Senate debates

Thursday, 2 March 2006


12:00 pm

Photo of Robert HillRobert Hill (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is an historic day—not, of course, because I am retiring but because we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of good coalition government. I decided it was time to move on and allow regeneration. It is something I felt I owed my party and colleagues who deserved a chance to rise a rung on the ladder of opportunity. No other senator for South Australia has served for 25 years, so I have been extremely well treated.

In that vein, I want first to thank my family, Diana and my now adult children. They have generously supported me, and without their support the job would have been impossible. I have also had personal friends who have been encouraging and supportive over a long time. They have maintained their confidence in me and I am very appreciative.

The Liberal Party of Australia first endorsed me in 1980 and has continued to do so. I remember my first preselection: I offered comparative youth. I was, in fact, the youngest Liberal when I entered this chamber at the age of 35. Some things have changed! I am grateful for the opportunities my party has given me. I have also been lucky to have good staff over that period of nearly 25 years. They have given me great loyalty and support and I hope they have been enriched by the experience of working in politics at this level. I thank them all.

I also want to thank those whose job it is to support the political process: the clerks and other officials of the Senate, the staff of the Department of Parliamentary Services, the staff of ministerial and parliamentary services in DOFA, the security staff, the catering staff, the travel staff, the Comcar staff and drivers, and so many others. They have all treated me well. Most of these people receive little recognition for their work, but they are all important in a parliamentary structure which is as good as and better than most.

I want to say a few words about the state of the Liberal Party. It was the fact that the Liberal Party was the party that encouraged individuals to reach their full potential, to take risks, to have a go, to grow and to accept individual responsibility that attracted me some 40 years ago. I thought the distinction between the parties was still there in this last round of first speeches. With respect to my colleagues, one side preached challenge and opportunity; the other, protection and support. Both remain valid political streams of the centre but, for me, I found the former more exciting and stimulating.

I have served some 24 years on the state executive of my party, including a period as state president, and 18 years on its federal executive. I have been a member of the leadership group of the federal parliamentary party for 16 years. So, whether at the organisational level or the parliamentary level, there is a considerable dose of Hill in the modern Liberal Party.

In terms of beliefs, I do not think the Liberal Party has changed a great deal over the years. It has always comprised those who are more conservative and those who are more liberal—socially and economically—and this has contributed to healthy debate in policy development. For the Liberal Party, with its emphasis on an individual’s freedoms rather than collective responsibility, the right to be guided by conscience remains vital. I am proof that in the Liberal Party you can take a different view on certain issues and still succeed—although I would not encourage it too often.

Maybe because I was brought up in South Australia, which boasts many firsts in social and political reform, maybe because my parents, although personally conservative, were always tolerant of the choices of others, maybe because I spent too much time at the London School of Economics or maybe because of the pervasive influence of such as Alan Missen, Peter Baume or Ian Macphee, or for whatever reason, I always leant to the liberal side of the party. Conservatives of course say liberals cannot make up their minds; liberals say it is easy for conservatives because they are not challenged by ideas. I think it is important for both streams to be well represented if the Liberal Party is to remain strong and relevant.

This leads me to where we are as a nation. We are economically stronger than ever, which is an endorsement of the economic reforms we have implemented. Clearly, a less regulated labour market has helped, and I have supported these changes. But, in getting the balance right, it is important to remember that not everyone is confident and competitive yet all have a contribution to make to our society and an entitlement to grow in their lives. John Howard has always said that we do not want to replicate the American labour market; we will do it in a way that accepts the core responsibility of government to protect those less able to protect themselves. I think this is very important, and against the background of a declining trade union movement becomes even more important.

Socially, our society is more complex. Children, more than ever, are being brought up by other than their two natural parents. Families do not have the same cohesion as they once had, which in turn is making it financially and emotionally hard for the aged. In government, we have put an emphasis on support for families and children and for the aged and the disadvantaged. I think it remains fundamental. And in giving back the surplus—if that is what is to occur—I would give it back to families. Despite the powerful vested interests pushing in other directions, that is where my vote would lie.

Culturally, I have always supported a multicultural society. I am not going to change because of a small number of, albeit ugly, incidents. I suspect fault lies on all sides. A fusion of cultures makes for a dynamic and rich society, but it does require tolerance and accommodation. Multiculturalism, Australian style, is not inconsistent with a requirement that those who aspire to be Australian accept the basic values of our society. In fact, the chance to live under the values of freedom, tolerance, pluralism and respect for the rule of law is why so many have made Australia home. So generally it is not a problem. They respect basic Australian values, to which they aspire in any event, but do not need to sacrifice their cultural backgrounds which, in turn, add value to our society. For some, I concede, it will be more difficult and will require education, patience and support.

Some commentators say that we are a mean and unwelcoming society. I recently visited Sudan, which has suffered from decades of horrible civil war. I learnt that in the last two years we have accepted some 13,000 Sudanese into Australia. I think this is a demonstration of a generous and humane society, and I congratulate the minister and the government. I am also pleased to see that places remain for those in the queue and that not all places are taken by those who enter illegally.

In this, my final parliamentary speech, I also want to say something about our national responsibility to conserve our extraordinary natural heritage. It was not until I came to the Environment portfolio that I really appreciated the unique richness and diversity of the natural assets of which we are custodians. As a nation we have made many mistakes in the management of our natural resources, but we now have a better understanding of the issues, improved science and education, national environment laws which are the best in the world and a respected environment department.

Most importantly, the mainstream of society is taking control of the debate, is starting to accept responsibility to use natural resources sustainably and is being supported by government to do so. Conserving native vegetation and the marine environment, protecting the health of our rivers and streams and ensuring adequate environmental flows and conservation of our fragile soils—these challenges are immense. But these natural systems are the source of life and essential to its nourishment and wellbeing. Caring for these systems is a fundamental responsibility we owe to future generations.

Not surprisingly, I also want to mention Defence and security, the second of my portfolio responsibilities. Having a statutory responsibility for governance of the ADF is a special privilege, and I have admired the loyalty, sense of service and duty and professional capability of Australia’s armed forces. They are a great national asset and deserve to be treated as such. To work in the National Security Committee of cabinet to meet the first responsibility of government—that of providing security for the Australian people—has been particularly rewarding.

I am pleased that we now have a more active defence posture. Getting out and helping to resolve issues of security and stability is in our national interest. Certainly our contribution has been appreciated by the people of East Timor, of Bougainville, of the Solomon Islands, of Afghanistan and even of Iraq, where most Iraqis were pleased to get rid of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein. We were also entitled to resolve the issue of WMDs, which the UN Security Council had failed to do.

Ensuring the forces are equipped to meet the tasks we ask of them is also important, and the procurement plan we are now implementing will ensure the capability to protect Australia and Australian interests in an uncertain strategic environment. I am also pleased that we are now giving Army the recognition and support it deserves. And finally on the issue of the ADF, we must remember and respond to the unique challenges and requirements of service families. The changing demands yet reasonable expectations of families will provide major challenges to recruitment and particularly retention. We are making progress in this area but the task will be ongoing.

On the issue of the state of the nation, I would like to make two further comments. The first will not surprise some of my colleagues. I hope it will not be too long before Australia has an Australian as its head of state. As we mature as a nation, as we become more confident of our place in the world as a successful, dynamic, independent and active global contributor, it looks increasingly odd that our constitutional structure has failed to keep pace. This requires those who share my view, which according to recent surveys is now a clear majority, to actively engage and agree on the best model for Australia. Republicans cannot expect those who oppose a republic to lead that debate.

Secondly, I note that the challenge for Indigenous Australians in our rapidly changing society is as daunting as ever. Whilst it is primarily a challenge for the Indigenous people themselves, they are entitled to and deserve our support. This was their land for at least 30,000 years, and their heritage, which we now share, is another of our great national assets. My experience, particularly in the Environment portfolio, of the special knowledge and skills of Aboriginal people had a great effect upon me. I am pleased to see that, in relation to tackling the disadvantage of Aboriginal people, new ideas are being argued and tested. In a generally prosperous and successful nation, how we address these issues will be an important part of our national legacy.

I came here in 1981. My experience in government was to be fleeting, but I watched, listened and learnt from such as Fraser, Anthony, Peacock, Guilfoyle, Nixon, Carrick, Withers, Street, Sinclair and others. Then I experienced 13 years of opposition. Effective opposition is critical to the strength of our democracy, and thus very important work, but it can be frustrating—particularly if it lasts 13 years. It does, however, encourage new ideas and give a new generation opportunities and responsibilities. It certainly gave that to me when I chaired the opposition’s foreign affairs committee and in shadow ministries, including status of women, the ACT, justice, foreign affairs for four years, defence, science and technology, public administration and then, finally, higher education. It gave me opportunities to write policies and ultimately to chair the opposition’s policy review committee between 1993 and 1996. It gave me the opportunity to serve on the council of the National Library.

It also gave me new responsibilities in the Senate, particularly when my colleagues elected me their leader in 1990—responsibilities not only in parliamentary business and tactics but also in managing a group of ambitious and challenging yet frustrated personalities and in moulding an effective parliamentary team. There were deep lows, such as the 1993 election defeat, after which the rebuilding of morale was very demanding. There were also relative highs, such as the taking of a high-profile ministerial scalp. But, overall, the going was tough.

But it was also an opportunity for other challenges. One I took on through the International Democratic Union, of which I am still a deputy chair, was democracy building around the world—particularly through the development of sustainable political parties. It was extraordinarily rewarding. Whether in the Pacific or at the end of the Marcos era in the Philippines or in the first elections of the new democracies of Eastern Europe or even in helping after the revolutions of Latin America, I found the skills of politicians from a democracy to be transferable and useful. One meeting which had a particular effect on me was in about 1991 and was with representatives of new political parties of Europe. Many of the participants had been in jail for extensive periods, some had been tortured and they told horrific stories of the past, but all were excited and positive about the chance for democracy and respect for human rights. It was very uplifting.

There are some who argue that particular countries, because of their underdevelopment, political history or religious creed, are not ready for democracy. All people yearn for freedom. They might also want jobs, education, health care, stability, security and many other things, but they do want to be free. It has been vividly illustrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan in recent times. What has also been demonstrated is that these people need a lot of help, and ongoing help, to achieve their goals. I am extremely proud that Australia is making a contribution in support of the freedom of both the Iraqi and Afghan people, and I am particularly grateful to our service personnel and officials who are daily risking their lives on our behalf.

But, returning to my theme, there is only so much you can do in opposition, and politicians are primarily driven by the goal of getting into government to make decisions and implement change—and on this 10th anniversary of the Howard government I can say it was worth the wait and the effort. If you are into politics, the federal cabinet is about as good as it gets. It is even better to be part of a reformist government which has achieved so much. John Howard has provided wonderful leadership for Australia, and I am very appreciative of the opportunities he has given me. Through my 10 years as chair of cabinet’s parliamentary business committee and through my leadership in the Senate, I have played a part in the very considerable legislative achievement of the Howard government—but so have all my colleagues in the Senate, who worked patiently, cooperatively and with determination during the nine years we lacked a majority to achieve so much of the government’s mandate.

I will soon retire from the Senate and as a representative of South Australia. I want to say a few words about each. The Senate is not really doing what it was set up to do, but it has evolved for itself a place in our democracy which is very important. In terms of the detail of legislation, this is where it is addressed. In terms of the scrutiny of subordinate legislation and provisions that might affect the rights of individuals, it is again the Senate which does the work. There is a lot more ministerial scrutiny in the Senate; and in terms of financial accountability to the parliament, again the Senate is the principal player. I am for maintaining all of the Senate powers and its discrete parliamentary terms. I think a strong Senate and some independence from prime ministerial power is in the best interests of our democracy. When a Prime Minister calls the Senate ‘unrepresentative swill’, I think the Senate must be doing something worth while.

I would also never understate the importance of the Senate committee system. I might have enjoyed my work on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, but the work I did on the Senate committee on constitutional and legal affairs, the National Crime Authority committee, the scrutiny of bills committee—which I helped to set up—and the estimates committees was actually more important. The Senate also provides a unique forum for public debate on the more controversial and challenging issues of our time. I hope senators of the future will not shy away from that traditional role.

I have also been a proud representative for the state of South Australia. In the case of South Australia, my state remains attractive in every aspect of life people regard as important except economic opportunity. I was born in Adelaide and will always call Adelaide home, but it is a pity my children do not. I would like South Australia, and Adelaide in particular, to be economically stronger and more sustainable, but I think this will only occur through strong leadership and intervention. If I were running the state, I would be picking and backing winners—so it is a good thing I am not, as I know this view has gone out of fashion. Otherwise, South Australia is a wonderful place to live, and the South Australian community has been very good to me. I hope I have given a bit back.

Before concluding, I want to say something about the major threat we currently face—that of international terrorism. Terrorism is not an end in itself. Rather, terrorism is the weapon of choice of those seeking to extend the influence of a particular brand of extremist Islam. Its goal is to undermine the morale and confidence of opponents—primarily moderate Muslims but including Western society. Whilst I have always said that this threat must be taken head-on in some instances, I have also argued that to win we need to sell the benefits of Western civilisation, we need to demonstrate commitment in practice to the values we hold and we need to dramatically extend economic opportunity across the world. The recruitment pool is those who have been left behind, and in the Muslim world that pool is huge. To me, this is a battle more complicated and difficult to win than the Cold War and a battle to which the West has not yet really begun to engage.

Finally, I want to thank my colleagues past and present, particularly my mate Ron Boswell, who has tried to help me understand the National Party; my successive deputies—I was probably closest to Richard Alston; my former frontbench colleagues; and, in fact, the whole parliamentary team. It is extraordinary that I never lost a moment’s sleep from the need to protect my back in the 16 years I was leader of the coalition in this place. I have made many friends and lost very few. I would never dissuade someone from a political life. It is important work. It can be rough, but it has its rewards as a profession of service, and for a rare breed it can actually be a lot of fun. I wish all honourable senators well, and to those on my side I also wish continued electoral success. I thank the Senate.

12:21 pm

Photo of Paul CalvertPaul Calvert (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I know I speak on behalf of all senators in this place and on behalf of our distinguished guests from the other place when I say to you, Robert, that you have been a very significant contributor to this place over the last 25 years. You are very highly regarded by all of us. We wish you and Diana all the best in your future.

Honourable Senators:

Hear, hear!

12:22 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Science and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—To mark the departure from the Senate of Senator Hill, and in the style of Wordsworth’s ode to Milton:

Canberra 2006

Robert! Thou should’st be leaving at this hour

America hath need of thee: she is a fen

of stagnant waters: pellet gun and pen,

both indicate how life there has gone sour,

their ancient wealth is crumbling (like a Tower)

they know unhappiness. They are selfish men;

Oh! Raise them up (they all watch CNN!):

and give them manners, virtue, freedom, power:

Here in the Senate, thou were’t quite a Star

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:

“Fortune favours the brave” thou cried, and we

Admired thee making waves here and afar.

Thou possessed more political artillery

Than Dubya, Condi Rice or even Hillary

So now, as we smile and bid thee fond adieu,

Dame fortune’s favour surely goes with you.

We hope for future exploits quite sublime

Oh who can tell how high this Hill will climb!

Photo of Paul CalvertPaul Calvert (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I am sure Senator Hill will review that in the Hansard!