Tuesday, 5 December 2017
I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that this parliament is meeting on, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and also the traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owners of the lands and waters across my home state of Queensland. I pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I recognise that sovereignty was never ceded and that there is still so much unfinished business that our country needs to address before we have truth, reconciliation and justice for the first peoples of this land.
The greatest failing of Australian parliaments and our political system has undoubtedly been, and continues to be, this inability to deliver justice, equality and proper recognition to the First Australians. Time and time again, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been let down by broken promises, bad decisions and parliament collectively putting politics ahead of principle. We collectively have failed to fundamentally alter the systemic injustice which we all know continues to seriously impact so many Indigenous Australians. The key reason why is that we have never done enough listening or been willing to take direction directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves. Surely, after well over 100 years of this federal parliament thinking we know best and continually stuffing it up so comprehensively, it is well past time for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have a direct say and have the power to have free, prior and informed consent over decisions, programs and policies that affect them.
As some of you would know, this is not actually my first speech to this chamber. Indeed, a quick search of the parliamentary database, using the broadest definition of what constitutes a speech, suggests that this might be my 4,532nd speech in this place. I'm aiming for quality to go with the quantity, I assure you! I do try to use my comments and my role in this place more broadly to raise the views of those who are often ignored and disempowered by parliamentary and political processes. I believe politics works best when it empowers other people and communities to have a meaningful say in decisions which affect them, not when it just delivers power to a small number of people to do what they think is best for others or, more often, what they think is best for their donors and their mates.
I very much recognise that it is only due to a very unexpected twist of fate and the misfortune of another that I find myself back in the Senate. Whilst it is true that this is an unusual and unexpected circumstance that has caused me to be elected to this position, it is nowhere near as unusual, unlikely or unprecedented as the circumstance which caused me to be in this place the first time around, in 1997. For those of you who can't remember that long ago, that involved the leader of the party I was then in defecting without warning and joining the Labor Party. I can very much assure you that that is never going to be repeated!
Unlike that circumstance, my predecessor on this occasion, Larissa Waters, remains a committed and enthusiastic member of the Greens in Queensland, and it was a great pleasure to be able to doorknock and campaign alongside her regularly in the months leading up to the recent Queensland election. It is an honour to have the opportunity to build on the work Larissa has done over the last seven years, and I would like to acknowledge her both as a friend and for her achievements as the first Greens senator for Queensland.
This is a historic time for the Queensland Greens, something which has nothing to do with the fact that I'm giving my 4,000-and-somethingth speech. Rather it is because it is a day when, after more than 25 years of building and supporting movements aimed at substantial political change in Queensland, the party can say that we're on the verge of having our first person directly elected to the Queensland parliament.
Save the applause for the person I'm about to acknowledge the presence of in the gallery today—although don't applaud, because it's unparliamentary!—Michael Berkman. It's great to have him here. He's very likely to soon be the new Greens member for the state electorate of Maiwar. This is a far more significant event for the Greens and for the movements of change that we represent and support than me giving another speech—I'm sure you all agree on that! I am also pleased to acknowledge the presence here of Amy McMahon, another candidate from that election, who gained a primary vote swing of well over 11 per cent in the seat of South Brisbane. Not here today but also very much deserving acknowledgment is Kirsten Lovejoy, who also gained a huge swing based on years of local campaigning and commitment in her own area, who came within a few per cent of winning the seat of McConnell.
Across the state, the Greens achieved the highest vote the party ever achieved—easily beating anything the Democrats ever did! This is a testament to the hundreds of dedicated volunteers—indeed thousands—and I'd like to acknowledge all of them here today, and also, most particularly, one of the founders of the Greens in Queensland, Drew Hutton, and Libby Connors, who worked with him for decades to build the party. Drew is unable to be here today, but I spoke with him just a couple of days ago. He was pleased enough that I was back in the Senate, but he was genuinely thrilled to hear about the likely breakthrough win in the state election. He deserves credit for the key part he played over so many years. We certainly had some very strong candidates, but it was also a campaign built around a huge number of volunteers connecting with the electorate at local level. Furthermore, it was also a campaign built upon a set of policies which unashamedly proposed to redistribute wealth to create a more equitable, fair society and that recognised a key role for government in directly addressing people's material needs and concerns.
The seat of Maiwar, which the Greens look to have won, is—or was—what is often described as a leafy green Liberal seat. The Greens campaign in that seat and also in surrounding areas overtly focused on making developers and corporations pay more, to pay their fair share; on delivering cheaper energy by putting all aspects of our electricity system back under government control, creating thousands of jobs by investing in renewable energy rather than expensive coal; on dramatically expanding spending on public housing in that leafy green electorate, also creating thousands of jobs; on significantly strengthening the rights of people who rent their home; on boosting spending on public transport and cycling infrastructure, rather than continually spending billions on more road space for cars; and on banning corporate donations and cash for access meetings for government ministers. The economically and environmentally unviable Adani mine was certainly also an issue with voters, but, having doorknocked many parts of the electorate myself over a number of months as well as repeatedly talking to many others who did the same, I can confidently say that this was as much about Adani symbolising corporate donors getting special treatment—a classic case of the interests of a foreign corporation being put ahead of the interests of the community and getting the go-ahead and all sorts of special treatment for a development which everybody knows is dodgy.
The Greens will continue to campaign at all levels—myself, here in the Senate, at local level and in the state parliament—on the need to tackle inequality. We hear a lot about inequality, and I've spoken a number of times already since I've been back here in all of those other speeches I've given that haven't been my first speech. But what does inequality look like? For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it means dying sooner and being far more likely to be imprisoned. For women, it means being far more likely to be subjected to severe sexual harassment and assault. Each week, a woman in Australia is murdered by a partner or former partner. For young unemployed people who can't get an entry-level job, it means being forced into $4-per-hour internships. It means being drug tested—potentially losing your payments and potentially your home if you smoke a joint. It means trying to survive on payments that are below poverty levels. For young people lucky enough to have a job, it means a large amount of your wage going to pay off your landlord's investment property. It means, as a renter, you'll be treated as a second-class citizen, often unable to own a pet in most states and territories, to hang a picture or put roots down in a neighbourhood, because you have no long-term security in your lease on your home. If you're an older Australian, it means you could be going without food or electricity to pay the rent. Inequality means there are more empty units in Brisbane than there are people without homes. Like health care and education, housing is a right, not just a way for the property industry to make profits.
But people know that political parties and the corporate media take millions from the property industry each year, which means they have little interest in fixing the rigged system that leaves thousands of people struggling to find an affordable place to live while some property developers and wealthy investors deliberately keep homes vacant. Inequality means that you pay so much to your landlord or bank, and those wages that you use have grown by just 0.1 per cent since 2013.
All of these things are not caused by mysterious economic forces outside of politics; all of these things are a direct result of decisions made in this place and in parliaments and by governments around the country in each state and territory. It is the result of a broken political system, flush with corporate donations, that works only for the rich elite. I can confidently say that Queenslanders and, I'm sure, all Australians are sick of the corporate stranglehold on politics. They know that the slavish devotion to fundamentalist free market ideology has failed the majority while enriching the few. They know that the corporations, the banks, the shonky developers, the human rights abusers and those who are knowingly poisoning the planet for short-term profit all continue to get away with it because people that sit in places like this have rigged the system.
Far too often, parliaments operate to oppress the people they are supposed to represent and to help. After spending over 10 years in this parliament previously, followed by nearly 10 years working with many parts of the community outside of the parliament—and almost all of that time heavily involved in the organisational side of political parties—it's clear to me how readily the nature of parliamentary politics can act to co-opt people and, sometimes, whole organisations to operate in a way which defends the existing system, even when those people's or those organisations' intention was to radically change or alter the way that system operates.
People know that I was formerly a member and representative of the Australian Democrats party, which was represented in this parliament for just over 30 years. Indeed, this coming Sunday marks the 40th anniversary since the 1977 federal election, when the Democrats first had people elected to this parliament. While that party made some significant missteps, including of the sort I've just warned about, I will always be proud of what it achieved and the role it played in supporting and advancing many environmental, social and democratic causes. A sad aspect of its demise was the feeling that the selfless efforts of so many thousands of people had come to nothing. But I came to realise that parties should be just a conduit for collective movements of people outside of parliaments, and the efforts of those people and the legacy of that party and that political project and so many other movements of the past in the decades before live on in many ways. To some extent, I'm an embodiment of that, as are the many other people who continue to work for positive social, economic and environmental change as part of pursuing a significantly different approach, a far more participatory approach, to politics.
An organisation which seeks to bring about positive change will always be drawing on a range of social and political movements and building on the actions and achievements of those who have gone before, as well as learning from past failures. My experience with the Democrats obviously makes me very conscious of certain failures and very conscious that a political party or any other social organisation is not automatically guaranteed to survive, let alone thrive. It also reinforces the need for organisations to continually assess and reassess their goals, their purpose, their operations and the essential need to stay connected with the people, the movements and the grassroots that help create, sustain and move them into the future.
That's particularly relevant for those of us that have the great privilege of being elected to this place—to stay connected to all of those that helped bring us here. It's why I believe it's so important to try to ensure that the voices of the disadvantaged of those out in the wider community are heard directly. For those times when it's not possible for people to directly participate, it is important that we try to ensure they are not forgotten. That is why it is so important to give voice to the human suffering our political decision-makers deliberately inflict, such as on innocent refugees. It is why it is essential to continually draw attention to human rights abuses, wherever they happen in the world, particularly when our own government or our nation is complicit in enabling those abuses to occur.
Part of why I am very confident that the Greens can continue to build and genuinely transform politics in Queensland and around the country is that the party has such a strong foundation—and, genuinely, a much stronger foundation than the previous party I was involved in—and a much clearer idea of what it stands for and what it is seeking to achieve. As well as being significantly stronger in capacity and depth than even three years ago, in Queensland the Greens have a better recognition that the party winning seats in parliament is not an end in itself but rather a means to strengthen the movements in the community that are the real drivers of sustainable change.
When I look back on the time I have previously spent in this place, I certainly can identify plenty of mistakes and failures of my own—and others as well, if you want to know. One often does not get a second chance at some things, and there are certainly things I will do very differently this time around. Experience is not much use if you don't learn from it. On that note I would also like to touch briefly on a few experiences I've had since I was last in this place.
As part of the various ups and downs I've experienced since I left the Senate after the 2007 election, about five years ago I found myself needing to voluntarily admit myself to a psychiatric hospital in Brisbane. That, in itself, is no big deal. It's something I've written about publicly a few times since. Millions of Australians go through significant episodes of mental illness at some stage in their life. Awareness and acceptance of these things is far better than it was. But I'm also very fortunate to have had sufficient social support and resources to assist me through that time and the challenges following, and I'm very conscious that many other people are not so fortunate.
It is also often overlooked that issues such as poverty, domestic violence, unemployment and a lack of secure employment and housing are key factors in triggering or exacerbating mental illness and in preventing people from being able to effectively address it. We cannot sustainably improve mental health in the community unless we also improve and address inequality, reduce discrimination and ensure everyone has access to secure and affordable housing. Of course, ready access to skilled health workers of all descriptions is also essential, but equally essential and not always so easy to achieve, especially over the longer term, is finding ways to prevent and reduce social isolation and alienation.
To that end, I'd like to especially acknowledge the people I met during the month I was in that hospital and particularly the group of mostly younger people who I spent a year or so in group therapy with afterwards. You gave me a lot of insight I would never have otherwise had. It has been crucial in enabling me to keep going and to feel it was worthwhile staying committed to working on the things I believe in. I often think we would get a lot better insight listening to many of those people in psychiatric hospitals about their experiences and their views about how to make the world a better place than we would listening to some of the folks in here and in particular to some of the hordes of pundits, commentators and opinion-givers who feed off the political process whilst often contributing very little to it.
I also want to briefly mention the wonderful community radio station that I have been a part of for so long—4ZZZ FM. It's a place I spent a lot of time at, in the 1980s, before I got fully submerged in politics. I was fortunate to have had the chance to re-engage with it when I left the Senate 10 years ago. 4ZZZ is an amazing community and cultural institution in Brisbane that, for over 40 years, has helped spotlight many hugely talented, and some not so talented, local musicians and artists as well as generations of community activists and the issues they believe in.
While commercial media is struggling, I think community media has a great future. Indeed, with the loss of local focus that has occurred with commercial media and, to a lesser extent, with the ABC, community media is more important than ever. There are so many inspiring people who have contributed to 4ZZZ and, I know, to many community media stations or places around the country. I feel very honoured to have had the chance to serve as chair of the board there for the last couple of years. One of the disappointments of discovering that I was going to end up back in this place was that I had to wind back my involvement there—although some of the listeners in Brisbane might be rather relieved.
On one final personal matter: the best part of this role, as I'm sure all of us would agree, is how many fabulous people you get to meet as part of the job, so many of whom you would not otherwise get the honour of meeting and learning from. But by far the most wonderful person I've met in my life is one who has come to me and will always be part of my life, whether I have portentous titles like senator, more humbling descriptions like chronic depressive, closet goth or non-closet goth, or some of the other less flattering labels like alcoholic and plenty worse that the occasional Twitter troll likes to give me.
My wondrous daughter, Lillith, has lived through all that. She was born during the 2001 election campaign, and, for pretty much all of her life, she has missed out on having me around very much—which, perhaps, is the key reason why she's turned out to be so truly magnificent. So, after all I've put you through, it's such a thrill to have you with me today, sweetie. I even promise, the next time we hang out, I'll put my phone down and get off the internet when you tell me.
People have asked me how it feels to back in the Senate. I have to say that I find politics as conducted by mainstream politicians, and many in the mainstream media, to be nastier, stupider and with even less effort given by many to even pretend to care about whether their statements are true or not. The impact of policies on everyday people is repeatedly ignored, with immediate short-term political factors holding sway. Parliament needs to focus on empowering people, listening to people and adopting policies which deliver for all of the community, not for the interests of a corporate and moneyed elite which have controlled politics for so long. I would like not just to see more people speaking truth to power but also to have that power of the establishment dismantled and handed over to the community, for the good of all of us. It is time for a new style of politics that puts people back at the heart of decision-making and works for a future for all of us. I commit to working to that end, whether it be inside or outside the parliament, and supporting all those movements in the community which seek to do the same.