Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Mr President, I think I might need protection from some of my colleagues on both sides of the chamber. Can I say how amazed and humbled I have been at the gestures of goodwill that have been extended to Linda and me. I am starting to worry, in fact, if it might not be an encouragement for me to go.
It is just incredible the number of invitations I have had. Only last Thursday, Senator Whish-Wilson invited me to join the Greens, until such time as I could not vote for his banking bill, then he withdrew the offer. Of course my colleagues here in the National Party all wanted me to join the National Party, but only until Thursday, when they thought they might be able to get the casual vacancy. That has been withdrawn. But I do have to say how appreciative I am of the goodwill that has been expressed.
The eleventh of February 1990 was a day of enormous international significance, not because it was my 40th birthday, but because it was the day on which Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison, including 18 years on Robben Island, was released. For those of you that need to reflect on that, he lived most of his time, 23 hours a day, in a cell that was about the size of the bathrooms in our suites. He had the opportunity of one visit a year and he could send one letter a year. I want to focus on the fact that on the night that he was elected to the presidency of South Africa in April 1994 he said:
I hold out a hand of friendship to the leaders of all parties and their members and ask all of them to join us in working together to tackle the problems we face as a nation. An ANC government will serve all the people of South Africa, not just ANC members.
I make that point because, as I leave, I have to say to you that I feel there are some enormous challenges ahead of us in this country, and it is going to fall to the Senate, on behalf of the people of Australia, to step up to the plate and perform what I will call a 'Mandela moment'. On those occasions when it is necessary that the wellbeing of the people of Australia and this community is to the fore, I ask you to recall the statements of Mandela and please put the country ahead of all else.
While I am on that topic I want to reflect briefly on some of the standards that we have been seeing in the Senate at present, particularly in relation to the personal attacks on people that sometimes occur. I can do nothing better, as usual, than to turn to the library. This quote was given to me yesterday; it is from the 19th century English historian, Henry Thomas Buckle. He said: 'Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.'
Can I urge that this parliament is the senior place in this country. It is from here that the standards are set. It is fantastic that we have had great robust discussions over time. I look at my colleague Senator Doug Cameron. We have gone toe to toe in this place, but on each and every occasion we have walked out and we have made sure that we have had an amicable discussion in the corridor. I do urge that I think that is a reasonable way to go.
That is the case, Senator Hanson. I cannot understand, when I had this outpouring of invitations from the Greens and the National Party, where was the Xenophon party, where were the Hansons, and where were the Bernardis inviting me?
I express my appreciation to the state council of the Liberal Party in WA. They preselected me and got me back here three times. It was certainly the rural and regional members that were able to do that for me. I express my appreciation to the electors of WA, who had that level of confidence. I recognise my staff Pierette Kelly and Lisa Brooks, who have been with me since the beginning of the journey. I especially thank Alex Nicol for being here today. Alex Nicol, in fact, was a staff member for our lovely departed Senator Judith Adams, and Owen Grieve is back in Perth holding the fort. I appreciate them greatly.
It has been a privilege to serve representatives of specific industries. Coming in here as the first veterinarian in the Senate, I could never have dreamed how proud the profession would be. While I am not using props at all, I want to say to Senator Leyonhjelm that I am passing over to you, Senator Leyonhjelm, those marks of our profession that I hope will manage to keep this group under control, as indeed I have.
It has been a great pleasure to represent the agricultural industry, particularly the livestock producers of Australia, and indeed to see agricultural productivity and profitability improve so dramatically. The oil and gas industry from which I came most recently—I have been very proud to prosecute on behalf of that industry in this place.
I recognise, if I may, the permanent secretaries of the Senate, those who support us here, our clerks and the Hansard staff, and I particularly comment on the Comcar drivers because I think they are just such an invaluable resource for us.
I know we all have our discussions and our fights in Senate estimates, but I do go back to the words of my late mother, and they are, 'You'll always catch more bees with honey than you will catch with vinegar.' I am reluctant to mention any by name except for the service chiefs: Chief of Defence Force Mark Binskin; his deputy, Ray Griggs; the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell; the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett; and the Chief of Air Force, Air Commodore Leo Davies. They have an enormous challenge ahead of them to be able to meet the objectives that we in the parliament have of them.
We are all very proud of our family, as of course I am. We have three children, and I do not know why they all left to go overseas. First of all I thought it was the fact—
Yes, and they took their dogs! I thought it was the fact that we charged them rent and board and they would not pay that, so they just did not leave. Then I knocked the house down in 2000 and 2001. So, if anyone wants to know how to get rid of the kids: you've got to knock the house down! Our daughter Elizabeth, with her husband, Peter, and our grandson, Christopher, are in Panama, where I am very proud to say that Elizabeth is Australia's honorary Consul-General—honorary because she does not get paid. But Elizabeth is doing a phenomenal job representing the people of Australia. You would not believe the increase in trade. She is working, of course, with David Engel, our ambassador in Mexico City. But I have also got to say to you that, as she is an excellent mergers and acquisitions lawyer, in 2011 the executive of Meat & Livestock Australia were very pleased to have the depth of Elizabeth's knowledge in corporations law when they got themselves into a problem out of which she was able to resurrect them.
Our older son, Mike, is a very successful wine merchant in Singapore. He certainly enjoys the company of enormous numbers of expats up there. And it is not only Australian wines. In fact I do not think there are any Tasmanian wines in the stable, Mr President, but you had occasion recently to share a day with Mike, and I think you will confirm his knowledge of wine marketing. With his advice to me in terms of the international wine market and the work that Senator Ruston has been doing in the wine equalisation tax, I have been really appreciative of his advice and assistance.
Our youngest son, Justin, married to Courtney in Dallas, Texas. Justin was a combat officer in the Light Armoured Corps of the Royal Australian Army. He led the first group into Iraq in 2003 as a lieutenant and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal as a result of that work and then went into Afghanistan in 2006 as a combat officer. As I say, he is now running a large emergency services company in Dallas, Texas, and of course Linda and I are incredibly proud of him as we are of their spouses and our grandchildren.
Justin has provided constant attention and assistance to me in all of the issues that we have had associated with those various aspects of the ADF. He maintains a very close contact with his network of serving and past members of the ADF. As I say, we are looking forward to spending a lot more time with them.
You reflect on where things have gone well, and I have got to say to you that it has been in the committee that we have done biosecurity issues that protect Australia's borders, the increase in agricultural activity across Australia and the work that we have done in beef levies and other areas. The live export ban was a sad moment in the history of this place, and I am very proud to say that work that was done by colleagues across the chamber with the secretariats and, of course, the input of people who so kindly make submissions. Marine plastics is an area in which I never knew that I could express an interest—until I was drawn into it. It was led by Senator Whish-Wilson. And there is the space of suicide in ADF personnel and military veterans, and I credit Senator Lambie for her knowledge and enthusiasm in bringing that particular topic. It is a sadness for me that I will not be here for the actual report and presentation, but I know that Senator Gallacher, Senator Fawcett, Senator Moore, Senator Kitching and Senator Lambie, together with the excellence of the secretariat, will bring together a report with recommendations of which the Senate, I am sure, will be proud.
The one that I want to focus on most, however, is cancer in firefighters. It was the case that a fireman burnt in a fire would be compensated but someone who got a cancer had to prove which fire it was where they picked up the carcinogen four or five years earlier that was now killing them. Of course I commend the work of my friend Senator Gavin Marshall. It was the firefighters union that came to us requesting that seven cancers be recognised. Indeed, it was as a result of the presence of the chief officer from Alberta in Canada, Mr Ken Block, who came to Perth as a witness and convinced us that there were no rabid increases in workers' compensation claims but that there was a decrease. Block told us that 13 cancers were recognised by medicine internationally, and I remember turning to Senator Marshall and saying, 'They have requested seven; if 13 are valid then we should go with 13.' I give credit to people on my side and I am sure that Senator Marshall does as well. It was a day, 25 November 2011—I am sure one of the blackest days in this place—where we time managed bills. We stopped for an hour, debated that bill and passed it unanimously. Of course it only applied to federal legislation but very quickly it passed through to the states. Only last year, Mr Block came back to Canberra to tell Senator Marshall and me that, whilst he was responsible for giving us the evidence, there was no legislation but that legislation passed in this place—the Australian parliament—has become the benchmark for similar legislation throughout the provinces of Canada, the United States and Europe. That is what I call a Mandela moment because we were doing exactly what the people of Australia wanted us to do. I think that has been absolutely amazing.
There have been a couple of disappointments of course: national bushfire mitigation. I came into this place straight after the Black Saturday fires, having come out of the Bush Fires Board of WA. Led by Bill Heffernan, we had a tremendous inquiry into the impact of major bushfires around Australia. I have always vowed that I would not leave this place until such time as we had policy in place nationally to mitigate against the risk of bushfires. I did not succeed. My Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015 sits on the statute and is not going to be debated, I suspect, within the next 48 hours. Of course, the other one—for a Western Australian particularly—is the inconsistency that rests with the goods and services tax distribution. That is a matter nationally, not just for our state, that needs to be addressed.
It was about this time of the year in March 1972 that I was a young veterinarian in a town called Merredin, halfway between Perth and Kalgoorlie. I came to learn—you would think I would have been a bit quicker as she turned up in the February—about that time of year that an absolutely gorgeous young English teacher had arrived in Merredin, at the high school, and by an amazing coincidence she happened to be living in the street behind me. It is true to say that I did have an ulterior motive—as you probably suspect I may have—in wanting to go around and see this young lady and make myself known to her. But it is not the motive that you may have thought. I turned up, a little nervous—only Senator Leyonhjelm would relate to this because he has probably tried the same one-liner—knocked on the door and said, 'Would you like to come and help me do a caesarean operation on a cow.' Fortunately for me she did say 'yes' and she did not faint at the first sight of blood, and, indeed, the cow lived—and I always thought that was wonderful. And 45 years later, Linda has been with me every step of the journey, through eight careers, seven states and territories, six countries, two children and two grandchildren and one on the way. Linda is the glue that holds our family together. She cannot be here today and I suppose that is one of the challenges associated with travel from Western Australia. Her 92-year-old father faces cardiac surgery tomorrow and, as an old RAAF airman who saw service on Lancaster bombers over Germany right through the war, her priority, quite rightly, is with him. I do hope, of course, that our second date will also last for 45 years. That is going to start on an old Dutch barge on a French canal in a very few number of weeks.
I conclude with the same Irish prayer I used when I finished my first speech, on St Paddy's Day in 2009:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you safe in the palm of His hand.
Valedictory occasions are those occasions when we pause from partisan conflict and remind ourselves, or are gently reminded by those who are leaving our number, why we are really here, and there could have been no better reminder of that than Senator Back's evocation of the Mandela moments in the eight years he spent serving the people of Western Australia in the Senate.
Chris, you have been a marvellous colleague. That is evident from the fact that not only have all the government senators come out this evening to bid you farewell but so many opposition senators and so many crossbench senators have done you the honour of coming into the chamber for your valedictory remarks. That does not always happen. The fact that it has happened for you is a tangible mark of the esteem in which you are held.
You have brought so much this place. You are a gentleman, you are a professional man—as you reminded us, the first veterinarian to serve in the Senate—you are an Irishman and of course you are a proud Western Australian. All of those different characteristics have blended in you to create someone who became over the eight years you have been our colleague a great adornment to this chamber.
You came to the Senate, of course, with a very, very diverse background. As I said, you are a professional man—a veterinarian—and a graduate, I am glad to say, of the University of Queensland. You practised your profession both in private practice and as a university teacher at Curtin University. You also worked at the University of California. You were, however, not merely a professional veterinarian; you have occupied a number of other roles. For some years, you were the Chief Executive Officer of the Rottnest Island Authority as well as, for several years, the Chief Executive Officer of the Western Australian Bushfires Board, and you have had important roles in commerce as well. We pride ourselves—and this is a point that you made this morning in the party room, if I may breach the confidence of the government party room for a moment I am sure I may be forgiven—that one of the great strengths of the coalition is the diversity of the backgrounds of those who come to serve in this parliament for the Liberal Party and the National Party. And you yourself, Chris, are the living embodiment of that diversity—that range of skills and life experiences that you brought to this chamber.
As a senator, you have given distinguished service through the Senate committees as Chair of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee and, more recently and importantly, as Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. Since the time began when I represented the foreign minister in this chamber, I appeared before your committee in that role, and I have noticed with admiration the iron rod with which you ruled the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. It is not a small thing in this chamber, which depends upon committee work for so much of its work, that a senator is an excellent chairman and, of all the many, many skills and competencies that you brought to this place, Chris, it is not a small thing that you have been such an outstanding and such an impartial and competent chairman of that and other important committees.
You brought to the parliament the expertise that comes with having been a professional, and, of course, one of the keys to authority in a place like this is to be the person who speaks with specialist knowledge. I remember, on occasions, your contributions to the government party room—or, in the bad old days for us, the opposition party room—in your areas of specialist knowledge were some of the most authoritative contributions, some of the best contributions, I ever heard. When the previous Labor government made the catastrophic decision to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia, I recall that, from opposition, you prosecuted the case against the former minister, former Senator Ludwig, the minister for agriculture, who, history should record, was not, in the end, really to blame for that terrible decision, but, nevertheless, of course took responsibility for defending it in this chamber. You prosecuted that case through question time and through parliamentary debate in a way that nobody else could have done nearly so effectively, because specialist knowledge beats all the rhetoric in the world. You had it and you nailed the issue as nobody else could have done. You did that with so many other issues, because you have a scientific mind. You trained in one of the professional sciences, and you brought that scientific mind to bear on such a range of practical issues, which have left a tangible legacy.
You are, if I may say so, a marvellous speaker. You bring all that Irish charm to bear in your presentations to the chamber, as we have just seen in your valedictory speech, but it is the granularity of your contribution on specific topics, whether it be the subject of cancer in firefighters, whether it be the investigation of bushfires, whether it be—an issue you raised with me more than once—the health effect of windmills, or whether it be a range of other specific issues—specific issues on which, as always, you spoke with authority as a man of science. Because you spoke with authority you shaped, and, may I say, dominated the course of the debate.
You made your maiden speech in this place, fittingly enough, on Saint Patrick's Day in 2009. As we do on the occasion of colleagues' valedictories, I read through your maiden speech earlier in the day. You began by quoting Sir Robert Menzies and his call for 'a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and … progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism'.
The topics you touched on in your maiden speech presaged the contribution that you would make over the ensuing eight years. You spoke first of your experience as the CEO of the Western Australian Rural Fires Board. Then you spoke about the ADF; and of course we know that, through your sons, you have an important family involvement with the ADF and had always taken a deep interest in their affairs even before you chaired the Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Subcommittee. And then, quite remarkably for a Western Australian senator, you made some remarks about how Western Australia was not getting its fair share of the GST! I have never heard that from a Western Australian senator! It was quite a heretical remark that you made in your maiden speech, coming from that state—I have never heard that before! And you finished by talking about the energy sector and then you dwelt on the contribution of the Irish to Australia and, in particular, Western Australia. In your concluding words, before you blessed us with the Irish blessing that you have just recited, you said:
There are three criteria by which the citizens of any country have the right to judge their government and the parliament generally. These are: firstly, transparency, accountability and standard of governance; secondly, social justice for the whole community; and, thirdly, wealth creation for future generations. …
My vision for Australia is simple. It is for an Australian community in which every member is safe, feels valued and contributes to a sustainable future. In this place, I undertake to support that which promotes these principles and to oppose that which diminishes them.
That is a very simple mission statement, Chris, but one which, in the eight years that have gone by since, you have fulfilled, in one way or another, in every single contribution you have made in this chamber, in your committee work and in your work in Western Australia as a champion and advocate of liberal values. You leave this chamber with the esteem of your colleagues from all parts of the chamber, with genuine friendships which I am sure you will cherish as we will cherish our friendship with you, and in the knowledge that you have fulfilled richly the task that you set yourself. All of us wish you and Linda a long, happy retirement from politics, and I trust that, in that long and happy retirement, you will remember your days among us, you will stay in touch with us, but you will not allow the affairs of the Senate in the years to come to intrude too much upon your contentment.
I rise on behalf of the opposition to make some valedictory remarks for Senator Chris Back. I open my comments with his words—a reflection to all colleagues that there needs to be mutual respect across this chamber, all for each other:
We can come in here with spirited and different views, but the simple fact of the matter is that, when mutual respect for colleagues is lost, this Senate, which is the senior chamber of the Australian parliament and the Australian people, is the poorer for it.
These are Senator Back's words, I think from last week, and they are an eloquent summary of the approach that has defined his career as a senator. And today in his valedictory he reprised the same principles and values.
Regardless of different points of view—and I think Senator Back and I would agree that we have a lot of points of difference on the things in which we believe—he has always conducted himself with dignity and courteously. This does not mean he has shied away from robust argument. In fact, if you look at the record, he has been a passionate speaker. On occasion I have been in the firing line, so I can attest to that. But he has approached debate in this place without personal rancour. I think that is the reason, amongst others, that he is a senator who is so liked and so respected across this chamber. I know his friendly demeanour is appreciated by senators and staff alike and I want to thank him for the approach he has brought to this place.
Senator Brandis made some comments about Senator Back making his first speech on Saint Patrick's Day. I did wonder if that was timetabled deliberately. I assume so. In his opening statement he said he was overwhelmed by the fact that a kid from the Western Australian wheat belt, whose grandfathers were, respectively, an Irish farmer and a Fremantle wharf labourer, could aspire to stand for the Senate, and he talked about his pride in that. I have to say, with that pedigree, we are surprised that he did not end up here as a member of the Labor Party. Anyway, such is life. He has always been a proud product of his background, a proud advocate for the people he represents and proud of his Western Australian heritage.
Perhaps, as Senator Brandis has said, the best known aspect of his life before politics is his qualification as a vet, although the stuff he brought out today I reckon really ought to have been banned—scary! He keeps telling us he is the first vet elected to the Senate. I have not verified it, but I will take him at his word. In the statement announcing his retirement, Senator Back noted the special privilege he has found in representing his profession. He made particular mention of doing so at the time a number of his colleagues unfortunately were struck down by the Hendra virus in Queensland. We have seen his advocacy in many matters associated with his former profession, including in relation to live export, which we have discussed. He has been a regular contributor on issues affecting the agricultural and agribusiness community, the resources sector, bushfire and emergency services personnel, education representatives and the equine industry, which reflects his interests, background and prior professional experience.
I want to make particular mention of Senator Back's service as the chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. It is probably in this context that I have come in most recent times to work most closely with Senator Back, and it might surprise some to know that actually we got on very well. I want to place on record that he is a dignified, even-handed, calm and fair chairperson. Those of us on this side of the chamber have appreciated that greatly and respected your work greatly. We are going to be suggesting that we bring you back for training of chairs in the weeks to come.
Like many, Senator Back's announcement caught certainly me, and perhaps many of us on this side of the chamber, by surprise. This is an enormous privilege, the life we have and the service we provide, but it also takes a toll on one's personal life and one's family. Whilst all bear that, we often speak about those colleagues from Western Australia or the Northern Territory, for whom I think this is an even more arduous task. Senator Back acknowledged this in his statement of his intention to retire.
Senator Back has been a passionate advocate for the causes in which he believes through his time here. He has been a frequent participant in the debates in this chamber across a wide range of topics. He has contributed the benefit of many experiences and many careers, as he outlined today in the contribution he has made to the Senate. But above all, he has been an unfailingly courteous and decent senator. He has been a good bloke, and it is for this that he will be best remembered. Senator Back, on behalf of the opposition I thank you for your service to the Senate and to the nation. I anticipated you would reprise the same Irish blessing that you ended your first speech with, so I return that in much more prosaic form: may your journey succeed.
I just want to make a short contribution. I sat for many hours with Senator Back around a committee table on the rural and regional affairs and transport committee, with Senator Heffernan chairing—and anybody who knows former Senator Heffernan will know how long our regular RRAT meetings used to be! I miss our RRAT meetings now that I am no longer a member of the committee.
That's okay. I have plenty to do tomorrow, thank you very much, Senator Sterle! It was one of the committees I always enjoyed so much, because everybody around that table all agreed. Whether we were coalition—Nationals or Liberals—Labor, Greens, or, later, Nick Xenophon, when he joined the committee, we all had the same focus. Sometimes it was hard to know who had the strongest position on particular issues like biosecurity, for example. We were all together. We also had some very vigorous discussions. I remember, Senator Back, the one about live cattle exports, where we all gave as good as we got. Although we had vehemently differing views, I appreciated and valued the courteous way that Senator Back always kept on issue, and we did not get personal in that debate. We had some fairly fiery meetings of the committee and also when we were at the hearings.
I also remember participating very keenly in the committee when we were looking at how to get more people working in agriculture—and agricultural scientists, in particular. I should declare that, having an agricultural science background myself, I had a particular interest in this. Also, Senator Back worked in the department of agriculture in Western Australia, a very good department in its day, and I also worked in that department, so there were many people we knew in common. When Senator Back first started in the Senate we would go, 'Oh, yes, I know that person'. We both have a love of agriculture and want to see agriculture succeed, particularly in our home state of Western Australia. We have a lot in common, working on the same issues, and we want to see more people make agriculture their profession, because there are very serious issues in this country in that area.
Senator Back, you mentioned and commented very strongly on the issue of cancer in firefighters. We were heavily involved in that. It was one of those very important occasions in this place where we all agreed and we worked across party lines to deliver an outcome. I have said in this place before that it is when we do that sort of thing that I love this place the most—when we are working together on issues to achieve outcomes. That was another one where we did that, and, as you have said, we produced a very good outcome there. Again, on issue of veteran suicide: you were right in commending Senator Lambie for bringing that issue to this place. It is a very serious issue, and I think that committee is doing very important work. The reporting deadline has now been extended to August, and I am sorry that you are not going to be here for that. I was rereading some of the evidence just the other day, and there was some really important evidence given to that inquiry. Again, it is a situation where we are all working together.
Senator Back, you have always contributed to those areas where we can work together. We have had our strong disagreements. I have bellowed across the chamber at you on many occasions—I freely acknowledge that—but I have also valued the time we have worked together and the time we spent on the plane on those long trips. Through those I have learnt of your strong love and support for your family. I really hope that you get to spend a very long time with your family, in whichever country they happen to be at the time, with Linda by your side. I got to know her during that time as well, so, as I said to you in the chamber, please give her our love. She has been there every step of the way. I will miss you; this place will miss you. I wish you good luck into the future and hope you spend, as I said, many long years with your family.
I rise as the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate to pay tribute to senator Chris Back and to acknowledge his outstanding record as a senator for Western Australia for the past eight years. I also would like to associate myself with the wonderful contributions that have already been made.
Since beginning his term in this place Senator Back has served this place, all the committees and his party with respect, hard work and sincerity—and, I would have to say, a bucketload of humour. In the vernacular you are indeed a funny bastard, mate—you really are! The number of times everything was very serious and Backie would lean over and deliver a one-liner—and you knew it was coming and you knew he would make you laugh, no matter what the situation. Thank you so much for that attribute.
On behalf of my mob—and I know they will say this to you in their own words, Chris—again, thanks so much for your work and your friendship over the time. We always need leaders who are able to work in a real multi-partisan way. It did not really matter who you were, what your background was or what your politics were, Chris was there working in what he thought was the very best way to get an outcome.
We particularly appreciate the focus you made, mate, on some of the regional issues. Your role in many of the debates in agriculture—and we have already spoken a lot about that—added a great deal to this place. I guess it is for the future, but people should acknowledge—and George spoke about this—your wealth of life experience. The more life experience, the better and the sharper the contribution you can make in this place. Your history has been such a broad brush of life experiences and we have been very lucky to have had the benefit of that. I was reading that you introduced the first equine management course in Australasia, back in 1976. When I read that I was thinking that trying to deal with half-mad horses must have prepared you pretty well for committee work, mate! You did very well—maybe that is part of your incredible patience. Indeed.
I know you have always been a really busy man in this place, wherever you were. I would always reflect with my staff that you would leave this place and suddenly there was a bit of a gap—quick, there was a second, and Back would stand up and have not an idea and not a clue—I was speaking to him a little earlier about the possibility of that happening—but sound as erudite as possible and talk about something different. You are always the man of the moment, mate, and I am sure that will continue to be the case.
Mate, I have to say that Western Australian owes you a lot. You have worked so hard giving your contribution to the Senate, and always tying it back in. It might have been good for Australia but you always tied it back into Western Australia. That is what you are here to do and I think you have made a remarkable contribution. Some of the stuff we have had to deal with in this place was very difficult. I can recall some of the very difficult debates, such as legalised assisted suicide. These are very difficult matters that had to be handled with respect and I think we will all remember the decency of your contribution.
You did not really wear your heart on your sleeve, but we were never very shy about ensuring that your personal values and beliefs in the people around you shone out. You and your family and Western Australians should be proud that on every occasion there was no question about what you stood for. You were not there to be cajoled or seduced into a slightly different view, and I think I might have tried it on a couple of occasions—unsuccessfully. You know exactly what you stand for and that is so important in this place.
You should know that your time here has helped to keep Australians safe. You have supported farmers particularly to regain and to access economic opportunities—we have talked about some of those matters already—and you have contributed to a more sustainable future for Australia's families. Your efforts in this place are valued and together in this place I am sure we all wish you well in the next chapters of your life's service to this nation. Given the number of careers that you have already engaged in, I hope that those new chapters are as exciting as some of your previous journeys. Mate, it has been absolutely fantastic working with you, and certainly on behalf of the Nationals, and I know the place more generally, I can say you have ensured that your mark has stuck on a part of all of us. So congratulations, thank you and all the best, mate.
I would also like to pay tribute to Senator Chris Back—not only a good friend and valued colleague from the great state of Western Australia but also, and this may be less well known, a fellow parishioner of St Benedict's Parish in Applecross. In this place, we are fortunate to count many among us who have come from many different walks of life. Not many would have had a more diverse journey on their way to the Senate than Senator Chris Back. Chris Back is a proud fifth generation Western Australian who grew up in the Western Australian Wheatbelt. As has already been mentioned, he started his career as a veterinarian in private practice and has had a very distinguished and incredibly varied career in business and public service over many, many years before finding his way to the Senate.
His pursuits throughout his career have reached into different forms of community service. He served his community with distinction as the chief executive officer of the Rottnest Island Authority and CEO of the Bush Fires Board of Western Australia—both leadership roles which saw him drive change for the better, whether it was the development of critical new infrastructure at Rottnest Island or the introduction of a water-bombing aircraft for the Bush Fires Board. In particular, I note his worthy receipt of the Prime Minister's Gold Award for technological achievement, which recognised his pioneering work in the use of satellites to track wildfires in remote and regional locations—a practice that continues to save lives today.
Rounding off his preparliamentary life, Senator Chris Back was a great success in the oil and gas sector, which saw him take on executive roles throughout South-East Asia, India and the Middle East. In Senator Back's first speech in this place, he set out a very clear aim. He said:
… for an Australia which is egalitarian in approach, which rewards independence in outlook and encourages interdependence as a necessary quality of a mature economy but which works actively to eliminate dependency as a long-term outcome. No policy should have the objective of denying a human being their right to support themselves and/or their family …
That, of course, sums up very much the Liberal Party's philosophy, values and principles. There is no question that Senator Back has consistently followed this principle in his approach to policy issues and to debate in this place.
Nowhere was Chris's concern more evident, and this also has already been mentioned, than in his passionate defence of our nation's live export industry after what can only be described as a disastrous decision by the then Commonwealth government in 2011 to ban live exports. Senator Back marshalled his wealth of experience as a livestock veterinarian who served on vessels in the 1980s to deliver amongst the most eloquent, passionate and well-informed rebuttals of this policy at the time. Moreover, his commitment to aiding the recovery of that industry in the years since the ban's removal speaks of his clear concern for those Australians whose livelihoods depend on that industry and for the welfare of Australian livestock more broadly.
Senator Back, of course, has been a very strong and vocal supporter of the coalition government's recently announced $8.3 million investment into the Livestock Global Assurance Program and, in very recent days, has continued to work towards renewed access to former export trade markets like Saudi Arabia. I am sure that, even after he departs this place, he will continue on as a strong advocate for the new jobs and opportunities for regional Western Australia and regional Australia more broadly. The tributes that continue to flow for Senator Back from agricultural industry bodies such as Meat & Livestock Australia and the Cattle Council of Australia leave no-one in any doubt that the sector is very keenly aware of the champion that they had in Senator Back here in the Senate.
I would also like to join those who recognise Senator Back's significant contribution as the chair of multiple Senate standing committees, reviewing and contributing to the improvement of legislation that has been critical to the coalition government's efforts towards building a stronger, safer and more prosperous Australia. In particular, I note that as chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee in recent years, the committee released important reports on legislation dealing with military justice enhancements and the civil nuclear transfers to India, among others. Respectively, these bills have improved the processes for inquiries, complaints and reviews in Australia's military justice system and ensured that the burgeoning and highly promising Australia-India nuclear trade was consistent with our nation's international obligations and values. For his efforts on these important reforms, Senator Back is indeed to be commended.
Senator Back has also made a significant contribution to the Liberal Party cause in the great state of Western Australia. In particular, in supporting our campaigning efforts across important seats for the Liberal Party in Western Australia, like Durack and O'Connor, and in working successfully with other WA Liberal Senate colleagues in those efforts. The fact that we have strong representatives in O'Connor with Rick Wilson and in Durack with Melissa Price is in no small part thanks to the great campaigning efforts and support that Senator Back provided in those very important campaigns.
Chris, you have made an outstanding contribution to the Senate, in particular, on rural, agricultural and resource policy issues and as the chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. You have been a strong voice for regional Western Australia here in the Senate. Looking at your track record so far, we believe that you still have a few careers in you, moving forward; but, in the meantime, we wish you and Linda and your family in all the corners of the world all the very best for your future. Thank you.
I just want to share this with the Senate. I first met Chris when he came here in 2009, full of bravado. At Senate estimates he was going to go in there and bring the government down. Unfortunately for Chris and the rest of us, the minister at the table was Senator Conroy, who carried on like a pork chop, as normal. Chris took offence. I dragged him aside and said: 'Chris, just ignore him. It's Conroy. We do too, mate.' He got over that. He was a fantastic member of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport committees until we lost Chris's involvement a few years ago when the Abbott government won power and he moved over to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committees.
One thing that never surprised me about Chris was that every time he opened his mouth I found that he had another job he used to do. I have just found out that you were in the Middle East. I didn't know that one, mate! One thing I do know is that you are going to be absolutely sorely missed. One thing about Chris with his experience as a vet on the SRRAT committees—where we also had farmers and truckies, me and former Senator Heffernan, and now following in those great shoes, Senator Barry O'Sullivan—was that every time we had a difficult inquiry, Chris would come in, mention big long words, and we would all think: 'Easy. It's fixed. Chris knows everything that's going.' He could have been speaking Latin for all we knew. Mate, you will be sorely missed. I wish you and Linda all the very best from Fiona and me. I am going to miss getting on the plane on Sundays with you and talking about how you and I should start our preseason with South Fremantle, because it is about time we pulled the boots back on. Chris, all the best, brother.
Many words have been spoken tonight about Chris much more eloquently than I could, and I genuinely endorse them all. Such is Chris's influence for good in this chamber and everywhere he goes that I found myself for the first time perhaps in my life fully agreeing with Senator Wong in the contribution she made tonight. Chris's speech tonight was so much Chris Back. The humility, the good sense and the good cheer that he mentioned in his speech is just so Chris and why we all like him so much. His comment that great minds discuss great ideas is again so typically Chris. I am afraid I come into the third category of the three you mentioned, but following your speech, Chris, I will try to elevate slightly. Chris, as everyone has said, is a man without rancour. He always focused on the issue and how he could help to resolve things and make Australia a better place.
Chris will not like me saying this, and if I were a bit more sensitive I would not, but I do want to say that I despair that people with genuine talents like his were never called upon by Liberal prime ministers to administer departments so that Australia could benefit from their organisational ability, good sense and wide experience over many years. Chris was never a player in politics, and regrettably these days being a player seems to be a prerequisite for advancement. Australia and this parliament, and particularly the government, is poorer for the fact that you were never called upon, Chris, to do what I know could have been a power of good for Australia in the role of minister.
Loyalty and commitment are qualities that come to mind when anybody mentions Chris, and you can add to that knowledge and a real appreciation of people. As you know, Chris, I class you as one of my closest friends ever in this chamber, and I have been here a long time and seen a lot of people come and go. I have always had the greatest admiration for you and I have valued your friendship. I am still almost not speaking to you because of the fact that you have decided to go early, and I am distressed that you will not be with us. I might also say that my wife Lesley is distressed not only that you are going but also that she will see less of Linda, who she formed a very close relationship with over the time you were here. I know Lesley will miss her enormously when you have moved on. On the other side, of course, your children in far-flung places around the world will be the winners. One of the reasons Chris is leaving is to spend more time flying across the Pacific to Fort Worth and Panama, and to Singapore, and I know Chris and Linda particularly feel the absence not only of their children but also of their grandchildren. Hopefully they will be able to spend more time with those that they really love. I look forward to some time catching up with you on your Dutch canal boat on the French rivers, and hopefully we might even catch up with you sometime later this year. I do wish you all the very best in the future.
I would not dare to compare myself with Chris in any category, although we did share a passion for rural and regional Australia and in that category, as well, a passion for the Liberal Party. We shared a passion for Northern Australia, and I know the contribution Chris has made there and in so many other ways. Chris and I do share one attribute or quality, or calling perhaps, and that is that, whenever the government needs an additional speaker to fill in a bit of time while a bill comes across from the other side or for some other reason we need to delay things quietly, often Chris and I will be called upon to fill in that time. The only difference is that when Chris gets up to speak he actually knows what he is talking about. I admire him for that, and that comes from his very wide experience, his learning and his real understanding of people and issues. I conclude by saying farewell good and faithful servant of Western Australia and indeed Australia generally. From Lesley and I, au revoir, my friend.
My contribution to these valedictory speeches for Senator Back will be quite short, because I may be the only senator today who is expressing some joy that Senator Back is leaving us in the near future. In a late-night moment, I shared with Senator Back some anxiety that I will refer to as 'secret men's business', and he indicated to me that whilst he was not a medical practitioner he did have the requisite skills to be able to allay some of my fears, for those of us who are aged six decades or so. So, you can imagine how I felt when I came in today and found that he had left me a gift on my desk about the fight against prostate cancer and then looked over to express my gratitude and saw that fierce, stainless steel instrument and that pair of gloves! For my part, I hope you are not regarding me as unfinished business in the Senate!
Again, I want to attach myself to all the remarks. As a newbie here, in essence, I attached myself to you, Chris, on matters and relied upon you significantly, as you know, on some very complex matters of science of which I had no knowledge and still have no knowledge. I have a blind faith in the guidance you have provided. I said to Senator Macdonald the other night that if there was one word I had to use to describe you it would be the word 'solid'. It takes everything in, solid. You cannot be solid unless you are competent. You cannot be solid unless you are genuine, polite and a statesman, and you are solid. I, too, wish you and your wife all the very best as you go into the future.
Chris, it has been wonderful working with you in the Senate. I was immediately attracted to your philosophy, which is about making a difference, getting things done, rather than getting your name in the newspaper. For that I thank you, and for that we worked well together. I really do appreciate the cooperative way you worked on the committees with me, particularly. We got to travel together. We did some amazing work together, and I think it has made a difference. As I said, that was where you started. You are a man of enormous dignity. You are a good bloke; you are an honest bloke. And I am so very proud to be your friend.
Senator Back, we first met at the preselection committee that decided to make you a senator for Western Australia in the place of the former senator, Chris Ellison. We competed in that race, and that was the first time I got to know Senator Chris Back. And while I was a younger person, I was disappointed with the result, having been here with you, having watched the way you have done your job as a senator for Western Australia, having watched the great clarity of your thinking and the great conviction with which you have met many of the challenges, some of them easy and some of them difficult, in this place. But to be travelling around Western Australia and constantly reminded of those strengths of friendships that you and Linda have had with many, many people across regional Western Australia, I cannot help but reflect on the wisdom of state council at that meeting in December 2008, I think it was.
We have enjoyed some battles in this place together, and I am pleased to say that we have been winning some battles here together. I think the most notable was when you and I and some others joined in tackling our own party in arguing against its position to join with Labor in recognising local governments in the Constitution. I think for me that brought home in a very stark way why senators in the coalition must always stay vigilant and must always keep at the forefront of their considerations their commitment to Australian federalism. That was a battle that was unpopular. It was not easy. But it was an important battle that we were successful in winning.
Just reflecting on the commentary of others this afternoon, it is interesting how when we end we sort of go back to where we started. In your very first contribution in the Senate you talked about the contribution of the Irish to Western Australia, citing CY O'Connor's considerable commitment. You talked about the importance of the bushfire service in Western Australia, and how many of us can remember you actually donning the jacket of the bushfire brigade when Esperance endured those devastating bushfires.
And, of course, we are reminded too of how some things just do not change. You talked about GST distribution reform. But what was powerful about your 2009 contribution in regard to GST distributional reform was that no-one else was talking about it at that time. You showed tremendous perseverance and courage, because it is not an easy issue to tackle.
Chris, you mentioned how grateful you were to the state council of the Western Australian Liberal Party. As a party man of 30 years, I think I can stand here and extend to you and Linda the heartfelt gratitude and appreciation of the Liberal Party WA state council for the great work you have done in representing Western Australia, in standing up for the traditions and privileges of the Senate and, most importantly, for representing regional Western Australians.
I want to indicate that the discussions I have had with Chris outside of the Senate have always been very, very warm. As Chris has indicated, he and I have gone toe to toe on many occasions in this chamber and in the various committee forums that we have been in. I do not agree with many of your political choices or your political views, Chris, but as a human being you have been an absolute gentleman. I wish you well for the future. I wish you and Linda well. It will be great that you can get around and see your family. You have been a great warrior for your side of politics. You have been one of the hardest working senators in this place. You do not take your bile or your arguments outside of this chamber and continue it on. I think you have been fantastic in the contribution that you have made. Again, I do not agree with much of the contribution that you have made, but you have been a terrific warrior for your side of politics and you will be missed.
Chris, I associate myself with all of the comments that have been made by our colleagues. I think the thing that we will miss most about you is your wonderful sense of humour. I remember one evening when we sat very, very late—I think it must have been about three o'clock in the morning—when Chris and Wacka regaled us with funny stories. Chris had funny stories about veterinarians and Wacka about all matter of things agricultural. It was very, very funny.
I should have twigged, Chris, recently when you did your sailing course at Pittwater. I should have twigged then that something was in the offing. I am sure you and Linda will enjoy your time not just with your children but also with all of the lovely golden retrievers in the Back family I know that there are golden retrievers in Mexico, in Singapore and all over the place, and I am sure that they will enjoy their time with you. John and I wish you and Linda all the very, very best, and I hope that we meet sailing at some stage in the future.