Just a few moments ago I informed my Nationals colleagues that I intend to retire from federal parliament at the next election. I will stand down as leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister at a convenient time for the government, probably within the next few days. The Nationals will be meeting this evening to choose a new leadership.
It has been a great pleasure and privilege to be a member of the federal parliament. Next month it will be 26 years since I was first elected to the parliament, and 40 years since I was first elected to public office, as a member of the Kingaroy Shire council. In my early years, I was always talked about as the youngest national president of the Council of Rural Youth, the youngest councillor, the youngest mayor, but now that I am numbered amongst the oldest I think it is time to go.
I am grateful to the people of Wide Bay, who have through five redistributions elected me nine times to the House of Representatives. While my electorate still has many troubles, a lot has been achieved over that time: huge improvements in the road network and we have been able to help with some really significant projects in the area, like construction of the Brolga Theatre and the aquatic centre in Gympie. But for me the greatest pleasure has always come from being able to help somebody with a little problem—a problem with their pension or the need to provide some kind of assistance to find their way around the government bureaucracy et cetera. Those have always given me the greatest pleasure as a member of parliament. I can recall that for a while I was the member for Queensland’s oldest town Gayndah, which is now in the electorate of the honourable member for Flynn. I was able to get some federal funding for a school building for St Joseph’s school in Gayndah. The diocese had been threatening to close the school down. It was in financial difficulties and had only relatively small student numbers, but we were able to build a new classroom. It was the first new building at that school since 1942. That, I think, is the sort of special memory that people have from a period as a representative.
It has been a particular honour to be leader of the Nationals over the last eight years. When I became leader in 2007 nobody wanted the job, including me. I am pleased to say that, now, things are different and everyone wants the job. I am particularly proud and pleased that whoever is elected as my successor and whoever becomes the new deputy leader, if there is to be a new deputy leader, I will be proud to serve under any of them. I guess that my objective when I became leader—a somewhat reluctant leader—was to rebuild a party that was at that stage at a pretty low ebb. We had lost the 2007 election, everybody was pretty dispirited and our numbers had declined. Indeed, the media were saying, yet again, that the Nationals were finished. Of course, we are used to that. They have been saying that for over 80 years now, and we seem to have managed to survive most of our critics. I am sure that the party will be in good and strong hands in the years ahead.
It has been a pleasure to serve with so many other wonderful colleagues in the parliament. I have had the privilege of being a minister for 12½ years, most of them in the cabinet, and each portfolio has for me some special memories. My first portfolio was as a junior minister in the industry portfolio. The first submission I took to cabinet was Australia’s first country-of-origin labelling legislation. I notice it seems to be on the agenda yet again, although I do not think there was too much wrong with the original legislation, I have to say. I might be biased! I then also was involved in the rebuilding of the Customs service, which did not have very high public esteem at the time. Amanda Vanstone followed me, and she really put some verve into the revitalisation of the Customs service.
I was the first minister with special responsibility for Centrelink. When Centrelink was established it was not as well respected, I guess, as it is today. There were lots of critics, and people who had been taken from two former government departments and put into Centrelink resented it to some extent. It took a while to establish a service culture. The idea that a government department should be there to look after people might seem pretty elementary in this day and age, but it was a major challenge at the time.
I had six years as minister for agriculture. I have to say that it was a portfolio I never wanted. I had been in farm industry politics before I came into the parliament and I knew how farmers treated their agriculture ministers, particularly when they were Nationals. They expected all sorts of things from us that were simply undeliverable. Somebody has said to me that it is a bit akin to Labor Party members who have to be industrial relations ministers—you simply cannot achieve what your constituency expects of you. But it was a very eventful time. It was the era when we had the foot and mouth disease outbreaks in the UK. The size of our quarantine service was doubled at that time, and it certainly became a very much more substantial operation. I was the minister during the establishment of the exceptional circumstances drought assistance, a very sad and difficult time for so much of Australia. The whole of the country was essentially racked by drought at that time. The assistance that was put in place was the most generous that governments had ever provided. I think it helped a lot of farmers through a situation they could not otherwise have managed. There were also adjustment packages, particularly in the sugar and dairy industries, which, again, caused quite some trouble, but I think it helped put those industries in a much better position.
I was trade minister for a while. That was my least fulfilling portfolio, I have to say. Particularly by comparison with the great successes of the current trade minister, my achievements were very small. They were still trying to breathe oxygen into the Doha Round at that stage, and it was really a wasted period.
I stand in awe of what Andrew Robb has achieved in his time as trade minister. It is truly a remarkable time in our history.
I have had two periods when I have been transport minister, and they perhaps have been the most exciting times because we have been building a lot of roads, a lot of railway lines and a lot of infrastructure, and I am very proud of what has been achieved in that regard. We will, by the end of this decade, for the first time have a four-lane highway between our three east coast capitals. Surely, in a country of our economic capabilities perhaps that is something we should have achieved a long time ago.
In my own area I have had a particular interest in the Bruce Highway and the need to upgrade it. It was the most dangerous road in Australia on our national highway list. Indeed, at its worst, we were averaging 53 deaths on the Bruce Highway every year. With the work that has been done by successive governments—and some of it is minor stuff, like wide centre lines et cetera—the death toll is now averaging just 17. Now, that is far too many, but it does demonstrate that investments in capital infrastructure not only have an economic impact but they have a huge social benefit as well. I am sorry that I will not be here to see the end of the upgrade of the Bruce Highway.
It is just like the many other projects that are underway. When you leave, there is a lot of unfinished business. That is certainly true when you have a $50 billion infrastructure program. I would particularly love to have been here for the landing of the first aircraft at Badgerys Creek airport! But that would be another 10 years. It will be 2025, and I hope I am still alive to see it land for the first time. That is a project that I have been very excited about and delighted to have been a part of bringing to fruition.
Can I thank the many people who I have worked with in the coalition with the Liberal Party? Sometimes it has been a bit rugged, but usually we have got on exceptionally well together. I acknowledge the leaders that I have had to work with and under, particularly John Howard, who was such a successful Prime Minister and led a very able and agile government, and the Liberal leaders: Brendan Nelson, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. I have admired them all and appreciated the privilege of working with them.
I suppose that especially Tony Abbott’s commitment to infrastructure was one that I shared. And to have Joe Hockey as Treasurer, who was also prepared to find the money, made my time as transport minister really an exciting one. I certainly wish the government every success in fulfilling these objectives that have been set. Malcolm Turnbull, as leader now, has obviously revitalised our parties and put us in a good position for the future, and I certainly wish them well.
I would also like to acknowledge in my own party my deputies as leader—Nigel Scullion and Barnaby Joyce. They are both great people to work with. I would also particularly like to acknowledge the people within my National Party organisation. I was a member of the party for many years before I was a candidate, so I am a bit of a child of the organisation and still love and appreciate it. I acknowledge the presidents and ordinary branch people—the people who have helped in my campaigns over the years—but particularly those who have ensured that there is a strong base to keep our party strong so that it can contribute effectively to our nation.
I would also like to recognise the departmental people who I have had the privilege of working with. I would particularly like to acknowledge Mike Taylor and Mike Mrdak, who have been departmental directors for the longest time while I have been their minister. Both are outstanding public servants. Mike Mrdak in particular, who is the current director, served both sides of politics. He is an extraordinary individual, with an incredible knowledge of what happens in the department and how it all works.
In my 18 years as minister and shadow minister there were two shadows who were with me for most of that time—or against me, I suppose: Simon Crean and Anthony Albanese. Yes, again, we have had our disputes about issues but we have been able to work through most of the things that needed to be worked through. Whether I was sitting on that side or this side of the House I think we have had the kind of working relationship that is necessary to achieve important things for our country.
I want to acknowledge my electorate staff. One of my electorate staff I inherited from my predecessor, and all of them have been with me for decades. I have only had two chiefs of staff in all the time that I have been a minister and, for that matter, a shadow minister: Cheryl Cartwright and David Whitrow. They have been wonderful leaders for my office and its organisation. All of those things have meant a great deal to me, to have these wonderful staff who help make our offices work and deliver the important things for our country.
Finally, I want to acknowledge my family, and particularly my wife, Lyn. We were married only a few months before I was elected to parliament, and she had worked for my predecessor. So in reality she knew more about the job than I did when we came here! But we have been very much a team and I could not have done it without her. She has just been absolutely marvellous for me and I love her dearly.
I came from a small farming district and went to a very small state school, and I have now had the privilege to become Deputy Prime Minister of our country. I wonder whether I will be the last person with a limited education and who comes from one of the poorest electorates in the country to become Deputy Prime Minister? I hope not, because I think we do need amongst the leadership of our country a breadth of experience and a breadth of skills.
I want to thank the people of Australia for the opportunity that they have given me to serve in this regard. I will take away many happy memories and I hope that people may be kind enough to recognise that I have made something of a contribution towards public life in this country. It has been an honour for me and a privilege to work with everyone in this room.