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Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Page: 1748

Senator BACK (5:03 PM) —Thank you, Mr President, for the opportunity to present my first speech on St Patrick’s Day. I do so overwhelmed by the fact that a kid from the Western Australian wheat belt whose grandfathers were, respectively, an Irish farmer and a Fremantle wharf labourer can aspire to stand in the Senate of the Australian parliament and contribute to the future of our great country. I have no doubt each of my colleagues experienced this sense of pride, and I hope it never leaves me. As a fifth-generation Western Australian, it is a privilege to represent the people of my community in this place.

I use the opportunity also to thank the Western Australian State Council of the Liberal Party for their confidence in nominating me and the state parliamentarians for confirming this appointment. I appreciate also my family and friends, many of whom have travelled to Canberra, and those who worked so hard in my election campaign for the seat of Alfred Cove in the recent WA election. However, there is a silver lining on every cloud, and I am eternally grateful to Western Australian Labor and the Greens for preferencing so heavily against me! Without their input, I would not be here today.

Following my endorsement I visited the parliament for the last sitting week in December 2008. A newcomer can only be impressed by the obvious pride, professionalism and presentation of the many staff who make this place work. As any CEO knows, staff attitudes are strong indicators of the wellbeing of your own organisation and indeed that of your competitors or associates, so I set about learning how the leadership of the parliament achieves this outcome.

You can imagine my amazement to learn that the principal management tools seem to involve the whips, the mace, the gag and of course the ever-present threat of the guillotine! My apprehension was only increased by a summons from Black Rod. Upon being ushered into that office, I was met by a lady seated with her foot in plaster, supported by crutches. I immediately wondered which part of whose anatomy had been assaulted with such force as to fracture her foot and what possible misdemeanour could have led to this event. I resolved at that moment to not repeat whatever error this poor unfortunate had committed.

I place on record my appreciation for the courtesy and assistance of my predecessor and my Senate colleagues in making this transition so interesting. In his first speech in this place, the Hon. Chris Ellison defined a Liberal as:

… one who prefers individual action to collective action but who still would commend the … efforts of individuals joined in voluntary association.

He went on to say:

… where regulation is not necessary, it then becomes necessary not to regulate.

Sir Robert Menzies, in his famous speech in 1947, called for:

… a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and … progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism.

I fully endorse these principles and add my own goal: for an Australia which is egalitarian in approach, which rewards independence in outlook and encourages interdependence as a necessary quality of a mature economy but which works actively to eliminate dependency as a long-term outcome. No policy should have the objective of denying a human being their right to support themselves and/or their family, and society should not tolerate conditions which condemn young people especially to the prospect of long-term unemployment and dependence on government handouts in a country such as ours.

I applaud an Australia where leadership and promotion are based on excellence and effort and where respect is earned, not imposed. These principles are best illustrated in the strong Australian culture and tradition of volunteerism. I count myself lucky to have worked with and learned from many volunteer groups in both our urban and rural communities, including the CWA, the bushfire brigades and other emergency services, those who help the vulnerable and those who enrich our understanding of our history, environment and lifestyle.

The superb efforts of our bushfire fighters and support groups have been recognised in the recent tragic events in Victoria. I simply echo the sentiments of those who have registered our profound shock and sadness at the events which unfolded on 7 February. As a past CEO of the Western Australian Bush Fires Board and a member of the Australasian Fire Authority Council, I share the deep sense of frustration at not being able to protect lives and property in those communities whose safety is our core focus.

Information available to me from my Western Australian associates who visited and attended at the Victorian fires confirmed that the conditions and the speed of the fire spread on that day were unprecedented. It was alarming, however, to be told of the levels of fuel or flammable material which the firefighters confronted. For clarification, we would regard a fuel loading of six to eight tonnes per hectare as being the upper limit in the conditions that they experience to successfully contain wildfires with acceptable risk to life and property. However, much of the area burnt in Victoria a month ago had fuel levels of 40 to 50—and even, in some instances, 150—tonnes per hectare. While this speaks volumes for the efforts of the CFA, the DSE and other firefighters, I ask: how did this situation ever occur?

We in the Senate have an obligation to the Australian community to ensure that those charged with the responsibility to protect life and property have the tools, the legislative capacity and the will to so do. It is incumbent on us to review past recommendations by authoritative sources and assess how effectively they have been implemented. This is not the last we will hear of this issue in this place. The tragic privilege of delivering the eulogy of a 19-year-old volunteer who lost his life in a bushfire and attending the funeral of a brigade member born on the same day as me certainly focuses the attention on the awful sacrifice our volunteer firefighters are prepared to make.

In the context of protecting the Australian community, I wish to comment on the role of the Australian Defence Force in their military and peacekeeping activities in over 30 countries around the world. I add my voice to those who spoke in this chamber earlier this afternoon in expressing my sincere sympathy to the family, friends and fellow soldiers of our soldier whom we lost tragically in Afghanistan yesterday. If we think about it at all, most citizens accept the right of government to deploy military personnel. We trust the parliament will approve adequate funding and that senior military and civilian leadership of the ADF will ensure that resources and training are of the highest order. I assure you that, as a parent, you accept the deployment of your family member into a war zone, but it causes you to focus with unusual clarity on the roles of each group to whom I have just referred. You trust that all of them have done their job responsibly and you continue to hope and pray that your family member, those who are in theatres and those for whom they are responsible have also been adequately resourced and trained so that they can do theirs.

It places an enormous burden on us in this Senate to review and be satisfied that resourcing is adequate, that training is appropriate and that we adequately remunerate and rehabilitate our military personnel during and after their service. The feedback I have received from returned service personnel is that we fall well short of what they expect and what the Australian community would regard as reasonable in our dealings with our veterans. They have made a significant sacrifice to protect this country and our way of life. The least we can do is to reciprocate for those in the Anzac family.

I now turn my focus to the Australian economy and our prospects for the future. Like your state of Queensland, Mr President, Western Australia is a cash cow of the Australian economy, and we are proud of the contribution we continue to make. A few years veterinary experience, however, tells me that if the farmer continues to starve the western end of the cash cow then greenhouse gases are not the only emissions which will cease at the eastern end. The milk supply will inevitably decline and then dry up, after which time, to continue my veterinary analysis, even if the farmer resumes feeding the cash cow, there will be an inevitable pregnant pause, possibly even the odd Labor pain, before the flow of milk will resume. Even a stimulus or two, or indeed 42, will not guarantee success or hasten that process.

I remind those who facetiously refer to us as the quarry state that Western Australia accounts for two-thirds of Australia’s wheat exports. We produce 40 per cent of the nation’s wheat harvest and, with the contribution of minerals and LNG, a third of Australia’s export wealth from 10 per cent of the population. Yet we will receive only 8.7 per cent of GST revenue in the coming year, reducing to 5.7 per cent in 2011. This represents a loss of $300 million to the Western Australian economy. I am interested to note that the Western Australian state opposition leader, in supporting the motion of the Premier for my nomination last week in the joint sitting, called for a united approach from all Western Australian parliamentarians in exposing this inequity.

We in the west were alarmed last November when, leading up to a COAG meeting, the treasurers of the eastern states and territories took it upon themselves to meet and plan their strategy but explicitly chose to exclude the Western Australian Treasurer. This most ill-judged incident was best summed up by the Labor shadow Treasurer, Ben Wyatt, when he shared the state Treasurer’s disappointment, ‘particularly in light of the fact that many of the other states have been enjoying the benefits of Western Australia’s largesse’. He went on to say:

The States can’t successfully come to a common position in negotiations with the Commonwealth when they ignore the State with the fastest economic growth …

One can only assume that it was Ben Wyatt’s education at Aquinas College that conferred on him a spirit of fair play and common sense that was so obviously missing in his eastern states colleagues. It is also a sad reflection that many senators, as custodians of states’ and territories’ rights, failed to condemn their action.

The resources sector has underwritten the Australian economy in recent years and will lead us back to prosperity in the future. Surely this is where government should be directing its research and development and infrastructure funding to deliver long-term growth, employment, wealth creation, environmental benefit and regional security. I will be keen to be informed where one dollar has been allocated to the resources sector from the recent economic stimulus package.

The energy sector, which has occupied my professional time in recent years, is critically important to our country’s future and that of the region. By present estimates, there are at least 60 years of natural gas reserves on the North West Shelf alone. There are LNG projects in the pipeline totalling more than $70 billion which will extend out three generations, with enormous boosts to employment, government revenues, regional development and the national economy. These companies are watching with close interest the signals from government to determine if their projects are viable and whether they should commit to proceed. The time frames are critical, and the timing is right now.

This is the very economic climate for both the federal government and our state government to invest in and work with businesses in the oil and gas sector to develop long-term strategies and to support industries which will see the west coast become the Houston, the Stavanger and the Aberdeen of the Southern Hemisphere. In this economic climate, Australia desperately needs to focus on employment, innovative technologies, resource projects, a guaranteed supply of fresh water, and investment in education and training at every level.

On this St Patrick’s Day, I honour the contribution of the Irish community to Australia’s development with particular reference to their role in delivering on these essentials. At least 20 per cent of Australians claim Irish ancestry, and this has been as high as 33 per cent. Few would dispute the impact of the Irish in moulding the Australian character. Two Irish families have made exemplary contributions to Australia and to our state of Western Australia, and both are honoured by the naming of federal electorates. By coincidence, each made their contributions in harsh economic times. I refer, of course, to the great Irish engineer Charles Yelverton O’Connor, after whom the seat of O’Connor is named, and the Durack family, honoured in the redistributed seat of Kalgoorlie. Both have links to this federal parliament through the late the Hon. Peter Durack and the Hon. John Dawkins, who are direct descendants of these pioneering families.

It is little wonder that the voters in these electorates question the notion of ‘one vote, one value’. The new seat of Durack is equal to the combined areas of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and half of South Australia and generates more than a third of the nation’s export wealth, and it is represented by one member. O’Connor, by comparison, is only marginally less than Queensland in size, measuring some 1,800 by 1,200 kilometres.

From the 1890s when he arrived in WA, CY O’Connor had a profound influence on the state. He contributed to employment—introducing the first fixed working week in Australia—to innovation in pipeline construction, to resource investment and to a guaranteed supply of fresh water. It is now more than 110 years ago that he designed and oversaw the construction of the 500-kilometre water pipeline to the eastern goldfields, where lack of fresh water was severely limiting development. It remained, at least until the 1960s, the longest water pipeline in the world. His legacy was to open up the wheat belt and goldfields regions with the guaranteed supply of fresh water, causing a long-term flow of wealth for the state and the nation from agricultural and gold production. Equally importantly, he created the conditions for permanent settlement by wives and children, forming families; indeed, this includes both sides of my own family. It is ironic that O’Connor was hounded to his death before the goldfields water pipeline was completed by the virulent criticism of a hostile press and a group of vocal, misinformed politicians. It seems, for this habit at least, the more things change, the more they remain the same!

The Australian history of the Durack family, so well captured in the epic Kings in Grass Castles by Dame Mary Durack, traces their journey from County Clare in Ireland to settlement in the Goulburn area in 1853, before moving to the Coopers Creek district in the 1860s and then embarking in 1883 on the 5,500-kilometre cattle drive to open up the Ord River in the East Kimberley. Much of the Durack land now forms the main dam of the Ord River, which holds some 15 times the annual freshwater requirement for the city of Sydney. A volume equivalent to 18 years of Adelaide’s freshwater demand flows past the town of Kununurra to the sea every wet season. It is encouraging to note that investment from both the federal and state governments is returning to the Ord for its phase 2 development.

I reaffirm a strong commitment to and investment in education to support Australia’s future. In this field, I honour the contribution of three Irish religious communities, being the Presentation and Mercy sisters and the Christian Brothers, in whose schools I was educated. The Mercy nuns arrived in Fremantle in the heat of an 1846 January and within 21 days had established Australia’s first secondary school for girls in Perth, without desks, a permanent building or a stimulus package. They continue to this day their contribution in education and health services around Australia.

The Christian Brothers are mountains of men in my memory and that of tens of thousands across Australia. Most of us would not be in our careers and professions today if it were not for the drive and pursuit of excellence which was the legacy of these men.

I conclude with a brief comment on the responsibility of government, my vision for Australia and an Irish reflection from my childhood. There are three criteria by which the citizens of any country have the right to judge their government and the parliament generally. These are: firstly, transparency, accountability and standard of governance; secondly, social justice for the whole community; and, thirdly, wealth creation for future generations. I look forward to contributing to a process which delivers these for the Australian community.

My vision for Australia is simple. It is for an Australian community in which every member is safe, feels valued and contributes to a sustainable future. In this place, I undertake to support that which promotes these principles and to oppose that which diminishes them. If this vision can be realised, we will face our children and the future with confidence.

I finally direct my Irish reflection to all in this chamber and to my 93-year-old mother in Perth: she is the matriarch of our family and the last of her generation forming a link to Ireland. It is this:

May the road rise to meet you;

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine gently on your face;

The rains fall soft in your fields


May God hold you safe in the palm of his hand.