Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Parliamentary Representation


5:31 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

It is with a great sense of sadness that I rise today to pay tribute to my colleague Senator Penny—I was about to say 'Wong' but it is not!—Senator Penny Wright.

Penny said that she was elected in 2010. We were elected at the same time, and she said that she was elected thanks to some great luck. I take issue with that. Penny was elected because the people of South Australia showed wonderful judgement and recognised a decent human being when they saw one.

We were both in the class of 2010, and when I first met Penny she was on crutches. She had a bung knee; she had suffered an horrendous bicycle accident. I thought that was a fairly drastic way of demonstrating her commitment to the Green cause! She struck me immediately as someone who was incredibly respectful, very curious and reflective—things that I think are in very short supply in our nation's parliament.

She is someone of great warmth, and has a very immediate connection with people. She has been able to connect with communities across South Australia in a way that few other people could. It is one of her great strengths, that she has been a very strong and powerful advocate for the people of South Australia. I know that she has done some amazing work on Kangaroo Island in standing alongside landowners to protect the environment, and taking on issues like oil and gas exploration.

Similarly, in the south-east of the state—around Mount Gambier and the Limestone Coast—she took a stand against unconventional gas exploration on farmland. She worked in Port Augusta to highlight the transition that was possible in moving away from polluting sources of energy to solar thermal power. And, of course, as we have heard, she worked closely with Adam Bandt in the lower house to ensure that firefighters were given the protection they need in developing an act that protected them if they developed an occupational cancer.

She also took on her portfolios with great relish. Penny was handed the mental health portfolio. I can say this now: at the time I wondered, as the health portfolio holder, whether it was a wise idea to split health into health and mental health. I know that there is a strong argument in that direction, but I suppose I just wanted it for myself! But within a few months it was pretty clear that it was the right call. She took to that portfolio with relish, she worked incredibly hard on it and she leaves a very strong legacy in that area.

She conducted a rural tour—a tour of regional Australia—working with a number of communities in trying to find out what the best pathway was to address one of the great challenges that we have as a nation, and that is providing care for people with mental ill health. One of the things I think I am proudest of from the last election was a comment from Russell Roberts, who is the chair of the National Alliance for Rural and Regional Mental Health, who said that Penny was responsible for:

… one of the most sensible pieces of policy work I've seen from a political party, on rural mental health, in the last 25 years.

That is a great credit to you, Penny.

She did not just work, though, in developing policy for the election. She was able to work across party lines. Together with some of her colleagues she established the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Youth Mental Health in 2013 to highlight some of the unique challenges that face young people across the country. She also worked with people suffering from things like eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Again, I think that people who are suffering from mental ill health will be thankful for the great work that Penny has done.

Penny was also the chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee from 2011 until this year. I think it is fair to say that for some of that time she was driven to her wits' end. We have had many discussions about the standard of debate within that committee and, without wanting to cast any aspersions on other members in this place, let's just say that there were other members of that committee who pushed Penny to her limits—and if you know Penny, that is saying something.

She also did a lot of work through that committee that will not make it to the TV news. Justice reinvestment, for example—not a particularly glamorous area and not something that will make newspaper headlines, but a really important initiative. And she drove an inquiry into the value of justice reinvestment in Australia to deal with issues such as the high incarceration rate of Aboriginal people across the country, and looking at whether we can redirect our resources in a much more caring and cost-effective way.

She was involved in a disallowance motion—in fact, she led the charge on the abolition of the government's so-called divorce tax and was responsible for changes in that area. She has been such a strong defender for the rule of law. She is so considered in her contribution in our party room, and particularly at a moment when there is a battle going on around what is the appropriate response to some of the international issues that are facing us. She has been a champion for human rights and civil liberties, against some of the attacks we are currently seeing on the rule of law in Australia.

I remember fondly her contribution to the debate around racial discrimination. A particular encounter with the Attorney-General Senator Brandis comes to mind, when Senator Wright stood up and—let's just say, she gave as good as she got. She did an amazing job and she did us all proud.

She has worked hard on veterans' affairs and made a big contribution in that area, providing much-needed advocacy for the partners of veterans and their families; and raising awareness and understanding around a number of issues relating to veterans' mental health.

In schools and education she was a champion for a decent public education system and did her best working with other members in this place to see the Gonski reforms implemented. She has been a strong and vocal critic around NAPLAN testing and has highlighted some of the inadequacies in that area of education policy.

So it is with sadness that we all say goodbye to Penny. It always happens to the good people. I think Australia's has lost a great champion for human rights. I think Australia has lost a great defender of our precious environment. We Greens have lost a person of tremendous integrity, warmth and intelligence. But her family has gained a wonderful mother and wife. You have your family back. Our loss is your gain. Penny, on behalf of everybody here, we are going to miss you.


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