Senate debates

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Parliamentary Representation

Valedictory

6:37 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

I also acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people and acknowledge their leaders past and present. I rise tonight to make my final contribution to the Senate, which I have had the honour of serving in since 2008, while representing the citizens of New South Wales and the great Australian Labor Party.

My work as a trade union official and senator has given me the opportunity to meet wonderful and interesting people throughout the length and breadth of this huge country. The overwhelming majority of Australians who I have met have been working people. They would probably describe themselves as 'ordinary Australians'. However, the working men and women of this country are anything but ordinary. In the main, the Australian working class are industrious, loyal, intelligent, politically engaged and big hearted. They are not xenophobic, ultranationalistic or racist, as some on the crossbenches would have people think. The men and women who work in factories, in hospitals, on building sites and in classrooms are the people who make this country great. These workers, many of them union members, build and maintain our great nation.

Knowing that I had to make this final speech got me thinking about why I'm here, what brought me to this place and what I have tried to achieve while I was here. In reality, it all comes down to one thing: socialism. I know those opposite have just about fainted!

I'm a proud socialist.

The first leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Hardie, was born in Holytown, a stone's throw from my birthplace of Bellshill. Keir Hardie said this:

Socialism is at bottom a question of ethics and morals. It has mainly to do with the relationships which should exist between a man and his fellows. Therefore it is the equaliser in the position of the rich man's too much and the poor man's too little.

The former member for Parkes, who I never met, Les Haylen, provided another take on socialism, and it's also one to which I subscribe. In 1961, Les Haylen described socialism in these terms:

anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-monopoly, anti-greed and anti-race discrimination, and forever opposed to the savageness of capitalism which has kept the world in fear and misery for centuries … Socialism is a standard of shared goods, jobs and opportunities. It's another word for equality—fair shares.

To this day, those opposite view this alternative economic program, one that has served so many of our allies so well, as inferior to capitalism and neoliberalism. Well, I'll let those opposite in on a little secret: you've got socialists in your ranks too; they just won't admit it! My old mate Wacka Williams is an agrarian socialist if I've ever seen one. Nobody that's been kicked in the guts by capitalism and the banks, like Wacka has been, could be anything else. What other reason could there be for a farmer and a trade unionist to get along so well?

But it was the late, great Leonard Cohen who provided probably the most poetic metaphor for inequality, unfairness and corruption, in his song 'Everybody Knows'. While I'm not going to test the standing orders, or your sensibilities, and sing, I'll read the first verse:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows that the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That's how it goes

Everybody knows

I grew up in Bellshill, where there were a lot of poor people—a small working-class town a few miles south-east of Glasgow, in North Lanarkshire. Bellshill was a steel town, an engineering and mining town, a tough town. It was home to a large Lithuanian migrant population, which included my mother's family. I grew up in Scotland in social housing, colloquially known as the schemes, with my brother, Andy; my sisters, Marilyn and Sandra; my mother, Anne; and my father, Dougie. My father was a sergeant major in the British Army. He served behind Japanese lines in Burma with the British expeditionary forces, and then in India. He was a man stricken by the ravages of malaria and war. Like many returned soldiers, he ended up abusing alcohol and dying young. He was a strict disciplinarian, as sergeant majors are, and an authoritarian, which I think engendered in me a keen sense of civil disobedience. I am not a pacifist, but I hate war.

We never had much money, and my mum had a tough time making ends meet. I entered the workforce at 12 delivering newspapers. I left school at 15 to take up an apprenticeship as a fitter. I joined the union on my first day at work and, apart from marrying Elaine, it was the best call I ever made. In 1973, aged 22, Elaine and I left Bellshill with our 14-month-old daughter, Lynn, and migrated to Australia in search of a better life, one free from sectarian conflict and hardship. Because I had a trade certificate as a fitter and machinist, we had a choice of countries including the United States, Canada and New Zealand. However, Australia had a reputation as being an egalitarian, multicultural country where a worker would get a fair go and a fair day's pay as a result of large, effective trade unions.

Upon our arrival we stayed at the Endeavour Migrant Hostel in South Coogee. I was, in reality, an economic refugee—the sort loathed by some of the crossbenchers. As I've looked across this chamber in recent times, I've done so in the knowledge that there are some people in here who would have denied my family and me the opportunity to make a life in Australia if the decision had been theirs. Fortunately, those with xenophobic and racist views are in the minority, and their bigotry will never ever be accepted by mainstream Australians in this proudly multicultural country where about 30 per cent of residents were born overseas.

As a fitter, I was able to secure employment at General Motors Holden in Pagewood, at Garden Island dockyard and at National Springs. And Elaine was one of the first women to work on the production line at General Motors Holden as a spot welder—because we had $80 when we arrived in Australia, the equivalent of a week's wages. I had to work, Elaine had to work and we had to make a life in this country. I worked with other migrants, many from non-English speaking backgrounds who shared my dream of living in a bountiful, peaceful country, free of the poverty and divisive politics that had afflicted Europe.

In 1975, I accepted a job as a maintenance fitter at the Liddell Power Station near Muswellbrook. It was a heap of rubbish then; I don't know what it's like now—this lot want to keep it going! It was at Liddell that I became a union activist and convener. On arrival at Muswellbrook with Elaine, Lynn and our newborn daughter, Fiona, we discovered that the house provided as part of the job had been vandalised. When I raised this with the bosses, they just shrugged their shoulders. So here I am with a wife and two young children and nowhere to live but a dilapidated, dirty, unsafe worker's cottage. Fiona was only a few months old. Luckily for me, I was a member of the union. As soon as I spoke to the shop steward, he took it up with the bosses and we were given a different house, one fit for a family with a new child. I have never forgotten that act of support, strength and solidarity and I never will.

In 1982, after seven years on the tools at Liddell and after many industrial disputes, I was elected as a state organiser for the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union. In 1986, I became the New South Wales assistant state secretary of the union before becoming the assistant national secretary. From 1996 until I commenced my first term in the Senate in 2008, I was National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers and the vice-president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

A union is only as strong as its weakest shop, and we would use the strength of our 'hot shops', the well organised sites, to raise standards across the industry. Pattern bargaining, as it was known, is the most effective way for working people to get decent pay and conditions. WorkChoices essentially outlawed pattern bargaining, and, as a result, workers' pay and conditions have stagnated while company profits have soared. Under the current industrial system, workers would have been unable to achieve shorter hours, career paths, superannuation and industrial democracy, free from complete managerial prerogative. John Howard's war on workers and their unions culminated in the waterfront dispute and the introduction of Work Choices, the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission.

In 2007, when the workers of this country rose up and countered these unprecedented attacks on their rights at work, I was very fortunate to be elected to the Australian Senate. I was encouraged to seek preselection by my friend and comrade Greg Combet—so you can all blame Greg! I was strongly supported by Sally McManus, a great trade unionist and a fantastic leader.

We often hear about the shortcomings of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years—more often than not from the Murdoch press. We hear about the internal fighting, the removal of a sitting Prime Minister and the endless cycle of payback. And, yes, that all happened. I opposed the removal of Prime Minister Rudd, and I think my position has been vindicated. The only thing worse than engaging in that sort of nonsense would be to witness it, ruthlessly exploit it and then immediately repeat it as soon as you got into power. And that's exactly what the Liberal Party has done.

Less spoken about are some of the great achievements of the Rudd-Gillard years, starting with the long-overdue apology to our First Nations people. Indigenous Australians continue to pay a heavy price for having their country stolen and their culture attacked. Rudd's apology started a healing process, and I firmly believe this important work must continue if Australia is to ever reach its full potential.

Another enormous achievement of the previous Labor government was guiding Australia through the economic turmoil of the global financial crisis without the widespread job losses and foreclosures experienced around the world. Some of this lot over there were saying that there was no global financial crisis—that it was an American or European crisis. I don't get it. How these people were ever seen to be good economic managers beggars belief. It should not and will not ever be forgotten that it was a Labor government that shielded the people of this country from the excesses of capitalism. This was real economic leadership by Prime Minister Rudd and Treasurer Swan. It stands out compared to the economic vandalism of the Howard and Costello years.

While this Senate has faced some serious headwinds throughout my time here, it's the recent contributions by neo-fascists masquerading as patriots that have caused me the most concern. I'll make this point very clearly. It is not Australia's Muslim community that is a menace and danger to our society and to what we collectively hold dear. It's not Australia's Muslim community who invited a toxic foreign entity like the NRA to buy our democracy and expose our community to semiautomatic weapons. It's the extreme Right; they are the incubators of hate and intolerance. It's One Nation, people like Fraser Anning and the extremists on the far Right of the Coalition that would destroy this great country if given half a chance.

The very wealthy, self-serving, anti-union former Liberal Party candidate, Pauline Hanson, pretends to be a voice for those without financial or political power. One Nation does this while voting with the Liberals on key legislation including the ABCC, penalty rates, free trade agreements and tax cuts for the wealthy. They pretend to love this country while dispatching their idiotic minions to sell us out to the NRA. They pretend to care about everyday Australians while subscribing to imbecilic conspiracies about the Port Arthur massacre. And now they want us to believe they were all taken out of context with their half-baked plan to hijack this parliament with US gun money. I strongly urge working-class Queenslanders, working-class Australians, to give this treacherous, treasonous rabble the boot at the upcoming election.

I say to the Australian Muslim community: you are welcome here. You are an important part of our multicultural society. You contribute far more than Senator Hanson and her poisonous policies. You belong here as much as anyone else, and don't let anyone tell you any different.

One of the most important trips I made as a senator was to the Wilkins aerodrome in Antarctica with the environment and communications committee, where scientists explained to me the impact climate change is having on our planet. How our opponents became so wedged on this important issue is beyond me. I do take comfort, however, in the knowledge that a Shorten Labor government, if elected, will take meaningful action on climate change to safeguard future generations.

Over the past six years I've been honoured to serve in Bill Shorten's shadow ministry as Labor's spokesman on, firstly, human services, housing and homelessness, as well as skills, TAFE and apprenticeships.

Unfortunately, Australia's housing market is failing. Home ownership is at record lows, rental stress is preventing young people from saving for a home deposit, and homelessness is skyrocketing. There are very few social outcomes that so unambiguously and shamefully expose our failure to live up to the promise of being a fair and decent society than the persistently high number of young Australians and older women either at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

We must stop viewing housing purely as a source of investment and wealth creation and recognise that a society as wealthy as ours should view having a roof over your head as a human right. I also believe that, given the social and economic importance of housing, it should be part of the infrastructure portfolio.

I am deeply concerned that too many politicians argue that 'equality of opportunity' is the key to resolving social and economic disadvantage. This rhetoric belies the massive difference in opportunity available to the children of the wealthy compared with the children of working-class and disadvantaged Australians.

Young people under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government have faced high rates of unemployment and underemployment, wage stagnation and penalty rate cuts, underinvestment in vocational education, and increases in the proportion of young workers relying on the minimum wage.

This hopeless and dysfunctional coalition government has also decimated our TAFE and apprenticeship systems by cutting more than $3 billion from the sector. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices since they were elected, and TAFE enrolments have plummeted by 24.5 per cent. Last night's budget did nothing to address this terminal decline; rather, it was a pea-and-thimble trick designed to fool voters into thinking they are investing more money when, clearly, they are not.

Among the highlights of my time in the Senate was the delivery of my proposal to establish the National Workers Memorial in Canberra. The memorial serves the dual purpose of honouring those killed at work and reminding us all of the need for occupational health and safety in the workplace—and, Wacka, thanks for your support on that committee.

If there is one small thing I hope I am remembered for when I leave this place it's consistency. I've consistently backed progressive causes, even when they have been unpopular. Sorry, Penny, but I've never voted for a free trade agreement in the caucus. I've never believed in the magical power of the markets and I've remained extremely sceptical about the virtues of privatisation and competition policy. Privatisation has not worked in health, in education, in the electricity market or in the vocational education sector. We've seen countless big government instrumentalities handed over to the private sector, who more often than not have profiteered while reducing services.

One of the most consistent criticisms levelled at me by the Murdoch press and others is that I engage in class warfare. Apparently, defunding public schools and hospitals, cutting legal aid, closing TAFE campuses, allowing wage theft and cutting penalty rates are not class warfare. If protecting the working class from the excesses of the wealthy elite and the coalition is class war, I plead guilty to class war.

When I was first elected to the Senate, a colleague told me that I was no longer a trade unionist but a senator in the Australian parliament. Like many other pieces of unsolicited advice, I ignored this. I have always been and always will be a proud trade unionist.

Many great men and women have served the Labor Party over the years—people like Senator Bruce Childs, a fantastic individual, a fantastic senator. But there is one New South Wales senator that I'd like to single out as having left an indelible mark on democracy, society and the law—that's Lionel Murphy. The former Attorney General's many reforms were driven by a visceral sense of social justice and a fierce determination to pursue equality for all. Lionel sought justice for women in the mid-1970s through his abolition of the Matrimonial Causes Act and the introduction of no-fault divorce. His establishment of Commonwealth legal aid provided many Australians previously shut out of the legal system with rights and access to legal support. Lionel's well-placed concern about the accountability and transparency of our national security agencies remains of fundamental relevance to Australian democracy today. This parliament needs more oversight—such as the UK parliament, the Canadian parliament and the US government all have in place—over our security services. If you want to give them more power, they must be more accountable.

Lionel is credited with establishing the Senate committee system—an innovation that has contributed so much to democratic accountability in this country.

There are far too many good comrades in the Labor Party for me to mention today, but I will single out my Senate colleagues for special mention: thanks, comrades; you've been great. They have been an inspiration and tremendous support for me over the years, and I thank each and every one of them for this.

In the other place, I want to make a special mention of deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek. I believe Tanya will make a truly great deputy prime minister and I hope she gets that opportunity very soon. I want to acknowledge Jenny Macklin, one of the most talented, hardworking, intellectually precise people I've ever met—a fantastic contributor to this nation.

I want to just say that my Queensland colleague Murray Watt has been a forensic interrogator in Senate estimates, and I know for certain he will make a significant contribution to Australian public life over the coming years. The same goes for my New South Wales comrades: Deb O'Neill, Kristina Keneally and Jenny McAllister—three remarkable women who will continue to serve this nation very well. Claire, you and I are going out at the same time but you have made a remarkable contribution to the Senate and to the parliament.

One of the most formidable and intelligent politicians I have ever met is my leader in the Senate, Penny Wong. Penny, you and I have had our differences on a range of policy issues. You have always argued your position with strength and integrity, even though your remarkable powers of persuasion failed to change my mind on trade and competition policy.

I could not leave this place without special mention of my mate Albo. What can you say about Albo? Self-made, raconteur, DJ—my goodness!—and not a bad numbers man. He is the ultimate political warrior. He dominated the House of Representatives as Leader of the House, and his contribution to Labor, allowing us to now be a genuine alternative government, should never be underestimated.

And finally, to my successor and AMWU brother, Tim Ayres: I wish you all the best for the future. I know you will serve the people of New South Wales well. Good luck, comrade, in the future.

I leave this place in the knowledge that the labour movement and the Labor Party are in great shape. Sally McManus and Michele O'Neil have reinvigorated the union movement with their uncompromising leadership style. I've been extremely impressed by the way Bill and Tanya have united the Labor Party, leading us out of the wilderness and into contention to form the next Australian government. Under Bill's leadership, the Labor Party again feels like the Labor Party I joined many years ago. It is unashamedly progressive, pro-worker, pro-women, outward-looking and confident. I am quietly confident myself that Australians will give Bill the opportunity to lead this great country. He will make a great Labor Prime Minister who will govern for all Australians, particularly those without access to wealth and power.

In closing, I want to thank the Parliament House staff, who do a tremendous job in keeping this place running. I'll just adopt the thank yous that Claire gave, and I think that'll save a bit of time!

I might mention the cleaners. The cleaners in Parliament House have been subjected to wage theft, and if the cleaners in Parliament House are subjected to wage theft, how can workers out in the general community be confident that their wages will be looked after? The cleaners do a tough job. The cleaners do a great job. Yet this rabble of a government allowed their wages to be cut. It defies belief.

In closing, I want to say that my own personal staff, both past and present, have been absolutely fabulous. They have provided me with the resources, support and advice that I have needed to do my job properly. Helen, Siobhan, Rebecca, Jason, Justine and Michael—a talented team—thank you. I must mention Phil Morgans, who worked with me for near on 20 years as my chief of staff in the union and is a friend and adviser without peer. Phil will be shaking his head, because I think this is the first time for a long time I've actually written a speech and stuck to the speech—probably because Wacka Williams and The Nationals have behaved themselves!

I want thank my wonderful wife, Elaine, who has given me the love and support I've needed throughout our time together. We have been married for 48 years—shit! I was going to say she's a lucky woman, but she'll shake her head. Actually, Elaine saved my life. Elaine supported me as I recovered from alcohol addiction.

To my beautiful daughters, Lynn and Fiona; their partners, Rick and Perry; and my beautiful grandchildren, Amy and Scott: thanks for being so great. Thank you for turning into reality your mum's and my hopes when we emigrated to Australia: to have a great life, not only for ourselves but also for you, in our adopted country. You have been a credit to us. We love you and we thank you for being so good.

Thanks, everyone. This is the last time you'll hear from me—but I liked the battle.

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