Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Matters of Public Interest


12:45 pm

Photo of Santo SantoroSanto Santoro (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It goes with saying that, in commencing my final speech to the Senate today, I do so with some regrets. All politicians, either actual or aspiring, know Enoch Powell’s famous maxim about our inevitable end point. It will suffice to say that both the time and the manner of my parliamentary ending leave me with a sense of unfinished business. However, it is not my intention this afternoon to dwell on the negative or to wax lyrical about what might have been had things been different—nor, senators will be pleased to know, am I taking this opportunity to lecture the Senate on what I have achieved in my time as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Queensland or the Australian Senate, or as a minister in each. I believe it is important to make the point that I am proud of the contribution that I have made to Queensland and Australian politics. I have been honoured to serve Queenslanders both at home and in Canberra, and regard it as a privilege to have worked constantly for the people and the interests of my home state.

I have also been particularly honoured and gratified by the opportunity to serve as Minister for Ageing and to assist in building the later life social infrastructure for those who built our nation. It is my intention to carry my overriding commitment for the public good of the Queensland people and the Australian people, including ageing Australians, through to the next chapter of my life outside this place by pursuing the same values which have motivated me to this point.

What I want to do in this last speech is to address three matters: first, my firm belief that a political career is a worthy, significant and honourable ambition; second, my view that the principles on which this nation was built, namely its Judaeo-Christian traditions, and the conservative instinct which they inform should continue to guide the parliament; and, third, the need for Australia to maintain good government through the coalition and in the person of Prime Minister Howard.

To begin, I think it is a fair observation that the art or profession of politics is not currently held in the highest regard by the community. One need look no further than the recent New South Wales election for evidence of a culture where elections can be considered in the public mind, or at least the media’s mind, as a damnable choice between two uninspiring options. For those of us at the coalface, it remains self-evident and not a little frustrating that the wrong questions are being asked. Anyone with an ounce of regard for the future of this nation will wince at the thinly camouflaged demand of the media for a beauty contest rather than a battle of philosophy, priorities and capability to govern. I remain of the view that good politics and good policy will out from both sides, though I am aware that some of my colleagues, particularly at this point, may regard me as a starry-eyed optimist.

Around 18 months ago, a previous opposition leader made a speech at the University of Melbourne where he told young Australians with political ambition that they should not even think of ‘going there’. In that speech, Mr Latham cited some of the costs of political life, which none of us could deny, including the loss of privacy and the constant separation from family. He also cited as a critical negative what he said were two party-specific versions of the politics of personal destruction. I suspect that I am not the first to note that there may be elements of hypocritical sanctimony in those criticisms, and I do not intend to repeat them here today. I might, however, be the first to suggest that the focus on the personal is not of necessity an undesirable characteristic of contemporary politics. It certainly makes the game robust—and of course I speak from somewhat recent experience—and at times it will cause each of us to question why we walk this stage. The scrutiny is constant and it is certainly intrusive.

Let me suggest that the rigorous testing which prospective candidates experience on their way through the parties has two clear positives. The first is that it is a comprehensive audition for the reality TV that is modern politics. There is no point pretending that the media cycle will get shorter, one’s personal life will remain private or one’s financial activities will remain unexamined. Second, and a consequence of the first, is that this all promotes personal integrity, and integrity—not the clever phrase or the careful public posture—is the lifeblood of successful long-term candidates. If anyone doubts that, consider what has allowed our current Prime Minister to transcend the flighty fashions of three decades of federal politics. Integrity never goes out of style, and it is integrity which will allow an aspirant to survive the constant examination they experience in political life.

My own position is that I am proud to say that, while my compliance may have had some well documented omissions, my integrity remains intact. Ultimately, the fact that integrity still matters means that young people considering politics should view it as a noble profession for those who are willing to commit to nobility as their watchword. Taking part in the government of the state or the nation, whether as a leader, minister or simple member of parliament, is an intellectual challenge and an emotional contest and is ultimately rewarding. At its heart is the question of contending ethical, philosophical and managerial competence, and I continue to regard it as a most compelling contest. I commend it to all Australians, particularly younger Australians, who feel they can contribute and who feel the outcome is worth the inevitable sacrifices. I would note that this recommendation is to people at both ends of the political-philosophical spectrum. We need constant revitalisation of the whole polity, though I remain sufficiently partisan to hope that those who emerge on our side will continue to hold an edge.

That is the process; but what about the substance? When we started our magazine the conservative in 2006, one of the first issue’s articles was from Indiana Republican Congressman Mike Pence and included what was for me a most memorable phrase:

... I am a Christian, a Conservative and a Republican in that order …

I think I am probably recognised as a little too tribal in my party loyalties to credibly repeat that hierarchy with the word ‘Liberal’ in place of ‘Republican’, but it remains for me a profound statement. It is a proposition which got me thinking about what it is that sits at the centre of our society and our nation, and what it is that makes Australia so successful.

Whether it is the private success of Australian families, the innovation of our universities and our businesses or the unique and awe-inspiring reserve of our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and other international theatres, there are myriad responses to this question. The one which has informed much of my thinking over my political career and which drives many in this building whom I admire is that our society is built on an inheritance of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, traditions and values. Those include the belief that life is inviolable, that the family is the building block of a successful nation and that the institution and sacrament of marriage, which creates families, should remain an unassailable part of our social state. I am well aware that these are not necessarily the most popular views, but the popular path is generally just the easy path. What is right is, perhaps paradoxically, rarely easy.

We in the Liberal Party are unashamedly the party of the traditional family. We regard it as a memory of our past and the custodian of our future. Throughout history no society has succeeded which has sought to build political structures which denigrate marriage, family or the private nurturing of children. Those societies break and fail, as we can see from the Soviet Union, through to Cambodia and into the current ravages of sub-Saharan Africa. This is a lesson we should never forget. No government should resile from protecting either these traditions or the faiths which sit at their foundation. It is a fact that, while one may now be able to claim that we can identify our social structures without reference to the faiths which formed their crucible, we tread a very dangerous path if we seek to separate the two. The religious traditions on which this nation is built are more than a vague preference of an ordered society. They provide clear delineation between good and its opposite, and without them we will quickly find ourselves adrift.

I have been in the profession of politics long enough to know that only respect for our traditions and our institutions—both temporal and spiritual—will stem the tide against those who would reinvent a society based on convenience and desire, rather than on long-term social sustainability. That is an option open to both sides of Australian politics. I draw comfort from the fact that neither side has abandoned it.

I am confident that those who stand for traditional values, rather than transient political fashions, will remain in the ascendant. I am proud to have stood by those of you who agree with this proposal—including many of those on the other side of the Senate—who have stood up for the rights of marriage, the family, the child and the unborn. I commend you to continue that battle to ensure that Australia retains an unchallengeable claim to being the good society that it is.

On the subject of which, it did not pass my notice that in churches throughout the world last Sunday the Gospel text—and the homily upon it—was John chapter 8, where Christ says:

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone ...

I took the opportunity to reflect on this lesson—as one does—and to compare it to current circumstances. Let me say to all of you honourable senators that, in drawing this comparison, I do not seek to identify myself with the victim. Rather, I can recognise myself within that crowd; perhaps not the first to leave the scene but, I hope, not the last.

I spoke earlier of the need for integrity and ability in this profession. I recognise that, far too often, we are all quick to point out the failings of others, not the least to distract attention from our own. Perhaps a pause for reflection is needed on that.

Continuing in an unbroken line from the Judaeo-Christian traditions, I come to my particular philosophical views, which centre around the principle of conservatism—that unlikely but remarkably complementary twin of liberalism. The inseparable blend of these principles is the foundation upon which Australia’s most successful party was built. I believe conservatism is a political philosophy with many definitions. It is also one which is sometimes pejoratively dismissed as simply a philosophy of tolerable imperfection. But I believe it is much more than that. I read in last week’s Spectator magazine one of the most succinct and, to my thinking, one of the most correct and engaging definitions of conservatism that I have ever encountered. On the theme of taxation settings, the columnist Charles Moore wrote:

The most basic rule for any Conservative considering the structure of taxes should be — identify with the interest of the rising class and support it. Help the people who may not have much money now, but have the energy to try to get on in the world and give their children opportunities which they lacked.

This is the principle which, at the microcosmic family level, guided my parents in their emigration from Sicily over 40 years ago, though they would never have used the terminology that I have. It provided the support which offered me the opportunity to develop from an immigrant child, without his first word of English, to a senator and a minister in our nation’s government. It is a principle which I think is more than good; it is instinctive. It reflects the fundamental concept of subsidiarity, which comes to us via Aquinas and which defines the significance of the family as a decision maker to be fostered rather than guided or governed. It is an instinct which I would hold is only deniable in a cause of bitterness and opportunism.

I am not so self-indulgent that I would seek to identify an individual legacy from my time in Australian public life. I recognise that, from the top down, we are all replaceable. But I hope that my constancy in supporting and promoting our traditions, both the fundamental and enduring values of our faith and the derived principles of modern conservatism, means that my time here has been well spent.

Finally I want to confirm that, despite my separation from it, my support for this government and its achievements—past and future—will never waver. I retain my confidence that maximum employment, the highest ever participation in the markets which hold this nation’s wealth, low interest rates and an internationally applauded record of national security will provide continuing public appeal and an enduring legacy.

To close, I want to say a few brief thankyous. First and most importantly, I thank my family—my wife, Letitia, and my two sons, who have stood by me when they have unnecessarily been made part of my political trials. It is probably considered trite and formulaic these days to say how much the rock of the family provides support in both the good and the difficult times, but in my case it happens to be entirely true, and I am utterly grateful for that.

I would like to again say thank you particularly to those ever loyal and close friends who have encouraged me during all of my time in politics and who mentored me. I mentioned many by name in my first speech in 2002 and, without repeating the list, I would like to thank them again and the many other friends that I have made and who have supported me since then. Without that support I would not have served either in the Queensland parliament or in the Senate. And to the Liberal Party, my most sincere thanks. I will now go back to being a simple party member, but it will always be my first political home.

I would also like to thank the officers and staff of the Senate, who have always given me professional and courteous assistance. Many others remain to be thanked, not the least the many individual personal staff and party supporters who have kept me motivated and able to do my job in both the party and the parliament. For the benefit of time I will simply make that a collective thanks, although one name must be mentioned and that is that of Desley Wharton, my personal assistant, who has seen me through two parliaments and the spaces in between and whose support and trust has never foundered. Thank you to those in this place and the other who have served with me, guided me and listened to me over the last five years. I look forward now with genuine optimism to the next phase of my life and I wish all of you and your loved ones the very best of good health and happiness. I conclude by saying God bless you all.