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Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Page: 9803


Dr NELSON (5:01 PM) —I thank the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition—my leader—and all of my colleagues who are here from this chamber and from the other place. You humble me by your presence and you honour the people I represent by being here. I thank you very much. It is with a sense of privilege, deep gratitude and team achievement that I make my final contribution to the parliament of Australia.

During preselection in 1995, I was asked how long I might serve. Though it was impossible to define, I knew that I would know when the time had arrived—and that time is now. Before dealing with more substantive issues though, I perhaps should deal with the two most consistent things that have been raised in relation to me from the time I arrived in parliament: the first is my earring and the second is my hair. The media enjoy evaluating me and I might as well give them something to throw around. The truth of it is that, at the age of 17, my then girlfriend suggested I should get an earring. I thought, ‘If that’s what it takes, I’ll get an earring.’ Later, having gone through part of an economics degree and having spent a year in the workforce, I began thinking about what would be a useful way to spend my life. I decided that I would try to study medicine. My mother’s reaction upon informing her in 1977 that I had been accepted to medical school was not, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? My son is going to be a doctor.’ Instead, her immediate reaction was, ‘That’s great. You’ll have to take your earring out now.’ I did intend to, but you can forget you have them in. I arrived at the medical school to enrol and the first bloke I met said, ‘Get that thing out of your ear, son.’ The second person I met, who gave me a very long lecture in an explosive manner, I subsequently learned was John Chalmers, the Professor of Medicine. He said, ‘Get that thing out of your ear. You will never get anywhere here with that.’ I said to him, ‘I am here to study medicine. I am not here to go through a fashion parade. I do not care what anybody ever says to me, I am not taking it out.’ Then my ex-wife, Kate, gave me a diamond earring. Then, some 12 or 13 years ago, once I had put my private life into receivership, my good friend Bruce Shepherd and his wife decided I should meet a woman. That woman turned out to be my wife of almost 10 years now, Gillian. As the men here and listening would empathise with, about six months after we decided to get married she started on about the earring. She said, ‘Blokes your age look stupid with earrings.’ I thought, ‘If that’s what it takes, I’ll take it out.’ The reason for taking the House’s time with that is that it is often said that I took my earring out to ingratiate myself with John Howard. I can only say to you that John Howard not once ever raised the earring. But, if he had, I would have had a second one put in!

I arrived in Bradfield in late 1994. When we had the first election campaign, I had this diamond earring. The campaign committee agonised over whether the earring would be displayed for the purposes of the campaign brochure. We decided to display it. We then received hundreds of the pamphlets back in the mail with the ear cut out and circles around the earring saying, ‘What is this thing?’ Two people an hour would ring and say, ‘I am not voting for a bloke with an earring,’ and then hang up. But the highlight of the campaign was three days before polling day. Five very serious, stern-faced ladies from the electorate arrived in my office. I knew it was a serious matter because they all declined a cup of tea. They all sat on the opposite side of the table to me and the appointed spokesperson leaned forward and said, ‘Dr Nelson, I will get straight to the point: you have an earring.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘We believe you are a homosexual.’ It is not that funny! I struggled with my thoughts, and I said, ‘I am not. I can assure you that I am not.’ At this point this woman leaned across the table, banged her fist down and said, ‘Yes, but can you prove it?’ The point is that not all challenges that one is offered in public life are ones to which you ought to respond!

The second issue is the hair. Annabel Crabb, up in the press gallery, has very nice hair. She has written that mine has been tested in wind tunnels and the like. Just to put this into some perspective, I too, Prime Minister, once had hair like yours that was soft, flexible and parted easily to one side. But I knew it was time to change when I had year 5 from Lindfield Public School from my electorate here six years ago and I explained to them what we do. My wife is still trying to find out! I said, ‘You only have one life and one chance to use it in a way which makes this country even better than the one my generation has enjoyed. We are making decisions today about the sort of Australia in which you will live when you are half dead at my age.’ At that point, I got the first question: ‘Dr Nelson, why is it that the hair on one side of your head sticks up higher than the other?’ Once I related this to my wife, she made an urgent appointment for me to see a hairdresser, and so I go every month.

I begin on a serious note by thanking my children. My son, Tom, and my daughter, Emily, made the greatest involuntary sacrifices for me to serve first the medical profession through leadership of the Australian Medical Association, and then the people of Bradfield and my country, as its member. I spent more time, through their 22 years of life, travelling, at meetings, in conferences, in parliaments, at functions and on the phone than I have spent with them. And I am not alone in this place in that regard.

They were seven years old when I returned as President of the Australian Medical Association from 10 days away in remote Aboriginal communities. The self-imposed objective was to bring to the awareness of middle Australia the appalling health, premature death and existential despair of Indigenous people. Returning to Hobart late at night I went to kiss them good night. Emily roused and I apologised for my long absence. She replied: ‘That’s all right, Daddy. You’re trying to help the Aborigines.’ Emily and Tom, you are my greatest achievement.

It was for the Aborigines and to play a role in building a better Australia that in September 1994 I resolved to sell my home and move to Sydney. Having provided medical care to low-income families for almost a decade, I knew that the horizon of MPs in such communities is entirely consumed by life’s day-to-day struggles and I wanted to do more. But I love Tasmania and have asked that my ashes be spread at Adventure Bay, Bruny Island, 40 or 50 years from now, hopefully.

I am who I am and have done what I have only because of other people. My father died six days before the 2004 election. He did not see me go on to be defence minister and Liberal leader. That is an experience that both the Prime Minister and my leader, the opposition leader, have also had. My father was a decent, thoughtful and intelligent man possessed of deep concern for the poor, the voiceless and victims of excess. My mother taught me that life’s value would ultimately be found in the people and the causes to which it was committed. My mother said that power was an instrument to be used in the service of those who had none and that in that service would be found fulfilment. I thank the Jesuits for seeking to instil in me the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of other people.

I only came to the parliament through those who believed in me. Bruce Shepherd has been a second father; at times, also, like a second son. We met 20 years ago. I told him I did not like him. Uncharacteristically he refrained from a profanity, offering instead his first advice, ‘Never pass an opinion on someone you have not met.’ He later taught me the absolute importance of believing in a cause and bleeding for it.

Rhondda Vanzella made me, politically and personally—through 15 years of selfless sacrifice for Bradfield, the Liberal Party and my family. Doug Thompson dispensed encouragement, support and always a Slim Dusty story. Whether campaigning, making wedding plans or managing kids, Doug and Monique were always there.

Don Glover was the Bradfield Liberal who really had the courage to back me at the most crucial time in 1995. I was then mentored and supported by Betty Flick, Peter and Norma Beckley, John and Angela Carrick, Les Taylor, Robert Longstaff, Felix Venn Brown, Geoff Selig, Tony and Lee Hall and many, many others.

I would not have arrived here without Bill Heffernan; nor would I have remained without Tony Staley. Nor could I have done anything without my staff: Lee Hall, Ben Franklin, Sarah Cruickshank, Yaron Finkelstein, Simon Berger, Deborah Chan, Jaci Armstrong and ‘Hudson’ in my electorate office—to name but a few. Peter Hendy, Catherine Murphy and Maria Fernandez served me magnificently as chiefs of staff. To the many ministerial and leader’s staff, especially Peta Credlin, I owe you all a debt that cannot be repaid. You all made me better than I deserve to be.

I thank the Liberal Party for believing in me and for giving me extraordinary undeserved opportunities. I came to my Liberal belief through life, absorbing it through reflection upon and familiarity with the hard work, self-sacrifice and idealism of just everyday people. I am a better person and a stronger Liberal for the path that I chose.

It has been an honour to serve Bradfield, an extraordinary electorate populated by educated, hardworking people who are imbued with a deep sense of commitment to service—volunteerism, philanthropy and the best interests of Australia. These are people who give much but ask little, deserving much better than the devastating environmental vandalism being imposed upon them by the New South Wales government’s rampant overdevelopment.

I arrived here in 1996 in the company of men and women who will forever be accorded a very special place in my life. Phil Barresi, Gary Nairn, Jo Gash, Danna Vale and Warren Entsch. It takes an effort to arrive in parliament as a crocodile farmer and cattle producer and leave as a gay rights activist with an earring, but that is Entschy. Amongst many others, they taught me a great deal.

I had intended to cross the floor in 1997 should the government relax cross-media ownership laws to allow the Packers to get Fairfax. I did not want to create a future in which they and Mr Murdoch would ultimately control the way my kids were going to think. I told the Packers so. I also held strong views on native title—Pauline Hanson had become a lightning rod for grief and anger that many Australians felt about changes in our country from the Keating era that they neither understood nor wanted—and mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory.

Although I wanted to be a minister and to drive policy, I had all but given up believing it would ever happen when, in December 2000, John Howard asked me to be Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence. I was surprised because I sensed that John believed me risky, with an earring and a questionable background for Liberal politics. But I learned of John Howard that he respected people who challenged him provided they had an intellectually sustainable basis for their argument and refused to parade it through the media. I later learned that it was Peter Reith who convinced John Howard to give me a go. Maligned by unions, the media and their fellow travellers, Peter Reith is one of the finest men that I have met in politics. We were in Aboriginal Australia together when he was employment minister, accepting my proposal to establish an organisation to facilitate volunteerism in Aboriginal communities.

My proudest achievement as parliamentary secretary for Defence was rebuilding the propellant factory at Mulwala. Defence had planned to close it, which would have meant we would import all our ammunition and lose 750 direct and indirect jobs, creating a human and social tragedy, not to mention a strategic failure. Madness.

I relished my four years as Minister for Education, Science and Training. The then departmental secretary, Peter Shergold, wore a tie adorned with tumbling pigs—all the way through 2002—and I was a bit too polite to ask him why. Finally he explained to a large gathering of stakeholders in the Main Committee room at the end of the consultation year on higher education reform that he called it his ‘pigs might fly’ tie. He considered that my chances of getting university reform through the cabinet, let alone a Senate controlled by four Independents, fell into the ‘pigs might fly’ category. But we did get it through: $11 billion more for the sector, with limited deregulation, governance reform, performance funding pools, scholarships, 25,000 more publicly-funded places, new medical schools, a transformational opening up of the private sector and access to income contingent loans. The ‘pigs’ tie is framed and it now hangs in my office.

Voluntary student unionism was delivered only by belief, persistence, negotiation and a judgment that I exercised at a critical juncture to test it in the Senate without knowing what the outcome would be. The schools agenda pursued by the current government is essentially that which we drove and legislated in 2004: national performance benchmarks in literacy and numeracy; a common school starting age; plain-language report cards; national standards for teaching; measurement and publication of school performance; principal autonomy; direct funding to schools; and the development of a national curriculum. The states had four years to comply, otherwise they would lose the Commonwealth money. That is why they are doing it. The Rudd government deserves credit for implementing the agenda, and I thank both the Prime Minister and his government for doing so and for standing up to the intransigence that I experienced from their Labor cousins in the states over the four years that I was the minister.

I also make no apology for requiring schools to fly the Australian flag and to teach values. It was right to drive values education in the knowledge that character is destiny. A values-free education risks producing values-free adults. The problem too often is not that young people have not learned our values; it is that they have.

I also believed that our nation had failed in creating a culture in which young people felt that their lives were measured by the educational choices that they made. If they did not get an outstanding university entrance score, a university degree and a BMW then, in some way, they felt they were of lesser value—lesser value to their families and lesser value to their country—than those who did. It was right to confront this orthodoxy and renew the political and policy emphasis on apprenticeships. No person’s life is valued by the educational choices that they make.

We must never return to the class war in school funding. Those parents who choose to send their children to Catholic and independent schools had to be defended from those who were engaged in the politics of envy. All those children receive less public money for their education, deserving this nation’s support for their education and parental sacrifice.

I thank John Howard and Peter Costello for their belief in science and research, doubling funding to the Australian Research Council and allocating an additional $8.3 billion to the nation’s research and innovation agenda.

Defence remains the most demanding yet personally satisfying role that I have had in my public life. It was far more demanding than being opposition leader, which was difficult in different and less important ways. Management of the portfolio, reform of it, major procurements, intelligence, foreign policy and overseeing Australia at war—including 10 deployments—was gruelling. Acquisition of the four C-17 Globemasters, the three per cent real compounding increases in Defence spending over the next decade, two additional army battalions, three F100 Aegis equipped air warfare destroyers, two 28,000-tonne LHDs and a $3 billion recruitment and retention package are the most significant legacy decisions that I leave Australia. I thank then Prime Minister John Howard and then Treasurer Peter Costello for their belief in those decisions and for their support of them. The most important, though, was de-risking the transition to the Joint Strike Fighter with the purchase of 24 FA18F Super Hornets. I drove it, I am proud of it, and I was right.

I also record my quiet admiration for a man who made mistakes and recognises them but whom I found, in my dealings with him, to be intelligent, decent, thoughtful and principled. I regard him as arguably the most misunderstood and misrepresented figure in recent history, and that is President George W. Bush. It may not be fashionable to say this, but it is true. I supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein in the post September 11 world. He may not, in hindsight, have been an immediate threat, but he was an inevitable one.

To their families, I will never forget SAS Sergeant Matthew Locke, Private Luke Worsley, SAS Signaller Sean McCarthy, Lance Corporal Jason Marks, Trooper David ‘Poppy’ Pearce, Captain Mark Bingley and SAS Trooper Josh Porter, who gave their lives on my watch operationally in the service of Australia as a consequence of decisions that I made, that I supported and that I administered. My life, my attitude to it and that of my country was forever changed by carrying responsibility for equipping them and placing them in harm’s way. Their sacrifice transcends and endures far beyond any contribution that I have ever made or ever will. I thank every man and woman who wears the uniform of our three services for what they do in our name and under our flag, in the defence of Australia’s interests and values.

I did not expect to become the leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party. I could have sat back after the election defeat in November 2007 and waited. For my own self interest, I was advised to do so. But that is not me. I knew it would be a crucial period for managing individual and collective grief at losing government and losing some of its key figures, embracing our legacy, framing the new government and setting an alternative vision for the country.

I had my reservations about the apology to the forcibly removed generations of Aboriginal Australians. I respected the legitimate conservative opposition to it in sections of my own party and the Australian community. I publicly aired my reservations deliberately as a device to bring my party to the ‘sorry’ table because I strongly believed that morally and politically it was the right thing to do. I stand by every word I said that day. I note that more Indigenous children are being removed today than ever were in the period for which the apology was offered.

Petrol—and Fuelwatch was a crock!—pensioners, carers, wheat marketing, same-sex couples and climate change: nothing was easy but what of value ever is? And the cardboard cut-out was my idea!

There are, in my opinion, five key challenges that face this country. The first is the prosperity that we will offer the next generation of Australians. It will require amongst other things: continuous taxation reform that is critical to incentive and Australia’s international competitiveness; a flexible labour market characterised by individual choice and protection; relentless pursuit of trade liberalisation in the knowledge that isolationism will never make us safer; major reform of teacher training, which can be done without spending additional money; appointment of classroom teachers to universities as lecturers, tutors and researchers; performance benchmarks and financial rewards for teachers; and quality assurance as a prerequisite for ongoing teacher credentialling. I ask the Prime Minister also to consider implementing the 2005 report chaired by the late Dr Ken Rowe into the teaching of reading. It will do more to transform lives and lift our productivity than any other single measure in Australian schooling.

Also at the time I floated with John Howard, whose blood pressure for some inexplicable reason went up at this point, that in modern Australia, in the 21st century, the CSIRO, which had been established at a time when little research was being done in Australian universities, should be amalgamated with the ANU and that some of its regional important satellite activities amalgamated with relevant regional universities. I still believe that is the case. It would immediately give Australia a global top 10 research and teaching institution. It would drive economies of scale and it would also drive research even more effectively in regional communities relevant to the communities in which it is undertaken.

The second challenge in my view is that of the dysfunctional federation. The greatest constitutional challenge that faces this nation is the relationship between the three tiers of government, and how the money is raised. This is obviously quite a different world from that of Henry Parkes and those who gave us the Federation and the Constitution that served us so well for most of the 20th century. It is now failing us. It will require bipartisan leadership in a process to develop options for reform and to put them to the Australian people. Whatever the differences between us politically, it is obvious wherever you live in Australia, whatever your politics, that the relationship between the three tiers of government is at the heart of many of the issues that we debate here on a day-to-day basis.

The third key challenge is that of the environment. It is time for our generation to begin to live on environmental interest instead of the environmental capital that has sustained us since the industrial revolution. On climate change, let us not be a nation of intellectual lemmings. Why introduce the biggest change to the economic architecture in this nation in my lifetime with a tax on everything—massive churning of money through the economy as we emerge from the deepest economic downturn in 80 years—for no environmental gain in the absence of a global agreement? To legislate an emissions trading scheme in a country responsible for 1.4 per cent of global emissions before knowing what the three major emitters will do defies not only logic; it also violates Australia’s best interests. The dictum in medicine is uberrima fides—to always act in the utmost good faith. The interests of everyday Australians who want action on climate change but are ignorant of the cost to be imposed on them by those who do know what those costs are must surely be placed ahead of political advantage by both sides of politics.

The fourth challenge is that of the defence of Australia and, increasingly, our interests and values throughout the world. To those Australians who question our deployment to Afghanistan, please understand that our generation is engaged in an epic struggle against resurgent totalitarianism. This is a global insurgency driven by disparate groups. They have hijacked the good name of Islam to build a violent political utopia. More than 100 innocent Australians have already been murdered in Bali, Jakarta and New York at the hands of these people. They were murdered by people whose attitude to religious freedom, the rights of women and the liberating power of education violates everything for which this country has stood in its short history. We cannot leave our children held hostage to a force that they may never control. That is why it is so important that the political will be maintained in the leadership of the country from both sides of the political divide.

The fifth challenge, as I see it, is the cohesion of our society. Whether it is drug use, gambling, homelessness or the plight of Indigenous Australia, Liberals should be no less concerned for these issues than economic fundamentals. If we are falsely perceived as accountants aspiring to run an economy rather than men and women committed to building a better society we will be harshly judged. If all economic and scientific questions were ever solved, all important problems would remain still unanswered.

I also caution the nation’s leadership as I leave. We have to be very clear about our values and our beliefs, never allowing Australia to become a country of cultural aimlessness. Whether by birth or by migration, we are Australians defined as we are by our institutions, triumphs, failures, heroes, villains, adversities, literature and culture. We cannot ever abandon what Arthur Schlesinger described as ‘historic purpose’ in building the future that we want.

The Liberal Party’s future lies in its past, never forgetting from where we come, who we are and for whom we exist. Liberals gave Australia its first refugee, its first woman and its first Aborigine as members of parliament. Neville Bonner’s life of grace, humility and principle in the face of extraordinary adversity has been an inspiration to me personally. As the first Aboriginal Australian elected to the parliament, he considered his greatest achievement as being there. When Robin the Hughes asked him in 1992, he said:

They no longer spoke of boongs or blacks. They spoke instead of Aboriginal people.

Robert Menzies, in 1942, arguably the most important year in Australia’s history since 1788—a seminal year for the Liberal Party—spoke and wrote of the forgotten people. I have said this to my colleagues before and I will say it again today. He wrote:

Salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women…

…            …            …

farmers….politically and economically they are the middle class. Unorganised and unselfconscious, not rich enough to wield power in its own right and too individualistic for pressure politics, and yet,

he observed:

…they are the backbone of the nation….and in their children they see their greatest contribution to it.

Two years later in 1944, again Sir Robert, to those who had come to Canberra to form what would become the Liberal Party emerging from the political dramas of the UAP, said:

What we must look for is a revival of true liberal thought, one that will work for social justice and security. True liberals have great and imperative obligations to the weak, sick and unfortunate.

In his vision of Australia, this country would owe to ‘every good citizen, not only a chance in life—but a self respecting life.’ As Liberals we must always place our principles and Australia’s best interests ahead of what we think are our political interests. In my opinion and experience, one follows the other.

Thank you to my many friends and colleagues with whom I have worked, past and present. Tony Smith, Bruce Billson, Bob Baldwin and Mitch Fifield, you are men of courage and character. I will never forget it. Thank you, Peter Costello, to you and your family. Thank you for the central role that you have played in making this a more confident, prosperous and stronger country. I thank you for your support of me and I will never forget it. I wish my leader, Malcolm Turnbull, every well-deserved success for the future that will come through perseverance. To my Liberal colleagues, that future is in our hands. It is entirely in our hands.

I also thank Prime Minister Rudd for the considerable courtesies shown to me since we ended hostilities as political leaders. I thank the Prime Minister also for his commitment to screen every newborn baby for deafness. If we choose to do so, we can set a vision for our country where every child born profoundly deaf can, with a cochlear implant—if that is what their parents choose—and an appropriate program be able to hear, speak and be fully integrated into a normal school by the time they start at the age of five. A previous prime minister once said ‘no child would live in poverty’. All of us support that aspiration but, as Christ himself recognised, there would always be poor. But this is something that we can do. There is not a lot of money involved. Most of it is already in the system. It requires political will and it also requires a good heart. I know on this issue especially you have both.

I am asked at the moment—and, Peter Costello, you would be asked the same—whether I would encourage young people to go into politics. To young Australians, I say never abandon your idealism. Never give up believing that you can make a difference to your community, your country and the world. The way each of us lives affects our world. You can make a decision early in your life to live in a way which changes the world. Never confuse position with principle and power. Arguably the most significant backbencher in history was William Wilberforce, who 200 years ago eschewed position to successfully challenge the repugnant economic orthodoxy of human slavery.

Success, in my experience, relies on three things. The first is to keep an open mind to other people and other ideas. None of us is right about everything, which is part of what is wrong with our system. Those who close their minds set themselves up for failure. The second is to constantly nurture and protect the inner integrity of your intellect: your ability to formulate ideas and express them to challenge and change the attitudes and opinions of other people. The third criterion for success is ultimately about the respect that we show to one another, whether in our community, the parliament or, indeed, our world.

To all Australians I say: never lose your sceptical attitude to political figures who think themselves better than others or who exploit your hard work. But I also say, as I leave, that this country is extraordinarily well served by the men and women across the spectrum that are here: Liberal, National, Labor, Independent, Greens and a variety of other parties. I came in with a degree of cynicism; I leave with great confidence that our country is well served by what happens here—as hard as it may be to see it, at times, on the evening news. Though some are occasionally worthy of scorn, relentless attacks on politicians’ remuneration diminishes the nation that they serve.

I will continue to pursue my vision of the Australia that I believe in. It should be one in which we value the health and integrity of human life as much as we do achieving our economic objectives. We should see that the barriers to the creation of wealth are the real enemy of equitable and fair social policy. We should nurture the idealism of young people. We should urge them always to embrace values for the world that they want and not just to accept values for the world they think that they are going to get.

Every Australian should know that he or she will be cared for, but in return we expect every Australian to make a contribution to this society from which we all derive a benefit. Ultimately, we should strive to be an outward-looking, intensely competitive, compassionate country, reconciled with its Indigenous history and imbued with values of hard work, self-sacrifice, tolerance and courage.

Finally—I know you are thinking it: he hasn’t mentioned his wife!—I thank my wife, Gillian, and my daughter, Rebecca. Gillian endured much on my behalf in the service of my electorate and of Australia. After losing the Liberal leadership last year, she remarked in a typically understated way, ‘It’s not a positive working environment.’ Gillian, for your support, encouragement, love, belief and balanced wisdom, I thank you. Whatever people think of me—and I know it was harsh—Gillian Adamson would have made an outstanding first lady. Thank you.