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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 338

Mr COMBET (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement) (11:13 AM) —Thank you, Mr Speaker, and congratulations on your election. It has occurred to me, I must say, in my naivete as a parliamentarian, that your role is somewhat akin to a judge on a new reality television show called So You Think You Can Talk! But of course there is somewhat more gravity associated with the role and I wish you all the best in it.

I have committed my working life to the cause of fairness and justice in our society. I believe very strongly in a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity. I have been an advocate for the rights of working people and I have campaigned against injustice. I believe that a strong economy is an essential foundation for social progress and I profoundly believe in our democracy. I am proudly Australian and I believe that, as an independent nation, it would be appropriate to have an Australian head of state.

My values and beliefs have informed my decision to stand for election to the House of Representatives. But the achievement of change, of course, requires more than individual belief or personal effort alone. It requires the collective action of those with common ideals. That is why I have been committed to the labour movement for many years and that is why I am a member of the Australian Labor Party.

As former Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley put it in 1949, Labor is ‘a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to ... the people’. I am grateful for the opportunity that Labor provided me to stand as a candidate in the electorate of Charlton and I am very proud to have been elected. I am also honoured to have been appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement in the Rudd government. I wish to thank the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, for my appointment to this role and to congratulate him and all of the Labor team for the tremendous achievement of winning government.

Many people contributed to my election but I would like at the outset to thank my wife, Petra, for her personal support and sacrifice; and our children, Clara, Anna and Yannis. It has been a major upheaval for my family. I also sincerely thank my mother, Aida; my stepfather, Vic; and my sister, Jennifer—and I acknowledge my late father, Todd—for all that they have done to support me through my life.

Charlton is in the Hunter region of my home state of New South Wales. The electorate is named after former Labor leader and coalminer Matthew Charlton. It encompasses the western areas of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, a region of considerable geographic beauty in which live very diverse communities. I respectfully acknowledge the work of the previous member, Kelly Hoare, and, before her, Bob Brown. They represented Charlton since its inception in 1984.

While there is growing prosperity in many parts of the electorate, there is also significant disadvantage. Charlton has a large retired population, many of whom depend solely upon the age pension. The electorate has lower than average income levels, a large proportion of people who attended school only to year 10 and youth unemployment which still stands at around 16 per cent, so there is much work to be done. There is also a large Aboriginal community in Charlton, and I extend my respects to the traditional owners of the lands within the electorate, the Awabakal people, and their elders. I respectfully acknowledge the Awabakal and Koompahtoo land councils and affirm my heartfelt support for the apology to the stolen generations. I will cherish the opportunity to work closely with Aboriginal people in the electorate.

Service industries are large employers in Charlton but manufacturing, coalmining and electricity generation are important economic drivers. The failure of the former Howard government on climate change has created uncertainty for the future of the coal and electricity industries in the region. There is apprehension amongst workers about their jobs and uncertainty about investment in the electricity industry. This is a problem area which I will take a keen interest in on behalf of the electorate and the Hunter region generally. In my view, a national trading scheme which effectively prices carbon emissions will be important for my electorate as well as for the country. Not only will it create an incentive to reduce emissions; it will provide greater certainty for jobs and for investment in all forms of energy.

Charlton residents have also suffered from insufficient investment in infrastructure. One of my main priorities will be to campaign for a new integrated rail, road and bus transport centre at Glendale, in the demographic heart of the electorate. Also high on my list is the implementation of the Rudd government’s commitment to a new GP superclinic in the area. The ratio of GPs to the population is now 1 to 2,000, making it far too difficult for many people to see a general practitioner.

I would like to thank not only the voters of Charlton for their support but also the members of the Labor Party and the local community who made a significant contribution to my campaign. There are, as usual, too many to individually name. However, I would like to acknowledge a small number who dedicated very much of their time: Kelly and Lynne Lofberg, Angie Sidonio, Janelle Smee and her family, Yasmin Catley and Megan Montefiore. I also received great support from businesspeople and many unions, and I particularly wish to thank the ACTU, the Maritime Union of Australia, the CFMEU mining and energy division and the Newcastle Trades Hall Council. I have very much appreciated the warmth extended to me from people in the community and I have had some great experiences while campaigning. My great-grandfather, who migrated to the Hunter from France, once owned a wine bar near Cardiff in the electorate. It closed, I think, in the 1950s. Imagine my pleasure when a very elderly and frail man came into my Cardiff campaign office and, after seeing my name on the window, asked if this was where the wine bar had moved to. He did say it was a long time between drinks!

I bring a variety of experiences to my new role. I grew up in Rooty Hill in Western Sydney. At that time it was a diverse, semirural community and a settlement area for many postwar European migrants. My father was a winemaker at Penfolds at the Minchinbury Estate. He died when I was 13 and this remains perhaps the most formative experience of my life. He instilled in me a sense of community, and I recall spending much of my time with him at community service and fundraising events in which he participated as a member of Rotary. Like many of my generation, I was influenced by the major political and cultural events of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the tumult over the Vietnam War and the excitement surrounding Labor’s political ascendancy under Gough Whitlam—although, I have to say, in Rooty Hill these events were almost eclipsed by the shock and outrage over the nude scene in the rock musical Hair.

Honourable members interjecting—

Mr COMBET —There are some of my generation here. Following school I worked for some time and then studied mining engineering. As part of my studies, I worked in underground coalmining at Lithgow and joined the coalminers union at the age of 19. My early working and industrial experiences helped crystallise my commitment to the labour movement, where my heart and my passion could find expression through my work.

I left the mining industry and worked in a variety of community organisations, including the Workers Health Centre in Lidcombe in Western Sydney. It was there that I broadened my involvement with unions and first began what has extended now to 25 years of campaigning on behalf of asbestos victims. I studied economics and by 1987 became an official of the Waterside Workers Federation, now the Maritime Union. Tas Bull, the head of the union at the time, influenced more than anyone else my development as a union leader. He had the capacity to balance strength with pragmatism and the courage to advocate unpopular positions when it was the right course of action. I have missed him in the years since his death.

The experience I gained in a national role at the union prepared me for work at the ACTU, where I was privileged to work with one of its most outstanding and intelligent leaders, Bill Kelty. I was elected his successor in October 1999. My 14 years in Melbourne at the ACTU involved me in major events such as the 1998 waterfront dispute, and I shared those tumultuous days with my close friend and colleague John Coombs, who courageously led the Maritime Union. At the ACTU, I also led the successful campaign to rescue $700 million of Ansett employee entitlements following the collapse of the airline, and I worked to achieve justice for the victims of James Hardie asbestos products. The James Hardie campaign resulted in a commercial settlement worth billions of dollars in compensation payments over the next 40 to 50 years, and it is unique internationally. But it is a settlement which will, rightly, forever be associated with the late Bernie Banton, a genuine fighter for justice and a person who enriched my life and inspired countless others, and I am proud of what we achieved.

Over the last 2½ years, I have also been proud to be a leader of the Your Rights at Work campaign, conducted by the union movement. This campaign achieved widespread opposition to the former Howard government’s workplace laws and it undeniably influenced national politics. The former government’s arrogance and its unwillingness to listen to legitimate concerns about its Work Choices laws were part of its undoing. I vividly recall a meeting I had as ACTU secretary with former Prime Minister John Howard in May 2005. I explained how his proposed reforms would allow some employers to use AWA individual contracts to cut take-home pay and the damaging impact this would have on the most vulnerable people in the labour market. Mr Howard was unmoved.

In my role as a union leader, I learnt the importance of considering and balancing competing views and to respect the legitimate interests and concerns of business. Mr Howard’s failure to extend this respect to the interests of employees hardened my resolve to mount a concerted campaign against the Work Choices legislation, with television advertising at its foundation. When the ACTU began its TV campaign, our research showed that about 35 per cent of Australians opposed the Howard government’s planned industrial relations changes. Within months of our advertising, opposition to the laws had risen to 65 per cent, and it essentially remained at this level all the way through to last year’s election. While advertising was important, the foundation of the Your Rights at Work campaign was its support in the community and the grassroots activism of many thousands of people. I want to take the opportunity in this place to thank each and every one of them for their contribution to achieving change.

The Rudd government’s workplace relations changes will restore fairness and balance to the workplace and they will not harm the economy. In fact, the High Court has now cleared the way for industrial relations jurisdictions to be rationalised on the basis of a national system and this will significantly reduce the complexity of regulation for business. Furthermore, the constitutional path is now clear for legislation to establish a simple and consistent safety net of employment rights, obligations and entitlements. Pay and employment conditions over and above the safety net will be the subject of genuine workplace-level bargaining. The only fair workplace bargaining system is one which respects the right of employees to collectively bargain. The fact is that individual employees rarely have comparable bargaining power with an employer, and that is why the right for employees to collectively negotiate with their employer is crucial. It is also why employees must be genuinely free to join, associate in and be represented by a union, if that is what they wish. Fighting for these rights has been a cornerstone of my working life and I shall stand up for them in this place. Basic rights such as freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain should, ultimately, in my view, join other fundamental democratic freedoms in a codified set of human rights in Australia. I believe the absence of such a code, perhaps in the form of a human rights act, to be a weakness of our democracy.

My particular interest, though, is in economic issues. I maintain strong relationships with members of the business community and I have enjoyed serving on the boards of a large superannuation fund and a bank, Members Equity Bank. From the shop floor to the boardroom, I have witnessed in recent years the emergence of serious impediments to Australia’s future economic prosperity. We have as a nation experienced a prolonged period of economic expansion, low inflation and strong employment growth. This strong economic performance has yielded historic fiscal dividends to government. However, serious skill shortages and underinvestment in infrastructure, poor preparation for an ageing population and a failure to encourage investment in research and innovation threaten our prosperity. The failure of the previous government to adequately address these issues is constraining GDP and productivity growth and therefore constraining future improvement in real living standards. It is a contributor to the inflationary and interest rate pressures we are now experiencing. As we well know, and as I know from my role representing working people, inflation hurts those Australians least able to afford it. The tragedy is that the former Howard government had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in future prosperity and it failed.

I strongly support the Rudd government’s plan for investment in education and skills development, leadership in infrastructure, and new policies encouraging innovation and research and development. I have been an advocate of these policies for some time. The government’s focus on education is particularly important for our country. Universal access to quality education is central, in my view, to any decent democracy. For many children, public education in particular is the only vehicle to overcome social and economic disadvantage. In my own electorate, I look forward to the improved availability of trades training in schools, broadband access and the availability of computers to students in years 9 to 12, and the government’s emphasis on early childhood education. These initiatives will make a huge difference. They are foundations for social equity.

Addressing the challenge of an ageing population through better retirement savings is also an area in which I have a keen interest. There are important reasons for boosting retirement savings. The current average superannuation account balance is around $39,600 and only $27,600 for women. For low-paid, casual and part-time workers it is much less than this. In the hospitality industry, where many thousands of people are employed, it is around $8,000. At the current contribution rate, this will not be enough for many people to have an adequate standard of living in retirement. That is one reason to boost superannuation savings. Another is that our superannuation system is the main mitigating factor against wealth inequality in our society. Indeed, for many people it is the only form of savings that they have. Boosting super also increases the quantum of national savings available for investment. It enhances the capacity of retirees to finance the escalating cost of health care. By encouraging savings rather than consumption, we can diminish inflationary pressure. This issue, in my view, should not be confused, as some have done, with the tax cuts to be delivered by the government, because these are sorely needed by working families, but it is a longer term issue demanding public policy consideration.

While I look forward to involvement in these policy areas as a parliamentarian, much of my immediate work will involve the honour of supporting the Australian Defence Force through my role in defence procurement. I have already met many dedicated and talented people working in Defence and the Defence Materiel Organisation. Procurement is, many would say, a fascinating challenge, with almost $10 billion to be expended this year on the acquisition and sustainment of material for the ADF. There are many unheralded successes in defence procurement, but it is well known that there are a few difficult issues as well. Together with the Minister for Defence, I have started reviewing some of the problem projects which are over budget and beyond their schedule. I also aim, with the minister, to continue the process of reform within the Defence Materiel Organisation.

It remains for me to thank the union movement, because it has provided me with the greatest opportunities of my working life, including a foundation for my election to parliament. I have received tremendous support and met wonderful people who deserve respect and recognition for their work, not vilification. I am especially grateful for the years spent with my colleagues at the ACTU and in the leadership with Sharan Burrow. Of the many whose friendship I enjoy, I would like to thank in particular Pirjo Laine, who worked with me for 13 years, and George Wright, who also worked closely with me over a long period of time.

As I embark upon this new beginning, I draw strength and inspiration from the achievements of the Australian Labor Party. From wartime leadership to postwar nation-building, from our pioneering role in the United Nations to the forging of our regional relationships, from Aboriginal rights to universal superannuation and Medicare, from opening access for people of my generation to tertiary education to economic modernisation, Labor has shaped this nation for the better. Labor is a builder, a creator of opportunity, a driver of social and economic progress and equity. Only Labor would take the unifying step forward for this country of an apology to the stolen generations.

It is time to find greater unity in our society, to turn the page on the recent years of division and intolerance. We are a diverse society, and my greatest hope for the future is that we evoke in our community greater tolerance, compassion, decency and respect towards one another. I am very proud to be a member of the House and a member of the Rudd Labor government.