Inaugural Speech

27 August 2008

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.