Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

First Speech

5:29 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr President, and thank you, colleagues. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we're meeting on today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And I accept the invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart—the invitation to walk alongside First Nations Australians in a movement for a better future, a future founded on a voice to parliament, enshrined in the Constitution, on truth-telling and on treaty.

I'm proud to be joined today in the gallery by members of my union, the newly formed United Workers Union, a union of 150,000 people performing essential jobs around Australia: cleaners, hospo workers, early childhood educators, food production workers, farm workers and many more. You are a huge part of what led me here to this incredible place—this place that has so much promise, the promise of the power to make change, to build a country that brings security and opportunity to all.

My journey to this place started back in the 1970s and eighties in the middle-ring, middle-class suburbs of Melbourne. I was born as Whitlam came to power and was a teenager in the heyday of Labor heroes Hawke and Keating. I'd like to say that I was engaged and inspired by politics from an early age. But instead I spent most of my teenage years watching Neighbours and listening to Spandau Ballet. We lived in a suburb my brother, sister and I now affectionately call 'North Boring'—otherwise known as North Balwyn—and big thanks to my brother and sister for being here today in the gallery. Nothing much happened in 'North Boring', as you might imagine.

Like so many people from that part of Melbourne, though, I am very grateful for what was a great start in life, with the economic security so many Australians strive for, in a household with two stable, secure jobs and a suburb with great schools and services. I strongly believe that our biggest task here is to open the door to the protection and opportunity that good, secure jobs can bring to all Australians. To me a well-paid, stable job is the foundation for a good life in this country. Without one you really just don't get out of the gates. With one the door is opened to the middle-class security that I think all Australians want for themselves and their children—security that delivers the freedom to enjoy life today and the confidence to plan for the future.

My mother's path to that life was not straightforward, and her journey was a major influence on me. Mum grew up in Melbourne's inner north before it was the place to be. At the local convent school she discovered a love of books and flourished. She was the first person in her family to go to university and she absolutely loved it. But she had to fight to finish university after having her first child, scandalously, out of wedlock in 1967, a time when unmarried mothers were often unable to keep their children and when married mothers were regularly barred from work. Before she died in 2011 Mum told us the story of her younger years and how she toted her small baby around to classes, determined to finish. She did, and she was always grateful that she was able to get an education and, as she saw it, to open up her mind and her life. She was able to pass on that love of education and her love of books to many children through her 40-year career as an English teacher. From her I inherited a real sense that there was a rope to climb in life and a belief that everyone, no matter where they come from, should be supported to be their very best by society as a whole. And I knew very clearly how important it was for women to be able to determine our own futures.

Mum would be really proud to be here today. She was absolutely thrilled to come with me to hear Prime Minister Julia Gillard's 2010 election night speech in Melbourne and to live to see our first female Prime Minister. And she would be just as thrilled to see me here with another strong Labor role model: our Senate leader, Penny Wong. Mum was a staunch Labor voter, and my dad, who also passed away several years ago, came from good Labor stock too. His own father was a committed socialist and paid-up Labor Party member. I'm very grateful today to my parents' lifelong friends, Mary and Paul O'Connor, for being here in my parents' place. To dad's sister, Trish Costigan, who I know is watching from home, thank you for your support. Thank you also to Mary Rose Hayter and Gerry Costigan for being here today. From my own university days, I'm blessed to have made some fantastic friends who've stayed the course. The venues for our catch-ups may have changed from the local pub to the local dog park and from the latest bar to the ladies book club, but the friendships I've made with strong, smart and funny women are the best. Thank you so much for being here.

Like my mother, I was passionate about education and I followed that passion to spend over a decade in universities and policy centres both here and in the United States. In the US, I researched the loss of decent, stable manufacturing jobs and the growth in their place of low-paid and insecure work in service industries—jobs that often don't do the job of delivering the incomes and the security people need to get ahead. This is a trend that has really shaped the trajectory of the US economy, society and politics right through to today. It has left millions of people—often women, migrant workers and people of colour—surviving on a bare minimum wage, just one pay cheque away from crisis. And it has left the people who have known the benefits of decent, stable jobs looking over their shoulders with fear for the future. Sometimes that fear has been directed as anger towards those in even more insecure and vulnerable positions, in particular towards migrants seeking a better life. And it has caused a massive wealth divide between the haves and the have-nots. I still remember how shocked I was to see the pointy end of that divide in the US—people sleeping under bridges, while others drove into heavily gated communities in the suburbs each night.

That was really the beginning of a political awakening in me. It took leaving Australia for me to understand just how much we need to fight for what we have here. Joining the Australian union movement was the best way to put that fight into practice, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. In this country too, we've been hit by these same forces of economic restructuring for decades without any consensus as a nation about how we can rebuild the well-paid, stable jobs that underpin access to middle-class security and opportunity. In Australia today, more people than ever need two jobs to make ends meet. Forty per cent of Australians are in insecure work, casual jobs, contract jobs, labour hire and ABN jobs. Gig and shift-by-SMS jobs are more common. Wage theft is the norm in sectors like hospitality and farms. Women are still paid less than men for work of equal value. Migrant workers today in our country face extreme exploitation, and wage growth across the board has been flat now for years. And none of this is because we can't afford to provide good, secure jobs in Australia. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and it makes me angry that so many people are being denied the opportunity they deserve.

In the thousands of conversations I've had with members of my union over the years, I've heard one defining characteristic of a good job over and over again—that is, respect: respect and recognition for your hard work and the contribution you make; respect in your pay packet with a decent living wage; and respect with the job security you need to be able to enjoy life today and retire with enough for the future. I've met some inspirational people in my time with my union who dedicate themselves to fighting for that respect and for good, secure jobs for all Australians.

Gamal came to Australia from Sudan, where he had a career as a lawyer. Over the past 20 years he's worked overnight as a shopping centre cleaner. He's also been a proud union member fighting for fairer wages. Now in his 60s, Gamal still works nights, public holidays and weekends for a full-time wage not much greater than $40,000 a year. He will never give up fighting for fair and decent wages for all Australians.

Kerrie is a career early-childhood educator who is passionate about caring for and educating children. Kerrie uses her annual leave days to perform her official duties as president of the union, because she believes the union movement is the only way that highly skilled educators who earn around half the average wage will win the respect and recognition they deserve.

Andrew has been a union delegate for many years at an industrial bakery. He wants to see companies compete on the basis of quality and innovation, not by cutting wages—a trend he has been witnessing over the last decade. I know Andrew worries about the future of young bakers coming through when the jobs that are growing are almost all lower-paid and labour-hire jobs.

Anna is a young hospitality activist who was fired for speaking out about her below-award wages. She then started a campaign against wage theft in Melbourne, and her campaign inspired thousands of other young hospo workers to join their union, stand up and speak out. It exposed the absolute exploitation in the sector and brought to account some of the biggest names in the industry.

I am so pleased that Gamal, Kerrie, Andrew and Anna are here today. They're joined by the leadership of the two unions that now form the United Workers Union. Thank you to the national secretaries and presidents of both United Voice and the National Union of Workers: Jo Schofield, Tim Kennedy, Gary Bullock and Caterina Cinanni. Thanks also to the state secretaries who are here—Ben Redford, Susie Allison, Mel Gatfield and Lyndal Ryan—and to three longstanding members of my Victorian team: AJ, Tim and Ange. As a leadership team you have always and will always put union members front and centre in everything you do.

The new United Workers Union will be a critical force in rebuilding respect, security and opportunity in Australia. It has formed on a core belief that we are much stronger together, and it has formed to shake things up. Contrary to the current narrative, the big challenges of economic restructuring will not be solved by individuals just trying harder. We're told: 'It's all up to you. If you work harder, you can get ahead. The harder you work, the more you earn.' On that logic the members of my union, who are here today, would be millionaires. We're told: 'If you're not being paid enough to live or if you're stuck in a casual job, then just go out and get another one. Or just wait; we'll cut company tax rates, and, trust us, that'll be passed on to your pay packets.' Governments getting out of the way; people just trying a bit harder; waiting for the wealth to trickle down—that's not a recipe for opportunity for all. It's a tired, self-serving fantasy, and it's a fantasy that has delivered flatlining wages while profits and CEO salaries soar. It's delivered an explosion of job insecurity, low pay and underemployment, which in turn has sucked consumer demand out of the economy. Even conservative economists are screaming from the balcony that something has to give.

We are facing a jobs crisis in our country today, a crisis of persistent low and stagnant wages and a crisis of job insecurity, and we need to change direction now. The time for governments getting out of the way is over. It's time for governments to get back in the driver's seat and back to work. We need to apply a whole-of-government secure jobs pledge to everything we do and be accountable to the Australian people on that pledge. We need a secure jobs pledge that makes us assess every government decision against a simple but critical question: does it create decent, stable jobs with respect, or does it put more Australians on the path to insecurity?

As a first step in that pledge, governments need to start working with union members like Gamal, Kerrie, Andrew and Anna, not against them. Fundamentally, Australians need more power through their unions, not less, more power to win fair wages and stable jobs and more power to build industries that thrive on being the best at what they do, not on treating their workers the worst. They need more power to operate effectively in the changing world of work. The union members who have the courage to stand up for something better for themselves and for all Australians need more respect from government, not less. To those union members I say that if you are ready to stand up and speak out then I'm ready to stand with you.

A secure jobs pledge also means a new national focus on delivering jobs that bring respect, jobs we can count on, jobs we can plan a future on. It means mobilising the resources of government to actively plan for decent, stable jobs in everything we do. A secure jobs pledge means kickstarting investment in stable manufacturing work in new and sustainable industries, because we as a nation have all but abandoned those blue-collar jobs. If we do nothing, global markets will continue to come for those jobs and the communities that rely on them. Companies can move on to new investments and new regions when it suits them, but people stay. Without a strong, diverse economic base, too many communities can be left behind.

A secure jobs pledge means assessing whether privatisation of services promotes decent, stable jobs and, if in fact it just means cutting wages and cutting job security, it means saying no. It also means respecting migrants who come here to work, increasingly on short-term visas. It means guaranteeing them greater protection, including international students, who are so important to our economy but so often exploited in our workplaces today. A secure jobs pledge means guaranteeing good, stable jobs for the women who work in the fastest growing area of the economy: the government funded childcare, aged-care and disability sectors. Today these jobs are undervalued and underpaid, but they are essential and the women who perform them are essential too. If we delivered on our pledge, in this sector alone we would open the gates to middle-class security and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Australian women.

Finally, what about a secure jobs pledge for the First Nations people who today work alongside other Australians doing the same work but for half the pay as part of the misnamed Community Development Program? In my time in this place, I want to see us get right into the task of rebuilding well-paid, secure jobs for all Australians. I don't want to see the people who are lucky enough to have those jobs today looking over their shoulders in fear for tomorrow. I do want to see us extend the protection and opportunity that decent work can bring.

We are so fortunate to be one of the wealthiest nations on earth. We can afford to do better. We need to do better if we want to change the course of our economy today. And we are not just a stronger economy with good, secure jobs as our foundation; we are a stronger society. We're stronger when we can all look to the future with confidence and move forward together. So let's not tell Australians it's all up to them, alone. Let's not tell them our job here in Canberra is to get out of their way. We have the power here to make change, and it's our job to use it. We have the power to deliver the respect, security and opportunity that all Australians deserve. So let's get to work and not walk away.

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