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Tuesday, 18 March 2003
Page: 9529

Senator HUMPHRIES (5:03 PM) —I stand here today with a sense of pride, of responsibility and of awe. Doubtless these feelings imbue every senator who enters this place for the first time. Although this is my first or maiden speech, it would strain credulity for me to claim to be a parliamentary maiden. I have served in the legislative assembly of this territory for almost 14 years, years of which I am very proud and which I hope will provide me with a backdrop of experience useful to my time in the Senate. Service at the second tier of Australian government is principally about the delivery of basic services such as health, education and the maintenance of public order to the community. But every state and territory parliamentarian thinks about national issues and the national interest. It is an honour, therefore, to be able to face those national issues on a day-to-day basis in this parliament. And so by the miracle of parliamentary convention my long-lost maidenhood is restored. In preparing my remarks today I went back to the maiden speeches of my two Liberal predecessors, Senator John Knight and Senator Margaret Reid. Senator Knight said in 1976, and I fully adopt these words today:

I want to contribute to national policy and to debates on issues which go beyond my own electorate. However, my first responsibility is and must be to the electors of the Australian Capital Territory and their families. It is to them that I will give my attention first.

These are illustrious footsteps in which to follow. Senator Knight was of course the first person to represent the people of the ACT in the Senate. In turn, Senator Reid was the territory's longest serving representative and rose to become the first woman to lead the Senate as its President. Indeed the ACT has long been in the habit of placing women in positions of leadership. Only once has the ACT electorate chosen a male chief minister at an election—unfortunately it wasn't me! I am conscious that with my election here I have ended a period in which, uniquely in Australia, half the electors of the territory were represented in the federal parliament exclusively by women.

It is my privilege to represent in this place a special community. Canberra is the child of Australian nationhood, the city that Federation built. It should and does encapsulate in its layout and institutions the achievements and aspirations of this country. It is a truly beautiful city. It is also—although some who see it only fleetingly do not appreciate this— an immensely livable city. All this, of course, is by design. Sir Thomas Denman, Governor-General in 1913, hoped that Canberra would eventually bear `some resemblance to the city beautiful of our dreams'. I believe that governments, planners, architects and gardeners in the succeeding 90 years have delivered on that goal.

The ACT has come a long way over the past 20 years or so as we have established our own system of government in the context of the Australian Federation. Many people will still remember the vigorous debates over many years about the ACT assuming responsibility for its own affairs. The inauguration of the Legislative Assembly for the ACT in 1989—with full executive powers—marked a significant point in our evolution. For the first time there was a separation between Commonwealth and ACT government responsibilities. On the whole, the system seems to have worked well, despite misgivings in some sectors of the community. In particular, the financial arrangements for the territory—a matter of considerable concern at the time of the self-government referendum in 1978—appear to be working satisfactorily. What works less satisfactorily is the delineation between the respective roles of the National Capital Authority and the legislative assembly. This has created, on occasions, a disjointed approach to the planning of Canberra—a matter that must be addressed.

I said earlier that I represent a special community. In saying this I do not mean to suggest that it is an artificial or elite community. In fact, the energies, the talents, the ambitions and the creativity of the people of this city are purely Australian in character, different only from the qualities exhibited by other Australians, perhaps, in the concentration in which they are encountered here. It follows that, if we are proud of Australia, we should be proud of Canberra, the showcase of a young nation. Canberra is the extraordinary achievement of ordinary people.

The test of these propositions came only very recently when Canberra was ravaged by a natural disaster on a scale not previously thought possible anywhere in urban Australia, much less in the national capital. The bushfire of 18 January and subsequent days was an extraordinary test of the character of this city. By any measure it passed that test, and in doing so gave rise to a new appraisal of the city and its inhabitants by those outside it. As Matt Price writing in the Australian on 20 January put it:

Canberra is often accused of being a soulless place, too full of transitory types less interested in the local community than the large national institutions that give the compromise capital its bad reputation. The weekend put an end to that lie.

Practically everyone in Canberra knew someone whose property was lost or seriously under threat. They responded superbly. Stories abounded of suburban heroics; residents remaining in danger areas to tend absent neighbours' homes, endless offers of food, shelter and assistance for traumatised victims.

Death seemed almost inevitable but when confirmed there was barely time to comprehend this loss of life as fire raged through the night.

The rest of Australia saw that Canberrans, when cut, did indeed bleed. It also saw that the finest Australian tradition of mateship was honoured in suburban courage and heroism all over the city. The stream of mattresses and blankets to the evacuation centres on that Saturday night was very moving. I heard of one elderly lady who gave away her late model car to a family that had lost theirs, but she was embarrassed by the fact that it had only six months registration on it left to run.

Of course, if it takes a major event such as a war to define a state, then the bushfire disaster in January could be considered to have been such an event for us. The intensity and speed of the fires themselves, the destruction they caused, the loss of four lives—all these things will leave a mark on the consciousness of this city. The bushfires, like no other event, have seen the people of the ACT draw together in an incredible spirit of community. And so I ask—no, Mr President, I demand— that honourable senators fix in their minds that image of this city, that image of a city afflicted but unbowed, when next they refer to it in far flung corners of this country. I hope that they think and talk of Canberra in the terms this city was conceived—that is, as a place to be proud of, as a repository of the best achievements in the Australian way of life. I take this as my task in this place, to defend that vision of the national capital. I know that it is commonplace for people, especially politicians, to use the term `Canberra' to refer to anything about the federal government that they disdain. But in doing so they can stigmatise and belittle those Australians who live here, many of whom work for the national government but have no more say in its decisions than those who criticise it.

The generosity of spirit towards this city which I ask for was abundantly evident among those who fought the fires and their aftermath. The emergency services of Canberra—professional and volunteer—were superb in circumstances no amount of training could have prepared them for. Whatever might be said about the causes of this disaster, let nothing detract from this fact: courage and selflessness abounded in Canberra on those terrible January days and, but for that, the destruction wrought in our streets would have been much, much greater.

Mr President, let me describe the contribution I want to make to the life of this country through membership of the Senate. Change is an immutable feature of our lives. Politics for me is thus an exercise in managing and directing change. If to be a conservative is to resist or defy change, then I am not a conservative. Indeed, the work of this government—work I want to carry forward—has been about managing and directing change in a modern Australia: change in the workplace; change in Australia's international competitiveness; change in access to quality health care; change in our education and welfare systems.

I am here to argue for the enduring relevance of Liberal values as tools in facing up to the problems of this nation and indeed our world: the values of independence, self-reliance, tolerance, the pursuit of excellence, choice, equality of opportunity and individual freedom. In turn I reject as bankrupt the socialist alternative. That alternative fails to appreciate that people who have no incentive to work and invest will not create wealth. It thinks that collectivism and standardisation in the workplace are a substitute for hard work and innovation. It sees government as a better solver of people's problems than they are themselves.

I am proud of the achievements of this nation, and I am proud of the role my party has played in shaping the kind of Australia whose citizens could bring forth those achievements. I have no truck with those who elevate Australia's shortcomings above our successes. Although I acknowledge the need to accommodate improvement and change, I refuse to be apologetic about the kind of country we are today.

I am particularly proud of the role my party has played in the building of Canberra. Almost every major institution and monument gracing this city has been the legacy of a decision of a coalition government. This was underscored when, after years of Labor chest-beating, it was in fact the government of Prime Minister John Howard that actually placed brick upon brick to build the National Museum of Australia. Long after the nitpicking has subsided, that important national symbol will stand testament to his and his government's commitment to Canberra and to preserving our heritage.

I come to take my place in the Senate with an agenda for what I hope to achieve. My agenda is unashamedly Canberra-centric. It can be summarised as valuing and building up the physical and human assets of this city in the service of a national interest. For example, it would be hard to overstate the importance of the Australian Public Service to the future of this city and, indeed, to the welfare of the Australian community generally.

The business of our Public Service is nation-building, nothing less. It has undergone many changes in recent years, but I believe its professionalism and worth have never stood at a higher level. A quality bureaucracy will be efficient, innovative, constantly in pursuit of best practice, and apolitical—a test our Public Service meets entirely. We must be prepared to nurture and develop this resource if we are to match the relentlessly growing expectations of Australians for service delivery from government.

The physical location of component parts of that Public Service is an issue that has long been of concern to Canberrans. Government functions should not be moved around the country for short-term political advantage. On the other hand, in pursuit of an efficient and innovative Public Service, it is difficult to argue against a departmental relocation that enhances the integrity of that department or agency's mission. But, if that test is not satisfied, this senator's voice will be insistent and clear.

Valuing the Public Service and valuing public servants are one and the same thing. We must never allow the market to put high-quality public servants beyond our reach, at any level. We should also honour those who have served in the Commonwealth bureaucracy. I am aware that the position of Commonwealth superannuants has deteriorated relative to other pension recipients in recent years, and I commit myself to doing something about that problem.

I have heard it said that, with the advent of the National Museum of Australia, the task of building Canberra is nearing completion. That view is nonsense. The work of creating a national capital like this is the work of many generations. Just as we have ambitions for the growth and development of Australia, so too we should have ambitions for the growth and development of its symbolic centre. That work will never be complete, whilst ever Australians remain a dynamic and forward looking people. National institutions need to be expanded to showcase the inexhaustible creativity and accomplishments of our countrymen, and new institutions, such as an air and space museum or a national centre for the performing arts, deserve consideration amongst our national treasures. The ACT also desperately needs a new convention centre.

There are other issues. The task of bedding down and taking advantage of Australia's steps towards tax reform a few years ago must not be overlooked. These reforms have the potential to invigorate Australian competitiveness as a range of other taxes disappear in the wake of the GST. We need to take determined strides to end the seemingly perpetual brawling and buck-passing around the long-range health policy of this country. When the Commonwealth and states slug it out on health funding issues, the only sure losers are the sick.

In education, vigilance over standards needs to be matched with an awareness of the increasing mobility of Australians, and the need therefore to find opportunities for children and adults to carry credit from previous study with them from state to state. And work beckons on a national savings strategy, to counter the fact that 99½ per cent of Australians' weekly income is spent and not saved.

Our relationship with Indigenous Australians commands our attention. This parliament, built on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people, has taken steps in recent years to create a legislative framework for recognising traditional land ownership rights. That process has, it seems to me, a great distance yet to go to shape a relationship of trust and respect with Aboriginal people that is vital to our society's future health.

Australia's security needs confront us all at present. As a democratic and affluent nation, Australia quite properly has a role to play in defence of the human rights of others elsewhere in this world. I am an internationalist. I reject the notion—suddenly very fashionable among the Australian Left—that human rights outside our region no longer have the compelling merit they once did.

I also hope to contribute to continuing the important work of this government in facing up to our massive environmental problems, such as growing salinity and greenhouse gas emissions. I know that the record of my party stands proudly on protection of the environment. It was coalition governments that established the first federal environment ministry, declared the Kakadu National Park, the Uluru National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, enacted legislation to protect the Antarctic, and banned whaling. Perhaps my time here might also contribute in a small way to attacking the decline in trust as a given in so many public relationships. Charles Moore, writing in the Spectator last year, said this:

Church, school, army, police, parliament, surgery, court, bank used all to be words that had only to be deployed to put the honest citizen's mind at ease. Now there is the implication that they all represent institutions with their own agendas (a characteristic coinage of modern debate), their own selfish interests, their own dirty secrets.

He wrote about Britain, but his words could apply equally in this country. On the subject of trust, I put on record today my appreciation to the membership of the Liberal Party in the ACT for choosing, among a very strong field of candidates, to place their trust in me. It is, however, the citizens of Canberra whose trust I need to win. I am conscious that I sit here as an appointed, not an elected, senator. In setting out to win that trust, I will take as my model the energy and dedication to serving this community that my predecessor Margaret Reid exhibited over her years in this place—a magnificent example. I hope that my wife, Cathie, and my sons, Felix and Owain, will not begrudge me the many hours away from home that that commitment will represent.

I also want to thank sincerely the many friends and supporters who share some of the mission I have outlined today, some of whom are present in the gallery. I wish to thank especially Tim McGhie, who has now assisted in the preparation of all three ACT Liberal senators' maiden speeches over a quarter century. Finally, Mr President, I wish to thank you and honourable senators for allowing me to proceed with this speech today, accompanied by the usual courtesies, despite other important business pressing down on this place.