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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 4462


Senator ARBIB (5:21 PM) —Mr President, first, may I pass on my belated congratulations on your election as presiding officer. I wish you sound and wise judgement in your guardianship of the Senate. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to my New South Wales Senate predecessor, Kerry Nettle. I have always known Kerry to be a decent, passionate and hardworking senator. To her credit, and the betterment of this chamber, she expressed herself with resolve. I wish her well.

It is with immense pride and humility that I enter the parliament. There can be no greater honour in our democracy than serving the Australian people. This position provides an individual with such enormous opportunities: the opportunity to improve the lives of all Australians; the opportunity to help our great country advance economically, socially and culturally; and the opportunity to give back to a country that has given each of us so much. It is an opportunity I will never take for granted, and I thank the voters of the great state of New South Wales for their support and trust.

Without question, the election of the Rudd Labor government heralded a new direction for Australia. Inspired by Kevin Rudd’s education revolution, by climate change and by Labor’s plan for a fairer workplace, the Australian people voted for positive change. Positive change is something that has always characterised the Australian Labor Party. Labor is a progressive, forward looking party—the party working for the common good, the party of reform and the party of the future. I draw inspiration from the words of Labor’s first Prime Minister, Chris Watson. These days, he is rarely quoted, but more than a century ago, in 1904, he said that Labor was ‘the spirit of humanity, the spirit of those who care for the poor and the lowly’. He said that Labor’s approach was ‘of those who will leave no stone unturned in their efforts to benefit humanity’. That is our history. That is our responsibility, and it is towards these ends that my time in this chamber will always be directed.

I enter this parliament having held many occupations. These have included a position as a metal trades assistant—I am really sorry, Doug; I was never a member of the metalworkers. I have been a lifeguard, a restaurant cook and, most recently, worked in the finance sector. But the majority of my working life has been dedicated to the Labor movement. It is indeed a great pleasure to have served the trade union movement as an organiser with the Transport Workers Union. I am extremely proud of my contribution and that of my colleagues in the fight for social justice and workers rights.

In my 11 years serving the Australian Labor Party, I have had the pleasure of working with thousands of like-minded, passionate and dedicated local branch members, best described as the heart and soul of our great party. For party members living in regional and rural Australia, it is not unusual to drive countless hours to stand at polling booths all day in seats where there may be little or no hope of winning. They participate because they believe. They believe in the party; they believe in our ideals. This sort of dedication is inspiring. That is why I say, with no exaggeration, how proud I am to have these members as my friends, how thankful I am for the tireless work they perform and how grateful I am for their endorsement.

Mr President, last week, on your election, you explained that no one senator comes to this chamber alone, that we all have a team of family and friends who have helped us to reach where we are today. I wholeheartedly agree. There are so many people who have assisted me along the journey, but to single out a few for thanks would be unfair to all those I have leant on for support over the years. It would also take up the remainder of this speech. So I simply give my supporters, staff and friends in the public gallery the deepest thank you for your support, for your sacrifice and for your respect. I am here because of you. I carry with me the sum of our joint experiences, and I will try and do justice to your expectations but, above all, thank you for your friendship.

When I sat down to write this speech, I realised how much of my life has been shaped profoundly by my family. There have been five great women who have shaped my life, and tonight I honour them with my first speech. My grandmother, Dorothea Weight, was born in 1916. Her story is so similar to so many other senior Australians, a story of trying times and sacrifice to provide a better life for her family. By the time she turned 14, the Great Depression had devastated economies all around the world. I remember my grandmother telling me how terrible the Depression was. Time and time again, she told me, ‘Find a job, work hard and save for a house.’

I still remember my grandmother’s great disappointment when I told her I was running for the Senate. She questioned why I would take a job that lasted only six years and suggested I consider taking a more secure job as a bank teller. Unfortunately for my grandmother, I did not take her advice. My grandmother always showed great compassion and respect for working people. When I look back at the reasons I joined the Labor Party, it is hard to go past the ideals and principles that she instilled in me. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away a few months ago after a very long illness. I thank her from the bottom of my heart. I miss her dearly.

My mother, Lola Arbib, has had the biggest impact in shaping my life. She met my father, Enrico, in 1968. He had immigrated to Australia from Italy five years earlier in search of a better life. In 1968 my father and mother were married, and within five years they had two young boys. The migrant’s dream had been realised. However, it was not to last. My father’s life was cut short at the age of 43. Upon my father’s death, our extended family rallied around us, helping my mother with the difficulties of raising two boys on her own. The circumstances of my upbringing have allowed me to truly appreciate the wisdom of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I will always be thankful to those who helped our family. However, it is my mother who is owed the greatest debt, as it was she who sacrificed so much for her children. Mum, I thank you today, and continue to thank you every day, for all you have done for me and my brother. We will always be indebted to you.

The other three women who have been instrumental in shaping my life are, of course, my wonderful wife, Kelli, and our two beautiful daughters, Alexandra and Charlotte. Kelli is my friend, my greatest supporter and, most importantly, the most loving mother imaginable. Many of my friends delight in regularly reminding me that Kelli is the more intelligent half of our marriage. But tonight I respond with this: that may be true, but I was still smart enough to convince her to marry me. Kelli, without your love and support I would not be here. Thank you.

The birth of my children has been the most profound and defining moment of my life. I am proud in the knowledge that my greatest achievement now and in the future will always be the development and care of my daughters. If you asked me what would be the guiding principles for my time in this chamber, the answer is simple. As a senator, my children and the welfare of all our children would be my compass. It is being a parent that has taught me most about the pressures families face, in particular the stress that mothers face each day.

Watching my wife struggle with emotional and physical exhaustion while trying to rear our children and re-enter the workforce has made a significant impression on me. In today’s society with a greater proportion of women in employment I believe that we must do much more to assist parents to cope with the stresses of parenthood, particularly in the early years. Paid maternity leave, better support services and child care that is more equitable and flexible must be part of this parliament’s future program. I say this not as a senator but as a father who takes the greatest satisfaction in being involved in my children’s upbringing and who wants to play an even greater role. And I am not alone. The majority of fathers I talk to at playgrounds, at the local swimming pool and at the shopping centre would like to spend more time with their children.

The time has come for our institutions to truly recognise the values of parenting and make the changes necessary to enable parents to enjoy a more rewarding family life. Indeed, what is required is a new definition of success, one that champions the balance of home and work life, because there is no benefit in forging a stellar career if it is at the expense of your children. Although there may be a short-term cost for these measures, the benefits in terms of childhood development welfare, along with the increased productivity gained through greater worker satisfaction, can never be calculated.

The next 20 years will be critical in Australia’s history. How will the leaders of today face the challenges of tomorrow? What strikes me most when I see the monumental challenges facing us on issues such as climate change, water security, our ageing population and Indigenous inequality is that, while these challenges seem so daunting, we have never been so well placed economically or scientifically to make the changes necessary. The question for Australian policy makers is: how can a country so endowed with natural resources and prosperity use our great assets to build and progress our nation? How can we harness this good fortune and invest it in the future? I believe the answer lies in embracing science and technology. There is no doubt that the 21st century will be one where scientific advances will be the driving force of economic, social and environmental changes.

Moore’s law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that in the future the capacity of the computer chip will double every 18 months. That means in nine years time the capacity of the computer chip would have increased by an amazing 6,400 per cent. That is staggering. The possibilities in areas such as communications, medicine, education and environmental science appear endless.

Australia’s future, I believe, lies in becoming a world leader and exporter of these new technologies. We can all witness the positive changes in countries like Ireland and India where the synergy of government and business has stimulated IT industries to grow and develop. Therefore it is vital that government and the private sector collaborate on policy and incentives to encourage greater research and development, working hand in hand with our universities and research institutions to allow these new industries to flourish.

In order to take advantage of these new opportunities we must build an education system that is world’s best. The Rudd government’s education revolution recognises this and aims to make Australia the best-educated, best-skilled and best-trained country in the world. Education is the way to transform our economy and education is the way to take advantage of new technology. Education is also the pathway to social change creating greater opportunities for Australians to share in our country’s wealth. All children must have access to an education that gives them the opportunity to liberate their talents and to provide the foundation for a productive and fulfilling life. This is nowhere more evident than in the role education will play in closing the gap on Indigenous inequality.

The first act of this new parliament was a decision to further the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Today I add my support and my voice to the Prime Minister’s historic apology. It is the fulfilment of the hopes of countless Australians from all political persuasions representing the past and the future, but it is only one of many steps on the pathway to true and lasting reconciliation. What is required now are concrete steps to dramatically improve the lives of Indigenous people—better health care, better housing and safer communities. I am proud of the work and policies that the Rudd government have taken to bridge the gap on Indigenous inequality. But much more needs to be done.

Empowering individuals and communities through education and training has to be at the forefront of our efforts. What I believe is required is an approach that extends opportunities to all Indigenous people by providing skills and vocational support to prepare Indigenous people for work. It cannot be left to just government to find these solutions. The private sector must do its bit by locating these employment opportunities. To this end the work that Andrew Forrest and Noel Pearson have begun with the recently announced Australian Employment Covenant is extremely promising.

However, to achieve real results Indigenous welfare must be reconsidered. The Indigenous welfare model of the past has failed by inadvertently creating a cycle of dependence and despondency resulting in disincentives to Indigenous job seekers. If we are serious about breaking the cycle we must provide real incentives to break through these structural barriers. It is a big task but with the community united and working to a common goal it is possible. Bridging the gap on Indigenous inequality is something I feel deeply about, and today and in the future I commit myself to playing a role in meeting this goal.

Australia faces challenges today that, in a globalised world, extend beyond our borders. Climate change and energy security are issues that have been ignored for far too long but are now thankfully at the forefront of the Rudd government’s agenda. It is unfortunate that some people think the problems are too hard and claim we should wait until governments in other countries act first—I disagree. That is not the Australian way. If there is a fight worth fighting, Australia does our bit. If there is a fight worth fighting, Australia always leads the way, and so it must be on climate change.

We are not the owners of the land, sea or air but mere custodians for future generations. We must not hesitate or fear the future. Now, more than ever, we must show courage and leadership. I strongly believe that the human race relishes great challenges. In 1961 John F. Kennedy challenged the American people to put a man on the moon and, in just eight years, they met that challenge. If we reached a faraway moon in 1969, with computer chips that could not fit in a single house, then maybe in 2008 and beyond we can save our own planet with all of our modernity and advancement. It will be tough, there will be a cost, but what is required, now more than ever, is the political will to stay the course.

My vision of Australia is of a country that is fair and equitable for all its citizens regardless of their background, gender, race or religion. I believe in an Australia where children living in the city or in the country are filled with hopes and dreams, big and small, and can achieve them regardless of the circumstances or environment; a country where mums and dads who coach their children’s sporting teams on the weekend or after work are respected just the same as our Olympic heroes; a country where carers and charity workers are truly valued; and a country where ordinary people are championed for doing extraordinary things.

I am passionate about this country, its people and its future. We face great challenges, but where many see these challenges as obstacles, I see opportunities. It is on these opportunities that my efforts will now be focused. I look forward to serving our great country. Thank you.