Colleagues, it’s good to be back. I love this place and the vocation we all share. We’re here on the trust of our fellow Australians, who look to us to use our very privileged positions here to do our very best for the nation and for them. That lights the fire in my belly and I know it does for you, too. While that responsibility, inevitably, means a decent amount of robust, even fiery, contest among us, I’ve been reminded this week, indeed over the last 17 months, of our camaraderie outside the chamber, particularly when we go through tough times personally and professionally.
I want to thank so many of you for your warm welcome and best wishes on my return in recent days. A lot has happened in this place since I was blindsided by a cancer diagnosis in September 2017 and had to take immediate leave. Getting treated for stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a late stage blood cancer, and then recovering, if you are lucky enough, as I am, is pretty much a full-time job in itself—not always fulfilling, but a necessary one nonetheless. Sitting on the sideline, out of the action, is not one of my strong points, but over time I came to let go of my frustrations and work out how I could keep on making a contribution when my health and hospital timetable permitted—keeping in touch with my constituents and party colleagues and keeping abreast of politics and parliamentary business.
I think I can speak for the hundreds of thousands of Australians living with cancer and the tens of thousands of men and women who die each year from a range of cancers when I say that cancer really sucks: discovering that you’ve got it, accepting that you’ve got it, feeling sick, or, ironically, perhaps even worse—not feeling sick yet feeling totally bewildered; having your life, your family, your work upended; pushing through the multiple rounds of treatment, coping with the side effects of the treatment—not for broadcasting during general time, I can tell you, but I can go into chapter and verse on that; becoming more and more vulnerable as your immunity drains; and thinking about dying and death—your own death, and quite possibly soon.
Every cancer is different, and everybody’s experience of it is so very different. No matter how much we think we can control things, our bodies have a will of their own, and that can play out in triumphant and tragic ways. You just can’t pick it sometimes. But for all of us who get cancer, its treatment is an extreme form of physical, mental and emotional boot camp, except that, at the end of it, if you haven’t died, you don’t charge out of the blocks rippling and indestructible; instead, you stumble out into the light, depleted on every front.
After treatment ends, you can spend another year or more regaining your strength and nutrition and some of your old equilibrium while being closely monitored by your doctors and other healthcare professionals. It’s only then that you begin what’s called the ‘survivorship’ phase—re-entry, where you transition from being a cancer patient to someone with a history of cancer. Then you get through the first five years, then you get into your second five years, and then beyond. Meanwhile, like everyone else, you’re always at the mercy of life’s usual vicissitudes. For me, I’m grateful, relieved, and, frankly, overjoyed to be able to say that I’m in survivorship.
I’m very fortunate to have had the care and support of my wife, Elizabeth, our children, family, dear friends, staff and colleagues. Some of them are here today, and they know the journey that we’ve all been on together. I couldn’t have got through it without them, and I certainly could not have got through it without those wonderful doctors and their teams at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney—a world-class professional health facility, a public health facility.
I want to make an important point. We have among the highest survival rates for cancer in the world. It’s because our public and private health systems are resourced and blessed with top people like those at St Vincent’s, and it’s because of the vast advances that have been made in diagnostic methods, early detection and treatment. Even so, cancer is a huge challenge before us, for individual sufferers and their families and for the broader health and prosperity of this great country.
Cancer diagnoses are on the rise, and too many Australians are dying from cancer every year, especially as our population is ageing. What is really telling, though, is that today there are over a million Australians alive who have been diagnosed with cancer in the last 32 years. I’ve said over and over again to myself in the last year and more, ‘Cancer is a word, not a sentence’. If you survive it, you get the gift of life again, but it’s a new life. Few, if any of us, can go through such an experience and come out the other side not having to adapt to some fundamental, long-term changes in physical being, emotional self and mental outlook. So, for me, cancer survivorship is not a sentence: it is another chance at life, provided survivors can get the quality of care they received during their acute diagnosis and treatment phases.
It’s a different sort of care. It needs multidisciplinary approaches and consistent primary care. It must give proper attention to the range of issues survivors face: everything from ongoing pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression to cancer recurrence, relationship problems, financial hardship and much more. With a population living years and decades beyond their cancer diagnosis and getting older, this presents a unique challenge for our governments and policymakers, our clinicians, our researchers and our healthcare system to ensure good survivorship, so that these are saved lives well lived.
Australia is doing some terrific work on this. However, we can do more and I want to play my part in the years ahead in these efforts. In my many months on the sidelines, and still now, I try to make sense of my own cancer journey—of the cancer journey. I’ve concluded that a lot of things in life are just random, cancer among them. Good stuff happens, bad stuff happens. Leigh Sales has written about this very idea in her superb book Any Ordinary Day. I think what matters is the journey. With cancer, it’s the transformation it compels in every layer of us. I still can’t quite get my mind around the fact that I no longer have the bone marrow I was born with. Instead, the vital storehouse that produces my red blood cells and has given me a whole new blood type is the gift of a young German man who I may never know but I owe my life to.
In my time as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, most of the important policy work I did with my ministerial colleagues—Michaelia is here today—and with staff, the department and stakeholders was about helping people and businesses to manage transition and transformation, helping them adapt and embrace the huge changes occurring here in Australia and around the world due to the arrival of the fourth industrial revolution, smart manufacturing—smart everything—and the rapid growth of the digital economy. I wasn’t to know that, before long, I would get my own dose of what transformation feels like.
The last speech I gave as minister was at the AFR Innovation Summit in Sydney on 19 September 2017. I seem to remember I got a caning by the media for talking straight about innovation, but that’s a story for another day. We’ve all been through that. A woman in the audience, towards the end, asked me a curly question out of the blue. She asked, ‘What is something you believe in to be true that no-one else believes in?’ Well, I scratched my head a bit. The audience was sort of tittering a bit, saying: ‘Where’s this come from? What’s this got to do with innovation?’ But I tried to answer the question as best I could, and I said: ‘One thing I’ve always believed very strongly about my fellow human beings is that, ultimately, there’s good in everybody. It’s important to understand and try and get to the essence of our fellow man and, where possible, put ourselves in the shoes of others.’
The next day, ladies and gentlemen, my colleagues, I began walking in the shoes of tens of thousands of Australian cancer sufferers. I return now to this place with all that I’ve learnt from walking in those shoes, with the gift of new life and an enthusiasm and determination to continue my work on fostering an innovation mindset in Australia, encouraging our industry and researchers to collaborate and innovate, supporting the start-ups to build a sustainable innovation system and the jobs of the future, embracing the extraordinary possibilities of digital technologies, AI and machine learning, and applying all of this to ensuring that all Australians live better, work better and have every opportunity to share in the rewards of this transforming modern nation.
In all those months of treatment, I saw a lot of suffering around me, for sure. But what really struck me and stayed with me were people’s hope and good humour in the face of their suffering. I witnessed the resilience of the human spirit up close, including through my colleague Senator Bilyk, who has been through so much over the years. It really moved me; it uplifted me; it helped me build my own resilience and optimism and my profound respect and confidence in my fellow Australians and the future we can build together.