Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Mr President, as I rise I acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples on whose traditional lands this Parliament House stands. I also acknowledge their elders, both past and present, and I'd like to particularly recognise one such elder in the gallery—Matilda House. Matilda was also in the gallery nearly 18 years ago to hear my maiden speech. Thank you, Matilda, and your extended family, for making me so welcome on your country.
I rise in this place today to offer my thanks and acknowledgement to those individuals and communities that have supported me in my time as the Country Liberal senator for the Northern Territory and to also offer some observations about my time in this place. First, and most importantly, could I offer my thanks to all those Territorians from all walks of life who supported and, in fact, voted for me in the last six elections. You can always rely on Territorians for good judgement.
I thank the Country Liberals for their unwavering support. I'm proud to belong to a political movement that always puts Territorians first. I acknowledge how tough it is for so many Territorians at the moment, and I hear your cries for change. I must say that it has been a real honour to have been the first-ever conservative cabinet minister to hail from the Northern Territory, and I genuinely hope I'm not the last. I simply can't overstate how critical it is to the governance of our nation to have representatives from north Australia sitting around the cabinet table.
Mr President, I thank you and acknowledge your professional and impartial leadership of the Senate. It's an absolutely crucial role, and I acknowledge all the Presidents since I arrived in this place. They've done a remarkable job in often difficult circumstances in maintaining peace and good order, particularly with those on the other side. I'd also like to thank the Nationals for their support during my time in the Senate. I've been supported by such great leaders—John Anderson, Mark Vaile, Warren Truss, Barnaby Joyce, and now the excellent Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack.
I know for a fact that every other senator in this place secretly wishes they could be part of our Nationals Senate team. Why wouldn't you want to be part of such a close-knit family that so effectively leverages the best outcomes for regional Australia? And I can tell you, Mr President, that we have a lot more fun doing it! It's a party of great characters like my good mate Wacka Williams. What a wonderful contribution you've made. Australia and particularly your constituents in New South Wales are richer for your time in the Senate.
Senator O'Sullivan—Bazza, mate, regional Queensland has lost a fearless champion, and this place has lost a committed contributor. Thanks for being such a funny bastard. I suspect your wicked good humour helped us all through some of our tougher times. Senator Steve Martin, our Nationals most recent addition, your endless capacity and enthusiasm for your beloved Tasmanians will, I'm sure, see you returned as a much-needed champion for regional Tasmania. I should also acknowledge your recently acquired ability to put more fish in the boat than me, a record I will correct on my next visit.
To Senator Matty Canavan: mate, you're just so hard to keep up with. You're a walking encyclopedia, a man who seemingly overnight can absorb, evaluate and then respond to the most complex of documents. You constantly demonstrate the innate ability to engage so quickly with everyone you meet. On behalf of north Australia, thanks, mate, for all the positive change you've created.
To my wonderful mate Senator McKenzie, Cyclone Bridget: it's rare to meet such a hardworking, effective senator. Regional Victoria is just so lucky to have you. You'll continue to be my close personal friend. I can tell you: sitting next to you is about the only thing I'm going to miss about bloody question time!
Can I also recognise the support of Bozzie, Sandy and Nashy before they left this place. Bozzie in particular is that rare breed of parliamentarian who never really retires once they leave this place. He is always on the phone. There was no fight, big or small, that Bozzie was ever too afraid to take on, and he usually won, too. You're a class act, mate. I only hope my retirement doesn't look anything like yours! But it is people like Bozzie and parties like the Nationals that make Australia such a great nation, the truly remarkable democracy that it is.
The Nats are the party for the regions, for remote Australia, whether it's on the coast, in the bush, in the desert or in our major regional centres. We never, ever take our regions for granted, because there are threats. We have this perverse situation where we have small but vocal groups of activists, primarily in southern and eastern Australia, dictating to rural Australians what industries they're allowed to have, what industries they're not allowed to work in, and what jobs they can and cannot have. Well, we in the Nationals fight for rural industries, shamelessly and proudly. We fight for industries like farming, like mining, like forestry and like fisheries. There is no shame in being a diesel mechanic working on a bauxite mine or an iron ore mine or, heaven forbid, a thermal coalmine. Nor is there any shame in being a beef producer, a dairy farmer or a cotton grower and growing the best food and fibre anywhere in the world.
We on this side—and certainly I—are not afraid to support the proposed Adani Carmichael mine or the development of the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory. Not only will these projects meet all of the state and territory environmental approvals, as they must do; they also have the overwhelming support of traditional owners and the communities in those regions. The traditional owners support these projects; so do the communities. They want the jobs, they want the opportunities and they want the economic development that they will deliver.
As you know, I'm a very keen hunter and sporting shooter myself. So I was very pleased that we all supported a motion reaffirming our commitment to the National Firearms Agreement. We all proudly support the legal rights of law-abiding firearm owners. The National Firearms Agreement hailed the most significant gun reforms in our nation. I believe these laws have achieved the right balance between keeping the community safe and giving firearm owners, whether sports shooters or farmers, a well-regulated and licensed framework to own and use their firearms.
I should make special mention of that excellent class of 2001. It's amazing how few of us remain. As a member of that class, Senator Penny Wong, thank you for your leadership and your guidance of those opposite for many years—and a few of them needed a bit of guidance too! You've made an articulate, dignified and often courageous contribution to this chamber. Congratulations.
There are still a few who predated my arrival. To Senator Marise Payne: Marise, thank you for your friendship and leadership in a variety of portfolios. I know from my garrison town of Darwin how much you were respected in the role of Minister for Defence and what an incredible job you are doing as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Well done, mate.
To Senator Mitch Fifield, Mitchie Boy—again a great mate and supporter. You've done a remarkable job of leading government business in the Senate. To Mathias, the Machine: I thank you for your leadership in the Senate. You're doing a fantastic job, and I trust that you'll excel in that role for many years to come. To the remainder of our coalition team, to Linda, Birmo, Cashy, David, Rusty, Richard and Zed: what a remarkable bunch of Australians you are; what a cracker frontbench. You are completely deserved of the prize we have in you.
To the remainder of those opposite and to all my coalition colleagues, thank you for the contributions you've made to the Senate and to that other place. To the prime ministers I have served, Mr Howard, Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull and now that excellent Prime Minister Mr Morrison, thank you for your advice, your leadership and, most importantly, your seamless, endless patience.
To the Territory senators I've served with, Trish Crossin, Nova Peris and Malarndirri McCarthy, the collegiate relationship we have enjoyed, most of the time, has ensured that, in this place, the Territory's interests have come first.
To the Greens, while there are not a lot of policies and philosophies I necessarily support, you have clearly stood by your beliefs and rarely vacillated from them. You have my every respect. Since I've worked so closely with Senator Siewert, could I make a special mention of Rachel and her passion for Indigenous affairs and support for Indigenous communities. Thanks, Rach, for your support and assistance in dealing with my portfolio matters.
To One Nation, without a doubt, Pauline—and I'm sorry you're not here to hear me—you are the most controversial politician I've ever worked with. Whilst I mightn't agree with you on all of your policies, I thank you for supporting a number of reforms in my portfolio that have made lives better for Indigenous Australians.
With controversy comes division, and I think the challenge for all of us in the place and as leaders in this place is to always to strive to appeal to Australians' better nature, rather than our worst. I do hope all of us can provide that leadership not only at the next election but in the years that follow.
To the crossbenchers, Senator Bernardi, Chesty, we've had some great times together and I'm sure we'll catch up for some more. To Senator Hinch, Derryn, I don't know anyone else who'd spend time behind bars for their beliefs. You have continued your principled crusade for the most vulnerable Australians since you arrived in this place. All the best for your continued efforts.
Nick Xenophon sort of snuck out. I know he's no longer here, but he remains a good friend of mine. I thank him for all the laughs. To Centre Alliance, to Senators Patrick and Griff, I've enjoyed a great working relationship. Thank you.
I also acknowledge Tim Storer and the very recent—perhaps a dash of sunshine for a very short moment!—Duncan Spender. Although I didn't really get to spend a lot of time with either of you in this place, I wish you both the best of luck. To Brian Burston, now with Clive Palmer's United Australia Party, it's been great to work with you. Clive is a very colourful character whom I know well.
We should never pretend that, as senators, we can achieve anything in this place without the support of our incredibly hardworking staff. You can see them up there in the President's gallery. They are very special, and have been so ably led by Bev Cubillo. Bev's been with me for the best part of 17 years, and she reckons that you get a shorter sentence for murder! A big thanks for your fantastic work, Bev, and also to Gusey, Justine, Billo and Adam, who do such a fantastic job in my electorate offices in Darwin and Alice Springs.
To my ministerial staff, supported by my dedicated and ever enthusiastic chief of staff, Ben Peoples—Benno, you've done a tremendous job leading the team of Bala Jacob, Katherine, Ali, Rick, Trilby, Bretty, Rachel, Hannah and Coops—thanks so much to you all for your dedication, hard work and support and for sharing a multitude of adventures with me over the last 5½ years.
I'd like to also take this opportunity to acknowledge my previous staff, including my previous chiefs of staff: Russell Patterson—fantastic job mate and good to see you; Kevin Donnellan, thanks for your work, mate; Kerrie Tim, the first Indigenous chief of staff—what a great legacy, Kerrie; and Sekur Clayton, you looked after me for so many years I promised I'd get you in Hansard one day!
To all the parliamentary staff who seem to magically run this place—our cleaning staff, all of our security staff, our wonderful Comcar crew, Hansard and all those other staff—you really are the engine room of the Australian parliament.
I also acknowledge the committed staff in my departments, whom I have worked with over my time as minister both in community services and the Indigenous affairs portfolio. I acknowledge those who are in the chamber tonight. I thank the many departmental liaison officers who have worked in my office; the regional network staff, who do a fantastic job supporting all my frontline service delivery; and the leadership of the department, particularly Ray Griggs and Professor Ian Anderson, who is the most senior Indigenous public servant, and who is in the gallery today.
In 2007 I was lucky enough to be asked to serve as Minister for Community Services under the Howard-Vaile government.
Whilst all elements of this portfolio were fascinating, I'd particularly like to thank the disability sector for helping me understand the detail of the challenges that faced us and to share with me the better policy approaches that would ensure that all Australians, irrespective of their circumstances, were treated fairly and equally. I'm confident that the NDIS is making a real difference and will continue to do so.
My current portfolio of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs is one I held in opposition for some time and, in my now informed view, is without doubt the most challenging and important of all cabinet responsibilities. Now, those who will undoubtedly quietly disagree clearly have never held a portfolio. Despite the challenges we inherited—and I know that we have made significant progress—when I say 'we', I mean Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in genuine partnership with government. It would be disingenuous in the extreme for me or our government, or indeed our parliament, to take credit for the success in these endeavours without recognising and acknowledging that, without our now long and enduring partnership with our First Australians, we would never have achieved the changes in the landscape we see today. I would particularly like to thank Senator Pat Dodson for his friendship and assistance with my portfolio—I value them both.
Could I acknowledge and thank the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, so ably chaired by Roy Ah-See and Andrea Mason. I also thank the past co-chair, Chris Sarra, and the current members, Fraser Nai, Dr Ngiare, Djambawa Marawili and Susan Murphy.
The Indigenous Advisory Council was never just advisory. That was made abundantly clear, I think, in the first two or three minutes of the first meeting. They have assisted in every element of policy development across such a wide range of issues and, on behalf of our shared constituency, thank you.
With the able assistance of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, we made significant structural reform, the first of which was to bring the primacy of a standalone portfolio of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for the first time into cabinet. The past hotchpotch approach of each portfolio having separate programs and funding arrangements was replaced by a new regime which brought all the funds supporting our First Australians together under the IAS, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
Whilst at the outset there were a few detractors, this reform brought demonstrably more rational oversight and a far more coordinated approach with an unashamed focus on education, employment, and community safety and wellbeing. It was this structural reform that allowed government to seek advice from our First Australians who were receiving services as to their community priorities rather than governments. A principal legacy of these reforms is a move from 30 per cent of the services being delivered by Indigenous businesses when we started to 60 per cent Indigenous delivery today.
I'd particularly like to acknowledge the Empowered Communities program, which now provides community advice on which programs continue to be funded and assists with timely adjustments to program delivery. I thank the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders throughout Australia for their robust efforts in moving our parliament to deliver the programs their communities need and support—a huge reform from the convention that government knows best.
Could I also acknowledge Galarrwuy Yunupingu and thank him for the great assistance he provided me in redesigning township leases that kept in the case of Gunyangara the new township lease completely under Aboriginal control. This process has become the new standard for township leasing. Bapaji, thank you.
Just last week I was delighted to chair the first ministerial council meeting that included our First Australians. This is a significant move from the convention of only the state, territory, and Commonwealth ministers meeting to the long overdue inclusion of the coalition of Aboriginal peak organisations. For the first time, our First Nations people are at the centre of Australia's endeavours to close the gap of opportunity and equity, and I'd like to thank Pat Turner for co-chairing this historic meeting with me.
Probably the most significant policy introduced by this new partnership has been the Indigenous Procurement Policy, so successful in not only the quantum of the Commonwealth procurement of the First Nations businesses moving, as I've said in this place ad nauseam, from $6.2 billion to now over $1.83 billion but, most importantly, the change in the lives and circumstances of around 40,000 Indigenous families in that they gained a principal breadwinner through full-time employment as a consequence of this initiative. Could I also acknowledge and thank the leadership of the premiers, chief ministers and mayors of all the state, territory and local governments that have adopted this initiative as their own. I hold every confidence this will have a positive and enduring impact on the circumstances of First Nation businesses and their swiftly growing number of employees.
To all those who seek the Treasury benches, a word of advice: this new way of doing business in equal partnership with our First Australians is the way of the future—a hard-fought and deserved future, and a partnership that must forever be.
Finally, and most importantly of all: my family. To my children, now adults, Sarah, Daniel, Luke and their partners Jacob, Suzie, Jamielee and little Kiki—good to see you, Biddle—including my nephew, Luke: you have given me incredible support throughout my time here. Thank you for always being there for me.
To my lovely Carol: I could not have done much of this without you, mate. I thank you for your support and your sacrifices over the years; I love you very much.
I hope my modest achievements in this place validate the responsibilities and trust that Territorians have placed in me. I thank them for the opportunity to serve.