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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1597

Senator KETTER (Queensland) (13:42): In my contribution today, I seek to touch on a number of different points. I want to talk about the World Science Festival, which will occur from 9 to 15 March and be showcased in my home state of Queensland. Before going to that, I want to reflect on the resignation yesterday by Senator Joe Bullock. I note that with a tinge of sadness on my part. Senator Bullock is a friend and a long-time colleague of mine through our shared roles in the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee's Association as branch secretaries in our respective state branches.

I understand that there may be an opportunity at a later time to speak on this matter. For now I just want to place on the record Joe's tireless, tough and effective advocacy for working people over a 37-year career with the SDA. I will miss Joe's incisive wit and self-deprecating sense of humour. Joe is a gentleman and a man of strong convictions, and I believe this place will be the poorer for his departure.

In reflecting on Senator Bullock's speech last night, I became aware that I have been remiss in this place in not talking of an issue about which both Joe and I share a very strong conviction, and that is our shared interest in the welfare of ordinary working people, particularly low-income workers in the retail and fast food industries. I had been an official of the SDA for 32 years, and, as I said, Joe had been an official for 37 years. In that period of time one cannot help but be impressed by the people working in this low-income industry. People try to support themselves and their families by working in the industry, which is predominantly staffed by women and young people. So the industry has a preponderance of workers who are capable of being exploited. Another feature of the industry is that it is dominated by insecure employment and very long periods of casual employment, with people being casuals for 20 years.

It is in this environment of insecure employment, with people who are particularly vulnerable, that I note that I am remiss in not saluting people in the industry who come forward to seek to provide protection to their fellow workers in their workplace. Here I am referring to those people who are shop stewards for the SDA. These people selflessly come forward to assist their fellow workers, despite the fact that in the retail industry in particular there has been an intensification of work. People have a highly stressful workload. On top of that, the union they are a member of asks them to help their fellow members by providing advice and support for those in their workplace who might otherwise be subject to exploitation.

This is a voluntary role that people take on. They do not receive any additional remuneration from their union or from their employers for taking on the role of being a shop steward in their workplace. They do receive training. Under the various enterprise agreements there is a capacity for people to receive training on their basic entitlements. People can take part in training courses to get an understanding of what their entitlements are. It is one thing to have entitlements on paper, but unless you have people in the workplace who understand those entitlements, they are just words on a page. I wanted to place on record that I do salute those SDA shop stewards for their selfless dedication. I will talk about this issue more frequently in the future.

I want to make some quick remarks about the World Science Festival in Brisbane. It is very exciting that, from 9 to 15 March, some of the world's greatest thought leaders will be visiting Queensland as part of the inaugural World Science Festival, Brisbane, showcasing local scientists and performers from the Asia-Pacific region as well as hosting some of the best from previous events in New York. The festival gathers great minds in science and the arts to produce live and digital content that allow a broad general audience to engage with scientific discoveries. Through discussions, debates, theatrical works, interactive explorations, musical performances, intimate salons and major outdoor experiences, the festival takes science out of the laboratory and into the streets, parks, museums, galleries and premier performing arts venues around the world.

The word 'science' covers a lot of territory: it includes a range of distinct and complementary approaches to knowledge and practice that have been proven to produce benefit to society. There are the broad categories of the natural sciences, physical sciences and human sciences. And we are all now familiar with the reference to STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Common to all these subjects is the importance of classification; empirical studies; understandings of the provisional nature of knowledge; the use and limits of causality, replication and predictability in different settings; and subjective and objective elements of the work of scientists. The range and variety of the activities in Brisbane recognise this extensive scope: performances will cover such topics as black holes, the brain, bio-illumination, turtle hatching, madness redefined, alien life, science, Islam, cities in 2050, and more.

Ever since the then Chief Scientist Ian Chubb called on the federal government to 'support the national interest by maintaining the pipeline of STEM graduates, and increase the recognition of STEM education and careers as a public good', we have heard a lot about the importance for Australia's future prosperity of promoting STEM subjects at school level and beyond. Employment in STEM occupations is projected to grow at almost double the pace of other occupations.

In recognition of the significant public benefit of growing Australia's STEM capacity, Labor is committed to a policy to provide a financial incentive for students to enrol in and complete a STEM undergraduate degree. If we want innovation-led economic growth, we need to support every step of a child's education and better equip their teachers to show young people the possibilities that a career in STEM will offer—today, and in 10 and 20 years time. And I am talking about female participation as well as male participation. It is an equity issue. Currently, women comprise only 20 per cent of tertiary students enrolled in engineering and related technologies, and— believe it or not—14 per cent of enrolments in IT. For Labor, boosting the representation of women in STEM degrees will be a priority.

It should be a no-brainer. But the message from the coalition is, typically, a mixed one: on the one hand, the government is spruiking a national commitment to innovation and learning in science, technology, engineering and maths; while, on the other hand, it is moving to deplete Australia's most iconic scientific research institutions, as Senator Brown alluded to in her contribution earlier. This just does not make sense.

Australia has a proud history of contribution to scientific discovery. Researchers from the CSIRO have protected millions of people from deadly diseases with their groundbreaking research. They have brought to the world such marvels as wi-fi technology and polymer bank notes, and have helped beam the moon landing around the globe. Yet at a time when, as a nation, we should be promoting science, the government has decided to cull 100 scientists from the climate science division of CSIRO, despite the warning from a new Climate Council report that shedding those jobs would leave Australia ill-equipped to deal with climate change or to meet our commitments under the Paris agreement.

The World Science Festival will promote fresh thinking about what science is. I encourage Brisbanites to get along to the festival if they can.