Thank you, Mr President. I would like to extend my thanks to honourable senators from all over the chamber who have welcomed me with warmth and kindness.
I hail from the great state of Victoria, home of visionaries, luminaries, heroes and larrikins, from Sir John Monash to Barry Humphries, Arthur Boyd to Michael Leunig, Dame Nellie Melba to Kylie Minogue, and of course the great Sir Robert Menzies.
Though our state is geographically small, Victoria has always been the vanguard of manufacturing and agriculture, commerce and finance, medicine and education, culture and sports. Victoria has always historically led the nation towards productivity, prosperity and progress.
I intend to continue that tradition. Representing my state in this chamber today is a privilege and an honour I cannot express. But express it I must, for this is my time to communicate to my colleagues and my constituents why I am here.
This is the time for philosophical reflection, soaring rhetoric and a heartfelt personal and political narrative years in the crafting. For that, colleagues, I am afraid you may have to wait half an hour to visit the other place, where my dear friend the member for Goldstein will be giving his first speech!
I do not come to this place with political pedigree nor a reputation that precedes me. I have no media profile. I have never worked at a think tank. And, although I am intellectually curious, I am not a philosopher. I come to this place with high hopes—but I am a realist, a pragmatist and a workhorse. Before politics I had a 20-year career in banking, finance, investment, economics and superannuation. I am here to improve the lives of others by implementing practical, commonsense policy and legislation that will reflect the knowledge I have gained from the real, commercial world. Like many of my colleagues, I pride myself on being an economic ‘hardhead’, never forgetting that every dollar the government spends is the hard-earned product of the labour of its citizens.
I believe that fiscal responsibility is a moral imperative and we have a fiduciary duty to our constituents to ensure that we spend their money wisely. Most important is the intergenerational responsibility of our role in this place. The opportunities for our children depend wholly on how we manage the economy. In a prosperous society, they will have more choices, better choices, more opportunities to succeed and to realise their potential. We must build the infrastructure vital for productivity, but we must pay for it cleverly, taking advantage of the innovative financial markets that we have built and supported. We must encourage new and exciting industries—medical research, cybersecurity, agribusiness and clean energy—to create the high-paid jobs that we want for our children and the global capabilities that we want for our country.
We can never allow borrowed money of any kind to pay for social safety net spending. Such unsustainable profligacy, for the sake of electoral appeal, is simply one generation indulging at the expense of another. My greatest frustration is that, despite a quarter of a century of sustained economic growth, Australia is in its eighth consecutive year of debt and deficit. The answer is not more and higher taxes that sap market efficiency and assault the propriety of those whose labours were expended. Anyone who has worked and invested and employed others in the real, commercial world knows this to be true. So that is why I am here. In 20 years, when I look my children in the eye, I want to assure them that my generation, and I personally, have done all that we can to create a productive and prosperous Australia in which they have every opportunity to thrive and to fly.
While I wear my economic ‘hardhead’ label with pride, I do not believe that this precludes me from engaging in issues of social justice. Social justice is a concept that has been hijacked by those opposite and has become a handy euphemism for income redistribution. I cannot blame the Left for this. The Right has conceded the ground. All over the world, conservative parties struggle with the perception that, while they are fiscally responsible, they care little, while progressives care significantly. Yet ask anyone on this side of the chamber and they will all agree that our first responsibility as a civilised society is to look after those unable to look after themselves.
I believe my side of politics owes it to our followers and to our most vulnerable to articulate a positive social justice agenda for the Right. It must be tangible, practical and effective. For too long those on my side of politics have identified themselves as fighting against things, perpetually making war on the Left’s mistaken priorities. We fight against punitive taxes, creeping overregulation, wasteful spending and ruinous national debt. There is no reason to repudiate the ideology behind these fights. Indeed, they are vital. But they are not intrinsic to a better nation; they are purely instrumental.
What we sometimes forget is that the Liberal Party’s central, motivating purpose is not fighting against things; it is fighting for people. Liberal social justice demands individual responsibility, it decries buck-passing and it requires all individuals to make themselves deserving of the freedoms bestowed upon them. We balance individual freedom with moral obligation. Moreover, a Liberal social justice agenda must address entrenched disadvantage with not only relief but also transformative opportunity.
As with all these things, the free market is leading the way in this space. In recent years, social impact investing has become part of the philanthropic and investment community landscape and vernacular. It takes many and varied forms but at its heart is community-driven demand for tailored programs for social change, conceived, delivered and paid for by the private sector, but with a component of government guarantee or return based on measurable outcomes that make the programs themselves commercially appealing and viable.
While still in its infancy, already social impact investing is flourishing in the USA, in Canada and, in particular, in the UK. The New South Wales state government has dipped its toe in the water. And just last week the Victorian state government also flagged an interest. But the opportunities here are endless. Social impact investing has been used around the world to successfully address such diverse issues as prisoner recidivism, literacy and numeracy, drug rehabilitation programs, school truancy, early intervention parenting and Indigenous employment programs—all this without endless government grants for unaccountable programs run on a command and control, nationwide, one-size-fits-all approach; all this while allowing the private sector an opportunity to do what it does best—identify need and address it—and all this while steadily building a market for an alternative investment opportunity available to the public that not only has positive social outcomes but also has no correlation at all to the vagaries of interest rates, equity and property markets.
This is where society is at its best—when government, business and communities work together for the best possible outcomes. As politicians we have our limitations but, as individuals, we are limitless. A well-articulated Liberal social justice agenda, focussed on empowerment, not dependence, can reorient us toward our best selves.
I stand in this chamber the 93rd senator since Federation to serve and represent the people of Victoria. But, with our great state’s progressive reputation in mind, it came as some surprise to me to find out that of the 92 Victorian senators to precede me, only 12 were women. I am lucky 13. And from the Victorian Liberal Party, there have been six before me. So I am also lucky seven. I am fortunate to have met all but the first—Dame Ivy Wedgwood. Moreover, I have been truly privileged to receive advice, wisdom and genuine friendship from former Senators Judith Troeth, Kay Patterson and Helen Kroger. Along with the great Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, the legacy left by these Victorian women is humbling. They have blazed the trail and it now falls to me to lay my paving stone on that road for my party, for my state and for my country.
There is one Victorian woman who was the torchbearer for us all. When forming the Liberal Party in 1945, Robert Menzies united a number of different groups under one banner and with a shared cause. One of these groups was the Australian Women’s National League and Dame Elizabeth Couchman was its formidable president. In return for the support of her 40,000 members and considerable financial backing, Dame Elizabeth required from Robert Menzies equal gender representation for Liberal Party office-bearers. One can only be in awe at the foresight of such progressive thinking.
So substantial was Dame Elizabeth’s influence and contribution to the Liberal Party that Sir Robert Menzies once said of her, ‘She was the greatest statesmen of them all.’ Despite this, Dame Elizabeth Couchman failed to win preselection for the Senate each of the three times that she stood. So easy would it have been for her to walk away from an ungrateful party that did not recognise all that she had done and all that she was capable of doing. But instead Dame Elizabeth supported her friend Ivy Wedgwood and mentored her protege Margaret Guilfoyle, who in turn mentored Kay Paterson, who in turn mentored me. This is what the best Victorian Liberal women do. We pay it forward.
With this in mind, I want to acknowledge the unwavering support of three great state Victorian parliamentarians: Louise Staley, Margaret Fitzherbert and Mary Wooldridge. Marching in step in the organisational wing have been Judy Snodgrass, Carol Walter, Caroline Elliott, Caroline’s late mother Lorraine Elliott, Emma Duffy, Zoe McKenzie, Sue Smethurst, Cate Barresi and the formidable members of the Canterbury Evening Discussion Group. These are the women who have paid it forward to me. In their honour, and in honour of Dame Elizabeth Couchman, I make my first promise in this place. I will not pull the ladder up behind me. I will reach down and offer my hand. I will pay it forward.
In a contemporary, free-thinking democracy such as ours, female representation in federal and state parliaments is still woefully inadequate. We can and we must do more but not to score political points, not to increase our palatability with the electorate, not even to make parliament more reflective of those whom we seek to represent. If these are our reasons for pursuing gender parity, we have missed the point. Study after study has proven what is known as the wisdom of crowds—diverse groups make better decisions. Unique experiences and opinions at the table not only inform decisions, but the mere presence of alternative voices emboldens those who may otherwise be susceptible to uncritical groupthink. Good government, good policy, and good politics demand that more women enter the political fray. We cannot do this unless women stand for and win preselection for safe seats. I urge my colleagues, my party and my constituents to take an active role in addressing the gender gap in all positions of influence in our society. After all, better decisions, better outcomes and a better nation are why we are all here.
There are many people who have made the journey from Melbourne tonight. There are too many to mention by name, but from the bottom of my heart, I thank them and all others who have supported me on this journey. I would like to acknowledge the encouragement I have received from both Victorian state president, Michael Kroger, and immediate past state president, Tony Snell. I would also like to thank two former senators, Michael Ronaldson and Sean Edwards, both of whom encouraged me to be here. My friends outside of politics are the people who keep me sane. They are many and I am grateful to them all, but tonight I will only mention three: Caroline Hunt-Smith, Georgie Williams and Kirstin Follows. They will know why.
All of us know that our family and our loved ones play a part in political life regardless of their will to do so; they are passengers on our rollercoaster. My father, Steve, taught me to think hard about why I believe what I believe, to prosecute my case and to not back down. My mother, Louise, leading by example, has given me the courage to take risks, and an unconditional safety net when I have failed. My sister is my firmest an ally, and I love that we grow closer with age. Mum, Dad and Annie, you three are my anchor and my compass. I thank you for everything.
To Andrew Hume, the best father our children could hope for, thank you for encouragement and support over so many years. To Nick Thodos, the ultimate political secret weapon, thank you for your humour, your incredible intellect, and your faith in me when my stores run dry. My children are also here tonight—Harry, Charlie and Imogen. Thank you for keeping me down to earth, for making life fun and funny, and for reminding me always that I am, first and foremost, a mother who is a senator, not a senator who is a mother.
Kids, it may not look or feel it sometimes, but you and your generation are the reason why all of these people are here. No matter our political hue, we all ascribe to the notion that each citizen is responsible for making this country a better place and that we have a duty to participate in our democracy, and to leave Australia stronger for the next generation—a place where you can grow and thrive and fulfil your dreams, whatever they may be.
Finally to the people of Victoria, I thank you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will work every day for you, I will walk a mile in your shoes, I will be courageous, I will be worthy of the trust you have placed in me, and I will not let you down.
I thank the chamber for its indulgence.