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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 130

Senator FERGUSON (6:04 PM) —I commend my colleague Senator Tierney for his comments. There is only one comment that I disagree with. I like to compare Australia in 2005 with the Australia we inherited in 1996. As we witnessed at the recent election, the Australian people have so much more confidence in 2005 because of what this government has done for them compared with how they felt given the state the country was in in 1996. It only goes to show, although the election is some time past, how much confidence the Australian people have in this government, which was returned with a resounding, increased majority. It is one we are very proud of and it is due to the fine leadership that has been shown by the Prime Minister and the members of his cabinet and ministry.

I commend Senator Knowles, who moved this motion and who is finishing her term in this Senate. She and Senator Tierney, who spoke just before me, have both made a tremendous contribution to this Senate in their own way. Both will be leaving us at the end of June; this is their last address-in-reply opportunity. Their colleagues know the work that they have put into both the party and this Senate. We commend them for it and thank them very much for the good work that they have done over all those years.

When I stopped to think of the election result it reminded me of my entry into the Senate in 1992, when there was a Labor government. I was paired to that great Labor electorate of Grey in South Australia, under the system that we have. Grey is an electorate that had been held by the Labor Party since the Second World War for all but three years, from 1966 to 1969. I set up an office in Grey in Port Augusta because you could reasonably class it as the centre of the electorate, although the electorate went from the Western Australian border to the Northern Territory border to the Queensland border to the New South Wales border—it was an enormous seat.

From the time I set up the office and we preselected a candidate to stand in the seat of Grey—my good friend and colleague Barry Wakelin, who is well known to my colleagues on this side—we had to achieve a two per cent swing to win Grey in 1993. Since 1993 we have achieved more than that two per cent swing and Barry Wakelin won that seat by two per cent in 1993. In 1996 he increased that to about six per cent, in 1998 he increased it to eight per cent, in 2001 he increased it to 10 per cent and in the 2004 election Barry Wakelin had a 14 per cent majority in the seat of Grey, only one per cent of which has come about because of a redistribution. So I want to pay tribute to my good friend Barry Wakelin, who shows what you can do when you work hard as a local member, even for a vast electorate like Grey. The people who voted for Barry Wakelin are very similar to the people who voted for all of the other coalition candidates throughout Australia. They had confidence in him, they had confidence in what this government was doing, they liked the decisions we were making and they knew that we took them away from some of the serious deficiencies that the previous Labor governments of both Hawke and Keating had left them with in their businesses.

Grey is a very large electorate and Barry Wakelin, his family and his staff are to be congratulated on the incredible efforts they make at all times of the electorate cycle for their electorate. I was at the opening of his new office in Port Pirie last week because I now live in the electorate of Grey, which I had never done before. I had always been in the electorate of Wakefield. Senator Hill opened this office, and I remember him saying that when he opened Barry’s first office in Whyalla there were about 12 people in attendance to witness the event. With Barry being brand new in the area, there were just some local, loyal supporters there to witness the opening. With the opening of Barry’s new office in Port Pirie last week—it had shifted because of the changing nature of the electorate—there were well over a hundred people to witness the opening. I might add, Senator Bishop, that it is a good, strong Labor town where you would not expect many of the local people to attend. The Mayor, many of the local identities and people from all over the electorate had come a long way to not only pay their respects to Barry Wakelin but also acknowledge the fact that his hard work has done wonders for his electorate and has also made it into what is now a safe seat.

This was a vote of confidence in the policies of the coalition government in regional Australia. Many country people recognise the hard times caused by some of the economic mismanagement that was characteristic of much of the Keating years. I well remember paying 23 per cent interest on my farm. It of course meant for those who had to borrow money that, if you stayed in that position for long enough, every four years you bought your farm again. Certainly, given the value of the money, it was like buying your farm again.

During the debate in the Senate chamber today the opposition had the temerity to question the economic credibility of this government. We heard the ministers respond, quite rightly, by reminding us of the times when we were paying interest rates in excess of 23 per cent and housing interest rates of 17½ per cent. The Australian public has never forgotten that. Even those young people in Australia who cannot remember and did not vote in those days all know what difficult times that caused their parents and what a crippling effect it had on small businesses in Australia. I remember the argument being put at the time of the introduction of the GST. We had members of the opposition telling us how many businesses would go out of business because of the introduction of the GST, how it would cripple small business. I can tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that nothing crippled small business like high interest rates. It is to the credit of this government that, throughout the almost nine years that we have been in government, we have been able to keep interest rates low for business and professional borrowings and also for housing loans. That is one of the reasons why people, particularly country people, have every confidence in the Howard government and the way that they manage the economy.

In my first speech to this chamber in 1992 I highlighted the concerns of the then Labor government’s neglect of rural and regional South Australia. Access to services was limited and prosperity had dwindled, partly because of high interest rates, and many farmers suffered the loss sometimes of their farms and their livelihoods. One of the greatest records of achievement of the Howard government has been through an increased understanding of the starkly different way of life between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. I believe there was a period in the seventies and eighties when the gulf of understanding between the urban population and the rural population was growing markedly. I can understand that because I remember when I was a young fellow that the population of the country was much greater. Not only that, nearly everybody who lived in the city had a country cousin of some sort and so people in urban areas tended to visit the country, whether it was in school holidays or for any other form of holidays. So there was a greater understanding between urban and rural populations. I think that the Howard government has done much to try and increase that understanding between country and rural areas so that people who live in cities understand the difficulties that rural people go through. They understand hardships caused by natural events like the recent tragic bushfires on Eyre Peninsula in the electorate of Grey. They realise the devastation that can be caused by drought. I think that this government has helped to improve that understanding, which began to go the other way through the seventies and eighties.

The government has shown an increased awareness of the needs of rural and regional Australians and I, like many of my colleagues from rural areas, were delighted to hear the Governor-General, in his speech, talk about the government’s fourth term agenda to provide better services in regional Australia. The electorate of Grey is also going to benefit from the government’s commitment to establishing technical colleges across Australia, with a high likelihood that one of these will be in the Whyalla-Port Augusta region. The Governor-General highlighted the key platform that resulted in the successful re-election of the Howard government. This included faith in the capacity of Australians to exercise choice in their daily lives. If there has been one continuing vein throughout the prime ministership of John Howard it has been giving Australians some choice in their daily lives. To see that choice exercised and giving Australians that choice is an area that clearly sets us apart from the opposition.

I speak about the electorate of Grey partly because of my good friend Barry Wakelin, whom I have worked with for so long, but also because it is indicative of an electorate in Australia that has benefited from the Howard government and from all of the policies that have been put into place. The people of Grey, like people in other electorates across Australia, have every reason to feel confident that the future under the re-election of the Howard government will clearly be in their best interests.

Having been paired with the electorate of Grey for all that time, there was a sudden change for me in this election campaign. Having lived in the electorate of Wakefield all my life, I suddenly found myself living in the electorate of Grey but finding myself paired with the new electorate of Wakefield, which I now do not live in. That was a challenge that I relished and it was a challenge that was undertaken with some tenacity by all the people in the Liberal Party in the new electorate of Wakefield. A wonderful candidate was selected—David Fawcett, who has since become the member but who was a test pilot in the Army and had enormous credentials. He is a person who had not come up through the party all of his life. He was not someone who had a strong involvement with the Liberal Party, but he did believe in what the Howard government was doing and he joined the party and was successful.

As our Prime Minister has often said, we need to introduce into our chambers of parliament, both the House of Representatives and the Senate, people who have different backgrounds in life—people who have lived the life of ordinary Australians, people who on Friday nights have never been sure what their wage packet is going to be, people who are involved in small business and enterprises of their own, where the people who get paid first are the ones who work for them and the ones who get paid last are themselves. I have been in that position. In my early years of farming I can remember my brother and I paid ourselves and our working man exactly the same wage because things were pretty tough. We always knew we had enough money to pay our two working men’s wages, but we were never quite sure whether we were going to have enough to pay our own wages. In good years we got a bit more and in poor years we got a bit less, but there was no certainty.

Of the 14 new members in the House of Representatives who were candidates in this election—candidates who were attracted to the Liberal Party—some 11 or 12 of them have had experience in life outside of politics They had not been long-term members of the party. They are people who have lived the lives of ordinary, everyday Australians. They are people from all walks of life who have come to this place with the sort of experience that I think is very good for making sound judgments as to what is best for other Australians.

I worked with David Fawcett in the electorate of Wakefield—a seat, through redistribution, notionally held by the Labor Party by just under two per cent. There were many within our group who were pessimistic. With a longstanding Labor member—and one I can say who was quite well respected: Martyn Evans, who had been the member for Bonython—they were somewhat pessimistic as to the opportunity for success for our party. I have never worked with a candidate who worked so hard on the ground every day doorknocking, as did David Fawcett. I must also pay tribute to the former member for Wakefield, Mr Andrew, who was the Speaker of the House in the previous parliament, who spent day after day with the new candidate doorknocking in the hardest parts of the electorate. I do not know of any other retiring member who has ever worked so hard to win a seat—which had previously been a safe Liberal seat all the time that Mr Andrew was the member—to make sure that his successor in the seat with the name of Wakefield would be the Liberal candidate at the election and to further help the Howard government.

It was a tremendous thrill for those of us who were involved to find out—not on the night because things were pretty tight by the time we had finished counting on the night, but we were pretty sure that we were going to win—that the Liberal candidate, David Fawcett, had achieved a swing large enough to win the electorate by something close to 1,000 votes. I think it was a remarkable achievement. It was a remarkable achievement by all the volunteers within our party who, with some due modesty, actually beat the opposition on the ground, thinking that they could not win the seat. Whereas I think, without being too unkind, Martyn Evans and the people who supported him felt that they would be able to retain the seat even though there had been some swing against them the time before.

To see the hard work of our candidate, David Fawcett—doorknocking day after day for a period of nearly six months, because he resigned from the Army as soon as he had won preselection—come to fruition is something that we should be proud of. It gives an indication that a person with a strong commitment, a person who wants to follow an ideology, a person who wants to represent people in this parliament, can achieve this through sheer hard work in many instances, even when you are trying to win a seat away from a sitting member. I was delighted. I pay a great tribute to all those people in the electorate who came down from rural towns within the electorate to man polling booths in what we would call the hard Labor areas of that seat where there was always a Labor majority in the booth. They did not win those booths, but in some there were six and seven per cent swings to our candidate. To those people in the electorate who volunteered so much time and effort and took the trouble to support someone they believed would become a good new member of parliament, I pay a great tribute. They certainly received some reward for all of their efforts.

In conclusion I want to say a couple of things. The achievements of this government have been recognised by the people of Australia. They have been recognised because of what we have done, not what we have said we would do. We have achieved all those things that were possible in the nearly nine years that we have now been in government. The list of government achievements is endless, so I will not go into them now. Above all, the key thing is the confidence that this government has given to small business operators within Australia. The engine room, the driving force, of our economy is small business operators throughout Australia. I think the number is something like 800,000 small businesses. I am not sure of the exact number but I know it is something like that.

Small business have confidence that, one, this government is best placed to keep their interest rates low and, two, this government is prepared to tackle industrial relations—and it has promised further reforms which I think will give further incentive to small business. I think small business, being the generator within our economy, is in for a good time. The flow-on effect from that will be that Australians now and in the future will place their confidence in the coalition government for what it has achieved over the past eight years and for what it promises all those people in the future.