It gives me great pleasure to reply to Her Excellency the Governor-General’s address to the 43rd Parliament. The opening of parliament is a special occasion and quite properly a very ceremonial occasion. This ceremony not only celebrates the fact that Australia has one of the most stable democracies in the world but also recognises our cultural heritage and the Westminster tradition that has led to that stability. Of course, there has been an important recent addition to this ceremony, the welcome to country, which recognises that we meet on the land of the first Australians.The commencement of a new parliament brings with it many new faces in the House of Representatives and, come 1 July, there will be several new faces in this place as well. It also brings the departure of several members and senators—some by choice, others not. I would like to congratulate all new members and senators on their election and all those who have retained their seat. It is a great honour to be chosen by your constituents to represent them and it carries with it a great sense of responsibility. To those elected to the next Senate it may seem like a long wait until the term begins on 1 July next year, but I can assure them the time will pass quickly. I also congratulate the ministers and parliamentary secretaries on their appointments. I hope that everyone who comes into this parliament does so to advance the interests of the Australian people, and I believe that is the case.
Parliament involves a contest of ideas and in that contest there are inevitably casualties. Politics can be a tough and unforgiving business. To those who were not re-elected, I offer my commiserations. I would like to thank you for your contribution to this parliament. While your election results may make it difficult at the moment to feel that your service is valued, I can assure you that it has been of great value. You have dedicated yourself to public service and sought to advance the interests of your fellow Australians, and I commend you for this.
The federal election just past seems to have produced a series of disparate results across the country. Despite the swing against us in some areas, the Labor Party achieved an excellent result in my home state of Tasmania. I would like to congratulate my colleague Senator Polley on her re-election to the Senate for another six-year term and Senators-elect Anne Urquart and Lisa Singh on their success as well. As a result of the past two elections, Tasmania will soon have six Labor senators for the first time since 1985.
The member for Franklin, Julie Collins; the member for Lyons, Dick Adams; and the member for Braddon, Sid Sidebottom, were all re-elected on comfortable margins. I think this demonstrates that, while there may be national factors at play, there is a lot of value in having a hardworking member who represents their electorate well. Ms Collins has worked hard for the people of Franklin, and I congratulate her on her promotion to Parliamentary Secretary for Community Services. I have known Julie for a long time. She has worked hard for the people of Franklin since her endorsement prior to the 2007 election and I firmly believe she will continue to do so. With Senator Sherry’s continued tenure as a minister—the Minister for Small Business and the Minister Assisting the Minister for Tourism—it is pleasing to see two fellow Tasmanians in the ministry. It is a proper reflection of the abundance of talent that exists within the Tasmanian federal Labor caucus.
Geoff Lyons’ result in Bass is also to be highly commended, given the seat’s history of volatility and marginal outcomes. Mr Lyons has already worked hard to establish his local credentials through his involvement in sporting administration, surf-lifesaving and various other grassroots community organisations. He also has a strong background in health and aged care, and I know he will be a worthy representative for the people of Bass. Although I did not make it across to Mr Lyons’ first speech, I know he has delivered it. So it is straight down to business for Mr Lyons in representing the people of Bass.
The result in Denison was obviously unexpected. As with the other four Senate seats in Tasmania, we actually recorded a swing in our favour against the Liberal Party under two-party preferred terms. I strongly believe that Jonathon Jackson—the Labor candidate—had and still has a lot to offer. While I would like to see him continue to pursue a political career, I wish him well in whatever he does. However, it is a rare and monumental achievement for an Independent to be elected in their own right at a general election, and I congratulate Andrew Wilkie on his election as the member for Denison. I guess it is somewhat a coincidence that he enters parliament at a time when Independents have a significance never before seen in Australia’s House of Representatives.
Nationwide, the federal election just past has produced an unusual result where neither Labor nor the coalition hold a majority of seats in the House of Representatives in their own right. A stable government depends on three things. Firstly, it needs the majority of its members to agree to pass supply bills so that the government is able to fund its programs. Secondly, it must have the confidence of the majority of members in the House of Representatives. It is these two matters on which Her Excellency the Governor-General seeks advice in deciding who will form government. It is these two matters on which we have agreement from a sufficient number of the Independent members and one Green member to allow us to form government. Whatever arguments the coalition may advance about their right to govern because of more votes or more seats, the simple fact is that government, under the Australian Constitution, requires the confidence of a majority in the House of Representatives. If neither side wins an election outright then there is a second contest, and that is the contest to convince the crossbenches that you will be able to form a stable and secure government.
This brings me to the third criterion for stable government, and that is goodwill. While the Gillard government have sufficient support on confidence and supply, we still need to negotiate each piece of legislation individually. To make this parliament work, every member needs to approach these negotiations in good faith. So I find it very disappointing that Tony Abbott and the opposition’s approach has been to try and take a wrecking ball to this parliament. Their attitude seems to be that they will do anything within their power to destabilise the parliament because they want to go rushing back to the polls as soon as possible.
Exhibit A is the way they tore up an agreement on the pairing of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, an agreement they say is unconstitutional, despite the advice of the Solicitor-General to the contrary. If they seriously believe that the pairing arrangement is unconstitutional, why did they agree to it in the first place? Why did they not get their advice before they signed on the dotted line? Or was it a simple case of doing what suited them at the time and then changing their mind when the result did not go the way they expected? That is not quite Australian, I would suggest. There seems to be a born to rule mentality on that side of the chamber.
Exhibit B is the coalition’s refusal to join a parliamentary committee to discuss options to tackle climate change. That is not surprising, given their current leader’s pronouncement that climate change is crap. Once again, it is a great example of the opposition preferring to try and spoil parliament rather than work cooperatively for the good of the Australian people. The members for Lyne, New England, Melbourne and Denison all appear to have had their decisions vindicated. They decided that their vote would go towards providing stable government. They are looking for a government that is willing to engage in cooperative discussions about outcomes, that is willing to negotiate in good faith and that wants to see arrangements put in place to make the parliament work.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has selected a competent and talented team for the front bench. I know that they will be well supported by their fellow members of the Labor caucus. The Gillard government is committed to a strong, fair Australia and is prepared to do everything possible to ensure that this nation has a bright future. The people of Australia deserve nothing but the best and the Gillard government will deliver this, no matter what the opposition throw at us. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her team are committed to making this minority government work and we expect the same level of commitment from all other members of parliament, regardless of their political affiliation or independence.
The Gillard government is committed to continuing the excellent financial management that saw Australia fare much better than other developed countries during the global financial crisis. Treasurer Wayne Swan has already shown that he can do the job, and with his skills and expertise Australia will continue to have a growing economy.
We are committed to creating jobs and providing Australians with a first-class education and the skills necessary to be effective members of society in whatever career they choose. Peter Garrett, Senators Chris Evans, Kim Carr and Mark Arbib, along with Kate Ellis and Senator Jacinta Collins, are a strong, effective team who will work hard to keep employment and education on track.
The Gillard government is also committed to looking after regional Australia, with Simon Crean leading the way in this area. Tony Burke holds the portfolio of population and sustainability and will ensure that Australia has strategies in place to set a population target and to provide infrastructure for a growing population.
Ministers Nicola Roxon and Jenny Macklin continue the great work they have started in their areas and are supported by the great team of Warren Snowdon, Mark Butler, Kate Ellis, Senator Mark Arbib, Catherine King, Julie Collins and Senator Jan McLucas. Together, they will continue to pursue health and hospital reforms and to deliver family and community services that meet the needs of the most vulnerable Australians. Health reforms are essential to ensure that Australians can access the best possible medical services. For the first time, the Australian government will provide the majority of funding for the public hospital system but local communities will retain control through the local hospital network.
More money is being invested in training medical professionals, including specialists, to reduce waiting times in emergency departments and for elective surgery, as well as making it easier to access a doctor after hours. The government is providing an additional 2½ thousand aged-care places to help deal with the ageing population. Australians suffering from mental illness will receive increased support through additional Headspace services, early intervention practices and more mental health nurses. The government is also giving a new focus to preventative health, including increasing the tobacco excise and a move towards plain packaging for cigarettes. There is also $50 million being invested in the National Binge Drinking Strategy. Welfare reform is another area that we will continue to work hard in. The people of Australia deserve financial support to help them through the tough times they may be going through. We need to do what we can to ensure that their hardships are only temporary.
Kevin Rudd will lead the way as Minister for Foreign Affairs, with Dr Craig Emerson as Minister for Trade. We all know that international relations are complex. That is why we need to have people with talent, skills and diplomacy looking after Australia’s interests on the international scene. Stephen Smith will take over from Senator John Faulkner as Minister for Defence, a very important role, with our troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Gillard government are committed to protecting Australia’s national security. We are committed to making the world a safer place than it is today.
Robert McClelland and Brendan O’Connor will continue the excellent job that they have done as Attorney-General and Minister for Home Affairs respectively. There are others I could mention, but there is a time limit to this speech. It is not possible to discuss all the areas the Gillard government is working in to progress Australia. But rest assured that the Gillard government is a team effort and all members of the team will be working hard. This is one area that separates us from those in the opposition. The people of Australia are not fooled—nor, I would imagine, impressed—by the childish antics of poor losers.
I can only imagine Mr Abbott as a child in the playground, taking his bat and ball and going home when he did not win the toss, or refusing to play ball when he could not get his own way to play on the ground of his choice, wanting to change the rules to suit his own ends and taking no notice of the independent umpire—really bad sportsmanship, Mr Abbott.
It is not only Mr Abbott’s approach to the parliament that makes him a wrecker; it is the policies he would pursue as Prime Minister if he had the opportunity. As soon as Mr Abbott appointed a spokesperson for broadband, Mr Turnbull, his first instructions to him were to ‘demolish’ the National Broadband Network. Maybe he should look at the votes in Tasmania, to see if the people there want the National Broadband Network. Maybe that issue had an impact on the bad result the opposition had in Tasmania. It is quite ironic that the person in the coalition given responsibility for pursuing the development of broadband has actually been instructed to stop the rollout of optic fibre broadband. Prior to the election, Mr Abbott clearly demonstrated that, when it comes to national infrastructure, public services, broadband, trade training centres and GP superclinics, he is defined not by what he proposes but by what he opposes.
Government should proceed on the basis of plans for the future, not plans to tear up infrastructure, axe services and try to take Australia back to the past. Despite Mr Abbott’s plans to destabilise the 43rd Parliament, the government are going to try and make it work, and we have evidence that it can work. The evidence is history. In 1999 and 2002, in Victoria and South Australia respectively, Labor formed successful minority governments with the support of Independents on the key questions of confidence and supply. They put in place working arrangements to negotiate the passage of legislation through their lower houses. Only this year, Tasmanian Labor successfully entered into a minority government arrangement with the Greens and have demonstrated that they can work together.
And what better evidence is there of the workability of such arrangements than the Australian Senate? Since I came into this chamber, we have had to negotiate with the Greens and the two Independents to pass legislation without the support of the opposition. We have already demonstrated through that process that we can work together with the crossbenches. We can discuss legislation with Senator Bob Brown and his colleagues, with Senator Xenophon and with Senator Fielding, and we know how to negotiate and get bills passed. And we in the Senate are used to being conscientious about turning up to every division, even at times when we are sitting at two o’clock in the morning. To my colleagues in the lower house: while some media commentators may tell you that the situation is some new paradigm in Australian politics, all I have to say is: ‘Welcome to our world!’
I know we can move forward with these arrangements in place to pursue a true nation-building agenda. We will pursue health and hospital reforms to take the pressure off waiting lists and give local communities a greater say in the administration of their hospitals through the establishment of local hospital networks.
We will build a national broadband network with fast optic fibre to 93 per cent of businesses and household premises. This network will revolutionise telecommunications and the way we do business and dramatically improve education, health and community care services. It will boost productivity and make Australia the most connected nation on the planet. The NBN has already been rolled out in Tasmania, with customers already signed up to internet service providers for speeds up to 100 times faster than anything they have experienced before.
We have already introduced a paid parental leave scheme, giving working parents the opportunity to spend more time bonding with their newborn children. This scheme will also assist businesses to retain skilled and valuable workers.
We will give Australians a greater share in the wealth extracted from our non-renewable resources through the minerals resource rent tax. These resources are owned by all Australians, and by providing a fairer share of the wealth we can boost Australians’ superannuation savings and offer tax cuts to small businesses.
I look forward to working in the 43rd Parliament with the re-elected Gillard Labor government and pursuing Labor’s strong, aggressive agenda. It will be an interesting and exciting time for all of us. With a dose of goodwill and a spirit of cooperation, I am confident that it will work.