Mr LEESER (Berowra) (18:03): As a child, the sound of my mother’s footsteps coming towards my bedroom to wake me in the morning was a reassuring feature of daily life. Inevitably I was awake before she made the door but the rhythm, the sound and the intensity of her walk were unmistakable. Each morning the moment would arrive when she would fling the door open with that effervescent greeting, ‘Time to rise and shine’.
Twenty years ago this month, my mother approached my room to wake me but it was with a very different sound, pace and tempo. Seared on my mind from that night was the speed of her approach and her scream as she flung open the door of my bedroom, sobbing, ‘Dad’s gone; Dad’s gone.’
I got up from my bed to comfort my mum, trying to calm her. I went down the hall to my father’s office, where he worked late into the night for his clients. There I found his pyjamas in a pile and on the glass-topped table in the hall was a note, like so many of the notes from my father, written in red pen on the back of a used envelope. It said simply: ‘I am sorry Sylvia. I just can’t cope, love, John.’ I felt a great emptiness ripping at my stomach. I went to the garage and saw the car was missing. We called the police and later they came round to tell us they had found my father’s body at the bottom of The Gap at Watsons Bay.
There is a point in life when you are supposed to become a man. As I stood on the veranda and watched the sun come up that morning, I knew my day had come. My father loved music. He played 2CH on the radio from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed. Easy listening music was the soundtrack of my childhood, but the day he died the music died with him, and it was years before I could listen to his music again without tearing up.
Over the past 20 years, I have gone back over the week leading up to my father’s death too many times, and I keep thinking back to the signs he was giving us. Although we had always been a family that hugged each other, my father had started giving us all these very long hugs. My father prided himself on being a great car parker, and yet the week before he died he did not seem to care how he parked. In hindsight, it was clear that something had changed. I knew it, but I did not say anything. You ask yourself: ‘What could I have done? What should I have said? Could I have reached out in a way that I did not? Could I have said, as we say now, “Are you OK?”‘
I reflect on my own conduct the night before my father died, when he asked if I could help him polish his shoes before he left for a dinner at my brother’s school. I remember as a self-absorbed 20-year old the petulance and rudeness with which I waived away the opportunity to help my father, a man who so often helped me, and there is not a day that I do not regret it. Suicide, they used to say, is a victimless crime, but they never count the loved ones left behind.
In the past 20 years we have changed our approach to suicide, depression and mental health. And, while there has rightly been a focus on the mental health of adolescents and young people, we must remember people suffering at other stages in their lives are equally important. And, sadly, the number of older people taking their own lives is increasing. My own father was 55.
In these past 20 years, we have spent millions on mental health and suicide prevention. Every government has tried but, despite all the good will, it is a fight we are losing. In my own electorate we have had more than 100 people take their own lives in the last eight years. Across Australia eight people die by suicide every day. All this shows that government money alone will not solve this epidemic. Treating depression as a medical issue is not working. Rather, we need to rebuild caring communities where people know and notice the signs and acknowledge the people around them; where we ask, ‘Are you okay?’ or, more directly and importantly, ‘Are you contemplating suicide?’ And we need to create the conditions where those who are thinking about suicide feel comfortable enough to ask for help.
Through my work in this place, I want to help empower Australians to build a greater sense of community. I have seen active engagement in community combat loneliness and enable people to see a world outside themselves. In a society where people are more pressured and more isolated than ever before, active engagement in community fosters civility, courtesy and understanding—virtues that are all too often undervalued and supplanted by anger. There is a role for government in supporting organisations and individuals that reach out to the socially isolated in our community, even in the face of continued rejection. And there is a role for government in fostering innovative solutions that address suicide prevention. I hope that those innovative solutions will enable communities to learn from what has worked and connect other efforts across our country. I want to acknowledge the Prime Minister’s personal interest in suicide prevention and the leadership he and the Minister for Health and Aged Care took in devising the National Suicide Prevention Strategy. As a member of this House I want to do what I can to pierce the loneliness, the desperation and the blackness that people who suffer depression feel. During my time here I will always be an advocate for better mental health policy.
When I think of my father, though, mostly I think not of the way he died but, rather, of the way he lived. My father, John, was an only child. His father was a pharmacist. His mother and her family escaped Nazi Germany in 1936 for the freedom and sanctuary of Australia. My father was an accountant. He had his own practice at Parramatta. As I child I would go with him to the office or visit clients in their homes, businesses and factories. He knew their lives, their families and their ups and downs: when they succeeded and when they struggled, when they were failing and when they were flourishing. He was a friend they saw once a year to help them comply with the law and get their affairs in order. But even more than that he was an adviser on how they could get on with and grow their businesses. To the extent that I become an effective member for Berowra, it will be because of Dad’s example of professionalism, trust and care in working for his clients and the personal touch they loved him for.
Dad was a man much involved in his community. He sat on the board of our local synagogue. He sat on a theatre board. He was involved in the school my brother and I attended. Dad was hardworking and diligent and prided himself on doing things properly and by the book. He was quiet, unassuming, patient and slow to anger. He had a husky voice that made him sound like Louis Armstrong. He and my mother, Sylvia, gave me three great gifts: my life, my faith and my education.
My father instilled in my brother Lindsay and me an important set of values: courtesy, civility and fair dealing with everyone with whom he interacted; the need to give back to the community and get involved; and a deep sense of faith and love of the joys of Judaism. He gave us a strong sense, shared by all Jews, that our story is part of a much larger story; that we should be, in Jonathan Sacks’ words, ‘true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith’. While I do not always live up to my father’s ideals, his are the fundamental values which have shaped my life. There is a Jewish idea that one should bring joy, or ‘naches’, to one’s parents. I hope that my election to this place would have brought him as much naches as it has brought my mother and the rest of my family.
It is to my mother, Sylvia, that I owe the greatest thanks for being here today. Her courage and her unconditional love for my brother and me has sustained our family through celebrations and sorrows. With her unshakable belief that anything was possible for her boys, she created a home filled with love, stability and opportunity. Nothing has ever been too much for her. But of all her gifts to us, the enthusiasm for active citizenship, the patriotism she instilled in my brother and me and the fact that, hopefully, we are happy, well-rounded and grateful Australians, is her greatest contribution.
My mother, Sylvia, is a fifth-generation Australian. Her grandfather was a Gallipoli Anzac and rode in the charge of the light horse at Be’er Sheva. Her mother, Barbara, who passed away last week aged 95, served as a nurse in the Australian Army during the Second World War. Mum’s father, Sam, served in the ill-fated 8th Division. He was taken prisoner in Changi and survived the horrors of the Burma Railway. The war left my grandfather with a stammer and a steely determination. What kept him alive in those dark days was a dream to come home and start his own hardware business, which he did after the war, employing many of his fellow former POWs. The prosperity that my grandfather created was due to his hard work and ingenuity in predicting the need for building supplies to meet a postwar building boom.
My mother’s Anglo-Jewry gave her a particular take on being an Australian. Fiercely patriotic about Australia and loyal to the Crown, she realised the historical peculiarity to be both Jewish and free, and that had such an impact on me. As I grew up towards the end of the Cold War, with its threat to freedom everywhere, my mother would constantly remind us of the responsibility that comes with the freedom we enjoy in Australia—to be thankful for it and to preserve it whenever it is threatened—because, as she would teach me, most people in most places at most times are not free.
When I was a child my mother read to me about Australia’s history and explained how our own family’s story fitted into the broader Australian story—a story of explorers, soldiers, farmers, shopkeepers and professionals, people willing to chance their arm, who carved out a country in this physically isolated but socially tolerant land. My own contribution to this story will be influenced by the combination of my father’s quiet virtues and my mother’s perhaps slightly less quiet, but always deeply patriotic, civic virtues.
It was that instilled sense of history and an early interest in politics that prompted me to want to serve in this place. And so around the time of my 10th birthday I asked my parents not for a BMX bike or a cricket bat but for a copy of the Australian Constitution. I think the Latin term for such behaviour is ‘nerdus maximus’.
Our Constitution is unique and worthy of celebration. It belongs to everyone. It was written and debated all over the country, led by that great generation of liberal and conservative barrister-parliamentarians. Americans and Canadians wrote their constitutions in secret. Modern constitutions tend to be written by legal academics. But the Australian Constitution was written in Australia, by Australians, for Australian conditions: from the School of Arts at Tenterfield to the courthouse at Corowa; from the drawing rooms of Adelaide to the libraries of Hobart; in parliamentary chambers in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; and, of special significance for me, on the Hawkesbury River, in the Berowra electorate, on a paddle-steamer called the Lucinda,where our first Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, and our first Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Griffith, drafted the judicial power of the Commonwealth.
The Australian Constitution has provided the basis for stable government and economic prosperity for over a century. At a time when constitutional structures and political systems around the world are breaking down, Australia’s constitutional achievement should be a source of enormous pride. Our Constitution establishes our unique Australian democracy. The Constitution matters as much for what it does not say as for what it does. Our Constitution contains no symbolic language and no bill of rights. Its sparse legal language is its strength. It has meant that only the most creative judges have been able to invent implied rights to frustrate the democratic will.
The Constitution has figured prominently in my career and contributions to the public debate. As the youngest elected delegate at the 1998 Constitutional Convention, I remain a committed constitutional monarchist, like my friend and former employer, the member for Warringah. I see it as the best system of government of all the available alternatives.
In 2009, I worked with a broad cross-section of Australians to ensure the defeat of an Australian bill of rights because I believe in the capacity of the political process to solve problems, and I am against an American-style judiciary which makes political, rather than legal, decisions because of their bill of rights. In 2013, with the members for Goldstein and Mitchell and some senators from the other place, I led a scrappy but successful insurgency against Labor’s plans to have the Commonwealth intervene in local government.
In important public debates, in a time of increasing polarisation of views, we need people who can build consensus and find the middle ground. And so in more recent times, I have worked with Indigenous leaders and constitutional conservatives to find a constitutional way to make better policy about, and give due recognition of, Indigenous Australians while avoiding the downsides of inserting symbolic language into a technical document which requires interpretation by judges.
Today, the Constitution has an important role to play in the next chapter of Australia’s unfinished economic reforms. The next item on our reform agenda must be to address the inefficiencies in our federation. The states and the Commonwealth should have more clearly delineated responsibilities and the finances to deliver them. Instead, today, we have a system of buck-passing, duplication and inefficiency; a lopsided federation that the framers would not recognise.
Canberra should not have a monopoly on finance and policy. It has become fashionable to think that whenever the states fail Canberra will do a better job. But pink batts, school halls and the Mersey hospital demonstrate that service delivery is not always Canberra’s forte. Canberra collects too much tax, while every year the states come begging because they do not raise enough money to finance their own services. Addressing this dissonance in our federation should deliver less red tape, less duplication, better roads, better schools and better hospitals designed and run to meet local needs. It should also lead to greater policy innovation as competition between the states drives excellence.
I have had the privilege of working for two of Australia’s great federalists, High Court Justice Ian Callinan, who honours me with his presence here today, and Professor Greg Craven. I have also spent several years thinking about federalism as the vice-president of the Samuel Griffith Society. I am not the first person to seek to propose reform of the federation on a federalist model. Coalition and Labor politicians have pursued this option before, but every time such solutions have been proposed, they have been undermined by short-term politicking. Previous economic reforms had a greater chance of success when there was cross-party consensus. The same approach is needed to the reform our federation today.
We know the task is to deliver the states more of their own source revenue and to lighten Canberra’s footprint in areas of policy for which it has little expertise. What has been lacking is the political cooperation to make it happen. I, therefore, propose to look for reform partners in all parties in this parliament to establish a group to build consensus for reform of fiscal federalism. Reform of this scale can be daunting, and while we may not complete the task while we are in this place, nor are we free to desist from it.
But by far my most important task is to serve the people of Berowra with the full measure of my devotion. The electorate of Berowra was created in 1969, and runs from the banks of the Hawkesbury River to the M2 motorway. The people of Berowra are community minded and self-reliant. That is why there is a greater number of volunteers, people of faith and small business owners than in many other communities. Despite its strengths, the Berowra community is one that faces major infrastructure challenges. Pennant Hills Road is one of the worst roads in Australia. But now, Liberal state and federal governments are working with the private sector to deliver NorthConnex, which will remove 5,000 trucks from Pennant Hills Road every day, improving air quality and reducing noise while completing the missing national transport link between the M1 and the M2.
It is not the only infrastructure issue we face. Other roads, like New Line Road, need widening to take into account the growing population in the electorate and in surrounding areas. And the undulating hills and sparse population in the rural areas make mobile connectivity difficult. But the coalition’s Mobile Black Spot Program is starting to address this infrastructure challenge.
I wish to thank the people of Berowra for giving me the extraordinary opportunity to serve them. My first duty will always be to them. I would like to thank the members of the Liberal Party in Berowra, and my friends and supporters beyond that organisation, for all their work to see me come into this place. Many have travelled vast distances and waited many hours to be here today. The best way I can demonstrate my gratitude to them is through the quality of my service here. In that, I hope to emulate the style of my three predecessors: Philip Ruddock, who through his record term helped build an ethnically diverse country with strong secure borders; Professor Harry Edwards, who was a leading economic thinker on microfinancing; and one of Australia’s most distinguished lawyers, the first member for Berowra, Tom Hughes AO QC, who is here in the gallery today.
I am also honoured that my friend Heather Henderson, the daughter of Sir Robert Menzies, is here today. For 6½ years I had the privilege of running the centre named after her father, and I acknowledge Tom Harley, my chairman at the Menzies Research Centre, who is here. Sir Robert Menzies was a poor country boy from a one-horse town, who by dint of his own hard work and intellect rose to lead his profession, his party and his nation. Our task as Liberals is to create the conditions so the next generation’s Robert Menzies can rise and thrive. I am conscious of the huge responsibility involved in being the Liberal member for Berowra and I will seek to carry on Sir Robert Menzies’s traditions of policy and principle in all I do in this place.
Finally, I wish to thank my wife, Joanna. If my parents gave me the foundations for a good and worthwhile life in years past, it is Joanna who anchors me in the present and always points me forward with optimism to the future. She more than any other is the reason I am here. Joanna introduced me to Berowra. It was her home before it was mine. I could not have embarked on this journey without her. She is smart, accomplished, beautiful and challenging, and she has never lost faith in me. She is, in fact, perfect in every way, except for that occasion 11 years ago when her judgement clearly failed her and she decided to marry me. Joanna, I love you with all my heart.
Every new member comes into this place with life experience from which they can draw strength. I come here with the certain knowledge that no-one lives a perfect life, that we all need help and community in good times and hard times, but I draw strength from the example of my family. I draw strength from my faith. I draw strength from Australia’s traditions of service. And I draw strength from our unique Australian story of progress epitomized by the stories of the individuals who persevered and wrote our Constitution. Reform is never easy but the opportunity to participate in the public debate and advocate for the cause I believe in—a strong, free, confident and prosperous Australia—fills me with the greatest enthusiasm.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Coulton ): Before I call the honourable member for Murray, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech and I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.