Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Mr Speaker, I rise to give my first speech in this House and am honoured to do so as the representative of the people of Aston. I come here as the custodian of their interests in this parliament and commit to working for their benefit. In coming to this parliament, I follow in the footsteps of two great former representatives of Aston—the late Mr Peter Nugent and the Hon. Chris Pearce.
Peter Nugent brought to the parliament a commonsense approach to the environment and a belief in technology as the foundation for our future. But the respect and praise from both sides of parliament on his sudden death in 2001 was for his championship of those less fortunate, including Indigenous Australians.
Chris Pearce was a businessman and local councillor who had a passionate belief in the value of policies which strengthened the community and family, and a desire to see music and the arts better incorporated in the curriculum. He achieved much of his agenda, and Australia and Aston are better for it.
The changes these men wrought in this place, and in themselves, were the end results of the vast opportunities membership of a parliament brings. This is its strength and power if you are willing to embrace and run with it. I want to take all the opportunities presented to me in this place. I want to put my 15 years experience in business, in government and in the community sector to the best use I can. I want not only to be a great representative for the individual families and businesses in my electorate but also to make a national contribution to keep our society open and free, to minimise the role of government in our daily lives and to provide real choice and opportunity for all Australians.
The seat of Aston, in outer eastern Melbourne, is named after Matilda Aston, otherwise known as Tilly—a remarkable woman ahead of her time. Born in 1873, she was totally blind by the age of 7 at a time when, as she described it, blind people were often kept like ‘birds in a cage’. She helped bring about great changes to provide freedom and opportunities for visually impaired people, often overcoming intolerance and downright prejudice to achieve her ends. Her example has been honoured by the previous two members. It is a legacy I will strive to continue in the years ahead.
The electorate itself also lives up to the example she set throughout her whole life: hard work, participation, humour, strength of character and care for others. All of these attributes are seen each day amongst the people of Aston. It is middle Australia, full of everyday heroes and untold acts of goodness. It is about real people, such as Colin Golding, who has given 40 years of service by rescuing people and property with the Rowville CFA. It is about Lawrence Turnbull and his parishioners at the Highway Parish in Vermont South and Wantirna, who provide guidance and support for each other, including my own family —as do the other churches throughout the community. And it is about the hundreds of people within the Knox Football Club community who have rallied behind one of their players, Damon Fent, who was recently made a paraplegic in a tragic accident.
Volunteers who work in op shops, people who deliver meals on wheels, drivers who support the work of the Red Cross and the Salvos, organisers of the scouts and the sporting teams—this sense of community in Aston is more than worthy of support and must be preserved. The people of Aston respect the need for taxes but they expect value for money. They expect government to alleviate the cost of living pressures, not add to them. And from running their own businesses and household budgets, they know that governments cannot go on borrowing $100 million per day.
With the third-highest proportion of homeowners in the country, Aston residents need interest rates to be low. With crime rates rising, they want community safety to be treated as a top priority by government, with more police on the streets and security cameras in local hotspots. They have a right to basic services. That is what government is meant to do. Then they want to make their own decisions free from interference. Aston shares a problem with many outer suburban areas: the issue of congestion, which impinges on quality of life. The journey from Vermont South to work in the city used to be a simple 30-minute drive; today, it takes an hour or more, assuming you leave very early. You simply multiply the chaos the further you stretch out along and from Burwood Highway. Congestion is crushing the fundamental choices of where to work and study. We may be getting wealthier but if our choices are diminishing we are lesser for it.
Rapid population growth is a key driver of congestion. As the son of immigrants, I proudly support immigration but our population is growing too quickly. Our population increase last year was twice that of five years ago. The Treasury advice to the government is that high population growth need not impact on the liveability of our cities, provided: … the right plans and policies are put in place now in anticipation of it.
I see no such plans in place for the outer east of Melbourne. The people of Aston have plans and ideas to ease congestion, and I fully support them and will fight for: a rail link to Rowville would take the equivalent of a lane of traffic off the Monash Freeway and link up to Australia’s largest university; the extension of Dorset Road and the duplication of the remaining section of High Street Road; the tram line extended to Knox; the Eastern Freeway connected to the Tullamarine to ease the Hoddle Street bottleneck; and getting rid of the dangerous Stud Road bus lane—all of these infrastructure projects should be prioritised ahead of spending $43 billion on fibre to every home or billions on pink batts. One thing I will strongly stand up against in this place, as a supposed panacea to the issue of congestion, is the government’s consideration of road congestion taxes. In the absence of viable alternatives to our major roads, this will be an outrageous impost on people in the suburbs and will further limit their choices and opportunities.
Economic growth is the foundation on which all else is built. It is important not just because it creates wealth and funds the services that the community wants and expects but because it is about jobs. Participation in the workforce provides for a family, keeps people out of poverty and empowers people to take charge of their lives. If there is one overarching goal for this national parliament, it is to keep unemployment low. While the official unemployment figure is low compared with other nations, there are still tens of thousands of people looking for work.
There are 750,000 people on disability support pensions, of whom at least 150,000 are capable of working, according to the Brotherhood of St Laurence. The barriers which prevent these people accessing the workforce should be identified and removed. Flexible labour markets decided between workers and employers would better meet the needs of both able and disabled people, and they would underpin the real engines of growth—productivity and participation. This government has a tendency for thinking that a tax is the answer to every problem. The climate is changing, so it says we need a carbon tax. There is a problem with binge drinking, so it implements an alcopops tax. There is a mining boom, so it proposes an extra mining tax. And there is a congestion problem, so apparently we need a road tax. None of these taxes will solve the problems that the government has defined, but all of them will increase the cost of living for Aston residents and for ordinary Australians, add extra burdens upon businesses and increase the size of governments. By association, these taxes will hurt the job market and cripple business incentive.
My parents and in-laws are small business owners. I have run my own small business. I understand the risks that people take, frequently putting their own homes on the line. I am an unflinching supporter of small business, including the 11,000 in Aston. I believe that people should be rewarded for their effort through lower taxes and that people should be able to get on with the job as free as possible from government interference.
My upbringing is similar to millions who have come before me. I was born to newly arrived immigrants— 10-pound Poms—who set up on the very outskirts of Melbourne in Pakenham, the last stop on the train line. While my family did not stay as a unit for very long, the abiding commitment of both my mum and my dad was to a good education. I did not appreciate it at the time, but through my school education I was given the skills, confidence and values that laid the foundation for future opportunities.
My desire is for every Australian student to have the same schooling opportunities that I did. Our schools perform well by international standards, but there is more to be done. We must constantly be improving standards. We should unashamedly promote excellence, including the establishment of more selectentry government schools. But, equally, we must ensure that every school in the most disadvantaged area is a school which enables students to soar to reach their potential.
In our great egalitarian society our schools should be the ultimate hand-up, where it does not matter where you start or where you live, it is what happens in the classroom that counts. We have yet to reach this goal and we will fail to do so if stifling bureaucracy limits the ability of principals to run schools according to their professional judgment. We will fail to do so if educational fads trump evidence-based practices in teaching children how to read and do maths. And we will fail to do so if unions continue to see teachers as part of an industrial power play, rather than as professionals whose influence over our children is second only to parents.
For over a decade I have been involved with school reform initiatives, working with Brendan Nelson when he was education minister, with the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership and through non-profit initiatives. My assessment is that the key reform to improving our schools is lifting the quality and standing of our teachers. Research shows that a student can perform at twice the rate of learning under a good teacher than under an average one.
I am proud to have helped establish the Teach for Australia initiative that aims to lift the standing of teaching through tapping into a different pool of graduates. I am pleased there is bipartisan support for it. I support initiatives for mid-career professionals to be accelerated into teaching in a similar way. However, we must just go further and rigorously assess the quality of the teaching courses at our universities. We should set higher minimum standards for entry into those courses, even if in the short term this means a smaller intake. We should provide greater incentives for the best teachers to teach in areas where kids need an extra hand-up. Importantly, principals should be fully empowered to move teachers on if they are not performing up to scratch.
During this parliamentary term, the next four-year funding agreement will be negotiated to cover the 2013-16 period. I will be monitoring this closely to ensure the best standards are provided for children in state schools and that parents who make tremendous sacrifices to send their children to Catholic or independent schools are not penalised for doing so. We have many national environmental issues to address—feral animals, soil erosion, water security and air pollution to name a few. There are also practical things that we can do locally in Aston such as stormwater harvesting for local sportsgrounds and beautifying local parks and creeks. However, while we must do more to preserve our environment, we must be equally vigilant to ensure that environmentalism does not become the politically correct ideology of the 21st century, where to scrutinise or question a green measure is considered treason or denial or worse. We must also be vigilant to ensure that it does not morph into an agenda which is more about limiting growth or protectionism than it is about protecting the environment.
There are a few on the other side of this chamber who still openly admit to being socialists. But many under a green guise or under the banner of so-called nation building are advocating for the re-regulation of our economy and government intrusion into areas which are the proper role of private enterprise. Every green measure should be examined closely for its efficacy. This government wasted billions on pink batts and green loans. Land rights have been taken from Indigenous Australians under the cloak of environmentalism, despite Indigenous people being sound stewards of the land for tens of thousands of years. Communities are sometimes destroyed by the introduction of wind farms, which barely put a dent in our dependence on fossil fuels. Most tragically, internationally, biofuels are being planted instead of food, contributing to a global food shortage. The environment is important and so is humanity. Let us use our brains. Let us build up our natural capital. But let us make sure that every dollar spent delivers maximum benefit and that we are explicit about trade-offs while doing it.
In coming to the end of my speech tonight, I would like to touch on a topic that I am deeply committed to, a commitment I share with many here—that is, the plight of Indigenous Australians. It is hard to believe that in modern Australia a group of us still live in circumstances that, on almost every measure, are unacceptable. The broad statistics are familiar to us. The issues seem so intractable. But if we come to this parliament with the aim of doing good work for our fellow country men and women, and particularly for those less fortunate, then we must surely keep the plight of Indigenous Australians high on our agenda.
My views in this area are informed by my experience working as the Deputy Director of the Cape York Institute. They are influenced by my former boss, Noel Pearson, whom I regard as one of Australia’s greatest intellects. I look forward to working with my new colleague Ken Wyatt and learning from his experience. I believe that if we are to make substantial progress then we must have sharp clarity around the proposition that no group of people can prosper unless they are an integral part of the real economy. In the modern globalised world, economic and social development in any community requires successful basic education and social norms in relation to work. This is not an assertion based on ideology; it is an empirical fact. We do no favours to any group of people, not least our most disadvantaged citizens, if we believe that normal schooling and normal jobs are somehow less relevant by virtue of one’s location or culture. I believe we need a more urgent and ambitious agenda in these two areas. We need achievable targets for this term of parliament, not just targets to halve the gap in a decade or more. That is a recipe for inaction.
There are four actions that I put forward. First, full school enrolment should be enforced under the law. It should be put on the next COAG agenda. There are no excuses for delay. Second, we should aim to achieve mainstream school attendance levels within this term of parliament. We should use every lever at our disposal to achieve this, including enforcing attendance laws, linking welfare to school attendance and funding case managers to support parents taking responsibility. Third, there should be a focus on reforming schools in remote areas to ensure mainstream quality. And if the poison of grog impedes progress then there should be a redoubling of our efforts against alcohol availability and use. Finally, in employment we should acknowledge that in many remote communities there will never be sufficient jobs. We must change the incentives so that able-bodied people, in particular school leavers, are strongly encouraged to be mobile and find employment regardless of where those jobs are located. It is ridiculous that we have jobs going begging, yet have thousands of people sitting, and becoming debilitated, on welfare.
I do not pretend that my proposals are easy or comprehensive; nor do they contradict or negate legitimate aspirations for additional rights, cultural maintenance or symbolic reconciliation. But until we banish Indigenous relativism and have mainstream aspirations for Indigenous schooling and employment then I fear our progress will be tragically slow. Long term, Australia will be the loser.
No-one comes to this parliament without the support and foundations provided by others. In my case, I bring a bedrock of values and unflinching support over many years from my parents, Doreen and Graham; their respective partners, Norm and Margaret; my brother and sister, Stephen and Shona; and my inlaws, Margaret and Dennis, and their families. I have been the beneficiary of great mentors including Colin Carter, Brendan Nelson, Jim Carlton, Alexander Downer, Bob Charles, Greg Hunt and Chris Pearce. I have had friendship, advice and support in so many ways from Richard Balderstone, Ross Fitzgerald, Yvonne Thompson, Yen Liow, Henry Jones, Catherine Murphy, Mary, DB, Jack and Darc.
Importantly, I come here as a proud member of the Liberal Party of Australia, whose values of hard work, small government and individual enterprise I share. I particularly acknowledge the Aston chairman and his wife, Graeme and Maureen McEwin, outstanding individuals who over 20 years have now overseen the election of three Liberal members to this chamber. I also acknowledge other tireless contributors including Darren Disney, David Jancik, Michael Gilmour, Glenda and Max Frost, Perrin Brown, Ben Davies, Sandra Rae, Glynis Allan, Martin Bartlett, John Shipp and the hundreds of others who have supported our efforts. I thank you all. I would not be here without you.
To my darling wife, Teri, and our two beautiful girls, Cassie and Kristen: you are the most important people in my life. You have always been there for me, despite my absences, and I promise I will always be there for you.
This is a remarkable country. We inspire others with our sense of the possible through our world-class scientists, researchers, doctors, artists, businesspeople, designers and sportspeople. I want to be part of creating opportunities for all Australians in the generations to come—in my electorate of Aston and right across our nation. Tilly Aston’s life was a vision of our better selves. In a time of limited opportunity, she created opportunity. In a time of closed doors, she opened doors. In a time of rationed generosity, she gave untold generosity. Her values are our values—of openness of opportunity, of the majestic possibility of each life. If in some small way I can embody those values then that will be enough.