Senator Sinodinos: First Speech

Arthur Sinodinos, Senator for New South Wales

First Speech - 23/11/2011

It is an honour and privilege to serve in this chamber. I begin by thinking my predecessor, Helen Coonan, for her service to this parliament, to New South Wales and to the Liberal Party. Helen was a trailblazer in her legal career, the first woman to serve in the Treasury portfolio and, as a member of the Liberal Party leadership team, in her role as deputy party leader in the Senate. For me, it is humbling to enter this chamber as a parliamentary representative, and I thank the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party for selecting me and the New South Wales parliament for endorsing that choice.

On the day of my swearing-in I was reminded yet again of the strength and durability of Australia's democratic institutions. We are one of the oldest, most continuously democratic nations in the world. For me, this is the pinnacle of the Australian achievement. It has underpinned our success in creating a tolerant, open and prosperous society that is the envy of the world. These political and economic achievements are no accident. While fortune has smiled on us in many ways, we owe our success principally to the enterprise, the foresight and the courage of successive generations of Australians who have worked hard to create what we now call 'the lucky country'.

Australia has been occupied in one form or another for over 40,000 years. Remarkably diverse groups of people have willingly crossed great oceans, mountain ranges and deserts to explore, settle and develop this vast and ancient continent. They have wrested a living from this land with very different technologies and cultures. All of these groups—Indigenous Australians, the first settlers and successive waves of immigrants—share a genius for practical outcomes and a willingness to experiment and take risks in pursuit of a better life for themselves and for their families. They are my inspiration and example. If they are willing to have a go, what stops any of us from having a go?

As political leaders we are purveyors of hope. We are in the business of hope. We offer our fellow citizens the hope of a better life for them and future generations—the hope that, freed from material worries, they are able to pursue their highest aspirations. Whatever accumulated experience I bring to this place, above all else I hope it is my relentless optimism about the future of this great country, and I am proud to join a team that has made the right calls over the last few years on the issues that matter: on the amount of stimulus to meet the global financial crisis, on the need for a consistent and strong border control policy which supports a generous immigration program, on the need for a carbon reduction program that addresses cost-of-living concerns in the community, on privatising spending reductions over tax increases to get the budget back in the black. I believe that the coalition is on the right side of history and best equipped to meet the challenges ahead. It is led by someone with the courage of his convictions, someone who defied the conventional political wisdom to take what at the time may have been unpopular positions but who did so because he believed it to be right not only for the Liberal Party but more importantly for the country.

I turn to the challenges ahead. As a nation, our cup runneth over. We are experiencing a resources boom thanks to the rise of China and India. It will be followed by an agricultural boom as higher incomes increase the demand for processed foods. Opportunity abounds, but competition is all around us in the form of newly emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The world is not standing still waiting for Australia to succeed. Our economy is adjusting to the surge in mining investment and this is causing stresses and strains reflected in the high dollar and the scramble for scarce labour and other resources. But we should not be pessimistic. There is a future for high-value manufacturing and other industries. In rural and regional Australia there are growing pains that are manifesting themselves in conflicts over land use, environmental impacts and the role of foreign investment, but we can shape the future if we work to a plan and take charge of our economic destiny.

I support a bigger and more sustainable Australia as a framework for growth and opportunity. This is about setting a direction. It is important we set a direction, and from that we can work back to work out the more specific policies. Let us set a direction and then go on and tackle the challenges in front of us. The Greens would restructure the economy post haste in pursuit of a future based solely on renewable energy and, without consultation, decree the closure of great export industries. That is not a program for balanced growth or for taking the community with you. Labor talks up free trade in the Asia Pacific but will tackle none of the impediments at home unless the Greens and the unions give it permission. Sadly, the days when those in the trade union movement were thought leaders and policy shapers seem to be gone. Those were the days of the Keltys of the world and maybe even of the Dougie Camerons when they were in the union movement. These days have been replaced by timidity and defensiveness in the face of a competitive world.

You cannot legislate job security; you cannot mandate it through the industrial relations system—you have to earn it in the workplace. To meet the challenges ahead we need a bigger, more sustainable Australia that will maximise our economic prospects and living standards, enhance our national security and allow us to project more influence in the world. For me, that means entrenching competition and a global mindset throughout our economy. It means: tax, social security and industrial relations policies that encourage more Australians into work rather than welfare and into a culture of continuous productivity improvement; a savings culture to fund more of our investments from here without necessarily relying on increases in foreign capital; continuing high levels of immigration to supplement a shrinking workforce in an ageing society; and industry policies that encourage smart manufacturing. Our services sector is already world class, but as the centre of gravity of global manufacturing is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region we have an opportunity to position Australian manufacturing in those regional supply chains. We need more commercialisation here of our own home-grown science and research, including technologies to exploit our alternative energy sources.

A bigger Australia will provide a larger domestic market with more competition and economies of scale to compete better overseas. It gives us the capacity to settle new areas, including areas like the north, which my colleague Senator Heffernan and others have identified in landmark reports in recent years. We can create more global cities capable of hosting international businesses and regional headquarters. This is important, because we do not want to become a branch economy where decisions about our economic future are made in foreign boardrooms. We must nurture our arts and creative industries, including our universities, which will have a central role to play in such global cities by attracting the top-class international thinkers and artists that make for a vibrant, dynamic and interesting cultural life. I am not a pollyanna. I do not doubt that a bigger Australia poses environmental, planning, infrastructure and other challenges. But a richer economy is also better equipped to deal with such matters. I remind you of the remarks of Winston Churchill, who once said, 'A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.' In relation to the environment, we have the opportunity to develop our abundant energy sources through enhanced investment in cost-reducing technologies. It will position us better for the decline of oil and other fossil fuels. The carbon tax is a giant churn of taxpayers' money that will not produce the necessary investment in new technologies. In the absence of international action, it will only harm Australian industry and send greenhouse gas emissions offshore. In light of the carbon tax, Ross Garnaut, the government's preferred climate change advisor, is right to suggest that the mining tax should be put on hold to avoid a double whammy on our resources sector.

Let me turn to cultural change in education and the workplace. I begin with education. Entrenching a global mindset in the community starts in our schools. Our education system should do more to encourage the early acquisition of foreign languages. The recent statistics suggest there has been a big fall-off in the acquisition of foreign languages. While English is now the world's premier language, learning another language, any language, will accelerate the cognitive development of our children and give them an insight into how other people think. Coupled with this, our schools need to embrace systematic courses on entrepreneurship, risk taking and setting up, developing and marketing a business. These skills will be among the most important if we are to maximise our trade and investment opportunities and expand our children's options and choices, building on existing courses in life skills and financial literacy and numeracy. Our workplaces must also embrace a culture of continuous productivity improvement. That means better work practices, more investment in technology and innovation in products, processes and services that will make possible higher real wages and living standards.

Let me conduct a brief memorial service for the industrial relations policy formerly known as Work Choices. The truth is we failed to prepare the ground for such a major reform. The public were not expecting it and, with the economy strong, could not see the need for further change. We also too readily assumed that in a strong labour market workers' bargaining power would ensure that employers would continue to meet national employment standards without an explicit safety net. Some employers abused that freedom. I am disappointed that the unions bullied the government into turning the clock on industrial relations back to before even Paul Keating. But the world has moved on. This is not 2007. We are now focused on Labor's industrial relations system. I welcome the announcement by the government of a review of the Fair Work Act. I hope it is a fair dinkum, evidence based review and not dictated by sectional interests.

We need a genuine workplace culture that brings employers and employees together to create high-wage, high-productivity outcomes, that gives hope to workers battling with cost-of-living pressures. There should always be a safety net so that workers can be better off and not worse off. With such a safety net in place the choice of agreement should desirably be a matter for the parties involved and there should be sufficient flexibility to create training opportunities for newcomers to the workforce. The market for representing workers should be open, as open as possible, to encourage unions and others to focus on serving their customers, the workers they claim to represent.

Let me turn to my personal values and outlook, which have shaped in part my decision to come here. Firstly let me say I am proud of my Greek heritage, which is the basis of Western civilisation. You should still be paying for it, and you will! I was also fortunate to be born and bred in Newcastle, New South Wales, a sunny place where the beach was never far away. My late parents, Dionysos and California Sinodinos—she was named after the state of California by her uncle—hailed from the island of Cephalonia between Greece and Italy. If you ever saw the movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it was set on that island. My father was a merchant mariner and a lifelong member of the Seamen's Union of Australia. My mother was a homemaker and part-time seamstress. They were not well educated, but they encouraged their three children to take advantage of the public school system and do well. They were not well off, but we never really felt deprived of anything. We were able to save and buy our first home outright. While they were humble people, they took pride in themselves and their surroundings. We rented early on and I can remember them painting the place even though it was not their responsibility.

Growing up, the local Greek Orthodox church was our religious and social centre. In my teens I became quite interested in matters of faith and religion and still am. Two aspects of Christian teaching have particular resonance for me. The first is to treat others as you would have them treat you. Related to that is the observation by St Paul in a letter to the Galatians—I do not know what seat they were in—that 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' If we are all one, then there is no basis for discrimination on the grounds of colour, creed, gender or other human constructs. I am proud of our nation's Judaeo-Christian heritage. Whatever the fallibilities of individuals within our churches, these institutions have made an immeasurable positive contribution to the moral climate of modern Australia as well as through the work of their great charitable bodies. Even the most ardent supporter of markets knows that no economic system exists in a vacuum; markets are shaped as much by ethical, religious and cultural values as they are by explicit rules. In other words, you are always responsible for your own behaviour, no matter what the rules are.

Mr President, it will probably come as no surprise to you that my political views were formed early and were strongly influenced by the Cold War environment in which I grew up. I recall my mother's stories about the fratricidal Greek civil war of the late forties, when the communist insurgents would knock on the door in the dead of night to take away the village elders and leaders. I remain staunchly opposed to totalitarianism in all its forms—left, right or Callithumpian—and any excessive interference by governments in the rights of the individual.

Socialist schemes have always floundered because they fail to harness and motivate the innate individual striving for success and recognition. Contrary to the claims of Mr Kevin Rudd—remember him?—it is not government but workers, entrepreneurs and risk takers that should be at the centre of the economy. To me, the adjective 'liberal' in the party's title captures the appropriate emphasis on the rights of the individual and the exercise of personal responsibility. No-one is entirely free unless they have the capacity to exercise choice and take responsibility for their actions. While preserving the best of the past, our goal is the ongoing improvement of the economic and social condition of our country and in the process enlarging the domain of human freedom.

The Liberal Party rejects class based politics. My parents fitted Menzies' description of the forgotten people. While of the working class, they had middle-class aspirations. Like so many others, they wanted to get ahead and do the best by their children without relying on others. The Liberal Party is not owned by the rich or any sectional interests. I have found very few rich people actually join political parties—they think they are powerful enough to have the influence they need. Membership of the Liberal Party is drawn overwhelmingly from the solid middle of Australian society and anybody who aspires to a better life. It is the natural home for small business and independent contractors. We should prize those who want to have a go and not drown them in red tape or regulation that impedes their capacity to grow and create jobs.

John Howard's leadership of the Liberal Party revived not only its prospects in the nineties but also its claims on the Australian imagination. John Howard is a fighter who was prepared to take the knocks for what he believed, pick himself up and keep going. In government and opposition he was both a thought leader and an implementer of policies to open up and reform our economy and financial system. Along with Hawke, Keating and Costello, he is one of the principal authors of the new Australian economy. Above all, he encouraged his fellow Australians to believe in themselves and be comfortable in their own skin. I reject the Keating view of Australia as some kind of timid offshoot of far-off imperial powers. We are confident in our own identity and our achievements. We see that in the upsurge of interest in celebrating Anzac Day and Australia Day, particularly among the young. That does not mean that our culture and society are static—we continue to evolve and in the Australian way the process will be pragmatic, it will be organic and it will be in response to the circumstances of the time.

Observing John Howard convinced me that politics is not worth a candle unless you are fighting for something. Polls and focus groups have their place but they are not a substitute for values or character or belief. Pragmatism in pursuit of a good policy is no crime. Getting 80 per cent of a reform is better than striving for a perfect reform and getting nothing. The Howard government was at its best when it directly engaged with affected groups or other parties. That is how the then government negotiated workplace agreements or the new tax system with the Australian Democrats, reached agreement with the forestry workers of Tasmania to protect old growth forests in 2004—my friend Michael O'Connor is here today—and dealt with disaffected farmers and others who turned to Pauline Hanson to express their frustration and lack of voice.

If reform is to stick, you must engage your fellow citizens, listen to their concerns and give them ownership of the change. Too often under this Labor government major changes have been rammed through without consultation or in contravention of explicit election promises. Today we have one of the government's own experts describing the mining tax as a dog's breakfast, imposed without genuine consultation with industry or the states—a revenue grab timed for the last election that is now unravelling as costs balloon and the revenue shrinks, threatening the budget balance.

As we contemplate a bigger Australia, I have no reservations about our capacity to settle immigrants harmoniously into this society. There have been stresses and strains but most immigrants are keen to settle peacefully in this country and appreciate the Australian way of live and let live. They know that they are free to celebrate their heritage but with an overriding loyalty to this country and its institutions. It is those very institutions that guarantee their freedoms. We do not need an act of parliament to enshrine what we experience every day on the streets of Australia. For me, the social dividend of a bigger Australia is more jobs, jobs and jobs. This is the best income redistribution program known to man.

We can and should ensure that more of these opportunities flow to those on the margins of our society, particularly Indigenous Australians outside our big cities who unfortunately, after 200 years, remain the most disadvantaged of our fellow citizens. I support Tony Abbott's vision of devolving greater personal responsibility to individuals and communities to solve these sorts of problems. He has worked with great Indigenous thinkers such as Noel Pearson to devise new approaches that break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and welfare dependence. In the audience are Dick Estens and Danny Lester, who run Aboriginal Employment Strategy. They are doing fantastic work in mentoring young Indigenous kids into work. I thank the Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development for the support he has given them, as well.

A bigger, stronger economy will yield a stronger budget. That will help us cope with the ageing of our population. Yes, we have a strong private superannuation system but it has come at least in part at the expense of other forms of saving, including bank deposits. Our banks are more reliant on overseas funding and therefore more exposed to global financial difficulties. Our superannuation system has also made it harder for young people to save for their first home. The Ken Henry tax review made progress on advantaging other, non-superannuation, forms of saving, but it remains unfinished business.

I support the rigorous scrutiny of government spending; that does not have to impair our capacity to deliver government programs. Too often we mistake spending money for solving a problem. We should use the private sector to deliver services if that is the most efficient way and tap the immense expertise and talent in corporate Australia and in our non-profit sector to address major social problems. Not all wisdom resides in Canberra; it does not all reside in the Public Service or ministers' offices.

While lower government spending will provide the basis for genuine tax relief, government should aim to accumulate surpluses over the economic cycle. The Howard-Costello surpluses gave us the firepower to spend during the global financial crisis. But, when it is affordable, we should contemplate a new sovereign wealth fund modelled on those employed by Singapore and Korea. It could acquire stakes in individual companies to increase our exposure to the newly growing emerging markets and economies to reinforce our influence in the global economy and thereby strengthen our national security. Such a fund could also kick-start a genuine venture capital market—still stalled after all these years—so that more Australian inventions and innovations can be commercialised here rather than abroad. Before I conclude, I have two duties: the first is to thank my family, in particular my wife, Elizabeth, who is the heart and soul of our family. Without her strength and determination, I would not be here. She is tougher, smarter and more discerning in her judgments than I am, and she has taken on the burden of keeping the home going while I am gallivanting around the countryside with these wonderful colleagues. To my children, Dion and Isabella, who seem strangely quiet now: I hope you will forgive my absences and come to understand in future years that serving others is a noble calling. Finally, I say to you colleagues in this chamber, senators on all sides, as well as my House of Representatives colleagues: thank you for the welcome I have received since I have been here and for the many courtesies shown to me. I have listened to many speeches in this place since I have been here. They have been well researched and well argued. I do not doubt the sincerity of the convictions that you bring to the table. I hope that, like you, in years to come I can look back on my career and say that in a small way I helped to make the best country in the world even better. Thank you.

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