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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2326

Senator FORSHAW (5.00 p.m.) —I regard it as a great honour to rise this afternoon to deliver my first speech as a senator for New South Wales. Indeed, there can be few greater privileges than to represent one's party and the people of this great nation in the federal parliament. I am particularly pleased that members of my family, my wife's family and friends have been able to attend this afternoon. My dear mother has often reminded me that as a child I made so much noise that people invariably said, `He'll end up a politician.' They were proved correct, but I hope for the wrong reasons.

  At the outset, Mr President, I do wish to place firmly on the record the debt that I owe to my parents, who instilled in me, my brothers and sister from an early age a commitment to the Labor Party and to social justice. As I grew up, I saw them fight the good fight in the cause of Labor. They never gave up, they never lost the faith, even in those wilderness years between 1949 and 1972. Like so many parents of that generation immediately following the war, they worked hard with a fierce determination to provide their children with the opportunities for an education and for a secure future.

  In the early 1950s, my father was a member of the Cronulla branch of the ALP. Indeed, at one stage, when he was branch secretary, there was a budding politician named Gough Whitlam as his assistant secretary. In 1955, he narrowly missed out on preselection for the seat of Hughes and, therefore, the opportunity to serve as a member of the federal parliament. I think that is what initially inspired me to pursue a political career. I know that any success that I may have had to date is as much an achievement for him as it may be for myself.

  I am also indebted to my many friends and colleagues in the Labor Party, the trade union movement and in the federal and New South Wales parliaments who have given me great support and shown great confidence in me. In this regard, I particularly wish to record my thanks to a close friend, John Della Bosca, General Secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party.

  Mr President, I was appointed to fill the vacancy in the Senate caused by the retirement of Senator Graham Richardson. I think it is most appropriate to describe my appointment as following Graham Richardson, because Graham is a person whom nobody could ever pretend to replace. Much has already been said in this chamber, particularly on the night of his retirement, about Graham Richardson's political career. Graham's roles as party secretary, as a political strategist and as factional leader have already been well covered. But I want to pay tribute to Graham for his tremendous contribution to the policies and decisions which have shaped Australia since the election of the Hawke government and, subsequently, the Keating government.

  During his parliamentary career, Graham served as minister for portfolios as diverse as the environment, the arts, sport, tourism, territories, social security, transport, communications, and health—a huge range indeed in a short space of time. But Graham had the intellect and the capacity and, when needed, the political courage to pursue objectives and to achieve change in areas that will be of lasting benefit to this nation. Graham was particularly able to stimulate public interest in important issues like the environment and Aboriginal health through his exceptional communication skills. He is well equipped for his new career in journalism and the media.

  Mr President, whilst I appreciate that in a first speech one is expected to show a generosity of spirit, I cannot let the occasion pass without referring to the recent vicious personal attacks on and attempted character assassination of Graham Richardson, now a private citizen. I recently took the opportunity to view the video and read the Hansard record of Graham's valedictory speech. It is interesting to recall part of what he said that night. I quote:

If this chamber continues to descend into a chamber where assassination of character is the order of the day, it will never ever live up to the promise that it holds. I hope it does not do that. I hope it can learn that there are other ways.

. . . . . . . . .

I will not attack a senator's character. I drew the line at that a long time ago, although I cannot say the same for what some have said of me.

Those who have sought to attack Graham Richardson's character under the protection of parliament ultimately will not even amount to footnotes in the history of this nation when one compares their contribution with his. I believe it is appropriate now, given this most recent experience, that we find the means to ensure that private citizens and their families are protected from suffering such malicious character assassination. For it is truly a misnomer to call this a privilege of parliament.

  Prior to my appointment to the Senate I was privileged to work for 18 years for the Australian Workers Union—an organisation dedicated to the protection of working people. Indeed, I had the honour to be the General Secretary of the AWU for the past three years. The AWU is one of Australia's great unions. Its history is inextricably linked with that of the Australian Labor Party and, indeed, with the development of the Australian nation. We count amongst our forebears such great Australians as Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore. In the early years of this century, through the Worker newspaper, they gave expression to the development of Australia's national identity. Such calls are once again being taken up as we move inevitably towards a republic.

  The AWU has particularly sought to represent workers in rural and remote regions of Australia—the shearers, the miners, those who have produced so much of Australia's export wealth. I would like to thank all the officials, staff and members for their comradeship and dedication over many years. I would particularly like to mention two people, Gary Johnston and Wendy Pymont, who became close friends during my years in the union. Gary Johnston, along with Graham Richardson, helped me get started in the trade union movement in the early 1970s. Wendy Pymont has given 33 years service to the AWU and has been private secretary to six AWU general secretaries. That takes a lot of commitment and a huge amount of patience.

  The trade union movement is an essential part of Australia's democratic society. I will always rise to defend it against the unjustified attacks that are often levelled at trade unions in this country by those who merely seek scapegoats for problems that the nation may face from time to time. In recent years, sections of conservative politics, particularly the New Right, have mounted a campaign to destroy the trade union movement, to undermine our system of industrial awards and the protection of workers' rights. In my years with the AWU I encountered many, many instances where workers had no-one to turn to but their union. I can recall on many occasions receiving phone calls from distraught members and non-members who had just received the news that they were being sacked. In many cases this was after a lifetime of service.

  We can have endless debates about individualism versus collectivism, but such arguments count for naught in situations like these because, despite all the rhetoric, an individual worker, without access to the resources of a representative organisation, is effectively left defenceless. The existence of a free, democratic and viable trade union movement is essential to any democracy. It is essential to ensuring that people's rights and standards of living are protected.

  Whenever dictatorships, either left or right, come to power, the first groups to be repressed are the trade unions, the churches and the political parties. This is because they are the vehicles which give public expression to the beliefs and aspirations of the people. In recent years we have witnessed trade unionism playing a leading role in achieving democracy and freedom. The leadership of Solidarity in Poland in eastern Europe and COSATU in South Africa are vivid illustrations of the fundamental importance of organised labour.

  The struggle still goes on in a number of other countries where trade union leaders and members are still being imprisoned, tortured and even executed because of their activities. Unfortunately, there is at times a blatant double standard by some in this country who champion the cause of freedom and democracy overseas but attack trade unions in Australia as if they were the cause of all the ills of society.

  Mr President, the trade union movement has been at the forefront of the challenge to restructure the Australian economy to enable us to compete internationally. It has adopted and promoted change in many areas, particularly with respect to wage fixation, education, training, employment opportunities, social welfare and retirement incomes. Under the successful accord with the Australian government since 1983 we have seen dramatic change take place and significant social advances made over these last 11 years.

  The substantial increase in school retention levels, the establishment of Medicare, the family allowance supplement, the move to enterprise bargaining, the reduction in personal income tax rates, the reduction in industrial disputation to its lowest level in 30 years, the introduction of industry-based award superannuation, the lowest level of inflation since the early 1960s—all of these and many other achievements have occurred through the accord. Substantial sections of Australia's key industries have been restructured to make them more efficient, productive and internationally competitive. In many cases these changes are being brought about through joint efforts with enlightened employers and business groups who have recognised the value of the cooperative rather than the confrontationist approach.

  I am particularly pleased at the successful introduction of award superannuation which, for the first time, has given many thousands of workers an opportunity to build savings for their retirement. Like many other overdue social improvements such as child care, parental leave and equal pay, award superannuation was bitterly opposed at the outset by many employer groups. This was particularly the case for rural employees who are invariably itinerant workers on low incomes with very little employment security. I recall that after much argument we successfully achieved this benefit for rural workers, notwithstanding the opposition from a leading New Right barrister in Victoria, who shall remain nameless, but who has since embarked upon a political career.

  All sorts of accusations have been levelled at the union movement in its campaign to promote superannuation. But look at the results! Since 1983 accumulated superannuation funds have grown from $23 billion to almost $200 billion. They have been projected to reach $600 billion by the year 2000. The percentage of people in the work force covered by a superannuation scheme has increased from 45 per cent in 1982 to over 80 per cent in 1993. The number of people and the level of contributions will continue to grow in future years, thereby alleviating demands upon the social security system. These assets will also provide a substantial opportunity for increased investment in Australian industry.

  There is, nevertheless, one area which needs to be addressed, and that is the difficulty encountered by low income earners whose superannuation contributions are being whittled away by high fees and management charges. This is a major concern for itinerant and casual workers in such areas as the rural sector, and it is a particular concern for women in the work force. Mr President, I was therefore very pleased to read the statement of the Treasurer (Mr Willis) that was made yesterday in which he announced measures to rectify these problems.

  Whilst I was born and raised in the city of Sydney, my years in the AWU brought home to me the importance of rural and regional Australia. Too often those of us who live in urban Australia forget just how important our rural and resource sectors still are to our economic wellbeing. Exports of all primary products represent approximately 61 per cent of total export income. Of this figure, minerals and fuels account for 32 per cent whilst rural exports account for 29 per cent. Over 400,000 people derive their livelihood directly from the rural sector. Whilst, historically, rural statistics show declining trends, it is pleasing to note the positive predictions for an improvement in the rural sector contained in the recent ABARE agricultural overview.

  As this government has recognised, there are tremendous opportunities to capitalise on our natural assets, particularly through downstream processing of our raw materials. One such industry is the food industry where we can be innovative and can deliver high quality, safe food products to an expanding Asian market. The food processing industry is our largest manufacturing industry with a gross product of $8.5 billion, employing some 170,000 people. Exports of high value added products are currently worth $2.3 billion per year.

  The government's agri-food industry strategy is providing opportunities for real growth in exports and employment, and consequently improvement in our balance of payments. It builds upon the excellent results already achieved in international trade through the Cairns Group and through the recent GATT negotiations in which the Australian government played such a leading part.

  The greatest challenge facing this nation today is to reduce unemployment. It is a challenge which all sections of the community must take up. In tackling unemployment, we have to recognise that we face a vastly different world from that which existed when we could boast of long periods of full employment. No longer can we simply depend upon high commodity prices and guaranteed markets for our raw materials. Technological change occurs so rapidly that today's computer is virtually obsolete tomorrow. The days when industries could slumber along behind protective barriers are over.

  The federal government has created the framework for increasing employment. We have economic growth. We have low inflation. We have restructured industry and established a climate for increased investment. These foundations have been built upon in the recent white paper on employment and growth. I particularly welcome those aspects of the white paper which focus on increasing opportunities for the long-term unemployed.

  One thing I learned in the union movement is that unemployment is not merely some economic indicator; rather, we are dealing with real people and real families who expect nothing more than the opportunity to work and to obtain a job with dignity. The white paper deals with the effects of unemployment both in terms of the individual immediately affected and also the wider social cost involved. Through the provision of training, skill development and jobsearch assistance the focus is directed at assisting the individual, particularly the long-term unemployed. It also removes restrictions on part-time work within the social security system and it further recognises the important role of parents caring for young children through the parenting allowance.

  These, and the other measures to promote regional development, are what distinguish this government's approach from the alternative proposals of simply reducing wages and working conditions. The opportunities are there in the white paper for business to take up the challenge and increase its investment in Australian industry and in the Australian work force.

  In concluding my first speech, Mr President, I wish to record my special thanks to my wife Jan, and to my children Simon, Martin and Jeremy. I am fortunate to have their love, their support and, above all, their patience.

  Mr President, on 10 May this year I was appointed to the Senate by a joint sitting of the New South Wales Parliament. Later that evening, as I drove to Canberra with my family, I listened on the car radio to the inaugural address of Nelson Mandela, the first truly democratically elected president of South Africa. He spoke of the struggle that his country has endured and of the special relationship that his people have with the land. He described the challenges ahead of building peace, prosperity, non-sexism, non-racism and democracy.

  Mr President, we have been privileged in this country to have enjoyed for so long relative peace, prosperity, freedom and democracy—things that Nelson Mandela fought for and dreamed of for so many years. It is our duty to ensure that these principles are not only maintained but also extended to those who do not yet enjoy them to the fullest.

  Mr President, it is our primary task in the parliament to ensure that people enjoy a free, peaceful, democratic society; that they live in a clean, safe environment; that they have access to adequate health care, education, employment opportunities, security in retirement and a decent standard of living. I am pleased to be part of a government and of a party that continues to pursue and deliver these objectives. I thank you, Mr President, and honourable senators for your indulgence.

  Consideration resumed.