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Wednesday, 11 September 1996
Page: 3306

Senator EGGLESTON(5.19 p.m.) —Thank you, Madam President. In rising to give my maiden speech, may I first say that I regard it as a great honour to have become a member of the Senate. I have very great respect for the place of the Senate in the Australian constitution and its role in our process of government.

  Australia is a vast and varied country with great differences between the regions, some of which, while having great economic potential, have low populations. Because of that, I believe that a system of government recognising the need for regional representation is essential for the continued develop ment and good government of this country at both state and federal levels. I was pleased that the High Court of Australia, in rejecting the recent Western Australian ALP challenge to the electoral boundaries in Western Australia, held that the concept of regional representation was implicitly recognised in the constitution as a feature of the Australian system of government, which, needless to say, in the federal sphere is provided by the Senate.

It is also a great honour to have the opportunity of representing my own great state of Western Australia in the federal parliament and, in my case, to represent here in Canberra the north of Western Australia. The north of Western Australia makes a massive contribution to the national economy. For example, the Pilbara mining industry alone contributes 10 per cent of Australia's merchandise exports. Yet, notwithstanding this, the north of Western Australia has never had any effective representation here in Canberra, much less been represented by a person who comes from the area.

Having lived in the Pilbara for the last 22½ years, been Mayor of Port Hedland for the last three years, been chairman of the Pilbara ward of the Country Shire Councils Association, a member of the board of the Pilbara Development Commission and closely involved in the formulation of WA Liberal Party policy for the north since the early 1980s, I believe I am well qualified to give the people of the North-West and the issues which concern them a powerful voice here in Canberra, and give the north effective input into the federal political process.

I understand that traditionally in a maiden speech one should say who one is, where one comes from in the sense of what relevant life experience one brings to the Senate, and what one's beliefs are.

I am a fourth generation Australian. My great-grandmother, Alice Murray, was born—as Senator Abetz will be pleased to know—in Van Diemen's Land in 1839. My grandfather brought my part of the Eggleston family to the west in the 1890s. I grew up in Busselton in the south-west of Western Australia and I went to school and university in Perth.

I was a medical student at UWA and at that time I joined the Liberal Party and became what is now described as a `student politician', being involved in the UWA Guild Council, NUAUS as it was then known, and my national faculty bureau, the AMSA or Australian Medical Students Association. I then spent four years in the UK and, after returning to Perth, to fulfil a long-held curiosity, I went to the North-West—supposedly for six months, but, as is the story of so many people in the north, that six months became 22 years.

The life experiences I bring to the Senate are, most importantly, having lived in the north of this country, having been a medical GP at a time of great change in Australian medicine, having been involved in local government at a fairly senior level and serving as a member of a state regional development commission, the Pilbara Development Commission.

I would like to say a little about general practice medicine, which is undergoing something of a crisis of identity at the moment. As a recent ANU survey showed, many GPs are disillusioned and frustrated. As things have evolved over the last 25 years, the status and scope of work performed by GPs have diminished. The income of GPs has fallen, both in absolute and relative terms to that of their specialist colleagues, so that today many GPs, especially in the metropolitan areas, are genuinely struggling to meet the cost of providing the equipment necessary to enable them to give good service. Although reassuring noises are constantly made about general practice medicine remaining the cornerstone of Australian medicine, the contemporary role of the GP has never been satisfactorily defined.

If general practice is to be maintained in this country, it is important that the role of the GP within the Australian medical system should be defined and adequately funded because able and intelligent young men and women are not going to enter a discipline which does not have a definite role in the scheme of things, as well as offering job satisfaction, challenge and reasonable rewards. This is a matter which should concern the Senate because the community makes a large investment in the training of doctors.

One of the great problems of Australian medicine is that of getting medical practitioners to go to small country towns. The reasons for this are complex and not only related to working conditions but also to social factors such as education and shopping facilities and the fact that doctors' wives tend to be city girls who do not relate well to living in country towns for long periods. For some time I have thought there was an analogy to be drawn between the health and education services under which young teachers are sent out to country schools for a few years after graduation. It occurs to me that one solution to the problem of providing adequate medical services in small rural communities might be to establish community health centres in areas of need where not one, but two or three salaried doctors—to ensure reasonable duty rosters—would work as part of a team of health professionals which might include a visiting physiotherapist, occupational therapist and social worker.

I strongly support the endeavours of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, of which I am a fellow, to improve GP medicine through various means, including more effective political representation in the forums of medicine. I congratulate the college on the excellence of its innovative continuing medical education programs which are recognised world wide.

I spent eight years in local government, which I found to be an interesting experience, encompassing a wide range of activities from running an arts centre and privatising a busy airport, to dealing with tourism projects and regional development issues, as well as administering a HACC program and an aged persons' village. There is no doubt that the scope of local government is growing and, while I do not agree with the vision that some participants in the field have for the role of local government in the future in terms of local government superseding state governments, I do believe that the role local government plays in delivering services to the Australian community should have formal recognition in the constitution, as well as more secure funding.

The North-West is that area of Western Australia roughly north of the 26th parallel encompassing the Gascoyne, Pilbara and Kimberley regions and represents about 50 per cent of the land area of Western Australia or half a million square miles. While the North-West is a vast and ancient land, the modern north is, in many ways, a microcosm of Australia's future. By this I mean that the population is young and multicultural, there being a wide diversity of nationalities and ethnic groups, including some with close ties to Asia, not only in the old towns of Broome and Carnarvon with their Japanese and Chinese links but also in the new towns such as South Hedland where 10 per cent of the population are Malay Muslims. Furthermore, the economy of the north is export oriented and increasingly linked to the tiger economies of Asia.

As I said in my introduction, the North-West makes a truly massive contribution to the national economy, and the great powerhouse of the north is the Pilbara. The development of the Pilbara region into one of the world's greatest mineral producing areas over the last 30 years has been a remarkable success story. The Pilbara economy is based on iron ore, natural gas, petroleum and solar salt production. The Pilbara now produces some $7 billion worth of minerals per annum generating, as I have already said, 10 per cent of Australia's merchandising exports.

Over the years, concern has been expressed that Australia was no more than a quarry for the steel mills of Asia. I am pleased to say that secondary processing is now beginning to occur. Plants are being constructed to process iron ore into hot briquettes which are the feedstock for electric arc furnaces, which is the new way steel is made. It is now quite possible that the future will see such steel mills being established in the Pilbara, which will see the fulfilment of Sir Charles Court's great plan—he once told me off, in no uncertain terms, for calling it a dream—to see steel production in the Pilbara become a reality.

Having returned today from the Pilbara conference which was held in Karratha on Monday and Tuesday, I can tell senators there are many other possibilities for large scale industrial development in the Pilbara, such as the establishment of a petrochemical industry, to mention but one.

It is educational for the Senate to know why it has taken 30 years for secondary downstream processing to begin in the Pilbara. The reasons why secondary processing is only now becoming possible are these. Firstly, it is because of the previously appalling industrial relations record in the Pilbara, which only improved when the unions came to understand in the early 1980s that the Japanese could go to Brazil as an alternative source of supply for their iron ore and that there was no question of industrial problems occurring in Brazil, for obvious reasons.

Secondly, automation has reduced the price of labour, which is a major disincentive to further development. The Pilbara 21 study of a few years ago revealed that it cost about $65,000 per annum to employ a skilled tradesperson in the Pilbara compared to about $30, 000 for the same person in Perth. While the cost of labour has not come down, automation means fewer people are employed, with a dramatic fall in the total cost of labour to industry.

Thirdly, the deregulation of the energy market in Western Australia has substantially reduced the price of energy, so that now the Pilbara offers the lowest priced gas in the South-East Asian area. The Pilbara is now the nation's leading producer of petroleum products, the value of which was $3.77 billion in 1995.

To the north of the Pilbara is the Kimberley region. The principal drivers of economic activity in the Kimberley are the mining, tourism, agriculture, pastoral, pearling and fishing industries, with the total Kimberley economy earning the nation about $890 million per annum. Irrigated agriculture at Kununurra on the Ord River has grown rapidly in recent years, capitalising on out-of-season markets in Australia's southern capital cities and developing international markets.   Currently, the annual production of agricultural crops in the Kimberley is valued at about $42 million, coming chiefly from the Ord River irrigation area, which is set for major expansion as another 65,000 hectares is due to be added to the irrigated area in the near future, chiefly to grow sugar, the yields of which on the Ord are much, much higher than those in Queensland.

I am delighted with the success of the Ord River scheme and salute people such as Bill Withers, Alma Petherick and Howard Young who have been there from the beginning and have been through all the trials and tribulations, because they are genuine, modern day pioneers who worked hard and endured great setbacks before they enjoyed the success that they do today.

The third region in the north-west is the Gascoyne, which is centred on Carnarvon and extends to the eastern goldfields. In the Gascoyne, apart from the mining and pastoral industries, the seafood industry is important and provides over 60 per cent of Western Australia's prawns and scallops, with major export markets in Asia.

Tourism is the great growth industry of the north, with the icons being the Ningaloo Reef at Exmouth, the Karijini National Park in the Pilbara, and the spectacular beauty of the North Kimberley area. Broome, of course, has become a major holiday resort. The northern tourist industry is already generating about $200 million a year and the industry is only in its infancy.

Thus it can be seen that the economy of the north is not only truly massive, but it is diverse and it has come a long way from what was once the stereotype image of stockmen and cattle yards as typifying the north-west of Western Australia.

When I first went to the north in the 1970s, the Pilbara was regarded as being marginally less remote than the far side of the moon. But that is not the case anymore. Whereas once the population of the north was transient, many people now remain in the north because they find the weather congenial, the lifestyle pleasant and the economic prospects much better than in most other areas of Australia. A generation of young people have grown up in the north who simply regard the north as home.

What I want to place on record in the Senate is that the North-West is now simply another part of regional Australia, albeit a region which makes a very substantial contribution to the national economy, and to remind the Senate that the people of the north expect to be given due consideration when policies affecting the north are under discussion.

A good example of this not being done was the fringe benefits tax, which was designed to tax benefits paid to corporate executives in Sydney and Melbourne, but the fringe benefits tax has had a devastating impact across the whole of northern Australia. This could have been avoided if allowance had been made for differences in regional requirements, so that housing, meals, airfares and airconditioning subsidies could have been classified as necessities required to attract staff to remote areas, rather than luxuries to be taxed.

The impact of the fringe benefits tax is still being felt in terms of loss of population and restricted development in the north. There remains a need for further rationalisation of this tax. Senators may be interested to learn that the Pilbara Development Commission is currently doing a study designed to demonstrate how much revenue the federal government has lost through the cancellation of development projects in the north caused by the impact of the fringe benefits tax. When this report is completed, I assure you I will be tabling it for the record in the Senate.

Since 1982, I have attended a number of northern Australia development conferences in the north of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. To those who attended these conferences, it was very apparent that the issues across the north were very similar. I look forward to working with my colleagues from Queensland and the Northern Territory—and I include Senator Bob Collins—in jointly pursuing the interests of the north while I am a member of the Senate.

Turning to my beliefs, senators will not be surprised to learn that I am a committed federalist. I believe that states and state governments have a valid and ongoing role in looking after the interests of regional Australia and that the federal system provides the best formula for the good government of this country. In terms of political philosophy, I am a classical liberal. I believe in the individual and the right of the individual to conduct their affairs without undue interference from the heavy hand of government.

True to classic liberalism, I believe society should provide for the needy and I believe that government should provide community infrastructure. In my case, I believe there is a community service dimension to government—meaning, among other things, that equitable community services should be provided for our citizens, wherever they live, including with the objective of lessening the impact of the tyranny of distance which has been so much a part of the Australian ethos.

As a classical liberal, I look to the future and do not unnecessarily cling to the past. I accept the need for well ordered change, which in my case includes supporting a purely Australian institution for the office of a national head of state and the conversion of Australia to a republic. I am not anti-British and I do not deny the value of our British heritage. I do not want to change our parliamentary system, nor would I want Australia to leave the British Commonwealth.

I am very proud of being an Australian, proud of what Australia stands for in terms of political ideology, if I might put it that way. That deep pride has been engendered by the knowledge that Australia is a land to which people came—people who for the most part were not from privileged backgrounds and had little in the way of material possessions, but they are people who, through their diligence and the opportunities Australia offered them, have enjoyed success.

In contrast, the monarchy is an institution representing a system which divided people into social classes and is the very antithesis of the democratic and egalitarian values for which Australia stands. One may ask whether the breaking of the symbolic tie to the British monarchy is such a big step to take.

In the legal world, a similar step has already been taken. In the mid-1970s, Australian appeals to the Privy Council in London were abolished so the High Court of Australia became the final arbiter in Australian legal matters. Many Australians see the breaking of the symbolic tie to the British monarchy as very much akin to the abolition of legal appeals to the Privy Council and, just as Australia has taken charge of its affairs in the world of the law, they believe the time has come for Australia to take ownership of the institution of our national head of state.

Senators will be interested to learn that three years ago at the 1993 Western Australian state conference of the Liberal Party only 55.5 per cent of delegates voted in a formal ballot for a motion confirming support for the monarchy. In other words, 44.5 per cent of delegates were not prepared to vote for the retention of the present system. That is worth noting because the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party is regarded as being more conservative than most.

Conservative lawyers such as Sir Harry Gibbs have made much of the difficulty of drafting a set of words for a republic constitution which would recreate the balances and political stability enjoyed by Australia under the present arrangements. Without doubt, the task will be complex, but I have long suspected more was being made of this difficulty than needed to be.

To me, it has never been credible for monarchists to argue that, in a nation which has produced as many brilliantly clear thinking lawyers as Australia, a constitution could not be written which protected and preserved the rights of the Australian people, entrenched responsible parliamentary government under a prime minister and cabinet and created an institution for head of state not only having clearly defined and limited powers but also embodying formulae for the democratic means of resolution of crises should the good government of the Commonwealth be in jeopardy.

Dubious lawyers can take comfort from the knowledge that the Irish have successfully written such a constitution, as have Germany and India, among other nations. With the passing of Paul Keating from the political stage, I hope the debate on the republic can be conducted in a more objective and thoughtful manner. The republic was never Keating's republic.

According to Professor Geoffrey Bolton of Edith Cowan University in Perth, there has been discussion about whether Australia should convert to republican status since the 1850s, and Henry Lawson's mother, Louisa, for example, was the editor of a pro-republican newsletter in Sydney towards the end of the last century. Now in the 1990s, just as in the 1890s, I believe there is a renewed sense of the need to define our national identity and to express that identity in the institution of the office of our national head of state.

I look forward to contributing to the debate on constitutional change which, apart from the issues I have mentioned, I would like to see include a review of Commonwealth-state financial relationships and the role of the High Court. It is my belief there is also a need to give consideration to constitutional protection of the civil, political and human rights of our citizens.

Madam President, I conclude with some thanks. Firstly, I express appreciation to my parents and family in general and the many friends I have made along the way. I also wish to thank those long-term players in the Liberal Party in the north who have supported me, including Greg Kneale, Maxine Middap, David Chapman and Joy West. As Senator Ellison will no doubt somewhat ruefully confirm, Greg Kneale, I and the powerful Kalgoorlie north division have had some famous victories in the forums of the Liberal Party in Western Australia.

Last year was not an easy year for the Liberal Party in Western Australia. The preselection for this Senate seat, or for the Senate team, was a drawn out, hard fought process extending over 4½ months. In winning this Senate seat, I was supported by a broad coalition of the members of the state council of the Western Australian Liberal Party, which no doubt in part reflects the fact that I have been around the Western Australian Liberal Party for a long time, but it can also be said to have been a statement that the Liberal Party in Western Australia was taking a different, more inclusive, more cohesive and less divisive pathway.

In conclusion, may I repeat that I have great respect for the Senate and consider it a great privilege to be a member of this house.

Honourable senators —Hear, hear!

The PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator Allison, I remind honourable senators that this is her first speech. I therefore ask senators to extend to her the usual courtesies.