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Valedictory Speech: Senator Nick Sherry

After a 22-year parliamentary career, Tasmanian Labor Senator Nick Sherry has announced his retirement.

Nick SherrySherry was first elected in 1990. He was re-elected in 1996, 2001 and 2007.

When the Rudd government was elected in 2007, he became Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law. In 2009, he was appointed Assistant Treasurer.

After the formation of the minority Labor government in September 2010, he became Minister for Small Business, Minister Assisting the Minister for Tourism and Minister Assisting on Deregulation and Public Sector Superannuation.

Sherry retired from the ministry at the time of last December’s reshuffle.

Text of Senator Nick Sherry’s valedictory speech to the Senate.

Senator SHERRY (Tasmania) (15:30): I rise to give my last speech in the Senate. Firstly, thank you to the opposition and the crossbenchers for the indulgence. I also express my condolences to the families of former Senator Judith Adams and former Deputy Prime Minister Lionel Bowen. My retirement from the Senate is effective from 1 June. Some are puzzled by the date, but I am going out in style: I am chair of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee for the last four days of May, hence the date of 1 June.

My reasons for retiring are an extension of the reasons I gave when I announced my retirement as a minister. Fundamentally, they are a combination of length of service—it will be 21 years, 11 months and one day, and 86 estimates hearings—age and having three young children. After reflection over these last few months, there are other challenges that I do want to carry out in my working life. I have spent two-thirds of my adult working life in this chamber; I want to spend, hopefully, at least another 10 years in other areas. As I also said when I announced my retirement as a minister, there is a time for renewal and, in most circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that renewal in the context of a new senator is appropriate: a new Labor senator for my great state of Tasmania. I also believe that if you have the opportunity to make the decision yourself—and so many of us in politics do not get to make the decision ourselves—it is best to take it.

I want to go through some thankyous and I am sorry I cannot mention everyone. I would like to start by thanking my staff for their dedication and support; you cannot do the job without good, effective and loyal staff: Sally, Renai, Kristy, Shane, Lynette, Peter, Adam, Krystian, Joe, Jody, Kerry, Joanne, Judith, Tim, Ben, Amy, Lorraine and there are of course some others. I did not have a high staff turnover, I might add; but you do employ a lot of staff in almost 22 years.

I thank you, Mr President, and all of our parliamentary, administrative and support staff, without whom we could not function, obviously. They are largely unseen but very critical to our effectiveness in this place and the general carrying-out of our work.

Thank you to all the many public servants. I defended them very vigorously when I was a minister and I pursued them very rigorously when I was in opposition in estimates, but I think always with respect and courtesy. There are many individuals and organisations in the business community, including the superannuation sector, and in community organisations and individuals with whom I have had good working relationships and friendships over a very long period of time.

I say thank you to my parliamentary colleagues. I have served with and under four prime ministers, and three opposition leaders who did not make it—an incredibly diverse group of individuals, if you think about it: everyone from Paul Keating through to Julia Gillard. There are a couple of parliamentarians I want to thank—and I am sorry I cannot mention more—particularly our leader, Chris Evans, and our former leader, John Faulkner. We have worked very closely and well together. There are also a couple of members of the House of Representatives I want to thank who have been longstanding and close personal friends, Sid Sidebottom and Dick Adams. I also want to thank all the very loyal Labor Party members who supported me through all those preselections and of course the electors of Tasmania.

I want to pay tribute to and remember my mum, Dorothy; my father, Ray; and my stepfather, Ken. To Sally: thank you for your loyalty and your support in often the most difficult of times. I thank my stepson, Adam, and my three wonderful children, Alexander, Sasha and Miah. It is often pretty gruelling in this place, as we all know. When I ring them at the end of the day, it always brings me great happiness to talk to them, and on occasions when I feel a little bit subdued and down I look at a photo of them. They are a great inspiration to me personally and a great joy in my life.

Let me make some reflections. Firstly, it was an enormous privilege to be a minister and/or parliamentary secretary for seven years—that is a good innings, I think, by any standards—and about the same time as an opposition frontbencher. I have had a wide range of responsibilities, including primary industries. I was the first Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law, as well as Minister for Small Business, Assistant Treasurer and Minister Assisting on Deregulation. It is an enormous privilege to be elected to this place but it is also a very, very great privilege to serve as a minister.

I want to make a few comments about the world we live in now and the impact on Australia. We are going through a period of extraordinary economic change, driven by the rapid evolution of technology as well as, of course, some of the issues around government debt and high levels of unemployment in some parts of the world. We now live in an international market economy, and I contrast today with the circumstances of the world 21 years ago, when I was elected. But this is a new world that we do need to embrace. We need to understand its consequences—not uncritically, but we should also not ignore the adverse consequences. To the extent that it is possible, because there are limitations, Australia needs to ensure that we uphold that ethic of a fair go and provide opportunities for all our citizens. Government needs to be vigilant and proactive. I have always considered myself a social democrat, never a socialist, I believe governments should not actually own and run distribution exchange in an economy. Market economies as we know them do have some drawbacks; we have seen them very starkly and clearly illustrated in recent times. Among almost every advanced economy in the world, with the exception of Australia, we are seeing massive upheaval—it is truly massive. We are seeing recessions, high unemployment, financial collapse and governments with debt levels greater than the value of their economies. This is causing enormous upheaval, which inevitably impacts on Australia. The mainstream parties of left and right—and again we have seen this in Europe—fundamentally have failed to deliver necessary reforms. The ones who suffer the most in these circumstances are the most vulnerable in our societies. That is why I have been a longstanding supporter of Labor and, I acknowledge, reforms. We should never be arrogant enough to assume in government that all good ideas rest on this side of the house. Australia by marked contrast has successfully carried out significant reforms which have meant we have avoided anywhere near the worst we are seeing in other advanced economies.

Fundamentally, this is being driven by ageing populations, fewer workers and unsustainable pension systems. As I have said, Australia is in marked contrast to this upheaval. It is often said that Australia is the lucky country—obviously a reference to the mining boom. I have long believed you make your own luck as a country and as an individual because luck is fundamentally based on the decisions you make. Shortly after coming into government in 2007, the government of which I was a minister was faced with the worst financial and economic circumstances in over 80 years. As an economic minister, and a member of the cabinet GFC subcommittee—global financial crisis, not Geelong Football Club, of which I am a renowned supporter, although people often mix them up—I was part of a government that was required to make a range of interventions which I, as a minister, had never dreamed would be necessary. There were the economic stimulus and bank guarantees. In my own ministerial patch there was action on short selling, credit-rating agencies and on issues relating to superannuation and investment schemes and a whole range of other interventions were necessary.

The economic stimulus, at the size and speed that was implemented in my view, and I passionately believe this today, was absolutely necessary. It saved Australia from a recession and the economy from falling off a cliff—which, indeed, people predicted at the time. They said the government could not prevent a recession in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were saved and thousands of businesses were saved from bankruptcy. Yes, some mistakes were made at the edges and they have been highlighted and well debated, but I would argue that in the circumstances and in the context of the time it was absolutely necessary. We may have seen Australia reach double-digit unemployment, but contrast that with today’s figure of 4.9 per cent unemployment. It took courage, particularly for a new government, and it was the right call for Australia and I will continue to defend it passionately. If you look at the outcome and the evidence and, as I say, at today’s unemployment figure, and at a whole range of other areas, you see that it was the right call.

Yes, government debt resulted. Government debt did occur as a consequence, but we would have had more government debt than we have at the moment had we done nothing. The majority of the government debt has come about as a result of the fall-off in revenue, given the world economic circumstances. We would have had more government debt and all the other consequences without that stimulus. I am particularly proud of the way the Labor government, particularly being a new government, acted in those circumstances. No action or more limited action would have meant recession, a million unemployed and tens of thousands of businesses closed and, ironically, higher government debt. There was in my view a serious mistake made by Labor: it did not adjust the expectations of the community to the new reality in which we now live, particularly the fiscal reality.

I have mentioned pensions and in this context I would have to say something about superannuation. The one little remarked analysis is the critical role superannuation played in the financial crisis. While we saw all the undesirable impacts of short-term collapse of returns, which is bad for members, Australia, uniquely in the world, has an arms-length, diversified savings pool of some $1.3 trillion outside its banking system. Notwithstanding the strength of the banking system, this was a unique stabiliser which ensured a critical underpinning of Australia’s economy at a very important time.

You know I have had an interest in superannuation. I have been involved in that a my parliamentary life and prior to that. I began my parliamentary life as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation, initially handling what is known as the compulsory nine per cent superannuation guarantee. It used to make me smile as a minister, because of the obvious enthusiasm of all the industry participants who would come up to me and say, ‘This is a fantastic system, Nick. Gosh, we’re glad a Labor government introduced it.’ Of course, as chair of the Senate select committee I saw some of them turn up opposing it. They are all happy to endorse it now and indeed I acknowledge the bipartisanship of the opposition in this regard. Of course, the arguments against the superannuation guarantee are very similar to the arguments opposing the mining and carbon taxes—the future will see.

Compulsory superannuation is about delivering higher retirement income over time, above the basic state pension, subject to the means test. It is about outcomes for members, having the highest return with an efficient system and lowest possible fees. It is not about the vested interest of the system’s participants, as much as many of them are my friends and work associates. I commend to the chamber the reforms that will flow from the Cooper review—that is, better super and the associated FoFA changes. They will come to the Senate and greatly improve the system as a whole and—an issue I have spoken about often—will result in a solution to the number of lost accounts. We have 7.3 million lost accounts containing over $20 billion. That is an extraordinary inefficiency. I want to refer to a thankyou from someone opposite, Rod Kemp. Rod rang me yesterday and said, ‘Nick, are you really resigning because the budget is bringing back the super surcharge?’ For those of you who remember my vigorous pursuit of the super surcharge, amongst many other issues, I think you will appreciate Rod’s sense of humour. My response was: ‘Well, at least we call a tax a tax.’

My home state of Tasmania is a wonderful, wonderful place to live. It is a place of great beauty, but it is going through difficult times and I am concerned about the economic future. Its economy is small, regional and vulnerable. Its industries are based on tourism, forestry, agriculture, fishing and mining. I have long argued that a sustainable logging industry with value adding in some areas of native forest is a reasonable approach and I still hold that view. Over 40 per cent of Tasmania is in national parks and reserves and that is off limits other than to some longstanding, existing mining operations. There is currently an assessment process underway and if, as some would hope, it takes Tasmania to over 50 per cent of its surface area in reserves and national parks, that is a very significant shift and has significant economic implications for our economy. I believe it will not stop at trees. It is not just about trees; it is also about, in those areas in particular, restricting or removing mining, fishing and agriculture. Even starting a tourism venture in those areas is extraordinarily difficult. This has caused me deep concern over a long period of time. It is not just the economic impact that is important, but there is a series of economic and social consequences which will flow. If people think the current budget cutbacks in Tasmania are bad, wait until we see further budget cutbacks as a result of the shrinking of the Tasmanian economic base.

One of the fundamental duties and responsibilities of a Labor government, as I have said, is to deliver a strong economy and jobs. I believe, on any reasonable assessment, this government has done a good job and I am proud of it. It is not just those areas that are important. In the areas of social and environmental policy too we have seen significant progress—carbon pricing, dental, disability, fair work and the mining tax, to name just a few. On the evidence and the outcomes, this has been a good reforming government and I will continue to be an active supporter. That it is why I am Labor. We have a strong economy, we have jobs—more than 750,000 new jobs with fair wages and conditions—and we have reforms in education and health that provide opportunity for all. Government cannot do everything, but it can provide fairness and opportunity for all.

To turn briefly to a more personal note—the issue of mental health and suicide. A significant proportion of individuals in Australia experience depression during their working lives and, sadly, some take their lives. I want particularly to thank those who gave me support during a very difficult period of my life. Despite that experience, I do not consider myself an expert, because every individual is different. However, the much broader community debate that has occurred recently has increased understanding. Like physical illness, recovery is possible and return to normal work and social life is an outcome for many. I pay tribute to the range of medical practitioners, counsellors and community organisations who have assisted in this regard. In the political, but not being political, context I want to acknowledge the work individuals such as Andrew Robb, John Brogden and Jeff Kennett. There are of course many other public figures who have assisted in improving public understanding. Thank you, to you all.

As to the future, I look very much forward to that. I do not think it will surprise people that I have a few thoughts about my working life and it will I think be centred in the area of superannuation, retirement incomes and matters of that kind. I do not intend to become a political commentator, however. I think when you leave, you leave and it is best to put political commentary on the shelf and focus on some areas where people hopefully believe you have some expertise. I do want to say to you all that this is a tough, hard work environment. We all know that but it is usually little recognised. It is extraordinarily demanding on ourselves and our families, but regardless of the length of time we serve or the level of responsibility I also strongly believe that every one of us is motivated by the desire, whatever our differences, to make Australia a better place. I firmly believe Australia is the best place in the world to live, particularly in Tasmania. I say goodbye to you all and wish you all the best.

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