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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 6105


Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (12:01): Whilst this is certainly a tight budget in a tight parliament and there will be plenty of debate, as has already taken place, around the rights and wrongs of it, in the end it will pass this parliament. So, for all the speeches one way or the other, the bottom line is it will pass. In my view, the budget is just one arm of the broader story of the moment and the question of the moment for all of us in public policy and throughout Australia. It is therefore a budget that I respond to in the broader context of what is going on in this parliament and throughout Australia right now.

I believe Australia is at a crossroads. We as a country need to conduct a budget-like audit of ourselves and ask ourselves whether we are still the brave reforming nation of our history, or have we succumbed to the risk averse, the timid and the anonymous critics of new media? Are we still the nation that spits in the eye of those who say, 'You can't, you won't, you shouldn't'? Or are we to now believe the pathetic, cult-like culture of the new radical conservatives in Australia, who want to kill this opportunity for reform within Australia right now via a campaign of vitriol and so-called death by adjectives?

We as a nation are at the crossroads. We are on the lip of the cliff of losing trust in our history, a history that has been shaped by taking chances and risks. We have a history of confidence against the odds and a history where we chose to do it our way—the Australian way and a way that so often has led the world in governance, sport, arts, science, innovation and business.

Eighteen months ago as an Independent MP in his third year of representing his community, I never thought the stakes were higher than forming government for three years, while locking in some local and national reforms through agreements reached. I was wrong. The stakes are much higher. At the crossroads as a nation, we are now in a fight for ourselves—a fight for the heart of Australia; a fight for what it means to be Australian. We are in danger of introducing something new into Australian public policy: fear. We are in danger of becoming a nation where fear wins over all else. We are in danger of creating a model of government and policy development that is risk averse and where the perception of the best government is in reality a government that does nothing at all just to avoid controversy.

In political terms, we are seeing more and more evidence of this. The Australian community is in grave danger of being 'astroturfed' into submission, where new organised, vested and issues-based interests control the chaos and the dissent for their own direct personal benefit and, as a consequence, governments cower from reform due to the new-found power of fear and dissent in Australia, leaving voters absolutely exhausted by the noise of the loudest and the richest. The crossroads we are at as a nation is whether we are a nation that still plays front-foot cricket and whether we are the great innovators who stare down opponents and prove them wrong time and time again, or whether we as a nation now play back-foot cricket and defend, whinge and complain. The question I have is: when and, more importantly, why did our Ian Chappell mentality turn into a Geoffrey Boycott mentality?

As a personal contribution on this, I accept my failure so far in these 18 months of this parliament. I sought consensus within the parliament itself, and I have found the toxic. I sought agreement on key issues across the major parties in the national interest, and I have found manufactured division. I might be too harsh on myself, as we have achieved much in this parliament: the ETS, some tax reform, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, aged care and 55 new Regional Development offices in a network. But as I seek more from the next 18 months—not for some personal reason but clearly because there is so much more to do—I feel frustrated by the moment.

I provide three examples of this right now. The first is recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia's Constitution. A full round of consultation and an extensive report were done last year, for which I was one of 22 very diverse members of a panel across party lines, working through the legal and moral complexities at stake. It delivered. It delivered a comprehensive report in January. It captured the 200 consultations throughout Australia and what was being sought by many Australians. It made the obvious and convincing point that the absolute key to success for any referendum in Australia is bipartisanship; our eight-from-44 record proves that. That is an example of this much sought-after consensus. But right now, over four months since the report was delivered, we are still stuck in the toxic muck. It is my understanding that neither Tony Abbott nor Julia Gillard has picked up the phone, walked down the corridor or leant across to the other at some joint function and said the simple words, 'Let's talk about that referendum question.' I take ownership of this failure as much as anyone, but all I can do is continue to seek more from our leadership on both sides of parliament and push and push and push where I can to seek more from both the MP for Lalor and the MP for Warringah, both of whom have extraordinary power right now and even more power together for the good of the nation. To now have good people like Tom Calma, Mark Leibler, Mick Gooda and the Liberal MP for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt, starting to say that toxic politics is now changing the strategy of policy—of when and how we promote a referendum in Australia—should cut to the absolute heart of anyone who cares about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and anyone who cares about Australia being the island nation of brave reformers. We are stuck in the toxic muck of our own making, and we lose nation-building opportunities unless we find a way out or a way through that muck.

A second example is electoral funding reform. In January the Australian Electoral Commission released donation records from 2010-11, and the figures should frighten everyone. The LNP revealed $110 million in political donations in the one year alone, and the ALP revealed $90 million in political donations in this same year. These are extraordinary figures that, if sustained, make a consensus on anything impossible and make the parliament itself a wholly owned subsidiary of major donors to the major parties. Again, because of the toxic, we look like heading into the 44th Parliament election season with no commitment from either side to electoral funding reform when it is so bleedingly obvious that the money now coming into the political parties is either unsustainable or dangerous for the nation. A consensus agreement is desperately needed by both major parties, as much in their own interests as in the interests of the nation. But the toxic moment is removing the opportunity for even a conversation, let alone a joint strategy. These are two governance examples, and this is before we get into the policy questions of where consensus right now would be in the national interest on policy. Take the Gonski review on education. What a difference a joint working group across party lines would make on that right now. Take comprehensive tax reform. What a difference a joint working group across party lines would make on that right now. Once again I plead and push. I plead with ordinary Australians, with commentators and with the major parties to put Australia's reform agenda first and push for consensus on policy first, because those that seek to divide do not act in Australia's interest. They act in their own interest, whether political or some other sectional interest.

I will not today nor ever support the dividers in Australia. I will always, today and in the future, support those whose focus is policy. In rugby terms, I will support those that play the ball of policy, not the man of politics. Today, in an era when we are seeing the conservative politics behave more radically than at any time since my distant cousin Michael Oakeshott wrote his conservative thoughts, I yearn for a day when these same conservative politicians and conservative cheerleaders try and win the day on policy and policy alone. Australia does suffer while we wait.

As a final point on this, I purposely single out three media leaders from the Australian newspaper, Chris Mitchell, Matthew Franklin and Dennis Shanahan—not to run some hate media argument on them and not to square up on any editorial position from them last year but because, out of a perverse mark of respect, I think these three shape the broader media position on what it is to be an opposition leader more than anyone else. I single them out as leaders who can make change for Australia. If these three continue to believe and to argue that an opposition's role is only to oppose—that their role and power as parliamentarians is to be denied right now and that there is no worth at all in the lion lying down with the lamb—then Australia suffers. I accept division makes great copy and sells newspapers, but consensus right now is what builds Australia and builds a nation. Consensus right now is what will answer the unanswered on constitutional reform, on tax reform, on productivity reform, on education reform and on electoral donation reform. If this challenge is denied, I can read the editorial now. The Australian will argue that it reflects community views only and the opposition is doing its job to oppose. If that is what it is then so be it. But, if we all want more, no three people can push for national outcomes on some key issues better than these three. Rest assured that I know the LNP, the opposition, are playing to that audience. Whilst ever they are allowed to have the position of all care and no responsibility, they will take it. I would take it. We would all take it, and reform in Australia grinds to a toxic halt.

Having said that, I think there is plenty of reform that has been achieved so far and that does deserve to be talked about. It is significant that the three major rating agencies have given a AAA rating to Australia right now. It is significant that the unemployment rate is under five per cent, inflation is in hand and the cash rate is below five per cent. Whilst there will be a debate about the debt ceiling—I am a reluctant partner in that whole process—now is not the time for a US-style debt ceiling fight. I will—and I understand the coalition will as well—allow that issue to pass this parliament right now.

The big issue next week in New South Wales is the Pacific Highway funding. I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, that from the Bruce Highway's perspective you are watching closely. New South Wales can take the opportunity of finishing the project of the Pacific Highway by 2016, as promised and agreed by state and federal governments and by all political parties. The construction works were released through questions in this parliament over the past six months. There is no construction impediment to completing the final 400 kilometres of works. It is now down to nothing other than the money. I all but pushed all political chips across the table to get $3.56 billion allocated in the federal budget. As people can see in the budget papers, it is one of the standout roads items, if not the standout roads item. We can finish the job if the state commits to do its part and enter a partnership along the lines of what John Howard argued in 2007 and what Mark Vaile argued, and through all transport ministers going back to the start of this project with Laurie Brereton and Michael Knight. Everyone has argued the case for a fifty-fifty project. It is disappointing that the company line out of New South Wales in the last 12 months seems to have changed. I hope for a celebration next week, not a further cynical argument and political fight. But that is for the New South Wales budget, which we will all watch closely.

I acknowledge, as I mentioned before, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and aged-care reform. Both are significant steps forward through this budget, and I would hope that continued work sees both of those having very practical outcomes on the ground. It would be remiss not to mention the emissions trading scheme, something I took to both the 2007 and 2010 elections. We now will see that happen in Australia. It is recognising the place of both science and economics. I accept the science and the economics, and I accept my role in trying to get the policy process to deliver on both. I also would be remiss not to mention the Regional Development Australia network and the fact that we now have 55 regions identified in Australia and that all have an office working with local communities and trying to build the concept of place based and local based thinking in Australia. The budget will pass, but I do urge and encourage both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to lead, lead together, and lead together right now.