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Monday, 17 September 2007
Page: 97

Mr ENTSCH (6:19 PM) —I rise tonight to speak in support of the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007, the purpose of which is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908 to enable a comprehensive independent inquiry to be conducted on the recent outbreak of equine influenza, which has had such a devastating effect on Australia. I take the opportunity, given that this will be my last speech in this place, to reflect on my time here and to share some of the events in which I have a great amount of pride. I also wish to reflect on a couple of areas where I am a little disappointed I have not been able to achieve as much as I would have liked, but I will keep working on that.

I was first elected to parliament in 1996. I am one of the class of ’96 and forever proud. It was a wonderful group of Australians who came into this place almost 12 years ago. I have enjoyed my time here immensely, and it is with a certain degree of pride but also sadness that I make this, my final speech. In the time I have been here, initially I had the privilege of serving as Chair of the Joint Committee on Native Title and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Fund and the somewhat contentious debate on native title and the Wik legislation. In 1998 I was appointed to the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. In 2001 I was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources. I served in that position until I stood down in 2006—and I see that my good friend Bob Baldwin is here, who followed in my much smaller shoes, but I am sure he is doing a great job.

I was sitting here earlier listening to Kay Elson, one of my many friends and a colleague from 1996. I gave my maiden speech before she gave hers, and I took great pride in saying that I started working late in my 14th year cleaning toilets in railway stations. I thought, ‘Beat that’. Kay gave her speech right after me, and she said, ‘I’ve got eight kids and I left school at 13’—so I just got blown out of the water. That reflects the immensely diverse backgrounds of so many of us in that particular intake.

I raised many issues in my maiden speech. One of them was mobile phone, television and radio reception, which was almost nonexistent at that time. I can remember saying that if you had a mobile phone and you were more than five or 10 kilometres from the CBD of Cairns, you could not use it. In 151,000 square kilometres there was a lot of area there where it was not possible. The same could be said for basics like radio and television. Outside of Cairns and the coastal inhabited areas, when you get into the cape, other than the ABC there were no other radio or television services available, and in some places there was not even that. As for the internet, I think they were still working on it. It almost did not exist. Here we are 11½ years later and now I can stand on Saibai Island or Boigu Island, less than three kilometres from the mainland of Papua New Guinia, and make a mobile phone call. I can go down to the local community hall and get on the internet, and I can watch a number of television stations and listen to both commercial and public radio broadcasts. That is a huge step forward and I think we can take a great deal of pride in what we have been able to achieve in that area.

I also raised issues related to security in Cape York. Around the time I got into this place there was a boat washed up on the shores of Holloways Beach, about eight or 10 kilometres from the CBD of Cairns. On the boat was a load of Chinese migrants who were dressed in white shirts and trousers, ready to become Australian citizens. Unfortunately for many of them, the information that they were given was quite wrong, and they had tickets arranged for them on the Kuranda tourist train, headed north instead of south. The system that we inherited in 1996 was not really effective, but I can assure you that there have been very significant changes and there are many people in remote areas who sleep a lot more safely and who are a lot more comfortable with the changes that we have introduced.

I mentioned in my speech a dear old friend called Ettie Pau. He was a member of the first Torres Strait Light Infantry, and he shared a story with me about the first Torres Strait Light Infantry Batallion and how all the Torres Strait Islanders who served on it had never been recognised for their contribution. One of my great achievements was to get the Pacific Star medal awarded to those veterans. Unfortunately, of the 850 who served only about 80 were still alive at the time. Nevertheless, their families were very proud to receive the medals, and it was a major achievement.

Another achievement that many of my colleagues would recall was in the area of mental health. I tend to take things and become almost obsessive about them, and I tend to repeat myself time and time again almost ad nauseam. When the announcement came that there was $1.9 billion for mental health, that was a wonderful achievement. When we talk about achievements of this government, I think that is one of the great ones. Unfortunately I do not think the states have stepped up to the plate to the degree that they should have, and I would hope that eventually they will find the conscience to do that. Rather than looking for opportunities to blame others, I would hope that they would put their hands in their pockets and contribute, particularly in relation to accommodation, which is desperately needed in that area.

Another area that I raised in my maiden speech was the imbalance of family support, family law matters et cetera, and I think we have come a long way to restoring balance in that area. I think we can draw a tremendous amount of pride from what we have been able to achieve in that area, and this is going to be a very positive thing for a lot of the children who will now have the opportunity to spend a bit more time with both parents.

There are a lot of areas where I can walk away and say, ‘Yes, we have achieved significant results,’ and they are areas that I am very proud of. In my own electorate there have been a whole range of areas where I have gone in to bat: from cattle yards in the Port of Weipa, to $19 million for the esplanade, to a whole heap of funding for Peninsula Development Road, and of course we started the floodproofing of the Bruce Highway. A significant amount of money has been spent, and as quickly as the state government agencies can do the work the money is there for them. I do wish, however, that we could look at a process whereby we could start putting a lot of this work out for tender so that we would not be locked into state government bureaucracies. If they could tender along with private enterprise I would bet that we would get a lot more bitumen for our bucks. I think that is something that we should be working on.

I also look at a lot of the smaller things that I have done. I recall the compensation package that I got for banana growers for the loss of their crops through black sigatoka, and the package for the tobacco growers, which meant a hell of a lot to a small group of people. It was something that I did with a great deal of pride. In the broader picture, there are achievements that I think will have long-term and very positive impacts on our country. I have to say that some of these were not necessarily popular, but I think they were right and necessary at the time. All of us who were here in 1996 can remember the gun laws. I can assure you that, within my electorate, they were not real popular. Nevertheless, I can tell you now that, on reflection, there are a lot more kids in my area who have never seen a gun—growing up in households where they do not exist anymore. Over time, I think we are starting to break down that gun culture, which I think will reflect very positively on our community as a whole.

Of course, there was the liberation of East Timor, tax reform and all the other things that we have done, many of which caused us some grief at the time but I believe were the right decisions. Industrial relations reform was another correct decision. I watch all the stuff on TV about industrial relations. I do not know where they drag these people from to do cameo performances about how dreadfully they are treated. They do not come through my electorate office—and I have 80-odd thousand people in my electorate. Two years after the fact, you do not see them coming into my office complaining about it. So I just wonder where all those people are from. Maybe they are members of Actors Equity. I am just not too sure.

Another decision, which is probably rather contentious but I will also mention it, was the decision to go into Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a decision that I supported at the time and I stand by that decision. I think it was the right decision. It was a very difficult decision but, given the circumstances, I think in time you will find that we made the right decision. I do not step back from that decision for one moment.

It is important that we recognise that we are living in a very different place now economically compared to when we came here in 1996—zero debt, continual budget surpluses and five consecutive tax cuts. It is pretty positive stuff. I can remember sitting down and watching TV on budget nights and thinking, ‘What are they going to hit now—cigarettes, alcohol, petrol?’ One would never think that we were going to get tax cuts. We really have changed things and, in some ways, we have probably created a bit of a rod for our own backs—because there is an expectation. Nevertheless, I think that, under good fiscal management, we will be able to continue to offer benefits for the Australian people—as we promised we would.

There are a few areas that I would like to briefly mention where I wish that I could have done better. One relates to a small population in the north of the Daintree who have been very badly treated over a long period of time and vilified because they live in a very special area. One of the things that I have been able to achieve from a federal perspective is to get recognition that residents in these types of communities who contribute positively to their community are in fact part of the solution and should not be seen as part of the problem. For that I am very proud, but they still have a very difficult life in dealing with a lot of the things that we take for granted. For example, the state government has legislated to prevent them having mains power. Hopefully, at some stage, that injustice can be resolved.

Another one relates to the representative areas in the Great Barrier Reef and bureaucracies and agencies providing very dishonest advice to the minister. What was suggested was going to be a $1.5 million impact is so far $200 million and still growing. But the money side really is irrelevant when you have a look at the destruction of their lifestyles. Hopefully in time we can deal with that. Another area of course is social and economic equity for same-sex couples, and I make no apology for that. I wish I could have done more in that area. This is not a morals issue; it is a social justice issue—and it is one that I will continue to push. Hopefully we will get some changes on that in the not too distant future.

We do not come into this place and achieve what we do without the tremendous support of those who work with us. At this point I would like to first of all acknowledge my office staff: my senior electorate officer, Lyn Warwick, who has been with me almost as long as I have been in this place—probably nine or 10 years; my media adviser, Shar Lindsay; Clare Zappala, my executive assistant, is sitting here in the chamber—and it is lovely to see you in here, Clare; Colleen Lubomirski, Arlene Amey and Kimberley See Kee, who mans my office up in the Torres Strait. Without their support and the work that they do behind me, there is no way in the world we could have achieved the things we did. I also acknowledge those staff who worked with me prior to my present staff, because they also played a very significant role.

In acknowledging the staff, I also acknowledge the volunteers I have had in my office and the party members who have stuck with me through thick and thin, some of whom were there when I got preselected as the most unlikely Liberal candidate back in 1996. I also acknowledge my colleague Brendan Nelson, who continually used to change my speeches when he sat beside me to embarrass me profoundly—nothing has changed; Faye and Hal Westaway, who gave me very strong support in the early days; Gladys Potter, who was the chairman of the women’s council and has been a very supporter; and Henry Pain, whose claim to fame was, he told me, that he had John Hewson preselected. He said that he saw something in me that he thought was worthy of support and he got in behind me when we did not think it was going to happen.

At this time I would also like to acknowledge my family. The reason that I am leaving this place is my family. I have a 13-year-old son who is in desperate need of his dad. Every time I sit back and worry about the consequences of my leaving—sometimes I feel it might be a little bit premature—I think of the fact that the basis on which I am making this decision is that my son, after living away from me since he was two, moved back with me permanently at Easter time. It was on the basis that if I was prepared to sacrifice the time or give up my career he wanted to come back and live with his dad. I am very proud of that. I am enjoying my son’s company immensely.

I have another son, who is working very hard trying to establish his own business, three of the most wonderful grandchildren and a daughter-in-law, Amanda, whom I am very proud of—Jason, with his business, Steven and Harley and, of course, the love of my life, none other than my first granddaughter, Sarah Victoria, who is just over two years old. I thought we could not have girls on my side of the family, but my son did very well and I am very proud of her. She is a beautiful young child. I would also like to recognise my partner, Elle Taylor. I am wearing a badge that she acquired for me for my valedictory speech today. It is a medallion that was minted in 1927 and was issued to all the members and senators in commemoration of the opening of the first national parliament of Australia. I do not know where she found it, but she did. Only 114 were minted at the time, and this one was worn by somebody. She found it in some obscure antique place somewhere outside Canberra. She also insisted that I wear another tie that was not quite as outlandish as those that I have.

Finally, thank you very much to all of my colleagues and my friends, particularly those who were part of the dinners for orphans, which we have regularly on Thursday nights. I am going to miss those. And thank you to the staff as well. I see that two very dear friends, Anne-Maree from Alex Somlyay’s office and Lorraine, are in the chamber. We never differentiated between staff and members at these functions and enjoyed it immensely. To all of my colleagues here, it has been a wonderful journey and one that I would not have missed for quids. I am going to miss it. I work through my life in about 10-year intervals. I am looking forward to the next 10 years which, if they are half as productive as these 10 years have been, will be something special. Thank you and good luck.