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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 138

Ms O'BYRNE (4:10 PM) —In my first speech in this place I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of the region of Canberra.

I rise to speak today with an acute awareness of the responsibility that is being placed upon me. I am the 11th person to represent Bass since 1903 and only the second woman. The people of Bass have given me both the honour and the responsibility of following in the steps of one of Australia's greatest politicians, the Hon. Lance Barnard. Lance Barnard set me a very high standard. He was one of Australia's most famous sons and one of our most eminent politicians. We feel his passing very deeply. Lance set a benchmark. He was never too busy for his constituents and he made sure he always had time. He fought tirelessly in Canberra for what another great Australian, Gough Whitlam, refers to as `Lance's beloved Bass'. That is the standard against which I shall be measured. It is the standard of representation that the people of Bass both expect and deserve.

Another great Australian, the late Senator Justin O'Byrne also represented northern Tasmania in the other place. Justin O'Byrne delivered his first speech in 1947. In that fine speech he argued for the basic rights of individuals. He said:

Only when we have courage, foresight, and a cause that is just can we successfully embark on a policy that will ensure that all decent people who work with their hands and brains at least the means of earning a livelihood and having sufficient food, clothing and shelter—a right which every citizen of a country such as ours should inherit.

He went on to say that `the workers of this country . . . are entitled to social security' and he argued that there was a need for a program to `improve the national health'. These are the very values that Labor fought for in the last election. I find myself bringing not only the name of O'Byrne back to this parliament but with it those very goals and values articulated so very many years ago.

It is ironic that another O'Byrne should stand in this parliament when the fight for such basic values and human rights causes is just as necessary, if not more so. The last election was fought on many issues but none more important than job security and the provision of essential community services such as health care and education.

Sixteen months of knocking on doors prior to the election gave me a clear view of the needs and aspirations of the people of Bass. Many were of the view that the Howard government had failed them and they voted accordingly. I also found many people becoming more involved in their communities as the effect of the first Howard government on their daily lives became apparent. I spoke to one young woman who had been a Labor support er for many years. She told me she had a strong commitment to social justice and equity. She had only just, however, made the decision to join the Labor Party and she did so because she said that by not working to stop the increasing level of racism and individualism in our country, by remaining silent, she was as much to blame for the problems as those who created them. She was right. It is not enough to believe that we must have a better society, a more tolerant, equitable and supportive society; we must be part of its creation. That has always been the task of the Labor Party and it is the task of the people on this side for the next three years.

Billy Bragg, a British contemporary musician, summed it up when he said `Wearing badges is not enough in days like these'. As I looked around the House at the swearing in yesterday, it was quite satisfying to see the number of women representatives. But we still have a long way to go before this room is truly representative of the community. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote:

No class of citizens, either men or women, can ever feel a proper self respect or command the respect of others, until their political equality—their citizenship be fully recognised.

I reiterate the point made by my colleague the member for Gellibrand. As long as women are viewed in this place as something unusual, then we have a very long way to go.

Whilst we may claim that no barriers exist to young women entering this place, it is not so. We must always remember that a perceived barrier is just as effective as a real one. Women have a vital role to play in government, and I look forward to when I can look around this chamber and see it reflect our community's make-up.

As a young woman I am particularly pleased to be here, and I must take the time to thank just some of those women who have given me such support over the last few years: Lara Giddings, Fran Bladel, Joan Kirner, Cheryl Kernot, Jenny Macklin, all of the members of the excellent organisation Emily's List and all of the Tasmanian members of the Australian Labor Party Sisterhood. The admission of so many young women can only enhance the opportunities for other young women seeking political or boardroom careers.

My decision to pursue a political career was influenced by my upbringing and the environments in which I lived, the values instilled in me by my parents and the opportunity to contribute to the development of a better community.

The Bass electorate is in north-east Tasmania. It is centred on the city of Launceston and the larger towns of George Town and Scottsdale. The region boasts a diverse economic base with considerable potential, but this potential has been squandered by the fiscal vandalism of the Howard government. As a consequence, Bass suffers from one of the highest unemployment levels in the country. We are also suffering from a declining population for the first time since the Second World War.

Both the major parties took special Tasmanian policies into the federal campaign. Labor's package represented our view of what is needed to get the state back on its feet. It was based on extensive consultation with the electorate and considerable debate within our party room. It was a plan that offered the write-off of $150 million in state debt, owed to the Commonwealth, with no strings attached. Labor proposed the establishment of a Tasmanian economic opportunity office to implement an economic recovery strategy for the state. This was to be done in cooperation with regional leaders, local government, community groups and prominent business people.

Labor was also committed to building Tasmania's infrastructure, and importantly for both domestic and business telecommunications users, Labor planned to introduce a single local untimed call zone for the state. We also committed an incoming Labor government to securing the future of both the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme and the Tasmanian Wheat Freight Subsidy Scheme by enshrining both schemes in legislation.

The Liberal package represented their view of the world. The key features were the introduction of a new tax on all goods and services and the sale of the rest of Telstra. Mr Howard also offered to forgive the state the $150 million owed to Canberra, but on the condition that we sold the Hydro. The sale of the Hydro was a key policy of the Liberal Party in the state election. The polls at the time suggested that nearly 80 per cent of the electorate were opposed to the sale, and the Liberals paid the political price.

The 1998 federal campaign in our state was built around these issues and, in my view, it was fairly contested. I note that this was also the view of my opponent and the informed view of the people of Tasmania who gave Labor a clean sweep of seats in the House of Representatives. The voters in Tasmania expressed a view, through the ballot box, that the blanket policies implemented by the Howard government in its first term did not work in regional Australia. Tasmania needs a comprehensive regional development plan. We need targeted assistance and creative policies to develop the talents of our people and exploit our natural economic advantages.

I will campaign for such policies for the next three years. I will continue my fight for the establishment of a marine hydrodynamics facility at the world-class Australian Maritime College. I will continue to pressure the government to assist in the establishment of a flight training school and development of Launceston as an aviation centre. Northern Tasmania, with its natural resources, needs a comprehensive ecotourism strategy. Launceston desperately needs the replacement of our Family Law Court judge—a 1996 coalition election promise that we are still waiting for.

It is no secret that Tasmania's economy is in trouble. That is why it is vital the federal government match Labor's no-strings commitment to write off $150 million of state debt. The Howard government must also set about rebuilding the public infrastructure lost to the north-east since March 1996. The Bass electorate is entitled to easy access to the Australian Taxation Office. We are entitled to have access to comprehensive employment services. In fact, given the high level of unemployment and the depressingly high youth unemployment levels, such services should have been given the highest priority.

The Howard government is well placed to make a direct contribution to job security in Bass by maintaining and improving government services to the community. It is also well placed to ensure that both Telstra and Australia Post meet their community service obligations. Bass and Tasmania are already experiencing the diminution of Telstra services after the loss of almost 400 full-time jobs. Telstra have recently announced further cuts to staff in Tasmania, including another 20 in Bass. This government must start having an active commitment to jobs and job security.

I am fortunate to have as part of my electorate a productive and innovative rural community. In recent times, any advances in rural Australia have come in spite of government rather than as a consequence of government action. Governments ask rural industries to work hard; in fact, governments tell them how much their contribution to the economic wellbeing of the community is valued. But in recent times governments have withdrawn a range of important services from those communities in the name of good economic management. Governments at both the state and Commonwealth level have cut services in recent years with devastating effects.

It must be recognised by this and all governments that all Australians have a right to receive a certain level of service and access to adequate public infrastructure wherever we live. We know that the provision of services is more expensive in some areas than in others but, as an inclusive, supportive and forward thinking nation, governments must accept that cost. We must ensure that we do not abandon anyone.

One area in particular in which rural communities must become a priority is the provision of new and emerging communications systems. The Internet is supposed to bring the world closer together, yet only 30 per cent of Australians are so far connected. We must ensure that regional communities have equal access to modern communications systems. Effective communications will underpin our future. Businesses in regional Australia will only survive if they can be part of this new system. We must not allow a new divide to arise between the information rich and the information poor.

Australia is a society that defines people by what they do, whether or not they have a job and the nature of the work they do. As a result of this, many people in our community have become marginalised. We must actively and with great urgency seek out inventive and targeted ways to address issues such as youth and middle-age unemployment, and we must continue to build up skill levels and self-esteem to enhance both individual job satisfaction and productivity.

I have in my electorate the Beacon Foundation. This not-for-profit foundation is the pioneer of the `No Dole' program. The Beacon Foundation works with Brooks High School to help young people identify viable alternatives to the unemployment queue. Students, Brooks High School, the education department, the foundation and local businesses have embarked on a highly successful targeted program. As a result, not one student who left in 1997 did so without a plan for the future. Every single student went on to higher education, work or work training.

This example shows that successes are possible if we think laterally, think targeted and work hard. But we must also recognise the growing issue of older unemployed people. We must take the responsibility and provide for those people of 40-plus, often blue-collar workers, who have worked their whole lives, have been made redundant, and are now abandoned. We must not allow our workers to be commodities in the labour market. Purpose and respect makes for good workers; hope and inclusion makes for good communities.

When I joined the union movement with the then Miscellaneous Workers Union, it was because I believed that we all had the right to certain conditions. I also recognised that, while award conditions at that time were deemed absolute rights, they were always at risk while the ideological views of the Right prevailed—a view which attacks basic conditions of workers. It is interesting that this view appears to be more commonly held by those who have probably never had to raise a family on a minimum wage.

The people I represented were not highly paid. They were cleaners, ground-keepers and school attendants. Their needs were simple. All they wanted was the entitlements they were due: a safe working environment and a decent day's pay—things which many people in this chamber probably take for granted.

Let me assure you that those basic rights are always at risk, never more so than under the vicious attacks of this government. That is why we need institutions and systems to provide protection. We need an effective Industrial Relations Commission to provide an independent arbiter for workers. It is not easy to fight for your rights when you can be sacked on the spot for no good reason, but that is how the Howard government would like it to be.

We also need organisations that ensure that people's rights, concerns and aspirations are effectively communicated to the government. Community groups play a vital role in coordinating the energies and interests of many people. They are the engine by which communities form their future. The Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition was such an organisation. It represented the interests of a broad range of young people. This group criticised government policy in relation to the Youth Allowance. The Howard government responded by cutting its funding. The Pensioners and Superannuants Federation suffered a similar fate when it objected to the government's nursing home policy.

I have a large task ahead of me. It is one of the most important in the country, and one to which I am wholly committed. But I need to acknowledge those people who make this commitment possible. I have had incredible support from my family: from my wonderful parents who instilled in me the principle of social equity that I hold dear and which frames my life. They believe, quite rightly, that women can do anything. I have had support from my brothers, Michael and David, who have supported and challenged me through my life and who were never bound by the `conventions of diplomacy'. I have had support from my partner Priam who has put his own career on hold to help me achieve my goals.

I also thank my family, friends and volunteers who made my election possible. When you win a seat by only 78 votes then everyone who has helped you has made a difference. I wish to extend my thanks to the members of the parliamentary Labor Party, and to thank Suzie Rogers and the staff of the Bass Electoral Office for the professional manner in which they dealt with the re-count. I wish to thank those people who placed their confidence in me by voting for Labor. Let me assure those who did not choose to vote for me that I will work very hard on their behalf.

Finally, let me say that the voters of Tasmania have made their position clear to this government by electing federal Labor members to all the federal seats only weeks after electing a Labor state government. They do not want an unfair taxation regime placed on them. They do not want to continually sell public assets. They want a government which will listen to their specific needs, and they want good regional representation. I am honoured to be here representing the people of Bass. My commitment is to be a representative of the calibre of Lance Barnard and Justin O'Byrne. If I do only half as well as they did then I will be serving my electorate well.

Opposition members —Hear, hear!