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Thursday, 11 August 2005
Page: 108

Senator POLLEY (5:23 PM) —If my voice is a little shaky and my hands tremble a little, I am sure many of you will understand. No doubt you all are familiar with the emotions I am experiencing right now, delivering my first speech in this chamber. It is a great honour to be here representing the people of Tasmania but at the same time a little daunting. I come here not as an ambitious politician but with an ambition to serve. I come here determined to justify the faith others have in my ability to do the job and to do it well.

There are, of course, a few people and organisations that I would like to thank—firstly, my parents, Michael and Eileen. I was brought up in the beautiful country town of Westbury, the third child in a Catholic family of six. We were raised with good, old-fashioned country values: honesty, hard work and tolerance, values that really never have gone out of fashion in country Australia.

My dad survived the nightmare that was the Burma Railway. He was a prisoner of war for 3½ years. He should have lost his leg at Changi. Weary Dunlop would have amputated had the risk of infection not been so great in that hellhole. When people talk of courage, I think of my father. When people talk of patriotism, I think of my father, for no-one could love Australia as my father did. When people talk of compassion and tolerance, I think of my father, because surely few could have endured such deprivation and emerged so tolerant and non-judgmental about his fellow man. These are the values he instilled in the Polley kids. When I was a teenager, I confided that I would one day like to represent others in parliament. Regrettably, he did not live long enough to be here today.

I was 14 when I joined the Australian Labor Party, sharing my brother’s passion for politics. I have always been able to count on his counsel, whether or not I have needed or even wanted it. I do not think I will ever be able to match his length of public service as he celebrates his 34th year as a member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly. As all of you would know, it is not easy being the partner of a politician. There must have been times when my husband, Albert, thought he did not marry me; he married the Australian Labor Party. I was only able to dedicate as much as I have to the Australian Labor Party because Albert was prepared to be the homemaker. I suppose in one way he was a trailblazer, because there were not too many husbands at that time prepared to be Mr Mum. But, more than that, he has always been there for me, celebrating the victories, commiserating on the losses, and providing encouragement.

My two daughters, Monika and Jasmine, have also made sacrifices to accommodate my political interests. I am very proud of our daughters and I am so happy they are here tonight with their families. I thank them. I would also like to acknowledge Monika and Jasmine’s grandparents, Herman and Maria Schweitzer, who have also been so supportive of my political goals. They have been a great help to Albert and I, and we share this day with them.

To my extended family, the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Labor Party—like all families, there may have been the occasional squabble, but they have always been there for me, and I thank them for this opportunity to serve the people of Tasmania. I thank my former boss, the late Jim Bacon, for allowing me as a staff member to play a role in revitalising Tasmania. Finally, I thank my Senate colleague, Joe Ludwig; the Australian Workers Union, particularly Bill Ludwig, Bill Shorten and Ian Wakefield; and the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union for their encouragement, guidance and support.

Without getting sidetracked, I note that the Australian netballers are now covered by the AWU. This union really does represent a cross-section of Australian society—rabbit trappers, hairdressers, miners, paper mill workers, shearers and now, apparently, netballers. You could do worse than consult this union to gauge the mood of the country. I owe a big debt of gratitude to these types of workers—to those who have never aspired to high office but have remained committed to the ideals of the Australian labour movement through the good times and the bad and to those who were always willing to lend a hand, especially from 1992 to 1995, when I served as the first state president of the Tasmanian Labor Party branch. We had just come off our worst state election defeat ever and yet, in that brief period, together we rebuilt the party to come within striking distance of winning the 1996 election.

In 1998, the late Jim Bacon swept to power in a landslide, becoming the first Labor leader to win majority government in almost two decades. Labor might have been in good shape, but the state of Tasmania was in a mess. There was double-digit unemployment, the population was declining for the first time since the Second World War and property prices were falling, with little or no business investment. Tasmanians were dispirited. They had been told the only way out was to sell the prized Hydro Electric Corporation and to use the proceeds to retire debt. The other solution was to amalgamate with Jeff Kennett’s Victoria.

Jim Bacon offered a third way: to convince Tasmanians that they did indeed have a future, debt could be managed and, with the certainty of majority government, business would invest. To lend weight to the claims, his Treasurer, David Crean, brought down the first balanced budget in over a century. Suddenly, things were not as bad as they seemed. Optimism replaced pessimism. The unemployment rate stabilised and then began to fall. AFL football was lured back to the state. Two new ferries from Melbourne to Devonport pushed visitor numbers to record levels. With more jobs, Tasmanians stopped leaving and people from Melbourne and Sydney wanting a better lifestyle started moving to Tasmania. Within a couple of years, Tasmania will be net debt free.

This is a new Tasmania—a self-assured, confident Tasmania. It is no longer the mendicant state. It is dynamic and it is exciting. In that same way, we rebuilt the Labor Party. Jim Bacon and his lieutenants Paul Lennon and David Crean rebuilt Tasmania. In the early days of the Labor government, Hobart insisted that Tasmania was not interested in handouts from Canberra; it needed a hand up. For members who still hold an old-fashioned view of Tasmania, take another look. There is a new Tasmania radically different from the old. There is now a Tasmania that does not look for protection; it looks for a fair go.

For instance, our vegetable farmers, under attack from cheap imports, are not looking for a handout. They are looking for a fair go. They know that they produce the finest vegetables in the world. They do not want tariff protection. They want a fair go, and a fair go means fair labelling. Consumers will buy Tasmanian—Australian, for that matter—if the labelling clearly states the origin of the produce, because consumers know that when they buy Tasmanian they are buying the best. Our farmers are not looking for an unfair advantage; they are looking for a level playing ground. The least we can do as legislators is review our labelling laws and decide for ourselves if the current system is fair.

The world is a small place. We are part of a global village. It would therefore be wrong to resurrect trade barriers. But our farmers in Tasmania are not asking for tariff protection; they are asking for consumers to be given the right to choose—to choose between produce grown here and produce grown elsewhere. In the same way, we need to make sure that the textile, clothing and footwear industries are competing on level terms with the rest of the world. Our policies should always be underpinned by the notion of a fair go.

I will now turn to the composition of the Senate. There has been much talk about the dangers of one party controlling both houses of the Australian parliament. I would like to bring a distinctly Tasmanian view to this debate. In Tasmania, we have the most democratic electoral system in the world—the Hare-Clark system. It is similar to the Senate. A candidate with 16 per cent of the vote will win a seat in the state’s lower house. It is a system that gives minorities a voice. They are the positives.

The negative side of Hare-Clark is that it regularly throws up minority governments with the balance of power held by a group with less than 16 percent of the vote. In the past two decades, Tasmania has had two minority governments—the Labor-Green accord, which lasted just 2½ years, and the Rundle Liberal government supported by the Greens in 1996 and 1997. Neither lasted a full four-year term. Both served only half a term. During both periods, the economy stalled; unemployment was high; and business, wary of a political climate where it was never certain from one day to the next if the government would stand or fall, refused to invest.

I have already spoken about the disastrous state of affairs Jim Bacon inherited when he came to office in 1998—a population falling for the first time since the Second World War, unemployment stuck in double digits and the value of the family home falling—all contributing to a pessimistic people with a gloomy outlook for the future. It would therefore be hypocritical for me to stand here and bemoan the coalition’s dominance of the Senate. Instead, I would like to point out the enormous responsibility which now falls on the coalition members of this place, particularly those from Tasmania.

After nine long years, you no longer have the luxury of toeing the party line knowing that this side of the chamber will throw out or amend legislation that hurts your constituents. We no longer have the power to do that for you. You will need to examine every detail of government policy before it gets to this place. You will need to fight tooth and nail in your party room to protect Tasmania’s interests. If you do not, then be prepared for the public humiliation that will surely come if you are forced to vote for a particular measure that you know will harm your constituents. If all else fails, please be prepared to listen to our suggestions to make changes for the better even if they are suggested by this side of the chamber.

The people of Australia have given you great power. Exercise it with caution and humility. Tasmania has 12 senators—the same number as all the other states despite having a much smaller population. The reason for that is simple. When the founders of this great nation sat down to consider the composition of the Australian parliament, they agreed that the rights of all the states, regardless of how big or how small, must be protected, and the responsibility for that protection falls squarely on the members of this chamber. If they had decided the Senate would simply be a house of review, then our founders would not have used a state based electoral system.

I have heard it said that the government now regards the Senate as a rubber stamp. That remains to be seen. Liberal members of this chamber may well act as lap-dogs to their masters in the House of Representatives. They may well ignore their primary responsibility to look after the interests of their state. I hope they will not. I hope they will treat each piece of legislation on its merits and I hope they will find ways to protect Tasmania’s interests.

A test of the allegiance of the coalition’s Tasmanian senators may well arrive when the industrial relations changes are debated. Despite the great advances we have made in the past seven years, Tasmania still has the lowest paid workers of any state. It is true that that gap is closing, but it has not yet closed. Unless the IR changes proposed by the government contain a specific requirement that no worker will be worse off under these changes, especially those on low incomes, I would expect all Tasmanian senators, particularly those in the coalition ministry, to vote it down. Perhaps most galling is the proposed replacement of state based industrial commissions with a national commission for fair pay. This one-size-fits-all approach to national policy-making is seriously flawed. Whether it is IR, education or health, there has to be flexibility within the system to take regional differences into account. The reason Canberra does not run hospitals is because—and I think the Prime Minister has acknowledged this—local communities know best their own needs.

I place on public record my determination to keep my fellow senators accountable, especially during this period when one party has the capacity to exercise absolute control. I will be noisy when there is evidence that particular senators are placing their personal ambitions above the interests of the people of Tasmania. Equally, I will not be afraid to praise where praise is due. The Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement is an example of cooperative federalism—the coming together of two governments of different political persuasions for the common good. This agreement takes the area of Tasmanian old growth protected to more than one million hectares. It provides job security and it provides capital for the industry to invest in value adding. It protects the deep red myrtle in the Tarkine and the giant trees of the Styx Valley.

The Premier of Tasmania, Paul Lennon, deserves great credit for this agreement. He knew that simply locking up more land would not resolve the forest debate. He knew that any long-term solution had to address clear-felling. By 2010 less than 20 per cent of the very small area of old growth logged will be clear-felled, replaced by new harvesting methods that protect biodiversity. What a shame that we cannot approach all of the big issues in the same way. What a shame that we have had to witness the buck-passing between governments over health services. What a shame that some politicians in Canberra think belting state governments is good politics. Wouldn’t it be something if there could be real sense of partnership between the states and the Commonwealth? In Tasmania, the state government has signed partnership agreements with every local council committing both sides to working together on the major issues confronting each municipality. Imagine if that sense of partnership could be replicated nationally. Imagine the progress on some of the intractable problems facing this country. Imagine the sense of relief in the Australian community that governments at both levels were working together to make things better. I know it is a dream, but it is a dream worth having. For example, wouldn’t it be reassuring for the Australian community if we had a coherent child-care policy?

With the country experiencing a skills shortage, the government encourages mums—and, for that matter, dads—to go back to work. We encourage them to return to work, but there are no places for their children in child care. Those that are lucky enough to find a child-care place find that a significant percentage of their salary goes straight into child-care costs. At the other end of the spectrum, the child-care workers, the ones charged with raising the next generation of Australians, are paid a pittance. I wonder how they will fare under the government’s proposed changes to industrial relations. I wonder how many of them will be paid what they are worth. I wonder how many of them will enjoy job security. I am not saying for a moment that these problems are easy to solve, but they are problems we have to solve. These are the problems that people want governments, both state and federal, to tackle.

Over the years, I have noticed a tendency for some senators to change once they have been in Canberra for a few years. I am not sure why, but I guess that will become clear. I am sure they have made great speeches in this place, but when they return to Tasmania, it is almost as if they are speaking a different language. They lose touch. I am told that if you are not careful you can be drawn into the Canberra club—a club whose members take themselves a little too seriously, a club that lives in a world divorced from reality. They say forewarned is forearmed. I therefore resolve to spend as much time in Tasmania as I possibly can lest I become a member of the Canberra club.