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Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Page: 4762

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (19:39): Today is almost a year in the job, and I thought I would take this opportunity to do something that is quite rare in politics, and that is reflect on my first year in the Senate. It is a great day to be able to do that—to do it on the same day that my colleague Senator Peter Whish-Wilson gave his first speech to the parliament, which is a special moment and feels like it was only a few weeks ago for me. I went back and had a look at my first speech. I tried to look at what some of the things were that I identified as important for me personally to pursue in this place and at how much progress I have made in a year in this place.

I have to say that it was a great privilege to be here to see the passage of the climate change legislation. One of the aims that was very clear for me was to come into this place and get some action on climate change. We saw that earlier this year with the passage of the climate change legislation—a huge privilege.

Of course, health and multiculturalism are two of my other areas of interest. I will talk a little bit about both of those and particularly the issue of multiculturalism, given where we are at the moment and the very sad time with the deaths of people seeking refuge in this country.

On the area of dental health, something that the Greens made part of their agreement with the Labor Party in government, we were fortunate enough to get a National Advisory Council on Dental Health established. I think it is important to pay tribute to the many people involved in that council. One of the things I have realised is that there are a number of people outside politics who contribute their time, often unpaid, to improve the health and wellbeing of this nation. I think that often goes unacknowledged, and now is an opportunity to acknowledge their hard work. As a result of that advisory council we got a blueprint about what should happen in the area of dental health.

Dental health is one of the great reform challenges that still face this nation. It is right up there with the Disability Insurance Scheme and one of the greatest reforms since Medicare, should we manage to achieve it. Through the negotiations on the private health insurance rebate we were fortunate enough to get a $150 million commitment to dental care. The changes to the private health insurance legislation were welcome, in our view. One of the things that we need to do is ensure that we protect and enshrine universal coverage when it comes to health in this nation. Through the budget, we were fortunate enough to get a half-a-billion-dollar investment in dental care, which will mean that low-income Australians can access dental care, many for the very first time, and we will be able to make a significant impact on dental waiting lists.

So we have achieved some significant gains in this space. I have to say that it has been an honour to be able to advance this issue, something that I feel very strongly about, something that in a wealthy nation like Australia needs urgent attention. We also advocated for a number of dentists who were caught up in the audits of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. It is one of those small issues that many people will not know much about, but to have the opportunity to try and remedy a significant injustice to people has been, again, something that I have been very lucky to be able to do.

Very early in my term I was involved with my first Senate committee hearing, which was on the deferral of listings of PBS medication. It gave me some insight into the work that the Senate committee system does right around the country in a number of areas. The Senate committee system is very precious. It is unique to this place and it needs to be protected, because the committee system does such tremendous work.

I was involved in two significant campaigns. I think it is important to give the government credit for its initiatives on plain packaging, which have led the world. The plain-packaging reforms gave me the opportunity through the Senate committee process to spar with tobacco lobbyists. I have to say that it is one of the memories I have in the first year of the job—to have the opportunity to look some tobacco executives in the eye and to essentially take them to task on what was a very necessary public health reform.

In the area of alcohol, we worked very hard on trying to get some movement in the area of pricing and improving alcohol labelling, things which are really important public health interventions. We are working very hard to try and get some movement in that space. I was lucky enough to introduce my first bill, a bill that would essentially ban the Australian government from investments in the tobacco industry through the Future Fund. We think it is really important, if the government is to continue doing the good work it has done on tobacco control, for it to take the next step and ensure that it does not invest at the moment in the order of $200 million in companies like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. Developing that bill has been an interesting learning curve. Hopefully, watching its passage through this place, who knows—we may even see some major reform in that area.

In health we have pursued a transparent agenda, trying to make some changes to the way the pharmaceutical industry interacts with the medical profession. It is really important in 21st century Australia that individuals have the confidence to know that the relationship they have with their health professional has not been compromised through inducements and offers of overseas flights in the guise of education. We have also wanted to see that transparent agenda extend to community pharmacies, which do terrific work. We need to get more transparency around the pharmacy agreement, an agreement worth $15 billion to taxpayers.

In gambling reform, another of my portfolio areas, we have seen the best and worst of minority government. We saw a group of independent voices come to the parliament with a strong desire to reform poker machines. We have seen some movement but nowhere near enough. I have had the honour to change the debate a little in this area by ensuring that the issue of $1 debts is firmly on the national agenda.

One of the great opportunities in this job is giving voice to issues that may not necessarily dominate the national political landscape. It is a great privilege for me to stand here and give voice to the issue of West Papua. Tomorrow I hope to found a parliamentary group that will bring together like-minded people and begin to seek justice for the people of West Papua. You know when you are being visited regularly by the Indonesian embassy that you are making inroads on an issue; likewise, today to be able to announce a nonpartisan group of politicians who seek to advance the issue of drug law reform; and, one of the joys of this job, to advance issues that may not necessarily be politically popular but on which we know there are politicians who are keen to cooperate.

The community do not see the amount of cooperation which exists behind the scenes. Often the line is drawn in question time when we assume our roles and people shout across the chamber, but people do not see the cooperation that exists across the party lines.

In closing, I have to say it has been a great learning curve and a great privilege to be here to negotiate with government on some important reforms—climate change and dental health—on which I am very keen to see some progress. It highlights the importance of a power-sharing arrangement, where different voices exist in the parliament and can bring different perspectives on issues that often belong to many people in the community.

It is with some sadness that I make this speech because I believe multiculturalism is one of the things that make this country a great place, yet today we are debating refugees and asylum seekers. I know there is no straightforward answer to this. It is a gravely difficult dilemma. I am pleased to see that there may be some progress made on the issue, that there is now agreement we may need to work with our neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia to ensure that we have legal safeguards for people while they are being processed, that we need a regional solution and that we need to increase our humanitarian intake. I believe it is also important to acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, regardless of the policy settings we have in place, some people will continue to take risks and Australia has a duty and an obligation to offer them protection.