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Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Page: 3435

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (17:12): I thank the Leader of the Government in the Senate for his courtesy in allowing me to speak first. Whereas the Senate farewells another three senators in today's valedictories, the coalition farewells three genuine heroes in the cause of liberalism. I thank their friends and families for lending them to the service of our nation, their state and their party. Political life is often surreal and has aspects associated with it that we as participants find uncomfortable. Our close friends and family often suffer collateral damage, which makes their support all the more precious to us. I know that to be the case for the three coalition senators we salute tonight. Their three speeches, whilst distinctly different, showcased the quality that we will lose.

If the coalition were to salute Senator Minchin, it would need to be with a 21-gun salute. Senator Minchin, in his understated yet powerfully convincing way, has been a great Senate leader for the coalition, especially in the dark days of transitioning from government to opposition. His steady hand, his sense of purpose and his unwavering commitment to the cause of the nation have been just some of the qualities that endeared him to his colleagues and earned him the respect of his opponents. Relatively early in my time here, namely 1996, Senator Minchin and I worked together on trying to resolve native title issues after the High Court's adventurous decision in the Wik case, which unwittingly helped the rise of One Nation. I was the newly appointed chair of the Joint Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund Committee and Senator Minchin the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister assisting in matters native title. It was in these interactions that I first saw Senator Minchin's fine mind, principles and pragmatism at work. The ILUAs, or Indigenous land use agreements, paved the way to absorbing the heat from many of the potential disputes. The resolution of the issues and their passage through the parliament was a great victory for our country, for common sense and, above all, for Indigenous communities.

As Senator Minchin's deputy I got an apprenticeship for which I am extremely grateful. His cool thinking in difficult times was inspirational. Without revisiting in any detail the difficult days of November 2009, I can vouch that they will be etched in my memory forever—to the day both Senator Minchin and I resigned from the front bench, thinking we would both be on the back bench together. Instead, today, I find myself as Senator Minchin's successor after his heart-wrenching decision to retire in circumstances we as parents hope never to find ourselves in. In political terms, Senator Minchin and I were true philosophical soul mates, be it as federalists—or, as Bert Kelly liked, free traders—or as supporters of the family unit or voluntary voting.

The list goes on, and as it does the more I know I will miss Senator Minchin in this place. But just in case those listening in think Senator Minchin was ideologically pure at all times, let me remind them of his one blind spot in relation to economic rationalism, and that was the South Aust­ralian car industry. He also supports New South Wales in the rugby, and I recall one evening watching a game in Brisbane with our dear friend Santo Santoro. In this huge sea of maroon, there was this one blue rugby jumper, worn by Senator Minchin. It was only out of our deference to his leadership that we allowed him to walk out in front. We stayed well behind.

Senator Minchin also had this bizarre view—and he made mention of this in his first speech—that the Liberal Party somehow favours state presidents over state directors.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator ABETZ: And the problem is? I do not know, but one person that you have forgotten is Senator Bushby, who was also a former state director of the Tasmanian division, so there is a third. But, might I say, that does not detract from the fact that former state presidents do make very good senators.

More seriously, I think one's heritage often does help in the tasks that life throws one's way, and Senator Minchin had a great pedigree. His great-great-grandfather, Sir Stuart Donaldson, was Premier of New South Wales for only three months. I did not know that Senator Arbib was around in those days as well to cut short a premier's service! Especially relevant to our side of the chamber was Senator Minchin's heritage as the descendant of the first director of the Adelaide Zoo. I dare say that his skill in herding cats was derived from that heritage.

Senator Minchin referred to what he called 'failures'. None of those that he mentioned were failures. All of them indica­ted a commitment and a set of principles that we should all aspire to live up to. Senator Minchin has had a distinguished time as a Liberal senator for South Australia, a senior frontbencher and a leader. He goes of his volition and with the best wishes of all his coalition colleagues. Those best wishes are extended not only to Senator Minchin but also to his very supportive family: Kerry and children Jack, Anna and, if I might especially single him out, Oliver. On behalf of the coalition, we wish you well in your future.

I turn to our former distinguished President Senator Ferguson. The presidency of the Senate is the highest honour this body can bestow on any of its members. Senator Ferguson was rightly bestowed that title but, if I might venture, for too short a period. He was a capable, fair and good humoured President. The current President's words earlier were a wonderful tribute to Senator Ferguson and well deserved. I have no doubt that Senator Ferguson would have been an excellent minister, but sometimes politics does not play out as you expect. While ministerial appointment is the gift of the leader, one's election to the presidency is only at the behest of one's peers and colleagues casting their collective judgment.

Senator Ferguson and I first met when we were—and Senator Minchin might know this—both state presidents—surprise, surprise—of our respective divisions of the Liberal Party. We met at a federal executive meeting at Bowral, if I recall. We have known each other since and have enjoyed each other's company. Senator Ferguson's work on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee is legendary. He did the work and earned the respect not only of his colleagues but also of the diplomatic corps, with, if I recall, another important country giving him a gong for his services. However, his core commitment was always to his rural constituency. He was a champion for their cause. Senator Minchin, Senator Ferguson and I have always voted together on the conscience issues of the day. Senator Ferguson was strong on freedom and family. Interestingly, I note that in his first speech he complained about electricity prices. I wonder what they actually were 19 years ago in comparison to now. Senator Ferguson in his first speech—he quoted it again this evening—said:

'The service we give to others is the rent we pay for our place on earth'. I certainly hope no-one here ever has cause to tell me that my rent book is not up to date.

I can personally vouch for the fact that his rent is up to date, as he has been staying at my place these last few months! He is a very easily accommodated flatmate, might I add. I will miss the early-morning and late-night chats and especially the Ferguson humour and insights. The service Senator Ferguson has provided—his wise counsel, his advocacy for the rural sectors and as President of the Senate—has ensured that his rent book is not only up to date but well paid in advance. To Senator Ferguson and his wife, Anne: we wish you well in your new, full-time role as grandparents.

I turn to a good friend, Senator McGauran, whom I first met in student politics. When Senator McGauran first started here, he was the youngest senator in the chamber at the time and the second-youngest ever elected. The elixir of youth has remained with him. I first met Senator McGauran, as I said, through student politics. It would be fair to say that I have not weathered quite as well as Senator McGauran.

Many people say that how you come to this place and how you leave says a lot about your character. It would be fair to say that in the 2010 election those Australians who lived south of the Murray River were not as favourable to the coalition as those living north and to the west. Senator McGauran told me, when I rang to commiserate with him, that politics was a bit like the tide: sometimes it sweeps you in; sometimes it sweeps you out. The graciousness with which you took your defeat speaks volumes for you as a person.

Senator McGauran's traditional values and conservative instincts—other than the length of his hair—made him a political and philosophical soul mate. With Labor in government during his first speech, he commented about public debt. How some things never change! He leaves with a bigger public debt, albeit we in the coalition had paid it off in the meantime. The common factor, of course, between his first speech, his last speech and the huge public debt is a Labor government. As a young man he lamented the problem of government debt placing a debt burden on future generations, and that is so right.

Senator McGauran was always a fighter for the things that mattered. He was one always to be relied upon for us in the coalition to take note of answers. If ever there was a gap we always knew that Senator McGauran could fill it. His stump speeches, as his speech this evening, were always informative and always entertaining, with that wonderful sense of self-effacement which is part of Senator McGauran's per­sonal charm. His capacity to obtain media attention was legendary on all sorts of issues, from dumped thongs washing up on foreign shores—and, just in case anybody is wondering, these are the footwear type of thongs—to Senator McGauran being entitled to ride a horse into St Paul's Cathedral by virtue of him being made a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

He engaged in the tough issues of the day and was one of the first to call for our involvement in East Timor—and he was so right. And, whilst being terribly ill with malaria courtesy of a trek on the Kokoda Trail, he thought it absolutely vital that he present himself to the Senate to help overturn the Northern Territory's ill-considered euthanasia laws. Thank goodness the bells were working on that day.

Senator McGauran has done himself and the country proud. I say to all three of our retiring senators: thanks for your service. You have been a blessing to our nation, and may God bless your futures.