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Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Page: 3188


Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (17:27): I'll be resigning from the Senate in mid-November after eight years in this chamber and four decades in and around politics and government. It has been a privilege to serve. I love this place and all that it stands for. I did not grow up thinking I'd become a politician. I've always been an avid follower of news, current affairs and politics. I studied economics to learn how the world works. I joined the Public Service to apply those principles to real world problems. I joined John Howard's office from Treasury in 1987, because I admired his brand of liberalism and his pluck and courage in advocating reform from the hard yards of opposition. I enjoyed being at the coalface of policy and political advice.

I returned to Treasury in 1989, when he lost the leadership, but I came back in 1995, when he became opposition leader again. His career is testament to the benefits of recycling! I stayed with him until 2006, serving for nine years as prime ministerial chief of staff. When I left in 2006, I thought I was done with politics—been there, done that, the whole shebang!—but Helen Coonan and Rick Forbes encouraged me to consider making a contribution on the front line. I thank them for their faith in me. My wife, Elizabeth, was cautious at first but backed me, encouraging me to have a go, for which I will always be grateful. I have more about her later. Thank you to Marise and Connie for escorting me into the chamber that October in 2011. Well done, Marise, our first female defence minister, who is doing a sterling job in foreign affairs. Connie remains a good friend, and I think she did an outstanding job as our Pacific minister.

I thank the party leaders who backed me. I was Tony Abbott's shadow parliamentary secretary in opposition and Assistant Treasurer in government. I pay tribute to the fighting spirit of Tony Abbott, who took us from opposition back into government. I was Cabinet Secretary in Malcolm Turnbull's first ministry and later Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, a role I relished. Malcolm Turnbull brought a rational lens to policy development and a laser-like focus to problem-solving.

But the best part of my job has been to meet so many of my fellow Australians from different parts of this great continent. Whatever our race, colour or creed, we are bound together by our good fortune in being born here or making the brave decision to forsake ancestral homes and settle Down Under, the best country in the world. For me, Australia is an immigrant nation. It is in our DNA. So too is our unique Indigenous heritage, with over 65,000 years of ongoing relationship with the land. This is a big country worthy of big ambitions. We should be infinitely optimistic about the possibilities that lie before us. Australia's best days lie ahead. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to make the most of our stewardship of this place. We are and should always be a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. For me the Australian way is to live and let live, engage in fair play and leave no-one behind.

We owe a special obligation to the minorities in our midst. These are the quiet Australians who need our help most. That includes Indigenous Australians, who seek more control over policies implemented in their name; disabled Australians, who want to be defined by their potential and not their disability; and those other marginalised Australians looking for gainful employment and social acceptance. The test of being an Australian is not genealogy but whether we adhere to timeless values that make our democracy work.

Politics is a noble calling, a vocation that puts the community and its aspirations before our own, and this parliament, as I said in my maiden speech, is still the pinnacle of the Australian achievement. Our liberal democracy, with the rule of law, an independent judiciary, English as our national language and our free press—all of these things have helped to sustain our prosperity and social harmony. Institutions matter. Respect for tradition and conventions matters, particularly in this age of disruption—technological, political and cultural. My brand of liberalism seeks to conserve the best of the past while adapting to the future. It is constructive progress and not change for change's sake.

And how rapidly the world around us is changing! Trust in our established institutions, such as politics, business, the churches and the media, has been weakened, and there is a palpable anger in so much of the public discourse. Democracy is increasingly questioned. There is a reheated romance in some quarters with old-fashioned socialism, and one person's push for diversity and inclusion is another person's divisive identity politics. We complain of a lack of privacy and in the same breath gladly surrender so much of our personal information to vast platforms and networks. Our data is being monetised to create new goods and services to our benefit but not necessarily always with our knowledge. These platforms have also created new possibilities for control and intimidation of citizens. Information is being fragmented and weaponised. The broadcast media is increasingly polarised and politicised, and the proliferation of media outlets means that people can select their news and facts to suit their own preconceptions and biases. The universities, hitherto bastions of free speech, are under attack from within and from outside. The scientific method is under attack, even as we benefit daily from the fruits of rigorous, evidence based inquiry. If we cannot even agree on basic facts, how can we have a civilised discourse? Look at the climate change debate. In the age of Twitter, the court of public opinion can be quickly turned into a kangaroo court, and natural justice runs a poor second. Intuitive responses are preferred to mature reflection.

The liberal democracies are open societies. That is our strength and vulnerability. We cannot meet threats to our democratic institutions by adopting the tactics of authoritarian regimes. That undermines our fundamental values and beliefs. Our role in this place is to stand up and defend those beliefs and to remind successive generations of the price that has been paid to build the democratic institutions that we enjoy today. As a liberal, for me first and foremost that means upholding the sanctity and freedom of the individual and her or his capacity to exercise responsibility.

The role of government is to preserve and, where possible, extend the domain of human freedom and opportunity. Freedom is right and freedom works. The success of the Australian economy over the last three decades is no accident of resource endowment or geography. It is overwhelmingly a testament to the benefits of economic freedom. The opening up of the Australian economy to market forces has not been easy. Along the way, there have been winners and losers, but the benefits are overwhelmingly positive. We are bigger, stronger and more resilient to external shocks. Look at how we dealt with the Asian financial crisis and absorbed the resources boom and its aftermath. There has been no repeat of the stop-start policies of the eighties and nineties, when inflation was snuffed out through swingeing increases in interest rates, precipitating major economic downturns.

The productivity impulse generated by earlier reform programs has ebbed in recent years. Reform is a journey, not an endpoint. We need to double our rate of productivity growth to maintain the average income growth of recent decades. That will require more freedom and more investment—public and private, domestic and foreign. The world is awash with savings looking for a home. Improving investment returns will require more focus on science and innovation, to build new industries and jobs; ongoing action to reduce the costs of doing business, including streamlined regulation; and, in the absence of lower company taxes, other investment incentives as foreshadowed by the Treasurer.

Ben Morton's deregulation agenda should encompass not only paperwork and process but structural impediments to competition, innovation and growth. The Australian economy needs more competition. Governments should be removing barriers to entry and policies that benefit large incumbents. That's why I support consumer data rights and open banking, and the possible extensions of that to telcos and energy companies. That's why I think differences in the capital treatment of large and small banks should also be ironed out to create a more level playing field.

The compulsory super system should also be as open and competitive as possible. We need to tackle the structural causes of high fees and address the fate of low-income earners who accumulate balances that are largely eaten up by fees. The income threshold at which compulsory super cuts in has been the same since the super guarantee was introduced in 1992.

I know this caused us grief at the time, but I strongly support the changes to super that we made in our 2016 budget. They were necessary to create more equity in the system going forward. We could not preach expenditure restraint to the public at large while protecting concessions that largely benefited only a few. I applaud the policy courage of the then Treasurer, who is now our Prime Minister, and of the continuing finance minister, in prosecuting the case. The focus of the review should be on structural changes to address the ageing of our population and not short-term revenue-raising.

The Prime Minister is right to pursue mutually beneficial evidence based reform of industrial relations that does not undermine terms and conditions. The world of work is changing around us. Flexible workplaces, digitally enabled, are the way of the future. New types of jobs are being created. Learning is lifelong, and the pace of change is throwing up opportunities in the new services economy. I am very optimistic about the net jobs benefits of automation, which will free up workers for higher level tasks. Machines should do machine work, not people. History demonstrates the benefits of technological change. We don't need a universal basic income, but governments creating opportunity for workers to acquire the skills to embrace this new world and the dignity of work. If we prepare properly, we can become empowered and confident to embrace new technologies.

The government's skills agenda is central to this process. We can imagine the jobs of the future using tools like Faethm, an Australian company. Michael Priddis and his colleagues have created a powerful tool to analyse the impact of automation on jobs, companies, industries and entire economies. Their platform is an essential planning tool that other governments are using to guide policy development. We should too.

I am passionate about the role of government in catalysing new industry development to capitalise on emerging technological trends. I was proud to initiate the review of Australia's space industry capability and to appoint Megan Clark to head the review group. Illness prevented me from announcing the Space Agency in September 2017. I think you did, Senator Birmingham, in the end, in my absence, as a good South Australian. The infusion of funds through the agreement with NASA recently announced overseas will encourage Australian companies to become part of the supply chains for new space ventures.

The cyber sector is also one of great potential for Australia. I believe we can be a world leader. AustCyber, under Michelle Price, is doing a great job in tackling impediments to that development. On my watch, the Commonwealth supported another Michelle, Michelle Simmons, a former Australian of the Year, by providing funds into the joint public-private venture that is working on a functional quantum computer, the next frontier in revolutionising computing capacity. The point of doing this sort of stuff at the government level is to help Australian industries get in on the ground floor of new developments. That's when you can create a world-leading edge—and that's very important going forward.

Embracing alternative energy sources such as renewables is an opportunity rather than a cost. The transition in the energy system cannot be reversed, and technology is constantly evolving to create appropriate firming and backup that is essential to avoiding volatility as more renewables enter the power grid. I am optimistic that new technologies will keep reducing the cost of energy and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. We should keep our options open on nuclear energy, but that raises a host of broader issues I dare not go into here. I am proud of what the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is doing in the field of nuclear medicine. With the support of the opposition—Kim Carr was very supportive on that occasion—I was able to get legislation passed to enable ANSTO to create the world's first nuclear science and technology incubator, on-site facilities for students and a technology park that will make Lucas Heights a jobs hub.

When it comes to climate change, policymakers have to act on the basis of the best scientific evidence available. We rely on the intelligence agencies to give us their best advice on security threats; of course, final decisions always rest with us as the elected representatives. The same model should apply to climate matters and almost everything else impinging on our health and the natural world. I once tried to get Senator Roberts together with CSIRO to have a debate about climate change. We had, I think, about two or three meetings, Senator Roberts, and I think the CSIRO scientists are still in rehab recovering from those meetings! That was part of what I thought was important in my role as science minister—to get people together and actually talk about these things and try to find common ground where possible.

I enjoyed the role of Cabinet Secretary. I dealt across the breadth of executive government and had the opportunity to contribute across all portfolio areas. I had no personal agenda or axes to grind. My interest was in good process as a basis for good policy and ensuring that the cabinet agenda reflected the government's overall aims and objectives. The aim was to ensure that the facts and subsidiary issues had been sorted out so that the cabinet only needed to focus on the major decisions required. A well-functioning cabinet is at the core of good government. Prime ministers must give their colleagues the full opportunity to have their say and sum up fairly and comprehensively the mood of the meeting. That is the best guarantee that ministers will respect the process and observe cabinet confidentiality, without which there can be no frank and free exchange of ideas and advice. One of the things I noticed, working both in the Prime Minister's office and in the cabinet, is that in our system prime ministers can have a lot of power because they can determine not only who gets into cabinet but also what the agenda is. We need a system of collective decision-making because a team approach is always better than a one-man-band approach.

I thank the many public servants I've worked with over the years—most recently, the secretaries and deputy secretaries, principally Martin Parkinson, who I've known for over 30 years; David Gruen in PM&C; Glenys Beauchamp, who was secretary of the industry department and did a great job with me; and Heather Smith, who arrived just as I was going. With so many competing sources of advice in the public arena, an apolitical APS is more important than ever. I hope the Thodey review of the Australian Public Service sets the scene for continued investment in capability and there is more focus on working across the silos and engaging in scenario planning on major cross-portfolio issues like the ageing of the population. How's that for a bit of jargon!

The Turnbull government's development of City Deals is something I was particularly keen to support because I believe it will revolutionise how the three tiers of government cooperate to develop coherent infrastructure and planning policies to maximise the prospects of cities and regions. I remain a believer in a bigger Australia. I support the proposed population planning framework—Alan Tudge has gone now, but the PM's here; welcome, PM—to coordinate state and federal infrastructure and other services with our immigration and settlement policies. Allied with our initiatives for fast transport links with the regions, this can give substance to decentralisation policies and improve housing affordability.

Governments have an important influence on the economics of regions. In some cases it's about how we keep existing regional industries going; in others, it's about how we facilitate transition. As industry minister, I worked closely with South Australia and Rowan Ramsey, the local member, to find a buyer for the Whyalla Steelworks. There were no short- or medium-term alternatives to provide a jobs hub for the region. I'm pleased that GFG Alliance stepped up to give Whyalla a new start.

Both in the Howard era and as patron senator for the Hunter, I was privileged to participate in efforts to redevelop the region after the closure of the BHP steelworks. Once the region processed the closure of the steelworks and was ready to move on, there was an opportunity to focus on building on areas of comparative advantage to create new industries. This was facilitated by the adoption of what's called a smart specialisation strategy and utilising the firepower of that great regional university the University of Newcastle.

Reflecting on my time in the industry portfolio, there are just three issues I want to call out. We must keep up the pressure for more collaboration between the knowledge creators and industry to maximise the commercialisation of domestic ideas. I laud what we've done on industry growth centres, our reform of research block grant funding arrangements and the development of innovation precincts. We should build out the ecosystem, as the Canadians have done with their MaRS Discovery District, so we can fuel the growth of Australian based unicorns serving global markets.

My second point is that I support big science—that is, capital facilities that allow Australian researchers to do leading-edge research here and to be preferred partners for international researchers. Blue-sky research, or what we used to call fundamental or basic research, is not only vital in itself; it's the foundation of so many great inventions and innovations. With my good friend Senator Birmingham, I developed a road map for funding such infrastructure. While I'm on the subject of Senator Birmingham, I thank him for his policy courage in the education portfolio. He reformed child care. What he did on school funding was hard, and I know we had to make compromises along the way, but he set out a framework to clean up the sector. Well done, Simon.

I signed off on our $129 million 10-year big science strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory to secure the future of optical astronomy. That was a down payment on the agenda of looking after research infrastructure. I was also gratified that, by the end of 2017, resourcing the next iteration of high performance computers was agreed.

My third point on industry is very straightforward. I'm a strong proponent of strategic government procurement in industry development. The best example I can think of is what we've done with the creation of the defence industry portfolio. It will encourage domestic spin-offs from our record defence spending to help create sovereign industry capabilities.

The rise of an assertive and powerful new superpower, China, is challenging the liberal order built up painstakingly over 70 years. Now is not the time to retreat from that order or for nations to practice beggar-thy-neighbour policies. We have all gained immeasurably from the peace and globalisation of trade and investment that has resulted from the international rules based order. The liberal West must be united in resolute defence of the decent, humane universal values that underpin that order and continue to find ways to deepen China's engagement and commitment to that order. The world needs a strong and prosperous China that has a meaningful stake in the existing order.

The lesson we should take from history is not the winner-take-all approach of Versailles in 1919 but the generosity of the postwar 1945 settlement, when the United States led the creation of a new order encompassing allies and former enemies. It was one of the most generous acts of enlightened self-interest in recorded history. But if I can paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I think we should maybe 'talk softly but carry a big stick'. As a country we must keep building up our military capability and continue to strengthen our core alliance with the United States and our strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.

We can be very confident about our ability to punch above our weight internationally in pursuit of our national interest. The resuscitation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership minus the US was a great achievement that required hard work by Australia and Japan in particular. Australia has also been a global leader in calling out and legislating against foreign interference in domestic politics and taking measures to protect critical infrastructure.

I want to thank the Prime Minister for the opportunity to continue to serve this great country. The celebrated election win was, in my view, no accident. It was the product of a lot of hard work and campaigning experience by a leader who is probably the most complete politician of his generation. I want to thank John Howard for being the best boss ever. When I left in 2006 I respected him even more than at the beginning, not only as a reformer but also as a role model in all ways.

I would not be in parliament if it were not for the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party. I know this branch sometimes gets bad press but, I have to say, I've been struck by a number of things. The first thing is that when you join a party your obligation is to uphold its name and live up to its ideals. It's not a vehicle for personal ambition but a movement for the advancement of the community. As elected representatives we have to keep faith with our lay members and volunteers, because, overwhelmingly, in dealing with the New South Wales branch, what I've found is people who seek nothing for themselves but everything for their country and their party. They are the decent backbone of this country.

Thanks to the long-suffering party directors, who are often the unsung heroes of our success; my good friend Tony Nutt, who was my partner in crime for so long in the PMO; Chris Stone, who's become such a successful director, having just won state and federal elections here in New South Wales; Andrew Hirst, who cut his teeth in the PMO with the rest of us and who's gone on to be such a formidable leader and campaigner in his own right; Brian Loughnane, who's had so many victories and so much experience over so many years and has remained a friend; and Crosby Textor. They are not just good pollsters but true believers who were signed on for the bigger vision of what we were about. And thanks to the party presidents, like Nick Greiner and Shane Stone. Shane Stone is a close friend of mine, a great Australian, and if you ever want to get frank and fearless advice he's your man, although I'd encourage him not to put it in writing!

Thank you to my wonderful, wonderful staff, led by my good friend Peter Stephens, who's been helping me with the transition to my next life, and Andrew Hamilton for so capably leading the team while I was on sick leave and preparing so meticulously for the election campaign—he now works in the PMO. A major thanks to the lioness, Fiona Brown, who worked with me in the PMO, those years ago, and who set up my Senate and ministerial offices. She's been the anchor through the toughest political times and I owe my longevity in this place to her. She is now in the PMO too. Notice a pattern?

My special thanks to Stephen Brady, a PMO veteran and my best friend for over thirty years, who visited me every day I was in hospital. He became my case manager, offering solace and the best advice, even if at times I didn't like it.

To Richard Pye and the whole Senate team: thank you for your hard work, your top-level advice, your unfailing courtesy and helpfulness, and, above all, your fair dealing with all sides. That's what makes institutions like this what they are.

Thank you to my friend Mathias for being such a great wrangler of the Senate vote and a role model of someone who came here in his 20s and achieved so much in his adopted country. George Brandis is a good friend whom I admire as a classic and consistent small-l liberal. But a special debt is owed to my good friend Eric Abetz, my first leader in this place. Your first leader is a bit like your first love—very platonic man-love! Eric and I did not always agree, but he has always had my back, and I admire his great dignity and courage even in the most difficult of personal circumstances. Mr President, you've been a true friend through thick and thin. You and I could write a book about the last few years, but I don't think we want to blow up the whole place just yet! I must say that I fear you're an endangered species, being almost the last economic rationalist in captivity, but keep up the good fight.

Most importantly, thank you to my family. Elizabeth was a conscript to politics, but she has kept it together through the hardest of times. She is now fully engaged in her own career. As I said in my maiden speech, she is tougher, smarter and a better judge of people than me. She is completely ruthless; she should be the politician in the family! I haven't won an argument in 20 years, and the kids seem to have taken after her. To Dion, who's in Sydney studying for the HSC tomorrow, Isabella and Alexander, who are here: I'm sorry I've been away so often. Hopefully now we can spend real time together. I hope you don't get too bored!

Finally, colleagues on all sides, may I echo something I said in my maiden speech. Thank you for the welcome I have received since I have been here and for the many courtesies shown to me. I have listened to many speeches in this place, all well-researched and argued. I don't doubt the sincerity of the convictions that you bring to the table. I hope that, like you, I can look back on my career and say that, in a small way, I helped to make the best country in the world even better.