Yesterday afternoon Senator Steve Fielding presented his valedictory speech to the Senate:
I have always loved listening to stories. I love sitting around a campfire with my kids and telling them stories of my own childhood, growing up in a large family of 16 children. There is something about a story that allows others to be involved and allows others to be encouraged.
Stories draw us in and allow us to learn about ourselves and those around us. Stories cover every spectrum of life, weaving knowledge around movement and emotion. They can have kicks in their tails, sudden unexpected twists, or be as predictable as death and taxes.
As we all know, some stories based on fact are more incredible and stranger than fiction. My story belongs to the former category. My life has had some unexpected twists, including my election to the Senate in 2004, which for many was remarkable and a big twist in the tale. I will be forever grateful to the voters of this great country that is one of the oldest and most robust democracies in the world. It was a historic win, an amazing story in itself.
But today I want to share with you a story about another man, one who preceded me in this great place, the Senate. It is a story that has remained largely untold. I want to honour him, his memory and the role he played in my extraordinary transition from being just a man with a dream to a senator.
Despite having an engineering degree and an MBA, I knew I stood no chance of being elected as a senator unless I first understood the breadth and depth of what was required in the role. If I could glean that knowledge and gain insight into the mindset of a senator I was confident I could be successful. Like the prince who sets out on a quest to find his princess, I set out to find someone who knew a senator.
It did not take me long to exhaust my family and friends and end up back at the start. Unsurprisingly, no-one knew a senator I could talk to. After all, I had no political grooming when I was growing up, or throughout university or my business career. My hidden weapon was growing up in Reservoir in a large family. I learnt many things.
One of them was perseverance. Confronted with a roadblock, I was more determined than ever to find the one who could mentor me and help me. I asked myself, ‘Who do I admire and respect the most?’ It was an easy question to answer, an obvious one in the end—considering he was a giant in Australian political history: perfect.
If you want something badly enough, you will persist. I obtained his home phone number and, late one Saturday afternoon in 2004, I picked up the phone and dialled. The great man himself answered. Momentarily taken aback, I paused before launching into my spiel that I was running for the Senate and that I would appreciate some of his time.
I was a total unknown, a stranger asking this political icon for a meeting. With his customary gruff abruptness, he shot back, ‘You’re not some kind of nutter, are you?’ Desperate to keep him on side, I reassured him of my professional qualifications. He did not seem too impressed to start, but then suddenly, decisively, he agreed.
His choice of meeting place was typically outrageous. We met the next day in his local church hall, after the morning service, my wife in tow—a smart move which quickly paid off. The awkwardness was evident so, in an effort to break the ice, my wife, Sue, went to fetch us some cups of tea. It worked. He leant over to me and said with a grin, ‘She’s bloody good-looking, isn’t she?’ Stunned for only a second—after all, he was known to be a bit cheeky—I managed to squeeze out, ‘That’s why I married her.’
I think I had passed my first test. He agreed to another meeting and we duly convened to his chosen restaurant, tucked away in a corner of Camberwell, he with his two minders and I with my good-looking wife. It turned out to be a long lunch. We spoke about everything and anything. I soon grasped how much intellect this man had and, despite my years as a senior executive, how little I knew.
I can assure you all that there may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there certainly is such a thing as a life-changing one. As our time came to a close, I asked him if he would continue to help me. He paused, reflecting, and then said with great sadness, ‘I can’t. You see, the Democrats are my first love but they have broken my heart. But they are still my first love.’ It was a heartfelt moment, but I persisted, leaned towards him, and asked, ‘Then why don’t you adopt me like your son?’
We continued to meet on occasions at his home in the lead-up to the 2004 election. He was generous and encouraging. On one of those occasions, with great gravitas, he warned me about the Greens. He told me they could never be trusted. He went out to his study and brought back his draft manuscript from his then-unfinished book. He shared with me that he wrote only one page on the Greens, as they did not deserve any more. He then gave me a copy of the page and went on to say that I could use it against the Greens in the election campaign.
I quote from that manuscript:
‘Frankly, I would be devastated if Bob Brown and his followers ever held the balance of power in the federal parliament.’
Even after winning my Senate seat, we never discussed why he ended up helping me. I think that it was in part due to the fact that we shared a common view: that the Greens should never be trusted with the balance of power in Australia. I have shared this story today to pay tribute to this great bloke—a man who had politics running in his veins, who was, I think, Australia’s greatest senator: the Hon. Don Chipp.
Due in some part to his encouragement and mentoring, I have had the tremendous honour and privilege to serve this great country as a senator for the last six years. I have also been privileged to get to know three successive prime ministers and to meet with ministers and shadow ministers on many occasions.
I have never taken these meetings for granted and have valued and enjoyed the trust that both sides of parliament have shown me, along with the friendships I have made. I have held these meetings, conversations and relationships close to my chest and will continue to cherish the memories privately for years to come.
However, I can share with the chamber some of the insights I have gained from my time in this place. From any perspective, politics can seem like a winner-takes-all conflict. Today has been no exception: a place where there are only winners or losers. However, sitting as I have on the crossbenches, I have gained valuable insight. I have learnt that indeed there are always going to be winners, but I have discovered that seeing a loss as a learning opportunity moves you forward without bitterness. It also allows you to discover more about yourself, your circumstances and your abilities. Consequently, I would say that my six years have been characterised by both winning and learning, with plenty of lessons learnt along the way.
Let me share some other stories. On the morning of Tuesday, 26 July 2005, my office contacted the Herald Sun with a breaking news story. Just 26 days after the commencement of my term, we had uncovered a major flaw in the government’s proposed new Work Choices laws. That is right: public holidays and meal breaks were no longer guaranteed; they were gone.
So outrageous was this proposition that even the Herald Sun did not believe us initially. ‘Howard would not sell out the battlers!’ was the response. It was not until later that afternoon that the Herald Sun, at our urging and instigation, finally agreed that we—not a powerful union, not the Labor Party, not a large welfare organisation or social service but a minor party, a new senator in parliament—had uncovered a big black hole in the prized legislation of the government. The story was big, and a surprise to most.
On the day the story appeared in the Herald Sun even Peter Costello, under cross-examination by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, tap-danced all around the issue unable to give assurances about basic working conditions like public holidays and meal breaks.
Before the final vote on Work Choices, I met with Prime Minister and suggested a way to bring some fairness to the unfair Work Choices legislation. But in this debate he only wanted my vote and did not need it. I felt that it was a mistake by the government to dismiss any commonsense changes. It later proved to be the start of the demise of the government.
By the time the government brought in the fairness test, it was too little too late, as the perception that the government had sold out the battlers was too entrenched. My learning opportunity from this story was about the importance of reading legislation line by line for myself. No matter how many voices urge me to vote in any given direction, it is my duty to be diligent as a senator.
There are no short cuts as a legislator. I also learnt that common sense is more valuable than any balance of power. The sting in the tail of the story was self-evident at the polls in 2007.
On other occasions I learnt that sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.
Skyrocketing grocery prices are always a big issue for families, which is why in 2008 I introduced the unit pricing bill where supermarkets have to display prices in units to help families cut grocery bills. I had seen this work firsthand whilst living in New Zealand in the mid-1990s.
It was not rocket science but rather a simple and effective method to assist families. I was as surprised as anyone else by the number of products that are not cheaper when purchased in bulk. A Senate inquiry on my bill backed up the benefits and finally, in September 2008, after a rigorous campaign from my office and others, the government abandoned their discredited Grocery Choice idea in favour of unit pricing.
But not every story has such a happy ending. One of my lasting regrets is our nation’s missed opportunity to really tackle Australia’s alcohol toll. It still staggers me today that the alcohol toll costs the nation over $16 billion a year, mopping up after excessive alcohol consumption.
In 2007, when I first became aware of the incredible cost to the community from excessive alcohol consumption, I urged both sides of politics to see the urgency and the need to address Australia’s alcohol toll. I know that it is difficult to confront Australia’s alcohol toll because no-one wants to be seen as a wowser, especially any government of the day. But I still believe that we could develop an alcohol toll campaign that the community would get behind just like they did when we tackled the road toll, the AIDS toll and the tobacco toll.
With this in mind I introduced the Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill 2007, which would have resulted in backing up the responsible drinking campaign with warning labels, moving the approval of alcohol ads out of the hands of the industry to ensure that alcohol ads do not entice kids and do not hint that success in life comes from drinking alcohol and, finally, dehooking alcohol from sport by removing the exemption that allows alcohol ads to be shown any time of the day solely because it is a sports broadcast.
The Senate inquiry on this bill provided ample evidence from countless expert witnesses to warrant action on Australia’s alcohol toll. But as I said earlier, not every story has a happy ending. The government, regretfully, turned the alcohol toll debate into a tax issue rather than a cultural issue and, as a result, our nation missed a golden opportunity to really tackle our $16 billion alcohol toll.
So what does it take to get a story with a happy ending? Marketing gurus would tell you that sex always sells, so that is the tactic I used in May 2008 on the steps of Flinders Street Station on behalf of Australian pensioners. I am the first to agree that exposing all by stripping naked to the waist was not a pretty sight, but the Fair Go for Pensioners rally was certainly a winner that day. My striptease act has been described online as ‘the only good reason for mandatory internet filtering—Steve Fielding naked’.
It all started with Shirley Grant, a pensioner from Glenroy. Shirley was the real face and voice of this issue, airing her frustration on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW talkback radio and declaring she was desperate enough to take her shirt off in protest to get an increase for pensioners. She was so convincing that I rang Neil Mitchell and told him that I would help organise a pensioner rally as long as the ladies would keep their shirts on, as I would be stripping for them.
The success of this pensioner rally surprised us all as the grassroots campaign took off with huge media coverage. There were subsequent meetings with the Prime Minister and then the government finally bowed to the pressure. The protest rally was a pivotal turning point that ultimately led to the biggest one-off increase in the age pension. Yes, a happy ending, but it was the voice of Shirley from Glenroy that was more powerful than any politician’s voice in Canberra.
Now I turn to the most distressing issue that either side of politics have had to deal with; to the voices that will never be heard again, their silence echoing from the deep, drowned by the greed of people smugglers preying on vulnerable and desperate people. Many Australians see this as a border security issue; a management problem. I see it far more personally: I see fathers, mothers, sons and daughters seduced into taking a perilous voyage in the hope of asylum in Australia.
On a self-funded trip to Christmas Island, I was told by one of the asylum seekers that for every 30 or so refugees that make it to Australia, 70 or so do not. They either drown, disappear or are thwarted by authorities on the way. As long as we keep accepting these refugees who do make it we will be a partner in this deadly game of russian roulette.
We must stop the boats for humane reasons, regardless of the politics from both sides. Remember, I, too, rightly supported the changes to asylum-seeker laws that were made after Labor was elected in 2007, but I did not expect the boats to start flooding into Australia again. This was clearly an unintended consequence and I was appalled at the dreadful loss of life that was occurring as more and more people jumped into dangerous boats in a despairing bid to get to Australia.
So I started to develop a new policy that would stop the boats and therefore stop the senseless loss of life. It was a simple idea based around a swap concept as outlined in the Herald Sun in March 2010. Asylum seekers arriving by boat would be transferred to the back of the queue in overseas refugee camps, but to release pressure on these camps Australia would agree to take two or more refugees who had been waiting patiently for years to be resettled.
I talked to both sides of this place, imploring them to consider this policy. Initially, both Labor and Liberal were reluctant to support it. Then in December last year video footage of the refugee boat being smashed onto the rugged rocks off Christmas Island reinforced the urgency and the need to stop the boats. But there are no winners in this story. The current Malaysian solution gives me no sense of victory that I have been heard; only a hope that future lives may be saved and that we will not have to endure the anguish of more futile deaths at sea.
There are many other stories that I could share where I have played a role of great influence. I have always taken my role and responsibility as a senator very seriously, even though at times I have used some novel ways to promote good policy to the dismay, and sometimes the amusement, of the Canberra press gallery. Nonetheless, the policy ideas behind any stunt were always serious and worthy of attention. I have continually put forward legislation and challenged the status quo on a wide range of public policy, including a number of private member bills and numerous Senate inquiries.
Many in this place would know that I love my sport, but my age is showing with the all-too-frequent injuries, which is why I have often been seen zipping around on a red scooter or hobbling into a division in this chamber on crutches or limping. It was not the argy-bargy outside the chamber, it was definitely sport.
Part of the reason I play sport in parliament is because it provides me with an outlet for the stress that comes with sharing the balance of power. The extra benefit has been the friendships that I have formed that would not have been possible without the sporting activities. I thank Andy Turnbull for making the parliamentary sports club work so well and for the tremendous funds that we have been able to raise for charities through it.
One of the most challenging days I had in this place was when I shared publicly about growing up with a learning difficulty. For me it was always the elephant in the room. If I ever mispronounced or stumbled over certain words, as we all can from time to time, it was a tough day to get through. But I was greatly affirmed and encouraged by an overwhelming number of people who contacted me in support of my disclosure, thanking me for speaking on their behalf.
In particular there are two people I want to personally thank for their encouragement at that time. I received a touching personal note from Ron Walker that really lifted my spirit and Neil Mitchell wrote a very caring opinion piece in the Herald Sun. Both meant a lot to me at the time. Once again, I would also like to encourage all those kids with a learning difficulty: never give up, and do not listen to those people who say you are a dummy. Instead, hang in there and think big. Remember, you get stronger by swimming against the tide than with it.
As a senator I have been very well served by all the staff in this place. Thank you: each one of you has made my job a lot easier, and our parliament functions extremely professionally, as it should, as a consequence of your dedicated work.
Over my six years I have come to appreciate that the Prime Minister’s job is the toughest job in the country, and the sacrifices the prime ministers make are undeniable. I would like to say a very personal thank you to Prime Ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard for giving me the time you did over my term. I have truly been in a privileged position and I am indeed grateful.
Now to my staff. Any senator knows your staff are critical, and I thank all my personal staff for their trusted, professional and expert advice, and loyal service. There is one staff member I want to give special mention to and that is Anna Franchesicini, who has been with me from day one as my office manager. Anna, I cannot thank you enough, and you know how you have been a real help to my family.
And finally I want to thank my family. I am indeed indebted to my parents, who lived out the meaning of putting family first, teaching me always to do my best and to put in more than you take out. Susan and I have three wonderful children, and I am indeed blessed.
To my son James, our eldest son, who is flying through his third year of law at university: I am inspired by your ability to always do a professional job whenever I asked for your help. To Campbell, our middle child, who served in the Defence Force for his gap year and is now in his second year of a building apprenticeship: I am so proud of your persevering attitude and thank you for always helping out when I was not around. And to Gabrielle Fielding, our gorgeous daughter, currently in year 11, thank you for being so positive and encouraging in very difficult times.
Lastly and most importantly, I want to thank my closest friend, my wife, Susan. We both undertook the biggest challenge of our lives back in 2004 when I decided to run for the Senate. Only people in this place would know how incredibly difficult it is to manage an election campaign—and as an Independent it is even harder. My wife and I managed the entire 2004 Senate campaign in Victoria from our home. Together Susan and I worked day and night for months recruiting and managing 37 federal candidates across Victoria, along with all aspects of a grassroots campaign, including manning over 1,500 polling booths.
Members of this place know the incredible price our partners pay so we may serve this great country of ours. Susan has been my biggest backer and most influential adviser, at some considerable expense to her health. At the time I chose not to go public with her illness, but in 2008, just as I started to share the balance of power in the Senate and my vote became critical, as a family we faced the gravest times as we nearly lost her to a thyroid crisis. That she is here to share this day with me is a testament to her resilience and inner strength. Even though I leave this place with some sadness, I am still looking forward to a new chapter in my story, and my greatest comfort is knowing that from July I can again put my family first.