Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Parliamentary Representation


5:48 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to respond to Senator Williams's and Senator Leyonhjelm's valedictories and, on behalf of the government, to thank them for their service to this parliament, their states, regional Australia—in relation to our friend John Williams—and, of course, our country.

Let me start with Senator Williams. In fulfilling its democratic purpose, it is fair to say, this place throws together a diverse mix of people and personalities. I dare say that our friend Senator John 'Wacka' Williams would be counted among the most authentic and decent characters that the Senate chamber has seen. While those traits have undoubtedly helped him get away with his, at times, borderline humour—but always a very entertaining sense of humour, of course—they've also rightly earned him the respect and endearment of so many on all sides in this chamber. He has brought a perspective to this place that few can match, from a life reaching from a farm near Jamestown to grazing land near Inverell, through decades spent in private business and myriad local community organisations, ultimately leading to the federal parliament here in Canberra. Years spent shearing sheep, driving livestock and grain trucks and working on the family farm have ensured that when John has spoken up for Australia's farming communities, he has done so from the most authoritative position of all, a rugged experience. Indeed, when he first arrived in this place, he referred to his alma mater as the university of real-life experience. Nowhere has John's passion been stronger or his focus firmer than when it came to standing up for Australia's farmers, pastoralists and graziers, time and again marshalling his wealth of experience to articulate their interests and craft public policy that delivered for them. Crucially, his own insights were always complimented by those of the regional and rural communities with which he, to this day, maintains a very real and personal connection.

One of John's consistent priorities has been upskilling the next generation. He has worked hard to connect young people in regional and rural communities to scholarships and higher education opportunities, particularly in the crucial STEM fields. He demonstrated his commitment—and he referenced this during his valedictory contribution—when he donated a $4,800 increase in his electorate allowance to establish a scholarship for country based students studying dentistry. That scholarship was the first of many and continues to change lives and touch country communities today.

John's most famous contribution, no doubt, has been borne out of his tireless advocacy for those Australians who have been the victims of malfeasance within the financial sector. Here, he combined his passion for justice with a sharp intellect and great determination. I suspect that many a person who has found themselves on the receiving end of his questions at Senate committee hearings has quickly come to realise that the ABC was right to dub him 'a tenacious and wily inquisitor'. His efforts have helped to secure tangible improvements in Australia's largest industry that are today making it harder for the shocking behaviour of the past to be repeated.

Notably, he championed the creation of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, which came into being just months ago and is already staking out an important place within the nation's financial services integrity framework. When away from the committee room, he has served as the ever ready Nationals Whip in the Senate for many, many years. I'm told that with its funniest member now departing, those in the early morning whips' meetings are now searching for someone to brighten them up as they start another exciting day in our nation's capital.

With his shearer's fingers twitching, John has never once allowed life in the Canberra circuit to blot out the world outside. I note that he first joined Apex in 1981—he referenced this—and was granted life membership of its Sapphire City club in 1995 and that even today he's a member of the Inverell East Rotary Club. Here, again, the words from his first speech ring true when he lauded his native Jamestown as 'a community where people were and still are willing to lend a hand to others'. Be it in the Senate chamber or a paddock in country New South Wales, John has very clearly carried that spirit with him throughout his life.

I also recognise and acknowledge the efforts of his staff, in particular those of Greg, Deb, Garry and Heather, who, I gather, are the only staff you have ever had in the whole period in this place, which is, indeed, quite an amazing achievement. I recognise the efforts of his staff who have worked in John's team from his very first day here. John is known to say that their longevity probably owes to the lack of other jobs in Inverell, and he made that joke here today. But in the spirit of this evening, I think we'll give him the benefit of the doubt: we know that they stayed around not only because he's an incredible boss but also because they were part of something exciting in terms of the contribution that they were able to make with you to the betterment of your community and communities around Australia and, indeed, our nation.

John, you've been a superb colleague and have achieved something very special here, forging a reputation for clear and unwavering conviction but never letting that passion detract from a decency and collegiality that you have extended to parliamentarians of all sides. We wish you, Nancy and your beautiful family all the very best for your future endeavours and hope that you enjoy some well-deserved rest on the farm—I'm not sure that it's all that restful when you're back at home. It's certainly not restful when I go back home and we all get a list of jobs that need to be done! Nevertheless, I wish you and we wish you all the very best for your future together, and no doubt we will all stay in touch over the months and years to come. Happy shearing!

I also would like to mark the contribution of Senator David Leyonhjelm. Coming to the Senate as a self-declared libertarian, David has left a lasting mark on the parliament during his time here. David's senatorial career began with a first speech that traced his philosophical bearings to those thinkers who shaped so much of the world that we live in today: Mill, Locke, Hume and many others. David has been consistently faithful to those ideas. He has defended the notion of individual freedom and enterprise with energy and intellectual rigour. Given his status as a stalwart of constitutionalism and liberal democracy, I can't help but note a tinge of irony in the fact that he is, in fact, the descendant of Swedish nobility, dating back to the Leijonhielm barony of 1719—and I see him smile. I guess we don't have to worry that the sequence of citizenship followed all the way through the generations of nobility moving forward since 1719. In light of the churn in Senate membership over the past 18 months, I assume that we can safely surmise that those ties with Swedish nobility were comprehensively cut some time ago—an individualist to the end!

In the years since he delivered that first speech, it has been well established that David's affinity for abstract political principles is matched by a formidable policy brief and keen intellect. His contributions have also been informed by a stock of life experience that he has leveraged regularly—lessons gleaned by growing up on his family dairy farm in western Victoria, practising professionally as a veterinarian, running his own business and pursuing a range of extracurricular activities, most notably as an avid and accomplished shooter. Reflecting on that hobby, I must say that it is not all that difficult to determine when you find yourself in David's sights! David has always displayed considerable intellectual strength. He was never afraid to be in a minority of one, although it doesn't really help being in a minority of one when you try to call for a division, as he had to learn reasonably quickly when he first arrived! He was the patron saint of many unfashionable causes here in this place, but only if they were consistent with freedom of enterprise and the individual. While he always knew where he stood, even if on occasion that was alone, he also made a great effort to engage with the government constructively on a broad range of issues, and that's something I particularly personally very much appreciate. In particular, I draw attention to the occasions on which he supported the government's efforts to strengthen our economy, create more jobs and build a brighter future for the Australian people. At those moments, stretched, as I referred to in question time earlier, from the start of the government's term, with his strong support for the abolition of the carbon and mining taxes, he was a reliable supporter of budget repair and the rule of law, as can be seen with his backing of the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. At other times, we have differed on the issues, but whatever the topic David has put forward his views frankly, forthrightly and forcefully, in the best traditions of our country's democracy.

David, it has been an absolute pleasure having you as a colleague over the past several years. I've always very much enjoyed working with you and I've always appreciated the spirit in which you engaged with us, looking creatively for solutions that could help secure a consensus to enable the country to move forward. As you prepare to leave this place, we thank you again for your service. We know that you aspire to provide some more public service in another place. Best of luck, but, whatever the future holds, we wish you and your wife, Amanda, all the very best for your future.


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