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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 109


Mr DANBY (7:13 PM) —I will begin rather slowly to allow the member for Braddon, who has just made his first speech, to be congratulated. I take this opportunity of congratulating you, Mr Speaker, on your election to the position of Speaker. I welcome your commitment to fairness in your treatment of those on all sides of the House. I also congratulate the honourable members for Page and Scullin on their re-elections as Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker respectively. I believe that the House will be well served by all three senior occupants of the chair. I also congratulate all the new members who have just made their first speeches.

It is a great honour for me to have been returned for a third term as the member for Melbourne Ports, maintaining a Labor tradition which dates back to 1906. The seat has changed beyond recognition since the days of Ted Holloway and Frank Crean, when it was a safe Labor seat. We retained the seat with a negative swing below the national average and well below the Victorian average and for that I thank my constituents in Melbourne Ports very much for their support.

I would like to thank all those who worked on my campaign team, particularly my campaign director, Steve Donnelly. I fear Labor's victory in Adelaide means that Steve will be transferring his loyalties elsewhere, but I do appreciate the hard work he put into the campaign. I would also like to thank my staff, Alex Kats, Tony Williams and Dr Adam Carr, and my campaign committee including Dr Henry Pinskier, Bunna Walsh, Tonya Stephens, Alex Hicks, Sylvia Freeman, Donna Walsh, Dror Poleg, Byron Danby, George Droutsas, Natalie Lupton, and all the loyal Labor members and volunteers across the electorate who did so much work to ensure our rather unusual result in Melbourne Ports. I would also like to thank my state parliamentary colleagues Tony Lupton and John Thwaites and my friends at the AWU, MUA, SDA and HSU who gave me their assistance.

The Liberal Party thought they had a serious chance of winning Melbourne Ports at this election, and they chose a candidate whom they thought might appeal to some of my core supporters. The Victorian Liberal Party, the candidate and his family spent an estimated quarter of a million dollars trying to unseat me. They also resorted to some of the most unpleasant campaign tactics we have seen in Melbourne Ports in any of the elections I have participated in, including unauthorised and anonymous leaflets attacking my record, particularly on issues relating to the gay community, and letterboxed to the homes of Orthodox Jewish families. Another tactic was the use of green how-to-vote cards, handed out by young women in green t-shirts and hats. This was a cheap trick designed to fool first-time voters into voting Liberal in the belief that they were voting for the Greens. Despite all these tactics, the government's candidate was not successful.

Nevertheless, we on this side of the House have to acknowledge that we lost the election and that the Howard Government has a mandate to govern for the next three years. From next July they will also have control of the Senate and thus will have the ability to legislate as they see fit. As we are already seeing with the abortion issue, I fear this means that the government will feel increasing pressure to move further to the right on a range of issues that up till now they have moved cautiously on. The government has a mandate, but history has shown that if they abuse it by putting through extremist measures they will pay a heavy price.

Why did Labor lose this election? The basic answer is that Australia has experienced more than a decade of economic growth, low inflation, low interest rates and falling unemployment, and Australian voters are usually reluctant to vote out a government when they are broadly happy with the state of the economy. The foundations of this economic success were laid by the Hawke and Keating governments, and I think we on this side of the House have not done enough to remind people of that fact. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have had the good fortune of reaping the benefits of many of the economic reforms that Labor enacted. The Treasurer likes to boast of his record, but so far he has not been tested by external factors. We will see what kind of navigator he really is when the ship of state really hits stormy economic waters.

The second factor was the government's campaign on interest rates, which undoubtedly influenced many voters in mortgage belt suburban seats. This campaign was bogus, as virtually every senior economist in Australia pointed out. If interest rates are going to rise, and I fear they may, they are going to rise regardless of who is in government. In case members opposite have forgotten, this is how free market economies are supposed to work. In their advertising the government campaigned as though we were living in East Germany, with prices and interest rates fixed by the state. You cannot on one hand be a champion of deregulation and market forces and on the other claim that you are able to dictate whether interest rates will go up or down. I thought that was the preserve of the Reserve Bank. The fact remains, however, that Labor was unable to counter the government's scare campaign, which we should have seen coming and will have to be sharper in countering in the future. It is vital that Labor emphasises its strong economic credentials, and I am confident that the shadow Treasurer will put forward an effective analysis and criticism of the government's economic policies and develop policies for the next election which will win the support of the Australian people.

The third factor of our defeat, in my view, was the late release of our key policies on health, education and the environment, all areas in which the Australian people traditionally look to Labor rather than the coalition for answers. I believe our policies in all three areas were imaginative and well intentioned, and some were received well by the Australian people. But their late release meant that we could not mount an effective campaign around them and we could not make a defence against the criticisms that were made in the media by the government and by affected lobby groups. In the area of forest policy, as a prospective beneficiary of this policy as an inner city member—the Greens polled 14 per cent of the vote in Melbourne Ports and gave me 90 per cent of their preferences—I believe our policy of ending logging in Tasmania's old-growth forests was a price we paid for those preferences with too high a coin. We would have got their preferences anyhow, and the defeat of two fine Labor members in Tasmania—including the previous member for Braddon; we have just heard the new member make his first speech—the loss of a Senate place in Tasmania and probably our failures in Eden-Monaro, McMillan and Gippsland was a price that was, in my view, too high. The issue of chasing Greens preferences at the expense of working-class voters is an issue which the Labor Party have to face very squarely and, in my view, was an error of judgement. Once again, the possibility of recouping the damage was lost because the policy was released late.

Let me turn to some of the issues that I believe will confront us during this parliamentary term. Recently, on the front page of the Australian, we saw a story on the report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into Australia's waterfront, which shows rising costs for exporters, increasing congestion and delays at ports. The report shows that the rate of return for the two existing stevedoring companies—Patrick and P&O Ports—has risen from 10.5 per cent in 1998-99 to over 27 per cent in 2003-04. The ACCC chairman, Graeme Samuel, was quoted as saying:

Higher average revenues—

that is, increased profits for the government's favoured friends at Patrick and P&O—

mean that users are facing higher charges for stevedoring services.

The government likes to boast that its waterfront reforms have greatly increased productivity in the stevedoring industry, but the ACCC report shows that Australia's ports urgently need new investment to increase capacity and reduce costs for exporters. In other words, the cosy duopoly that Patrick and P&O enjoy in the stevedoring industry has allowed them to increase their rate of profit rather than investing some of their income in increased capacity, which would benefit Australian exporters as well as provide greater employment to waterfront communities such as those in Melbourne Ports. According to the article:

... margins in the stevedoring industry had risen in each of the six years since the ACCC commenced monitoring.

The article quotes Mr Samuel:

If the industry is beginning to experience capacity constraints then it is important from a competition perspective to see new investment ... This would expand capacity, alleviate congestion and ensure maintenance of service levels.

In other words, the selfish profit-taking of the government's corporate mates is starving the industry of investment and pushing up costs for Australian exporters. Since these include our great agricultural exporting industries, I thought we might have heard something from The Nationals about this. Instead over the last few years we have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services, who has come in here and rabbited on about the government's reform of Australia's ports. However, the trickle-down effect of his so-called microeconomic reform has not been happening at all, as I and many other members on this side have pointed out to him, as has the Australian shipping and export industry. We will continue to pursue this matter with the government.

In the last parliament, I had the honour of serving as Deputy Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters under the chairmanship of the honourable member for Kooyong. If I am again a member of this committee, which I hope to be, it will be a busy year for us. We have already seen Senator Abetz, the Special Minister for State, indicate that he intends reintroducing the government's electoral legislation which was rejected by the Senate in the last parliament. His bill would, amongst other things, close the electoral roll on the day the election is announced rather than allowing voters a week's grace to update their addresses or to enrol for the first time. We know—this is not a matter of speculation—that this would have the effect of disenfranchising about 300,000 Australians.

I spoke about this matter at length in the last session and no doubt I will do so again. I only want to say now that this is a blatant piece of electoral manipulation by this government. It is designed to keep many young people—there are 70,000 young people amongst those 300,000—and transient and low-income people off the rolls. It is the government's belief—a poll-driven belief, if you ask me—that, integrated with its happiness at the increasing number of people who are voting informally, and its failure to get the AEC to pursue those who do not participate at all, which number has also gone up slightly over the last few years, it will get some electoral benefit out of this. In particular, the prospect of disenfranchising people at the next election is designed on the belief that they would vote Labor rather than Liberal. In doing this, the government is ignoring the unanimous report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that such a move is not necessary. The supposed concern about the integrity of the electoral system which Senator Abetz cites as the reason for this change is no more than a smokescreen for the self-interest of the Liberal Party.

It is ironic that, while this government is busy looking for ways to restrict democratic participation in Australia, democratic freedoms are expanding in other countries. This year more people around the world voted in free elections than at any other time in human history. Amongst them were the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, who in October—to their great credit—at the same time as the Australian elections, elected their first-ever freely elected leader, President Hamid Karzai, who polled 55.4 per cent of the vote. Despite Taliban and al-Qaeda threats, more than 10 million Afghans voted—three million more than were expected. The United Nations believed that Afgans would be too afraid to enrol. But the courage of the Afghan people in enrolling and participating in this election in such a large measure was a great tribute to them. This was a remarkable achievement in one of the world's poorest countries, until recently ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history. It was striking that the turnout amongst women was nearly as high as amongst men.

This progress in Afghanistan, in which Australian forces played a modest but creditable role, is in sharp contrast to the situation in most of the Islamic world. Although we in Australia are very pleased to see Indonesia has made great strides towards democracy with its first direct presidential election this year, most of the countries in the Middle East still remain dictatorships or absolute monarchies. Last year's parliamentary elections in Iran, for example, were in my view a complete farce. The striking out of many democratic candidates—in fact, sitting members of parliament—by some faceless group of mullahs was a disgrace to Tehran's claim to democracy. Pakistan is ruled by the military behind the facade of a parliamentary government and, unfortunately, the same has happened in what was formerly Soviet Central Asia.

All of this makes the elections in Iraq scheduled for January 2005 extremely important. Most of the bloodshed in Iraq at the moment is part of a campaign to prevent these elections taking place. This campaign is usually depicted as resistance against the US and allied forces in Iraq. In fact, in my view, it is mainly intended to intimidate the Iraqi people by a minority who have traditionally been able to control that country. Those regimes behind this insurgency minority, particularly the regimes of Iran and Syria, know that a successful election and inauguration of democratic Iraq would be a grave threat to their own hold on power. These are views that I know are shared by the new Iraqi Ambassador to Australia, Ambassador Al Shildu, whom I had the honour to meet at a lunch hosted by the Governor-General following his credentialling. Support for the elections is a view shared by many Iraqi professionals who live in Australia and who work under the Iraqi Forum trying to encourage Australian support for democracy in Iraq.

It is so important that these elections go ahead on schedule, and that democratic countries give Iraq as much help as possible in conducting these elections and establishing a freely elected government. An independent authentic elected Iraq government will be the best way of getting foreign troops out of Iraq. The project of building a democratic Iraq is important for not only the long-suffering people of Iraq but also for the example it will set to the whole region. If it can be done in Afghanistan in the face of enormous difficulties, it can be done in Iraq. I believe Ayatollah Sistani, the Shia leader of the 60 per cent of Iraqis who follow the Shia form of religion, wants the elections to go ahead as scheduled. I believe they should go ahead as soon as possible to enable people to reflect the democratic will of that country. Nothing will do more to diminish the suicide bombings and the terrorism that are taking place there, than a successful election.

The government argued during the election campaign that Australia should stay in Iraq until the job is done and now it has a mandate for that policy. So it is fair to ask what the government is now doing in practice to help the Iraqi people for their first free elections next year. We have great experience in electoral systems and we have assisted our friends and neighbours in East Timor and Cambodia to establish efficient and transparent election systems; we should be doing the same to help Iraq in the run-up to the 2005 elections.

Elections are also scheduled for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in January. I make no secret of my belief that over the past four years the greatest obstacle to achieving a peace settlement in the Middle East was the obstructionism of the late Yasser Arafat, whose rejection of the Barak-Clinton peace offer in 2000 triggered the current tragic train of events in that small but vital part of the world. His death creates new opportunities to get the peace process moving again. Again it is elections that lead to this possibility—elections in the Palestinian Authority. Many people argue that it is terrorism, impoverishment and Western policy that lead to the extreme politics in that part of the world. I think that when people have the opportunity for a free expression of views they overcome those kinds of extreme political attitudes that we have seen in that region for so long. We should welcome Prime Minister Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, and we should encourage the Palestinians to respond in the same spirit. Australia should do whatever we can to assist both parties to resume negotiations.

During this parliament I will continue to work for the people of Melbourne Ports. I will continue to raise issues such as electoral reform, national security, human rights in many parts of the world and the government's callous treatment of asylum seekers. The voters have decided that Labor should spend another term in opposition, and we have to accept that verdict. That does not mean, however, that we should not continue to expose injustices as we see them and speak out in this House on behalf of our constituents. Over the next three years we have to work harder to develop policies that will win the confidence of voters at the next election. In the meantime, we will hold this government to account.

I conclude by taking up some of the words of the new member for Prospect, which are very much like Prime Minister Blair's views in the United Kingdom: we have to look at the democratic prospect throughout the world as not just economic development but as a way of—particularly in that troubled area of the Middle East—solving problems as much as creating them. I really look forward to the elections in Iraq as a way of freeing those people in that part of the world, bringing greater human rights to it and undermining the very basis on which a minority of people in that part of the world would deprive their own people as much as us of their freedoms via terrorism. We have a lot of work to do in this parliament, and I hope the government's democratic rhetoric is as valid as it says it is both in its assistance to the people of Iraq and in this country, where there are some moves that it seems to have initiated to limit democratic freedoms.