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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 62

Ms BURKE (10:27 AM) —It is my great privilege and pleasure to address this House today as the member for Chisholm. I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your election to your position in the House. To the members for Gellibrand, Fowler and Lalor: congratulations on your first speeches. It is a pleasure to be in such meritorious company. It augurs well for a truly representative new parliament. I stand before this parliament honoured to be the new member for the seat of Chisholm.

No-one gets here alone. I would like to thank my parents, particularly my mum, who is here today, for her generosity of spirit and her example of just getting on with the job. To my support group of siblings and siblings-in-law: thanks for being my Burke faction and for never allowing me to think too highly of myself.

To the ALP members in Chisholm and the numerous volunteers who flooded in with help, enthusiasm and unwavering belief that we would get there: thank you. As countless before and after me will place on the Hansard record, we would not be here without your efforts, for being elected to parliament is a team event. To the staff and executive of the Financial Sector Union: thanks for your understanding, over many months, that a marginal seat is not won in just five weeks.

The seat of Chisholm was created in 1949 and has been well served by the five members who have represented the seat in the federal parliament. The most recent representative is the newly elected member for Casey, Dr Wooldridge. It is my commitment to uphold the positive example set by my predecessors in representing the people of Chisholm.

Today I wish to address some of the many complicated issues facing Australian society. The first is the decline of collectivism in the face of rampant individualism and, secondly, the enormous challenges that globalisation and technological change present to both citizens and governments. Inspiration in dealing with these issues can be found in two of Australia's most famous people: former Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, and the woman after whom my seat is named, Caroline Chisholm.

Caroline Chisholm was famous for her work with new immigrants to New South Wales during the 1840s and 1850s, and later in the goldfields region of Victoria. She lobbied to ensure these people were provided with adequate accommodation and personally organised the often destitute young women to journey to rural areas in order to secure employment. Her benevolent crusade to better the lives of immigrants earned her the title `The Immigrants' Friend'. Caroline Chisholm spoke of her philosophy in the following terms:

I resolved in every way to sacrifice my feelings, to surrender all my comforts, and to devote myself to the work I have in hand. I promised to know neither country or creed but to serve all.

This quote embodies the very essence of this tireless social reformer. The generosity of spirit displayed by Caroline Chisholm is an inspiration to me as it should be to all members of this House. She is a shining example of the values that have traditionally been considered Australian—a belief in the right of all people to be given a `fair go' and to be free of poverty, a recognition of the value of collective action and persistence in the face of adversity.

Caroline Chisholm was a fierce supporter of immigration, which at that time came mainly from the United Kingdom. It is therefore fitting that the seat that bears her name is fast becoming an area of choice for new immigrants to Melbourne, with over 30 per cent of Chisholm residents being born overseas. Chisholm is home to a large population of migrants from Greece and Italy, whilst also attracting a growing and vibrant Chinese and Vietnamese community in the Box Hill area.

I am deeply committed to multiculturalism. I am proud to be representing a party that has a strong record of promoting the richness of ethnic diversity, rather than merely tolerating it. As a leader of the Sri Lankan community said to me at a community function during the election campaign, when lamenting this government's handling of issues relating to racism and multiculturalism, `After all, who is tolerating whom?' Communicating with all the various ethnic communities in Chisholm has been both a pleasure and, in a small way, a tribute to the energy and good works of one of the great `founding mothers' of Australia.

The seat of Chisholm incorporates a considerable slice of the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, stretching from Box Hill in the north, through Burwood, Mount Waverley and my family home in Ashwood in the centre of the electorate, to the southern areas of Chadstone, Clayton and Oakleigh. Many of the suburbs of Chisholm have been described as an example of quintessential middle Australia. However, such a categorisation hides the rich diversity and unique people and places that are contained within the seat. I would prefer to call Chisholm a snapshot of modern Australian society.

Traversing the streets of the electorate one can encounter a thousand different insights into the people who call Chisholm home: young families looking for an affordable lifestyle that is within reasonable proximity of the city—this was typified by my parents who bought in Ashwood, raised five children and could never afford to leave—older residents enjoying their twilight years; a flourishing mix of old and new immigrant communities who call the suburbs of Chisholm home and enhance the culture and atmosphere of the area; and young people striving to gain access to educational facilities and secure themselves a career.

Whilst it is the people who provide the rich culture of the area, there is also a growing presence of light industries, educational facilities and medical centres. Box Hill stands as the biggest office and retail centre outside the Melbourne CBD. However, like any area, the electorate has its share of problems. Stubborn levels of unemployment, drug trafficking and unfortunate excesses associated with gambling threaten the very fabric of our local area. I intend to do everything possible to address these serious issues.

Both before the last election and during the formal campaign I gave a commitment to the people of Chisholm I wholeheartedly intend to honour. That commitment was to offer a new style of representation. It is not enough for politicians to simply assist constituents with local matters and deliver the occasional dreary monologue to the electorate. Modern technology enables a meaningful dialogue between local members and interested constituents that encourages two-way communication and input. It is my objective to make my accessibility to Chisholm residents and their views the hallmark of my term.

However, representation is pointless if it is not supported by an underpinning philosophy. We in the Labor Party are blessed to have a rich history and many sources from which to draw inspiration. One of those is the late Ben Chifley, former Prime Minister of Australia. In 1948 he said:

I think it is tragic, in the world in which there has been so much scientific development, that men and women in a community cannot individually be assured of a reasonable standard of living when unemployment due to uncontrollable causes, or sickness, or needs, or attention to their family, overtakes them; and that they cannot be assured of security for their own future when they grow old and security for their children. These things are really worth fighting for.

It is amazing, if not a little sad, that 40 years later concerns over security still permeate our modern life. It is the issues that surround security, whether it be security of the family, job security or access to high quality health care that, together with access to economic security, are still amongst the most urgent issues we face as a society.

Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, has long been a hero to those on the conservative side of politics. It was Mrs Thatcher who was famously quoted as declaring that there was no such thing as society— only individuals and families. I stand opposed to this ideology.

Whilst I am happy to see initiative rewarded, and I support the pursuit of excellence, rampant individualism has had a harmful effect on our society. One has only to look at the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots to track its destructive influence. Individualism comes with a price tag and those who cannot afford the freedom it offers often simply get left behind, unable to compete.

I believe it is incumbent upon all civilised societies to reach out to those who do not have the means to fend for themselves and offer them assistance and support. If we are to look for examples of this through our history one needs to look no further than Caroline Chisholm who was champion of the less fortunate during the 1850s—a time marked also by the excesses of individualism.

In order to reignite the spirit of social pioneers such as Caroline Chisholm what is needed is a renewal of the concept of collectivism. Collectivism has traditionally meant ownership of land and the means of production. However, in modern times collectivism is all about people with common beliefs working together for common aims. It is an enduring Australian value that may yet provide a buffer to the excesses of individualism. Current examples of collectivism are found in local communities, schools, churches, families and trade unions.

Trade unions have been championing collectivism in Australia for over 100 years. Central to trade union philosophy is the fundamental belief that an unequal bargaining relationship exits between an employer and individual employees. Trade unions have been one of the most fervent and successful exponents of the need to take collective action. Despite the ravings of the far Right and their political acolytes, the need for trade unions in the workplace has not declined. Indeed they are now needed more than ever. Whilst the changing nature of the economy has made dense union coverage more difficult to achieve, the need for vigorous and effective unions has far from diminished, as the shame ful events on the wharves earlier this year clearly demonstrated.

The 1990s has seen the continuation of large-scale redundancies, the contracting out of jobs and increased casualisation of the work force—all of which have led to a reduced feeling of job security amongst employees. This trifecta of insecurity makes it impossible for many ordinary Australian families to plan for their future or to tread with any sense of certainty. These feelings are particularly acute in a period of sustained unemployment such as Australia is experiencing.

For the past five years I have had the privilege of working for a robust union representing members in the private sector—the Financial Sector Union. This work presented me with many highs and, sadly, many lows. The highs included improvements in members' conditions through collective bargaining in areas like profit share, paid parental leave, accountability for superannuation scheme surpluses, protection and retention of hard-won employment terms and conditions, and guarantees that part-time workers, women mainly, would have a real say in rostering arrangements.

The lows all came in the form of redundancies driven by shareholder returns. These redundancies were never seen in any way to be a hardship on those affected or viewed as a blight on our society. These were jobs lost in pursuit of the high watermark of cost to income ratios, where cost was measured in human capital and human misery. Job losses were not caused by a declining industry, for in the finance sector the major players are still reporting record profits in the billions.

My parliamentary colleagues in the government bemoan the presence of unions, but they and business organisations are happy to use the union movement as a convenient excuse when necessary. I cannot tell you how many times bank management quoted the union when advising employees of job losses, saying, `The unions have been advised and they have no problems.' Well, we were advised, but our imprimatur was never sought and never given.

Over the past two years I have witnessed 5½ thousand staff being made redundant from the ANZ banking group. This is not just 5½ thousand people who have lost a job; it is 5½ thousand jobs gone for future school leavers, graduates and mums returning to the work force. These jobs lost predominantly are those of men in their 40s with up to 30 years experience who may never work again. It means the demise of rural towns and strip shopping centres, the loss of income to single parents, the demise of a notion of service and the destruction of the will to work for the firm in those left behind to carry on. And this is the picture the government hopes to replicate when it perhaps abandons—hopefully not—the four-pillar policy in the banking sector. If implemented, this policy will see 40,000 jobs lost from the industry and genuine competition in financial services a thing of the past.

Yes, there is change in service delivery, and financial institutions are ensuring customers migrate from bricks and mortar branches to electronic transactions. But most of us still need to go inside a bank branch for many transactions or services, particularly small businesses. Most of us want real service and people need to be employed to provide it.

A by-product of winning the seat of Chisholm is that I no longer have to walk down Queen Street in Melbourne to be advised, `Its only 20 today, Anna,' but sometimes it was 1,500 who were going through this restructure—how I hate that word. I cannot wait to seize the opportunity to add my voice to the debate on the merits of the Wallis inquiry when the matter comes before this House.

To add injury to insult, the current government has put in place and proposes further legislative changes which it describes with an Orwellian flourish as workplace reform and freeing up the labour market. This is a smokescreen for enshrining in legislation the circumstances to create a workplace of scarce opportunity populated with powerless and desperate people willing to do almost anything to feed their families. This government stands condemned for its conduct in industrial legislation and will be cursed by working people all over this country if it succeeds in passing their industrial relations legislation.

The globalisation of information technology and the economy brings with it enormous opportunities for human progress and economic prosperity. Whilst we must continue to grapple with internationalisation, we must never forget that there will always be victims of this change. Just as the industrial age was not achieved without hardship, the explosion of telecommunications and information technology will also produce a new set of people struggling to adapt and prosper from these changes. Ben Chifley knew 40 years ago that scientific development brought with it no guarantee of security and we must also rise to the challenge of cushioning the effects of change.

As I moved about the Chisholm electorate, I was overwhelmed by the strong resistance to changes wrought by misuse of technology and economic changes such as privatisation and the contracting-out of essential services. One of the issues that caused people to feel a sense of insecurity was the disappearance of what they considered to be the fabric of life—local bank branches, Medicare offices, the local Burwood hospital, the electoral office, schools and even amenities such as local parks and open spaces. Citizens have a right to a decent level of service delivery from their governments: an efficient Medicare system, accessible educational institutions and child care, high quality and affordable hospitals and nursing homes, and proper support from a government agency for those seeking employment.

I believe the parlous state of many essential government services—from the abolished Commonwealth Dental Scheme to concerns over the continued privatisation of Telstra—has added to the discontent and lack of certainty that predominates within our communities, particularly among older Australians.

I am reminded of a visit I made during the election campaign to a senior citizens club in Oakleigh. While I was talking to some of the members, one particular lady commented on the lack of human contact that exists when we undertake our daily business. Her example of the problems associated concerned the ill-conceived absorption of the Department of Social Security into Centrelink. Her main complaint was the requirement to use a phone based interactive service. This lady and many of her friends felt it was entirely inappropriate that they should be forced to use such an impersonal service considering the sensitive and detailed nature of many of their inquiries. She went on, `My eyesight isn't so good any more, my English is poor and, besides, I don't have one of those new push button phones to use when the voice on the phone says, "Press star now."'

Whilst to many people this may appear to be only a minor issue, I was struck by how profoundly it exemplified the demise of human interaction that technology can bring, and how isolating these so-called new and effective systems can be. For many older Australians these can be frightening and disorientating phenomena. It is a reminder to all those in positions of leadership in the community that we need to be mindful of the effects of rapid change and technology on people's quality of life. One day we too will grow old.

This really brings me to a much larger question: how do modern democratic governments manage change? The current government blathers about its ability to fireproof the Australian economy against the worst effects of the Asian economic crisis. But what about fireproofing the people? Are we able to secure opportunities for our children's futures whilst providing some protection for the vulnerable in the community from the adverse consequences of globalisation?

It is the true test of the stamina and vision of a government as to whether they can encourage citizens to embrace change, yet at the same time ensure that those left dislocated are given access to the requisite support mechanisms to make the necessary adjustments. Education and retraining are part of the answer, but so is the provision of a proper social safety net. One cannot expect people to embrace the challenges and opportunities that the information revolution and internationalisation can bring without affording them some basic level of certainty over their standard of living.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, successive Labor governments achieved these objectives whilst providing a sound social safety net which included the accord, universal health care and superannuation, genuine labour market job programs and an adequate social security system. This is the Labor way. It is only Labor that can steer our country along the rocky roads of change whilst making sure we keep all of our citizens on track. I will work towards the return of a Labor government to achieve these goals for ordinary Australians, because these are still the things worth fighting for. To end my speech I would like to thank my best friend and cheerleader, Steve, who is in the gallery today. Without your tireless support, your efforts and your unending faith in me it would not have happened. Thank you.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —Before I call the honourable member for Cowan, I remind the House that this is the honourable member's first speech. I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.