Parliamentary Democracy, Murray-Darling Basin, Rural and Regional Health Services, Defence Adjournment

I rise tonight at the close of what has been a remarkably brutal year, in political terms, to talk a little bit about the institution of the parliament and our democracy behind it. The Lowy Institute took a poll earlier this year and it found that only around 60 per cent thought that democracy was the best form of government. Disturbingly, for people aged between 18 and 29, the poll showed that only about 39 per cent thought that democracy was the best form of government, and some were open to other forms. Yet around the world people lay down their lives to have the right to have a say in how their country is run.

I would like to touch briefly on the fact that, behind the zoo that people see here in question time sometimes and the headlines they see in the papers, the institute that this parliament brings to make democracy work is actually working for the nation. There are three examples I would like to touch on. The first is the Water Act this year. Alfred Deakin, one of the men who drove the Federation in Australia—an irrigator, and the second Prime Minister—said about 110 years ago:

… this is probably the most complex—I might almost say the most obscure—part of the whole Constitution; and it will be extremely difficult to determine—first, what are our rights and powers and next, the most tactful and effective way of asserting them?

He was certainly right, Mr President—it has taken a long time. Right back in 1881 the various states were staking out their claims for the river. Initially, it was around making sure that you could still navigate ships and boats on it, because that was a way to open up the states, certainly from South Australia’s perspective.

The years of the great drought that only ended in 1902 were a crisis that for the first time brought people together and made them talk, and in 1915 the River Murray Waters Agreement was finally agreed. It took until 1960, though, for people to start talking about water quality as opposed to just quantity, and it was not until the 1980s that people started talking about the environment. In 2004 the Howard government had the Intergovernmental Agreement on a National Water Initiative and in 2007 the National Water Security Plan.

This year I give credit to Minister Burke and to my colleague Senator Simon Birmingham for the work they have done to bring the respective parties together. We now have, in the Water Act this year, something that has been the culmination of 120 years’ work. Is it perfect? No. But does it help the environment? Yes. Does it take account of the 2.1 million people who live along the basin and make their livings and create their communities there? Yes, it does. Is it a basis for further development? Yes, it is. And is it a good example of where people from all parties have come together, and even if they have not completely agreed have found a position of cooperation, in some cases compromise, to work to move forward in the national interest. I think that is a credit to this parliamentary institution and our democracy. Many of the speakers here tonight in their statements have talked about the civility that occurs outside the zoo of question time, and this act is a good example of that.

Another good example is the Senate Community Affairs References Committee looking at the factors affecting the supply of health services and medical professionals in rural areas. This is something that tremendously affects people in country areas yet very rarely makes the headlines. Very rarely do you hear it debated in question time. But here you have a committee of this Senate involving people from the Nationals, the Liberal Party, Labor and the Greens, working very constructively together, travelling around the country, taking submissions, hearing from people who are involved with the delivery, the training for or the governance of health services in rural areas. It was a really cooperative committee with good recommendations. It is a good example of how this Senate works for the benefit of the people of Australia.

A lot of policy is developed on the east coast where the demographics are quite different. For example, my state of South Australia has a very concentrated population in Adelaide, so a lot of the assumptions on the east coast about rural centres and the opportunities for training places and training hospitals are just not relevant in South Australia. One of the benefits of having a bicameral system, and the opportunity for senators to come together and work on an issue, is that we can make sure the interests of states that are different in their demographics are taken account of through those reports. So that community affairs committee report I think is a good example of the institution of the parliament working to the benefit of the people of Australia.

One of the areas that I spend most time on in this place is Defence. People are used to headlines about things in Defence, the good work that our people in Defence do—in natural disasters and in operations. But there are also the headlines that people shake their heads at, when they look at procurement, some of the waste and the projects that have not gone well in that area. Here again there was an inquiry that ran over 18 months with Independents like Senator Xenophon, the Greens, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party working together to develop and table a report that was unified in its recommendations to government. That is a good example of things that are in the long-term national interest, where people in this place put aside their political differences.

Politics is important; politics is about holding the executive to account; politics is about making sure that the people who are entrusted with government do the right thing by the taxpayer and invest their money wisely. But, behind the scenes, behind that political level, the institution of this parliament is working and working effectively for the people of Australia. I think it is a shame that we do not see more of that highlighted in newspapers, on talkback radio and in other opportunities so that when the Lowy Institute do those polls, people go: ‘You know what? This democracy is worth defending. This democracy is worth supporting, because this Senate is working for the benefit of the people of Australia.’

Mr President, as we come to the end of this year I want to echo the remarks of colleagues by thanking you, the Senate staff, Hansard and everyone who makes this place work. I also want to thank my own staff: Mignon, Cristy, David, Bev, Josh, Cassie; and my family Lorna, Alexandra and Emily for their incredible patience with the lifestyle that members in this place have to lead.

As we think of families I think it is also important that we pause and remember that there are many families that will be separated this Christmas. I think it is important to remember our service men and women who are overseas, and remember their families. Remember also those who have lost husbands or brothers or sons, who will not be at the Christmas table this year.

Finally it is important to remember the reason for the Christmas season, which is the birth of Christ, God’s gift to this world. Mr President, to you and yours, I wish a blessed Christmas.