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Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Page: 3424


Senator FERGUSON (South AustraliaDeputy President and Chair of Committees) (16:21): Thank you, Mr President. That will probably be the shortest book in history! It gives me great pleasure to follow my good friend and colleague Senator Minchin. Had I been in the chair, I probably would have enforced standing order 187, because I have rarely ever heard Senator Minchin read a speech. I am going to enforce it on myself. I read my first speech when I came into this place and have tried ever since not to read another one. I think it is one of the most abused standing orders in the whole of our book of standing orders, and I might have a little bit more to say about that later.

I am advised by the Clerk that since Federation, in the last 110 years, there have been 551 senators. I have served with approximately 180 of them—one-third of the senators since Federation. I say 'approx­imately' 180 because I have counted them three times in the Parliamentary Handbook and come up with a different figure each time. Had I counted them a fourth time and got a different answer, I am sure I would have got a call from the Prime Minister asking me to be federal Treasurer!

I guess I could reflect and say: how on earth did I ever get into this place? I have to tell you it was by accident. You might wonder why. I can tell you that in early 1992, when I was President of the South Australian Division of the Liberal Party, I never even had a fleeting thought about entering federal parliament. I had thought about a parliamentary career, stood unsuccessfully for a state seat and then went on and served the party in South Australia as president. The South Australian Liberal senators at that time—Senators Hill, Vanstone, Teague, Chapman and Olsen—were all younger than me, so I could not see much prospect there. We had already selected our Senate ticket for 1993, and Senator Minchin was in the third spot. My local member, Neil Andrew, was younger than me and looked like being set for ever—and a wonderful friend he has been over my life. So in early 1992 there was no contem­plation. I had thought about running for the upper house in South Australia, where some of my good friends said I could have decayed in comfort.

I got here because John Olsen, who had only recently come to the Senate, decided to return to South Australian politics, and so a casual vacancy occurred. I was driving down to the south-east of South Australia, attending a regional convention, and my wife said, 'You're very quiet.' I said: 'Yes, I am. I'm thinking I might have a crack at this casual vacancy in the Senate.' As many of you are well aware, if you happen to be president of the party at the time then it gives you a decided advantage when you see your preselectors about whether or not you can have their confidence to be here.

So by 26 May 1992 I was a senator, when three months before I had no plans—not even a blip on the radar. I well remember my first morning here. I got sworn in on 1 June. It was minus six every day that week, and in those days there were not quite enough Comcars, so they occasionally supplemented them with hire cars and the occasional stretch limo, as some of you may remember; I am sure Senator Faulkner can remember those days, because he was here when I got here. But, lo and behold, we were staying out at the Sundown Village, where I always stayed in those days—I can well recommend it—and I opened the door and there was a stretch limo to take me in to my first day in the Senate. I thought, 'My God!' So I sat in the front and Anne sat about three miles behind me in the back. We pulled up at the Senate door, and as we walked in she said, 'The pig farmer's come a long way.'

I do not want to talk about myself or my achievements in this place; it would be a very short speech. But I do want to reflect after 19 years on the Senate and what might be done to make this place more effective. Firstly, if it were up to me, I would abolish question time as it is currently structured. It is a total waste of time and, dare I say it, not much better in the other place, if not worse. We have in the Australian parliament the worst question time of any parliament throughout the world that uses the West­minster system. I recently went to hear Prime Minister David Cameron answering questions in Prime Minister's question time in the House of Commons. He answered 25 questions in half an hour, and answered every question. In Canada ministers get 35 seconds. In New Zealand they have up to 61 questions in the day, and each one is answered. There is one difference, and I have talked this over with Senator Faulkner on occasion at the procedure committee: every question is a question on notice, followed by supplementaries. I think the only way that we can ever get some order into this place or into question time is if questions are placed on notice and anybody in the chamber is allowed to ask a supplementary question. It means that there is no such thing as a dorothy dixer, a chance for a minister to then explain at length an answer to that question, because someone on this side of the chamber can add a supplementary and make it a more interesting debate.

I think there has never been a greater waste of time in the Public Service and in ministers' offices than question time as it is currently structured. Ministers, staff and departmental officials spend many, many hours—I do not know just how long, because I have never been in there—preparing for answers to questions in the Senate and in the House of Representatives—questions that may never be asked, because they are not on the Notice Paper and nobody knows exactly what the topic of the question is going to be on the day or whether a certain minister is going to be questioned.

So can I say that I think that in its current form question time in both chambers does us a disservice. Name me one person in the community who is not frustrated by watching question time and seeing questions asked that are never answered. It is a generally known standard: the opposition ask questions they hope the government cannot answer, and the government ask questions where they have already prepared the answer. I have never seen a more farcical waste of time in my life, and I think it is something that ought to be changed as soon as is practically possible, but it will take goodwill on both sides because both parties have been guilty of encouraging and maintaining the current system.

I do not think any speeches other than ministers' second reading speeches should be allowed to be incorporated in Hansard, except perhaps condolence motions where someone might not have time to say something which would not be a political argument anyway. Our chambers are meant to be parliamentary debating chambers. How on earth can you debate a speech that has been incorporated in Hansard when you have no idea of its content and you do not know how long it is? Speeches are meant to be 20 minutes. An incorporated speech could be any length. It has usually been done in the past—it is not being done at present in this chamber—because everybody on one side of the chamber wants to make sure they have their message recorded about their contribution to an industrial relations bill or something of that nature, but I do not believe that any speech should be incorporated in this place. It is a place for parliamentary debates. I think standing order 187 should be applied more strictly. By leave, you can do anything in this chamber. If you are going to bring a speech in here that has probably been written by somebody else, sometimes about a subject you have no absolute knowledge about yourself but you come here to espouse your own theory that has been written by somebody else, if you want to read the speech seek leave to read it, or else expunge 187 from the standing orders. Most people are in breach of it, those that read speeches—and there are many that cannot come into this place without reading a speech. I find that is something that ought to be attended to straight away. There are many people who never need to read a speech—I am looking straight across at Senator Moore, a fine exponent of speaking off the cuff who does a wonderful job, and there are many on my own side, particularly the new, younger members on this side who I must say are the finest bunch of new senators that have ever come into this place in my 19 years.

The other thing that we have in here is formal motions. If something is not done about formal motions it is going to disrupt our whole procedure. Formal motions were meant to facilitate the business of the Senate. They were not meant to be bringing in a formal motion about a complex foreign affairs matter or something that should rightly be debated. Formal motions were meant to do away with the debate, and now we have two-minute statements so we have quasi debates on half of the formal motions that come into this place. Let them get onto the Notice Paper. When I first came here we all used to bring in notices of motion; it was one way of putting something on the Notice Paper. We never wanted them voted on; we just wanted the subject aired in Hansard so that we could let people know that we were trying to propose something that was in their interests or certainly to the benefit of the nation. So formal motions is another area where I think the procedures of the Senate could be reformed and improved.

Colleagues and Mr President, committee work is the lifeblood of the Senate. When I arrived on the first morning I entered the Senate—I had never been into the place; I think I might have been here once before—as I came in our Whip, Senator Margaret Reid, said, 'Senator, you'll be on the committee on industry, science and tech­nology.' I said, 'But, Margaret, I don't know anything about industry, science and technology.' She said, 'You soon will.' So I had a wonderful experience in coming into this place with former senator Bruce Childs, who became a wonderful friend of mine, and Brian Archer, a senator from Tasmania, who had both been chairs and deputy chairs of that committee and taught me how committees work: how you could work together cooperatively to get a result which is in the interests of Australia; how you could make sure that your inquiries were not political inquiries but something that both sides of the chamber could have input into so that you could come up with a result that would benefit Australia's future.

The early inquiries I went on were the best. We had an inquiry into CSIRO. Senator Shayne Murphy was a new senator at that time and I can remember that the biggest argument we had was over the title of the report. The then Keating government was going to sell off some of the assets that CSIRO had. I had a wonderful brain snap and decided I wanted to call the report 'From sacred cow to sacrificial lamb'. Senator Murphy thought I was having a shot at the government, so we finished up calling it The case for revitalisation. We had an inquiry into AFMA, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. We all had an interest in it and we were all looking to get a good result. And we had an inquiry into telecommunications towards the year 2000. By the time we printed the report it was out of date!

I became Chair of the Economics References Committee in 1994 and had a chance to be involved in all of the GST inquiries and the industrial relations inquiries over the next five years. They were wonderful times. I cannot say that they were non-partisan inquiries; there seemed to be quite a bit of debate on either side. It was during that time that we had that shameful day when people tried to belt down the doors of this parliament in order to get their point of view over. In a robust democracy like we have here, I think it is to their eternal shame that an attack was made on the place of democracy in Australia in the manner in which it was conducted that day. I am sure none of my friends on the other side were involved, or even encouraging, but I must say I thought that was quite appalling.

After that I was very fortunate, having gone through the length of time with the GST and industrial relations, when the Prime Minister asked me to chair the Joint Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, and for eight years I had the most wonderful job in this parliament. I had three great deputy chairs: the unforgettable Colin Hollis, Laurie Brereton and Graham Edwards. When you are involved in foreign affairs, trade and defence, working with the defence forces and with the diplomatic corps here, it is important that there is a degree of bipartisanship—and there was. They were very great deputy chairs. I probably could tell a few stories about Colin Hollis, because Colin and I spent 3½ months at the United Nations for the Millennium Summit in the year 2000 so I got to know him even better there. But the story that I like the most was when he was on the temporary panel of Speakers on the other side. He was about to go into the chair at about nine o'clock one night and he handed his glass to the attendant and said, 'Bring it in once I get in the chair.' Colin went into the chair, they brought in his drink, and the only thing missing was the slice of lemon that normally goes with a gin and tonic!

I have also had the great privilege to lead teams overseas observing elections. The first one was a team of 25 to the Indonesian elections in 1999. I had two raw new recruits in the Labor Party there: one Kevin Rudd and one Julia Gillard. But that was an experience I will never forget. I then had two opportunities in Zimbabwe. One, for the parliamentary election, was leading an Australian delegation. They never invited us back after reading our report, so I went with the Commonwealth Observer Group the next time and I was also with the Commonwealth Observer Group in Malawi. I appreciated those visits no end because they taught me a lot about the difficulties of those countries, although I must say as far as Zimbabwe was concerned I have never seen such brutality firsthand. When I came back I was quite psychologically affected by what I had seen in Zimbabwe. The culmination for me here was being elected by my colleagues to be President. It is one thing to be appointed by a Prime Minister or to have an appointment to any other position but being elected by my colleagues to the presidency of this place is something that I will be eternally grateful for. I am also eternally grateful that I had John Hogg as my deputy. John was most supportive, the most supportive deputy you could ever have. I have loved working with him. When John became President of the Senate after we lost this election, I was very happy to be his deputy for the last three years. It has been a pleasure working with you, Mr President. We have a good relationship. We have been able to discuss things at length and I will cherish the relationship we have had.

I joined the Liberal and Country League in 1963, which was affiliated with the Liberal Party. It did not become the Liberal Party until 1975—we like to do things our own way in South Australia! At the time I joined, we had 63,000 members of the Liberal and Country League in South Australia. Today we have 5,000 members; it is no secret. Exactly the same thing has happened to other political parties in Australia. I think there is a lack of commitment and there are so many other things that take up people's lives. Being a part of that group of 63,000 encouraged me as I went through my career in the Liberal Party.

To my Liberal friends in South Australia, particularly my friends in rural council, for most of my time here I have been the only senator in South Australia who has lived outside the metropolitan area and the contacts I have had in the country have been with people that have been loyal to me all my life and so I pay my respects to them. I also want to pay my respects to my two best friends in the Liberal party: Nick Minchin, who I spoke about earlier, and Cory Bernardi. Nick and I have been together in the Liberal Party for over 20 years. He was director of the party when I became President—a better friend you could not have. In my time and in my judgment, he is the best strategic and political brain the Liberal Party has in Australia.

I met Cory Bernardi, who came a little bit later on the scene, by accident. He happened to own the pub across from my office where we occasionally had a feed. He was also great friends with my nephew, who now resides in New York. Cory has been a tower of strength. I admire people who stick to their principles, who say what they think regardless of how other people view their comments. Cory is a man of conviction. His views are not held by everybody but at least he has the guts and courage to say what he thinks, and I think that speaks volumes for the man. I am sure our friendship will continue for a long time to come.

I do have friends among my colleagues on the other side too. Michael Forshaw and I have been friends for a considerable time. As he said the other night, it started at a late-night session in the state guest house in Budapest over a bottle of Jim Beam. I also count among the best friends ever in this place former senator Andrew Murray. Andrew Murray was a man of principle. Andrew Murray was a very clever man. He had a wonderful set of ideals but he also was very generous in the way he treated his colleagues and I certainly wish him well.

I have enormous respect for Senator Lundy. Strange you might hear me say that! Senator Lundy was Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories for the past three years, and we went through some very difficult times with Norfolk Island. Kate was as good a chair as I have ever seen, including the way she handled those people who are having difficult times. I am sure she has changed the minds of some of them as to how they should be treated by Australia, and we are in the process of addressing that now. Kate and I became friends. We did a lot of work together on that committee, together with others, and I always enjoyed attending meetings with Kate.

To the Senate staff, to Rosemary, Harry, Cleaver Elliott and all those that have gone in the dim dark past, thank you. I even think fondly of Rob Diamond. Rob Diamond was secretary of our committee for a long time and then went out on his own into business. To all the staff in here, the attendants, those people who look after us so well, I do want to say a heartfelt thanks.

I also want to thank my staff. Jannette Jackson worked as my PA for 14 years when I started—I pinched her from the secretariat, actually. She was an absolutely wonderful staff member, who ran my whole life. My kids used to ring up Jannette and say, 'Where's Dad now?' She was the only one that really knew half the time.

I had the pleasure of working with Jan Murphy when I first started. She was a highly intelligent girl who was able to put me onto various topics she felt that I should pursue. Jan left and went to work for Robert Hill for a while. Sadly, her husband died after he joined the RAF in England, having been in the RAAF here. Her life has not been easy in the past 10 years but she came down for a dinner we had last week. I was very fond of Jan.

Kate White, or Kate Andrew as she was when I employed her, the former Speaker's daughter, was vivacious and lively. I do not think I know anyone who kept an office on such an even keel and was as happy as Kate White. She is now raising three young daughters, working as a lawyer in Adelaide and I caught up with her recently.

Then there is Kate Raggatt. Who can forget Kate Raggatt? We all remember Kate, because she used to sit down there in that corner with her red locks. She worked for me for four years and Nick said to me one day, 'Do you reckon Kate could make chief of staff?' I said, 'I reckon she could do almost anything but, just remember, she has got red hair!'

Most of my current staff are in the gallery today. There are Kirsty and Anika, the Semmler girls. The Semmler girls are no longer Semmler girls. We have got a Heinrich and Fielke. You can see they have not broadened the genetics very much. They have both been a wonderful support to me. Kirsty has been my PA for the last five years. Liz Cotton, who is back in Adelaide, is a wonderful talent and is going to move on to another job. Alexander Bubner, Cassie Baldock and Josh Bell, who worked part-time while they were studying, have been wonderful over the past few years.

Lastly, but not leastly, is Dianne Goodman. I do not know where to start and finish with Di because you could never get a better staffer if you tried. She is capable. She started with me in the President's office, and when I became Deputy President she moved over with me. She is the only one there; she does it on her own. She manages me, which is not easy. She manages to handle any problem that comes up and I have never worked with a more pleasant personality or a nicer person in my life. I do pay tribute to Di. I turn now to my family. My wife, Anne, who did not come from a political family and has always found politics difficult, especially when we are having some sort of an internal scrap, which occasionally happens—though it happens very rarely now, of course, doesn't it, Simon!—was never a political person. Her family was not political. But she said to me: 'I ought to have known better. Your father was a state member of parliament, and although you might have been feeding pigs when we got married … ' She always felt that there may be something else in the offing. So to Anne; to Sarah and James, and their daughter Maisie who lives in Adelaide and is 15; to my second daughter, Hilary, and Rob, who farm in the mid-north of Crystal Brook with their two daughters Grace and Alice, who are 10 and six; and then to my three young grandsons in Perth, who are so far away, who I hardly ever see, to Susie and Marcus, and Fred, Jim and George, who are six, four and two: you are going to see a lot more of me in the future.

I will conclude with a quote that I started with in my maiden speech. I was at a Rotary conference in 1979 when a young exchange student from South Africa called Jess King got up and spoke to 500 people. She said: 'The service we give to others is the rent we pay for our space on earth.' I hope that my rent book is up to date and I am paid in full.