When I first stood in this place 23 years ago I did not imagine the extraordinary journey that was to follow. Being a member of Parliament is not merely a job; it is a vocation, a unique vocation. It is a rare privilege that requires an all-encompassing commitment that spans the electorate, that spans the Parliament, and for most of us spans the party. In return, though, it offers extraordinary opportunities to meet and engage with people across the state from all walks of life on a whole range of issues and to participate in the most important events and decisions of the day, and of course no two days are ever alike.
It has been an incredible honour for me to serve in the Legislative Council, representing the Eumemmering Province and South Eastern Metropolitan Region, and to serve 17 years on the frontbench as a minister, shadow minister, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I have had the privilege of serving in six parliaments, and all of them have been unique; all have had different political make-ups and different characters based on who was here. This Parliament is very different to the last Parliament, and no doubt the next Parliament will be very different again.
My journey has included serving with 130 other members of the Legislative Council: six Liberal leaders, six presidents, six premiers, five governors and three clerks, and now unexpectedly serving under two sovereigns. In my time here we have dealt with 1682 bills and the state budget has grown from $23 billion to $99 billion last year. For me policy has always been more interesting than just the politics, and I have been very fortunate to have been involved in areas of interest to me, such as industry policy, treasury, finance and governance.
I was fortunate to spend my first 11 years here on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, and I cannot think of a better learning ground to understand how government really works. So much of the good work of parliamentary committees goes unnoticed. I have been privileged to chair multiple select committees and standing committees in the Legislative Council, including the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration in the 56th Parliament, which was I think the closest we have ever come to having a genuine public accounts committee, and it was a testament to that Parliament that it saw value in putting together a structure like that. As chairman of the select committee into the port of Melbourne sale, I was proud that that committee’s work actually led to significant legislative change which produced better outcomes for port users, better outcomes for regional Victorians and ultimately a better budget bottom line.
The majority of my time in this place, 19 of 23 years, has been in opposition, which is challenging in its own way and often frustrating. However, serving as deputy leader alongside then upper house opposition leader Mary Wooldridge and working closely with my good friends Ed O’Donohue and Georgie Crozier was one of the rare highlights of being in opposition. But of course serving as a minister is the ultimate opportunity to make a difference for Victorians, and I am proud to have served in the cabinets of premiers Ted Baillieu and Denis Napthine in the portfolios of Assistant Treasurer, which was very much an internal government-focused portfolio, and also the externally focused portfolios of technology and aviation industry.
As Assistant Treasurer I led a team that delivered the rewrite of the WorkCover legislation, which was based on the recommendation of the Hanks review. We withdrew Victoria from national OH&S harmonisation. If there was ever an example of where harmonisation had gone wrong, where a model required everyone to drop to the lowest common denominator rather than rise to best practice, it was OH&S harmonisation, and we stand by our decision to take Victoria out of that. We twice lowered premiums for WorkCover and we saved Victorian businesses over $340 million while keeping the scheme solidly in the black.
I was pleased to be Victoria’s Treasury rep on the ministerial council that set up the NDIS. It was an interesting ministerial council. It had Treasury reps from each jurisdiction and it had community services reps from each jurisdiction. It became very clear early in that process that while there were a lot of opportunities for Victoria there were also a number of risks to the WorkCover scheme and to the TAC scheme, which both ran similar supported care schemes to what NDIS now does. In response to that we were very successful in securing the headquarters of the National Disability Insurance Agency to go to Geelong, where we had announced WorkCover would go alongside the TAC, and we worked with Deakin University to set up a centre of insurance excellence to ensure that those three agencies could collaborate, that we could build a skills base and importantly that we could manage the risk to TAC and WorkCover.
We modernised and simplified the procurement framework to prioritise value for money for government and to minimise costs for vendors, and this is something which continues to need reform to this day. Working with Kim Wells, Robert Clark and Michael O’Brien, we stabilised what at the time was a deteriorating budget position and went on to deliver four surplus budgets and what turned out to be quite complex tax reform in introducing the fire services property levy.
Soon after coming to government we received a series of Ombudsman’s and Auditor-General’s reports which were highly critical of the way in which a number of large-scale ICT projects had been undertaken. As Minister for Technology it fell to me and my team to put in place a new platform, which we did through a whole-of-government ICT strategy which reformed the way in which government purchased ICT, with a focus on buying scalable off-the-shelf products rather than building massive bespoke projects from scratch.
We introduced the first data access policy. We recognised that government holds enormous volumes of data and does very little with it, but it is actually very valuable, so we undertook reform of the intellectual property framework in the state. We launched the DataVic access policy to require agencies to release their data—make it available to other agencies and make it available to the private sector—so that we could have innovation and better policy outcomes.
At the time, skills in technology were in short supply, and we implemented a comprehensive policy to attract and retain skilled ICT workers, both school leavers and mature-age people who were seeking a career change. On the industry development front we facilitated more than 5500 jobs and $1.1 billion of private sector investment in ICT, in biotech and in the small tech sector. Through that period Victoria was rated as the national leader in digital government.
One of my great passions is the aviation industry, and I was privileged to be Minister responsible for the Aviation Industry in the Liberal government. Few people know that Victoria is actually home to the largest Boeing factory outside North America, and in Gippsland we have had Mahindra GippsAero building the only certified Australian-designed aircraft in the country. In my own electorate we have got Marand and RUAG, which build critical components for the joint strike fighter. So we have got a world-class aerospace industry, and it was my brief as minister to work with the aerospace industry and the aviation industry to develop export opportunities and to attract investment. Some of that related to manufacturing and a lot of it related to pilot training, attracting international contracts to Victoria.
One of the last projects we worked on, which I was particularly proud of, was the AIR 5428 Australian Defence Force pilot training contract, which was secured just after the change of government on the back of work that we had done through our period of government to secure it for Sale. It was a particularly competitive project. We worked with Lockheed Martin and Pilatus to get it to Victoria. The competitor was Tamworth, which is in the electorate of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce; we managed to wrest it away from New South Wales and get it to Victoria, which was a great outcome.
A lot of that work was underpinned by our government’s Regional Aviation Fund, with which we supported the upgrade of 22 regional airports across Victoria. It was a program which demonstrated that with a small amount of money you can leverage a lot of contributions in kind from local communities. With that small amount of money we were able to see some projects brought forward and a lot of those projects delivered much earlier than otherwise would have been the case.
One of my fondest memories of that program is actually from a weekend when I ended up in Cobden, in the south-west of the state, in Mrs McArthur’s electorate. I went into Cobden on Saturday morning, and they were holding a sausage sizzle. The sausage sizzle was in fact to raise funds to fund the sealing of the runway at their local airport, which was used by the air ambulance and aerial ag operators. Having bought a sausage, I was actually without a hint of irony able to say to them, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’. Within 12 months they had the grant and they had finished the sealing of the runway, which was years earlier than would have been possible had they been relying on just raising funds through the sausage sizzle.
Public life is a noble and worthwhile profession, yet it is also deeply misunderstood by a fairly cynical electorate. The Australian National University has done research that shows that in 1981 around 56 per cent of Australians had trust in our parliamentary system. By 2018 that had fallen to only 28 per cent. Parliament is central to our democracy, and I have always believed that my most important role, without doubt, has been as a parliamentarian.
I have had the opportunity to serve in this place alongside some great parliamentarians, people who truly respected and understood the constitution, the conventions and practices of this place, why they are important and how to make them work—people like Bill Baxter, Roger Hallam, Philip Davis, Gavin Jennings and Greg Barber, who all stand out for their commitment as parliamentarians—parliamentarians who also understood that Parliament should involve genuine debate, not just proforma speeches, and parliamentarians who knew how to work both on and off the record and the fact that conversation out there in the corridor behind the President’s chair could be as effective at getting outcomes as what happens in this place.
As members of Parliament we make decisions for all Victorians and we have a duty to all Victorians, not just those in our own electorates. Lawyers understand the concept of being an officer of the court—that is, having a duty to support the judicial system and uphold the judicial system as well as representing their clients. As parliamentarians we also have a duty to protect and uphold the supremacy of the Parliament ahead of partisan or political convenience, and this is a fundamental duty. It is easy for parties and governments of all colours to want to circumvent, sidestep or dismiss parliamentary convention, oversight or scrutiny for their own convenience. As parliamentarians we have a duty to Parliament to ensure that does not happen—a duty which transcends responsibility to our party, a duty which must be upheld if trust in the parliamentary system is to improve.
Too often as members of Parliament we fixate on the next election, either winning government or staying in government, yet none of us was elected to simply campaign for the subsequent election. We were elected to do our duty in the four years we are in this place to deal with the issues by our best judgement, and I think we need to invest more time in looking at the issues of the day on the merits of the day rather than looking at them through a filter of what it means for the next election.
One of the huge challenges we face as members of the Victorian Parliament is the decline in community interest, knowledge and engagement in the state political process. When I first arrived here in 1999 that trend had already started. Media reporting of state politics was already largely a by-line compared with the coverage of the national sphere. There were, however, at least authoritative news sources. We had two daily newspapers. We had three commercial channels and the ABC. If you wanted to see the news, you had to watch it at 6 o’clock. So there was a fairly narrowly defined set of sources of news. But of course the rise of social media over the last 15 years has changed that inexorably.
The media market is now fragmented into thousands of different channels, and the news is what you want it to be. At the same time, mainstream media resources have been hollowed out in an effort to compete. So capturing the attention of the Victorian community on the serious issues we face is more challenging than ever, and as we increasingly resort to social media and chase the tweet or the 6-second TikTok video it is easy to resort to dumbed-down messages; however, as parliamentarians we need to put substance over form for the long-term interests of this state.
Over this journey I have had the privilege of working with so many people committed to the service of Victoria. In particular I acknowledge and thank the staff of the Department of Treasury and Finance; the then Department of State Development, Business and Innovation; WorkCover; the TAC; the Emergency Services Superannuation Scheme; Cenitex; and the other agencies I worked so closely with as a minister. The Parliament of Victoria has outstanding professional staff, from the chamber departments to the support departments to those that run, maintain and secure this building. I particularly highlight the work of the clerks, the table and the chamber staff, who are the custodians of the traditions and the privileges of this house, and I thank them sincerely for all their assistance over the last 23 years.
I would like to thank the people of Eumemmerring Province and the South Eastern Metropolitan Region for electing me five times and for the privilege they have given me in being able to represent them in Parliament. It has been enormously rewarding to represent an area that over time has spanned from Springvale to Frankston to Bunyip to Warburton to Reefton and over that time to work with so many local communities on a variety of local issues.
I thank the Liberal Party for the opportunity it gave me as a 25-year-old to serve in this Parliament and later to serve as a minister and as deputy leader. Without the Liberal Party it would not have been possible for me to be a member of Parliament. I would like to thank my electorate chairmen and electorate council and the thousands of party volunteers who have supported me over the years. In particular I thank the preselectors who put their faith in a 25-year-old candidate in 1999. I hope that I have repaid that faith.
Nothing is achieved alone, and I would like to thank my electorate and ministerial staff for their incredible loyalty, dedication and hard work. When I was first elected MLCs only had one staffer, and for me that was Janet Cummings. For 16 years, until she died, Janet was a wise, capable and loyal office manager and a friend who I miss to this day. Later Janet was joined by Susanne LaFontaine, Yvonne Ashton, Colleen Holland and Sammy Analytis, each of whom gave dedicated service, and I thank them all. For the last six years Sophie Biviano has been a mainstay of the office, bringing commitment and tenacity, now ably supported by Laura Hammond. I thank them both for their continuing hard work.
I thank my ministerial team: my chiefs of staff, Nick and Peter; Duncan, Andrew, Lisa, Arti, Christine and Courtney, who worked in government and continues to do the hard yards in opposition; and Brian Fitzpatrick, who made the jump from opposition to adviser to chief of staff—I could not have had anyone better watching my back and helping deliver our agenda. Neil Lucas, a former member, has been a friend and mentor for two decades. Tim, Daniel, Erhan and Simon have all been good friends and trusted sounding boards. Cameron has been there from day one, personally and professionally. I thank each of them. I thank Ann for her perseverance and unwavering support.
I owe great thanks to my family. My father, Ken, and my late mother, Joy, provided endless love and instilled in me the values I have carried through this journey. It was Mum who encouraged me to first become active in the Liberal Party. My sister Susan was my strongest supporter from day one of the preselection campaign and with Doug has supported me every step of the way.
Having entered Parliament as the youngest ever member of this place, I have now spent almost half my entire life as a member of the Legislative Council. We were reminded last week that no period of service, no matter how great or how long, lasts forever, and so it is for all of us here. I have always been mindful of that fact, and it is a rare privilege for members to choose the time of their own leaving.
The splendour of this chamber is as thrilling to me today as it was 23 years ago. It has been the privilege of my life to serve Victoria as a member of Parliament and as a minister. It is a privilege I will never forget, and I thank everyone who has made it possible.