Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Farm Household Support Amendment (Ancillary Benefits) Bill 2010
A few weeks ago I sat on the stage at Sydney Town Hall with other stalwarts of the union and women’s movement lending our support to the ACTU test case for pay equity. It was an inspiring event. Just last week we all celebrated the introduction of Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme. Historic breakthroughs such as these occur when both parts of the labour movement work together on agreed outcomes. Labor in government has the capacity to deliver legislative changes unencumbered by the limitations of industrial campaigning. Providing access to superannuation for all was a grand Labor achievement. It began with the creation of industrial funds and then flowed through to all working people by the legislative reforms of the Hawke-Keating government.
In making this last speech in parliament I realise how fortunate I have been over the last four decades of public life to have had the opportunities both in the union movement and, since 2001, in parliament as the member for Throsby. All who have served in the federal parliament are indeed privileged to have earned the public trust of their constituents. In early 2002, I took my place in this House as the 981st elected member of the House of Representatives. But only 56 female MPs were elected before me, the majority of them from the eighties onwards, and what a difference they have made to this House.
But who could have imagined that the daughter of parents who came to Australia as refugees under the UNHCR program would one day be making a farewell speech in this chamber. But my story is not atypical. Our national identity today has been shaped by people who have come to Australia from many lands and in many circumstances. They have helped build our economic fortunes and our cultural diversity and made a great contribution, as we know, in so many walks of life. The politics of fear and prejudice undermine the very best of the values that we take pride in: our belief in a fair go and the generosity and compassion that Australians display in so many ways every day.
Australia has a reputation as a land of opportunity. The industrial and welfare safety nets are an important part of our postwar development. I would like to think that in hard times we continue to extend a hand to those in need and that we will continue to redress the multiple disadvantages of Indigenous Australians. We say as Australians we believe in the principle of equality of opportunity, but translating that into practice needs recognition that material circumstances and family background are important determinants in the outcomes that are achieved. A good education is a key factor in breaking down the barriers that limit an individual’s aspirations and achievements. It certainly was for me.
Demography should not define destiny—a strongly held view that I share with our Minister for Education. The public education system gave me the solid foundations for later achievements. That is why I remain a strong supporter and advocate for public education. It is in that system that the life chances of almost 70 per cent of our students will be defined. That is why I will continue to argue that the primary obligation of governments, at all levels, is to ensure a quality public education system. The effects of disadvantage on student achievement can and are constantly overcome. The inspiration of individual teachers that we all remember cannot be underestimated. But funding levels, resourcing, staffing and facilities do matter and our government has already made a substantial investment in the educational reform agenda with lots more to come.
The school funding review recently announced by the minister gives us all the opportunity to replace the flawed SES system with one that is based on genuine need. I am also very heartened by the goal we have set of 20 per cent of all university enrolments to be filled by low-SES students by 2020. I have spoken about this issue on several occasions in the House, concerned that the Throsby electorate is ranked at a low 133 out of the 150 electorates on the measure of participation rates in higher education. The Bradley review confirmed that we do not still today provide equal access to all. A student from a high socioeconomic background is still three times more likely to attend a university than one from a low-SES background. I will be watching with great anticipation and with great interest the outcomes of these reforms.
My time as the member for Throsby has been challenging and rewarding. It is a great community to represent in the parliament. Working with people on the ground, listening and dealing with their concerns, being their advocate in this place, helping to find local solutions and defining the policy and resource responses required from government is a challenging job that contends us all. I have enjoyed campaigning locally around issues like doctor shortages, dental health needs, unemployment, job creation, apprenticeships and skills training.
Youth unemployment in our region has been unacceptably high and in some suburbs intergenerational. Like all of you, we do want to make a difference and I focused particularly on that issue. In the Illawarra area our low school retention rate meant that lots of young kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and Indigenous children were falling through the cracks with bleak future prospects. With a grant from the former government for an apprenticeship coordinator and an expansion in pre-apprenticeship courses, our local apprenticeship committee, which I chaired, assisted over 400 young people in gaining an apprenticeship.
Our local solution to a local problem has now been mainstreamed by the government’s Apprentice Kickstart program. Raising incentives for businesses to take on young people has resulted in great outcomes locally and nationally. In the first three months of this year around 550 local young people were taken on and given a great start in their working life. Our local campaign was co-sponsored by the local paper, the Illawarra Mercury, and I thank them and Ian Nichols, working from the Illawarra Business Chamber, for their endeavours.
As a member of parliament I believe one of my key responsibilities is to convey the views of the electorate both in our caucus and in debate on legislation. Often I am representing the views and voice of people who have no clout at all in the political process. At other times I am representing the interests of major companies like BlueScope Steel, understanding their importance for our regional economy and the employment prospects for our young people and local families.
As well as being their voice in parliament I really welcome the opportunities to contribute to public policy work through the work of parliamentary committees. I have been a member of several committees whose reports have made a difference. The report Every picture tells a story led to a shake-up of the child support system and a revamp of family law. I enjoyed working on that committee, chaired by the indefatigable member for Riverina, and for several years serving as deputy chair on the environment committee to my friend, the member for Moore, Dr Mal Washer.
Our roles are now reversed but we continue a tradition on that committee, providing bipartisan reports which are substantial in scope and in content. Our recent report on the impact of climate change on the coastal zone followed on from the Sustainable cities report and the one on a sustainability charter. It is through opportunities like this that a lot of good work is done with people on the opposition benches and unlikely friendships can develop across the political divide.
I would like to place on record my thanks to all the staff who work in this building and to the secretariat staff who service the work of our committees. We need to recognise and strengthen the work of parliamentary committees and to that end I trust that our recent report from the Procedure Committee, tabled by the chair this week, and its recommendations will generate interest for future reform.
In this last term I have served as part of the federal Labor team in government. It certainly makes a difference to being in opposition, particularly so if you are representing as I do, a relatively safe Labor seat. The people that I represent understand the difference. By our actions we have shown that a federal Labor cares about the local community regardless of where it sits on the political pendulum. They see every day the benefits of over $400 million of investment in our community with the upgrading of school infrastructure and important community projects throughout all the suburbs of Throsby: the upgrade of local roads, new GP superclinics, investing in cancer care, elective surgery and new beds, the re-opening of the Medicare office at Warrawong, and the list goes on. I never fail to promote these positive achievements locally to remind people what has been achieved in our first term of office at a time of great economic and financial challenge.
It is more than the bricks and the mortar; it is the local jobs that were sustained and new employment opportunities created. You can see the multiplier effect in operation on every building site that you visit throughout my electorate. Instead of unemployment rates almost double the national average in the Howard era, we are now closing the gap in the Illawarra and laying solid foundations for future prosperity.
Investment in social capital, which is not so visible, has been equally important. Early intervention programs like the HIPPY program, Indigenous disadvantage, homelessness, disability and respite care, and social housing, have all benefited from government investments. It has been humbling to see the work of our church and welfare agencies, community groups and organisations like Barnardos, Southern Youth and Family Services, the Aboriginal Corporation and Warrigal Employment. If anyone is deserving to have their work properly recompensed it is the workers, predominantly women, in the community sector.
The Illawarra has a proud working class history built on the traditions of coal mining and steel making. In looking to the future one of our major challenges is to ensure a more diversified economic base. In that regard our region is indebted to the key role played by the University of Wollongong under the guidance of Vice-Chancellor Gerard Sutton. The member for Cunningham and I have had a solid and productive relationship with both our university and the TAFE institute so ably led by Di Murray. Recent government investments, secured in competitive funding rounds, at our university will have profound, long-term benefits for the Illawarra.
The new SMART infrastructure facility that we have funded will have value way beyond Wollongong, so too the new processing and devices facility at the Institute for Innovative Materials, where our scientists will be able to manufacture their inventions in fields like medical bionics, solar cells and superconductors. And just in the last few weeks a $25 million investment in an exciting new project, Retrofitting for Resilient and Sustainable Buildings, will provide for a new six-star Green Star facility with research and teaching laboratories at the university and, very importantly, testing laboratories at the local Yallah TAFE. BlueScope Steel will provide the materials and the technical expertise. Indeed, a great collaborative venture.
We hope that the whole nation will benefit as we in the Illawarra develop new technologies to make buildings more energy efficient, helping in our transition to a more carbon constrained future. But to complete our vision there is a missing link—and I am glad the minister for infrastructure is with us this afternoon—the Maldon-Dombarton freight rail link. The local campaign to have this major piece of infrastructure completed has been ably led by my colleague the member for Cunningham, Sharon Bird. It will complement the state government investment in the port at Port Kembla. If the economics stack up at the end of the feasibility study, it will be a bonanza for the Illawarra and a great reward for Sharon’s persistence and vision.
On top of this the southern end of my electorate of Throsby is one of the first test sites for the rollout of broadband. This will position our region well to capitalise on the innovation and opportunities that will come with our national broadband project.
In concluding I want to acknowledge the many people who shared my journey over the past 40 years. So, to you all, a big collective thank you. Whatever I have achieved and done has always been with collective support and encouragement. To the union movement, and Bill Kelty in particular: thanks for the opportunities and the memories—who could ever forget the maritime dispute! And thanks to all of you who helped pave the way for my transition to this parliament.
I have always been, and will continue to be, a strong believer in the importance and benefits of a constructive engagement between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement. We saw the mutual benefits of the Your Rights at Work campaign—a brilliant campaign—and, of course, one of our proudest achievements, the dismantling of Work Choices. Communities across the nation will never forget the much despised Work Choices regime, which stripped away conditions like overtime and penalty rates and forced individuals onto insidious individual contracts of employment. Women will be the major beneficiaries of our new Fair Work system. That system has enshrined for them an annual minimum wage review; the right to request flexible working arrangements; a new, comparable wage fixing principle; new protections on the grounds of pregnancy and caring responsibilities; an effective award safety net; and a bargaining stream for the low paid—truly historic achievements. Just last week we had Australia’s first national paid parental leave scheme—an historical achievement, which only Labor in government could deliver.
I have had great support from the local unions affiliated to the South Coast Labour Council. Special thanks to Arthur Rorris, Andy Gillespie and Garry Keane, for their wise counsel and friendship over the years—and so, too, to Colin and Melissa Markham. Thanks to the community groups, local organisations and council representatives with whom I have worked and alongside whom I have campaigned for the benefit of our community, and to the local media on whom we rely to communicate the Labor message. Without loyal branch members and supporters and my campaign director Vicki King, no election campaign could have been successfully prosecuted.
And without our staff no MPs can do effective jobs for their communities; we all rely on them so much. Thank you, Idalina, Sarah, Michel and Danielle and current relief staff Annie, Wendy and Brian, for all your efforts over all these years.
To my colleague Sharon Bird, the member for Cunningham: it has been great working with you and sharing the highs, and the occasional lows, of political life. I know, in moving on, that the needs and aspirations of the Illawarra will be in safe and capable Labor hands.
I wish Stephen Jones, my successor as the Labor candidate for Throsby, all the best in the election.