First Speech - House of Representatives - Monday, October 18th

It is hard to imagine a greater honour than to represent your friends and neighbours in our national parliament. Each of us brings to this place the hopes and dreams of the people who chose us. I am keenly aware of both the incredible opportunity the people of Fraser have bestowed on me and the very great responsibility to them which that opportunity entails.

Let me begin by telling you about my electorate of Fraser and the city of Canberra in which it lies. Fraser rests on the right bank of the Molonglo River, stretching north from the office blocks of Civic to the young suburbs of Bonner and Forde in the ACT’s northernmost tip. Because the leaders at the time decided that a capital city must have its own port, the electorate of Fraser also includes the Jervis Bay territory, which is home to a diverse community and a school where kangaroos graze on an oval overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In the electorate of Fraser some locations carry the names given to them by the traditional Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, who used what is now modern-day Canberra to hold their corroborees and feast on bogong moths. Other suburbs are named after Australia’s great political leaders. For the people of Canberra, a nation’s proud history is embodied in our local geography.

Thanks to far-sighted decisions by generations of planners, Canberra’s hills are largely undeveloped. This means that many residents have the pleasure of looking up from a suburban street to see a hill covered in gum trees. From the Pinnacles to Mount Majura and from the Aranda bushlands to Black Mountain our city’s natural environment offers ample opportunities to exercise the body and to soothe the soul.

Economists like me are trained to believe in markets as the best route to environmental protection, and I do. But I also know that smart policy will only succeed if there is a will for action, if we believe in our hearts that we cannot enjoy the good life without a healthy planet.

As vital as our natural environment is, so are the social ties that bind us together. In an era when Australians are becoming disconnected from one another, Canberra has some of the highest rates of civic engagement in the nation. Canberrans are more generous with our time and money, are more likely to play sport with our mates and are more inclined to participate in cultural activities. Part of the reason for this is that we spend less time in the car than most other Australians, but I suspect it also has something to do with the design of Canberra’s suburbs.

During my time in this parliament I will strive to strengthen community life, not only in Canberra but across Australia. In doing so I hope to follow in the footsteps of my grandparents, who were people of modest means who believed that a life of serving others was a life well lived. My paternal grandfather, Keith Leigh, was a Methodist minister who died of hypothermia while running up Mount Wellington in Hobart. It was October and the mountain was covered in snow, as it is today. Keith was 59 years old and was doing the run to raise money for overseas aid.

My mother’s parents were a boilermaker and a teacher who lived by the credo that if there was a spare room in the house it should be used by someone who needed the space. As a child I remember eating at their home with Indigenous families and new migrants from Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. That early experience informs my lifelong passion for Australia’s multiculturalism. With a quarter of our population born overseas, Australia has a long tradition of welcoming new migrants into our midst. Earlier this year I attended a prize-giving ceremony for an art competition run as part of Refugee Week. First prize went to a Karen-Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. Because she did not have a proper loom the woman had taken the mattress off her bed and fashioned a loom from her pine bed base. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the courage and spirit of Australia’s migrants.

Near my home in Hackett, the local cafe is run by the three sons of James Savoulidis, a Greek entrepreneur who in 1966 opened the first pizzeria in Canberra and taught Gough Whitlam to dance the zorba a few years later. Elsewhere in the Fraser electorate you can enjoy Ethiopian in Dickson, Indian in Gungahlin, Chinese in Campbell, Vietnamese in O’Connor or Turkish in Jamison. Canberrans who are called to worship can choose among their local church, temple, synagogue or mosque. And yet I have never heard a murmur from my religious friends about the fact that the local ABC radio station broadcasts on the frequency 666.

My views on diversity and difference were also shaped by spending several years of my childhood in Malaysia and Indonesia. Sitting in my primary school in Banda Aceh I learned what it feels like to be the only person in the room with white skin. As I moved through seven different primary schools I got a sense of how it feels to be an outsider and the importance of making our institutions as inclusive as possible.

Clearly the experience did not scar me too much, because at 38 I have spent more than half my life in formal education. Sitting in Judith Anderson’s high school English class, I learned to treasure the insights into the human condition that come from the great storytellers—the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, George Orwell and Les Murray, Leo Tolstoy and Tim Winton. Studying law, I learned that open government, judicial independence and equal justice are principles worth fighting for. Picking my way through the snowdrifts to attend Harvard seminars with Christopher Jencks, I came to appreciate the importance of rigorously testing your ideas and the power of tools such as randomised policy trials, a topic about which members can be assured I will speak more during my time in this place.

In the decades ahead, education will be the mainspring of Australia’s economic success. Great child care, schools, technical colleges and universities are the most effective way to raise productivity and living standards. Improving education is also smart social policy. First-rate schooling is the best antipoverty vaccine we have yet developed. Great teachers can light a spark of vitality in children—a self-belief and a passion for hard work that will burn bright for the rest of their lives.

As an economist, much of my research has been devoted to the vast challenges of reducing poverty and disadvantage. I believe that rising inequality strains the social fabric. Too much inequality cleaves us one from another: occupying different suburbs, using different services and losing a sense of shared purpose. Anyone who believes in egalitarianism as the animating spirit for the Australian settlement should recoil at this vision of our future.

My research has also taught me that good intentions are not enough. As a professor turned politician, one of my role models is the late, great US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan was innately sceptical about every social policy solution presented to him. Indeed, his starting point was to expect that any given social policy would have no measurable effect. But these high standards did not make him any less of an idealist, and Moynihan never lost his optimism and passion. What we need in Australian policy today is not more ideologues convinced that their prescriptions are the answer but modest reformers willing to try new solutions and discover whether they actually deliver results.

This spirit of optimistic experimentation has deep roots in our nation. Manning Clark once said that Australia was an experiment for the multiple faiths of the Holy Spirit, the Enlightenment and a new Britannia. So you get the sense that in these early days the Australian project was one of expansiveness, enlargement and possibility, where people were prepared to take risks and try new ideas in an effort to show that in Australia we did things differently and better than anywhere else around the world.

This Australian project is not finished. It is not something that stopped with the end of the First World War or with the death of Ben Chifley. All of us, as today’s Australians, are the custodians of this project,  a project that stretches back over generations and centuries and binds all Australians—past, present and future—together in this greater cause. It is like the red sand that Gough Whitlam poured into the hands of the great Gurindji elder, Vincent Lingiari, who declared: ‘We are all mates now.’ We have a responsibility to make sure that the Australian project, for the time that it rests in our hands, is advanced and continued.

To me, the Australian project is about encouraging economic growth while ensuring that its benefits are shared across the community. It is about making sure that all Australians have great public services regardless of ethnicity, income or postcode. And it is about recognising that governments have a role in expanding opportunities, because no child gets to choose the circumstances of their birth.

Internationally, the Australian project will always be one of principled engagement. Australia’s influence overseas will always rely on the power of our values. A respect for universal human rights and a passion for raising living standards should guide the work of our military and our diplomats, our aid workers and our trade negotiators. In the shadows of World War II, Australia helped create the United Nations, guided by a belief that all countries had to be involved if we were to create a more peaceful and prosperous world. That ideal must continue to inform how we engage with the rest of the world.

Another important part of the Australian project has been democratic innovation. What we call a secret ballot is elsewhere termed the Australian ballot. We introduced female suffrage a generation before many other nations did. We made voting compulsory, recognising that with rights come responsibilities. Yet, for all this innovation, Australians have increasingly become disenchanted with their elected representatives. The problem has many sources: the rowdiness of question time, too much focus by the commentariat on tactics rather than ideas, and a tendency to oversimplify problems and oversell solutions. I hope to help rebuild a sense of trust between citizens and politicians. It starts with respect and a recognition that we can disagree without being disagreeable. Working as an associate to Justice Michael Kirby taught me that intellect and compassion together are a powerful force for change. Admit that most choices are tough, listen to others, be flexible and remember that the fire in your belly does not prevent you from wearing a smile on your face.

Australian politics is not a war between good parties and evil parties. At its best, it is a contest of ideas between decent people who are committed to representing their local communities. I am happy to count among my friends people on both sides of this House. I am sure some of those friends will be happy to know that I do not plan to name them today. That said, choosing between the parties has never been an issue for me. I was born in the year when Gough Whitlam won office. When my mother’s pregnancy reached the nine-month mark she pinned an ‘It’s time’ badge onto the part of her shirt that covered her belly.

It is a true honour to serve as a Labor representative today alongside so many capable and talented individuals. Thank you to those who have given me advice already. There is much more I have to learn from each of you. In the Labor pantheon the parliamentarians I most admire are those who have recognised that new challenges demand fresh responses. Among these I count John Curtin and Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Button, Lindsay Tanner and Gareth Evans. For each of these men their ideals and values were their guiding light yet their proposals were as flexible and innovative as the situation demanded.

I also had the privilege to work briefly as trade adviser to the late Senator Peter Cook. Peter was an instinctive internationalist as keen to chat with a visiting Chinese delegation as to swap stories with the Argentinean ambassador. He believed in ideas, enthusiastically working to persuade colleagues that anyone who cared about poverty should believe in free trade. Peter passed away in 2005—far too early. I wish he were with us today.

I also count among my role models two former members for Fraser. As a 16-year-old, I came to Canberra to volunteer for John Langmore and was struck by the depth of his principles and the breadth of his knowledge. Never did I imagine that one day I would succeed him. My immediate predecessor is Bob McMullan. Over two decades in federal parliament the people of the ACT supported Bob for being a superb parliamentarian and because they were proud to have on their home turf a true statesman who embodied every day the best of what politics can be. I acknowledge Bob and all those elected by the people of Fraser before him. Their service has set a high bar.

As elected representatives one of our most important jobs is to speak out on behalf of those who struggle to have their voices heard. The Labor Party has a proud tradition of defending individual liberties. Past Labor governments outlawed discrimination on the basis of gender or race. This Labor government has removed from the statute books much of the explicit discrimination against same-sex couples and strengthened disability discrimination laws. And all Labor governments strive to protect the rights of workers to bargain collectively for better pay and conditions. Our party also stands firmly committed to democratic reform, including the simple yet powerful notion that every Australian child should be able to aspire to be our head of state.

The Labor Party today stands at the confluence of two powerful rivers in Australian politics. We are the party that believes in egalitarianism—that a child from Aurukun can become a High Court Justice and that a mine worker should get the same medical treatment as the bloke who owns the mine. But what is sometimes overlooked is that we are also the party that believes in liberalism—that governments have a role in protecting the rights of minorities, that freedom of speech applies for unpopular ideas as for popular ones and that all of us stand equal beneath the Southern Cross. The modern Labor Party is the true heir to the small-L liberal tradition in Australia.

Alfred Deakin was one of the earliest Australian leaders to make the distinction between liberals and conservatives. Deakin argued that liberalism meant the destruction of class privileges, equality of political rights without reference to creed and equality of legal rights without reference to wealth. Liberalism, Deakin said, meant a government that acted in the interests of the majority, with particular regard to the poorest in the community.

As for conservatives, to quote Deakin’s description of his opponents, they are:

… a party less easy to describe or define, because, as a rule it has no positive programme of its own, adopting instead an attitude of denial and negation This mixed body, which may fairly be termed the party of anti-liberalism, justifies its existence, not by proposing its own solution of problems, but by politically blocking all proposals of a progressive character, and putting the brakes on those it cannot block.

A century on, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Deakin were in this parliament today he and his brand of progressive liberalism would find a natural home in the Australian Labor Party—and, given the numbers in today’s parliament, I am sure my colleagues would welcome his vote!

For my own part, I would not be here without the support of the Australian Labor Party—Australia’s oldest and greatest political party —and the broader trade union movement. Ours is a party that believes in the power of collective action. When the goal is just and we are one, our movement and our party are unstoppable.

On a more personal level, I would also not be here without the bevy of volunteers who doorknocked, staffed street stalls and handed out on polling day. Let me thank all of those who worked with me on this campaign and gave up vast amounts of their time for a cause greater than any of us. Thank you also to my staff, who make me proud to walk into the office each day. I am deeply touched that so many friends, staff and supporters are here in the galleries to share this special day with me.

Let me also acknowledge and express my love for my parents, Barbara and Michael, who instilled in my brother Timothy and me the simple values that guide us today: be curious. Help others. Laugh often. I hope that I can be as good a parent to my two sons, Sebastian and Theodore, as you have been to me. To my extraordinary wife, Gweneth, who left her home state of Pennsylvania for the unknowns of Australia: no matter how chaotic our lives become, you will always be the fixed point that puts everything else into perspective. In the words of John Donne, writing four hundred years ago to the love of his life:

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.

Finally, to the people who sent me here, the voters of Fraser: with the exception only of the neighbouring federal seat of Canberra, more votes were cast in Fraser than in any other electorate in Australia, and I am keenly aware both of the deep and diverse needs of our seat and of the great trust and confidence Fraser’s voters have placed in me. To them I express my enormous gratitude for the honour they have given me of representing them in our nation’s parliament. And to them I make this pledge: to do my utmost always, to represent their interests to the very best of my abilities, to remember always that their support for me is not my entitlement but their precious gift, and to ensure that, in their name, I make Fraser’s contribution to securing a better, fairer, more prosperous and more just future for our great nation.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Jay Long
    commented 2018-10-11 20:32:10 +1100
    Wonderful web journal. I appreciated perusing your articles. This is really an extraordinary read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am anticipating perusing new articles. Keep doing awesome!

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.