Doltone House, Sydney
I hesitated a little, when Dan Tehan first suggested that there should be a dinner to mark the tenth anniversary, of the election of the Abbott government, mostly because it should have lasted longer and ended better.
Before deciding that it was only-too-right, to celebrate coming back to government in record time; and only-too-right to acknowledge all the good things that were done in just two years.
It would also be a chance, to recommit to the best ideals of our party, in the sure and certain faith, that if we all do our bit, the Dutton opposition can win its way back, even quicker than mine, and then govern just as well as John Howard.
We should never fail to be sustained, by our party’s abiding instincts and enduring values.
Menzies’ “We Believe” declaration, starting “we believe in the Crown”, and ending “we believe that under the blessing of Divine Providence…there is no task which Australia cannot perform, and no difficulty which she cannot overcome”.
John Howard’s assurance that our party is the custodian, in this country, of both the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke, and the liberal one of JS Mill.
And Peter Dutton’s common sense observation that our party did not need to be more progressive, or more conservative, just much more strongly Liberal.
Our party is the freedom party, the tradition party, and above all else, the patriot party, because we think this is the best country in the world and want to keep it that way.
We support greater freedom, lower taxes, smaller government; we support the family, small business, and institutions that have stood the test of time; and above all else we love our country and want to make it even better by building on our strengths.
And because we’re the only major party that’s not based on a section, on a region, on a singular idea, or on one dominant personality, we have the potential to reach out to every Australian, especially all those Australians who think that the best way to get a fair go, is to have a fair go yourself.
That’s why it’s our party, that’s presided over our country’s best times.
That’s why in those times when governments tell public servants that they can keep the same wage, but only work four days a week, mostly from home, like Dan Andrews in Victoria.
Or that they should aspire to be renters for life, without the essential stake in our society, that home ownership gives, like the Albanese government in Canberra.
Or that Catholic hospitals can arbitrarily be nationalised, hard drugs de-criminalised, and euthanasia for depressed teenagers legalised, like the Labor government in the ACT.
Or rampant youth gangs rule the streets, because weak judges prefer counselling to punishment, and politically correct police prefer kid-glove treatment to law and order, like the Labor government in Queensland.
Or when there’s a dystopian vision of boundless plains of solar panels, and endless forests of wind turbines, as our energy future.
That’s when our party is overdue for a great resurgence.
At a high level, politics involves something akin to an apostolic succession.
It was my great honour to walk behind John Howard, an fine mentor and the greatest living Liberal, whose one man Praetorian guard I was happy to be, throughout his prime ministership.
And now that time has healed, the continuities in our recent government, and the strengths of all its leaders, should be better appreciated.
When Scott Morrison, via the AUKUS agreement for nuclear submarines, ended decades of strategic caution, locked Britain into the security of our region, and persuaded the Americans to share with us their deepest defence secrets, that was an achievement for the ages.
And it was actually Malcolm Turnbull, who recognised early how China under the CCP was changing for the worse, and helped to pioneer a global strategic decoupling.
Nothing, though, has given me more faith in our party’s continuing ability to put the long-term national interest ahead of short term politics, than Peter Dutton’s decision to keep our constitution colour blind, made back in March, when support for this divisive Voice was still close to 60 per cent, and when there was no consensus on his own front bench.
Because he understood that making political distinctions based on ancestry, was wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.
The dramatic change since, shows that we can win arguments, if we’re prepared to have them. And that giving leadership is usually more important than just keeping everyone onside.
That’s really the theme of tonight: that there’s no such thing as an unwinnable election and there’s no such thing as an unelectable leader; and that what counts is to have a clear position plus a strong argument for it.
When I became leader by just one vote, it was supposed to spell trouble for our party, because I perversely failed to understand that climate change was the great challenge of our time; and because I inexplicably didn’t think that it was a “climate emergency” whenever there was a storm, a flood, a drought, or a fire.
Instead of agreeing with Kevin Rudd, I declared that an opposition’s job was not to make weak compromises with a bad government, but to be a clear alternative.
While the current government is every bit as climate obsessed as Rudd, the one thing it can’t do is introduce a carbon tax, because we won that argument.
And while the current government is every bit as bleeding heart, the one thing it can’t significantly change is the Abbott government’s border protection policy, because we stopped the flood of boats that Labor had started – and Australia remains the only country, anywhere, that has successfully ended illegal immigration by boat, a model for the world.
We didn’t rely on just words to win that argument; we proved it with results.
And in the process, helped to demonstrate Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, that the facts are conservative.
A knowledge of history, and a grasp of human nature, plus an appreciation of the still small voice of decency, striving to be heard in even the most degenerate heart, is the core of our conservative instinct.
To us, if the facts contradict a theory, change the theory, don’t try to deny the facts.
Always, ours is a genial eclectic faith as, fundamentally, conservatives are people who don’t automatically assume that they’re morally superior to their grandparents.
So tonight we give thanks for a great victory and for a good government.
We acknowledge that while much passes, much remains.
If Australia’s budget position remains better than most other countries, that’s largely thanks to Joe Hockey.
If you happened to notice the final building works of WestConnex, or have come down NorthConnex, or travelled the finally duplicated Pacific Highway, or are contemplating using the Western Sydney airport, that’s largely thanks to Warren Truss, a great coalition-ist, as part of the Abbott government’s enduring legacy.
As is the North-South expressway in Adelaide, much of the orbital expressway in Perth and the improvements to the Bruce Highway in Queensland.
Because there are few things that make people more confident in progress than new roads that devour distance.
And there’s nothing like succeeding once, to spur succeeding again, which is why Joe Hockey and I wanted school leavers to earn-or-learn, not go on the dole.
And we can’t have higher pay and higher productivity without the rule of law, which is why Eric Abetz strove indefatigably for a tough cop-on-the-beat in the construction industry.
And the country isn’t safe without investment in the armed forces, which is why Kevin Andrews and I boosted defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP.
And you can’t keep farming communities alive if you take away their water, to fill Lake Alexandrina, which is why Barnaby Joyce was such a good minister.
And there’s nothing like cleaning up polluted creeks and degraded bush, and removing noxious weeds and feral animals, to conserve the environment – no less than keeping atmospheric CO2 from growing from 400 to (say) 450 parts per million over the next few decades – that’s why we sent a Green Army into the field as landcare warriors.
I could go on, but that’s the hope, reward and opportunity that happens when government does well what only government can, while letting individuals and families get on with their lives, in the ways they think best.
I’m deeply honoured by tonight’s tribute, and will do my best to be worthy of it, but was the front man for a huge team.
There’s all the former colleagues who made the Abbott government worth celebrating.
There’s Brian Loughnane and Scott Mitchell, who led an always imperturbable and un-distractible campaign team.
There’s all my former staff, such as the truest-of-true believers Andrew Stone, and those whose subsequent success, such as Peta Credlin’s in the media, and Andrew Hirst’s in the party, and Matt Stafford’s in business, shows what a strong team it always was.
Of course, we’re all the volunteers in public life while our families are the conscripts.
A duty tonight is to pay tribute to mine: Mum, for having me; Margie for supporting me; my sisters – and Jane’s here tonight – for sticking up for me; and my daughters who are wonderfully well-adjusted successful women thanks to their mother.
Above all, thanks to you the rank and file members of the Liberal Party, whose patience we MPs often try but never exhaust, the party members who rightly demand the right to choose our parliamentary standard-bearers without factional manipulation, the long-suffering party members who are the unsung heroes of our democracy, because you do your best to keep grounded the people who form our governments.
Finally I should thank God, who has given us the heart and soul to want what’s best for our country, not just for ourselves personally, that blessed instinct to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Until Australia is again under new management and once more open for business.