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Rob Oakeshott: First Speech

Rob Oakeshott won the NSW rural electorate of Lyne in a by-election on September 6, 2008.

Oakeshott stood as an independent in the formerly Nationals seat. It had been vacated by the former Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Mark Vaile.

Oakeshott was first elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the Nationals member for Port Macquarie in 1996.

He resigned to sit as an independent in 2002 and was subsequently re-elected as an independent.

Hansard transcript of Rob Oakeshott’s first speech to the House of Representatives.

OakeshottMr OAKESHOTT (4:50 PM) —‘Jum-mada-gai’ are three Aboriginal words from my home that mean ‘Come, you’re welcome.’ I start with this standing invitation to all who are listening that you are welcome to my place, called the mid-north coast of New South Wales, and in particular those who have the power to help on the many issues that I will be raising tonight and over the coming years. And I also start with these words as an act of respect—an act of respect now done by all three councils within the Lyne electorate, an act of respect now done by the New South Wales parliament and an act of respect that I am therefore both surprised and disappointed this parliament is yet to adopt as part of its daily practice.

Member for Scullin, Mr Speaker, I acknowledge the traditional owners past and present, the Ngunawal people, and I also acknowledge those visiting from the Biripai and Dhunghutti communities of my home region, and I ask you to revisit this question of a daily acknowledgement within this chamber for traditional owners, a simple, symbolic but respectful act that will assist in building a better Australia.

Colleagues, like all in this chamber I am sure, I love my home. While I am not here to be a postcard nor a historian of life on the mid-north coast, it would be remiss of me not to put on record in this first speech a snapshot of life in my electorate. My home is strong in natural beauty. We have beaches that most Australians have at some time surfed or swum at, rivers that most Australians should at some point travel on or drop a line into and surrounding bush that is in so many ways the hidden jewellery of living within our area. It is, for many of us, one of Australia’s great natural playgrounds.

I also live in a place with an understated but incredibly rich history, a place where we start to see the term ‘Australia’ first used, as was first recorded in the diaries of Matthew Flinders off my home, Tacking Point. It is a place where Australia’s first mass sea rescue was performed by local Aboriginals because no white man would go into the rough water and a place that has recently been revealed as home to two iconic pieces of surf lifesaving equipment—the surf ski and the surfboat, both of which are now used world wide.

Politically it is a place that has had some great local MPs, people like John Kenny Sr from the Kendall area and Bruce Cowan from the Manning area, from both sides of the political fence. It is a place that 109 years ago was home to a state MP for Hastings-Macleay who, despite some sins, was still courageous enough to help encourage the concept of a Commonwealth and then, through good luck and some good management, went on to become celebrated as Australia’s first Prime Minister. Somewhat ironically one of Barton’s mentioned sins was to resist the efforts of another man in his ambition to become Australia’s first Prime Minister, that other man being Sir William Lyne, of whom the federal seat is now currently named.

Colleagues, on 6 September the communities of the mid-north coast of New South Wales chose to enter a new era of representation—an era that places local people and local issues very much front and centre of representation, an era that already relies heavily on an ongoing dialogue between 90,000 electors and their local MP about the many issues of the day. Through this ongoing commitment to the process of dialogue and community engagement, we can now have the combined shoulders to the wheel, we can now have combined investment in each other and we now have a greater chance of getting outcomes on local and national issues to work for us as a region. It is, simply put, a new era of representation that puts local people before political parties and that puts community interests before vested interests. For us, this is a new era of place based thinking, an alliance shaped entirely around the common care for our place and the common wealth of our country.

Colleagues, it would be folly to write this off as mere local parish pump parochialism. Rather, our community has so much else going on. Having learnt my trade of representation after 12 years in public life in another place, I consider representation to be the difficult and challenging balancing act between a range of interests—some local, some national and, increasingly, some international. On the international front, I enter this parliament at a time of great global financial uncertainty—an uncertainty that has a clear national impact, with last week’s spend of $10.4 billion, and an uncertainty that is rippling through to have local impacts, with three local mortgage funds entering voluntary administration within the past six months and one local council exposed to up to $25 million of their investments from certain CDO purchases as just two recent examples.

This global uncertainty and the responses at both a national and local level re-emphasise the obligations and duties we have as representatives in this place. We do have a role of participating in debate about the global village that we now, like it or not, are living in, where the sovereignty of nations such as ours is increasingly secondary to this very loose, very fluid and very informal anarchical society of world affairs. We are obliged to participate because if we do not then anarchy across borders reigns. On the flip side, like Tennyson’s prophetic words in Locksley Hall about the parliament of man, if we do participate in international debate, we then fulfil our obligation to our electors to care and protect and build a better place, and that should be a commitment to electors that is a borderless commitment.

And this is not something to be feared but something to be embraced. I am a long-term believer in global citizenry and see it as a challenge that this island nation needs to overcome in the way we play our ‘cringe politics’ whenever we engage with the world. I think the United Nations, for example, is an important and valued institution and our involvement at the highest levels should be encouraged, as should our participation, understanding and commitment to various international treaties, agreements and obligations. These are good, positive exercises, not negative ones, and the benefits to us through global participation far outweigh the alternative of isolation of thought and isolation of actions.

In a similar vein, the concept of international human rights has been given some rough trade within Australian politics in recent times and, again, I am an advocate for this most basic, most fundamental of concepts. After all, it is a concept about the liberties and freedoms of my fellow man, and there is surely no higher calling for any of us in this business of human relationships called politics. And I am also an advocate for an increased commitment to Millennium Development Goals by the Australian government and for the work of population development groups within this and other parliaments throughout the country.

Colleagues, combined with these international considerations when plying our trade of representation is the secondary role involving deep consideration of national interests. In the tradition of the writings of Edmund Burke and others, we, as representatives, owe nothing other than our good judgement to the people who elected us. Indeed, if we betray our good judgement on national issues to achieve populist local outcomes, then we ultimately have done an act of betrayal to those who elected us.

I am happy to say I will work with government where I believe their legislative program is in the best interests of my community and my country, and I will work against them where I do not. That, I believe, is my role and my obligation. I will also try and get a range of issues on the national agenda, whether it be a revisit of charities legislation, a revisit of labelling laws to assist consumers as to what exactly is Australian made and produced or a visit of a plain English program within government so that policy and direction from government is as accessible to as many as possible. This is to name just three.

And I do see my role to participate in the two most important aspects of our national parliament—the economy and the Constitution. On the economy, I am a strong advocate for the independence of the Reserve Bank and am confident we have seen this nervousness before in 1987, Y2K and the tech bubble burst in 2004. I am on the side of being confident that we will come through this. Having said that, what I will be asking of government is to focus not only on the immediate future through their economic security package but, importantly, on a review of the recent past, particularly within the public sector.

Colleagues, public sector governance principles that have allowed the exposure of many taxpayer and ratepayer investments in particular in many local councils throughout Australia need the scrutiny of this place in order to minimise such exposure occurring again in the future. The losses over the past year alone of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money are in the hundreds of millions. This raises a lot of public sector governance questions, and if we are to minimise such occurrences into the future, I seek the support of the government to review the past.

Another national consideration is the Constitution itself. On the town green of Port Macquarie sits a bronze statue of a state MP who went on to become Australia’s first Prime Minister. I often wonder what he, the Andrew Ingliss Clarks and the Samuel Griffiths would say if alive today. And while it is always dangerous territory to verbal the dead, I am of the school that believes that the spirit of the Constitution’s writers would not be wedded to their words in ink, but would look at Australia today as a case of unfinished business.

Colleagues, we are yet to reach the point of being a Commonwealth, nor for the common wealth. I say to all colleagues sitting here, and I say to the executive in particular, the states versus Commonwealth Work Choices High Court case of 2006 is sitting there waiting for us to pick up and answer the as yet legally unanswerable questions that have now emerged. In particular, we do need to clarify, through this parliament, many of the section 51 and section 52 questions, and we do need to, without the fear of trampling on the graves of our forefathers, work on these so as to truly create the Commonwealth that I hope we all desire.

On a related topic, it is my view that we are not technically a monarchy of one people under one crown. We are legally a heptarchy of seven crowns. Somewhat absurdly, each individual is represented in Australia by two crowns—one state and one federal—and it is only by convention that they happen to be the same person. For every state to have its own monarch might be okay if it were mere symbolic overkill, but it has practical implications that are not in the greater good, such as the ability for legal action to be taken between these two bodies supposedly working together. Again, I go back to the forefathers. In the 1890s and in 1901 it was a process that was supposed to unify, so much so that the words in the Constitution of Australia explicitly state this unification. We have, as yet, failed as public officials to deliver on this vision of unity.

Colleagues, alongside the international and national roles of a good representative, it is without doubt the key part of the trade of being a good representative to be unashamedly local. To be a delegate or ambassador for a local region and to really thump the tub on local issues is the bread and butter, meat and potatoes work of a good local MP. You will hear me many times firing up on local issues that may sometimes have you, as parliamentary colleagues, wondering about their national significance. But I ask you to back my judgement as a local representative, just as I will back yours, as they are all part of the tapestry that is the national interest. Individual constituent issues and local issues do matter, and they do have a place on the national agenda as much as any other issue that we see present itself within this place.

The stand-out local issue of the mid-north coast of New South Wales is the pressure on our health services from our rapidly expanding population and our ageing population. I sincerely thank the Minister for Health and Ageing for being the first minister to visit the region since I was elected MP for a commitment of $6 million to the health education centre at Taree and for taking the time to listen to and engage with the local division of GPs. Following this visit, I am now pleased to see two new GPs for the Camden-Haven region approved, along with one other new district of workforce shortage approval received last week, making for three new GP positions so far. These are all critical first steps in expanding community based health and preventative health, and I look forward to this cooperative arrangement continuing into the future. As well, the communities of the mid-north coast note the $10 billion nation building fund, including the Health and Hospital Fund. All four hospitals on the mid-north coast need attention and resourcing, but in particular the No. 1 capital works project from the North Coast Area Health Service is an expanded emergency department at the Port Macquarie Base Hospital.

I am also looking forward to a continued working relationship with ministers and members on the critical need for improvements to general standards of education throughout our region. So far we have had one good meeting to start the process of improving skills based training opportunities within Port Macquarie, and I look forward to similar progress regarding proposals being developed for a Taree trade training facility. I look forward to assistance in lifting retention rates within the region, encouraging post secondary education within our region, increasing flexible and experiential learning opportunities within the region and increasing opportunities for international curriculum engagement. I look forward to driving the motto home with everyone here that the future of the mid-north coast, and the future for most young people in Australia today, is based on the motto ‘study for a job, study for a job, study for a job’.

I look forward to working with members and ministers on the complexities within our region involving our often forgotten—too often forgotten by government—but surprisingly large, proud and active coastal Indigenous populations in areas such as Taree and Kempsey, as well as the full range of disadvantage that is faced by many families in a region that has an average individual family or household income level, whichever way you want to look at it, entrenched at some of the lowest comparative levels throughout Australia. These income levels are key benchmark figures that we as a region will be assessing our own performance against over time, and one that I am committed to seeing lift.

I also make particular note of working with ministers and members on the particular issue of domestic violence and child protection throughout both the mid-north coast and Australia. Statistics can mean many things on topics like this. They can mean we have a problem or they can mean we are leading in reporting, but, either way, domestic violence and child protection issues are real and prevalent throughout my region. In one town the statistics are unusually high. As a statistic, a woman living in one particular location identified as a Vinson hot spot is twice as likely as any other woman in the rest of Australia to be abused. An Aboriginal woman in the same location is six times more likely to be abused, and an Aboriginal woman who is abused in this place is 28 times more likely to be hospitalised than any other woman abused throughout Australia.

We need to lift the veil on some of this behaviour, both on the coast and throughout the country. We need a combined effort from all throughout this country, but, from my point of view, particularly the men of Australia need to remember and enforce on all friends the fundamental golden rule of being an Australian male: you do not lift a hand in anger against a woman, no matter what the circumstances. At the same time, I flag the excellent work being done by local programs such as LOVE BiTES—a NAPCAN project that is a local antidomestic violence program that is now starting to roll out nationwide with minimal support from government. I will be encouraging all MPs in this place to learn more about that and to endorse and support similar programs where possible.

I also look forward to working with ministers and members to complete our Pacific Highway, improving North Coast rail links and delivering on the much anticipated infrastructure agenda for projects like an $80 million backlog of works on local roads within the Greater Taree City Council area and the development of a regional development program that is bigger and better than anything we have seen before.

I look forward to working with the minister and members on communications. It is reprehensible that I visited a year 9 school student from Camden Haven High School during the election campaign, living in a relatively urbanised location, who was still on dial-up, technology that is 15 years off the pace; or the farmer five minutes from the centre of Taree who not only had to dial up but had to dial up over 50 times to download just four pages due to dropouts. I acknowledge that there are options to upgrade, but they are currently offered at a cost that is out of the range of an area whose income levels are so low.

This is as much an issue of financial disadvantage as it is one of technology disadvantage. This disadvantage combination is lethal in locking out large groups within the community from services that people in metropolitan areas simply take for granted. Indeed, as I reflect on the importance of lifting education standards within our region and I reflect on the importance of our region starting to engage more heavily than ever before with the rest of Australia and the world, this is the single most important project the government can deliver to allow us to assist ourselves.

I also look forward to working with members and ministers on water quality, catchment management, natural resource management and renewable energy issues throughout the mid-north Coast. I am appalled to find water quality in several locations throughout the electorate at the level that it is, such as one location where arsenic and heavy metals are now being identified as leaching into the Macleay River or where stagnant water at Killick Creek is killing the world-famous tourist mecca of Crescent Head.

On a positive, we as a region are really well geared to address these and other local issues if we can get some offset returns through the emissions trading scheme. We are, for example, leading the way on the ground in many areas. We have a local business chamber of commerce that is conducting renewable energy forums, and that is a great example of our place based model at work. From these we look to be preferring a mix of gas for baseload, solar thermal for peaking, and efficiency messages for residents such as smart metering and residential solar as the desired options for the future. On this last point, communities like the four villages of Hallidays Point and the Camden Haven region are all pushing hard, to their credit, for more residential solar and for feed-in tariffs. I think we, and the executive, in particular, should be supporting this as much as possible.

Finally, on the stand-out local issues, I look forward to working hard with the members and ministers in promoting the interests of my small business community. Ninety-five per cent of people who wake up and go to work on the mid-north coast of New South Wales go into a business with less than five employees, and this is a voice I am very keen to make sure is heard. We desperately need to broaden our base of economic activity, and that is where it is critically important government assists mid-north coast companies wherever possible. Colleagues, within the Australian small business context, I not only represent Joe the plumber, but on the mid-north coast, I also represent Dean the electrician and I will do all I can to help him survive and succeed, and hopefully, employ more people.

With your indulgence, colleagues, I have some thankyous. I am the richest man alive when it comes to the love of the people around me. In 1996 in my first speech to the state house as a 26-year-old, I thanked a young 20-year-old woman for being my best friend. Twelve years later, I am pleased and relieved to report that Sara-Jane and I are still best friends, now married, and have the two most beautiful girls in Sophie and Olivia and we are all hopeful for a new arrival within the month. To Sara-Jane, you are absolutely priceless. I thank you so very, very much.

I also thank my parents, parents-in-law, and my extended family. All value their independence of thought, all place a great value on service, and all are achieving incredible things. My immediate family has professors and doctors with Australian honours, nurses, AusAid workers in Mindanao, journalists, company secretaries, executive search managers, ACCC solicitors, tax lawyers, political consultants, returned navy personnel from the Iraq war, naval fitness instructors, painters, and very busy mothers of three. Politically, we have family members who worked for Lionel Murphy and other family members who worked for John Howard. It is an understatement to say we are an eclectic bunch, who sharpen our saws on each other at Christmas lunch and who love each other dearly.

And our family is long on form on the concept of service and on the concept that the only life worth living is a life of service—whether it be my great grandfather, George Oakeshott, in his work to help build a capital city called Canberra, as well as his architectural work on Sydney buildings such as Customs House and the Intercontinental Hotel; or whether it be my wife’s extended Yow Yeh mob, an Australian story that started in the most marginalised of ways through the slave trading of North Queensland and the various xenophobic actions that followed. It is a story full of struggle and inspiration, where the family patriarch earned his break in Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents, and from there, bought a house and encouraged all seven daughters and two sons to place a value on education, and now this significant network of very proud South Sea Islanders are running many aspects of community life in Australia. For me, that is exactly the way it should be. Or whether it be my late grandfather Sir Angus Murray, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, and one of the rare men to serve in both World War I and World War II. Or whether it be my other late grandfather, Captain John Oakeshott, who, despite options to escape, chose to stay with his men until the end of one of Australia’s greatest war atrocities at the Sandakan death marches, being callously murdered two weeks after the so-called declaration of peace of mid-August 1945, along with approximately 15 other Australians. Only now, 63 years later, is the last camp of Sandakan being revealed, and I look forward to working with the appropriate minister in protecting this site at Ranau, Malaysia—a very important site for our family and for Australia.

Colleagues, many people help all of us get to this place, and I am no different. I thank my staff in both the former state office and in the new federal office for their great support—in particular throughout the past three months of moving from the state to the federal parliament. Thank you all very, very much. Can I give a special mention to the new New South Wales member-elect for Port Macquarie, Mr Peter Besseling MP, who has joined us in the gallery this evening. I thank you for all your great support over the years. Best of luck in your new career; I am confident you will be a great success for our community. I also thank many members of my campaign team: campaign manager Rob Turner and the formidable crew of 700—thanks for a challenging, fascinating, and at times incredibly funny past three months.

In conclusion, to be a good tradesman’s representative, it is important to acknowledge the interconnectedness between international, national, and of course local considerations, and then even more important to strike the balance on each of these. That is the challenge for all of us, and it is this balance that is the ballast to keep our political ships afloat. The ‘ships’ political philosopher Michael Oakeshott referred to it when he said:

“… in political activity, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destiny.”

It is, colleagues, an exercise for all of us to just stay afloat.

For me, therefore, the litmus test for reflection at the end of my political career will be how these factors—international, national and local, sometimes connected, sometimes competing—have been managed. It will be the answer to the question we all face at the end of this Greek tragedy of political life, that simple but daunting question of, ‘Have I done good by the people who elected me?’ From this first speech forward, I will certainly be doing all I can to satisfy myself and my communities that my answer to this question is a resounding yes. So, colleagues: jum-mada-gai. Come and visit, come and help, and let us make a better place together.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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