To follow is an extract of Petro Georgiou’s valedictory speech, delivered to the House of Representatives this morning:
I want to thank the Liberal Party, and the electorate of Kooyong, the birthplace of the Liberal Party. I have worked for the Liberal Party for most of my working life, as Policy Director, State Director and an MP in pursuit of the Liberal values of enterprise, opportunity, incentive and social justice. I am grateful to the party in Kooyong for their support and Haddon Storey, Bill Clancy and Paula Davey for their work as Kooyong Electorate Chairs. The party in Kooyong is one of the powerhouses of Liberalism and I wish it well.
I have been genuinely humbled by the support I have received from the Kooyong electorate. Occasionally some try to dismiss Kooyong as the “leafy suburbs” inhabited by doctor’s wives. Leafy suburbs have been the backbone of the Liberal Party. Doctor’s wives have always been at the heart of Australia’s rural and urban communities. Not to recognise this is to disregard our historic traditions and our current realities.
Kooyong is an open-minded and forward-looking electorate. Our people are active and socially responsible, with real insights on local and national issues. They are forthcoming in expressing their views, needs and values. It has been a great honour and privilege to have been able to serve them as their Parliamentary representative.
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I would like to thank the press gallery. In the interests of transparency, I wish to disclose the following. My first media interview was with Laurie Oakes in I think 1976. It was for Australian Playboy. I was a total novice. He was very fair to me. And I can truly say “I only bought Playboy for the interview“.
Journos, like politicians; can be good, bad or indifferent. They face imperative challenges, deadlines, the complexity of material and misbriefing by interested parties. The good ones are full of insight and have a capacity to communicate with Australians and make politicians accountable.
Mr Speaker, this is my sixteenth year as the member for Kooyong. It is my thirty-fifth year in politics. I first sat on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1975, as an adviser to Malcolm Fraser, having brought some of the Khemlani papers to Canberra as the Coalition blocked supply. Gough Whitlam’s brilliant parliamentary skills defending a weakened government were mesmerising, as was the remorselessness of Malcolm Fraser’s attacks.
The fact that the supply crisis did not harm Australian democracy attests to the resilience of our political system. The fact that Gough and Malcolm reconciled years ago is a tribute to their stature as national leaders. To those who have sought to denigrate Malcolm Fraser I just want to say one thing: Malcolm Fraser’s fusion of political toughness, with compassion and social conscience, is simply beyond their comprehension.
I have been enormously privileged to have worked personally for Liberal Parliamentary leaders over the last thirty years, Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock, Jeffrey Kennett, and John Hewson. Some have broken through, others have not. My respect for their commitment to creating a better Australia is boundless. Nobody forces people to be leaders, but nonetheless the responsibilities they volunteer to shoulder, and the pressures they are subjected to, are almost inconceivable. It is unfortunate that our political culture takes partisanship to the point of corrosiveness. I think that our political leaders deserve more respect than we give them – regardless of which party they belong to.
I came into the Parliament at the age of 47, having been at the sharp end of partisan politics and having contributed to public policy through the establishment of SBS television and the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs. I was strong in my view of what the Liberal Party stood for, and confident in the commonsense and fairmindedness of the Australian people.
I believed politics was a tough business. There were two dominant parties. They were in conflict. They had power, they had resources. Strong, evenly matched. They punched and counterpunched and sometimes low blows were landed. In my view, however, scapegoating the vulnerable was not part of the game. I still believe this.
Not all politics is confrontation. Main force clashes, negative advertising and attempts to score lethal blows at Question Time do dominate. But there are some less confrontational arenas. In Parliamentary committees, the focus is on working cooperatively to inquire into issues of national significance and to scrutinise the Executive. In my time on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, for instance, the Committee, which included Senator Robert Ray whose knowledge of the electoral system is as legendary, as his lack of political tendermindedness, brought down three unanimous reports on the electoral system. This sort of cooperation provides some relief from a political landscape that is generally bleakly partisan. It should be highlighted more often.
Mr Speaker, 11 years of my term was as a member of the government under Prime Minister John Howard. With Peter Costello as Treasurer, its economic achievements were remarkable. We enjoyed strong economic prosperity with record low levels of unemployment and left Australia’s economy strong. These achievements should not be belittled and cannot be denied.
During my time in Parliament, a number of developments caused me grave concern. The emergence of the pernicious influence of Hansonism stirred racial prejudice; multiculturalism, one of Australia’s unique accomplishments was denigrated; asylum seekers were subjected to increasingly harsh measures. Our civil liberties came under challenge after September 11 and the proud Australian tradition of inclusive citizenship was, without sound justification, reversed.
My experience in politics leads me to value party discipline highly. On some issues, however, I was unable to support the position of the party majority. A Liberal Member of Parliament has the right to do this. The Liberal Party has changed over the decades, but the right of Liberal parliamentarians to differ from the majority of their colleagues on matters of individual principle and conscience has endured. The belief that party discipline does not override individual principles is built into the very foundation, the very reason for the Party’s existence.
In recent months, there has been an efflorescence within the party of the right to dissent – dissent over climate change and alcopops come to mind. I may differ with my colleagues on their position, but I unequivocally endorse their right to dissent. Hopefully, we will never again hear a member of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party brand colleagues ‘political terrorists’ because they took a stand on principle.
I have not differed from the majority without considerable deliberations or without speaking with my colleagues and my party leader. And I have always known the consequences of my actions. Ultimately, however, being a member of parliament, especially a member of the Liberal Parliamentary Party, brings the responsibility of speaking with one’s own voice on matters of principle. I am grateful to the many members of the public, and in particular Liberal party supporters, who have expressed their respect for my actions, even when they have disagreed.
It is my conviction that public policy is served when Members of Parliament feel able to speak publicly about deeply felt concerns, even when their views do not conform with those of the majority of their colleagues. I believe that the public good was promoted by the attempt by myself and others to have the Commonwealth intervene to override the Northern Territory laws which jailed children for minor infractions such as stealing a bottle of spring water, laws which fell particularly harshly on indigenous children. We did not succeed in getting the laws overridden. We did achieve the establishment of diversionary programmes which effectively displaced jail.
I believe that Australia benefited from the reforms that flowed from the attempt of a number of us to introduce Private Members Bills reforming the treatment of asylum seekers. Children and families were taken out from behind razor wire. The Ombudsman was made responsible for publicly reporting on people being detained for prolonged periods. Thousands of people on temporary protection visas were given permanent protection. I believe that the resistance to draconian aspects of the anti-terrorist laws, and the introduction of a private member’s bill to establish an independent reviewer of the terrorist laws, which was in essence taken up by the Labor government after much reluctance, served liberal principles well.
I do not pretend that these efforts had anything like total success. The Northern Territory laws were not struck down. The policy of mandatory detention was not abolished by either the Howard or the Rudd governments. What did happen, however, was that the compromises achieved made a significant difference to the lives of thousands of vulnerable men, women and children.
Mr Speaker, for much of my life I believed in the inevitability of progress. The reality has been that many of the things that I believed were embedded parts of our polity – multiculturalism, inclusive Australian citizenship, the protections of civil rights – have been rolled back.
Also rolled back has been a more decent treatment of asylum seekers. Until a few months ago I believed that the reforms made by the Howard and the Rudd Government meant that we had irreversibly turned the corner.
I wrote that we were closing a dark chapter in our history. This chapter had seen men women and children seeking refuge in our country incarcerated; innocent people imprisoned for periods longer than convicted rapists, robbers and kidnappers. Escapees from persecution were demonised. Detention centres traumatised not just detainees but their guards.
That chapter has been reopened.
Regression has become the order of the day. With an increase in boat arrivals, asylum seekers are being subjected to increasingly virulent attacks. The Labor Government has frozen the processing of Afghani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and is reopening the Curtin detention centre, historically the most notorious detention centre, a place of despair and self harm.
Opposition policies would turn back boats, process asylum seekers in undisclosed third countries, and restore the destructive temporary protection visas. These policies are cruel. They do not have my support.
This regression does not reflect credit on either side of federal politics. Vulnerable people are again being made into a football to be kicked around in the interests of partisan politics. This is despite the facts and the best values of our society.
The fact is, Australia’s punitive approach did not deter people seeking to come to Australia. Mandatory detention, charging asylum seekers for the cost of their detention, the introduction of temporary protection visas and the Pacific Solution did not deter.
After mandatory detention was introduced, boat arrivals increased. After temporary protection visas were introduced, boat arrivals increased. Most of the people subjected to the Pacific Solution were found to be refugees and resettled in Australia and New Zealand. We have not lost control of our borders. People smugglers do not determine who comes into Australia and who doesn’t.
We can support orderly processes; we can warn people against people smugglers and risking their lives on unseaworthy boats. We have to realise, however, that escaping from persecution is not an orderly process. Desperate people do take desperate measures. Beyond the arguments about deterrence and what causes what, however, is a deeper issue.
It goes to our obligations. I believe we have a fundamental obligation as a nation. That obligation is to not further harm those who bring themselves into our orbit of responsibility seeking safe haven.
We should not, as Australians, compound the persecution of genuine refugees, delaying their processing, locking them up in unnamed third countries or keeping them in permanent insecurity on temporary protection visas.
I once said to journalist Michael Gordon that “in life there are many things that you’d like to walk past and not notice. Lots. But sometimes you do notice and when you notice, you have to do something”. Well I have noticed some things, and I have tried not to walk past.
Progress is not inevitable, it requires commitment. There are setbacks and regression but I leave this place still optimistic that Australians will seek and find in their representatives declarations and deeds that elevate hope above fear, tolerance above prejudice and that they may be proud of laws made by Parliamentarians and the contribution they make to help build a fair, decent and civil society for quickly coming generations. We here each bear a responsibility for our nation’s calling and our nation’s standing.
It has been a profound honour to serve the nation as a Member of the Australian Parliament. I am proud to have been a part of this place, during time. Thank you.