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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3589

Senator BARTLETT (6:13 PM) —I would like to add my voice to the acknowledgement of the contribution of Senator Webber and other departing senators. As I explained in my own valedictory last night, because of the unique circumstances facing the Democrats I did not have the time I would normally have to acknowledge the contribution of others or broader issues. I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge particularly Senator Webber, and also the other 13 departing senators who are leaving this chamber alongside me, plus Senator Ray.

Senator Webber, like Senator Kirk, served for only the one term and, without passing judgement on their party’s decisions, I think that is not only a detriment to their party but also a loss to the Senate. As we all know, we are all subject to the vagaries not just of the electorate but also of the processes that get us preselected—or not preselected—for this place. I certainly do not seek to pass judgement on other parties for their decision-making, but I think the departure of both of these women is nonetheless a loss to the Senate and, I believe, premature. The work of Senator Kirk and her expertise—I certainly know of her expertise in the area of immigration but she had expertise in other areas also—was of real value to the Senate in its core role of legislating. This role is often seriously undervalued and under-recognised, particularly by the media and others.

I have said it many times before and I will not have much opportunity to say it again, so I will say it one more time: we need to continually remind people that the vast majority of the things we do here—the arguments we have, the debates we have—is focused around the legislative process; that is, laws. Those laws affect people’s lives directly and often quite enormously. Often they affect very large numbers of people, and we do need to have people here who have the expertise and the focus to work on the legislative process and the detail. Both Senator Webber and Senator Kirk have that expertise and that focus. It is understandable—but I think it is a really unfortunate trait—that when outsiders assess the careers of politicians they basically tick off the titles and, for major party people, whether they got to the front bench, whether they were a minister or whether they got into cabinet. Of course, those things are important, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of suggesting that the role of backbenchers is somehow lesser. And it is not always lesser. I can absolutely guarantee that from my time here.

I have seen some people in backbench roles who have made an enormous difference, and I would add into that another departing senator from the other side, Senator Watson. As others have reflected, his expertise in areas of superannuation and tax has made a direct contribution. The very fact that people such as these have made their contribution in part by persuading others, and have therefore had change made by widespread agreement rather than by a crash or crash through type of thing, or being the person leading the charge out the front means it does not get noticed as much. But the change is just as real and sometimes more sustainable as well. I acknowledge the contributions of Senator Webber, Senator Kirk and also Senator George Campbell, the other departing Labor senator, who has been here slightly longer than I—just a brief period. He came in just before me in 1997. All of them in my experience have been effective in different roles. I have had more to do with the first two than with Senator Campbell, at least in committee and legislative work. I pay tribute and acknowledge what they have done.

I recall the work Senator Webber put into the stem cell legislation and I have some recollection of the work she put into me and to the vote I might take on that. I should say I am still not sure whether or not I should have voted the way I did.

Honourable senators—You did the right thing!

Senator BARTLETT —I do not know. So, if you had all adjourned that debate until I had made up my mind, you would still be waiting because I still have not made up my mind. But, as we all know, you have to vote one way or the other when the final calls come. More often than not I would still vote the same way I did, but I acknowledge Senator Webber’s commitment to that. And I might say as a general comment, more broadly, that it is not just the opinions people put but the process that is involved that is important. When you are dealing with people who are not sure or who see the validity of differing views, the way you put your argument makes a difference. I have that trait and it is sometimes quite a curse. I can see the merit in a range of different perspectives. I think it is worth remembering in a broader context that, if you put your case in a respectful and genuine way and in a way that does not just slag off everybody who might disagree with you, you are more likely to get agreement. Although I would not say that it applied to everybody who had an alternative view by any means, I can think of a few of the people who could have taken a similar approach on the other side of the debate. Who knows?

Then there are the other departing coalition Senators Patterson, Kemp, Lightfoot, Chapman and Sandy Macdonald. I have already mentioned Senator Watson. Again, you have different experiences with people on different committees. I have never been one for insincere praise and overly glowing platitudes when I do not actually mean them. I do not like doing those things in any sort of context. I have not had a lot to do with some of those people. Some I will not pretend I got on overly well with. But I acknowledge that all of them made contributions in their own area—a lot of them over an extraordinarily long period of time. I particularly admire the contribution of Senator Watson. Even though I did not have a lot to do with him, I was conscious enough of his expertise and the way he went about it to see the impact that he has had.

I have already spoken about the Democrats and my departing Senate colleagues. I have not mentioned Senator Nettle and I would like to acknowledge her contribution. She in some ways worked parallel to me, particularly on the issues of refugees and human rights. In some ways having someone doing the same things means you are battling on the same turf, but in a broader context it is way better. Sometimes it is a battle about who can get the attention. But it is much better to have someone else working alongside you on the same issue, because you have two voices out there doubling the effort and doubling the attention drawn to that issue. It is about the issues, and I acknowledge the contributions she has made and the difference she made in those areas and a number of others.

Senator Nettle was another one who served only a six-year term; she initially came to this place replacing Senator Vicki Bourne, a Democrat from New South Wales. It was a disappointment to me at the time that the Democrat seat was lost and went to the Greens, but it is a greater disappointment to me that that seat has now been lost and has gone to the major parties. That is no reflection on the person who has got it; I actually do not even know who from New South Wales has got it—no doubt some party hack: a union backroom official or whomever. The fact that there is now no representation outside of the major parties in New South Wales, as in my home state of Queensland, is a disappointment to me.

I did note Senator Webber’s recognition of the importance of the role that party officials play. As I said last night, that role is undervalued and sometimes unfairly besmirched. I thought it was good that she acknowledged the role, although I think she then went on to say there are too many of them here, along with lawyers. Well, Senator Webber, you are going and I am going, so that is a couple of fewer party hacks in the place! But I suspect there are a couple of more coming in, so perhaps that balance will be kept.

Having noted that Senator Nettle’s seat is returning, on her departure, to the major parties, I will take the chance, along with my departing four Democrat colleagues, to note that of the high of nine Senate seats that the Democrats had six or seven years ago—and obviously the last of all of those nine are now gone, sadly—six have gone to the major parties; only three went to the smaller parties. Not long ago the crossbench was at a high of 13, including Senator Murphy, although I suppose one could quibble that he was a person first elected for a major party, so let us say it was 12 people elected as non-major-party senators. It is now at seven senators. That is a lot bigger workload, and I want to keep making that point.

Another thing I would say, in looking at the outgoing group of 15, if I count Senator Ray, is that, while it is a large number, it is also a reflection of the different factors that can impact on politics. I think the perfect way that all of us would like to leave this place is at a time of our own choosing without pressure from outside factors, happily retiring and seeing our seat handed on to another person from our own party. Obviously that did not happen for any of the Democrats, because none of our seats was carried forward by a Democrat. Counting through that 15, I think probably only two or maybe three are in that situation. Some fell short in the eyes of the electorate, some fell short because they were unsuccessful in preselection and there were perhaps one or two others who saw the writing on the wall and did not contest once they knew they would not win. To only have two or three in that position of retiring as they wish and having their seat go to someone in their own party shows how many factors can come into play and lead to such a turnover.

It is a record high turnover, and I concur with Senator Webber that it is a huge turnover when you add those leaving this time, those who left last time and those who have left in between. Combined with a shrunken crossbench, it places a huge responsibility on the new Senate. Also, as I am duty bound to say, combined with the departure of the Democrats and our corporate memory collectively, it is a big task for the new Senate. I do not doubt that the people in it will do their best and I am sure they will rise to the task. I wish them well in that.

I wish all departing senators the best for the future. One thing that is for sure about the Senate—and Senator Webber reflected on how incredible a place it is, what an immense privilege it is to be a senator and what an amazing learning experience it is—is that life does not end when you walk out the door. Many would say life begins, and I hope it does for all those who are departing. Taking the things that we have learnt and applying them again to the benefit of the wider community is something I am sure most, if not all, of those who are retiring will do. I wish them well in doing so.