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James Stevens (Lib-Sturt) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by James Stevens, Liberal member for Sturt, South Australia.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by James Stevens, Liberal member for Sturt.

The SPEAKER (16:28): The question is that the address be agreed to. Before I call the honourable member for Sturt, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech and I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.

Mr STEVENS (Sturt) (16:28): Mr Speaker, can I start by congratulating you on your deserved re-election as Speaker of this parliament. I look forward to behaving myself to the extent that the rest of my colleagues seem to under your firm but fair chairmanship.

Can I also acknowledge all of my colleagues in the class of 2019. It has been a great pleasure to listen to the amazing stories of so many of my colleagues over the past few weeks. It seems to me that delivering your maiden speech is akin to delivering your own eulogy. Listening to my colleagues, I’ve decided it’s important for me to hang in there a bit longer and try and put a bit more meat on the bone of what I have done so far in my life. I feel highly inadequate in the company of so many people who have come to this place having already achieved such great things and no doubt will all go on to still greater heights in this chamber.

It is my honour to represent the beautiful eastern and north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide. My electorate of Sturt is one of the largest in this chamber, with more than 120,000 constituents, stretching from thetollgate at the South Eastern Freeway to Grand Junction Road. Sturt is the home of the iconic Penfolds Magill Estate, and the birthplace of their flagship shiraz, the Penfolds Grange. We have produced four Nobel prize winners, most particularly Lord Howard Florey, who I believe, as the pioneer of the development of penicillin, has made the greatest humanitarian contribution to the world of any Australian in our history.

I was preselected as the Liberal Party candidate a mere eight weeks before the 18 May election. This was a short window of time for me to campaign throughout the electorate, but nonetheless it was still enough time for me to deepen the already strong connection I had with this beautiful part of the world. I was born in my electorate 36 years ago, and it is the greatest honour of my life to be able to represent the people of Sturt in the House of Representatives. They have placed their trust in me, and I will ensure that every day, especially those when I am here in this chamber, that I remember and respect the incredible responsibility that I have to serve them and always be motivated to act in their best interests as their member of parliament.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the seat of Sturt. I am honoured to become only the sixth person to represent the seat in that 70 years. My immediate predecessor, Christopher Pyne, represented the people of Sturt for a record 26 years. He was the longest-serving non-Labor federal member of parliament in South Australian history. This is a record I do not intend to break. Christopher’s legacy for his electorate, his state and his nation is of a remarkable scale and longevity. In particular, his contribution in the defence portfolios during his final term in the parliament will transform the capability of our armed forces and provide a baseload to the South Australian industrial capacity for decades to come.

His further legacy, whether viewed positively or not by members of this House, is my presence in this chamber today. Christopher Pyne has been a dear friend, mentor and political ally of mine for almost 20 years. I was fortunate to have his strong support for my candidacy to enter the parliament and succeed him as the member for Sturt. He is here in the gallery today and I wish to thank him again for his support of me and my career in the past and hopefully also into the future.

Becoming a member of this parliament represents the third major career change of my adult life. I have been lucky to always commence a new career pathway in unexpected circumstances and with some regret at leaving behind the one before. I spent most of my twenties working for the iconic South Australian merino wool company, Michell. I was the commercial manager and subsequently general manager of the textile division, and spent many years travelling throughout the world marketing Australian merino wool to textile companies and fashion houses. My customer base was in Europe and North America, and my supply chain stretched through Asia, Africa and the South Pacific. My time working in the commodity textiles sector was transformative for my commercial acumen, but particularly for my understanding and appreciation of the fact that we produce some the highest quality primary products in the world and that exports underpin the capacity of our nation of 25 million people to continue to grow our wealth and living standards to the benefit of all Australians.

Six years ago, the now Premier of South Australia, Steven Marshall, who is also in the gallery today, became leader of the South Australian Liberal Party. He offered me the opportunity to serve as his Chief of Staff, which I accepted with a great enthusiasm to be a part of leading the South Australian team back into government after a prolonged period in opposition. The pathway back to government took a little longer than either of us planned, but in March last year I was honoured to play my part in the Liberal Party’s successful campaign that saw Steven Marshall become Premier and the Liberal Party returned to government after 16 years of Labor rule.

South Australia now has a precious opportunity that is rare in our history. We have two Liberal governments at the state and federal level, neither of which faces an election for almost three years. The last time this occurred was in the late 1990s.

This presents a phenomenal opportunity for reformist policy making. We all know that complex problems and opportunities are difficult to pursue when one eye is firmly on the ballot box. Some reforms take time to demonstrate their full value to the people, particularly when up against the modern 24-hour news cycle.

I am excited for the opportunities for my state that will be possible with the Marshall and Morrison governments working together to drive the prosperity of my state and fully exploit the opportunities we have, underpinned by recent decisions around naval shipbuilding, the national Space Agency, our city deal and the massive co-investment in skills, training and apprenticeships for the jobs of the future. This can be a golden era, and I will ensure that I play my part so that we take every opportunity to achieve the full value of what this period can provide.

I first started following politics in the early days of the Howard government. In particular, as I became more inquisitive about politics, one of the major industrial relations battles of my lifetime was playing out on the Australian waterfront. This was one of the many battles over the decades between a recalcitrant union movement and reformist governments seeking to enhance productivity and thus prosperity for our economy.

The labour movement have succeeded in achieving important reforms in this nation, such as the minimum wage, the eight-hour day and child labour laws. These all date from the nineteenth century.

The role of the union movement in the 20th century deserves close scrutiny and critique. The waterfront battles of the nineties were nasty, but were of course only one of many instances of union warlords seeking to protect their own sinecures and indulgences at the expense of reforms designed to lift workers’ wages and the living standards of all Australians.

In the early 20th century, elements of the union movement became a bastion of the Communist Party. During the Second World War, industrial action caused significant disruption to the war effort, particularly the regular and comprehensive strikes in the New South Wales coal sector and even the disruption of the loading of critical supplies at Australian ports destined for Allied forces in the South Pacific. For shame!

In the postwar period, there were countless instances of labour movement collusion with the Soviet Union. Industrial sabotage, pattern bargaining, wildcat strike action, blockading of ports, blackballing of corporate appointments, compulsory collective bargaining—I could go on and on and on.

In the 21st century, the old dinosaur apparatus of the labour movement can stay in place as far as I’m concerned, as it has been very helpful in collapsing union membership amongst the workforce but even more importantly in assisting the Labor Party to lose elections. It is time, however, to place proper and sensible boundaries around the activities of the union movement, and others, when it comes to our democracy.

In the Liberal Party, like all formal political actors, we are strong and fierce fighters at election time. We are also subject to proper and appropriate transparency, oversight, disclosure and integrity measures so as to ensure that the people of Australia have confidence that they decide who makes decisions on their behalf.

I have noticed, in recent years, the forces of the left establish a kind of political paramilitary capability that is able to operate outside the rules that formal parties have to observe. The recent election in particular highlighted the urgent need for electoral reform in the interests of safeguarding our democracy.

Having made my antipathy towards the union movement abundantly clear, I would like to balance the scales by talking about a political movement of great virtue and distinction within our democracy—the Liberal Party. I first joined the Liberal Party at the age of 16; thus, later this year will be my 20th anniversary of membership. When I joined the party, John Howard was Prime Minister and John Olsen was the South Australian Premier.

I never had any hesitation as to my political leanings, even at that young age, but I also had a desire to become politically active. I felt that good Liberal governments are only possible if they have the support of a strong party membership. When I first joined the Liberal Party, I never thought that, nearly 20 years later, I would represent my party on the ballot paper for a seat in the House of Representatives. I never could have imagined that the army of volunteers and supporters whose ranks I joined would select, through a democratic preselection process, me to be their candidate and would then support me with their time and money to become a member of parliament. The Liberal Party has given me so much in my life. I have served in a variety of capacities over the years, but to be a member of the federal parliamentary Liberal party room is a unique and cherished honour. The recent election result was a particular highlight of my time in professional politics. Apart from my own personal success, more importantly the election victory for our party and the coalition was one of my proudest moments as a Liberal Party member.

I wish to pay tribute and thank the federal director, Andrew Hirst; federal president, Nick Greiner; and the entire federal campaign team. I also thank south Australian state director, Sascha Meldrum; state president John Olsen; and the team at the South Australian headquarters. Most importantly, to Prime Minister Scott Morrison: congratulations on your leadership of our campaign, one which answered the deepest prayers of so many of our most loyal supporters. It was a night when I felt so proud to be an Australian. It was a result that showed that Australians will not be turned against each other and that aspiration and a fair go are central to the values that we all hold dear.

My electorate of Sturt is named for Captain Charles Sturt, who, amongst many fine achievements, was the first European to explore the River Murray. This river system is the lifeblood of my electorate and the 1.6 million South Australians whose water supply it provides. Mark Twain once said, ‘Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over.’ This musing was beginning to be put to the test amongst the Murray-Darling Basin communities at the beginning of this century as the millennium drought exposed the reality that the river system was under enormous pressure from the over-extraction of water and that it faced the real risk of environmental collapse if changes were not made to the way in which we managed the use of what, in many ways, is the most precious natural resource on the driest continent on earth.

John Howard provided exceptional leadership to this process. It was his government that legislated for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was subsequently developed by the Rudd-Gillard government and implemented in 2011. It is a plan to ensure the environmental health and sustainability of the entire basin system and to support and share this burden across all of the communities that it sustains. It brings together all levels of government under national leadership to work together in the best interests of a common consensus that we must have a sustainable river system and that without cooperation we cannot achieve that long-term sustainability.

The plan is far from universally supported. In fact, I think it is fair to say that there is no particular stakeholder, community or government that has had its expectations satisfied under the plan. This proves that the balance of the plan is fair and equitable. If the plan were loved by one section of the basin, it would prove that others were bearing an unreasonable burden. Some elements of upstream communities would probably rejoice at the plan’s collapse. I have often heard community and political leaders from east of the South Australian border deride the fact that a single drop of water crosses into my state at all. This is, for the most part, in jest, but it demonstrates that undercurrent of an attitude, prevalent with some, that the paramount environmental objectives of the plan should be called into question.

What concerns me greatly is the recent development of a culture of undermining the plan from amongst those who I would have thought should be dedicated to the plan’s success. Having spent more than 10 years getting to where we are today, there should be unity around focusing on implementation of what has been a herculean task to achieve this fragile consensus. Not so, it seems, for South Australian Labor, Green and Centre Alliance politicians and the ABC’s Four Corners program. They have joined a coalition of forces that would seek to undermine the plan and, thus, potentially see it completely blown apart. Recent calls for further royal commissions, inquiries and even the complete suspension of the implementation of the plan are a recipe for undermining a process that will genuinely lead to a secure future for the river. It is bad enough that some would not be prepared to share the burden of the action that must be taken for the health of our river system. It is absolutely appalling that there are those who are wilfully or unwittingly contributing to a faux scepticism over the plan’s credibility that could only lead to their home state being dramatically worse off.

The interests of South Australia and the future health of the Murray-Darling Basin are best served by a singular focus on implementing the plan that has been developed, in full and as quickly as possible. Any distraction from that objective should be called out for what it is: mischievous attention seeking at the expense of the long-term national interest. I am a strong supporter of keeping our focus on implementation so as to fulfil the important targets for environmental flows. To support the plan is to support a healthy Murray-Darling whilst maximising sustainable farm production across the basin.

I am inherently optimistic about the future of this great country of ours. We have achieved great things in our past, but I believe the present and our future are filled with promise and should be looked forward to with excitement. We live in the lucky country. Certainly, when they were handing out continents, not many countries were given one to themselves. There can be a tendency for some to refer to previous periods of national prosperity as if they are glory days that will never be rivalled again. I know there is a view that positive stories don’t sell newspapers. Many members of the commentariat seem loath to engage on the fundamental positives about our country. We can always do better, and there are no doubt risks to our current prosperity, such as the election of a Labor government at some point in the future. But, fundamentally, we should have great pride in where we are, what we have achieved and what lies ahead.

When I was a boy, unemployment, interest rates and inflation were all in double digits. Today, our unemployment rate is 5.2 per cent, which, in my undergraduate days, was the economic orthodoxy of full employment. We have a healthy trade surplus and are situated in the economic engine room of the planet, with China and India on our doorstep, not to mention the rest of Asia. There was a time when we talked of the tyranny of distance, given our antipodean orientation from the economic markets of the North Atlantic. Now we have what I would describe as the reverse, the opportunity of proximity, thanks to the economic might of our Asian neighbourhood but, more importantly, the fact that geographic vicinity is not the overwhelming factor in trading opportunities that it once was.

Later this year, the United Kingdom is due to depart the European Common Market, which it joined when it was the European Economic Community in 1973. This, I firmly believe, will be Australia’s Berlin Wall moment, when our greatest historical economic partner, which has been closed off from us for more than 40 years, will suddenly be free to once again engage in a deep economic and trading relationship with us in a comprehensive way. The United Kingdom is a First World country, double the economic size of Australia. We share deep cultural, legal and consumption similarities. Australia also has an enormous capacity to compete with a vast array of Britain’s imports from Europe—of commodities, produce, manufactured goods and services—that have had an appalling protectionist advantage over us for so many decades. I see an independent trading relationship with the UK, free from Europe’s nasty chokehold, as one of the great economic opportunities for our country in my lifetime. It also presents an even greater opportunity for us to seriously consider how the Commonwealth of Nations can be used much more effectively as a vehicle to deepen our economic and trade ties. I strongly support efforts towards multilateral trade liberalisation through the WTO negotiating rounds, but the reality is that bilateral negotiations have represented far greater progress for our country in recent decades. Brexit allows us to breathe new life into the Commonwealth and presents a further opportunity for our country to open up new markets to drive the long, sustained economic prosperity of this country that I am confident will continue for a long time into the future.

I have already thanked my predecessor Christopher Pyne and the leadership of the Liberal Party campaign. I wish to also thank my unbelievably dedicated army of volunteers on the Sturt campaign—numbering at nearly 500 people. Thank you in particular to my campaign manager, Alex May, for her spectacular leadership, hard work and strategic nous that meant every element of our campaign was comprehensively resourced and to the highest of standards.

I mentioned my time working for Premier Steven Marshall, and I again wish to thank him for the extensive involvement he has had in the development and progression of my career, as well as his friendship, advice and support for more than a decade of working together in a wide variety of capacities. To my dear friends Senator Simon Birmingham and Senator Anne Ruston, who are sitting here with me now in the chamber: I had the honour to attend both of your maiden speeches, and I am just as honoured to be joining you for my parliamentary career and to now be able to call both of you colleagues. I would also like to acknowledge and thank my good friends and colleagues Vincent Tarzia, the Speaker of the South Australian House of Assembly; and John Gardner, the member for Morialta and Minister for Education in the South Australian parliament, who are both here in the chamber today.

Lastly, I wish to thank my parents, Richard and Penny, and my sister Kate for their support to me, not just during my campaign for parliament but throughout my entire life. Kate and I were so fortunate to have had the happiest of childhoods. We were well-educated, had fantastic family holidays, were supported along the life pathways that we chose for ourselves, and had a supportive and nurturing structure around us that endures to this day. Mum and Dad, thank you for voting for me in my preselection, assuming that you did, and for your contribution and support throughout the campaign.

It is humbling and deeply touching to receive the support of so many people as part of my journey to this chamber. I have come to this place to serve my electorate, my state and my nation. I have also come here to fight for my electorate, my state and my nation. I have also come here to win those fights, because our democracy embraces at its essence the adversarial process—the battle of ideas; a contest between competing ideologies and policy prescriptions.

There are some that claim that politics and the political system has lost its way and become too nasty and that there is a great lack of confidence in our democratic institutions. Some of these criticisms may be justified, and I’m sure we can do better in our civility and tone, but I comprehensively reject the proposition that we should try and agree with each other more and seek to more regularly achieve consensus around the solutions to the great challenges that lie ahead.

When the political leadership of a nation is in furious agreement and consensus, it’s because that nation is a dictatorship. The people of Germany were spared the petty point scoring and squabbles of parliamentary debate when someone burnt down the Reichstag in 1933. Conversely, our mother parliament in Westminster enshrined the supremacy and power of the people and representative democracy in the most comprehensive way possible by arresting, putting on trial and executing the sovereign in 1649.

As I stand in this equally august chamber with the great honour and privilege of representing my fellow Australians as one of their members of the House of Representatives, I can only say that I hope and pray to serve them with dignity, humility and diligence. I am here for the fight and for the contest, because we are all ambitious for our country’s future. I hope that history will judge that my contribution as a member of this House was worthy of the great people and nation that I have the honour to represent.

I commend the address-in-reply to the House.

Debate adjourned.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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