Kelly O’Dwyer’s Valedictory Speech to Parliament

20 February 2019

Ms O’DWYER (Higgins—Minister for Women and Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations) (16:34): on indulgence—I start today with the words that concluded my very first speech in this place:

I will never forget that politics is about people and that people can make a difference. That is why I am here. I look forward to playing my part in building an even better Australia …

Going on a decade as the federal member for Higgins, I believe that I have been able to do that.

As anyone who has had the honour of serving in this place knows, you cannot make a contribution in this place without a lot of support. I want to start by thanking the people of Higgins for the privilege of representing them in this place and for entrusting me to represent their issues, both big and small. I especially want to thank them for giving me the opportunity to share in important moments in their lives and those of their families.

I also want to thank the extraordinary members of the Liberal Party. I joined the Liberal Party as a 17-year-old because I believe that people should be free to choose their own paths in life—that they should be rewarded for their hard work and enterprise

—and that everyone, regardless of background or circumstance, deserves respect and the opportunity to live their best life. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to prosecute those values in this place. I have been extremely fortunate to have such a strong electorate conference executive, led so brilliantly by my good friend Mark Stretton, who is here today with his beautiful family. I’m grateful to them, as well as every member of my hardworking committee.

I feel the same debt of gratitude to the Chairman and patrons of the Higgins 200 Club and their families during my time here—Peter Bartels AO, the Hon. Peter Costello AC and current chairman, Richard Murray. Each has been a source of thoughtful advice and wonderful friendship. Peter Costello has also been a great mentor and a terrific example of integrity in political life. And while we haven’t always agreed on everything, I am the better for our robust discussions. I look forward to many more in the years ahead.

I want to place on record my sincere thanks and appreciation to the hundreds of volunteers, supporters and friends who have backed me with their time, money and expertise over four elections. In particular, I want to thank Andrea Coote, a Higgins Liberal powerhouse, who has helped direct each of my campaigns. The people, though, on the frontline each and every day are the people who work for you. And some, like the brilliant Sarah Nicholson and Tania Coltman, have been on the journey with me from the very beginning.

Working in politics is more than just a job. It is a vocation. Like us, our staff want to serve their community and their nation and change lives for the better. The expectations and pace is unrelenting, and the sacrifices demanded of them and their families are very real. I have had the good fortune to work with the very best team in the country—

people who are caring, bright, intellectually curious, loyal, hardworking and determined and who go above and beyond because they believe in our common Liberal cause.

Amongst them are women and men who I hope will serve in this place or the other. I say to each of them and their families a heartfelt thankyou—you enrich the fabric of our nation, I cherish your friendship and I look forward to celebrating your many personal and professional achievements in the decades to come.

Anyone who knows me knows that family means everything to me, and without them I wouldn’t be here. I’m joined today by my loving parents, Karen and Dan, who instilled in me a strong moral compass that has always been my guide. My colleagues can blame them for my forthright manner, because they taught me from a young age that you have a responsibility to communicate your view clearly, no matter how difficult and no matter the cost, and that above all else you must be true to yourself.

Two of my wonderful siblings are also here—my sister Kate and my brother, Tom, who together with my sister Nicki, who is overseas, are the very essence of tolerance, loyalty and love. I look forward to spending more time with them and their partners, along with my gorgeous and clever nieces, Lily, who is here today, Izzy, Lara and Charlie.

I met my husband, Jon, 24 years ago at university, and I am so glad that we are on life’s journey together. I have relied on his advice, his reservoir of love and understanding, his truth telling, his great intellect and his selfless devotion to our family. Jon works part time and is the primary caregiver in our family, ferrying children to child care, kinder and all manner of other things. He twice took extended paternity leave so that I could serve in cabinet and parliament and breastfeed our children. Whilst Jon trained as an engineer and a lawyer, I think he now sees his core competency as logistics. He is, quite simply, a great man, wonderful husband and brilliant father, and I just love him to bits.

There is no doubt, though, that our greatest achievement in life is our two beautiful, happy, confident and loving children, Olivia and Edward. Livvy and Edward, you make my heart sing, and I love you more than words can express. There is nothing that gives me greater joy than being your mum.

From the outside, politics can look like a brutal business—and it can be. There is a ferocity and urgency that is a permanent overlay to everything that is said and done here, because politics affects everyone, because the decisions made in this place affect the choices and opportunities of millions of Australians and the sort of Australia that we are and that we might become. In the battle of ideas, robust debate is critical and accountability for decision-making essential. Those who serve here have a responsibility to think deeply about the challenges that we face as a nation. Today I want to reflect on four themes that have dominated my thinking and my approach as a backbencher and minister.

The first is the intergenerational bargain. I believe that each generation has an obligation to try to put the next generation in a stronger position than the one they inherited, or, at the very least, to make sure that they are no worse off. That is why I chaired an inquiry into foreign investment and residential real estate as a backbencher. It is why I have championed key infrastructure projects like the Melbourne Airport Rail Link and the congestion fund as a member of the Expenditure Review Committee. These are essential reforms aimed at increasing the supply of more affordable housing for all Australians. The intergenerational compact is why, as a member of the ERC, I am proud to have played my part in containing spending growth and returning the budget to surplus, in the face of an obstructionist Senate, so that we can get on with paying down Labor’s debt legacy. Labor’s budgets, and the trajectory they established for future years, were quite simply an enormous exercise in intergenerational wealth transfer from our children and our grandchildren to us. It is wrong to expect the next generation of Australians to fund a higher standard of living for us than they can ever reasonably be expected to achieve for themselves, yet this is a direct consequence of a spend-now

pay-later philosophy. This is exacerbated further when you consider the ever-diminishing ratio of working-age Australians to fund the growing expenditure of an ageing population.

Given all this, as Assistant Treasurer and later as Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, I realised it was important to make modest tax changes to broaden our overall income tax base and put superannuation on a sustainable footing. It wasn’t popular amongst all of my constituents and divided opinion amongst sections of my party’s membership, but it was the right thing to do, and I am grateful to the Liberal party room for unanimously endorsing our final package. (Highlight & underline by SOS). After all, how could it be right that a young person on average earnings, with a substantial HECS debt, faced a higher tax bill on the interest earned on their home deposit savings than a person who owned their own house, had a free university education and was paying no tax on the income earned from millions saved in superannuation? We must never forget that in this place we have a dual responsibility, both to the voters of today and to those that economic historian Niall Ferguson so eloquently describes as ‘as yet too young to vote or as yet unborn’.

The intergenerational compact demands that we be fair to both.

That leads me to the second theme I want to touch on: fairness. Fairness is more than a one-word slogan hijacked to denote the redistribution of income. It has many dimensions. We must always ask the questions: fair to who and fairer on what measure? Those who choose to work harder and longer deserve to be rewarded. Those who put their capital on the line to invest in new enterprises that create jobs should have the opportunity to see the fruits of their efforts. Government tax policy that smothers initiative and enterprise and deters risk-taking and hard work is inherently unfair. This is why, together with the Prime Minister, I am proud to have contributed to legislated tax cuts for small and medium-sized businesses and tax cuts for individuals that will see the 37 per cent tax rate eliminated altogether. Our upper personal income tax rates are still too high, though, and our top marginal tax rate kicks in at too low a level. As our budgetary position improves over time, I hope that both of these issues are addressed.

Equally, it is absolutely not fair for some to treat their tax obligations as optional. If profit is earned in Australia, it must be taxed in Australia. Failing to close loopholes and enforce the law can cheat Australians of vital services and infrastructure and can mean higher taxes for those who do the right thing. I am proud to have closed loopholes that allowed multinationals to try to avoid their tax obligations, doubled penalties on large companies ripping off the taxpayer, strengthened the Australian Taxation Office and established the Tax Avoidance Taskforce. As a result, around $7 billion has been collected from large corporations, multinationals, private groups and wealthy Australians. In response to the MAAL, around $7 billion in sales income is being returned to Australians each year, plus hundreds of millions of dollars in GST revenue. Just this week, my whistleblower protections for those who expose corporate and tax misconduct were finally legislated. I’m also proud to have commissioned the first comprehensive review of the black economy, which is estimated to cost our economy up to $50 billion a year. Tackling the black economy will reduce the tax burden on everyone. Budget announcements last year have demonstrated our progress, but it is clear that there is more to do.

The third issue I want to touch on is the role of women in our society and economy, and the perennial work-life struggle. We sell ourselves short as a nation if we don’t maximise the talents and expertise of both halves of our population. There should be no limit on what girls and women can aspire to and no limit on what they can achieve. As a feminist, I have always believed that girls and women deserve an equal stake in our society and our economy. We want women to make choices that are right for them and right for their families. Choice is a good thing. But we must also be mindful that a choice today can have long-term consequences. So that means that we need to have better pathways back into work after having children, more flexible work arrangements to accommodate family responsibilities and more affordable childcare arrangements. In essence, it means helping women to build their financial security.

It also means giving men more flexibility in work to take on caring responsibilities.

Men love their children and want to be part of their lives, and children love their fathers. Yet the number of men who work part-time remains well below that of women, and I call this the flexibility gap. We need to normalise flexibility for men and ask, ‘What are the barriers? Should we have a target?’ We began work on this area during my time as Minister for Women, and I encourage my successor to continue it.

I’m proud to have delivered the inaugural Women’s Economic Security Statement, with over $100 million dedicated to help build women’s financial security through practical actions that boost their skills and employability, smooth their return to work, help them to establish their own businesses, and improve their economic recovery following critical life events such as family separation or domestic violence. I hope future governments commit to this important annual statement to keep a strong focus on gender equality.

I was pleased to announce funding for the first ever national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace and introduce legislation to enshrine minimum standards in the workplace for family and domestic violence leave. I’m glad this passed with the support of the whole parliament.

In my party, I’m proud to have instigated the Enid Lyons Fighting Fund to give extra financial assistance to women fighting elections. We need more of them to succeed. I hope the example of female trailblazers in this place since Federation, as well as my own lived experience, demonstrate to women contemplating public service that you can have a family, serve at the highest levels and make a serious and lasting contribution to your country. My decision not to recontest is a very personal one, and simply reflects, after four elections, a shift in my priorities.

The intergenerational bargain, fairness and women’s issues all animated me before I came into this place. I never imagined that I would see them intersect in what many consider to be one of the driest policy areas—superannuation. I said in my first speech:

We face big challenges, and I will not duck the task of tackling those challenges.

Reforming the superannuation industry has been one such challenge. Workers are mandated by government to defer 9.5 per cent of their wages today to save for their retirement. The system has seen our national savings pool grow to $2.8 trillion, which is a great achievement.

We want to encourage people to be self-reliant in retirement—that is a good thing— yet, when I came to the portfolio, some Australians were unable to take full advantage of concessional contributions because of their work arrangements. We fixed it through reforms to deductible personal contributions so that everyone benefits. I was also particularly concerned to ensure women and men with career interruptions weren’t denied access to the benefit of tax concessions for their years out of the workforce. We enacted catch-up contributions to address this. We also acted to ensure low-income Australians were not paying more tax on their mandated superannuation contributions than on their take-home pay. Our measure now benefits more than three million Australians, including around 1.9 million low-income women, to the tune of around half a billion dollars each year. These reforms all improve the system.

But there remains a deeper problem. Millions of Australians have been cheated of billions of dollars in their retirement savings. Young people have seen their accounts drained to zero through multiple accounts, multiple sets of fees and multiple insurance premiums. People have been forced into poor-performing funds through backroom deals and enterprise agreements that take away their choice. For too long, the industry has been putting their interests ahead of those of their members. They have forgotten that the money they hold on trust is not the banks’ money, the unions’ money or the funds’ money. It is the members’ money. It is their wages, so the system must work for them.

I’m proud of the action that I took to pursue a series of member-first superannuation reforms to end the rorts and rip-offs in the sector and to better protect Australians’ retirement savings. Many of these reforms were endorsed by the landmark Productivity Commission report on the superannuation system and the financial services royal commission. Thankfully, many have now been legislated, despite lobby groups using members’ money to try to block them. They include boosting the retirement savings of around three million Australians by about $6 billion, thanks to automatically reuniting lost and inactive low-balance accounts; capping fees on low-balance accounts and banning exit fees on all accounts, which will save members over half a billion dollars in 2019-20 alone; providing APRA with greater powers to crack down on dodgy funds; and introducing tougher penalties on fund trustees, including, for the first time, up to five

years in jail.

I’m also pleased that, today, we reintroduced legislation to implement my proposed reforms to improve default insurance arrangements, by making insurance cover opt-in rather than opt-out for new members under 25 years of age and for those with low- balance accounts. It is a scandal that people are defaulted into insurance that they don’t know about, don’t want, don’t need and, in some cases, can’t even claim on. If those opposite finally see sense and support our bill without amendment, it will mean up to $3 billion each year in retirement savings for millions of affected members. I also look forward to legislation being introduced which will give victims of crime, including victims of child sex abuse offences, access to the superannuation of their perpetrators as compensation.

There remain other areas to progress. Funds should have a greater focus on retirement incomes. The retirement income covenant is an important start, but more must be done in this area. I remain hopeful that parliament will extend choice of fund to the around one million Australians who are currently restrict from doing so. I also remain hopeful that parliament has the strength to tackle the long-vexed issue of default funds, where people make no active choice about their fund or how their money should be invested. In my view, given that the government compels Australians to put an ever- increasing percentage of their wages into superannuation, it’s only right that the government should offer up a solution to look after those foregone wages. It is my strong view that a conflict-free, low-fee government default fund could benefit millions of Australians by utilising the investment management expertise of the Future Fund. It would boost retirement incomes by taking advantage of economies of scale and would stop Australians from being defaulted into underperforming funds.

Fixing the superannuation system can be best summarised as getting a better deal for consumers. This has been a constant thread through the fabric of my ministerial and constituent work. I’m glad that we called the royal commission into the banking and financial services sector. It was the right thing to do. We were so keen to address the issues we had already identified that we underestimated just how strong a disinfectant the sunlight from a royal commission would be. (Highlight & underline by SOS). I’m pleased that the royal commissioner’s report endorsed many of the reforms that we progressed in the interim. I’m particularly proud of establishing the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, a one-stop shop to enable consumers and small businesses access to fast and free dispute resolution for banking, insurance, superannuation and financial advice. The government will extend its remit to look back 10 years.

The royal commission also endorsed the work we had done to design a compensation scheme of last resort for financial misconduct. I’m pleased the government has agreed to establish such a scheme. Time will tell, but I expect that our strengthening of ASIC, including the overhaul of its leadership and the introduction of an enforcement-focused deputy commissioner, will also have a big impact. A strong financial services system is essential to job creation. On that theme, I’m particularly proud of reforms to overhaul our insolvency laws and facilitate crowdsourced equity funding, which will support entrepreneurship and innovation.

At a local level, I have enjoyed resolving many diverse issues, but none has been more satisfying than securing a permanent home for the very first children’s hospice in Australia. Very Special Kids does the work of angels, helping families with the care of profoundly ill children and supporting families dealing with unimaginable grief when a child dies. I am exceptionally grateful for their work and will continue to champion them so that they get the world-class facilities that they need.

An issue that resonated strongly with me and my electorate was same-sex marriage. One of the most nerve-racking days that I had as a new MP was the day that I walked into the Federation Chamber to announce my support for same-sex marriage. Many warned me it was a career-limiting move, and maybe it was at the time, but I believe it was the right thing to do. I am proud that it will be the legacy of a Liberal government to have legislated same-sex marriage.

This brings me to the fourth and final issue, the quality of our democracy itself. My

time in this place has coincided with a deterioration of trust in both this institution and, indeed, the very concept of democracy. Social media and a proliferation of tribal echo chambers have led to warped perceptions of Australians’ views, a failure to listen to alternative ideas and a decline in genuine policy debate and civil discourse. Time spent in the community is the best antidote. However, technology has accelerated our lives and our expectations. Complex policy issues in an increasingly complex world don’t usually have an easy answer. The default response here should not be to immediately outsource decision-making to unelected people. Sometimes parliamentarians need to prosecute the case for patience and a deeper conversation with their electorates.

Equally concerning is the transformation of the Senate. It is now neither a house of review nor a house to protect the state’s interests. Rather, it has become a forum to frustrate the government’s agenda and the will of the people. This has contributed to undermining faith in our democracy and its institutions, and long-term policy outcomes for our country.

As my final observation in this place, I think that elected governments should be able to implement their mandates. I support the proposition endorsed by the Senate President for major parties to consider implementing an Australian version of the Salisbury convention. This would mean parties agreeing to abide by the convention that the Senate won’t obstruct the passage of legislation to effect government policy which has been fully and fairly disclosed to the Australian people well before voting commences in an election.

In conclusion, I would like to thank my colleagues, including a number that I have worked with across the aisle, and, in particular, Julie Bishop for her friendship and guidance. I am lucky that before I came into this place I had two lifelong friends who were already here: the Speaker of the House, Tony Smith; and the President of the Senate, Scott Ryan, who are both like big brothers to me—and, like big brothers, can both delight and infuriate me!

I want to place on record my thanks to Malcolm Turnbull for his friendship and also his great support of me when I gave birth—the first serving cabinet minister to do so. He also made me the youngest female cabinet minister, and, together with Scott Morrison, gave me portfolios with complex policy issues to work through. I have loved the intellectual stimulation and technical detail that has come with the second-largest legislative workload in this place. I would like to place on record my gratitude to the many hardworking public servants in my various portfolios, and the teams of people who enable our parliament to function.

To the Prime Minister: thank you for your friendship, your determination, your courage and your leadership. It has never been more needed than now. I know that, with you, our country is in good hands. I thank the House for its indulgence.