When I first became a candidate, Pam and I promised we’d move here to Casey. And while some of you may not have believed us, we've since become established Chirnside Parkers. A decade on you’ve become a big part of our lives.
And Pam and I hope, that along with our two boys Tom and Angus, our two dogs, and my 6 cars we’ve become an equally big part of yours. I judge myself very fortunate to be a Liberal from this part of Victoria where we have a golden branch membership; a membership that has never hesitated or yielded in its support. And a membership family with the integrity to express their views forcefully on the issues; But also with the maturity never to demand that I do anything other than follow the dictates of my conscience on policy or political matters. Your strength and endurance has enabled us to swim to victory against the political tide at the last two federal elections in this difficult seat.
I’d also like to thank a few other prominent branch members. They include Lorraine Elliott and Steve McArthur, who are here tonight and were State Members when I first elected. As a new MP in a new area, I couldn’t have asked for two more supportive mentors. Your ongoing commitment over your post-parliamentary years reflects your dedication to our party. And that’s something that can’t be said of all our former Liberal Members of Parliament.
To my mate Matthew Mills from Monbulk, who almost won that seat a year ago; Matt and Claire - we’ll work extra hard to ensure Matt will be sitting in Victorian Parliament after the next state election.
And to the fantastic State Members with whom I work within Casey: – Ryan Smith whose simple mantra when meeting voters is to say “just vote Smith”. David Hodgett, Christine Fyffe and now Brad Battin – we’re a great team. Thanks for the years until now, and the years yet to come.
And to my hardworking staff - past and present - who are here tonight: thank you for your professionalism and your patience; for your loyalty and your inexhaustible reservoir of good humour, and your collective inability to keep a straight face. You’re fantastic.
I’m also going to single out a couple of old mates from my Liberal student days - Peter Vitale and Julian Sheezel - who were there with me during the late 1980s doing battle with the feral Left at university. We fought the good fight for free minds, free markets and freedom of association. It’s great to have you guys – who were there at the beginning – here tonight after all these years.
Over 10 years in parliament, you learn a lot about yourself, and even more about those around you. One of the things you discover after a decade in the arena is who your real friends are.
You learn to distinguish between fair-weather friends who are there when the sun shines, and genuine mates who stand by you when the cold winds blow. Genuine mates who tell you to your face, both when you’ve done well, and when you’ve stuffed up.
Contrasted with those conditional people who tell you to your face when you’ve done well, but tell someone else when you’ve stuffed up. In fact it could be said that you never actually lose any friends in politics, you simply acquire a more accurate list. So I’m very pleased you’ve all come, along with our guest speakers and so many other friends who are here tonight and are truly worthy of the name.
That category includes my federal colleagues Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer, Greg Hunt, Bruce Billson. And especially my old mate Scott Morrison who travelled from his home state of New South Wales to be with us tonight.
In my maiden speech I noted that I wasn’t born into the Liberal Party. In fact, I was the first member of my family to ever join a political movement. Now you’ll be relieved to know there was never any doubt as to how my extremely intelligent parents voted. In fact, my earliest political memory is as an eight year old – Election night 1975.
We were on holiday at Sorrento, and TV reception where we were staying was pretty dodgy. But as news of Whitlam’s crushing defeat came through in scratchy pictures on our old black & white TV, my father responded with a roars of relief and rejoicing - behaviour until then only witnessed by me after Carlton victories. So I suppose, in a way, it could be said that the political demise of Goff Whitlam coincided with the birth of Tony Smith’s political consciousness.
So how did I come to be involved in politics? It wasn’t the irresistible appeal of the Young Liberals, I have to say. But there were two equally important influences that helped crystallise my political worldview: - university by day and the workplace by night.
At Melbourne Uni, I encountered that strange beast known as the campus Left. But I was also working my way through my studies. And the second great formative experience came from working as a dusk-to-dawn night-shift cook at Dennys restaurant in Doncaster.
It was there I witnessed first-hand the social havoc wrought by the failed economic policies of Cain, Hawke and Keating that ultimately led to the recession we were told “we had to have”.
The nightshift at Dennys gave a pretty good snapshot of the real world. I worked alongside Mums and Dads holding down second jobs. Chasing additional shifts to try and catch ever higher interest rates, in a desperate attempt to keep their homes in the face of skyrocketing mortgage payments. It opened my eyes to how bad governments and bad policies inflict real pain on real people. It awakened me to the fact that what goes on at that House on a Hill in Canberra has genuine consequences for individuals, for families for communities and for the nation.
It was at this point I decided to enter the fray, first as a Liberal student, then as a party member, then as a political staffer, and finally as a member of federal parliament.
People get into politics for a variety reasons. Some might be seduced by the prestige and the power. Some no doubt are drawn to the Machiavellian intrigue and strategic manoeuvring that are part of political life. And some are addicted to the sheer adrenalin of what they see as a game.
But it’s not a game. The pursuit of power for power’s sake produces hollow-men who pursue hollow policies.
My friends, I was a Liberal before being Liberal was cool. Both John Howard and Jeff Kennett were Leaders of their respective Oppositions and widely regarded as dead-end no-hopers. There was no Liberal bandwagon to jump aboard. But opposition was a crucible that separated true believers from the self-serving and the self-interested. People like Sophie Mirabella, Stephen Kenmar, Julian Sheezel and Peter Vitale came of age as a new generation of Victorian Liberal activists. Activists who not only believed; but were willing to fight for those beliefs.
Peter Costello emerged as our standard bearer. And he was ably assisted by Michael Kroger who, way back then – a full quarter century ago, also helped to encourage and inspire as a young Victorian Liberal state president. And my generation of Liberal students ably laid the groundwork for the next: including Michael O’Brien, Mattew Guy, Kelly O’Dwyer, Renee Hindmarsh and many others.
My friends, I’m in politics because I’m in the change game. I joined theLiberal Party out of conviction and determination. The conviction to replace bad policies with better ones, and the determination to drive reforms that improve our communities and our country. And I was schooled in the principles of reform in the Howard/Costello Opposition and Howard/Costello Government after 1996.
Simply put, I hold these truths to be self-evident:That the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen; That the role of government should be restricted to those functions that individuals cannot provide for themselves; That initiative, enterprise and opportunity are the drivers of prosperity, and that high taxes drown and over-regulation strangles.
My friends, political campaigns should never be seen as an end unto themselves. An election is a means to an end. And that end is the opportunity to reshape national policy for the national good. Of course, there’s no doubt that some measure of compromise is necessary in our democracy. But if you make too many concessions; if you give up too much too soon, you end up compromising your values, your integrity and ultimately your political soul. The real trick is to know where to draw that bright line between pragmatism and cynicism.
I think we have a real chance at the next election, provided we work hard enough and provided we remain true enough to our ideals. And when we get there, it’ll be tough. The political egos of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been writing cheques their policy competence can’t cash. So once again we’ll be faced with our traditional task of cleaning up Labor’s mess. And we’ll have to make hard choices. But the mark of real leadership rests on the ability to say no at the right time for the right reasons.
We won’t be seeking out unpopularity. But we equally shouldn’t shrink from unpopular decisions if that’s what’s required in the national interest to lead Australia out of Labor’s hole.
My friends, nearly a decade ago, in my first parliamentary speech, I said: The easiest thing for governments to do is to think and promise that they can solve every problem. But when government succumbs to the temptation to try and solve problems it cannot solve, fix things it cannot fix or do things that are better done by other organisations, far from serving the nation, government harms the nation, desponds the electorate and deludes itself … To me, the first principle of government should be a recognition and essential honesty about its true capacity and its limitations.
So tonight is a night to say thank you; a night to reflect on a decade past; and more than ever a night to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work yet to come. My friends, I mean to make a difference. So that when we meet again in 10 years time we can talk about, not just how good we’ve been at winning elections, but how good we we’ve been at governing for the country. How we’ve held true to our Liberal ideals, and delivered stability, opportunity and prosperity to our fellow Australians. So that when we meet again, we’ll be able to declare with pride that we’ve truly been a party dedicated to the mission of Menzies.