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Tuesday, 7 May 1996
Page: 447


Senator LUNDY(6.05 p.m.) —I would like to begin by thanking the people of the ACT and the Australian Labor Party for granting me the honour of representing them in the Senate. This honour followed the decision by Bob McMullan to contest the seat of Canberra, a decision endorsed by the voters of that electorate.

During his eight years as ACT senator, Bob forged a well-deserved reputation as a highly effective representative of the Canberra community. This reputation was further enhanced by his service to the people of Australia as a minister and as a politician blessed with sound judgment born of years of experience within the Labor movement. It is a standard of ACT Senate representation of which the Australian Labor Party can be justly proud. It is a standard established by the first Labor Party senator for the ACT, Susan Ryan, and maintained by Bob McMullan.

Susan, Bob and I are very different people, but we are all united in our commitment to social justice and our concern for people. This is the duty and responsibility now handed me. I will pursue the principles and practice of equity and justice to the best of my ability in the hope that I can do my remarkable predecessors proud.

I would like to say a few words about former Senator Ryan and her historical contribution to, amongst many other things, the status of women in Australia, a contribution that had a direct impact upon me as a young woman seeking employment for the first time. I share with around 30 per cent of parliamentarians a higher education consisting not of tertiary qualifications but of life experience.

In September 1984, at 16 years of age, I found myself employed in an industry largely unexplored by women. No, I am not talking about the parliament; I am talking about the building and construction industry.

The Sex Discrimination Act had become law in August of that year and my experience is a tangible example of the positive difference significant legislation can make to the daily lives of ordinary Australians. This event set me on a path, albeit unexpected; a path that I have been honoured to follow. Hence, finding myself in this chamber presenting my first speech 12 years later, but still with a scaffolders ticket in my pocket, is a positive reflection on the accessibility of the democratic political processes which are fundamental to both the Labor Party and the Australian nation.   May I say that in this reflection we see the presence and contribution of many women, including pioneers like Dorothy Tangney, Enid Lyons, Margaret Guilfoyle and Susan Ryan—all of whom have opened doors for other women. But it was the work of Susan Ryan that, for me, opened that first door.

These days, however, it is not enough just to hold open these doors. By being here I gladly carry with me a responsibility, as do all women elected to this chamber and the other place, to strive for the removal of those doors altogether. And Labor started the process—so successfully in fact that our opponents have belatedly jumped on the bandwagon and renewed my certainty that one day there will be no trace of the barriers that once blocked the full and active participation in the political processes by more than half of the population.

The fact that someone like myself is here is the result of the selfless, dedicated and diligent work of many Labor women over the years. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my family, all of whom have supported me in everything I have ever undertaken—especially my partner George Wason. I came from an essentially non-political upbringing, spending my early childhood in Quirindi, New South Wales, before moving to Canberra when I was six years old.

I particularly want to thank my Labor Party and union colleagues and my friends, all of whom have given me strength and confidence. I also thank them for sharing this occasion with me. My children Alexandra and Annabelle, whom I hope, with the pursuance of the family friendly environment up here on Capital Hill, will only be affected in positive ways by their mother's choice to enter federal parliament.

There are many others who have played a pivotal role in my life. One of those is Rod Driver who, against the best advice, took a risk and employed me as a union organiser in the building and construction industry. Thank you, Rod: your faith in me changed my life.

The ideals pursued by the union movement of equality in society and a fair go for all epitomise the Australian psyche. The sense of purpose that comes with improving the lot of others was something that I could not, and will not, let go. Unions, through their collective campaigns, have secured over a very long period of time many improvements for working people.

I have a saying that I would like to share. For a worker to refuse to belong to a union is not to exercise a democratic freedom; it is to accept benefits that others have worked for without contributing to the costs. Democracy flourishes only when freedom is accompanied by responsibility.

It is the achievements in occupational health and safety standards, hours of work, wage rates, superannuation, long service leave, family leave, and the vast array of other award provisions that union members have worked so hard for that have shaped Australian workplaces. These achievements have only been possible because of our sensible industrial relations legislation. I am talking about legislation that has taken nearly a century to evolve.

The Industrial Relations Act provides for both an equitable forum in which all industrial parties—employees and employers alike—can resolve their differences as well as an environment which recognises the right of working people to unite and use their collective strength to protect their family's standard of living. Even employer associations admit that Labor's industrial relations system does work well. The awards provide the benchmark for employment standards and they must be protected. The achievements of unions are embodied in the awards and to lose them, as is proposed by the coalition, would unravel a century of effort by working people.

Labor has and always will recognise this effort. Also, Labor has embodied a commonsense approach to the prevention of workplace illness and injury by way of legislation that involved all parties in the determination and implementation of minimum safety standards. The various state—and now federal—coalition governments have subsequently moved to systematically dismantle this tripartite approach to health and safety.

With 500 workplace deaths and thousands of injuries occurring each year I question their priorities. Surely the health and safety of all Australians must be first and foremost in the minds of all legislators. I would like to take this opportunity to put on the public record my support for the initiatives taken to put in place very strong gun control laws in Australia, and I express my deepest sympathy for the tragic events that have unfolded in Tasmania in recent times.

We, as Australians, can no longer take for granted the standard of living and conditions of employment that we have become used to. Working people will need to enlighten themselves very quickly as to the strategies and support available to them through the union movement in the face of what will be a systematic erosion of their rights.

It is an unfortunate thing that political awareness is often triggered as a result of a problem occurring, whether it be in one's personal or professional life, and it is therefore crucial that initiatives such as the civics educational program attract bipartisan support. This program aims to empower everyone, regardless of their age, ethnicity or class, with knowledge about the Australian political system.

I predict that many people will have their political awareness raised over the next few years. I have already seen the ranks of the Australian Labor Party swelling as a direct response to the uncaring, unfair and undemocratic industrial relations policy that this coalition government is espousing.

My own involvement in politics was something that emerged from my experience of working on building sites. Before that, I was like many other young people: pretty cynical about politics. This cynicism must be addressed by all of us. We can all assist in restoring public faith in the political processes by being true to our policies and to ourselves.

This is a big ask, but I for one am determined to earn the respect of the people I represent by contributing to the fair and effective public debate of issues which directly affect the quality of lives of Australian families. The issues we, as senators, will discuss and decide are the very issues which will determine what sort of life my daughters, and indeed the next generation, will experience. My vision has been formed by the proud tradition of Labor principles expressed and refined over a century—a tradition which values actions above words and which, quite frankly, is offended by the attitude inherent in a profit first, people last ideology. It is Labor's ability to act decisively that distin guishes us from the other parties—our ability to put in place fair policies that go to the very heart of the just society.

The achievements of Labor in the form of Medicare, the social security safety net, affordable and accessible child care, school retention rates, Aboriginal reconciliation, the accord, universal superannuation, the forest conservation reserve system, coast and land care, law reform, APEC and providing a vision for the Australian republic have all contributed to the shaping of our identity as a community.

The need for sustainable jobs is at the forefront of public concern and has seen Labor implement comprehensive strategies, such as Working Nation, as a means of addressing this basic right of employment. Labor puts job creation and job security at the top of our list of priorities. We saw this proud legacy being adopted by the coalition during the election campaign in its desperation to win government. Subsequently, we have seen the same legacy tossed out the window as the coalition settles into its real agenda.

It is this ideology which will alienate this government from the people. Dry economic rhetoric and conservative propaganda promoting the new individualism will not fool the electorate. It will only serve to remind voters of the high price they are being forced to pay under the coalition. People of my generation who are experiencing adult life under a coalition government for the first time will quickly appreciate, if they have not already, the crystal clear distinction between the major parties. The Australian Labor Party has learnt the hard way the importance of genuine communication with the electorate, and we will go back to the people because our Labor ideology is based on equity, not elitism.

Information and how it is communicated are major determinants of power in our society. Many people have little restriction on their ability to convey their views, but there are also many disadvantaged members of our community who, through circumstances beyond their control, find it very difficult to have their voice heard. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that all groups in our society have the public means and the opportunity to form their views without media bias and to be able to express them freely. The importance of public policy relating to the use and control of credible information sources and its increasingly complex delivery technologies cannot be underestimated if we are serious about equitable and affordable access.

By the year 2000 the information sector will be the world's second largest industry. Those nations that develop the infrastructure necessary for this industry to flourish are the nations that will prosper into the next millennium. Infrastructure is not just cable and microwave dishes; it is an education and training system which can increase people's skills in developing software and creating useful content. Already in Australia information and information related activities employ more than 40 per cent of the work force and generate 36 per cent of gross domestic product, and this can only improve.

High quality communications, widespread computer usage and literacy, and a willingness to use modern engineering technologies will be essential ingredients in our economic wellbeing. However, I am not yet convinced that we have sufficiently analysed and discussed the societal and community effects of this shift in our economic base. For example, although the need to take this technology to rural Australia is well recognised, have we explored the long-term impact on the economies of country towns? The geography of Australia provides special challenges in terms of access to information infrastructure; challenges that can be met only in a policy framework with priorities of equal access, universal service and that which puts the needs of Australians—both suppliers and consumers—first. The best way of ensuring this is through public ownership.

We need only to look to Canberra, the nation's capital and my home, to see the rewards that come from investing in information technology and what it brings to a government administration. There is no doubt that this investment in technology has been a major contributor to the increases in efficiency achieved by the public sector, and to cut expenditure in this area would be short-sighted and foolish.

Canberra bashing has long been a hobby for the coalition. Uncharacteristically, the government restricted its rhetoric during the election campaign and implied to the people of Canberra that public sector job losses would be restricted to 2,500 positions with no forced redundancies. With every passing day, however, the list of cuts grows longer. Now I believe that even the Real Estate Institute of Australia in the Australian Capital Territory is begging the ministers to curb their lust for job cuts. I know that many of my Senate colleagues understand as well as I do the kind of negative impact this will have on our community.

I have been inundated with letters and calls from people who are living in real fear of being declared `excess'. The impact upon themselves, their personal morale and their families is devastating. These are the people at the front line of the government's harsh, dry political prescriptions, but they are not the only ones that will be affected. The quality of service delivery for every Australian in need will be compromised.

It has been a long time since Canberra was a one-company town, but the private sector here is still very concerned about the impact of reduced government spending on our local economy. Small businesses are particularly susceptible to reductions in consumer demand. There is no doubt that the private sector is much stronger than it has been in the past and is innovative in promoting regional development opportunities. However, coupled with the proposed cuts in the area of Canberra's fastest growing private sector industry, it will be impossible to quarantine the loss of jobs.

Canberra is a community as rich and diverse as any other Australian community. The fact that it is the nation's capital and home to the federal parliament is something we are proud of, not something we should be penalised or punished for. Canberra is my community and I represent the ordinary people: the people who are working or trying to work; the people who are caring for others and those that they care for; young people who are hopeful for the future and those that are in despair; older people, active in retirement or in need of care themselves; and, of course, the children whose future is in our hands. My job is to represent these people in a way that unites us rather than divides us.

The Australian Labor Party stands for the political and social values of equality, democracy and freedom. These are the principles that I bring to the Senate. I thank honourable senators.

Honourable senators —Hear, hear!