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Tuesday, 8 October 1996
Page: 3674

Senator O'BRIEN(4.58 p.m.) —In making my first speech to the Australian Senate, I want to express my gratitude for the great honour and privilege that I have been given by the Australian Labor Party in being selected to represent it and the Australian people in this chamber. My commitment is to the Australian Labor Party and the values of social equality, opportunity and community advancement that it represents. I will do all that I can to meet its high expectations.

I am a first-generation Australian. I was born in Sydney a little more than 45 years ago and grew up in the then outer suburb of Bass Hill. My parents came to Australia from Dublin via New Zealand and, like many of my schoolmates, I had through my family the influence of another national culture while calling myself an Australian. While my parents had to struggle to `make it' in Australia, I do not regard myself as underprivileged. I cannot remember being hungry or deprived, although I know how hard my parents worked to make sure that their family had a better life and better opportunities than they had had in their country of birth.

I was educated in the public education system and have been privileged to be associated—with many students—with the excellent educational opportunities that the public system opened to us then. My own experience has taught me the importance of a public education system and I intend to do whatever I can to nurture and preserve that system.

I lived and worked in Sydney until 1983 and, after leaving school, had a variety of jobs and spent some time working as a law clerk. That experience and my father's involvement in the union movement led me to be employed on research and industrial commission work with the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union under General Secretary Ray Gietzelt.

In 1982 the Tasmanian branch secretary of the union was charged with a number of breaches of union rules and ultimately resigned. I was asked to move to Tasmania to assist the branch. With my wife Louise and my daughter Dale I moved to Hobart. What was, at the time, a great challenge became the greatest experience and opportunity of my life. From 1983 until July this year I held office as branch secretary of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, becoming joint branch secretary of the Australian Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union in 1983.

In July this year I resigned the joint branch secretary position and filled the position of branch president, until I resigned in anticipation of my appointment to the vacancy created by John Coates's resignation. John was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1972 at the age of 27 and served two short terms representing the seat of Denison in that house, losing his seat in 1975. John was elected to the Senate in 1980 and re-elected in 1984, 1987 and 1993. Over a political career spanning 24 years, 19 of which were spent in the Senate or the House of Representatives, John Coates made his mark, particularly in his committee work. John Coates entered parliament as a socialist and left as a socialist. He proved himself to be an uncompromising advocate of his beliefs and a dedicated member of the Australian Labor Party. I wish him well in his retirement.

My work as a union official has given me a special opportunity to learn from many people. Firstly, members of my union and other unions have given me a daily reminder of just how hard it is for working families to go about their lives, meeting their respon sibilities to their employers, their workmates, members of their family and the community. Secondly, employers and their representatives have given me some insight into some of the problems and possibilities which the business sector faces. Thirdly, dealing with government has given me an insight into the workings of the public sector, the responsibilities and problems of government and opposition and the opportunities for government to be a creator, an instigator and an inspirational force, or an inert organisation. Most of all, it has shown me that the most wonderful of feelings is the feeling of being able to make a difference, to be able to say that someone's life is a bit better and that somehow I had a hand in that outcome. There is nothing more gratifying than a genuine thank you from a union member, even better when you know that somehow you have helped the member do something for themselves.

Having been president of the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council, I am happy to say that I have worked not just for the members of my union but for members of all unions in Tasmania. As Senator Harradine can no doubt confirm, the Tasmanian Trades and Labour Council has a strong record of achievement for the Tasmania community. I take this opportunity to commend its secretary, Lynne Fitzgerald, who is a professional and dedicated person. Lynne is the first woman to hold office as secretary of the peak union organisation in a state.

I regard organisations of employees as one of the cornerstones of modern democracy. Countries which do not have significant free trade union movements are generally lesser democracies or worse. The greatest advances for the population of this and other countries have occurred concurrently with the organisation of employees into democratic representative bodies. A society that values the individual to the detriment of the community cannot make progress. Collectivism in the work force, as in society in general, is the recipe for social cohesion, community advancement and harmony.

I am not saying that union members or their leaders are always right. Just as juries convict innocent people, governments make bad laws and the media fails to report important news, so employee organisations make mistakes. But as juries, governments and the media are important elements in a democracy, so are employee organisations. It is no coincidence that every dictatorial regime the world has experienced this century has taken steps to crush or control its country's union movement, to maintain control. Unions around the world have played their part in giving the aspirations of ordinary people a voice, changing unjust laws and making living and working conditions more bearable for the whole community.

I have found that principles and high ideals are not enough on their own; they need people to express them, to make them live and to make them work. I credit my mother and father with impressing on me the basic life values that I have built upon during my adult life. Unfortunately, neither were alive to see my election to this chamber. Both my mother and father were committed to a fair and just society. My father, a socialist and republican, worked as a carpenter and later as a union organiser. A long serving member of the ALP, he believed in working to make the lives of workers, members of the community, returned servicemen and women—through his RSL activity—pensioners and young people better. My mother was a quiet achiever who made my sisters and I appreciate the lives that we had been given even more. I will miss their counsel.

My experiences and the people I have met as a member of the ALP in New South Wales have given me an insight into the workings of a complex political organisation with a broad charter. Some would describe New South Wales ALP politics as the sharp end of party politics. It certainly is a good grounding for any person, particularly when they have the opportunity, as I have had, to observe the people and the process at close range.

Through my involvement with the party in New South Wales, I have had the great privilege of working with and observing Neville Wran, one of the great premiers of New South Wales. Neville Wran stands out as by far the most accomplished politician and leader of his era. While circumstance denied him the opportunity, I have no doubt that, had he been given the opportunity of leading the ALP in the federal parliament, he would have been one of the great prime ministers of this nation. Wran's achievements in winning government in New South Wales when Labor had just lost government federally, winning the environment debate and implementing significant pro-environment policies against major opposition from conservative elements within and outside the party, and reforming the Legislative Council of New South Wales to make it a democratic and full-time body, are achievements which have always impressed and inspired me.

As General Secretary of the FMWU, Ray Gietzelt was an inspirational leader. Ray is a man of honour, his word is his bond. He is a man who was driven to make his union the best, and in his eyes it could only be the best if it achieved results for its members. A stickler for union democracy, he influenced me in the time that I worked with him and I have carried with me the rules of honour that he imbued in all of his officers.

For the past 14 years, I have had a close association with Leo Brown, former secretary and later president of the FMWU in Tasmania. Leo was also a president of the Tasmanian branch of the ALP. He is now a life member of the ALP and was awarded the Order of Australia, general division, in 1988. A man of humble origins and limited formal education, Leo has impressed me with his insight into people and the political process.

Leo has never lost his commitment to the advancement of workers, pensioners and the unemployed. He still gives freely of his time to the union and the peace movement and is involved with community mediation in the interests of contributing to a better society for all. I regard Leo as a friend and a valuable sounding board for many issues. He is a great man who deserves and holds the respect of many Tasmanians.

His wife, Pauline, is an inspiration to him and to her family. I share their love and admiration of her. Pauline is a true Christian in every sense of the word. Although I am not a believer myself, that does not diminish my respect for Christian values. What I respect the most is the person who holds those values and truly practises them. I regard Pauline as such a person. I am sure there are many such people. Pauline Brown is the person with whom I identify these values and I am inspired by her caring, selfless concern for others. To that extent, she is a symbol to me and I hope that whatever I do here will have her respect.

I also want to acknowledge the inspiration that many members of my union have given me. Few are given the opportunity to lead such a deserving group of men and women. I have been inspired knowing them, serving them, achieving for them and working with them even when winning their cause was not possible. When I read Henry Lawson's poem I'm Too Old To Rat, I know what he felt. That is a privilege that some senators here will share and that other senators could only aspire to.

I could not complete any list without giving perhaps the greatest credit for inspiration and insight to my partner, Louise, and my daughters, Dale and Erin. My partner, Louise, is my best friend, my adviser and my No. 1 supporter. I continue to be surprised by her insight into people and relationships and her ability to help me solve problems and face the difficulties of life. Without her support, I would not be here today. My daughters, Dale and Erin—both beautiful, talented and intelligent young women—have to be my home support team as I will be away from them so often now. Families make their sacrifices, and I acknowledge theirs today. Their pride in me is an inspiration to me.

Since moving to Tasmania in 1983 I have come to love the state, its beauty and grandeur. Few who visit Tasmania can resist describing it as the most beautiful and charming part of Australia. Tasmania has the best scenery, the cleanest environment and the friendliest people in Australia, perhaps even the world. The state produces some of the finest seafood, cheeses and meat products in the world, and its waterways are often sailed by Australia's best yachtsmen and women.

It also produces some of the best Australian Rules footballers. Heaven help the other AFL clubs if all Tasmanians now playing for clubs around Australia form a Tasmanian based team in the competition. That just might happen if things go well for Tasmania, but at the moment Tasmania hangs on the brink.

In a state with a landmass greater than 67,800 square kilometres and a population of 472,000, cut off from the rest of Australia by Bass Strait, opportunities are limited. Australia has always complained about the problem of tyranny of distance. Tasmania's tyranny is Bass Strait. If we could drive or rail to the mainland, things would be better—we cannot. Tasmania, until the early 1980s, kept its head above water by virtue of the hydro industrialisation policy. That was a policy of using Tasmania's water resources and terrain to create hydro power—cheap power for industry. The policy created an economy with most investment being in dam or power station construction to provide power to large manufacturing or resource processing businesses.

The 1980s, however, saw the beginning of the end of the effectiveness of that policy. The blocking of the Gordon below Franklin power scheme was in fact a benefit for the state. The building of two small dams after that blocking was unnecessary. The cost of power from these newer dams as well as some of the older dams was too great when compared to other potential power sources. Large power users started to downsize, and the construction work force gradually disappeared.

The Gray government, which won power on the back of the debate over the Franklin and traded on the issue for years, had no policies for the revitalisation of the industrial base and ran up public debt to pork barrel its way to a series of election victories. By 1989 Tasmania had no policies for renewal, an enormous public debt and shrinking employment opportunities. Mining, manufacturing and forestry were all utilising machines to replace workers or closing down production lines. It was all a recipe for economic disaster for the state.

In the 1989 elections, Labor, in accord with the Tasmanian Greens, replaced Gray's Liberal government, but Labor found itself faced with an impossible task. Minority government and big public debt were too great a burden and finally the arrangement with the Greens broke over what really was a non-issue—the size of the woodchip quota.

When Tasmanians went to the polls, the Liberals won government in their own right promising, `Jobs, jobs, jobs,' under Ray Groom. Groom then sacked workers, increased the pay of politicians and vandalised the state's industrial laws. He did not produce jobs. After all, no government can manufacture jobs without a viable strategy.

Today we have a minority Liberal government kept in power by their nemesis—the Tasmanian Greens. Still there is no sign of the spark that the state needs for revitalisation. As national companies move their administration back to Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide, as local companies reduce their work forces through downsizing, the economy of Tasmania suffers more.

Now the Howard government wants to deliver the coup de grace. Hundreds of Commonwealth public sector jobs are going with the current budget and associated funding cuts. Services as well as jobs are disappearing. The Mowbray CES office and the Launceston tax office have closed and the Family Court in Launceston is to close. The federal government cuts to state government funding have prompted it to implement budget measures, which will see over 1,000 public sector jobs disappear. These cuts will spin off into the private sector, particularly the retail and service sectors. Hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs will be lost in these sectors. Couple this with a decline in business confidence and the potential for a greater unemployment catastrophe to descend upon the state exists.

Running a business in Tasmania in these circumstances is difficult enough. However, when you add the problem of Bass Strait to this bleak picture it gets worse. Tasmania argues that other states benefit from the existence of Commonwealth funded national highway schemes and that this is unfair for Tasmanians who must pay the full cost of their air fares and sea links to mainland Australia.

The Nimmo inquiry into transport to and from Tasmania identified that the costs of transporting goods to and from Tasmania were extremely high compared to transporting goods over the same distance on the mainland, and that these higher costs were detrimental to Tasmania's welfare and economic development.

Tasmania needs a full and comprehensive freight equalisation system in order to compete. The current levels of freight equalisation have not remedied the inequities in the cost of transporting goods. Reductions proposed to that assistance will make the problem worse.

In March 1985 the Inter-State Commission produced a report which demonstrated that the shippers of non-bulk cargoes still faced a cost disability. The Tasmanian freight equalisation scheme also neglects to provide subsidy for the cost of air travel, which was a recommendation of the Nimmo report. The election campaign pledge of the government to conduct a review of the Tasmanian freight equalisation scheme is estimated to result in a reduction of $13.2 million in the subsidy over the four years to the year 1999-2000.

It is not only freight that is disadvantaged when crossing the strait. Tasmanian families and visitors to Tasmania also incur very high fees, which for many makes travel financially impossible to consider, even with the available subsidy for transport of a vehicle. In the early years of the 1980s passengers were able to cross the strait on the Empress of Tasmania—a ship owned and operated by the ANL with a subsidy which was provided by the Commonwealth government.

In 1983-84 the then Premier of Tasmania, Robin Gray, agreed with the Commonwealth to do away with this subsidy and the ship the Empress of Australia in return for a once-off capital grant of $26 million to allow the state to buy a ferry. This once-off deal between the Commonwealth and Premier Gray meant that there were no further subsidies paid for this service until 1993-94. In the 1983-84 expenditure the Commonwealth subsidy was worth $2.8 million. In 1993-94 it was worth $2 million. Tasmania is worse off for this arrangement. In today's terms the 1983-84 subsidy is worth approximately $5.5 million. Tasmania has therefore suffered a reduction of $3.5 million or 63.6 per cent in the 1983-84 subsidy in real terms.

One of the more positive stories for Tasmania is the success of Incat Australia. Incat employs more than 1,000 people at its shipyard in Hobart where it builds high speed catamaran hulled ferries. Recently this business has been expanding rapidly, but now this company's operation in Tasmania is threatened by the government plan to remove the ship bounty. The ship bounty is a Commonwealth subsidy based on the eligible costs of construction of a ship. Currently the subsidy is worth five per cent to Australian shipbuilders. This will mean that Australian shipbuilders, and Incat in particular, will no longer be competing on a level playing field. In fact, coupled with a strong Australian dollar, they will be some 15 per cent worse off than their European competitors. If the government goes ahead with its plan to remove the bounty, the largest private employer in Tasmania will be forced to accept the offer to build Incat K50 ferries in China. With the already high unemployment in Tasmania set to rise as a result of further Commonwealth cuts, this would be disastrous for the Tasmanian community.

Telstra is also a major employer in Tasmania. The Howard government wishes to part-privatise Telstra now and if successful will inevitably seek to fully privatise it if it is fortunate enough to win a second term of office. Job cuts have occurred under the guidance of the previous board of Telstra. There is no reason to think that the likely reduction in the number of its employees by 500 to 700 will be changed by the new board. The job losses are mounting, are they not?

Worse than that, with the part-privatisation of Telstra, Tasmania will lose the benefits of cross-subsidisation of its telephone and related services that a publicly owned system brings. This will cost the public and business dearly in the long term. Business will face higher set-up and operating costs. This will make it less competitive. Tasmania will also lose access to the most modern broadband cabling system in the future as private operators will want to service only the high yield business centres and not the less profitable regional areas. Denied this infrastructure, Tasmania will not be able to attract the sorts of businesses that depend on such facilities. This will be another reason for a decline in business and therefore work opportunities in the state.

I want Tasmania to have a good future. Tasmania is too good a place to be abandoned to become a backwater. Tasmania has the basic infrastructure that any community would aspire to. It is decentralised. It has a good education system. Its work force is highly productive. It delivers a high quality lifestyle to its people. It has a non-polluting power generation system, good agricultural land and clean cities and towns. The aberration of the Port Arthur massacre is not in any way a reflection on the state or its people. It is a place with unlimited potential. It is a place in need of renewal.

Tasmania needs a state government with a plan for state renewal and a federal government sympathetic to its needs now and in the future. At present it has neither.

I see it as my task in this place to work for and with the Tasmanian community to repay their faith in me by my commitment to them. In doing that, I intend to be governed by the examples and philosophies that I referred to earlier in this speech, particularly with honour and with special regard for people needing help and compassion and by respecting the beliefs of others.

Honourable senators —Hear, hear!

Debate (on motion by Senator Harradine) adjourned.