Monday, 4 December 2017
Over a quarter of a century ago, on 4 November 1992, an honourable member in the House of Representatives described the Senate as unrepresentative swill. I note with a touch of irony that the honourable member, someone who I admire greatly for his positive contributions to our nation, was at that time part owner in a piggery. His comments about the Senate nonetheless displayed a broader and cursory misconception in the community about the crucial role of the Senate in our parliamentary system and, while widely and repeatedly reported, the 'swill' comments have seldom been challenged. In this, my first speech, I hope I can counter those misconceptions, make some observations on what I think the Senate does well and what the Senate could do better, and, above all, why this matters in a practical sense for all Australians.
But, before I do that, it is customary in first speeches to introduce oneself. Firstly, may I say that it's a great honour and a privilege to be a member of the Australian Senate, representing the great state of South Australia. The Nick Xenophon Team, soon to be SA BEST (Federal), chose me to replace Nick Xenophon, who is standing for election to the South Australian House of Assembly seat of Hartley when SA goes to the polls in March next year. Yes, Nick—who is watching—I promise to go doorknocking with you this weekend!
As some of you would know, having seen me running with agenda papers to committee meetings or intercepting Nick running from a Mural Hall press conference to the chamber, for the past two years I have worked as Nick's senior adviser. In that respect, I'm fortunate to be familiar with these surroundings and to have Nick as my mentor and friend. He's a great parliamentarian—someone absolutely committed to the role of parliament, advancing the public interest and holding governments to account.
I was born in Whakatane, New Zealand, in 1967 as the youngest of four children. My family moved to Australia seven years later. After a short stint in Victoria, we moved to the great steel city of Whyalla, where I attended Fisk Street Primary School and Stuart High School. Dad was a Boy Scout leader and so I spent some of my pre-teen years doing lots of adventurous outdoor stuff as a Cub Scout. At the same time, mum was a Girl Guides leader, which meant that when dad was out of town I had to go to Brownies, too. Noting that I was a young boy who believed in the concept of girl germs, being forced to hang out with 20 or so Brownies was, in my eight-year-old mind, pretty traumatic, but I eventually got over it.
Whyalla was a great place to grow up. I remember being invited along whenever my elder brother Grant played Fox Hunt. Please don't reach for your iPads to look for the app. There were no apps in those days. Indeed, there were no personal computers. Fox Hunt was a game of hide-and-seek. You played with a bunch of friends who owned panel vans and CB radios. That was the entry criteria and Grant had just got his driver's licence. One panel van—the 'fox'—would head off and hide somewhere around town: behind Mount Laura, at the tip, at an old industrial site, down a back alley, just past the BHP steelworks or in the mangroves near the beach. The 'fox' would then start talking on a CB transmitter. The 'hunters' would drive around trying to find you using only the signal strength of the CB receiver: soft, very soft, soft; then loud, louder, even louder—'Found you!' It would be remiss of me, noting there may be a younger generation listening, to not tell you what a CB radio is. It's something we had before mobile phones, Microsoft Messenger and email, and well before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Citizen band radio—a $25 annual licence fee, no download limits and, so my brother Grant told me recently, more reliable than an NBN connection.
When I turned 16, I left Whyalla to join the Royal Australian Navy. Because of recent events, I will point out that, as I started my naval career, I sought and was granted Australian citizenship. And for the sake of completeness and thoroughness, in mid-October this year, prior to my nomination, I renounced my New Zealand citizenship. For those of you who might be thinking, 'that's just a legal step and he may still have allegiance to New Zealand', you are wrong because, for the last four decades, whenever the Wallabies have played the All Blacks, I've supported the Wallabies—and that means I cannot, in any way, possibly be a Kiwi.
Whilst in the Navy, I completed my schooling, trained as an electronic technician and volunteered for submarine service. I served on several Oberon class submarines before being selected and posted as a member of the trials crew of the first Collins class submarine at Osborne in Adelaide. That was both a real buzz and an honour.
After more than a decade in the Navy, I left and worked for an Australian sonar company, first as a trainer then as a project manager, business development manager and as the head of research and development. Thirteen years later in 2007, I formed my own company specialising in sonar and acoustics training and project management related consulting. I wrote extensively for defence publications. Some articles I wrote, particularly on making defence accountable for its decisions and major programs, raised the ire of senior defence brass. For that, I make no apology. During my career, I have worked in some 20 countries. In late 2015, I moved back home to SA to work with Nick.
On the family front, I'm very close to my siblings and regularly visit all of them, including my sister, Michelle, in Newcastle, my brother Grant in Mudgee and, of course, my eldest brother, Wayne, who still lives in Whyalla—and, of course, their great families. I am the father of two beautiful daughters, Amelie and Audrey—Amelie aged 12, Audrey aged 10—who enjoy visiting me in Adelaide on a regular basis and, I'm also pleased to say, are here in the gallery today alongside Carly, their very dedicated and wonderful mother. When I told Amelie I was going to be a senator, she asked if I could get rid of homework. Amelie, I raised it with the minister for education, just after being sworn in—that's a fact—and I'm sorry to say the body language didn't look good.
My parents are not here; both have sadly passed. I'd like to think that they would be as proud of me today as I am of them for the way they brought me and my siblings up.
Whilst I always find time for my girls and my family, I concede I'm a workaholic. However, in every job that I've done, I have never sought to be promoted; I have only ever tried to do the best possible job in the job I was assigned. So I have an absolute duty and hunger to put 110 per cent into my new role representing South Australia in the Senate. But what exactly does my job in the Senate involve? How do we, as individuals and as a chamber, achieve the lofty aims that we set ourselves and that are demanded of us in the Constitution?
The most obvious part of our business is reviewing and passing legislation. If need be, we amend and thereby improve and enhance legislation. Whilst it doesn't always emerge in a form that the government wants, it nonetheless reflects the democratic choice of the electorate. Sometimes, of course, the Senate's role is to say no to the government's legislation because the consequences of a policy will be damaging or simply too risky to allow through the parliament. On these matters there will always be debate. Sometimes more heat than light may be generated, but that also reflects the democratic will of the electorate.
I think legislating is something the Senate does quite well. However, there is another constitutional function that the Senate is not fulfilling, in my view, as well as it does in legislating. In this I refer to the Senate's role of probing and checking the administration of laws, of keeping itself and the public informed and of its requirement to insist on ministerial accountability for the government's administration. With words so relevant to us that it is quoted in Odgers, US President Woodrow Wilson described the informing role of the congress, stating:
It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents. Unless Congress have and use every means of acquainting itself with the acts and the disposition of the administrative agents of the government, the country must be helpless to learn how it is being served …
The philosopher John Stewart Mill, quoted with approval in the High Court case of Egan and Willis, summarised the task as:
… to watch and control the government: to throw the light of publicity on its acts …
Applied to the Senate, these principles make it clear that our role is not just to review and pass legislation. Indeed, as President Wilson stated, 'The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.' In the House of Representatives the government has the majority, usually, and so that function is not performed there. Governments can never be relied on to supervise and scrutinise themselves. The Senate must take this role most seriously. The Constitution, particularly section 49, grants the Senate power to carry out this informing function.
The Senate can conduct an inquiry of ministers through questioning and can compel the attendance of witnesses and the giving of evidence, and require the production of documents. Yet, despite having these powers, the Senate has often been reluctant to use them. It sometimes appears to be satisfied with explanations that are untimely and/or unsatisfactory. I provide you some examples.
Questions on notice tabled in this chamber are often not returned within the 30 days required by the standing orders. The same is true for estimates, where answers to questions are often returned to committees at the eleventh hour. This is disrespectful of the Senate, and more so of the citizens for whom the questions are asked, and should not be permitted if we are seen to be taking our job seriously.
All too often, orders for the production of documents have been met with contempt. An order for the production gets made. The government advances an argument for public interest immunity, however tenuous that argument might be. Invariably the Senate does not accept the public interest immunity claim and the government insists on its refusal to provide the document, and then the Senate does nothing except weaken itself. In those cases where the Senate arguments are strong for the documents to be produced, the Senate weakens itself by not using its powers to insist on production.
Also, the Senate has been shy about calling junior officials to estimates and to references committees. Fellow Senators, the devil is often in the detail, and senior officials, officers of summary knowledge, simply don't know the details. The Senate should not hesitate to call a witness of any rank or experience if that witness has the information the Senate deems necessary for informing itself. I've seen departments resist the calling of junior witnesses and, more recently, declining a request for senior officials on a naval shipbuilding advisory board to appear before a committee. This is from Odgers:
In practice, it is rare for a committee to order the attendance of a witness because it is rare for anyone to refuse a committee’s invitation to give evidence.
Colleagues, of course we should not exercise power irresponsibly, but by the same token we must also recognise that there are circumstances when it is also irresponsible not to exercise a power.
Finally, I've seen departments refuse to give evidence for shallow reasons. Last month, Defence refused to discuss whether the use of Australian steel was a requirement in an armoured vehicle. Let us be clear: we don't have to accept denial, obfuscation or spin from executive government and its servants. To do so is copping out, selling out or wimping out of the oaths that we have taken. It's time we stood up for ourselves and used the numbers we normally use so effectively in enhancing legislation to enhance this critical oversight role.
In that vein, I wish to raise an important oversight deficiency of the federal parliament, that the federal parliament wants for fixing. Just over a year ago the Prime Minister announced an independent review of Australia's intelligence services. The review was released in June and included a number of recommendations that recognised—noting that 7,000 people and 10 agencies are involved, and more than $2 billion of taxpayers' money is being spent on intelligence—that more coordination was required in the intel domain. Whilst I strongly support our intelligence services, we must also recognise that the power that comes with such organisations must be appropriately balanced with enhanced accountability.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is currently constrained to oversight of administrative and financial matters. The parliament, in contrast to the principles of responsible government, has carved out operational matters from the purview of the committee, and that is neither wise nor acceptable. For the avoidance of doubt, the intelligence service does a lot of first-class work and critically important work. Parliamentary oversight does not constrain an agency operating lawfully; rather, it seeks to enhance an agency's operations.
This has long been recognised in the US, where committees such as the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence can delve deeply into agency operations. This is accepted by the US intelligence community as necessary and appropriate. It should be the same here, and I propose to introduce a private senator's bill to this effect.
Joseph Pulitzer once said:
There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.
Open and transparent government is critical in a system of responsible government. However, the effective use of the Senate's informing and oversight powers must also be augmented by strong and effective laws that ensure the fullest degree of transparency and accountability of government. Freedom of information laws, strong whistleblower protections and enhancing the powers of ombudsmen and auditors-general will ensure more accountability. Why does this matter? If the Senate does its job to the fullest extent possible, if we have institutions to ensure transparency and accountability, the taxpayers' money will be spent more wisely and more effectively, which is clearly in the interest of all Australians.
In closing my remarks today, I want to speak about some of my wider policy interests. In the months and years to come I anticipate speaking at length on these questions, but today I propose to lay out my priorities and chart some of my planned course. It is often said that we are the sum of our experiences, and, as such, my focus in this new role will be guided by what I have done in the past, by my experience and by what is important to me.
As a parent, my role in the Senate is to ensure that Australia is a strong, fair, prosperous and self-sufficient country, for future generations to live in peace and harmony. I want an Australia that will provide my kids, and indeed one day perhaps their kids, even better opportunities than I have been privileged to enjoy.
As a member of NXT, my aim is to emulate the achievements of my Senate colleague Stirling Griff, former senators Nick Xenophon and Skye Kakoschke-Moore and indeed the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, in that other place, in staying true to our party's policies, its constitution and its ethos for a fair go for all Australians. We are a party of the political centre, pragmatic and ready to work with anyone and everyone committed to advancing the public interest. You will always find me ready to talk, happy to negotiate, eager to cooperate, but firmly attached to principles of democratic accountability and determined to advance the interests of our nation and my state.
As a South Australian, my role in the Senate is to ensure that I represent all the people of my state to the best of my ability, ensuring that there is no more slipping behind. South Australia has put up with a good deal of denigration, indeed abuse, from eastern state political figures and media commentators in recent years. We've been described as Australia's rust belt, a basket case. That sort of ill-informed commentary needs to come to an end, but the truth is we will only hear the end of it when South Australia has recovered its economic and social standing within our federation.
I would hope that all South Australian senators will work together for the good of our state and the nation, because the two are indivisible. A few issues—in no way an exhaustive list—that are important to and priorities for me include: advocating measures that will build SA's population growth and ensure that our young people have opportunities and do not need to migrate elsewhere; working to re-establish our state as a centre for manufacturing excellence and high-technology development; ensuring that South Australia derives long-term economic benefits from the development of defence-related industries; ensuring South Australia's energy sector delivers affordable, reliable and environmentally sustainable power supplies; ensuring the rapid development of SA's resource sector while protecting our delicate and unique environment; ensuring the health of the Murray-Darling river system so it is sustainable from both an environmental and an economic point of view; developing our education sector, especially our universities, to provide the knowledge foundation for a dynamic economy focused on trade and engagement with the Indo-Pacific region; and ensuring that South Australians have access to the best health, aged-care and social services.
There will be much work that I will do with my colleagues in continuing the legacy created by Nick Xenophon and advancing many South Australian causes and interests. As I conclude, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me over the years, especially my predecessor, Nick. To you, my Senate colleagues, I look forward to working with each and every one of you. May we succeed in achieving a parliament that is truly representative of the people. And, if anyone ever says that the Senate is unrepresentative, then we can all say, 'Pigs to that.' Thank you.