Senator Dean Smith: McKinnon Political Leader of the Year

Professor Evans, Professor Howe, representatives of the Susan McKinnon Foundation, selection Panel of the McKinnon Prize, former Premier Brumby and members of the Melbourne School of Government Advisory Board – and students and friends of this fine School of Government.

I feel like the good and great of Melbourne are in this room tonight.

What is remarkable about this first McKinnon Prize is you have looked beyond this fine city and state – and presented the first award to a Senator from Western Australia and a Councillor from the Torres Strait.

Councillor Vonda Malone is the mayor of a small, remote community. To be a mayor of such a small community is to be an on-call social worker, parish priest, mediator and elected official all rolled into one – and regional mayors, do it all for love, not reward.

Councillor Malone at the last election received 687 votes. That’s not many you might say. Well, I received just 585 at my last election!

Well-functioning local government in small towns are vital if those communities are to be prosperous, healthy and safe.

I am sure we have much to learn from Councillor Malone – and Councillor Malone, it is a privilege to share this occasion with you.

My journey from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ started in the most unlikely place – it was on a plane travelling from Perth to Albany in early 2015.

I found myself reflecting on the terrible events at the Lindt café and I kept thinking of Tori Johnson.

He was the café manager and on that day he was as brave as any of our country’s finest.

Tori was strong, courageous and he had a partner Thomas.

As I said in the Senate: I thought of their love, I thought of their loss and it changed me.

Over the past 15 years, millions of other Australians had their own change of heart.

They thought about neighbors, friends, workmates, uncles, aunties, cousins, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters – and for some, children and grandchildren not yet born.

The ‘Australian Marriage Postal Survey’ might have asked a yes or no question, but the truth is there were a million people on that ballot. It’s what made the postal survey so painful, and in the end, so exhilarating.

It is to the million LGBTIQ Australians who have walked this walk – in the past, in the present and in the future – that I dedicate this award.

Our journey has been one from rejection to tolerance, from tolerance to acceptance, and in 2017 it moved from acceptance to embrace.

We should marvel in it – and remember that this good fortune is not shared by many LGBTIQ citizens in so many other countries. We have every reason to be grateful and thankful of this Commonwealth of ours.

I am, as you all know, a conservative.

Not just in politics, but in principle and outlook as well.

It’s probably why after walking my first Mardi Gras Parade a few weeks ago with the Australian Marriage Equality campaigners, I went back to my hotel room and celebrated with a with a cup of tea.

There was just too much excitement for me in one night.

For conservatives, there is a theme that runs through our lives – a chord, as it were, that speaks of tradition, change and personal responsibility.

Conservatives understand there is wisdom in tradition and institutions. They help us understand the world and find meaning. They provide a stable foundation to help navigate shifting times.

Conservatives are not opposed to change, we simply want it weighed and tested.

We move cautiously and with humility because we know that we do not have all the answers.

We understand Edmund Burke’s dictum that society is a pact – a precious pact – between the dead, the living and the yet unborn.

This chord reflects a fidelity to the past as well as a call to make the world better for the next generation – in marriage equality there was a tension between those two loyalties: to the traditions of the past and hopes of the future.

While I was not an early adopter of marriage equality, I wrestled with these tensions for some time. I came to the yes cause late – but fortunately not too late!

Like St Paul, I came to the conclusion there are three things in life that endure: faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.

The issue of Marriage Equality took its time to resolve. On reflection, it took too long. Fifteen years.

Sometimes change in life is instant. The right confluence of events, people, and courage brings rapid change quickly.

John Howard and guns was one of those moments in our country’s history.

Our country will always be in the debt of John Howard as well as Tim Fischer, Kim Beazley, Cheryl Kernot and the Coalition and Labor state premiers for the leadership they showed.

Other times, change is slow – because some-times we all need space to engage, think, clarify, and to build a coalition and help an issue ripen.

Marriage equality was one of those changes.

For the most part this debate was not led by politicians – though we brought the debate to its successful conclusion.

It was a debate that was won in living rooms, at kitchen tables and around BBQs from the Torres Strait to our base on the Antarctic – though I am sure there weren’t any BBQs there!

It was change brought by a movement of people, not just by one or two leaders.

I was but one part of a self-generating movement of Australians – they are the people that own any honour.

This movement had a spirit that was an antidote to the cynicism of our times.

During the postal survey there were young Liberals from the ‘Libs&Nats4YES’ campaign, who designed leaflets, photocopied them and handed them out at railway stations.

And I thank those party members who have joined us tonight.

There were others who wrote letters to their neighbours telling their stories and inviting them to ‘pop around’ if they wanted to know more.

Thousands more shared something of their hopes and fears on Facebook and in op-eds, letters to papers and by contacting their elected representatives.

There were phone-bankers, doorknockers, and those who financially supported the campaign.

In this campaign, there were Liberal volunteers working side by side with Labor and Greens supporters. Demonstrating that foot-soldiers of our parties, are first and foremost foot-soldiers to our liberal democracy.

In accepting this noble award from Melbourne University’s School of Government and Susan McKinnon Foundation, I honour every person who participated in the campaign.

And I honour my parliamentary colleagues.

Long before I moved from no to yes, there were people like Warren Entsch championing change. In fact, he was championing it when Mr Howard was Prime Minister.

Others like Senator Wong, Senator Rice and Senator Pratt were also pointing the way and shared their lived experience.

Colleagues who I consider brethren: Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans and the recently married Tim Wilson, demonstrated that if you can take an oath for your country to serve, then you can make a solemn vow to another to do the same.

For the record, 133 out of 150 electorates across Australia agreed, including 71 out of 76 Coalition electorates.

In my third reading speech I reflected on a debate which inspired Australians.

We saw life experiences inform decisions, passionate and respectful debate, carefully considered amendments, reason and intellect – and we saw senators and members debating and listening to each other and trying to convince each other.

For my part, the process included participating in the senate committee, taking the government’s exposure draft and negotiating with parties from the Greens to the Liberal Democrats.

It meant understanding the process, finding common ground, negotiating, and building trust. We didn’t broadcast what we were doing in the media, we just tried to find common ground and get it done.

What became known as the Smith Bill was already in the public arena for almost five months before we started the Senate debate in November last year.

The debate itself reflected everything the debate should have been: passion, conscience and conviction – and I am not just referring to the yes senators.

By the end of the debate, every Australian could point to a representative who faithfully presented their view. In the end, the Australian Parliament worked as it should.

Even as the dust settled, I have never seen the result as a win – it’s a change.

No one has lost, rather our country offered acceptance and an embrace to a million of its citizens – and thereby strengthened the bonds between us all.

The parliamentary debate prompted me to ask a question in my third reading speech: why isn’t our parliament like this more often?

I believe it can be.

Not by changing, but by rediscovering what it has always been: the State’s house and the people’s house.

Australians are frustrated at the hyper-partisanship we see in our national life.

This award is a reflection of the yearn of Australians for their elected representatives to focus on solutions, to find common ground, to give and take because we all share this single continent, this wonderful country.

I believe Executive Government must renew its trust in the Parliament.

It was not an accident the Marriage Equality law started in the Senate because it is not the executive’s house.

In the Senate we have the platform to develop national approaches to issues that are put into the too hard basket – and we should use the Senate as it was intended.

To this end, I intend to devote myself to finding common ground on the issue of Federal State Financial Relations and in particular the GST in the West.

In 2019, the GST agreement will be 20 years old. While there might not be much interest in some parts of Australia, I can say clearly that it is corroding our great federation.

From the days of 10th Light Horse, Western Australia has always prided itself on our difference with our brothers and sisters in the east – we do it no differently than siblings joke about their differences.

But I have to be clear – the issue of the GST is corrosive on our Federation.

In life, corrosion is silent, and it weakens. In a world that is dividing and splintering we need to tend to what keeps us strong.

The idea of a Common-wealth where all our states are treated equally is being lost because of an agreement that is not working as it was intended.

Even John Howard acknowledged that the change in Western Australian finances was not envisaged in 1999.

By addressing the GST in the context of broader Federal-State financial relations, we can lift it above the ‘win/lose’ lens that often characterises changes to tax arrangements.

Of course, we need the States involved, but maybe a Commonwealth position that reflects the shared position of government, opposition and most cross-benches will lift this debate out of the partisan quagmire and allow a resolution free of party blame.

To this end, I am proposing a Senate Committee to commence work in the second half of 2019. It will need both parties to commit to such a committee before the election.

The Committee should not produce a majority and minority report – but one report reflecting the shared position of the Commonwealth Parliament.

And frankly, the only time to do it is in the first year of a Parliamentary term.

Some might say it sounds too difficult. Yes it is – but getting the Liberal, Nationals, Labor, Greens, Liberal Democrats, the Xenaphon team and Derryn Hinch to agree on a draft bill was difficult as well.

But we did it. No one got everything they wanted, but that’s what happens when you develop a common approach.

There are lessons from this that we must reflect upon and apply more often.

May I conclude by congratulating the Melbourne School and Government and the Susan McKinnon Foundation for this initiative.

I am a big believer in schools of government. I believe we need to see more of them. Not because I believe government is the answer to every human problem – but because schools of government cultivate the ethos of service so often lost in our modern life.

I am a Christian and I see politics as a vocation. It is about service and the belief that we can all make our land a better place.

That belief in vocation is not just a Christian belief. It reflects the yearn of so many, to leave footprints that point a path to a better life.

And in saying that may I honour two people.

Grant Rule, you have lent your mother’s name to a foundation and in turn, to this award. I never met your mother, but your actions speak of her character. I pay tribute to the foundation along with your co-founder Dr Sophie Oh.

And in following up Jim Middleton’s fine words, I add my own about Michael Gordon.

Michael was passionate for the causes he believed in, but he was fair as well.

He saw journalism, in the same way as so many of us see politics, and that is as a path and a means to a better, fairer world.

Robyn Carter, thank you being with us – and thank you for sharing Michael with Australia.

May I conclude with words that I hope are taught in this school of government. They are the words of the German philosopher Max Weber.

In an essay entitled ‘Politics as a Vocation’, he wrote this 99 years ago:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth –that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader, but a hero as well – in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”

May this award foster and encourage the great vocation of politics and public service.

I am deeply honored to be one of its first two recipients.

Thank you.