The only remaining members of the class of 1996 on this side, the member for Grayndler and I, had to be more patient. We had to wait for our genius and talent to be recognised! But we didn't have to wait all that long. In fact, I was surprised that the member for Grayndler didn't join them and go straight to the front bench. He was the only person in the class of 1996 that I knew. I knew many of the existing members, because of my involvement in the party and my associations with them through my father's time here, but I didn't know any of the 11 new members, other than Anthony Albanese.
I first met the Leader of the Opposition in the Balmain Town Hall in 1985, a long time ago. I wasn't much of a participant in Young Labor. Few people from the regions are, in fact; it's very much a city concentrated affair. But I'd been recruited to the annual conference at the Balmain Town Hall by right-wing apparatchiks hoping to wrestle control of New South Wales Young Labor from the Left. I dutifully agreed to turn up, and I did. I spent the weekend there not doing much at all. Certainly I didn't make a contribution to the debate. I was just there to cast my vote in the ballot. That was the first time I saw this young firebrand they called Albo, who was completely dominating the conference with his fiery contributions to the debate. Alas, the Right didn't win the ballot. I was in the pub that night after the count with my newly-found right-wing city mates. Heads were down. Maybe naively and maybe rudely, I said to my new friends, 'You guys were never a chance in that ballot today in the Balmain Town Hall,' and they surprisingly said, 'Why's that?' I said, 'Because they had that bloke they call Albo.' The rest is history. I knew then that that young guy would make his way to Canberra. I thought he was destined to play a major role here—to be a cabinet minister and possibly one day the Prime Minister. Well, he has been the Deputy Prime Minister. He was a cabinet minister for six years, and I predict that his final destiny will be fulfilled in May when he becomes the Prime Minister, and I wish him all the very best. His deputy, Richard Marles, my good friend, and all of the team will make a very fine government, if the good people of Australia come to that conclusion.
It's been a great honour and privilege, of course, to serve in this place, particularly over such a long time and particularly having followed my father. We all leave, I suspect, with a few regrets. I have a few, and I'll return to a couple of them shortly, but I leave here satisfied, content and happy—very happy. I'm very comfortable with my decision. I think it's just time for me. But I leave happy for a number of reasons. First, I leave on my own terms and at a time of my choosing. I can't imagine—well, I probably can imagine—how difficult it is for those who don't have that opportunity and who leave involuntarily. I leave knowing that I couldn't have worked any harder, either in the electorate or here in Canberra. My wife will attest to that. It's been very disruptive for my family, but I've enjoyed the ride and I'm happy to have, I think, achieved a lot while I've been here.
Obviously, I've served in the cabinet, which I think is everyone's aspiration. I've had the great honour of being the country's defence and agriculture minister, albeit for a very short time. The joke works every time in agricultural forums. I describe my 11 or 12 weeks as agriculture minister as the 'golden era in Australian agriculture'! We achieved a lot in those 11 or 12 weeks. But of course the opportunity to be Minister for Defence was an enormous privilege, and to work with the men and women of this country who serve in our uniform is a great privilege and it brings me fond memories, although the workload was somewhat significant. I'm sure the current Minister for Defence understands that.
I leave true to myself. I have been, in my view, enormously consistent in my policy positions. Obviously, we have to be agile, and we adjust with changing community attitudes, but the things that form the foundation of my policy development, my thinking and my conclusions remain the same as they were 26 years ago. Most importantly, I'm able to leave this place still married to the Australian Labor Party. Some people don't go the distance. Sometimes people outgrow their party or their party outgrows them. Happily, that's not the case for me. I remain dedicated to the Australian Labor Party—this country's greatest political party, in my humble opinion. I still share its ideals and its objectives and its aspirations for the Australian people, and I will continue to work with it all of my life. And my father wouldn't have it any other way, I'm sure.
The foundation of Labor values, from my perspective—we all have our own slightly different interpretations, and that is reasonable—is equality of opportunity. It is to make sure that all Australians, regardless of their background, have an opportunity to fully participate in the economy and to fully reach their natural potential. Having people fully participate in the economy is good for them but it is also good the economy. We are a country of limited human, natural and capital resources and we need to be deploying all of them. We can't have people—in particular, young people—standing idle. It's one of the reasons we are so dependent on foreign labour. We must reduce that dependence by deploying all of our own people.
I sought election to Cessnock Council in 1987, 34 years ago, motivated mainly by our bad roads—and kerbing and guttering, drainage and a few other basic services. I think it was Malcolm Fraser who said he wanted to ensure that people had the right to turn on the lights. My father infamously said—I'm pretty sure it was his first speech in here—that he wanted to fight for the right of people to 'pull the chain'! In those days some of the old mining villages around Cessnock still didn't have sewerage, so those basic needs took me to Cessnock Council. I'm happy to say that the roads are much better now—and I'm taking some of the credit, of course. I hope someone in the electorate is listening!
Many things brought me to Canberra. It was an opportunity to do good things for my local electorate at a higher level, on a bigger stage and across a broader range of policy issues. But, more than anything else, what brought me to Canberra was the issue of intergenerational unemployment—those kids who are effectively born to fail; those kids who have never known either their parents or grandparents to have worked; those kids who have never woken up to an alarm clock or known their parents to do so; those kids who often have only one parent; those same kids who often don't have the parent at home. These kids need a hand up. I was so pleased with the Labor government's Gonski reforms because part of that was giving our public schools in particular, where you typically find these children, the resources and the ability to identify these kids at the earliest age, preferably kindergarten, and intervene to give them the assistance they need to join mainstream students. I think we have made enormous gains there in the 26 years I have been here, but there are still far too many of these kids. I appeal to all members of this place, and of the other place, to think of them and make them a priority. It is not only important to them, it is important to our communities. These things lead to antisocial behaviour and all sorts of problems. But it is important to our economy—and I go back to that participation issue.
I have a few regrets. I'm not going to talk about policy today. I went back to my first speech this week. In fact, I watched it on video. Yes, colleagues, we had video in 1996!
They were filming us. The technology wasn't quite the same. Mike Bowers was in the gallery taking photographs then, I think, possibly. He's nodding. He looks exactly the same. He's not dressed up today either, unfortunately, as he is wont to do on ABC some mornings.
In that first speech, I was surprised, actually. I lamented the decline in the standards of behaviour in this place. I also lamented the decline in the power of the legislature vis-a-vis executive government, and I made an appeal to the new Prime Minister, John Howard; I don't think he was in the chamber or listening, of course. Through the Speaker, I offered to support any initiatives he might take as the new Prime Minister to both improve behaviour in this place and redress that power imbalance between the House and the cabinet room. Alas, nothing happened, and I'm sad to report what you already know: despite Speaker Smith's best efforts, it's grown worse—much worse—in the time I've been here. I would be very surprised if the Leader of the Opposition doesn't agree. Yes, he's nodding his head. He knows this very well, as a former Leader of the House over a long period of time. I find that sad. I think it's really important that we all work together here to maintain the dignity of the House and, just as importantly, the respect in which it's held by the broader Australian community. That is so important.
All of us here have lived all of our lives in a world in which representative democracy is the pre-eminent form of government. The rules based order and all those things that go with that have delivered us such great wealth, peace, stability and security—peace for 77 years, by and large. People are losing trust and confidence in it. We shouldn't take it for granted. There are other models around the world. There's been a fair bit of talk about that in this place of late, usually for the wrong reasons, but I won't dwell on that today. But we shouldn't take it for granted.
It's very clear that people are losing confidence in the system. Protests aren't new. I was here in 1996 when the Trots kicked in the front doors of the place. That's another story. I was right there on the inside watching it. Protests aren't new, but they are on the rise, and so too are protest groups—more particularly in the electorate, but not just my electorate. As I move around the country, I feel more and more people are treating us with contempt and losing faith in us. There are many reasons for that, including the rise and rise of social media and other issues, most of which we can't do anything about. But we can change our behaviour in this place and we can change the way we do things in this place.
We need to remember that, first and foremost, we are elected to come here in this chamber as lawmakers. That's our first job. I can't help but feel—it's not meant to be a criticism; it's just a culture—that most people come into this place and see this chamber as a stepping stone to the blue carpet, forgetting that this place in itself is not just a theatre for the media and not just an opportunity for them to spruik their wares in the name of their aspirations. This is a serious place, and we need to all work together to maintain the dignity of this place and, of course, to respect and maintain its traditions and its norms and, of course, its standing orders. Again, it's not meant to be a criticism, but I think far fewer members of this place would have a very comprehensive understanding of the standing orders than was the case when I first arrived here. I just don't think people have the time to bother. Some of them let the Manager of Opposition Business worry about that while they're busy making their way to the blue carpet. No, they should know the standing orders, because you can't understand this place unless you do, and if we don't respect it we can't expect people outside the place to respect it.
I have a couple of ideas which might not be popular. We shall see. Maybe I could just make them predictions rather than requests. It's hard to change the culture in this place, but we must try. One of the things we can do is reform question time. I know this is perennial. I know that we talk about it all the time. I know that we have had a thousand Procedure Committee reports and recommendations, very few of which have been embraced, although we do have time limits now. The Leader of the Opposition likes to remind me that I once took 15 minutes to answer a dorothy dixer. I'd have to check whether that is true.
Honourable members interj ecting—
I'm being told it is true! You can get a little bit carried away on your feet when you are focused and you have people interjecting on the other side. So I apologise for that, after all these years. But at least we do have time restrictions now. That's been a good reform, although I still don't know why the member for Kennedy gets more time than anyone else. I love the member for Kennedy, but I think he should get less time, quite frankly. We'd all be better for it. I'm pretty confident he won't mind me saying that; he'll just be happy he got a mention, I suspect! I had some wonderful times with the member for Kennedy as Chief Government Whip in that hung parliament. Every conversation was a respectful one but an interesting one.
The thing we have to do is get rid of those stupid dorothy dixers. Is there anything else in this place that drags us down out there in the marketplace more than dorothy dixers? They're just ridiculous. It's not how the founding fathers intended it. Of course it's not. Full marks to the first person who does something about that. I know what I would do. You can't deny private members on the government side the right and opportunity to ask questions of the executive. Of course, you can't. But what I would do is give the opposition the first 10 questions and the government the next 10 questions. I'll bet London to a brick that, by the time you get to the 11th question, all those who sit in the press gallery will be back in their offices. No-one is going to stick around to hear dorothy dixers for an hour or half an hour. I think that, in time, dorothy dixers would change. Because what's the point if no-one's listening? If they change, who knows? We might get lucky. Maybe opposition questions would improve in technical quality as well. That would be a big change in this place. I'd like to see it one day. I won't be here to experience it, but I'd like to see it.
There's a power imbalance. I fear the House of Representatives has become not much more than a rubber stamp for executive government, and I think that is a shame and, again, not as the founding fathers intended it. Why is this so? Axiomatically, the government has the numbers in this place, most of the time. We experienced something different with the 44th parliament, the parliament from 2010, in which the Labor government didn't have the majority. But not only do governments typically hold the numbers; they are using them more ruthlessly within their party structures. I might not be popular saying it, but I think party discipline is strangling our democracy in an era when the world is changing so dramatically. I don't think the founding fathers intended that either. I'm not advocating a return to the Second Parliament in 1903, where we had four governments in one term—Deakin, Reid, Watson and then Deakin again. That doesn't serve the Australian people well. I'm not advocating that at all. And yet I have been asked by well-informed schoolchildren who visit this place if I've ever had to vote in a way I didn't actually agree with. I honestly say, 'Yes, I have.' I've told them that the disadvantage that comes from the rare occasion that happens is far outweighed by the capacity as a block to get good things done for the country. In answering that question, I absolutely believed it, but community attitudes are changing so much and the world is changing so much that I think the major parties will be forced to ask themselves whether this strict discipline is sustainable.
I think the Australian Labor Party has possibly the strictest party discipline in the world. They certainly don't have that discipline in the Palace of Westminster. They don't have it on the hill in Washington. I suspect the Liberal Party of Australia has the second strictest party discipline in the world. Those opposite will probably be quick to say—No, I'm not even going to mention the National Party, Barnaby! Sorry; I can see you urging me to do it, but that is just another story. Those on the other side will say, 'We allow our people to freely exercise their conscience,' and we saw that amongst the five only a week ago. But we all saw how traumatic that was for them, and we all know that they'll be reflecting today on whether that's ruined their prospects for advancement in this place. Certainly it would have knocked it around. Everyone knows that. So, yes, they might be a little less strict over that side, but it's pretty hard.
Why did those five people cross the floor? There might have been various reasons, but I think the foundational reason is that they had no choice because the nature of their electorates is changing and to do otherwise probably would have cost them their seats. So it's cross the floor or say goodbye in three months' time—which reminds us that when the Leader of the Opposition and I arrived here there was a general consensus that around 85 per cent of the Australian electorate voted for either one of the major political parties and the other 15 either swung between the two or parked their primary vote with a minor party. Today, I don't know the number, but I suggest it's more like 70 to 30. Seventy per cent of electors are welded to one of the major political parties or coalition parties, and the others either swing or they're going to all these emerging minor parties, both on the right and the left, including those well-funded excessive progressives. I mischievously call them 'Independent candidates', who are so threatening to moderate electorates on the other side. So, we're all under attack, Labor on both the right and the left, and, of course, that's true of the other side too: One Nation is a threat on their right flank and the rise of these Independent progressives are a threat to them on the left as well.
I think the world has changed so quickly that that is going to be unsustainable, and I think the party that moves first in some way will be rewarded and the party that moves second will be forced to follow. I think that will be a very good thing for our democracy. You can formalise it. We all know here that in the Commons they have this concept of one-, two- and three-line whips. You get to do something different when it's not a particularly serious matter, but on the big serious matters you're expected to fall into line. They spend a lot of time there just getting their people to turn up. A lot of people abstain on matters. Goodness gracious me, the chief whip would be pretty distressed about that, I know! But I just think that, if we don't elect to change it, something's going to change it for us. We really won't have a choice. But enough of that.
I need to deliver a few thank yous. My journey here was almost as long as my time here, and I couldn't possibly thank all the people who have assisted me along the way. So my necessarily abbreviated list starts with my parents, and I'll finish with my wife and our children.
My parents gave me every opportunity in life to fulfil my potential, and I thank them for that with all my love in my heart. My father, as I mentioned, is responsible for developing my interest in politics and steering me towards the Labor Party, and I'm forever grateful for that.
Of course, I thank the Labor Party in all of its manifestations, both nationally and locally. I've been supported by a whole army of branch members over 34 years, and my father before that—I was letterbox-dropping when I was about 12 for local government elections—and I'm eternally grateful to all of them at every level. We all know on this side, and it's true of most on the other side, we don't get elected here because we're popular or good-looking or people like us necessarily. I get elected because there's the word 'Labor' after my name, and few of us would be here without the support of our political parties. I'm enormously indebted to the party and everyone in it I've worked with over many years.
I thank colleagues and friends in the trade union movement. The trade union movement is the ballast of the Labor Party. It formed the Labor Party, and it rightly continues to have a say in the Labor Party. That's a good thing because they are close to the coalface and close to the people who rely so much on us here to do the right thing by them.
I thank all of the local communities and everyone in them I've worked with. I thank people for supporting me. Of course, even the people in safer seats get, at best, six in 10 people supporting them. None of us are loved universally in our electorates, but I've been strongly supported, and I've worked with some amazing people at all sorts of levels, and I thank them here.
I thank all those who have worked with me in my various offices. I calculated that I might have had 50 staff members in the time I've been here. That's a rough guess. I have no idea really, but it's a lot. I can't name them all, but in the electorate, I want to thank those who currently work for me: Liz Deloraine, Tara Naysmith, Renae Stevens, Peta Lindsay, Rachel Bailey, Tallen Howson and Summer Johns. I point out to the people listening outside that some of them are part time; we don't have that many staffers at any one time. We all wish we could. I'm going to take a risk and name a couple of staff who recently left my office: Kim Smith and Darrin Gray.
I also thank portfolio staff. I couldn't possibly name even a fraction of them, but I do want to name people who continue to have an influence on my life who worked for me for a long time and who are still in my life in some way. It's not an exhaustive list, but they include Natasa Sikman, my long-term chief of staff. Most people in this place on both sides know her and know of the great job she did. I also thank Brendan Long, Tracey Winters, Christian Taubenschlag and Tyson Sara—all wonderful staffers.
I thank Anna George. Anna George has had more than a couple of mentions in this place throughout the 'valedictory season'. She's been driving what I call the flight deck in the chief whip's office for a long, long time—back to my time in that hung parliament but even before then. I have no idea how the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is going to function without Anna George. She's totally in control. She's the real boss. Sorry, Chris, but she's the real boss. Yes, he's nodding his head in agreement.
And the Leader of the Opposition said, 'Did you say she knows or he knows?' He knows. I'm glad I clarified that. I've made many friends and, obviously, I can't name all of them. Happily, I've made lots of friends on both sides of the chamber. I will collectively name my colleagues in the New South Wales Right who I dined with last night at the risk of leaving others out. Obviously, that's been an important group for me all of the time I've been here. I see Senator Don Farrell in the gallery with my good friend Senator Raff Ciccone. I'd be a bit surprised if people don't describe Don and me as a bit of an odd couple, because we're very different in many ways, but ideologically I think we're pretty close. We've done some great things here together. Some might disagree; some might think they were bad things. He and I have become great friends. That's true of Raff too, but Don and I have been great friends for a long time and, like many other friendships in the chamber, I know that it will be a lifelong friendship. I'm leaving this place, but I suspect that, even though he comes from that free settlers state and he's a long away, I'll be seeing a bit of Don.
The bad news is I'll probably be in Canberra for a little while after I leave this particular building. For those of you who thought they'd seen the last of me, I'm sorry; you might be seeing a little bit more of me yet, but nowhere near as much as you have in the years that you've been here. On that question, I always say to new members, when they arrive in this place, three things: be ambitious, but don't be in a hurry; always be true to your values, your ideals and your electorate—and electorate is becoming more and more important, because they're all more contestable now; and don't go out of your way to make enemies because you'll pick up plenty along the way without trying. In other words, make friends wherever you can. You might need them one day. I refer to my relationship with Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, as an 80/20 arrangement. We spend 80 per cent of our time butting heads and the other 20 per cent of the time drinking beer and collaborating on issues that are really important to rural and regional Australia.
I'm going to dwell on the other side for a bit to make a point for those people listening outside. I want people to understand that we don't just fight like cats and dogs all day. We have relationships. We do things, for example, in the committee system. It would be nice if a government started to take some notice of the recommendations of House committees. There would be a significant change in the power imbalance between the House and the executive. I was outraged when someone decided—I hope it wasn't us; I don't think it was—that the Prime Minister would appoint the committee chair. Let the House appoint the committee chair. What does it have to do with the executive government or the Prime Minister? Nothing. It's almost a privilege issue, from my perspective. Get out of our way! This is our chamber, and we'll decide who chairs the chamber's committees. It would be nice if a government—any government of any political stripe—started to take a little bit of notice of what those committees do. They spend a lot of time and put in a lot of work examining witnesses and coming to conclusions, usually in a bipartisan fashion, which is an important point. They're working together. Wow! The Australian people don't see too much of that, and I wish they could see more of that.
I want to talk about friendship groups. The member for Barker and I are, for example, co-chairs of the forest products and forest industries group. We work overtime trying to produce a bipartisan view of an industry that's so important to the Australian economy. We talk about supply chains and sovereign capability in the COVID environment. There's nothing more important than the supply of our timber products. I know that the member for Corangamite has been very interested in this issue. Housing and construction prices are going to go through the roof, on timber prices alone. We're becoming increasingly import dependent. There's a shortage around the world. So it's going to be harder to get those timber products. We don't want to have a debate today about native forests. That's another issue. However, native forests operate on a sustainable basis, certified by two international bodies. But I'll park that today. We need to get more plantations in the ground, which requires patient capital.
We support industries in all forms. All we need to do is give them full access to our carbon credits under the Emissions Reduction Fund. There has been a bit of movement, but we need to do much more. Of course, those timber products can replace carbon intensive steel and concrete. They are carbon absorbing. They take carbon out of the atmosphere. The member for Barker and I are probably strange bedfellows, but we've done some good work together. There are many examples of that. The member for Leichhardt and I were chief whips together in that crazy hung parliament. We had a great relationship, which continues. There are many examples. I thank them all for their friendship.
I've had many mentors along the way, too many to name. I still regularly dine with Paul Keating and Laurie Brereton. I thank them for their guidance. I still have some long lunches with Graham Richardson, who, of course, was a great character in this place. Of course, there's my father. Reaching right back, I want to quickly mention a guy that not a lot of people would know in this place. Stan Neilly was the state member for Cessnock. The opposition leader knew Stan. He was the member for Cessnock throughout both my time and my father's time. We lost him in January. He was just shy of 80. I want to reflect on that and say that Stan Neilly was classic old school. He was hardworking, intelligent and fiercely loyal. He was one of those guys who never sought any acknowledgement for anything he did, either in his work or on a voluntary basis. I thank all of those people who make this place tick. Mr Speaker, you're the 10th Speaker I've served under. I don't know how many clerks I've served under. It's a lot. I want to thank the clerks and all the Reps team.
Can I say on that point that, if governments of any persuasion keep putting efficiency dividends on efficiency dividends and apply that to a small department like that of the House of Representatives, it'll have an adverse impact on this place. I've seen the deterioration in the resourcing over my time here. Who can forget when they took the pot plants off us? Obviously that's a frivolous issue but, more seriously, there has been a struggle within the department to deliver what we expect to have in terms of support. They can't keep doing it on less money. You can only squeeze so much juice out of a lemon. You can't keep driving efficiencies.
Of course, there's the Library and Aussies Cafe, which keeps us fuelled every day. Where would we be? Gee, some deals have been hatched at Aussies Cafe, I'm sure, since 1988. The attendants, security, and those who keep the place clean for us—I thank them all. Those sporting nice blazers who tuck us in our Comcars safely at night—or they used to tuck us safely in our Comcars. That's not quite the resource or service it used to be. That's not a complaint, I should say, but it's another example of people struggling to do what they always did for us with limited resources.
I thank all the peak industry bodies I've worked with over many years. There are too many to name, but they include the Minerals Council of Australia, APPEA, AFPA, the National Farmers Federation and a whole gamut of peak groups within the agriculture sector—CropLife, ALEC and the Cattle Council. The list is very, very long. I thank the many companies. Obviously, as frontbenchers we engage a lot with corporations with policy interests, and I've made lifelong friendships there too. I thank all those I've worked with.
Finally, and most importantly, I thank my wife, Dianne, and our three children. Dianne wanted to be here today. I discouraged it; I think it's a long way to come for a speech. But I know that she's watching, and so too are at least some of the kids. Grace, Jack and Caitlin were four, five and six when I came here, and that's pretty tough. Dianne raised those kids effectively on her own, and for all that they've achieved she takes the credit, or most of it. And they have achieved, and we're very proud of them. So, for all I didn't do or did badly or did wrong, I say sorry, and I thank her for her enormous contribution and her forbearance. She did all of that, the whole time, while concurrently pursuing her own professional life, which is pretty extraordinary. I thank her and extend my love to her.
Finally, I just want to say, on a lighter note, that I don't want anyone to applaud yet but very soon there'll be no-one in this place with the surname Fitzgibbon. It's been 38 years. But the good news is that I fully expect—I'm not going to use this piece to promote a candidate—that you will be joined, I think, by a guy by the name of Dan Repacholi, who's the candidate in Hunter. At six foot eight and 130 kilos, he's pretty imposing. He's not particularly overweight, I have to say. I hope to see him soon, and look forward to seeing him, at that dispatch box. I say to the whips, or whoever makes the decisions about who stands next to whom at the table when we're being sworn in, that I'd be very selective when planning that arrangement. But, while Dan Repacholi is a big man, he's a gentle giant. I don't really know what it is about him, but everyone seems to love him, and I know everyone here will love him too. I wish him the best and I wish all of you the best. And from me now it's goodbye. I thank the House.
on indulgence—I know that member for New England is going to speak on behalf of government members. Firstly, I want to congratulate my friend Joel Fitzgibbon on an outstanding farewell speech. I was here for his first speech, and we are one half each of all that's left of the class of '96. The class of '96 has always had dinners each year. So I have spent more of my birthdays with Joel Fitzgibbon than, possibly, just about anyone who is still alive on the planet, because we were both elected on my birthday, 2 March.
Joel Fitzgibbon and I haven't always been completely in sync. What we have been, always, is mates. Joel Fitzgibbon is Labor to his core. He is a loyalist. He is someone who says what he thinks, and when he tells you something he means it and he sticks to it. I won't talk about the conversation that took place at my house after the 2019 electoral defeat, but Joel Fitzgibbon has also always been a very strong personal supporter of mine, and I thank him for it.
Joel showed his loyalty as well when he discussed with me, very early on—we kept it to ourselves—the fact that he had made the decision to leave this place. A lot of people leave and don't worry about who will replace them. Joel came to me and he had this fellow called Dan Repacholi who he wanted to replace him. It says a lot about Joel's character that—with a bit of opposition, it must be said—and with my support he ensured that Dan, an outstanding candidate, would replace him as the member for Hunter. It said a lot about Joel's views.
I want to tell one little anecdote. When I became the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport after the election of the Labor government in 2007, I hadn't been the shadow minister for transport. Joel came to see me and said, 'I did mention the Hunter Expressway during the election campaign.' Joel Fitzgibbon gave a commitment with zero authorisation for a $1.7 billion road in his electorate—the Hunter Expressway. I said to him: 'Mate, I've looked at the words you said at that press conference. It looks to me like a pretty strong commitment. Did anyone else at all know that you had done that?' He said, 'Oh, well, it was just something that's really important.' I said to him: 'Here's what we'll do. We're setting up Infrastructure Australia, and it's going to look at things objectively.' And it did look at the Hunter Expressway objectively. With the benefit-cost ratio, it was about $3 benefit for every dollar invested in it. Why hadn't it happened? Often one of the things that happens in this place is that safe Labor seats, safe Liberal seats and safe Nationals seats miss out on investment. That's a bad thing. It is a bad thing that that occurs across the board. So I say to Joel that, every time he drives home on the Hunter Expressway, it would not have happened without him. That has made a difference to development, it has made a difference to productivity, but, most importantly, it has saved lives. It has saved lives, on that road that goes up to the member for New England's electorate. It has saved many, many lives, and will into the future as well. It's quite extraordinary infrastructure. It's an elevated roadway for a long distance of it.
That's just one of the things that this bloke has done. He has made a difference in this place. He has made a difference each and every day that he's here. He spoke about when we met, way back in 1985. What he didn't say is that at state conferences he and I used to slip out and pair ourselves to go for a beer, because it was often pretty boring at the Sydney Town Hall each year. We would have a regular gathering across the spectrum that is the Labor Party—you knew where to find us on a Saturday afternoon every June long weekend. I've been to the footie with him to watch Souths beat the Knights—regularly!—over the years. It's true; every time we've gone it hasn't worked out well for the Knights. He is very much a loyalist to Newcastle and a great son of the Hunter.
One of the things about this place is that you have lots of contact with people, and the people who are friends that will last are the people that I have in my mind that I'll have a beer with when I leave here, who I'll go out of my way to have a beer with. Joel Fitzgibbon I will always have a beer with. He leaves as my parliamentary comrade, but we will be mates forever, and I thank him for that.
on indulgence—As you walk up the hill in this place you are an idealist, and as you walk down the hill you are a realist, and, ultimately, after a time you become a statesman, but that's really up to you. Joel's one of the hardest players on the ball in this chamber. With his interjections he tries to get under your skin. In the corridor during my interviews he would accost me; he would know where I was doing an interview and wait for me at the door, and we would both make an absolute disgrace of ourselves, on media issues most of the time. He was certainly a worthy adversary.
People who have been here for a while know you don't play footy in the change rooms. There's no point to it. You just make a fool of yourself. When we're off the ball, we'd go and have a beer—you don't give away the secrets of your side—and that's a sign of maturity of a person who has such a history and a pedigree from this place. Because of the Fitzgibbon's legacy, Joel was able to come here with a sense of how you treat people with respect. He knows that you don't become completely and utterly tribal. That's not how our nation works; it's inoperable like that. There have to be times when you talk to one another and work things out.
I won't keep the chamber too long, but I'll give you an understanding of how we, on this side, see Joel. Obviously, when a leader steps down, when the member for Maribyrnong stepped aside, we had a discussion about who the next leader may be and what they meant to us. I won't go through and say everybody else; that's not respectful, but when we got to Joel we said, 'What happens if Joel Fitzgibbon becomes the leader?' A number of my colleagues said: 'We'll lose the next election. That's what happens.' We know that he cut through in our electorate. He's one we worry about turning up in our electorate because they like him, and that is a big problem for us. Thankfully, he's retiring! So we've dealt with that issue.
The final thing I would say is how the Australian people see him. As you would know, Joel and I have a slot on a television station early on Monday mornings. There was a time when, for some unknown reason, they thought we were going to another television station, and we were both getting these calls saying, 'Why are you leaving us?' We were going, 'We're not.' They said, 'But we're the highest rating show in morning television.' We said, 'We're not leaving you.' They said: 'And your slot is probably one of the highest rating slots in that section. It's vital that you stay.' We went, 'We're not leaving.' But why was that? Because the Australian people also look to this guy and go: 'I get him. I relate to him.' That's because he's not an automaton; he's not a machine. He doesn't, like so many of us in this chamber, blurt out the lines so that people listening to him go: 'That's not what you believe, mate. You just said anything and I don't believe you. It's not authentic.'
Joel, I hope that we remain good mates. We're both supporters of Newcastle Knights. I look forward to getting down there, I hope, and seeing a few games. We're very hard from Tamworth and very hard for here. On State of Origin we're on different sides of the field, because I'm loyal to the first place where I played senior league, and that was Queensland. All the best, mate. We are going to miss you.
on indulgence—I want to say just a couple of words in relation to the honourable member for Hunter. He spoke before about respect within this place, and the respect that we have for him has been demonstrated by the words of the Deputy Prime Minister. But I want to pay tribute to his service as Minister for Defence. It was too short a time. He was well-respected by our troops. I evidenced that in Gallipoli in 2008. I had the honour of going there with my father after we'd lost the election in 2007. Joel was there and he represented our country with great distinction. I remember how proud I felt when he gave his speech and when he interacted with the men and women in uniform there. Joel and his brother come from great stock. I knew his brother well when I was health minister. Your parents did something right, as you alluded to before—two fine men. The honour that has been served your way today, through Anthony's speech and others, speaks a lot to the person you are and to the honour and distinction you have brought to your role.
I sincerely thank you for the work you did in the Defence portfolio. We were pretty tough on you, as we were on most people during the course of that period in this place, but you did a great job. You can leave this place with your head held high, which is something not every member can lay claim to. I pay respect and honour you today.
on indulgence—I won't detain the House for long in speaking about the member for Hunter, but to do proper justice to him would actually take a significant amount of time. I acknowledge his speech and also the words of the Leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence. You are hearing words from across the chamber, and that speaks a lot to the impact the member for Hunter has had on this place.
When you're young, you perceive the world as a land of giants. One of the thrills of first coming to this place as a younger member of parliament is that, for some time, you get to walk alongside some of those giants. Today, one of those giants, an absolute giant, has given his last contribution to this place. For me, it's hard to imagine the House of Representatives—in fact, it's hard to imagine politics—without the member for Hunter being central to it. His impact, which has been spoken of, is absolutely profound.
Speaking personally, Joel has been a mentor to me. More significantly, though, he has been a really close friend. You can't say this about many people, but for all that Joel does and says, and for all that's said about him, I can honestly say that, in the 14 or so years that I've been here, in the many interactions I've had with Joel, in very difficult circumstances at times, he has always kept his word, he has always maintained trust, he has always treated me with complete dignity and respect, and he is as solid as a rock. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that. But, more than that, he's been, for me, an enormous source of encouragement and support.
This place, without the member for Hunter, will have less colour and it will have less gravitas. As I say, it is hard to imagine the place without him. He's taught me how important it is to be connected to the people you represent, how important it is to be truthful to yourself in the way you present yourself here. The perspective Joel brings to our party is profoundly important and I really hope his successor will continue to give that voice within our party room. I think I speak on behalf of all of us in saying that we are losing a really wonderful friend. All the best, Joel. I hope the future is as successful for you as your time here has been.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!