The Annual Earle Page College Politics Lecture, University of New England,Armidale
The Hon. Barnaby Joyce MP, Acting Prime Minister, Leader of The Nationals & Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources
Ladies and gentleman,
It is a great honour to be here tonight; and to be invited to present the 33rd Annual Earle Page College Politics Lecture here at the University of New England in Armidale: the country, the cold, the sport, the pub and - oh yes - the lectures.
‘The lectures’ that ensured every student here shares an alumni with the likes of Dr. Dame Bridget Ogilvie; my old teammate ‘Wallaby’ Damien Smith; former Reserve Bank’ Governor, Bernie Fraser; Cold Chisel’s Don Walker; Macquarie Bank CEO, Mary Reemst; and Olympic gold-medallists Suzy Balogh and Kathleen Partridge.
Part of what this university offers is academic development; part is social development.
The University of New England is a proper varsity experience where students have travelled far and wide from their homes to mix with others and to learn about them and, in doing so, to learn about themselves.
Arguably, a city-based student who commutes to and from their university, can’t gain this same experience anywhere near as effectively as the country-based students. On this hill students learn by living, eating, socialising and – dare I say it - sleeping with other people.
This hill forces you out of your shell. The latest iteration of going to university over the internet is something truly lacking when compared with the proper varsity experience.
At this university you get to broaden the experience that forms your views from right to left and from left to right.
You start at university by conforming to your conceits because you are comfortable there.
But later you challenge them. Maybe you will reaffirm your views; maybe you will change them. Either way, this university gives you plenty of fuel to fire your own questions about life, your community, your country: your world.
Hopefully too, it will make you brave enough to go beyond the undergraduate “Q&A” shoebox beliefs.
There was an adage given to me once: show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are. At university I always got the sense that it was: show me what you wear and I’ll tell you what you think.
My hope was that the University of New England broke this down somewhat.
The Earle Page College Politics Lecture has cemented itself on the annual political calendar of Australia as a truly unique forum that allows for “no holds barred” exploration of the political challenges and political opportunities faced by our country.
It opens the opportunity that I hope leads people to be surprised by the views of a person; not merely expectant of the views of a person. It hopefully challenges the general consensus; hopefully it challenges the regent power of ‘we’.
This forum has become an annual ‘think tank’ on the national political landscape that allows for political exploration away from the often glib “he said – she said” style of debate on the nightly news; away from the “gotcha moment” interviews on radio and television; away from the “one liners”; away from the partisan point-scoring efforts of some; and away from the “I am right and you are a bigot” approach to debate.
Importantly too, the Annual Earle Page College Politics Lecture cements regional Australia’s standing as an important hub for political thought; an important generator of ideas.
These lectures, by their very name, allow us to reflect on Sir Earle Page and his twin contributions to education and politics – both as the inaugural Chancellor of this University; and as the inaugural Leader of The Nationals; then, the Country Party.
We know Sir Earle Page was a great thinker… a great visionary... a man of great determination and community duty... and some said, cantankerous.
He served in our parliament for 42 years. And whether it was his 20 days as Prime Minister; his tenure as Deputy Prime Minister; his tenure as Leader of the Country Party; or his Ministerial tenures including in health, commerce and treasury; he always believed passionately in the regions: their families and industries.
While being an economic conservative, Sir Earle Page also believed passionately in helping those in need or who had fallen on tough times.
So often prudent fiscal managers are portrayed as lacking social conscience. He proved they are not. The cautious who pays is worth more than careless who empathises when it comes to social justice.
The politician who balances the budget is the true believer of a free health system into the future; the true believer of a free education system into the future; the true believer of a funded aged pension system into the future.
Earle Page’s inaugural election policies included a National Debt Sinking Fund and a national insurance scheme for the sick, unemployed, elderly and the poor.
In government he pioneered a rural credit scheme; was instrumental in separating the trading and central bank functions of the Commonwealth Bank; and he introduced tied grants to the states for road building. In my own small way, I have announced the formation of the Regional Investment Corporation to build once again on the Earle Page vision.
Significantly too – and remember this was 90 years ago – Sir Earle Page had both the vision and commitment to education and science, that he created an investment fund to ensure the CSIRO enjoyed stable and continued funding.
We also know Page drove a hard bargain; a very hard bargain. At one stage he secured almost half the Cabinet positions - five out of the eleven - for the Country Party. Today, once more, I have secured 5 Cabinet positions... although its out of 23.
He knew the importance of seizing the moment to deliver maximum results for his constituency. This is the art-form of any politician who has been in business: to drive the best bargain for your people.
Sir Earle Page advocated a new state of New England. North of the border, he would have been welcome at the LNP Conference on the weekend where they are arguing for a new state of North Queensland. He was quite prepared to take up the hard task; and not scared of failure.
Tonight you will not be surprised to learn that I will be enthusiastically – very enthusiastically as is my nature – adhering to the creed of this very college… the creed of the Earle Page College that gives its members the “rights of freedom of expression and belief” and “freedom of inquiry”... as noted in your motto.
And I say this because we are increasingly living in a world – and in a country – where mainstream people are being mocked, heckled and belittled for freely expressing their views; and we are living in a world where even people’s freedom to inquire is often met with the same type of mocking, belittling or attempted type-casting.
It is the essence of this lecture that I state that the view of “we” has been hijacked. And now ‘you’ must conform.
If you do not conform ‘we’ will use the pejorative to label ‘you’; ‘we’ will use the pejorative to extenuate your statement to the ridiculous extreme to typecast you as a lesser person.
If you question data sets on the weather you are a climate change denier; if you query the extent of foreign ownership you are a xenophobe; if you have a traditional social view on the family you are a bigot.
You are to surrender all opinions to experts who ‘we’ will select.
You are only valued as an individual to the extent to which you agree.
A little over two months ago Australians went to the ballot box to choose their government for the next three years.
I noted in that campaign that the fundamental political purpose of The Nationals was to stand up for those who live outside the major cities: to stand up for those who live elsewhere.
Because those who live elsewhere start with less.
For us, ‘we’, often seems to live somewhere else. But ‘us’ who live elsewhere, always appear to start with less: that is our lot. Let’s not complain about it; and let’s make sure that the process is set down on how those who wish can move beyond it.
As a philosophy, The Nationals represent more people who may not have been born with the wallet of others; or been the beneficiary of the education of others; or had the dice of genealogy fall in their favour.
But by the sweat of their brow - and limited only by their own innate abilities - they should have a nation that allows them to ascend through the social and economic stratification of life to allow them their highest level of freedom by being master of their own life.
Ensuring people have that freedom – the freedom to be masters of their own lives – is one the greatest political challenges that I have confronted during my time in politics. My challenge is how to attach this philosophy to real tactile mechanisms of delivery.
In my political life, it has always been core that our role is to make “you” as free as possible; whilst acknowledging that this freedom must not directly impede the rights of others to that same quest for freedom.
These rights have some fundamental foundations: the right of private ownership; the right of freedom of expression; and the right of all for equality before the law. These rights can only be entrenched where there is a subservience of government to the aspirations of the majority of the people; and where there is a subservience of the bureaucracy to the mandate of the elected officials.
There should never be an alleged “wiser culture” that emasculates the mandate of the people; or denies the right of individuals to live unharmed by others or the state.
I have rights whether I am conscious of them or not; and that must certainly be enforced by a good society. But a society must not use the premise that it has a better informed group that knows all the goodness to enforce unnecessary caveats on the freedom of its individuals or, worse, to remove those freedoms.
From ancient times it was the ultimate aim that government centralised authority to the ultimate point of deification of the leader. Caesar the God. Power descending from God to the King so the ignorant masses can be ruled with the supreme imprimatur. Communism: saying there is no God but it will do God's job.
Today, it could be argued, there is a case of a higher caste: a bureaucratic Brahmin that masquerades that it is closer to goodness than everyone. It seems to transgress from the people and runs continually from government to government regardless of who is in office.
This is part of the contextualisation of who “we” is and, as such, where you and I fit.
A government that is not up to its game professes the views of the status quo of power; and the guardians of that are the bureaucracies.
When a government , by its actions, says “we know better”; when a government says “we won’t let you do that”; when a government says “we have decided what you have done for a generation is wrong”; when a government says “we think, through our imposed rules, that we can better farm your land, better run your business”; when a government says “we are going to take your land and lock it up for a greater good”; when a government says “we are going to shut down your business, or even your entire industry, for a greater good”;then who precisely is this mighty “we”?
How is it that there seems to be this shifting line from ‘my rights’ to ‘our responsibility’? Who makes the decision to usurp an individual’s rights by a collective conscience? What recommendations are given to “we” that says it has an innate capacity for higher virtue?
I believe a better default mechanism is the preservation of individual rights guided by individual responsibility and obligation. I may naively premise this on my own experience.
I grew up in the hills where we lived basically with only the barest architecture of formal governmental law; but with a strong code of family expectations.
You want to ride a bike? Well, accept the risk of a broken arm and don't break the bike.
You want to go shooting? Then accept the risk that you may shoot yourself but take every caution not to.
You must work: it is your contribution to the endeavours of the family enterprise.
You can climb any tree you like and if you fall out, well, that is the price for the joy of climbing trees. You cannot sue the tree and certainly not the family.
The hills instilled a sense of the wonder of nature and the insignificance of man despite all our efforts. The trees, years after they are cleared, will sucker and grow back. The fences, no matter how robust we built them, eventually fall into disrepair. Houses crumble and roofs rust.
In the hills you reaffirm the view that you will not beat nature.
The world is dynamic; not static. Mankind itself is insignificant in this galactic époque.
So if you are doing something that you hope is forever, you are to be bitterly disappointed.
This is why dispensing with your rights for the philosophy of ‘now’; is something I have an inherent scepticism about.
Unless there is definite and proportionate betterment to others, then the default position of government policy should be to protect the rights of individuals as it is truly the greatest constant.
I am amazed at how many places now require a fishing license - in fact require a license for just about anything. I don’t really think fishing licenses stop people who want to break the law about fishing. They just annoy law abiding citizens who know the appropriate and legal bag limit.
I flew over a farm the other day; and in the middle of that farm in a prime agriculture area was a single tree. Around the edge of the farm, the farmer had planted a windbreak of trees. The hills around his farm were covered in trees. But I know that the single lonely tree in the middle of that paddock was simply there because the farmer was not allowed to clear it. The tree stood in the middle of a paddock as a sentinel to the Kafkaesque world that we have created for ourselves.
That tree isn’t stopping global warming; it’s not saving an endangered animal; it’s not reflecting some point of beauty so remarkable that it must be retained unharmed for posterity.
In truth, it is merely a tree in the middle of some farming country. In its own right it stands as a representative to belligerent rules.... rules that are no doubt being overseen by aerial maps and satellite photography making absolutely certain nothing ever happens to that tree.
Now I absolutely believe in the rule of law. If a rule exists then it must be enforced, and never taken into your own hands. But governments should be wiser and more in touch with the laws they create; and have the courage to remove ridiculous laws: the courage to admit they are at times wrong.
We were not born to levitate above the earth. We live on it and live by cultivating and exploiting it.
So we must be pragmatic about the ‘now’.
We must make sure the rights we have now are as high as can be sustained without compromising the rights of those who share them now, or those who are to imminently follow.
We must be ever vigilant against the energetic pursuit of trivial symbolic agendas at the expense of economic job-creating agendas; we must be ever vigilant about bureaucracies doing the bidding of extreme minority movements, rather than doing the bidding of our nation’s actual citizens; and vigilant of those who find moral reason to divest or swindle rights from individuals.
That’s why I say: Australia needs to harden up a bit. Because not only is nature dynamic; so is the politics of the world we now find ourselves in.
Global politics is changing: it is moving from the democratic West to the Confusion East. There is nothing unusual about this: politics has always changed.
This new global order may not care as much about what we see as important as we may wish.
And if we want to stay resiliently attached to our current way of life as a democracy with all the rights and freedoms that we take for granted, then we have to be strong enough both socially, economically and – dare I say it – militarily, to defend it.
Towards this task, however, we start with a rather large impediment. That impediment is our massive debt which I started to talk about in 2009 and, for my efforts, was relieved of my position as Shadow Finance Minister. Unfortunately now, seven years later, debt is decidedly worse.
To deal with this we have three choices. Two of those three choices are increasing taxes or cutting services.
You are here tonight for reason of a provision of a service. And you will pay for that service by the mechanism of your taxes. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say people want as many services as possible while paying as little tax as possible.
Oppositions rally against the cutting of services and then rally against the raising of taxes. If you are honest you would say that proposition is either disingenuous or idiotic.
But in addition to raising taxes and cutting services, there is another option: growing your economy.
If you believe in growing our economy, then you must believe in growing our regions. And if you believe in growing our regions, then we need to start questioning many cultures, many attitudes, many ingrained government processes; and many assumptions that I fear have gone unchecked and can take our regions to a standstill.
And if our regions are at a standstill, Australia is at a standstill. Very bad for paying down debt.
Strong regions overwhelmingly are based on the traditional economy: agriculture, mining, first-tier processing... the traditional economy runs on a food-stock of access to resources; cheap power; fundamental public infrastructure such as road, rail and dams; and the private enterprise of the individual.
We must value, celebrate and grow our established economy, if we are to drive a new economy. A new economy is a bigger more diverse and more resilient economy; it is not a replacement economy.
Anecdotally we are trying to deliver that here to Armidale: we are bringing the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines
Authority right here: bringing the research jobs; and bringing the third party partnerships. But relocating this authority to Armidale will only deliver for our local economy if we have a strong regional economy to underpin its services.
The Prime Minister made it clear in the Coalition’s economic plan that we are committed to securing more export trade deals to generate new business opportunities; to give our farmers a competitive edge; and to open markets for our service industries.
If Australia is to deliver on these new and expanded trade deals, then we must deliver on expanding our natural resource industries – in addition to our innovation, technology, education, science and service industries, which are so often linked back to the resources sector.
What concerns me is that there are those who are – bit by bit – succeeding in driving an agenda that aims to belittle and almost make us feel ashamed or embarrassed that our natural resource industries - notably our agricultural and mining sectors – are a mainstay of our nation’s economy.
There has, over the past few decades, been a hijacking of the debate that sidesteps the fact that agriculture and mining have been – and will continue to be - overwhelmingly the economic providers.
We have to be realistic. We are not known as manufactures of motorcars like Japan is; or the centre of ingenuity as NASA and Silicon Valley are to the United States; nor are we the epicentre of cheap manufacturing as China is.
Yes, we may have sections of all these attributes, but in a global context our strongest hand is in our primary resources – coal, iron-ore, agricultural products.
We should be as proud of our natural resources as we are proud of our natural climate, our natural beauty and our natural environment.
And we should be proud of every single job that is generated by them; and proud of every single family that is supported by them.
We should always remember that it was the strength of our established industries that allowed Australia to regain its AAA credit-rating during the Howard years; and we should always remember that it was on the back of our established industries that the previous Coalition Government was able to pay off the inherited $96 billion government debt of Labor.
And more recently, during the GFC, it was entirely due to the strength of our established economies in the agriculture and mining sectors, that Australia avoided recession – while our global partners were not so fortunate.
If our neighbours peer across the oceans with envy; then it is envy about our natural resources fuelled by their aspirations on how to exploit them, rather than being emerald with envy because of our service industries and excellent coffee.
The purpose of this university should include the logical extension by innovative means for providing a better product to a global market: the genetics; the robotics; and the aspiration to be a centre of excellence for the obvious strength of our farming and grazing industries.
Yes, we will provide the services as well. We have to. But to grow the economy we must be brilliant at our strengths.
A growing global middle-class with growing disposable income presents us with many opportunities. People want better watches, better computers and software, better cars, better clothes and better food. All these provide opportunities for us. We want to make sure that we maintain the logical steps to enhance our obvious strengths.
Australia has to have a frank discussion about removing the bureaucratic hurdles, the ingrained cultures and the agenda-driven assumptions that are holding back the pace of regional development: holding back the dams, the railways, the ports, the roads.
If we believe Australia needs to harden up a bit then we need to identify and weed-out where bureaucratic process is masquerading as essential environmental approvals; where there is deliberate bureaucratic inertia and over-regulation designed to override a community’s wishes or a government’s legitimate mandate.
I have personally seen a case in Tamworth where a subdivision on a former wheat paddock was disallowed because of a grass. I have personally experienced roads that cannot be repaired because of a frog. I’ve personally seen dams that almost were never built because of the same frog. We have waited years to try and complete the Bolivia Hill realignment because of a quoll and a bush. All these decisions have cost taxpayers and cost our economy tens of millions of dollars.
We need to recognise that if the test of a new industry or project is that it is to have nil effect on the environment, then nothing will happen… nothing at all. No jobs, No income. Nothing.
There continues to be an insidious extension of this is the regressive nature of further regulatory burdens on the private ownership of land held. Private ownership being fundamental to private enterprise.
We need to clearly define and understand what exactly constitutes a so-called “community interest” when government usurps an individual’s rights to appease an ordained ‘collective conscience”.
The best test of this is: if the community wants it? Is the community willing to pay for it? And, if not, then they mustn’t want it that badly.
It is an illogical extension of what was formerly a logical premise. Of course you cannot rape and pillage the land so as to destroy it; but that premise seems to be extended in some instances into: you can’t do anything at all.
Why have we gone from a logical premise that you can’t have a mine in the middle of the Liverpool Plains as it is amongst the best farming land in Australia; and then have the illogical mercenary position of stalling the Adani mine in Queensland which is most certainly not on prime agricultural land.
We have fallen into the binary trap that if one mine is bad, then all mines are bad. If one beings life is good, then all beings lives are of equal worth. In fact some try and say that an animal’s life is worth the same as a human life... which I think they are not.
If the lives of all sentient beings are equal, then the life of a fly is the equivalent of Einstein’s: then malaria is a natural consequence of a mosquito’s life, and no mosquito should be killed.
We are now hurtling towards the eccentric extreme by insisting that new projects must have a ‘nil disturbance’; and we now have some form anthropomorphic relativism that anything that thinks has the equivalent rights of people. It doesn’t. And the animal kingdom itself proves they don’t even believe this.
We live in a world where spiders eat flies, lions eat zebras, big fish eat little fish. It is a reality we eat things and have to kill them to do so. And I believe everyone in this room has eaten something else against that animal’s wishes.
Do you believe the leather in your shoes and belt was ‘borrowed’ from the cow?
Over the last couple of months since the Federal Election, some commentators have speculated about which crossbenchers will try to approve, amend or block which legislation.
I have been there myself, so I have some idea of what the raison d'être will be.
For many, political survival depends on a strong public profile. The best way to attain a strong public profile is to find ingenious ways to get on television and say ‘no’. I suppose, that’s politics.
But I hope in saying ‘no’, there is a clear debate about what the extenuating circumstances of that ‘no’ might mean.
For instance a “no” to the Adani-Carmichael mine in central Queensland means that we hold up a $23 billion development. It means we hold back the jobs of the engineers, boiler makers, the fitters and tuners, the plant operators, and the steelworkers for railway tracks. And it means we put on hold the salaries and wages that pay the taxes that pay for the hospitals and schools and the universities; it means we hold back the royalties that go back to the state.
At a global level, it also means we put on hold the ability for hundreds of millions of often poverty-stricken people to access a power-supply in India... holding back their progress into the 21st century.
A particular philosophy is holding a lot back.
Saying ‘no’ can be an awfully big price to pay for someone to get on television.
Adani already has over 200 environmental conditions to meet. Apparently this is not enough; and more are required before final approval can be given.
In that same State, not satisfied with the economic damage and delays already caused, the Queensland Government has recommenced taxpayer funding of organisations whose apparent exclusive purpose is to mount legal challenges to projects such as Adani’s.
One group, the Environmental Defenders Organisation, has had its $1 million government cheque augmented by being made eligible for government legal assistance… in other words, the State Government is using taxpayer dollars to fund outside organisations to bring forward legal challenges to major job-creating, community building projects.
This is the absolute triumph of the auspicious “we”.
In defending these delaying tactics, someone says: “Adani is a foreign company and wouldn’t it be better if it was Australian company?”
So let’s use an Australian example: the Roy Hill mine in the Pilbra.
Yes, it’s owned by Gina Rinehart who happens to be Australia’s largest taxpayer; and she is building one of the largest private infrastructure projects in the entire world.
The project has so far required in excess of 4000 approvals. That’s 4000 extra hurdles that stop Australians enabling fellow Australians attain a higher standard of living.
Rather than to cast aspersions in every direction but my own, I’m also not afraid to talk about the issues in my own portfolio that I need to do better at: that I need to do to ensure our nation hardens up a little.
In the Murray Darling Basin Plan in my portfolio, the quest to return the river to a more environmentally sustainable flow has also had a catastrophic economic and social impact on the town Collarenebri.
The epicentre of the problems was in the lower parts of South Australia. But the apparent solution – laid down by a previous government – was to deprive another town near the Queensland border of its economic base. And as that town loses its economic base, our nation loses the immense wealth that is generated by such towns through their cotton production.
As Minister, I have a responsibility to make sure our nation gets the renewable wealth from agricultural production that is generated by irrigation; and other towns in the region have the right to expect that their social and economic fabric will not be ripped out from beneath them.
Similarly I disagree with my state counterparts on the decision to ban greyhound racing.
My state colleagues vehemently disagree with me; as is there right. But I believe the ban is an unnecessary impost by government on the private lives of individuals.
It spells once more the excessive impost of the “we” on the rights of “them”.
Some saw the entire greyhound industry as brutish. Using this precedent what is to guard against what is seen by some as the brutish instincts of the entire greyhound industry being extended to what some see as the brutish instincts of rodeos, show jumping, feedlots or intensive agriculture such as poultry, and other barn production.
I’ve fought this fight before: making sure we kept open the live cattle trade.
When the previous government closed down the live cattle trade five years ago, it did so in less than 24 hours... less than 24 hours of impact studies on the livelihoods of Australian families that had invested in their businesses and borrowed from the banks.
Yet if a decision could have an impact on a frog or a snail... more than 24 hours would be dedicated to impact studies; more than 24 days would be; in fact more than 24 months would be.
That’s why I say: Australia needs to harden up a bit.
We must restore balance to the way governments declare and invoke a “community interest” when choosing to override or intervene in the rights of an individual.
With the casual flick of a bureaucratic pen in the high-rise office of a building hundreds or thousands of kilometres away, people’s lifetime investments and lifetime savings are increasingly puffing up in smoke before their eyes.
We need the conversations that I have furthered tonight. We don’t only need them to occur in the regions, we need them to occur in our metropolitan centres; as the role of democracy demands.
A role of The Nationals is to explain this, and your task as tomorrow’s leaders is to do the same.
I believe that the right of the individual works hand in glove with the necessary requirements of this nation to deal with a vast change to the global economic circumstance that we see before us including our greatest domestic challenge: the budget.
I believe that the ingenuity that resides in truly free people is the single greatest asset that a country can have.
That is why I was guided to the conservative side of politics. It’s called conservative because we are cynical of the idea that a higher body is wiser; more benevolent; more appropriate with our money; more ingenious; and more moral, than I can be if you left me alone.
I, the individual, am inherently suspicious of ‘we’.
I, the individual, acknowledge the necessity of ‘we’ when it comes to the provision of vital public infrastructure or the defence of our nation.
And I, of my own volition, will combine with the “we” for that provision, by my free choice, not compulsion.
However, when a government takes steps that removes my capacity for free enterprise; for free ownership; for free thought; then the belief in “we” usurps the much better alternative: freedom of individuals.