27 June 2013
Valedictory speech, House of Representatives
Mr GARRETT (Kingsford Smith) (16:30): I take this opportunity to record a brief valedictory for the benefit of the House and more importantly for the record. I seek the indulgence of the House to make some remarks on my last day in the parliament. It is commonplace for members to stand here and to thank, as they should, officers of parliament, those that make life easier for us who are serving politicians, particularly ministers. But I begin by thanking the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of our nation for their forbearance. They have had to witness a period in their own living memory of the disassociation, disintegration in some cases, and then rejuvenation and renewal of their culture and their aspirations in a way which has been a great test of the first peoples of this country. It is entirely appropriate that the parliament now recognises that, as we do when we begin the session of parliament at the beginning of a parliamentary term. It is also entirely appropriate that we are developing an increasingly bipartisan approach to reducing the disadvantage that is borne very heavily by the first peoples of this nation. I commend the efforts of all in parliament. I see the member for Banks is here and I acknowledge his distinguished record in this regard.
I also thank family. Regrettably, my family is not here at the moment, but I put on the record, as have many other members who have reached this point, how extraordinary a contribution they make to all of us here, and none more so than in my case. I have been in public life for in excess of 30 years, probably more than 35 years, and in that time a great deal of time has been spent away from home. To my wife, Doris, and my children, Emily, May and Grace: big thanks. Again, it is commonplace for us to recognise that our staff are really us. They are certainly our arms and legs and, in my case, thankfully, sometimes they are our brains as well. You are only able to operate effectively and faithfully, as it were, in this place if you have good staff. The member for Perth reflected on the longevity of his staff. I have some staff who have experienced longevity in my terms as well. I thank them personally, in particular Kate Pasterfield, my deputy chief of staff; Denise Spinks, my chief of staff; and in my electorate office, Sandi Chick and Jenny Hunter. There are many others here and some in the chamber to whom I want to say: you cannot do this job at all, and you certainly cannot do this job well, unless you have staff that commit themselves to you and go the extra k and even more. Mine have done that and I very much appreciate their commitment and their loyalty.
Yesterday I made a statement to explain the reason I was standing down from the ministry and not recontesting my seat by saying that I came into this place as a frontman to become a team player. The one thing I want to reflect on is that if people are concerned about the way in which the public views the political processes, and if those of us who are participants in the process are concerned about our capacity to communicate that we are really on about serious issues of public policy then those are the things that we need to talk about and concentrate on. I know it has been a subject of considerable bemusement, including to those in the press gallery, that I will not jump up on my ministerial desk and do an air guitar, that I will not come into the House and quote my own song lyrics, that I will not take the opportunities that are afforded to people who have celebrity status and use that to advance either the causes of the government or the political party that I have come here as a member of. There is a very important reason for that and it is twofold: (1) I have too much respect for what I did before to belittle it in any way; and (2) I have too much respect for what we are doing and what we are trying to do here to try and use that. If it cannot stand on its own public policy foundations then engaging in stunts will not help in the long term.
However, having said that, I have endeavoured to do my best both in terms of loyalty and in terms of the disciplines that I think are very necessary in parliamentary politics, particularly with the intensity of the media cycle that we face. I am joined by some of my colleagues, but I will not mention any vocal performances at this point in time. What I am really trying to say is that you do not come here out of self-interest, you come here for the public interest. In doing that, you try to make your way through, wherever you are sitting in the parliament, and then you hope that you can make a contribution.
I do not want to produce a list of any kind about contributions, other than to highlight a couple of things which I think are useful to get on the record and to reflect in some ways on what I discovered when I came into the parliament when we were in opposition. The first thing I discovered was that Kim Beazley has a very loud voice. We were sitting on the backbench at the time, and I greatly enjoyed that experience. All of us recognise that the history of the modern settler nation is very much reflected throughout this building and all of the engagements here and the characters writ large on our stage. I was sitting in front of both Kim Beazley and Carmen Lawrence. Their scrutiny, their analysis, their commentary about Prime Minister John Howard at the time and their interjections were a great learning experience for me. The fact is that it does not matter where you come from or what you have done, when you come in here you start from the ground up and you learn from square one. You cannot just sweep in here, even if you have had some other career that has had a few blooms about it, and expect that the same thing will apply. I really wanted to learn the craft and apply myself to it. Of course, I brought a strong interest in the environment.
One of the things that I am pleased about is that we did have a very good policy when we came into the 2007 election, which in part was a recognition that the way in which we had been thinking about energy, about pollution and about the environment needed to change. I am extremely proud that we were able to argue strongly at that time for the renewable energy target and to see how well it is working now.
There are many other things that one could talk about of real importance there—I see Prime Minister Rudd is here; former Prime Minister Gillard as well—and what we have done on climate change will be recognised as a substantial transforming reform. We are doing it in a way that is thorough; we are doing it in a way that is intellectually honest; we are doing it in a way that is going to reap the planet some dividends, albeit too small over a longer period than I think is necessary; but we are in a position to do that now.
There is a reason business has confidence in the price on carbon. It is because it is an economically rational way of dealing with this issue. I think there is a reason the public, I hope, are now showing increasing confidence in the price that we have on carbon because it is working. What more could you ask for?
I was fortunate enough to serve in two ministries: Education, Heritage and the Arts and then latterly in Education, Early Childhood and Youth. I acknowledge the member for Watson here. The commitment that we made in government that I thought was important for us to make, to have a system of world-class marine reserves around this nation, was a very important thing for us to do, and to have it realised now, albeit with some risk in the other place, is one of the great conservation achievements of this party and in the true Labor position.
After all—and I will always try to be generous in recognition of environmental contributions across the parliament—it is fair for me say that despite much of the language that we get from the Greens party in the upper house, in this forum they have not delivered a great deal of conservation reform. I acknowledge former senator Bob Brown and his activities in Tasmania; and they are considerable. But here, in this place, if you want to look after the environment in a real way—it is our environment as a nation; every Australian’s environment—you can only do it in the national parliament. The party that has done the most of it is the Australian Labor Party. Seeing that I have the member for Rankin and others here, I recall arriving with a cassette player at Kirribilli House and Prime Minister Hawke greeted me, wearing a pair of stubbies and a shirt. I was able to play him a track from Midnight Oil’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 album called ‘And There Must Be One Place Left in the World’—a song about Antarctica. As we know, the rest is history.
In any event, that was an important commitment to start thinking really seriously about the powers that an environment minister has and should responsibly exercise. I am very pleased that in all the decisions that I made, including some controversial decisions, particularly in Queensland with the Traveston Dam, there was only one of those decisions—and then on a technicality—that was ever overturned in any court or tribunal. Importantly though, we were able to elevate some of our beautiful natural places and give them the recognition and protection they deserved. I think of places like Ningaloo Reef on the World Heritage List and what a tremendous boon for Australia and Western Australia that will be; the listing of the Kimberley region on the National Heritage List; and some big and important reforms to do with the Great Barrier Reef. That is really about making sure that you work in partnership with farmers on the land side of the reef so that whatever is going into the water is a lot cleaner than it has been previously.
Crucially, though—and this is very important for me to put on the record—many of those reforms are literally under threat now with the attitude that has been taken by Premier Newman and the Queensland government. There is a taint of recklessness and disregard for our environment that washes through that Queensland government administration that, frankly, gives me great cause for concern. I can assure anybody listening, and those of my colleagues who are here, that once I leave this place I will be doing my utmost to make sure that those natural heritage and natural environment gains that have been hard won by the community and then by the parliament are kept in place.
I should go quickly now to education and I should thank former Prime Minister Gillard for giving me the opportunity to serve in that capacity because, in some ways—let’s just face it—it is a no-win situation being environment minister. Fifty per cent of the Australian population wanted me to do much more and the other 50 per cent did not want me to do anything at all. So there we were in the middle. That’s politics and quite often politics is finding that middle card and arguing it out as you go. I am proud of the legacy and I am proud of what I have seen continue.
There is one final thing to say: a couple of other decisions were particularly important. One was to seriously contest the question of whaling in the Southern Ocean—so-called ‘scientific whaling’. It is a furphy to think that by dispatching boats down there for some colour and movement TV and fundraising for a nongovernment organisation you will stop the Japanese government supporting this activity. That is a complete furphy. Anyone who believes it needs to have a bit of Realpolitik and read a bit of history. The fact is that constructive engagement and very thoughtful policy development is needed around what we need to do and what we need to get out of our natural environment. Whales, surely, are worth more to us alive than they are dead. Surely they are. The research we have been doing with our colleagues in New Zealand, particularly important research, about cetaceans is showing that time and time again. They help us understand, by the way, the kind of impacts that we are seeing from a warming ocean just as they provide a sustainable income for those communities that have whale-watching activities.
But I digress. The next step to take, if one must, is to use the full force of the law and exercise the national interest in the international forum. The fact is that the case that is currently before the International Court of Justice will be the first time since, I think, 1972 that we have been in a tribunal to argue that case. And just to remind those present, 1972 was when we went to the court to protest against the French testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa Atoll. There you are.
I return to education, very briefly. This has been a very big and important reform for the government. It has been a huge privilege to be given carriage over those reforms, so I acknowledge, Julia, that you had given me those responsibilities. Just think quickly about what we have done, and it is a reflection on the federation. We have a national curriculum for the first time. It might sound like it is a kind of basic thing but why did it take us until 2012 to get a national curriculum? We needed a national vision. We needed to set the standards of a curriculum as high as we could for every student and then we needed to reach agreement with the states through the vexed processes of COAG et al to make it happen. Now we have done it, we have the best national curriculum in the world. You can access it by hitting ‘enter’ on your computer. It is a fabulous piece of work and it is empowering students and teachers Australia wide. We also brought in professional standards for teachers and principals—again, something really important to do. The Trade Training Centres in Schools Program was already incepted in the former term and we maintained that as well.
Most important of all, we responded to the first review into school funding in nearly 40 years, the Gonski review—recommendations that bore down upon us and charged this parliament to respond, and all of us to respond. David Gonski would be well known to many people here. He is an eminent Australian and a senior business figure not only in the Sydney business community but also Australia wide and regionally. His panel said that the quality of education in our country should not be the product of power, privilege or access to resources. That was the argument. They did not have to write anything else but, of course, they did. That was the thing that we needed to act on and I am pleased that we did.
This is a fair education funding system. It is one that has equity and excellence at its heart. If we can set aside some of the rancour and some of the partisanship that regrettably infects some of our national body politic then it will deliver for students from now and into the future. When I say deliver, I do mean deliver because it will provide certainty. It is focused on lifting those kids who have disadvantage and helping them to learn better.
Providing certainty through the funding appropriations, as everybody in this House knows, is the trick. Half of what we do here is fix up decisions that other people have made. They may have been good decisions or they may not, but we have to fix them up. And these decisions do not last long enough. It is not good enough for the parliament to sit here and give someone a program that lasts six or 12 months. What good is it? After nine months, they have to apply for the money again. The person who is working has to sit and take retirement. We have to provide certainty. There is nothing more important that we can provide than certainty for our teachers and our parents that the resources will be there helping them every step of the way. You watch schools come to life when they have those resources, when principals have the sovereignty and when they are focusing on doing the things that really count. I was extremely pleased and proud that we were able to see the Australian Education Bill pass the parliament at about 1.10 yesterday.
I conclude now because I have taken your indulgence, colleagues, and members of the public who are kindly listening, for too long. I want to speak about three things overall—some reflections from me as I have come into this place. The first is that I took Australian democracy so seriously that I decided to become a member of parliament. Then I was privileged enough to become a minister and a cabinet minister for two terms of government. From my perspective, I judge that to be an incredible opportunity but also a reflection of how important I think this place is. Yes, we do have the debates. Yes, there is lots of carry-on and, frankly, there are too many people here who have spent their lives doing that. Sometimes they need to take a big deep breath, step back and work out what the common interest is.
I know the member for Lyne is here. Thanks very much, Rob Oakeshott, for your contributions. But I have a faith and a confidence in democracy and it is born of the fact that we live in a truly successful, prosperous and very engaging and enlarging nation. It is one where there are opportunities to be a positive force in our region and to really lift up what our citizens can become in the future. There are very few limits for us here. I heard the Prime Minister speak about that today—building it on, and that is absolutely right.
In order to have faith and confidence in democracy, you have to understand it. I am pleased that in the national curriculum we will have civics and citizenship. It is essential that young people understand to some extent how this system works, that they simply do not get the information from grabs on TV, a bit online or a bit from blogging, or whatever it might be. That is not really what is happening here. Some serious things happen here. Sometimes we have our light-hearted moments but, ultimately, if it does not happen here effectively and with integrity then the rest of the democracy around us will fail, and we cannot afford to have that happen.
The second thing I want to address which may surprise some of you is our relationships in the region, particularly with China. I consider this to be a matter of significant national importance for us as a nation. We are going through an historic sea change and we saw that sea change in the period of the late 19th century and into the 20th century, and in the World War II period where we turned around and looked to the United States for some protection and security. But our region now is totally transformed. Quite often when I do education forums I get people to put up their hands and say what it was like for them 50 years ago, and which were the big countries back then. The big countries were America and the United Kingdom. The big countries now are China and India. China is very important, and there are others here who know this well.
I view with some concern a sentiment that I have seen expressed, sometimes in the business community and sometimes further afield, that on the basis of our trading engagement with China we ought to in some ways forgive what we can properly put as a national interest view and as an international view about governance, freedom, human rights and appropriate conduct in international relations. It is an important relationship. It is one that must be conducted in a constructive fashion, and I know that it is, but it is also one where we need to be very clear about the nature of the relationship. We need to think about it and talk about it a great deal.
The other thing I want to talk about is sustainability. I am going to take exception with one thing that I hear in this place right across the parliament—that is, that it is only about economic growth. It is not only about economic growth. I think a lot of us know that, but it is important for us to reframe what our task is here. If the task of the parliament is to consider what Australia will be like in 10, 20, 50, or 100 years time—and we do not have our hands on that many levers; we are not setting interest rates here, and probably a good thing—and we have these population boosters saying that we should have a population of 50 million or 60 million people then we can literally frisbee ourselves to the moon until we have sustainable planning and sustainability built into our economic systems.
It is not about economic growth; it is about the quality of growth. Of course employment and a meaningful livelihood are absolutely essential to that, but you are ultimately not going to have a meaningful livelihood unless you have in place the basic provisions that the ecosystem provides for us as well. That is a challenge. It is a challenge for government; it is a challenge for the opposition. I do not want to be rancorous here but I do not hold much confidence, from what I am hearing from the Leader of the Opposition, that he recognises the nature of that challenge.
The next thing to say is that our future is borne on three or four things. It is not about our natural resources, even though we have them; it is about our people resources. They are the most important resource a country has. Take a quick look. Countries can have pretty much equivalent numbers of natural resources. Why do some do well and others not do so well at all? There are generally two or three answers to that. One is the education capacity of their citizens. Another one is the rigour, the robustness, of their governance arrangements. Separation of powers, rule of law, respect of property rights—these things underpin successful nations. There is one final thing that lies underneath that as well: imagination and innovation. If you get those things in place, Australia will be an incredibly wonderful place to live in and an important country and a successful country in the 21st century. But, if we do not get those things in place, then life will be much tougher for us, for our successors and for those who sit in this chamber after I am long gone.
Speaker, thank you very much for allowing me the opportunity to put on record some of my thoughts. I did not have too much time to prepare this, I must confess—that may have been obvious to you! I do want to say that I have appreciated the opportunity to serve with those of you who are my colleagues on this side of the House. I have very much appreciated the support I have had from my staff, who are sitting over there in the advisers box. I cannot even tell you—if I look across there and talk too much longer, you know what will happen. To my friends and family and also many in the community who have provided support to me over time, you have my deep gratitude. I wish all of you in this House well in the future. Thanks very much.