Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

First Speech

5:06 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Before I call Senator Simms to make his first speech, I remind senators of the usual conventions and courtesies in relation to first speeches. I have great pleasure in calling Senator Simms.

Photo of Robert SimmsRobert Simms (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr President. I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunawal people. I acknowledge their elders past and present. This is, and it will always be, Aboriginal land.

Mr President, it is an honour to stand here today as the third member of the South Australian Greens to represent my party in the national parliament and as the 99th person to represent South Australia in the Senate. I want to pay tribute to my predecessor here in this place, Penny Wright. As a founding member of the Greens in South Australia, Penny has made an enormous contribution to our movement and was a strong voice for my state in this parliament. Penny stood with local communities in Kangaroo Island to protect their environment and economy from oil and gas exploration. She worked with residents in Mount Gambier in their fight against coal seam gas on their farmland. She advocated for the building of Australia's first solar thermal plant in Port Augusta. Penny was also a fierce and passionate advocate for increased investment in and focus on mental health, particularly in the regions. Penny has been a driving force behind the growth of the Greens in South Australia and a friend and a mentor to me and so many other people within my party. So thank you, Penny, for all that you have done. I know that you will be missed from the parliament but that you will continue to make a positive contribution to green politics.

I also want to thank the members of the South Australian Greens for placing their trust in me and giving me this remarkable opportunity to represent our shared values in this parliament. I joined the Greens in 2007 and, eight years on, I continue to be inspired by the passion and integrity of the people of green politics. I know I will continue to draw inspiration from that here in this place.

The Greens are more than just a political party; we are a people powered movement that works together to bring about positive social change. The history of social change in our nation and across our planet tells us that, when good people work together with passion and purpose, we can change the world. Workers who founded our union movement and fought for fair pay; environmentalists who fought to save the Franklin Dam from destruction; women who fought for the right to vote; gay and lesbian activists who fought for gay law reform—history tells us that, by working together collectively, communities can achieve positive change. It is this belief in the power of politics to change lives for the better and to make the world a better place that has always inspired me as an activist, and it will continue to inspire me as a Greens senator.

I would not be in this place today without the love and support of my family, and it is great to have them in the gallery today. I want in particular to thank my parents, Marion and Brian, for supporting me throughout this political journey and for supporting me in all things in life. I know that their values will be a good basis for the work that I do here in this parliament. I also want to thank my brother, Michael, and my half-sister, Rachel, for always supporting me on my political journey. I have always appreciated their advice and encouragement. It is wonderful to have you all here today.

My family has been one that has always enjoyed talking about current affairs. I remember my dad, Brian, remarking that it was not always polite to talk about politics or religion—or at least lamenting that this is often said—and yet these are two of the most interesting things to talk about. Indeed, I do remember a lot of interesting discussions about these things at the family dinner table, growing up. In particular, I remember some debates with my late grandmother, Majorie, who used to visit us from the UK each year. I think it is fair to say that my grandmother's political philosophy was probably a little bit different to my own, but I know that, if she were here today, she would be very proud—probably enjoying a gin and tonic as well!

As well as encouraging my interest in current affairs, my mum and dad always instilled in my brother and me a sense of community and civic responsibility. We had the benefit of a big extended family, with four sets of aunties and uncles and lots of cousins. As children, we spent considerable time in Broken Hill, where my mum is from, but we also kept in contact with our family in Yorkshire, in the UK, where my parents were married and where I was born before the family moved back to Australia in 1987. In many ways, Yorkshire and Broken Hill are very different, and so, as a child, I did have the opportunity to learn a bit about the world.

I am a proud product of public education. I went to Flagstaff Hill primary school and later Aberfoyle Park High School, at that time the biggest public school in my state. I was involved in the SRC and the debating club. Some might even say I was a bit of a nerd, but I had a very happy childhood. At times, however, as a young man growing up, I did often feel as though I did not quite fit in. I was not always sure of my own place in the world, and I did not have the easiest time at school.

I stand here today as an out and proud gay man, but it certainly was not always so. I remember I was about 12 when I realised I was gay. I was in my final year at primary school. It was a secret that I carried for a long time. Indeed, I did not tell anyone until I was in my early 20s. I had no conception of what a gay life might look like, and I was scared for the future. I have to say that standing in the federal Senate talking about coming out was not something I had really envisaged for my future as a closeted teenager in suburban Adelaide! These days, however, I am very comfortable in my own skin, but I think it is important to talk about these things because it is not an easy thing for a lot of young people today.

I do hope that, through my work here, I can make things a little bit easier for people in the future. I have always had the support of my family and my friends on my journey with sexuality, but I know that, unfortunately, not everybody is that fortunate. For, despite all that we have achieved on this long road for equality, there is still much more to be done. I know that young people are still bullied at school for being same-sex attracted or transgender, and I know that homophobia and transphobia are still dangerous forces within Australian society. But I want to say to any young person who might be struggling with their own journey with sexuality or gender identity that things really do get better. Our nation is changing. Our world is changing, and you have a bright future ahead of you. Be brave, be strong, and be proud of who you are.

It is my experiences with sexuality that underpin my support for marriage equality. I know that, when I was a young person, that reform would have made a big difference to me. It actually would have changed things quite a lot—a positive symbol that, no matter who you are or who you love, all are equal before the law. The time has well and truly come for our nation to turn its back on the homophobia and discrimination of the past. This parliament must get this job done. We must get it done.

It is interesting that the thing about me that I would have done anything to change is now one of the things I cherish the most. Being gay has given me the capacity to look at the world in different ways, to imagine how things should be beyond the rules of the world I grew up in. For me, the personal is political and my experience strengthened my resolve to fight discrimination and to stand up for outsiders. That is fundamental to my political philosophy and I am proud to be a member of a political party that has always fought to create a fairer and more equal society for all. The fight against homophobia and transphobia is of course part of a much bigger struggle for justice in our world. It is part of a struggle against a fear and hatred of difference. We see that ugly hatred and fear in racism in this country as well. It should be named and it should be challenged head-on.

It is this fear and hatred of others that has been fundamental to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and it was this issue that led to my political awakening as a young person. I was at high school at the time and I remember I was horrified by the images of children sewing their lips together, of boats being turned away. I was appalled that our nation was turning our backs on the world's most vulnerable people, people who were coming to us seeking our help and protection. It is a sad indictment that, more than a decade on, the brazen cruelty of mandatory detention continues. What kind of nation lets innocent children languish in island prisons? What kind of country does that? I believed then, as I still believe now, that this policy has no place in a civilised society; it demeans us all.

I am proud to stand here today as a representative of the Australian Greens, a political party that has always had the moral courage to stand up for these people. I never lose hope that love and compassion will one day triumph over hatred and fear and that our nation will soon find its conscience. Martin Luther King once said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

I believe with love and compassion we can change our world. Whether we are black or white, gay or straight, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, whether we are born here, or whether you arrive by plan or by boat, it is love that is the foundation of the human experience. It is love that unites us all. And it is love that has been severely lacking in our nation's approach to this issue. Let Australia be a country that celebrates generosity rather than just prosperity. For if we do that, we will really be the richest country on earth.

I started to take political action when I started my law-arts degree at Flinders University. I remember being approached by a member of the Flinders University Education Collective about the Howard government's plans at that time to increase HECS by 30 per cent. I knew that that was not fair. I decided not to get mad but to get elected, so I got elected to my students' association. I ended up being elected state education officer on my campus before becoming the education officer for the National Union of Students and later went on to become the student president. These were challenging times for the student movement. We fought not only the Howard government's fees agenda but we also fought against their plan to destroy student services and representation through voluntary student unionism. Indeed, I remember watching on in dismay as this Senate passed VSU into law. It is clear that a decade on, try as they might, governments will never silence students fighting for fairness and equity in education.

Universities are vital to our nation's future, not only because they are fundamental to the growth of our economy—although we know that to be the case—but because they are a public good. Universities are not just degree factories; they provide pathways for citizens to realise their dreams and to reach their potential. They provide avenues for the exchanging of ideas, for the building of knowledge, for reflecting on our world and for finding solutions. The Greens have a strong record when it comes to fighting for these important principles and for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the student movement.

I join the parliament as a member of the so-called 'generation debt', a generation that may never be able to afford to buy our own home, squeezed by mammoth HECS debts and sky-rocking property prices. Indeed, I have lived in share housing ever since I moved out of home and, like many people my age, I am used to living pay-to-pay and have done so for many years. Obviously, my circumstances have changed a little bit in recent weeks but there is something very wrong in our country if you have to be on a senator's salary before you can consider home ownership. We do need to take a serious look at negative gearing. Is it fair that those who already have a foothold in the property market are able to slam the door on those trying to find a way in? It is not fair and it needs to be changed.

Being shut out of home ownership is just one of many issues affecting young people today. Long-term work is hard to find, we have got increased casualisation and short-term contracts, and we know that this impacts disproportionately on young people. We need to look at how we can encourage businesses to employ young people because we know that when you get that first job, when you get that first foot in the door that other opportunities will follow. And of course we should never expect young people to surrender their rights at work or to give up their penalty rates in order to secure employment.

Government needs to provide support to young people looking for work, not harm them with punitive policy. It is a sad irony that, in many ways, young people are so often the victims of decisions made in this place yet are so often shut out of the political process. I started my working life in the community sector as a policy advocate for the Youth Affairs Council of South Australia and I do want to be a strong voice for young people here in this place.

My home state of South Australia is a leader in social reform in this country. South Australia was the first place in Australia before Federation to grant universal suffrage to women and the first place in the world to give women the right to stand for parliament. In 1966 South Australia became the first state in the nation to prohibit racial discrimination with the passage of the Prohibition of Discrimination Act. Forty years ago this year, South Australia became the first state in our country to decriminalise homosexuality. It is an honour to stand here today as a gay man representing my state in the federal parliament. I want to acknowledge the courage of all those who fought so hard for that reform, who risked imprisonment simply for being who they are. It is their struggle that has made the future brighter for people like me, and I say thank you for that.

These are just some examples of South Australia leading the way. For it is our state that has always been a leader in positive social change and innovation in Australia. It is that spirit that we must harness as we confront the challenges that lie ahead. As an incoming South Australian senator, I know my state faces some big challenges, but with these challenges comes enormous opportunity. As our economy transitions away from coal and carbon, we can create new green jobs for the future. We should harness the skills of our manufacturing industry, to create new jobs in green innovation, supporting the production of technology like electric cars, light rail and cutting edge renewables. In places like Port Augusta there is the potential to create new jobs in energy production through a solar thermal power plant. South Australia can lead the world with green technology.

South Australia has a reputation for quality food and produce and can also lead the way with sustainable agriculture. For far too long, the lifeblood of my home state, the River Murray, has been a political plaything. We need a plan that ensures that it is governed by the science, not the politics. There are many industries within my home state that are showing the way with sustainable water use, and I know we can make big progress on that in the years ahead.

South Australia is the hub of creativity in our country. The Adelaide Fringe Festival one of the biggest open-access arts festivals in the world. Indeed, alone, Adelaide hosts more than 10 major festivals a year. These create huge opportunities for tourism for my state. We need to be doing more to support the arts community, not just in South Australia but right across our country. For despite the huge benefits it brings for tourism and hospitality, valuing the arts is about more than that. The arts are not simply about entertainment; the arts hold a mirror up to society. The arts enrich the collective soul of our nation. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, but we are forever enriched by the experience. It really is time that government investment reflected that value.

As a South Australian senator, my mission will be to ensure that we make the most of these opportunities. I know there is an exciting future ahead, and that South Australia can strengthen its status as a world leader in sustainability and creativity. The sky is the limit for my state.

Right across our country it is clear that we need a different style of politics. The failure of today's politics to address the social, economic and moral challenges of our time is failing our country and our planet. If we do not change course, we will leave a bitter legacy for future generations who follow. It is often said that politics is the art of the possible, but I respectfully disagree; I think politics is about making what once seemed impossible, possible. It is about achieving the unimaginable. It is about challenging the status quo. It is about taking on the established order. It is about moving beyond the reality and inspiring with the dream. And to do that, we need to be willing to swim against the tide.

Imagine what we can achieve as Australians if our politics appeals to the best in us, rather than the worst; if politicians talk the language of love and compassion rather than the language of hatred and fear; if we build an economy that guarantees that no one is left behind, rather than an economy that guarantees only some get ahead; if we deal with the challenge of climate change today, rather than leaving it for the children of tomorrow.

The Australian Greens are a force for hope in our politics, and I am honoured to be able to play my part in promoting our positive vision here in this place.

I want to conclude by thanking all those who, like my family, have supported me on my road to the Senate: my many friends from my time working in the Greens; from my time at university and from school. There are too many here today to mention you all by name, but I do thank you for encouraging me and supporting me in this journey.

I also come here as someone who has had the opportunity to work for three senators: Natasha Stott Despoja, Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young. I want to thank them for all the advice and guidance they have given me over the years. Senators Ludlam and Hanson-Young, I look forward to working with you in my new role. I also want to thank all my Greens colleagues for welcoming me into the Senate, and in particular Senator Di Natale's office for all of their support over the last few weeks. Finally, I want thank my staff, who have worked very hard to get the new office up and running. It has been a very busy time, and I thank them for their hard work and dedication.

Mr President, it really is an honour to be here, and I will be working very hard to justify the faith so many have placed in me. Thank you.