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Monday, 15 September 2008
Page: 60

Senator KROGER (5:30 PM) —As I rise to give my maiden speech in this great parliament I am reminded that more than anything else Australia is the land of new beginnings. This was certainly the case for my great-great-grandmother, who was transported to these shores in 1841 for the crime of stealing not one but two loaves of bread. My great-great-grandmother’s story was not the fruit of Victor Hugo’s imagination nor was it a chapter out of Les Miserables; this was a real life event that happened to a real life person—and not just in my family but in countless others throughout Australia. Like every other penal transportee she was a stranger in a strange land. But while some succumbed to despair and desolation, she seized optimism and opportunity. She chose strength over weakness and industry over indolence. Through true grit and with a feisty spirit she overcame all the obstacles in her life. These were the principles transmitted from my great-great-grandmother through my family and ultimately to me: the belief that individual rights must be balanced by personal responsibility; and the conviction that with a bit of hard work nothing was impossible and no ambition was beyond my grasp.

My father was a man of modest means yet always resourceful—a market gardener who worked every day with his hands. One of my first childhood memories is sitting on my dad’s knee tasting my first delicious steaming cup of hot chocolate after he sold his truckload of produce at the old Victoria market. But while my father was a simple labourer, he knew that education was life’s great equaliser and so my siblings and I all attended private schools. It was not easy for my parents. In essence, they sacrificed their present to provide for our future. They made do with less so that we could have more. My mother and father did what it took to ensure that their children would have a fair go and be able to give life their very best shot. I have tried to say thank you by living my life in a manner that will consecrate their devotion and selflessness.

Since first emerging into political awareness as a teenager, I have always seen myself as a combatant in the public affairs arena. At age 16 I joined the Liberal Party as a rank and file member. Over the past decade I have had the privilege of serving in senior positions. My political philosophy is a simple one: if you do not like the way things are going then roll up your sleeves and enter the fray—advocate for the agenda that you hold dear, push for policies that you think are right and argue the case forcefully and fearlessly but always with civility.

Because schooling was my ticket to a better life I have an abiding interest in the topic of education, and I fear that many Australian secondary and tertiary institutions have been compromised by political correctness. I learned this firsthand at a parent-teacher interview, where my son was criticised for his lack of appreciation of South American protest poetry. My challenge at the time was calming down his outraged father, who happened to be speculating aloud whether our school fees was money well spent. My son, by now horrified at the prospect of failing the subject, was wondering whether his father’s outburst would mean leaving his friends and moving to a new school. But my challenge now is to try to make a difference from within because this was not just a one-off occurrence. Whether it is the Australian Education Union directing its members to encourage their students to wag school and march in anti-war protests or whether it is our universities where radical lecturers have come to hold unchallenged sway, there is no doubt that Australia’s schools and universities are listing heavily to the left. University course catalogues are filled with bizarre offerings like ‘critical whiteness studies’, which holds that all Caucasians by definition of their skin’s pigmentation are inherently racist and as a result the Australian narrative has been hijacked by partisan ideologues. Our kids are instructed that Australia is a land built on oppression rather than liberation.

There is a Latin saying: ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ That means: who shall watch over the watchmen? If we have a problem with what is being taught in our secondary schools we should have a look at those who are teaching our teachers. We must revitalise the way that history is being taught, but we will not do so with any real effect as long as our teachers are trained in tertiary institutions that are permeated by partisan bias. We need not only more history but better history.

I am a great believer in choice, and in the educational context there is no more important form of choice than the power of parents to choose where their children will be educated. Some of our state schools are excellent. They have dedicated teachers who do an outstanding job of educating our children. But then there are other schools that are perpetually plagued by low achievement scores and low VCE graduation rates. We must never forget that the real definition of a failing school is one that short-changes its students, and there is no justification for such schools to continue to operate year after year, class after class, on a business-as-usual basis. But the monopoly status of our state school systems allows mediocrity to persist where excellence should flourish.

The best way of shattering our public sector school monopolies is through a healthy injection of competition into the system—competition in the form of vouchers, which will attach the annual budget per student to each individual child. If a school is doing a good job and attracting students, the money needed to educate those children will follow them to that institution. If another school does a disservice to its students through consistent and chronic underperformance, families will rush their children to the exits—and so they should.

The path to high educational performance leads to reinforcing success, not subsidising failure. But beyond the economic theories of choice and efficiency there is an egalitarian moral argument to support such a voucher system. The affluent already enjoy the benefits of educational choice. They have the means to send their children to any school they choose. There is no valid reason why low- and middle-income families should not enjoy the same power of parental choice that the wealthy take for granted. A voucher system will not only be effective but it will also be just.

Some political pundits argue that Australia’s major parties have gradually merged ideologically at the political centre. They argue that there is little of substance to differentiate between the Centre Left Labor Party and the Centre Right Liberal Party. Rather than a distinction without a difference, the core beliefs of both major parties are separated by a vast ideological chasm that is wide and unbridgeable. In its heart of hearts, Labor values collectivism over individualism. By contrast, the promotion of small government, low taxes, reward for effort and the entrepreneurial spirit are part of our Liberal DNA. We believe that playing the class warfare card against some of us only ends up impoverishing all of us.

We believe that small business serves as the primary engine of Australia’s economic prosperity. This contention is born out by the numbers. Australia’s 1.5 million small businesses generate some 30 per cent of the nation’s economic activity, and the 3.6 million jobs created by small businesses constitute 47 per cent of all private sector non-agricultural employment. This sector of Australia’s economy is far too important to ignore. Australia’s business owners are the backbone of our economy and the salt of the earth of our society. They are not looking for handouts or an unfair advantage. All they want is a fair go. All they want is for government to get out of their way. Small business owners and staff just want to focus their energy on what they do best: using their creativity and industry to develop their businesses.

Labor has never understood the essential role that small business plays in our national economy. Its failure to appreciate the role of small business explains in some part why Labor has never been good at economic management. A case in point is the punitive promise to reverse the current unfair dismissal reforms. Certainly, a wrongly treated employee should have avenues of redress to seek justice and procedural fairness. No-one on our side of the chamber would argue otherwise. But the Hawke-Keating unfair dismissal laws went far too far, enabling some disaffected workers to pursue employers with spurious and vexatious compensation claims. Small business owners were almost unanimous in their rejection of the ‘unfair’ unfair dismissal regime, and for good reason. The previous government listened to these concerns and responded with reforms that better balanced the competing interests of legitimate employee rights versus job creation.

I do not believe that last year’s election gave Prime Minister Rudd a mandate to roll back the reforms to unfair dismissal laws. I readily accept that there is a need to make some exemptions for young people and to provide a safety net. But a return to the previous draconian regime will translate directly into fewer jobs and more unemployment. And all the high-sounding rhetoric in the world about being on the side of workers will ring quite hollow if there is no work to be had. I believe that the aspirations of Australia’s entrepreneurs should be facilitated rather than frustrated. I believe that the small business sector should be nurtured rather than neutered and promoted rather than demoted.

None of my friends here today would ever accuse me of being part of the sisterhood, but I draw inspiration from two of my predecessors, former senators Dame Margaret Guilfoyle and Dr Kay Patterson. And I could not let the opportunity pass me by without saying how excited I am as a women to begin my career in parliament at the very time that Sarah Palin is about to shatter the penultimate glass ceiling of politics in the United States.

Like all members of this place, my passage here would not have been possible without the help and support of many people who are, unfortunately, too numerous to identify and mention by name. Many of those people have honoured me again today by attending in the gallery and on the floor of the chamber. I cannot describe how humbling it is that you are all here, and I offer you my deepest thanks. Then there are also those who have made immeasurable sacrifices for me through my political journey. My sons, Jack and Simon, have been at the vanguard of that journey, though not through any choice of their own. Jack and Simon make me incredibly proud as they forge their own way through life’s challenges and opportunities. Their sense of humour and, dare I say, constant domestic demands keep me well grounded and in my place. Their proud father, Michael, has also been a great supporter and I thank him for his wise counsel, even on those occasions when I may not have asked for it!

I also pay special tribute to Peter and Tanya Costello and Kelly O’Dwyer, whose friendship, fierce loyalty and support has given me the strength to carry on even in times of adversity and opposition. Peter and Tanya are what I can only call true friends. Those who know me well know also that I have a very special bond with Kelly O’Dwyer, and I know I speak for many when I say that Kelly would make a sensational contribution in this chamber or in the other place.

In politics, the highs can be euphoric and the lows, as we know, can be soul destroying. But I have always known that, no matter how bad the lows could be, friends like Jason Aldworth, Russell Hannan, Rod Kemp, Senator Scott Ryan and my good mate Senator Michael Ronaldson would always be there. Family and friends have always been—and I hope will continue to be—my anchor, my life force and my compass.

Whilst my father has not been with us now for over 10 years, he continues to be with me as a guiding force. But I am blessed that my mother is with me today. Mum: your respect for the decisions I make is not taken for granted and is something I deeply appreciate. My sister, Merilyn, and brother, Colin, mean the world to me. To my extended family, who have kept Qantas going by turning up in force today: thank you all for coming and being here. My sons are particularly fortunate to have a second grandmother, Lorna Kroger, who is well known for her outspoken views. I believe if she had been born in another era she would have been the first Kroger in the Australian parliament. Thank you for your friendship.

In the words of Thomas Moore:

Family life is full of major and minor crises—the ups and downs of health ... success and failure ... is tied to places and events and histories. With all of these felt details, life etches itself into memory and personality. It’s difficult to imagine anything more nourishing to the soul.

Thank you.