Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

First Speech

5:28 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Mr President and fellow senators, I rise to celebrate my predecessors and colleagues by echoing all who have risen in this chamber to give their first speech, and say it is an honour to be elected to the Senate and to the 46th Parliament. My favourite saying in politics has always been 'the world is run by those who stand up'. So I can say that, after deciding it was my time to stand up for what I believe in, I'm thrilled to now stand in this place—an honour that I will not take for granted.

My aim today is to share a little bit about my background, but only a little, because I'd prefer to focus on what I see is a great challenge before us in this place, and that is to defend democracy. I see this as a challenge with five fundamental arguments underlining it. Firstly, democracy works. Although it does not entitle individuals to everything they want, it does entitle everyone to a voice. Secondly, governing is not easy. It is about making choices—some harder than others, but all to improve the lives of Australians. Thirdly, countries work better when people run their own lives. This means creating opportunities for all Australians, not telling them how to live their lives. Next is the concept that happy lives are based on the love of family and the dignity of work. Finally, good government means pragmatic decisions based on values. But I will come back to these points.

I am fortunate that I don't have a log cabin story. My childhood was ideal, and I wish all children had experienced the same childhood I had. I will work hard in this place to do what I can to make this a reality for more children. While my childhood was rich in love, it was by no means financially privileged. My parents, Allan and Pam, who are in the gallery today, had a small business which did eventually flourish. This instilled in me an admiration for hard work, discipline, resilience and the will to have a go. I hope that I have displayed those traits throughout my life and that I bring them to this place. It also ignited a passion for small business; I ran my own firm for 15 years prior to coming here. I understand the challenges that small businesses face, and I will work hard to get them a fairer go.

My life has always been full of the most wonderful women. My sisters, Kristine, Lisa and Madeleine, and my niece, Lucia, have given me so much joy, and I love them all. Speaking of wonderful women, I'd like to acknowledge the love and support of my life partner, Nerilee, and thank her for standing beside me on this new journey. She has made incredible sacrifices for us, and I want her to know how much I appreciate them and her. She is one of Australia's most talented corporate women and I admire how she has never let gender get in the way of her success, even whilst working in a traditionally male-dominated industry. While this place will call me away from home, I want her to know that, while we're apart, she's never out of my thoughts or my heart. I also welcome her parents, Colin and Donelle Rockman, here today.

Now to my earlier point about the challenge ahead. As a society we are able to happily disagree on many things—music, art, even football—without the divisiveness that political disagreement brings about. I am at a loss to understand why politics, of all things, divides us more than virtually anything else. I am a passionate Collingwood supporter, and even this doesn't produce the vitriol that politics seems to. I am sure all in this place will join with me when I say, 'Go Pies!'

Following the recent election, much has been written of the loss of faith in politics and politicians. It has even been suggested that democracy is failing. What a sad state of affairs it would be if that declaration were true. The death of democracy could only mean one of two scenarios: the rise of autocracy with a reincarnation of totalitarianism via the rebirth of socialism, or, I guess, a return to an oligarchy—but I am quite sure Her Majesty would have sent us a note first! Clearly, those decrying the death of democracy are pursuing an agenda—an agenda built off the politics of fear and envy. They base this prognosis on their view that not everyone is getting everything that they want, and, they argue, the extension of that is 'your vote doesn't count', and thus they propose that democracy is dead. This line of attack is as illogical as it is illegitimate.

Democracy does not owe anyone anything except a chance to have their say. Government can never give everyone everything they want. That doesn't mean either government or democracy is failing. As Sir Robert Menzies said:

… democracy's true glory is not the achievement of a uniform mediocrity or of a spirit of dependence upon Government, but the encouragement of talent and initiative, the elevation of the individual, the giving of opportunity to all who have the inherent quality to seize it.

It is up to those of us who believe in democracy to make the case for it and to fight to defend it. Fighting for democracy here in Australia is easy because the proof, the undeniable truth, that it works is everywhere around us, particularly in this place. The harder task is for us to explain how democracy works—and, although it provides a framework to help address problems, it can't fix every problem.

Democracy is given expression here in this place; it is what we call 'government'. It is why we parliamentarians are here: to govern. However, I don't think I am overstating things when I say that governing is not easy. Governing is about making choices. These choices are often complex, with multiple stakeholders, each with competing priorities and interests. Often there is no right answer, but an answer must be found nonetheless. The decisions we make in this place do affect people's lives, but hopefully for the better more often than for the lesser. But we can't resile from the fact that some decisions may have negative consequences for a few. It is a fine balance that involves making hard decisions. So I reiterate: governing is never easy.

If you only take your news and views from Facebook and Twitter, it seems impossible to see life other than simplistic and binary—that is, 'You're either with me or you're against me.' You see the politics of fear and favour. When someone sees a post that moves them emotionally, it is easy to take a false view that government is failing them. But solving every problem isn't the job of government, and it can never be the job of government. Our job is to look at the bigger picture on how Australians' lives can be improved as a nation. We create legislation, regulation, penalisation and incentivisation to provide citizens with a framework within which to conduct their lives.

Our role is not to run their lives for them, nor even to tell them how to do so. Our purpose is to create the best set of circumstances, given known resources and constraints, and to encourage people to do the best that they can within that framework. How we come to these decisions cannot come from knowing all the answers, because we simply don't have all the answers. We can ask questions, we can research, we can run inquiries and we can consult, but we are not all-knowing—even if the members in the other place may tell you different.

Our decisions have to come from deeper places than that, for these tough decisions need deeper guidance. That guidance can only come from the underpinning values we hold and believe in. For me, they are Liberal Party values, through and through. They are built on the fundamental principles of primacy of the individual, opportunity for all, reward for effort, but also, equally, the virtue of personal responsibility. I believe in free markets and freedom of speech but, most importantly, in my view, getting government out of people's lives.

I believe that the simplest way that government can improve people's lives is by creating the opportunity to work. I was fortunate enough to be in the gallery to hear my friend and now colleague Senator Paterson give his first speech, and he talked about the concept of 'the dignity of work' and the benefit it provides to people above and beyond simply a wage. It was a notion that really resonated with me because it reinforced my belief that a job is far more than just an economic transaction. A job provides far more than a salary; it gives people acknowledgment of their unique contribution to our great nation. With that comes a sense of belonging to something larger and a sense of pride. Also, in return, it makes Australia a more productive country, where each and every individual's contribution is valued and recognised beyond a cost-benefit analysis. That is the dignity of work.

Our government, especially our Prime Minister, has made it clear that 'the best form of welfare is a job'. This goes beyond a mere slogan; it has truth in meaning. The word 'welfare' itself has more than one meaning. Yes, It can mean a handout, and that rightly remains a responsibility of government for those who require that financial support. Providing a handout does not diminish the people who require it. We should not, and never will, leave these people behind. But the definition that is more important to Australians is that 'welfare' also means wellbeing, health, happiness, safety and security. That is why we believe that a job is indeed the best form of welfare, as it provides these things and is not merely a monetary contribution. Government must do as much as possible to ensure there are as few roadblocks as possible to people being able to work.

It is clear that good governments recognise that there is a direct correlation between good economic management and national wellbeing. It is inarguable that Australians are happier and healthier when their aspirations are allowed to flourish and they can put their innate productivity to good use. This must never be understated by governments and must never, ever be undermined.

I believe each and every individual has something to bring to the table in a fair and functioning society. Our role is to reflect their values. These 'quiet Australians', as aptly put by our Prime Minister on election night, are the bedrock of our society and have always been. In previous times they have also been known as Menzies's forgotten people and Howard's battlers. Governments can and must be doing more to recognise and support these people through good policy initiatives. The passing of our government's tax cut package during my first week in parliament is a tangible, responsive and responsible example of how the coalition government is helping to look after these quiet Australians and reward their hard work—by allowing them to keep more of what they earn.

Every generation has shaped the country as it stands today, and every generation has faced its own unique social, moral and economic challenges. Quiet Australians look to good government to address these challenges on their behalf.

It is my belief that good government is not born of values and beliefs alone, nor is it achieved by merely following the political manoeuvres of governments past. What inevitably defines a government's legacy is found in its ability to command a modern agenda, infused by values that meet the ever-changing needs of Australians. Good government is decisions born of values mixed with pragmatism.

As Liberals we often stand up and commend the legacies of successful past governments and of great leaders of history, including Prime Ministers Menzies and Howard, the fathers of our great party. However, what is often left out of their legacies was their commitment to political pragmatism over blindly adhering to the tenets of ideology. What made these governments successful was that they acted in the nation's interest, with flexibility and with vision, as social and political climates dictated.

Good governments must be flexible and open to adapting to the needs of a growing society while still holding true to the underpinning values that unite us. This ensures an unwavering consistency of our core values, despite changing times and social attitudes. It is also the reason that I stand on this side of the chamber with the Liberal Party—its fundamental faith in human nature and the individual. The rational individual's capacity to build a life of aspiration and betterment should be fostered and supported by governments, not controlled by it. It is also one of the many reasons the Liberal Party encompasses and accommodates the ideological differences of conservatives, classic liberals and libertarians—because what unites us is far more powerful than what divides us. It is the balance of these three political schools of thought that allows for a diversity of responses and ideas.

We historically, along with our coalition partners, are the party of good government. I say this proudly and biasedly, because we on this side get the balance right. In the face of radical reform without rationality, the electorate demonstrates a prevailing common sense. Reform may be bold but only when necessity calls for it. Reform for reform's sake is never good government. Being a conservative is not saying no to all change; it's saying yes to the right change at the right time for the right reasons. That timing and those reasons are only determined by the Australian people. Good governments do not seek to impose, to thrust, public policy on Australians in order to effect social change. Society shapes governments; governments should not shape society.

Mr President, as you well understand, democracy is utterly dependent on having parliament operate at its absolute best. That is not achieved when we fight amongst ourselves, as this is when people feel most that democracy is failing them. Whilst there is a necessary role for robust Senates to keep governments in check, they should not be used as a tool of obstruction. Overly hostile Senates have only proved themselves to be working against the principles of good government. I believe more can be achieved through tactful and prudent negotiation between senators. I look forward to working with all members of this chamber in order to ensure that the upper house remains the robust chamber of scrutiny while also staying true to the principles of state representation and advocacy. As my friend former senator Mitch Fifield said in his valedictory speech only a few weeks ago, 'My approach in this place has never been partisanship for the sake of partisanship.' I will honour his virtues here by taking a similar approach and seek to highlight important philosophical differences while not being gratuitously partisan.

In concluding, when I look to my admired political figures, I see a common theme that underpins their roles as elected officials—that is, their commitment to serve the public. I was chosen democratically to represent the values of the Liberal Party. I thank my preselectors for placing their trust in me, and I thank my Victorian parliamentary colleagues, led by the Hon. Josh Frydenberg. However, first and foremost, I'm a servant to the people. I was elected by the people of Victoria. My loyalty is thus first and foremost to them, and I thank them for electing me. I restate my commitment to represent all Victorians and all Australians, to listen to ideas from all sides of the political divide and to ensure that we're creating a vision of unity and aspiration for all members of society. Democracy demands nothing less, and my electors deserve nothing less. I thank the Senate for its indulgence.


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