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Monday, 1 September 2008
Page: 4209


Senator FEENEY (5:42 PM) —It is a great pleasure to rise for the first time in this place as a senator for Victoria. Mr President, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your elevation to your new position. I am sure that your wisdom and experience will be appreciated by all honourable senators over the course of this parliament. As I have now known you for several years, you may rest assured that I will draw upon that bank of wisdom and experience as often as I am permitted.

In considering the extraordinary honour and privilege that has been bestowed upon me in representing the state of Victoria in this place, I am reminded of the words of Sir Isaac Newton: ‘If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ I do not agree with everything or, indeed, many things that John Howard said but there is one aspect on which I do. He said:

... I never forget what I owe to the Liberal Party any more than anybody on the other side should ever forget what they owe to the Labor Party ... I despise those people who throw dirt in the faces of the people who brought them into public prominence.

Hear, hear! I am only here because of the trust and faith placed in me by the Australian Labor Party, its members and affiliated unions and, most importantly, its millions of supporters in Victoria. I serve at their pleasure.

It is only natural for me, upon finding myself in this place, to reflect upon the personal journey that has brought me here—on the principles and beliefs that have motivated and guided me and on the reservoirs of support, friendship and love that have sustained me. Mother Teresa said, ‘Love begins at home,’ and for me that has always been true. My parents, Margaret and Ian Feeney, separated when I was young, and as each happily remarried—to Basil Varghese and Lynn Feeney respectively—I was spoilt and blessed with four loving parents. I am delighted that my grandparents George and Joyce Ringer are here today. My grandfather served his country in World War II, and together my grandparents raised an extraordinary family. Basil and his family have always welcomed me into their hearts, and I am proud to be the ‘white sheep’ of the Varghese family.

While none of my family have been hitherto involved in formal politics, I can assure the house they are all intensely political. I have always understood that, if I could survive a family discussion concerning politics, religion or civil society, I might—just might—survive in the ALP. The values that have led me to this place were instilled in me by a loving home, a loving family and, of course, my own experiences. I enjoyed a terrific education at Mercedes College in Adelaide during the 1970s and early 1980s. It was a different era, an era when Malcolm Fraser voted Liberal!

I joined the ALP quite by chance. A great friend of mine, George Karzis, encouraged me to join the Labor Club during the 1988 O Week at Adelaide university. I joined every club in which I had a remote interest, but again and again I found it was the Labor Club that most fascinated me. I joined the ALP itself, and the first campaign I worked on was the Adelaide by-election in 1988—when I might say the party fielded a first-class candidate in Don Farrell. I had always been an ALP supporter, and at university I became an ALP activist. Indeed, at Melbourne university I came to believe that my studies were an irritating distraction from my far more important political activity! I only appreciated later, during my postgraduate studies, that in fact my time at university was a precious educational opportunity. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ I made many lifelong friends while I was at university, and many of them have remained active in politics and important people in my life. I am thrilled to find several of them serving with me in the Rudd Labor government, including Richard Marles, Stephen Conroy and Michael Danby.

The values that led me to the ALP and guided me in my political life have been a belief in justice, equality of opportunity for all men and women, the fundamental human rights of us all and the need to eliminate discrimination wherever it is found, whether it be discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, religion or belief. While I have remained a dedicated supporter of the pragmatic wing of the ALP, let no-one imagine that I lack a passion for change. In supporting my values, and the values of the ALP, I strive to make change a friend and not an enemy. As everyone here by now is aware, change is the new commodity in politics. I do believe that when we change the government we change the country. While effective change in Australia is always a practical and prudent path, the election of the Rudd Labor government has changed the trajectory of our nation. I embrace that change and the opportunities now found in this new national trajectory.

I spent five years of my life as a federal industrial officer of the Transport Workers Union of Australia. In its members, in its history and traditions and in its delegates and officials, the TWU is a truly magnificent institution. In serving the members of the TWU, I was afforded a unique opportunity. I would like to pay tribute to the men who placed their trust in me and with whom I worked: then Federal Secretary John Allan, then Federal President Steve Hutchins, Alex Gallacher, Craig Shannon, Tony Sheldon and particularly the officials of the Victorian TWU, Bill Noonan and Wayne Mader. I am honoured that Howard and Felicity Smith are here today.

The Australian union movement endured a lot of stick from those opposite over the past 11 years, but unions remain a strong force for fairness and justice in our civil society. Prime Minister John Howard made it his life’s work to destroy the unions, just as Stanley Bruce did in the 1920s. Both of those gentlemen finished up losing their seats and the trade union movement has survived. I believe the great majority of Australians, including those who do not belong to a union, nonetheless know the unions stand for working Australians and their families and for the defence of their jobs, their rights at work and their standards of living. I have enjoyed the support of senior union leaders during my career, as both a union and a party official, and I would like to acknowledge them: Jeff Jackson and Kathy Jackson of the Health Services Union; Bill Shorten, Cesar Melhem, Michael Borowick, Paul Howes, David Cragg, Michael Eagles, Bob Smith, Dick Gray and Ben Davis of the AWU; Michael Donovan of the SDA; and Russell Atwood of the ASU. I would like to thank the members and officials of those unions as well—that is, those people who make possible their work, who sustain and are sustained by that work. I am reminded of Lily Coy, life member of the Health Services Union.

For me, the values of justice and equality are paramount. Christ says, at Matthew 25:40, ‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ A major challenge facing the Rudd government will be reversing the drift towards greater inequality that characterised the 11 years of the Howard government. The gap between high-income earners and low-income earners is steadily widening and steadily worsening. I am not an old-fashioned socialist. I do not want to see everyone having the same income or enjoying the same standard of living. Our system recognises and rewards enterprise, and that is a good thing. I do not believe in equality of outcome, but I do believe in equality of opportunity. The stability and health of our magnificent society depends upon the maintenance of the principle of equality of opportunity. I do not want to see Australia move any further towards a society in which we have a small class of super rich and a large class of struggling battlers who can never hope for a higher standard of living for themselves or their children. I want to see an Australia in which good health care, higher education, homeownership and a secure retirement are all within the reach of every Australian.

All those things became harder for many Australians to attain during the years of the Howard government. Between 1996 and 2006, for example, the proportion of Australians who owned their own home fell from 41 to 33 per cent and the proportion of median family income that homebuyers were paying on their mortgages rose from 28 to 37 per cent. Today fewer Australians can afford to buy their own homes and more Australians have gone deeper into debt trying to do so. Indeed, our slide into becoming a nation of debtors is striking. We must not become a nation of wage slaves. During the Howard years debt as a percentage of income rose to 160 per cent, so the average Australian now has debts amounting to 1.6 years of their total income. The household savings ratio fell to 0.2 per cent, meaning that Australians are now saving virtually nothing. It is all going into consumption, usually financed by debt. And, as we are seeing in the US at present, this is a recipe for disaster in the long run.

In education we have seen the stalling of the remarkable progress made during the Hawke-Keating years. Under Hawke and Keating, thanks to Labor’s needs based school funding policy school retention rates to year 12 rose sharply. Under Howard that rate stagnated. The proportion of Australians in tertiary education rose from eight per cent in 1983 to 12 per cent in 1996. And it is still 12 per cent today, thanks to cuts in university funding and mounting HECS debts. Our universities have been forced to become commercial operations and they have pursued fee-paying overseas students at the expense of Australian school leavers.

In health we need to end the scandal of three billion tax dollars a year being handed over to the private insurance industry—a handout that has done nothing to reduce the pressure on our public hospitals. For all this vast subsidy, the proportion of Australians who have private health cover rose during the Howard years only from 34 to 44 per cent. And most of the new purchasers were well-off people who bought a cheap policy to avoid the government’s tax surcharge. That is to say, the private health insurance industry has been grown with conscripts not volunteers.

I have always been an admirer of Chaim Herzog, the sixth President of Israel. He was born—like my father—in Belfast and was a founder of the Israeli Labour Party. In addressing the UN, to denounce the two great evils which menace society in general, Chaim said:

I come here to denounce the two great evils which menace society in general and a society of nations in particular. These two great evils are hatred and ignorance.

I hope to make a contribution to the best of my ability in that struggle against hatred and ignorance. The spectre of racism and an irrational fear of the ‘other’ has from time to time haunted our country. Such a fear was unleashed in this country in recent years, damaging our civil society and the psyche of our nation. I hope we may now work together on Australia’s new trajectory and seek peace, reconciliation and tolerance.

It is my ambition to be an effective legislator. The Senate does have a distinct collegiate culture and I hope that through intelligent and proper use of our Senate committee system we will play our proper role. I happen to believe in bicameralism, although I can well understand why so many people called for the Senate’s abolition after the abuse of its powers in 1975. If we are to have an upper house, it can only justify its existence by being a genuine house of review. It cannot become a house of obstruction, as it was in 1975, nor can it be a mere rubber stamp for the government of the day as it has been over the past three years. We must hold governments to account but we must not thwart the right of the majority in the House of Representatives to govern. So it is alarming and disappointing to see that those opposite are now treading the same dangerous path their predecessors trod in 1974 and 1975, threatening the integrity of the Labor government’s first budget by blocking important measures such as the tax on luxury cars. As in 1974, a weak opposition leader is propping up his leadership with cynical, short-term populism.

I am very proud to be a Victorian. We are a federation and despite the centralising trends of recent times, the states retain their individual identities and their differing points of view. I was elected as a senator for Victoria and, within the context of my loyalty to my party and my loyalty to the Rudd government, I intend to speak up for Victoria’s interests when I believe it is right and proper to do so.

In the last decade Victoria has enjoyed strong growth and strong prosperity, and I pay tribute to Premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby and their first-class governments. Melbourne is today a thriving, confident, cosmopolitan city. Rural and regional Victoria is thriving, with new infrastructure and investment. Notwithstanding the challenges, Victoria’s resurgence is the fruit of the enterprise of its people, Victorian companies and entrepreneurs, Victorian schools and universities, Victorian communities, Victorian workers and Victorian unions.

Victoria remains Australia’s manufacturing heartland, and I believe that it is now emerging as Australia’s cultural, intellectual and educational heartland as well. It is striking that Victoria has achieved this recovery in the face of continuing economic discrimination by the Commonwealth in the distribution of grants. For decades Victoria, and to a lesser extent New South Wales, have been subsidising the other states and territories. For every dollar raised by the GST in Victoria, only 91c comes back to Victoria as Commonwealth grants. That is, Victorian taxpayers contribute $1 billion a year to the budgets of the other states and territories so that they may cut their taxes and lure businesses and jobs away from Victoria. And the remarkable thing is that this arrangement was set in stone while a Victorian served as Australia’s federal Treasurer.

I know I come here with something of a reputation as a Labor machine man. I make no apologies for that. In serving as the ALP campaign director in Victoria and South Australia and as the deputy national campaign director last year, I have made a contribution towards getting Labor governments elected and re-elected. I would like to pay tribute to the men and women of the ALP, its members and officials, upon whom I have so often depended. I would like to particularly thank Steve Bracks, Mike Rann, Tim Pallas, Sharon McCrohan, Tim Gartrell, Elias Hallaj, Nick Reece, Tom Cargill, Robin Scott, the officials of the South Australian and Victorian branches of the ALP, and the National Secretariat of the ALP. Party officials are a dedicated and talented class in Australian politics on all sides. They endure much in the hope that they may achieve much. I am proud to have been one of them.

I would also like to thank my staff who, like me, have enjoyed the whirlwind since 1 July and upon whom I have come to rely with confidence: Stephen Donnelly, Dr Adam Carr, Amanda Boyd and Lambros Tapinos. Finally, I would like to acknowledge my wife, Liberty Sanger. Marrying her remains the single greatest honour ever bestowed upon me. And it will ever be thus.