THE HYATT HOTEL, CANBERRA
While life membership is a way for a political party to say thank you, to those who’ve served it, really, this party should less be thanking me, than I should be thanking you.
But for the Liberal Party, I would never have been a member of parliament; never have been a minister in a government; and never have had the vast privilege of leading our country.
None of us do anything big on our own, and anything I achieved as an opposition leader, and as a prime minister, was the work of a team.
The MPs, especially Warren Truss, a peerless deputy prime minister.
The party organisation, especially Brian Loughnane, one of our Party’s greatest strategists.
And my staff, especially Peta Credlin, probably the fiercest political warrior I’ve known, who created an office in which politics was more than a job – it was a cause.
As shown by my staffers’ subsequent service: Andrew Hirst, now our Party’s federal director; Matt Stafford, now running a global business; Andrew Shearer, now our security chief; Richard Dowdy, now chief of staff to one of our best business people; and others here tonight, who helped to make me PM, who’re now doing the same for Peter Dutton.
And my family, of course, especially Margie; families are the conscripts in public life.
But the Liberal Party hasn’t just given me a long public life.
It’s helped our country to be its best self.
It was the Liberal Party, after all, that put the first woman into cabinet, on merit; and the Liberal Party that put the first Aboriginal Australian into parliament, on merit; and the Liberal Party that put the first Chinese Australian into parliament, again, on merit.
It was the Liberal Party that ended the White Australia policy, and it was the Liberal Party that formalised the US alliance.
It was the Liberal Party that reoriented our trade to Asia, the near-north, not the Far East, Menzies insisted; and created the first resources boom.
It was our party’s founder who sent the Second AIF abroad to fight for freedom, while it was his opponent who brought it back.
It was the Liberal Party that gave Australia its two longest serving PMs and its best modern governments.
Although I guess it should be conceded that the Hawke government also shaped that quarter century of economic modernisation, that the Howard government completed: a legacy that we’re still drawing down and living off.
Indeed, the whole world, in 2020 had never been more free, more safe and more prosperous, thanks to the global spread of those ideals that our Party champions in this country: the dignity of the person, freedom under the law, humane institutions, and effective markets.
As John Howard often said, the Liberal Party combines the small “l” liberal tradition, of John Stuart Mill, with the small “c” conservative tradition, of Edmund Burke.
It’s economically liberal, and it’s socially conservative.
Or as I liked to say: as liberals, we support lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom.
As conservatives, we support the family, small business and institutions that have stood the test of time.
And as patriots, we’re convinced that Australia is the best country in the world, and want to keep it that way, by building on our strengths.
The freedom party, the tradition party, but above all, the patriot party: that’s us.
The party that prefers getting things done, and letting facts speak for themselves, than bogging down in political theology.
But let’s be frank, for parties with a preference for freedom, and for smaller government, the pandemic was an especially dispiriting time, as governments around the world ditched their own pandemic plans, for the Wuhan plan of locking down and spending big.
Yet it would be a pretty tepid Liberal, who therefore concluded, that voters have lost their taste for freedom and self-reliance; rather than resolved to persuade the electorate that societal timidity, and greater government control, was a panic-driven aberration, rather than the new normal.
Likewise, it would be a pretty strange Liberal who accepted claims made in defiance of reality: that the world’s fairest societies are somehow inherently racist, or that gender is a social construct rather than a biological fact.
Our job is not to be a slightly less politically correct, slightly less fiscally irresponsible, and slightly less overbearing version of the Labor Party; it’s to be a clear alternative; and if that’s currently not popular, to strive to change minds and hearts.
Back in 2009, I was told that you could never win an argument on climate change – that the science was settled, that the young are convinced – but by turning it from a moral issue, to an economic one, we did.
I was told that you could never stop people – should never stop people – from coming to Australia for a better life, even if it was illegally by boat; it would even cause conflict with Indonesia.
Well, it didn’t. And we did.
No taxes are ever removed, it was said, but my government actually abolished two, the carbon tax and the mining tax.
The regulatory burden must always increase, it was said, but my government had a bonfire of red tape every six months.
Just as in an earlier time, we were told that becoming a republic was inevitable, until John Howard, and others, proved that it wasn’t.
What’s needed is faith in the things that last.
The values of Menzies’ “We Believe”, that started with “we believe in the Crown as the enduring embodiment of our national unity”.
And finished with “we believe that under the blessing of Divine Providence…there is no task that Australia cannot perform and no difficulty that she cannot overcome”.
A faith to inspire people, plus the courage to apply timeless values to today’s challenges.
Too much contemporary politics, is about striking a pose, rather than making a difference, and the disease of modern government is the surfeit of process over performance.
Too many ministers are run by their public servants, rather than the other way round.
That’s why modern government always seems to be getting heavier and flabbier, and more politically correct, regardless of who’s elected.
Because it’s becoming more an advice-ocracy than a democracy.
As a minister, I always made a point of starting every meeting with the public service, with a statement of my expectations, so that the unelected officials were running on the elected government’s agenda, not their own.
And because I was doing the job I was elected to do, I think the officials did theirs better too.
But that requires knowing what you think, and what you want, beyond just yesterday’s focus group, and tomorrow’s headlines, and beyond just staying in office.
That’s where our Party and our country owes a debt, largely unacknowledged, to John Hewson, my one-time boss, whose Fightback programme comprehensively considered what government was doing badly, and should do better; what government was doing, but shouldn’t do at all; and what government wasn’t doing, but should, from a liberal-conservative standpoint.
Hewson couldn’t match Keating as a political hunter killer, but he gave us a road map that sustained nearly 12 years of purposeful government.
My plan was for the tax and federation reform white papers to do something similar for the government elected in 2013.
And something like the Hewson project is needed, if the next Liberal government is to be better than the last.
I can’t think of anyone better placed for this, than Peter Dutton, a man of exemplary character, whose previous life in the police and in small business, plus his family, keeps him grounded.
With his attacks on the premature closing of coal-fired power stations, and his support for ending the ban on nuclear power, he’s got the basis for getting to net zero (if we must) while still keeping the lights on and heavy industry alive.
With his support for a bigger version of our super for homes policy, he’s giving young people more reason to hope for the future with a stake in our country.
And with his opposition to Labor’s constitutionally entrenched Voice – that will divide us by race; that will reinforce the separatism that’s at the heart of indigenous disadvantage; and that will make the processes of government even more gummed up, he’s upholding the fundamental Liberal principle that we should be one, equal people.
I can’t think of anything more illiberal than dividing our country on the basis of ancestry.
And I’m sure that any number of political insiders would have told Dutton that the Voice was on the right side of history, and that the opposition’s job was to make no enemies; but how could any Liberal say to any migrant that your constitutional worth depends on how long your ancestors have been here?
Or not hearken to Martin Luther King’s deathless plea that we be judged not by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character?
Good on you Peter for understanding that a real leader does what’s right, and thank you for passing this test with flying colours.
In some ways our party is at a low ebb right now, but it’s always darkest just before the dawn.
I say that from experience.
Let me take you back to December, 2009.
I had just become leader by one vote, the fourth leader of our party, in just two years.
We were battered and bruised, sure, but not broken.
We knew there would be an election, within the year, and that Kevin Rudd was riding high.
But I knew what we believed in, and what our people wanted to support: a party that was an alternative not an echo.
A few months later we had that election, against a new PM, and the result was a hung parliament, and the foundations of a landslide three years on.
“Hope, reward, and opportunity”, I said at the time.
And the greatest of these is hope.
Hope is what inspires ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
And that’s what I have for our country.
The sure hope, that if we work together as Liberals, our nation’s best years are always ahead of us.
Yes, I am the fourth Liberal to lead us into government, and I’m confident there’ll soon be a fifth.