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Thursday, 18 August 2011
Page: 4896


Senator COONAN (New South Wales) (17:25): by leave—Firstly, I want to con­gratulate Senator Thistlethwaite on his first speech and I wish him well in his career. I thank the Senate very much for allowing me this opportunity to make some remarks in anticipation of my imminent retirement from this chamber, where I have had the privilege of serving for the past 15 years, including seven years in the ministry and, collectively, nine years on the front bench. My departure will mark the end of an era of sorts as I am the last Howard government cabinet minister still serving in the Senate.

My term does not expire until 2014, so it is with a good deal of soul searching that I have come to my decision, knowing that the constitutional and conventional arrangements for filling a casual vacancy will not cause inconvenience to my party or to the people of New South Wales who re-elected me for a third term in 2007. That said, it is not a decision that I have come to lightly. However politics, as I am sure everybody here will know, is a journey and not a destination and each of us has to make the journey as we see fit. The day will come for all of us when, no matter how long one serves and no matter at what level, it is time to move on and for me that time is fast approaching.

Having entered the Senate in the great ascension of the Howard government in 1996, I have been extraordinarily privileged to have served at some of the highest levels of government available to a senator, first as the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, then as a cabinet minister as the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate. These appointments gave me my fair share of firsts being, so far as I am aware, the only woman thus far to have held a Treasury portfolio and the first woman to join a federal coalition government's leadership team. It was certainly some team, comprising the Prime Minister John Howard, Peter Costello, Nick Minchin and, from the Nationals, Warren Truss and Mark Vaile. Having served only on the government benches until the Howard government lost office in November 2007, it is fair to say that the dark days of opposition are indeed an apt description. Despite being in the shadow ministry until I stepped back in late 2009, I have not relished the battle as fervently as I did as a minister. It is now time for me to take up new challenges.

Whilst I do not intend to be partisan in my comments today, I do believe that Tony Abbott and the coalition have done an admirable job of pointing out, if I can borrow the term, 'the wilful blindness' of the Gillard government which seems incapable of avoiding successive policy and political blunders and missteps that should be obvious to those who look. Of course I am immen­sely proud to have been a minister in the Howard government, a government that was capable not only of announcing but of imple­menting big economic reform, competently managing the economy and delivering good government for the Australian people. We left the nation free of debt and with a healthy surplus for a rainy day that played a key role in insulating Australia from the worst of the global financial crisis in 2008.

I am grateful to former Prime Minister John Howard for the opportunities he gave me and for his leadership and support throughout my ministerial career. I was fortunate to have been promoted straight into the ministry as the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer after the 2001 election victory. One of my tasks was to smooth the rough edges in the implementation of the GST and to implement the major business tax reforms identified in the Ralph review. It involved complex but important reforms for the business community, such as consoli­dation of group accounts and demergers, and also involved administrative oversight of the Australian Taxation Office.

I also had carriage of some very major reforms to superannuation, including choice of funds and portability of accounts, and the introduction by the government of the co-contribution for low-income earners wishing to save for their own retirement. Another superannuation reform of which I am particularly proud was the capacity to split superannuation on divorce, a much needed reform which primarily benefited women.

In any portfolio, crises can come out of the clear blue sky and, having just climbed into the saddle, I was tasked with the enormous challenge of dealing with and resolving the crisis that had swept through Australia's insurance market, partly as a fallout from the collapse of the general insurer HIH. The exorbitant cost of claims, skyrocketing premiums and the inability to get insurance at any price had almost shut down public activity. This crisis affected everything from pony clubs to medical practitioners, who had threatened to withdraw their services because of the risk of being sued many years after the event and the cost of long tail claims.

With my state counterparts—all of whom were Labor Treasurers or ministers and to whom I pay tribute for their policy courage—we were able to agree upon sweeping reforms to tort law that reshaped the delivery of insurance and public liability in medical indemnity and for professional services across Australia. Cooperation and agreement of all the states with the federal government is increasingly rare and difficult to achieve. This was an example of cooperation at its best.

The Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority also came under my bailiwick and the aftermath of the HIH collapse paved the way for major reform of Australia's pru­dential regulation of financial institutions. These reforms, and the soundness of the regulatory settings then introduced, have been acknowledged as a key factor, contri­buting to Australia's resilience to external shocks and capacity to withstand the worst effects of global financial volatility.

I acknowledge the key role played by the then Treasurer, Peter Costello, that underpinned the stellar performance of the Treasury portfolios during the Howard years. Serving on the Expenditure Review Committee with Peter Costello and Nick Minchin was a memorable experience. Not many 'dishing it out' ministers, if I can use the colloquial expression, got past the corporate memory of Peter Costello, who delivered the budget year on year, had seen it all before and knew better than most how to reel it in.

In the vast Communications portfolio, I inherited many policy challenges, including some major unfinished business; to get legislation passed to enable completion of the sale of Telstra and to reform media regulation that had been in place, virtually untouched, for over 20 years. This was when rapid advances in technology were—and they still are—transforming the media land­scape, making existing regulatory settings of converged platforms, with global reach, increasingly redundant. Technological inno­vation has simply transformed the way we live, work, learn and do business not only in Australia but across the globe.

Such is the nature of fast paced tech­nological change that we cannot today even imagine devices and applications that will likely be commonplace just a few years from now. So I have a degree of empathy with any minister or policymaker charged with developing communications policy in an environment where the target is always moving. Recent reports of new experimental wireless technology, for example, if proven may well allow access to the internet up to a thousand times faster than is possible now on conventional wireless networks, without the drawback of degraded speeds with multiple users of the network.

I hasten to add this is experimental technology and, yes, wireless applications do need access to fibre backhaul to connect to the network, but I believe the lessons to be learned from rapid technological change are these. Firstly, there are enormous hazards inherent in picking one dominant tech­nology—fibre to the home—for a new ubiquitous network when all the risk is being borne by taxpayers who will likely be left with a suboptimal network when something more efficient comes along, as it surely will over a 10-year rollout. Secondly, taxpayers are right to wonder whether an investment of some $50 to $80 billion is worth the money when there is no guarantee that a spend even of that magnitude will future-proof Austra­lia's telecommunication infrastructure needs for the future.

It is indefensible, in my view, that Australians in rural and remote areas have been denied the benefits of fast, affordable broadband that would have been available to them for the past three years under the OPEL network. OPEL was just a part of my vision in 2006 to meet the needs of rural and regional Australia and I believe it remains relevant today. Sacrificing OPEL on the altar of the costly NBN experiment has meant only a handful of people in mainland Austra­lia have taken up the service thus far.

This is an unfinished story, a work in progress. At least we all agree on the objective that every Australian should be able to access fast, affordable broadband regardless of where they live. I, for one, consider that this basic guarantee should be provided in the universal service obligation. The days when it is sufficient to guarantee Australians a phone on the wall have well and truly been superseded by the need for access to a fast and affordable broadband service, regardless of where you live.

I now want to make some brief remarks about two issues of enormous importance to Australia's future prosperity and of particular relevance to those in the chamber and no doubt in the other place. Irrespective of the fate of the carbon tax under this or successive governments, the politics of clean energy in Australia still has some distance to run. There is a surreal quality surrounding this debate on the introduction of the carbon tax, which the Prime Minister has effectively said is 'done—it's going through', at a time when the developed world is facing once again enormous volatility in financial markets. The Eurozone is hovering on the brink of default, the United States has only just averted a crisis on its massive debt burden, and Australia is grappling with how to close the gap in our two-speed economy.

As business and consumer confidence plummets, I do worry that insufficient weight is being given in this debate to the impact of introducing a carbon tax in such uncertain economic times and whether Australia can afford to forfeit its comparative advantage in access to cheap energy that has thus far underpinned a commodity boom that has reshaped Australia's economy in the 21st century.

Australia has other pressing challenges, including developing a more transparent and coherent approach to foreign investment, most particularly from China. We must not lose sight of the importance of foreign investment as a key ingredient underpinning Australia's long-term growth. But many Australians have become uneasy about whether such investment for mining pur­poses, most particularly coal seam gas exploration licences, will affect prime agricultural land and question the impact this might have on Australia's land use and future food security. These concerns are not with­out foundation.

Although issues related to land use are primarily state responsibilities, surely it should not be beyond our collective wit as a nation to devise a framework which maps and designates prime agricultural land that should be conserved in the national interest, but not so as to discourage forms of foreign investment that will allow the responsible management of multiple land use. I have no illusions that there will be hard decisions to be made in striking the right balance and possible recompense required for owners of such land, whose use could be impacted. But in my view there cannot be too many more compelling national priorities than balancing protection of prime agricultural land as a key part of ensuring Australia's food security with managing the mining boom.

And now for some acknowledgements and long overdue thankyous. Firstly, to the members of the Liberal Party, to Bill Heffernan, who was State President of the Liberal Party when I started my political journey, and to the Senate selectors who placed their confidence in me to represent them and the people of the Premier State of NSW for three terms: thank you.

Next I would like to thank particular mentors and supporters to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for their support and encouragement over time, including Sir John Carrick, the Hon. Nick Greiner, Rosemary Foot, Charles Curran, John Azarius, John Wells, Peter Collins, Max Moore-Wilton, Tony Nutt and Arthur Sinodinos.

It will no doubt come as a surprise to many to learn of my affection for the former Prime Minister the Hon. Gough Whitlam, who was an accidental witness at my wedding in Paris some 30 years ago and who is still kind enough to refer to me as 'the Bride'. My parents, being staunch Liberals, doubted the validity of that marriage certificate, and we had another commitment ceremony back in Sydney to put the matter beyond doubt! I had the great privilege of visiting him recently and at 95 I can say that he is still a formidable comrade.

On matters of the heart it is difficult to convey the depth of my love and appreciation for my husband, the Hon. Andrew Rogers, my son Adam Coonan, and his wife, Candice, and baby, Camille Juliette, who is the light of our lives. Thank you for the involuntary sacrifices you made to let me follow my passion so completely for such a long time. To all the members of my large extended family, my stepdaughters and their children, my sisters and friends: thank you for bearing with me, tolerating my absences and still being there for me. My loving parents, Bill and Mary Lloyd, gave me my values and taught me resilience. They were not here to see most of my ministerial career, but I hope I have done them proud.

To my wonderful staff, each and every one of you, who have been the public face of my office: thank you. I cannot name everyone—in 15 years, you have a few!—but particularly mention Nicole Masters, Peta Credlin and my current chief of staff, Ainsley Gotto, who has a long history of working for senators, as exemplary chiefs of staff. I particularly thank Jane McMillan, Shaun Anthony, Matt Stafford, Rachel da Costa, Sarah Cullins, Sarah McNamara, Richard Shields, Jeff Egan, Edora David and Mary-Lou Jarvis for their friendships and for giving their all when it mattered.

And of course I must thank Rosemary Laing, the Clerk, the Clerk's committee secretaries, chamber attendants, Hansard and Black Rod, past and present, who have always given such professional and unstint­ing service to senators. This is much appreciated. I miss Cleaver Elliott in retire­ment and my dear friend former Deputy Clerk Anne Lynch, who has departed not only the Senate but unfortunately this mortal coil.

Finally I thank my Senate colleagues, too numerous to mention individually—I am happy to say on both sides of the chamber—for their friendship, courtesy and support, especially over these last difficult weeks. I believe Eric Abetz and George Brandis are doing a fine job. I look forward to when I can address Stephen Parry as Mr President—even if I do not sing Happy Birthday, Mr President—and I regret that I will not be here to enjoy the discipline of our new Chief Whip, Helen Kroger.

Very finally, I want to say that, even though it is fashionable to revile politicians and politics, the Senate provides an impor­tant institutional safeguard in the workings of our democratic system. I have come to appreciate that more and more the longer I have been here. The opportunity to shape and participate in public debate on matters of major national significance is not only a privilege; it comes with heavy obliga­tions. Criticism from time to time is inevitable, but it should not deter any senator from standing up where there is unfairness or injustice and advocating for the best interests of all Australians. This is important work and I shall miss it.

In Winston Churchill's 1906 biography of Lord Randolph Churchill, he describes how his father, although initially reluctant to assume public office, came to keenly appreciate the importance of participation in public life. He said this:

It is easy for those who take no part in the public duties of citizenship under a democratic dispen­sation to sniff disdainfully at the methods of modern politics and to console themselves for a lack of influence upon the course of events by the indulgence of a fastidious refinement and a meticulous consistency. But it is a poor part to play.

I cannot but agree and I wish all senators well for the future.