Maiden Speech of Alistair Coe MLA

Speech in the ACT Legislative Assembly

9 December 2008

It is with appreciation and humility that I am before this chamber making my maiden speech today. Firstly, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate you on your election as Speaker of this Assembly.

I come here representing the ACT electorate of Ginninderra, as a proud member of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is a party of initiative and enterprise, and I will seek to bring those attributes to my work here in this place.

My selection as a Liberal candidate was not made until seven weeks before the recent territory election. I was selected soon after the announcement that long-time Liberal MLA Bill Stefaniak would not be recontesting his seat. Bill served the people of Canberra in each of the first six Assemblies of the territory and served as a minister, shadow minister and Leader of the Opposition. Bill was a well-respected local member, and always fared well at the elections he fought. He was well supported by his wife, Shirley.

Bill was instrumental in bringing positive reforms to policing and education in the territory when he was a minister in the former Liberal government. The introduction of mandatory literacy and numeracy tests for primary school students, move-on powers for police, alcohol-free zones and the Bail Act are all part of Bill’s legacy in this place and are all reforms that I strongly endorse.

Bill was very supportive of me when I joined the party at the age of 16 and in year 11 at school. I, like thousands of others, had met Bill on numerous occasions at shopping centres, sporting matches, school presentation days and other community events. Bill had widespread respect in the community—respect that I, too, hope I can earn.

Our great city is here because of the vision of the fathers of Federation to create a national capital that was independent of any of the colonies rivalling for the privilege. However, for many years prior to becoming the national capital, Canberra was a place for pioneering nation builders who had often travelled from the other end of the world—people who wanted to work hard to make the lives of their children better than their own. The result is that generations of people have come to Canberra to invest in the future for themselves, their family and their country.

The point I make is that we live in a city synonymous with service. Whether you look at the pioneers who put this region on the map, the nation builders who planned it, the developers who built it, the civil servants who made it their home, or the industry which helped to sustain it, Canberra is a resourceful place and one that is yet to reach its full potential.

My electorate of Ginninderra, north-west of the city, is an area rich in tradition and history. The first pioneer owner of the area of Ginninginninderra, as it was originally known, was Lieutenant George Thomas Palmer. The area was later known as Palmerville, and Palmer’s grants totalled 5,300 acres. Before coming to Australia, Palmer had served in the British forces against Napoleon. In 1806, he travelled to New South Wales on the Albion and settled as a free immigrant. By 1828, he ran almost 2,000 head of cattle and 6,000 sheep in the region. It was the determination of settlers such as Palmer which brought development to the region and, unknowingly, helped to lay the stones for a future capital city—the city I grew up in and am now honoured to serve.

I was born at Royal Canberra Hospital almost 25 years ago. I grew up in Wanniassa and Nicholls and was educated in schools in Tuggeranong and Belconnen. I grew up in the family home in the suburbs with mum, dad, two brothers, a backyard, friends, church, school and a community. I grew up in an environment where mainstream values were respected and not scoffed at or denigrated. I have taken great strength from my family’s support over the years, and from the lessons, insights and character building that I grew up with. I could not have asked for anything more, and I am grateful for the opportunities my family gave me and the sacrifices my parents made to ensure we had the best upbringing possible.

Throughout the world, the story of parents sacrificing much for the betterment of their children is not uncommon. I believe the family is the most important institution and we must do all that we can to support and encourage families and the important role they play in our society.

My career to date has included working for three organisations that each represent much that is great about Australia. The first, Young Achievement Australia, gives young Australians business experience through hands-on enterprise programs. It wasn’t started by government, but by individuals who thought that young Australians should have the opportunity to get more business experience under their belts than was provided in the education system.

The second, the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre, is a private think-tank that produces publications, runs courses and adds to the debate on national security issues. Despite being a small private operation, the centre punches above its weight in informing and stimulating public debate on what are increasingly pressing matters of national and international concern.

The third organisation I have worked for is the national headquarters of the Returned and Services League of Australia, where I was the national research adviser. Since 1916, the RSL has been a champion of Australian values and ensuring that programs are in place for the wellbeing, care, compensation and commemoration of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their dependants.

What the RSL, the Australian Homeland Security Research Centre and Young Achievement Australia prove is that government is not the sole repository of wisdom on matters of public policy and the provision of advice and support for others. In these examples, whether it be enterprise education, veterans’ welfare or national security research, the private sector has an important role to play and government can learn much from such innovative businesses. The tradition that these organisations represent is the active involvement of individuals to make their communities better. They do not do so by coercive legislation, physical force, or even expectation, but they volunteer their energies and resources out of their sense of duty.

It is at this point that it is appropriate to lay out what it is that I believe, and why I am here today. I am proud to be a member of the Liberal Party in the ACT Assembly. After joining the party in 2000, I became a member of the ACT Young Liberals—an organisation of which I remain a proud and committed member today. The Liberal Party has a great tradition in Australia, and especially here in Canberra. Many of the great landmarks, great developments and great decisions in this city were made in the Menzies era or in other Liberal governments that followed.

The Liberal Party was founded on the principles of freedom, limited government and the integrity of the individual. These are also my own principles, and I will do my utmost to uphold them and ensure that the Canberra Liberals will always continue to hold them.

I believe all people in Australia are privileged to live in a country with the immense freedoms which we all enjoy. Australia is a wonderful nation with a proud history, with great resources, an entrepreneurial people and Judeo-Christian principles forming the foundation of our modern society. It is this heritage which has brought about so much of our success as a nation.

Whilst I firmly believe in the separation of church and state, I recognise the importance that faith plays in many of our lives, and it is a real disservice to free speech when some of the more strident people in politics attempt to sneer at those who have Christian conviction, or to argue that they should be shunted to the fringes of any policy debate.

We are fortunate to be in a country with the freedoms, wealth and opportunities that we all enjoy. For a country of just 108 years, we are a stable democracy with integrity in our society which is the envy of the world. However, we as a nation had the advantage of not having to start from square one. We were a formation of autonomous colonies with democracy in action in each. These colonies were born on the back of the Westminster tradition.

The Westminster parliamentary tradition is one to which this Assembly subscribes. It is a tradition that has grown up over centuries of gradual refinement and long-held convention. I believe in a constitutional monarchy because of the stability and protection it has provided to safeguard our democracy against short-term political interests. The Crown is central to our political system, so long as the Crown is subject to parliament and the parliament is subject to the people.

As citizens of Australia, we are all shareholders in our nation, and this ownership is something which I take seriously. When I nominated as a candidate for election to this Assembly, I did so because of my determination to improve this city and to help get the priorities of this Assembly right. I believe the role of government is to secure and safeguard, not to stifle and suppress. I believe that good public policy is best achieved when government focuses its efforts on its core functions and doing them well.

One of the most important reasons I decided to seek election was because of my frustration with the current government—a government that has neglected the provision and upkeep of basic services such as public safety, roads and hospitals—and, of course, their poor financial management. Instead, this government has spent valuable taxpayer resources on satisfying their delusions of grandeur and has sought to turn Canberra into the nation’s leading social laboratory.

The government has put much of its focus in recent years on the introduction of civil unions, the Bill of Rights, and an extortionately expensive, luxurious prison, in a city with magistrates and judges that are strongly disinclined to penalise convicted offenders. Then there were the tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars the government spent on a statue of Al Grassby.

I find it staggering that the Chief Minister saw fit to nominate Terry Hicks, father of Guantanamo Bay detainee and self-confessed terrorist David Hicks, for Father of the Year. Mr Hicks is not even a Canberran, yet in Mr Stanhope’s political mission he saw fit to overlook so many Canberra fathers that work hard to help our community in extraordinary circumstances. Yet this government, that has put so much stock into being socially progressive, has no qualms collecting money on the backs of problem gamblers through poker machines. I stand against these things not only because they were the wrong priorities for the government but because they are also wrong in the absolute sense of the term.

Everywhere one can look, one can see a litany of near or actual government disasters that represent poor value for taxpayer money, from the ludicrous busway, now thankfully on hold, to the almost as ludicrous single-lane Gungahlin Drive extension, which should have been built as a dual carriageway from the very beginning, and which was finally only brought about when the government panicked in the lead-up to the last election campaign.

I do not understand why, in a city the size of Canberra, the cost of a block of land 20 kilometres from the city centre is out of reach for the average Canberran; yet, if you drove into the city from that block, you would pass seemingly endless acres of undeveloped, underutilised paddocks. How could it be, in this city, that there is not enough land available for families to invest in their future? This government has escalated the cost of land in this town to a point where too many young Canberrans cannot afford to buy a home in the town they grew up in.

Furthermore, in our new suburbs, we have roads that are so narrow that they bear greater resemblance to an English country lane developed 500 years before the invention of the car than they do to roads that can have one car pass another without side-swiping the pedestrian on the footpath which was never built.

I want to see this Assembly focus on the real issues of concern to Canberrans. This Assembly should be discussing how to manage our hospitals better, how to deter people from committing crime, how to get better results in our schools, how to keep our taxes low, how to support employment in the ACT, the territory’s infrastructure needs, and the safety and security of our citizens. Unfortunately, this Assembly gets sidetracked with issues of little significance and forgets about the people we are here to represent. The taxpayers of Canberra deserve better than this.

I come to this place with a commitment to seek to change the priorities of this Assembly and return the focus of government back to core business. In the late 1980s, advocates of self-government for the territory lobbied hard to give Canberrans autonomy to run their own affairs through a parliamentary process with its own jurisdiction. They fought for transparency and accountability through a public chamber, committees and, most importantly, elections. This Assembly should be a trophy for that vision. Instead, what this Assembly has done is slowly erode the influence of voters by removing decisions from this place and entrusting them to the hands of bureaucrats, magistrates, judges, commissioners, executive directors, advocates, presidents and territory-owned corporations. What the Assembly has done, to a large extent, is to outsource the very rights the Assembly was meant to protect, to unelected, less accountable or even unaccountable bodies. I am not saying that I am against such legal arrangements; I am simply against having too many of them.

As a consequence of this outsourcing of responsibility, successive Assemblies have moved away from the core business of running the territory and have pottered around with insignificant projects while important business is left unattended.

It is with great regret that I believe that many Canberrans have lost confidence in this Assembly and say that we should just be a council or that we should go back under the control of a federal department. But when people say this, it drives a stake through the heart of democracy, as, at first glance, it seems that democracy has failed them when, in actual fact, the Assembly has failed democracy by discharging the duties entrusted to the Assembly to unelected bodies.

I have done my best to articulate a vision that was not only my agenda for my campaign but also an agenda that is relevant to Canberra’s future.

There are many people that I would like to thank who helped me to get to this point in my life. I would like to thank the leader’s office, including Zed Seselja, Ian Hagan, Steve Doyle and Tio Faulkner. I would like to thank the following friends that supported me during the campaign: Christine Bollen, Peter Brooks, Don and Fran James, Melissa Jennings, Chris Keane, George Lemon, Sally McDonald, Brian Medway, Steph Smythe and Ron and Carol Tanner.

To the group of Liberals that worked ridiculously long hours for the best part of a month, I am very grateful. They are: Ella Bauman, Candice Burch, Lauren Callahan, Sam Jackson-Hope, Michael Keating, Jimmy Kiploks, Duncan McDonald, George Ober and Henry Pike. Thank you to my uncle, John Salisbury, who was essentially full time on my campaign.

I would also like to thank the following friends for their contribution: David, Gail and James Dumbrell, Jessica Mack, Dave Steel and Jonathan Wegner. I am grateful to my past employers and good friends Trish Grice, Athol Yates and Derek Robson. All three gave me a tremendous amount of support and latitude at work, and I am very grateful for the roles they played over the past five or so years.

I am very grateful to the following long-time friends and supporters: Jason and Kat Briant, for their friendship and commitment; Daniel and Melissa Clode, for their ongoing support and belief in me; John Cziesla, for his guidance throughout my time as a party member; Jeffrey Davidson, for his insight and perspective; Gary Kent, for his advice and dedication to the Liberal cause; Sandy Tanner, for his dedication, loyalty and trust; and Gerry Wheeler, for his confidence in me over a number of years. I am very thankful to Kath Stevenson for her patience, dedication, care and the important role she plays in my life.

Finally, I would like to thank my very supportive family, who have helped me in every aspect of my life. To my parents, Bruce and Barbara, brothers Philip and James, grandmother, Jean Salisbury, and deceased grandparents Alan Salisbury and Stephen and Thelma Coe.

There are many other people that are too many in number to thank individually here. I am blessed with a wonderful group of friends that have given me so much support over a long period of time. I look forward to serving the people of Ginninderra in this Assembly and contributing to the debate about the future of the territory.