Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Almost two decades ago, I entered this place. Not for a moment have I regretted that decision. Everything about this place—its history, its culture, its officials, its very special place in our parliamentary system, the engagement with colleagues from all sides, and the committee system—have combined to make it a workplace like no other. I am privileged to have played a part.
Let me turn to some of the more personal aspects of my time in Canberra. Firstly to my wife, Fran Marsh, who has served every moment of the three Senate terms with me. She mostly served her time in Perth, working as a lawyer and raising our two daughters, Gabrielle and Georgia. Fran did an excellent job, and the girls have matured into beautiful, intelligent, well-balanced, capable young women, knowing they have been well parented and loved. This December I will be attending Gabrielle's graduation from the ANU—the first such ceremony during the girls' education that I have been available to enjoy and, more importantly, to attend. Western Australians are used to fly in, fly out parents but a term of 18 years has been a big ask. Fran has accepted and answered the call on all fronts. I thank her for the love, the support and the patience.
We live in the federal seat of Curtin, and our girls attended a local school. It was common knowledge at the school that one of their parents was a politician working in Canberra. After continual queries they finally agreed that, yes, they were Julie Bishop's daughters. Playing that card allowed them to bask continually in the glory from whichever side was in government. Seriously, though, it will not be news to anyone in this chamber to hear that all time in politics is served by the entire family—particularly so out of Perth, Western Australia, the most remote capital city in the world.
Next I wish to express my thanks to those staff who have served with me. As you all know, politicians do not work in isolation. I am very pleased to say that most of my staff were 'stayers'. In particular, I sincerely thank Sheryn McLaughlin, Marie Dias, Marie Liau and Peter Reece, for their loyalty, dedication, patience, expertise and contribution throughout my three terms. There were others during that time of course, and I mention two, Amanda Dowling and Lydia Roberts, who had integral roles in my office. I thank them also. Again, to all my staff, I particularly say thank you for your patience.
For many years I worked on the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee and, in more recent times, the Senate Economics Committee. For nearly all that time, the secretary of both committees has been Dr Kathleen Dermody. She is a remarkable woman. Her professionalism, expertise, counsel and support is exceptional. I signed off on many reports, possibly hundreds. In nearly all cases I explored ideas and came to conclusions after consultation with Dr Dermody. I value her input greatly and simply say thank you.
Colleagues, too many to mention, come and go as is the nature of our occupation. I have enjoyed working with colleagues and opponents alike. I thank those men and women for their contribution, their friendship and their support. I have just a quick word regarding Steve Hutchins, former senator from New South Wales. In his valedictory speech he relayed the story of telling one of his daughters that he was due to meet the Bishop at the Holy Grail. She remarked to her mother, 'When did Dad get so religious?' I have to confess that I too have missed our late night prayer sessions at the Holy Grail led by 'Father' Meldrum.
Why federal politics rather than state? It certainly would have been more convenient going home every evening. My interests have been and are federal in nature, hence Canberra was always the destination. My work here has been in communications, veterans' affairs, defence procurement, trade, foreign affairs and, more latterly, economics. I took an interest over many years in two particular areas: military justice and defence procurement—a bit esoteric for most. These areas separately offered challenge, complexity, human emotion and the satisfaction of reform and justice. Sadly, I know that in the area of military justice, more public reform is needed. I see that military culture is changing. However, that change will not be complete until all of those senior officers and all of those senior NCOs who abuse their power are removed once and for all. We need young men and women to join the armed forces, confident that they are safe and protected and that they can advance in their careers without any fear of inappropriate treatment or behaviour from their peers, NCOs or more senior officers.
Some refer to the Senate in pejorative terms; as ineffectual and not of equal value to the House. The Senate accommodates a different facet of political life. I refer particularly to the unending committee work. Last week alone, I signed off on seven reports for the Labor Party. Next week I will deliver my final Senate committee report. It addresses, inter alia, the efficiency and effectiveness of ASIC. I thought my last six months in office would be relatively less demanding. However, while in the United States late last year, my Labor colleagues unanimously agreed that the chairmanship of that inquiry should be adjourned until I returned to Australia. Accordingly, the last six months have been hectic. I thank those Labor colleagues for their foresight and consideration. The inquiry has been fascinating and has captured public interest and a lot of press attention, and rightly so.
In some respects, the Senate committee system can be the final court of appeal. This report will engender close review of our entire financial services industry, the approach of major players, the utility of our public regulators and a new interpretation of the word 'inappropriate'. I commend that report in due course. The work of the Senate committee system will be fully on display.
Interests in the policy areas of defence, foreign affairs and trade require engagement domestically and overseas. I have led a number of delegations on defence matters overseas, primarily in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom. I have come to appreciate the high regard in which Australia is held in all of these countries. They value our growth orientated economic system, the ability to invest in business, the excellence of our regulatory system and our capacity to offer serious policy advice. Time and time again officials have taken me aside and expressed private thanks on the part of their government for our contribution in a particular forum.
It is little understood in this country the significance of thirty years of continuing economic growth, commenced under Hawke and continued under all governments since. We are arguably the richest country in the world, certainly on a per capita basis. Growth has come from reform. Reform came from ingenuity, discipline and a policy focus. In the not too distant future this will be a country of forty million people and a net capital exporter. That will impose a different set of demands and our response will need to be more outward focused and less selfish. That will be our challenge and there is no reason it cannot be done. Our views are valued. Our views are sought. This facet of our contribution is undervalued here in Australia. It is with pride I have led these delegations.
I now turn to my home state of Western Australia. A friend, a once friend of mine, used to refer to his home town of Badgerys Creek as the 'centre of the Western civilization'. He said it in all seriousness and could never understand everyone's outburst of mirth. Ironically, Badgerys Creek has since become the focal point for airport development in New South Wales and its fame has spread. Similarly, Western Australia regards itself in the same terms, in all seriousness and without the mirth.
Some have noted that from time to time I use strong language to express disapproval of some decisions of my federal colleagues. Those comments were never accidental. They were considered remarks because I fear too many in our party choose not to understand Western Australia and hence dismiss lightly legitimate concerns. Labor cannot be in government whilst it holds a mere three federal seats out of a total of fifteen—soon to be 16. The head start is too much. It is akin to giving a 30-metre start to your opponent in a 100-metre race. This is a development only of the last ten years. In 2001 the Australian Labor Party held nine seats out of 14 in Western Australia, 60 per cent of all available seats—a remarkable effort in a non-manufacturing state where the majority of the population works in mining or service industries. Those six seats were given away for free. The challenge for Labor in the west is to revitalise and re-engage on terms attractive to the Western Australian community. Views in the Labor Party are relatively homogeneous. It does not matter if it is Victoria or Western Australia. The political views are remarkably similar. However, community views in Western Australia are different to those on the eastern seaboard. Why is this? The answer is simple. The size, distance and wealth of Western Australia means community views gestate and grow in a different context. Labor in the west needs to embrace our federal system and accommodate regional perspectives. That is our failing. The west cannot be ignored in our quest to regain government.
In the last few months there has been a radical turnaround in the polls. I for one did not expect such a quick return to favour. The question is whether this return is permanent or just a passing fancy. The answer to that question is in the history books. In early 1996, we made some critical decisions to run away from a lot of the economic reforms of the previous 13 years. Successive decisions in those 11 years of opposition led us further from the grail of continuing economic reform.
Mr Shorten and our front bench have done very well so far, very well indeed, and I congratulate them. I believe mere noise and total opposition to any and all government proposals will be ultimately self-defeating. Soon we need to prove our capacity to be in government in the short term. I say unequivocally, let the major opposition party lead the debate and be the opposition party—isolating the rest. I hold to the view that the party or parties that control a majority on the floor of the House should govern in both places. The same principle should have applied for the last six years and the same principle should apply again when we again occupy the Treasury benches. I wish Mr Shorten and Senator Wong all the best to in their respective roles as leaders. They have earned their opportunity to lead. That is the politics done.
Now turning to my personal future. I led my first strike forty years ago. I have been an activist in the labour movement all that time. Fran and I will move to the Northern hemisphere for six months. Work, study, travel, leisure will be the order of the day but not particularly in that order. Then, upon our return to Australia in December or early next year, I will be resuming employment in the private sector. I understand that a few of my retiring colleagues have similar plans. We will be wise and silent men and women at a distance. I wish everyone well. It has been a privilege. Thank you very much.