Valedictory Speech of Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield
The Australian Senate
30 July 2019
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’.
‘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.