Annual Bradfield Dinner
22 August 2023
It is wonderful to speak at the Bradfield Dinner.
It is an honour to be here to support my friend, Paul Fletcher.
Let me say few things about Paul Fletcher.
Often the done thing in politics is for a parliamentary colleague to come into an electorate and to overhype the local member.
It happens to me as it happens to Paul.
You’ve heard a version of the praise before – the local member has either got the eloquence of Lincoln, or the intellect of Socrates or the integrity of Mother Teresa.
Of course in Paul’s case it is all true.
But let me tell you about the Paul Fletcher I know.
Paul Fletcher is a dear friend of mine. I always refer to him as my big brother in politics. Not in a George Orwell 1984 sense – although as Minister for Communications he would once have had serious surveillance powers at his disposal.
But because he has been a great friend and has taken an interest in my career and its success.
Those who know Paul well know that he has a wonderful sense of humour. In the right setting he can be a raucously funny after dinner speaker and when the going gets tough, he is the first with a kind word.
Paul brings to politics a political toughness formed in his student days and a remarkable intellect.
He also brings a great gift of friendship to colleagues.
What is remarkable about our friendship was that I came second to him in the Bradfield pre-selection in 2009. The fact that competitiveness can give way to friendship says a great deal about him.
If you look at the original form of the word integrity, it comes from the Latin “integritas”. It means soundness, wholeness and completeness.
That’s the approach that Paul brings to politics.
You know when Paul was Minister for Communications, I’d regularly get grumpy at him.
I needed more money for mobile blackspots. I still do.
But Paul’s approach as a minister was always ordered and structured.
Paul adhered to the principles of sound policy.
Evidence based decision making.
Prioritising need. Making the best decisions rather than the easiest decisions.
It is this approach to policy development that saw Paul build on what I had taken to him in relation to blackspots. Paul developed the Peri-Urban Mobile Program which invests in mobile coverage and reception in the peri-urban fringes of Australia’s major cities. The program benefits dozens of outer metropolitan areas across Australia.
In modern politics, we say we want authenticity. Often, authenticity is the word eccentrics use to cover their foibles.
Paul’s authenticity is his seriousness.
As a public policy professional, and as someone who is a true servant of this country.
Now more than at any time in our history, we need serious people in public life.
You need the best minds to work through some of the taxing problems facing our country. Like how do we regulate AI to make our lives easier while dealing with the complex web of ethical concerns it raises, or how do we make the NDIS sustainable, not just for years but decades?
If you want the solutions to those type of issues, then you want Paul Fletcher at the cabinet table.
Paul is a great friend, and a tremendous mentor and I am proud to be here supporting him.
Friends, tonight I want to talk about our Party and its future.
The Party Menzies created 80 years ago has two wings – the parliamentary and organisational.
The Party draws its strength from the grassroots.
We are first and foremost a grassroots party and we must always be one.
Your participation is vital to ensuring that our party is representative of the broad group of Australians who vote for us.
We are an aspirational party. As the late Betty Davy – one of those people who built our party after the war, someone who was a part of this conference – used to remind me, we are the party for all Australians.
Unlike the other parties of government – Labor whose role is to represent the trade union movement or the National Party whose role is to represent rural and regional interests – we are not hidebound by representing only one section of society.
Our party is its strongest when the grassroots membership reflects the broad group of Australians who vote for us at elections.
And because of the breadth of our support base, we are for the advancement of every Australian.
We believe in advancement for wherever you are in life – whether it’s studying hard in school to get into the tertiary course you want or getting up at sunup and undertaking an apprenticeship.
Or saving your money and seeing the world and taking advantage of the limitless opportunities available to Australians.
Or starting a career or a business.
Saving for a deposit and buying your first place.
Raising a family.
Making friends, getting to know your neighbours, and being part of a community.
That’s what our party is about – helping Australians reach for their aspirations and giving them the tools to do so.
We all remember those great moments in life – turning the key in the ignition of your first car, hopping on a plane with just a backpack and a dream, buying your baby’s cot and painting the baby’s room, holding your child for the first time, and signing the contract for your first home.
For those things, we don’t need government to do something for us.
For those things we wanted to reach them ourselves.
That’s the hope of the vast middle of this country.
Reward, incentive, opportunity, effort, resulting in our aspirations being fulfilled.
In Opposition and in government, our mission as Liberals is to create the right conditions so that the vast middle of this country can thrive.
If that vast middle thrives then the economy thrives, the safety net is strengthened so that no one is deprived of opportunity, and our families and communities are stronger.
I want to speak tonight about some of the things we must do as a political organisation to reconnect with and reach that vast middle.
We are out of government in Canberra, and out of government in every mainland state and territory. I believe we are yet to seriously reflect on the demographic and electoral challenges before us.
As a political movement, we must.
Thirty years ago, an important book in the history of the Liberal Party was written called Menzies’ Child by Gerard Henderson.
Gerard was writing as the former chief-of-staff to John Howard and, with his wife Anne, founded the Sydney Institute which has added so much to the intellectual life of this city.
Menzies’ Child was published in 1994 after 11 years in Opposition and just prior to John Howard’s famous triple by-pass.
In terms of history, 1994 was the low point of our 13 years in Opposition. We had just lost the unlosable election under John Hewson. Paul Keating was in the ascendance.
Henderson’s prognosis for the party was dire.
Part of Henderson’s argument – proved by five successive election losses – was that the organisation was not fit for purpose.
That it needed to professionalise – with a greater focus on staffing, polling, choosing election winning candidates – and centralising campaigning. Gerard was right.
From that time, the party has gone through a generation of professionalisation.
Hundreds if not thousands of men and women have worked for us in a paid capacity.
Some of whom are members and many of whom are not.
Many are part of the celebrated history of our party’s great story – people like Brian Loughnane and Tony Nutt, and others work for us for a season.
The professional component of politics is vital and I am not going to pretend it isn’t – and the staff I have worked with are among the best people I know. I pay tribute to them.
Today I believe we have let the campaign professionalism of our party run down too much.
Again, after a long stretch in government from 1996 – with a short period in opposition between 2007 and 2013 – the professional side of our operations needs bolstering.
We can’t govern if we don’t win elections.
That means properly investing in professional campaign staff and giving them opportunities to work and observe campaigns in other countries, to test out new techniques here and to train other professional staff and volunteers.
There has to be a real career path for our professional campaign staff. Their place needs to be one of honour in the life of our party.
But tonight I want to focus on the other element of our organisational wing – our volunteers.
Our volunteers have lost their rightful place as the heartbeat of our party.
For decades our party membership has been shrinking.
Across the country at the last federal election and in the state election, we struggled to man our booths – even in some seats we held.
And in what we might call heartland seats – seats that have been traditional Liberal seats – we found ourselves at polling booths where non-Liberal workers were out in force in numbers two, three and four times ours.
We are losing the ground game.
We are failing to engage with the question “what does true political organising mean in this day and age?”
There is no point having the best polling or digital game if you can’t get people to work with you on booths. Or if you can’t turn out volunteers that reflect the community we seek to represent.
The Loughnane-Hume report identified three key areas where we as a party are failing and where our party is not representative enough.
That’s women, multicultural Australia, and young people.
Or let’s slice and dice that statement another way.
Women – 52 per cent of the Australian population.
Multicultural Australia – 27 per cent of the Australian population is born overseas.
And young people – 45 per cent aged under 35.
Now of course those percentages aren’t cumulative and they overlap – but they cover so much of the vast swathe of Australian life.
And Australia’s political parties are at their best when they represent the totality of Australian life.
We saw on the weekend what happens when they are not.
When the vast middle is not represented and the major political debates are dominated by the fringes.
The Labor Party at its National Conference was fighting a battle against its own version of a Jeremy Corbyn faction. The Prime Minister was so bereft of numbers that his government horse-traded away support for a trusted ally in Israel to protect the AUKUS alliance. A disgraceful situation. The most shameful action in Australia’s foreign policy in modern times.
And on the other side of the political spectrum. There was a conference in Sydney claiming to represent conservatives which included speakers who said things like “if you want a voice, learn English,” and a comedian who, in his acknowledgment of country, paid tribute to “violent black men and rent seekers past, present and emerging”. That was passing for humour.
Our future is not in American glitz, and red Trumpian hats, or a political diet of anger. It isn’t.
Our future, just like our past, is found in the decency, the effort and hard work of the cities, suburbs and towns of this country.
It is found in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.
In public schools, Catholic and independent ones too.
In the RFS and Lions as well as the Mum’s groups and Men’s Sheds.
And in our sporting traditions – that transcend our differences and add so much to our communities.
It is found in serving the decent aspirations of Australians and not the media generated culture wars.
It is found in the breadth of our national life and not in the political culture of dividing it.
Stan Grant touched on what is happening in our political culture when he spoke about why he walked away from the program Q&A. He said:
“You go on Q&A and the first thing you do is you introduce a panel that have been more often than not been picked because they have conflict, rather than seeking to find connection. Then you say ‘go on social media’, basically form your lynch mob, hit the person you hate and pile on…”
He went on to say “I can’t do that anymore…I think we are failing you and must find a better way of doing it”.
And the TV ratings reflect it too.
Not the Fringes
The fringes are loud and noisy and it’s not where our are political future is.
But in a membership structure that is corroding and shrinking, the fringes take on a bigger voice – as Labor has found with its far left.
As a party, we need to seriously engage with rebuilding our party’s branches because we need to embody and reflect the vast middle of this country.
Reflecting on similar occurrences in the US and the UK, one author wrote about the major political parties:
“Have their memberships become so narrow that they no longer truly understand what the public wants and believes in? Even more to the point, have they become so obsessed with internal issues and lost sight of their fundamental mission, which is to effectively reflect the views of the community, and not just narrow sections of it?”
The author who posed those questions is John Howard. He makes the observation in A Sense of Balance that voters are growing “weary with the internal preoccupations of major political parties and the lack of clearly communicated convictions”.
As a party, we need to seriously engage with rebuilding our party’s branches because we need them to embody and reflect the vast middle of this country.
It was the late Sir John Carrick who said to me that the quality of our parliaments, our government and the institutions that they are responsible for – from the Reserve Bank to the High Court to the Australians Defence Force – rests on the quality of our Party membership. Because it is from our party membership that our parliament is sourced
Now the political professionals would say, “don’t talk about this, every day we are talking about this and not talking about Labor is a day we aren’t winning”.
I understand that argument, but everyday we don’t engage in addressing the structural corrosion of our party’s organisational strength is a day less that we can prepare ourselves for victory.
Making our party more accessible to and representative of women, multicultural groups and young people is about being more representative of the aspirations of the vast middle.
Our pathway back to government is only through and with the vast middle.
To get that group to join our party requires us to change.
The first change is to make community organising central to our activities.
And community organising means working on building coalitions in our electorates.
In Berowra, I am currently organising the local YES campaign. We already have several hundred volunteers – many are women, young people, professional people and people from multicultural backgrounds.
Many have signed up at church information nights, in home gatherings, at railway stations and meetings I have spoken at. A number are the result of locals emailing me and wanting to get involved.
They are people from across the political spectrum and people of no politics at all.
We’ve gathered other groups too.
Local Iranians who believe in freedom and democracy and the rights of women and minorities in their homeland.
Indians who are deeply and proudly Australian and who want to share their community with our country.
And there are issues big and small where we work across the community.
Saving the 149 year-old Post Office at Brooklyn.
Upgrading New Line Road and ensuring the Minns Government keeps the State Government commitment to upgrading the road.
Resisting Labor Minister Rose Jackson’s plans to approve thousands more apartments in Beecroft and Cheltenham. Areas that have already experienced a massive infux of development.
We argue on issues not because it appeals to only our base – but because we believe in our community.
Many who get involved will be Liberals and I hope that some will join the party, get involved and contribute.
Continual community organising will see our party’s reach expand.
It will also reconnect us with what Menzies called ‘civic mindedness’.
I believe voters expect in their parliamentarians a hierarchy of priorities and loyalties.
It starts with conscience, the defining essence of who we are and what our purpose is; then it broadens to our values and beliefs, which is the ‘why we are in public life’, and then it broadens further to our communities which is the ‘who we are representing, who we care for and who we fight for’.
Only when we have met these obligations can we focus on the party structures that we are part of.
I believe one of the lessons of the last election is that in too many communities voters believed that our first loyalties were to party, rather than conscience, values, and our communities.
As you can appreciate, I have been deeply reflecting on those issues over the past 12 months.
My Liberalism is not proved by genuflecting to the demands of the radical fringes to adhere to what they think liberalism is.
No, my liberalism is the result of my conscience, my values and the desire to serve.
As a party, we also need serious cultural change.
We need a bigger space for debate, for listening and persuasion. We need a bigger space for difference and respect for it.
Menzies once called our party a “community of thought” and it must be that again – a party that is a community, as well as a place to engage.
The scourge of factionalism has done great damage to that.
Over the past seven years, I have worked hard in Berowra to overcome that scourge.
And we have.
I am proud that my conference has produced two of the newest recruits in our state and federal parliaments – and they come from the different traditions in our party.
I am referring to Susan Carter in the NSW Upper House and Maria Kovacic in the Senate – who come from different philosophical traditions but who have worked closely together in the Party in Berowra.
On the weekend, I was endorsed as the Liberal Candidate for Berowra.
Only one member of my FEC voted against my endorsement.
What’s remarkable is that, by my estimate, probably more than half my conference is voting No at the referendum.
Some of my branch members are organising the Berowra booths for the No case. And while we are on opposite sides of this debate, I celebrate their civic mindedness.
You see, we can create places in our parties and communities, where we can disagree but not damage the bonds between us.
Indeed, the challenge of modern politics is to create more spaces where we can listen, debate and persuade, because that is the type of politics that Australians are aching for.
Like Gerard Henderson’s assessment 30 years ago, I believe that our values are the surest anchor. They are the foundation of good policy and good decision making.
The values of freedom and conscience, individual dignity, faith, service and responsibility, combined with a deep love of country.
These are the values that have guided me – and I know they guide you as well.
If we hold to them, they will guide our party back to government.
Anthony Albanese demonstrated at Labor’s national conference his guiding light is power.
His vision is power. Power refined by horse-trading and deals and spoils to be divided.
His vision is not Australia and its security, not community and the people in them, and not jobs and prospering households.
It’s power – with loyalty to his party’s vested interests: unions, big super funds, big class action lawyers and factional allies.
And we’ve seen that movie before – when you are guided by power and not values, eventually it hollows our and collapses on itself.
That’s why we as a party must be grounded in the principles of community, freedom of the individual, conscience and service.
And to be people of conviction, even when it is unpopular.
In Berowra, even when we occasionally disagree, we stay connected and we listen to each other. That’s our strength – and we need to invest in that type of political culture.
And when you have that culture, more Australians from every type of background will join our party – because they can be seen, heard, supported and accepted. Just like the vast middle of this country do every day.
We must actively build our party, person by person, through a deeper community and personal engagement.
And I know you are doing this here in Bradfield in many ways and especially with the Politics and Eggs breakfast outreach events that we pioneered in Berowra.
But alongside this community work must be the development and prosecution of a strong national economic plan.
Peter Dutton, Sussan Ley, Angus Taylor and Michaelia Cash and Jane Hume are laying the foundation for that plan.
I believe we are at an important juncture in our history.
Australians expect from us nothing less than a serious economic plan.
I’m not talking about what we have seen across politics in recent times.
I’m not talking about small measures that only alleviate the symptoms of inflation, productivity and wage stagnation, but serious policies that deal with the causes.
That is what we have to deliver – and I’m confident we will – because in Peter Dutton we have one of the most serious politicians in a generation.
No Liberal opposition leader in history is better prepared for the prime ministership than Peter Dutton.
A senior minister for almost a decade – managing our borders, our security and our defence. He is the minister who delivered AUKUS.
And we are witnessing his seriousness by engaging in issues such as nuclear power and energy.
Albanese is failing
Australians are hurting and they know Anthony Albanese is failing.
He knows that the number one issue, number two issue, and number three issue in Australia is the economy.
Economy. Economy. Economy.
These are the most serious economic times.
The most serious since the 1990s.
The financial vice is tightening.
Australians are being squeezed.
Chemists have told me discretionary sales have died up.
Butchers have told me about customers asking for cheaper cuts of meat.
The local dry cleaner has told me that he is taking a day job away from the dry cleaner – and at night he dry cleans using off-peak energy.
Working day and night – taking second and third jobs – is a hard way to live.
Eleven interest rate increases since the election are strangling our community.
Despite a promise to reduce power bills by $275 a year, power prices are surging.
Inflation is high, rents and mortgage payments are going through the roof, and school fees and grocery bills are increasing whilst wages aren’t moving.
And the Budget, which committed an extra $130 billion in extra spending, is proof Labor doesn’t have a plan.
My inbox is telling me that Australians know Labor has no plan.
Rosina, an aged pensioner from Westleigh wrote to me.
She has watched her pennies – and reduced her power usage by 11 per cent over this time last year.
Despite this, her energy bill for the quarter has gone from $532 to $681.
It’s a 28% increase in costs despite using less electricity. Despite an 11 per cent decrease in usage.
But now she faces a 28% increase in costs despite using less electricity.
“I first read my most recent bill on my phone, but I was so shocked at the number that I had to read it again on the computer to make sure I wasn’t reading it incorrectly. I couldn’t believe I was being charged that much.”
And Robert, a 74 year-old self funded retiree, wrote to me saying
“I am a recovering cancer patient. Electricity is not a luxury, but an essential. But we are not eligible for any Federal or State hand-outs, so this increase hits us hard.”
And rents are on the rise.
One family in Galston told me they had to move because they couldn’t afford the rent for their previous house, and the cost of the move meant they had no money left for food.
And then there is the family with eight children, whose Mum has been diagnosed with cancer and Dad is working 3 jobs to try and make ends meet.
My community is not Wentworth or Kooyong. But if things are like this in Berowra, then we know it is much worse elsewhere.
Our work over the next twelve months is to develop a serious economic plan for Australia.
We must deal with the causes of our economic malaise.
And the only way we can do so is with an economic plan that reigns in inflation, brings government spending back under control, encourages workplace productivity, and keeps investing in skills and productivity-enhancing infrastructure.
Australians will vote for change, if they truly believe, unlike the last election, that we have an economic plan for the future.
No matter if I am on the backbench or the frontbench, I am going to work night and day for Peter Dutton and for change.
I’m going to work to grow our party and to make it better.
Australia needs a serious government that is focused of fixing the causes of our economic decline.
And a serious government that understands these are the most serious times in the world since the Cold War.
Serious countries don’t sell out their Allies as part of back room political deals.
Only a Liberal Government has the plan and experience for the economy, for our security and for Australia’s future.
And Paul and I will be working hard for the election of the next Liberal Government each and every day.