The Australian Senate
30 July 2019
THE PRESIDENT : Pursuant to order, the Senate will now move to valedictory statements.
SENATOR FIFIELD: Colleagues and friends, doesn’t it go by in the blink of an eye? It was a little over 15 years ago that I rose to speak for the first time in this great chamber. I did so as the 487th senator to serve in this place since Federation. This struck me at the time as being a pretty small number, but since I arrived 120 senators have left this place. I cite these figures to highlight that, while ours may be a select group, our custodianship is transitory. To be chosen by your party peers to be their flag-bearer, to be endorsed by the voters, to be afforded a platform and resources to pursue the national interest, there are few greater privileges. Today, for me, represents the culmination of a decade and a half in the Senate, and the drawing of stumps on a parliamentary and a ministerial career. But today also represents for me the conclusion of 31 years in full-time professional politics and 23 years working in this building.
It was as a student at Sydney university in 1985 that my commitment to the Liberal cause was formalised through joining the Sydney University Liberal Club. But it wasn’t long before there was political drama. The Liberal club candidate for SRC president, Michael Hughes, was challenged for SRC president by another Liberal club member, Joe Hockey, who was running on a rival college ticket. Now, Joe won, and one thing the Sydney University Liberal Club could not tolerate was a winner! So there was only one thing to do: we voted to expel Joe from the Liberal club! Odd as it may seem, Joe still doesn’t find this funny! But, colleagues, Joe has been a great servant of the nation and a wonderful ambassador to the United States, and our friend and colleague Senator Sinodinos will shortly make his own distinguished contribution in that role.
Colleagues, in the 15 years after university, I was fortunate to learn about good government, good policy and good politics through working for some great parliamentarians: Bruce Baird, in the first four reforming years of the Greiner government; John Anderson, in the character-forming years of the Hewson opposition; Alan Brown, in the first four barnstorming years of the Kennett government; and Peter Costello, in the first eight landmark years of the Howard government. However, all the while, I was first and foremost an active grassroots party member.
The retirement in 2004 of another former deputy Senate leader and communications minister, Richard Alston, presented the opportunity for me to serve in this place. I came into parliament determined to fight for individual liberty and a smaller footprint for government. In about my second party-room meeting in this place, I saw an opportunity to present my case. Colleagues in the party room were pushing for the establishment of a Commonwealth community small grants program. I saw my opportunity. I sought the leader’s call and sprang to my feet, arguing that surely there had to be limits to areas of government involvement—that surely this wasn’t core government business. I’d barely opened my mouth before I was drowned out by House colleagues shouting out: ‘Sit down. Shut up. What would a senator know?’ I was quickly introduced to the regard in which senators are held by our House colleagues. But I’ve always consoled myself with the fact that at least we in the Senate can read!
It was through the pursuit of another issue that I soon learnt the influence that a single backbencher can have within the forums of the party. The issue was a symbolic one for Liberals: voluntary student unionism, or VSU. If we believe in voluntary unionism in the workplace, why not on campus? So, over 2004 and 2005, I decided to get to my feet at every second party-room meeting and ask Prime Minister John Howard why he wasn’t legislating VSU. Each time I rose to my feet I could see that Prime Minister Howard was getting more and more agitated and irritable. Strangely enough, I only took encouragement from this! Anyway, it was successful; VSU was legislated—only to be reversed, regrettably, by the Rudd government. But this exercise taught me you didn’t have to hold ministerial office to achieve an outcome. In this business, it’s 90 per cent about persistence.
I applied this approach to another cause of which I became a champion: securing funding to establish the first non-metropolitan medical school in Victoria, at Deakin University in Geelong. My advice to Vice Chancellor Sally Walker and the dean, John Catford, was to be charmingly persistent. This is also sometimes known as stalking! The plan was for the Deakin team to be present wherever PM Howard, Treasurer Costello, Health Minister Abbott and Education Minister Nelson were. None of these four ministers could turn around at a public or private event anywhere in Australia without seeing someone from Deakin smiling at them. In the end, the only way to make Deakin go away was to say yes. I call this type of lobbying ‘the Deakin model’!
In 2009, opposition leader Turnbull appointed me to be on the front bench, where I had the great privilege of serving as the shadow minister for disabilities and, subsequently, as minister. I had no background in disabilities. I didn’t know anyone with a significant disability; I didn’t know any carers. I have to say, my eyes were opened to the raw deal Australians with disabilities received—support was determined not by need but by how you acquired your disability. This was wrong. This had to change, and the NDIS was the answer. I acknowledge Bruce Bonyhady, John Walsh, Ara Creswell and Milly Parker, who all have lived experience of the issues and who educated me. I thank them. I was very proud in opposition to carry my colleagues with me to elevate disability and the NDIS beyond partisanship. In that spirit, I acknowledge Bill Shorten’s role in championing the NDIS when I was his shadow. Then, as the minister for disabilities in government from 2013, I had the responsibility to lay the foundations of the NDIS. I thank Tony Abbott for embracing NDIS bipartisanship as opposition leader and for being an NDIS champion as Prime Minister.
My approach in this place has never been partisanship for the sake of partisanship. It should only ever be partisanship with a purpose: partisanship that helps highlight an important philosophical difference is good, partisanship that helps make clear a stark policy choice is good, but partisanship should never be gratuitous. I’ve tried to abide by this. I took the same approach as minister for aged care, where I was able to introduce genuine choice for the first time for those receiving care at home. I particularly acknowledge my then aged-care adviser, Pat Sparrow, and consumer advocate Ian Yates for their wise counsel.
My next brief was as Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts, where I took satisfaction in legislating the dismantling of the old ‘princes of print’ and ‘queens of screen’ arrangements that predated the internet and tied the hands of Australian media, preventing scale and the ability to compete with the global giants. But this was not easy. There was the double hurdle of securing support across the media industry and across the Senate. Success was only possible because of a constructive Senate crossbench and due to the willingness of Australia’s media leaders to look beyond their own legitimate organisational interests to the wider welfare of the industry.
In particular, I acknowledge the roles played by Peter Tonagh, Harold Mitchell, Campbell Reid, Georgia-Kate Schubert, Greg Hywood, Joan Warner, Grant Blackely, Adam Lang, Ryan Stokes, Hugh Marks, Paul Anderson, Annabelle Herd, Kerry Stokes, Peter Costello and, of course, my then broadcasting adviser, Luke Tobin, without whom success would not have been achieved. But, on this matter, I could not have got to first base without the backing and encouragement of then Prime Minister Turnbull.
I should also mention that part of this grand media bargain was a commitment to examine content issues and the role of digital platforms. So, as part of the media reform package I commissioned with then Treasurer Morrison the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry, which has just handed down its report. This will provide the context for this important work to be pursued. I acknowledge Graham Burke for his wise counsel in this area.
I am proud, through my roles as Minister for Communications and Minister for the Arts, not only to have helped give Australian media organisations a fighting chance but to have overseen the near completion of the NBN through the herculean efforts of the whole NBN team, especially Ziggy Switowski, Bill Morrow and Stephen Rue. Again, it should be acknowledged that the architect of the NBN revival, one of the great Australian corporate turnarounds, was my predecessor as the minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
As minister, I also had the opportunity to put in place the building blocks for a tougher approach to online regulation, to prepare the way for the 5G revolution and to boost support for Australian contemporary music and our national collecting institutions. Just to give one example of how seriously I took my support for Australian music, I want to breach cabinet confidentiality for a moment. When I was taking Ita Buttrose forward to cabinet to be the Chair of the ABC, I detailed Ita’s qualifications and concluded by saying, ‘Colleagues, you should know that Ita’s appointment enjoys the strong support of Jimmy Barnes and Cold Chisel.’ Mathias, who was on my left, said, ‘I don’t understand. What do you mean?’ I responded, ‘Okay, for the new arrivals,’ and I proceeded to sing to cabinet the Cold Chisel tribute song ‘Ita’.
GOVERNMENT SENATORS: Do it! Do it!
SENATOR FIFIELD: ‘Ita’s tongue never touches her lips’—no, I won’t. Get thee behind me, Satan! I’m pretty sure that I’m the first minister since Federation to sing in support of their cab sub. So, Fletch, it’s over to you.
But, more broadly, my aim for the arts was to bring a period of stability, and I thank all of those in the arts portfolio for teaching me that the arts are not an optional extra; they’re core to how we live. The arts help us to better understand our past, make sense of the present and be better prepared for the future. To our nation’s artists: thank you for helping us all to see things, feel things and think things that we otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do. I see in the gallery a passionate arts minister, the Premier of South Australia, Steve Marshall, who is a good friend and an inspiring leader. It is great to see you, Steve.
One of my great and perverse joys in this place has been having responsibility for chamber management for the coalition in opposition and in government for a decade. I say ‘perverse’ because it’s not exactly everyone’s idea of fun. We all know that, unlike those in the other place, we senators are genuine legislators. We read legislation. We draft amendments, we move amendments and we negotiate. To be at the heart of that as Senate manager was to be in the engine room of parliamentary democracy. For the record, during my tenure, the government secured the passage of 731 bills in the Senate.
If I could, I would leave a few messages as I depart. Firstly, the ordinary norms of human engagement should apply in politics. Too often in our business they’re left at the door. You can’t have as your starting point where you want someone to be or where you think they should be. You’ve got to have as your starting point where they are, respect that and then work back from there. When you do that, you can get good outcomes. Secondly, there are some commentators whose thesis is that the system of politics in Australia is broken, that it’s not possible to achieve reform anymore and that the press, the 24/7 media cycle, hung chambers and new quasi-political groups make it all too hard. I could not disagree more. How challenges manifest themselves certainly changes, but the essence of politics is the same. Our core business is advocacy. Our core business is persuasion: to stake out some territory on an issue, to make a case, to argue it and to carry people along with you. The extent to which political practitioners fail to achieve their objectives is a failure of persuasion and of advocacy. So I encourage all my colleagues to reject the thesis that the system is broken and to embrace core business.
In closing, I thank the Prime Minister for his unstinting support of me as a minister and for his invitation to me to continue to serve as communications and arts minister. I thank him for the opportunity for a new avenue of service through his announced intention to recommend to the Governor-General my appointment as the next Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations. I wish him and the government well. His will be a great prime ministership.
I’ve been extremely fortunate during my 15 years in the Senate. I’ve served for a decade on the front bench, for six of those years as a member of the leadership group, serving as Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and as Manager of Government Business in the Senate, and for six years as a minister, serving as Minister for Communications, Minister for the Arts, minister for disabilities and minister for aged care. What has been achieved through these commissions would not have been possible without the support of my coalition colleagues, the dedicated members of the Australian Public Service, the Senate chamber department and the hard work of my wonderful personal staff. I thank the Senate staff through the Clerk, Richard Pye, and I thank the APS through my most recent secretary, Mike Mrdak.
But I do want to highlight my personal staff. Those who serve in the offices of senators and ministers make a commitment well beyond the professional, and I thank them. I’ve had close to 100 personal staff pass through my office over the years. Those in recent times have taken to referring to themselves as Fife4Life. I thank all my staff, and I do so through those who’ve served as my chiefs of staff: my final COS, Luke Tobin—so committed he’s worked for me on three separate occasions, in opposition and government, between the ages of 21 and 35—and my other COSs, Luke Coleman, Richard Windeyer, Darren Disney, Craig Bosworth and Robert McMahon. Thank you, through you, to the entire team over the years.
I acknowledge my two longest-serving members of staff: Sarah Bridger, the ‘Master of the Senate’, who, in opposition and government, for 10 years told me and Mathias what to do—Sarah, you can take great pride in the legislative success and in your disability policy work in opposition; and Lorraine Sayers, for always being there, right up to the very end, and for the extra support she provided to my family. Thank you.
But there is one other staff member I want to mention—a Labor staffer who works for Linda Burney, following stints with Richo, Ros Kelly and Laurie Brereton. I speak of my aunt, Di Ford. I’ve always had someone from the other side looking over me and out for me. Thank you, Di, for being in the gallery tonight.
To serve the community in the Australian Senate and in the cabinet is an honour, which is only possible due to the faith party members have placed in me to represent their values—party members who seek nothing other than better outcomes for their nation. Emblematic are people like the late Norm and Joyce Loader; the late Ben and Patti Sanders; the late Thelma Mansfield; and the late Willis Parton and his wife, Val. Without these great Liberals who nursed me to political maturity, I would not have had the opportunity to serve.
I thank my colleagues for their friendship and support and for all they have done and will continue to do for the nation. I’ve served under great Senate leaders: Robert Hill, Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz, George Brandis and Mathias Cormann. To Mathias: we’ve been a great legislative team and a great partnership. Together we’ve achieved many great policy outcomes in opposition and in government. You’ve been an extraordinary legislator and leader. You’ve been a great friend. I’ll miss you, but I know the shop will continue to be in good hands.
Simon Birmingham: I escorted you into the chamber and you’ve been a steady friend through some good times and some difficult times. Thank you. Michaela Cash: you’re a good buddy. You’re Tonka tough. Thank you for your friendship and support. Marise Payne: my oldest friend in this place, dating back to my time in the New South Wales division. You walked me into the chamber. Always a friend. You are a great prosecutor of our national interest, and I look forward to continuing to work with you and for you.
James Paterson: a great friend who, along with his wife Lydia, served on my staff. James and Lydia, you are reason for optimism about our party’s future. And James, if we couldn’t have Lydia in the Senate, you’ll do. Dean Smith: we’ve known each other for a long time, and you’ve been my communications and arts partner as backbench committee chair. You share in the success we’ve had in the portfolio. Cory: we may be separated brethren, but we’re brethren nonetheless. I’ll always think fondly, particularly, of the times we had in opposition with Brett Mason and Stephen Parry.
President Ryan: we’ve had some twists and some turns, but we’ve always been heading in the same direction. Thank you for your friendship. Speaker Smith: my great mate, who guided me through the Victorian party when I moved from New South Wales 27 years ago. You’ve been a constant friend, backstop and counsellor. Thank you. And it’s great to have Josh in the gallery. You’ve become a good friend. Thank you for your leadership in Victoria.
These roles are not possible without the support and sacrifices of family. I thank mine, to whom I owe everything. I thank my brothers, Scott and Matt, for putting up with an absent brother. But I hope Mum and Dad would be proud.
The last decade and a half in the Senate has been immensely rewarding and a great privilege, but this is the right time for me and my family to look to a new opportunity of service.
I thank my daughter, Ruby, who was three when I entered the Senate. She interjected in my first speech when she heard her name. Ruby is now 18 and has become a wonderful woman—I must confess, in the absence of my parenting. I’m so proud of you, Ruby, and I thank you for being more loving and understanding than I deserve.
And my seven-year-old son, Harry, who’s in the gallery today: Harry, we’re about to embark upon a great adventure, and your mum and I are just so very proud of you.
And my partner, Mari: thank you for your love, for your unfailing support and for your endless patience. The only mistakes I’ve made are the ones where I haven’t listened to you!
Colleagues, for me the work goes on, but in a different forum. I look forward with relish to continuing to serve the nation in a new capacity. I thank my colleagues for the courtesy extended to me tonight. Best wishes to you all. Good luck, and thank you.
THE DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I am very sad, Senator Fifield, that we had to wait until this day to hear your brilliant impersonation of the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I would have liked to have heard more of that.
LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE: I’ve heard it on more than one occasion, Madam Deputy President. Senator Mitch Fifield is one of my closest and dearest friends and colleagues in this parliament. He has served Victoria and Australia with distinction, great honour and integrity. We knew of each other but didn’t know each other all that well when we both were working as staffers in the Howard government. Mitch was the senior political adviser to one of the absolute giants of Australian politics—our then Treasurer, Peter Costello—having worked for senior politicians, state and federal, over a 15-year period. I was working for another great Australian—Senator Chris Ellison—who was in the outer ministry. From that perspective, we all greatly admired Mitch as someone who had reached the great heights of political staffing.
When I arrived in the Senate back in June 2007, during the final months of the Howard government, Mitch had already served as a senator for Victoria for about three years. He had already secured significant policy reform to the benefit of students all around Australia—voluntary student unionism. It was during the many policy battles in opposition that we became very close friends. Politics is the battle of ideas. In opposition it is as much about the battle to help shape the future policy direction of your own team as it is about fighting against or seeking to improve bad policy proposals from the other side. It’s fair to say that Mitch and I worked very closely on both.
Our work together—and I’m sure Senator Wong remembers this fondly—on the Senate Select Committee on Fuel and Energy and later on the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, scrutinising and passing policy judgements and political judgements on Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the resource superprofits tax, the mineral resources rent tax and student services and amenities fees, was the time when we forged a very strong and trusting bond of friendship. Ever since those days together in the opposition trenches we waged many a policy battle. We were successful in quite a number of them, although not all. It helped shape our policy agenda at the time and, indeed, for a period into government.
Whenever there was time at the end of a sitting day we would quietly celebrate or commiserate over dinner or drinks, solving those problems in the world that were still left to be solved at the end of another day—and there would be the occasional poking fun at me with my accent and the occasional song. As the shadow minister for disabilities, carers and the voluntary sector, Mitch was absolutely instrumental and the driving force behind ensuring that the coalition offered strong and unwavering bipartisan support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Coming into government as the minister responsible for the NDIS, he led the charge to put the rollout of that important scheme, which was to provide more appropriate support to people across Australia with disabilities and their families, on a solid foundation trajectory for the future. That responsibility was described in one independent review as like building a plane in flight.
Having helped lay the foundation for the NDIS, Mitch helped address the chronic unmet need of a group of people who had been unsupported for decades. When the coalition formed government in 2013 the scheme only continued to gain momentum under Mitch’s guidance. There continues to be more work to be done, of course—it is a massive reform undertaking—but Mitch made a significant strategic contribution to this scheme from opposition and ensured we continued to build the momentum and deliver this reform in practice in government. Today the NDIS remains as much a priority for the government as it was then.
As communications minister Mitch has overseen—together with his fellow shareholder minister I would like to think—the near completion of the National Broadband Network. When the coalition inherited the NBN in 2013 barely 50,000 premises were connected to the fixed network. Today more than 10 million homes and businesses can connect, giving them fast and reliable broadband and connecting them to the world around them. Much of this progress has occurred under Mitch’s guidance. Millions of Australians are better off as a result.
In 2017, under Mitch’s guidance, the coalition delivered the biggest reforms to Australian media laws in nearly three decades, giving new life to legislation not updated since the 20th century and strengthening Australia’s media industry. These were reforms that many said would never pass, but Mitch got it done. Thanks to Mitch, Australians of all ages who use the internet do so under a stronger regime so that Australians have a safer and more positive experiences online.
One of his greatest passions as a minister was his role as Minister for the Arts. Mitch, as Minister for the Arts, was highly regarded by the arts community for bringing funding stability to the sector and also for attending hundreds and hundreds of concerts and exhibitions and, on occasions, giving his own concerts. I attended those too. Combining time served in opposition and government, he would have to be one of the longest serving managers of opposition and government business. We did work closely together for many, many years in trying to get our legislative reform agenda through the Senate, as a government, or trying to block the bad policy reforms and bad legislation being put forward on occasion by the other side when they were in government. Mitch was incredibly well-organised and exceptionally effective in that role. We were a great team.
Throughout our time together in the Senate, we haven’t always ended up on the same side in relation to contested ballots on key positions. In fact, on a number of occasions, we didn’t. I can honestly say that it never, ever has affected our friendship, which has been built over many years on deep and unwavering trust. That is because, even when we ended up making different judgements, we were always totally honest, open and up-front with each other about what we were doing and why. We both totally respected that the other was making their judgement based on what they felt was the right way forward.
I have to say that I feel very safe knowing that Senator Fifield will soon become Ambassador Fifield, representing Australia at the United Nations. All Australians can have great confidence and trust that his judgements and his actions as our representative on all matters arising before the UN from time to time will be very sound. Serving with Mitch in the leadership group of our parliamentary party in his roles as manager and deputy leader was a real privilege. He is a very experienced and skilled politician, with sound judgement and great integrity. He is also great fun and has a great sense of humour. He can be a great singer—or not—and is an all-round very good friend. I should correct that: he is always a good singer! I will really miss you, Mitch, and do sincerely hope that over the years we can continue to bridge the geographical divide and remain in close touch and remain good friends.
Mitch, in your first speech in the Senate on 12 May 2004, you said about your predecessor, Richard Alston, that he was a great servant of his party, the state of Victoria and the nation. You have been all of that in spades. You have served your party, your state and your nation with distinction and with great grace, as a determined and convicted politician, carving out a legacy that you and your family can and should be proud of. To Mitch, Mari, Ruby and Harry: good luck with your next adventures. You will be missed in this place, but I am sure we will continue to meet and enjoy each other’s company in other places around the world in the future. Best of luck.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I rise on behalf of the opposition to acknowledge the departure of Senator Fifield and to make a short contribution on his valedictory. I want to start with an apology. You see, for most of the time that Senator Fifield was Manager of Government Business in the Senate—in the life of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments—I have been Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. That means he’s borne the brunt of the many attempts we have made to strike a blow for government accountability in this place. I have to confess that, on occasions, he’s probably been the recipient of a serve from me. Whether it be motions, committee references, short statements, OPDs, selection of bills reports or amendments—but especially those suspensions of standing orders that drop at 9.28 am on a Wednesday morning—he has copped the lot. I will not say that I have never seen him flustered, but to his credit he is not one to lose his cool. He said tonight in his remarks that partisanship should have a purpose and should not be gratuitous. That has been the approach he has taken. Of course, I do hasten to add that all of those actions in the chamber were entirely justified!
Senator Fifield has come a long way from his time as an adviser to Peter Costello, famously ironing his shirts—and my ribbing about that, which he’s always taken in very good grace. He entered this place in 2004, following the resignation of Richard Alston. In his first speech, and also in his valedictory tonight, he spoke about those in his family who identify with the Labor side of politics. He included a particular mention of an aunt and uncle who were political staffers in the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments and a grandfather with two decades of service to the Printing and Kindred Industries Union. Senator Fifield, it’s not too late! There is a better path!
Following the defeat of the Howard government in ’07, he assumed shadow executive roles from 2009, entering the full shadow ministry the following year with responsibility for disabilities, carers and the voluntary sector. He held those roles during the period that encompassed the development and enactment of the NDIS. The National Disability Insurance Scheme was a signature legislative achievement of the 43rd Parliament, and it passed with bipartisan support. Senator Fifield deserves acknowledgement for the role he played in the development of the coalition’s position in this area during this defining time and for ensuring its passage through this place. In government, Senator Fifield was appointed Minister for Communications and the Arts, again following in the footsteps of Richard Alston. Thankfully, he did bring a much needed touch of diversity to the government frontbench, sporting the longest-held summer beard we’ve ever seen!
Senator Fifield’s public service will clearly not end when he hands in his resignation from the Senate. Like the man he replaced, he moves to a position as a diplomat, beginning a new chapter as Australia’s ambassador to the UN in New York. This is a hugely important role. It’s not one of those postings that you imagine to be a twirl around the cocktail circuit. It is a place where serious business is conducted by some of the world’s most senior diplomats. The agenda is vast, the relationships are complex, and it is a place for workhorses rather than show ponies. Perhaps Senator Fifield may think back to his days here as breezy by contrast.
Whilst it is easy to criticise the UN, it is important to remember how much we need it and how much it supports Australia’s interests. Australia played a key role in the founding of the United Nations. As a substantial power but not a superpower, the UN can be a hugely valuable tool in our diplomatic toolkit when we engage wisely and constructively. Key bilateral relationships are heavily influenced by how we operate in the multilateral world of the United Nations. How we work with the other 192 member states of the UN can serve or harm our national interests. So Senator Fifield will be carrying on a vital Australian legacy. He is fortunate to join a UN mission that is highly accomplished and that has served Australia well, earning us a valuable seat on the Security Council, which was critical in our response to the tragic and dreadful downing of MH17. More recently, they have earned us a seat on the Human Rights Council. As Australians, we must build the future by living up to the leadership we have demonstrated in the past through our commitment to the multilateral rules based order, to the United Nations and its agencies and to the ideals, principles and values which these represent.
Senator Fifield reflected today on his career. He spoke of his time here as ‘custodianship’. It is an observation unblinkered by ego and respectful of our democracy, an observation which reflects well upon him. Senator Fifield, on behalf of the opposition, I thank you for your service to this Senate. I wish you and your family well, and I particularly wish you well as a representative of Australia in the world.
LEADER OF THE NATIONALS IN THE SENATE: I rise as Leader of the Nationals in the Senate to pay respect to Senator Fifield, his contribution to parliament, his contribution to rural and regional Australia and, indeed, his contribution to our home state of Victoria. He’s had a long and distinguished career in this place, and others have made great reflection on that. He’s represented our great state of Victoria for 15 years, with more than five years as minister and three in cabinet. I don’t think Mitch would stand here today and profess a great depth of knowledge and affinity per se with rural and regional Australia, but his portfolio positions have contributed immensely to the growth and development, the security and safety, and the education and health outcomes of rural and regional Australia. I want to thank him very, very much for that, particularly in his role as communications minister.
He made mention in his speech that one of the great things he recalls over his 15 years is being able to make a difference from the backbench. Mitch was the minister that allowed me to make a difference from the backbench too, with the changes to the ABC around rural and regional positions on the board, ensuring greater accountability of service provision and changes to the charter. So, thank you, Mitch. It’s true that the Senate is the chamber that can allow senators to make a difference, no matter where they sit.
Together we also delivered a $220 million Stronger Regional Digital Connectivity Package, which brings our government’s total commitment to over 1,000 new base stations. I know, during this parliament, other ministers will be rolling out the work that Mitch and I were able to get through the last budget. I want to thank you for that support, also for rural and regional communities—the difference it will make in their lives.
We inherited a bit of a mess with the NBN, and, Mitch, you’ve played a significant role in what’s been quite a remarkable turnaround story. You were there for the launch of the NBN’s Sky Muster satellite service, which has been a significant improvement on our previous satellite services, to be available across the country.
I’ve always enjoyed sharing the Senate chamber with another eighties music tragic. You’re not only okay to dance with but you’re okay to sing with too. I’m reliably informed that Mitch’s singing proficiency has led to him being affectionately known as ‘Mitch with the perfect pitch’. And I think many senators on this side of the chamber will definitely miss the countless late-night sitting parties held out here in our coalition room, where there was a certain DJ, with a certain mix, that had to fight Senator Parry sometimes for use of the speaker. But really, Mitch, that was a great mechanism for developing a team and keeping our spirits high. As a coalition we’ve really come to the fore on that.
He does have an affinity, though. He was quoted as saying he has a particular fondness for north-east Victoria, where I grew up, having lived for a time on a farm at Ghin Ghin near Yea. Well done! Good. See? It is there. We searched high and wide for reference to the regions. I think one other issue that Mitch and I, and the National Party, have always appreciated is the importance of having a strong coalition and the need to have a strong National Party and a strong separate but loving Liberal Party, in terms of delivering for our communities and for our state. We’ve been in furious agreement with that, so thank you for your support always.
After the rush has gone, I hope you find a little more time. Oh, he’s thinking! Always believe in your soul. You’ve got the power to know. You’re indestructible. All the best from the National Party, Mitch.
SENATOR HANSON-YOUNG: I rise tonight on behalf of the Australian Greens to give congratulations to Senator Fifield for a long career in this place and moving on to bigger and better things as the ambassador to the UN. In talking to people outside this place, one thing I am always struck by is how shocked they are to hear that people from different sides of politics actually get along, that we can talk to each other, that we can work with each other, that sometimes what you see in question time is not the reality.
Mitch, I think you have really shown in this place that it doesn’t matter what side of politics a person comes from; if they’ve got a good idea, if they’re willing to engage, then you will participate and have that conversation. I thank you. There have been many times where I have had a bee in my bonnet and you’ve been prepared to listen. But it’s really about making this place more cooperative, generally. You see that with your team, and I have witnessed it with how you engage with people right across the political spectrum in this place. I know as communications and arts minister you loved that portfolio dearly and you did some great things. I didn’t agree with it all but being able to work on some things together was incredibly satisfying.
In your speech just now you have spoken about not being partisan just for the sake of it and not being oppositional for the sake of being oppositional. I think for all of us that’s an important message to hear and an important thing to continue to do in our daily lives in this place in how we work with each other. This place works when we respect each other, when we engage in ideas and lively debate and when we are able to cooperate with the workings of this chamber.
You have always been able to be straight with people. I think that’s what’s made you good at your job in terms of managing the business in this place. We heard Mathias reference that in terms of your own relationship, but I think from this side of the chamber we’ve always appreciated your honesty and directness, even if it wasn’t exactly what we always wanted.
I’m looking forward to seeing you operate in the UN and doing everything you can for global climate action. I will be sure to be writing some notes for you!
On a personal note, you’re a lot of fun. Again, with this idea that politics is broken, I think we as politicians need to be a bit more open. You don’t have to be oppositional all of the time. We actually get along in this place because we’re all humans. We’re all here for the same purpose, and that’s to contribute to our country to make things better. We might have different opinions about how that is done. But having that debate, having that respect and having a bit of a fun as we do it is what makes politics much better in this country.
Thank you, Mitch. We’re going to miss you on this side. I look forward to seeing what comes out of the UN over the next couple of years.
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE: Mitch, tonight we heard the type of thoughtfulness, perspective, calm, dignity and good humour that has made you a valued friend and colleague to so many across this place—so many, indeed, as you said, over the last 15 years—but particularly to your colleagues here and to those of us who have had the great pleasure of serving with you for so much of those 15 years.
As you reflected, I took my first steps into this place through those doors over there with you standing on one side of me and with Senator Payne standing on the other side. Two greater colleagues I could not have chosen. Great friends to start with and throughout.
As you also noted, we’ve had our ups and downs while we have been in here as we have dealt with the political travails of what has been a tumultuous time in this place. But we’ve found the importance of what, I think, we dubbed ‘public coffee’. I can recall on one of those occasions when we were voting for opposite leaders in the Liberal party room—something that happened more times than I would have liked—we decided the best way to make sure that the world knew that we could overcome such things; we went and plonked ourselves down at Aussie’s and had a cup of coffee together. We made sure that those difficulties could be put behind us, that we could keep working together and that others knew that as well. Of course, that’s part of the calm dignity and sense of perspective that you have brought to all of your roles, including the way in which you work with each of us.
We’ve also had the oddity of job switching in this place—that is, as you became the deputy leader I became the manager, and as I became the deputy leader you returned to being the manager. But, again, we managed to make sure that in all of those changes it was about the sense of cooperation, calm and working with one another to get the best possible outcomes for the team, for the government and, ultimately, for the country. That is what you have sought to do with such distinction through your portfolios.
You have rightly reflected on an amazing and incredible contribution to the NDIS and its establishment. In your time as the shadow minister, I can well recall you privately chatting to us as the Productivity Commission was doing its work. They had handed down their draft report about the potential need for a national insurance scheme. As you were grappling with that portfolio and thinking about where to take it, you would privately say to many of us that you thought this was a direction the country had to go in and a direction that the coalition had to embrace. It’s to your credit that you managed to make sure that, at the time, that support was there in the leadership of our party and across the parliamentary ranks of the coalition. Many thousands of Australian families and many millions of lives will be improved over the years to come thanks to that work on the NDIS that you and so many others, whom you generously acknowledged, led.
I also know that, when it came to the step-up to cabinet after Malcolm Turnbull became the Prime Minister, there was a bit of a toss-up between the last couple of cabinet appointments—who would be the education minister and who would be the communications minister? I understand Senator Sinodinos may be able to shed more light on this than I. I’m not sure that either of us got to choose, but we landed in our respective roles. Whether the nation’s schools would rather have had Mitch Fifield, who knows? Perhaps they would have. But you went on in communications to achieve the landmark reform in relation to media ownership, and we congratulate you so much for that.
In the arts role, I remain disappointed that you missed the opportunity that your calling laid out to embed karaoke across Australia as a firm part of our national culture! Perhaps, as education minister, you could have embedded it into the curriculum instead. However, I can recall that with Senator Pratt and others we found ourselves at a karaoke bar in Kyoto, Japan, once formalities were done. Indeed, I just leant across to Marise before and said, ‘What was the name of that upstairs karaoke joint in Kingston that went out of business many years ago?’
SENATOR FIFIELD: Bogarts.
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE: Bogarts! Marise said Graphix.
SENATOR FIFIELD: It was Graphix before.
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE: That’s right. Both, indeed, are correct, depending on the vintage that we reflect on. Many great times were had. Unfortunately, they went out of business, no doubt thanks to the heavy load of ministerial office and our inability to duck out to Bogarts, or Graphix, as often as perhaps we did in past lives. You’ve always been such great fun. But when the fun ended, you were back there getting on with the job. We know that’s what you’ll do in New York. Whilst my portfolio means I look to Geneva a little more than New York, the nation will look to you to represent us ably and admirably, and we have no doubt you will do so. Thanks for your friendship. Thanks for being such a great colleague. We look forward to working closely with you in a different role for many years to come..