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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7095

Senator SANTORO (9:30 AM) —Only 76 of us sit in this chamber today, and for each and every one of us it is a privilege to be here, to have the opportunity to serve the nation in such an inspiring and historic institution. In fact, I could not even begin to imagine, 13 years ago when I rose to deliver my maiden speech in the Queensland parliament advocating the reintroduction of the state house in that parliament, that today I would have the opportunity to address the Australian Senate as one of its members, that I would be representing the Queensland interest within the federal parliament as a Liberal senator.

It is most appropriate in a speech such as this that I acknowledge the great contributions that so many have made to my development as a person and to my capacity to pursue my political dreams. The people who have inspired me are many, but six deserve special mention: John Howard, the late Sir William Knox, Sir Robert Mathers, Terry White, my best friend in this parliament Senator Nick Minchin, and someone that few may have heard of—the late Allan Robb, a brilliant lawyer unfortunately cut down in his prime and denied the opportunity of making a most distinguished contribution to the legal, constitutional and political strength of our nation.

At various times during my 26 years of active political involvement, these great men of great principle and personal strength have supported, sustained and encouraged me. I acknowledge two additional most significant personal debts: to my immigrant parents, Alfio and Sebastiana Santoro, for the sacrifices they have made in an unfamiliar but welcoming Australia for me and my brothers, Sebastian, Guy and Mario—brothers who in turn have been of enormous and much valued support—and to my wife, Letitia, for unconditional support over 20 years and for the greatest gift she has given to me: two beautiful sons, Andrew and Lachlan, two beautiful young Australians whom I love so very dearly.

There are so many other people whom I need to thank that if I did so in this speech I would be saying very little else. They know who they are and I look forward to acknowledging them in this place. However, there is a most special group of close friends whose loyalty to me over the best part of 26 years has been unconditional: Geoffrey Thomas, Allan Pidgeon, Peter Torbey, Pat McKendry, Michael Caltabiano, Richard Laidlaw, Graeme Quirk, Karl Morris, Peter and Tim Nicholls, Colin Thatcher, Jim Stewart, Darrell Butcher, Kim Jacobs, John Sosso, Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, Alexander Downer, Lee Benjamin and Desley Wharton. And I say a special thank you to my many friends in the other place for your faith in and support for me. You are good people and you do your families, your constituents and the Liberal Party proud.

If you believe in the innate goodness of the human mind, then what I describe as progressive conservatism has much to recommend it—and I am a progressive conservative. The Liberal Party is a broad church that encompasses the two great non-socialist traditions of Western political thought: liberalism and conservatism. Its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, said:

We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise.

Australia is a new society—grafted by settlement onto the world's oldest continent, itself the home of one of the oldest traditional societies. In such a new society the conservatism of Britain has always been irrelevant, for Australian conservatism, like Australian society, is a blend of both classic liberalism and modern conservatism.

It is fair to say that in the Liberal Party the difference between those who incline towards one great philosophic tradition or the other is often marginal. Indeed as Liberals we all share a defining belief in the value of the individual and the role of individual enterprise. We cherish the motive force that drives and invigorates human society, namely individual initiative. We treasure that initiative because we have inherent faith in the virtue and zeal with which the vast majority of people are born. More than that, we believe that by restricting the controls and burdens placed on individual enterprise by the state, we liberate the creative intelligence of our citizens which in turn results in a free, open, vibrant and prosperous society. In short, we believe that the common good is achieved by respect for and promotion of the free exercise of the liberties of the people in their many forms—economic, social and personal.

As a conservative, I believe that order and stability are central to good government and to individual freedom. Individual freedoms will never prosper unless we have a fair and stable society with appropriate laws administered equally. The best system of law and administration is one marked by restraint and a respect for our shared national traditions and aspirations. I believe that liberty and variety lie at the core of our wellbeing. We must value and encourage people who have the guts to have a go and reward them for their effort. We must value differences in our society and be tolerant of those differences. It is indeed those differences that make us great.

Social and political engineering are prime dangers for our system of governance. We must be ever vigilant to ensure that the people are never again so alienated from our system of government that another One Nation Party is spawned. As political representatives of the Australian people we owe it to them not only to tell them what we think but also to give their opinions the respect they deserve—and remember that reflecting public opinion is not populism; it is the very essence of democracy.

I value the views of my constituents and come to this place determined to ensure that never again will we need to hear a speech of the sort Sir Robert Menzies felt compelled to make in 1942 when he spoke so eloquently about `the forgotten people'. I pledge during my term in this chamber to ensure that the views and aspirations of the people of Queensland will not be forgotten.

Finally, as a conservative I believe that our primary goal is to nurture a society that is a caring and prosperous one with the family unit as its core. The family is the prime socialising, nurturing and teaching unit. Without it, our society would wither. I pledge that, during my time here, I will work tirelessly to promote policies that will conserve and enhance the most fundamental unit of our society—the family unit.

I describe myself as a progressive conservative. I am a passionate Liberal in my core belief about individual liberties and the need for the state to let the ordinary men and women of this country get on with their lives without unnecessary interference. I have always been interested in our industrial relations system for that very reason—not because I do not see a need for unions or because I am in any way anti-union but because I want to see our private enterprise system protected and promoted. As a Liberal, I value the right of freedom of association, including the right of people to form unions or cooperatives to look after their interests. There is no conflict in supporting both goals.

The first task of any modern nation is to protect its citizens and, as the tragic events of the past year have shown, we must be more vigilant than ever. When our society is under threat, which it is today, I reluctantly accept that individual rights must receive a lesser priority than the protection of the public.

Conservatism is not about inertia, nor is it about fear of change. It is about respect for individual rights and our shared values. It is about a society of free people—of decent men and women imbued with a great tradition of tolerance and initiative. As a progressive conservative, I want to ensure that this society which I love is protected and that we take care to ensure that we manage change so that we build on our great society and do not undermine it.

People who know me well know that I come here with a strong record of advocacy for my state. I am a state-righter, and my state has too often been short-changed by federal governments, irrespective of whether they are Labor or coalition. I want to help change that. In cooperation with my Queensland Liberal colleagues, I want to clearly articulate Queensland's interests by focusing on the policy areas that matter to all of us.

When the Commonwealth was established 101 years ago the building blocks of nationhood were the states, and the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. Over the past century, the balance of that equation has shifted. It is certainly true that many Australians, and a lot of younger Australians, now see little relevance in their state other than as a reasonably efficient working unit of administration.

Having said this, there can be no denying that the states we represent in this place have rights and that we in this place need to be protective of them. But, like all rights, these are balanced by obligations, and the states must be seen to be meeting these obligations. In my view, the Senate is a very appropriate forum through which they can be held to account.

For example, the states have a duty to use the tax funds they draw from the Commonwealth responsibly. The states now have access, in the GST, to the first major true growth tax they have enjoyed since they turned over income taxing powers to the Commonwealth 60 years ago in the darkest days of World War II. They have been given a historic opportunity to be truly responsible for tax revenue that comes to them by right, with no strings attached, but is collected by another government which takes on the political odium of doing so.

They have this benefit because the Howard government had the courage to take the political pain and wear the administrative burden of introducing a broad based consumption tax on their behalf. As a Queensland senator, I shall seek to make Queensland governments, irrespective of their political colour, fully accountable for the way in which they spend the billions of dollars that they get from Australian taxpayers.

I am a fiercely proud Queenslander. I may be partisan, but I am not going to be irresponsible. We can all argue policy and politics, but sometimes we need to find a way to do so from a national standpoint. Where appropriate, I will not allow my strong state-righter predisposition to discourage me from engaging in the debate about the balance that must be struck between states rights and the national interest.

The issue goes beyond fiscal matters, particularly at this difficult time in our nation's history. It goes to the heart of national security; for example, to border security—rightly an issue that is of immediate concern to the Queensland government. It certainly extends to native title, something the Queensland government has recently recognised. And it extends to matters such as workers compensation and the broader liability insurance issue.

Perhaps the most poignant example concerns the supply and availability of water drawn from the great rivers that flow through two or even three states. It illustrates the point significantly and with force. In fact, the time has passed when it can be viewed as legitimate for property rights to differ according to which side of the colonial boundary line that property lies on. Indeed, the time has passed when gun laws can reasonably be within the remit of state governments. These are all things that require not only goodwill in principle but also commitment at a practical level, on all sides, when it comes to considering adjustments in power sharing between levels of government.

Mr President, I have other clear objectives as a senator. One is the protection and promotion of small business. The Liberal message throughout the party's history has been that it is the party of small business. Small business is the lifeblood of this country's economy—certainly of the Queensland economy. It deserves protection from over-regulation, from irresponsible unionism and, more specifically, from onerous unfair dismissal laws.

Another of my priorities is education and training. When I was the Queensland Minister for Training and Industrial Relations from 1996 to 1998, I gained much insight into practical ways for improving educational opportunity. One matter I will pursue is streamlining interstate recognition of qualifications—an increasingly important measure when Australians are becoming more and more mobile.

Further, rural and regional Queensland faces specific problems, particularly now in relation to the drought. The federal government has implemented a wide range of initiatives designed to address these problems. It is important that these programs continue and that they be managed well and cooperatively.

For most Australians, another vital area of policy is taxation. In 1998, in making its case for taxation reform, the government said:

Wage and salary earners are hardest hit by our tax system. Personal tax rates are high by international standards and apply to those on average incomes ... There is no incentive for average Australians to do a bit of extra work and earn a few extra dollars.

Australians recognise that this government has much to be proud of in the area of tax reform. However, I am encouraged by the Prime Minister's comments that further relief for individual taxpayers should be a priority. Consistent with international trends, the reduction of marginal income rates and the adjustment of tax brackets, Australia should also be prepared to consider reducing the overall tax burden on individuals.

In 2000-01, Australia's personal income tax as a percentage of GDP was 11.6 per cent, compared with the OECD average of 10 per cent and 9.7 per cent for Asia-Pacific countries. With most of Australia's major trading partners having recently introduced or announced reductions in their marginal tax rates or increases in income thresholds, Australia should not be left behind.

Queensland is a great state. That needs to be said as often as possible and in as many forums as possible, and perhaps especially in this place, the house of all the great states that make up our nation. Let it be said that the component parts of Queensland are great places: the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, Townsville, Cairns, the Far North, the Darling Downs and the west—indeed, all the many varied places and energetic people that make up the rich mosaic of our state. I intend to represent their interests, their views and their aspirations very strongly in this place.

I want to close by making some further remarks about the Liberal Party and some personal reflections. Part of the privilege of being a Liberal senator for Queensland is being able to work with my senatorial colleagues from Queensland. I would like to place on record my regard for the hard work and effective representations of Senator Brandis and Senator Mason and also acknowledge the diligent ministerial work of Senator Ian Macdonald and his advocacy for his state. There are four Queensland Liberals in this place at the moment. Our joint, collective, strong aim is to increase that number. I also pay special tribute to my predecessor, the Hon. John Herron, and wish him and his wife, Jan, all good fortune in the important diplomatic post that he will take up in the new year.

It was in the Liberal Party more than anywhere else that I found most people were prepared to get to know me and give me the opportunity to prove my ability and my determination. That is why I am not ashamed to say that I love the Liberal Party. I love what it stands for, I love it for the friends it allowed me to make and I love it for the opportunities it has given me to help make our state and our country a better place to live.

On this personally significant day I am humbled, as I reflect on my origins, by how good Australia has been to me, my family and to those that I hold dear. I am proud of my Italian origins. I am grateful for the opportunity provided to me by my parents. I recognise the loyalty and the support of many. As a person who came to Australia from Italy at the age of five and who could not speak a word of English, I am very grateful to our nation for what it has enabled me to achieve. Where else could a person in my situation gain the opportunity to be highly educated, to hold responsible jobs in the private and public sectors, to serve 12 years in a state parliament, including a term as a cabinet minister, and to be elected deputy leader of the party in that state?

At the same time, I have become a proud new Australian who has raised a family and who has met and made friends with some of the most wonderful people in the world. This could only happen in a great country and a great democracy—a country where opportunity still abounds and success stories and dreams can come true. I have been blessed, and I am reminded of what Thomas a Kempis once wrote:

Be thankful for the smallest blessing, and you will deserve to receive greater. Value the least gifts no less than the greatest, and simple graces as especial favours.

If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valueless that is given by the most high God.

Mr President, I look forward to serving with you and my other colleagues in this place in the best interests of our nation, our states and our parties.