Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

First Speech

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call Senator Pratt, I remind honourable senators that this is her first speech. I, therefore, ask that the usual courtesies be extended to her.

5:06 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I begin by acknowledging Australia’s traditional owners and the diverse Indigenous cultures of our nation. A new chapter has opened in Australia’s relationship with our Indigenous cultures. With the apology to the stolen generations, healing has begun. The issues facing Indigenous people, such as the gaps in health and opportunity that left generations of Indigenous children vulnerable, went unaddressed under the previous government. Instead of meaningful commitments to closing the gap, we saw a sudden sweeping intervention in the Northern Territory at the tail end of the Howard government’s term, an intervention which ignored many of the solutions called for by the Little children are sacred report.

I visited Indigenous communities and The Lands north of Kalgoorlie this month and I saw how deeply disadvantage has struck those communities. But equally evident were the wonderful qualities in these communities—the strong kinship, family and community bonds and the connection to country. These qualities endure in the face of poor education and health, limited economic opportunities and, in some cases, violence and substance abuse. We have such a long way to go in reducing inequality between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians—a long way to go to close the gap, to reach reconciliation in the deepest and truest sense of the word. It is going to take ongoing investment in these communities and it will take real leadership—the leadership our nation needs to meet the complex challenges in this and many other policy areas.

I have been profoundly fortunate to have already had the opportunity to serve my state and its people in the upper house of the parliament of Western Australia. As parliamentarians we all have tremendous privileges, immunities and resources to represent the people of our states, to pursue their causes and to defend our convictions. Our work in this place takes a different shape to the work of our lower house colleagues. The Senate committee system, the role of the Senate in scrutinising legislation, our opportunities to work with diverse communities are all reasons that I relish the role of being an upper house parliamentarian. I know, Mr President, that this is a role that you also relish and I offer you congratulations on your election as President.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of outgoing senators, including Western Australian senator Ruth Webber. I want to congratulate all the new senators who take their place in the chamber. I look forward to working with you and all my new colleagues. It is indeed wonderful to work with friends and comrades who share a mutual commitment to working towards a better world. I sincerely thank the Australian Labor Party for giving me the enormous privilege of serving the Labor movement in parliament.

I thank Sally Talbot, Jon Ford and all my former state parliamentary colleagues for their encouragement and assistance. I would like to wish the Carpenter government well on 6 September. It is great to see issues of significance to WA firmly on the COAG agenda—issues like national health reform, closing the gap on Indigenous health and poverty, addressing the skills shortage, early childhood policy and housing affordability. This reform requires a high level of state and federal collaboration, and only state and federal Labor in partnership can deliver on this agenda.

To my friends, comrades and mentors: Stephen Dawson, Dennis Liddelow, Alanna Clohesy, Philip O’Donoghue, Justine Parker, Daniel Smith, Penny Sharpe, Kate Deverall, Kylie Turner, Ashley Hogan, Feyi Akindoyeni, Linda Whatman, Jo Tilly, Julian Hill, Alan Kirkland, Adrian Lovney, Jessica Sumich, Erik Locke and Sam Gowegatti, I thank you for your support.

I also thank the LHMU, the ETU, the MUA and the CEPU. In particular, I would like to acknowledge Jock Ferguson, Steve McCartney and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, of which I am a very proud member. The AMWU is a union of great courage and strong values, a union that can be found wherever its members need support but also wherever injustice and indifference threaten people’s wellbeing.

In my first speech to the Legislative Council of the WA parliament, I had the opportunity to reflect on my early life story. Today I want to acknowledge the ongoing importance of the support of my parents, Greg and Sandra, and my siblings, Nicholas and Fleur. Dad, as a stepfather, you proved to me from the first that family means so much more than blood relative. Mum, you have always inspired both my feminist and my family values. To my beloved partner, Aram Hosie, thank you for your love, patience and forbearance. You are a constant source of inspiration and support in both the personal and political parts of my life.

My experience in state politics strengthened my convictions, my commitment and my enthusiasm but my political engagement began long before. I cut my teeth on a journey into community activism that began two decades ago. The issues that first inspired me are the ones I remain committed to today. While studying, I learned the importance of universal access to education and I saw the importance of community support for those who struggle to overcome barriers to their participation. I fought against Western Australia’s homophobic laws—laws that not only reflected but fostered prejudice by discriminating against young gays, same-sex couples and their families. I was, and I remain, very proud to have been part of the Western Australian government that completely removed this discrimination against same-sex couples and their children in all state laws.

Despite the predictions of the nay-sayers, there has been no significant backlash against these reforms in Western Australia. In fact, I am very proud to be able to say that support for the removal of discrimination against same-sex couples remains very high in my home state. A recent Newspoll found not only that most Australians support federal recognition of same-sex relationships but also that support for recognition was strongest in WA. I think that this just goes to show how potentially divisive issues can be an opportunity to combat prejudice and build community consensus in favour of progressive solutions—solutions for the challenges of a rapidly changing world. It is done with good leadership. It is our responsibility to offer such leadership.

I look forward to a time when we will have removed at a federal level all discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexuality, to a time when my partner is not denied a passport because his gender is not recognised under our laws, to a time when my friends’ children all enjoy the same rights and protections under Commonwealth law regardless of whether their parents are straight or gay, to a time when, if my gay friends wish to be legally married, they can be.

Conservative forces in this country do not offer the kind of leadership we need to face this and other challenges. Far from it: they have a history of fostering division. I saw the devastating impact of regressive industrial relations laws in Western Australia under a conservative Court government and participated in a community and union campaign to overturn them—a story that has now repeated itself at a national level. Again, I am proud to be part of a government that is committed to a sustainable, fair and equitable industrial relations system in Australia. I think it is worth repeating in this chamber that this issue took centre stage at the last election. There can be no doubt that Labor has a very clear mandate to restore balance to industrial relations in this country—a clear mandate both to safeguard the working conditions of ordinary Australians and to respect the legitimate role that unions have to play in defending working people’s interests.

Labor also has a clear mandate on climate change. We have a very precious custodianship over the environment of our great continent, its islands and its oceans—a precious custodianship and a great responsibility. Scientists and climate change campaigners have put a huge effort into highlighting the fragility of our environment and bringing it to the forefront of Australia’s body politic. Rudd Labor pledged to take a much more proactive approach to the sustainable use of our environment, and we will make good on that pledge. We have a long way to go, but I am thankful that the nation is now in a position to make a meaningful commitment to addressing the issue of climate change. We can no longer resolve conflicts between the economy and the environment at the environment’s expense. Neither the environment nor the economy can afford it.

With the whole community involved, and with their involvement supported by good leadership, we can and will adapt. This is not an impossible task. Just look at the enormous economic and social changes we have adapted to in the last 100 years. But as we act, we are going to need to look after the communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of readjustment in our economy and our community. We need a just transition. However, these changes also represent big economic opportunities for jobs that are embedded in a sustainable future for our planet. As the AMWU states, we need new jobs for new times. Far from signalling an end to prosperity, a properly managed response to the climate change challenge could drive the world’s next industrial revolution.

The coalition squandered a decade-long opportunity for leadership on this critical issue—and many others. There was a similar lack of leadership during the Howard years on issues of nuclear nonproliferation. The Howard government was eager to sell more and more uranium and flirted with the introduction of nuclear power to Australia, but it did not do anything to assist global efforts to shore up and strengthen nuclear nonproliferation. Personally, this makes me particularly proud of WA’s continued stance against the export of uranium. I do not believe the world should continue to expand the use of nuclear technologies when we face the continued proliferation of weapons and a growing worldwide nuclear waste problem. On this and many other critical international issues, Australia actually went backwards in the last decade and, in the process, Australia’s postwar reputation as a good global citizen was undermined.

The Howard government agreed to the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, goals which committed developed nations to work to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and preventable diseases by fostering growth and development through aid, trade and investment. Despite this commitment, the Howard government allowed our international aid commitment to decline during its term in office to its lowest level in 30 years. The Howard government did not bother to understand the complexities of the foreign aid debate and it did not bother to make good on our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. But it had no hesitation in restricting overseas aid for abortion advice, training and services in a political deal. And that is despite the fact that a clear majority of Australians support a woman’s right to choose, despite the fact that women have had access to abortion here, despite the fact that it is legal in many of the countries that receive our aid, and despite the fact that in some developing regions up to 12 per cent of all maternal deaths are the result of unsafe abortions. I am delighted that the Rudd government has already demonstrated that it takes the Millennium Development Goals seriously by committing to a substantial increase in foreign aid. And it is my hope that this aid will be free of morally judgemental restrictions on access to reproductive health services and advice.

Immigration is another issue where we went backwards. The postwar consensus over immigration, a consensus based on Australia’s economic interests and humanitarian obligations, was put at grave risk by the Howard government. That government risked that bipartisan legacy by scapegoating refugees, including children, in a scramble for electoral advantage. This should never and will never be forgotten. I am very thankful this particular shame is now behind us, and I would like to wish the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the immigration minister well as he continues to untangle the mess that the previous government made of our immigration system. In particular, the exploitation of workers arising under 457 visas needs to be resolved, and I am pleased this work is underway. Unless all those who work in Australia enjoy the same rights and entitlements, even those whose licence to stay here is only temporary, community support for our immigration system will be undermined.

Mr President, I am very pleased that the Rudd government has signalled its willingness to offer the strong leadership needed to tackle the global challenges I have outlined. This leadership must engage the entire Australian community in meeting challenges like climate change. Meeting these challenges will require all Australian citizens to confront change, to make sacrifices, to seize opportunities and to adapt. And this cannot and will not happen if parts of our own community are themselves marginalised or excluded.

Social inclusion is fundamental to our country. We must use all the capacities of all our people as we face local and global challenges from climate change to increasing labour productivity. Good leadership requires a commitment to social inclusion. It requires a recognition of existing inequalities and the many ways in which Australians may be marginalised or excluded. Australia needs governments that address social inclusion at all levels of decision making. It is fitting that we now have a Minister for Social Inclusion, and I think it should be a portfolio that grows in importance and recognition.

We need governments to address in policy—and promote in their dialogue with citizens—the need to assist individuals and communities in their efforts to overcome barriers to participation. We need governments that recognise that a person’s social vulnerability can increase exponentially when they are disadvantaged on more than one front. Irrespective of an individual’s economic means, geographic location or isolation, level of education, age, disability, mental or physical health, aboriginality, racial or cultural background, religion, level of family support or family structure, experience of trauma, sexuality, gender or gender identity—irrespective of any of these things—everyone has the right to participate fully in our society. And government at all levels has the responsibility to make sure they can exercise that right. This does not just mean freedom from discrimination; it means active support for the disadvantaged from government, business and the wider community.

Everyone in our community must be valued and included within Australian society—and be motivated to participate and able to contribute to the best of their ability. Not just because it is fair but because it is important for all of us. There is now a large body of evidence demonstrating that small differences in income inequality have major impacts on the whole community—major impacts on life expectancy, on the prevalence of chronic diseases and on the rates of violent crimes like murder. Inequality poisons whole societies, not just the lives of those at the bottom of the ladder. Under those circumstances, it becomes all too easy for lazy political leaders, egged on by talkback radio shock jocks, to scapegoat the most vulnerable in our society as an easy alternative to dealing with the much tougher root causes of inequality and disadvantage.

Trends associating income inequality with high mortality and poor health are borne out by research from many developed countries. The differences appear to be greatest when we look at people’s access to market income—that is, income earned in the paid workforce. Access to paid work, and to the benefits that flow from it, is central to individual wellbeing. Making sure everyone has that access is central to our society’s wellbeing. That is not news to labour feminists and it is not news to Indigenous activists.

Workforce status is critical to social status. Workforce inclusion is fundamental to social inclusion. The Labor tradition has long recognised the centrality of economic participation to all questions of social inclusion; whether people can work, the conditions in which they do work, how their work is recognised and renumerated, and—for labour feminists—whether it is even recognised as work. For example, it is well past time Australia joined the rest of the world in providing paid maternity leave—after all, we all know that mothering a newborn is no holiday.

There has been a social movement in Australia fighting for Australians’ workforce participation and workplace rights since before Australia was a nation. I speak of the union movement. At the last election, the union movement played a strong part in the fight against the Howard government’s unfair, unjust, un-Australian, extremist industrial laws. Unions have long fought for Australian values—giving ordinary Australians, no matter what their background, dignity and security in their employment. I will continue to work with the union movement from within government to hasten the demise of the Howard government’s unjust IR laws, including the arbitrary and extreme powers of the ABCC.

The principles of dignity in working life and social inclusion are at the heart of traditional Labor values and are fundamental to the answers to the many challenges we face today. In my view, work is the key to unlocking the potential of a truly socially inclusive society. So, fellow senators, I really relish the new challenge before me—the challenge of being part of a national government committed to a socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable, economically productive and globally responsible Australia. I will continue to work with the many committed Australians who are striving for positive change.

At the last federal election, Australians chose a government that offered strong political leadership—a government genuinely committed to addressing the challenges of social and economic marginalisation and environmental degradation. I believe that Australia has the social, economic and intellectual capital to meet those challenges, and I am confident that the Rudd Labor government has the resources and the will to deliver on the commitments we made to the Australian people. As I take up my responsibilities as a new senator for Western Australia, I look forward to playing my part. Thank you.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call Senator Xenophon, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech. I, therefore, ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.

5:31 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, before I begin, let me offer you my sincere congratulations on your election to the office of President of the Senate. I look forward to your independent, wise and even-handed guidance in this chamber.

Whilst this is my first speech in federal parliament, it is not actually my first speech in a parliament. Eleven years ago I decided to run as an Independent for the upper house of the South Australian parliament to highlight the devastating impact poker machines were having in my state. I never expected to win. Unlike so many poker machine players, I knew the odds and the odds were against me. But I ran to make a point, and thanks to an improbable series of preference deals I was elected.

I well remember making that first speech in the South Australian upper house. Back then I was awed by the task ahead, and today I have the same feelings. A six-year term can seem like a long time, but after a decade in the South Australian parliament I know all too well there is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Especially while fighting for the rights of asbestos victims, I was painfully aware of the limitations of time.

So as I stand here making my first speech I am actually thinking a lot about what I am going to say in my last speech. Will I have made a difference? Will I have fought the battles that needed fighting and helped those who needed helping? Will I have sought every opportunity to make life a little better for people, a little fairer for people and maybe even a little easier for people?

No-one makes it to this place on their own, and I have a lot of people to thank. Most of them I will thank privately. I know I am an Independent, but over the years I have been absolutely dependent on a loyal band of supporters who were ready to help me fight for what I believed in. I still struggle to comprehend how 1,200 volunteers saw fit to give up their time and their labour to help me on election day. I am awed by the support of the almost 150,000 South Australians who sent me here to advocate for them and to be their watchdog. I will always be grateful for their support.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my mother and father, who emigrated from Greece and Cyprus respectively almost six decades ago. I am immensely proud of my heritage and I am so grateful for the support of my parents, family, extended family and friends.

I thank the Hon. John Darley for assuming my responsibilities in the South Australian parliament and for his wise advice and encouragement. I thank my running mate at the last election, Roger Bryson, and also Tim Costello, who for the last 11 years has been a mentor and a great friend.

There is one last supporter I would like to thank by name, and that is my beautiful son, Aleksis. He is both my mate and my meaning. There is no greater force in this world than the love a parent feels for their child. As a father I am immensely proud of him, and I will work tirelessly to make him proud of me in this place.

A lot of people ask me where I am on the political spectrum: am I conservative or progressive? Apart from a youthful indiscretion while at uni where I flirted briefly with the Young Libs, for most of my life and in my political career I have tended not to see things in terms of Left or Right. Instead, I try to think about what is right and what is wrong.

On the issue of poker machines that is not hard to do. Poker machines are an unsafe product that causes untold harm to the most vulnerable in the community. Today in this country there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who in some direct way have been damaged by the poker machine industry. In my former life as a lawyer and since, I have seen so many good people whose lives have been ruined by these machines. I could not stand by and say nothing.

According to the industry’s own figures, poker machines make more than 50 per cent of their revenue from problem gamblers. For a long time I have debated with the industry, quoting studies, experts and reports that quantify the devastating effect these machines have on those who become addicted. But I now realise this has played in a way into the gambling industry’s hands. I quote an expert and then all they do is quote some other expert with some dubious figures in order to muddy the waters.

The industry do this not because they want to win the argument—they know they cannot; their position is untenable. Instead, all they really want to do is to keep the argument going, because as long as they can do that they can keep their machines running and take money from problem gamblers and their families. Their arguments and their denials all echo the tactics used by the tobacco industry in decades past. I say enough is enough. The debate is over. These machines are unsafe and need to be removed from the community.

State governments have also become addicted to these machines, thanks to the $4 billion a year they receive from poker machine taxes. My decision to run for the Senate was triggered on 11 September last year, when I read about the then opposition leader’s views on poker machines. He said he hated them and that he knew something of the impact they have on families. I was encouraged. Not only was the now Prime Minister right; the Australian people knew he was right on this and many other issues. My message to the Prime Minister is simple: I want to work constructively with him, his government, the crossbenchers and the opposition to eradicate this scourge from our suburbs as well as internet gambling from our lounge rooms. As Tim Costello says, ‘With online gambling, it’s now possible to lose your home without ever actually having to leave it.’ Poker machines are a litmus test of good government. If governments are willing to sacrifice their own citizens for gambling taxes, what else are they getting wrong?

When I first made it into the upper house in South Australia, a lot of politicians—state and federal—approached me in the same sort of way I suspect they would have approached the village idiot. I remember meeting the Hon. Philip Ruddock at a community event in Adelaide in 1998, where he asked me what party I was from. I replied I was an Independent who had run on a ‘no pokies’ platform. He looked at me stunned and said words to the effect of, ‘You actually got voted in on that?’ His reaction and the initial reaction of a number of my state parliamentary colleagues reminded me of Tony Benn, the old left-wing warhorse of the British Labour Party, who once said:

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.

This was my experience in state politics, and I hope on key issues I will experience the same here. So the poker machine industry can consider itself put on notice.

I also want to work constructively with the government, and indeed all my colleagues, on what I believe is the biggest crisis facing our nation and my state in particular—that is, the crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin. It is too big and too important to be treated as a partisan issue. This crisis not only reflects environmental failures but also represents a failure of Federation. For more than a century state governments have put parochial interests above the national interest and allowed this once great river system to be drained to death’s door. We know from the High Court’s decision on Work Choices the extent of Commonwealth power. I believe that power should be used for the good of the entire river system and the communities that depend on it for their survival. The irrigators need help and the environment needs protecting. This should not be about state against state, region against region or irrigator against environmentalist. With one river system, there should be one set of rules to run the rivers in the national interest. Governments should not give in to the temptation to play divide and rule as the river dies. It was Mark Twain who likened the River Murray to America’s great river the Mississippi. However, as the Courier-Mail’s Mike O’Connor wrote last week:

Were Twain to see the Murray River today it is unlikely he would repeat the comparison, for the Murray and its sibling the Darling are dying, strangled by a combination of political apathy, cowardice and stupidity.

In 1999 Phillip Coorey wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser of a leaked CSIRO report that said Adelaide’s water would be too salty to drink on two days out of five by 2020 unless there was a major shift in water management along the Murray-Darling river system. We are still waiting for that major shift. I cannot accept that the Council of Australian Governments agreement of 3 July this year, which will not be fully implemented until 2018, reflects the urgency required. The science says we cannot wait. How can one of the wealthiest, smartest countries on the planet be facing an environmental disaster in the Coorong and Lower Lakes reminiscent of the devastation of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union? This is not a crisis the current federal government created. Like a tragic game of pass the parcel, they just got left with the mess when the music stopped. The government did not cause the problem, but they do have the power and the opportunity to deliver a solution. I believe that only a full federal government takeover of the entire basin will achieve this.

In October 1942, during the heat of a federal election campaign, allegations emerged about a ‘Brisbane line’—that is, the nation north of Brisbane would be dissected from east to west and the area above the line abandoned in the event of a Japanese invasion. I wonder whether there is a vertical South Australian line. Perhaps it starts somewhere to the east of Renmark, a line not planned or premeditated but nonetheless caused by political decisions, a line that deems part of this country as expendable. Make no mistake: not acting is still making a choice. This line will come into being in the absence of bold action on water. None of us wants to see that come to pass, but perhaps by imagining the worst we will be spurred on to fix this problem.

I also want to play my part in helping raise the level of political engagement in this country. Donald Horne referred to Australia, with calculated irony, as the ‘lucky country’ to make the point that we should not rely on luck alone, and I think he was right. Luck is great, as long as you do not count on it. We must never take our luck for granted and we must work hard to protect what we have. This place—the Australian Senate—by virtue of the powers afforded to it by the Constitution, is entrusted to play, amongst other things, a watchdog role over the executive arm of government. I say, as would many others, that that role was diminished in the last three years. And good governance is not just about what happens in parliament. The authorities set up by acts of parliament—whether they be the ACCC, the Australian National Audit Office or the Ombudsman—have to be given real authority and adequate resources to do their jobs. Our trade practices laws need to reflect a commitment not just to free markets but also to fair markets.

Good governance is also about the freedom to speak out when it is in the national interest. In 2007 News Ltd journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus were convicted of contempt of court. Their ‘crime’ was refusing to testify in a matter relating to senior public servant Desmond Kelly. Mr Kelly had been accused of leaking cabinet documents that showed the then government intended to short-change war veterans’ entitlements to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The story was in the national interest. The public had a right to know. The journalists and any source should never have been charged.

Nor should Allan Kessing have been charged and convicted. He was a Customs official accused of leaking the report on security breaches at Sydney airport that lead to a $200 million emergency upgrade in airport security. For democracy to work we need to know not just the good things about a government but also the things that do not reflect well on it. If we really believe in a citizen’s right to exercise democratic choice, surely we must all agree this has to be an informed choice.

Finally on the topic of good governance, I note that we are not just the lucky country; we are also meant to be the clever country. That does make me wonder whether it is that smart to be cutting the budget of the CSIRO, given all the challenges created by climate change. Policy choices must also be informed and based on the best evidence available.

A lot of people talk about the power of this senator or that senator, but none of us have any power other than the power entrusted in us by the people, the voters. They give us this power and they can take it away. That is why I do not swear allegiance to a party and that is why I do not owe allegiance to any one ideology. That is what I believe Independents must do. An Independent must take every issue as it comes and ask, ‘If we change things, who might it hurt and who will it help?’ and then hopefully make the right choice. I also do not believe in horse trading. Horse trading implies a willingness to vote for something you do not believe in in order to get something else you want. When people do try to horse trade they can end up with a donkey or, worse still, end up making an ass of themselves.

The task ahead will not be easy. It is going to be hard work, but I have been given the job and I am ready for the responsibility. I am acutely aware of the expectations and obligations that face me. I am reminded of that quote from my role model, and some might say my kindred spirit, Woody Allen, in the opening scene of the movie Annie Hall. The film opens with Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, looking into the camera and saying:

There’s an old joke—um ... two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’

Woody goes on to say:

Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life—full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

I am sure that is how I am going to feel while I am here, but I would not have it any other way. The great Australian novelist Tim Winton once said that ‘ordinary life flows with divine grace’. I like that quote. It is another way of saying that everything and everyone has value, and I think that is important to remember.

Anyway, I have probably said enough for now. I am conscious of never taking more of the Senate’s time than I need to to have my say. I have got the next six years to get to know everyone here, but if you want the Reader’s Digest version of my approach to this job, here it is: I would rather go down fighting than still be standing because I stayed silent.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call Senator Bilyk, I remind honourable senators that this is her first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to her.

5:52 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr President. Might I congratulate you also on your election win yesterday. It is a great privilege to be elected to represent the Australian Labor Party and the people of the beautiful state of Tasmania in the Australian parliament. It is my intention to carry out my role with dignity, loyalty and integrity.

I bring to the Senate strong convictions and ambition for the people of Tasmania. I would like to see Tasmania continue to prosper through sensible development while nurturing our people and caring for our beautiful and unique environment. Tasmania, one of the world’s most mountainous islands, has many special qualities and, as an island state, a unique identity. It is made up of one major and approximately 334 smaller islands. It has beautiful coastlines, rugged mountains, farmlands, cities and towns of all sizes. It is home to friendly, hardworking people who live a variety of different lifestyles right across the state. Over one-third of the state is reserved in a network of national parks and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area. It has a strong and diverse economic base with employment continuing to grow. Tasmania is truly a beautiful environment in which to live, work and play.

I grew up in an average middle-class family during the 1960s and 1970s, the fourth child in a family of five. I was taught to work hard—my mother and father both worked until they were nearly 70—to be resolute in whatever task I was undertaking, to look out for others, to enjoy and celebrate life and that with rights come responsibilities. Even when young I believed in a fair go for all, in a strong sense of community, in opportunity, in freedom for people to follow their dreams and in assisting people who need a helping hand. It was little wonder that I joined the Australian Labor Party with its similar ideals.

Growing up in Hobart and surrounding suburbs I attended Taroona and Lenah Valley primary schools, Ogilvie High School and Hobart Matriculation College. I have been in the full-time workforce for just on 30 years, beginning in psychiatric health research and medical and clerical administration. I lived and worked in Canberra in the early 1980s and was employed as an accounts clerk for a local hardware chain. Interestingly, my primary role was facilitating quotes for supplies to the businesses involved in building this beautiful place. I then worked for over 10 years in the childcare industry. Following that, I became an industrial officer and trainer with the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Services Union. In the three years prior to being elected, I was employed by the Tasmanian state government as a ministerial adviser and electorate officer. You can see that I bring to the Senate a vast range of skills and life experiences. In so doing, I believe I may be the first former childcare worker to become a senator in the Australian parliament—certainly the first former family day carer.

The journey that brought me that to where I am today began in the early 1980s when I became a childcare worker, in particular, a family day carer. I quickly realised that the wages and conditions in the childcare industry were not commensurate with the responsibility of caring for other people’s children. Along with two other day carers, Margaret Midgley and Rosalie Pyke, I decided to try and do something about improving the working conditions and professionalism of family day carers.

Similar to piece workers in other industries, family day carers are generally award free; in fact, they are deemed to be self-employed in most areas but have few industrial rights and are controlled in what they do and how they do it by three levels of government and a plethora of paperwork. Recognising the need for decent wages and conditions and appropriate and accredited training not only for home based carers but for childcare workers as a whole, we approached Trevor Cordwell, then Tasmanian secretary of the Municipal Employees Union and now the Australian Services Union. The branch took up the cause and, with the involvement of the union’s federal office and the MEU Victorian branch, we began a long battle in trying to achieve an industrial award for that sector of the industry. Having belonged to unions previously, this experience reaffirmed my long-held belief that, by becoming involved in a union and acting and bargaining collectively, workers increase their chances of improving their working conditions. I would like to record my thanks to those delegates and workers that I had the honour of representing. Most members I have had the privilege to know seek only a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, contrary to anti-union propaganda you too often hear.

The area of employment and training has long been of great interest to me. One of my greatest achievements while at the Australian Services Union was being able to develop and implement a return-to-work program—initially for 20 long-term unemployed mature-age women—for the childcare industry. The pilot program involved placing employees with host employers and developing and organising off-the-job accredited training as part of their employment. These workers were employed under the relevant industrial award and enjoyed a mix of supervised work experience, structured training on the job and off the job and the opportunity to develop and practise new skills in a work environment. This was the first time a program of this type had been developed for the childcare industry and was later taken up by other organisations across Australia. Over a decade later, some of the women from that initial pilot program are still working in the childcare industry. Some are working in areas where they are able to develop other skills, such as food preparation; and others, having been supported and found their feet in the world of work and study, have continued on to further study. The success of this initial program led to the Australian Services Union placing over 300 long-term unemployed people in various occupations across the broad sphere of local government occupations in Tasmania.

National investment in education in Australia has not been keeping up with the rest of the world. Since 1995, Australia’s public investment in tertiary education has reduced by seven per cent compared with an average increase by other OECD countries of 48 per cent. It is disgraceful that Australia cut its public investment in tertiary education.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hawke and Keating governments implemented economic reforms. The first wave opened up and internationalised the Australian economy. The second wave implemented wide-ranging changes centred on national competition policy. Benchmarked against the United States economy, Australia’s labour productivity fell between 1998 and 2005, almost completely losing the relative productivity gains of the 1990s. A significant reason for this occurring was underinvestment in education.

It is now time for the third wave and that needs to centre on investment in human capital so that we can position Australia as a competitive, innovative, knowledge based economy that can compete and win in global markets. In the official launch of the Howard government’s election campaign in 2007, Mr Howard said nothing with regard to labour skills and training, universities, productivity, or investment in infrastructure and technology, such as high-speed broadband or innovation. Poor skills constrain productivity, innovation and investment. Improving skills can help to build a fairer and more prosperous society with higher social mobility and fewer regional discrepancies.

Australia’s economic prosperity can only be guaranteed by having a highly skilled workforce. We must develop and invest in skills that allow us to perform effectively in secure, sustainable and satisfying employment to ensure national economic prosperity. We need to ensure that the workforce has relevant and valued qualifications to allow the Australian economy to grow, innovate and prosper. We need to expand opportunities for Australians to undertake vocational education and training through apprenticeships or institutional based learning. We need to provide Australians with portable, national, mutually recognised and consistent vocational qualifications. We need to meet the needs of people from educationally and vocationally disadvantaged backgrounds to help them gain qualifications and employable skills. We need to maximise training opportunities for existing workers to continually update and raise their post-school qualifications and skill levels so that we prevent workers being forced into low-skilled and precarious employment. We need Australia to become the educated country, the most skilled economy and the best trained workforce in the world, not to continue the trend towards the lowest common denominator.

More than anything else, it is strong productivity growth and high levels of workforce participation that will make Australia competitive. No policy is more important than Australia’s investment in human capital and in the education, skills and training of our people, who deserve to be able to increase their skills and have the opportunity to lead fulfilling and secure lives.

In the 2007 federal election, the Australian people voted for change with a massive swing of support to the Australian Labor Party. Nationally, the ALP’s first preference vote increased by 5.7 per cent in the House of Representatives and by 5.3 per cent in the Senate. This was a response to the platform of policies put to the Australian people by Kevin Rudd and the then Labor opposition. These included clear and strong policies on workplace reform, our response to climate change, the education revolution and reform of the health system. The swing to Labor was also a response by the Australian people to the previous government’s arrogant handling of its majority in the Senate.

In Tasmania, the ALP campaigned strongly to restore the balance in the Senate and Labor’s Senate first preference vote increased by a massive 6.6 per cent. Of all the states and territories it was in Tasmania where the ALP did best in translating its underlying support from the House of Representatives into Senate first preference votes. Tasmanians made a statement to change the make-up of the Senate. My presence here reflects that decision by the Tasmanian people in particular and I owe a great debt to them for putting their trust in the Labor Party by electing three Labor senators on 24 November 2007.

What do I want to achieve while in this place? I will work towards developing a prosperous Australia with a strong economy and a strong community, for you cannot have one without the other. For too long the previous government focused on quick political fixes. For too long our national budgets concentrated on the next election, not the challenges facing our country, and for too long the previous government failed to invest in Australia’s future. They did not appear to recognise that what we do not do leaves an appalling legacy for our children and future generations.

Australia has the opportunity now to look forward, to lift our sights and to start making the decisions that will give future generations a better Australia in which to live. We need to build an economy that is strong and dynamic enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century with optimism and with confidence.

Australia has a number of long-term challenges that we have to tackle to give us a chance of building a prosperous future. We have to boost education and training to build our skills base. We need to build world-class infrastructure to remove restrictions in our economy that are obstacles to growth. We need to invest in innovation, research and development to boost our competitiveness and to retain the vibrancy in our economy. Investment in the areas that drive our economy is vital to build the industries of the future that will sustain Australia’s economic and social prosperity. The longer these challenges are neglected the harder it will be to deal with them. In implementing the Rudd government’s vision for the future of Australia there is no time to waste.

In 2007 people voted for a fairer society and for a government which would provide greater opportunity for all, which consults and engages with the community and which acts in the best interests of all. As an elected representative of the Tasmanian people, I look forward to being a part of this exciting new era in Australian politics. I believe in an Australia that is prosperous, fair and caring. I want to see people thrive in a society where we care for each other, help those in need and strengthen our shared community assets for the benefit and enjoyment of all. We live in a world in real turmoil where there are great challenges to our future not just economically but environmentally and socially. I believe there is great goodwill to face and tackle these challenges and I hope that goodwill spills over into this chamber.

In March of this year I underwent emergency surgery for the removal of two brain tumours. It was not a very pleasant experience but one that was made easier by the wonderful staff at both the Hobart Private Hospital and the Royal Hobart Hospital, especially staff in the neurosurgery ward and high-dependency unit. I thank everyone involved at these facilities—even the nurses taking blood samples, although at the time I was not endeared to them—for the dedicated, professional and caring manner with which they carry out their jobs. I also thank my family and friends for their love and prayers through this time. I am pleased to report that I am recovered and ready to represent the interests of the people of Tasmania and the democratic parliamentary process. I look forward to contributing in all aspects of my role as a senator.

I owe thanks to a great many people for the privilege of standing before you today. As always, it is difficult to ensure people are not forgotten when saying thank you. If I do miss someone, please accept my apologies in advance.

I would like to pay tribute to the 2007 ALP campaign team in Tasmania, in particular Senator Carol Brown and the ALP state secretary at the time, Julie Collins, who is now the federal member for Franklin. I thank senators Nick Sherry, Helen Polley and Kerry O’Brien for their support. I thank the other Tasmanian House of Representatives members—Dick Adams, Sid Sidebottom, Duncan Kerr and Jodie Campbell—who, though candidates themselves, helped with my campaign. It is a great privilege to finally join you in the parliament, and I am proud to be part of the federal Tasmanian Labor Party team. I also thank Grace, Julie D, Kacee and Dona for their help and friendship.

The election campaign the ALP ran in 2007 was disciplined, strategic, well coordinated and very successful. I thank the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd; the ALP national secretary, Tim Gartrell; the national secretariat staff; and the volunteers involved. I thank the former Premier of Tasmania, Paul Lennon, and the former Tasmanian Treasurer, Dr David Crean, for supporting and encouraging me over many years. I thank the many state branches and members of the ALP in Tasmania for their support.

To my small but dynamic campaign team of Daniel Hulme and Geoff Butler—thank you for the hours of work, assistance, laughs and friendship. I also thank Nicole and Heather and their respective families for being so understanding and patient. I thank Margaret and Roger Midgley, Eric and Tracy Siedler, Phillip Tardif and Tania Parkes, Rosemary Rush, Dianne Hodel and Lorraine Norris, all long-term friends and active supporters. To our dear friends John Boddington and Sue Fairbanks, Breh, Emily and my godson, Daniel—thank you all for many years of love, support, encouragement and friendship. I thank David Llewellyn MHA and his wife, Julie, who have encouraged and mentored me, and I thank David’s staff, past and present, who have supported me in my goal to represent Tasmania in this place.

I thank Paul Slape, Trevor Cordwell, Sean Kelly, Brendan O’Connor MP, Darell Cochrane, Brian Parkinson, Russell Atwood, my dear departed friend Phil Smythe and others at the Australian Services Union for believing in me and in what I was trying to achieve for childcare workers. You gave me chances and experiences to pursue those beliefs and others that otherwise I would not have had. Many thanks also to those other unions who have supported me over many years.

Thank you to all those people who volunteered their services, especially the Benson extended family and those members of Australian Young Labor who helped out on my campaign. The future looks bright with such energy and enthusiasm amongst our future political aspirants.

In being here I do not follow in any family dynasty, although I do admit to family members, by marriage, on both sides of politics previously serving in the Tasmanian parliament. My parents, who are in the gallery today, believe passionately in my work and involvement in the ALP. I know they are proud to see me standing here as a senator representing the state and the party that they have supported all of their lives. Thank you, Mum and Dad, for all your assistance and encouragement. To my extended family members who have been there throughout the highs and lows and who have constantly offered support, love and caring, thank you so much. Finally and most importantly, to my family, Robert, Kieran and Alissa, who are also in the gallery today, thank you for your support and love. I thank the Senate for their patience.