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SA Press Club Speech

Friday, 27 June 2014

It’s been six years since I stood here and outlined a Master Plan for Adelaide, the then Opposition’s keynote policy statement to spark debate with the goal of moving South Australia forward. Rex Jory wrote in The Advertiser the following day, “This was the most important speech in state politics in 30 years”. The debate raged, the public took a view, politicians responded to the groundswell and many parts of the policy are now a reality. That Master Plan demonstrated what can be achieved from Opposition if you engage in a battle of ideas.

Today I stand before you as a member of government; as an Independent Liberal MP in Jay Weatherill’s Labor Government of 2014.

So what has happened to bring us to this point?

After 17 years in the Parliament as a member of the State Liberal Parliamentary Party, most of it in Opposition, and after consecutive election losses I made two decisions;

  • First – to resign from the State Liberal Party to become an Independent Liberal
  • Decision number two was to accept an invitation from Premier Weatherill to serve as a Minister in his Cabinet.

I have not joined the ALP.

My political values remain unchanged. I stand for freedom, individual enterprise and small business, small government, minimal taxes, and the family as the basic building block of society.

The Liberal Party holds no exclusive claim or purchase of the values of liberalism. They are universal. The question is why? The answer is simple.

First, Labor won 23 seats, beating the Liberals’ 22 seats at the March election. The Member for Frome Geoff Brock made his decisions, installing this government. 24 is the magic number. That minority government was set in train for 4 years. But it was likely to be unstable. As we have seen in Victoria, where the Member for Frankston Geoff Shaw is holding the state hostage, the last thing SA needed was 4 years of mayhem. My decision has delivered stability to government, to the Parliament, to business, to the Public Service, and to all South Australians.

Second. After 4 election losses in a row, 16 years in Opposition, the only way a Liberal voice was to be heard in government was this way. Liberal voters would have to wait for 16 years for their local Member of Parliament to be relevant and effective in government. The constituents of Waite, and all South Australians who support liberal values, now have someone who is representing them in government.

Third. The Premier extended to me an opportunity to serve South Australian as a Minister and Member of the Executive Council. There is work to be done. Service is why MPs are here. That’s what people expect of us. My choice was to quit politics and walk away, remain in Opposition indefinitely criticizing and throwing sticks and stones, or to roll my sleeves up, put my shoulder to the wheel and serve. I have chosen to serve

Of the last 7 elections, 4 of them have been determined by independent MPs. At the 1989 State election the Bannon Government won 22 seats, boosted by the support of Labor Independents Martyn Evans and Norman Peterson. Evans and Peterson had run and won against preselected Labor candidates in safe Labor seats.  In the 1997 state election Liberal MP Kent Andrew lost his Riverland seat of Chaffey seat to National MP Karlene Maywald. Two safe South East seats of Gordon (Mount Gambier) and Mackillop held by long-standing Liberal MP Harold Allison and former Liberal Leader Dale Baker respectively were lost to two former Liberal Party branch members standing as rival independent candidates in Rory McEwen and Mitch Williams. It was only with the support of these three independent conservatives that John Olsen was able to hold onto power. Williams switched from independent to rejoin the Liberal Party. Subsequently however, Bob Such resigned from the party and sat as an independent, and Member for Hammond Peter Lewis was expelled from the Party.

The 2002 election saw the Labor Party win 23 seats, the Liberal Party 20 seats, and four independents including former Liberal MPs Bob Such and Peter Lewis. Peter Lewis sided with Labor, installing Mike Rann as Premier. Less than a year after piecing together the unlikely deal with Peter Lewis, Left faction Labor Member for Mitchell Kris Hanna defected to the Greens Party in January 2003. This effectively drew the Rann Government’s numbers back to 22. Premier Rann’s response at the time was; “disappointed but not surprised''. “Clearly, no political party likes to see their MPs resign but Kris obviously feels very passionately about his reasons and we have to accept his decision”. No talk of traitors in that language. Mike Rann was smart enough not to further alienate Hanna or to keep Labor in the newspapers day after day by beating things up.
o Little over a year later Premier Mike Rann negotiated to include National Karlene Maywald and later independent Rory McEwen into his Cabinet. Were they traitors? Both cited stability as their key reasons.

In 2014, the Labor Party won 23 seats in the House of Assembly against all odds holding onto a radically redistributed Ashford and Elder, and the seats of Newland, Mawson and Light. The balance of power was held by independents Geoff Brock and Bob Such. To form government, the Liberal Party required the support of both independents, while Labor only needed to peel one independent away. When Geoff Brock locked in, forming a minority Liberal Government was unfeasible. Recent history shows that minority governments formed with the support of independent members are quite normal in South Australian politics. Independents have often emerged from within the ranks of the major parties, including Mitch Williams, Peter Lewis, Bob Such, Martyn Evans, Norm Peterson. In 1983, Liberal Member Stan Evans’ seat of Fisher was redistributed and made nominally marginal. Rather than defend his seat, Evans sought pre-selection in the safer seat of Davenport against sitting member Dean Brown, who had been in parliament since 1972 and served as a minister in the Tonkin Government. With Labor preferences, Evans was able to take the seat away from Brown. In 1999, Trevor Carruthers and Terry Cameron crossed the floor to support the Olsen Government’s decision to privatise ETSA. Both resigned from the Labor Party. The history shows in all democratic jurisdictions, decisions such as that I have taken have occurred regularly. The Westminster system offers pressure release valves and circuit breakers everywhere. I have exercised one and in my view SA will be better off because of it.

Before making this decision, I considered carefully where my first loyalty in politics lay; was it to the Party or to the people? Was it to the Liberal Party or to the people of Waite who look to me for leadership and service? It’s an easy question to answer. People are sick and tired of MPs putting their major political party or faction ahead of their constituents.

The word “traitor” has been thrown around by people who, from what I have seen firsthand, know a lot about that subject. I will not be listening to any hypocritical high moral dudgeon from any politician or commentator on the subject of loyalty, ego and treachery. In 17 years I’ve seen it all!

Changing one’s political grouping, as did Winston Churchill and Robert Menzies and many of the great people of history, is either an act of greatness or an act of betrayal; depending on the political eye of the beholder. Instead of throwing out the abuse, the State Liberals might better use their time reflecting on how they have lost 4 consecutive elections and what they might do to turn around that misfortune.

I have done everything I could realistically do over 17 years, including attempting to lead the Liberal out of the wilderness. But others knew better.

Up until this point I have refrained from reflecting on the State Liberals, even though I have been subject to the most extraordinary campaign of personal abuse from those who should know better.
It’s now time to share some of my frank thoughts on the frustrations and challenges that deny the party success.

To start with, apart from some vague statements about “What We Believe”, the State Liberals do not have a cogent or clearly articulated vision or statement of core values. The Liberals have no policy platform. There is no document which provides the overarching guidance to inform individual ideas or policies. The State Liberals cannot agree on a form of words. Since 2002, the Parliamentary Party has subscribed to the cliché that “Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them”. It’s a throwaway line, not a strategy.

Flowing from this idea is the tactic of small target, low profile Opposition. Don’t do anything to frighten the horses. Don’t make a mistake by having an idea or doing anything bold or courageous. Just wait … and wait … and wait…

Well in SA, the Liberals are still waiting.

It begs the question: If this Labor Government is as bad as the Liberal Opposition says it is, then from a strategic point of view; why is the Labor Party now in its fourth term?

I advised the Party against this failed strategy for years, particularly during 2013. My advice was ignored by the leadership group. To be genuinely successful, political parties must be vibrant, energized and full of vision and purposes. They must earn the right to govern. They must inspire, they must counter their opponent but must also demonstrate a better pathway forward.

There were other specific disappointments which prepared the ground for my decision. The State Liberals went to the last election without a policy on mining and energy resources development. I had put in many months consulting and writing the document. The Party Room agreed to and voted in favour of the policy, but it was never released. The industry is worth $3.1 billion and directly employs 15,400 people, not to mention the spill-over benefits for the manufacturing, transport, construction and service sectors.

The industry is truly at a crossroads with the Olympic Dam deferral and the growth opportunities in the Cooper Basin and the west coast. The State Liberals didn’t offer a single dollar or a single idea to act on these incredible opportunities and challenges. I was flabbergasted.  And I was not happy with our position on Holden. I had successfully argued to the Party Room that we should fight hard to save the automotive industry and to argue for a federal rescue package to, at the very least, extend the economic transition over a longer period. The Party Room’s agreed position was unilaterally overlooked and rejected by the leadership group. Not only did we fail to stand up for Holden but certain actions were taken against my advice to actively rip the company down. We failed the automotive sector. We failed the workers and their families.

The 2014 Liberal marginal seat campaign repeated the same basic mistakes of 2010. The campaign pitched to people already voting Liberal, to existing constituencies in the business community and the regions, but failed to land a punch in the marginal seats that decided the result.

The State Liberals must learn how to speak to working class people, to Housing Trust tenants, pensioners, single mums, low income families and people in need.

An extended relative, who is a Muslim, told me that Labor candidates visited his mosque in the seat of Elder on 3 consecutive occasions during the campaign, while the Liberals did not visit once. I passed this information onto the leadership group, but it was ignored. In the Labor seat of Ashford with a margin of 1.5%, the outstanding and hardworking Liberal candidate was given a $272,000 promise for a single sporting club. But in the safe Liberal seat of Hammond with a margin of 17.8%, the Liberal campaign provided $15 million for the Gifford Hill horse racing track at Murray Bridge, announced 8 days before the election. 3 days later, the campaign made a second announcement for the horse racing industry, providing $300,000 per annum to the industry.

The epiphany for me was the fourth loss in March, which I predicted and expected, and then the denial that followed. Four Weddings and a Funeral. No one has yet accepted any responsibility. There has been no meaningful debrief or identification of the failures. The line-up is the same. Almost nothing has changed. The party has simply argued the toss, questioned the election scoreboard and grizzled about seat boundaries.  The State Liberal Party needs to change and reform.

Waite is where I grew up, went to school, lived and worked all my life in SA. It’s home. It’s been said my decision has not been well received locally. Wrong! The flood of positive support at my electorate office in Hawthorn has been overwhelming. The electors of Waite are a flexible and intriguing constituency. Its representative (when it was called Mitcham), the former Attorney-General, Robin Millhouse represented 4 separate political parties. Millhouse left the Liberal Party (LCL) in 1973 to join the Liberal Movement, then in 1976 under the New Liberal Movement, and then again in 1977 joining the Australian Democrats. He retained that seat until he retired in 1982 before it was won at a by-election by another Democrat Heather Southcott.

Waite is a seat full of intelligent, well-informed voters. They are not rusted on to any particular major party, as their long history of voting for Democrats, Greens and other minor parties can attest. What they do want is leadership based upon ‘small l’ liberal values.

The people in Waite voted for a liberal in March and they still have one. And this liberal will be putting them first, not a faction or a major party. The media’s interpretations of polls and survey data has in my view completely missed the mark and misunderstood the history of three cornered contests in this state.

It is worth remembering that Geoff Brock won Frome in the 2009 by-election with a primary vote of 23.9%. Rory McEwen won Gordon in 1997 with 22.5% primary vote. Mitch Williams won Mackillop in 1997 with 22.5%. Bob Such won Fisher in 2002 with 33.5% of the primary vote. I intend to win their support again in 2018.

Some of that media coverage and controversy surrounding my decision has been balanced and fair. Much has been shallow. It is one thing to sit in judgment. It is another thing to ask why, to genuinely seek answers and to objectively report the story. Much of the coverage of my decision to become an independent MP has focussed on the military metaphor. “Traitor”, “defector”, “missing in action”, “gone to the enemy” – all very extreme descriptions of my decision to find a better way.
May I say to the headline writers and reporters who the need to keep dipping into the military manual; you do yourself a disservice.

It is easy to reduce complex debates and decision making to a military battle, with victory, vanquished and casualties. It adds little to the coverage – in many ways it confuses it. It has no impact on me. I understand all the reasons for the decision to serve my state as an independent. But the constant use of the military metaphor does belittle the concept of service to your nation. It downplays very real commitments and risks our military service men and women engage in every day.

So if you want to vent your spleen at me, perhaps find a more original and effective way to do so.
I must say I found Jeff Kennett’s extraordinary and nasty personal attacks in The Advertiser noteworthy. I hardly know Jeff and he hardly knows me. The viciousness of his sentiments does not sit well with his claim to care for men’s health, depression, suicide prevention and all the messaging of Beyond Blue.

It was particularly sad to see Kennett bring my family and 9 year old son into his nasty abuse.
As it was to find my wife bailed at the gates of Government House with cameras and microphones to be asked “Is your husband a traitor?” in front of a young child looking on in bewilderment. No presser was called. It was just a doorstop attack. After this we spent time with our little boy explaining the issues and the behaviours he saw that day. It’s never OK to attack family and in particular children. Children are not ‘fair game’ as I heard journalists jokingly claim on talkback radio after the event. They are children. They are just kids.

The reports of ABC TV, InDaily, columnist Tom Richardson reveal the difference between outrage and in-depth analysis. They have belted me fairly and squarely but in a professional, balanced and measured way.

I am always looking forward. There is work to be done to create jobs, balance the budget, help small business, reduce the burden of taxation and red tape and to build a better future for our children and our grandchildren. For the next four years I am going to do my best to help.

For a start, I will be closely supporting my good friend Geoff Brock’s regional agenda. As an independent liberal conservative I am closely committed to the country agenda, particularly with Investment and Trade. Premier Jay Weatherill and each Member of Cabinet have been most welcoming and supportive in recent weeks.

The Government can now govern. The public service can get on with its job and the Parliament and the Opposition can get on with theirs. I hope that next Tuesday when the Opposition respond to the Budget, we see an alternative vision. There is no shame in presenting ideas that others take on board.

SA faces many challenges. My job is to help my Cabinet colleagues build a bridge to business to encourage investment and trade. We recently reached $12.3 billion in exports, a record total, but we need to do far better than that.

The South East Asia Engagement Strategy the Premier and I announced just last week is just the beginning. More South Australian businesses need to sell their products and services interstate and overseas to create jobs and promote growth. And the state faces one of its greatest challenges in a generation. Strike one; was the loss of the Olympic Dam Expansion. Strike two; was the collapse of the automotive industry from beneath our feet. If we lose naval shipbuilding, that will be Strike Three.

Successive federal governments have failed to provide a steady deal flow and a continuous shipbuilding program. As a result industry has had a ‘stop-start’ order book which has led to inconsistencies, cost over-runs, and delays. The Coalition, state governments, industry and the unions have an historic opportunity to sort this out once and for all. The Coalition can be the Federal Government who finally put in place a 30 year shipbuilding plan to invest $250 billion in jobs and businesses here in Australia. The Coalition can be the government who fixed shipbuilding. Or it can be the federal government that sold the industry off overseas, so that $250 billion of Australian taxpayers’ money is spent creating jobs and investment in someone else’s country. The Premier and I intend to advocate strongly for South Australia

So six years on from my last speech in this gathering, I am no longer a Liberal Leader, a Shadow Minister, nor indeed a member of the Liberal Party.  I am however the Member for Waite as I have been since 1997. I remain committed to the oath of service I took when I entered Parliament. I remain committed to delivering a better South Australia. I have made hard choices… and in my view, the right choices. I have never been more confident in my heart and my mind that the path taken has been the right one.

Thank you for listening.