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Tuesday, 10 August 1999
Page: 7148

Senator LUDWIG (5:32 PM) —I am proud to be standing here in the Senate today. However, I do not stand here alone. Many people have worked with me and have supported me in this achievement. I humbly thank them for the honour of representing Queensland in the Senate. I can say at the outset that I am honoured to have this opportunity to contribute to such a great democracy as ours. There are clearly some people and organisations that deserve special thanks for their support: the Australian Workers Union, ALP party units in Queensland, keen supporters, and in particular my family and friends.

I come from a long line of Australian Workers Union members who have entered political life to further the interests of labour. The Australian Workers Union is a proud union—Australian in the true sense of the word. It is a generalist union that grew out of a number of unions—bush unions and labourers unions amongst that number. It is a pragmatic union, formed in Australia for Australian conditions. Its pragmatism in many ways typifies my views on issues.

The union's activities are directed at positively influencing outcomes for workers in the areas of occupational health and safety, workers compensation, training, superannua tion, and wages and conditions. But it is by no means limited to that. The union takes up the cause on behalf of many workers who have been prejudiced in their employment. Much of the work of this union is performed as part of its day-to-day activities. It is work that is valuable and should not be dismissed easily by labels that detractors use to describe unions in a critical light.

I particularly thank the many AWU members, job representatives and their organisers who spared their time educating me about matters of importance in work and especially those who displayed patience towards me in this pursuit. Time and time again, the importance of a fair go all round, equity and loyalty was displayed to me by unionists in the pursuit of just causes.

However, today there are many competing interests that pull at my shirt sleeve. I cannot in the time available deal adequately with all of the interests that I wish to share with you. I can touch on some of the more pressing issues and then only briefly.

I would especially like to extend many thanks to my wife, Leanne; our children, Kate and Anna; and Luke, my nephew, for the wonderful gift of love they share with us. I would also thank my sister Carmen for her encouraging words, as well as Bill and Joan, my parents, who instilled a strong value system within me based on a country town's viewpoint. Also Leanne's parents, Marg and the late Clem O'Keeffe, who both have worked tirelessly at the auxiliary in the QEII hospital, which is situated on the south side of Brisbane. Both over many years have demonstrated a keen spirit in supporting our public hospital system through their hard work and donations that the auxiliary has made to that hospital.

I also owe a debt to the part-time Army. I spent many months, stretched over some 10 years, training with many others on how to protect this country. I worked as a private soldier and later graduated as an officer. It instilled in me a sense of pride to belong to this country. Unfortunately, the pressures of work caused me to suspend what I regarded as a second career. Although it is trite to say it, there I learnt many skills that have stood me in good stead over the ensuing years. I appreciate that association and do recommend it to those who are willing to strive.

The bush is a microcosm of many of those larger issues that face every Australian. It faces these daily challenges that I will shortly speak about. The communities in the bush have to address the limited access to information technology and bear the costs of it where it is essential or simply do without it. Bush communities also have to deal with vast distances.

It does not end there. The bush has to cope with the lack of opportunities for its youth. This is reflected in few job opportunities, entertainment or educational facilities, health services and numerous other benefits that starkly delineate the bush from the cities. However, where governments can make a difference, such as in the provision of services, this government is not. Its policies chip away at the cornerstone of bush communities. Without clear support from government, these communities are in danger of fading.

There is work that needs to be done to promote meaningful solutions to address the problems that confront the bush communities. I wish to personally contribute to that through my work as a Queensland senator.

National competition policy is one area where government can pause and consider what the public benefit test is really about. We should not pursue unbridled competition where cooperation will win the day.

I admire local government for their ability to work hard at addressing community concerns. To this end, I look forward to working with local government in the pursuit of community goals. In addition, as a Queensland senator, I look forward to working with the state Beattie government not only on issues that touch upon state-federal interactions but also on issues that arise and need attention in respect of Queensland as a whole, irrespective of jurisdiction. I look forward to working with the Hon. Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, and with Senator the Hon. John Faulkner in the pursuit of Labor goals. I also look forward to working with the House of Representatives on programs and at working hard to ensure that the role and function of the Senate are maintained, especially its multiple functions, including those as a house of review and as a check on government.

In a rapidly changing society that is nearing the close of a century, it is no longer sufficient to approach the new millennium with the boundless opportunism that may have been characterised in the close of the last century. I believe that we should reflect and spare a thought for the issues that we as a nation had hoped to address in the 100 years following the turn of the last century. Many still remain unresolved. Some of those issues are, however, a recurrent theme: unemployment, the state of the economy, immigration, unfair tax regimes, and a lack of education and training opportunities.

Put in this context, four things come to mind in promoting the type of society that government can focus its attention on in the new millennium: improving education and training, reinvigorating our health care system, supporting just social policies, and promoting an equitable market system. It is not limited to this, but it provides a schema to work with, as these areas are about people.

The underlying notion in providing these services is fairness. Government should not be about deserting the field and hoping that a self-regulatory regime will fill the void. It can play an active role in shaping these things.

It is about recognising the importance of supporting a system of vocational training which complements industry skills and that is focused on competency based outcomes which are portable, nationally accredited and able to be introduced through agreed structures. It is also about promoting strategies that encourage education both in early childhood and in later years. Without this attention, the future work force will be ill-equipped to deal with the changing nature of the employment market.

Having spent considerable time pursuing part-time studies in order to improve my own education, I can say with some experience that resources aimed at equipping our youth with the skills and abilities plus the motivation to continue with education is worth a great deal to Australia. Yet I despair at this government's treatment of this area. A new tax will not address the lack of government interest. I can say with some understanding that it is hard to play catch-up football in education.

There is the dire need to commit resources to health care. There is a need to recognise that strategies designed to encourage people into private insurance will not universally work. Health care is not a privilege; it is a beneficial right of Australian people. It is not something that should be traded in the marketplace for other services.

However, health care will not be fixed overnight. In the community in which I live, local hospitals are forever reordering themselves, re-prioritising their work and looking for efficiencies at every corner because of growing demand and diminishing resources. Without the dedicated work of long-term employees, the system would not nearly be as effective as it is. But it cannot do it alone; it needs our help. Short-term fixes, such as the contracting out of work forces to save money, are not a solution to their need. Providing rebates is only one side of the equation. It seems to be a very simplistic solution for what is a complex matter.

The health care system should not be abandoned or allowed to wither under the burdens placed upon it. Quality health care for all Australians is a must. That is the goal. The challenge is to put in place strategies to achieve and maintain it. Strategies that stretch into industrial relations, appropriate funding and quality management are some areas that can be examined. I urge government to not abandon this area or its related areas of aged care, nursing homes and such like.

It is vital that social justice be addressed. It too, like many of the recurrent themes contained in this speech, has fairness at its core. When government is considering economic matters and financial issues, it is also important to devise strategies to improve opportunities for women, to show compassion for people with disabilities, to help improve the quality of life of communities where inequality abounds, to be strident when dealing with racial injustice and to be open about native title. Only Labor has these issues as its core ideals.

Competition in the marketplace needs to be balanced against public interest. Fundamentally, the promotion of the wellbeing of people must be our goal. Energies directed at the demand side of the equation also need to be pursued. Governments can and must play a role in job creation and in the equitable distribution of the nation's income within a framework of consultation. Our youth should have meaningful opportunities now and into the future. As a nation, if we do not link this area with the other three areas that I have mentioned, we miss a golden opportunity take the high wage, high skill road.

These four posts are not the only issues that need to be addressed. Think of it as a house on stumps. It is necessary that the four corners are balanced and that none achieves ascendancy over another. Without this balance, it is too easy to rely on one to solve all the other issues. A government's role must be to recognise this and intervene in a timely manner to maintain such a balance. The Labor movement has always demonstrated an ability to achieve a mix that realises this balance. It does not emphasise the market nor push competition without policies on education and training. Advocates of simple solutions are courting fanciful ideas. Those advocates should be viewed with scepticism and treated with caution. The challenge is to apply a range of innovative programs with compassion. It is not about appealing to good old-fashioned remedies; it is about doing what we can and must do to ensure that fairness prevails.

Having served some 20 years in the Labor movement and more than 10 years in the union movement, I can appreciate that real, lasting change for the better comes only from Labor. One of my earliest political memories is the period from 1972 to 1975 when Labor made significant advances politically, economically and on the social front. As a youth in Roma, a western Queensland country town, the benefits under Labor were not lost on me. However, by 1975, the conservatives had gained power again. It appeared as if Australia stood still once again.

The present government, not content to sit and do nothing, is pulling positive reform down. Its view seems to be that it is better to disguise a wind back with the word `reform'. This will lead us not forward but back to the unfinished business of the Fraser years. The song of the conservatives remains the same. It is about attacking the lot of working people. It is about reintroducing the graziers 1950s dance hall, with the graziers in the middle of the floor and the outer area pegged off for the local townsfolk. The years I spent in rural townships only make me more determined to argue against this conservative government wont of shepherding our society back to the 1970s and its sister dimension—the 1950s.

The Workplace Relations Act echoes the employers' rule—managerial prerogative. The act is not progressive. It embodies a retrograde step for labour. It fails to deliver a fair system of labour relations. It lacks good faith and speaks only of unfairness, especially when negotiations with labour today require both skill and tact. On the other hand, management seem to rely more and more on this prerogative. Why? Because they are led astray by promises of an easy life with labour relations. They hanker for the days when they had the whip hand. Those employers who use the cloak of a closer working relationship with their employees without a third-party umpire remain exploitative. Workers need to be vigilant.

The act has swung the pendulum hard to the right; there is no doubt it will rebound. The society that the Workplace Relations Act is predicated on is not a vision that I share with this government. It smacks of the individual interests of the employer with no concern for the working people of Australia. Increasing levels of employees are experiencing unwanted stresses at the workplace. Employees with dependants are finding it harder to balance life and work. Increasing job redundancies are causing social injustices, and increasing contracting out of jobs by employers is adding to the precariousness of employment.

There is greater stress on working people, and reduced satisfaction follows. It is a concern that this government is not demonstrating how to lead by addressing these issues at a national level and the issues of occupational health and safety, training, superannuation, precarious employment and the protection of employees' entitlements. Instead, its mantra is deregulation, or promoting unworkable fixes. Once again, the recurrent theme of simple remedies for what are complex issues pops out of its mouth. These issues instead require well-considered and integrated initiatives.

The market will not always provide the solution. A government must encourage, cajole and, where necessary, lead change. However, this government is leading its agenda through paid advertisements in the papers about freedom of association. But this only highlights the divisiveness that this government wishes to impose on workers. If it is so wedded to a competitive model, it should allow the Rand formula in agreement making and provide a balance to the labour market. Why doesn't it protect workers' superannuation by encouraging employers to pay or by providing a timely manner to recover lost wages, conditions or superannuation? Instead, it seems to pine for the McCarthy era. It seems very content to promote a divide between those who have and those who need the education and training to help themselves.

Labor values a vibrant and diverse culture. Racial intolerance, espoused by One Nation, is not healthy. Australia will succeed with policies directed at producing inclusiveness. It is incumbent on each of us to ensure that we take what steps we can to ensure our communities can feel safe from this menace.

In conclusion, I have touched on many subject areas that I see as needing scrutiny. I have tried to reflect in this, my first speech, a sense of purpose and direction. I have set out issues that I believe need to be addressed, debated or discussed with solutions found, considered, tested and implemented. Consequently, it is intended to be a speech which I can return to and re-examine. Hopefully, through Senate work, I may humbly contribute positively in some small way to the advancement of this terrific country.

I do not wish to end on a sombre note. We are at the last year in the last decade of the last century. A new millennium is around the corner. The Senate is about change. May I share with you a short acronym from the author Patricia Middlebrook which is AIM. It stands for `abilities', `interpersonal skills' and `motivation'. The Senate is a place where these qualities can be developed and applied for the benefit of this country.

The PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator McLucas, I remind honourable senators that this is her first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to her. I call Senator McLucas.