Monday, 1 September 2008
Thank you, Mr President. I congratulate you on your election and I thank the Senate for the opportunity to make my first speech in this place. I acknowledge and pay my respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunawal people, their elders past and present. Firstly, I want to acknowledge the work of my predecessor, former senator George Campbell, who served the working people of Australia with dedication, integrity and principle over many years.
I find myself in a truly remarkable situation: a working-class migrant from Scotland who has been given the great honour and privilege of representing the people of New South Wales and the Australian Labor Party in the Senate. I see the challenge for government as that laid down by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the occasion of his second inaugural address, when he said:
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
Roosevelt knew that trickle-down economics is a flawed approach and that there must be strong and effective government intervention on behalf of the neediest in society. Homelessness, chronic illness, alcoholism, mental illness, old age, bad luck or simply being born in the wrong place means that you face significant and onerous challenges. Indigenous Australians face all of these problems as a result of systemic exploitation and abuse. The Prime Minister’s apology on behalf of the nation was a wonderful moment of huge importance to all Australians. There is much to be done and much more to be done to make good the devastation wrought on Aboriginal Australians since white settlement. We have an obligation to treat disadvantaged Australians as human beings, not as part of an accounting exercise in some flawed economic model dreamt up by the theoreticians. Common decency and compassion must win out over economic theories based on the law of the jungle.
My wife, Elaine, and I and our eldest daughter, Lynn, arrived in Sydney from Scotland in 1973. Like most young migrants, we were full of aspirations and hope. I was also full of trepidation after moving from the land of our birth to a new home and a new life on the other side of the world. We will never forget flying into Sydney and seeing the beautiful Sydney Harbour, the Harbour Bridge and the soon-to-be-opened Opera House. We could not believe the blue skies, the sunshine and the city beaches. For us, it was all a bit surreal.
I was born and raised in the working-class town of Bellshill, just outside of Glasgow. My early memory is of growing up in a prefabricated home known to us as a prefab. We lived in a large council housing scheme where the centre of entertainment was the local football park. Money was in short supply for most families and we had some tough times. But the good memories of my childhood have crowded out the bad memories. A number of football legends were born in Bellshill: Matt Busby of Manchester United, Bill Shankly of Liverpool and Jock Stein of Celtic. They’ve got to get a Rangers manager in there sooner or later!
Bellshill and surrounding towns also produced some significant political figures. These included Keir Hardie, the founder of the British Labour Party, who lived in Holytown, a stone’s throw from Bellshill. Robin Cook, the Secretary of State in the Blair government, was born in Bellshill, and the British High Commissioner to Australia, the Rt Hon. Helen Liddell, comes from Airdrie, a neighbouring town. Scotland continues to make its mark around the world.
Bellshill is a product of the Industrial Revolution where coalmining and the steel and engineering industries dominate. Globalisation, and time and structural change have seen most of the steel and engineering base disappear. I attended Bellshill Academy, where I failed to fulfil much of my potential. This was despite the best efforts, commitment, professionalism and perseverance of my teachers. I was not a particularly good student. I was determined to get out of school as soon as I could. In fact, many of my teachers would have said I was a particularly bad student. I left school at 15 to serve my apprenticeship as a fitter and machinist. Completing my apprenticeship opened up many opportunities, most importantly the opportunity to migrate to Australia with my family.
Not long after completing my apprenticeship, the factory I worked in closed and I was made redundant. Fortunately for me, this was my first and only taste of redundancy. My personal experience with redundancy has helped me understand that workers who lose their jobs are not just another statistic or an ‘adjustment problem’. Redundant workers are real people with real feelings. They have commitments to meet and families to care for. They need every bit of support they can get to pick up their lives. Redundancy is an extremely stressful and demeaning time for many workers and their families. Many are affected physically and psychologically and suffer the consequences for years.
Determined to have a better life for myself and my family, Elaine and I pulled together £10 each to pay for our assisted passage to Australia. It was the best £20 we have ever spent. On many occasions employers have offered to refund my £10 and buy me a one-way ticket back to Scotland. I was never tempted to accept any of those offers. We were extremely fortunate that there was extensive government assistance for migrants in the early seventies. We spent our first 12 months in the Endeavour Migrant Hostel at South Coogee, where advice and support were readily available. Migrants had access to child care, family counselling, English language classes, training and assistance with employment opportunities. Unfortunately, this type of support is not so abundant these days. My personal experience with the exploitation of some workers under the 457 visa scheme has made me committed to fight for increased government and institutional support for new migrant workers in this country.
Our youngest daughter, Fiona, was born in 1975 and not long after that we moved to Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley, where I was employed by the Electricity Commission as a maintenance fitter at Liddell Power Station. The ad for the job sounded brilliant—a three-bedroom cottage, skiing on the lake, a tranquil country lifestyle. Unfortunately, the reality was much different. We arrived in Muswellbrook to find that we had been allocated a fibro Electricity Commission house which was unfit for human habitation. We were moved to another cottage which was not much better—an absolute disgrace with broken windows and filth everywhere and in a general run-down condition. It was July and it was freezing cold.
We were left to our own devices with a three-year old toddler and a one-month old baby. My complaint to management was met with indifference and left me no option but to pursue decent housing with the union delegates. The local delegates demanded action from the commission. We were so grateful for their support and help in this terrible situation. The industrial relations culture in the Electricity Commission was poisonous, with hard-nosed management facing up to a tough and determined workforce. My union career took off as a result of a determination to stand up for myself and help my mates in the face of a management team schooled in the master-servant relationship. Mateship is such an important element within Australia and in the development of collectivism. A combination of strong individuals operating in the collective interest is a powerful force for the common good. As a rank and file unionist, I was involved in a number of lengthy industrial disputes that placed huge pressure on personal relationships and family finances. I know what it is like not to have enough money to pay the bills. I know what it is like to miss mortgage payments. I know what it is like to depend on the support of other unionists and the community to put food on the table. I know what it is like to have to say no to my kids when I do not have money to give them what they want. This experience has taught me that you must never engage in industrial disputation lightly. The capacity for workers to engage in genuine collective bargaining and industrial action in defence of their wages and conditions or in support of their work mates is an internationally recognised human right and must be enshrined in legislation in this country. We must have real collective bargaining, not collective begging.
My family and I made some wonderful friendships in Muswellbrook with people like the late Noel and June Davies, our next-door neighbours for almost a decade, who treated us like their family. They were a huge help to us when we settled in Muswellbrook. This was our first taste of country Australian hospitality and friendship. My two girls were educated in Muswellbrook and at St Clair High School in the western suburbs of Sydney. I want to thank the teachers of the public education system for giving my girls a great educational base which eventually saw both of them with degrees, one in communications and the other in law. Both of my girls have successful careers, and it was the public education system and the teachers at Muswellbrook and St Clair who were invaluable in preparing them for their careers. Ensuring that public education gets a fair go is fundamental to a modern, internationally competitive economy. Without a well-funded public education system that has modern facilities and talented teachers, our goal of an education revolution will fail.
Public school infrastructure has been sacrificed on the altar of economic rationalism for too long. Many of the problems that we face are due to the lack of modern educational infrastructure, not just computers but school buildings, libraries, sporting facilities and those facilities that make school somewhere that children really want to go. Carrots and sticks and penal provisions will mean nothing unless there is a national program to rehabilitate and modernise our public and poorer private schools. We must move to a needs based system where resources are put where they are needed. Transferring funds from the public system to the private system strikes at the heart of a society based on fairness and social justice. We must make the education pie a lot bigger. For too long our public school teachers and their unions have been demonised for short-term political gain. Teachers have demonstrated their support for their union. They want a collective voice, and we should hear that voice. We must have genuine engagement with teachers and their union. Building a world-class public education system that values teachers and provides parents with as much information as possible should not be beyond our political capacity.
After seven years in the power industry, I was elected as the AMWU organiser for the Hunter Valley/New England region. As the local union organiser I travelled extensively to towns like Barraba, Tamworth, Inverell, Wee Waa, Narrabri, Moree, Coonabarabran and Tenterfield. My 11 years in country New South Wales did not qualify me for cow cocky status, but what it did was open my eyes to the struggles of country life. This has been made much tougher by climate change. I found the bush a great place to work and I met some fantastic people. I am really pleased to renew my relationship with the New England region as a Labor duty senator. I am convinced that my time in the bush perfected my Aussie accent! Fair dinkum!
In 1986 we moved back to Sydney and I took up the position of assistant state secretary in the New South Wales branch of the AMWU. This was a period of significant change in the manufacturing industry, with many companies realising that they could not survive by simply focusing on the domestic market. There was also a realisation that to be internationally competitive companies had to develop business plans and strategies to improve their productive performance. The AMWU determined to campaign not only on industrial issues but on the need to improve the productive performance, quality and on-time delivery of the industry. Following my election as assistant national secretary, I was involved in a number of significant initiatives designed to assist companies and unions to implement international best practice in workplaces. My time on the Australian Manufacturing Council and the Australian Best Practice Program along with businesspeople like Dick Warburton reinforced my view that improving the productive performance of our economy was essential in the face of increasing globalisation. My union, the AMWU, recognises the importance of workplace productivity, product quality, on-time delivery and the introduction of new technology. It is an absolute tragedy that, following the initial period of focusing on sophisticated workplace change programs, changes to the industrial system forced workers onto the defensive and many employers took the easy way out by focusing on short-term cost cutting and absolute management prerogative.
I want to turn briefly to the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The building industry is a tough sector to work in. I spent seven years with responsibility for some of the biggest construction projects in the country. At no time did I detect any entrenched corruption, or violence or intimidation on the part of trade unions or their members. I note that the Cole royal commission also failed to detect any of these things. Building and construction workers swear; they can be uncouth and they are tough, but they are ordinary Australians doing a tough job in what can be extremely trying conditions. I have also met many foul-mouthed, uncouth and tough building employers; it is the nature of the industry. It has been like that for a century and it will be like that in the future.
I have never condoned corruption, violence or intimidation in any walk of life. My stand on this is on the public record. My family and I paid a heavy price when I moved to stamp out any perception of unacceptable conduct within my own union. I was the victim of two vicious assaults and my life was threatened. Following advice from the police and security professionals, Elaine and I were forced to move house and relocate to a more secure home. This was an unprecedented situation, but it was not part of any systemic violence or corruption in the industry or my union. Suggestions to the contrary are merely caricatures.
The ABCC and its powers are antidemocratic and breach the obligations Australia has given voluntarily under International Labour Organisation conventions. It is unacceptable that rank and file union members and their officials can be dragged before a star chamber, interrogated, humiliated and face six months jail for undertaking union activities, which are universally recognised as basic human rights. Australian workers must not face jail for participating in basic trade union activity, the type of activity which is legal in democratic countries around the world. The ABCC is an affront to Australian democracy and 2010 cannot come quickly enough. We will then see the end of this secretive throwback to the days of penal powers and the suppression of workers’ rights. In the meantime, I am committed to making inquiries in the Senate, in the party room and with ordinary workers into the operation of the ABCC. A light must be shone on this organisation to ensure that it operates in a manner consistent with basic Australian values and Australia’s treaty obligations under ILO conventions.
I hope my time in the Senate will allow me to contribute to building a good society, a better society, a sustainable society and a society that stands out as a beacon of democracy and equality to the rest of the world. I want a society that is underpinned by social democracy and human dignity. I want a society based on liberty and the protection of the weak against the powerful. I want a society that values peace and diplomacy over war and aggression.
At this point, I want to acknowledge the members of the great Australian trade union movement, especially the tens of thousands of rank and file delegates who play a leadership role in defending and promoting workers’ rights in workplaces around the country. It has been an honour and privilege to represent Australian workers as a rank and file delegate and as a full-time union official. The fight for decent wages and conditions, dignity at work, equity and justice is a fight that I will continue on behalf of working people.
I particularly want to acknowledge and thank the members, staff and officials of the AMWU for their support. The AMWU is a great Australian union. It has been at the forefront of the campaigns to advance the wages and conditions and democratic rights of working class Australians. The AMWU has always recognised the importance of the political process to the wellbeing of its members and the wider Australian community. Issues such as peace, taxation, environmental sustainability, fair trade, health and education are only some of the issues the trade union movement must continue to engage in on behalf of its members. To AMWU members I say: Thank you for the support you have given me. For all working people, while I am in the Senate your struggles will be my struggles. I will be a voice on key issues that affect you, your families and your communities.
I want to acknowledge and thank the members and officers of the Australian Labor Party for their support and for their determination to build a better Australia. We now have an opportunity to restore a proper balance between the market and society. As the economic debate goes on, we must never forget that markets are a tool. They are a means to an end. Markets can help deliver prosperity, security and equity. They are not an end in themselves. The goals of markets are narrow; they are concerned with material wellbeing. On their own they cannot deliver broader goals of social justice. When markets fail to carry out their basic functions or threaten basic values of social justice and democracy, it is up to us to intervene. I do not believe there are market solutions to market failure.
With this in mind, and with the planet-threatening challenge of global warming, it can be all too easy to become negative and despondent. I am an optimist. I must be because my children and grandchildren will be around for a long time after I am gone and they will face the reality of our action or inaction. We must build for them a strong and internationally competitive Australia based on social democratic values—a society of environmental sustainability and of peace, tolerance and opportunity. This requires a new social contract between government, business, workers and the public. It will require us to meet the challenges of environmental sustainability by building the new industries based on renewable energy technologies. Manufacturing industries based on solar thermal power, solar photovoltaic energy, wind, biomass, geothermal energy, wave energy and tidal energy are only some of the emerging technologies that we must develop as our industries of the future.
I am so pleased that the AMWU has continued to take a long-term and progressive approach to the issue of global warming. Recognising the inevitability of structural change is sometimes very difficult, and the AMWU’s recent decision to use the challenge of climate change as an opportunity to build new industries and new jobs is courageous and commendable.
In closing, I want to thank a number of friends who have been of invaluable assistance to me. Bob Adamson, my friend and mentor, thank you. Gene Cooney, one of my delegates at Liddell Power Station, thank you for your help and friendship over many years. Julius Roe, one of the most talented and hardworking unionists in the country and one of the best friends anyone could have, thank you. Dave Oliver, AMWU National Secretary, good luck in one of the best jobs in the country. Paul Bastian and the AMWU state secretaries, thank you for your support and comradeship.
To Bill Kelty, one of the most influential trade unionists ever: thank you for your words of support. Laurie Carmichael, a legend of the trade union movement and still an inspirational friend and adviser, thank you. To Jeff Lawrence, Sharan Burrow and the staff of the ACTU: thank you. To Greg Combet: thank you for your support and friendship. To my excellent staff: thank you. To my friends who are here—Albo, Jenny and the rest of you: thank you.
To my family: I love you all so very much. Thank you for the sacrifices you have made on my behalf. Lynn and Rick, Fiona and Perry, thank you for being such a great family. To my two beautiful grandchildren, Amy and Scott: you are wonderful and fill my life with joy. To my darling wife, Elaine: life with me is never easy. Without your love, understanding and support my journey would have been so much harder; in fact, it would have been impossible. And to the Australian nation I am forever indebted.