Sean Edwards, Senator for South Australia
Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (17:01): Thank you, Mr President, and I congratulate you on your re-election as President. I am honoured to be elected to serve the people of South Australia as the 25th Liberal senator for that state since the formation of our party in 1944. I have been a proud member of the South Australian Liberal Party for more than half my lifetime, including serving as the state president for three years until my election to this place. I am proud of the contribution that Liberal members at all levels of the party continue to make to the lives of everyday South Australians in the regional communities and the suburbs. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the service of Liberal South Australian former senators Nick Minchin and Alan Ferguson, who have recently left this place. Both were strong and effective advocates for South Australia. I thank and pay tribute to the people of South Australia. They have entrusted me with their confidence to represent their interests and they will always be at the forefront of my mind.
South Australia, despite its landmass, remains today one of the smaller states in our Federation. Back home, you know your politics might be different from your neighbour's, your business might be competing with theirs or you may even support different football teams, but you also know that those same people will forget their differences and pull together to maintain the integrity and the very survival of those same communities. This foundation has helped nurture successful artists, scientists and community leaders, and it has fostered giants in business.
From humble beginnings, the Coopers brewing family has become a brand known throughout the world, as has the Crotti family with San Remo, another great South Australian family company, which exports pasta to more than 35 countries around the world, including Italy. Australia's oldest family owned chocolate manufacturing retailer, Haigh's—a favourite in our family and I am sure it is for many in this place—began in Adelaide and today still employs hundreds of people across its operations. The mighty Gerard family behind the famed Clipsal Australia continues to employ over 1,500 people and exports electrical appliances to 25 countries around the world. I acknowledge and celebrate the success of these iconic companies, with their origins in strong families from resilient South Australian communities. They are evidence of what can be achieved when we apply tenacity and leverage it with ambition.
I grew up in, still live in and have my family home in the Clare Valley. It is a special place of which I am very proud. It is a place internationally recognised for its fine wine, wool and wheat. I am proud to be of fifth generation bush stock, although it should ring alarm bells in this place that of 12 senators I am the only South Australian who has my life and loves rooted in the country. The Edwardses, through the generations, are typical of so many early South Australian families—farmers, retailers and business owners. They are people who work hard and make sacrifices to give their children the opportunities they aspired to.
The greatest opportunity any parent and any society can give the next generation is education. Our family had regional learning opportunities. Like many other children in the regions, they did not match those of our city cousins. Despite this, members of my family have pursued higher education and have been able to develop skills which have led them to prosper in their businesses and to travel the globe. Some of our country peers have not been so lucky. I am deeply committed to enhancing the broad educational opportunities of Australians, particularly regional South Australians.
I am happy to say that in my home state we can boast a number of world leading educational institutions; in particular, I would like to mention Roseworthy Agricultural College, which is now a University of Adelaide campus. It was Australia's first agricultural college, founded in 1883, and today it is internationally recognised for its teaching in dryland agriculture, natural resource management and animal production. I have not trod the well-worn path to this place from the office of a lawyer, a trade union official or a political staffer, admirable though these professions may be. I hope that with my experience in rural businesses I may be able to add to the diversity of backgrounds and quality of government in this place. At 18 I finished secondary school and immediately assumed responsibility for my own income, prosperity and destiny. I have started small businesses and grown them to medium sized ones. I have struggled with the stifling mountain of paperwork that the dead hand of bureaucracy imposes on business. I have had the privilege to hire some of the most amazing, talented and professional people to work with me and I have had the privilege of lying awake at night working out ways to make my debtors pay me so that I could pay my staff wages at the end of the week. It is not an unusual story for millions of Australians who own or manage a business, but it is becoming rarer in this place.
I have benefited from the economic growth and prosperity generated by the important reforms undertaken by the former Howard government and, it would be churlish not to mention, some undertaken by the Hawke government. I have also invested everything into a business only to watch two years of hard slog come undone when the recession we had to have knocked the guts out of the economy. It was during that difficult economic period that I realised that politics was real and that it affects us, the people, our families and our communities.
The business which I ran is the second largest of 42 wineries in the Clare Valley, employing many South Australians, including winemakers, viticulturalists, cellar hands and tractor drivers—all vital and all valued. I am also keen to let those opposite know that despite employing hundreds of people over my time I have never had or been involved in a business with a trade union presence. Many of my people are onto their second round of long-service leave entitlement. Perhaps I might assert that we on this side of the chamber might know a thing or two about finding a workplace balance. I am also very proud that most of the senior management positions in the companies that I have been involved in have been dominated by women.
Being in the wine industry has taught me so much. To be sustainable you have to deploy many skills. In an effort to be competitive you have to sync your farming and your production environment with your community expectations. We are environmentalists, factory operators, marketers and supreme risk takers. Like all primary producers, we battle climate risk and commercial risk every day, a challenge no more evident than in our experience of surviving the last 10 years of droughts then floods, only to be marginalised again by a surging Australian dollar and an asphyxiating consolidation of retail markets. Governments need to be mindful of the significant contribution and reputation Australia is afforded by the wine industry, particularly when forming future policies proposed under the spurious mask of health initiatives.
My experience in business has highlighted the significance of the public debt that the South Australian economy now has. Like our national economy, it is again being burdened. Debt is more than just a set of numbers. The brackets around the bottom of the public balance sheet represent a constrained people, people whose wages cannot be increased or, worse, paid at all, or who will remain without work because businesses cannot afford to employ them. They represent the families who will go without services because they cannot afford to pay for them as their hospital or school has been downgraded. While no sector is immune, the impacts are magnified in the regions. For example, South Australia has experienced too many funding cutbacks in country hospitals. As I speak, three country hospitals—Moonta, Ardrossan and Keith—face a very uncertain future due the lack of political will from Labor to maintain their excellent regional service.
There can be no luxury in debt. Debt limits choice to individuals, to families, to businesses and to the government which have been charged with the responsibility of using taxpayer funds wisely to provide services and infrastructure to the people. Our public debt has been created and compounded by poor government. I experienced the destruction that poor government and poor governance can wreak upon business profitability and the stress felt by families and the entire community as a result. Poor government fails to remember that it is there to serve the people. It fails to recognise and reward effort, creativity and conviction. It acknowledges its own achievement and ambition, listens only to its own advice and believes that government is the only answer to all of society's ills. Poor governments make poor decisions, but not making a decision at all can be as destructive as making a bad decision. Sadly, some leaders are unwilling or unable to make decisions. They lack the intestinal fortitude to make a change for the better.
Today I look around the community I live in and the communities I represent and I see many people for whom getting by day to day is the priority. The increasing cost of living is putting constraint pressures on our families. It is not good enough for us in this place to sit back and say, 'Well, it is the global economy,' or, 'They will just have to sit tight and save; we know what is best for them.' That is the excuse of thought bubble driven politicians seduced by remunerated focus groups rather than themselves having the life skills to generate real policy to benefit real people. It is the mantra of elected leaders more interested in the demands of special interest groups than in taking responsibility for making difficult decisions, decisions that will help deliver a strong economy, secure borders, sustainable growth and more opportunities for people to choose how they want to live their own lives, to raise their families, to work and to contribute to society. Our debt burden and our recent poor government has prevented long-term thinking about our nation, but that only makes it all the more necessary. As we consider the choices we are faced with in this place, we need to think beyond the next electoral cycle, plan not for five or 10 years but audaciously for 30 years.
I am the first to acknowledge that long-term vision being mugged by the day-to-day reality of politics is nothing new. As a prime example, it is 114 years since a federal management plan for the Murray-Darling Basin was discussed at the Federation convention in 1897. The hope that was generated by the plan announced by the former Prime Minister John Howard in 2007 has once again been systematically deconstructed by political interests enslaved in the electoral cycle. I lament that inertia and I will make an earnest contribution to the cause whilst in this place. I hope that during my time here we can formally agree that the river system does not recognise state borders and nor should its management.
In our long-term thinking for Australia and our globalised world, food security is an important consideration and an area of our economy where we have a competitive advantage. In an increasingly urbanised world, food security for our growing nation and global populations will only come from our regions. Our farmers have a proud history, which continues to this day, of adaptation to difficult and changing circumstances. If, as it is often said, Australia's small businesses are the engine room of the economy, then her regions are her lifeblood and the oil pumping around it. Sustainability and innovation, including world leading carbon management, are critical to the future and to the legacy we leave future Australians. When I look at our future opportunities for growth, I see South Australia's regions, which boast a natural competitive advantage in many areas, playing a key role. There are our high quality grains, our incomparable wines, our environment of unequalled beauty and natural resources to name but a few. Not maximising that advantage is, I believe, hypocritical to say the least and at the worst an abrogation of our responsibility to provide future generations with the opportunities that we can build on today.
In that context we cannot sidestep uranium. In South Australia we have some of the largest reserves on the planet. We dig it up, yet others are reaping the greatest benefit by taking our raw product and employing hundreds of thousands of people to develop it—all of this to lift the living standards in their own country. Let us not look back in 50 years and work out that we were simply a quarry to the developing world around us. Now is the time to have the debate about leveraging our competitive advantage for the betterment of South Australia and indeed all Australians.
Small- and medium-sized business enterprises, especially those in the regions, are critical to the future of South Australia—from the commercial forests in the south, seafood on the west coast, serials in the mid-north and, of course, wine from all over. Every business owner takes risks, which for some can reap great benefits but which can also deliver significant personal and professional costs. I speak from personal experience. My experience has led me to be fiercely supportive of leveraging our competitive advantage, minimising bureaucratic burden and fostering innovative businesses. Business is not an end in itself. The taxes which profitable businesses pay are the means through which we generate a strong economy to deliver jobs, better education, health and future opportunities for our children.
I am proud to say that I have never had anybody drive my bus for me, but I have been grateful to the many people who have aided the navigation along the way. I have been fortunate to count amongst them my long-time loyal friend and political confidante Mr Darcy Douglas, who challenges and supports me. More recently I have enjoyed the perspectives of the irrepressible Mr James Lisle, who has been giving me great insights into all things international. I wish to acknowledge my lifetime friend Mr Chris Coulter, who has made a great commitment and travelled from Canada to share with me today. I am thankful to another great friend and business partner Mr Peter Worthington, who has travelled from London to be here today, and to my childhood mates Peter and Mark Barry and Richard and Sue Barlow for being here today. I wish to acknowledge the late Mr Frederick Geoffrey de Vere Tyndall, who shared with me his intellect and knowledge and helped me find my own ways of thinking about government and society. I want to thank Peter Vandeleur, a great hardworking Australian, who has picked up the baton to help keep politics alive in my home community.
I cannot thank enough my wife, Ashleigh, and her stepdaughter, Natasha, for leaving their home and family in the UK seven years ago to be with me in this country. Ashleigh, seven years ago when I asked you to marry me I swear I was not planning to come to this place. But despite not signing up for this, you have been my greatest support. I love you and I thank you. Thank you to my children, Abbey, George and Harrison. Thank you for your continued love and support and remember: life is full of choices. Looking at the people my children have become is without doubt my greatest source of pride. My colleague Senator Bill Heffernan put it best in his first speech in this place. He said:
No-one really understands what they mean to their own parents till they have their own children.
In saying that I wish to thank my father, Bryan, and mother, Elaine, and my five brothers, Paul, David, Stephen, Tim and Andrew, who have joined me for this occasion. You have all helped me become the person I am today. Time prevents me from mentioning the others of you who have been great friends and who have travelled here, at great expense. Thank you all for your enduring support in every aspect of my life.
There is one person who cannot be here today, but whom I would like to mention in closing. I never met my uncle Robert, and he never met his daughter. My mother's brother died seven months before the end of the Second World War, 17 years before I was born. But he, and the thousands like him who sacrificed their lives in the defence of our nation and our ideals, were a strong presence in our lives through the impact their loss had on the ones they left behind. They were known by the sudden or unexplained tears in the eyes of our loved ones, the silences in conversations, their unfilled jobs in local towns or on farms and in the loneliness of women who never married or remarried. We felt them in the way our parents looked to instil in their children not only respect and tolerance but the importance of hard work, diligence and, importantly, service to the community. We looked to their example while our parents worked hard to ensure that such sacrifices would never again be demanded of an entire generation.
In my family, as in so many others, it was the sacrifice of one generation for the betterment of the next. Reciprocated was the promise to remember and honour that sacrifice, and to build a nation worthy of it. We must continue this promise as thousands of our young men and women today serve in our name.
Australians have proven time and time again how resilient they are and have shown their willingness to make great sacrifices for our nation. We must take responsibility for our actions, persist in the face of adversity and overcome the lure of short-term political fixes in order to make decisions that are in the long term interests of our nation. I will endeavour to prove that I am up to the job of honouring my uncle Bob and those like him through my work representing South of Australia in this place.