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Tuesday, 9 August 2005
Page: 64


Senator McEWEN (6:08 PM) —Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I would like to congratulate you on your election and I extend my congratulations to the President and to all the new senators on their elections, particularly my fellow South Australians Dana Wortley and Annette Hurley. I thank the Senate for the opportunity to make my first speech in this place. I acknowledge the fact that we stand upon the traditional land of the Ngunnawal people and I offer my profound apologies for the pain and disadvantage that European intrusion has visited upon our Indigenous Australians.

I am humbled to be a senator for South Australia. It is not a responsibility that I ever thought would come my way. I hope that during my term of office I can reward the faith that so many people have invested in me, not least the people of South Australia who voted for me. I cannot help but note with more than a touch of pride that I am one of five women Labor Party senators for South Australia—a fact that is, I believe, a testament to the willingness of the Australian Labor Party to take positive action to ensure women in the party can achieve political office.

As I said, I am from South Australia and I am proudly South Australian, born and raised in Adelaide. My personal history is probably not very different, in my early years, to that of other South Australians who, like me, were born in the 1950s of parents who grew up during the Depression. It is always interesting to compare oneself with one’s contemporaries and to attempt to fathom what it is in our own histories that has shaped us differently. And so, in preparing this speech, I asked myself: why is it I sit on this side of the chamber with my Labor Party comrades and, on the other side, sit senators who may have had similar backgrounds but have beliefs and aspirations different to those that I am going to articulate?

In Adelaide I grew up in a neighbourhood which was also home to a large number of what we then called ‘new Australians’, migrants from Europe who had come to Australia to build a new life for themselves but who also came to help us build the industries and infrastructure that became integral to South Australia’s economy. I saw the struggles that those courageous people faced: how they came here with almost nothing and worked so hard, how they were challenged by the prejudice of many ‘old Australians’ and who, despite it all, contributed so much to building our postwar nation and whose children and grandchildren still contribute.

I note in particular the many migrants who worked in South Australia’s automotive industries. I note also with great concern the now fragile future of the Mitsubishi plant in Adelaide’s southern suburbs. As I grew up, I enjoyed a neighbourhood where different languages were spoken, where our Italian neighbours showed us how to really celebrate a religious festival or a family milestone and where local shops stocked seemingly exotic foodstuffs. I well remember looking enviously at the mysterious items in the lunch boxes of my Italian school friends, and I compared their riches with my rather sad Vegemite sandwich. My mother was a teacher and spent many years of her career teaching English as a second language to primary school children and, in her own time, to adults.

Australia is an immeasurably richer and better place for having had people from other countries choose to come and live here. It therefore disturbs me greatly that in more recent times the government has failed to act with fair play and compassion towards asylum seekers and refugees. We rightfully observe with much sorrow the tragedy of Australians killed and injured in terrorist attacks in Bali and elsewhere. But what regrettable lack of compassion did we see when 353 lives were lost from the SIEVX in 2001. What a woeful indictment it is when people who desperately need our help are incarcerated for years in detention centres under heartless and indifferent policies.

I am fortunate indeed to have inherited the electorate office and some of the staff of the former Senator the Hon. Nick Bolkus. I take this opportunity to thank my staff, Nina Gerace and Mick Tumbers, for agreeing to come and work for me and also for their good humour, hard work and great expertise. I would like to acknowledge the enormous contribution to Australia that Nick Bolkus made during his 24 years as a member of parliament. I also thank him for his support. He was, of course, a minister for eight years, including Minister for Immigration and Minister assisting the Prime Minister on Multicultural Affairs. The son of migrants, Senator Bolkus made sure his electorate office was a welcoming and helpful place for people attempting to navigate Australia’s immigration system. It is a service to the community that I hope my office continues to provide. We will do what we can to ensure Australia’s tradition of a fair go continues to be extended to newcomers. I hope that the practical consequences of measures that the nation needs to adopt to prevent terrorism do not become either inherently racist or used to dispossess deserving people of the opportunity for safe haven in our country.

I cannot move on without mentioning another group of Australians, whose terrible plight seems to have stagnated in the last decade. Indigenous Australians are still overrepresented in unemployment statistics and in our rates of incarceration. They still struggle to find their place in our tertiary education system and they still die at a younger age than most other Australians. It is a sad state of affairs. I am reminded of the words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating when he gave his memorable Redfern speech in December 1992 prior to the commencement of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People. He said:

This is perhaps the point of this Year of the World’s Indigenous People: to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us, and that we cannot give indigenous Australians up without giving up many of our own most deeply held values, much of our own identity—and our own humanity.

Twelve years on, sadly the quote is still relevant. I do not want Australia to compound our already sad history by continuing to let our Indigenous people suffer the disadvantage we have inflicted on them. Perhaps, as former Prime Minister Keating also said, we still need to ‘open our hearts a bit’.

Indigenous Australians find it harder than most to find employment in Australia. However, when I left school, I could choose from any number of jobs. Jobs were easy to come by. I started work as a clerk in an accounting firm when I was 16. My first task every day was to make the tea for the partners. I did not mind; it was a good job. I got paid, I got paid holidays, I got paid sick leave, I learnt new skills, I felt valued, I saved a bit of money and soon I was able to move on to other jobs with equally good if not better conditions. I did not think about where those conditions had come from. I had no clue about awards or where the pay rises I received every year came from or how it was that at some point in time maternity leave was made available to women workers.

I joined a union because it seemed like the right thing to do. It was the best thing I ever did. The light was turned on. I understood where those working conditions I enjoyed had come from and who had fought for them so that I could benefit. I became part of the most valuable tradition that Australia has—the tradition of a fair go, of working collectively for the common good, of looking after those who need your help. I became part of the continuum of the pursuit of justice, freedom and equity that has been the soul of the Australian union movement for more than 100 years. I have been a union official. It was the best job I ever had. I met some wonderful people and I saw some dreadful things done to hardworking Australians who deserved better. Who can forget the tragedy of Ansett? Let us not forget that nearly four years on many of those Ansett workers have still not been paid all the moneys that they are entitled to.

In my days as a union official, I saw ordinary people doing extraordinary things because they were outraged by an injustice to fellow workers and they wanted to right the wrong. They were helped in this to some extent by the industrial system, which, while far from perfect, at least afforded them some protection and some certainty. Now, it seems, one of the pieces of legislation soon to be debated in this place will be the government’s proposed industrial relations laws. The government promotes the concept of freedom as the cornerstone for more productive and prosperous workplaces. In some ideal world where individuals and employers have equal bargaining power, in a climate of openness and candour, there would not be an issue with free association. But this is not an ideal world and individual workers do not come to the bargaining table as equals with their employers. It already happens now that workers are told to sign an individual agreement or they will not get the job. To say that an individual worker with a family, a mortgage and a desperate need to earn a living has any freedom to choose whether or not to sign or has any real bargaining power is unfair, unrealistic and farcical.

I acknowledge that we have not seen the detail of the government’s proposed industrial legislation but we have heard of the intention to change unfair dismissal laws and the system of setting minimum rates of pay. If these things come to pass, more than 3½ million Australian workers will be denied the ability to challenge their dismissal from employment, and more than 1½ million workers will be consigned to minimum award rates of pay with little chance of their wages keeping pace with their cost of living. We are told that these changes are needed so that more and better jobs will be created. I and many others are not convinced—not convinced that we need to destroy our industrial system and usurp the authority of the states to have their own systems, and not convinced that when we have done that we will see any more or better jobs.

What I am convinced of is that when the government’s proposed industrial laws are passed, as it seems they will be, we will have an Australian economy that has as its basis a predominance of casual, low-paid workers or self-employed contractors with no paid leave to look after their children and elderly parents when they need care, no decent superannuation for their retirement and no proper jobs to hand on to their children. It is not an Australia I am looking forward to seeing. We should not be tearing down the few institutions we have left that are the product of a century of struggle and built on the principles of a fair share and a fair go.

There is another fine institution that is threatened by government policy. That is our student unions. I know a bit about student unions. I used to work for one. I met Senator Penny Wong there when she was a student. She was then, as she is now, a thoughtful and inspiring woman with a passion for justice. I know other people were there who are now members in this parliament but are not sitting on the Labor side of their House. They were all beneficiaries of the student organisations that nurtured, supported and enabled them to make their way through university and into the world. It is disappointing to see they have turned their back on the student unions.

We hear the noble words ‘freedom of association’ turned against the student organisations, which operate on the basis that a small contribution by all is a fair way to provide support and services for all who need it. It is the same principle that applies when we pay council rates or income taxes. But when it applies to student unions this government says it denies us freedom. It is an unjust argument by those who want to destroy student organisations because collectivism is inimical to their own ideology. I do not understand why the government is so concerned about our tertiary students having to pay fees for student services. I would have thought the concern would be better directed at the problem of our young people leaving tertiary education having accumulated large debts. We are a rich nation; we do not need to burden our young people with debt.

As a nation we should make our decisions on the basis of what kind of future we want for our children. I am not sure the decisions this Senate is likely to make in the next months are going to create the kind of Australia those of us in the Labor Party want for the next generations.

It is not an Australia that my 86-year-old father wants to see either. My father is a veteran of World War II. He is the son of a working-class family who had little in the way of material assets. He grew up during the Depression. For him military service was a golden opportunity: an opportunity for adventure, for travel, to earn a good income and to set himself up for life with a war service home—the very home I grew up in in Adelaide. That opportunity came at a significant cost, of course. The scars of war are sadly too real for the veterans of all wars, most of whom were also working-class young people.

In 2004, I was privileged to be able to walk where my father had been 62 years before with South Australia’s 2/27 Battalion. I joined other South Australians to walk the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. We did it to raise funds for a respite facility for children with disabilities. The fundraising was a success, I am pleased to say, and it was shortly after walking the track that I found I was preselected for the Senate. Some would say I left one jungle and found myself in another.

There is a monument at a battle site called Isurava along the Kokoda Track. It is, thankfully, maintained by local villagers with Australian government funding, and it comprises four granite pillars upon which are etched the words ‘Courage’, ‘Endurance’, ‘Mateship’ and ‘Sacrifice’. It is a moving place. Many Australian and Japanese soldiers died there. I looked at those pillars—hewn, I believe, from granite mined at Mannum in my own state—and wondered if as a nation we still honour those quintessential Australian qualities that young people died defending more than 60 years ago. The current government policies of individualism and unfettered freedom of choice and competition at all costs do not reflect the spirit of Kokoda. When we say ‘Lest we forget’, as we will soon do again when we remember the war in the Pacific, let us remember not just the soldiers who died but also the values they were fighting for.

I should acknowledge that today, 9 August 2005, is the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. It is an occasion to recall—and to be saddened by—the horrible effects of war on civilian populations, to reflect on why Australia is engaged in a war in Iraq and to contemplate the wisdom of a resurgent interest in the mining of uranium in this country.

In closing I wish to thank the many people who have supported me, in particular former and current union leaders Harry Kranz, the Hon. John Gazzola MLC, Andy Dennard, Katrine Hildyard, Georgina Matches and all the past and present workplace delegates, staff and members of the Australian Services Union who gave me the chance to be secretary of a great union. To all my comrades in the trade union movement in South Australia, especially Mark Butler and the LHMU, Janet Giles at SA Unions, the United Fire Fighters Union, the CFMEU and the AWU, I will not forget where I came from and I will not forget what needs to be done. That is a commitment I also make to the 50,000 union delegates in Australia. You are in for a tough time and I am right there with you.

I also thank the members and staff of the ALP in South Australia and my fellow Labor Party politicians in both the South Australian and federal parliaments. I am very honoured not only to be a Labor senator but also to be the president of the South Australian Branch of the ALP. To my family and friends who have travelled from interstate to be with me today, my heartfelt thanks, and to all the Centacare Kokoda trekkers, thank you for your friendship. I acknowledge two of you who are here today, Judith Botha and Bernie Victory.

I could not, of course, have taken on this new responsibility without the relentless support and love of my family, especially Brenton and Holly and my father, Doug. In conclusion, I would like to thank the staff of the Senate and the parliament who have given me such gracious and patient assistance over the last few weeks. Their respect for our parliament reminds me daily how precious our democracy is. Thank you.

Honourable senators—Hear, hear!