This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Dave Sharma, the Liberal member for Wentworth, NSW.
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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Dave Sharma, Liberal member for Wentworth.
The SPEAKER: Before I call the honourable member for Wentworth, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend the usual courtesies to him.
Mr SHARMA (Wentworth) (17:55): Like many who call Australia home, my story starts on the other side of the world. My father was born to an Indian family in the West Indies, the youngest of nine children. His family, of modest background and means, worked hard and saved in order to send him to university in London. He arrived just after the war had ended, becoming the first in his family to receive a formal education. It was in London that he met my mother, an Australian girl from Sydney. Like many of her generation, she had sailed to London in the early 1960s looking for an adventure. They fell in love, married and started a family together. My elder twin sisters, Melanie and Belinda, were born in Trinidad and Tobago. I was born in Canada. Before going any further, I do wish to reassure you, Mr Speaker, and everyone else here that I am absolutely no longer a Canadian citizen!
I am honoured to be here representing the electorate of Wentworth, one of the most diverse electorates of any in the country. It’s a place of breathtaking beauty and home to many Australian icons, from the lapping waves of Watsons Bay to the roaring surf of Bondi Beach and from the test match crowds at the SCG to the glitz and colour of Oxford Street. Wentworth’s wealth is more cultural than material, woven from the waves of migrants—Jews, Greeks, South Africans and Russians—who have found sanctuary and a home there. There is a tolerance that finds further expression in a large and vibrant gay community. I am not native to Wentworth. Indeed, I am not native to Australia. But in the best traditions of many before me, my family and I have made it our home. I wish to thank the people of Wentworth deeply for the trust they have placed in me.
My family arrived in Australia in the 1970s and settled in Sydney. A happy childhood was altered abruptly when my mother, Diana, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Mum fought bravely, but she succumbed to cancer when I was 12. These were not easy times for my dad, my sisters and me or for my mum’s family, many of whom are here this evening, each of whom lovingly helped with the job of raising me once my mum had departed. I was the beneficiary of a great public education at my local high school. My former principal is here this evening, as are some of my oldest and dearest school friends.
I did well enough at school to be offered a place at the University of Cambridge, which I took up with relish. After three years there, I was driven by a sense of service and duty to give back to the country that had given me and my family such opportunities. That brought me back to Australia and into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. My first assignment was with the Australian Defence Force in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, where we had a peacekeeping force. I was stationed in Bougainville and in Port Moresby for over three years, spending my days in negotiations with militants and separatists and my nights often in a stretcher bed under a mosquito net. Working as part of team Australia, we helped achieve a durable peace to the most bloody conflict that the Pacific had seen since the Second World War. Australia has unique responsibilities towards this part of the world, and I am pleased to see the focus on our near neighbourhood increasing under this government.
After my time in Papua New Guinea, I worked for Alexander Downer during the Howard government, one of the longest lasting and most productive partnerships of Australian foreign policy. Yes, I’m one of the Alexander Downer alumni, but I think I’m the laggard; the others are all on the front bench! I went on to serve at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC in the post 9/11 era before helping lead the international division in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet during Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister—a leader whom I still regard fondly.
It was from here and by a Labor government that I was appointed Australia’s Ambassador to Israel. My four years in that role left me with a high degree of admiration and respect for the state of Israel, the Jewish people and all they have achieved under tremendously trying circumstances. It also gave me a deep affection for the Australian Jewish community, which has made an outsized contribution to all spheres of Australian life and to the nation we are today.
It is one of Australia’s great institutional strengths that we have an independent federal Public Service which at its best is creative, a rich source of ideas, blunt in its advice but unswervingly loyal to the government of the day. I learnt from many of Australia’s most experienced and formidable public servants during my career, amongst them Dennis Richardson, Nick Warner and Duncan Lewis. I hope the Public Service continues to nurture and support leaders like this, with big intellects and forceful personalities, because we are better as a nation for it.
There are many other stories like mine throughout Australia. Many of these are more impressive and dramatic than my own. But my story, and all the other stories out there like it, would, I am quite certain, only be possible in Australia—in my own case, to go from being an immigrant to Australia of Indian background to an ambassador for Australia and now a member of our federal parliament within one generation. Together these stories are what makes our country so great: that everyone is given an opportunity to get ahead; that individuals are judged on their merit and the content of their character; that the possibilities are endless for people who are determined and work hard; that no-one is imprisoned or has their fate preordained by the modest circumstances of their birth or the postcode of their childhood; that, no matter the language you speak at home or the religion in which you are raised, you can achieve great things and be welcomed wholeheartedly as an Australian; and that your gender and your sexual orientation play no part in defining the possibilities of your life. Let us never lose sight of the fact that this is what makes Australia so great a country. We must always strive to do better, but truly we are a land of opportunity.
Twenty years spent representing Australia overseas taught me two important lessons: first, that Australia is the best country in the world without question—how good is Australia, I ask you!—and, second, that nations are fragile and we can never afford to take Australia’s success for granted. I marvel daily at the sheer audacity that is Australia. We are a small group of people laying claim to a vast and resource-rich continent, with much of our population having arrived only quite recently and from the four corners of the globe. In the historical blink of an eye we have transformed ourselves into a nation which is united, harmonious, prosperous and secure. We are one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. In our Indigenous Australians we have one of its oldest continuing civilisations. We have one of the world’s largest middle classes, which, as Aristotle first noted, is an essential component for the political stability of democracies. Social and income mobility in Australia are high. Yes, we have our imperfections—amongst them, ensuring Australia’s original inhabitants are participating fully in the life of the nation—but we are one of this planet’s most successful and envied countries.
Our sheer and uninterrupted success as a nation tends to foster a belief that somehow this is all preordained. You only need to arrive in Australia with the fresh eyes and grateful heart of an immigrant to comprehend that this is not so. Indeed, it is complacency that poses one of the greatest risks to us as a nation. The world beyond Australia is changing rapidly. Not only is global economic and strategic weight shifting but the system which governs the interaction of states—the world order, if you like—is coming under strain.
In Australia, three pillars have underpinned our security and guaranteed our freedom since our emergence as a modern nation. First, our splendid isolation has given us a large measure of security. As an island nation at one end of the globe, not sitting astride major trading routes, our borders are highly defensible. Whilst the tyranny of distance has been an obstacle to overcome for our economic development, in strategic terms it’s been a blessing.
Second, we’ve enjoyed strategic alliances with the major naval powers of the day, first Great Britain and today the United States. These allies have safeguarded the seas and our major trading routes, allowing us to trade freely and underwriting much of our prosperity.
Third, we’ve been the beneficiary of a world order which has guaranteed the rights of all nations, not just the powerful. This global order was created under the leadership of the United States and its allies at the end of the Second World War. It remains one of the most enlightened and benign exercises in global leadership by a great power. It feels so much like the furniture that we often forget that the alternative is where, in the words of Thucydides, ‘The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must’ is the form of order which has governed the interaction between states for much of human history.
Each of these three pillars is now under some strain or challenge. Australia’s remoteness is no longer the security buffer it once was. The dependence of our modern economy and modern society on digital and communications platforms means that foreign actors have many more tools at their disposal to disrupt or attack Australia from afar. The changing nature of statecraft too, with blurred divisions between war and peace, and the growing use of active measures and grey-zone operations, makes an open and free society like Australia especially vulnerable. An adversary no longer needs to be able to physically reach Australia in order to coerce, threaten or influence us.
As geopolitical power is redistributed, the relative power of the United States—the margin it enjoys over others—is declining, even if it will remain the dominant global actor for the foreseeable future. In East Asia in particular, we see challenges to US supremacy. Of equal concern is the risk of a diminished US appetite for global leadership. It’s a United States that is less willing to underwrite the foundations of the current global system and more inclined to cherrypick it, focusing more narrowly on its own national interests. This is a legitimate choice for the American people and their government to make. It nonetheless changes the outlook for Australia considerably.
Finally, the post World War II order is coming under strain. We see this in the South China Sea, where long-standing rights and norms such as freedom of navigation and the features that give rise to territorial waters are being bluntly ignored. We see this in trade, where the idea of rules based trade and an independent umpire to settle trade disputes—the World Trade Organization—is being sidelined. More generally, we see an approach where the relative power of nations dictates the outcome of disputes between them—a Hobbesian order where might is right. Such an order will never serve the interests of a country like ours well.
What does all this mean for Australia? Our strategic holiday is over. Our neighbourhood is getting tougher. The certainties on which we’ve depended for decades are no longer so certain. We will need to rely more on ourselves and less on others in safeguarding our freedoms and our independence. This has implications for the share of resources we devote to defence and national security, which will surely need to increase over time; the posture of our defence and diplomatic services, both of which must become more capable and more active in safeguarding our interests; and our ability to rely on global supply chains to meet key needs.
In our external affairs, we will need to mature into more of an actor and less of an observer. It also has implications for the choices we face as a nation. At times, we may need to pay an economic or political price—a trade opportunity forgone, a market missed, a bumpy period in diplomatic relations—in order to retain our freedom of action as an independent and sovereign nation, or to stand up for values we support, or to uphold key principles in the current global order. We need to be prepared for tough decisions and trade-offs that may lie ahead.
In Australia, we are now in our 28th year of continuous economic expansion. Two generations of Australians currently in the workforce, my own included, have not known a recession. This is a remarkable achievement. But for Australia to remain a high-living-standard, high-wage economy with a generous social safety net—what we have all come to expect—then our productivity needs to be high, and we need to be operating at the upper end of the value chain. The rapid advance of technology is changing the nature of wealth creation in advanced economies such as our own. In 1967, the largest US companies by market capitalisation—and the main drivers of US prosperity—were General Motors, Standard Oil, Kodak, AT&T and IBM. Fifty years later, the top ranks of the Dow Jones index are dominated by technology companies: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. These companies are about data rather than goods, services rather than products, and spaces rather than places. A quick glance at the ASX20 suggests we’re yet to make this transition. We have a lot of good companies which employ technology in their operations; we don’t yet have a lot of good technology companies.
In Australia, we have a highly skilled workforce, we have great research institutions and universities, and we have deep and sophisticated capital markets. We have not yet got the policy settings right, however, to help combine all these elements together, so that we commercialise and scale more Australian ideas in Australia, so that we create an environment which is more supportive of start-ups and disruptive, technology orientated companies. If my time as ambassador to Israel has taught me one thing, it is how valuable a thriving technology sector can be for the dynamism and health of the rest of the economy. This isn’t about job losses; it’s about capturing the jobs of the future, in areas such as quantum computing, cyber, artificial intelligence, space, clean energy, defence technology and automation. The nature of value creation is changing, and the Australian economy needs to keep up.
Of equal importance is making the best use of the assets we have, including our workforce. The reality of modern family life is that both partners usually work. Once children come along, the cost and availability of child care, the interaction between the tax and transfer systems, and the norms of workplaces usually force one parent to make a choice. My wife, Rachel, and I have ourselves faced such a choice. One parent, usually the mother, either cuts back their hours, takes a job for which they are overqualified but which offers flexibility, or opts out of the workforce altogether. This is not just a tough reality for those who would like to continue working and pursuing their career; it is also a lost economic opportunity for the country. The rate of female participation in the Australian workforce is 10 percentage points lower than it is for men. Halving this gap between male and female workforce participation would be one of the most impactful and meaningful economic reforms we could pursue.
During my time as Australia’s ambassador to Israel, I dealt with only one Israeli Prime Minister, but I served four different Australian prime ministers. This level of political instability has not served Australia well. It has eroded public trust in the political class. It has made crafting effective and responsible policies on long-term challenges like climate change more difficult. I hope we have now, through internal party reform, put this behind us. If we are serious about preserving the stability of our political system, however, and encouraging better governance, then four-year parliamentary terms should be our goal. With three-year terms, a federal election is always just around the corner. The steady drip of opinion polls and a relentless media cycle accelerates this. Good policies often do not have the time to yield visible results, and political survival takes precedence. All state parliaments now have four-year terms, as do most benchmark international parliaments. Constitutional change would be required to effect this and I don’t underestimate the difficulty in doing this, but, as part of a broader set of constitutional reforms, I believe it is worth considering.
Wentworth has produced some esteemed parliamentarians, and I do wish to pay tribute to one predecessor in particular: Malcolm Turnbull, who served the community of Wentworth and his nation with passion and distinction and who was kind enough to give me a call earlier today, wishing me well.
I stand here, however, not only as a representative of Wentworth but also as a member of the Liberal Party. Though no political party enjoys a monopoly on wisdom or virtue, I believe that, in our party’s support for the rights and aspirations and dignity of individuals; in our view that we should seek to govern for all Australians, and that the country succeeds when we all do well; and, in the priority we place on economic management and national security as the foremost duties of any government, we remain the party most relevant to the demands and needs and aspirations of modern Australia.
No partnership could be more important to me than that I have shared with my wife, Rachel, for almost 15 years. Together we have seen much of the world, brought into being three wonderful daughters—Diana, Estella and Daphne—and shared many an adventure along the way. Hi, girls! We have enough tales of drama, tragedy, comedy and sheer excitement to already fill a book. But my love for her, and indeed our marriage, feels as fresh as that of newlyweds. In addition to being an accomplished practitioner of international law and a wonderful mother, Rachel’s claims to Wentworth are, in fact, better than mine. It was one of her ancestors, Owen Cavanaugh, who dragged Captain Phillip’s launch ashore at Camp Cove as dark approached on 26 January 1788. She frequently drags us all out to Ebenezer, the family burial place, to pay homage to this lineage.
The result in Wentworth was hard fought, with two elections held within the space of seven months. I cannot thank enough the many volunteers who turned up, and those who turned out to support me as a candidate throughout this long campaign—from the Prime Minister to the Treasurer and other senior ministers, federal and state MPs and senators, local party members and the party organisation. We had literally hundreds of volunteers—many politically active for the first time in their life; some from interstate, some even from overseas—involved in this campaign. They gave unstinting support, without qualification. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. I said to friends and supporters at my campaign launch—well, my second campaign launch!—many of whom are here this evening: ‘Let’s get it done, Wentworth.’ Well, we did get it done, and I promise to work tirelessly to repay the trust the voters of Wentworth have placed in me.
I must also make a special thanks to the Australian Indian community, who adopted me as one of their own, despite my poor command of Hindi and below-average cricket ability, and who have made such an enriching contribution to our national fabric and national life.
I am conscious that many of my colleagues here leave this place and go on to become ambassadors. I seem to be undertaking the journey in reverse. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Perhaps I know something they don’t. Regardless, I hope my transition to parliamentary life is as seamless as theirs to diplomatic life. Thank you.