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Wednesday, 28 August 2002
Page: 3930

Senator STEPHENS (5:00 PM) —Thank you, Mr President and honourable senators. It is with an enormous sense of honour that I make my first speech as a member of the 40th Parliament of Australia. I have no hesitation in acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this land, and quickly move to add my name to the list of those prepared to say sorry—unlike others who have publicly shirked their responsibility for so long. I wish to acknowledge the impressive contributions made by my Senate colleagues who have given their first speeches during the last week. They have inspired great confidence and expressed optimism, intelligence and courage for their positions as senators and the role they want to play in this place. For this, I offer my congratulations. I also congratulate you on your election, Mr President, knowing that I do not expect to experience the same difficulty as my colleagues who continue to call you Madam President. Change is always challenging.

I am the only member of this parliament formally elected under the banner of Country Labor. As such, I represent a strong movement in the Australian Labor Party determined to give a voice to the many regional and rural communities that have been abandoned by the National Party. Someone else who has been a strong advocate of Country Labor, and whose contribution I particularly wish to acknowledge, is former Senator Sue West. Senator West retired only last week, when the Senate elected a new Deputy President. As a long serving senator, Deputy President and Chairman of Committees, Sue West made a significant contribution to this parliament.

We have heard from all the new senators about how their early experiences have shaped their political destinies. I migrated to Australia with my family from Ireland as a child and grew up in Grafton in a large and loving family. My parents were hardworking people, generous to a fault, who struggled to give us all a good life and a solid education. They experienced many hardships and struggles in coming to Australia, but were embraced by a community and a congregation that has continued to provide love and support to us all. They never regretted the break they made from their own brothers and sisters to make a better life for us. We are a large Irish Catholic clan—you can see them all there in the gallery. We take our obligations to work and community seriously, and we take great pride in our achievements. We also take every opportunity to celebrate— great craic, we say. I am delighted that my father and my family are here today, because without them I would be nothing.

My parents were not party political, but they were living examples of fairness, justice, generosity and compassion. These are fundamental Labor values. I learnt from them that whatever we have can always be shared with those who have less and that, if you cast your bread upon the water, it will be returned a hundredfold. They both had a keen awareness of history and of the long struggle of ordinary people to get a fair go. We heard a lot about the struggle for Irish independence, and there were various tales about my family's connection with the 1798 rebellion and the Easter rising in 1916. My mother was born on that Easter Monday, so we had an annual reminder of the importance of political awareness and of respecting the heritage of freedom that has been dearly won.

My parents' history of activism and participation was as natural to them as involvement in the Australian Labor Party has been to me. Recently I was advised that I am the first Irish-born woman to have been elected as a Labor representative to the Commonwealth parliament. I know that this would have pleased my mother, and certainly that both my dad and my father-in-law are very proud; so too would be those great Mercy nuns, who introduced me to the issue of social justice in a formal way and taught me the importance of being a critical and independent thinker. But there was a natural connection for me with the Labor Party of the 1970s—a party of vision, energy and social justice. I joined the ALP after the dismissal in 1975 and had the momentous experience of being on the steps of Old Parliament House with my husband Bob in protest over the treatment of the legitimately elected Whitlam Labor government. We were married on election day, 13 December 1975, having delivered booth boxes along the way that morning. My life has been inextricably entwined with the fortunes of the Australian Labor Party since that time—as an active party member and as party officer for the past eight years.

For most of my working life I have been an educator. I began my teaching career as an infants teacher in Western Sydney. There is no greater responsibility, nor any greater privilege, than that of having the inquisitive minds of a class of five-year-olds entrusted to your care and teaching. It was a responsibility that I relished; at times I was almost overwhelmed by the absolute faith that these children placed in my every word and action. The class sizes were large. There was no release from face-to-face teaching, and it was the common experience that if a teacher was away, for whatever reason, their class was split into groups of five or six and sent to other classrooms to be looked after by already overstretched teachers.

Much has changed in our education system, but the fundamental constant is the dedication of our teachers. Teachers are the most undervalued asset in our community and they deserve respect and resourcing by our governments, because we entrust to them the asset that will make the greatest difference to the future of this country—of course, I mean our children. I moved from primary teaching to special education, then to adult and community education, choosing to work with adult learners seeking a second chance at formal education. It was through this experience that I really came to understand the importance of lifelong learning. It brought me face to face with the level of disadvantage experienced by those in our society who have poor levels of literacy and numeracy. These skills are fundamental to our effective functioning in society, yet almost 10 per cent of our adult population continue to struggle with these challenges.

Adult literacy is also a community responsibility. In 1990, I was proud to receive an award on behalf of the Goulburn community for our contribution to the International Year of Literacy. We had developed a unique community response—supported by the local radio station 2GN and the GoulburnPost— to present ReadingontheRadio, using the local newspaper to promote literacy and numeracy on air. The community embraced the program, its local focus and its content. There are still many locals participating as volunteer tutors, and the model has been taken up in other parts of the country.

I have had the privilege of working with great learners and sharing with them their achievements—students like the young man with cerebral palsy who decided after being educated in a special school that he was not going to spend his life in a sheltered workshop and studied day and night to complete his HSC at TAFE. He is now running a small business and has a sense of place in the community that might never had been realised. And there was the Iranian mother who fled religious persecution with her children, arriving in Australia with nothing. They spoke no English, but she was determined that her children would not be disadvantaged by this and sought out an English tutor the week she arrived in a small country town. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree only six years after arriving here.

There was also the farmer who, due to his relative isolation and the need for him to contribute to the family farm, missed vital slabs of formal education and reached middle age using defensive mechanisms to screen his inability to read and write. He is now an avid reader, is computer literate and has computerised his stock breeding and management program. He has also become a good friend. These experiences—indeed all of the experiences I have had in my working life—have brought me to the understanding that will be fundamental to my work in this place: that is, it is through lifelong learning that we empower individuals and society, and build capacity for dealing with change. My parliamentary colleagues will experience timely reminders of this in their electorates next week, which is Adult Learners Week.

So, first, I am an educator. I am also a country person. I live and work in a regional community and have seen the impact of an increasingly volatile economy on communities that often rely heavily on a single employer. In 1996, the Carr government created the Regional Communities Consultative Council. I was privileged to be appointed to the community chair of that council, a council representing the key interests of rural New South Wales. We spent almost 18 months travelling across New South Wales, meeting with community organisations, councils and individuals to determine key recommendations for policy action by the New South Wales government. The council focused on the importance of strategic economic development policy and the integration of social and community issues into a whole of government response to regional needs.

Since that time, I have continued working in regional New South Wales to strengthen rural communities. Having developed a toolkit for communities that helped them identify and build on their assets, I have witnessed Crookwell—where the naturopath is called `Crook and Well'—undertake a community auditing process that has proved empowering to that community. In Moruya, they have developed new strategies to deal with high youth unemployment and created a telecommunications hub for the south east of the state. In Inverell, they have become alert to the need for economic diversification and embarked on a business based program to achieve that. In Boorowa, the acknowledged relationship between social interactions and health has contributed to different models of service delivery relating to diabetes and heart disease. In Bega, there is planned effective service growth based on its expanding economy. Each of these communities has responded at the community level to local challenges in ways that demonstrate there is no single service delivery model that meets the needs of all communities. How we as legislators are able to address the changing needs of communities for services is of great interest to me and is the subject of my doctoral studies at the University of Canberra. It is a complex and engaging issue.

The impact of the closure of a major employer—whether it is a factory, an abattoir or an institution—is something I know most honourable senators are aware of. The impacts are exacerbated if the workers' entitlements have not been protected. The men and women affected by the closure of Woodlawn Mine near Tarago are still feeling financially abandoned. Theirs has been a drawn out process, providing little comfort to the families and businesses affected by the collapse of this employer. The government's backflip and the introduction of its entitlements reform package, funded by taxpayers, may have blunted the potency of workers' entitlements as an election issue last year, but it fails to address the real issue of guaranteeing workers' entitlements. I believe Australia needs a comprehensive risk-related scheme that protects staff, reduces taxpayers' contributions and rewards companies that act responsibly towards their employees.

I believe that a critical national policy priority must be regional economic development. We must provide leadership in this important policy area—and Labor's policy framework for a sustainable future recognises the social, environmental and economic challenges and provides an effective and integrated response to the development of our regions. It is the responsibility of government to protect the global environment and to ensure that economic growth is ecologically sustainable. This means investing in knowledge based activities—including those involving environmental management—and providing our regions with the financial, social and environmental tools to embrace long-term sustainability practices.

May I suggest that the financial investment required should come from the regional investment of superannuation funds—funds that have in recent years been invested overseas, some of which have been caught up in the corporate collapses of recent months. The rapid growth of superannuation funds in Australia—currently involving more than $450 billion—has the potential to have a major impact on regional economic development. There are opportunities for taxation incentives for onshore investment in regional infrastructure projects—projects that would mobilise resources, encourage enterprise development within regions, improve employment prospects and underpin the development of knowledge based industries and opportunities. Such projects can, and must, be involved in solving the environmental challenges faced by regional Australia.

Salinity is one such challenge confronting all levels of government in Australia. The growing burden of salt in our soils and waterways is undermining agricultural production, degrading water supplies and destroying infrastructure. Labor's vision is to see the bigger picture and realise that even problems as dire as salinity can also provide a tremendous opportunity to develop and implement solutions. Some of these can prevent salinity occurring or reduce it, some can start to repair the damage and some can make productive use of saline soils and waters.

Let us think positively and encourage initiatives that can generate jobs and investment, driving the development of new technologies and building new enterprises. By viewing salinity as a business opportunity as well as an environmental scourge, we can mobilise private sector skills, entrepreneurship and social capital to respond to the salinity challenge. We understand that a healthy environment and a healthy economy are both necessary for a healthy society. We know the importance of striking a balance between environmental concerns and development objectives and, at the same time, enhancing local social capital in all its forms.

It is vitally important, and should go without saying, that rural communities be listened to when we are developing policies that concern them. The 1999 Rural Australia Summit held great promise for rural Australians seeking a voice in regional development policy. The summit highlighted the difficulties experienced by regional Australians as they face `technological change, globalisation, micro-economic reform and rationalisation of services by both governments and the private sector'. This is a significant advance from portraying those same phenomena as the solution to the problems of regional Australia. Those at the summit reiterated that the issues faced by regional Australia are so complex that solutions can only be arrived at by genuine partnerships between all levels of government, business and local communities. The summit communique emphasised that real solutions could only be found if such partnerships were inclusive of Indigenous communities.

The concept of community development was considered central to achieving real recovery. There was a call for a much greater level of participation at a local level, particularly in the development of models of service delivery based on real needs rather than centralised planning. Too many programs and services in health, education, regional development and land management are clearly inappropriate. All too often we hear of intergovernmental conflicts, duplication and a lack of remote and rural models. Governments at all levels are acknowledging that there is a real need for much greater input at a local level in the design and delivery of services in regional Australia.

The three critical issues for regional development that have emerged in the past decade are communications, infrastructure and land management. The all-pervasiveness of information technology and its role in the future are central concerns. There is an absolute need for reliable and equitable access to telecommunications. Without this essential communication structure, the prediction of two distinct nations developing within this continent is inevitable. Yet the current considerations of the full sale of Telstra are taking place when the critical issue of appropriate levels of current and future telecommunications infrastructure is still to be defined.

Regional Australia wants governments to accept responsibility for facilitating the adequate provision and maintenance of basic infrastructure. This includes social infrastructure—health, education and investment in community services—as well as the physical infrastructure of transport, water and telecommunications.

So much was promised at the rural summit, and so little has come to pass. The strategic response proposed and supported by all participants has been reduced to short-term, politically motivated solutions that have, in many respects, disenfranchised the regional communities that they were meant to serve. The partnership rhetoric has been diluted to unfunded mandates for local government and a sense of disillusionment about the process that should never have arisen.

We can no longer be safe in the illusion of our tyranny of distance. We cannot be isolated, even if we want to be. We have heard the debates here about the impact of global markets on our primary and manufacturing industries. Last week we debated changes in our relationship with Iraq and their impact on Australia's wheat trade. We are negotiating treaties that require us to engage international obligations in order to participate in global markets. Yet we want to participate in those markets purely on our terms, separate from and without reference to our involvement in social and environmental processes such as the global refugee crisis and ecological sustainability.

When the Howard government was elected in 1996, Paul Keating in his concession speech remarked that when the government changes the country changes. Recently he reflected on the significance of that inevitable change, commenting that this government has consistently looked both inwards and backwards. The Howard government has given Australians so little to be proud of and demonstrates a lack of faith in Australians and what they are capable of. Keating described this as `a numbing effect that places us at the risk of becoming, as Manning Clark once said, subjects in the kingdom of nothingness'. It is this `kingdom of nothingness' that allows us to be `relaxed and comfortable' and that has diminished Australia's place in the world. It has allowed us to move from policies of inclusion to systematic exclusion of the dispossessed, the poor, the illiterate, the inarticulate and the needy, and that is not something we can be proud of.

In closing, there are many people I wish to thank for supporting my election to the national parliament. Firstly, I thank the people of New South Wales for electing me to this office. It is a privilege granted to few, demanding a high level of integrity and responsibility. My commitment is to honour their trust and faith.

I thank the New South Wales Labor movement, whom I am proud to serve and represent: the party officers, especially Eric Roozendaal and Mark Arbib; Justice Terry Sheahan, the former New South Wales ALP president, and Senator Steve Hutchins, the current president, for their encouragement and friendship; my friend and mentor John Della Bosca; and Christine Robertson, Tony Kelly and Rob Allen—my Country Labor colleagues.

May I also thank the staff of the parliament and my colleagues in this chamber, who have been generous in their support and patience to all of us in these early days. My staff, Elizabeth Dutaillis, Julieanne Lamond and Peter Bentley, have become a great team, supporting me since I took up office—their loyalty and dedication is uplifting. My thanks go again to the many, many friends and supporters in the gallery—especially those from the Goulburn ALP branch and to those who have travelled long distances to be here for me today—for having kept me focused and supporting me for many years.

Finally and most importantly, I would like to thank my family: Tom, Joe, Clare, Louise, Justin, and Bob, my husband and best friend. Without their love, support and prayers, I would never have considered being here.