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Wednesday, 21 August 2002
Page: 3494


Senator MARSHALL (4:59 PM) —Through you, Mr President, I would like to thank the Senate for this opportunity to make my first speech. Firstly, I wish to acknowledge that we stand on the land of the Ngunnawal people. It is appropriate that I, we as a parliament and the nation as a whole acknowledge and pay respect to over 20,000 years of custodianship.

I am privileged to represent the people of Victoria, and I express my sincere gratitude to its voters for allowing me the opportunity to represent them in this parliament. I will seek to do this with much vigour and passion over my time here. My election to the Senate has been the result of a great deal of hard work, loyalty and support on behalf of a number of individuals and organisations around me, many of whom are in the gallery here today. To each and all of you, I am immensely grateful, as my presence here would not have been possible without you all.

Like many senators and members at the last sitting of our parliament, I would like to pay special respect to my predecessor, former Senator Barney Cooney. Barney's commitment to humanitarianism and civil liberties in this parliament is worthy of great praise. Barney served the people of Victoria and Australia in this place with great dignity and respect, something unusually noted by both sides of this house. His dedication to the rights of all people from all lands as well as promoting Australia's responsibilities in an ever-changing world by upholding its various international treaties and conventions was unwavering. Barney has been an inspiration to many in our party, including myself, and I am sure that he will continue to remain so. I congratulate him on his 18-year Senate term, thank him for his sound advice and wish him every success with his future endeavours.

I would also like to thank the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party for its support. I am honoured to represent and promote Labor principles in this place, as society's need for equity has never been more important than now. The Australian Labor Party's long and esteemed history has stoutly advocated the needs of the less privileged in our society for over 100 years. My commitment to Labor's principles has been shaped by my life's experiences. My political socialisation began, like most, in the family home. I was born and raised in Melbourne's northern suburb of Reservoir and joined the Labor Party in 1977 as a young and inspired son of working class parents, who instilled within me a strong value system based on fairness, honesty and hard work. My ALP membership, like that of many of my colleagues, was fundamentally motivated by Gough Whitlam's progressive agenda and his government's commitment to social equity and providing opportunities for all.

During my electrical apprenticeship at the Victorian Railways I became active as a trade unionist and involved with the union movement's constant struggle to bring about a fairer deal for all workers. The people of this movement strengthened my belief in the fundamental principles of Labor: fairness, equity and social justice for all. The Australian Labor Party's inherent relationship with the trade union movement is a connection I am proud to recognise and promote. Our shared values are fundamentally democratic and collective. We stand for the right of ordinary people, those who have neither wealth nor power, to a fair go, to be treated with dignity and respect and for each and every Australian to be valued as a member of our community.

Having been an active unionist throughout my career as an A-grade electrician, I was elected as a Victorian branch official with the Electrical Trades Union in 1991—a position I am proud and honoured to have held. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the ETU and its many fine members who I had pleasure to work with during my tenure there. Particularly I must make mention of the officials that work passionately to educate, advocate and negotiate on behalf of our union's 18,000 strong membership.

Unions are not fortresses for their officials—as this government chooses to perpetuate. They are democratic organisations that, through collective participation, strive for collective gains for Australian workers. They only exist with the active participation of workers and their families. This is why they have survived conservative attacks over the last 150 years and why they will thrive and adjust to the next 150 years.

Amid the current economic rationalist tide it is so easy to forget just how important trade unions have been, and are, to Australia. Australian unionists built the living standards most Australians enjoy today including wage levels, weekends, holidays, safety regulations, superannuation and much more. Even more significant, Australian unions and Australian unionists ingrained a fair go into the Australian lexicon, something every Australian accepts is now part of our national character. It is that fundamental value promoted by union members that gives Australians pride, the strength to stand up for themselves and a confidence that their opinion matters. In short, I believe Australian unions and unionists are part of the moral bedrock of this country and I think it is high time that this was acknowledged.

I would now like to comment on the current royal commission being undertaken into the building industry, which I believe is a politically motivated witchhunt and a remarkable drain on the nation's resources. This particular royal commission has a budget of $60 million to use in the course of its investigation of which $660,000 has been allocated to the salary of Commissioner Cole alone—more than double that entitled annually to the Prime Minister himself. To put $60 million into perspective, it is more than twice the amount allocated to the inquiry into the HIH collapse, more than three times this year's funding of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, and it is equivalent to the funding of over 5,200 university placements based on the government's current higher education funding model.

Since August last year the commission has purported to be investigating all issues of concern within the building industry. Yet it seems quite apparent to me it has almost exclusively wasted time and an exorbitant amount of taxpayer funds desperately trying to uncover non-existent union corruption in the building industry. As a consequence, the No. 1 issue affecting construction workers themselves, their workplace safety, has been de-prioritised and hardly seems to be of any concern to the commission at all.

Over the 1999-2000 financial year compensation was claimed for 28 construction workers who lost their lives at work. Non-fatal injuries within the construction industry totalled just under 12,000 cases and at least 132,000 working weeks were lost to workplace injury in that year alone. Therefore the building industry's occupational health and safety record, I believe, should have been the No. 1 matter for investigation on the commission's agenda. While we know the royal commission has failed to adequately attend to the issues of workplace death and injury, the Bracks Labor government ought to be congratulated on its attempts to legislate around these issues in Victoria.

Its introduction of a host of stringent workplace safety bills into the Victorian parliament, including sensible industrial manslaughter legislation, articulates Labor's commitment to workplace safety and the bold nature of that government in this field. In contrast, the Liberal-National coalition in Victoria has reconfirmed its indifference to the safety of ordinary working Australians by defeating these legislative measures in the Victorian upper house. Conservative political parties in this country ignore the issues identified by Australian workers as needing redress and, instead, seek to dismantle structures that protect and afford workers rights.

While some in our communities have prospered and will continue to prosper, it must be recognised that not all Australians and regions have shared equally in the benefits delivered by the technological and economic expansion of the past two decades. While many companies and their executives make huge annual profits, the divide between rich and poor in our communities constantly widens. The ever increasing flexibility required of workers in the labour force today means many people are struggling to balance work and family life. This issue—the effect of work on the lives of Australians—has been a focal point of national discourse over the parliamentary winter recess. Paid maternity leave and the effect of excessive working hours on family life have been the central themes.

At present, Australia lags behind most countries in the developed world in its support for working families, particularly with respect to the provision of paid maternity leave for working mothers. In fact, Australia and the USA are the only two OECD countries that do not have a paid maternity leave system in operation. Paid maternity leave recognises the social significance of maternity as well as the loss of income sustained by women that take on family responsibilities. It protects the significant capital invested by society in the education and training of women and supports the health and welfare of mothers and newborn children. Australian women, and moreover the country, need supportive maternity policies that recognise the evolving nature of the Australian work force and the needs of Australian families. I look forward to working towards the adoption of a national paid maternity leave scheme as part of Labor's agenda for this term of parliament.

While such a scheme would offer support for families with new babies, the issue of excessive working hours must also be addressed with a family friendly focus. Over the past two decades, the number of Australians working excessive hours has increased significantly. Over 2½ million people work overtime on a regular basis and, of these people, around one-third are working more than 60 hours per week. In comparison with other OECD countries, Australia has more people working more hours than any other member country except for South Korea, and even in South Korea that rate is declining whereas in Australia it continues to rise. Australia's average working hours have increased since 1982 by a rate of 3.7 hours a week, which is equivalent to over half a million full-time jobs. Australia's unemployment rate, which currently stands at 620,000, could be significantly improved if the government regulated overtime hours and encouraged a system that enabled a greater number of workers to more fairly share the work burden.

Over the last decade, several initiatives addressing extended working hours have been implemented overseas. One of the most significant initiatives implemented has been the European Community Directive on Working Time. This legislation limits hours of work to an average of 48 hours per week and in France that threshold has been lowered to 35 hours per week. Might I say, Mr President, that when this change was first mooted in France there was a gaggle of vested interests who claimed that the sky would fall in, that unemployment would shoot up and that the economy would be devastated. But what has happened so far in actual fact? In the four years from 1997 to 2000, 1.6 million civilian jobs were created in France, including half a million in the year 2000 alone. The unemployment rate has steadily declined there by about one per cent per year since it peaked in June 1997 and the result in 2000 was its most outstanding of the 20th century. The 35-hour week accounted for between 150,000 to 200,000 new jobs created during this time, and it is expected that this will continue. Australia should follow Europe's lead in trading excessive working hours for more jobs and a greater ability for more individuals to maximise their time in their communities and for families to maximise their time together.

There is little doubt that the social fabric of our communities is eroded by excessive working hours and that it is the responsibility of people like us in this place to introduce legislative measures that will protect local communities and their identities and enable greater participation within them. This is one of the great achievable social goals within our reach. Such a change will do more to promote a sense of community and family value than any other initiative before us. I look forward to playing a role in establishing restrictions on hours of work and in turn working to reduce the excessive work burden that far too many Australians currently undertake. In doing this, I look even further down the track to our nation prospering from a more socially fulfilled and productive work force. I look forward to a Labor government that will actively pursue this goal.

In speaking about policies that seek to set in place the long-term prosperity of the nation, it would be foolish of me to fail to comment on the current review being undertaken in the country's higher education sector. As a parent myself, I join with all fair-minded people that hold a genuine concern about the future direction of this country and in fearing an education system and a society that embraces the notion that students or their families should pay up to $100,000 or more to obtain a degree from an Australian university. I reject a system that rewards class, privilege and wealth over ability, opportunity and equality. As a socialist, I believe education is a fundamental right that all people should have the opportunity to receive. It is an ingredient that all in our society are richer for and, in turn, it is the responsibility of all in our society to fund and control it. It is the basis for all invention, innovation, research development and leading social theory in our society. It is the key to equality, opportunity and prosperity.

It is symptomatic of a system gone wrong that, in an advanced Western country, Australia fails to have one single university recognised in the world's top 100. This is a statistic that must be improved or the social and economic wellbeing of our country will severely suffer. The course down which this government wants to take higher education is a dangerous one and frightening for those with a genuine concern for the future of this country. If the government chooses to subject education to open market forces, I fear our society will pay deeply for it many times over into the future. Now is the time for Australians to seriously consider what sort of future we want for this country. Do we want a highly skilled, highly prosperous nation that is innovative, productive and tolerant or do we want one that is ignorant, fearful and poor? There is little doubt in my mind that the future of higher education is fundamental to the answer to this question.

In closing this afternoon, I would like to congratulate my fellow colleagues who, like myself, began their Senate terms on 1 July. I wish you all the very best with your parliamentary careers and I look forward to working closely with you all as we strive to build a better Australia. I say this hoping that during the time we are here our people have, and seize, another opportunity to take the next natural step in the evolution of our democracy so that Australia finally becomes a republic and an Australian rightfully assumes the role of head of state. I look forward to this monumental occasion.

I would like to thank the staff of the parliament, particularly the Senate staff, for their help over the past months. I look forward to working with them into the future. I would also like to thank my electorate staff, Nathan Murphy, Helen McMurtry and Chris McDermott, for their support and I look forward to the many challenges that lie ahead of us.

Finally this afternoon I need to acknowledge the love, support and tolerance I share with my family: Bronwyn, who is not only my wife but also my best friend; my two beautiful boys—Caelum, who is six, and Kynan, who is two; Ron and Mavis, my parents; and my mother-in-law, Kathleen. They are all here today and it is with the greatest of family pride that I stand here in the Senate before them. Thank you, Mr President, and thank you, fellow senators.

Honourable senators—Hear, hear!