House debates

Wednesday, 24 March 2021


Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021; Second Reading

6:16 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I've been in this place for a while now—16 years. When the Abbott government was first elected, I watched the government push the pause button. It was as though everything stopped. All the action, all the things that we needed to do on climate change, the changing nature of work and the cost of living pressures on families, went on pause and nothing happened. Day after day, we watched speeches made in the main chamber that usually would be pushed to the Federation Chamber because important bills had to be debated. There were times when we almost ran out of legislation. There were times when virtually nobody on the government side had anything to say. It went on for month after month. And then we had the Turnbull government and it continued. We still had endless changes to energy policy but nothing substantial. There was no real action on climate change, there was destruction of the NBN, no real action on aged care and no real closing of the gap. Incredibly important things went on the backburner. There were lots of reports but no action; nothing. There was very little happening in the parliament. Then we had the Morrison government, and it's even worse now than it was under the first two versions of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. My emotional state went from sadness over the opportunities that the country was missing and then it went to frustration and even despair. But I'm surprised, I have to say, at the level of anger I have now. I don't get angry. I've lost my temper twice in my life. It's not my natural state, but I'm now angrier than I've been in a long time at what is happening in this parliament and what is not happening in this parliament.

Today, I want to talk about the failure of this government to listen and hear the voices of people out there who are crying out in despair, crying out in need or crying out in hope and passion. We have a government that is completely oblivious to it all. The three big issues that come to the fore when I think of that are the women that gathered outside last week, the Indigenous people who are crying out to be heard, and veterans, who also met on the grass this week, asking for a royal commission into veteran suicide. I want to start with women. This has been an extraordinary week. I'm going to start by saying I am not a victim of sexual abuse, though one in five women are victims of sexual abuse after the age of 15. There are many victims before that, but one in five are victims of sexual abuse over the age of 15. That's a lot of women. Large numbers of them gathered outside this place in anger and rage at the allegations that had been made against members in this House and allegations of things that had taken place in this House, asking the government to hear their rage and their anger and act.

The independent inquiry needs to take it seriously. People who had been silent for years have been contacting my office saying; 'This isn't good enough. Something else has to change.' Instead, we've had some of the most extraordinarily offensive statements being made by members of the government. I'm going to touch on a couple of them, because I think that, sometimes, when the statements are made, the people who made them and some of the people who hear them don't hear them from the perspective of women who lived, as I did, through the age of Germaine Greer. I was told that I wouldn't get a job in radio unless I married a rich man and bought a radio station or learnt to type. I did get a job in radio. I've known men who demonstrated absolutely that they could do whatever they damn well liked if they chose to, and they made it perfectly clear. We have lived through being trivialised, ignored and spoken over for decades—and lived with most of it—and then we get statements that the government doesn't need to worry about this because it is an issue that only white, university-educated women care about.

Let me tell you what I think when I hear that, because I am a white, university-educated woman. I have never heard anybody say that we don't have to care about something because it's an issue that only white, educated men care about. I have never heard the opposite said. When that is said, the people who say it and the people who perpetrate it are saying that white, university-educated women are trivial, that they don't matter, that they're just off on the side somewhere; they're doctors wives that have a second job for their husband. It reminds me, and women of my age, of how many times I was told in interviews that I wouldn't get the job because the man who came in before me had a wife to support. It reminds me of how many times we are discounted and put aside because we are women and for no other reason. That's what we hear. Then we hear a minister suggest that there are lots of false allegations of rape: 'We believe the man here. It's probably a false allegation.' If it were true that there are lots and lots and lots of false allegations of rape then the chief of the Army would be pulling in the men in the Army and saying to them: 'In order to avoid being falsely accused of rape, don't go out with women after midnight, don't get drunk, don't be too friendly, don't smile.' But they don't. They call the women in. They call the women in, because one in five women in Australia have been sexually assaulted after the age of 15. Then the Prime Minister says something. Again, I accept that he may not have meant it this way, but let me say what I heard. I heard the Prime Minister say, 'If they were in another country, they'd be shot for this.' I add the next sentence: 'Oh, they were just raped and not heard. Oh, that's fine.' That's what I hear, because I have lived through decades of this sort of stuff. I have lived through decades of it. Any woman my age is going to have exactly the same response that I am having at this point—all of them. I talk to them every day.

This has to change—and the behaviour of men. I now walk down the corridors of parliament, having lived a life where I don't walk home in the dark alone. I go to town sometimes where I never see a woman walking alone; I only see a woman walking with a man. I see men walking alone but not women. You live in a world where you hold your keys in your hand. You don't leave too late. We live in a world where we have to assume that the men we see in the street are dangerous. Now we find out that there's a bunch of blokes in this House, walking around these corridors right now, who think it's perfectly acceptable to perform a sex act on their female boss's desk. That is a statement that absolutely says, 'I'm powerful, and I'm more powerful than you, and this is my right.' That's what it means to me and that's what it means to women. I am walking around this place as furious as I can be that I am in a position where I know that there are men in this place who knew it was going on, who shared it on Facebook and who said and did nothing. What is their attitude to me and the other women in this place? That's what women hear, because we have lived this for decades. Enough is enough. If the men on either side don't get it then they need to get out more and talk to more women, because this is just not right.

Another issue I really want to talk about is the Indigenous voice to parliament. It's another case where this government demonstrates that it cannot put itself in any life that it hasn't lived itself. They cannot empathise or imagine or conceptualise a life that is not theirs. Women? No, sorry, don't get it. Indigenous people, who have lived lives of incredible loss and grief, poverty, lack of housing, all sorts of other things, and a lack of hope. And this government, when faced with the Statement from the Heart, don't hear it. It's as if they are incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of somebody else and looking at the world from another perspective.

I'm lucky: I live in one of the most diverse communities in the world, in Parramatta. It's incredibly diverse. When you live in a community that diverse, you don't have the luxury of assuming that your view is the norm and everybody else has to persuade you. You live in a world where people have come from different places and lived different experiences. They have different religions; their languages are thousands of years old; they have concepts that they can express in one language but not another. You live your life in a community like that knowing all the time that you have to keep open and bend and trust that the people you're talking to are coming from a place of good, as most people do.

But this government can't do that. Whether it's women, whether it's Indigenous people, whether it's veterans, they cannot put themselves in the place of someone who's life experience they have not shared. A bunch of veterans met out the front this week to talk about veteran suicide. I haven't been in a war zone. My father was. I lived in an army suburb, so I saw the men come back from Vietnam and I saw their families fall apart. It was a shocking thing. I was a teenager, and there were a lot of really traumatised men who came back at that time. It's a shocking thing. Since the Afghan war we have lost 41 soldiers in combat, and we've lost over 500 to suicide. This is an indictment on all of us who sit quietly and accept that our soldiers go to war, and when they come back they take their lives in their hundreds and we don't act.

When those veterans come to us with their life experience as a group and say, 'This is what we need', we should be able to trust them. I recognise that the government didn't oppose the motion that was passed in the parliament the other day. But it's about time that the government supported it and did this. They are clearly saying, 'Give us the royal commission and then give a permanent structure to look at what the solutions might be.' They are telling us that there are things that have to be exposed, that have to be uncovered, that have to be said, and they need a safe place to do that. Let's listen to them. We thought enough of them to send them off to war. We should think enough of them to trust them to know what they need now they have come back. It's an absolute indictment on this government that it can't even hear the people that it claims to be the great voice of.

And then you get to the rest of it. Aged care: honestly, they called the royal commission into aged care after being shoved for months. When finally there was going to be an expose on mainstream television, they finally called a royal commission into aged care the day before, having rejected it and refused to do it for months. They did it. They ignored 21 other reports that raised similar issues, doing nothing. They didn't hear it. They didn't hear people talk about their malnourished parent lying in faeces, being left in a bed all day, being left in a chair. They didn't hear any of that until the crisis of image—their image—hit and they called it. They ignored 21 other reports.

Then, when the royal commission put out their interim report, called Neglect, they didn't hear that either. There were 100,000 people on the waiting list for home care. There are still 100,000 people on the waiting list for home care, years later. They do not hear the voices raised in pain and anger. They do not hear it and they do not act. They are too slow, they don't hear it, they try to avoid it altogether. It is only when the crisis of public opinion hits that they do anything at all.

Look at the COVID response to all the things that the federal government had responsibility for. Visas; people stuck overseas unable to re-enter Australia. A couple is overseas, the wife is pregnant, the man comes back to work, she stays for a couple of weeks to be with her mum, the borders close and she's then too pregnant to fly home. Eight months later, the father hasn't met his child. That's what I'm hearing. How can this government have gone on for a year and not heard that? I've got people coming to me every day of the week telling me stories like that. People have been separated for months—literally, a father who hadn't met his child. Can you imagine that? This is what I'm hearing. This government is oblivious to this level of pain. They're oblivious. It's as if they can't hear anything.

We've had people screaming out in unison, people on JobSeeker—previously Newstart and the dole—and all the business organisations in the country, saying, 'You have to increase this. You have to increase this.' And what do we get? We get three dollars and something a day. It's irrelevant, right? It's irrelevant. There are organisations in my electorate that have really come to the party. They're delivering food. I delivered food to a two-bedroom house that had three families in it, and one of them had a newborn that had only come home from hospital the day before. That's a great start to life! You get quotes like this from one of our charities:

Our services are about to be avalanched with people who cannot pay their bills, people who cannot afford their food, people who cannot afford to live in their rental accommodation anymore …

That comes from Claerwen Little, the national director of UnitingCare Australia, a big organisation. And that's what I'm hearing. Anybody who is out there in the community would be hearing similar stories, and yet the government does not act. In fact, it is worse, because JobKeeper goes at the end of this week, and many, many more people will go on to JobSeeker. Please listen. It's your job. Just listen. (Time expired)


No comments