Rob Oakeshott was the independent member for Lyne for five years from 2008 until 2013.
Oakeshott was previously a Nationals and an independent member of the NSW Legislative Assembly. He won Lyne at a by-election in September 2008, following the retirement of the former Nationals leader, Mark Vaile.
Oakeshott was one of the crossbench members of the 43rd Parliament following the 2010 election. He provided strong support to Julia Gillard and the minority Labor government.
He announced his retirement on June 26, 2013, along with his fellow independent, Tony Windsor, the member for New England. Later that day, Julia Gillard was deposed as leader of the ALP and Kevin Rudd returned for a second time as Prime Minister.
Oakeshott delivered his valedictory speech on the final sitting day of the Parliament.
- Listen to Oakeshott’s speech (28m)
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Hansard transcript of Rob Oakeshott’s valedictory speech to the House of Representatives.
Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (13:12): I have enjoyed some ironies over the last half hour: to hear my two-year-old son Ben yelling out, ‘Hurry up!’ to all of you is one. As well, to hear Scott Morrison on behalf of the Liberal and National parties moving a motion to allow me to speak is also greatly appreciated.
Honourable members interjecting—
Mr OAKESHOTT: Yes, as I hear the stopwatches start and the bets get laid on how long I am going to speak for, I did consider being somewhat cute in final words, taking 17 words or 17 seconds to round out 17 years, 17 days and 17 minutes; but there was this overwhelming urge inside of me that says when you have the microphone to use it and say what you think. That won out in the end so, sorry, you are going to suffer one last time.
I have just come from a morning tea with some committee staff on the Public Accounts Committee, staff on the NBN committee, friends, people seconded from Indonesia, staff who have travelled from home, some who work here on a more regular basis, family who have travelled, Tony Windsor’s family, and a few MPs and the Auditor-General who dropped in to that morning tea as well. The Parliamentary Budget Officer dropped in—the new Parliamentary Budget Officer—he said I have to stop calling him that, and that is why I have. Like all who have done valedictories and mentioned the staff in the building, I use this as an opportunity to just capture everyone in this place as a way of saying a very big thank you. I support strongly the words that have been said by everyone about the cleaners, the drivers and the works. You do a valuable job. There is a great spirit and camaraderie. The confidentiality is something that we should not take lightly. I have certainly appreciated it in my five years in this place and it is something that I hope continues and is respected.
It has been 17 years in public life. It has been six elections and five years here—and three at the front end of this under the pump from all of you. There have been 585 bills negotiated through this place, 300 private members’ motions and bills and an awful lot of committee work. And the moment is right for me. I am basically a bit tired. A curious mind has explored this place and is looking forward to new challenges. I would not and could not go into an election campaign and into three more years and be a 90 per cent politician rather than a 100 per cent politician. So, to be honest to myself and my community, the time is right for me. To put to bed any of those allegations made by some that it is some sort of fear of losing, nothing could be further from the truth.
Ms Gillard interjecting—
Mr OAKESHOTT: Thank you, Julia. The ballot box is something that, if it was to be feared, none of us would be here. It is a game that we all have to in some way be ready to lose. I can say to everyone in this room that I hope you understand that any of that mischief simply is not true. It is less about any fear of losing and more about a respect for winning. In the next three years I have some other commitments, and four of them you can see bouncing around the public gallery, and hopefully they make it to the end of these words—hello. That is just an example of mine and of my heart. Whilst fully honoured by the joys of this place and the need for reform in our country, there are greener pastures and greater challenges for me.
I will reflect on some of the history—and it will be, I think, only five points. Firstly, I hope history when it is written does not write these as difficult years of minority government. These have been incredibly rewarding years for, I hope, everyone involved to be here in this moment in time—an extraordinary moment of time that none of us chose and there was no manual for. We all had to in the most subjective of professions try to work it out as best we could with what we had. It has been an enriching experience to be part of that and rewarding for the nation due to the amount of reform work that has been achieved. I hope the convenient rhetoric does not kill the reality.
I have mentioned the sheer number of bills that have passed—87 per cent of which were bipartisan and 13 per cent are in dispute. I know the Australian cricket team does not like that number, but 87 per cent bipartisan and 13 per cent in dispute to me sounds about right in any parliament with any government. In parliaments past or future, I think that sort of number would be the same. That amount of work has had some big issues of substance.
Agreements were reached at the start of this parliament and handshakes done. People looked each other in the eyes and said that we were going to do this, this and this. That has pretty well all been delivered. We have made it. The fact that we are here today on the last sitting day of a full term proves that point. Supply has been delivered. In a bipartisan way, three budgets have passed. Confidence has been delivered in the parliament. There has not been a motion of no confidence. Even today there was no motion of no confidence in the executive government or in a Prime Minister moved.
People are going to write about political parties and the internal issues involved. In my view, on one side there has been an enormous amount of instability on full show over the last three years. As well, from the other side, there has been a grabbing of the opportunity strategically to shake the tree as hard as possible and to destabilise it. From my point of view as, ultimately, a loyalist to the parliament and a loyalist to the office of Prime Minister, I leave optimistic and confident that parliamentary democracy and the parliament itself is stronger than all of it. Again, the very fact that we are here today proves that point.
I leave as someone who made law. I was joking about it before with someone. There are eight private members’ bills that have passed the parliament. I sponsored two of them. One made it halfway there. It was the Bali bill that got through this House in a very emotional debate and then got knocked off in the Senate for a whole number of reasons. I think it is the unfinished business of future parliaments, whoever is in them, to resolve the issues in and around asylum seeker and refugee issues that are dressing themselves up as border protection issues and the either/or choices that are being put to the Australian community—it is either onshore or offshore; it is either community detention or mandatory detention; it is either Malaysia or Manus Island. This is not an either/or choice; it is going to be a little bit of everything. That is the answer. The regional solution and working with near neighbours is the direction that I hope remains the bipartisan direction through that Bali process, established in 2002 and continuing on today. So that was the one that did not make it.
The one that did make it, though, was the Auditor-General Amendment Bill, which allows the Auditor-General to follow the money trail. I was joking with the member for Melbourne and the member for Kingsford Smith earlier. Hearing the news that the member for Kingsford Smith is leaving disappoints me but certainly I will see him in the surf somewhere. I was making the point to them that the Australian Education Bill is arguably the significant reform of this parliament. I think to blow up a funding formula that was rubbish and leading to disadvantage is a credit to everyone involved. So, jokingly, I was saying, ‘I got my Auditor-General’s bill through.’ The member for Melbourne kindly said he ran into someone on the streets of the Melbourne who said that was really important. So one person noticed.
Mr Windsor: Name him.
Mr OAKESHOTT: I think he worked for the Victorian auditor. So I can walk away doing something that not many have done—that has been to make a law. I also have just caught up with the Parliamentary Budget Office, a significant reform in all the parliamentary reforms that I think will stand the test of time. We will see more of the Parliamentary Budget Office over the coming weeks of the election campaign where fact checking and lifting of the policy debate to the higher values rather than the lower ones are needed.
I probably have to mention the ’17 minutes’ thing. Look, I own it. When others stood back I stood forward. That was an incredibly difficult time in Australian political history. There was no manual. Literally, we all were working it out on our feet. I will stand at the front of the queue to say not only that but also that there were bigger mistakes made over the last three years. I do not resile from those words spoken in that 17 minutes. I said I campaigned at two elections to get an emissions trading scheme sorted out in Australia. We have done it. I talked about delivering equity in telecommunications and the need to have the deepest fibre possible in our infrastructure. We are doing it. I talked about equity in education not only in the secondary education that went through the Senate yesterday but also in the Bradley reforms, which work for exactly the same reasons. I know they are changing the lives of many people in regional Australia.
I talked about constitutional recognition that both major parties have promised. We have got some of the way. We have a piece of legislation that says in the next two years we will maybe have a look at it. I really do hope that bill means something and that whoever is in the next parliament actually deals with what is the great open wound in this country. That is how we reconcile with the First Australians.
You can knock it all you want. I think I heard the jokes all around me when I stood up to talk today about 17 minutes. There are a few smiles from people now feeling guilty. But everything said in that speech has been done and has been delivered. I more than enjoy the jokes. I own that 17 minutes for the work that is contained within it.
I am incredibly proud of working with many people in our local community. As others have said in their valedictories, no-one does this on their own. There is always a support network and there are always the people who do the grunt work of applications and the detailed work of applying for this or that to allow us to then be the kelpie dog down here trying to chase it.
In the more than 12 years I have spent in state parliament the big feature piece of work was trying to deal with a privatised public hospital in Port Macquarie which really divided our community. That has now been returned into public hands and is expanding to meet the enormous growth on the North Coast of New South Wales. This year would be the 20th year of that contract. If we had not done that in a ‘build, own, operate, transfer’ model where there would not have been investment to match growth we would have one helluva problem in a high-growth community with enormous demands on services. I am not arguing the pros and cons of privatisation of hospitals, but that contract had holes all through it and we would have had a problem right now if it had not been dealt with 10 years ago, so I am thrilled that we are seeing future growth. I am thrilled that because of agreements reached in this parliament we managed to get the investment of $1.8 billion into over 130 regional hospitals, Port Macquarie being one of them.
I am also thrilled about the education ball that is now rolling on the mid-north coast. We had an incredibly low figure of only 12 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds having a bachelor degree or higher in our region. I think that would be reflected in some other regions of a low SES nature. When the aspirational Bradley targets of 40 per cent by 2020 or 2025 were made, our community laughed and said it was impossible and off the page. Then our local council said, ‘No, we going to set this aspirational target.’ We got skills and education forums working locally in three locations.
I take my hat off to Prime Minister Gillard—I will still call you Prime Minister—when she was Deputy Prime Minister and education minister she helped to start that strategy rolling. It is delivering on a number of fronts. We have the University of New South Wales who from 2015 will deliver a full medicine degree in our community. We have Charles Sturt University rolling out oral health clinics and a food, soil and water research clinic, and wanting to build a campus. We have a model where TAFE facilities and other universities in pathways and collaboration are working together to put the focus on students, not over the fence on other universities, the TAFE sector or the schools sector, trying to be competitive. That is the model that we have invested in that is now starting to bear fruit.
The point of mentioning both of those is the third one which I am most proud about at a local level—that is the culture for our community. We were a community that accepted indifference in representation. We were a community that thought excuses from government were just normal business—that is the way it was done. We have challenged that and hopefully proven that to be an unacceptable model for the future. I hope that, from the results we have seen from challenging existing political culture, whether it is a political party in the future that represents the area or not, the absolute blowtorch of the community will be on that representative to deliver. That is the point of the exercise for me, and I hope, in representation for all.
I struggled at the start of my career with wearing the party jersey. I could not run on the field with the two jerseys of political party and community. I know that others reconcile it in different ways in their heads. I was always that square peg in a round hole that just could not do the party line. I do not bear any grudges with anyone over the events at the start of my career, but I think the politest and most diplomatic framing of it was: I did not do my due diligence on them and they did not do their due diligence on me. I still maintain many friends within the National Party in particular and within the coalition side. Hopefully, those friendships can be maintained, as on the Labor side. Many friendships have been built over that same period.
At no time did our region lay claim to doing everything through this three-year period or through the 17 years. But what we have done is stand up proudly as a region and lay claim to doing something. At no time did I think I could do everything, as some reporting seemed to suggest. All I wanted to do was do something. At no time did I ever think I was the only MP. But I am one and, in that role, I leave satisfied that something has been done that I have contributed to.
I want to touch on three thankyous. When I look around this room I see a moment pretty well shared, and a good laugh, for something that has occurred with pretty well everyone in this room, including those upstairs—not over there; I do not think I know any of you, but I look forward to meeting you when I am out of this joint! This is a way of collectively saying: good friends all round and good luck. Firstly, the bloke sitting next to me, the member for New England. We went for a walk two days ago. Normally, when all your parties meet, we just go for a stroll and catch up because there is not much going on and we swap gossip. I was chasing him down to make sure we did the walk. I was going to tell him: ‘I’m leaving.’ He beat me to it. For those who are all getting a bit conspiratorial about the events of the last 48 hours, can I say that I literally found out two days ago that Tony was leaving and he found out about a minute later that I was leaving.
I consider Tony the best in the business. Hopefully, no-one takes offence at that. I had always seen Tony from afar. We are neighbouring members of parliament, but there is a mountain range in between and a horrible windy road, the Oxley Highway, that makes it a difficult road to drive in order to catch up. You get to the end of it and you want to vomit. It is not the sort of way to say hello. So we actually see each other down here more than we see each other at home. I had admired him from afar and then, at the start of this parliament—the start of these three years—there was that moment when all hell broke loose. What do we do? In any working life, you come across people who leave a huge impression and to have found someone at that moment I felt incredibly honoured and lucky. He leaves me with a lasting impression for all my days. I want to thank Tony for that. I consider his mix of honour in the way he does business, his smarts and that little dose of cunning that seems to outfox most of you in this place most of the time are the skills that, in my view, give him the title of ‘Best in the business’.
Secondly, the person sitting next to Tony: Julia Gillard. I could say many things and I have said many things. I hope you have seen them over the last few days, because I have been in the public square saying, ‘We all view our politics through our own eyes.’ Australian citizens, quite rightly, form judgements only on what is available to them. I am the same: I can only form my judgements on what is available to me. I am not going to jump with the pitchfork mob and say that Julia Gillard is a bad person. She is a person who I knew a bit about as Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister but then, over the years, I got to know very well, because we had to. Through my eyes, she has upheld her part of the agreement. We shook hands at the start of this parliament, we looked each other in the eye and we said, ‘We want it to run full term; we want supply and confidence to be delivered; we want to get some things done for regional Australia; we want a reform agenda through the parliament; and we want to lift parliamentary standards and committee work to improve.’ We have done it. So for that, I dip my lid, and say, ‘Well done, Prime Minister.’ Julia, I also hope you got my text and I hope you do not mind my mentioning it. About 10 minutes before a party room ballot last night—we all get a bit of a sense of what is going on in the joint—I sent the then Prime Minister a text that said her father would be proud of her.
I am a father of daughters and very proud of it. Some of the things that have been said in the last three years have been discussed. They cannot be accepted, whatever happens from hereon. We have to find a way to get back in control of the public square and this is the place where that happens. The fringe has invaded the middle; it has to be put back on the fringe. We all deal with it. I remember sitting in the back of a bus in Broken Hill, on an NBN trip, and we all swapped stories about crazy emails that we all look at and go: ‘I can’t believe this is a view that is held in Australia today.’ It is off its lead. We have got to do something about it and if it takes a few of us to fall on swords to fix it, then so be it. The nation needs to deal with it; this parliament needs to deal with it. I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years to meet ugly Australia and just to see the width and depth of ugly Australia. I leave here optimistic. I am proud of my country. I think we are a resilient, entrepreneurial, strong and exciting nation, but we have got to deal with ugly Australia—we have got to deal with it somehow.
My final comment is to my best friend. Seventeen years ago I took a bit of a risk in a speech when I was not married and mentioned my girlfriend. I am glad that is not a broken promise. After 17 years I still consider Sara-Jane my best friend: while everyone else has said the same about partners, it has been an extraordinary effort that you have made over this time. You can see we have very young family—well, you can see two of them. Our family is so young that two can’t look over the edge! Are they still there or are they ripping around the building? We have four young kids and Sara has basically done most of it on her own. I do not want to be that politician who stands up here and gives the guilt speech in 10 years time about being an absent father. I do value the role as a father and I do want to give it quality as well as quantity time. Sara, thank you. I know we are both very excited about the next chapters of our lives.
How close to 17 minutes am I—have I done it? I will finish just by saying: I did the best with what I’ve got, and if someone thinks they can do better, knock yourself out. I think that is the same for all of us. There is plenty of criticism that we attract. I will leave as the great defender of our profession, of the demands on all our lives and of the importance of the institution of the parliament, the office of the Prime Minister and the institutions and expert advice around here. I am ultimately a loyalist to those three and hopefully in the future more can join me. Thank you and good luck.
The SPEAKER (13:39): I thank the member for Lyne for a wonderful valedictory speech and for a wonderful time in this parliament, particularly his support in the new paradigm and his work in the chair.