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Paul Fletcher delivers his Maiden Speech
Mr Speaker, I rise to speak in this chamber for the first time. It is a great privilege to be able to do so. I owe that privilege to the people of Bradfield who chose me to represent them in this parliament.
I aim to live up to the trust the electorate has put in me, and to the high standards set by my predecessors. Prior to me, there have been only four members for Bradfield since the seat was created in 1949. I pay particular tribute to my immediate predecessor, Dr Brendan Nelson, who is in the gallery today. He served Bradfield and Australia with great distinction, and has been warmly supportive of me.
Like all who live in Bradfield, I cherish the natural beauty of this area of Sydney, including the magnificent national parks. In Bradfield we attach similar importance to our built heritage. We are proud of the gracious homes and beautifully tended gardens. But the distinctive built heritage of Bradfield is changing rapidly. High-rise apartments are spreading throughout the upper North Shore. A state Labor government with little sympathy for our area has imposed a dramatic growth in the number of dwellings. Decisions are made by appointed officials, not locally elected representatives. Ku-ring-gai Council is one of only three councils in New South Wales to have had its powers largely removed and handed to a planning panel. In my view these powers should be returned to the council as soon as possible. Decisions about development in our area should once again be made by people who live in our area and care about our area.
On this and other issues, I intend to be a strong advocate for the interests of the people of Bradfield. They face governments, state and federal, which are profoundly unsympathetic—governments with an instinct to regulate and intervene, governments with a misplaced conviction that they know best. Most people in Bradfield live their lives according to a different set of values: hard work, personal discipline and self-reliance. These are the same values that the Liberal Party stands for. That is why the Liberal Party has always received strong support in Bradfield.
Despite that history of strong support, we did not take last year’s by-election for granted. We ran a vigorous campaign. I was helped by a great many people. Let me express my particular thanks to the magnificent Bradfield Liberals—many of whom are also here in the gallery—under FEC President Alister Henskens. The support our campaign received from the Liberal Party, state and federal, both the parliamentary and organisational wings, was superb. It was a fantastic feeling to visit the booths on by-election day, 5 December 2009, seeing them all well-manned by an enthusiastic crew of Liberal Party volunteers, some local and some from out of the area.
I was also touched that so many personal friends and family members rallied to the cause, many of them having their first ever experience of standing on a polling booth. You do not get to this place without stalwart support from many quarters. But there is one source of support more important than any other: your family. My wife, Manuela, has been the bedrock of my life for nearly 10 years. Campaigning is a family business and our boys, Gabriel and Hugo, also made their appearances from time to time. To all three of them I say: thank you.
Manuela and I are typical Australians. We are both the children of immigrants who arrived in the fifties and sixties. Clive and Mary Fletcher came from the UK. Ignazio and Maria Zappacosta came from Italy. Australia had much to offer them, and they had much to offer Australia. Through hard work and the application of their particular skills and talents, both families prospered over time. When I say that Australia has been greatly enriched by immigration, I speak from personal experience.
Mr Speaker, I have been fascinated by politics since my teenage years. Tragic but true, I remember my excitement when political journalist Richard Carlton came to speak to a fathers and sons dinner at school. From the outset the Liberal Party was my natural home. It stood for the values of hard work and self-reliance that I had seen in my parents and in other adults I admired. Other life experiences steered me in the same direction. As a part-time teenage shop assistant, joining the union was compulsory. It was ‘no ticket, no start’. I thought this was just wrong. So, at the age of 16, I joined the Young Liberals. Later, I was active in student politics. Being a Liberal student on campus in the eighties could be very character-building. I think we had only three seats on the 21-member SRC.
I was strongly influenced by Mark Heyward, the leading Liberal at Sydney University in the eighties. He was a courageous advocate for personal and economic freedom in an often hostile environment. Mark would have made a significant contribution to national politics had he not died tragically young.
Unusually for a student politician, I also went to lectures. Studying economics in the mid-eighties, my political views were further developed. I saw that Australia had an outdated economic model, with rigid labour markets, high tariff walls and heavy government ownership and control of many areas of the economy. But I also learned about the changes being made—floating the dollar, opening up the banking sector to foreign competitors and reducing tariffs. This reform process would continue for 25 years. I am proud of how the Liberal Party drove these reforms—from the Fraser government laying the groundwork with the Campbell report, to the Liberal opposition supporting key changes in the Hawke years, through to the stellar reform achievements under John Howard and Peter Costello. It took hard work and real political courage—for example, going to the 1998 election promising a goods and services tax. But Australia today is vastly better off. Our economy is more competitive, more flexible and more efficient.
I think it is no coincidence that we have broken down social barriers at the same time as we have economic ones. For example, in the last 40 years the role of women in the workplace has grown enormously. And Australia has become much more ethnically diverse. The White Australia policy is long gone. My electorate reflects that trend: at the last census over 10 per cent of Bradfield residents reported a Chinese background. In fact, the diversity of Bradfield is one of its most attractive characteristics. We have a vibrant Jewish community and significant populations from India, Korea and South Africa, amongst many other nations.
When it comes to economic issues, my instinct is for open markets, free competition and as little state interference as possible. And when it comes to social issues, I start with the same preference. I am a believer in the rights of the individual and I am suspicious of the state seeking to exercise control over personal choices. Of course, it is not always easy to brand an issue as social or as economic and it is hard to get good social outcomes unless you have the money to spend on them. I disagree with the frequently stated criticism that there is too much focus on economics in Australian political debate. I find it absurd that ‘economic rationalist’ is used as a term of abuse by Bob Ellis and other woolly-minded dreamers and utopians. What alternative approach do they recommend in allocating resources fairly and efficiently?
When a government commits, for example, to a $43 billion national broadband network without a cost-benefit study, that is a travesty. I say that coming to this place after nearly 15 years working on public policy in the communications sector, as an adviser to communications minister, Richard Alston—a valued mentor and friend—and later as a senior executive at Optus. This experience has reinforced my belief in economic reform and in the consumer benefits which flow when a protected sector is opened up to competition. Let us not forget that it was only 20 years ago that Telecom had a monopoly and there was no pay television, no internet and a tiny number of mobile services. The change today is extraordinary, with some 25 million mobile services and services that we did not have 20 years ago—broadband internet, pay television, wireless data and so on.
There are always voices raised against reform, and it takes political courage to introduce change. That is why the politicians whom I admire are the reformers—people like John Howard, Peter Costello, Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett; people who have invested their political capital to deliver better outcomes for the people they were elected to serve. I do not admire politicians who see their objective as upsetting as few people as possible, who manage to do a daily media message rather than long-term objectives and who avoid at all costs any meaningful reform.
My motivation for entering public life is clear. I want to help make Australia a fairer, stronger, more prosperous, more secure, more inclusive nation. I want to be a voice for rational policymaking which recognises some basic realities—the reality that we are a small country in a large world which does not owe us a living; the reality that the prosperity we enjoy today is not guaranteed but needs continual work; the reality that our prosperity depends much more on the efforts of the private sector than the public sector; the reality that, as the government’s debt rises, its capacity to respond to external shocks reduces. Fundamentally, I want to be a voice for continued reform. Of course, I arrive in parliament at a time when the Liberal Party is in opposition. I will do everything I can to help in the work of getting us back to government as quickly as possible. But, until that happens, the reform momentum of the last 25 years has ground to a halt.
We face a government which have boldly commissioned many reports. They have been unstinting in their courageous setting up of inquiries. When it comes to establishing task forces, this government’s unflagging determination knows no peer. But we have simply seen no action. Even minor reforms get squibbed—like removing the parallel import restrictions on books. In fact, we are going backwards. Labour markets are now more heavily regulated after Labor’s so-called Fair Work Act took effect, and already we are seeing evidence of workers suffering as flexibility is lost. There is a new hostility to markets, to competition and to economic freedom. In his 2009 essay, the Prime Minister called for a new phase of social democracy in which markets would be ‘unambiguously regulated by an activist state’. I think this is going in precisely the wrong direction.
As a Liberal, I do not share the unbridled faith in the omniscient capabilities of government which unites those opposite. I do not admire their massive, complex, bureaucrat-administered spending programs in sector after sector. In just two years the federal government’s outlays have risen from $280 billion to $338 billion—an increase of over one-fifth—and debt will peak at over $150 billion. There are billions of dollars for pink batts in roofs and for school halls. There is a hugely complex emissions trading scheme proposal. There is a $43 billion plan for government to do what no private sector company could see a business case for—build a fibre-to-the-premises network to 90 per cent of the nation.
Let me comment on that specifically. I am a strong believer that, having high-speed broadband widely available is socially and economically desirable, but I think this plan is ill-judged. On the cost side, the network design is hugely expensive when compared to alternatives like fibre to the node or wireless. But the revenue side is even riskier. How much will be charged per customer per month for the service? Will it be $40, $100, $200? What will be the retail services that drive take-up? Will it be high-speed data? Will it be pay television or video on demand or something else? How many customers will take up the service, and how quickly? How sensitive are the take-up assumptions to whether there is a competing, Telstra-owned network also delivering services? What will the cash flows be in year one, in year five, in year 20? Remarkably, the government did not know the answers to any of these questions before it committed to this venture. Where I have come from, if you took such a sketchy proposal to a board not only would the proposal be rejected but you would be fired on the spot.
Twenty years ago, state Labor governments in Victoria and South Australia learned the painful lesson that banking was not as easy a business as it looked—and squandered billions of taxpayers’ dollars as a result. It seems very likely to me that the federal Labor government is going to learn the same lesson about building new telecommunications networks.
On these kinds of issues there is a fundamental difference between the Liberal Party and our opponents. We put less faith in government; we put more store in the private sector. It is the private sector which generates the wealth on which the incidents of a civilised society depend. Without a strong private sector, we cannot afford our health system; we cannot afford our education system; we cannot afford our welfare system. There are plenty of people in government and in NGOs who are suspicious of, or even actively hostile to, business. I come with the opposite bias. I see the business sector as a force for good. I believe Australian business has hugely lifted its game in the last 30 years due to that reform process.
To me, the sweet spot in public policy is when government identifies the objectives and sets ground rules and incentives to achieve those objectives—and then gets out of the way to let individuals and businesses do the work. To take an example from the sector I know best, in 1991 the government issued new licences to Telstra, Optus and Vodafone to operate mobile networks using the new GSM digital technology. The result has been the spectacular growth in the mobile market that I talked about earlier and tangible consumer benefits. This is a simple and effective division of labour: government establishes the market structure, private sector players compete in the market and the competitive pressure each puts on the others drives the best possible price and service.
Let me mention some specific policy areas in which I hope to be a voice for change. I believe our higher education and research sector is a vital national resource. In the United States, the great research universities have been a critical source of innovation and intellectual capital. I would like to see an aggressive push to choose amongst our leading universities a select few whose scale and brand can be built to a world standard.
A second, closely related priority is the process of commercialising innovation: moving smart ideas from the lab to the marketplace. That means closer ties between research institutions and industry. It means choosing key areas of research where we can build real scale and leverage that into a national competitive advantage.
My third area of focus, inevitably, given my background, is building a society which makes the best use of modern information and communications technology.
A fourth interest is making government more efficient and productive. That includes more use of contestability and contracting out in choosing the providers of government services. It means better use of information technology in delivering government services. In the private sector there is a huge focus on giving customers a simple one-click approach to completing a transaction. Where is the one-click mentality in government? In the way that government deals with citizens, let us have less compulsion and more persuasion. The recent book by American scholars Sunstein and Thaler, Nudge, is full of examples, in areas as diverse as retirement incomes and healthy eating.
Let us get serious about evidence based policy, using randomised trials to test whether specific programs actually work. Let us look at using the price signal more extensively to best allocate scarce resources, be it capacity on roads or water for irrigation. I think there is great scope to set lighter, less intrusive regulation which uses the power of incentive rather than the power of compulsion to secure outcomes which make people’s lives better.
I feel very privileged to be in this chamber and to have the opportunity to influence, through my vote, the course of legislation which will impact our nation. Like all who come here, I will draw on my own particular skills, experience and beliefs. I aim to be an effective advocate for the people of Bradfield and a thoughtful champion of long-term reform which improves the lives and wellbeing of Australians.
Honourable members—Hear, hear!