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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6815


Mr SIMPKINS (7:40 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion that notes the 20th anniversary of postwar free elections in Poland and the part played by Poland in the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

There are more than 164,000 people of Polish descent living in Australia and almost half of them were born in Poland. Reflecting the existing and developing relationship between Australia and Poland, apart from the embassy in Canberra, consulates or honorary consuls are maintained in New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Victoria.

Indicative of the heritage of the strong Polish community in Australia, on 6 June this year the 41st convention of the Polish Community Council of Australia and New Zealand took place. Committed to the promotion of Polish-Australian matters and interests, the convention decided to create a team with representatives across the country whose task will be to respond appropriately to any anti-Polish activities.

With regard to the motion before us, it would be absolutely correct to say that Poland has always played a significant part in European history. As this motion properly states, Poland, in many ways, led the way out from underneath the communist shadow that had enshrouded eastern Europe following World War II. The communism brought to bear by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had proven to be a spectacular economic failure and the eastern bloc of nations could easily see the significant difference between standards of living in countries across Europe.

It was in 1980 when dissatisfaction with pay and other conditions under the communist regime resulted in the independent union, Solidarity, being established. Solidarity’s origins were in a strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, with Lech Walesa becoming its leader. The strike led to more strikes in Gdansk and then to strikes across Poland. The communist government agreed to legal organisations and Solidarity began.

In 1981, however, martial law was declared on 13 December. On the same day, Walesa was arrested. After being jailed for 11 months, he returned to the Gdansk shipyards as an electrician in 1983, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. From 1987 to 1990, he again led Solidarity, which assumed the position of the opposition. The opposition provided by Solidarity to the communist regime allowed the people of Poland a focus on the pursuit of democratic reform. Another occupational strike in Gdansk led to the government agreeing to the legalisation of Solidarity and the free election of 36 per cent of seats in the Sejm, the Polish parliament.

In 1989, Solidarity won all of the 36 per cent of free election seats available in the parliament and all but one seat in the newly created Senate. After that victory, Walesa was able to create a non-communist government by persuading the allies of the Communist Party to desert to his opposition group. Under Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, these conditions then allowed the reformist government to pursue a market based economy. In 1990, Lech Walesa became President.

It is widely considered that, as a result of those changes, the Polish economy is one of the best in the old eastern European bloc of nations. The advantage ex-socialist states have is that they have the capacity to privatise a significant number of enterprises. Even now, I understand that the government is in the middle of floating a number of publicly owned businesses and the Polish stock exchange has been thriving, although the world financial challenges have damaged the Polish economy.

Nevertheless, admission of Poland to NATO in 1999 and, in 2004, to full membership of the European Union clearly represents the progress that has been made. There is no doubt that the democratic spirit is strong in Poland. The events of history had caused it to be interrupted in the last century, but it is nevertheless a tradition of Poland. As fearsome as the USSR and its satellite communist governments were, the actions of the Polish people have shown courage and fortitude. They adopted a position of leadership and clearly they were the first of the eastern bloc nations to realise the democratic dream in the contemporary period.

I will conclude by speaking briefly of the Polish community in the northern and north-eastern suburbs of Perth. I recently attended a function at the Cracovia Club in Beechboro. It is clear that, although there are not very large groups of Poles in Perth, the culture and the sporting traditions of Poland are strong. The Poles who live in my electorate have embraced Australia, but they retain their feelings for their mother country and a strong cultural heritage. The Polish people have done well in Australia, and I am confident that they will continue to make a strong contribution into the future.