Alex Somlyay was first elected as the member for Fairfax at the 1990 federal election.
Fairfax is a non-Labor electorate on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. It has been held by the National Party and the Liberal Party since its creation in 1984. Elected as a Liberal, Somlyay is now a member of the Liberal National Party.
During his 23-year parliamentary career, Somlyay served as Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government from 1997 to 1998.
This is his valedictory speech to the House of Representatives.
Hansard transcript of Alex Somlyay’s valedictory speech to the House of Representatives.
Mr SOMLYAY (Fairfax) (13:31): I say farewell to this House after being a member for over 23 years. That period of time effectively represents a generation. In 1990 I was only the 845th to be elected to this parliament, this House of Representatives, in 89 years. I believe that number is just over 1,000 now. We are a pretty exclusive lot of people honoured to be in this place. It is with some sadness of course I retire. But I am doing so of my own accord and in my own time because I believe in change and renewal. I have been honoured to serve the electorate of Fairfax with its constant and vast boundary changes for those 23 years. I recognise that it is time for fresh blood and time for new ideas.
When I entered parliament in 1990, things were different. There were no such things as Facebook and Twitter. MPs did not have faxes. Of course there were mobile phones then—it was just that you could not fit them in your briefcase, let alone your pocket. Travelling parliamentarians could always be seen looking for a phone box to stay in touch. Interestingly, I am the longest-serving Liberal from the great state of Queensland, which is why I have chosen to wear this tie. I was going to wear a maroon tie but I could not find it in this morning. Trust me, there is no subliminal message in my choice of tie!
I also consider myself Australia’s most accidental parliamentarian, in that I was preselected by the Liberal Party without contest for the seat of Fairfax. I was considered more of a sacrificial lamb then a legitimate threat. In fact, the banner headline in the local newspaper the day after I won the election—and it was a National Party seat; sorry about that, boys—was: ‘John Stone loses election’. When I was preselected, the Liberal Party only had 22 members on the whole of the Sunshine Coast. The National Party, on the other hand, had 23 branches to help John Stone win the election. That is why I say I was an accidental member. Politics is never predictable. I retire not only never having lost an election, but not having faced preselection either—not unique I am sure, but I believe it certainly is rare. It is not bad as a seemingly accidental career for a former refugee kid.
I can assure you that my retirement is on purpose and with a purpose. The purpose is to spend more time with my wife, Jenny, who is up in the gallery, and with my family—daughters Michelle and Victoria and son Mark, who, with their respective spouses, John, Ross and Deanne, have blessed me with five beautiful grandchildren.
Jenny and I met in Canberra more than 40 years ago. We were married at St Christopher’s in Manuka in 1970. Her support, love and devotion have sustained me through the turbulence of my professional life. Our backgrounds could not have been much more different. She was a country girl from the Darling Downs in Queensland where her family had lived for generations. I arrived in Australia as part of a refugee family, escaping from a then communist country. After I became a minister in the Howard government, my late father-in-law who was a bit iffy about new Australians, made a major concession. He said to Jenny when I was sworn in by the Governor-General, ‘This bloke might turn out all right after all.’
Those here today who have children know that it can be tough on our kids. My children have always been unwavering in their support and fiercely defensive particularly when there may have been episodes with negative publicity, which hurts us all and is inevitable in politics. All of my three children are now adults with families and successful careers of their own and I am so very, very proud of them. The wonderful thing about kids, though, is that they can keep you grounded. Mine certainly did. In the best of times, they are a great antidote to any head-swelling, and at the worst of times your children show you just what the best things in life really are.
When my parents brought my brother and me to Australia in July 1949, they had fled Hungary with nothing. My father was fleeing torture and incarceration, but I am sure that they were also looking for better opportunities for their children. They escaped from a communist regime in Hungary to a UN refugee camp in Naples where they waited for transport to a new life in Australia.
I can still remember as a three-year-old arriving in Sydney aboard the USS General Harry Taylor, a US troop ship, and sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. After docking in Sydney we were taken to a migrant camp in Bathurst. Some might consider these fairly inauspicious beginnings, but I am very proud to be the first person who came to this country as a refugee to be elected to this parliament.
All of his working life, my father worked two jobs in order to provide for and educate his family so they could grasp the vast opportunities Australia had to offer. He did not own a car—he could not afford one. He rode a pushbike or caught public transport everywhere. My father was taken too soon but he lived long enough to see my election to this House.
My mother was able to share more of my parliamentary experiences. She came down to listen to my maiden speech, and that day the tactics committee were kind enough to give me a question at question time, because she was in the gallery. Of course when I asked my question of Prime Minister Bob Hawke and he responded, there was raucous behaviour in the chamber as we see from time to time.
My mother was horrified at the lack of respect in the House and, when I went out to Mum after question time, I asked, ‘Mum, what did you think of that?’ She said, ‘If I ever see you being disrespectful to the Prime Minister of this country again, I will disown you.’ She was adamant that I must always show respect to this chamber and for all those within it, regardless of their politics.
To this day, I honour my late mother—this will not win me many brownie points, but I have never moved a point of order, although I have four days left. I have never been brought to order by the Speaker and I have never been asked to leave the chamber. I have never been warned. If we, as members, do not demonstrate our respect for this House, its office bearers and rules, how can we expect others to do so? I fear that my mother must look down and wonder about the further decline in the standards of parliamentary behaviour over the years; however, her code of etiquette has served me well and I recommend it: good manners and respect are never unfashionable.
After graduating from the ANU in Canberra, I sampled government and political life from the other side as a public servant and, eventually, as chief of staff to Evan Adermann, who was the only National Party minister within the Fraser government.
I will be like Paul Neville and tell a little story. I had a reputation of being somewhat of a raconteur and most ministers, when they were about to make a speech somewhere that had a theme, used to say to me, ‘Hey, have you got a yarn that tells a story about this?’ Doug Anthony sent me a note saying, ‘I’m making a speech in Alice Springs and the theme is things are not always what they appear to be. Can you give me a joke or a story?’ I wrote to him and I told him the story about the blind man at the pedestrian crossing with his seeing-eye dog. The seeing-eye dog leads the man across the street against the red light. Cars toot their horns and run up onto the footpath, and he calmly walks across the other side of the street, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dog biscuit. He is about to give it to the dog when someone in a car yells out, ‘Hey, mate! You’re not going to reward that dog after what he just did, are you?’ The man replies, ‘No, I’m trying to find his head so I can kick him in the backside.’ That went over very well in Alice Springs where Doug was, but he flew from there to Thailand and tried tell the same joke through an interpreter in Thailand and it wasn’t funny.
Those were the days when the party room was sacrosanct. Anyone who worked in the old House will know that staff did not go into the party room. Walking into the party room after my election in 1990, I really felt that I had made it. I sat down next to Michael Baume, a senator from New South Wales and said, ‘Michael, who’s taking minutes?’ He said, ‘Mate, we don’t take minutes in here; we get it out of The Herald tomorrow.’ I then took my place in the back row, partly because of my recognition of my fledgling status but mostly from the advice in politics: never let anyone sit behind you.
While I stand here as a veteran—and I hope as a Liberal elder of some sort—in my first term, I was simply another young member on a steep learning curve, and maybe the difference was that I knew it. I was appointed secretary to shadow cabinet in my first term and then was deeply involved in policy development. This appointment provided a valuable foundation for the rest of my parliamentary life both in parliament and in Fairfax.
The bookends of my political career are such that I came to the parliament as a member of the then opposition and now leave it as a member of the opposition team. The years in between have been defined by many triumphs, particularly during the Howard era, as Paul Neville mentioned, from the years 1996 to 2007.
The pinnacle of my career was my appointment in 1997 as Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government. In a ministerial capacity, you are able to influence and introduce policies and strategies that ultimately drive outcomes.
Regional issues were at the heart of my own electorate, and I made it my task to make them a mindset for all of government. There was one instance with Peter Costello as Treasurer when I had to argue with him on behalf of regional Australia. I said to him, ‘Peter, it’s different for you living in the city: you can run around your electorate three times before breakfast. It takes me eight hours to drive across mine and back.’ He said, ‘Hmm. I used to have a car like that once.’
The Regional Solutions Program, which evolved to become Regional Partnerships, was crafted during my ministerial watch. This initiative was an economic lifeline for regional communities throughout Australia and provided valuable funding for its infrastructure beyond our capital cities. This was at a time when regional communities were being abandoned by banks and other services, and Rural Transaction Centres were being established.
It was an honour and a privilege to be appointed a minister, and I am eternally thankful for the opportunity to serve in that capacity. In one way, I got to play for Australia—anyone who is a minister in this House is really playing for Australia.
In the last term of the Howard government, I was fortunate to be able to bring my background in health financing to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing. The passion, professionalism and dedication of members of that bipartisan committee formed for that inquiry is a memory that has not faded, and I congratulate them all. The document produced from that inquiry, The blame game, remains a model for health funding today. It was tabled on a game-changing day—the day that Kevin Rudd became Leader of the Opposition. The blueprint not only survived a change in government but it lives on, and I am pleased that the recommendations continue to be actioned.
The health and ageing committee was also to be the genesis of an investigation into the health benefits of breastfeeding. Behind the often melodramatic scenes of federal politics that we see played out in the media, the reality is that a lot of exceptional work does happen at a parliamentary committee level. It can sometimes go unnoticed in the mainstream, but its impacts are far reaching. The inquiry into the benefits of breastfeeding is a strong case in point. Yet again, the subsequent report, Best start, has been a trigger for initiatives that have been introduced Australia wide as the National Breastfeeding Strategy. As chair and a strong advocate of that inquiry into the health benefits of breastfeeding, a misogynist I am not.
After 11 years in government under John Howard came the stark reality of being in opposition. As Chief Opposition Whip for three years, I embarked on another learning curve. I learnt that the job also entailed being counsellor, confidant, organiser, shop steward and, most of all, a friend. I served under three leaders. I served under Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. Roger Price, the government whip, and I were the respective shop stewards for our parties. Together we negotiated many conditions for the parliament, including, among other things—and I know this will please some people—payment for shadow ministers. I have also been a trustee of the Parliamentary Superannuation Trust for six years.
When I was first elected I promised myself that I would never do the things people hate about politics. People hate deceit and untrustworthiness in their politicians—perceived or real. My word is my bond and I can honestly say that, in my 23 years in parliament, I have never betrayed a confidence—yet. These values were integral to my work as Chief Opposition Whip. I take this opportunity to thank the special staff who worked with me during that time: Nathan Winn, who is in the gallery today and who has come all the way from Darwin to help me celebrate this day; Robert Hardie; Suzanne Newbury; and Denise Picker.
My parliamentary career has been punctuated by my own health challenges. Whether all my professional aspirations may have been realised had I not endured a stroke in 1993 followed by two lots of heart bypass surgeries, seven angioplasties, a pacemaker, diabetes and cancer in subsequent years—they call me lucky—I will never know. But they say what does not kill you makes stronger. Despite the illnesses, as debilitating as they were, I always continued on with my work here in parliament and in my electorate. Sometimes I just had to do things a little differently. I had to learn to speak again after my stroke. For some time my speech was slow and difficult, but that taught me some valuable lessons about life. It taught me not to take everyday things like the ability to walk or speak for granted; it taught me to be more understanding and compassionate for those with a disability; and it forced me to listen more than I talked.
The people of Fairfax have been extraordinary in their support. Whilst some of the faces and communities have changed over the years with the constant boundary changes, I have been blessed with an electorate that has returned me to office time and time again with increasing margins. I have seen many thousands of constituents during my time as a member, and I have found that the small differences that you can make to people’s lives inevitably have the greatest impact on you. I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s quote: ‘Strive not for success, but rather to be of value.’ I like to think that I have been of value to many in my electorate who sought my help over the years. To the people of Fairfax: thank you for standing by me and believing in me regardless of political persuasion.
How do you condense 24 years of signature activities in an electorate into a few words? I will try to remember some of the achievements. The Sunshine Coast University would not have happened if it were not for my intervention. Simon Crean, the member for Hotham, actually gave the initial approval for the Sunshine Coast University to be built in his term as education and training minister. I was responsible for referring the Traveston Dam to the Commonwealth under the EPBC Act, which resulted in that dam not going ahead and not being built, and for funding for the Nambour, Yandina and Cooroy bypasses. There have been many others, and I am proud of this legacy.
Fairfax is a place that deserves respect and attention, but not as a platform for political stunts. It is not a plaything for billionaires—and we have got one up there that is well known—and I am sure that the people of the electorate will discern the difference between the genuine and the opportunistic.
Longevity in politics is not possible without the great support of many people. You are not elected to parliament on your own. I acknowledge the enduring support and genuine friendships of the party, the branches, the campaign teams and the volunteers. Thank you so very much. Similarly, longevity in the electorate workplace is impossible without loyal, committed and excellent staff. So often I have been complimented on the customer service and competency of my team. I will mention Roz and Lorraine, who are in the gallery, Gillian, Cynthia and Kathy. Lorraine has been with me on and off for 20 years. Gillian has been with me for six years. I can tell the House that she is a cousin of Wayne Swan. She went to Nambour High School, as did Wayne. So that brings about some interesting conversations.
Canberra was once home to me, and there are people who have worked in this House that I have known for 40 years. I will not go through them, in case I miss somebody. I will mention the parliamentary staff; Tim, in the Members Dining Room, who has been excellent in looking after our guests that we take up there; and the long-suffering Comcar drivers and the transport office. Most of all, I want to mention one Comcar driver: Anne Lymberry. Anne Lymberry has provided me with accommodation for the past 11 or 12 years, and it has been great to be able to go home to a family atmosphere.
To my colleagues in this esteemed environment: thank you for your friendship and wisdom. Wisdom is only acquired through time and experience. You cannot learn it from a book and it is not conferred with a university degree—though often it seems to arrive with grey hair. I believe it is a dangerous mistake for leaders to assume that all wisdom in this House lies on their front bench—it does not. Whether you are on the front bench or the back bench, each member has much to offer and, collectively, you have the knowledge, the talent and the wisdom to make extraordinary contributions to this nation and this parliament.
Yes, we need the energy and fresh ideas of younger generations, but we also need to balance that with the experience and wisdom of those who have served in the longer term. I will leave you today with my plea for all of you—like Paul Neville said—to act to restore the respect, trust and confidence of the Australian people in our parliament. I will also leave you with a quote that Jenny gave me from Dr Seuss: ‘Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened.’ Thank you.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Can I add my congratulations to the member for Fairfax for the work he has done and of course for his friendship as a fellow colleague. It being past 1.45 pm, I call on statements from honourable members.