Australians don’t trust politicians. It’s a universal truth. In fact, Australians are losing faith across the four sectors of the economy—government, media, corporate and non-government organisations. But for my new role as senator for Queensland it is concerning—most concerning—that people’s trust in Australia’s institution of government, which has delivered peace and stability in this country for more than 100 years, is among the lowest globally.
Is this scepticism a mere reflection of our cultural resistance to authority? No, I don’t think so. The decline over the past years reflects a deeper malaise. Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies said in October 1954:
Democracy is the greatest system of government yet devised by man; but it has its weaknesses and its dangers. So far from lessening the responsibilities of the individual, it magnifies them. When one man was the ruler, it was no doubt a matter for thankfulness that he should be wise and honest and competent. But now that we are rulers, we must all seek to be as wise and honest and competent as honest effort can make us.
Menzies recognised the shared responsibility we have to engage with the Australian people honestly, to have the difficult conversations about policy and the future direction of this country.
I agree that honest engagement is how we rebuild the trust with the Australian people. Over the past 100 years, we have put more trust than ever in the state to manage those times of our lives which are challenges—unemployment, sickness, disability and old age. These were all taken care of by the family in the past but are now firmly problems for the state. This becomes particularly sad when you read news reports of people passing away in their homes and no-one realising until the mailbox is overflowing. Our robust self-reliance, so evident in our history, is slowly dissipating and is being replaced by an attitude of dependency where government is not the place of last resort to get assistance but the starting point. The government can’t be the answer to all problems, nor should it be. If it is the answer then you’ve got a problem with your question. The loss of individual self-reliance makes our society weaker.
When the government automatically steps in, the role of the family is changed. It’s not simply about money, because, if it were, the only impact would be on the budget bottom line. Government intervention diminishes the role and expectations of family. This in turn removes shared bonds and experiences and starves families of moments that build love and trust. These moments teach us compassion, respect and gratitude.
The size of our social security budget is often cause for an impersonal and often half-hearted debate about its sustainability and who is going to pay for it. The use of services once intended to be one’s last resort for moments of vulnerability in life but which are now seen as standard entitlements have seen it balloon well beyond the point of being sustainable.
The bigger, more troubling consequence is the disconnect of individuals from their families and the broader social networks that once provided a real safety net in times of need. We as a society have outsourced these responsibilities now to the government. It’s the result of excessive intervention and one of the most compelling arguments I can think of for smaller government. It’s not possible to outsource love or the bonds of trust and respect that are built through helping one another through difficulty. Working together through these moments is what turns us from being mere relations into a family. Outsourcing them denies us the chance to experience and become the best community, the best family and the best of humanity.
Caring for older family members is difficult, but nothing can replace the relationship and memories that are built by being there when they need it most. It’s not always possible for this to occur; I acknowledge that. But, wherever it can, it should be our choice.
Every time we help our child with their homework or be stern when it would be easier to give in, we don’t just complete a task. We build a bond of trust and respect, preparing them to succeed in school and life. A large part of the problem with Australian schools’ education performance isn’t the lack of resources. Spending on school education has never been higher. But it is, at least in part, the lack of effort of some parents and what they put into their children’s readiness for school. When I hear a teacher lament that children in their class are starting school without toilet training, I think of this disconnect. Hardworking and dedicated teachers are saying they just can’t get the parents of a struggling child to spend some time with them, helping to get their reading up to scratch. It’s sad. Better resources for schools are no replacement for a parent’s interest in their child’s education.
The content of education now covers matters that were once—and I think should continue to be—matters for parents. Moral and social matters that connect to people’s religious and political views are matters for family alone.
Part of the reason I put my name forward to serve in this parliament is I believe the work of this parliament should align with the interests of families, especially children. My mum and dad, whom I acknowledge in the gallery, did everything they could to give my sister and I every opportunity in life, even when it was hard for them to do so. But the times they were strict made us better. The times they pushed us to be our best were worth it. The times we were silly built our sense of fun. Now as a wife and mother to three beautiful girls I, and my husband, try to do the same. Every family will manage the strains of raising and educating children, while working to provide an income, differently. That is as it should be. So, while child care should be available and affordable for those who need it, so too should we value those families who choose to make the sacrifices needed for a parent to stay at home. One way of valuing that sacrifice would be to tax families as a unit rather than as individuals.
If there is one principle that best serves the differing needs of all Australians, it is liberty. There is a core of liberty in every individual with which no-one can or should interfere—liberty of conscience, of thought and feeling. Of almost equal importance is the right to express it.
Government is ill-equipped to promote human happiness; this can come only from within the individual. It is why small government delivers the most benefit to the most people. It is the one factor that is the most essential to the development of humanity in its richest diversity. I’m not speaking about diversity in the sense of finding some immutable characteristic like your sex or skin colour to justify being treated with a privilege over others, or to claim some kind of special victimhood. Rather, it is a deep appreciation of the different skills and talents we all bring to life, and the ways in which freedom allows us to develop and harness those gifts.
I’m a proud conservative, but we conservatives are misunderstood. Many think we are preoccupied with money and economics, while the left is about people and kindness. As Goldwater put it:
Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications. The shoe is precisely on the other foot: it is Socialism that subordinates all other considerations to man’s material well-being— sifting them into economic classes and demanding that they progress. Conservatives take account of the whole person, seeing him or her as both an economic creature and, more importantly, a spiritual creature whose individuality, creativity and very essence matter. Many talk about the needs of the common man and woman, but the conservative knows that we are not an undifferentiated mass. The very best of our history and development came from the initiative and ambitions of uncommon men and women. Our human differences are our strength.
Ultimately, what defines us as a nation is equality of opportunity—the right to aspire to be the best versions of ourselves. That’s different to equality of outcome, which can never be more than an empty promise: impossible to deliver, and unsatisfying even if we could do it.
An important facet of freedom of thought is freedom of religion. It is deeply troubling to have so many examples to point to that suggest this freedom is under attack in our culture. If we fail to defend people’s right to believe and to practice their faith, we deny our nation its moral bedrock. Tolerance must cut both ways. In the twisted name of tolerance, freedom of speech is also under fire. Before I was even sworn in, I was tagged by members of the opposing party as having engaged in hate speech. Those who know me well might find that funny. My crime was to have said that the measure of a society is how it treats those who cannot speak for themselves: the aged, the ill, people with a disability, children and the unborn. This is a prime illustration of just how wrong-headed the issue of speech has become in this country. Make no mistake: the right to freedom of speech—whether those ideas are wrong or right—is fundamental to a free society and a functioning democracy. Cut it off, and we starve ourselves of the refinement of ideas needed for us to flourish.
I am proud to be a part of a government that has made it a priority to reduce the income and corporate tax burden, because I firmly believe that lower taxes will deliver a better standard of living to all Australians, particularly by creating work opportunities for those who are currently struggling with unemployment.
Youth unemployment in outback Queensland sits at 54.2 per cent, but there are some in this parliament who would block job creation. It’s not rocket science: reduced corporate taxes lead to higher investment, investment leads to more job creation, and the tightening of the employment market drives wages up. Similarly, reduced income tax means more money in the pockets of Australians and, when spent, stimulating demand.
There is more we can do to increase productivity. Industrial relations reform is something our nation desperately needs and which the conservative side of politics should promote. If we want employers to give a person on the margins of the employment market a go—even when to do so might be a leap of faith—we need to support them to do so by removing the disincentive of punitive unfair dismissal laws.
We need to be prepared to take the difficult case for increased productivity to the community, which offsets the appeal of raising minimum wages and penalty rates, because they both reduce job opportunities for those most in need. I understand that telling lower paid workers they will take home more money today is popular; it’s easy. But we need to be honest enough to say frankly that each time we do, we deny a job to another person desperately in need of one.
The unions rail against casualisation or layoffs, but it is the direct product of the policies for which they advocate. We must also be honest enough to say that it is the productivity gains that will sustainably deliver real wage growth for those who need it most. We need to introduce competition to workplace representation.
Teachers, nurses and trades usually join unions to access insurance and representative services, not to gain a political affiliation. They don’t trust union representation in a bargaining process, where the unions arrange kickbacks for themselves and forget or sell out the needs of the workers. A simple way to reduce these abuses of member interests is to end union monopolies. Many workers value workplace representation, but they don’t want politicised workplace representation. Let the market give them the choice.
It is the height of hypocrisy that the Left in this country rails against big business but supports the continued tax-free status of unions, which have become multimillion-dollar businesses with sophisticated commercial operations. It is pure irony that those selling the socialist dream have taken so well to capitalism. When a union is selling insurance, investing, selling education services and running all manner of start-ups, they should be taxed like the business they are. We owe the Australian taxpayer no less.
And we must never give up on the principle that government should provide the lightest possible burden on the entrepreneurial spirit of Australians. We should test every piece of legislation, every regulation against the standards of necessity and efficacy until red tape and green tape no longer hold back the projects needed for Queensland and Australia to grow and prosper.
The Senate is a special place for me because I am a federalist. I have had the privilege of serving and learning from one of this country’s finest federalists, Ian Callinan. It was quite an apprenticeship. I believe it is the responsibility of the people who sit in this chamber to represent their home states with vigour while resisting the centralising tendency of the Commonwealth.
Australia has a Constitution that is beautiful in its simplicity. It doesn’t seek to make grandiose gestures and it doesn’t seek to make people feel good; instead, it carefully sets up the machinery of federal government. Importantly, it treats all Australians as one. Yet it doesn’t operate at present in the way that our founding fathers intended. The challenge for the future is to recalibrate it for accountability. A good start—and one for which I’m prepared to work—would be to make the states responsible for raising the funds that they spend, ending once and for all their opportunity to simply blame the Commonwealth for their every woe.
There are 11 other senators here who will agree with me about my chosen home state. Queensland is a magnificent place—from the cape to Coolangatta and Cameron Corner. It has beautiful landscapes: the beach, the rainforest, the bush and the desert. We are rich in minerals, leaders in agriculture and an exporter of education. It has some of our nation’s worst roads, and, like my colleagues, I’ll be fighting for them relentlessly. I promise you that the Bruce Highway north of Bundaberg is never far from my mind.
But what I love most about my home town of Brisbane is that you can walk the streets and chat with strangers like you were in any tiny country town. Its warmth makes it a wonderful place to call home and a wonderful place to raise a family. I look forward to working to provide as much opportunity as I can to Queensland’s families for years to come.
I’ve been warmly and generously greeted by my colleagues, and I thank all of you who have attended today. I acknowledge my predecessor, the now High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, former Senator Brandis. While he and I have some philosophical differences, we both came from practice as a barrister and we both have a deep respect for the rule of law. As Attorney-General he served this nation well, and I wish him the very best for his next chapter.
One does not get to be the 99th woman to work in this place without the assistance of many. I can’t name them all, but I’ll start with my family. Both the Fell side and the Stoker clan do so much for Adam and I. Friends Barry, Ron, David, Kate, Chris, Vicki and Bernard deserve a special mention. Richard, I value your counsel very much. Wendy, you have been my mentor for years, and yet you are so humble you probably wouldn’t know it. Matt and Julia, you two are very special friends. You’ve put an end to the old saying: ‘If you want a friend in politics, you should get a dog.’ I don’t know where we’d be without you.
This is the hard bit. I say to my three lovely girls—Mary, Jane and Emma—you won’t understand today until many years down the track. Know that I endeavour to show you by example that no path is closed to you and that you can and should pursue your wildest dreams knowing that they are all possible.
Adam is my wonderful husband. I’ll always be grateful that on that January morning I showed up to campaign with a bunch of Young Liberals, out of embarrassment—I was looking absolutely dreadful; it was the day after a wedding—I paired up to doorknock with the one person in the room I didn’t know. It has turned out to be the best decision of my life.
I’ve been a private barrister and a public prosecutor, but I got my start sorting fittings in my family’s plumbing business. It’s the story shared by so many families who aspire, generation by generation, to improve their lot. I’m proud of that. It reflects so many Australians that I hope to represent well and so many of the Queensland LNP members who have entrusted me with the gift of their endorsement. I’m a product of the grassroots of that membership, and I always will be. I thank every member for that honour.
For as long as I have the privilege of serving God, my Queen, the values of the Liberal National Party and, most importantly, the people of Queensland, I will do so to the best of my ability, listening sincerely and aiming always to stand with fortitude even in our most difficult debates so that I might contribute to restoring the trust of Australians in our political institutions. The task could not be expressed better than it was by former US President John F Kennedy:
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.