Maiden Speech

Wednesday, 13 November 2013 – 5PM

I am not the first person with a Croatian heritage to be elected to this place, but I believe I may be the first person who has two parents born in Croatia to be elected to the Australian parliament, and it is to my parents Loui and Kate that I sent my first and deepest thanks. I will be forever grateful to my parents for all the sacrifices they made, the opportunities they created and the support they provided.

My parents left their native Croatia in search of freedom and a better life for our family. They found those things here in Canberra. My father, Loui, worked a number of jobs before going to night school to study photography. He then worked in the National Library’s photographic section, becoming an accomplished local photographer who helped chronicle the life of our region and our nation. Mum looked after the kids and did an amazing job in tough circumstances.

Raising six kids on one modest income was not easy, but it gave me the guiding principles and support that have led me to this place. They gave me an appreciation of the value of hard work, perseverance and the art which many large families know about: getting a lot from a little. We did not have a lot, but we did not waste a lot either. My parents gave me love, support and a deep sense of right and wrong. Most of all they gave me opportunity. They gave me the opportunity to receive a good education at St Thomas the Apostle in Kambah, Padua Catholic High School in Wanniassa and St Peter’s Catholic College in Isabella Plains. I also had the opportunity and privilege of studying at the Australian National University and University of Canberra, and I am glad to see with us today the Vice-Chancellor of UC, Stephen Parker, who I believe has done so much to turn around the fortunes of the University of Canberra. I had the opportunity to work in the Australian Public Service and later the opportunity to serve my community in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The opportunities given to me by my parents all those years ago have led me here to the highest parliament in the land. I now take this opportunity from the floor of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Australia to say thank you to Mum and Dad. You are both my heroes.

My parents also taught me manners, so I would like to continue with some other thankyous before talking about other matters. I would like to thank the people of Canberra first for endorsing me to serve for nearly nine years in the Legislative Assembly and now for the significant additional privilege of serving in the Australian Senate. It is an amazing honour. I pay tribute to those who have gone before me in this role: John Knight, Margaret Reid and Gary Humphries. All made significant contributions in this place and in service of the people of the ACT and the nation.

I would like to thank the men and women of the ACT division of the Liberal Party for giving me the honour to represent the party and so many who worked so hard for my campaign. Election successes are only possible because of the hard work of thousands of volunteers, and here in Canberra we have some of the best. My party gave me the honour of leading it in the ACT for more than five years and at two elections. I thank them for that. During those five years, hard work, discipline and unity of purpose in the parliamentary party were central to us achieving a record number of seats for the Liberal Party in the ACT. I believe that these principles are as true in large parliaments as they are in Australia’s smallest parliament.

I would like to congratulate Tony Abbott on his election as Prime Minister. Changes of government are rare in federal politics, and the fact that it has happened just six years after the coalition lost office is, I think, testimony to the amazing leadership that Tony Abbott has displayed over the last four years. Might I also congratulate Senator Eric Abetz on becoming Leader of the Government in the Senate—a worthy honour for a great servant of the Liberal Party, Tasmania and our nation.

I would like to recognise the Croatian-Australian community, of which I remain a very proud part. I am pleased we have with us here in the gallery today the new Croatian ambassador, Dr Damir Kusen, as well as the consul general, Mirjana Piskulic. As for a former member of this place, Natasha Stott Despoja’s Croatian heritage is well known, and I believe we have with us here today Mario Despoja in the gallery. I first met Mario whilst doorknocking during the 2004 ACT election campaign. I knocked on his door in Farrer, and he excitedly told me to wait there while he ran to get a photo album which showed a picture of him at my parents’ wedding back in 1971. He was very excited and obviously very proud of his daughter. I pay tribute to Mario. I later found out that he had in fact established a Croatian embassy in the late 1970s during a time when the Croatian people were struggling for independence, so I acknowledge his work.

As a son of immigrants fleeing oppression, I would like to speak about our multicultural nation. People from many nations have made great contributions to Australia. We are all the richer for it. But it also must be said that it is a mark of what a great nation we live in—what a big hearted nation—that Australia has opened itself to immigrants from all over the world and allowed them to make their homes here. I reject the view that Australia should not continue to grow. Does anyone really believe that Australia is not a vastly more prosperous nation now, with 23 million people, than it was when it have five or 10 million people? I believe that growing our population in a steady manner is the key to our prosperity. In order to do this we need a well-managed immigration program and sensible and strategic infrastructure investment.

We are and should remain a nation built on diverse cultures united by common values. Among those values are the protection of the great freedoms: freedom of speech, enterprise and religion. For me and my family, this issue is personal. One of the reasons my family left Croatia was because freedom of speech and religion in particular were curtailed under a harsh communist regime. My uncle Stipan spent several years in a Yugoslav prison for daring to challenge the communist regime and assert his rights to speak freely and freely practise his religion.

I take the opportunity to congratulate the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, for placing these great freedoms at the centre of government policy and for successfully leading the charge against the previous government’s proposed media laws. These freedoms are truly central to who we are as a nation, and constant vigilance is required to protect them.

I reiterate my personal commitment to the protection and support for the family as the basis of prosperity in society and stability in the home. I believe the institution of marriage between a man and a woman is a special one deserving special recognition and protection. Many people who voted for the Liberal Party did so on the basis that this is our long-held position.

As a proud Canberran Tuggeranong born and bred, I have several things to say about Canberra. First, I am and will remain a staunch defender of my home town no matter what other matters are before us, and there are very good reasons for doing so. Canberra is a great city. Its people are doing great work for and on behalf of our country, and it makes a contribution to our nation as substantial as any other city in the country. Canberra bashing diminishes those who engage in it and is an attack on our nation. All Australians should be encouraged to be proud of their national capital, not just because of what the city is but also because of what it represents—not just this building, the meeting place of the nation, but the suburbs which are the home to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians.

While most Canberrans are not politicians—contrary to popular belief—many do contribute to our nation through the public service, a privilege which I enjoyed prior to going into politics as did my father and many members of my family. This contribution should be recognised and honoured. As the coalition government goes through the difficult task of fixing the budget mess it has inherited, I urge my colleagues to treat public servants with respect, to give as much clarity and certainty as possible and to honour the promise to ensure reductions in public service numbers are achieved through natural attrition.

The National Capital Authority plays an important role in protecting the national capital character of Canberra. However, the size of its remit and its limited resources make it difficult for the authority to properly perform this role. The time has come for the NCA to be allowed to focus on its core role of protecting and promoting the national capital and allowing the ACT government to get on with the other aspects of planning Canberra. I am putting some suggestions on how this can be achieved to Minister Jamie Briggs, which will more clearly delineate the roles of the NCA and the ACT government. I look forward to working with the ACT government to bring about positive changes in how the responsibilities of the NCA and the ACT government interact.

In Canberra, we also have a vibrant private sector which looks to government to spend money wisely and cut red tape and overregulation in order for it to prosper. As well as all of the trades and first-class retail, hospitality and professional sectors, Canberra has growing and vibrant ICT, tourism, education, property and defence industry sectors with great future potential. Much of this private sector activity provides services to or acts in partnership with the federal government. Innovative thinking on the part of the federal government has the potential to benefit both government and these parts of the private sector. One simple step to help facilitate this would be to re-establish the Capital Region Ministerial Business Roundtable, and I commend that suggestion.

Canberra has an active sporting, artistic and cultural sector. We are home to great national sporting teams such as the Brumbies, Raiders, Capitals and Cavalry—occasionally, even GWS. We have produced great Australian sports stars such as Lauren Jackson, Ricky Stuart, Ned Zelic, Caroline Buchanan, George Gregan and Joe Roff to name but a few. I acknowledge that Joe Roff is here with us today. We will soon welcome back one of those great Canberra sports stars in Glenn Lazarus when he comes to this place. Might I cheekily suggest that we have already welcomed back another sports star who has a strong connection to Canberra in Nova Peris. I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Senator Peris, on your election. I know it is not just a significant thing for the Indigenous community in our nation, but it is a significant thing for our nation as a whole. Congratulations.

Canberra’s cultural sector is vibrant and growing, not only thanks to national institutions such as the National Gallery but also through local initiatives such as the Multicultural Festival, the Canberra International Film Festival and the Canberra theatre precinct. Canberra has also produced renowned authors such as Alan Gould and A.D. Hope. I would like to note that in two weeks time the Canberra International Film Festival is sponsoring the Virgin Ball with legendary film producer Harvey Weinstein in the Great Hall of parliament—I will give it that plug here.

Our academic institutions are world-class. The ANU lays claim to six Nobel prize winners in its history, including most recently Brian Schmidt of Mount Stromlo Observatory. As we celebrate Canberra’s centenary this year, we celebrate the great contribution these people, and many more like them, have made to Australian life. But as we move into Canberra’s next century, there is still more to do. Those in this place who missed the centenary should know that there was a lot more to it than the Skywhale, which did seem to get most of the attention.

A particular project the business community in Canberra is very eager to see is the Australia Forum—a national meeting place and convention centre for the national capital. This can only be achieved through a partnership between the federal and ACT governments. I commend this project to the government. I also commend my former colleague in the assembly, Brendan Smyth, for his tireless advocacy of this project. I believe its time has come. The Australia Forum would be a piece of national infrastructure befitting the nation’s capital. Such an investment would build on the great tradition of Liberal governments building Canberra. This is most true of the government of Sir Robert Menzies, but it was also true of the Howard government. It should not be forgotten that the Howard government built the National Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the joint defence headquarters, ANZAC Hall at the War Memorial, the Centre for Christianity and Culture, Commonwealth Place and Reconciliation Place and started the new ASIO headquarters, among other achievements.

Another area of policy where there is plenty of room for improvement is our building industry. There is still far too much union intimidation of small, medium and even large builders. I commend the policy of re-establishing the Building and Construction Commission and I would urge the minister to ensure that it is properly resourced and supported to bring back the rule of law to building sites. This reform, along with reducing some of the green and red tape as it applies to the building industry, in partnership with more sensible land use policies from state and territory governments will help to bring the cost of infrastructure, commercial buildings and homes down. This is a worthy goal for the coalition government to work hard towards.

Another area critical to improving productivity is workplace relations more generally. While I commend the government for its steady and cautious approach to workplace reform, it is time we again had the conversation about workplace reform without simplistic claims of resurrecting Work Choices being bandied about. I am often hearing from constituents about the growing number of restaurants, bars and cafes closed on a Sunday in Canberra. I believe this is a nationwide issue, and we as a nation need to ask ourselves the question: is it pro-worker for thousands of restaurants, bars and cafes to be routinely shutting down on Sundays due to prohibitively high penalty rates? When this occurs no-one wins—not the small business owner who has the viability of their business affected, not the consumer who has their choice restricted and certainly not the worker denied the opportunity to work their desired number of hours.

I would like to put on record today my rejection of the nanny state. I think I speak for many Australians when I say that government has gone too far in regulating and instructing us to within an inch of our lives. Those of us who live in the ACT, and there are many in the gallery, are particularly familiar with the nanny state. We have seen in recent years the government declare war on the great scourges of plastic bags, fireworks, puppies sold in pet stores and most recently the humble community sausage sizzle. I trust that the coalition government will stand for freedom, not just in the big things but also in working against the many small areas of government intrusion which combine to make life a little less pleasant and a little less free. The coalition’s policy to devote days in parliament to getting rid of regulations is therefore very welcome.

The coalition’s paid parental leave scheme has copped some criticism, particularly from our political opponents. However, let me make this point. Here in Canberra around 50 per cent of the workforce is in the public sector. They currently have access to a taxpayer funded, wage replacement paid parental leave scheme. This is bipartisan policy. The vast bulk of workers in the private sector, and almost universally in small business, do not have access to such a scheme. The government’s paid parental leave scheme is therefore not just pro working woman, but also pro small business; and that is particularly true here in Canberra, where small business struggles to compete with government. Let me also make this point. Given that the paid parental leave scheme is a government funded scheme for people in paid work who have children, I believe it is important that those women who have children but are not in the workforce are also supported by the government.

Before concluding, I would like to thank all in the gallery who have come to support me. There are too many to mention here, but each of you is here because you have played some role in my journey or in promoting the Liberal cause. And I thank you for that. I have had a little bit to say about family today, but I can also reveal to the Senate that I do in fact have a member of my extended family, so to speak, in this place, though. I do not believe he is in the chamber at the moment. I was reminded of it when I walked past Senator Conroy in Aussies today and he yelled out, ‘In-law, in-law!’, My wife’s sister recently married Stephen Conroy’s little brother. So he and I are related, but obviously that was not enough for him to come down and watch my speech! So it is not a particularly close relationship at this stage, I assure you, Senator Abetz. But you know what they say: ‘Blood is thicker than water!’

There are some people who have played a particularly important role in my political journey: Steve Doyle, Ian Hagan and Tio Faulkner have formed an amazing and formidable political team. To the campaign manager, Brigitte Morten; to my wonderful staff, Josh Baker, Emily Hicks and Sam Mullins; to members of the ACT Assembly, particularly Jeremy Hanson and Alistair Coe; and to staff who gave up their own time to assist, I say thank you. To those who have supported me in my personal journey—particularly John and Jan Kennedy, Bob O’Heir, Adam and Cushla Morris, Jonathan and Karen Doyle, Dave and Katie Ellis, and Nick Medway—I say thank you.

And finally, and most importantly, I want to thank my family. To my parents, Loui and Kate, who did such an amazing job raising six kids in difficult circumstances; to my sisters, Branka, Katarina and Lidia; and to my brothers, Nick and Zvonimir, I love you all very much. To my children, Michael, Tommy, William, Olivia and Grace—we are doing our bit for a big Australia!—I love you, I will always want the best for you, and I will fight in this place to ensure Australia remains a wonderful place to live in, prosper and raise a family. You are always in my thoughts and my prayers, even when I am not with you as much as I would like to be. And lastly, and definitely most importantly, to my beautiful wife Ros: you are amazing and I love you. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me—and you should never let me forget that!

I am truly honoured to stand in this place; I am humbled by those who have trusted me to do so, and I will never forget the reasons why they have chosen me to be here. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in his maiden speech that ‘there is no limit to what Australia can achieve’. I agree with that statement. We have already achieved so much. We have achieved one of the most peaceful and prosperous nations on earth—and this has not occurred by accident. It has come through the hard work and initiative of our people, the sacrifice of our service men and women, and a commitment to democracy and freedom guided largely by good government. It has come through treating all with respect, supporting family, valuing and protecting human life, and protecting those in need.

In striving to uphold these values, I will always work to protect and represent my constituents, as it is they who I am ultimately answerable to. They are why I am here. Much as I am here to tackle the great debates of the day, I will do so with the people of Canberra foremost in my mind. I am here as a local, and as a Liberal, to ensure Canberrans always have a voice—and not just the great and mighty, the ministers and ambassadors, the business leaders and community elders. It is about giving a voice to people like me, a son of immigrant parents from the suburbs of Tuggeranong. I am here for those people and, while I am here, I will work to ensure they have a voice in this great parliament. Thank you.