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Wednesday, 13 June 2007
Page: 116

Senator BIRMINGHAM (4:57 PM) —The beauty of being young is that people forgive, nay, expect, a little idealism, vision and sense of aspiration. As I rise in this chamber as its youngest member on what is my last day as a 32-year-old, I come with high hopes for our country, the people of South Australia, who I have the honour of representing, and indeed the people of the world. I am reminded of the words of the late Liberal Senator Alan Missen, a man who fought strongly within his party and within this place to uphold what he believed to be true Liberal principles, when he said:

Youth will insist on a brave new world where social problems are tackled and solved and which offers a future for incentive and pioneering spirit.

I come to this place looking for us to think big for at least the next few moments, to lift up above the humdrum, the sledging and the cynicism of day-to-day retail politics, to instead recall what inspired all of us: a desire to make a difference, a positive contribution, one that improves the lives of those living today and those of the generations to come. Ours is a great country, but I genuinely believe that we can lift our great country to a new level, to an even higher plane that makes the lives of all Australians better and has a positive impact on the world around us. At this point, just seven years into the new millennium, our relatively youthful nation of around 20 million Australians packs a punch far above the weight of our population. We boast the 11th largest economy in the world and a comparable standard of living that is rightly the envy of many other nations. We have always been an adventurous country, priding ourselves on our egalitarianism and free spiritedness. Today’s Australians, however, are reaching new levels of self-confidence, new levels of confidence that we can build an even better future. Where once we sought safety in trade barriers, protection provided by interventionist governments and comfort in highly regulated labour markets, today’s Australians—especially those of younger generations—are more accepting of risk, embracing of change, and brimming with aspirations to take on the world with confidence.

As a people, we have sought greater freedoms, and we have secured them. Today we benefit from the freer movement of goods, services and capital as a result of the gradual liberalisation of world trade. We enjoy greater freedom to expand our knowledge through the improved accessibility of information and education. We enjoy enhanced opportunities to move more freely between jobs and careers, seeking a more flexible range of workplace conditions to suit our modern lifestyles. The promotion of freedom is something that the great party that I am proud to be a member of has cherished since its foundation. In the words of our founder, Sir Robert Menzies:

The real freedoms are to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to be independent, to be industrious, to acquire skill, to seek reward. These are the real freedoms, for these are of the essence of the nature of man.

It is true that the speed of modern life, the rapid exchange of information and the capacity for once faraway conflicts to be brought to our very doorstep can make the world seem a more daunting place. However, this same shrinking of the globe provides a world full of freedom for young Australians—a world full of opportunities past generations could only dream of. Today’s Australians are more travelled than ever before; they are more worldly than ever before; and, through the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the Australian diaspora, they are making a contribution to more corners of the globe than ever before.

Australians are also more liberal than ever before. I mean that not in the party political sense—although I hope that is the case too—but in the philosophical meaning of the term ‘liberal’. A liberal belief is a fine and proud one to hold. It is a belief, above all, in the worth and dignity of the individual—each individual—and his or her inherent value. But it is not a belief that holds individuals in isolation. Liberals instead recognise that the success of each individual contributes directly to the wellbeing of all. We aim to allow each individual to have the freedom and opportunity to add the ingredients of hard work, innovation and entrepreneurialism so that we may make a large pie for all to share in. As our current Prime Minister said in his first speech to the parliament:

... it is only through the creation of community wealth by the efforts of individuals in the community that it is possible for governments to undertake social welfare and to fund their operations.

In this place we must be careful not to put undue barriers in the way of generating such individual, and therefore community, wealth. There are areas that are worthy of regulation and there is also a need for government to implement taxes. But we must do so at the lowest possible levels and with the least possible impact on the incentive to grow greater wealth and opportunities for all. I am proud to be joining a government that has done more to reduce the burden of taxation on Australians than any in our nation’s history. But there is always more that can be done to reduce complexities, to remove disincentives and to eliminate the churning of tax dollars back to people from whom they should never have been collected in the first place. When it comes to the revenue and regulatory arms of government, the hands of government must be as light as possible.

I do not kid myself into believing that all are born equal and with an equal opportunity to contribute or benefit. It is not the case here in Australia and it is certainly not the case overseas. Sadly, features such as ancestry and geography conspire to provide some with fewer opportunities than others. This in part is where the role of government can come in. A liberal belief relies not just on allowing individuals to rise to their highest possible level of achievement but also on promoting tolerance, on caring for others and on doing all that is reasonably possible to create opportunities for those who may otherwise miss out. It is why we promote economic strength not as an end in itself but as a means to provide a social dividend, a strong safety net and, we hope, greater opportunities. In Australia we are indeed fortunate to boast world-class health, welfare, justice and education systems. Nonetheless, in all aspects of public policy there is scope to aim higher.

Our education system provides the key to unlocking opportunity for many of those who are born to families or born in regions where opportunity may otherwise be lacking. When I was growing up, I saw this firsthand in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. As a proud product of my local government school, Gawler High School, I enjoyed some great teachers who inspired and energised but, like many students, I encountered my share of less than inspirational teachers too. For me the ups and downs of the state education system were less of an issue. I was blessed with a mother and a stepfather, Diana and Jim, who I am proud to have here in the gallery today. They both worked hard to support me, and they demonstrated a strong work ethic and encouraged excellence. Then there is my grandmother Madge, who sadly cannot be here but is listening back in Adelaide. She instilled in me the desire to learn and the passion to contribute. And then there is my aunt Margaret, who is also in the gallery. She encouraged in me a little adventurism and she instilled confidence.

But not all children are that lucky. Despite all the jobs that have been created over the last decade and the commensurate reductions in unemployment, there are still young Australians who do not enjoy the benefits and who lack the positive example set by having at least one parent in the workforce. All too often the absence of working parental role models leads to intergenerational welfare dependency. Breaking such cycles of dependency is one of the most significant steps we can take to provide greater opportunities for all young Australians. It requires the current reforms to the welfare system, which provide both carrots and sticks to help people into the workforce. Successfully breaking cycles of welfare dependency also requires us to offer the best possible educational opportunities, especially in those regions of social disadvantage. The expansion of vocational education and training and increased focus on basics such as numeracy and literacy are all pieces of the educational jigsaw. Performance based pay for teachers may well do so too. However, I believe that choice is also a major piece of the puzzle of providing the best education to young Australians. Families who can afford to choose between an overly bureaucratised government school and a responsive private school have voted with their feet in recent years. They have shifted en masse from the public sector to the private sector. Thanks to the policies of this government, more parents have been able to afford that choice.

But those who most need choice—people in areas of disadvantage, with low incomes—are those who most miss out. It is time that at least one state in at least one region trialled the implementation of school vouchers, affording all families the opportunity of choice—the opportunity to allocate the government funding for their child and to pay the fees to the school of their choice. The neediest should not be the ones to miss out on choice and, even if more families were to opt out of the government system, administrators would have clear evidence of the need to overhaul the teaching and/or management of such schools. Many will baulk at this idea, as some often do in the face of reform or change, but great advances are not made by standing still. If we aspire to an education system that will serve us as well for the next 100 years as it has done for the last then we must be willing to embrace change.

A good education system has blessed our country, and with it some of the most inquisitive minds in the country—people who will go on to be leaders in science, research and innovation. These people are often the true but unsung heroes of modern life. Their work impacts on all aspects of our lives—in the production of food, in the development of new technologies and in the care of our health. We need their work more than ever before if we are to tackle the environmental challenges we face, continue to make breakthroughs in the treatment of disease or illness and keep pace with the increasingly technology driven world around us.

I came to this place earlier than I thought possible when preselected by my party in February this year. My arrival was brought about by the sad and premature death of Jeannie Ferris. As was noted by so many of Jeannie’s colleagues in my first day here, she gave much to the Senate and to Australia. She was passionate about much and she had much left to contribute. One of the many policy areas that Jeannie embraced, especially in her last few years, was a commitment to the pursuit of scientific and medical research. She has left a legacy that will ensure improved consciousness of gynaecological cancers. And through her support of stem cell research she has ensured that Australian scientists can tackle these and many other diseases. In fighting for change last year Jeannie asked:

Why are we dealing ourselves out of this? Why are we encouraging our own experts to go overseas if they wish to get involved in this latest research?

Thankfully, we no longer are. I look forward to seeing the breakthroughs in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of many illnesses—cancers such as the one Jeannie had or that which took the life of my father Jack when I was just 12, or the many other forms of illness or disease that Australians face on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, we have already made enormous advances in medical research. Along with improvements in basic hygiene and food production, it is one of the reasons we face a world filled with more people than was ever imaginable. Just 100 years ago there were around 1.5 billion of us sharing this planet. It took us tens of thousands of years to reach that point, yet in the hundred years that followed we have added five billion more people. At the same time, we have advanced our way of life, especially in developed countries, so that we each consume more resources in a year than many of our ancestors would have thought possible in a lifetime.

You do not need to be Einstein to work out that continued growth using current resources will ultimately be unsustainable. You should not even need to be 100 per cent convinced of the science behind global warming to know that the environmental footprint of man across this planet must have its limitations. We need to produce more food with less; more energy with less; more fresh water without depleting that available to future generations; and, possibly, fewer people, or at least have a better dispersal of the world’s population. Again, science has an enormous role to play. It can help Australia continue to feed and sustain a hungry world. The late Bert Kelly, a former member for Wakefield and champion of free trade long before it was fashionable, said of our role in food production:

As our scientific knowledge and technical ability expand, as we learn to invest in even more machines, as we learn to conserve more fodder and so on, so will our production continue to expand. We have the country, the climate and the ability.

We must tackle our resource and environmental challenges with an open mind—open to embracing whatever solutions will prove the most effective in balancing environmental, social and economic considerations. In pursuing clean yet reliable energy, we should include the nuclear option. In pursuing an increase in our food production, we should include the use of genetically modified organisms; and in pursuing an increased supply of fresh water, we should include desalination. In mentioning these options I am not seeking to be prescriptive but the pursuit of truly renewable resources must be our ultimate goal, and along the way we must be clear that all options should be on the table.

I believe we must also look to population policies that identify sustainable targets for Australia and the world. Whilst I am optimistic about our abilities to innovate and adapt to future challenges, we must be mindful of the social and environmental limitations of an ever-escalating population. Once we have secured the water, food and energy for new generations, Australia should be able to sustain greater populations. We should aspire to support the growth of successful regional centres like Port Lincoln and Mount Gambier into new cities. But other parts of the world should equally be encouraged to consider their population sustainability, possibly heading in the opposite direction. I am optimistic about the future—about our capacity to foster the best scientific minds; to maintain a strong economy, with strong social dividends; to enhance and improve our education system; and to lead the world in practical environmental sustainability.

I am equally optimistic about our capacity to overcome other challenges: to meet the challenges of terrorism, through a concomitant commitment to global security and the breaking down of barriers; to pave a new way for our Indigenous communities, free of suppression, paternalism or welfarism, but based on incentive, respect and opportunity; and to further extend our national self-confidence through the pursuit of excellence and, perhaps one day, the adoption of a truly Australian head of state.

Like all of us, I come here bringing the perspective of my personal background—of my family and upbringing, which I have mentioned already, and of my professional life, which for the last 10 years has been in the tourism, hospitality and wine industries. These are sectors of the economy that are critically important to my home state.

I believed, until very recently, that I was the first in my family to pursue a political passion. However, I recently learnt of my great-uncle, Peter O’Loghlen, who served as the member for Forrest in the Western Australian parliament from 1908 until his death in 1923. He was a Labor man of the old style—the son of battling Irish migrants, a timber worker who chaired two Labor national conferences. Of his death in November 1923, The Worker newspaper wrote:

This man was a brother to us all! In him was blended every good emotion and every pure aspiration of the hosts of Labor. To know him was to feel better. To consult him was to drink from a fount of refreshment. The charity of his mind was exceeded only by the generosity of his purse. He lived for his fellow man.

Although we may notionally be on opposite sides of the political fence—and I will defer for another day the argument as to which party might now be the better friend of the workers—I shall work hard to achieve even half the respect that he clearly enjoyed.

Nobody comes here without a debt of gratitude to others. I sincerely thank my immediate family, many extended family and friends and past employers, many of whom are here today. Special mention must be made of my partner, Courtney, for all her love, support, blood, sweat and tears. She would be just as capable, if not more so, of standing in this place today and does more than anyone to challenge me and keep me true to my beliefs.

I also thank my party for their faith in me and the Young Liberal Movement for fostering my political interest for many years. I particularly thank the branch members in Hindmarsh, who worked so hard to try to elect me to the other place nearly three years ago, along with those in Sturt—our paired electorate—including the member for Sturt, who supported us at every step of the way.

There are two others who I single out: my longstanding mate Kristian Dibble, who returned from London to be here today, and John Gardner, who has supported each of my political battles. I extend my thanks also to the officers of the Senate, the whip’s staff, the various parliamentary staff, my own staff, and of course my new colleagues, who have all done so much to make me feel welcome.

I shall give my all to the time I have in this place, knowing that the honour and opportunity afforded to me should never be taken for granted and can easily be withdrawn by those who ultimately judge our actions. You can expect me to play hard when required, because that is the nature of our robust, adversarial democracy. But I hope, ultimately, when somebody rises to replace me in this place, they look back and believe that I pursued the politics of construction, of achievement and of believing in a great future for our great country. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt summed it up best when he said:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Thank you.