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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 40


Senator RYAN (4:58 PM) —Thank you, Mr President. I commence by congratulating you on your election and, through you, thanking the staff of the Senate for all their assistance and support as I have taken office over these last few months. It is with a great deal of humility and pride that I stand here this evening as a senator for Victoria and follow in the footsteps of my good friend and mentor Rod Kemp. He made an enormous contribution to our nation over his ministerial career and to the Senate itself.

I come to this place in a much stronger Australia and Victoria than that of my childhood. I grew up in Victoria in the 1980s. What confronted my generation was very different from that which faced our parents and which confronts people today. In 1990, one in eight people in Victoria could not find work and tens of thousands had simply given up looking. One in three young people could not find work. Education, job training and apprenticeships had been wiped out by the dereliction of a government dedicated to the pursuit of an outdated ideology—the fatal conceit that government could control the economy as simply as driving a car, and that government debt did not matter.

These were state and federal governments who claimed to serve and protect the vulnerable. But, when the state steps beyond the bounds of its competence, it is the most vulnerable who suffer—in the failure to provide the services they need and in preventing them from finding work.

The last 30 years have seen the long march of liberalism, not only in Australia but around the world. I grew up under the shadow of global nuclear holocaust, a threat in the main that now belongs in the history books. I did not understand why nations built walls around their people and raised armies to train their guns on them. I did not understand why Australians would protest against us and our allies trying to bring this tyranny to an end. I learned then that democracy and basic human liberties are not relative concepts. We must always guard against the slippery slope of moral equivalence in such affairs.

Twenty years ago we saw a photo of a young man standing in front of a tank in Beijing—the epitome of the individual defying the coercive power of the state. Just as I was excited at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the looks of joy across the faces of the people of eastern Europe as they tasted freedom for the first time in generations, I look forward to seeing similar looks of joy increasingly in our own region. This may seem a long way from the Lucky Country and this place, but these were the experiences that framed my political outlook. As Abraham Lincoln said:

The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, Government ought not to interfere.

Over the course of the last century it is when this is forgotten that the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity arises. Whenever we choose to do something in this place, we are removing the right and responsibility to make a personal choice—from a family, a community or an individual. Whenever we choose to spend money, we take it from someone’s pocket.

As a young man I was drawn to the Liberal Party by a key principle: the dignity of each and every individual and the value of their own conscience. As a boy I remember reading a union publication called The Metal Worker—well known to some in this place, I am sure. But while I read it I knew that my father was not a member by choice. When I got my first job I had to agree to join a union if required. When I went to university I was forced to join a student union and pay the poll tax that those fees represent—levied regardless of income, means or ability to use the alleged services. The idea that someone in Australia should be forced to join a union in their workplace is now alien to us. I look forward to the day when there is no longer a question that students should also be guaranteed this right.

I am proud to say that I am the product of a Catholic education. As a direct result of the policies of the Liberal Party spanning over 40 years, choice in education has been made available to thousands. While various vested interests still harbour hopes of ending it, the promotion of school choice is one of the proudest aspects of the Liberal tradition. Contrary to its detractors, school choice is not about playing fields or swimming pools; it is about supporting diversity for all in our society, not just those with means. It is about supporting the thousands of teachers and volunteers, like my own mother, who have built and taught in these schools when conditions and salaries were often better elsewhere.

I arrived at university due to this passion for education that had been instilled in me. I joined the Melbourne University Liberal Club—for a long time one of the nurseries of Liberal thought. Through the encouragement of people like Katherine Forrest, Ian Pattison, Chris Muir and Michael O’Brien, my own ideas were debated, tested and refined. They taught me a valuable lesson: it is not what you think that matters most; more important is your willingness to discuss it, debate it and maintain an open mind to new ideas. I am proud to say I have followed a long and diverse line of people from that organisation into this place—from Alan Missen to Rod Kemp, as well as members in the other place. I hope to live up to their record, achievements and decency.

When looking ahead to the challenges facing our nation, I look to history for lessons. Over the last two decades we have implemented a massive program of economic reform in this country. This was bipartisan, at least when we were on this side of the chamber. Opening up Australia’s economy, ending the sclerotic policies of protection, reforming the tax system and reforming the finance and labour markets were not easy decisions. These ideas were generated, debated and promoted outside this place by organisations like the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies as well as by members here. Not supported by government funding to this day, they are a critical part of our civil society.

These changes not only provoked howls of outrage from interest groups safe in the bosom of protection paid for by others; they had a heavy cost for many in our community. Thousands of workers, mainly no- or low-skilled or in industries that were simply not competitive, lost their livelihoods. Many of them were never to find work again, not helped by a recession they were told they had to have. But they did not go and burn down the nearest McDonald’s in protest. They did not march in the streets or demand hand-outs. They realised that change, painful though it may be, was necessary to ensure a better life for their children. Many of our leaders, and especially the Liberal Party in opposition, refused to engage in simple slogans and oppose these policies for partisan advantage. Principle beat populism, and Australia today is undoubtedly the better for it.

This poses a test for us as leaders. As we confront the challenges of today, it is all too easy to fall into political slogans, spin and the 24-hour news cycle. There is always a temptation to simplify complex issues, take advantage of angst and promise to cure the incurable in a futile fight against change. Government is complex, and to attempt to simplify it or promise things we know we cannot deliver is irresponsible—even more so if our leaders know otherwise. When we focus on the billboard outside a GP clinic more than how we are going to staff it with doctors, when we blame the Murray-Darling crisis on climate change rather than what we ourselves are doing to it, we do an injustice to those thousands of people who have made substantial sacrifices over the last 30 years.

To attempt to wind back the clock of economic reform will not deliver a more prosperous Australia. To promise to insulate Australia from change is futile and misleading. It breaks the bonds of trust with those who bore this cost during this period and from which we all benefit today. And these were not the rich, the powerful or the organised; they were the true modern-day forgotten people. They have placed their trust in us and we cannot breach it.

For the first time in a generation the problem of mass unemployment has been resolved, at least for the time being. The previous government achieved levels of employment that I was taught, only 15 years ago, were unattainable. This cannot be sacrificed on the altar of vested interests, outdated ideology or short-term political gain.

I am proud to describe myself as a federalist. It is entirely consistent with liberalism that power should be divided and kept as close as possible to the people. This chamber itself reflects that fact. This Senate is granted a mandate by the people to review, reject or amend legislation. It is an explicit and intentional check on the domination of the other place by the executive. But federalism is complex. It does itself no favours in terms of slogans or press releases and it is not just about borders drawn a century ago. It simply guarantees that decisions should be taken by those whom they will affect.

Secondly, a bicameral parliament and power divided between states and the Commonwealth concedes that power itself is a dangerous thing. Dividing it is the best way to control it. Robert Menzies appreciated this balance when he wrote:

... in the demarcation of powers between a Central Government and the State governments, there resides one of the true protections of individual freedom.

As the Australian people have constantly shown in virtually every opportunity put to them, they do not want more power centralised in Canberra.

Lately we have heard new slogans such as cooperative federalism. But cooperative federalism can easily become coercive federalism or cartel federalism and it can be too easily used to hide failure. When we hear of the need for a single national curriculum or national control of hospitals for people who move between the states, we fail to see that it is this very diversity that may be one of the reasons they move. When we hear of national control or national consistency, we fail to understand that diversity amongst our states is not merely a product of governments; it is about different communities having different needs and different priorities.

The problem of states deferring their responsibilities is not new to our federation. Robert Menzies also said:

It is so easily said about any local problem, ‘Well, why don’t you take this to Canberra? Why don’t you get the Commonwealth to do something about it?’

The true reason there is occasionally a clamour for the Commonwealth to take control of a particular issue is that the states, especially in recent years, have failed to address some of these issues. I do not see how further removing responsibility solves this. Indeed, the problems would only likely be magnified. Vested interests like centralisation; it is easier to capture one government than six or seven.

The true challenges in many of these areas reside in the power of sectional interests and control over the public sector. An unwillingness to tackle these is not cured by making the problem even more distant from the people. It never ceases to amaze me how the leadership of public sector unions construct such fanciful arguments and go to so much trouble to prevent the public knowing about their performance. Whether it is schools, public hospitals or a raft of other services, why are the leaders of these groups so insistent on keeping their performance a secret from those who utilise their services and pay their wages?

The true answer to these challenges is to hold governments to account and to ensure voters and consumers have the information to judge the performance of whoever should be held accountable. For that reason, we should consider the creation of a statutory independent agency to collect performance data in all these areas. Like the ABS or the Audit Office, it would set benchmarks and test our various government provided services against them. Independent of the executive, it would report regularly to the people, ensuring they could compare their state, their school or their hospital against the best in the country. Only through freely available and accessible information independent of the distortions of vested interests and executive control can we truly give the people real choice and the opportunity to pass judgement.

As I stated earlier, standing here this evening is a humbling experience and I am under no illusion that it is due purely to my own efforts. My election is the result of the efforts of thousands of members of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party and the trust they and the voters of Victoria have placed in me to serve their common interests and aspirations. They are too numerous to thank individually, but I specifically note the efforts of those who carried the Liberal flag in the seats that we did not win at the last election; I would not be here without them.

I thank all my colleagues, particularly my fellow Victorians here and in the other place. Your support, counsel and wisdom have been and will continue to be especially valued. I also thank the staff of the Victorian division. I have had the privilege of working with them in various capacities over many years and I appreciate their tireless efforts in our cause. As party presidents, fellow new Senator Helen Kroger and Russell Hannan encouraged my passion for reform even when it was not always convenient for them.

In recent years I have had the privilege of working with Dr David Kemp. David’s commitment to the betterment of Australian politics and society and the Liberal Party itself has been demonstrated by his integrity and a career dedicated to public and political life. Michael Kroger has long been a friend—there in the tough times as well as the good and never asking for anything other than a willingness to debate.

It is often said of my generation that our friends form a second family. In this sense, I consider myself doubly lucky. I am fortunate to have a wide circle of friends, without whose support I would not be able to take advantage of this enormous opportunity. I cannot mention them all—and there are several here tonight—but there are a few who I would like to single out. Scott Pearce, Sally Carrick, Jason Aldworth, Andrew Bell, John Snaden, Matthew and Renae Guy, Tony Barry, Jon Mant and Kelly O’Dwyer have been as close as a second family, in my personal life as much as in politics, as anyone could have. If I live up to their hopes and aspirations I know I will have made Australia a better place.

As I am sure my fellow new senators have experienced, finding the words to thank one’s family is particularly difficult. I have been influenced very strongly by the women in my life; my grandmother Mary Coghlan has seen an unfair share of tragedy in hers. I was in the fortunate position of being her eldest grandson, and her love, kindness and faith shaped me as much as anything else. Words cannot do justice to my mother, Anne. Endless patience, never-ending support in all my endeavours and a constant faith in her son—nothing more can be asked of any parent.

One person I would like to thank is not here this evening. He was a quiet man, very different from his eldest son, and he did not have all the opportunities I had, but he made sure I had them all. Taken from us too early, I know he is looking down this evening. I can only hope to act in a way that would make him proud and that I can simply be as decent as he was. Finally, I come to my better half, now my fiancee after a period of time which caused many of my friends to question my judgement. Helen, I simply could not have done this without you, your optimism, your faith and your support. I look forward to sharing our new life.

The last quarter century has illustrated exactly what this country and its people are capable of. Over the last decade in particular, the Liberal agenda for Australia has delivered not abstract numbers or statistics but meaningful improvements in the lives of all Australians, particularly those most vulnerable. As Winston Churchill said, ‘I fight for my corner,’ and I look forward to working with my colleagues to bring us back to office and continue our work. I thank the Senate for the courtesy it has extended me this evening.

Honourable senators—Hear, hear!