Tuesday, 27 March 2018
Thank you, Mr President. In the year before this chamber opened, 1987, just after I graduated from high school, I took a job on an assembly line at Johns-Manville, a fibreglass manufacturer who had two factories in my hometown of Waterville, Ohio. The work was tedious and hot. But the hourly rate was good, compared to other jobs, and it helped me save for my up-front university fees. I worked eight-hour shifts, sometimes 12 hours, on a crew of four. We wore these heavy canvas jumpsuits. When slivers of fibreglass got caught between the canvas collar and the back of our necks, or in the space between the cuff and the inside of the wrist, the itching would drive us crazy.
We operated one end of a giant machine that made these huge sheets of white fibreglass. Our job was to get the fibreglass off the machine and wrapped in plastic. Our product looked like massive paper towel rolls as we shipped them down the line. My main responsibility was to attach adhesive tape to a four-metre-long rotating spindle so it could grab the next sheet of fibreglass as it came off the machine. The spindle rotated at about three kilometres an hour. I was told to stand back three metres, holding the tape on a specially designed hook, and given a safety stop switch.
Months earlier, a young woman named Leslie Lambert had my job. She did not have the same safety equipment or practices. When Leslie was working there, the spindle rotated at about 20 kilometres an hour. There was no instruction to stand three metres back. There was no hook or safety switch. One afternoon Leslie was caught by the adhesive tape and spun around 10 times, cracking her head and back on to the machine, before she was thrown to the floor. She died. Leslie was 19.
I never met Leslie but I know from her obituary that, like me, she was putting herself through university. I also know that she, like me, was a member of the Teamsters union—a union which had been pushing for safer conditions in that very factory. Only a few months separated Leslie and me—a few months between a dangerous workplace and a safe one. And yet the difference is also 31 years—31 years in which Leslie Lambert has lain in a grave in East Swanton, Ohio, 31 years in which I have been able to raise a family, study, work, travel and simply be alive. I know that the Teamsters Union made their members' safety at work a priority. I know that they had my back as a worker—and I have never forgotten that. The importance of a safe workplace and the role that unions play in keeping workers safe is seared into my very existence. Here in the Senate, I will continue to fight alongside my colleagues in the union movement for all Australians to be paid a living wage and for all workers to be safe at work.
I thank you, Mr President, and all Senate colleagues for the kind reception I've received and for the opportunity to make a first speech today. I recognise the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay my respect to elders and thank them for their custodianship of country. Alongside those words of respect, I want to restate my support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I believe it is within the imagination and the capacity of Australians to amend our Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of this land and to accord First Nations peoples a long-overdue voice in this parliament.
As I arrive in the Senate, I acknowledge the service of my friend and predecessor Sam Dastyari. I don't think I have met anyone who is as passionate about politics as him, and yet Sam's greatest gift is his capacity to engage with people who have no interest in politics whatsoever. I thank him for his service to our movement and I wish him every success in whatever he turns his hand to next. I thank especially my Labor colleagues, including Don Farrell and Penny Wong, for their warm welcome to the federal caucus. My arrival changes our internal dynamic somewhat. The Labor Senate team is now 61 per cent female. The New South Wales Labor Senate team of O'Neill, McAllister, Keneally and Cameron is 75 per cent female—and 50 per cent very strange accents!