Wednesday, 9 May 2018
I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunawal people as the traditional owners of the land upon which I stand and the Kaurna people as the traditional owners of the land on which my office in Adelaide sits, and I pay my respect to their elders, past and present. I also acknowledge all First Nations people in the chamber and gallery today. I wish to thank my family, especially Belinda, our sons Raphael and Ilan; Belinda's parents; and my friends for their support. Thank you to those who have travelled here today. I would like to acknowledge the kind and courteous reception I've had since joining the Senate, from its wonderful staff, from the President and fellow senators and from Senators Cormann and Wong, who kindly escorted me into this chamber.
I am tremendously proud to represent the great state of South Australia. I have deep roots in South Australia, through my mother and father's families, going back to the mid-19th century. It is an exciting time to be a South Australian, and I am lucky to be one.
I come to this place representing South Australia from my involvement with Nick Xenophon. I'd like to pay tribute to Nick, who included me on his South Australian Senate ticket in 2016 and who made a significant contribution to South Australia through his considerable political service. I thank Senator Griff, former Senator Kakoschke-Moore and others for supporting that decision. I intend to uphold the values and spirit of accountability and transparency that the Nick Xenophon Team articulated when I stood for election in 2016. The process of careful review I've undertaken with the important bills before me in my first two weeks in March and now is consistent with that spirit. I will judge legislation and other measures put before me on their individual merits, assessing proposals against four benchmarks: integrity, fairness, prosperity and sustainability. I will not engage in trade-offs for political gain. I will not compromise on what I think is in the interests of South Australians and our nation. I believe the South Australian people expect and deserve no less. My values are underpinned and encapsulated in the Prayer for Generosity taught to me at St Ignatius' College in Athelstone:
Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give, and not to count the cost,
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labour, and not to seek reward,
except that of knowing that I do your will.
Those values, instilled in me by my parents and teachers, guide me to this day.
Commitment to integrity is rooted in my upbringing. I was born in 1969 in Loxton, a town in the Riverland region of South Australia. Loxton remains the place where I developed a strong sense of community and belonging. Growing up in Loxton gave me a deep connection with our land. The mighty River Murray and the surrounding banks of reeds, inlets and scrub was the natural world in all its spectacular glory, and was in many ways our playground. I fondly remember waterskiing when I was just four years old, off Proud's Sandbar just outside of Loxton. It's where we spent time with friends and family, and it gave me a close appreciation of nature.
Being a child in Loxton for me meant a feeling of idyllic freedom, of imagination and time, and a sense of a higher purpose. This sense also developed at St Albert's Catholic Primary School in Loxton and at St Ignatius. It was reflected in my early passion for middle- and long-distance running. Robert de Castella was a particular hero, and I was inspired by his world record run in the 1981 Fukuoka marathon and his come-from-behind victory at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. The late Brother Paul Callil was another inspiration. His encouragement to all of us at school to strive for our personal best in athletics influenced me greatly.
Studying economics at Adelaide university and then an MBA at the Australian National University, I learned the importance of hard work and the value of impartial factual evidence in guiding actions for the greater good. The revelations of the banking royal commission and of various state integrity commissions remind us of the critical importance of demanding integrity in both government and the corporate world. This requires stronger accountability and transparency arrangements. This is why I will push for real-time registration of political donations. In a digital age, it is not good enough to have paper disclosures reported on annually in non-election years and 24 weeks after polling day in an election year.
We can also do better to bring the South Australian people into the parliamentary process. With modern technology, the electorate can more easily have a voice. I therefore plan to invite the input of South Australians into my policy priorities as well as the questions and statements I make, providing them with a real-time voice in the Senate.
My dedication to the principle of fairness comes from my parents. My father loved being a GP and sought to serve his patients with the utmost care and respect, moving to Loxton to broaden his ability to do so. My mother was an extraordinary English teacher, a lover of literature and a walking dictionary. They were pillars of their communities, continuously engaged in activities for our schools and their professional associations, and instilled in me a strong sense of service, humility, compassion and empathy.
A society is judged, I believe, on how it treats its most vulnerable, and that is why we must do more to address the refugee crisis, by finding a pathway to regional processing in Southeast Asia, and the homelessness crisis here in Australia, with an enhanced focus on providing public housing. It is cheaper to place the homeless in housing than to have them live on the streets and increase the pressure on our welfare resources. Finland and Utah, in the US, have demonstrated this.
Cost-of-living pressures are a major problem for our stability, security and quality of life. Housing affordability, for example, needs greater attention. It takes far longer these days for young families to buy a home than it did their parents. Rents are also increasingly prohibitive, especially for the less well off.
The appalling inadequacy of unemployment allowances is also an issue of fairness. Newstart hasn't risen in line with national living standards for a quarter of a century and it's simply not enough to live on. I endorse calls from respected economists, business and welfare groups to boost Newstart significantly, and I am incredibly disappointed that the government didn't pay attention to this in the budget. With the budget revealing a substantial improvement to revenue since Christmas, surely there was room for an increase in Newstart. As the Business Council of Australia noted as far back as 2012, the level of Newstart 'may now be so low as to represent a barrier to employment'. And this morning John Howard declared that the freeze had probably gone on too long.
A discussion of fairness cannot ignore our First Nations people. I personally acknowledge the legacy of trauma and grief in communities as a result of colonisation, forced removals and other past government policies. It saddens me greatly that the 10th annual Closing the Gap report, in February this year, showed that only three of the seven targets are on track after a decade. It is shameful that, by percentage, more of our First Nations people are in jail than any other indigenous group in the world. The historic hand of reconciliation extended to our parliament through the Uluru Statement from the Heart remains unmet. I support calls for a First Nations voice in parliament to be enshrined in our Constitution and for a makarrata commission to supervise a process of truth telling and agreement making. I welcome initiatives to encourage more Indigenous entrepreneurship and participation in small and medium-sized businesses. The Commonwealth's Indigenous Procurement Policy should be adopted by all levels of government and more companies to drive demand for Indigenous goods and services and grow the Indigenous business sector.
My vision for our ongoing prosperity centres on our lucky proximity to and relationship with Asia. I've lived it since I got on a plane at the age of 23, just over 25 years ago, with a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. This was a seminal moment in my life. I was struck, on my first flight into Hong Kong, by the seemingly daredevil half-turn over high-rise apartments just 15 seconds before landing at Kai Tak Airport, right in the middle of the city. This apparently risky but regulation routine was repeated every five minutes throughout the day and said so much about the intensity and dynamism of that vibrant city.
Hong Kong at that time was bursting with entrepreneurs. The dynamic mindset—embracing change, seeking new horizons for experience and prosperity—has been a constant reminder to me to 'have a go'. This led me to my first role in Hong Kong, where I worked with the late Alison Wenck, who was the driving force behind a magazine aptly titled Austral-Asian Entrepreneur, and from there to a career with entrepreneurial SMEs across Asia—from Guangzhou, to Haiphong, to Saigon, to Shanghai, or selling into Asia from Australia in Sydney and Adelaide.
It also led me to learn languages of the countries I was living in, be it Mandarin, which I've now resumed learning for the third time, or Vietnamese. I've always tried to learn the local language. It was both respectful and offered insights I could not have otherwise gained into the societies in which I was living. More Australian school students should be learning Asian languages for these reasons alone, as well as for other economic and strategic advantages. Life in Asia requires perseverance and a flexible, entrepreneurial mindset. Hard work, focus and having a go have helped raise hundreds of millions out of poverty in a generation.
The opportunities for permanent benefit for South Australia and Australia are obvious. In little more than a decade, it is estimated Asia will have a middle class of around three billion people, a 600 per cent increase in 20 years, whereas the middle class in Europe and the US combined will be 1.2 billion, just 40 per cent of Asia's. This is not just China. Presently our two-way trade with South-East Asia actually exceeds that with China, and opportunities for doing much more with South-East Asia as well as India are strong. We already see dramatic examples of what deepening trade with Asia can bring to our economy and society—a 63 per cent year-on-year increase in Australian wine exports to China in 2017, much of that from South Australia; the growth of international education to be our third-largest export industry; and the number of Chinese tourists doubling in the last five years to be our largest visitor market.
Our proximity to Asia and the inherent strengths of 'brand Australia' in perceptions there put us in a superb position. We are automatically and rightly seen as high quality all over Asia. For a large country rich in land and natural resources with a relatively small population, foreign investment in Australia is essential to our development. We must resist knee-jerk reactions against investment by non-Western entities. We must also support more Australian companies and institutional investors to invest in Asian countries. We should also deepen engagement with Indonesia. Too much of our mindset is in looking beyond that country. Mutual opportunities are being missed.
Asia provides new markets for entrepreneurship and innovation in South Australia about which I am passionate. I welcome the growth of incubators, hubs, co-working spaces, precincts and business parks that will further foster exciting development in our state. I also see great potential for South Australia around advanced manufacturing. From my recent business experience, there is clearly global demand for high-quality, advanced manufacturing products from our state. For example, we should capitalise on the opportunity to bring car manufacturing jobs back to South Australia through the electric vehicle revolution. EV car sales are growing internationally. All the major car brands are investing heavily in developing EVs to meet increasing demand. Australia is one of the few places that has all the natural and human resources needed to build an electric vehicle within a stable political environment. We have lithium and other minerals that are essential to making the batteries in cars themselves. We have the parts manufacturers and the engineers who can build the machines that will make these cars. But the missing piece of the pie is domestic EV uptake. We need the right policies and leadership to encourage this, and I'm disappointed that the government didn't focus on this in the budget.
I'm also passionate about the positive impact that South Australia's arts and festivals have had for the state. Building on the legacy of Don Dunstan, Adelaide is an ideal place to foster creative entrepreneurial businesses, tourism, sport, film and television productions, and music.
Sustainability is important to me not just environmentally but also economically. We must have responsible, broad-based tax reform to create a more sustainable, equitable tax-and-transfer system. Our current budget deficit and debt demand it. Our present tax system is insufficiently robust to support a medium-term fiscal strategy of budget surpluses on average over the course of the economic cycle.
This may be my first speech, but I'm sure people want to know what I think about last night's budget, given the first major decision I had to make in this chamber concerned the government's enterprise tax plan. I welcome the first round of personal tax cuts announced in last night's budget. They are affordable; they are also neatly targeted and provide much needed relief for low- and middle-income earners. The benefits will flow directly into the economy.
But I have serious doubts about the last round of tax cuts due to come in six budgets and two elections from now. They would be regressive. There are questions about their affordability. The personal and company tax cuts proposed by the government do not amount to comprehensive tax reform. We should refocus on the principal reform elements of the Henry review into the tax and transfer system, commissioned 10 years ago this month. As the 2015 Intergenerational report notes, spending needs should take into account Australia's ageing population, which has important implications for the growing demand for health, aged care services and retirement incomes.
We should continue to support businesses with R&D, innovation and industrial transformation; fund world-class education and health systems; harness the contribution potential of our youth and ageing populations; and increase investment in public infrastructure, which has the effect of stimulating economic growth at the same time as securing long-term benefits to our communities.
Amid all of this, we must not lose sight of the existential threat posed by human induced climate change. Climate change is the significant risk to our economy, national security and environment. As we know, tackling this issue will take strong and dedicated leadership and vision.
Before concluding, I want to refer to my passionate advocacy for the Australian republic. A home-grown Australian head of state is essential in a nation which defines itself as self-determining. It's ironic and telling that to be a member of this chamber you cannot hold British citizenship, but you must be British to be our head of state. I've been actively involved in advocating for an Australian republic for over a quarter of a century. I have fond yet also queasy memories of organising a pre-1999 republican referendum yum cha lunch, with speakers being former Prime Minister Whitlam and current Prime Minister Turnbull, in the floating Chinese restaurant in Rose Bay in Sydney.
Senators usually have six years to make their contribution in this place. From the time of my declaration by the High Court, my initial term will be 500 days. I look at this as a glass half full. I will make every day count and judge every issue on its merits against the benchmarks of integrity, fairness, prosperity and sustainability. These are principles I will uphold for the people of South Australia in my role as senator for them, and I hope that will meet with their continuing support. Thank you.