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Tuesday, 21 August 2001
Page: 29852

Mr PEARCE (4:41 PM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank you and the House for your indulgence in allowing me to speak today in this my first speech. Indeed, it is a pleasure and an honour to stand here today to deliver my first speech as the member for Aston. I am very conscious of the achievements of my predecessor, Mr Peter Nugent. I want to pay tribute to him for the way in which he served the electorate, for his sheer hard work and for his wide range of interests. He was an engaging personality and an outstanding member. He will be truly missed by the parliament, by the people of Aston and by those involved in the many interests in which he was engaged.

I will be trying to match Peter's efforts in working hard for the people of the electorate. As well as continuing Peter's efforts in many areas, I also have my own interests and priorities and will look to develop these as part of my aim to be a strong and effective member of parliament and local representative. When the Aston by-election was called, there were many pundits who believed that the new member would be sitting on the other side of the parliament. They said that the Liberal Party could not survive the loss of Peter Nugent's personal vote. They said that the host of smaller party and Independent candidates would deflect enough votes to deliver the seat to Labor. They pointed out that even the usual by-election swing would see the seat lost. But they were wrong. I am, of course, delighted that they were wrong and pleased to be here representing Aston as a member of the Liberal-National Party coalition government.

It is perhaps worth while to take just a moment to comment on the result of the by-election. There was a fall in the Liberal primary vote, part of which was undoubtedly due to the loss of the personal vote of Peter Nugent and part to the traditional by-election swing. This fall was sufficient to make the Liberal Party, and me as the new member, conscious that there are voters who believe that we can and should do better. It is a message that will be well heeded. However, while we will learn from that, there was little or no comfort for anybody else in the result. Despite the climate of a by-election, and the fact that their candidate was already in place and I was new, the Labor Party's primary vote actually fell—a very interesting outcome. The Liberal Party outpolled the Labor Party on primaries by almost four per cent.

The Australian Democrats, traditionally a party that attracts the protest vote away from the major parties, especially in by-elections, picked up less than one per cent of the primary votes of those who had left the major parties. While some people are running scared of the One Nation group, it actually lost more than a third of its vote, to record well under two per cent. The Socialist Alliance also polled very poorly. This clearly indicates that the people of Aston, like most Australians, are not interested in extremists. It is also worth noting that the No GST Party won less than one per cent, which confirmed what I had picked up in my doorknocking: the greatest issue concerning small business in Aston is the potential threat of the GST roll-back by Labor and the ramifications of roll-back on their businesses.

The Liberal Party of Australia won Aston for a number of reasons. We won because, despite all the criticisms of the government by our opponents, the community understands what has and is being achieved by the Howard government. We won because this government has created a strong economy on which the fundamental strength of the entire nation is based and, most importantly, an economy that is growing. We won because of the constant personal involvement of Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello, who both campaigned hard in the electorate. I thank them both very much for their contribution. I also thank the other people from this place who assisted in the campaign. We won because of the professional campaign managed by both the Victorian and federal secretariats of the Liberal Party, and I thank them for that.

We won because of the local Liberal team—from the electorate committee to the individual branch members who worked so hard. I would like to extend my special thanks to Mr Graeme McEwin and Mrs Maureen McEwin, who are present today in the gallery. Graeme, who is Chairman of the Aston Electorate Council, provided me with unwavering support and guidance throughout the campaign. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the people who played a part in achieving a victory which many said would never happen. I want to pay special tribute to my wife, who is also present today. I thank her and my family for everything that they have done. I could not have done it without them. The by-election was also won because we understand the nature of the electorate. Aston is in many ways a microcosm of Australia. It has a wide range of industrial and commercial enterprises, including many small businesses. It has many typical families with hopes and dreams and mortgages. As in most of Australia, these people are from every age group, every walk of life and a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds.

I make no pretence of being an expert in politics. I am new and I have much to learn. But in the end, politics is about people, and I do claim to know something about people— particularly the people of Aston. I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with the local community in a number of roles over many years, including involvement in several community groups, membership of my local church community, and as a councillor of the City of Knox. My contact through these activities with a diverse range of people in the community, reinforced by many conversations while doorknocking hundreds of homes during the by-election campaign, has confirmed my view about the priorities of most of my constituents.

The people of Aston understand the need for good economic policy. They of course appreciate the importance of issues such as defence, foreign policy and other such matters, but their main priorities are essentially local. The people of Aston want an environment which is safe and pleasant for them and their children. They want government policies that favour families and provide good community facilities. They want governments which will support them and meet their needs. They want reasonable levels of taxation which leave them to make their own choices about how to spend their hard-earned money.

Eighty-two per cent of people in Aston are home owner-occupiers—the highest proportion, I believe, of any federal electorate in Australia. They want a continuation of economic policies which ensure low interest rates, so that they can more easily afford their mortgage payments. The people of Aston are very conscious of the fact that the average monthly interest payment is approximately $300 per month less today than it was under Labor. In fact, the last time Labor held Aston, interest rates were 17 per cent. They are now under seven per cent, and it was clear throughout the campaign that interest rates matter a lot to the people of Aston.

Last, but by no means least, in my list of the things that matter to the people of Aston is this: they want, perhaps most of all, government which will not unnecessarily interfere with them. They want government which will allow them to lead their lives in the way they choose. In making those choices, they want to have options—options of private and public education, of private and public hospital care and so on. I will be doing my utmost, as their representative here in Canberra, to ensure that their wishes are represented and respected and their needs are given priority. They, the ordinary mums, dads and families, are the backbone of this country; and too often their views are forgotten in the cacophony from special interest groups that represent only a small number rather than mainstream Australia.

It will come as no surprise to the parliament that I am an enthusiastic servant of the Liberal Party. The principles which drove Sir Robert Menzies, and which have driven his successors, also inspire me. I believe in an open, competitive, free enterprise economy. I believe in the importance of the rights of the individual. I oppose the restrictive, bureaucratic deadweight of socialism. I support the right of individuals to belong to trade unions, but I oppose compulsory union membership and compulsory contributions to political parties. I believe that the Labor Party will never mature and develop as a genuine alternative government while its links to the trade unions destroy its ability to make and implement industrial relations laws which are fair to all.

In my time in this place I do not expect to change the world. I am not some dewy-eyed idealist who expects instant personal influence. But, as a member of this government and of the new Howard government that will be elected later this year, I want to play my part in ensuring that we continue to deliver effective, responsible, responsive and, most of all, caring government to the people of Australia. At the core of my goals is the passion and drive to help develop government programs, initiatives and support for activities which nurture and develop community spirit. There is a concerning decline in participation in community activities such as churches, service clubs, sporting groups and, dare I say it, even political parties. The culture of community and a strong community spirit is, I believe, critically important to the fabric of our society. I offer no instant solution, but it is something about which all levels of government and the community should in a collaborative way work closely together, to ensure real, tangible and positive progress in our local communities. At the end of the day, the more active we are as individuals in our local community, the more progressive and dynamic our local community will be.

I want to play my part in formulating policies that are family friendly—policies that help ordinary families to live affordable and enjoyable lives. In an era when educational policy is directed at career achievement and when sport in schools is compulsory, I would like us not to forget or underestimate the cultural and artistic aspects of education, particularly in the area of music. We worry a lot about the incidence of depression in the community, particularly among young people. We are concerned about the incidence of youth suicide. Yet we pay less and less attention to ensuring our children learn to actively play and appreciate music—the greatest natural antidote to depression that I know. Much has been written about the value and benefits of the arts in educational and personal development. I would like to quote from two American academics, Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner, who wrote a remark in a recent policy review paper that I believe encapsulates and summarises my point. They say:

The arts are a fundamentally important part of culture and an education without them is an impoverished education leading to an impoverished society.

I believe that more actively learning, experiencing and appreciating music can make a difference in our society.

As a member I will be looking to develop and enhance community facilities and infrastructure. It will come as no surprise that I consider that the most important piece of community infrastructure needed in Aston is the Scoresby Freeway. As I stated so many times during the by-election campaign, the federal government has committed $220 million in its budget to ensure this project can commence. There will be time enough for the Victorian government to discuss the funding of the latter section of this vital transport route when they have proved their credentials by matching the Commonwealth contribution and getting on with building the sections from Ringwood to the Monash Freeway. At present, there is still no solid evidence of any Victorian government willingness to actually budget for the funds and start work. If the Victorian government would do that, then we could see both governments working together for the benefit of the community, and we would actually see something starting to happen.

Complementing the Scoresby Freeway, there needs to be adequate public transport in the Aston area. During the by-election, I committed to working for improved local public transport services, and I will work hard with the state government to achieve this. Despite the claims of some public transport activists, public transport by itself will never solve the major traffic problems of the area or the substantial transport needs of commerce and industry in the corridor from Ringwood to Frankston. That is why we need the Scoresby Freeway.

Of course my priorities as the member for Aston will primarily be areas of federal responsibility. But I also believe that it is my responsibility to fight for the things my constituents want, particularly when these issues are so important to them. For example, I will continue to join my state colleagues in pressing the Bracks Labor government to build the proposed Knox Public Hospital. There is a clear need for this hospital. It is located in a growing area of outer eastern Melbourne. It can be located on an outstanding site with room for a substantial hospital as well as the necessary ancillary requirements such as car parking. It had been planned to be part of a comprehensive network of health services in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Unfortunately, it has been unceremoniously dumped by the state Labor government. As I move around Aston, I am constantly asked for my view as to why it was dumped. It was not dumped because there was no need. It was not dumped because it is not affordable. It was not dumped because there was a better alternative. In fact, I, together with the people of Aston, have no idea why it was dumped! This is a necessary project on an appropriate site. I hope that the Victorian government will reconsider their decision and give more thought to the health needs of the people of Aston and the outer east who are all forced to travel some distance to access health services that they should be receiving locally.

There are many other issues, both local and national, about which I could speak if time permitted. I want to conclude by again thanking the people of Aston for giving me the extraordinary honour of being their representative and expressing my appreciation of all who assisted in ensuring my election. It is indeed a privilege to play a small part in the wonderful tradition of parliamentary democracy in Australia. Whenever we are tempted to criticise our system of government or those who serve in the parliament, it is instructive to look around the world at the alternatives—there are many that are obviously inferior. Mr Speaker, thank you again for the discretion that you and the House have afforded me today. For all our faults, I believe this remains a magnificent country in which to live, and I am proud to represent those attractive and vibrant suburbs of Melbourne which make up the electorate of Aston. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!