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Tuesday, 30 July 2019
Page: 1166


Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (17:33): 'A Senator's first speech is daunting,' I had in my first line, but it's not as daunting, I think, as what Senator Hughes just faced. I want to congratulate her for what you could describe as courage under fire. I want to use my comments today to set out how my life experiences shapes my approach to democracy and equity, and to point out the challenge that inequality poses to our democratic system and some of the principles that will drive my work in the Senate.

I want to begin by acknowledging the Ngunawal people, traditional owners of the land where this parliament meets, and—given that this is my first speech—acknowledge First Nations all around Australia. No other nation can boast 65,000 years of continuous history, culture and custodianship of its lands.

Australia is, as the Governor-General said, a work in progress. We should embrace this continent's grand history of culture, of art and language, of music, of dance, of governance and of songlines. Aboriginal languages are Australian languages. Indigenous art is at the core of Australian art. And continued First Nation custodianship enriches our nation. I want to acknowledge and pay respects to Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander elders past, present and emerging and, in particular, to my Labor colleagues the Hon. Linda Burney MP and Senators McCarthy and Dodson.

The Uluru statement sets out a course for the nation toward reconciliation and advancement of the First Australians. I wholeheartedly embrace it and the opportunity to make change possible. Voice, treaty, truth: simple, powerful demands. Clarity of purpose is vital, if Australia is to grow together. That the voice to parliament has been so wilfully misrepresented so early should be a source of shame.

Makarrata, the coming together after injustice through the telling of truth, is as Galarrwuy Yunupingu said, a gift to the nation. He said it's: 'a fire that we hope burns bright for Australia'. Truth is powerful. Let the truth of the history of invasion, conquest, resistance and living together be told. It should build a foundation for all Australians to come together with a common heritage and share a set of national values for our future. Truth matters.

I will never forget hearing Troy Cassar-Daley's 'Shadows on the Hill' for the first time. Cassar-Daley's song describes a massacre of Aboriginal men, women and children that happened on the Glen Innes to Grafton road, near where I grew up. I heard it while preparing a speech about Armidale Aboriginal Labor legend Pat Dixon for NAIDOC week. Pat Dixon's family was from Bellbrook, Sugarloaf Mountain country, just 60 kilometres south of the Glen Innes to Grafton road. The accounts of violence and cruelty there matched the horror of the song. It hit me like a steam train. Truth-telling matters. It should change the way all Australians relate to their history and their relationships with the people around them.

I am a product of country New South Wales, of public education and of the Australian labour movement. I grew up in northern New South Wales, the eldest son of Roberta and John. My mum was a public school teacher dedicated to teaching kids with special learning needs. She later wrote a doctorate about equity in education, particularly for First Nation kids. Dad jackarooed as a young man. He became a principal research scientist for the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. He's maintained a deep connection with rural Australia for his whole life.

I really feel at home in New England, where antecedents of my family have lived for 180 years. It's the landscape depicted in Tom Roberts' masterpiece Bailed Up, which features my ancestor 'Silent' Bob Bates, as he was called—no doubt because he was noisy. He was the coach driver in a robbery near Tenterfield. It's an extraordinary masterpiece in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Bob is buried in the cemetery in Glen Innes. The dry grass, the pale eucalypts and the range country depicted in that painting give way to some of the best agricultural land in the country.

All of my early life was farm life, until I was 15, on two small beef cattle properties in northern New South Wales. I loved riding, fencing and cattle work—all the aspects of farm life. I absorbed the books and the poets that celebrated and romanticised country working life. Up until I was 15, that is what I thought I would do with my whole life. Ultimately, farming life didn't work out for the young Ayres family. Farming is unforgiving, particularly for small, family operations. We moved to what I then saw as a big country town—Glen Innes, population 7,000. It was Glen Innes High School that opened my eyes to the world of literature, of thinking about politics, of history and of how the forces of economics, class, gender and power have shaped Australian society. Country town life was crucial to forming my sense of social justice, of pragmatic social responsibility and of commitment to equality and egalitarianism. The sense of place, the love of country and the environment and the stark social and economic divisions of country towns are all crucial to my outlook and will drive my work in the Senate.

Twenty-eight per cent of Australians live outside of the major cities. The political system has not served them very well. The average income in my home town is 40 per cent lower than the national average. Over one-third of households make less than $650 a week. Employment is lower than the national average, and unemployment is much higher. It is significantly worse for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders. The political, economic, environmental and technological developments of the last 40 years have shaped social forces that have unravelled regional communities.

The shift of wealth from ordinary people to very wealthy individuals and corporations has hit these communities hard. Family farms give way to big corporations and mining interests, and jobs are offshored as economic activity is increasingly concentrated in the big cities. The rural labouring and blue collar manufacturing jobs that once delivered middle incomes and dignity to working class Australians in the regions have withered away. The growth of new jobs in the big cities in finance and services has not been matched in country towns. The growth of unemployment, as well as low-value, casual and contingent work in these communities has robbed people of opportunity, dignity and the chance at a decent standard of living.

Worse than just standing by while these social forces have wreaked havoc in these communities, government has in fact been the enabler of social and economic destruction. The government have closed train lines, scaled back hospitals, shut TAFEs, starved local councils of funds and privatised services. They sacked public servants, nurses, TAFE teachers and the people who help young Australians find work, who fixed roads and helped build on-farm productivity. All of our political parties have failed to defend and advance these communities. Labor can, and should, do better at representing and listening to the people who live in country towns.

Labor has a proud legacy of sending country people to state and federal parliament with a mandate for change and reform for regional communities. But there is something more cultural and more sentimental that I am reaching for here. Firstly, it is nostalgia for the bonds of solidarity, the shared experience of country town life and community, family, the ordinary and the dignity of country life and work. So much of this has unravelled over the last 40 years, as waves of failed trickle-down economics, globalisation and technology swept away old certainties and as power, wealth and opportunity have retreated back to the capital cities.

Secondly, it is the history of the Australian labour movement—of Tom Mann, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson, land reform, the Eureka Stockade and Vincent Lingiari at Wave Hill—and the struggle between oppressive governments, vested interests and capital on one hand and the unions and ordinary courageous Australians on the other that have lifted these communities up over centuries and been the real builder of Australian nationhood. Henry Lawson called it the struggle between the old dead tree and the young tree green, and that is the central struggle for our common future.

Thirdly, it is the politics of place: a sense of Australian egalitarianism that is firmly rooted in the soil, landscape and sky of the bush. Some of these values—of dignity, solidarity, family, work, defiance of authority and resilience—are universal. Some are unique to the history and story of the Australian labour movement in rural and regional Australia, but they are all fundamental to our national story.

In the first sitting week of this 46th Parliament, this chamber passed a piece of legislation that will have far-reaching consequences for Australia and the fiscal capacity of the Australian government. Labor voted for the package after our amendments failed. Labor will not stand in the way of the tax cuts for low-income earners, which we promised at the election in May. These tax cuts will flow through to cleaners, factory workers and part-time workers across Australia—the kind of people who I represented as a union official. I believe that that was the correct approach and that it was both pragmatic and principled. However, stage 3 of the tax cuts for higher-income earners guts the future fiscal capacity of the Commonwealth. They are a fiscal time bomb set for 2025. Stage 3 will demand extreme cuts, belying a commitment to austerity—the radical reduction in public services in the United Kingdom and other countries in Western Europe imposed by the EU's self-defeating response to the global financial crisis.

The Labor Party must oppose austerity, which is an inevitable result of these cuts. It is the opposite of what the Australian people demand from their government. When Campbell Newman sacked thousands of public servants, the people of Queensland sacked him. The 2014 budget was so unpopular it ended the prime ministership of Tony Abbott. After the vote on the tax cuts, I received an email from Josephite nun Sister Jan Barnett. She asked me the right question: what kind of society do we wish our economic relationships to serve and how might we realise that society? Government must serve all Australians and put the economy at the service society, not the other way round. An active government large enough to support its priorities, allocated to the right areas, can more than any other force make our country fairer, more productive, more democratic and stronger—an active state that reaches every Australian and gives them the support they need and treats them seriously as citizens rather than customers or taxpayers; an active state that prioritises the poorest in this country, that takes care of the vulnerable and helps the unemployed back into work and not into destitution.

I'm proud to support the calls to raise the Newstart payment. Yesterday the Prime Minister described raising Newstart as 'unfunded empathy'. It's a grotesque, cowardly and dishonest comment. It's an insult to the one million Australians trapped in poverty and unemployment by the current rate. This raise is unfunded only because his government refuses to fund it, presumably to defend his fragile promise of a surplus. It reveals, I believe, a deeper, darker malice behind this Prime Minister and his government. A cruel, pea heart beats inside the chest of this mean-spirited government. A modern social democratic fiscal platform should be progressive in its structure to deal with inequality. It should encourage productive investments and be large enough to meet the challenges of a fiscally sustainable state that can deliver services, infrastructure and equity to its citizens. Labor will take its time to consider the best approach on these questions, to listen to the Australian people and to build a fiscal agenda fit for purpose in the 21st century.

I've been an activist in the labour movement and in the public debate on these matters. It has occasionally attracted controversy. I will continue to be active and build in the arguments for a revenue strategy that supports an active social democratic state that works for all Australians. I am, as I said, a product of the Australian labour movement. Growing up in Glen Innes, I met some of the older shearers and rural workers—some of them complete ratbags! They were veterans of strikes and struggle. They brought to life the stories and the poetry of Henry Lawson and Ion Idriess, the songs of Slim Dusty, the ethos of mateship and resilience, defiance of authority and a culture of unionism that I love. As a 1980s Glen Innes schoolboy subscriber to the Australian Financial Review—there weren't many of them!—and The Bulletin, which was a terrific magazine, I followed the ACTU ALP accord. I understood that it was an extraordinary effort by the unions and Labor to reconstruct a new Australia.

I studied industrial relations at the University of Sydney and was determined to work in and rebuild the movement that was capable of changing Australia and improving the lives of ordinary Australians. I enrolled as a cadet in the ACTU's Organising Works program and met many of the men and women who are heroes of mine—great union leaders like Tom and Audrey McDonald, Tas Bull, Laurie Carmichael and Jennie George. I learned so much from the wisdom of hundreds of union delegates and older officials who showed me how to organise, how to win for workers and how to deal with the big productivity and distributional challenges in Australian workplaces. They were men and women like Harry Delaney, Mark Hoban, Pat Johnston, Steve Dixon, Jim O'Neil and dozens more across all sorts of great unions.

The little town of Batlow is at the heart of the Australian apple industry. In World War II, men in the packing and canning factories were displaced by women and, after the war, the women stayed. Everybody in the canning factory and in the packing houses in Batlow were in the union, and the mostly female workforce elected some of the shrewdest, toughest and bravest women union leaders I have met. There is no mayor in Batlow, but in many respects Jenny Dowell, the formidable AMWU leader, ran the show. For decades, she led campaigns to save the cannery from closure, marshalled the strength of the union to defend decent permanent seasonal work for women and she made sure that everyone had their say at work and in the town. Pity the supervisor who disrespected a woman on the canning line. The democratic aspect of this was crucial. Batlow women and men had real democratic control over their working lives and the local economy.

Australian unions are a public good. While they collectively bargain for nearly two million union members, union activity lifts living standards for millions more Australians and their families. The international evidence is confounding for the anti-union ideologues opposite. Strong unions with effective collective bargaining rights deliver higher productivity, higher wages and higher employment. It makes sense and it fits with my experience for 25 years in Australian workplaces.

But the case for unions in Australia—for a legal, political and institutional framework that facilitates union activity—goes beyond the equity and economic case for unions. Why in Australia do democratic rights stop at the factory gate? Why can't farm workers, childcare workers, nurses or cleaners practise democracy at work? Participation, deliberation, decision-making, representation, conflict and resolution are all deeply democratic activities, and our democracy is diminished when those rights are restricted. Democracy is stronger when ordinary people, everybody, practice it. It's stronger when citizens learn democratic skills at work—to listen to each other, to weigh the strengths of alternative arguments, to speak up and to get involved. Unions fit alongside other institutions and organisations that provide opportunities for Australians to practise democracy. Parents and citizens groups, environmental groups, cooperatives, women's groups and sporting clubs all offer opportunities for democratic advancement and enlargement. Attacking Australian unions and the disintegration of other democratic institutions hollows out our democracy.

It's been the honour of my working life to contribute to this cause. These are challenging times for the Australian union movement. Free, democratic unions are a central institution of Australian democracy and I will defend them here.

I'm delighted to have been elected to the Australian Senate and am deeply aware of the honour and responsibility of this office—the privilege of working for all Australians. But I'm also acutely aware of our diminished standing among Australian people. In the last decade, satisfaction in Australian democracy has collapsed. We may have avoided the economic recession of the GFC, but the crisis lingers in the heart of our economy. Ten years later, Australians are going backwards. Median household income has declined. Living standards have stagnated. One in 10 households now lives in poverty. For all of the government's rhetoric, Australians are now working harder for less.

I saw this firsthand as a union official. Australia lost 25 per cent of its manufacturing workforce between 2012 and 2016. That loss is felt most acutely in our outer suburbs and regions. Discontent with our democracy is not shared equally. The poorest 25 per cent of Australians are three times more likely to be dissatisfied with democracy than the richest 25 per cent. Our democratic crisis has occurred as Australia has become less equal. Australians in our regions, in outer metropolitan suburbs and in country towns feel like politics does not include them. Their faith in democracy has declined as their communities have unravelled. It's hard to feel part of our democracy if you can't pay your bills or if you can't get a good job. Who cares about parliament if you don't know what shifts you will get from week to week?

Our democratic crisis is not unique. Australia is not immune from a global drift towards authoritarianism, intolerance and, alarmingly, fascism. It's representatives have found their way into this chamber. The seeds of fascism have always been sown in exclusion, inequality and uncertainty. We shouldn't mince words here—it's too important for our democracy. Extreme right-wing parties in Australia closely resemble the fascist parties in Europe. They are a threat to Australian democracy. There should be no room for accommodation or preference deals.

The challenges that the political Left faces in this historical moment are immense. This crisis has demolished social democratic parties across the Western world, and at the last election the Australian Labor Party received the lowest primary vote in a century. I refuse to submit to pessimism. Our party has survived schisms and devastating losses. Indeed, our party was founded in the wake of brutal repression—of shearers and dock workers and the recession of the 1890s. We must maintain our purpose through a renewed commitment to a democracy that includes everybody because our democracy is diminished by bigotry and exclusion. It is unable to reach its full expression if there is injustice, or inherited privilege, or inequality, or poverty, or discrimination on the basis of sex or sexuality, or when our regions are impoverished and alienated. Labor will build a platform that brings Australians together and rejects the politics of division and fear. I'm absolutely committed to a Labor victory in 2022.

Of course, I am not a country kid anymore. I've made my life in the city and now count the community of Darlington and Redfern as my home. I want to thank the many people in that wonderful community for their support and for their encouragement.

To the AMWU, my union: thank you for the opportunity to serve as an official and leader for 23 years. It's a great union. It represents thousands of Australians in all sorts of workplaces right across the country, creating, making and maintaining all over Australia. I want to place on record my deep appreciation to Paul Bastian for his support, occasionally blunt advice and friendship for all of that time. He is the most decent, courageous and authentic union leader I know. Thanks also to Peter Cozens, Glenn Thompson and the branch secretaries of the AMWU across Australia.

Special thanks go to the members, delegates and officials of the New South Wales Branch of the AMWU. They have taught me, put up with my idiosyncrasies and supported me for a long time. Their new secretary, Steve Murphy, is an emerging and inspirational industrial leader who has a lot to offer the trade union movement.

I want to thank the many others in the trade unions who have offered their support and worked with me to make the union movement stronger: Natalie Lang and Linda White from the Australian Services Union, and Natalie's predecessor Sally McManus; the team at the Finance Sector Union, Julia Angrisano, Bec Reilly, Nathan Rees and former New South Wales Secretary Geoff Derrick; Jo Schofield and Mel Gatfield and the wonderful officials and delegates from United Voice—best of luck with the new merger; I regard it as a critical development in the rebuild of private sector unions in this country—Vanessa Seagrove, the Assistant Secretary of Unions NSW, and Martin Cartwright, old friends who I've worked with for a very long time. To the party officials who I've worked closely with over the last few years, Paul Erickson and George Simon and George's predecessor Rose Jackson, and the members and activists of the New South Wales ALP and the New South Wales Branch for supporting me into this job—I won't let you down.

I want to acknowledge Tanya Plibersek for her support, advice and wisdom. I often think: 'What would Tanya do?' It is not a bad way to approach ethical and decent decision-making. She's a valued friend. Senator Jenny McAllister and her husband, my old friend John Graham MLC—thanks for everything, for your unstinting support and constant friendship.

While I am on the subject of old friends, Verity Firth and her husband Matthew Chesher are two of the most decent people I know, and the place where I go for friendship, love and support—thanks.

Thanks also to Doug Cameron for 25 years of leadership and for his kindness to me over the last few years. He's shown me what it takes to be an effective, principled and progressive Labor senator. He is also now on Twitter, which is a very worrying development indeed. It does mean that I will never need to ask Doug what he thinks.

Anthony Albanese MP: he now has the toughest job in Australian politics, but I think he will make a great Australian Labor Prime Minister. He has the guts, the capacity and the ideas that Australia needs right now. Thanks for all of your support, advice and mentoring over 25 years of friendship.

To the Cooper family, Clare: thanks for all your care and commitment to our family.

To my Dad, Dr John Ayres: I couldn't ask for anything more, I couldn't possibly thank you enough, and I couldn't put it in words that are appropriate anyway. I know that right now both of us wish that my beautiful Mum was here with us today as well.

Family is the most important thing, and I love my little family. Meeting Rae Cooper is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Convincing her to let me take her out was the wisest thing I have ever done. You are my best friend, the real source of my better ideas, an inspiration for me and a wonderful example and beautiful mother to our two kids. We are very fortunate to have you.

Matilda and D'Arcy: I'm so proud of you and the young adults that you are growing to be. I hope that my time in the parliament makes you proud and that it contributes to making a better, fairer Australia for both of you. Thank you, Mr President.