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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1184

Senator CORMANN (Western AustraliaMinister for Finance, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (18:59): I've heard it on more than one occasion, Madam Deputy President. Senator Mitch Fifield is one of my closest and dearest friends and colleagues in this parliament. He has served Victoria and Australia with distinction, great honour and integrity. We knew of each other but didn't know each other all that well when we both were working as staffers in the Howard government. Mitch was the senior political adviser to one of the absolute giants of Australian politics—our then Treasurer, Peter Costello—having worked for senior politicians, state and federal, over a 15-year period. I was working for another great Australian—Senator Chris Ellison—who was in the outer ministry. From that perspective, we all greatly admired Mitch as someone who had reached the great heights of political staffing.

When I arrived in the Senate back in June 2007, during the final months of the Howard government, Mitch had already served as a senator for Victoria for about three years. He had already secured significant policy reform to the benefit of students all around Australia—voluntary student unionism. It was during the many policy battles in opposition that we became very close friends. Politics is the battle of ideas. In opposition it is as much about the battle to help shape the future policy direction of your own team as it is about fighting against or seeking to improve bad policy proposals from the other side. It's fair to say that Mitch and I worked very closely on both.

Our work together—and I'm sure Senator Wong remembers this fondly—on the Senate Select Committee on Fuel and Energy and later on the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, scrutinising and passing policy judgements and political judgements on Labor's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the resource superprofits tax, the mineral resources rent tax and student services and amenities fees, was the time when we forged a very strong and trusting bond of friendship. Ever since those days together in the opposition trenches we waged many a policy battle. We were successful in quite a number of them, although not all. It helped shape our policy agenda at the time and, indeed, for a period into government.

Whenever there was time at the end of a sitting day we would quietly celebrate or commiserate over dinner or drinks, solving those problems in the world that were still left to be solved at the end of another day—and there would be the occasional poking fun at me with my accent and the occasional song. As the shadow minister for disabilities, carers and the voluntary sector, Mitch was absolutely instrumental and the driving force behind ensuring that the coalition offered strong and unwavering bipartisan support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Coming into government as the minister responsible for the NDIS, he led the charge to put the rollout of that important scheme, which was to provide more appropriate support to people across Australia with disabilities and their families, on a solid foundation trajectory for the future. That responsibility was described in one independent review as like building a plane in flight.

Having helped lay the foundation for the NDIS, Mitch helped address the chronic unmet need of a group of people who had been unsupported for decades. When the coalition formed government in 2013 the scheme only continued to gain momentum under Mitch's guidance. There continues to be more work to be done, of course—it is a massive reform undertaking—but Mitch made a significant strategic contribution to this scheme from opposition and ensured we continued to build the momentum and deliver this reform in practice in government. Today the NDIS remains as much a priority for the government as it was then.

As communications minister Mitch has overseen—together with his fellow shareholder minister, I would like to think—the near completion of the National Broadband Network. When the coalition inherited the NBN in 2013 barely 50,000 premises were connected to the fixed network. Today more than 10 million homes and businesses can connect, giving them fast and reliable broadband and connecting them to the world around them. Much of this progress has occurred under Mitch's guidance. Millions of Australians are better off as a result.

In 2017, under Mitch's guidance, the coalition delivered the biggest reforms to Australian media laws in nearly three decades, giving new life to legislation not updated since the 20th century and strengthening Australia's media industry. These were reforms that many said would never pass, but Mitch got it done. Thanks to Mitch, Australians of all ages who use the internet do so under a stronger regime so that Australians have a safer and more positive experiences online.

One of his greatest passions as a minister was his role as Minister for the Arts. Mitch, as Minister for the Arts, was highly regarded by the arts community for bringing funding stability to the sector and also for attending hundreds and hundreds of concerts and exhibitions and, on occasions, giving his own concerts. I attended those too. Combining time served in opposition and government, he would have to be one of the longest serving managers of opposition and government business. We did work closely together for many, many years in trying to get our legislative reform agenda through the Senate, as a government, or trying to block the bad policy reforms and bad legislation being put forward on occasion by the other side when they were in government. Mitch was incredibly well-organised and exceptionally effective in that role. We were a great team.

Throughout our time together in the Senate, we haven't always ended up on the same side in relation to contested ballots on key positions. In fact, on a number of occasions, we didn't. I can honestly say that it never, ever has affected our friendship, which has been built over many years on deep and unwavering trust. That is because, even when we ended up making different judgements, we were always totally honest, open and up-front with each other about what we were doing and why. We both totally respected that the other was making their judgement based on what they felt was the right way forward.

I have to say that I feel very safe knowing that Senator Fifield will soon become Ambassador Fifield, representing Australia at the United Nations. All Australians can have great confidence and trust that his judgements and his actions as our representative on all matters arising before the UN from time to time will be very sound. Serving with Mitch in the leadership group of our parliamentary party in his roles as manager and deputy leader was a real privilege. He is a very experienced and skilled politician, with sound judgement and great integrity. He is also great fun and has a great sense of humour. He can be a great singer—or not—and is an all-round very good friend. I should correct that: he is always a good singer! I will really miss you, Mitch, and do sincerely hope that over the years we can continue to bridge the geographical divide and remain in close touch and remain good friends.

Mitch, in your first speech in the Senate on 12 May 2004, you said about your predecessor, Richard Alston, that he was a great servant of his party, the state of Victoria and the nation. You have been all of that in spades. You have served your party, your state and your nation with distinction and with great grace, as a determined and convicted politician, carving out a legacy that you and your family can and should be proud of. To Mitch, Mari, Ruby and Harry: good luck with your next adventures. You will be missed in this place, but I am sure we will continue to meet and enjoy each other's company in other places around the world in the future. Best of luck.