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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9235

Mr BRIGGS (5:32 PM) —Mr Speaker, I rise in this chamber today humbled by the honour and the significance of representing the people of Mayo in the federal parliament. In the shadows of a political giant I stand here as the second person to represent this great electorate. It is appropriate to pay tribute to my predecessor, Alexander Downer. I thank him for his tremendous guidance and friendship, recognise him for his unfailing commitment to his electors and honour him for his outstanding contribution to the foreign relations of our country.

To the people of Mayo I undertake that my commitment to their service will always be my principal responsibility in this place. Many would be familiar with my electorate, spreading as it does through large parts of suburban and rural South Australia, including some of the best wine country in the world. You would know that Mayo contributes to the nation’s food bowl with dairy, beef, sheep, apples, pears, cherries, smallgoods and cereals. It is an area of considerable beauty, with many internationally recognised tourism locations. It has some of the fastest-growing towns and rural cities in Australia, creating familiar challenges with planning, services and infrastructure.

Of course, you would have seen the courageous communities on the Lower Lakes making news recently, as they face up to the crisis which bedevils the Murray-Darling Basin every single day. This is a crisis that should not be beyond the wit or ability of a practical and innovative people to fix. The River Murray is a naturally replenishing resource that we must be able to use for food production. But, because of many years of overallocation, excessive regulation, poor planning by successive governments and a once-in-a-generation drought, the system is now at a crisis point.

What has become clear to me is that the time for blaming each other is over. For too long the system has suffered because of continued conflict: state against state, Liberal against Labor and, more recently, Labor Premier against Labor Premier. What those in authority have failed to appreciate is that bickering between us has been viewed as juvenile by those who elect us. What is needed is a national leadership that is above politics. It needs a plan like the Howard-Turnbull plan released in 2007. That plan was visionary because it addressed the big issues in the system: infrastructure investment, water buybacks, structural adjustment and the management of the whole basin. We must treat the basin as one system, we must invest in water efficiency, we must tackle the problem of overallocations in a coherent manner and, most of all, we must help communities to adjust to the new reality. If we do not, the Lower Lakes in my electorate will reach the point of no return.

The unsatisfactory agreement from COAG will not achieve the necessary reform. While it endorses most of the Howard-Turnbull plan, it is too slow in its implementation, and it still allows the states to preserve their own interests against those of the basin. In this regard, installing a new weir and flooding the Lower Lakes with sea water would be an environmental and social catastrophe. My colleague in the South Australian parliament, the member for Hammond, recently delivered an outstanding speech on this issue, debunking the specious arguments for the weir and with them the myth that has developed in relation to evaporation from the Lower Lakes. Importantly it also debunks the falsehood that the Lower Lakes were once a saltwater environment. A weir is not a solution; it is an admission of failure.

We must also remember that this crisis is not just an environmental crisis. It affects real people. It is our responsibility, therefore, to ensure that the people affected by this crisis receive the same attention that we are prepared to afford the environment. The truth is that the communities on the Lower Lakes need a hand. Therefore, in the spirit of bipartisanship, I have today written to the Prime Minister requesting that he personally intervene to assist the communities on the Lower Lakes to get through this crisis. These are proud Australians who deserve our support.

I come to this place determined to do my part to make the best country in the world an even better place to live. Mine is a typically Australian story. I was brought up in Mildura in a loving middle-class family. My father, Peter, worked for the Commonwealth Bank and my mum, Jan, stayed at home to raise the family. I moved to Adelaide following year 12 to pursue dreams of playing cricket for Australia. What I was quick to learn, however, was that my ability was no match for my enthusiasm and that I was destined to follow a different path.

I was drawn to politics because I realised that the only way to have an influence on Australia’s future was to be involved. I have always known the love of my parents and their unfailing belief in my sister and me. I will always be grateful to them and for what they taught us. They taught us the absolute importance of family life, that hard work and making the most of your opportunities will bring rewards and that Australia is the best country in the world, with a stable system of government and strong, enduring institutions. From them and from my own experience I have found that we are a country of abundant opportunity—where anyone willing to have a go can reach for their potential.

But, if we are to keep our place in the world as a country that punches well above its weight, we must continue to face up to our challenges. Our most immediate challenge is to keep our economy strong in a period of incredible financial turmoil. This challenge puts at risk the security of our national economy, as well as the ability of families to meet their monthly mortgage payments. But it is a challenge we are well placed to confront, thanks largely to the tough decisions taken by John Howard and Peter Costello over the previous 12 years. So to every opponent who would have defeated me by my association with the policies of the former Prime Minister, may I express my gratitude and humility for this legacy: two million new jobs, the lowest unemployment rate in generations, significantly higher real wages for workers, a government that is now debt free and in surplus—delivered in the face of senseless opposition—a people now less dependent on the state and more self-reliant and an Australia proud of its history and its place in the world. Mark my words: the further time passes from the period of the Howard government, the more clearly we will see its legacy and yearn for an administration of its equal.

I have always admired politicians who stand by their beliefs. British author Andrew Roberts describes a statesman as someone who, in the face of a general election, stands by an unpopular policy because they believe it is in the best interests of their country. Through history these statesmen are well remembered: Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair, to name a few. They are lionised now but were bitterly opposed in their time. History will judge John Howard in a similar way. Whether it was standing up on gun control, modernising our tax system, intervening in East Timor, standing by our allies in the war against terror or reforming the workplace relations system, John Howard did what he believed to be the right thing for Australia’s future.

Of course, reforming Australia’s workplace laws will be remembered as one of the factors in his government’s downfall, but what is ignored and forgotten is that the system that operates in this country today is a world away from the workplace system that operated in 1996—much to Australia’s advantage. No longer is the Australian economy held to ransom by wildcat strike action. No longer are the wharves controlled by a group of militants who made our waterfront the laughing stock of the world. No longer are Australian workplaces bullied by uninvited third parties. The heavy lifting on reforming Australia’s workplace laws has been done. This country is a more productive place because of John Howard’s workplace policies, so much so the new government is barely changing them!

While it is right for us to honour the legacies of John Howard, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer, who delivered a golden age in Australia, it is now time for the next generation of Liberals to stand up. The Australian people decided last November they wanted a fresh approach, and we must learn the lessons of that defeat and rebuild. But Australians cannot afford for us to sit on this side of the House for any longer than is absolutely necessary. I believe we must return to our core values, take from the very best of the previous government and set ourselves policies for the next Liberal administration. I am a Liberal because I believe in the importance of family as the cornerstone of our lives. I am a Liberal because I believe in the value of small business as the engine room of jobs. I am a Liberal because I believe in the role of personal responsibility and self-reliance in our society. And I am a Liberal because I am proud of my country and its place in the world.

While we are in opposition we should not be pale imitations of the Labor Party in government, and we must not be afraid to take on battles on unpopular issues if we consider our position to be right and in the interests of Australia. It is vital for Australia that the opposition evaluates major policy changes on merit and not on emotion. In this respect, the planned introduction of an emissions trading scheme will be a key test for both sides of this House. I believe this debate risks being hijacked by extremists who are intolerant of a range of legitimate views. Australia has a proud tradition of avoiding extremism in policy development. It is one of the reasons our country is so strong. But we are diminished as a nation if we are to persecute those who dare raise doubts about the assumptions behind the current discussion on climate change. This is, indeed, a vital debate—but let it be open, where views are encouraged and respected and a critical evaluation of all the facts is encouraged. For what it is worth, my view on this issue is that we should do what we can to reduce our impact on the environment.

I want my children, Elka and Henry, and future generations of my family to grow up in an environmentally sustainable world. But I also want an honest debate that considers the impact on our economy and the working lives of ordinary Australians. It seems to me that the worst thing we can do is to overreach with our approach to this issue and make little difference to the climate but destroy our economy and our future. This should not be used—as it has been—as a tool of political bludgeon by one party against the record of another. That is why I am so concerned about a government that says it is serious about addressing climate change but in the budget cuts a subsidy for the solar panels because the scheme was supposedly overheating and about a government that says it is serious about addressing climate change but for factional and ideological reasons refuses to sell uranium to India. This is a serious issue and a serious challenge for Australia and the world. We must work overtime to get the big-polluting countries to agree to a plan for the future. Without such an agreement next year, anything we do will be of limited consequence. Hopefully this is the reason our Prime Minister has clocked up so many frequent flyer points this year!

I have the same realistic view of national security that I do of the environment. In particular, I believe we should not for a moment assume that because episodes of terrorism on Western soil have reduced we are immune to attack. We must be aware of our international responsibilities in the war against terror and be ever vigilant on our homeland. We are right to play a significant role in the war against terror, we were right to stand by our allies and we were right to fight for a victory. I pay tribute to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force for the job they are doing for us in Afghanistan, Iraq and the other countries where they are stationed. I honour all our service men and women, just as I honour the contribution of those Australians—including my grandfather—who served our country and in so many cases made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our way of life.

The reality in today’s world is that borders mean less than they have at any time in the past. The internet is the great enabler of our time. It has indeed flattened the world. It is a tool for commerce that will drive economic growth. It is a tool for education that will help our children learn. It is an essential tool in our modern society. I believe that broadband must be reliable and it must be available at a reasonable price. Broadband is also a vital educational tool. Young Australians are very fortunate to have a well-funded and accessible education system with reasonably high standards. It is one of the key pillars in keeping Australia ahead of the world.

But this may not always be the case. Our competition in a globalised world has learnt from and invested in education. Thomas Friedman in his bell-ringing book, The World is Flat, highlights the need for Western countries like Australia to improve their education systems to stay in front of the pack. This investment must begin at early childhood and stretch through to higher education. It means creating a system based on reward for effort and reward for achievement.

Reward for the better performing teachers is important. Performance pay for our teachers must be a road travelled for policy makers in the coming years. Our education system must also reward children who do well. I believe there should be well-designed programs to help fast-track bright kids. Equally for those who wish to pursue trades, this should be encouraged with specialist technical colleges. This government is making a big mistake by walking away from technical schools, just as Labor did in the past. Our education system must be dynamic enough to bring out the best in all our children.

The work and family balance is a further challenge that will continue to test policy makers. I am an unashamed supporter of the baby bonus and of family tax benefits, because families deserve our encouragement and support. As a country we need a higher birth rate, and I have little doubt that recent increases in the birth rate have been due in part to these policies. Paid maternity leave is already a significant part of the equation in the modern workplace, but where the federal government can do more is to fill the gap in the small business area. For businesses with fewer than 100 employees it is very difficult, if not impossible, for them to provide paid maternity leave. I believe the government should develop a scheme to assist workers and businesses in this bracket, leaving larger businesses to continue to build in paid maternity leave in workplace agreements. But whatever policy the government settles on, it should not under any circumstances harm small business or discriminate against those mothers who choose to stay at home and raise their children.

We on this side of the House take an optimistic view of Australia’s future. We have challenges but they should not be beyond our wit to fix. We have a sound political system and in that respect I pay tribute to the Australian Electoral Commission for the way in which they conducted the recent by-election in Mayo. We are well served by our Electoral Commission and their independence is a fundamental strength of our democracy.

However, I believe there is an immediate challenge for our democracy. We are witnessing in present days the US election campaign where millions upon millions are being spent by both sides. I fear that our system is heading down this track at a rapid rate, raising doubts in our electors’ minds on the integrity of large donations. I share the concern of the member for Cook that our country needs to address the funding of election campaigns. I also consider we must strive to do better in this place. I believe the Australian public is sick of endless reviews and ‘political speak’. It is time to govern rather than manage.

In conclusion, I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge several people. As all of you in this House know, we do not have the opportunity to represent our electorates without a loyal band of volunteers assisting us. In that respect I pay tribute to all the Liberal Party members and volunteers in Mayo who helped deliver the opportunity for me to sit in this place. In particular I thank Jeff Mincham, who was my campaign manager and whose efforts went far beyond what was expected. By-elections are always difficult to run and win and in that respect I acknowledge the assistance of John Burston and the Lib team at Liberal Party headquarters. Also I thank Nick Minchin for all his advice and hard work during the campaign and all my other state and federal colleagues who worked so hard to ensure my election.

I have been extremely fortunate in my time in politics to be exposed to several brilliant political minds. In particular I acknowledge Rob Lucas, for without his support and guidance I would not be here today, and John Howard, the best Prime Minister this country has ever had and someone I was privileged to serve for three years. To all of my friends who have journeyed here today from far and wide, thank you, and to others who could not join us today I also express my heartfelt thanks.

To my mum, dad and sister, Kate, thank you for so very much. My sister is achieving significantly in her own right and I am very proud. Mum and dad have always been my biggest fans—and in mum’s case, most vocal of fans—and without their guidance and support I would not be standing here today. I thank my in-laws, the Fiebigers, Noel, Claire and Toyah, for all their support, particularly in recent months.

And finally, I thank my children, Elka and Henry, who have brightened our lives, and last but certainly not least, my beautiful wife, Estee. I am indeed the most fortunate man alive to have found my best friend to share my life. Without her support, encouragement and occasional tempering of some of my less well-thought-through ideas, I would not be half the person I am today. It is an enormous honour to sit in this place. I shall never forget nor disregard the enormous faith the electorate of Mayo has placed in me and I will do my best every single day to make Mayo and our country an even better place to live. Thank you.