First Speech: Dr Peter Hendy MP

Member for Eden-Monaro, New South Wales

19 November 2013

Dr HENDY (Eden-Monaro) (17:29): Madam Speaker, I rise to support the motion, and may I take this first opportunity to congratulate you on your election to your exalted role. As I said at the declaration of the poll, the first thing I need to say today is thank you to the people of Eden-Monaro. I am greatly honoured to represent this region. I pledge that I will work to the best of my ability for the people whether they voted for me or not.

Secondly, may I say that Eden-Monaro is one of the most exceptional regions of the best country in the world. Eden-Monaro began as the land of the Yuin people by the sea, and in the Snowy River region and on the Monaro Plains, the home of the Ngarigo, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, amongst others. Indeed, Monaro is in fact an Aboriginal word meaning 'treeless plains', and Eden, if you did not know it, is a Hebrew word meaning 'fruitful and well watered'. As an electorate it covers some 29,000 square kilometres. That is equivalent to countries the size of Belgium or Wales. It is slightly smaller than the geographic size of China's Hainan province. However that province has 8.5 million people and Eden-Monaro carries a population of some 140,000 people. It is enormously diverse in geography. It contains some of the highest peaks in Australia. Indeed it stretches from the mountains to the Mimosa Rocks in the Tasman sea. In respect of the electorate, people often quote Banjo Paterson's poem The Man from Snowy River where he says:

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise

Their torn and rugged battlements on high,

Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze

At midnight in the cold and frosty sky—

Indeed, I am probably the only person here that had to campaign during the middle of a snowstorm up in Thredbo a few months ago. But I also think of another poem by Paterson, Clancy of the Overflow, where his description could equally apply to the Monaro plains. He wrote:

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

Madam Speaker, I first came to this region some 30 years ago and I have lived in Queanbeyan for the past 13 years. However my family first reached Australian shores from England some 160 years ago, in the 1850s. They first went to the Victorian gold rushes but sadly, very sadly, they did not find any gold. They then moved north and settled on the coast of New South Wales, and I believe became dairy farmers. Over the generations my family, including many relations from Ireland, Scotland and Germany, were variously farmers, small business people, and teachers in New South Wales and Queensland. My great grandfather, William Hendy, after whom my father is named and I get my middle name, was one of the founders of the teachers union in Australia and was one of the first state general secretaries. I am very proud of that fact.

There were also citizen soldiers in my family, with Great Uncle Bill a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, amongst other horrors, and the winner of the Military Medal, and Uncle Jack who fought in Bomber Command in World War II and flew as a rear gunner over Nazi Germany and, amazingly, survived that nightmare. Their example and sacrifices inspire me enormously.

In more recent times, two other people who have inspired me enormously are my parents, Bill and May. I am a proud product of a small business family. Both my parents were pharmacists and they owned a series of chemist shops over the years. They did it tough and built a good life for themselves and their three children. I never seemed to escape working in the shop at some stage during my school holidays. What you learn growing up in a small business family is self-reliance, perseverance, and the value of hard work. I hope that I have lived those values in my adult life, those and my beliefs as an equally proud Christian. I have run my own small business and also been honoured to represent other small businesses as the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Madam Speaker, all up, Eden-Monaro represents some 21 major towns and scores of local communities. They are regional communities that depend on their small businesses and rural landholders to sustain their populations and proud histories. At times they can be the classic 'forgotten people' that Robert Menzies talked about in his famous speech from 1942 when he spoke of the:

… salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on—

and in summary he said:

… they are the backbone of the nation.

But they are not forgotten by my party or by me. As I said in the election campaign, it is vital that we provide the strongest small-business environment in our region so it can provide the job security that is so vitally needed.

I am standing here speaking in the House of Representatives for the very first time. But I am not unfamiliar with the surroundings, having sat in the advisers boxes over there many times in the past. My political journey started when I joined the Young Liberals in 1979—34 years ago. I joined the Liberal Party because I believed it genuinely encourages people to be the best they can be not telling them what to be. I first formally worked in politics for Andrew Peacock, the then member for Kooyong, as a newly-recruited economist from the federal Treasury. Part of the remit was to do a bit of economic tutoring for the then shadow Treasurer. I knew from the very first meeting that I would have a longer road than originally envisioned when Andrew, as the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, better recognised the word NAIRU as being a Pacific Island made up mostly of bird droppings rather than the acronym for the 'non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment'. Be that as it may, Andrew Peacock's time as shadow Treasurer was a success that eventually led him to return to the leadership of the party. So to the current shadow Treasurer I say: you never know where life will lead, to excuse the pun.

I was also there when the former member for Wentworth, Dr John Hewson, employed a young media adviser and talented wordsmith who later became the member for Warringah. Many of us copped regular tongue lashings from Dr Hewson. I did. So did, as I recall, the now Prime Minister. We were often reminded that 'we would not know if our derrieres were on fire'—although Dr Hewson actually used the much more colourful turn of phrase in the Australian vernacular. That may have been correct with respect to me, but it certainly was not correct with respect to the future Prime Minister. I just thought I should clarify that later point! But we endured and the team collectively produced the Fightback package which set the blueprint for economic reform for Australia in the following 20 years. It is something that the Liberal Party should be very proud of.

The study of economics has been a key part of my professional career. As part of that I have spent a lot of my career on taxation policy, industrial relations policy, trade policy and also skills training. With respect to taxation, there does need to be more reform. I was very happy to see a commitment at the last election by the coalition to review the taxation system. When I was at ACCI we drew up a comprehensive blueprint for reforming the taxation system. In 2006 I, together with Dick Warburton, did an independent review for Treasurer Costello and the Howard government on an international comparison of Australia's tax system. In my view it confirmed the need for a number of changes. For example, I believe it remains the case that the Australian system taxes capital gains at too heavy a burden compared with similar countries and that this has impeded vitally needed investment. Reform would particularly help small business and farmers, including in my electorate of Eden-Monaro.

On industrial relations, after the last decade of change there needs to be a re-ordering to the sensible centre. This is always a sensitive topic. This has been an ongoing debate since the beginning of Federation. Most Australians do not know that it was not the Labor side of politics but ironically my side of politics that over 100 years ago originally introduced the unique Australian centralised wage-fixing system. It was at that time an arguable attempt to govern relations between employers and employees, reduce violent conflict and at the same time provide a basic welfare system. It had fundamental flaws. It has been the subject of much debate over the years and I have always agreed that the system needs to be balanced between the participants.

Earlier in my career I helped in a small way the then minister for workplace relations Peter Reith to implement a substantial reform agenda on the waterfront. It was a vital reform and a great achievement, and I am proud that I was part of it. That was sensible reform against the opposition of a large number of left-wing ideologues. Indeed, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the watchword for my stance on politics is that I am a member of the pragmatic centre.

Despite the importance of issues such as taxation and industrial relations, my economist training tells me that the biggest priority at this stage is to get the budget in order. Good budget management is a short-term, a medium-term and a long-term priority for any government. That is because without strong budget management government cannot deliver on a sustainable basis the services that the Australian people need and want. All strength to the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance in sorting out the mess that the new government has inherited, especially as I am very concerned about the possible global economic developments.

I was also a former Chief of Staff to a Minister for Defence and in recent years was the principal adviser for foreign affairs and trade for the now Minister for Foreign Affairs. In addition, I have had the character-building benefit of working overseas in the Middle East. Let me say a few words about defence and foreign affairs. On 7 October 2001 I was Chief of Staff of the Minister for Defence. That was the day the final order went out for the operation to send Australian troops into Afghanistan after 9/11. In this case I was a small cog in the great military machine, but nonetheless I held an important position as the closest confidant of the minister.

As the order went out it hit me—it physically hit me—that I was part of a decision-making process that would probably see the death and wounding of many brave Australian soldiers. In fact, there have been some 40 operational deaths and 261 wounded in action. As you can appreciate, these matters weigh heavily on a person. It is a salient example of where politics becomes a dreadfully serious endeavour. We all deeply respect the sacrifice of these brave men and women. Indeed, I want to acknowledge the sacrifice and duty of thousands of people from the defence community and veterans' community that now live in Eden-Monaro.

The Afghanistan conflict is also a clear example of much of our international relations bedrock. It partly represents our commitment to our principal ally, the United States; it was a cooperative endeavour—in this case with the United Nations; it has been a clear example of Australia's resolve in the face of international terrorism; and it has helped in significant human rights advancement, especially for women, in that country. These have been cornerstones of international relations in this country for decades and I hope for decades to come as well.

Our relations with our Asian neighbours have been confirmed by the Prime Minister's inaugural foreign policy activity through his attendance at the APEC summit and the East Asia Summit. It is vital to Australia's national interest that we maintain these relationships. The new government has correctly put the Australian-Indonesian relationship as an early priority. Also a priority is our continuing relationship with a range of countries, spanning from the smaller ones like Papua New Guinea to the giants like China, Japan and India. Having referred to China, may I say that I am not one of those starry-eyed analysts who look at that great nation with rose tinted glasses. We must be very pragmatic about China and note that we have differences as well as commonalities. We need to pursue friendship with China but, in my words, it remains a 'wary friendship'.

I want to note that the New Colombo Plan is a very important initiative in terms of soft power diplomacy as well as the obvious educational skills benefits. I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs on this innovation and, having mentioned her, may I just say that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has been one of the single most important people who have assisted in allowing me to stand here today. I am in her total debt and will never forget that assistance.

I note that I have also been a Director of the Australian Made, Australian Grown Campaign. This is a privately run campaign sponsored by the chamber of commerce movement to promote, both here and abroad, Australian manufacturing and Australian grown produce—that is, agricultural produce. I remain a strong supporter of manufacturing and also of Australian farming.

I am an economist by profession but let me emphasise I am not an ivory tower ideologue who simply cares between Right and Left. What is important is between right and wrong. We need to do the right thing by the people of Eden-Monaro and all people who live in regional areas. I hope to be a strong advocate in this parliament who can support both good economic policy and the regions. I certainly believe in economic reform, but let me say that I also believe that what I call the country-city compact, the CCC policy that existed for the best part of 100 years in Australia, was a tragic victim of the reform agenda of the eighties, nineties and 2000s. The country deserves a fair go and the country-city compact needs to be revived—maybe in a different form, but it needs to be revived.

Over the years I have studied the rise and fall of what is called the Australian settlement—that is, the social and economic policy put in place at the time of Federation in 1901. Indeed it was the brainchild of an early liberal Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. The settlement is most commonly known as an arrangement that saw high tariff protection for manufacturing industry and a trade-off with a centralised wage-fixing system. The bulk of the settlement was rightly dismantled over the course of the last three decades by successive governments. However one aspect of that change was also the dismantling of another part of the Australian settlement—that is, the country-city compact. The compact was a fundamental understanding of Australia's nation builders that the country needed to have its fair share of attention and resources. The country regions need a fair go. The compact recognised that there was an inextricable interdependence between the country and the city. It acknowledged that there was a mutual obligation that recognised the costs of living in the country. This has basically gone, and yet country regions remain vital to the nation. Almost all mining is in rural areas, and it remains the case that agriculture is an important part in the national economy.

Around 93 per cent of the food eaten in this nation is grown in Australia. In addition, some 30 per cent of Australians live outside the major cities and almost 40 per cent of those aged over 65 live outside major cities, but there is clear educational and health disadvantage. In educational terms, retention rates in schools are more than 11 per cent less in rural areas. In very remote areas 30 per cent of children are not hitting the minimal benchmarks for year 3. In health terms, life expectancy is lower by up to seven years, depending on remoteness. People are up to four times more likely to die from accidents. It is up to 2.6 times more likely for men to die from suicides in the bush. Disability rates for rural males are between 20 per cent and 30 per cent higher.

Part of my new job here in parliament is to use the facts about disadvantage to revive the country-city compact. Priorities can be set better; however, we cannot just cry poor. We have been doing that for the last 30 years as our services and infrastructure have been increasingly run down. The intellectual case needs to be built so that we can get that fair share. An intellectual case needs to be built around nation building. I believe that we can further build that intellectual case, and I can help do that.

I believe that the campaign team I put together for the election was able to win despite a sceptical Liberal Party headquarters that strongly doubted we had any real chance of winning. I want to thank in particular Robert Flynn, David Hickman, Andy Heath, Maggie Havu, Wayne Brown, Jon Gaul, Erika Coles, Richard and Maureen Bennetts, John Watson, Jessie Robinson, John and Caryl Haslem, and Lesley Cowan—the core of my campaign team. I would like to particularly thank Tim Beale, and there were many more. Lastly, I want to thank my wife, Bronwyn, and children, Caroline and Patrick. They are my rock, and what I do is also for them. I hope they can be proud of what I will do in public life.

Who knows how my political career will pan out. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, 'The iron law of politics is that the unexpected always happens'. Hopefully the patron saint of politicians—yes, there is one; Saint Thomas More—is watching over me. But what I can say in conclusion is to repeat the sentiments of my remarks at the beginning of my speech: for as long as I am the member for Eden-Monaro I will cherish the honour bestowed on me and I will humbly seek to do the best for the people that I represent. Thank you very much.

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