Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 25 August 1999
Page: 7768

Senator MASON (5:59 PM) —Just a couple of kilometres north of where we sit today lies the Australian War Memorial. Charles Bean, Australia's great military historian, conceived, inspired and helped to create this, perhaps our most original national institution. While designed to be complete in every detail, significantly Bean had no place in his memorial for attention to decorations and to awards. He would not even single out for special attention those awarded the Victoria Cross. They were well earned, he believed, but for each person so honoured another dozen might have been selected. It was so much a matter of chance, he insisted. So too is the opportunity to serve one's country in parliament, but I hope, as Sir Paul Hasluck once said, to `make the most of the chance of politics'.

I thank the people of Queensland for giving me the opportunity and the very great privilege to serve them in Australia's national parliament. I thank my family for their love and their values. I thank my party: I hope to give you as much as you have given me. To all my friends: I cannot thank you enough for your support and your confidence, particularly during those times that test and then temper all of us.

Looking around this chamber, one cannot fail to be awe-struck and perhaps even humbled by the atmosphere, the surroundings and most of all the memory of the great senators this nation has produced. I am very conscious of the distinguished Queensland lineage of my Senate seat. Dame Annabelle Rankin, the nation's first female federal minister, was succeeded by Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal in federal parliament and later Australian of the Year. He in turn was succeeded by David MacGibbon, one of the Senate's great authorities on defence and the first to realise the futility of Australia's two-airline policy. I salute them and acknowledge that, in very different ways, their dreams and their ideas for our country have become our challenges and our guideposts for the future.

We have all experienced defining moments in our political lives. For me, it came at the end of a half-hour motorbike ride from the centre of Phnom Penh. I remember stopping in the countryside amidst Cambodia's killing fields and contemplating the righteous madness that in the space of just three years extinguished over two million lives in an insane attempt to create an egalitarian utopia. A deep scepticism of collectivist ideology was capped by a pyramid of white skulls.

Our century has seen politics emerge as the greatest force for moving people and for moving nations. The collectivist ethos that governments can perfect man is the greatest lie our time has known. In its name we have seen Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot commit countless atrocities. As the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson writes:

The experience of our century shows emphatically that Utopianism is never far from gangsterism.

We have learnt that `the destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well intentioned, almost limitless'. We now know that the good life stems much more from individuals caring about their community than from the state caring about its individuals.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Yet all the horror, all the tragedy and the deprivation of the last half century was widely known at the time. That it was ignored, whitewashed, romanticised or excused is one of the greatest moral failures of 20th century political life. When I was at school and at university, the world was seemingly in love with those who rebelled, who claimed that capitalism was immoral and that socialism was the future, who questioned everything except their own dogma. My lecturers spoke of the `moral equivalence' of Australia and the Soviet bloc. Totalitarianism, I was told, was simply an aspect of cultural diversity. Criticism and derision were seemingly reserved only for our Western society and its values.

The young men and women who were patriotic, who believed in individual responsibility, trust, encouraging excellence, pride in our history and tradition and the importance of families and liberal democratic institutions, were thought somehow not to be on the future's wavelength. There were many people like me at universities and in the world at large who were taught that we should feel ashamed of ourselves, our attitudes and our country's achievements—ashamed of the Australian way. This, sadly, was the political education of so many of my generation at the hands of a perennially indignant elite. At no time in the history of humanity have so many well-meaning and well-educated individuals so misjudged the major issues of the day. With a legacy of appalling judgment, it is hardly surprising that historical amnesia has set in. Very few have the courage to own up to the moral responsibility for their past allegiances and past mistakes. Today we see so many others caught in the shadows who still are unable to understand that it is not possible to have praise without blame, law without guilt, reward without responsibility and a free society without moral institutions.

The landscape of the 20th century—our century—is littered with the wrecks of social, moral, economic and political experiments. Australia, while luckier than most, was also affected by the schemes of progressive social engineers—often well-meaning but too often misguided. Nowhere, perhaps, is this failure more evident and more painful than in the area of Aboriginal affairs.

Reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is a great test for our parliament and for our nation. As someone passionate about our country's future, I am very conscious of my obligation to future generations to ensure that the nation they inherit from us is truly united. Nothing from recent years will so test the limits of our moral imagination.

There will never be a common understanding if the conversation is merely black elites talking to white elites. That is the conversation of the expedient and the fashionable. All Australians seek reconciliation that unites their country around a common future—not a mediated settlement born of guilt and anguish but rather one born of mutual respect and mutual understanding. It is only then that we can fully experience, as the Draft Declaration for Reconciliation so beautifully says, `the gift of one another's presence'. This is a project in nation building too important to be left simply to political leadership and at the mercy of an uncertain political process. Ordinary Australians, black and white, must own reconciliation, not the politicians and not the bureaucrats.

I welcome the idea of a landmark statement from this parliament that reflects national aspirations for reconciliation. But we must go further. Reconciliation has to change beliefs and relationships. A mediated document, however artfully drafted, is but a first step. For ordinary Australians, reconciliation is a matter of the heart. As we pursue this great project we should be mindful not to let the burden of reconciliation fall solely on rural Australians while we in the cities take all the benefits, including the moral satisfaction and self-congratulation. To pander to fashion or expediency will be to betray all Australians.

The recent debate about the need to change the role and the nature of welfare is vital to the future of all Australians and particularly of indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians need the same things that everyone else does: access to good health care, education, jobs and, most importantly, hope for the future. We all recognise that, ultimately, the only way to lift many indigenous people out of the cycle of welfare dependence is to increase their economic independence. The government's job may be to provide assistance but only where it is matched by responsibility for achieving certain outcomes. Perhaps nowhere in Australian social and economic life is the government's ethic of mutual obligation so important, so uplifting and so in conformity with the right of indigenous Australians to take responsibility for their own lives.

Success stories are already springing up on Cape York in my state where communities are slowly and often painfully teaching themselves about the value of responsibility, the benefits of enterprise and the liberating spirit of selfsufficiency. They need our help as they turn despairing and troubled settlements into vibrant and healthy communities. Isolating Aboriginal people and showering them with money is the failed old remedy. Helping them to rediscover pride and dignity, a hand up and not a handout, is the true reconciliation.

No-one is better placed than our side of politics to take this debate forward. We are more interested in achieving results, not because they are trendy or fashionable or politically correct but because they are fair, just and moral. We recognise individual responsibility as a core belief. We have always believed that individuals are much better placed than governments to make decisions about their own lives. For too long, governments have taken that right away from the first Australians. Here, more than anywhere, our government should provide the incentives by which people are empowered and encouraged to look after their own wellbeing.

I readily acknowledge that, increasingly, my Labor colleagues recognise the importance of fundamental change in Aboriginal policy. I am optimistic that the next few years will see as fundamental an acceptance of this shift in consensus on Aboriginal affairs and welfare as we have witnessed over the last 20 years in economics.

My generation has never known economic security. And for today's young people the challenges are even greater. When I was growing up, I thought I was competing for jobs with other students from my university—and perhaps a few from Sydney. The students I taught at university are increasingly not only competing with each other or those from nearby towns or cities but also with the children of Osaka, Berlin, and Singapore—and, perhaps soon, Moscow, Hanoi and Budapest.

Today's young people, the young people I taught at university, are more sober, observant and conservative than those who taught me. They also have fewer places to hide. No longer will a burgeoning public service and large corporations afford opportunities for security. Today's young people will have to make their way through their own entrepreneurial skills. It will be the most street-smart and astute generation since the 1930s. Yet, unlike their grandparents, young Australians today are much more confident of their place in the sun. No longer burdened by self-doubt nor limited by narrow horizons, they have taught me that there is no limit to what Australia can achieve. They love Australia not only for what it is but also for what it can be. While many of their self-proclaimed spokespeople remain forever frozen in the time of the protest movement and free love, my young students have moved on to embrace the challenges of the future. They are much more interested in realising work than in reliving Woodstock.

I am proud to be part of a government that has had the courage to take some tough decisions today so that young Australians might have more opportunities tomorrow. Success is not a birthright, but it is the duty of those elected to this place to ensure that hope remains a birthright. Australia's economic performance is one of the strongest in the developed world. Low interest rates, low inflation, low industrial disputation, high jobs growth, high levels of investment and increasingly high productivity are a great foundation stone for our future. Indeed, it is a great national achievement—perhaps even better than retaining the Ashes or beating the All Blacks!

My state of Queensland is at the forefront of this national achievement. It is a great example of the Liberal vision for this country. The creative and bold policies of the Howard government will ensure that shortly after the turn of the century Queensland is not only still Australia's best and most prosperous state but also a leading regional economy in its own right and trading globally in all its many and growing areas of excellence and expertise. In facing the Asia-Pacific, Queensland faces Australia's future. The Pacific Rim, its opportunities, its challenges and its rewards will all be Queensland's before they are anyone else's. Queenslanders will ride point for Australia's destiny. Our Prime Minister has recently said that there are fewer limitations now on what Australia can achieve than at any time in the 25 years that he has spent in public life. I know that he is right. I for one would not trade my place for that of any other generation in our nation's history.

Madam President, the testimony of this century is not mute: it proclaims certain truths in a strong and clear voice. A society not based on individual liberty, democracy and the rule of law invites tyranny. An economic system not based on free market, private initiative and enterprise ends in ruin. A community not respecting its traditions and its history, and not celebrating and preserving its institutions, degenerates into chaos. These ideas of liberal democracy blossomed in the world of the nineteenth century and they were almost buried in the twentieth. But throughout all the tyranny, the zealotry, the madness, the social experiments and the despair, conservatives argued harder than anyone else the case for political and economic freedom. And we were right. Now, a hundred years later, liberal democratic values are again ascendant and our hopes are undiminished. As we wrote the last words of the 19th century, so we will write the first words of the new century.

As we celebrate the victories of the past and contemplate the challenges of the future at the dawn of the third millennium, I am very grateful for being given the opportunity to be a member of the Australian Senate. I count it as the greatest privilege that I am now able to express my love for our country not only through words but also through deeds. In less than 18 months we will be marking the centenary of Federation. For now, we are the authors of the next chapter in our nation's history. It has been said that it is only for God and for angels to be onlookers in life. The rest of us must participate in our communities, be involved and engaged and seek to make a difference. With God's help, I hope I can do just that.

The PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator Ridgeway, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.