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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 82

Ms PLIBERSEK (12:06 PM) —I am honoured today to come into this chamber as the elected representative for the people of Sydney. Our city has a character of its own, apparent to visitors who see a vibrant, modern city with precious heritage areas and incomparable natural beauty. But the character of Sydney is more than skin deep. Sydney is a living city which holds within it the history of all which has passed on the shores of Port Jackson. Like the rest of this country, Sydney is built on stolen land. I take the opportunity today of saying to the Eora people, `I am sorry,' and to the stolen generation, `I am sorry.'

My electorate has a history as a place where ordinary people have acted collectively to combat injustice and to fight for their rights. It has a Labor history. I have been fortunate in my activism to have had the guidance of many of these great Labor people, such as former Senator Bruce Childs who encouraged me and supported me. He is the finest example of a self-effacing, modest collectivist; and I am pleased he is here today. Jeanette McHugh, Ann Symonds, Robert Tickner and, of course, the former member for Sydney, the Hon. Peter Baldwin, have been examples of parliamentarians who have used their offices for the good of working people. In following Peter I succeed a most distinguished member, who will be remembered as one of Labor's foremost intellectuals.

In Sydney we are famous for our terrace houses. Sought after now for their beauty and proximity to the city, these terraces originally housed large families close to the factories where they spent their working lives. These rows of terraces were the site of struggles against evictions during the 1930s. The anti-eviction movement saw conflict emerge in the working class suburbs of Surry Hills, Newtown, Glebe and Redfern, culminating in serious confrontations with police. These confrontations saw thousands of local people gather in solidarity with tenants. They were the largest spontaneous demonstrations of the 1930s. The result of this sustained and organised activity by working people was changes to the Tenancy Act in New South Wales—the fair rents and lessees relief bill.

The green bans were another proud period in my electorate's local history when resident action groups, unionists, students and others combined to protect the homes of local residents and the heritage values of the areas in which they lived. The areas saved included the Rocks; Waterloo; Woolloomooloo; Victoria Street, Potts Point; the Glebe Estate and many fine buildings in the city centre including the ANZ Bank, the Colonial Mutual building, the National Mutual building in Martin Place, the Theatre Royal and the Congregational church in Pitt Street.

I am proud to have known and worked with Tom Uren, whose love for and commitment to the working people of Sydney was so important in this struggle. Federal Labor intervened on the side of tenants in the Glebe Estate in July 1974 and in Woolloomooloo in June 1975, and the Commonwealth Bureau of Roads recommended that many inner city freeways not be built. Subsequent changes to planning laws conceded the significance of community contribution to planning decisions.

Sydney is also the setting of the struggle for decent wages and conditions for dock workers, both recently and in the past. The infamous `hungry mile' saw dock workers queue for up to 12 hours outside docks to be picked or discarded each morning as the bosses decided.

They tramped there in their legions on the morning dark and cold

To beg the right to slave for bread from Sydney's lords of gold

They toil and sweat in slavery, t`would make the devil smile

To see the Sydney wharfies tramping down the hungry mile.

As the Depression lifted in 1936, the dock workers got organised into a gang system to ensure regular work and income and freedom from victimisation. This proud tradition of industrial organisation came to public notice again recently when maritime workers were forced to defence their pay and conditions from a government hysterical with hatred for them.

We are steeped in this tradition of collective action, community activism, and it is that which gave birth to the Labor Party. Sydney is a Labor area because we understand in our bones that it is Labor which represents working people. Although there are heated debates at times about the date and place of the birth of the Australian Labor Party, I wish to claim that honour for the historic suburb of Balmain, which is also in the electorate that I am proud to represent. Labor tradition gives Balmain the honour of having established the first local Labor Electoral League on 4 April 1891. By June 1891, 45 Labor electoral leagues were established in New South Wales and in that same month 35 official Labor candidates were elected to the New South Wales parliament. We continue that tradition.

We are Labor because we believe ordinary people of goodwill working together can achieve positive change. That is why we are members of our unions. That is why we are community activists. I owe a debt of gratitude to the 1,300 ALP branch members in the electorate of Sydney who selected me through our precious rank and file system. These branch members worked on the Labor campaign for Sydney with a commitment which was generous and unstinting. First among equals of course is my magnificent campaign director, Jenny McAllister, whose calm purpose and excellent judgment were the ballast in the campaign ship, and of course my friend and office manager Miriam Williamson, who has a true Labor heart. I am pleased that both of them are here today as well.

Branch members are ordinary people who dedicate themselves to achieving change through democratic means, often with a considerable investment of time and energy and without thought for personal reward. They are people who treasure democracy, who understand the need for vigilance and who are prepared to accept some responsibility for making this a better country.

In 1974, Jimmy Carter talked of first reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, noting:

. . . the course of human events, even the greatest historical events, is not determined by the leaders of a nation or a state, like presidents or governors or senators. They are controlled by the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment and unselfishness and compassion and love and idealism of the common ordinary people.

My parents, who are here today, are ordinary people also. They are modest, hardworking, generous people who have shown me unqualified love and support, as have all my family, my many kind and loving friends, and my patient and caring partner, Michael Coutts Trotter. My parents, like many first generation Australians, have made a huge sacrifice in leaving their homes, their families and everything familiar to come to a new land. I believe this country has benefited in ways we are yet to understand from the trust and optimism they have shown in coming here. I am proud to live in a country where my birth is not my destiny and humble enough to know that it is fortune and the sacrifices, support and encouragement of others that have allowed me to achieve anything I have achieved.

We are Labor because we have a positive vision for the future. A democratic South Africa, led by one of the 20th century's greatest men, President Nelson Mandela, 10 years ago would have seemed an impossible dream. That General Pinochet would one day be brought to justice for his role in the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Chileans whose only crime was to be democrats must too have seemed an impossible dream.

The hopes that we have for the rest of the world—a referendum on independence in East Timor, the democratically elected government of Burma taking its rightful place with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm—seem distant and difficult today, but they are possible and we must continue to work as though they are possible. When we lose our dreams for the future, we are defeated.

I am committed to a thinking party, a party of reform and progress. I was honoured to be part of the process of re-examining our national platform in the lead-up to the 1998 national conference. This process forced us to look closely at our vision for the nation and the path we had mapped out to attain our goal. Our starting point is that all Australians deserve a secure, decent, dignified and meaningful way of life. I believe we all deserve to have access to the good things this country has to offer and to the necessities of life. I believe all Australians deserve to have affordable food, housing, education, health care, jobs, security and leisure, a clean environment and a safe and tolerant society.

Each of us has issues which are in the foreground of our field of vision. One of these for me, having worked to prevent domestic violence, is the right of all people to live safely and free from fear. It is our right to feel safe at home, at work and on the streets, yet every day women in particular live with the reality or the threat of violence.

These are some of the issues that we must address as a nation, and yet the only proposals of those sitting opposite are to cut and to privatise. These proposals are not even original. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan pioneered this type of state-led selfishness in the 1980s. They do not like government; that is the problem. The only role this Prime Minister sees for the public sphere is to structure it out of existence, to outsource every responsibility.

The public sector is like a snake eating its tail—an ever smaller circle. In fact, listening to the Governor-General yesterday, I was embarrassed that this government's sole vision for the future is a new tax. Their sole plan for reducing unemployment is to make workers cheaper to hire and easier to sack. This government have no vision for Australia. They have no trust in the Australian people and they have no optimism.

It is our role as Labor members to articulate that positive vision for a better Australia and to breathe life into it and to fight for it. I see my role as a Labor member of parliament as standing beside the electors of Sydney. Having chosen me as their representative, they have entrusted me with a role in the struggles which face us as a community. I will do everything in my power to defend their interests against the viciousness of this government. In part, that means standing by those people struggling on local issues: to protect Waterloo, Erskineville and Miller's Point post offices, to ensure working-class people can continue to afford to live in the inner city and to keep Sydney a living city.

At a national level I will defend the interests of ordinary people. I will do whatever I can to ensure that a goods and services tax is not introduced on all of the necessities of life, to ensure that working conditions are protected and to ensure that services are not cut and our environment is not destroyed. But this does not mean trying to be all things to all people. Australians crave political representatives who clearly articulate a vision for this country, who state their values and invite Australians who share those values to walk beside them. Edmund Burke said in the 1700s:

Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Of course, in this day and age, particularly with the number of Labor women returned at the last election, his choice of pronouns would not suit, but the sentiment remains true.

We do a great disservice to the people we represent if we assume that they are looking for easy answers or glib pronouncements. We have to be prepared to argue through complex and subtle arguments. We must be prepared to rethink our own assumptions; to see merit in our opponents where it exists. We are not helped in Australia by a media which screams `backflip' every time a policy is amended or adjusted. We owe it to the electorate to engage with them in serious debate about difficult issues, not seek a populist escape hatch when it come to difficult issues such as immigration or an adequate tax base.

Political trust is not only about parliamentary representatives winning the trust of the electorate by saying what we mean and doing what we say; it is about us trusting the electorate to understand complex issues and to make decisions for the collective good, not just the hip pocket.

The government went mining for what is worst in us: selfishness, racism and fear of change. The fact that the Australian Labor Party is now the biggest party in the parliament shows how unsuccessful that mining expedition was. We achieved over 51 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. When Australians got to know the Howard government, they found that they did not like what they saw. Between the 1996 election and the 1998 election, 600,000 Australians changed their votes. The Prime Minister lost the trust of 4,500 people every week over the period of his government.

We are Labor because we believe the strong have a responsibility to look after the weak and that government plays a role in that. When in government we instituted plans which made this care a reality. We took our plan for a public health system which did not discriminate on the basis of the ability to pay to the electorate three times—in 1972, 1974 and 1983. We succeeded in building a health system in which wealth was not a prerequisite for quality care. Medibank and later Medicare have become a central part of the reason we view ourselves as an egalitarian society. This government has set out to destroy that system.

Our Working Nation program was the most successful response to long-term unemployment ever. This government has just cut Centrelink staff by 5,000, despite the fact that only one in 10 calls is answered, despite the fact that the number of young and long-term unemployed people continues to grow.

We do not expect, as the Prime Minister does, that charity should take the place of the social security safety net. We believe, of course, that conditions should exist for people to meet their full potential—and for most Australians that means access to the labour market and independence. But we say that those who need our help are not charity cases; they are citizens who have the rights of a citizen to participate in the work force or to access that social security safety net.

One of the most pressing issues facing us at the moment is the attempt by this government to prepare the electorate for an assault on minimum wages. I see the storm clouds gathering again on the horizon. Two recent reports on the US experience and an IMF recommendation have called for the lowering or abolition of Australia's minimum wage. There is no clear evidence that lower minimum wages are responsible for low unemployment figures in the United States; there is some evidence to the contrary.

Many additional factors work in the United States, including an interventionist pump-priming government, large investment funds which are prepared to fund small and medium enterprises and to risk money as venture capital, and high levels of immigration. Certainly, the majority of jobs created in the United States have not been at the lower end of the wage scale. But why let the facts get in the way of a scheme to pay people less?

Business will support any plan that lowers the cost of inputs, but is it fair or necessary? By no means: there is more than a whiff of obscenity about a proposal—put by highly paid consultants and spruiked by a minister of the Crown who earns over $120,000—to cut the wages of people who earn $374.90 before tax for an entire week's work.

Shop assistants, receptionists, farmhands, waiters, child-care workers, delivery persons, and non-trade metal workers have suffered most under the first round of the coalition's industrial relations changes. They are the same people the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business wants to make it easier to sack. They are the outworkers, the part-time and casual workers, the young people, women and migrants—those who are the most vulnerable workers in a community.

Do not imagine that this government's plans are balanced or reasonable. Remember that the minister for workplace relations was quoted as saying in July this year:

Never forget the history of politics and never forget which side we are on. We're on the side of making profit. We're on the side of people owning private capital.

We know which side we are on, too. To misquote Bruce Springsteen's Ballad of Tom Joad :

Wherever there's someone fighting for a place to stand

Or a decent job or a helping hand

Wherever someone is struggling to be free

Look in their eyes and you'll see—- us.

We will stand beside the most vulnerable and protect them from these ravages—because we are Labor. When in government again, we will build an environment in which they can provide for themselves and their families with dignity—because we are Labor. We will create decent jobs with fair pay—because we are Labor. And if they need a helping hand, we will be there—because we are Labor.

Opposition members —Hear, hear!

Debate (on motion by Mrs Vale) adjourned.