Let me begin by acknowledging the debt of gratitude I owe to so many others, a debt that I am determined to repay through and by dedicated service in this parliament, a treasured—even sacred—privilege in trust and one which is much sought but seldom given.
In this my first speech, I hope to do two things: firstly, a measure of justice—however inadequate—to the many factors which have contributed to my presence in this parliament; secondly, articulate the strong and I suspect not unique burden of responsibility I feel to complete all of my duties to this House and to the nation it represents. Australia and her people deserve nothing less.
For much of the last three years I have campaigned full-time for the honour of representing the people of Northern Tasmania. Being elected as the member for Bass and serving the interests of my community, of my country, is the greatest honour of my life. I thank the former member, Geoff Lyons, for his contribution to Northern Tasmania but, above all, I thank the people of Bass for the trust they have vested in me. I will work diligently to repay that trust and to serve their interests with the same distinction shown by Kevin Newman and Warwick Smith, who were collectively elected nine times as members for Bass. I acknowledge, also, the longest serving of my predecessors, Lance Barnard.
Like most Australians, there are a small number of life-changing events that have nudged my life’s journey on its unique arc—a trajectory, I admit, which has not always been elegant or graceful but one which has been consistently interesting and rich, in the best sense of that word.
One such event was my parents’ decision to migrate to Australia in early 1965 from a village in the former Yugoslavia. I honour my birthplace and the decisions my parents took to seek a better life. Like most migrant families, we had highs and lows, but it is undeniable that everything I have achieved since arriving in Australia results from citizenship of this great country.
Our early years in Australia were spent in Melbourne, before we moved to the outback opal-mining town of Andamooka and then, in 1973, to Adelaide, where my mother raised three boys on her own. We received help to overcome the inevitable challenges. A Housing Trust home was allocated to us and, when our mother became ill, we received great care from the St Joseph’s Home for Boys—something I will never forget. I thank the Catholic Church for its support at that time—compassion not always or fully acknowledged today.
Those years in the northern suburbs of Adelaide instilled valuable lessons in life and a sense of belonging. They reinforced the value of reward for effort, the importance of community, and the close correlation between effort and ambition.
The Australian Regular Army, which I joined as a 17-year-old private soldier, was a second great shaping influence in my life. A 31-year career followed with opportunities to lead the world’s best soldiers in peace and war. My military career encompassed many postings around Australia, and the privilege of living and working in places like Israel, Syria, Southern Lebanon, the Philippines, the United States, Afghanistan and Iraq.
I consider myself fortunate to have served our country on operations—fortunate because of the quality of the Australian service men and women that stood beside me. If I can bring to the deliberations of this House just a little of the quality, character and commitment that they showed, I will be well pleased. I take this opportunity to acknowledge all who have served our country in uniform. To those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, to Sergeant Andrew Russell and several others, I will never forget you or your service.
I stand in the shadow of other senior military officers elected to this parliament, notable Australians like a distinguished former member for Warringah, Sir Granville Ryrie, Sir Neville Howse VC, Kevin Newman, and the late David Thomson MC—the last two of whom, like me, were products of the Royal Australian Infantry. I add my own tribute to the words of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and others yesterday in support of David Thomson—a life very well lived.
I acknowledge my battalions—the 1st and 3rd battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment, where I served as both an infantry soldier and an officer. The motto of the Royal Australian Regiment, ‘Duty First’, retains, I think, an enduring relevance in my new role.
During over 20 postings in Australia and overseas our family has forged many friendships. I acknowledge them all and mention a few: Leigh and Liz Shepherd, Mick and Gina Callan, and Paul and Terri Landford—lifelong and loved friends—and Jim Connolly, Gary Bornholt, Mick Humphreys, Jock Campbell, Angus Campbell and Gary Hogan, from my time at Kapyong Barracks.
In more recent years, I served under Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie during Australia’s first deployment to Afghanistan in 2001 and, later, when he was Chief of Army and Vice Chief of the Defence Force. Ken is an inspirational leader and I am grateful to have experienced his wisdom and professional example. I acknowledge also and thank General Peter Cosgrove, and British generals Jonathon Riley and Sir Jim Dutton of the Royal Marines, for the opportunities they gave me in southern Iraq.
For most of his time as Chief of the Defence Force I worked for Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston Prior to that I worked with the current CDF, General David Hurley. Both are outstanding leaders who afforded me opportunities to participate in events that have truly shaped our military history. On the civilian side of Defence, I have worked with gifted public servants like Peter Jennings and Nick Warner, who exemplify the gold standard of professional public service.
Amongst the defence ministers I have worked with, I acknowledge particularly Dr Brendan Nelson—his mastery of his brief and his close personal commitment to the force protection needs of our troops. I acknowledge also the professionalism of Senator John Faulkner and his office.
I am proud to have served with all of these exceptional leaders.
In its own quiet but rigorously demanding way, the Army, and defence, were very good to, and for, me. In my youth—as with so many others—the Army gave me order, discipline and structure, and, later still, education, training, and, perhaps most importantly, continuous purposeful endeavour and responsibility Becoming responsible for 30 people at the age of 20 certainly has a way of recasting your priorities in life. These things sustained me and I grew professionally and personally as a result. In an age of increasing and empty celebrity, I am grateful for the substance and foundations given me by defence as a truly national and eminent institution.
But I have left the greatest influence to last. Marrying Christine almost 28 years ago is a standout. Together we have raised a family and shared remarkable times around Australia and the world. More often than not, it was Christine who was primary carer of our children, while working shifts as a nurse. She has tolerated the short-notice moves and unaccompanied postings with all the grit and grace one would expect of a Launceston girl
We are very proud of our best ever joint project—our three children. We are thankful for their enrichment of our lives. Our elder daughter, Lieutenant Julia Nikolic, will soon complete her second tour of Afghanistan. Our younger daughter, Dr Amanda Nikolic, is about to complete her internship. And our youngest, Matthew, continues with work and study. And, just as Christine compelled me by quiet example to so often step up to the plate in life, so Matthew’s sisters are inspiring both him and me with their youthful application and success. In so doing, they embody both merit and young womanhood in action—and more power to them! I acknowledge also my mother, Jelica; Sam; my mother-in-law, Margaret; and my father-in-law, the late Peter Symons, who made a wonderful contribution to northern Tasmania. Symons Court in Launceston is named after him, and I aspire to his remarkable generosity of spirit
Finally, before I move on to other matters, it is never lost on me that my family exemplifies what some have called the Australian compact—the provision of opportunity matched by the requirement for individuals to seize that opportunity with equivalent focus, drive and effort. Like everything in life, the Australian compact is imperfect, but few countries can genuinely boast of anything like it to the same degree as Australia can.
I know, too, that others in this House, and indeed the country, have similar stories to my own—different perhaps in the detail but united nevertheless by the consistent and interwoven threads of opportunity seized, personal ambition and sheer hard work. In short, I have seen enough of the world under all conditions to appreciate that this is a country like no other.
The electorate I am honoured to represent is a diverse and beautiful part of Australia. From the Cataract Gorge in Launceston, winding along the Tamar River to George Town and Low Head, there is much to admire and protect, as there is in the coastal areas to Bridport, the rich chocolate soils and pasture country of the north-east and the scenic beauty of the Furneaux Group of islands.
The people of Bass are rich in character and aspiration. They rely on the institutions comprising our parliamentary democracy to fulfil those aspirations. As Her Excellency the Governor-General pointed out yesterday, the election on 7 September reminds us all of how proud we should be of our democratic institutions. It was a peaceful, tolerant, and open election—a valuable dividend from successive generations who have maintained a patient, purposeful and evolutionary approach to strengthening our democracy. Those of us who have witnessed firsthand the alternatives around the world are reminded that we must cherish what we have and what we sometimes, regrettably, take for granted. Modern, functioning democracy is and will remain, in equal parts, rare, precious and fragile. Widespread, active and moderate participation in it is probably its best safeguard.
I am proud to be a member of a party that puts the needs of its people first and that is committed to creating the conditions where our people’s dreams can flourish in response to their own effort and commitment, a party focussed on encouraging the initiative of our citizens, not on centralising responsibility in this parliament. To paraphrase Her Excellency’s remarks yesterday, we are not about bigger government but stronger people.
Earlier I referred to some shaping experiences that underpin my values and beliefs. These can be distilled to three key priorities. The first is nurturing a stronger sense of community and citizenship. Second is minimising government intervention and impact on the rights and responsibilities of the individual. Third is enabling and empowering individual aspiration and reward for effort so as to encourage and foster wider investment and entrepreneurship. Together and individually these things are mutually supporting and deserve this parliament’s support.
My early priorities in Bass are simply to deliver that which we promised during the election: a significant federal boost to support a healthier Tamar River; transforming Launceston’s North Bank; new mountain bike trails in the north-east; the refurbishment of Invermay Park, where Ricky Ponting first showed his talents; addressing a major traffic and safety hot spot on Westbury Road; and building Northern Tasmania’s most significant stormwater harvesting scheme at George Town. In the recent election, Bass swung by almost 11 per cent, signalling a strong desire for change. My community wants me, as their voice in Canberra, and those of us on this side of the House, to focus on real and practical action to overcome the many problems confronting our state This is unsurprising given Tasmania’s performance against a range of national benchmarks. Our jobless rate of above eight per cent is shameful and is up almost 43 per cent on the decade average. Our employment participation rate is too low and the youth unemployment rate disturbingly high. We are sick of hearing the words ‘slow lane’ associated with Tasmania. As one of three new Tasmanian representatives in this House, as one of the three amigos along with the members for Braddon and Lyons, we are committed to redressing the parlous decline in Tasmania’s fortunes. The top three priorities in our home state, now and for the foreseeable future, will be jobs, jobs and jobs.
I thank the Prime Minister for his personal commitment to a brighter future for Tasmania, for his frequent visits to our state and for his personal encouragement of me. I was very pleased that yesterday Her Excellency highlighted the new government’s economic growth plan for Tasmania. The plan, announced by the Prime Minister on 15 August, will address critical deficiencies, enabling us to reset our economic course to a brighter future that includes reinvigorating valuable industries like forestry and mining, optimising the benefits of new irrigation projects, exploring the exciting possibilities to develop the DSTO facility at Scottsdale, better utilising the training potential of the Australian Maritime College, encouraging more Tasmanians into work not welfare, transforming our educational approach in Tasmania into better tertiary and vocational pathways that accentuate quality over quantity, and ensuring that those who want to invest in Tasmania can do so without myriad unnecessary obstacles.
Delivering on these initiatives and our national priorities requires commitment and persistence. We see in Prime Minister Tony Abbott and in this government the character and commitment to do what we said. I know Australians will welcome that. They will welcome the coalition’s reduction of debt and a live-within-our-means philosophy. As Her Excellency said yesterday, every dollar the government spends is a dollar made by someone else. It is important that all of us remember that
Australians will also welcome the scrapping of unnecessary taxes and red tape, the establishment of enduring disincentives for the people-smuggling trade and the promotion of greater productivity and a cooperative workplace culture of partnership and continuous improvement. They will most certainly welcome constructive and civil engagement in this parliament focussed on solving problems beyond this chamber. If there is one thing that the 43rd parliament sharply illustrated, and the last four years in my home state have regrettably shown, it is that government in Australia is always best served when the established mainstream political parties are strong—both the Liberal-National coalition and the Labor Party. This sets the foundation for a robust contest of ideas on the matters most relevant to our people. This strength is also more likely to generate valid alternative policy positions and such strength may also negate the damaging pitfalls of minority party, single-focus politics, of which the Australian people are understandably weary. In addition to my primary responsibility to the people of Bass, I want to help develop good policies in the areas of international relations and defence. I will actively promote the need to reinvigorate a sense of citizenship in our country to ensure that we more fully acknowledge the responsibilities that derive from the proud claim ‘I am an Australian.’
I thank the hundreds of friends and campaign workers who have tirelessly supported my election. I cannot mention them all, but I acknowledge particularly John Oldenhoff, Linda Madill, Lynn Presnell, Richard Trethewie, Kristen Finnigan, Anita Devlin, Peter Collenette, Leanne Holland, Tim Robertson and Dorothy Dehais. More recently, I am grateful for the efforts of Wendy Summers and Don Morris and my new office staff for so quickly establishing our presence in Launceston.
I thank former Prime Minister John Howard for his thoughtful advice in recent years, and acknowledge the many colleagues in this House who have supported me. In addition to the Prime Minister, I particularly recognise the members for Flinders, Sturt, Paterson and Wentworth. I acknowledge also the support of our hardworking Tasmanian Senate team, particularly Senator Eric Abetz and my Launceston based colleague Senator Stephen Parry.
I thank the state Liberal team led by Will Hodgman; Peter Gutwein, for his contribution; and especially Michael Ferguson, a former federal member for Bass. I thank Wendy Summers again for her tireless work as my campaign director; and the Tasmanian division of the Liberal Party, ably led by Sam McQuestin.
Madam Speaker, I conclude by again thanking the people of Bass for the trust they have placed in me and I recommit myself to working hard every single day in support of their interests and aspirations.
• Jack, in Comments: Strange too that for 31 years Andrew would have been immersed in the ‘us and them’ concept of the military v civilian dichotomy. Stranger that such a person now believes to be well suited to represent civilians. So does the military make great people? People like Monash (engineer) had much larger careers outside the military than within it. Weary Dunlop was a surgeon caught up in war. Gough Whitlam was a war fighter pilot, but a great lawyer for a far longer time. The list goes on and on with a similar theme. The military did not make or define such great people or their values. As far as I know, neither did most push their military service as something that defined their lives for the better. Fortunately, their ideas of justice, community service and tolerance were informed by much larger perspectives. War was not a happy perspective either. I wish Andrew well, but I hope he can look forward and transcend some of his baggage. Welcome to civilian life Andrew.
• jimmy two toes, in Comments: While I don;t agree with Nikolic’s politics, his life has been all about work and service. He is a success story of our multicultural land. To find fault with a person who has migrated here, worked to raise themself from poverty to success, brought up a family (including a daughter who is now a doctor), served the country in the armed forces, and is a now a grateful politician - to criticise that progression is a sad reflection on themself. I wonder if some of the critics here have contributed even a tenth so much to the community in terms of service, taxes, responsibility and personal risk?