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Thursday, 27 June 1996
Page: 2490


Senator WHEELWRIGHT —In the last few months I have been very much concerned with those two hourglasses which sit at the front of the chamber on the table in front of the clerks. I have been very concerned with them because, as we know, theoretically time is infinite; but, because we are all human beings, time is in fact quite finite indeed—we are all mortal. For me, time has become extremely finite and time, in some respects, finishes at midnight next Sunday.

But I do not want anybody to think that because I have been in the Senate for only a short period of time I have lacked anything of the enjoyment of being in the Senate. In fact the opposite character of finite time is intensity of experience. For me, it has been an extraordinarily intense experience.

I was talking with a friend the other night in Sydney about the problems of the world, our rumination on the problems of the world and what we might do about them. She said to me suddenly, `You know, the world would be a helluva lot better place if everybody had happy and contented sex lives.' I thought that added a certain perspective to our deliberations here and I thought it was an idea that probably had a great deal to commend it. Without any disrespect to the Senate, I have to say that the next best thing to sex is the life of a senator.

Honourable senators interjecting


Senator WHEELWRIGHT —I said the next best thing. I have never in my life enjoyed anything quite so much as being a senator. It has without a doubt been the happiest period of my life so far. I like absolutely everything about the job, even down to the parquetry floor on which we walk. It has been my pleasure since I have been in this chamber, and it will be just 13 months, that I have seen the Senate at its worst—I have seen the Senate in the first week that I got here do only 1½ minutes of government business and in the following week do only three minutes of government business—and the Senate at its best.

I have seen the absolute white heat of debate in this chamber, where I have seen positions which are very strongly held also very strongly put. I also hope that in my participation on those occasions I have shown that I can take it as well as dish it out. Senator Vanstone earlier, when I put this view to her, said, `Yes, well of course you've got it quite the wrong way around; you shouldn't dish it out unless you can take it.' There is a great deal to be said for that.

I have been lucky enough to see major legislation moulded on the very floor of this chamber in consultation between the minister at the table and other senators and at a level of informality which I think defies any form of procedure, but nevertheless brings out what I believe is good government for this country. The best thing of all that I have seen in this chamber is the Senate completely quiet and patient with a senator who is no great public speaker but who is nevertheless very sincere.

I have also found through the committees that there has been untold intellectual stimulation in this place. One of the great things about being a senator is that everybody wants to tell you their story. If you are a senator, every Australian who has something to contribute or something to add or has some great concern about this country wants to come and tell you about it. They want to tell you how they pushed forward the bounds of goodness in this country, of intellectual life and all the rest of it. It is a great source of stimulation and I think it is not one that could easily be found anywhere else. If you are a senator, you do indeed meet the best and the brightest that Australia has to offer.

I was lucky enough to be on the Environment, Recreation, Communications and the Arts References Committee, which is the pick of the committees. Our work on that committee did not leave us much time to consider other areas of public life. I would certainly like to thank Robert King and Frances Michaelis who worked so hard on that committee.

I have, through the committees, been able to participate in some of the great issues of public policy today. I have been able to contribute to inquiries into Australia's role in the information superhighway, which has to be, if anything is, the great future for our children; into marine pollution; and into the education of Australia's great artists. This is not to mention the ongoing inquiries that I now have to leave on Telstra, on uranium and on industrial relations.

The other great privilege of a senator is being allowed to travel and I hope it is a privilege that all of you hold dear and intend to hang on to. In travelling around Australia as a senator you get to meet your fellow Australians. In my case it has been from Townsville to Jabiru, to the Great Sandy Desert, and even to Muroroa Atoll. I believe that one of the great privileges we have is to talk to other Australians to find out what it is they feel about the country and what it is they want from you as a parliamentarian.

If I have one small regret, it is that I have had no nominated spouse equivalent to travel with me. I think that probably says something about this place because I do not know how you could have a partner. I think it is probably one of the most difficult things of all. The great enjoyment that I have taken out of this place has been in some respects because I am a single man. I have a great sympathy for those people who have families and particularly those with young children. I think anything that can be done in this place to think more about how families fit in will benefit not just ourselves but the country at large.

Can I also say that I have loved the theatre of the place. This has to be the greatest stage in the nation. I came into the incredible boredom of question time as a government backbencher, where all you can do is sit there and look at that praetorian guard of ministers in front of you with their spears advanced, their shields up as they stand there and withstand everything that can be thrown at them from across the other side of the chamber—the arrows, the knives, the stones, the boiling oil, the kitchen sink; anything that might fall to hand. And, of course, as a government backbencher you wince occasionally at some of the very heavy body blows. You see the knees of ministers sag for a while before they recover and you just hope that that thin line does not get broken. But for the rest of the time you have got to depend upon Aussie's coffee to keep your interest up because there is really not a great deal that you can do about it if that thin line breaks.

I have also had the opportunity of being on the other side where you see a quite different sight. You see a pack of slavering hounds, bloodthirsty Goths and Vandals roaming around looking for any opportunity, any chink of light they can see on the other side; where everybody is encouraged to get up and have a go, do your best, do anything that you can think of and by all means charge in.

Having seen the wonderful order, this almost Roman imperial order of government and discipline, it has been an extraordinary experience for me to come over here and see this marauding pack of opposition who are exactly the same people! They just seem to have gone through this strange change as they cross the chamber.

To me, the minor parties have always appeared like the crowd at Wimbledon, watching the ball go from one side of the chamber to the other side of the chamber. However, unlike the crowd at Wimbledon, the minor parties are not above climbing over the fence and having a bit of a swing themselves. Even more occasionally they have had their arms ripped off for their trouble and they go back perhaps sorrier for the experience.

As everyone has said, there are too many people to thank. You can never mention everyone. Given the lateness of the hour and the time that is available, I will assume that most of the people who are going out with me have had enough nice things said about them without me adding to it. But I would particularly like to thank my very overworked and very underpaid staff who work for wages which are hopeless, who fill in overtime forms which are hopeless indications of the work they do. They are four people who are, I believe, the living proof that money is not the great motivator. It is the noble things in life that motivate people. It is questions of principle, conviction, commitment and compassion.

No amount of money can pay the four people who have worked for me to do the work they have to the standard they have and with the commitment they have shown. And in that respect, Kathrine Boyle has provided my social policy advice, Ophelia Cowell has given me advice on the environment, Rod Smith is my economic adviser and Cass Wilkinson has advised on communications and the arts. Those people have contributed more to my work in this place than anybody else and certainly me.

I certainly would also like to thank the staff of the Senate. When I first came into this place, Cass could not believe it. On her first visit to this parliament she said, `Tom, I just cannot cope with all this deference these people show you.' And I suppose there is a certain humility that all senators find from the respect with which they are treated by the staff of the Senate and I hope all of us can say that we deserve it.

One person I must particularly mention is Cleaver Elliott. Ophelia said to me when she first met him, and she is an environmental scientist, that Cleaver was a perfect example of a species adapting to its environment. She thought that his feet were adapted for padding down the corridor, that his ears and nose adapted to sensing the currents and eddies of the place and that his skin had entirely adapted to artificial light. But from working with Cleaver, I have to say that for me he represents the heart and soul of the place; he really does. And I think his respect for the institutions of the Senate and for the purpose of the Senate is something which befits all of us.

I would also like to thank Hansard because I believe in this place we do not work with our hands, despite the reference to Solvol at every opportunity. We do not work with our hands: we work with our words and the keeper of our words is Hansard. I must say that I am constantly amazed at the quality of work that comes back to me from Hansard. The written word is a fundamentally different form of expression to the spoken word and I am delighted by the fact that when I get stuff back from Hansard I very seldom have to make anything more than the most trivial correction. It is extremely good as far as I am concerned.


Senator Patterson —Yours is not bad to start with.


Senator WHEELWRIGHT —You are being too kind. I know it is my last contribution.

I have taken great comfort from standing order 187 which says that speeches should not be read. I think it has been one of the great disciplines of this place because not reading a speech does clarify the mind and it also reminds you that there is an audience. It instructs us that the two things we have to do is to inform and to persuade. And on the subject of the audience, I have to say too that I have tried as much as I can to be conscious of the public gallery.

Without a doubt the most unnerving experience that I have had in this place was about two weeks into my term, when a large group of people came to observe a debate about the importation of pig meat from overseas. They lined these galleries until they were full. They sat very respectfully. They did not interrupt. They did not intervene in the debate at all. They neither applauded, nor groaned. They just sat there watching us for day after day. I have to say it was one of the most unnerving experiences I have had in this chamber. It was a humbling experience. I know only a tiny proportion of people ever come to see parliament, but I try as much as I can to remind myself that there is always someone watching us.

The other thing I would like to say, too, is that I know I have not always been able to maintain my own discipline but I have tried as much as I can not to interject. I think that one of the fundamental rights of any senator is the right to be heard. As much as I can, I have tried to respect that.

As far as my Labor colleagues are concerned, I have to thank all of them for their extraordinary encouragement and the very great support that they have shown me in my time here. Particularly, I would like to thank my colleague, Shayne Murphy. He and I used to talk across the aisle so much when we were on the other side that they decided to sit us together when we came over here. He is the unsung hero of Muroroa. The world needs to know that he was far more gung-ho than ever I was about the expedition to Muroroa. It was only the luck of the ballot that meant that I went through the 12-mile zone with Greenpeace, rather than he. His contribution to that exercise and his commitment is something that has seldom been recognised. I have to thank him greatly for his encouragement and particularly for his sense of humour, which provides a unique perspective on this place.

I have to thank my New South Wales factional colleagues, Senators Forshaw, Neal and West. One of the most remarkable things about the New South Wales Right is that, the further you get from Sussex Street, the stronger the tribal loyalties become. The closer you go to the centres of power, the more divided we are. I have certainly found that. The trip to Canberra has been a unifying experience.

I would also like to thank John Faulkner. We play it very hard in New South Wales—very hard indeed. John said earlier that our working relationship had been a bit rough—I think that is putting it mildly. In the period that he and I worked together in Sussex Street, there was a period of over a year when we did not speak to each other at all—not at all. We did not even say, `Good morning,' or `Pass the salt.' It was a very difficult period and I think it says something about his sense of graciousness that he was prepared to forgive and forget. All I can say about him is that I could not have got any more support from any leader or any friend.

Another person I would like to thank is Robert Ray. When I came in here I thought, `Anyone who frightens Graham Richardson'—and Graham said he was frightened of him—`absolutely terrifies me.' All I can say about Robert is that I have certainly been straight with him and I think he has been straight with me. He has been a great source of encouragement and, particularly, strategic advice. I cannot explain it, but it may be the fact that both he and I depended on taxi driving for our living at one point.

Another person I would like to thank is Gerry Jones. He truly is a gentle man. He is about the best person a new senator could meet for showing you through the highways and byways of the place, for catching you before you trip, and generally providing that

wise counsel and stopping you from looking like a complete dork when you really do not know what you are doing.

The other person I have to thank too is our new whip, Chris Evans, with whom I sat when I first came in, and I have to share one thing with the Senate. When I first sat down I looked at the duty roster and I said to Chris Evans, `What is this all about?' And he said, `Oh mate, don't worry about that, I just ignore it.' I will say, though, in his defence, that a duty roster is very different in opposition as opposed to government, and so I can understand the newfound enthusiasm that he finds and the great need for us on our side to respect it.

The other thing I can say is that it has been a happy experience to find that you can have opponents in this place but not enemies, and in that respect I would like to mention two people: Senator Alan Ferguson and Senator Sandy Macdonald who have offered me friendship, and it is something that I have been very happy to accept.

I would also like to thank my landlady and my friend Amanda Little who has added the very much needed social dimension to my time in Canberra. I am one of the happy people who can say that I do not just come here to work, I do actually have another life outside of this chamber.

  And that is about it. That is my last speech, unless you all want to come back on the weekend—and if you do, I am more than happy to come. I will happily oblige. I would like to thank you all and I would like to thank all the people who put me here. You have allowed me to fulfil a lifetime ambition and there are very few people in the world who ever achieve that. Thank you.