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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3579

Senator WEBBER (5:30 PM) —I am not sure how I feel about interrupting that interesting contribution by Senator Chapman—but that is not for me to comment on. When I first came into this place and made my first speech, I made it very clear that my belief was that the position I hold—until midnight, 30 June—belonged to the Western Australian branch of the Australian Labor Party. Not only does it belong to the Western Australian branch of the Australian Labor Party; it also belongs to each and every person who voted for Labor. That is still my view. This is not about me; it is about the number of seats that we win in Western Australia.

When presented with the choice of good news and bad news, I am someone who often takes the bad news first on the basis that things can only get better. So, in making this, my final contribution, I will start with the hard things first, knowing that it will get easier. The hard things, of course, are always to thank those who are special to you. I will start with the people who have always been there—my parents. We have been waiting for them to join us here. To my mother and to my father, thank you for your unconditional support throughout all of this and, in fact, throughout my life. To my father, I thank you particularly. This will surprise many people, because they usually see mum and me gossiping around the place, and they do not necessarily see dad and me together. He said something to me a very long time ago, and I do not think either of us realised its significance at the time. When I was still in school, he took me aside and said: ‘I just want you to remember, you can do anything you want to. You can be anything you want to be.’ Well, believe it or not, that time, Freddy, I listened—and look where we have ended up! So thank you very much.

The last 18 months have been an interesting journey for me, and coming to the end of this part of my working life has had its stresses and strains. However, it is much easier to cope with those stresses and strains when you have someone in your life that you can love—so, Warren, thank you.

I need to thank the people who have worked with me through what has been an interesting six years—probably more interesting for them than for me from time to time, because not only have they put up with the job but they have put up with me as well. Sue has been there right from the beginning and is still here. I do not know why she agreed to work with me, because she worked with me in party office. She is obviously a slow learner! But she is finally retiring from her services to the labour movement. Chris Dunn worked with me for a long time, until he decided to take his family to Christmas Island, which I think is an extreme way of escaping work in an electorate office in Woodvale. So, thank you to Sue and Chris and also to other members of the team—in particular, Karen, who has really been a constituent backstop; and Lyn, because without her being prepared to look after the office at home we would not be in the position that we are in now.

Believe it or not, there is a saying about whether or not you make many friends in politics. I think you do, although the test will be how long you keep them after you leave this place. I also think you make some unexpected friends along the way. Before I officially started as a senator, a group of us came to parliament together and were rounded up to go to what we termed ‘Labor senator school’. This is where we were educated in the refined arts of this place from a Labor point of view by former Senator Ray and Senator Faulkner. We were an unlikely group of people who, on the whole, had not met one another before. We went through our induction and then we had forced socialisation afterwards. That was an interesting experience. We all got to know a bit more about one another, but I got to know two of those people particularly well—Gavin and Claire. It is amazing how, out of a shared experience, you can form a very deep friendship. I thank you both.

Last but not least—unless I think of someone else, because this is not exactly a prepared speech—I want to thank and acknowledge my predecessor in this role, Jim McKiernan. Unlike many people who come into this place, I had a very good relationship with Jim when I took over. I still have a very good relationship with him; he has been very supportive. I would also, therefore, like to wish my successor all the best. Being elected to the Senate is an incredible opportunity. The Senate is a special place, and I do not think any of us fully realise that until we get here. As I said to others earlier—I think it was last week; there have been a few functions in the last couple of weeks—being elected to this place, from my point of view, is the real deal. This is the grown-up politics. This is where you impact on people’s lives, and there is no second chance. It is the one level of politics that absolutely has to be taken seriously every minute of the day. For those who are lucky enough to be selected or elected to be here, I want them to bear that in mind; and I particularly want my government to bear that in mind.

I also need to thank everyone who works in this place. While those of us who occupy the benches tend to be the public face of this chamber, that reflects but one role of this place. No individual is irreplaceable but each and every role in this place is. No senator would survive without any of you. So, rather than list all of you, I want to say to the staff: none of us could be what we are without each and every one of you fulfilling your roles. You help make the whole, and the whole is a very important institution in Australian democracy.

I was asked the other day what I thought of the role of a senator, and I said that I think it is the most amazing job you can have; but, after all, it is just a job. It is a very special job and it should be treasured, but it is just a job. But I cannot think of another job that actually allows you to meet and work with some of the best and brightest minds in the country, which is what I did when I was involved in the stem cell debate. No other job would have given me that opportunity.

No other job, whilst giving me such opportunities, would allow me to travel to rural and remote Australia, particularly Western Australia, and look at the confronting challenges of the delivery of mental health services, child sexual abuse and petrol sniffing. No other job, on top of those two things, would allow me to spend six years of my life inquiring into every piece of legislation that starts with ‘Tax Laws Amendment Bill’. That is quite something! And no other job would give me the opportunity to travel and to learn, and along the way try and teach my good friend Glenn Sterle how to speak French. That is something only the Senate can give you.

Senator Hutchins interjecting—

Senator WEBBER —Perhaps his French is better, Senator Hutchins, after my tutorage! But this job is a very special job. It is a job where the public only really sees what happens in this particular room. I do not actually think they ever see what makes it special and what makes its unique contribution to Australian democracy. I was thinking of that today when Senator Brandis passed me a note. Some of the work that we did on the Senate economics committee is really an example of what this place does well. I remember many a hearing where Senator Brandis, Senator Andrew Murray and I were in attendance. All three of us would come to the hearing with an open mind, and it was the evidence of those before us that guided us all into making good, objective public policy. That is what this place is about. That is the true work of this place, not the role-playing that goes on in this particular room of this place.

Having said all that, when you get up to make a final speech, you can spend a lot of time casting your mind to the past and what may or may not have happened. Or you can talk about the future. So I have decided to spend a bit of time focusing on the future. I am very proud of the fact that, although I am leaving this place, I am leaving with a Labor government in place—and a strong Labor government. That makes leaving just that little bit easier; in fact, it makes it pretty easy on the whole. But I think that that Labor government has some significant challenges that it needs to address. I am absolutely confident that in Kevin Rudd we have a Prime Minister who will address those challenges, because he is concerned about the state of the nation he leaves for the next generation, not just for the next three years.

Of course, it would come as no surprise to those who know me well that one of those challenges that I want the Rudd Labor government to have front and centre is the delivery of mental health services. Now that we are busy reforming federalism, ending the blame game and working together, please in mental health can we have a well-resourced plan—not three plans, one plan? We need one plan that is well resourced by all levels of government, that is supported by all levels of government and that has coordinated care at its centre. If we do not do that, we fail our community. So, please, can we do that?

One of the other concerns that I have had for a while, and it has again come out of the work I have done in Senate committees, particularly through the estimates process—and this will come as no surprise, given some recent comments—is the impact of what I consider to be very lazy public policy: the imposition across the board of an efficiency dividend, on every government agency. I think it was probably a good idea at the time, in that it helped focus the minds of those who were in charge of government agencies, but I think the role for that has long since gone. I think the role for that has long since gone for two reasons. Firstly, I think those of us who are elected to this place, particularly those who are elected to the executive, should actually accept the responsibility of making the hard decisions and not delegate that. They should actually accept the responsibility of casting government expenditure to mirror government priorities—and that means making some hard decisions and taking expenditure from things that do not mirror government priorities. I think to do anything else is lazy and is letting our community down.

I also think it is lazy because it does not actually offer the rewards that it should for government agencies that perform well. Where is the incentive, if you are a government agency and you are going to be given the same cuts, the same efficiency dividend, whether you meet the government objectives effectively or not? When you are all going to be treated in the same way there is no incentive to become more efficient, because the government is actually going to set the maximum as well as the effective minimum. A long time ago, in my previous life, I worked for a member of this place: former Senator Peter Walsh, who was a renowned Labor finance minister. Whilst I cannot vouch for his views on the efficiency dividend, there is a bit of me that says this is not the kind of public policy he would like. He would have been prepared to take all of the hard decisions, no matter what the political or personal cost. So I see this as a challenge for our new Labor government.

One of the other challenges that I think we face as a government is the development of the emissions trading scheme. I think that is going to be one of the biggest pieces of public policy and economic reform that this country has seen for quite some time. It is a huge challenge; it is a complex issue. But I am of the view—and it is probably going to upset quite a few—that, if we want effective change, if we have decided as a community, as a government, that the way we are going to deliver change is through an emissions trading scheme, then the best way to do that is to introduce the purest possible model, because no model will work if it is introduced in a compromised way. It is my view that we have to have the purest possible model and then use the money that the government raises through the auctioning of permits to develop a compensation package. That way we can look after the needs of those who most need it in our community whilst ensuring that all of us play our role in meeting the challenges of emissions trading. After all, all of us know—or most of us who have studied any of these things know—that the most effective way to change people’s behaviour and to change the market is through a price signal. You are only going to get the real price signal if you have a pure model. If you have a pure model you will probably also find that a lot of the current debates we have around renewable energy targets and around other issues actually become redundant. We will create an effective renewable energy market by actually introducing a pure emissions trading scheme. But that is a debate I am sure all of you who are staying here will get to dwell on for many a long hour.

Another thing that has concerned me for a while about the direction of policy debate, both within my party and within politics, is that it seems to stay as a fairly static thing. We seem to hold on to treasured views about particular policy. I think the time for that has gone. I am not saying that we should discard everything but I think that, with a new government, a new role for everyone and a mood for change in our community, it is time to put your principles at the forefront but not to hold policy as a static thing. The needs of our community change and so our policies and ideas to address its priorities also need to change. I know that in my time here my views on a number of policy icons, which I held dear for a long time, started to change as I was presented with new ideas. I hope we do not hold on to our policy settings forever, just our principles.

On leaving this place I think about the composition of this place. In fact, Mr President, you were the person who first made me think about this when you pointed out at the function the other evening, which is now being referred to by everyone, that when the 14 of us—whom I have taken to referring to as ‘evictees’—leave this place and the new mob come in there will be 39 senators who have been here for three years or less, which will be a challenge for everyone in terms of the breadth and depth of experience. I came here having worked for a number of politicians. I found it difficult to work out how to make this place work for me in this role, yet I had a very good understanding of the rules of this place. I cannot imagine the challenge that this place will be for those who do not come with that background. I also started to think about the composition of this place. It is changing, sometimes for the better. Have a look round here. There are a lot more women here than there used to be, and that can only be a good thing. It will be an even better thing when we have the numbers! But what my party as a major party really needs to do is look at the breadth of people’s experience. I came here as a party hack—that is what we are called—and so did my very good friend Chris Evans. You could probably also put Nick Minchin in that category. We were elected officials for our respective political parties. I have enormous admiration for people like Nick and Chris but, when you combine the party hacks and the lawyers, there is not a lot left here—there is not much else.

I look around and I see my good friend Glenn Sterle, who started life as a truck driver. As I understand it, that was his aim in life and then he got sidetracked into other things, such as representing the views of his friends. It was never his aim to be a professional political activist, whether it were through the trade union movement or through the Labor Party. Therefore, I think people like Glenn bring a very unique perspective to this place and a perspective that I worry we will lose if we as a party do not have a mind to ensure that we maintain the breadth of representation.

The highlight of my time in this place has probably been working with a wonderful group of women—the cross-party women who have previously been referred to by others. They have been referred to by others a lot more eloquently, so I will not go into that, except to say that I echo all of those comments that have been made by Kerry and Linda and, in particular, by Natasha.

We have achieved some great things. I hope we have achieved them with a sense of pride and a sense of purpose but also a sense of respect for those who do not hold our views. I am disappointed to be leaving this place without one last achievement, which seemed to cause a great deal of anxiety around this place earlier today, which is the proposal to change the AusAID funding guidelines. It is disappointing that that issue has not come to a head and that a decision has not been made. As I said, we all hold strong views on issues like that, but we do need to remember to treat one another with respect. Sometimes the contributions that people make do go unnoticed. We could have had an interesting experience here this morning and it certainly would have got me all riled up. But thanks to my good friend Claire Moore and thanks to Lyn Allison, we did not, and I think those who oppose my view should also acknowledge that.

In concluding, I would like to thank the many people who have come in here and said some very kind things about me. It is always interesting sitting here and learning other people’s perspectives of your contribution to this place. I would like to thank the many people who have been in contact to say some very kind things. After I have had my first sleep-in in a long time on 1 July, I hope I will then be able to get around to personally thanking each and every one of you.

I look forward to the future; the future is good. I have had an incredible opportunity. I come from a state with a population of about two million people. There are only four people at any one time who get to do this job, which is to be a Labor senator from Western Australia, and that should be remembered. It is an incredible opportunity. You have to make the most of it. It has given me the skills, the strength and the confidence to go forward. Thank you.