Thank you Mr President. It is a great honour to be here today. Less than two weeks ago, I was a private citizen. 10 days ago I was chosen by my fellow Liberal Party members to fill this casual vacancy. One week ago I was nominated by the Victorian Parliament to take up the role. Yesterday I was sworn in. It has been quite a ride.
I am particularly honoured to be filling the shoes of Senator Michael Ronaldson, who has joined us here tonight. Ronno has been a tireless servant of the Liberal Party for many decades. His parliamentary and ministerial service was distinguished. First as a member of the House of Representatives, then as a Senator and a Minister, Ronno was a model public servant. I am very conscious of his important role as a voice for regional and rural Victorians. He also happens to be a terrific bloke and a class act. I wish him well in his retirement.
Like many in the Liberal Party, I don’t fit the caricature of a Liberal that our political opponents and some in the media like to imagine. I come from a traditionally Labor-voting family of long term union members and I went to public schools. But after many years of debating my parents over the dinner table and stirring my teachers in the classroom, I joined the Liberal Party at age 17 because I passionately believe in Liberal values.
I am a Liberal because I believe that we are most likely to achieve human flourishing if we give people freedom.
I am proud to call myself a classical liberal, because I recognise that we are the custodians of a set of ideas that go back centuries.
We have inherited an incredibly proud intellectual tradition.
Throughout history, liberals have fought for human progress.
It was people who called themselves liberals who helped emancipate slaves, enacted religious freedom, and established the principle that all should be equal before the law.
I have come to this place to fight for the things liberals have long fought for.
For freedom of speech, personal responsibility, federalism and free markets.
Of those, freedom of speech is particularly close to my heart.
It is our most fundamental freedom. Without it, we have no capacity to argue for and defend all our other freedoms.
For me, the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass put it best:
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
We are all diminished when anyone’s freedom of speech is taken away. Even if the law never prevents us from saying things we might want to say, today it certainly prevents us from hearing things which we might want or need to hear. It prevents us from knowing what our fellow citizens believe. It denies us the opportunity to refine our thinking and develop our own ideas. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are inseparable.
For as long as I am in this place, I will stand up for free speech.
Another liberal idea I will stand up for while in this place is the dignity of work.
The economic case for work is clear.
But there is a powerful moral case for work that must be made.
As Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute has persuasively argued, the key to human happiness is earned success.
We know, from study after study, that people who work and provide for themselves are better off on every measure. They are happier, healthier, live longer, and are better connected to their community.
There is nothing more important to someone’s self-esteem than feeling like they are of value to others, and there is no better way to achieve that than through paid employment.
I believe it is our duty to remove every obstacle we can to work. Every intervention we make in the labour market which makes it more difficult to get and keep a job should be avoided at all costs. We must make it as easy and cheap as possible to employ people, so that anyone who wants to work is able to.
The most important reason why we must reform our welfare and industrial relations systems is not that it is good for the budget bottom line or the economy. We must do it because it is good for people.
In recent decades we have seen how liberal ideas can transform people’s lives for the better.
In the last 30 years, more than 680 million people have been lifted out of poverty in China as that nation cautiously and partially embraced liberalism. Many more stand to have their lives transformed if China continues down the path towards economic freedom.
The gap between life expectancy in India and the United Kingdom in 1960 was 30 years. Today it has narrowed to 15. India is booming, because it too is making steady but gradual progress towards free markets.
The World Bank believes the globe is on track to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030, a task that seemed unimaginable only a few decades ago. This process will accelerate if more countries, particularly in Africa, continue to liberalise their economies.
I want to share a potent example of this.
By 2009, Africa’s largely government-controlled telecommunications companies had managed to connect only 4% of Africans to a telephone line.
Just five years later, the largely privately run mobile phone networks were reaching 84%.
This hasn’t just given the people of Africa the capacity to connect with family and friends.
It has also introduced, on a widespread scale, access to the banking system and low-cost finance, which has the potential to unleash entrepreneurship and the durable economic growth that can end poverty as we know it.
I am very pleased to be associated with an Australian charity which is putting these principles into practice. The Human Capital Project uses funds donated by Australians to help Cambodians who cannot afford to attend university. In return, the students agree to pay a proportion of their future earnings back into the program, to be reinvested in future students. It resembles a completely private HECS system.
One day, it may even be self-sustaining. In the meantime, it is proving that free markets and civil society can combat poverty without government.
The remarkable gains in living standards we have witnessed in recent years have occurred thanks to liberal institutions, such as property rights, the rule of law, and free trade.
As my friend Daniel Hannan compellingly argues in his book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, it is these institutions which separate the west from the rest.
Australia is a free and prosperous nation because we have long respected these institutions.
But there is nothing inevitable about this.
If we want to maintain our unique way of life, we must pass these values on to the next generation.
As much as possible, the education system should facilitate this. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to choose a school which reflects their worldview and will teach it to their children.
One of the reasons for this is the National Curriculum. I must confess I am not a fan of the National Curriculum on many grounds. I don’t like centralising policy in Canberra. I don’t think that removing our ability to compare competing state curriculums is a good thing. I don’t think the best educational outcomes will arise from a one-size fits all product.
But I also believe that our current National Curriculum is unbalanced and skewed towards a left of centre world view, although I do acknowledge the government’s efforts to improve it.
I’m particularly concerned that the cross curriculum priorities, which are to be taught in all subjects, are more aligned with progressive values than liberal or conservative ones.
Those cross curriculum priorities are:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures
- Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia
These are all worthy areas of study. But here are some alternative cross curriculum priorities which I believe are equally worthy, and may have been included if the original authors of the curriculum came from the other side of the political fence. For example:
- The importance of the free enterprise system to a prosperous country
- How to secure paid employment and why the dignity of work leads to a happy life
- The British heritage of our political institutions and our unique democratic freedoms
I don’t outline these ideas to suggest that the curriculum should be rewritten to reflect my personal views, although the annual Lowy Institute poll which has repeatedly found that only a minority of young Australians believe democracy is the best system of government indicates it might not be a bad idea.
If the Coalition rewrites the curriculum to reflect our values each time we win office, and Labor does the same, we’ll be no better off and students will suffer.
Instead, I believe parents are best placed to choose what they think is most important for their children to learn.
Accordingly, I propose that instead of one National Curriculum, the federal government should licence multiple competing private curricula, with a set of basic minimum standards. This will not only allow schools and parents to select a curriculum which reflects their values, but would also open up the school system to much more diversity, specialisation and choice.
It was through educational entrepreneurship and experimentation that the charter school movement in the United States discovered that one of the keys to closing the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students was longer school hours. This would never have been possible in a regulated public system. It was only through testing alternative methods of teaching that it was discovered. I believe our national curriculum should facilitate the same competition.
I am a strong supporter of the state of Israel. I admire greatly what they have built in just a few short years.
Today, Israel stands not just as a beacon of liberal democracy in a sea of despotism in its own region, but a shining example to the world of how to build a prosperous, tolerant, harmonious and creative country in the toughest of circumstances.
I am proud of the generally bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed from successive Australian governments. But I think we can do more to demonstrate our solidarity.
Like many nations, Australia has chosen to locate our embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is not Israel’s capital city. Jerusalem is.
Every nation deserves the right to choose its own capital city. Since 1950 Israel has asserted it is Jerusalem. Since 1967 it has administered the entire city. The Israeli government have demonstrated time and time again that they are the best custodians for the religious and historical sites that are of significance to people of many faiths.
I don’t believe that the international community can continue to refuse to recognise their capital city of choice and the clear reality on the ground.
It would be a symbolic, but important step for Australia to formally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and to move our embassy there.
I am very aware that – whether they like it or not – I will be seen by many as a representative of my generation.
One issue I intend to take up on their behalf is the inequity of intergenerational debt.
On all current trajectories, it is my generation which will be left with the task of repaying the debt accrued by this one.
In November, gross federal government debt passed $400 billion for the first time. Taxpayers are now paying well over $1 billion in interest payments each month.
There’s no more sobering exercise for a young person – if they are looking for one – than to read successive intergenerational reports while contemplating these figures. Not only will we be paying back this debt, but we’ll be doing so in an economy with a rapidly declining ratio of workers to non-workers.
Clearly, this is not going to be solved overnight. Nor is there a silver bullet.
But I’d like to propose one modest measure which may help – the reintroduction of a Commonwealth debt ceiling.
It was, ironically, a policy introduced under Wayne Swan as Treasurer. It was abolished in 2013.
The debt ceiling required the government of the day to seek approval from the Parliament to increase Commonwealth borrowings.
As a matter of principle I think it is a good one. Default settings can be powerful. Right now, our default setting is to increase debt with no end in sight. In my view, the default setting should instead be to cap Commonwealth debt unless the government of the day can justify an increase.
Anyone who gets here, particularly at my age, has had a lot of help along the way.
I’ve been privileged to have two wonderful professional mentors, both of whom are here tonight. The first is my new colleague and former boss, Senator Fifield. I twisted his arm at the ripe old age of 19 to hire me in his office. What I didn’t know I made up for in overconfidence! The courage, conviction and political judgement he showed in 2009 during the emissions trading scheme debate is a standard I will always strive to meet.
The other is John Roskam, for more than a decade now the visionary Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs. Since 1943, the IPA has played a major role in Australian public life. But under John’s leadership it has become a powerhouse of ideas, and the first line of defence for the liberties sadly taken for granted by many in this place. From him I have learnt the indispensable role of values in political life and the importance of bold policy ambition.
Honourable Senators will be pleased to know that their former colleague and IPA Chairman Rod Kemp is well. He would be here tonight if he wasn’t in France with the lovely Daniele.
The Kemp family, including Rod’s brother David, and their father C.D., have contributed much more than their fair share to public policy in this country, and we are better for it.
Through John and Rod I want to thank all my former colleagues at the IPA for their support and friendship over the past five years. I look forward to them holding me to account as I have done to others in this place. I’m pleased to be joining what I hope is a growing IPA alumni network in parliament, including my friends the Speaker Tony Smith and Senator Ryan.
Many are cynical about the sorts of friendships one can forge in politics. But my experience, so far at least, contradicts that view. I have been blessed with many strong friendships thanks to my involvement in the Liberal Party, particularly in my time as a Liberal Student and Young Liberal. I have many friends here tonight, and some who couldn’t be, who have not just been good companions over the years, but who worked very hard to see me take this place in the Senate.
They include Aaron Lane, Jess Wilson, Gideon Rozner, Simon Breheny, Luke Tobin, Byron Hodkinson, John Shipp, Annabel Clunies-Ross, Rohan D’Souza, Julian Barendse, Christopher Koch, Georgia Letten, Brendan and Sara Rowswell, Yoni Cukierman, John Osborn, Andrew and Steph Campbell, Evan Mulholland, Adam McKee, Max Williams, and Matthew Lesh.
I am very optimistic about the future of the Liberal Party because this energetic, talented generation of Liberals are now ready to step up to make their contribution to public life.
One of the most admirable things about the Liberal Party is its volunteer nature. There are thousands of Australians who contribute their time and energy to the Party for no reward and often little recognition, simply because they believe in Liberal values.
I know that I am a beneficiary of their selflessness, so I particularly want to thank those that have supported me on this journey, including Norma Wells, Bev McArthur, Noel Pink, David Wood, Cathy Finn, Andrew Ronalds, Noni Bartlett and Patti Sandars.
Of course, I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to my family, especially my parents Murray and Julie. Although they don’t share my politics, they’ve been remarkably tolerant, and maybe even a little bit proud, of my political endeavours. I’m holding out hope that I can at least persuade them to vote for me below the line! They instilled in me a great sense of self-belief and supported me every step of the way.
To my equally passionate and much more philosophically-sound brother Alexander, good luck for your wedding on Saturday to the lovely Ali.
My number one co-conspirator in all of this though has been my amazing wife Lydia. She is, and will always be, the first and last person I turn to for advice. Over the past few months she has balanced supporting me with growing her new, agile and innovative start up business. My greatest achievement is undoubtedly persuading her to marry me. To the Bevege family – thank you for raising such a remarkable person and welcoming me into the clan.
Tonight I have laid down the markers by which I will one day judge my own contribution. I hope that I can live up to them. If I am ever lost for direction I’ll remind myself of President Calvin Coolidge’s measure of his own time in office:
“Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”
I thank the Senate for the courtesy it has extended me this evening.