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Wednesday, 21 June 2000
Page: 15312


Senator PAYNE (12:45 PM) —Today in this debate, I want to make a few remarks that briefly encapsulate some of my thoughts in relation to what Australia does, as it were, beyond 2000—and I am not talking about a Channel 7 television program. We find ourselves halfway through the year and so, some would say, the new millennium has begun. And, as yet, notwithstanding all the doomsayers' warnings, the world has not ended. We have had a big start to a big year, both across the globe and in Australia, and it can only get bigger.

This year we star on the stage of the world, hosting the millennium Olympics and Paralympics. Next year we celebrate our Centenary of Federation. I think both of these events have invited us to look at ourselves with introspection and reflection. We ask: how do we maximise the cultural and financial impact of the Games? How do we celebrate 100 years of nationhood? What image of Australia do we want to present to a world audience? If you are a young Australian, how do you want your country to be seen? Where should we be beyond 2000? Certainly the Olympics have focused our minds, whether it is on the torch relay crisis, American marching bands, occasional corruption allegations, tickets, sponsorships or selections. We have both privately and publicly sometimes questioned our capacity to succeed at this huge undertaking—a concern that is probably felt by every nation that hosts the Games. Each host nation wants to ensure that the character and the spirit of their nation are presented truly to the world through the Olympic spotlight.

Even 40 years ago Australians took very seriously the challenges facing them in staging the 1956 Games. There were the same sorts of arguments, disagreements, criticisms and oppositions. So much so that, at the time, Avery Brundage, who was the President of the IOC, noted:

It sets me wondering why Australia knocks itself, when all the other nations realise the potential boost they receive in the public's eyes when granted the Games.

I think the organisers of the '56 Games realised just what we all realise now: that the staging of the Games is more than the building of a stadium or the design of a team uniform. It is in fact a tangible opportunity to focus on the present and, more importantly, to plan for the future. The celebration of world sport and culture is not only a time for enjoyment but also a time for representation and reflection of who we are and who we want to be in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world.

And we have another opportunity with the Centenary of Federation. On 1 January 2001, the Commonwealth of Australia will have existed for 100 years—no mean feat, given the extraordinary processes of compromise that were inherent in its birth. The processes of reflection that have gone hand in hand with both the planning of the Olympics and the Centenary of Federation are very valuable. Some might describe them as a national engagement of `navel gazing', but in this case it is a worthy pursuit as we move into a new era for our nation, for whatever we are today and whatever we are to become in the future is undeniably a result of what we were in days gone past, whether influenced by Federation or our sporting or cultural achievements. It is our past, our present and our future that form an interwoven thread of character and direction which we pass to young Australians.

I think there is a possibility that, in celebrating the present and in glorifying the past, we might forget to actually watch where we are going. Whilst we can all revel in the Olympics and appreciate the significant achievement of 100 years of history, we might also consider what lies beyond these events. As politicians, we are often criticised on all sides of the respective chambers for relating to opinion polls, to sound bites and to votes or for focusing on the short term rather than the medium or, dare I say it, the long term. And sometimes that is a valid criticism. A casual observer might say that, at the moment, it is the short-term focus that has in fact grasped our national psyche and that many Australians are thinking little beyond the Olympics themselves in September. Just as it is pretty easy to predict that Australia will perform brilliantly at the Olympics, so, too, it is easy to predict that, the day after the Games, the nation will engage in a collective scratch of the head and wonder, `Where to now?'

Since I became involved in politics much of that involvement has been as a youngish political activist. It has always been my belief that young people should be involved and engaged in their democracy. I think that is now even more important than ever because moving beyond the Olympics and providing a direction for the next millennium is a task for the next generation. I know that, if young Australians are to make the most of their opportunities and capacities and to make a contribution to the development of our nation, they need to be conscious of who we are now and where we have come from.

To me, the most striking characteristics of our modern nation are innovation and invention. Australia has given the world an extraordinary number of devices and advances that people now take for granted, whether you are talking about the heart pacemaker, the black box flight recorder or, more simply, the wine cask and furniture castors. We are an extraordinarily accepting nation of new technologies, and our enthusiastic take-up of IT is testimony to that. We are the world's third highest per capita user of the Internet after Finland and the United States. We have access to a range of services, information sources and retail outlets previously unknown, but we still have problems with some of the fundamentals. The Queensland University of Technology conducted a study recently which found that, while 90 per cent of first-year students have a computer, only half actually feel confident at managing computer files or searching the Internet. And if the conservative estimate of 30,000 job vacancies in the IT industry is accurate, coinciding skills and experience with these vacancies, in the light of those statistics from the study, is a major challenge for us.

If we are to maintain that strong sense of innovation and make the most of IT trends, we actually need to reappraise our approach to technology. As the logical starting point, we have to be prepared to ensure adequate educational standards for dealing with IT, but we also have to start at the top. The leaders of the nation and the leaders in every area of business and the community have to be prepared to familiarise themselves and be comfortable with the enormous opportunities and capacities that information technology gives us. So we have to start early, but we cannot afford to ignore those who are long out of school, who are already in the work force or who are coming back into the work force and who might be struggling to grasp the technologies. As I have said in the chamber before, it is the families who cannot even pay home phone bills, let alone buy mobile phones and computers for themselves and their children, who are at real risk of falling on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Australia has also often found that it is leading the world in cultural and social developments. It will not surprise anyone to know that I want to remark on the fact that I think we are a nation strongly influenced by pioneering women. From Elizabeth Macarthur, who is generally recognised as the first educated woman in Australia and who showed a keen interest in colonial politics, to Elizabeth Kenny, who developed treatments for infantile paralysis, we have been heavily influenced by the strength and leadership of women.

We were the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament. In fact the first polling day in Australia to include women voters was in South Australia on 25 April 1896. It was not surprising to me when I learned this, but women turned out to be very enthusiastic voters, with a higher percentage of those women who were enrolled going to the polls than men. Australian women continue to make significant gains. The labour force participation of women achieved the record level of 54.9 per cent in May of this year. At Commonwealth board level, 30.9 per cent of board positions are occupied by women, and there are encouraging trends at the private sector level, although much still remains to be done.

Women play an increasingly important role in small business, but it is not all a bright outlook. In fact 90 per cent of all sole parents with dependants under 15 in this nation are women and, in the age of equality, more mothers than fathers state that they always or often feel rushed or pushed for time. A total of 23 per cent of women who have been married or are in a de facto relationship experienced violence by a partner at some time during that relationship. These are aspects of Australian community which are about quality of life, not just existing.

So while we build on our history to accentuate the positive and empower young women, we also have to address the negatives and reverse some of those trends. I think we should be actively encouraging the development and promotion of female role models in every profession, every pursuit and every area of interest. That applies across the board, from politics to business and from the community to sport.

Given this country's pre-Olympic obsession with sport—although some may say lifelong obsession—I thought the recent fundraising use of a calendar featuring nude photographs of the Australian women's soccer team, the Matildas, was a very telling moment in this area. I am hardly prudish—that is not the basis of my concerns; anyone who knows me well knows that—but many young women in this country suffer from insecurities which lead to eating disorders. I do not think the exploitation of physical appearance in that way is a plus. We, on the one hand, actively commend media outlets for positive depictions of women in sport and we seek out greater interest and greater representation of women in sport and then, on the other hand, we confuse the situation with that sort of approach. I think those inconsistent attitudes are a problem.

We must also continue to provide young Australian women with a range of opportunities and options. Whether these are in terms of career, family or any other pursuit, young women should have choices open to them. To demonstrate and publicise these choices is one task for the role models I referred to earlier to lead young women positively into the 21st century.

On another level, one of the most concerning trends, which presents contemporary society with a huge challenge over coming years and which has little historical reference, is the increasing level of mental illness in Australian communities, with a cost to the community, a cost to families and an ultimate cost to individuals at all levels. This has only too sharply, tragically and personally been drawn to our attention in this parliament over the last week.

A report released by the health minister late last year indicated that one in five Australians has a mental illness and less than half of these people seek professional help. At the most disturbing end of the spectrum, the number of deaths in Australia attributed to suicide rose by 24 per cent over the 10-year period to 1998. I have spoken about this before in the chamber. For me personally, the tragic death of the member for Isaacs last week brings just another person—too close, too important to even describe—who has felt themselves to have no other option.

In the context of my comments today, perhaps even more concerning are indications that mental disorders are most common among younger adults, with one in four adults between the ages of 18 and 24 affected by one or more disorders. So in one sense it is all very well and good for me or anyone else to talk about involving and engaging young people in their democracy but, if at the same time they are dealing with the enormous challenges of mental illness on a day-to-day basis, I guess their attentions and stresses probably fall elsewhere.

The challenge for us as we move beyond issues such as the Olympics, not only from the most basic measure of chronology but also in terms of the impact on people's lives, is how to deal with these sorts of problems. I am encouraged by the introduction of the National Depression Initiative, chaired by the Hon. Jeff Kennett. The initiative, which is funded significantly by the federal government, will form the focus of work in this area and it is an initiative where government, business and community will work together. It takes leadership to help erase the stigma associated with mental illness and to help our friends and our family members to seek help when they really need it. It will take much more leadership from parliamentarians, medical professionals and the community to have a real impact.

The approach where different levels of society work in partnership is the most effective way that we can deal with not only the challenge of mental illness but also the challenges of information technology and achieving real gender equality, as I have discussed today. Equality, achievement and wellbeing are fundamentals which impact on the way we interact with each other and the way in which we have approached the issue of the broader direction of national development.

Australia has always been a nation defined by a strong sense of community and commitment of its people to one another. It might come from a collective sense of rejection from developing as the penal colony, but I think it has more to do with a spirit that has developed over many years. Influenced by wars, friendships and a unique geology and geography, we are a nation unlike any other and our communities are different from any other. We are more multicultural than many other nations and we are more disparate geographically than most. We have a different set of experiences from other nations which might have the shared history of colonialism.

It is that diversity that places us in a unique position: to enjoy the benefits of our history, accept the challenges of the present and define the nature of our future. Every day in this job I see Australians who are trying to do just that. Whether it is the young and enthusiastic participants of the Work for the Dole projects in Albury who have been identifying Aboriginal artefacts and history, the volunteers who run the National Youth Initiative or the activists who set up young Australians for or, in some cases, against a republic, those young people are defining the future of our nation. I saw it again yesterday in facing what I would describe as the probing, sometimes personal, questions of 90 sixth grade boys at the Canberra Boys Grammar Prep.

I am always encouraged by these young people, in seeing their keenness and their desire to make a contribution. Their enthusiasm is in fact contagious and it creates a real challenge for us. One of my concerns in this the Olympic year is that Australia does not lose sight of the bigger picture, a picture that is bigger than the Olympic stadium or bigger than 100 years of Federation. We have so much to be proud of, but still so much to work on. While these two events give us great opportunities, we also have to look at how we see ourselves. There is a lot of similarity between two particular `Sydney' events: staging the Olympics and constructing the Opera House—both mammoth projects, both controversial, both with stretched budgets and both involving a tremendous amount of vision.

We have great challenges. When we meet these challenges we will have positioned our nation very well and we will have a future that builds on our history. (Time expired)