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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 328


Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (10:33 AM) —Congratulations to you, Mr Speaker, upon your election to this very important office. I rise today in full recognition of the honour which the people of Maribyrnong and the Australian Labor Party have granted me by enabling me to serve in this parliament. I rise in full recognition of the responsibility that comes with this honour: to serve my electorate and the Australian people. And I rise in full recognition of the historic moment the parliament and the Australian people witnessed yesterday when we said sorry to the stolen generation. What a time to join a new parliament, what a time to be part of a new government and what a time to be part of the creation of a new and more hopeful chapter in the ongoing story of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

Maribyrnong is a diverse electorate in Melbourne’s west and north-west. It is, in fact, home to at least three Australian icons: Dame Edna Everage, the Cox Plate and the Harvester Judgement. Thus, Maribyrnong encompasses Australia’s most famous housewife and deflator of egos, Australasia’s premier weight-for-age championship and Justice Higgins’s 1907 decision which gave Australian workers the right to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It is an electorate which tells the Australian story of the 20th and 21st centuries. A hundred years since the Harvester Judgement, Maribyrnong is home to a community of hardworking Australians from all over the world, for whom a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is as important today as it was then. I believe the people of Maribyrnong are true-blue Australian optimists, seeking long, meaningful lives, with their DNA hardwired to seek even greater opportunities for their children.

I have had a fortunate life and I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by smart and capable people. I would like to thank some of them who have given me their kindness, wisdom and advice along my path to this great chamber. Above all others—and I can say this on Valentine’s Day—I thank my wife, Deb Beale, an endlessly intelligent, supportive and loving woman. I knew this instantly from my first outing, when she agreed to visit a picket line with me. I thank my family for their constant support and belief over the years: my mother, Ann, and my late father, Bill; my twin brother, Robert, and his family; my parents-in-law, Julian and Felicity Beale; and my great uncle Bert Nolan, a union man from the days of the Depression whose values inspired me. I mourn his recent passing.

I would like to thank the Jesuits and teachers of Xavier College for teaching me to question and debate. I would also like to acknowledge previous members for Maribyrnong—Bob Sercombe, Alan Griffiths and Moss Cass—for their distinguished public service; and, of course, my local branch members for their energy and efforts. I would like to acknowledge Bill Ludwig, the president of Australia’s oldest continuous union, the Australian Workers Union; Cesar Melhem, who arrived in Australia as a young veteran of the violence in Lebanon and who is now the secretary of the Victoria AWU; and Paul Howes and the AWU national executive, who I expect will steward my union to even greater heights.

I would like to thank all the unions, members, delegates and organisers linked and animated by the desire to help other people. They, like all modern Australian unionists, respect the employment relationship and the right to investment profits, but they would also seek mutuality of cooperation in the workplace. Bill Kelty, legendary Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, has my gratitude for his mentoring. When I was a young and green solicitor learning about workers compensation from John Cain Jr, at Morris Blackburn, Bill invited me to join the union movement. I seized his invitation with alacrity, signing on to serve the cause of working people. It was an exciting, indeed electrifying, time. I spent each day meeting with and organising and empowering the unorganised workers of the farms and factories all around Australia. I once organised a wire factory, and 160 people wanted to join the union. We had to spend two years getting union recognition in that factory.

A man named Michael Chen became my friend and my delegate in that factory. He had economics degrees from China but was working as a wire bender at Tullamarine. He eventually came to work with me at the union as a financial controller, and now he is running his own fast-growing business. He is one of the smartest people I have met, and there he was—bending wire in a Melbourne factory. You see, when you are a union organiser—as people perhaps do not realise—you get the chance to see the full potential of individuals. On the boards of a woolshed, you know that shearers earn their pay. When you talk to steelworkers at the Port Kembla blast furnaces, to the underground miners at Mount Isa, to the oil workers in Bass Strait in winter or to those who staff the undertakers’ night vans as they deal with the grief and tragedy of a road trauma or worse, you know you are in the presence of greatness. When you come face to face with heroism, cooperation and fighting spirit in workplace tragedies such as the Longford gas explosion in Victoria or the Beaconsfield mine collapse in Tasmania, you know you are in the presence of ordinary people performing extraordinary deeds. Every company, every work site I have visited for the last 15 years, taught me the potential for greatness that individuals carry within them and showed me the limitless capacity of Australian workers and Australian businesses—and, thus, the limitless potential of the Australian economy and Australian society.

I have experienced the abundant goodwill of Australian workplaces, from both employers and employees. I know firsthand the many examples of cooperation, compromise and pragmatism which bring dividends for all involved. There are many untold success stories of business and workers that should be told and should be celebrated. I thank the many businesspeople with whom I have worked cooperatively over the years. They include some of Australia’s most successful and imaginative enterprises, headed by those who understand that success in the economy is underpinned by leadership, legacy and consistent values. I have learned from them that business is hard work. Australia needs business. It is the principal ‘doing’ arm of our society. It creates wealth and jobs. But in the real economy, as union organisers know, building a business, running a farm or constructing a road is a really tough thing to do. There are no shortcuts—trust, openness, fairness, partnership, a bit of flexibility and compromise all round. Where you find these qualities, in my experience, you will spot a successful growing business and business leaders who understand that people are the most important feature of their business.

I believe much more can be done to harness the capacity of Australian people. To do this, we need to confront the realities. Business and government must stop their periodic blame shifting. The old class war conflicts should finally be pronounced dead. The real conflict today, I suggest, cuts across the old divides. It is reflected within business, unions, the community and politics. The real conflict is between those who are stuck in a business-as-usual routine and those that pursue innovation, knowledge and creativity. Those are the drivers of economic growth around our world. Those are the drivers that can unlock the full potential of our fellow Australians. Now, more than ever, we need Australians to be educated, skilled and motivated. And we need them to be healthy and engaged.

I am honoured that my Prime Minister has appointed me as a parliamentary secretary with special responsibility for people with a disability. I am excited by the opportunity to help empower another section of the community, not so people with disability receive special treatment but so they receive the same treatment as everybody else—the rights which are theirs, with the dignity that they deserve. I believe the challenge for government is not to fit people with disabilities around programs but for programs to fit the lives, needs and ambitions of people with disabilities. The challenge for all of us is to abolish once and for all the second-class status that too often accompanies Australians living with disabilities.

In this great country, if I were another skin colour or if I were a woman and could not enter a shop, ride a bus, catch an aeroplane or get a job, there would be a hue and cry—and deservedly so—but if I am in a wheelchair or have a mental illness or an intellectual disability then somehow the same treatment is accepted. Why should I be told to be grateful to receive charity rather than equality? It is not enough just to rely on the existence of laws to prevent this treatment. It is something that, with every fibre that we have, we should cry out against. It should go without saying that all of us demand equal treatment for those living with disabilities, as we would for any other Australian. This argument, for me, is a natural progression and parliament, I believe, is a place where real change can occur.

I respect the institution of parliament and the crucial role that it has played in our national development. This is what has driven me to become a parliamentarian. At the close of the 19th century and the great debates of Federation, our forebears shunned the laissez-faire, master-servant views of the far Right and the revolutionary tendencies of the far Left. They went a middle way, creating unique institutions with both egalitarian and entrepreneurial tendencies. For me, the Australian parliament is the keeper of the middle way—labour and capital working together, metropolitan centres and strong regions in balance, prosperity, cross-subsidising growth and need across our large and diverse continent. I believe parliament operates best when it promotes tolerance and diversity. When political parties drift to extremes, the patient electorate makes it clear, through the ballot box, that they expect parliament to reflect the native Australian gradualism and pragmatism. I believe parliament is a moderating institution that is helping Australia to adapt to the big issues of the future.

Previous parliaments have said that they did not want the White Australia policy. Previous parliaments have said that they did want to protect our environment. Previous parliaments have said that we do want to have an old-age pension. Previous parliaments have said that we want an open economy, a national superannuation scheme and an end to the legal discrimination against women. I want to belong to a parliament that will deal with the big, over-the-horizon issues facing our nation for the next 25 years. I aspire to be a Labor member who helps our parliament to be a moderating force for change in a complex, changing world.

I hope to be a consistent and persistent Labor parliamentarian. I shall apply the lessons of my first four decades: the lessons of my family, the lessons of my education, the lessons of business, the lessons of my union days. All of these lessons, I believe, can be distilled into one phrase: never give up. What I want to accomplish in my time in parliament rests upon understanding what lies ahead for Australia in the next three decades. I am here because we must wrestle with a raft of issues. I am here because I do not accept that dignified aged care is somehow optional. I do not accept that quality healthcare should be determined by the size of your wallet. I do not accept that women should be paid less than men. I do not accept that Indigenous Australians should lack economic power. I do not accept the inevitability of an unfair and complex tax system. I do not accept that the collapse of Australian manufacturing is a foregone conclusion. I do believe that politics can sometimes lag behind individuals, communities and business. I do believe that Australians need lifelong learning to prepare for their many careers over their lifetime. I do believe in closer engagement with India and China in the spirit of the longstanding great Labor internationalist tradition. I do believe in national infrastructure building greater capacity for economic growth. I do believe our teachers deserve more than they currently receive. I do believe that we should be saving more for our future. I do believe that we can and we must support our regions. I do believe that we can combine a sustainable environment and a sustainable economy. I do believe that governments should decrease the regulatory burden, promote competition and provide regulatory certainty. I do believe an Australian republic will arise.

How to achieve a long, meaningful life in a rapidly changing world is one of the great themes of our new century. I believe our institutions will have to rethink the way they do things, coming up with new ideas for extracting the maximum social and economic value from the advances in medical technology which offer us the potential of a century of life. What I want to accomplish for working people is about aspiration—not for material wealth and plasma televisions alone but for 100 years of health; for education and skills to do quality, interesting work; for living in decent and supportive communities; and for leading a rewarding and meaningful life.

There are many paths to this end. I advocate no rigid road, for I am sceptical of absolutes. Australians are—by nature, history and geography—pragmatic, and we are gradualists. Sometimes I think in the public reporting of Australian politics the desire to highlight conflict overlooks the clear Australian preference for compromise and consensus. Let me clarify this point. In every federal election since Federation, nearly half the nation has voted for either Labor or the conservatives; yet within days we reunite around the fundamentals of our society. I am an optimist. I believe Australians are optimists. We see few problems that cannot be solved by reason and debate, and we are confident that most problems can be solved. We are egalitarian. We do not believe in a static and confining social order, so we have no profound passion to uproot and destroy it. Yet, for all this convergence, there are serious and meaningful divergences.

The American historian Arthur Schlesinger described in the following terms the 19th century philosopher Emerson’s view of the differences between American progressives and American conservatives:

Mankind … is divided between the party of Conservatism and the party of Innovation, between the Past and the Future, between Memory and Hope.

In Australia, Labor is the party of innovation, the future and hope. So it is a great privilege to be here right now in this place in what feels, after the last election, like a different country. Our national leadership is young, vigorous, intelligent, civilised and innovative. I believe it will spur a re-emergence of public faith in our leadership, in our diversity, in contention, in nonconformism and in imagination. My vision of the Labor Party is that of a humane, insightful, pragmatic agent of change—not dogmatic, not utopian, not wedded to a belief that fundamental problems have only one solution. My experience of Labor is the unequivocal rejection of extremes.

Our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has made Australia a proud member of the international community again by ratifying the Kyoto protocol. And I think everyone will remember where they were the day that he apologised to the stolen generations. Julia Gillard, our first female Acting Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, is the driver of our much-needed education revolution reforms. Wayne Swan, our Treasurer, knows that getting the economic settings right is vital for our nation to grow; but he will pursue these priorities with a sense of fairness and compassion.

From industrial relations to Indigenous affairs, from nation building to community renewal, Australia is reasserting itself as a nation of the future, a nation of hope and a nation of the fair go. This will be a nation that values its people, whose capacity for achievement is irreplaceable. We need individuals; they are fundamental to the progress of our society. It is the existence of free choice, of equal opportunity and innovation which drives the capacity of individuals. I believe that the audacious pursuit of creative innovation can expand our choices and enhance our lives. That pursuit lies at the heart of my commitment to this place.

In closing, I think of the thousands of people I have met around our nation. I think of passionate advocates; inspirational shop floor workers; people with disabilities, whose courage and determination are awe-inspiring and business leaders whose contributions enrich our nation and our community. I have always been struck by how united we are by our common desire to see every individual enjoy the longest life, full of quality and meaning. I am inexpressibly proud to be here as part of this new, fresh and hopeful Rudd government—a government that has already shown itself to be socially inclusive, a builder of bridges, a dissolver of divisions in society. This week has shown us all the real meaning of the politics of hope, and it is a privilege to be part of this. I hope my role in this parliament will serve to assist and support these ideals and advance a fair Australia.