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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 5589

Mr HAWKER (6:46 PM) —Mr Speaker, on indulgence: I rise tonight to give my valedictory speech as the member for Wannon. In doing so, I would like to emphasise how fortunate I have been to be elected to represent the people of Wannon for 27 years and to have had such wonderful support in that role and also how privileged I have been to have played a number of roles in public life, including that of Speaker of the Parliament, and to reflect on the many changes that have occurred and the changes that still need to occur.

Twenty-seven years ago Australia was coming out of the grip of another shocking drought. We had just seen the horrendous Ash Wednesday fires, with more than 50 lives lost but, on a more positive note, Australia II had won the America’s Cup. Little did I know when I entered parliament that the next 13 years would be spent in opposition. While the Hawke-Keating governments followed the usual Labor pattern of running up massive public debt, their overspending pales into insignificance when compared to less than three years of the current Rudd government. But, having said that, the Hawke government did implement the banking reforms proposed by the Campbell committee. It also reduced tariffs and forced industries to become internationally competitive. While the Hawke government made many changes to the tax system, this was only after considerable consultation, and the government was notably supported by the opposition in most of these changes. What a contrast that is to Labor’s blatant opposition to the GST reforms introduced by the Howard government. Compare that with the approach taken by the current government in attempting to ram down the throat of the mining industry a massive new tax—a tax that will do serious damage not only to future investment in mining but to many other sectors across Australia. No wonder the miners are in open revolt.

In 1983, I was sworn in by the then speaker, Dr Harry Jenkins—your father, Mr Speaker—a man for whom I had great respect. Looking at the chair now I am reminded of the old French saying: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. For the benefit of my colleagues, it means: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in those days, backbenchers shared offices in the Old Parliament House. There were no faxes, no emails, no internet and no mobile phones. Not only were the offices of members tiny, basic and without facilities, ministers were located amongst the backbenchers. This did have one advantage: as a backbencher, you would sometimes find yourself at the urinal at the same time as a minister. Being unable to escape, he had to listen to your plea for support for some constituent problem. While his eyes might glaze over, usually a call came shortly after that from his secretary, arranging an appointment for the next morning.

In 1988, parliament moved to occupy this wonderful building. While it has certainly removed the overcrowding, it has taken away much of the personal touch. Ministers can now hide behind a wall of minders in the ministerial wing. Sadly, security has also placed many barriers between members and the public. Kings Hall in the old parliament often saw ministers, as they hurried from one side of the parliament to the other, prepared to chat to visitors. The non-members bar, once a favourite haunt in the evenings and a source of much information, has been long closed in this new building.

With 27 years in parliament, I am able to lay claim to quite a few achievements but, while I can do that, it is for others to judge their worth. I mentioned the privilege of being elected as Speaker in 2004, but I will in passing indulge in a few other highlights from my time in parliament. Nowadays, the twice-yearly hearings between the House Economics Committee and the Reserve Bank of Australia Governor are eagerly awaited by markets, analysts and the wider community. As the committee chairman who developed this process, to see the hearings continue is a satisfying testimony. However serious the public hearings may be, sometimes there was a lighter side to them, like the time the hearing went to Warrnambool—in which electorate? Wannon—and the governor with his suitably serious banker’s voice remarked to me that we continually reminded him of drought but, on driving into Warrnambool, the grass was so high that he could not see any sheep.

The economics committee continued its tradition of undertaking valuable work during my time as chairman. Two reports that I particularly wish to mention are those on regional banking and on local government funding. Both inquiries had a significant impact on public policy, and from the former the regions have seen a major reversal for the better in banking services for country people. Competition policy, tax office administration and financial regulation are a few of the other areas that we studied and reported on to parliament. My initiative that led to the introduction of the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program has proved its value with the ongoing support of both the MPs and the chiefs of the defence forces. Members, senators and the chiefs have repeatedly spoken of the benefits of the program. Given defence is such a major issue for the nation, I think having a better understanding of it within the parliament must lead to better decisions.

There are a number of committees I have been privileged to chair, but one I want to mention especially is the government’s Firearms Consultative Committee. Following the dreadful shooting tragedy in Port Arthur in 1996, Prime Minister John Howard asked me to chair this committee at a particularly difficult time for the hundreds of thousands of responsible shooters in our community. Laws were tightened and since then the shooting associations have greatly strengthened their memberships and have played a very responsible role in teaching and promoting safe, responsible use of firearms. I was honoured to be made a patron of Field and Game Australia and a life member of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, the two biggest national associations. I note that shooting in Australia continues to have strong support and considerable effort is made by many to promote the safe and responsible use of firearms, particularly among juniors.

Locally in Wannon since 1983 we have seen improvements in many ways and in many parts of the electorate. To detail them would take far too long but a few of particular significance were the new Australian Technical College in Hamilton, a marvellous innovation to give secondary students the start to a full trades career, but regrettably the college has now been downgraded by the Labor governments; another was the all-weather athletics track at Brauer College in Warrnambool, giving young athletes in the region the chance to run on an Olympic-standard track; there is the new medical school at Deakin University, which includes Warrnambool campus, thereby training future doctors to go on to practise in the country; and, funds for any number of road projects to help improve transport links, such as the multimillion-dollar upgrade of the Eurambeen to Streatham road commenced three years ago to handle transporting of the rapidly increasing local grain harvest. I was delighted to facilitate federal funding for Gum San Museum in Ararat. Ararat’s unique heritage as Australia’s only city founded by Chinese migrants is properly recorded in Gum San.

Equally important, the future of our region looks particularly bright with over $8 billion of new investment expected in the next five years. Having said that, Wannon is proud of its great agricultural industries, which generate billions of dollars for the region. However, with global hunger for the first time leading to more than one billion people being classed as undernourished, increasing food production should be a far higher priority in Australia. Yet astonishingly the federal government continues to reduce spending in agricultural research and development under the guise of drought-induced lower production. If this short-sighted policy is allowed to continue, any pretence of wanting to meet the millennium goals will be seen as very hollow.

While I am indeed fortunate to be one of only 1,064 Australians to have been elected to the House of Representatives since Federation, to be chosen as the 25th Speaker of the House of Representatives was an absolute privilege. Through this, I came to see firsthand the extraordinary professionalism of so many people who work tirelessly here in Parliament House. Led by the clerks and the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services, nearly 1,000 people keep this building operating with hardly a complaint. I cannot speak highly enough of their dedication. In particular, may I single out two clerks I worked with. Like their predecessors, Ian Harris and now Bernie Wright, both of whom are present tonight, continue a tradition which has served our parliament remarkably well. This brings me to a matter I feel very strongly about—the funding of the parliament.

To provide an effective balance between the executive, dominated of course by the cabinet, and the parliament, the parliament must be properly funded. To give just one comparison to show what I mean, since 2001 the budget for Treasury has been increased by over 100 per cent to $146 million, while the House of Representatives budget increased by just 11 per cent over that period to $22 million—which, I note, is little more than half the cost of the government’s advertising proposed for the new mining tax. Similar figures are there for the rest of the parliament. In other words, in real terms the budget to run parliament has been cut while ministerial staff numbers have grown, departmental budgets have blossomed and the number and complexity of bills which parliament has to debate each year continues to rise. By any measure, this balance between parliament and the cabinet, as shown by the resourcing, is tilting unhealthily towards the cabinet of the day.

Proper accountability and scrutiny of government by parliament is a fundamental strength of parliamentary democracy. It is my considered view, after having worked closely with the officers of the parliament, that the method of funding needs a major revamp. While the officers work tirelessly to minimise the impact of continuing budget cuts, the fact is that it is inevitable that the support for parliament to function fully is now threatened. As I am not seeking re-election, my views, I trust, can be seen as objective and free of any vested interest. Fortunately, there are some excellent examples among other Commonwealth parliaments where the funding is determined independently from cabinet. Canada and New Zealand spring to mind. With proper checks and balances, accountability and transparency, such models ensure not only the financial independence of the parliament but also maintain a healthy balance between parliament and the cabinet. Earlier this year, I moved a private member’s motion, seconded by the Deputy Speaker, the member for Chisholm, proposing just such a model for the House of Representatives. The challenge now is for both sides of the House to agree to this long-overdue reform.

I turn now to another challenge facing members and the community. It is always hard for members of parliament to hold the respect of the community. Some may say it is harder today than in the past but the future of our whole democracy depends on public confidence in our system of government. After all, it was less than 70 years ago, at a time of dire peril for much of the world, that there were only 12 countries with democratically elected governments. Today, more than 140 countries can claim some form of elections to their parliaments. Since the Second World War, democracy has underpinned the remarkable progress made in so many ways in so much of the world. But the advent of 24-hour news services, internet blogs, Twitter and text have multiplied the demand for and sources of political comment. There is a danger that with the proliferation of views and news the public will lose interest or become sidetracked from the importance of parliament and its role in the nation’s future.

Australia can boast the fourth longest continuing democracy in the world. The challenge today is to encourage healthy scepticism rather than corrosive cynicism towards our elected representatives. Sometimes this can be a very big challenge, such as during the recent vehement debate between the government and the mining industry. While it may not be all-out war, I am reminded of the old adage: the first casualty when war comes is truth. When hearing the Prime Minister and the Treasurer it is hard not to believe the first casualty may indeed have fallen. Such a public brawl is hardly helping the local standing of our elected members of parliament but, unfortunately, in this case it can even go international.

In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal there was a scathing assessment of the new mining tax, saying:

… the larger issue at stake: Does Australia, a developed nation that has embraced liberal economic policies for three decades, want to philosophically go the way of free-market Hong Kong or socialist France?

Notwithstanding this particular issue, the value of public service remains as important as ever and listening to the two previous speeches I think that point was very strongly reinforced by the member for Denison and the member for Aston. To quote Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, on this issue:

To discourage ambition, to envy success, to have achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service-these are the maladies of modern democracy, and of Australian democracy in particular. Yet ambition, effort, thinking and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self-government but are the essential conditions of its success.

All members of parliament rely on loyal support from many hardworking party members, friends and family. I have indeed been fortunate. My wife Penny and our four children—Peter, Melissa, Richard and James—have been absolutely fantastic in their support right throughout this time I have been elected. They have always been there to make a very welcome home, something that I have always greatly appreciated.

My office staff from the time I was first elected have done an outstanding job and have rightly earned an enviable reputation within the electorate for providing great service. I must single out one for special mention—Megan Campbell, who has been with me for more than 20 years. There is no other way to put it but to say that she does a truly outstanding job. Without the ongoing support of so many in the Liberal Party, I could not have got here. Marilyn Lyons, who has either been the electorate chairman or the electorate secretary for almost 27 years, was an incredible support. Teamed with Bayse Thomas who ran my campaigns in recent years they made a formidable team. Jim Dwyer, who was also electorate chairman for nine years, is another absolute stalwart. But of course there are hundreds of others and I say to all of them my heartfelt thanks.

The seat of Wannon has the remarkable record of having had just two members, both from the Liberal party, since 1955. With a federal election only a few months away it is my fervent hope that the outstanding candidate we have in Dan Tehan will continue to prove that the Liberal party can best serve Wannon. In my maiden speech in 1983 I concluded by saying:

The long-term goals, the goals that the people of Wannon and the people of Australia should expect of governments are to have the opportunities and the freedom of choice to better their own future. It is the role of government to provide the sound basis on which to build the most important ingredient of which is a sound financial base.

Sadly it seems the current government is doing its best to undermine that base, so much so that Australians are rapidly concluding it is only by returning a Liberal-National coalition government that we can regain our confidence to truly better our own future. May I conclude by saying again it is an absolute privilege to be elected to serve one’s community. To have been elected 10 times is indeed a rare privilege. I leave this place with many fond memories, a few scars and many good friends but confident our parliament will continue to play a central role in the future of our great nation.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!

The SPEAKER —In congratulating the member for Wannon on his intergenerational career, can I thank him for his remarks about parliamentary reform and his friendship and I thank him as Speaker Hawker for his guidance.