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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 2


Mr BURKE (12:39 PM) —Mr Speaker, it is hard to believe I am here. This is the room where the arguments of the nation come to a head, the room where the government of the nation is determined and the room where all the diverse opinions throughout Australia are broken down to 150 voices. To be selected by the community to be one of those 150 voices is an extraordinary honour. It is the community where I have grown up, where my parents grew up and now where my own family is growing up so quickly. It means the world to me to see them all here today: my wife, Cathy, who had the right of veto as to whether I would run for federal parliament and who has offered nothing but love and support in the many years that have led to today, and my three gorgeous daughters. Liana is in the gallery, and Caitlyn and Helena are carefully positioned behind soundproof glass! Mum, Dad, Rosemary, Sharon, and Michael: whether it was as your youngest child or little brother, every supportive comment has helped me to get here and all the other comments just count as training.

The campaign for Watson was run by Ari Margossian, the National President of Young Labor, with the ever present strategic advice of Morris Iemma. With so many volunteers to thank, I want to acknowledge all my friends on the campaign team and every branch member. I particularly want to thank those who were there every single day: Maria Iannotti, Vince Badalati, Wilma Hickey, Claire Haig, Peter Papodopoulos and Chris Taylor. I also thank Greg Donnelly and everyone from the SDA. A particular thank you to those friends who helped form Watson Young Labor Association more than 10 years ago, who made all this possible.

Campaigns are not only fought at a local level. In only 10 months Mark Latham did a great job to raise the spirits of Labor supporters and ensure that the party were seriously competitive as we moved into the campaign. I also note the improved result in New South Wales and congratulate my good friends Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar on their roles in the campaign. A number of good friends ran in marginal seats and some missed out in difficult circumstances. I want to acknowledge their effort, commitment and talent. They have been friends for some time and I look forward to calling them parliamentary colleagues in the years ahead.

The local area now covered by the seat of Watson was well represented in this chamber for 25 years by Leo McLeay. He served this chamber as both Speaker and Chief Government Whip. After the election I came down here to set up my office and, as I walked through the Members Hall, it dawned on me that it had really happened: Leo had in fact retired and I was now the member for Watson. As I walked along through the Members Hall I noticed out of the corner of my eye the framed pictures on the walls and glanced up to see who they were of. And there he was, staring straight back at me—a portrait of Leo McLeay, still here and still watching me. Leo, I wish you and Janice well for the years ahead.

I am in the unusual position of delivering my second first speech. Only last year I had the chance to deliver my first speech to the New South Wales Legislative Council. This year I deliver another first speech. Next year I will not. This will be my final first speech. But in introducing myself to a new parliament, I have not changed all that radically in a year. So, for the friends here who heard my last first speech, there will be some moments that will be familiar. Sorry about that. I cannot help it—it is the same me.

There have been a number of articles written and speeches made over the last 10 years which have profiled the previous careers of members of the House of Representatives. There have even been check lists in some of the more recent articles that said how terrible it is that so many federal MPs have previously worked as lawyers, teachers, staffers, state members of parliament and union officials. On that list I score four out of five. I have never been a teacher, although the business I ran did do training, so I might be able to stretch the definition and still get to full marks. I have no intention of trying to reinvent myself here today. I have great pride in the work I have done and the people I have helped. There have been two main themes in my own working life and upbringing: small business and trade unions. You will not find me ever walking away from either.

Dad opened a small business in Riverwood when he was 27, and he stayed there until he retired. The sign in Belmore Road still reads `Burke's Riverwood Pharmacy'. I grew up with no knowledge of the term `nine to five', and I never understood small business as being where you worked for yourself. Dad was employed by a few thousand customers. He felt a real sense of service and obligation to each of them, and a handful of those customers knew how to be extremely tough employers. I remember dinner being postponed more often than not because extra customers had arrived at the exact moment Dad was about to close the shop for the night. I remember vividly Dad sitting at the dining table at night as I went to bed while he completed the streams of paperwork that were required while Mum sat at the other end of the table marking work for her students at school.

We had all the small business themes: the frustration of mounting paperwork; the pressure of government paying its bills to us late, when every creditor was demanding we pay them on time; and the difficulties associated with ever being able to organise time off when the business was your own. Do not get me wrong; I had a very fortunate upbringing. These were never crisis issues; they were just part of every day life. By simple, understated example, my parents taught me a work ethic which I have never let go.

I had the satisfaction of forming my own business some years ago with Ben Richards and Ray D'Cruz whom I had met through debating. Aticus Pty Ltd still runs successfully, providing public speaking and advocacy training around Australia and into various parts of South-East Asia. To have been there from the start—planning the business, dealing with the bureaucracy that comes with incorporation—and going through the initial period of diversification while we gradually established the core business was an exciting and valuable time. To see the business still flourishing years later is a fantastic reward for the effort we all put in at the start, particularly the drive and commitment shown by Ray and Ben in seeing the importance and power of encouraging people to not only hold opinions but to advocate them.

During my time with Aticus, and while we went through that early period of diversification, I became involved in lobbying two issues which found supporters on both sides of this chamber. As a result, I formed many friendships early on with various caucus members, and I have enjoyed a good working relationship with the member for Menzies and the member for Wentworth. I sincerely hope it is not long before their party recognises their talent and allows both of them the opportunity which is already mine: to serve in this chamber as a shadow minister.

My first job, and my first involvement with unions, was delivering the Sunday papers for the Beverly Hills Newsagency. There was a grave injustice there: we were receiving 10 per cent commission while other shops were all paying 12½ per cent. I organised the other paperboys and said, `Let's form a union.' We worked out our demands, but when I took them to the boss, he would not listen. He said we could not be a union because we had not charged fees. So everyone threw in a copper coin, and I went back to negotiate. It was a comprehensive log of claims: 12½ per cent commission, an extra $1 every time it rained and free food for a Christmas party. He came back with the typical response, `Why should I give you lot that?' I can still hear my 12-year-old voice answering him: `If you don't, we'll have a paperboy picket line out the front of the shop. The TV cameras will turn up because they'll think it's really funny. We'll be on TV, so we'll feel really important. The customers will know it's your shop and you'll look really bad.' He gave in to all three demands. To celebrate, we spent the union fees on mixed lollies.

Years later, I became a full-time official with the union I first joined as a checkout operator with Grace Bros: the SDA. While the fees were more than a copper coin, the methods of workplace organising through local delegates and giving people a direct stake in the outcomes achieved were not all that different.

It is bizarre that there have been speeches in this chamber claiming that the sort of work union officials do is not real work; that people like me do not get real world experience during those years. Seriously, does anyone actually believe that I would have had more real world experience if, instead, I had utilised my law degree to represent the same people on the same issues but charged them a couple of hundred dollars an hour to meet with me in some solicitor's office with dodgy wood panelling and terminally ill goldfish? The critics of trade unionists entering parliament speak as though unionism was a single industry where we spend our days in the same sorts of union offices doing the same sort of job, and that we bring the same life experiences to parliament. As an organiser, I did not have an office—I did not even have a desk. My workplace was wherever my members worked. My meeting rooms would be at Flemings at Bexley or Big W at Campsie. My lunch room would be the food courts at Roselands or at Hurstville. My desk would be whatever box I might have to lean on in that KFC at William Street, Earlwood.

I look around this chamber and am as proud to be among those with a union background as I am to be among those with a small business background. Just as business varies radically from one sector to another, so does the experience of union officials. What we bring in common is experience from the front line of the concerns and aspirations of people in every industry. Their workplaces have been our workplaces. For those who want to use the `not a real job' line, I can only say that when I met with night fillers in the early hours of the morning to uncover systematic underpayments, it felt like a real job; when I visited fast food outlets on weekends and found that cost savings had been extended to not replenishing the first aid kit, with one manager telling 15-year-old employees to use serviettes and sticky tape as a substitute for bandaids, it felt like a real job; and when I negotiated roster changes for employees such as one who had been given a roster which would have seen him working nine hours during the only day he had access to his children or for another who would have had to leave her young children unsupervised had the original roster gone ahead, not only did it feel like a real job to me, I reckon those employees and every member of their families thought the job I was doing was pretty real too.

And none of these outcomes were achieved through aggression. Like any other organiser, I would sit down with the member, the delegate and management and we would work through the problem. All day, every day, managers and business owners would be explaining their pressures, their constraints—often explaining those pressures far more candidly to me than they would to their own head office. We would arrive at sensible solutions that everyone could work with.

I have read the Hansard of some of the debates in this chamber and have to smile at the claims that, for people like myself, the involvement with unions is an albatross around our necks. Around the neck is not the way you wear a badge of honour. I will always wear my history with small business and my history with unions the same way. There is not a day of my employment history I would ever want to change.

I value every moment I spent in the state parliament, and thank those friends from the state parliament who have come down today. To be part of Bob Carr's government, to chair the State Development Committee and to work in Macquarie Street with a group of life-long friends was a real privilege. Yet for me, right here is where I have wanted to work for a long time. I know you lose the intimacy and the intensity of those New South Wales debating chambers and that this is a lonelier place for members in many ways, but there is something about the federal parliament that goes way beyond the legislation we pass here and way beyond our constitutional powers. I realised this one day about eight years ago when Cathy came home from work and told me the children were playing differently at the community based child-care centre where she taught and racist taunts had suddenly crept into the language of the children as they played. It did not happen because any law had changed. It did not happen because of government spending. It happened because a speech had been made by an Independent member in this chamber which was seen to legitimise racist comment in the name of free speech. There is something about what is said in this chamber that changes the mood of the nation, that gives us a role in affecting how Australians relate to each other. Just as we have the capacity here to run our politics in ways that appeal to the worst of the attitudes in Australia, we have the capacity to appeal to the best as well.

When we acknowledge the incredible strength and richness of the many cultures which make our nation so vibrant, from Indigenous Australians through to the most recent immigrant, it has an impact on how Australians relate to each other at the workplace, in the shopping centre and in the playground. When members of this chamber talk, very few people tune in and certainly none of the under-fives in that Greenacre playground listen to the broadcasts, but somehow the message gets out. When members here demean others, divide communities and vilify some of the most vulnerable people, those people do not have to be listening to feel the hurt.

No matter how many pet issues an individual member can bring to this chamber, so much of what we have to address is determined by the pressure of the period of history in which we find ourselves here. I believe there are three overarching themes which will dominate the lives of anyone involved in the battle of ideas over the next generation: the ageing population, climate change and globalisation. Some of the impacts of a lower birth rate combined with an increased life expectancy have already been well documented and discussed broadly. We all know the subsequent importance of national savings and the pressures which flow to our health and welfare systems.

There is an added impact which is considered too rarely. We have an education system which is designed to cater for the demographic make-up of Australians more than 40 years ago. By and large our education system presumes you can receive all the qualifications you need well before you turn 25 and then you are set for life, but an ageing population will see people wanting, and in some cases needing, to have a significantly longer working life, and technological change will create an ongoing need for the update of skills. Many methods of continuing education are poorly planned, impractical for people who are already balancing work and family commitments, and way too expensive for people under modern financial pressures.

For the last four years I have served as the President of Bankstown Community College and have seen the value of affordable short courses, not only for their content but for trying to ensure that people do not forget how to learn. I will never forget when the Lakemba Franklins store was for sale and one of the staff members was worried about her future employment. She said, `Tony, if only I'd learnt how to type, but it's too late now.' Even though she ended up with secure employment in retail, the words she spoke still sound a warning for anyone who believes lifelong learning is just a luxury. As the skills shortage intensifies and our population ages it will become an economic necessity.

When I first joined the Labor Party all the environmental issues were about saving iconic sites: the Franklin, the Daintree, Kakadu. Climate change moves any environmental debate to a new plane. The implications for water, salinity, the viability of so many industries, and consequent issues in trade and health, right through to bushfire and natural disaster, all combine to move the debate on. The arguments over the causes of climate change or even questioning the existence of climate change are all fast becoming conversations of the past. The responses need to occur at each level of government and our international role needs to be taken seriously. The tired old stunts of bashing the UN and refusing to sign international agreements have reached their use-by dates. There is too much at stake to get this one wrong.

In any discussion about globalisation I should start by making clear that I am not afraid of it—not a bit. The growth in international campaigns on human rights has occurred hand in hand with globalisation. It is the strongest pressure on many nations to lift their game and open up the rights of their citizens as they open up their economies. It was Labor that lowered the tariffs and introduced the competition reforms which began the process of breaking down the cartels which had shut out new businesses and prevented families from spending their income on fairly priced goods. This gave families a real increase in buying power—effectively a pay rise without a tax increase—thanks to the Labor reforms of the eighties and nineties.

We have to make sure that in pursuing the improvements available to people as consumers we do not now sacrifice their dignity at work. No-one should have any pride in the rate of casualisation. Anyone who thinks that it is all about voluntary flexibility on the part of employees should come with me to a local supermarket at one o'clock in the morning, go to a coffee shop the next day and see the same people working, and then go again to find the same people working as domestic cleaners or mowing lawns in a scramble to find the hours that used to be available through full-time work.

The flexibility that comes with upskilling is an important boost to productivity but that flexibility will always have a limit. Paying bills is not flexible, the mortgage and rent are not flexible and the demand to feed the family will never be flexible. I have seen people's personal lives thrown into chaos by shifts suddenly disappearing or by one roster change meaning that the second job is no longer viable. The world will force us to continue to embrace competition and to be flexible with skills development. There are many great benefits along that road, but if the word `dignity' drops out of workplaces on the way through then we are missing some essential Australian values.

Do not get me wrong. For all the opportunity that comes with being a member of this House I also recognise that being in opposition has nothing going for it. Five months ago I was in government. I am 100 per cent glad I went federal, but I do want to do something about the seating plan here. We become involved in the political system to make changes. We run for this parliament to affect the nation. Policy development is only ever the prologue. The real work is about implementation: reaching people and improving their lives. I have never believed in the nobility of defeat. I do believe in the capacity of the Labor Party to lift the spirits of this nation and lead Australia forward. Our job is to win: to implement the policies we offer, to provide fresh opportunities while supporting the most vulnerable and to see reward for excellence without ever deserting those in genuine need.

My predecessor was a member of this House for 25 years. If I manage the same length of service and spend only the first three years in opposition then there will be a reasonable chance to contribute. When I worked here in 1993 every commentator was saying how invincible we were. They soon said the same about Jeff Kennett. In fact, in recent years the pattern has been that most Australian governments do look invincible at the start of their final term. Three years of effective hard work stands between Labor and government—work to which Labor has an absolute commitment, work which is already under way, work which I am honoured to have a direct role in. I realise that this is the only time that the House observes the courtesy of no-one interjecting during a speech. Good. There is a battle of ideas that I desperately want to be involved in and this is the perfect room to have it out in open debate. Mr Speaker, bring it on.


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