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Wednesday, 10 August 2005
Page: 128

Senator MILNE (5:40 PM) —It is a great honour and privilege to take my place in the federal parliament as an Australian Greens senator standing up for the place I love: my home, Tasmania. I am standing up for its wild forests, its undeveloped coastlines, its endemic species of plants and animals, and its people. Seventeen years ago, I joined the farmers of Wesley Vale who, for the first time in Australian history, took to the streets on their tractors ablaze with the slogan ‘Save our soil, sea and sand; Protect the land’. It was a courageous stand about:

… a people’s right to exercise some control over their destiny …

It was a stand for country against a huge kraft chlorine pulp mill which would have polluted some of the best agricultural land in the country, carved it up in railway corridors and destroyed a rural community’s way of life.

Wesley Vale is my place. It is my country. It is framed by the Dial Range to the west, Mount Roland and Cradle Mountain to the south, Narawntapu National Park to the east and Bass Strait and beyond to the north. It is where I was brought up in the fifties and sixties on a small family dairy farm. As was the wont of country children then, I roamed around the farm with my father, catching tadpoles and rabbits and watched the changing seasons and the wild ducks leave and return. I got to know the way the light fell across the paddocks on late summer afternoons and the way people helped each other out and the way they argued in milking sheds and sale yards about whether it would rain and whether the local team would win.

It was knowing and loving that country, Wesley Vale, its stories and way of life and standing up for them that was the crucible of my political life. I thank all of those in that community and my family, who are here today in the gallery, especially my mother, June, and son James, my other son Thomas in London, my nieces and my extended family in Tasmania and my friends for their support in my journey. Through it, I came to realise that my own experience was not unique; that all over the world people like the Wesley Vale farmers are struggling to hold onto their special places, their country, their values and their way of life.

The ‘son of Wesley Vale’ now threatens the forests, the Bass Strait and the Tamar Valley. It is a tragedy that the same struggle has to be fought all over again. Through Wesley Vale, I realised that the struggle of the people at Ralph’s Bay for their coastline and for the habitat of migratory birds is the same struggle as those who campaign for wetlands in Saemangeum in Korea; that the struggle to save native forests and ecosystems all around Tasmania from the Weld Valley, South Sister and the Blue Tier, from the Tarkine to the Styx valley and from Reed Marsh to Weilangta is the same as the struggle for forests in Papua New Guinea, Borneo and Amazonia; that the fate of the Tasmanian devil is the same as the fate of the mountain gorillas in Africa. Both are dying from disease because of human impacts. I came to realise that you need to know and love a special place in order to empathise with other people’s special places and that to stand up for one special place is to begin the process of standing up for them all. It is the beginning of becoming a global citizen.

It seems fitting, therefore, that I should have begun my service to the Australian community here in the Senate by standing up once again for the land, by being driven on a tractor to the Senate doors today by the next generation of young farmers from the very same district in which my own roots stretch back over five generations. These Tasmanian farmers and the processing workers who depend on their ability to stay on the land and produce high-quality food are the human face of the free trade agreements that Australia has signed. They are the victims of globalization and the downward pressure on prices, wages, human rights and environmental protection that such agreements have wrought on this nation. The Greens have opposed them all and last year, when both major parties supported the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the sell-out and all I could think was, ‘Poor fellow my country.’

This nation needs to have a full, frank and inclusive debate about values, about what it means to be Australian. It is imperative that this struggle to define what our major national values are is named and reclaimed by the community as a fundamental debate in Australian politics, for whichever set of values emerges dominant from the current debate will define who we are as Australians for decades to come. It will shape the lives of each and every one of us, our children and our grandchildren, our environment and our global standing as a nation. Indeed it is already doing so. Not to engage the debate means that the mean-spirited mediocrity of today will by default become our national character tomorrow.

It used to be that every political party could be defined by values, by the values it prioritised in the hierarchy, but it is no longer clear which values underpin mainstream politics. Every political decision is a values based decision, from tax cuts, which prioritise individual self-interest over the common good, to the slashing of incomes for single parents and people with disabilities. This is a matter of justice and justice is something that you either value or you do not. The abolition of student unionism is being dressed up as an issue of freedom of association, but isn’t it more an issue of equal opportunity for young Australians?

There has been a concerted effort to quarantine the values debate to matters of private and personal morality, deemed ‘family values’, in order to avoid a values debate on public economic and social policy. The prosperity gospel has been adopted to legitimise consumerism and materialism and to advance the economic rationalist agenda of conservative governments. The notion of ‘family values’ is confined to a narrow range of values to suit a particular agenda. Where I grew up, honesty, kindness, respect, justice, fairness, tolerance, love and forgiveness were family values. Discrimination against and vilification of minorities, lying, misrepresentation and meanness of spirit were not family values.

This quarantining of the values debate in such a narrow way is designed to do two things: firstly, to send a signal to the electorate that the government has a strong values base; and, secondly, to declare that all other issues are value free, so that it seems possible to have strong values and at the same time trample the very values of honesty, equality, freedom of speech, compassion, tolerance and a fair go which Australians hold dear and which are at the heart of all the world’s great religions and humanist philosophies.

We have to ask ourselves how we can collectively save the world’s climate when the world’s superpower, the United States of America, and our own country fall back on the principle of national sovereignty to justify refusing to take any action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that will require a change of lifestyle or a commitment to fixed targets. This government condemned the Kyoto protocol for its modest targets, and yet it has entered into an arrangement that has no targets at all and which relies on unproven technology and so condemns our children and our economy to massive disruption in years to come if their gamble fails.

How can we as a global community uphold human rights if we do not do so in Australia? As long as our Indigenous people suffer high rates of infant mortality, low life expectancy and poor health, as long as we lie about ‘children overboard’, as long as we detain asylum seekers and put innocent people behind razor wire, as long as we ignore the Geneva conventions and tolerate torture at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, we have no moral authority on human rights.

How can we protect global biodiversity if our own Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act fails so abysmally to protect biodiversity and fails so spectacularly to authentically domesticate our global obligations under the Convention on Biodiversity and the World Heritage Convention?

How can we protect our borders and our ecosystems from alien invasive species and disease and promise farmers around the world biosecurity—including those vegetable, apple and pear and salmon farmers from Tasmania—when the provisions of the free trade agreements prioritise trade over biosecurity and ecological integrity?

How can we strive for world peace and at the same time join a coalition of the willing to invade Iraq on a false premise? How can we say, this very week, ‘Hiroshima: never again’, and wag our finger at Iraq and Iran, whilst at the same time negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement with China to increase our export of uranium?

How can we accuse other nations of corrupt behaviour and label them failed states and insist on governance reform when we in this country engage in a politics:

… in which no one responsible admits responsibility, no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is blamed.

There are those who would argue that we can do all of these things and invoke Australian nationalism and coopt all our national symbols, including the Anzac spirit and the flag, to justify them. They say that they are standing up for Australia and the Australian way of life. But it is they who are selling out the country. It is they who are suffocating the spirit of Australia.

Australians do not feel good about themselves when the government acts as if our bank balance and consumption patterns can and should be secured at the expense of other people and other species. The community understands the global boomerang effect of fear and oppression, of driving down working conditions and environmental standards and ignoring human rights. They are worried about what happens in China today because they know that it will happen in Australia tomorrow. They know the consequences of the war in Iraq and that our involvement in the war will rebound on us. But equally the spirit of the nation does rally when the government acts in a way that makes it proud. The recent reaction to Japan’s attempt to reintroduce commercial whaling is a case in point.

What gives me hope is the increasingly loud and urgent cry from the hearts of Australians everywhere for a return to what we know in our heart of hearts is ‘country’—a return to the spirit of the land and the expansive values of goodness, honesty, justice, fairness, equality, generosity, freedom and ecological stewardship that are for Australians inherent in the concept of ‘country’. The second thing that gives me hope is that democracies are self correcting and the campaign to rescue the Senate is well under way.

This concept of ‘country’ that I am talking about is a precious insight we have learned from our Indigenous people. It incorporates the land and their stories. It is not jingoistic. In talking about country, I take this opportunity to acknowledge that we are gathered in Ngunnawal country and I pay tribute to the traditional owners. Just as we must as a nation progress reconciliation with Indigenous people, we must also progress our own reconciliation with ‘country’—our own sense of place and identity.

The Tasmanian experience can assist in that process. Change comes from the periphery, not from the centre. From Tasmania has come a new way of seeing the world, a new way of identifying country. Greens politics globally began in my home state with the establishment of the United Tasmania Group in 1972 as a response to the drowning of Lake Pedder. At the outset, it was a politics of values, a new ethic. It recognised that at the same time we are citizens of local communities, nation-states and one world in which the local and the global are interconnected. It is a politics dedicated to bringing forth a sustainable society based on a respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace and participatory democracy. These values underpin the Greens vision of reconciliation between humans and the natural world.

WB Yeats once said, ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. The formation of a political party to achieve that dream of reconciliation was an acknowledgement that the founders of the UTG were prepared to take responsibility for the earth and future generations. I honour the memory of Dr Richard Jones as I honour all the founding members of the UTG and all those people who have supported the Greens vision in the intervening years and have made it possible, 33 years later, for me to join my colleagues Senators Brown, Nettle and Siewert in this parliament, and others in dozens of parliaments around the world, as the Greens representatives.

We are the only political party at the beginning of this century that is global in its reach, global in its thinking and global and local in its action. Such a global perspective is critical for decision makers in every parliament of the world. In the absence of a democratically elected, global decision making forum, each national parliament is charged with coming to terms with a world community interconnected by ecosystems but struggling to resolve the contradictions and seemingly intractable problems thrown up by a combination of a global population of six billion, global warming, the unprecedented movement of people and goods around the world and the increasing scarcity of environmental resources like fresh water and uncontaminated soil. The need for global democracy, cooperation and multilateralism has never been greater. How 2½ billion people in India and China exercise their right to develop will be the key to whether or not global ecosystems can continue to sustain us all.

That is why the Green Charter, based on the Earth Charter, is so important—because it provides us with a framework in which to think. Whilst it does not promise right or wrong answers, it allows the questions to be asked in such a way as to elicit an ethical answer. But an ethical answer can only be found by inclusive, vigorous public debate and not by silencing dissent. It can only be found where academics feel free to speak out, where public servants are free to speak out without the threat of losing their jobs and where the community can speak out without fear of being sued. The notion of cooperative and inclusive politics does not sit easily in the Westminster system, but the arrogance of absolute majorities, one ideology and simplistic solutions, does not sit easily with the complex thinking required to address our common future.

This is the philosophy I brought to the Tasmanian parliament during my 9½ years there, six of them as leader of the Greens. By doubling the size of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, in saving 22 small schools from closure, in achieving gay law reform and in driving the process for gun law reform and a tripartite apology to the stolen generation, the Greens were able to demonstrate that you do not need to be in government to drive change and innovation. We will not disappoint the nearly one million Australians who voted for the Greens at the last election.

In this Senate the Greens will continue to innovate. We will work with the Australian community to find not only solutions that we as Australians would want to live with but also solutions that we would be happy to have imposed on us. If fear, indifference and greed can have such powerful ramifications, imagine what hope, compassion and generosity might do for Australia and for the world.

In Canberra in 2001, I was privileged to be chairing the plenary session of the Global Greens Conference when, with a resounding standing ovation, the Global Greens Charter was ratified. The moment was captured by a young Nigerian environmentalist, Nnimmo Bassey, when he said:

That men women and youth could join hands across the oceans and other divisions of this world to face our common challenges was simply encouraging and empowering. It gave us hope and with hope we can face the future.

It is hope for the future and empowerment of the many that the Greens bring to this Senate. It is to be the voice of those who feel that they have not been represented that the Greens take on the role of advocate.