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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 58


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (10:24 AM) —Thank you, Mr Speaker, and my congratulations on your election to office. May I also extend my congratulations to the members for Page and Scullin for their elections to office. I am deeply honoured to rise as the representative for the electorate of Burke for the first time. I am also grateful to the voters of my constituency for providing me with an opportunity to represent their interests in this nation's foremost parliamentary chamber. I intend to ensure that their confidence in me is not misplaced.

Burke was named after the Irish explorer Robert O'Hara Burke, whose attempt to be the first to traverse this continent from south to north has become a romantic, if somewhat tragic, part of our history. It is a diverse electorate consisting of north-western metropolitan areas of Melbourne, such as Deer Park; satellite semirural towns of Melton and Sunbury; and the rural communities of Bacchus Marsh, Gisborne, Woodend, Kyneton, Mount Macedon, Macedon, Romsey, Lancefield and Trentham. It also incorporates the rapidly developing estates of Caroline Springs and Burnside. I reside in Sunbury, which is a fast growing semirural town once renowned for the Australian version of Woodstock—the Sunbury folk festival. Back then, in the early seventies, it was not seen as much more than a paddock by some, although for cricket aficionados—of which, of course, there are a few in this place—it holds almost a sacred interest, as it was in 1882 the birthplace of the Ashes, something its overpossessive caretakers at Lord's in London have seemed to have forgotten.

Burke's geographical diversity creates almost a microcosm of the Australian population, providing its federal representative with wide access to people from all walks of life: factory workers, farmers, winemakers, hospitality workers, small traders and meat workers, just to name a few. My predecessor, Mr Neil O'Keefe, was a member since 1984 and knew as well as anyone about the challenge and the advantage of representing both metropolitan and rural constituents. Neil was an outstanding local representative and was respected for his commitment to local matters. I intend to uphold this commitment and when required I will bring important local issues to the attention of this place.

Immediately prior to becoming the member for Burke, I was an assistant national secretary of the Australian Services Union. The ASU is a large and diverse union representing employees from the public and private sector and from the so-called older new economies. Although only nine years since its inception, the ASU comprises many former unions that were protecting Australian workers and their families prior to Federation. Although I have worked as a cleaner, a gardener and on a factory assembly line, I consider my role as an advocate for Australian workers for more than 15 years to be my life's work to date—my time as a union official with the Municipal Employees Union and, after amalgamation, with the ASU to be my vocation and my greatest passion.

My first challenge when starting employment with the union was to establish a career path for 6,000 Victorian home carers, whose primary role was to provide personal and domestic care for many of our elderly and disabled citizens. The objective of this case was to illustrate the worth of these extraordinary workers. Prior to the case they were paid below cleaners' wages, despite their difficult and demanding responsibilities. The evidence we presented rightfully established the argument for proper salary increments to accord with their skills, duties and responsibilities. The victory, however, was short-lived. In 1994, the Kennett state Liberal government introduced compulsory competitive tendering that forced home carers and other employees to forfeit their employment conditions, otherwise lose their employment.

This experience, and many others during my time as a union official, confirmed my strong belief that Labor governments were essential to protect and defend low paid workers in this country. Contrary to the antiunion propaganda, most delegates and workers I have known seek only a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. In response, without provocation, recent Commonwealth laws have set about removing employees' conditions unilaterally, by limiting the lawful scope of awards. Not content with restrictions made to federal awards, those opposite now seek to strike out enterprise clauses, even when they are agreed between the employers and their work forces. Having lectured to employers and employees on the need to diminish third parties to industrial instruments, the government looms as the greatest meddler of all in workplace matters.

A lot has been said lately about the relationship between the union movement and the Australian Labor Party and the need to review that relationship. We, on this side of the House, will not be fooled by efforts of some conservative politicians and some in the media who seek to divide us. I welcome such a review if it is to modernise and strengthen this important bond as a united labour movement, engaging with community organisations and the corporate sector. That is an unbeatable combination and those opposite who have any understanding of history are well aware of this fact.

Notwithstanding recent setbacks, the union movement is still the largest representative organisation in this nation. I record my indebtedness to those workers and delegates I have had the honour of serving. I believe it is fair to say that my work has provided me with a chance to develop an informed understanding of ordinary people's needs and aspirations. This is the greatest gift I have received and bring to this House. It should also be recorded that my motivation to protect and advance the interests of people less well off in our society was formed well before I commenced employment.

I am a migrant and a migrant family's son. My family arrived in Melbourne over 30 years ago. Economically secure but socially turbulent, Australia in the late sixties was providing assistance for people to migrate to this land. Like many immigrants, my parents embarked on a brave journey in the hope of a better life, if not for themselves then for their children. It may have been a less diverse society back then, and not necessarily as tolerant as Australia has become, but it understood the link between immigration intake and national growth. Australia has always appreciated the migrant's desire to make a better life and, in doing so, make a better nation. At a time when our population is ageing this personal experience and recent events have served only to reinforce my view that a long-term plan on population and immigration must be developed.

Arriving in Australia as a six-year-old was not the lone reason for my good fortune. I am also blessed with a family that values learning, so I grew up as a beneficiary of Labor's education policies introduced in the early seventies. It was these policies which placed great faith in education being central to national growth and individual development. They also introduced to us the principles of equal opportunity. They enshrined the notion of ability and effort over privilege. Having read in daily newspapers last week that universities are selecting entrants with fewer marks but more dollars, I can understand why so many students and their parents feel that this notion of equal opportunity has been lost. For all the references in this House to the ethos of individual effort by those opposite, there seems to have been scant regard for addressing institutionalised inequalities in society or guaranteeing that people will be rewarded on merit and not on how much money they have.

I am aware that too few from my background have been fortunate to gain university degrees. Many of those who provide the labour upon which this nation was built, and continues to be built, have not been provided their fair share. Current policies bestow more to the haves rather than to the have-nots. Recent funding arrangements for category 1 private schools and the introduction of the goods and services tax have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich. Even the efforts to curb tax evasion appear to focus disproportionately on social security recipients and ignore the tax avoidance of our wealthiest citizens. In the industrial arena, instead of finding solutions to increasingly precarious employment and growing unemployment, efforts are focused on union bashing, opposing safety nets for the lowest paid and systematically weakening the authority of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. A spate of appointments of senior deputy presidents to the commission only last year were drawn from the employer side only, undermining the conventions of appointing a balanced bench.

I believe people want governments to focus on the difficulties they confront in their daily lives. A true mark of leadership involves tackling the large structural problems confronting the nation, not pandering to prejudice or diminishing the protection afforded to the weakest in our society.

In the last couple of years we have seen reputable companies such as Ansett and HIH come crashing down. The growing anxiety of the Australian work force, compounded by these tragic corporate collapses, requires immediate action. In my electorate alone, and in particular in the airport town in which I live, Sunbury, over 1,000 former Ansett workers and their families have just experienced their worst Christmas ever. Those longer term employees received only a proportion of the redundancy entitlements legally owed to them. Many have had to sell their homes, take casual employment and to attempt to recover from this devastating experience. Many more are still hoping to be employed by Tesna.

There are thousands of other Australian workers who have lost their jobs recently in less famous companies, but the effect is the same. The Australian people deserve to know what their national government will do about this growing problem. What protection is to be afforded to creditors who are victims of corporate collapse? Why aren't their directors held to account for their conduct? Why isn't there sufficient transparency of the conduct of directors making corporate decisions?

These questions are appropriately being asked in the community, but no response from government has been forthcoming. A frightened and insecure work force might please a few unscrupulous employers but it drains workplaces of confidence and vigour. Australians are increasingly having to opt for part-time and temporary employment, but still have full-time mortgages to pay and families to provide for. Although many of these matters arise from structural changes in the economy, governments should play a role in mitigating the effects, particularly of redressing the ill effects of outsourcing and privatisation.

Following the disastrous collapse of Ansett it is time to review whether national competition policy as it currently operates is in the national interest. Given that the so-called `open skies' policy has almost led to a monopoly in the domestic aviation market, I wonder whether anyone's hand is on the wheel. My experience of national competition policy suggests that there are more quantifiable failures than there are successes. And where there is success it seems often to be short term or largely confined to a small part of the community such as some lucky shareholders or people residing in the city rather than the country. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the harmful effects of this unfettered policy, the remaining part of Telstra is still to be flogged off if this government has its way. I call on this parliament to consider a broader public interest test when considering the privatisation or outsourcing of public assets.

Not only are Australians seeking political leaders who look after the interests of the many rather than the few; they expect a greater level of integrity and honesty in their dealings. This starts with an honest appraisal of Australia as a country and a society. We cannot change the past but we can learn from it. There should be fewer attempts to revise our history and greater effort to celebrate our triumphs and to acknowledge and wherever possible reconcile wrongdoings. We can look back over 200 years and be proud of many achievements but also saddened by some less than admirable transgressions.

Australia has been at the forefront of the introduction of universal adult suffrage and other fundamental democratic developments. We were among the first countries to help create the United Nations, and Australian citizens have relatively as much political freedom and economic security as any other sovereign state. For example, we have also remedied some of our less noble deeds. In 1967 Australians voted to enfranchise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; we have abandoned the White Australia policy in favour of a less discriminatory immigration policy; we have gone some way towards rectifying sexual discrimination in equal pay cases; and we have extended superannuation, once the preserve of the few, to low wage earners. In 1973 Medibank provided basic universal health services to all and Medicare maintains this important service.

In the last hundred years we have moved progressively towards judicial and political independence. These economic, legal and social changes have happened because previous political leaders sought to fulfil the changing needs of our country and rectify the wrongs. In keeping with this trend, I would add my voice to the growing chorus of people who advocate Australia's final cut with British sovereignty to become a republic with an Australian citizen as our head of state. I would also record my support for proper and lasting reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that would involve the Australian government on behalf of the Australian people apologising for the atrocities inflicted upon our original owners and inhabitants. To see one's history, warts and all, is not, as some would have it, to wear a black armband but to be true to oneself. We have more to fear from a blindfold than a black armband, as ignorance will impede our progress to becoming a greater nation and a better society.

In accordance with that philosophy, I believe that the last six months will not be looked upon in our history as one of this country's prouder periods. I am compelled to conclude that the atmosphere of fear and loathing has not been as prevalent in Australia for at least 30 years. Many of the electors I met during the election campaign felt neither comfortable nor relaxed. On one hand some people feared that we were being overrun by a multitude of dangerous aliens, given the hysterical portrayal by those who knew better, and, on the other, I confronted the anger of people concerned with our lack of care towards fleeing refugees. We must protect the citizens and sovereignty of this land but also maintain the principles of tolerance and secure our reputation as a humane and just nation. To date we do not have the right balance between these two competing objectives, nor do we have a workable and humanitarian solution to managing this complex problem. I do not want to fight another election where my view on a particular race of people is sought from electors before they cast their vote. Let us all hope that political leaders can rise above this ugly episode and forge a decent and permanent approach to this critical matter.

I am proud to get this opportunity to belong to the Labor caucus with Simon Crean at the helm and, although I am disappointed that not enough new Labor colleagues have joined me, I welcome the fact that all other new Labor members are women, ensuring Labor's continued effort to provide a balanced representation in this House. May I also extend my congratulations to all new members who have joined me in this House. I would also like to salute our former leader, the member for Brand, Kim Beazley. Kim is a man of rare intellect and compassion who would no doubt have made a great Prime Minister.

Before I conclude, there are several people I must also thank. To the member for Lalor, Julia Gillard, and the member for Batman, Martin Ferguson, I thank you for your support and advice. To Richard Lodders, Linus Power and all of my campaign team, and the many Labor Party members and supporters who worked tirelessly from the moment of my preselection, I thank you and look forward to a long and fruitful partnership. To my union colleagues, particularly Paul Slape, Darrell Cochrane and Brian Parkinson, I thank you for making the last 15 years a fulfilling, inspiring and unforgettable time. I thank all of my friends, but particularly Tallis Richmond, Yorick Piper, Gerry Kitchener, my brothers Michael and Brian, my sister Siobain and my aunty Renee O'Connor, who has come all the way from Tralee, County Kerry, to be here today, and my wonderful parents, Michael and Philomena, who gave me the opportunity to reach places working-class kids rarely get to go.

Finally, I would like to thank my partner, Jodi Dack, who has had to put up with me throughout the preselection—and the election, dare I say—and still was able to provide me with tireless support and impeccable judgment. I will do my utmost to reward their unflinching loyalty and warm friendship by enriching this House and serving my constituents to the best of my ability.


The SPEAKER —Order! Before I call Mr Hartsuyker, I remind honourable members that this is his first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.