First Speech: Hon Christian Porter MP

Member for Pearce, Western Australia

9 December 2013

Mr PORTER (Pearce) (15:27): Madam Speaker, thank you and congratulations on your ascension to the chair. I would also like to thank all of my new coalition colleagues. Genuinely, the welcome here has been collegiate and very warm. I am intent to bask in this warmth before people get to know me and it grinds to an inevitable halt.

On 23 November 1956, a painfully angular 19-year-old Brisbane boy with a physique the cross between a praying mantis and a wire coat hanger jumped for his country on the first day of the Melbourne Olympic Games. That boy was my father. His sole possessions totalled an ill-fitting Australian team tracksuit and a pair of Buddy Holly style horn-rimmed glassed. He competed in what was then and what remains to this day the longest and most engrossing field event in Olympic history. After over six hours of competition, the entire crowd remained at the MCG, well into the deep cusp of twilight. They watched breathless as Chilla Porter, on his third and final attempt at six foot 11½ inches, clipped the bar ever so gently. It wobbled for what seemed like an age and eventually dislodged and fell in silence with him to the sandpit. In the result, he was beaten by the great African-American athlete Charles Dumas, who had made the same height with his own second attempt, setting an Olympic record in the process.

If the maiden speech is for the existential questions of politics—Who is the member? Why are they here? What do they believe?—then for reasons that I cannot perfectly explain, the authentic explanation for me somehow starts with that event in 1956. This event, which passed into Porter family folklore long before my birth, has woven itself into my being in subterranean ways. Why it affects me is hard to say, but affect me it does. For a not particularly demonstrative person, it is an event that percolates emotion through me with even shallow reflections on it. Indeed, it is either curious or positively strange that the two images that most readily draw emotion from me are images of my wife laughing and my father jumping. Ultimately, I may be nothing more than a prime candidate for post-doctoral research in Freudian psychology. But that is just the way it is.

Although proud of my father, the significance of this event for me is more than pride. If I had to guess, there are probably two things about it that most resonate with my conscience. First, it is the sheer individual inspiration of the event. This was not the casual brilliance of a Lord Burghley, upon whom the aristocratic hurdler in Chariots of Fire was based. In fact, among Burghley's many athletic achievements was that he was able to race around the promenade deck of the Queen Mary in 57 seconds dressed in a full dinner suit. My father has never seen the point of owning a dinner suit!

Chilla Porter's achievement was the welding of solid but far from limitless athletic talent to devoted levels of discipline and training, a little self-belief and an unbreakable steely nerve. That such an unassuming man as my father could achieve so much by combining comparatively modest raw ability with sheer will is proof definitive of the wonderful idea that with effort almost anything is possible.

In liberal democracies opportunity is imperfect but it is absolutely real. Probative evidence exists to demonstrate that opportunity and choice are all around us. Indeed, Charlie Dumas's gold medal in the same event was achieved by a black man living in Compton, east LA in 1950s America. That Charlie Dumas overcame reputedly considerable poverty and prejudice to become a great athlete and later educator is individual triumph writ large.

Governments can and should promote more opportunity, but opportunity is not merely the speculation of political philosophy or the gift of legislators. In modern Australia opportunity exists, likely to a fuller extent than it has existed anywhere at any time in human history. As a people it is possible that we have become a little too involved in the other great Australian sport: the blaming of government every time something goes wrong in our lives. We can acknowledge the ongoing need for government to diminish disadvantage, we can recognise that sometimes failing with this and many other tasks, governments are often very blameworthy—but in government, as in life, we should not stray too far from the fact that far more often than not the ultimate responsibility for individual success or failure lies with the individual themselves.

The second feature of this Olympic event that I think resonates is how it constantly reminds me that so many things in life are so finely balanced. In sport and life there is often an indistinguishably fine line between immortal glory and something less. Probably because of my father's experience I have long held a deep fascination with causation inside historical and societal cusps, the pivot points of dynamic times on which many later things will depend. Certainly, for my father, that teetering high-jump bar was one of those life-changing cusp moments: an event that could go either way and which sets in motion a much longer chain of events—what Churchill described, on a far grander scale, as a 'hinge of fate'.

For my father, silver or gold did not come to define his character; nevertheless, the outcome of that day changed the course of his life forever. Had he won—and it would have been the greatest Cinderella story in Olympic history had he won—likely the push to live in the United States on an athletic scholarship would have been overwhelming and things would have been much different.

As it was, his was an Australian future. A silver medal gave him just enough cachet to achieve gold in the marriage game: he met my mother, an attractive researcher at The West Australian. Other than my eventual birth more than a decade later this had two very happy effects: (1) I inherited my mother's love of books and history; and (2) I narrowly escaped Queensland and was born and raised in the great state of Western Australia. Queenslanders: I feel your pain!

Before turning to other matters I will just add that, unfortunately, I inherited little of the athletic ability of my father and 100 per cent of the chicken legs. It is well, Madam Speaker, that you discourage the wearing of shorts in the chamber!

My father later worked for the Liberal Party, doing so at his own father's urging—a man now passed but who established the Queensland Liberal Party under the guidance of Sir Robert Menzies. So I grew up with my sister in a state of opportunities, with a fascination for turning points in a house with a faint but fair air of sport and politics. To now represent the Western Australians in Pearce, as a member of the Australian parliament, is the greatest responsibility of my own life; and for as long as I am entrusted with that responsibility I will give it absolutely everything I have.

Pearce is not a Federation seat but rather the product of the Federation's dynamism. It was created in 1993, a product of the extraordinary growth that has been WA's hallmark over the past 25 years. Preceding my custody of this responsibility were the Hon. Fred Chaney and the Hon. Judy Moylan. It might be noted that, on some matters at least, the three of us come from slightly different pews in the broad Liberal church. But pluralism is where Liberal politics derives its great resilience, and I admire both my predecessors as accomplished Australians dedicated to public service and to their principles.

The places of Pearce have a real romance to them. My house is a walk away from the place where in 1658 Abraham Leeman led an excursion of Dutch mariners onshore in search of the recently shipwrecked Gilt Dragon. Many a WA child has been sent like Leeman into the sand dunes in search of buried treasure. To the disappointment of hopeful parents with mortgages, all of these children have been unsuccessful, as Leeman was 400 years ago.

From the reef sheltered Mediterranean lagoons, beaches and crayfish pots of the shipwrecked coast, the electorate of Pearce travels inland across suburbs staggered through tangles of acacia and national parks. Market gardens, wineries and orchards then tilt into the heartland of the Central Wheatbelt, where fields of wheat and canola require great toil but produce golden slaloms of harvest. The people represent the full history and diversity of the state itself. They are aspirational, entrepreneurial and above all hardworking. They deserve coherent, orthodox, stable government.

At the centre of the electorate is the Royal Australian Air Force Base Pearce. It is a particular honour to represent a seat in which the RAAF work and train. No matter how many times, how noisily, or how low for that matter, those planes sear over the dunes above my house, I delight at the awesome sound and sight of them—for they are the heirs of the most important pivot point in modern world history, an event in which many Australians fought and died and which has fascinated me since my youth: the Battle of Britain.

The needle hook of popular hindsight focuses on the Boy's Own Annual qualities of the Battle of Britain and sometimes glosses over the rich tapestry of decisions that led to the five months of intense conflict. The extraordinary heroism of those last threads in time is astonishing, but the outcome of this battle was determined ultimately by the way in which that sacrifice joined a deep composite of multiple decisions made over earlier decades: procurement decisions, technological decisions, tactical decisions and ultimately political decisions. A few of these were obviously revealed as pivotal to the minds of the time; others were decisions whose later importance was more temporally obscure. But somehow a guiding principle seemed to structure the many decisions, all apparently underpinned by a shared sense of the great need for preparedness—so many decisions, so finely balanced, too many poor decisions in the 15-year historical web preceding the Battle of Britain. And all the heroism in the Commonwealth would not have prevailed in those crucial five months.

Important moments in history are determined by all kinds of factors. However, the single most important factor is almost always the quality of the people in charge of decision making. And hinges of fate are lubricated by the collective outcome of quality decision making. For anyone who believes this, it makes some sense to aspire to a place that offers the toughest opportunity to prove oneself over time in the art of decision making. And if that means turning myself from a rooster into a feather duster, so be it. Like most aspirant decision makers, I suffer from three conceits: decision makers think they have something to offer; they think that their ideas are well adapted to the times; and there is the great generational conceit that something about their own time is uniquely important and worth deciding. On matters personal, I oscillate between self-doubt and confidence. I have absolutely no doubt with respect to the third conceit. I know that every generation likes to believe that their times are special, but without a shadow of a doubt the times through which this parliament will live and through which its followers will live will guide the nation. It will be pivotal—in fact, electrifying—replete with opportunity for both success and failure.

And the great challenge of our time will be the Asian convergence. From the office of Treasurer and Attorney-General for Western Australia, I watched an economy rise in concert with the Asian convergence. The Asian convergence is the single greatest economic event since the industrial revolution. WA's success did not just happen; it was envisaged and planned into being by generations of decision makers going back through the decades, right back to Sir Charles Court and even before that great man. At the crescendo of the Asian century we will watch as hundreds of millions more people join the global economy. That 60 per cent of the world's population will in our lifetime converge rapidly towards our own standard of living will have deep implications for the entire world. But that this 60 per cent are our neighbours, with clocks set to our own time zones, means that Australia faces the economic opportunity of its life.

There exists—and I firmly believe this—an opportunity to herald in a great Australian flourishing. But, as with all times of opportunity, the future is uncertain. And, just as with the Battle Britain, too many poor decisions and our opportunities will be lost, and Australia will face a not-too-gradual decline. The one certainty will be that some gentle, happy equilibrium of our national prospects will not be the order of the day. Ours will be the age and the region of rise and fall. In the era of change, we will need to change. And courage will be required by this generation of parliamentarians to progress reform. The swift return to robust surplus is an absolutely critical—but not sufficient—condition to growing our economy. There are many reforms we may need to embrace, but perhaps our guiding principle might be to avoid competing against Asia and to promote competition for Asia. Competing for Asian markets, for Asian investment, for Asian tourists and for Asian students makes sense. Prioritising competition against South Korea or China in goods that they now best produce and export by the billions makes perhaps less sense.

Reform is difficult, but the stakes are high and the need is pressing. It is not just our standard of living that will be in peril if we fail to make the best decisions. As a nation small in number, in an immensely populous region, our national security has been founded not just upon alliances but also by superior productivity underpinning a regional economic ascendancy. But our neighbours are growing fast, and it would be folly to believe that our economic ascendancy will last forever irrespective of what we do domestically. Economic growth fuelled by free, competitive markets drives the greatest welfare engine ever in existence: employment. But growth is also the engine that drives welfare and culture, and in our age it will be intimately linked with security. International friendships are always best maintained through economic strength. If we are to exist and thrive with Asian tigers, we would be well advised to remain a formidable economic creature in our own right.

One area ripe for economic reform is the federal system, and I will close with a brief observation on that. The great myth of the federation is that things would be more efficient without the states. First, postulating what Australia would be like without states is as futile as postulating what Switzerland would be like without mountains. The federal government is the complicated child of five state parents; it is not the product of immaculate conception—although sometimes it has thought itself infallible. The only thing allowing for the endurance of a view that central government would do a better job in child protection, hospitals or police is the thankful fact that it has never had to do those things. Leaving aside the very wise proposition that centralising power can lead to its corruption and overuse, efficient policy—particularly in service provision—is best devised by governments as proximate to people as rational organisational principles will allow.

The federal government now accounts for just over half of all government expenditure in Australia, with 80 per cent of the revenue base. The states roughly account for the rest, but with only 15 per cent of the direct revenue base. These figures reveal great fiscal imbalance, a major problem that is in dire need of reform. But they also demonstrate the simple fact that state government is critical to the success of the nation. Almost half of everything done by all government in Australia is done by the states. Reform in this area will require federal leadership, and it must be in the national interest to improve the fiscal architecture of the federation. The GST was supposed to be state revenue; it was supposed to fix fiscal imbalance and help the states do their half.

But, over time, two problems have arisen. First—and right now—almost 60 per cent of all the GST moneys donated by the big four states go to the Northern Territory. Previously, the responsibility to subsidise the Northern Territory—and it is a proper responsibility—resided with the Commonwealth. Now it falls upon the four largest states which, with only 15 per cent of the revenue base, can least afford that responsibility. The remaining GST donations are sent to other states in a process of equalisation. There should always be some level of equalisation, perhaps even a high level of equalisation. But the present system is too extreme, highly inequitable and propagates enormous inefficiency. Citing previous gains to justify Western Australia's present mammoth losses ignores proportionality and fails to recognise that historical equalisation in WA's favour was meant as compensation, not subsidy, as WA's trading economy was crippled by national protectionism in times gone by.

But, in any event, the primary problem is not one of equity; it is one of efficiency. Presently, every single dollar earned in revenue by a productive state above some average mean predetermined by the Grants Commission is redistributed away in diminished GST receipts. In an income tax system that redistributed away every dollar above the average wage, that would be seen as an incentive-sapping and anti-productive disaster. And so it is with the extremes of the present equalisation system. All welfare systems that become too extreme ultimately fail those they are meant to help by encouraging poor and unproductive decision making at a state level.

Finally, to the many people who have supported me—my old friends, the campaign team, my parents, my wife's parents and the redoubtable members of the WA Liberal Party—I know that you have not helped place me here for the statement of your names. But, rest assured, every late night and early morning in service of Pearce is also meant as a small repayment of the huge debt that I owe to you all. To the Premier of Western Australia: Colin, I thank you for your forbearance and friendship during my own agonised decision making. Finally, to my wife—I am perhaps a bit slow to give my wife public compliments but, as Ray Charles said, 'Wake up, boy, because a girl like that ain't going to wait all night.' So here is my compliment to my wife. Jennifer, if I were told that it were within my power to go back to the 1970s to watch Dennis Lillee bowl again at the WACA, that I could take all my friends, that Sir Isaiah Berlin and Han Solo would be special guests and that James Reyne would do an acoustic set during the lunch break, but that the one catch was that you could not attend with me, then I would not bother, and you and I could go to the Yanchep Beach lagoon with the dog. So my compliment is: Jennifer, all the good things are nothing special without you.

Madam Speaker, thank you for your indulgence. I support the motion before the House.

Back to top

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print
Back to top