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Tuesday, 10 August 1999
Page: 7152

Senator McLUCAS (5:54 PM) —It is an honour to stand here this evening and to deliver my first speech to the Senate. I thank the people of Queensland for their support, as well as the members of the Australian Labor Party, without whom I would not have been elected. To them I say: I will repay your trust with hard work and a commitment to respond to those issues that we all care about. I am fortunate to have spent four years in local government as a councillor with the Cairns City Council. This experience has provided me with a clear understanding of the responsibilities that elected representatives have for their communities as well as the knowledge that successful representatives have to stay in touch with, and reflect, the needs of their constituents. I applaud the efforts of local government in Queensland and acknowledge its contribution to the career development of many women.

Local government operates as a highly democratic level of government, delivering essential, if often unglamorous, services. However, the reality for local government is that there are two masters. One, quite appropriately, is the constituents who elect them. The second is the state government, which has the ability to dismiss the authority and appoint an administrator. For this reason, I support the inclusion of the third tier of government within the Constitution.

I come to this chamber well aware of the precedents that have been set through the work of Senator Margaret Reynolds and, before her, Senator Jim Keeffe. The Labor Party has a proud tradition of ensuring regional representation in the Senate which stretches back more than 30 years to 1965, when Senator Keeffe took his place as a Queensland Labor senator based in Townsville. Labor has long recognised that Queensland is the most decentralised state and has responded by nominating senators who are regionally located. I am honoured to continue this tradition.

Currently, more than 55 per cent of Queenslanders live outside of Brisbane: 35 per cent of them in regional centres and a substantial 20 per cent classified as rural and remote residents. This population profile provides governments with the challenge of ensuring that programs developed reflect the realities of delivering services to people scattered over a large and diversified state.

Over the last 33 years of ALP representation in North Queensland, we have seen significant improvements in the quality of life experienced by the people of our region, but there is still more to be done. Geographically removed from large population centres, North Queenslanders will always want increased access to transport and communications services. Our industries are located great distances from their markets, and our road system has to respond to this reality.

During the last federal election campaign, the Better Roads Action Alliance was formed in response to the loss of $640 million of road funding over the past three years. In Queensland, this was a loss of $160 million. The alliance is a grouping of highly respected organisations, including the Local Government Association of Queensland, the freight industry and the RACQ. Their request is simple. They want more of the money that is collected from the transport sector to be put back into road funding. The government's Black Spot Program and Roads of National Importance may seem to be providing some of these funds. However, I am concerned that these programs lack a strategic approach to building an integrated road network.

Whilst there is consultation with local authorities in determining priorities for the expenditure of these funds, the result is that money is being allocated to local intersections and traffic lights rather than providing a coordinated and planned road network for regional Queensland. One particular project that requires immediate attention is the construction of the Douglas arterial section of the Townsville ring-road. It is projected that around 2003 the capacity of the existing national highway will be reached. The federal government has a responsibility to provide an efficient road network as a part of the national highway program for the residents of Townsville and Thuringowa.

Similarly, residents in the southern suburbs of Cairns are looking to the alleviation of the congestion on the Bruce Highway, another national highway. On the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns, the growth in the sugar industry is impacting significantly on the roads. Residents of the tablelands have, in recent years, worked hard to turn around what was a looming economic slump by developing this new industry. Here is an opportunity for the federal government to provide practical support to a rural community which has shown a great deal of initiative. They require a comprehensive roads funding package to be delivered in conjunction with local government.

In the same way that roads provide the physical link to the rest of Australia for the people of Far North Queensland and North Queensland, so our national telecommunications carrier has provided an essential link for families and business in our region. This will become even more crucial as technology broadens opportunities for online business.

In the past, people in regional areas have been able to rely on public ownership as a safeguard to service equity with people in more populous centres. As we move into an era of privatisation, people in my region have made it very clear that they will not tolerate any downgrading of services through any Telstra ownership changes. I take these concerns very seriously. Regional Australia must not be denied access to new technologies.

It is no secret that we live in a time of immense cynicism toward government, politicians and the major political parties, a cynicism which is in part fuelled by the pursuit of privatisation and competition policies, policies which sound good in theory—increased productivity, greater efficiency, tailored and targeted services—but which in their delivery have often had profound effects on regional and rural economies. While we often point the finger at the banks for pulling out of the bush, it is also the case that government is guilty of centralising services and moving jobs out of regional centres. These job losses impact significantly on the economies of a small town. The loss of just three or four families and their incomes can lead to the loss of a teacher or a police officer, and so the spiral of decline continues.

In People and places—a profile of growing disadvantage in Queensland, a document produced by the Queensland Council of Social Service, an arc of rural disadvantage is identified in the Central West extending from Croydon in the Gulf of Carpentaria to Paroo on the New South Wales border. These are the most vulnerable non-indigenous townships that clearly need government to rethink how it delivers its services. The report concludes:

. . . the task is to address this reality and move beyond description and analysis into an active response that will alleviate the economic hardship being experienced by a growing number of Queenslanders in many places around the State . . . It is possible to address this if there is the will to do so.

Governments must change the rhetoric of competition to include sound analysis of the social impacts of their decisions. Our communities are demanding it. Country people are tired of trading off their economies for so-called better services usually delivered over the phone by someone in another city who has no personal knowledge of local circumstances. The public benefit test needs to be focused at a very local level. It must include an understanding of the local economy and, if service level or delivery style is to change, the community and the government need to know the real impacts of that change and how to limit the adverse effects.

I am concerned about the recent discussion of what is being called mutual or reciprocal obligation. The argument seems to be about asking recipients of government support to earn the assistance that government is providing them. This is rewriting the notion of what government support is and always should be: assistance to those people who are in need, who do not have the financial capacity to survive. It is about keeping families together. It is about the community's obligation to those in need. It is insulting to me to suggest that people who are recipients of welfare need an incentive to move to self-sufficiency.

Many indigenous people have been dependent on government assistance through either CDEP—the Community Development Employment Program—or unemployment benefits for long periods of time. The reason for their reliance on these benefits is that there are few jobs available for them in their communities. There are, of course, communities which have been able to generate employment, usually through the activities of councils or indigenous organisations, but in my experience it has always been directly associated with that community's access to the natural resources at their disposal, either the land or the sea.

The work of Margaret Reynolds over the last 16 years is well known to senators in this place and members of the Australian parliament. She has been a tireless advocate for indigenous peoples. I wish to place on record my personal thanks to Margaret and the thanks of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations across North Queensland for her work. In her first speech in 1983, she spoke of the inextricable link that indigenous Australians have with the land and the relationship between dispossession and health.

It is of great concern to many Australians, myself included, that the efforts of many in the health sector over the last 16 years have not resulted in health outcomes for indigenous Australians that are equal or close to those in the non-indigenous community. There have been some wins. In the Cape York region, deaths from infectious diseases and some forms of heart disease are on the way down in Aboriginal and Islander communities as are the mortality rates for children under the age of four, but the rates are still far higher than for the non-indigenous community.

Those wins, however, are dwarfed by the scale of the task still ahead. Mortality rates in the region are 15 per cent higher than for the rest of Queensland while hospitalisation rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are between 60 and 90 per cent above those of the rest of the population. Diabetes, pneumonia, influenza and lung cancer rates are high and climbing. Injury admission rates are up to 40 per cent higher than the Queensland average and admission rates for preventable infections are extremely high.

Most of these statistics reflect continuing poor living conditions and inadequately developed services in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We have to respond to these statistics. We also have to listen. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want healthier communities. They also tell us time and time again that the health of their people will not be improved until there is a measure of local control in the delivery of essential services to their communities.

I wish to pay tribute to the Apinipima Cape York Health Council. The council has been in operation since the end of 1994. It works in collaboration with other agencies, including government, to ensure that the health programs being delivered to Cape York Peninsula residents are provided in a culturally appropriate manner. It is a process that has consistently achieved the best possible outcomes for the health dollar. It is a model that is worthy of study and one which could be used in other centres.

In her first speech in 1983, Margaret Reynolds referred to the need for indigenous peoples to access their own land. Since then, we have had the High Court decisions of Mabo and Wik. I am very fortunate to have known some of the claimants in the Mabo case and have been given an understanding of the sadness they felt when challenged about their traditional rights of ownership. I am also fortunate to know many people from Aurukun, the Wik people, and have been invited to be part of their way from time to time. Their focus was then and is now on finding a positive and healthy future for their families.

I am also fortunate to have lived my life on the doorstep of what is one of the most spectacular and challenging places in Austral ia, Cape York Peninsula. It is a place where some 18,000 indigenous and non-indigenous people live and a place where it might just be possible, for once, to manage growth and development sensitively. I was fortunate to have been part of a process of developing a total regional land use plan for the Cape as a member of the Cape York Peninsula Land Use Studies Regional Advisory Group. CYPLUS, as it was known, grew from the pressures of sometimes maverick proposals for the development of Cape York Peninsula.

In the late 1980s we faced the potential of a space base on Wuthathi land, an enormous tourist resort near Lockhart River on the east coast of the Cape and sandmining at Shelbourne Bay, just to name some of the proposals before us. These projects were all intended for land where Aboriginal peoples continue their custom and lore. It was a recipe for disaster. The governments of the day responded, through the instigation of CYPLUS, a planning process which included all the people in the Cape. The regional advisory group, of which I was a part, included the grazing industry, the mining industry, Aboriginal people, the fishing industry, the tourism sector and people committed to conservation of the natural heritage values of Cape York Peninsula. You would be forgiven for thinking that this group was headed for disaster. It is to the credit of the individuals involved that when we sat down we moved from our points of difference to our points of commonality and realised that our differences were not greater than our shared aspirations.

The final report of our group, delivered after 18 months of hard work, provides a scaffold for governments to deliver a sustainable future for everyone in Cape York Peninsula. I am quite sure that this process would not have been so successful if it were not for the Cape York Heads of Agreement signed on 5 February 1996. The agreement was historic in that it acknowledged the different interests of the Aboriginal peoples, the grazing industry and the environment sector and laid out a process for resolving land use conflicts through negotiation and not litigation. It can be done. I am proud to say that the people of Cape York, indigenous and non-indigenous, are showing us how. It is possible to overcome fear and suspicion. It is possible to set aside the rhetoric of those who would wish to divide communities for their own political ends. It is not easy, but it can be done. Graziers and indigenous people know that it is worth it.

The next challenge for our region may well be the transferring of these processes from the land to the sea. Many people in the Torres Strait wish to broaden the native title debate to include recognition of traditional rights over the sea and its resources. Those of you who have been lucky enough to travel in the Torres Strait will know that the islands are small and the opportunity to harvest a land grown food source is extremely limited. The sea has, and always will be, the farm for the people of the Torres Strait. They have managed it well and have a legitimate right to expect a continuing economic return from it. The resolution of sea rights is essential if people in the Torres Strait are to achieve their aspirations for a greater degree of autonomy in the future. There is an opportunity here for both the state and the federal government to assist the people of the Torres Strait to develop a system of governance that allows their culture to grow within economic security.

I turn now to the tourism industry of Queensland. The figures speak for themselves. The tourism industry in our state contributes $8 billion to the state economy annually. That is 10 per cent of our gross state product. It employs one in 12 of our work force and its export earnings are some $2,380 million. That exceeds those of wheat, beef and sugar. It is a dynamic and growing industry and one which is now recovering from the impacts of the Asian economic crisis. Needless to say, the industry operates in an extremely price sensitive market. Our competitors in South-East Asia, Hawaii and the South Pacific continue to develop their tourism products and our operators work hard to remain competitive. Understandably, the industry has significant concerns about the impact of the GST. They campaigned during the last election to have overseas sold tourism products deemed as exports. This sector accounts for one in eight export dollars earned by Austral ian industry. I will make it my priority to ensure that a future Labor government will recognise that this vital export industry is GST free.

In North Queensland our tourism industry depends on our natural environment—the reef and the rainforest. I pay tribute to those in the environment movement who worked to have both of these wonderful natural resources protected through their listing on the world heritage register. It is now our responsibility to ensure that these special ecosystems are protected and enhanced through sound management. However, it is not always a straightforward matter. Recently Greenpeace released a research report on coral bleaching, a phenomenon causing corals to die, lose their colour and turn white. It predicted that bleaching could become a regular occurrence on the Great Barrier Reef by the year 2030 resulting from a rise in ocean temperature of just one degree.

While scientists may not agree as to whether ocean temperatures will rise at the rate predicted by the Greenpeace report, the link between ocean warming and coral bleaching is not in dispute. As we know, the key contributors to global warming are greenhouse emissions. The body charged with the management of the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, has no control over greenhouse reduction targets; neither does the tourism industry or the fishing industry, which rely on the reef. We do. The plight of the Great Barrier Reef and the many jobs that depend on it is an illustration of why governments and parliaments must have a commitment to tackling the hard decisions—decisions which will determine the future of our communities, decisions like how to manage environment and industry sustainably.

Much as I would like to think that today will be remembered for my first speech, I must say that I feel slightly overshadowed by the magnitude of the debate which has begun in this chamber today. As a committed republican I look forward to the opportunity to vote for a change which I believe is both timely and necessary. I also believe that the people of Queensland want the Queen replaced by an Australian head of state. That is how they voted in the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention last year. Given clear and accurate information about the choices before them should the referendum proceed on 6 November, I believe it is the way they will vote again.

As someone who appeared before the Joint Select Committee on the Republic Referendum, I express my disappointment that the recommendations which I thought fair and well considered have not been acceptable to government. I regarded the report as an opportunity to move the debate away from party politics and to enable all of us to get on with the business of informing our constituents about the proposals before them. I urge the government to seriously consider and respond to the committee's report in its entirety. It contains many recommendations and observations which could help us engage the community in this vital debate. If, at the end of this week, we have a referendum on 6 November, the task ahead of us is to assist the population to an informed vote.

I am proud to be a woman elected to this chamber and I note that the last Senate had two more women than this Senate does, as I was the only woman among the seven new senators elected last October. I would like to think that this is just a statistical blip and that the debate about equal representation has been won. Unfortunately, this may be my optimism showing. I take my seat in this chamber as a proud feminist. It is behoven upon me and all senators to use the authority of this office to identify and remove obstacles that prevent the full participation of any person in their community. I commend the work of the members of Emily's List, who have supported the aspirations of many women in the Australian Labor Party.

Finally, I wish to thank a number of people who have assisted me to be present here today. To the many members of the Labor Party who have supported me over many years, providing advice and friendship, my thanks. My thanks to my parents, who have encouraged me over the years. To my staff, Colleen, Stephen and Suzanne, thanks for your terrific work and thanks in advance for what is to come. My thanks go to Sally, Chloe and Jack, who are always there when we need them. And most importantly, to my husband Steve and our daughter Alice, who missed her athletics carnival to come to Canberra this week, thank you for your trust in me and for your encouragement.