20/01/2011 - 00:00

People and ideas drive Porter’s vision

20/01/2011 - 00:00


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Christian Porter spelt out five ideas that form the core of his worldview in his maiden speech.

TWO things brought me here – ideas and people.

These are the two things I see as critical to public policy, governments and the machinations of political life itself.

There is no point coming here with only a care for people but with no ideas to influence the decision-making that ultimately affects the people intended to be cared for.

Given the importance of ideas in the conduct of Australian government, it is curious that so often absent from first speeches are real attempts to accurately define the basic ideas that motivate the member. I feel certain, after only one day here, that this is not because ideas are absent from the minds of many members of this parliament. Equally, I feel certain that we are not in a post-ideological age for state politics generally. In fact, in an age of rapid change, the anchorage provided by ideas is more important than ever, and translating ideas into policy detail is more critical and more challenging than ever before.

Perhaps it is because succinctly stating ideas is difficult and often leaves the utterer appearing foolish, naive or both. Perhaps, also, some politicians are wisely advised not to be tied down to ideas that may fall out of their own favour or may otherwise become unfashionable.

When put to the task, five ideas form the core of my worldview and motivate me more than any others. I do not propose that the sum of these ideas comprises any system of values that comprehends any original or cohesive perspective on man, government or society, nor, while stating that they are strongly held – in truth, very strongly held – do I propose that these ideas are immutable or beyond personal reconsideration. However, these are the things which I am, and to which I have first recourse in problem solving, and which motivate my thinking on real-life public policy issues.

First, I am a market liberal. Modern governments of both persuasions believe in some form in the importance of free markets, but then interfere in often-delicate markets without having thought through, or in any way analysed, the potential consequences of this interference. We all too often end up with overly confident policymakers with some well-meaning but untested idea, who pit their unaided intellect against the concerted interactions of millions of players in the marketplace. Often, very little is achieved, at considerable cost.

Respect for the market has never been more important than it is right now. This is because, in a world economy changing at frightening speed, our ability in government to plan for an uncertain future in large part relies upon ensuring that our markets in Western Australia – from retail markets to power generation and land supply – are as free and adaptable as is reasonably possible.

To take one example, the present debate about retail trading hours has been shaped as a big business versus small business debate. Perhaps it would be more correctly characterised as a big business versus not-quite-so-big business debate. In many ways, the terms of this debate reveal a short sightedness. If the large Australian-owned players in the retail market are artificially weakened, we should be careful what we wish for, in the guise of easing entry into the market of foreign multinationals.

Second, I am a social individualist. Simply put, collectively we all gain if each of us permits the other to live as seems best to ourselves, rather than compelling individuals and their families to live in a manner that seems best to one or another powerful group or the government of the day.

For my part, governments of both political persuasions seem to have drifted away somewhat from the idea that it is best to let people live their own lives the way they want to live them and to be responsible for the outcomes of those decisions.

Third, I am a federalist. I believe that people are best served in terms of policy outcomes by governments that are as proximate to them as rational organisational principles will allow. Further, having equally, albeit differently, powerful governments elected at different times is the linchpin of separate and responsible government.

The sad fact for me, as a Liberal, is that this federalist principle has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance in recent years by many of my federal Liberal colleagues. The consequence now is that I am quite certain that the great bipartisan project for this parliament will be to find innovative ways of renegotiating and repairing the federal compact.

Both sides must ensure that the people of WA can turn to their own government in the knowledge that it has the policy autonomy to effect results for them on the issues closest to them.

Fourth, I am a legal conservative, and by this I mean several things. Foremost, we should be cautious before we tamper too readily with the operation of tried and tested legal institutions. At the same time, we should recognise that legal institutions are means to public ends, and not ends in themselves.

Further, the balance of powers, duties and responsibilities that we have struck, over hundreds of years of argument, between the judiciary and the legislature is a delicate one and we should strive to maintain, not disrupt, it. On this point, there is a present and passionate fashion for labelling any number of views about desirable public policy outcomes as rights, and calls for these views to then be enshrined in bills of rights at a state or federal level.

The advantages of such proposals are few, and the problems with them many. To either the trained or the untrained eye, the clauses of such documents do not necessarily or even generally enshrine rights in the sense that most people commonly understand them. They set out views about what may be a desirable policy outcome or what may be a desirable process or institution. These are views about which equally rational, well-meaning people may differ and which, importantly, change over time. The determination of such matters should be the province of elected parliaments and not the province of courts. I will use every energy in this place to resist this trend in all its manifestations.

In the area of crime and punishment, I am a true conservative.

Having worked and lectured in criminal law at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the University of Western Australia, I can say truthfully that there is no more interesting, relevant and curious area of the legal discipline –and I might add here that there is no harder legal milieu – in which to work.

Increased custodial sentences for grave offences has been a proper and appropriate response by the judiciary to sustained pressure from the people, their parliament and the press. In my view, there is still some little way to go in this area.

Where the immediate public policy challenge now really lies is with those offences that are somewhat less than grave in the traditional legal sense, but whose cumulative effect has become debilitating for many local communities.

I am talking here about what might be loosely labelled disorder offences – although this very label tends to diminish their cumulative seriousness.

By this term I mean: the occurrence and re-occurrence of property damage and graffiti to private residences and community facilities; the myriad forms of serious public misbehaviour fuelled largely by alcohol, the most prominent example of which is random violence associated with suburban parties; and the general absence of respect for authority and fellow citizens, one notable manifestation of which is all manner of idiotic behaviour on our roads.

Once a person has been convicted by plea or by the conduct of a fair and open trial, punishment of these disorder-type offences must be real and hard-felt by the offender.

A failure of will at this level of punishment will mean the erosion of liberties for all WA citizens. Serious punishment for disorder offences will not always mean the imposition of custodial sentences, although often it must. As a parliament, we must be continually aware of the need to devise and apply punishments that are precisely that – punishments. We can no longer linger with ineffective fines enforcement systems or non-custodial orders that are malfunctioning in their punitive purpose.

Fifth, I am an im-perfectionist. I use this term because of two things that have had a profound effect on my thinking. The first is the concept that ultimate values are objective and knowable. Indeed, I doubt that there would be too much debate in this chamber as to what is the cluster of values upon which we each place the greatest importance.

However, I also subscribe to the secondary concept that, although identifiable, ultimate values or goods are in eternal conflict with each other and cannot be combined in a single human life or human institution. In short, the idea that we cannot have everything is a necessary, not contingent, truth.

I said earlier that my theory is that the two necessary tenets of politics and government are ideas and people. The importance of people is that they should always come before ideas.

As for the people close to me, I would like to thank the men and women of the WA division of the Liberal Party. This is the party which my father served as a state director, and which my grandfather created in Queensland, upon Menzies’ instruction, and which he served as a state director in Queensland and later as a minister of the Crown. Sometimes I hope that when I have children they might escape this genetic political affliction and become oil painters or racing car drivers—or both, but not at the same time.

• This is an edited version of the maiden speech delivered by Attorney-General and recently appointed Treasurer Christian Porter to state parliament on March 12 2008.



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