Thursday, 21 March 2013
by leave—As you are aware, I announced when I resigned from the ministry that I would leave the Senate fairly shortly after that. As this will be my last day in the parliament—I will resign in the next few weeks—and this is my last day in the Senate, I thought I might take the opportunity to make a few remarks.
I have never been one for valedictories. I have always called them 'obituaries' and I have often been unable to actually correct myself. It is not a practice I have been terribly fond of. I do want to make clear that this is not an obituary. I appreciate the cooperation of the Senate in allowing the fact that I should make the only speech. I have always thought that people should judge you on how you have treated people while you are here and what contribution you have made. To get a better reading of someone and their performance, standards and how they have carried themselves in this place is to actually seek to record the assessments people make of you in private rather than the ones they might make in the chamber on the occasion of your retirement. They are generally more honest.
I have been talked into making these remarks mainly in order to allow me to thank a few people. As I say, I think I have covered much of this ground in the press conference I gave with the Prime Minister when stepping down from the ministry. The point I made there was that I am very lucky to be in a situation, unlike so many of my colleagues, to retire at a time of my own choosing, to retire in good health and to retire without bitterness. Too few of us get to do that. It is an option open to senators and it is one that I was always determined I would take, even though it took me a bit longer to get there than I thought. I had promised my partner that I would be here for 10 or 12 years. She actually maintains I reneged on the deal, but I said I wanted to wait until we won. It looked like it might go on for a very, very long time but we got there in the end.
I have to stress that I go out in good health, because since I lost a bit of weight people keep coming up and saying, 'Chris, are you okay?' As I say, if I have got cancer, it is undiagnosed at this stage. It was a resolve of mine to leave in the sort of shape I came in as a much younger man. But I could not do anything about the colour of my hair.
Or, like some of my colleagues, maybe wear a bit of make-up when they do their interviews. Anyway, I won't go there.
I just wanted to firstly make the very strong point of what an enormous privilege it has been to serve in the Senate, and the tremendous opportunities that have been afforded me as a migrant to this country—as the son of a temporary migrant worker who settled in this country and made his contribution. I have been afforded huge opportunities—ones that Australians take for granted. We do not celebrate enough the fact that we have those opportunities.
During my time as a senator I have had the opportunity to work with Australians from all walks of life, to meet people and engage with them on their issues. Of course, more recently, I have been able to serve as a cabinet minister, as Leader of the Government in the Senate and even to act as Prime Minister for a few days. As I remarked, the country survived that experience. It was, of course, a tremendous honour. I am very grateful for those opportunities but it is a case that I have made my contribution and it is time to let others make theirs. I look forward to another stage of my life.
I did particularly want to thank a few people. I particularly wanted first of all to thank my family. My partner, Miriam, has carried a huge burden when I have been away—and, as you know, we are away a lot. She does refer to herself as a single mother. She has done a fantastic job raising my two beautiful, tall boys. She has allowed and supported them to grow into very fine young men. I thank her for that. It has been a huge price, I know, but I hope they forgive me for that.
I would also like to thank my sister, Sheridan, who lives in Canberra. I said to her when I got here about 19½ years ago, 'Sheridan, is it all right if I stop at your place for the first couple of weeks while I sort myself out?' Needless to say, I am still there. She did move house once, but I found out where she had got to. The good thing about being a younger brother is that the relationship does not change no matter how old you get, so I can still take great liberties and she has to put up with it. So, if there is a cold sausage missing from the fridge or the number of beers in the fridge seems to have gone down a bit, you get away with that sort of thing. It has been great having a family member here in Canberra too. As you know, it is a funny lifestyle, and having someone who understands and supports you—as well as my family in Perth—is a great advantage.
Unfortunately, though, she is the one who brought me into politics when I was a young man and so she is always interested in what we have done during the day et cetera. She worked here for a while as a chief of staff to a Labor minister and I have always found that to be the worst side of sharing with her, because she actually wants to catch up on what has happened that day when I do not want to talk about it at all. Anyway, thank you, Sheridan.
Obviously, thank you to the party and the trade unions and all those who have supported me over the years. It has been fantastic to be given such opportunities. I always will value my membership of the Australian Labor Party and its support and I will remain a member forever. I recognise the fact that I am one of the lucky ones of all those who have worked so hard for the success of Labor over many years who got the chance to represent them in the parliament.
I particularly also want to thank my staff. I have been very lucky in having great staff. The trick in this game is to have great staff to make you look better. The other trick is to have people who have a skill set that you do not have. Luckily, 14 years ago I picked up a young bloke called Tim Friedrich. He is a good researcher with a great mind; he is good on detail and has a tremendous policy brain. He has all those skills I do not have and I have worked with him for 14 years. He worked for me in opposition and in government and has been a tremendous asset. I must say that the one thing I never got from him was political advice—well, I got political advice, but I never took it! That is not one of his skills—that is what I brought to the equation.
I would also like to thank my two chiefs of staff, Michael Boyle, the brigadier, and Karen Brown. Michael Boyle gave huge leadership to my office, and advice and support to me during a difficult time in immigration and serving in opposition and government. He is a tremendously talented and principled man and I very much appreciated his support and loyalty. Karen Brown, my chief of staff in recent times, has been fantastic. She has a completely different skill set. Karen is a fantastic person. The beautiful thing was that I managed at the end to keep them both for a while. Both of them stayed with me despite knowing that I was going to leave, and they provided stability during that period.
I have had great staff. I will not try to name them all, other than to say that, without Paula Russell now organising my life, it would have been very difficult during the last couple of weeks. I would not know when to get up, when to go to the bathroom—all those things that were always planned out for me within an inch of my life.
I would also like to thank my colleagues, who have been fantastic. I have had huge support as leader of the Senate. I cannot thank them enough for how easy they made that job, and for the teamwork and the unity of purpose and their support. I am very grateful for that. I shall not name too many, but I do want, first of all, to thank John Faulkner for his guidance and assistance in my development. He was a tremendous mentor, as was Robert Ray, who took on the role of trying to mentor some of us into new roles. I would particularly also like to acknowledge my deputy, Steve Conroy, who is now leader, the two managers I had, Joe Ludwig and Jacinta Collins, who are both fantastic, and the two whips, Kerry O'Brien and Anne McEwen, who have been fantastic. Thank you to all my other colleagues as well.
As I say, I have had an enormously satisfying career and huge opportunities. I was reflecting the other day, thinking about what I was going to miss. It is only the people, quite frankly. I have had enough; I have done my time; it is time to go—but I will miss the people. I was reflecting on the highlights, and people kept asking me about that. I thought, well, I have met three US Presidents. I have had the brass bands and the red carpet and all that when I went to Vietnam. Actually, none of that matters. I almost had to force myself to remember it.
What I do remember is going out and talking to Indigenous people, sitting on the ground when we were bringing in the Native Title Bill, and the tremendously rewarding experience of that. I presented scholarships recently to three young Indigenous people who won Charles Perkins scholarships to go and study at Oxford and Cambridge. One of my best moments as a minister—without being political—was opening BER facilities and seeing the changes they were making in schools right around the country.
But generally it has been the contact with the people. At the University of Western Sydney I got to meet with the parents of young people, the first in their family from Western Sydney going to university and getting that opportunity. Meeting with the parents, I was able to see their pride that their child had managed to go and get a university education. Another memory is representing the Labor Party when we were seeing troops off to Iraq and talking with the troops and their families. Those are the things that really leave an impression. It is working with Australians doing extraordinary things, making extraordinary sacrifices or trying to make the country a better place. That is what I found rewarding. That is what I will value. That is what I will remember.
And, as I say, you get those opportunities, and it is not just about being a minister. You get those opportunities by serving in the Senate, working on the committees. Today's apology to those who had been forcibly adopted was, again, the consequence of some great work that was done in the Senate by committees pushing issues such as that one. It is a great credit to the Senate and that system.
I do not want to go on too long. There are a couple of other things going on today, apparently, and someone tried to suggest that my valedictory would not lead tonight's news. I know you would be shocked about that because, as you know, what happens in the Senate is always the most dominant political issue of the day. I am sure that today is no different.
But there is just one other quick comment that I want to make. When I was thinking about my colleagues and the changes that have occurred, I looked around the chamber—and it has changed dramatically. It is not all blokes. When I came in, I think there were five female Labor senators, and now there are 15. Without being political, the Liberal Party has not done so well in recent years. After bringing in a great crop of women in the eighties, they have lost the energy behind that. They have no shortage of good women but, looking at the figures, I think the Liberal Party has to lift its game. Of course, the Greens and the Nationals have done very well in recent times.
The Labor Party changed its rules, brought in affirmative action, changed the party, made it more representative and made it a better party, and we are a stronger party for that. There is not enough recognition of that. Reflecting on us, when I left, it was a standout in terms of the changes that have occurred, apart from the personalities. We have this debate about our relationship with the trade union movement and how we need to change. We have shown before that we can change. We moved away from racist attitudes and the White Australia policy. We moved away from excluding women. We can find a better way of managing the changes in the workforce and our relationships with trade unions so that we remain an encompassing party—one that seeks to represent the whole community and welcomes in people to participate and to represent it in a much broader way. I think that is obviously a debate we are going to have, and I think it is an important debate for the future of the Labor Party.
I thank people for coming in—I did not expect that. As I said, I am not a great fan of these things. If you have not said it in the last 20 years, you are probably not going to come up with anything that is terribly fresh or valuable. I do appreciate the camaraderie and the personal relations. Apart from a couple of notable exceptions, I have got on pretty well with most people around the place and tried to retain respectful and proper relations. I think we all do that. It is a shame people only ever focus on the times of conflict—the theatre, which I think is an important part to the democratic process. It is better that we shout in this room than seek the alternative remedies that occur in so many other countries. If a bit of unruly behaviour occasionally or an hour a day in the parliament is the worst thing going on in a democracy, it is not a bad thing even though it is not very edifying or necessarily informative.
Mr President, thank you for your assistance. Thank you, everybody, for your support and friendship. If I do miss the place at all or if I do suffer from relevance deprivation in any way, I know there is a role for me, like so many others, on 24-hour TV providing expert advice, explaining why I was always right when I was in politics and explaining what you are all doing wrong. Promise to shoot me if I get like that. With all due respect to them all, thanks very much. I hope you are all healthy and continue to make a contribution to our democracy, which is, of course, one of this country's great strengths.