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First Speech

On this most historic day for the Liberal Party of Australia, I am honoured and humbled to make my first speech as a Liberal senator for Victoria, or my second first speech as a federal MP, or—as Senator Ruston quipped when we flew into Canberra on Sunday night—my first real speech in what is clearly the superior chamber! However characterised, after so proudly serving for two terms as the member for Corangamite, it is absolutely wonderful to be back. In this chamber, there may be different procedures and traditions and challenges in the making of laws which govern our nation—and a few more colourful characters—but my mission to be a strong and determined Liberal voice for the people I represent has not changed.

We live in a truly incredible country. I am here in this place because I love my country and because I have great hopes and dreams for its future. I am here because, through the pursuit of good policy, I want to contribute to building a better nation. I am here because I want to help advance the opportunities for the people who live in our great state of Victoria, particularly those living in regional Victoria and Melbourne’s west, where I will be focusing much of my efforts. I am here to recommit myself to the Liberal Party, to which I am so proud to belong, and to the members of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, whom I am so proud to represent. And I am here as a proud member of the Morrison government. We have a great Prime Minister. I, too, believe in miracles.

It was on this day 75 years ago that the Liberal Party of Australia was formed. This is cause for great celebration. On 16 October 1944, in a hall not far from here, a coalition of non-Labor organisations united under the leadership of Sir Robert Menzies to create what would become Australia’s most successful postwar political party. Menzies’ mission was clear. He said:

“…what we must look for, and it is a matter of desperate importance to our society, is a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and national progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism.”

Five years later, at the 1949 general election, in contrast to Labor’s petrol rationing and divisive plan to nationalise the banks, the Liberal Party offered a postwar Australia full of opportunity and freedom. Menzies spoke of the freedoms and liberties which were and remain the essence of Liberalism. He said:

“The real freedoms are to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to be independent, to be industrious, to acquire skill, to seek reward.” 

Australia was at a crossroad and Australians chose the Liberal road. And, whenever they have chosen the Liberal road in all elections since, they have done so because we have offered that fundamental choice.

The times have changed, but not our values. The forgotten people, the Howard battlers, the quiet Australians—Australians from different eras but with the same needs and ambitions—from Menzies to Morrison, Liberal governments throughout our history, in partnership with our coalition partners, the Nationals, have worked hard to foster, not hinder, aspiration; encourage equality of opportunity, not outcomes; and harness the hard work and enterprise of Australians, rather than prosecute an ethos of dependency and self-entitlement. We did this through a postwar economic expansion, which tripled our economy and boosted home ownership, by initiating the end of the White Australia policy, by responsible economic management and by a succession of international trading and security agreements—none more important than ANZUS, which has been the cornerstone of Australia’s security for nearly 70 years.

I acknowledge in particular John Howard, a doyen of our party and our longest serving living Prime Minister, who secured our borders, delivered 10 surplus budgets, delivered historic tax reform and captured the heart of the nation when he reformed our gun laws after the tragedy of Port Arthur.

In my last first speech, I spoke of the impact of nurse Lynne Beavis, one of Port Arthur’s heroes, whose story I told as an ABC journalist. When tragedy or disaster strikes, whether it be crime, drought, flood or fire, there are heroes and champions to be found in every community—people like Wye River CFA captain Roy Moriarty, who led his community to safety in the face of 2015 Christmas Day bushfires in which 116 homes were lost. It was an honour and privilege to support the communities of Wye River and Separation Creek in the face of such adversity, and to fight for justice on behalf of bushfire victims who were treated so appallingly by AAMI Insurance.

Our nation now faces another disaster, a soul-destroying drought which is ravaging scores of communities across Queensland, New South Wales and parts of Victoria. That is why surplus budgets are so important, because they give us the capacity to make the big decisions, such as our $5 billion Future Drought Fund, vital to building the long-term resilience of regional communities.

As I undertook to my preselectors, my very first task as a new senator was to travel to northern Victoria to meet with farmers. Many are facing crisis. In the Murray-Darling Basin, managing the impacts of drought is extraordinarily complex. We must always ask what more we can do, whether it be a serious review of environmental water allocations for the Murray or new water-trading rules to combat the corporate water hoarders and price takers. Water storage infrastructure is vital. In contrast to the $1 billion we are investing with the New South Wales government to construct new dams, the Victorian government is refusing to green light any new dam. This decision must be reversed.

Similarly, Premier Daniel Andrews must allow the mining of onshore conventional gas. Victoria is at a tipping point, facing blackouts over this coming summer, now with the highest electricity prices in the nation. We need more dispatchable power, and we are making plenty of efforts in terms of our contribution to driving down energy prices. But we need to see the gas taken out of the Otway Basin onshore, as the state permits offshore. This is desperately required.

Australians expect their governments to make the right decisions, the tough decisions. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Morrison, Treasurer Frydenberg and Minister for Finance Senator Cormann, our plan for a strong economy includes returning the budget to surplus, record jobs growth, lower taxes and a $100 billion infrastructure spend.

We are leading the way in combating global economic headwinds. We are also working extremely hard to invest in the support Australians deserve in health, skills and training, education, aged care, child care, disability and housing, and in taking the tough action to combat family violence, suicide, mental illness and religious discrimination. Yes, there is much more to do. I am proud of our government’s work to overturn bad laws such as the carbon and mining tax, which destroyed jobs and stifled investment. I am pleased that some in Labor now understand the folly of punishing aspiration and taking from Australians their hard-earned savings by pursuing reckless policies on energy, franking credits and negative gearing.

Our government’s election win on 18 May was a reminder that quiet Australians expect their governments to get out of the way whilst providing certainty, stability and confidence in the future. These are the same quiet Australians who I believe are rejecting the noisy and insidious march of the extreme left, particularly in Victoria—the animal rights groups attacking our farmers, the climate warriors gluing themselves to the streets and the inappropriate gender based activism in our schools and on our sporting fields. Even our basic right to speak freely is under challenge. I recently addressed an audience where I was asked not to say ‘ladies and gentlemen’ for fear these words might offend. This is just silly. As for the push to declare a climate emergency, taking strong action on climate change is important, and we are, including by reaching our Paris targets.

But, I say, please visit the Alice Springs Women’s Refuge, which is in reality a homicide prevention centre for Aboriginal women and their children escaping horrific family violence. That’s where you find the emergencies. In August 2017 I visited this refuge as chair of a House of Representatives inquiry into family violence law reform. I urged the government to adopt all of the inquiry’s recommendations, including ensuring that allegations of family violence can be determined early in proceedings so as to protect both victims of family violence and those against whom false allegations are made. I commend the Attorney-General’s eminently sound proposal to merge the two family law courts. We are listening. We know more urgent reform is required. This is a jurisdiction which so often results in increased risk, trauma, prohibitive costs, a lack of justice and unacceptable delays. The member for Menzies, Kevin Andrews, will make an excellent chair of our new joint select committee inquiry into the family law system, and I am confident he will drive the next wave of urgent reform. Lived experience matters, and it’s disappointing to see the unwarranted attacks on Senator Hanson by those opposite. She shares many of my concerns and will make an important contribution.

In my first speech in the other place, I committed to being a strong local voice for the people of Corangamite, which would sometimes require only a whisper and at other times a roar of determination. It’s fair to say that, over the past six years, I’ve done a lot more roaring than whispering. On that note, I acknowledge members of the G21 alliance in the gallery today. I want to particularly congratulate Stephanie Asher on her election last night as the new mayor of the City of Greater Geelong. I can’t apologise for the roaring. The people of Corangamite deserved no less. Major road and rail infrastructure investments, a new international terminal for Avalon Airport, and dozens of upgrades to community, sport, and surf lifesaving facilities. More recent announcements, including a $370 million Geelong City Deal in partnership with the state and local councils, an incredible $2.7 billion for faster rail infrastructure, and the howitzer defence manufacturing project, will drive another wave of opportunity for our region.

At the last election, despite a terrible redistribution in Corangamite which carved more than three per cent from our margin, we never gave in. We fought Labor, the Greens and the unions at every turn, and, as patron senator, I am ready for one hell of a fight at the next election. As part of that commitment, I am delighted to announce that we are up and running in a new permanent office on Moorabool Street, Geelong, as the only Liberal senator located in regional Victoria. It’s a key part of my Senate action plan. At its heart is my determination to stand up for every community, big and small, including places like Deans Marsh—Senator Di Natale isn’t here at the moment—where we are building a new community pavilion. This is the Liberal way.

Our government is working hard to invest in greater skills and training, but too many students continue to fall through the cracks. One idea is to revive federally funded Australian Technical Colleges—a great initiative of the Howard government—so that students seeking a technical rather than an academic education are provided with a comprehensive pathway. The few which continue to operate, including one in Hamilton, Victoria, are kicking major goals.

Another major concern is the need for better regional transport infrastructure. Across Victoria, the delivery of projects like the Geelong rail duplication, for which I fought so hard and secured, with a bit of help, $850 million, is far too slow. There is better progress on the Ballarat Line Upgrade, backed mainly by Commonwealth funding, but we are still waiting for the state to match the $2 billion our government has committed to faster rail between Geelong and Melbourne. The plan to construct a second duplicated rail track between Wyndham and Sunshine and a dedicated line and tunnel through to Southern Cross Station as part of the Melbourne Airport rail project, to which we are contributing another $5 billion, is incredibly exciting. It will cut travel time by 32 minutes and provide a desperately needed separate service to Melbourne’s western growth corridor. There is concern, however, that the state may seek to compromise this plan. This simply cannot happen. My next mission, I say with a roar—and I think the minister is sitting behind me—is to ensure that fast rail to Melbourne is also funded for Ballarat and Bendigo, cities we have included in our fast rail plan. And, with $4 billion on offer from our government, let’s please just build the East West Link.

At this time of such global uncertainty—and I join with Senator Payne in expressing deep concern and distress about the situation in Turkey and Syria—we face a new crossroad. To keep our nation strong, we must take the right road on food and water security, and Australia’s security and strategic interests. We’ve taken enormous strides to combat terrorism and foreign interference, support our intelligence agencies and build our defence capability. Our relationships with our key allies have never been more important, but we need to call it out when things aren’t working. Australia’s critical infrastructure assets—our airports, power stations, data networks, communications infrastructure and ports, including the Port of Darwin—should simply not be falling into foreign hands.

There is also scope, I believe, to re-examine other aspects of our foreign investment laws, such as restricting, perhaps by way of allowing only leasehold, the foreign acquisition of prime agricultural land. I believe in free competitive markets and in the importance of foreign capital to help us build a better nation. But we must never forget that we are a country before we are an economy. As your senator for Victoria, my first duty is to our country.

In the last parliament I was honoured to serve as Assistant Minister for Social Services, Housing and Disability Services. I am proud of the many reforms we delivered in disability and the NDIS, especially accommodation support for those with very high needs. We know there is much hard work to be done; this remains one of the government’s highest priorities. We continue to invest very heavily in housing and homelessness, including the First Home Buyers Deposit Scheme, inspired by the incredibly successful Keystart program in Western Australia. I would like to see this initiative extended to other Australians facing housing stress, such as older women.

Today, I don’t propose to tell my life story—that is in my other first speech, which Senator Canavan said I should have just used today! I do, however, want to say a few thankyous. To the people of Corangamite for the honour of serving them, thank you. To Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, thank you for your enduring support and friendship and your wonderful belief in me. This means a great deal. To Senator Cormann, for all your support since I joined this chamber and became a senator, particularly in relation to my new office, thank you. To my other Liberal and National parliamentary colleagues in this place and the other place, thank you for your friendship and support, particularly those who endorsed my preselection—Tony Smith, Michael Sukkar, Alan Tudge, Jason Wood, Greg Hunt, Dan Tehan, Kevin Andrews, Senator Payne, Senator Reynolds, Senator Hume and Andrew Hastie — for which I am most grateful. To Yaron Finkelstein, Andrew Hirst, Simon Frost, Nick Demiris and Jocelen Griffiths, a sincere thankyou. To Michael Ronaldson, a true mentor and friend, thank you for everything you have done for me for more than a decade. I could not have won Corangamite in 2013 without you. To my Liberal family in Corangamite, particularly Robert Charles, Ian Cover, Robyn Cox—or Crazy Granny, as my son, Jeremy, calls her—Bob Vinecombe, Ian Smith, Tom Roe and Carol Walters, and to those we have lost, such as the inspiring Alan Cover, thank you for your commitment, your dedication and your friendship.

To Victorians, including Liberal Party members across our great state, thank you for the opportunity to serve. I look forward to working hard as your strong Liberal voice for Victoria. To my friends and family and supporters, some of whom are here in the gallery today, I could not do this without you. Thank you in particular to Jeff Kennett, Denis Napthine, Ted Baillieu, Peta Credlin, Fiona Ogilvy-O’Donnell, Bev McArthur, Helen Kroger, Tim Smith, Richard Riordan, Louise Staley and Michael Kroger.

I am who I am because of my family—my wonderful mother, Ann, a dynamo in everything she did, including as a Victorian MP and cabinet minister, and my inspiring and caring father, Michael, who loved nothing more than to shoot, sail and camp with his family under the stars. I miss them every day.

I want to thank my magnificent siblings, Jodie and Andrew, who I love very much. They are my rock. Together with Robbie, Gus, Marcus, Louis and now Gerwyn, I am blessed. And to the most special person in my life, my 13-year-old son, Jeremy—another miracle—as I have always said, I love you to infinity and beyond. Having a mother in politics is not easy. At least as a senator there will be no more billboards! But without your support and patience, I would never have embarked on this incredible journey. Thank you.

16 October 2019

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