Yesterday afternoon Senator Nick Minchin presented his valedictory speech to the Senate:
The 30th of June will, in my case, bring to an end not just 18 years in the Senate but 32 years of full-time involvement in politics. Unusually for the conservative side of politics, I have spent virtually all my working life serving the Liberal cause rather than, perhaps more sensibly, pursuing a career in the profession for which I was trained: the law. My 18 years in this place were preceded by 14 years serving as a full-time professional officer in the Liberal Party at both state and federal level, and I must say it was superb training for my years of service in the Senate.
The transition I made from the Liberal Party’s professional wing to the parliament is also not common. I remain only the second Liberal Party state director in the history of our party, after John Carrick, to serve in the Senate. I do note with pleasure that former state directors David Kemp, Petro Georgiou and Scott Morrison have made the transition to the House of Representatives, serving there with great distinction.
It has, of course, been an enormous privilege to represent my state and my party in this place for almost one-third of my life. One of the British parliamentarians I most admire, Enoch Powell, wrote in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ There is, regrettably, much truth in that maxim—which is why I am retiring now, while the going is good, in the hope that it is only my political enemies who will claim that it applies to me.
I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have enjoyed a political life that has enabled me to serve at the highest levels of government available to a senator. Unburdened by the levels of ego and ambition which weigh heavily upon so many of our colleagues in the other place, I have instead been the beneficiary of chance, luck and being in the right place at the right time.
Entering the Senate in 1993 in the shadow of such political luminaries as my SA colleagues Robert Hill, Amanda Vanstone, Alexander Downer and Ian McLachlan, I happily resigned myself to a backbench career, feeling privileged indeed to even be here. A series of fortunate circumstances gave me the opportunity, after just nine months, to rise to the front bench as a shadow parliamentary secretary in opposition and then to serve as a parliamentary secretary, junior minister, cabinet minister, deputy leader, Leader of the Government in the Senate and, finally, opposition leader in the Senate. So I have spent 16 of my 18 years on the coalition front bench, including nine years in the cabinet. I remain surprised by the opportunities I have had—none of which, frankly, I expected.
Political life is, of course, a balance sheet and, while I hope history will judge mine as having a plus sign at the bottom, some may well judge that the positives and the negatives are fairly easily balanced. On the positive side of the ledger, I must say that I am delighted to have been able to serve in one of the best ministries in government, that of finance, for six years, making me the longest serving of Australia’s 11 finance ministers. Fortuitously, I am also the only one whose every budget produced a surplus. I hasten to note that I lay no claim whatsoever to being the best. That honour rightfully belongs to Peter Walsh, the Labor identity whom I most admire and who is a great Australian. Having been the first South Australian to serve in the finance portfolio, I am pleased that another South Australian senator—albeit a representative of the ALP—currently serves in that role. I will bet that Senator Wong is very glad she is no longer looking after climate change!
The finance minister and the Treasurer are, in any cabinet, the only true representatives of the taxpayer. Together they must fight an often lonely battle against the ravages of the spending ministers, from the Prime Minister down. I am sure that Senator Wong knows what I am talking about. It was a privilege to fight alongside that greatest of Treasurers, Peter Costello, in that battle to protect the taxpayers. Together we produced six consecutive surpluses, totalling almost $82 billion. We eliminated government debt and, very importantly, established the Future Fund with sufficient resources to meet the government’s substantial unfunded superannuation liabilities. I had Peter Costello’s strong support in one of my toughest challenges, the sale of the government’s remaining 50 per cent shareholding in Telstra—which, in a process known as T3, completed the privatisation of Telstra.
I do not wish to be partisan at all today, but I have to say that I am a little disappointed to see taxpayers now being forced back into being the owners and operators of a telecommunications business, having worked so hard to get them out of it. I do earnestly hope, for the nation’s sake, that Senator Conroy actually knows what he is doing.
It has been my privilege to be the first and only South Australian to serve in the industry portfolio, which, at the time I held it, also entailed responsibility for science, resources and energy. I had three years in that megaportfolio, which existed only for the three years I held it. After it nearly killed me, I recommended that it be broken up—a recommendation the Prime Minister sensibly accepted. That portfolio, among many other things, made me the only Commonwealth minister ever to have had responsibility for the whole nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to our only nuclear reactor to radioactive waste management.
During those exciting three years, I approved the Beverley uranium mine in my home state of South Australia, I commissioned a replacement nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights, and it was my job to identify the central north of South Australia as the site for a national radioactive waste repository—all somewhat controversial decisions.
I have often wondered why some on the Left show such hostility to me, but I think it does derive from that period. The Left have regrettably allowed radioactivity to blind them to the compassionate and sensitive side of my character. I did think that my initial responsibilities in government for native title and our constitutional convention on a republic would expose my inherent and, I thought, rather obvious limitations and be the summit of my career. Fortunately, Prime Minister Howard, to whom I do owe a great debt, thought he should test me some more.
Responsibility for all matters radioactive was certainly testing. My task of devising and steering through the coalition party room and the parliament our reforms to Labor’s Native Title Act saw me gain the dubious distinction of being responsible for and centrally involved in the longest debate on any single bill in the history of the Senate, a remarkable 56 hours. That first debate on the Native Title Amendment Bill regrettably did not resolve the matter, necessitating a second, 49-hour, debate. Thus, that bill, for whose carriage I was responsible, resulted in a total of almost 106 hours of debate, by far the longest in Senate history. The next longest was the GST debate, at a paltry 69 hours. That record no doubt reflects my inadequate powers of advocacy as much as it does the intricacies of the bill. It might also reflect Senator Bob Brown’s seemingly endless series of questions to me, which turned the committee stages into an interminable tutorial on native title.
I am able to reflect with satisfaction on the 1998 Constitutional Convention, which it was my task to organise and which I think was one of the more successful events of its kind. I am particularly pleased that the election of convention delegates was, at my insistence, the first national election since 1922 for which voting was not compulsory. In good faith, our government put the convention’s preferred republican model to a referendum, in 1999. Nothing in my long career in campaigning has given me greater pleasure than the comprehensive rejection of that republican model. One cause I will remain actively involved in after I leave this place is advocacy of the virtues of our current constitutional arrangements.
There is of course a negative side to my political ledger. It consists of the lost causes, which, like Jude, I have so forlornly championed. I came into this place a committed federalist and I leave as a proud federalist, but I have fought forlornly against the creeping centralism which regrettably afflicts both major political parties.
I have fought a lonely and quixotic battle to restore to Australians the legal right to choose whether or not to exercise their right to vote. I have not been able to convince even my own federal parliamentary party of the worth of that great cause. I note that, based on a recent article in the Spectator, I seem to have converted Mark Latham to the virtues of voluntary voting. I of course welcome Mark’s support, but I am still trying to work out whether it is a good thing or not. More reassuringly, Lindsay Tanner, who I do hold in high regard, recently admitted to growing doubts about the wisdom of compulsory voting.
I entered this place with a profound commitment to smaller, less intrusive government and lower taxes, only to watch the reach of government into our lives, and the imposts upon us to pay for it, continue to expand. I was singularly unsuccessful in my internal advocacy of a lower rate of immigration, mindful as I am of the adverse consequences of Australia’s very high rate of population growth, for Australia’s quality of life and its natural environment. I want to commend Labor MP Kelvin Thomson on his courageous and principled advocacy of a more sustainable level of immigration.
I failed in my responsibility to establish a national radioactive waste repository in the central north of South Australia, one of the best sites in the world for such a facility. I failed to sustain support in my own party for the sale of a government owned electricity business called Snowy Hydro. And I failed to achieve the sale of a government owned private health insurance company called Medibank Private. I dare not even mention what else I would like to have sold.
I failed to have the courage of my conservative convictions concerning my serious reservations at the time about the US plans for the invasion of Iraq, and I did not have sufficient courage of my federalist convictions concerning my deep reservations about the use of the Constitution’s corporations power to underpin our government’s Work Choices legislation. The High Court’s frankly surprising decision to uphold the constitutionality of that legislation has been a disaster for federalism. I hope the coalition understands the lesson of our 2007 defeat: the Australian people will only ever accept incrementalism, not radicalism, when it comes to industrial relations reform.
Finally, I regret my incapacity to create the circumstances in which John Howard might have seen the wisdom in retiring on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his prime ministership in March 2006. My career has been an odd mix of the occasional success and a sequence of failures, but I would like to think I am getting out before falling victim to Enoch Powell’s maxim.
Perhaps the most curious thing to me on reflecting on my career is the amount of time and energy occupied by consideration of the issue of carbon dioxide. Little did I know when I entered this place 18 years ago that carbon dioxide would play such a significant role in my career. Education, health, defence, foreign affairs, taxation and fiscal and monetary policy—all of these I expected to dominate political discourse. But carbon dioxide? Never. As I learnt in school, carbon dioxide is a clear, odourless, tasteless and invisible gas that is actually vital to life on earth. It constitutes 0.04 per cent of the atmosphere. Nature is responsible for 97 per cent of the earth’s production of CO2; humans, just three per cent. And yet many now see anthropogenic CO2 as the greatest threat to humankind on our planet, a threat which demands no less than an economic revolution to avert. Anyone who dares question this as yet unproven theory of anthropogenic global warming is branded a denier, as we heard from my good friend Senator Evans today, and treated as a veritable pariah.
I must say that when I first learned of the existence of the Australian Greenhouse Office, I assumed it was responsible for supplying tomatoes to the Parliament House kitchen. But, no, as I soon learnt as industry minister, it was in fact a government funded redoubt of veritable soldiers in a war against carbon dioxide. The zealotry and obsessive passion of these warriors in the battle against the apparent evils of carbon dioxide remains a curiosity to me. After fighting these people for three years as industry minister, I really did wish they would just go away and grow tomatoes.
I am quite surprised and rather disappointed by the loneliness, isolation and indeed demonisation the sadly misunderstood CO2 is experiencing. Thus, upon leaving the parliament, I am contemplating the foundation of an organisation called ‘The Friends of Carbon Dioxide’. Membership will of course be open to all, including the plants whose very existence depends on CO2. I think this organisation’s slogan, ‘CO2 is not pollution’, self-selects. It has both accuracy and melody to commend it.
I do acknowledge the remarkable power of CO2. After all, it led me to have to do something I had thought unthinkable, and that was to resign from the coalition frontbench at the end of 2009—albeit for only a very short time. CO2 played a significant part in the demise of Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. It may well result in the demise of our current Prime Minister, so that really is some gas!
I do remain optimistic that one day the world will realise that carbon dioxide is more of a friend than an enemy to the earth’s flora and fauna, and I do seriously believe that, given the extraordinary complexity of the natural forces controlling our climate, which have done so for millions of years, the only sensible policy response to the natural process of climate change is prudent and cost-effective adaptation.
It is customary in valedictory speeches to express gratitude to those who have played a key part in one’s political life. As a conservative with a keen eye for tradition I do take this opportunity. I remain enormously grateful to Tony Eggleton who, as Liberal Party federal director in 1977, gave me the most junior job in our federal secretariat. Five years later he appointed me as his deputy. Whatever skills I have in campaign management and political administration I learnt at the feet of Tony Eggleton.
I am indebted to the South Australian Liberal Party for preselecting me for the vacant No. 3 spot on the Senate ticket for the 1993 election, after just seven years as a South Australian. I owe thanks to Alexander Downer, who, during his short but very exciting time as our leader, first appointed me to the coalition frontbench. I am of course grateful to John Howard for giving me so many opportunities to serve in his government, culminating in my appointment as Leader of the Government in the Senate. Can I say that managing a one-seat coalition government majority in this place for two years was particular challenging—thank you, Barnaby, for that!
I am deeply indebted to all my Liberal Senate colleagues for bestowing upon me the great honour of election as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate following the 2007 election defeat. Nothing has been more humbling to me than to have received the unanimous support of my colleagues to undertake the task. As leader I was fortunate to have in Helen Coonan and then Eric Abetz two hardworking, dedicated and loyal deputies. I want to thank especially my National Party Senate colleagues for their loyalty and support during my 4½ years as coalition Senate leader.
I also express my gratitude for the friendship and professional working relationship I have enjoyed with non-coalition senators. May I express particularly my thanks to then defence minister John Faulkner for his significant personal support following the ADFA training accident last year that resulted in serious injuries to my son Oliver. Indeed, the support I received from all senators at that time was enormously important and gratifying. I do also want to thank Commodore Bruce Kafer, who as ADFA commandant was so extraordinarily supportive during that wretched period. I remain saddened that such a fine man has been so poorly treated after the events at ADFA earlier this year.
I want to thank the hardworking and professional officers of the Senate for their support during my 18 years in this place. I was fortunate to have had remarkably capable, tolerant and effective staff throughout my Senate and ministerial career. I thank them especially for restraining my wilder political side and prolonging my career! I also had in Dr Ian Watt, during my six years in Finance, an exemplary departmental secretary and a truly outstanding public servant.
Finally, I thank my wife, Kerry, and children, Jack, Oliver and Anna, for their forbearance in having a politician like me as husband and father. It is the truest of cliches that federal politics in Australia is tough on families and I cannot tell you how much it means to me to have all four members of my immediate family, especially Oliver, in the gallery this afternoon. I am also delighted to have my much younger and much more handsome brother William here today. I have been blessed to have had in Kerry a political wife who not only shares my conservative predilections but brought to our marriage her career as an Age journalist. She is the only conservative female journalist that paper has ever had, of course, and her career included service in the Canberra press gallery. I suspect I may be the only federal MP to have had not only a wife but also a mother who served in the Canberra press gallery. Maybe that is why I have perhaps uncharacteristically retained a soft spot for the members of that esteemed institution. I thank them for tolerating my incorrect views on so many issues!
May I conclude by wishing all my retiring Senate colleagues all the very best for the future. As someone who has chosen to retire I express my commiserations to those who have had retirement from the Senate imposed upon them. I want to express my particular gratitude to my fellow South Australian and voluntary retiree Alan Ferguson, with whom I have served for all my years here. I thank him for his friendship and support and especially his companionship on the cold winter nights in the Canberra accommodation we shared for most of my time as a senator. Of course, I refer to the warmth of his whisky, not the warmth of his embrace, which I know is the exclusive preserve of his wonderful wife, Anne.
I close with just one piece of gratuitous advice to all senators, and that is to remember the virtue of earning the respect of your colleagues on all sides of the chamber—earn their respect for your integrity, your decency, your passion, your commitment to your ideals and your willingness to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.