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Tuesday, 16 August 2005
Page: 71

Senator STERLE (5:26 PM) —Thank you, Mr President. I am truly honoured to stand in this place today on behalf of the Australian Labor Party and the people of Western Australia who have put their trust and faith in me. It is a great privilege that has been bestowed on me and I will honour that trust and faith at all times. I congratulate my parliamentary colleagues who are also here as a result of electoral success last year. In particular, to the 14 colleagues who, like me, are walking the red carpet corridors for the first time this session as a senator: my best wishes are with you as we fulfil our roles on this great democratic stage.

While there is much that we in this chamber might disagree on, I suspect that those of us who stand here for the first time would be united on at least one point, and that is the appreciation we have for those who have helped us to get here. I certainly did not cross the Nullarbor to this place alone. I have been fortunate enough to have a convoy of hardworking members and officials of the Transport Workers Union, the TWU, at my side. They have steered my path to our nation’s capital and provided me with perhaps life’s greatest lessons along the way. I am particularly proud to stand here alongside other former TWU officials, Senator Hutchins and Senator Conroy.

Mr President, I would like to acknowledge the presence in the gallery of John Allan, Jim McGiveron, Tony Sheldon and Alex Gallegher. Together, these men form the Federal Committee of Management of the Transport Workers Union of Australia—an institution that has for over 100 years fought, at times bitterly, for the advancement of transport workers. That resolve is no weaker today nor will it ever cower in the shadow of an arrogant government, like the one we face in this country today. Like so many of our nation’s other unions and union activists at this juncture in our history, I am sure the Transport Workers Union is poised and ready for battle, because the protection of workers is not an optional extra; it is a right.

That is not simply a hollow sentiment; it is a creed that I have lived by since the first time I heard it from a brash young TWU organiser at a delegates meeting in the 1980s. I heard and saw in that organiser exactly how it should be for workers—always having someone to stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves; knowing that there was a collective and unyielding drive for workplace fairness and equity; and having confidence that, while you got on with your job, there was someone behind you at every turn demonstrating a passion above all else to fight on your behalf for what was right. The organiser to whom I refer is Jim McGiveron—a man who has never taken a backward step in his life. He has charged ahead without fear, been a leader and a ground-breaker and, above all else, he has been a mate—and for that I am eternally grateful.

In 1991 I became an organiser for the Transport Workers Union and I was given my chance to do what Jimmy had done for me and so many like me: work to improve the pay and conditions for hardworking men and women of the transport industry. So, to my wife’s great satisfaction, I traded in the long hauls over our rugged and unrelenting terrain as an owner-driver truckie and headed into the even more rugged and unrelenting terrain of a union office. While not every battle was won in the 14 years that I was with the TWU, I can honestly say that they were all hard fought. The people of Western Australia can expect the same of me here. I will continue to stand up for the things that I believe in and the things that matter. Like in times past, irrespective of the challenge, I will always fight hard.

A great deal of our journey here is steered by those people who are waiting for us when we leave our workplaces and walk through the doors of our homes. It is to those people in my life that I would like to pay homage. I feel particularly lucky to have the support and presence in the gallery today of members of my family, both those chosen by nature, my parents, brother and sister, and the ones that came as part of a package when Fiona actually said ‘Yes’ to my badly worded but heartfelt marriage proposal all those years ago. My life is certainly all the richer for having each and every one of them in it.

My best friend for the last 27 years has also been my wife for the last 23 years—Fiona. She has been the most steadying influence in my life. She has always supported me through my years of trucking and my life as a union organiser—which has been no small feat. She is the one who had to play the role of both mother and father to our two children when they were very young as I was nearly always away on the road somewhere between Perth and Darwin. Fiona ran the household and held our family together nearly every day on her own. Working away from home I could not be there at the end of the day, and on many weekends, to share the parenting duties and ease the load. I still cannot imagine how hard it must have been for Fiona when our second child was only three days old and I had to head back to Darwin. While many senators who are parents can appreciate the challenges in taking a newborn baby home, they will also appreciate the lack of excitement a three-year-old can have for a new sibling. But Fiona took it all in her stride. The strength and conviction I have needed to make choices in my life has so often come from Fiona and the journey that has brought me here today is no exception. That is why I know that, whatever the challenges ahead, with Fiona by my side they will never be too great. To our two children, Kirsty and Daniel, you are the reasons why I try to be the best I can. You have made my life far from ordinary and you are a constant reminder that all of us who come before have an obligation to pave an easier way for those who come after us. Thank you both.

Thinking back to my own childhood I can say that life was certainly different when I was growing up with my younger brother and sister in the state housing commission suburb of Langford in Perth’s east. Langford was the typical working-class suburb. It was created in the early 1970s when low-income earners had the chance to live the great Australian dream of owning a home. Simple pleasures like a Mr Whippy ice cream were something we very rarely experienced in Langford, but we never felt disadvantaged because no-one in our street got one. In fact, it must have been a big decision for Mr Whippy to even enter Langford knowing it would probably cost more to run the van than he was going to earn in sales.

My dad was a truck driver and my mum was a nurse. It was often the case that as one of our parents stepped in from work the other stepped out to work a night shift. The importance of working hard was instilled in me by my parents from a very early age and it is an ethos that I have carried all through my adult working life. It was my dad who introduced me to the furniture removal industry when I was very young. He was a truckie who travelled the length and breadth of Western Australia, across the Nullarbor and into the Eastern States. I will never forget the first time I actually got to go with dad down south in his truck to deliver a load of furniture. I was nine years old and the thrill of riding in the cab of a truck was a dream come true. Although I was just a kid, the one thing I knew was that my future as a truckie was only a matter of time.

I officially entered the work force in 1977 as an assistant furniture removalist at Wridgways, working up to a driver and then becoming an owner driver in 1980—hauling road trains into the Pilbara, the Goldfields, Kimberly and the Northern Territory. At that time I only occasionally ventured across the Nullarbor. Funnily enough, one such occasion was to deliver the very seats that our parliamentary colleagues on the other side of this great building sit on. For those who do not know, the seats in both chambers of the federal parliament were made in Western Australia. Even back then in 1987, as I loaded a road train full of the green leather seats, I had a much stronger preference for the red ones that sat alongside them in the furniture factory, located in the Perth suburb of Riverton. It says a lot about the opportunities provided in this great country of ours that a worker who once delivered the seats to this parliament is now working from one of them, representing the people of Western Australia.

As a worker in the transport industry I developed a keen interest in the union movement and before long I became a union delegate. I was particularly drawn to the TWU’s proven ability to achieve success for its members, and it was when I attended a union meeting in my early 20s that I learnt the true meaning of collective responsibility. Workers can achieve anything they desire as long as they, alongside their union representatives, are prepared to make the hard decisions and stand united in their convictions, but also provided that their elected parliamentary representatives do not treat them with contempt. In the same way, Australian voters can achieve anything provided they play an active role in decisions about our country’s future. That means always voicing an opinion about who will lead, how they will lead and whether or not the leaders are doing the job they expect of them.

It seems like an eternity since I first rode on the engine cover of that truck with my dad, and it is a long time since I sat behind the wheel of a road train hauling furniture. But regardless of the time that has passed there is one thing that remains very fresh in my memory and that is when another conservative government saw the need for workplace reform. In the 1990s individual workplace agreements were introduced in Western Australia by the Richard Court led coalition government. This was an era that saw tens of thousands of Western Australian workers protesting in the streets of Perth against an archaic wave of industrial legislation that did nothing other than erode the take home pay and conditions of workers across the board. This was an era that I lived and breathed as a union organiser. I saw first-hand those workers, who did not have the support of collective bargaining and union representation, forced into signing agreements that guaranteed they were worse off. Workers who raised an objection were told quite clearly that they did not have to sign but if they refused then they could always find another job. So, as we learnt hard and fast in Western Australia, so-called ‘industrial reform’ at the hands of an arrogant conservative government can so easily become a scalpel for unscrupulous employers to cut through the skin of their workers without consent, without anything to ease the pain and without regard for what that will do to their lives. It is interesting to note, Mr President, that since the Gallop Labor government repealed the flawed Western Australian workplace agreements, Western Australia has become the engine room of the Australian economy, with growth and export figures the envy of other states.

I know, as a former small business operator, that competition is fierce out in the market place, which means that for many businesses to simply stay afloat they must have an acute understanding of, ‘If you want my business then you have to sharpen the pencil.’ So, employers do sharpen the pencil. But growing a business does not need to be done at the expense of its workers or their safety—in fact, it can and should be the contrary, because the best asset of a business is its people. For a truckie, one way to sharpen the pencil is to lengthen the service interval of the truck. Alternatively, a cheaper brand of tyres can be purchased—even though the kilometre lifespan is reduced—retreads can be used or monthly repayments on capital can be stretched out. But when it is time to retender, the truck is worn out, the driver is burnt out and only if they are very lucky there is still a family waiting at home after each trip.

It is only the scale of economy that is different between a major employer and a small business operator. The cost of goods, services and machinery can only be negotiated down to a certain point. In the transport industry, fuel companies, tyre suppliers, insurers, auto-electricians and repairers do not care how cheaply a trucking firm has negotiated to deliver on a contract; they all have their price for what they provide and as an owner-driver you pay it.

No worker will be better off under the Howard government’s proposed industrial relations changes. And to say that they will be is either a gross misunderstanding of what is being proposed or a gross deception. We are already seeing the winds of revolt. Earlier today 500 truckies gave up a day’s earnings to drive to Canberra and deliver the very clear message to John Howard that they are not prepared to sit back and watch the demolition of their working rights while the government pursues its extreme industrial relations agenda. For that they deserve not only our respect but also our support.

This government’s word is worthless when it comes to looking after workers. In 1997 the Office of the Employment Advocate was set up to scrutinise workplace agreements and ensure that the so-called no disadvantage clause was adhered to. What has happened in practice has been a betrayal of the trust Australians had put in the Prime Minister and his government. The Office of the Employment Advocate has let down thousands of workers, failing to protect their pay and conditions. In short, the Prime Minister has become the organ grinder and the Office of the Employment Advocate his monkey, dancing to the tune of its political master.

I am not prepared to see history repeated, particularly as I have been entrusted by Western Australians to best represent their interests. I appeal to all members of this place to think long and hard about the future for Australian workers and their families. Certainly no Labor senator will live with the guilt of creating a fractured society where the bottom line is given far greater value than workers and their lives. The truth is that no senator needs to feel guilty; the choice is yours. To borrow from Confucius: ‘To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice.’ So, to my fellow senators: when we leave this place, even if you are remembered for little else, do not be remembered as one of Howard’s cowards.

We need only look as far as any corner of this building to be reminded that it was because of the hard work and commitment of around 50,000 workers that we have such a wonderful building for our federal parliament. So look into that corner, contemplate how the concrete was laid, appreciate the massive task of polishing all the floors we walk along each day, notice the faces of the Senate support staff, Comcar drivers, food service workers, cleaners, security guards, Hansard staff, gift shop team and tour guides, to name just a few. Never forget that we owe it to all Australian workers to use the power of this place to protect them for as long as we are here.

As enshrined in the party’s platform, Labor was born out of the trade union movement and its struggle for a secure, decent and dignified life for working people. The partnership between the two great wings of the labour movement has been essential to deal with the consequences of the industrial revolution. And, after nine long years of a conservative government that is out of touch, we find ourselves poised on the verge of a new industrial revolution that will have disastrous consequences for Australian workers and their families. Although many working Australians voted Liberal for the first time at the last election, Labor has not and will not turn its back on them. As a Labor senator, I vow on behalf of 1.9 million Western Australians to take the fight up in the Senate. Thank you, Mr President.

The PRESIDENT —I remind honourable senators that they must refer to the Prime Minister by his correct title.