Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Parliamentary Representation


5:22 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | Hansard source

Valedictory occasions are those occasions when we pause from partisan conflict and remind ourselves, or are gently reminded by those who are leaving our number, why we are really here, and there could have been no better reminder of that than Senator Back's evocation of the Mandela moments in the eight years he spent serving the people of Western Australia in the Senate.

Chris, you have been a marvellous colleague. That is evident from the fact that not only have all the government senators come out this evening to bid you farewell but so many opposition senators and so many crossbench senators have done you the honour of coming into the chamber for your valedictory remarks. That does not always happen. The fact that it has happened for you is a tangible mark of the esteem in which you are held.

You have brought so much this place. You are a gentleman, you are a professional man—as you reminded us, the first veterinarian to serve in the Senate—you are an Irishman and of course you are a proud Western Australian. All of those different characteristics have blended in you to create someone who became over the eight years you have been our colleague a great adornment to this chamber.

You came to the Senate, of course, with a very, very diverse background. As I said, you are a professional man—a veterinarian—and a graduate, I am glad to say, of the University of Queensland. You practised your profession both in private practice and as a university teacher at Curtin University. You also worked at the University of California. You were, however, not merely a professional veterinarian; you have occupied a number of other roles. For some years, you were the Chief Executive Officer of the Rottnest Island Authority as well as, for several years, the Chief Executive Officer of the Western Australian Bushfires Board, and you have had important roles in commerce as well. We pride ourselves—and this is a point that you made this morning in the party room, if I may breach the confidence of the government party room for a moment I am sure I may be forgiven—that one of the great strengths of the coalition is the diversity of the backgrounds of those who come to serve in this parliament for the Liberal Party and the National Party. And you yourself, Chris, are the living embodiment of that diversity—that range of skills and life experiences that you brought to this chamber.

As a senator, you have given distinguished service through the Senate committees as Chair of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee and, more recently and importantly, as Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. Since the time began when I represented the foreign minister in this chamber, I appeared before your committee in that role, and I have noticed with admiration the iron rod with which you ruled the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. It is not a small thing in this chamber, which depends upon committee work for so much of its work, that a senator is an excellent chairman and, of all the many, many skills and competencies that you brought to this place, Chris, it is not a small thing that you have been such an outstanding and such an impartial and competent chairman of that and other important committees.

You brought to the parliament the expertise that comes with having been a professional, and, of course, one of the keys to authority in a place like this is to be the person who speaks with specialist knowledge. I remember, on occasions, your contributions to the government party room—or, in the bad old days for us, the opposition party room—in your areas of specialist knowledge were some of the most authoritative contributions, some of the best contributions, I ever heard. When the previous Labor government made the catastrophic decision to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia, I recall that, from opposition, you prosecuted the case against the former minister, former Senator Ludwig, the minister for agriculture, who, history should record, was not, in the end, really to blame for that terrible decision, but, nevertheless, of course took responsibility for defending it in this chamber. You prosecuted that case through question time and through parliamentary debate in a way that nobody else could have done nearly so effectively, because specialist knowledge beats all the rhetoric in the world. You had it and you nailed the issue as nobody else could have done. You did that with so many other issues, because you have a scientific mind. You trained in one of the professional sciences, and you brought that scientific mind to bear on such a range of practical issues, which have left a tangible legacy.

You are, if I may say so, a marvellous speaker. You bring all that Irish charm to bear in your presentations to the chamber, as we have just seen in your valedictory speech, but it is the granularity of your contribution on specific topics, whether it be the subject of cancer in firefighters, whether it be the investigation of bushfires, whether it be—an issue you raised with me more than once—the health effect of windmills, or whether it be a range of other specific issues—specific issues on which, as always, you spoke with authority as a man of science. Because you spoke with authority you shaped, and, may I say, dominated the course of the debate.

You made your maiden speech in this place, fittingly enough, on Saint Patrick's Day in 2009. As we do on the occasion of colleagues' valedictories, I read through your maiden speech earlier in the day. You began by quoting Sir Robert Menzies and his call for 'a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and … progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism'.

The topics you touched on in your maiden speech presaged the contribution that you would make over the ensuing eight years. You spoke first of your experience as the CEO of the Western Australian Rural Fires Board. Then you spoke about the ADF; and of course we know that, through your sons, you have an important family involvement with the ADF and had always taken a deep interest in their affairs even before you chaired the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Subcommittee. And then, quite remarkably for a Western Australian senator, you made some remarks about how Western Australia was not getting its fair share of the GST! I have never heard that from a Western Australian senator! It was quite a heretical remark that you made in your maiden speech, coming from that state—I have never heard that before! And you finished by talking about the energy sector and then you dwelt on the contribution of the Irish to Australia and, in particular, Western Australia. In your concluding words, before you blessed us with the Irish blessing that you have just recited, you said:

There are three criteria by which the citizens of any country have the right to judge their government and the parliament generally. These are: firstly, transparency, accountability and standard of governance; secondly, social justice for the whole community; and, thirdly, wealth creation for future generations. …

My vision for Australia is simple. It is for an Australian community in which every member is safe, feels valued and contributes to a sustainable future. In this place, I undertake to support that which promotes these principles and to oppose that which diminishes them.

That is a very simple mission statement, Chris, but one which, in the eight years that have gone by since, you have fulfilled, in one way or another, in every single contribution you have made in this chamber, in your committee work and in your work in Western Australia as a champion and advocate of liberal values. You leave this chamber with the esteem of your colleagues from all parts of the chamber, with genuine friendships which I am sure you will cherish as we will cherish our friendship with you, and in the knowledge that you have fulfilled richly the task that you set yourself. All of us wish you and Linda a long, happy retirement from politics, and I trust that, in that long and happy retirement, you will remember your days among us, you will stay in touch with us, but you will not allow the affairs of the Senate in the years to come to intrude too much upon your contentment.


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