It is hard to believe that it is 18 years since I entered the Senate. The time has passed so quickly because the journey has been so interesting. While I had been a member of the Liberal Party since my days at UWA, where I was president of the university Liberal Club and supported Liberal Party philosophies and policies in general, my immediate motivation for seeking endorsement as a senator was to give the people and industries of the north-west a voice in the federal parliament.
During the time I have been in Canberra my judgement has always been, as it was then and still is, that the importance of the north-west to the Australian economy is enormous. In 1986 in my maiden speech I said that the Pilbara mining industry contributed some 10 per cent of Australia's export income in merchandise exports. That percentage has grown enormously, with record tonnages of iron ore being exported to China, not to mention great volumes of LNG, salt and other products being exported to other destinations, meaning the Pilbara now accounts for a much greater percentage of Australia's export mining income—in fact, something like 36 per cent of it. There is in fact no other manufacturing complex in Australia to equal the Pilbara but, like much of northern Australia, there is a need for improved development to achieve its full potential, including, I believe, secondary processing.
As I said in my maiden speech, concern was being expressed at the time—this was back in 1996—even by Sir Charles Court, the father of the Pilbara, that Australia was becoming no more than a quarry for the steel mills of Asia. He had a great vision—he once told me off for saying it was a dream—that there should be a jumbo steel mill in the Pilbara. Various factors mitigated against that at the time, such as poor industrial relations, the cost of labour and the cost of power, but not so long ago I visited the port of Pohang in South Korea, where a U-shaped port is to be found. The ships from the Pilbara come into one side, where the iron ore is taken to a blast furnace at the bottom of the harbour and converted to steel, which is then put through a rolling mill on the other side of the harbour before being taken to ships and exported to the world. Why, I ask, couldn't that be done in the Pilbara?
At the last federal election, the strongly supported coalition policy promises for the north included a commitment to produce a coordinated plan for the development of the area north of the 26th parallel—or roughly an area one-third the size of Australia. Following the 2013 election a joint select committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate was established to produce a white paper for northern development. I was very pleased to be made a member of that select committee, along with my colleague Ian Macdonald, who is here tonight and has come to the meetings. We have had many hearings across the north of Australia.
In the 1980s the governments of WA under Sir Charles Court, Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and the Northern Territory set up an organisation called the North Australia Development Council, or NADC, which held conferences annually in a different city in Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory. While there were many innovative plans presented for the development of the north to these conferences, regrettably, few were implemented. However, I believe that under the Abbott government there is a commitment to implement the development of the north, which will see the recommendations of the final white paper put into reality over 15 years as Tony Abbott has promised.
The committee is planning ways to improve infrastructure in northern Australia, with a particular focus on improving roads and communications both north-south and, more importantly, east-west. It is also focussing on promoting the concept of irrigated agriculture so that the north of Australia can become a food bowl for Asia, with a specific focus on the ASEAN group of countries to the south of China.
There is, I have to say, also a need for increased defence presence in the north to protect, particularly, the Pilbara and Kimberley coasts given the enormous level of investment in oil and gas along those coastlines. This is because of the closeness of Asia, where terrorist threats may arise, and the north-west coast, as I have said, has literally billions of dollars invested in ports and facilities for the iron ore and oil and gas industries. In the recent past an Asian fishing board came and tied up under an oil rig, which might well have been a very sad example of what we are talking about in terms of ease of access for tourists had it contained explosives. But, of course, it did not. I am hopeful that the defence needs of the north will be given greater attention, and I am sure Ian Macdonald will continue to push that issue, as he does and many others to do with the north.
The Senate, as has been said, is a house of review—a function it carries out through its eight committees. During my time in the Senate, I have been chair of three of these committees; namely, the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee, the Senate Economics Committee, and more recently the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. The ECITA committee dealt with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the sale of Telstra, the cross-media ownership pact and many other pieces of legislation.
All of these committees were very busy during my tenure on them, with the Economics Committee producing some 98 reports during the first year I was the chair. This worked out at almost two reports a week. When I look back on it, it seems incredible that that level of work occurred. In fact, I think Doug Cameron was a member of that committee during that time. This was during the years of 2007 to 2010, when there was much discussion about climate change and the need for a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme. Later, the same committee dealt with the ALP's mining tax proposal as well as the carbon tax, all of which took a lot of time and effort.
As has been said, in some ways, committees are the backbone of the work of the Senate. The secretaries of these committees and their staff carry an enormous workload, with the skills and knowledge they bring adding enormously to the roles we play. I particularly wish to pay thanks to the secretaries of the three committees I have chaired: Jacqui Dewar, Ian Holland, John Hawkins, Kathleen Dermody and David Sullivan. I must say, I really enjoyed the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, as I have a long interest in Australia's relationship with Asia—as well as a degree from Murdoch University in politics and international studies, which was largely focused on Asia. I have been offered a post at Murdoch post-Senate—so, naturally, I have to give them some mention.
Estimates are one of the burdens in the life of senators. When I came into the Senate in 1996, there was no specified adjournment time for estimates, which therefore meant that it went into the wee, small hours of the morning. In my first estimates, the hearings dragged on to 5 am and I fell asleep, gently snoring into the microphone. Alan Ramsey, who Laura Tingle would know quite closely, wrote this up in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald saying how preposterous such late sittings were—and, after that, estimates finished at the more civilised time of 11 pm.
As a member of several Asia related business organisations for a long time, I have been a strong supporter of developing stronger links between WA, Australia and the Asian countries directly to our north. The growing middle-class population in these countries provides a huge market for Australian businesses, and I think that, if we do not exploit the advantages that closeness gives us, others will. When I first came to Canberra, I was struck by the absence of such Asia awareness among my colleagues. Of course, this has now changed with the growth of our trade with Asia and with free trade agreements with Japan, China and Korea as well as strong trading relationships with countries such as Indonesia, which is predicted to be one of the boom economies of the coming decades. I think it is a very healthy thing that members of the federal parliament are showing an increased interest in Asia. After all, this is the region that we live in and it is the region we have to interact with.
The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee recently conducted an 18-month inquiry into the potential benefits to Australia from developing closer ties with the 35 countries which compose the Indian Ocean Rim and which have a growing middle-class population from East Africa to India. I believe the potential economic and other benefits from developing closer ties across the Indian Ocean are enormous. That whole concept is somewhere where our relationship with Asia used to be about 20 years ago. As some may be aware, there is an Indian Ocean Rim Association, with headquarters in Mauritius. Australia will be the chair of this association for the coming two years. I am certain this will lead to great opportunities in the future, as I am convinced that, in time, the Indian Ocean Rim will provide an important addition and benefit to the Australian economy, especially through trade and service opportunities with India and East Africa as well as the Gulf States.
Having been a medical practitioner in Port Hedland for some 22 years, regional health services has been an important interest of mine. This includes improving health services to Indigenous people. I have greatly admired the commitment of the minerals industry to train young Aboriginals in apprenticeships and other job skills. I congratulate the Minerals Council of Australia for promoting this concept, as I believe the key to the door to the world for Aboriginal people lies in education and job skill training.
Before I went to the Pilbara, I had never had any contact with Aboriginal people, But, working in the Port Hedland hospital, I did inevitably interact with Aboriginal people and was invited to one of their quarterly bush meetings. This one was held on the banks of the Coongan River, near Marble Bar. There were about 1,000 Aborigines at the meeting, which was held in a glade under the trees. The head Aboriginal of the Pilbara, an imposing figure with a stetson over his long flowing white hair, was seated at a table in the centre with his advisers from Canberra and Perth on either side. There was no formal agenda. Anyone could speak, and it became apparent that the issues concerning these people were the needs for better housing, better health services, job skill education and having something done about, as they called it, the grog problem. There was not a mention of land rights, which was then what the political activists of the day told us was the burning issue. There is a message in that.
That bush meeting was in 1974 and, in many ways, the needs of remote Aboriginals in remote communities remain the same today. Australia must, in my view, commit itself to overcoming Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage so that our Indigenous people can be part of the mainstream Australian family. Jobs not welfare are the solution to the social and economic problems of Aboriginal people.
While in the Senate I have had the privilege of representing Australia at various international conferences, particularly in the Asian region, and in 2010 was attached to the Australian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly for three months, which was a very rewarding experience. My greatest political concern in recent years has been the trend towards centralisation in government, undermining the federalist concepts which are the basis of our Constitution. I support federalism because it provides for a balance and diffusion of power between the Commonwealth government and the state governments, which I believe is important in a country as large and diverse as Australia. I do not subscribe to the view that Canberra knows best and believe that, while there may be a need for some more uniformity across our country in some matters, such changes should be achieved by cooperative negotiation, not imposed by a federal government misusing its power over funding to compel the states to comply with Canberra's dictates.
While as senators we all come here with views consistent with our political philosophies, one organisation I have always taken inspiration from is the Institute of Public Affairs. I have a very high regard for the IPA, as it is known, and over the years have used their publications as the basis for speeches I have given. I can see Doug Cameron shaking his head. In fact, those comments were perhaps a little directed at you, Doughie. I acknowledge former Senator Rod Kemp, director of the IPA, and believe he is doing a very good job. He was going to be here tonight but rang me this afternoon and said he could not make it, unfortunately. No doubt I will see him the weekend after next in Melbourne.
While the Senate is a fairly serious place at times, at other times there are increments of humour. One such humorous event occurred after I had been in the Senate for a couple of months and a spill-over sitting was arranged for a Friday morning when a bill for the sale of Telstra was to be discussed. At that time votes were finely balanced and one vote would have made the difference to the outcome. I was not aware that the Senate would begin sitting at 9 am that Friday morning, not at the usual 9.30 am start on sitting days. I had a hire car and got rather lost in the roads around Parliament House, so I arrived late, after the sitting had begun. As I drove into the car park, one of the whip's staff ordered me to stop and stood in the middle of the road with his hands up. 'Get out of the car and run to the lift!' I was told. The lift was being held for me. This I did. When I reached the entrance to the Senate, the chamber door was gently closed in my face by the attendant concerned so that I could not vote. I sat in the alcove watching the Senate on television and, surprisingly, the government won the vote although I was absent.
The whip, then WA Senator John Panizza, appeared and told me he had got a pair for me at the last moment, so there was no need for me to have voted and then, like an angry headmaster, ordered me into his office to have a talk. Once inside the office, Senator Panizza said, 'We have to make this look good. You have to stay here for half an hour.' Then he asked me, 'What should we talk about?' I replied that whatever subject he wanted to talk about was fine with me. So he said, 'Well, I understand the Chicken World franchise in South Hedland is up for sale. Do you think I should buy it?' Not being an expert in such things I said I would prefer to leave it to him.
I must say the members of the federal parliament are a mixed group of people with varied backgrounds. In my experience, those who enter parliament and the profession of politics do so with a genuine commitment to making Australia a better place and, while there are many people I have greatly admired in the parliament and in politics, I would like to make mention of the following; firstly, John Howard, OM, AC, who had a very good instinctive feel for the opinions of the average Australian; secondly, the Hon. Peter Costello, AC, who did a brilliant job as Treasurer in eliminating the debt left by the Keating government. Costello also showed great vision in setting up the Future Fund and in understanding that the so-called 'greying of Australia' was a real phenomenon which would mean the demands of the increasingly large population over 65 would require Australia to improve funding for retirees and to provide many more services. I thought that showed great insight at the time. Today we have a situation where something like 25 per cent of our population is aged over 65 and, as in Japan and in other countries, it is steadily rising, so that indeed Peter Costello was quite correct in his assessment.
Another person I greatly admired was Senator the Hon. Robert Hill who, I thought, constantly demonstrated a very quick and insightful political mind in leading the Senate, as well as wry sense of humour. He also demonstrated the love of a good red, which is shared, I believe, by Senator Ian Macdonald, a fellow northerner, whose contributions on the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia and in general I greatly respect.
Another person I greatly admired and admire still is, of course, Senator the Hon. Ron Boswell, who has been one of the great characters of the Senate in my time here and always kept the interests of people living in regional Australia before the government and the Senate. Senator Boswell's office was next to mine and he often dropped in for a chat
I was the only Liberal invited to the Nationals' Christmas seafood barbecue in the courtyard outside our offices, and, while Boswell assured me that it was an indication of the high esteem in which I was held by the National Party, I rather suspected somehow it had something to do with using my fridge to preserve the seafood. Boz has always made a point of respectfully calling me 'Doctor', and telling me that if I would just join the National Party he would make me their health spokesman, and he often seemed quite puzzled as to why I didn't accept this offer. But of course the National Party vote in WA is not as large as it is in Queensland, and I was very comfortably housed in the Liberal Party. Boz would often also drop in for various medical prescriptions and tell anyone within hearing range that I was a price gouger, although I have to say on the record that he was never charged once, in 18 years. Ron is a lovely man, and I wish him well in the future, but he will have to get accustomed to actually paying his doctor.
Other people I have admired in the Senate were the late Senator Brian Harradine of Tasmania, who made sure that Tasmania benefited from him holding the balance of power, and amused me by his habit of not revealing which way he would vote on an issue until the last 20 seconds or 30 seconds of his speech, so the whips and everybody else waited in suspense to see which way Harradine would vote because that would determine the outcome.
Senator the Hon. Rod Kemp, who I have mentioned already, was another person who I greatly respected. Senator Kemp was proud to have never given straight answers to any questions in question time—
A government senator: Only on GST questions.
Senator EGGLESTON: on the GST, in case he was caught out as John Hewson was in the birthday cake episode in Sydney. He rang me tonight, and he said that I should remind both Senator Wong and Senator Conroy that he showed them the pathway in the correct conduct of question time, and that was always to be vague.
Another person I greatly admired was the Hon. Alexander Downer, who I admired for his great knowledge of foreign affairs and commitment to his principles.
Senator Fred Chaney, who actually signed me up into the Liberal Party on Orientation Day at UWA when I was a freshman, is also a person who I have greatly admired over the years, and I was very pleased to see that he was made the Senior Australian of the Year 2014. Even as a student, Fred Chaney sought to improve the lot of Indigenous people and thought that the way to make Indigenous people and their problems important to politicians was to give them voting rights—a quite radical thought at that time. Through his efforts in the UWA Liberal Club in 1962, the Western Australian coalition government, after a series of seminars that were held at UWA, agreed to legislate to give Indigenous people in Western Australia the option to enrol to vote, some five years ahead of the 1967 federal referendum—a rather little-known snippet of history, I think, and a very interesting one.
Sir Charles Court was someone I greatly admired and respected when I was a student. Sir Charles would regularly speak to the university's Liberal Club lunchtime meetings about his vision for the Pilbara. He predicted that, within a decade, the Pilbara would have huge mines, some of the world's biggest railways, and huge new ports on the coast to export iron ore, all of which of course has come to pass. One of Sir Charles Court's favourite words was 'mighty', and I thought it applied most appropriately to him, because, without his mighty vision, the Pilbara and the north would not be what they are today.
I would like to record my appreciation to those people who were my colleagues in the Liberal Party in the north of Western Australia during the time I was involved in what was known as the Kalgoorlie North Division, particularly Greg Kneale, who was an outstanding president of the 'powerful Kalgoorlie North Division', as he liked to call it, having cobbled together a coalition of country divisions which had great influence, shall we say, at state conferences in Western Australia; Robin Vandenberg and Bob Brooks, then from the inland Pilbara; Peter Murray from Broome; Elsia Archer from Derby; Peter Kneebone, also from Derby; Jamie Savage from Halls Creek; and Keith Wright and Alma Pethwick from Kununurra, as well as Maxine Middap from Wyndham and also Gordon Thomson, who is the current president of the Durack division. In what is now called the Durack division, I thank all the members, in particular Jenny Bloom and Tony Proctor in Broome. In general terms, most of the people in that division are long-term north-westerners and in local government, and, accordingly, have a very practical perspective on north-west issues and a great belief in the future of the north, which has certainly been vindicated.
Having been a whip, I also want to express my appreciation of the work that the Clerk of the Senate, Rosemary Laing, and her staff do every day to make this house run smoothly as it does. So I thank you. And I echo the President's comments on the legendary Anne Lynch, who I will long remember rushing down the corridors; she used to always wear a black academic gown, and it would billow behind her like a set of wings or sails, and it was very memorable.
To my nephews Seth and Toby, who are in the audience tonight, thank you very much. And to my extended family in general: I thank you for your great support.
To my staff over the years—some of whom are in the gallery—in particular—though these people are not necessarily in the gallery—Joy West, Michelle Phillips, Bob Wallace, Deanne Rosetta and Deanne Ford, and to my current staff, I extend my sincere thanks for their hard work and dedication. I thank Lara Swift, who joined my office last year, and Danny Pagoda, my research officer, who oversaw some 10 estimates for the two committees I chaired during his time with us, and I must say that his professionalism and attention to detail has been much appreciated. Finally, I thank Michelle Lewis, my PA for the last nine years, who has managed my diary, my office and, to an alarming extent, my life, and I thank her very much for all she has done.
During the time I have been in the Senate I have always sought to promote the interests of Western Australia in the Federation and I am very proud of having been able to ensure that WA has had a voice on issues of great importance to our state. While I chose not to recontest the last Senate preselection, nevertheless it is with some regret that I am leaving, because of course the federal parliament is the heart of Australian politics and an individual can make a difference in contributing ideas to the formulation of policy. I suppose one must ask am I satisfied with what I have done here, and I must say that, while it has always been enjoyable and interesting, and I do feel that I have been fulfilled in many ways, I would have liked to have perhaps had a little more direct influence on the way policy is developed.
The Senate, if I might say so, does play a vital role as a house of review in the democratic process in Australia, which is carried out largely through the Senate committee system. I believe that role should never be underestimated and I hope it will be continued and respected long into the future.
In conclusion, I consider it to have been a great honour and privilege to have represented Western Australia in the federal parliament and to have been one of the surprisingly small number of people in the Australian population who have had this great honour of serving in the Senate. I thank the West Australian Liberal Party for giving me this privilege.
Honourable senators: Hear, hear!