House debates

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Governor-General's Speech


12:17 pm

Photo of Melissa ParkeMelissa Parke (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have greatly appreciated the dignity and balance that you and the Speaker have brought to your roles. I would like to begin my parting speech by paying respect to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples as the traditional custodians of the land in the Canberra area. As was said by the former Young Australian of the Year, former Afghan refugee Akram Azimi, we make this acknowledgement not out of a sense of protocol but out of recognition that the Dreaming has not ended and we are all a part of it.

I came into this place to represent the Fremantle electorate and to engage in what I termed the war against indifference. Before I expand on that I would observe that there have been many wars fought in this place: the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on people smugglers, the war on each other. Only the last one seems to have had any success, and that has been to the ultimate detriment of all of us and of public trust in our political system.

The war on terror has too often become a tool used by governments around the world to suppress dissent, to shrink civil society, to curtail independent media, to increase surveillance of civilian populations and to erode the rule of law and hard-won civil liberties. We are seeing this in Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia and Ethiopia—to name just a few countries—but we are also seeing it much closer to home. Terror is invoked by our allies to justify deviation from the international rule of law, such as extrajudicial assassinations, with the killing of civilians and drone strikes excused as accidental collateral damage.

Terror is used by Australia to justify laws providing 10-year jail terms for journalists who disclose secret intelligence operations. It is used to justify sending Australian forces to war in distant countries—wars in which the casualties are predominantly civilians—without any debate in the national parliament or the United Nations. It is used to justify cracking down on certain communities, when, in fact, such actions may increase the risk of terrorism while undermining the very principles that are being defended, which is clearly a lose-lose situation.

National security is increasingly invoked by the government to surveil and monitor the Australian community, while at the same time denying the community access to information about the government's actions—for example, the claim by an increasingly militarised Immigration and Border Protection agency that on-water matters may not be publicised, or the lack of transparency in defence procurement.

The mandatory data retention scheme, the gutting of Labor's FOI framework, the crackdown on whistleblowers and journalists, the blocking of changes to political donation disclosure thresholds—all of these matters at the federal level—together with the increasing suppression of dissent through draconian antiprotest laws in Tasmania, WA and New South Wales are troubling developments that seem to be taking Australia backwards not forwards as an open, democratic and progressive nation.

Our insistence on compliance with the international rule of law should be consistent and even-handed, whether we are talking about China's island-building activities in the South China Sea, Israel's settlement building, the US's bombing of Medecins Sans Frontieres hospitals, or our own treatment of Timor-Leste in relation to maritime boundaries.

The worldwide war on drugs has been an unmitigated disaster, serving only to destroy young lives and those of their families, foster and sustain organised crime and massively increase the cost to communities in terms of lives and productivity lost, increased hospital admissions and courts and jails packed with people consigned to a cycle of disadvantage and punishment. It is heartening that countries like Portugal and Uruguay are showing a more constructive way forward.

The recent parliamentary drug summit that looked at how Australia might move beyond the failed crime and punishment approach to a health and treatment centred approach is an encouraging development and aligns with a global shift in thinking. I thank my co-convenors of the Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy and Law Reform, Senator Dr Richard Di Natale, Dr Sharman Stone and the wonderful former chair, Dr Mal Washer, as well as the many experts, academics, public health organisation, users, family and community organisations for their dedication to addressing decades of global policy folly.

The war on people smugglers, accompanied by a faux concern for drownings at sea, has facilitated the profound deterioration in Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, our compliance with international human rights obligations and our own image of ourselves as a nation of tolerance, egalitarianism and the fair go. The present offshore detention system is a festering wound that is killing people and eroding our national character and reputation. It needs to be healed. The government falsely accuses asylum seekers of arriving illegally when, as observed by the United Nations and the Australian Human Rights Commission among others, it is Australian that is violating its legal obligations.

If we look at the many poor countries hosting millions of refugees in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and the millions of souls trying to reach Europe, the hysteria generated in the past decade and a half by politicians in Australia over a few thousand refugees arriving by boat should be understood as just that. It is time for debate and policy on this issue to be based on reason, facts, perspective and our obligations under international law rather than politics. Many parliamentarians from different parties have been deeply engaged on this issue—Anna Burke, Andrew Giles, Sharon Claydon, Russell Broadbent, Cathy McGowan, Adam Bandt, Sarah Hanson-Young, Lisa Singh, Claire Moore, Sue Lines, Doug Cameron and Anne Urquhart to name just some. I apologise to those I have missed out. I hope those efforts will soon lead to better outcomes.

There is an alternative that involves establishing a genuine regional framework, working constructively with other countries in the region to improve conditions in source and transit countries and negotiating resettlement arrangements with other countries—including, of course, a much greater commitment on Australia's part to taking more refugees. Every year, Australia accepts some 200,000 new migrants. If a portion of this number, say one-quarter, was allocated to humanitarian places, there would still be the same number of people coming to Australia overall. As we know, many refugees are highly skilled, keen to contribute and have shown great courage and resourcefulness in getting here. Such people can only enhance our country.

We also need to treat decently those thousands of asylum seekers left in limbo in Australia on bridging visas without work rights. Refugees facing indefinite detention due to negative ASIO security assessments should be given access to review by the AAT and alternatives to indefinite detention. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said, human rights are not reserved for citizens only or for people with visas; they are the inalienable rights of every individual regardless of his or her location and migration status.

As I have noted in this place before, the High Court decision in February this year upholding the offshore processing arrangements as constitutional was the result of a lack of human rights protections in the Australian Constitution—which, as noted in New Matilda last week, was framed before the postwar human rights area. This is why many people have been calling for a bill of rights or a human rights act, Australia being the only western democracy without one. Of course, regardless of the domestic legal position, under international law Australia cannot contract out its legal responsibilities and remains responsible for the plight of people it sends to Manus Island and Nauru.

Looking at the sorry record of the wars on drugs, terror and people smugglers, I have tended to be against wars on things as they seem to be misused by governments to impose a host of controls and restrictions on populations and to violate fundamental human rights without providing evidence of their effectiveness and fitness for purpose. But, as I said in my introduction, there is one war that I pledged to fight when I first started here, the war against indifference: indifference to extreme poverty and the plight of victims of human rights abuses here in Australia and elsewhere; indifference to the growing extinction of species and the heating of the planet; indifference to nuclear proliferation; indifference to corruption and poor governance; indifference to animal cruelty; indifference to the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable in our society; and indifference to the need to safeguard and increase the public goods we all share, including high quality public health and education, infrastructure, fair and safe working conditions, affordable housing, strong independent public institutions and respect for the rule of law, public transport, public broadcasting, support for the arts, science and ancient cultural heritage and the environment.

In terms of improving the condition of humankind, in my view a shift is needed from the current economic orthodoxy which is fixed on the idea that economic growth can and should continue indefinitely. In Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For A Finite Planet UK economist Tim Jackson argues for a vision in which it is possible for human beings to flourish, achieve greater social cohesion, find higher levels of wellbeing and yet still reduce their material impact on the environment. The parliament and the government play a critical role in regulating our market economy and protecting equity, justice and the environment—things that markets do not provide or often ignore or work against. However, governments at state and federal level let their communities down when they contract out significant public services to the private sector. Not only does this result in a focus on profit rather than on delivering effective public services and safeguarding public goods; it exacerbates the trend towards greater and greater secrecy when commercial-in-confidence reasons are given for denying transparency and accountability about how taxpayers' money is being spent and who is to blame when things go wrong in, say, privately operated immigration detention centres, vocational training centres, prisoner transport services or public hospitals. Meanwhile, governments render public services and institutions increasingly less efficient with the euphemistically named efficiency dividends imposed with every budget.

In 2011, in the St Thomas More Forum Lecture, Chief Justice Robert French spoke of the concept of public office as a public trust. That is a notion I agree with. My work for a number of years as chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Integrity, following on from my work at the UN on ethics and accountability, has convinced me that Australia needs a national integrity commission. Like my friends Stephen Jones, who formerly worked in the community and public sectors, and Senator Nick Xenophon, who is just naturally suspicious, I do not believe that the Commonwealth sector is uniquely invulnerable to corruption. Indeed, to borrow a phrase used by Premier Anna Bligh when she opened the 2009 national anti-corruption conference in Brisbane, there are a number of undisturbed rocks lying around at the Commonwealth level and no-one is picking them up to look underneath. A standing national integrity commission, appropriately resourced and empowered, would avoid allegations of political bias and the time, and massive expense to taxpayers, involved in setting up ad hoc royal commissions. It is imperative also to legislate strong protection for whistleblowers in the private sector. Almost all of the scandals revealed over tax havens, misconduct by banks, foreign bribery, exploitation of foreign workers, animal cruelty et cetera have come to public attention through the courageous actions of whistleblowers and journalists, who often pay a very high price for their bravery.

The role of an informed and engaged parliamentarian, quite apart from one's position vis-a-vis the executive as a frontbencher or backbencher, is undervalued in the Australian political system. All parliamentarians occupy a position of responsibility and privilege held by relatively few in the history of Federation, affording the occupant a rare platform from which to represent their electorates and the national and global interest.

I am grateful to the Accountability Round Table—a nonpartisan group of academics, lawyers, retired judges and public servants dedicated to improving standards of accountability, transparency and democratic practice in all governments and parliaments in Australia—for the parliamentary integrity awards named in honour of John Button and Alan Missen that were bestowed on Mark Dreyfus, Judy Moylan and I in 2013.

I am grateful to have had the experience of being a parliamentarian in government and in opposition. I am proud of the former Labor government's achievements across many areas: the apology to the stolen generations; staving off the global financial crisis in Australia; the carbon price and support for renewable energy development; the significant increase in Australian aid; paid parental leave; the NDIS; NBN; Gonski; massive investments in public transport, schools and local government infrastructure; removing discrimination against same-sex couples from over 80 Commonwealth laws; an ambassador for disability-inclusive development; and FOI reform and whistleblower protection for the public sector. Sincere thankyous to Professor AJ Brown, Howard Whitton, Tim Smith QC and the Accountability Round Table for their invaluable assistance on whistleblower protection.

I am also glad to have received Labor government support in my electorate for local companies undertaking significant innovation, such as Carnegie wave power and Richgro waste to energy. As an aside, I note that my constituent the Rottnest wind turbine survived former Prime Ministerial disparagement and has gone on to become famous with its own Twitter account. The Labor government also obtained World Heritage listing for Fremantle Prison, the return of Cantonment Hill to the people of Fremantle from the Department of Defence, the revitalised Hilton Community Centre, the maritime trade training centre at South Fremantle Senior High School, the Cockburn integrated community health centre, Coogee Beach Surf Life Saving club, the Jandakot Fire and Emergency Services headquarters, new facilities at Bibra Lake and of course marine sanctuaries—the largest network of marine sanctuaries in the world, which was begun under the Howard government and was delivered by the Labor government. It is essential that the three-year hold put on the network of sanctuaries by the present government now be lifted. My constituent Tim Winton assisted the brilliant Save Our Marine Life campaign—and there they are in the gallery—when he came to the parliament to deliver a speech for the ages. He observed:

Commonwealth waters are public assets. The family silver. Silver that moves, breathes, swims. If you've ever swum in a school of trevally or barracuda or anchovies, you'll know what I mean; it's like being Scrooge McDuck rolling around in the vault.

I am also grateful to former prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd for the opportunity to have served in the executive as parliamentary secretary for mental health, homelessness and social housing and as the first dedicated minister in 25 years for Australia's world-leading international development agency, AusAID. The present government's abolition of AusAID as a separate agency resulted in a large number of dedicated, experienced staff having to seek work elsewhere. The staff who remain in DFAT and the broader aid and NGO community must cope with changing mandates and rapidly diminishing resources, following the $11.3 billion cuts to Australian aid—taking us down to a pitiful 0.22 per cent of GNI—which we know will wreak devastating impacts upon the world's poorest people. That puts us in the bottom half of OECD donors and it is the least generous level of aid in our history. It is a national shame that aid has such a low priority. It is also short-sighted because, in addition to being the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, our provision of aid is also in the larger national interest, contributing to global and regional peace and security and fostering economic development and self-sufficiency, which in turn expands our own export and economic opportunities.

Of course, some of the world's most disadvantaged people are here in Australia. One hundred and fifteen years ago, Labor member for Coolgardie Hugh Mahon moved a motion in the first year of the federal parliament calling for a royal commission into 'the conditions for Aborigines in northern Western Australia and into the administration of justice in the lower courts of Western Australia as it affected Aboriginal people'. He presciently argued that 'in this particular matter the reputation of the whole people of Australia is at stake.' He was right, but his motion went nowhere. Mahon himself became the only member ever expelled from the House of Representatives in 1920, for disloyalty and sedition, after he denounced British policy in Ireland at a public meeting. I hope the motion moved by my colleague Graham Perrett seeking a posthumous parliamentary pardon for Mahon is successful.

Unfortunately, more than a century after Mahon's motion, conditions for Australia's Indigenous peoples remain dire, with a young Aboriginal man more likely to go to jail than to university. Just a few weeks ago a 10-year-old girl in WA's Pilbara region committed suicide, following her older sister's suicide and that of many other young people. Deaths in custody like those of Mr Pat, Mr Ward, Mr Langdon, Ms Mandijarra and Ms Dhu keep occurring while governments remain missing in action on justice reinvestment; on the abolition of imprisonment for unpaid fines; on setting justice targets for Closing the Gap; on ratifying OPCAT, which would enable national oversight of all places of detention, including police lock-ups; and on implementing the recommendations of the now 25-year-old 1991 royal commission.

The overwhelming message from Aboriginal people is that they need to be an integral part of the discussion and decision-making around issues that affect them. A greater representation of Indigenous people in parliament, including present colleagues Ken Wyatt and Labor senators Nova Peris and Pat Dodson, will surely make a difference, as will a fuller accounting and reparation for the manifest injustices done to the First Australians, the adoption of a date other than 26 January to celebrate our national day, long-overdue constitutional recognition and the preservation of Indigenous cultural heritage, including languages and the magnificent rock art throughout Australia.

As noted in the former Labor government's national cultural policy, Australia is home to the oldest living culture on earth and we have been welcoming of the greatest diversity of cultures on earth. This is what has made us unique and it is why we have to preserve our culture, nurture it, invest in it and build upon it. Culture and art reflect our values of inclusion, respect and freedom of expression, and they promote healing. There is no better example of this than the organisation DADAA in Fremantle, working with disability and the arts. There are also incredible economic dividends to be gained from the arts because a creative society is necessarily a more innovative and productive society. There are more than half a million people working in the creative industries in Australia, around six per cent of the workforce, and the sector's growth is almost double that of the rest of the workforce. As the Prime Minister so often says, it is creativity and innovation that will power our nation's future, so we need to tap into the passion and imagination that young people innately have and nurture it in our homes, in our schools, in our businesses and in our community.

Last year's Western Australian of the year, neuroscientist Professor Lyn Beazley, observed that one of the keys to redefining our nation's prosperity will be an increased focus on science and the arts. The cuts to both science and the arts in the last two years have been devastating and must be reversed, and funding increased. This is critical to Australia's future wellbeing. It is no accident, in my view, that, while there are many artists, writers and musicians living in Fremantle, there are also many scientists and inventors.

It has been a joy to represent the wonderful, engaged, spirited, outward-looking, creative and caring community of Fremantle. I have enjoyed working with local councils, schools and church and community groups on issues such as raising funds and awareness for homelessness through the annual Gimme Shelter concert, and being involved in community support for more humane treatment of refugees, increased Australian aid and action on climate change, renewable energy and marine sanctuaries, as well as community opposition to live animal exports, supertrawlers and the proposal of the WA state and federal coalition governments to fund and build the disastrous and poorly thought out Perth Freight Link, which would entail the building of a truck freeway through sensitive rare wetlands, ancient Indigenous cultural heritage and local communities.

The phrase 'think globally, act locally' is well worn but contains great wisdom. I have been fortunate in my professional life to work as a community legal centre lawyer in regional Australia, as a UN lawyer and as a member of parliament. I have found that looking at any issue from a local, national and international point of view can raise wider perspectives and a range of potential solutions or actions. Ultimately all issues are local issues, whether you are talking about human rights, the environment, health or development. Rights and standards articulated in the international arena are concerned with the essential dignity of the individual and the community. These standards can only be implemented at the local level, whether it be planting a tree to combat global warming, vaccinating a child to reduce child mortality under the sustainable development goals, or protecting the migratory birds at Bibra Lake, in my electorate, under the conventions on migratory birds.

Most of our efforts as MPs, and the efforts of those who come to see us in this place or in our electorate offices, are directed not so much at trying to change minds but rather at getting people to care sufficiently about an issue to attend an event, to speak or write about it, to contribute funds or to vote for it. In a place and time when everyone is busy, overcoming indifference is no easy task. It is often the personal connection, the real-life story of individuals and families, that helps to overcome political inertia on an issue.

A recent example is the moving story of Daniel Haslam's struggle with cancer and the campaign that he and his mother, Lucy, fought to ensure that medicinal cannabis could be legally available to Australians suffering chronic pain, nausea or seizures. Or there is the story of the incredible Peter Short, who, while suffering terminal cancer, led the campaign to raise community and political awareness of the need for dying-with-dignity laws.

The terrible execution of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia has reignited determination in the Australian government, parliament and community to see an end to the death penalty worldwide. I pay tribute to Philip Ruddock and Chris Hayes for their longstanding leadership in the parliament on this issue and to Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek for their international advocacy.

The plight of Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt turned a much-needed spotlight on the issue of decreasing media freedom around the world. Again, parliamentarians like Jane Prentice, Graham Perrett, Teresa Gambaro and others, working with Amnesty International, helped to raise the profile of this issue.

What these particular campaigns have shown is that parliamentarians from all parties, listening to the community and acting with the best interests of the nation at heart, putting politics aside, can achieve amazing thing together. This has been my experience working on parliamentary committees including the treaties, foreign affairs, human rights, and law enforcement integrity committees, and in parliamentary friendship groups for the United Nations, UNICEF, ABC, TPP, drug policy and law reform, nuclear disarmament, and refugees, as well as Parliamentarians for Global Action, which is an international organisation of individual MPs from parliaments around the world that conducts campaigns on abolition of the death penalty, universal ratification of the International Criminal Court Rome Statute and the Arms Trade Treaty, among other things.

I want to thank the many colleagues and friends from all parties, as well as Independents, with whom I have worked on so many issues across this parliament—too many to name without risking leaving someone important out. I have been the beneficiary of great acts of kindness in this place, some of them from unexpected sources, and I will not spoil anyone's promotion prospects by mentioning names! Everyone is here with the best of intentions and a diversity of backgrounds, experience and knowledge to contribute. As I said in my first speech, while I acknowledge that there is an aspect of our democracy that is necessarily and even usefully adversarial, I also believe there is greater scope for cooperative, consensus politics.

Many of us have been inspired by the people we have met and the stories we have heard about suffering and about hope. Lyn White, of Animals Australia, uses forensic investigations and powerful advocacy to raise public consciousness of the plight of the millions of animals raised, transported and slaughtered for human consumption. Her efforts are reinforced by many other dedicated animal welfare professionals, scientists, journalists, vets, lawyers and community members too numerous to name, as well as some valued parliamentary colleagues, including—among many—Kelvin Thomson, Tony Zappia, Andrew Wilkie and Jason Wood. I thank them for their support and their voice for the animals. I agree with the former President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, David Weisbrot, who said animal welfare would be the next great social justice movement. Establishing properly resourced independent offices of animal welfare at federal and state levels should be a priority to ensure that animal welfare laws and policies are strengthened, harmonised and enforced.

As members of parliament, we frequently receive delegations of scientists, doctors and young people regarding the existential challenge of climate change. I will never forget the young people from the Pacific islands who came to the parliament to discuss the devastating impact that global warming is having on their islands, with increased cyclonic, drought and storm surge events and sea level rise eroding precious land and polluting crops and fresh water with salt. There is nowhere for them to go. Australia has a duty as a high-per-capita emitter to reduce its carbon emissions as a matter of urgency and to assist poorer nations to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Dr Hla Myint has been a frequent visitor to parliament to raise awareness of the plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, often described as the most persecuted people in the world. It is to be hoped the new presidency will promote human rights for all in Myanmar. The Baha'i community in Fremantle, Canberra and elsewhere have consistently spoken about the persecution of Baha'is in Iran, an issue I recently raised with the Iranian foreign minister and ambassador, who gave me a good hearing. It is only through dialogue that understanding and breakthroughs can occur.

As a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, it has been wonderful to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama—and with members of the Tibetan community in Australia and in exile—to learn about the situation of Tibetans and their peaceful quest for genuine autonomy and respect for their language, religion and culture within China. Given the growing power of China, it is particularly important that parliamentarians continue to raise human rights issues faced by Tibetans and other groups within China, including Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners and the many courageous Chinese advocates for democracy and rights.

I thank the Palestinian ambassador, His Excellency Izzat Abdulhadi, and the Moroccan ambassador, His Excellency Mohamed Mael-Ainin representing the Council of Arab Ambassadors for the recent special presentation of thanks to Maria Vamvakinou, Laurie Ferguson, Alan Griffin, Jill Hall, Craig Laundy, Sussan Ley, Lee Rhiannon and I for our work as members of the parliamentary friendship group for Palestine. As someone who lived in Gaza for 2½ years out of the eight years I worked with the UN, it has been heartening to see increasing recognition, in this place, of the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people as a result of the decades-long occupation, the continued illegal settlement-building, the Gaza blockade and the discrimination within and outside of Israel.

This situation harms everyone, including Israel, which will find it increasingly difficult to combat claims that it is becoming an apartheid state within the meaning of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. I look forward to Australia joining the two-thirds of the world's nations that already recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel and that support an end to the occupation. Only a solution that respects international law and the human rights of all is sustainable.

I am perturbed by the recent report that the last visit by an Australian government minister to Australia's great friend and close neighbour Timor-Leste was when I visited in August 2013 as international development minister. I hope that Labor's policy to enter negotiations with Timor-Leste—and submit to international arbitration if talks fail—will become bipartisan policy. I also look forward to the long-suffering people of West Papua finally seeing justice and respect for their human rights, including self-determination.

The United Nations remains as important as ever, despite its flaws, and I am proud of Australia's longstanding commitment to the organisation and to multilateralism, since it was first championed by Labor Prime Minister and former federal member for Fremantle John Curtin, and foreign minister Doc Evatt. As a former UN staff member, I was appreciative of the encouragement of the former member for Fraser Professor John Langmore to establish the Australia-UN Parliamentary Group, together with former Liberal Senator Russell Trood, in 2008. The group is an important—and, I hope, lasting—development in the parliament, which complements the longstanding parliamentary association for UNICEF, which I have also had the privilege of co-chairing.

The United Nations' annual peacekeeping budget, at US$7.8 billion, is equivalent to half of one per cent of annual global military spending. In 2011, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade inquiry into the 2009-10 DFAT annual report canvassed the enormous disparity, in budgetary terms, between defence and diplomacy: roughly, $27 billion versus $1 billion, at the time.

In the committee's view and in my view, there is no reason we should not invest in preventative defence in the same way as we do in preventative health and—in addition to the regular diplomacy work—promote the active work in conflict resolution or peacemaking that might be done to anticipate and preve


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