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Giving Substance To The Words

There are thirty-two new members of the 43rd Parliament, elected on August 21st. Three of them are returning after a voluntary or enforced absence. As a group, they constitute one-fifth of the House of Representatives, a significant turnover and renewal of the lower house. Many of them will be there for years to come.

Maiden SpeechesOver the past month, I have made a point of watching the maiden, or first, speeches of these members. On the whole, it is difficult not to be impressed by these fledgling parliamentarians.

There has been much comment on the moving speech from the Western Australian Liberal, Ken Wyatt, the first indigenous member of the House, but others also delivered considered and thoughtful speeches.

Take Andrew Leigh, the member for Fraser in the ACT. His reputation as an economist and thinker preceded his election. In his speech, he spoke of the importance of education for the nation’s future, of “optimistic experimentation” and of rebuilding “a sense of trust between citizens and politicians”. Leigh’s book, “Disconnected”, has just been published.

John Alexander, the man who dislodged Maxine McKew to retake the Liberal heartland seat of Bennelong, spoke at length about his life in tennis but he also talked of the role sport plays in physical and mental health. He wondered about our population and the need for an Australian version of Atlanta, a modern city built on the competitive advantages of relocation. His political perspective is that of an older, more experienced man.

From Victoria, Adam Bandt spoke as the first Greens member chosen at a general election. A “planetary emergency” confronts us, he told the House. “Real sustainability means thinking again about how we live every aspect of our lives.” Bandt’s message brings hope to some and elicits fear in others for it speaks of a significant rethinking of “infrastructure priorities, industry policy and the regulation of energy supply”. Bandt also supported gay marriage and derided the “palpable hypocrisy” of the war in Afghanistan.

In Tasmania, Andrew Wilkie, the man who took the Labor seat of Denison as an independent, delivered a similarly evocative speech.

From Queensland, the youngest person ever elected to the Parliament, the Liberal from Longman, Wyatt Roy, told the House that he was the “first elected representative younger than this building”. He couldn’t offer experience but “plain good intentions” would be a good start. He aimed for an “intergenerational perspective” and spoke of emerging demographic challenges for the nation. Most of all, Roy offered a lengthy defence of Liberalism as the driving force behind many reforms in society. It was a view that challenged the assumptions of many.

Jane Prentice, the new Liberal member for the Brisbane seat of Ryan, was equally firm in her views. Her aggressive style will one day rile those sitting on the other side of the chamber.

National Party members offered stark contrasts in style and approach from their city-based colleagues. Ken O’Dowd, the member for the Gladstone-based seat of Flynn, spoke of being raised on a dairy farm, picking beans and working on the railways as a fettler before going into businesses as diverse as fuel distribution, hotels and building supplies. Describing himself as the “bulldog at the gate”, O’Dowd said some people in his electorate saw themselves as “forgotten”.

This was a view echoed by George Christensen, the member for “the mighty electorate of Dawson”, which stretches from Mackay to Townsville. “With all due respect to the members present,” Christensen said, “the needs and concerns of the people of Dawson are very different to the needs and concerns of those in capital cities.” He went on to attack Labor for “welfarism” and trying to “dictate people’s lives”.

The contrast with Labor’s Laura Smyth, the Belfast-born lawyer who won the seat of La Trobe in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges, could hardly be more stark. Her speech also touched on the fragility of democracy and warned of “a failure to share the spoils of society fairly”. She instanced the Tampa and SIEV-X and spoke of the “damage caused by setting up a division or a wedge in a society”. Human rights, economic reform and the importance of the Millennium Development Goals rounded out her speech.

One of the most impressive speeches was given by Ed Husic, the Labor member for Chifley in Sydney’s west. Husic could be seen as one of those members of the so-called “political class”, an adviser, ministerial Chief of Staff and union organiser. Media coverage of his election focused on his status as the first Muslim elected to the Parliament. These depictions, whilst important, tell only part of the story.

Husic referred to Ben Chifley’s vision “that Australians will never be haunted by an inability to provide”. A third of the Chifley electorate is aged 19 or under, so Husic spoke at length of his commitment to public education and lifting retention rates. He supports nation-building infrastructure and avoiding “climate change isolationism”.

The most moving moment of the speech came when Husic spoke of his Bosnian mother’s words: “As important as it is to have food on the table, we also have to feed the soul.”

These are only snippets from some of the speeches, and not everyone has yet spoken, but to watch these men and women talk of their backgrounds, motivations and ambitions is to get a sense that things are not so bad in the nation’s Parliament. There is diversity of membership. There is commitment to ideas.

The speeches told stories of lives touched by politics in many varied ways. Some experienced business failures during times of recession. Others got an education as a result of government action. Others took up careers because of the inspiration of a politician long since departed.

It would be easy to ridicule the ideas we don’t agree with and even easier to laugh at the inexperience, perhaps even the naivety, of some of the class of 2010. But from where I sit, they look pretty good. They’re there, in the arena, doing something. They’re not armchair critics.

No doubt some will fall along the way. Some will get chewed up by the machine. Some will succumb to the perquisites. Others will become embittered and disillusioned. But for now most of them look as though they want to make a difference.

Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to note the kind of questions the new members have allowed themselves to be given in the first few weeks. They’re entirely prepared Dorothy Dixers, doled out by whichever questions or tactics committee now tends to these things.

Take the first question Andrew Leigh got to ask: “My question is to the Treasurer. Treasurer, why is a floating exchange rate important to the resilience of the Australian economy?”

The question allowed Wayne Swan to launch into a treatise on exchange rates and the work of the G20 before attacking the Opposition. Like so much of Question Time, it was a pointless waste of time and degenerated into competing interjections and points of order. It was especially absurd, given Leigh’s professional background and expertise.

Barry Cohen wrote yesterday of how MPs have been locked out of Question Time by their party leaderships for much of the past 30 years. Backbenchers have become “ciphers” in a way that denies them the chance to make a name for themselves as members like Whitlam once did.

Is there anyone amongst the new crop who will dare to take on their parliamentary superiors to reclaim the role of a member of parliament to seek information about issues of concern to them and their electorates?

With memories of the Howard government still fresh, and as information about the internal operation of the Rudd government continues to dribble out, it’s timely for these new members to consider what kind of politicians they intend to be.

It’s not a perfect analogy but consider the behaviour of the Reserve Bank. It dared to raise interest rates during the 2007 election campaign, earning the undying enmity of John Howard and the coalition. It was at it again this week, raising rates on that noted day for gambling, the Melbourne Cup. It’s noteworthy because it conveys a powerful image of an organisation that takes itself seriously and won’t be pushed around by its political masters.

Barack Obama appeared on Jon Stewart’s television show last week. Asked why the promise of 2008 hadn’t been fulfilled, he said politics is difficult. It takes time to get anything done. “Yes we can, but…,” the President said before he was drowned out by gales of laughter from the audience. It was a telling moment where the seriousness of the man was brought into question.

The new members of Australia’s 43rd Parliament must know that the concept of a “new paradigm” is already ridiculed throughout the land. But they do find themselves at a unique moment in history, elected to a Parliament where no one party holds a majority in either house.

This is their time and their choice. The independents and the Greens have seized the opportunity to advocate for their causes. The members from the major parties have discipline and the maintenance or pursuit of government to consider. Nevertheless, this is their moment to give substance to the words of their first speeches.

This article was first published on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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