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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Page: 3940

Senator XENOPHON (5:31 PM) —Mr President, before I begin, let me offer you my sincere congratulations on your election to the office of President of the Senate. I look forward to your independent, wise and even-handed guidance in this chamber.

Whilst this is my first speech in federal parliament, it is not actually my first speech in a parliament. Eleven years ago I decided to run as an Independent for the upper house of the South Australian parliament to highlight the devastating impact poker machines were having in my state. I never expected to win. Unlike so many poker machine players, I knew the odds and the odds were against me. But I ran to make a point, and thanks to an improbable series of preference deals I was elected.

I well remember making that first speech in the South Australian upper house. Back then I was awed by the task ahead, and today I have the same feelings. A six-year term can seem like a long time, but after a decade in the South Australian parliament I know all too well there is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Especially while fighting for the rights of asbestos victims, I was painfully aware of the limitations of time.

So as I stand here making my first speech I am actually thinking a lot about what I am going to say in my last speech. Will I have made a difference? Will I have fought the battles that needed fighting and helped those who needed helping? Will I have sought every opportunity to make life a little better for people, a little fairer for people and maybe even a little easier for people?

No-one makes it to this place on their own, and I have a lot of people to thank. Most of them I will thank privately. I know I am an Independent, but over the years I have been absolutely dependent on a loyal band of supporters who were ready to help me fight for what I believed in. I still struggle to comprehend how 1,200 volunteers saw fit to give up their time and their labour to help me on election day. I am awed by the support of the almost 150,000 South Australians who sent me here to advocate for them and to be their watchdog. I will always be grateful for their support.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my mother and father, who emigrated from Greece and Cyprus respectively almost six decades ago. I am immensely proud of my heritage and I am so grateful for the support of my parents, family, extended family and friends.

I thank the Hon. John Darley for assuming my responsibilities in the South Australian parliament and for his wise advice and encouragement. I thank my running mate at the last election, Roger Bryson, and also Tim Costello, who for the last 11 years has been a mentor and a great friend.

There is one last supporter I would like to thank by name, and that is my beautiful son, Aleksis. He is both my mate and my meaning. There is no greater force in this world than the love a parent feels for their child. As a father I am immensely proud of him, and I will work tirelessly to make him proud of me in this place.

A lot of people ask me where I am on the political spectrum: am I conservative or progressive? Apart from a youthful indiscretion while at uni where I flirted briefly with the Young Libs, for most of my life and in my political career I have tended not to see things in terms of Left or Right. Instead, I try to think about what is right and what is wrong.

On the issue of poker machines that is not hard to do. Poker machines are an unsafe product that causes untold harm to the most vulnerable in the community. Today in this country there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who in some direct way have been damaged by the poker machine industry. In my former life as a lawyer and since, I have seen so many good people whose lives have been ruined by these machines. I could not stand by and say nothing.

According to the industry’s own figures, poker machines make more than 50 per cent of their revenue from problem gamblers. For a long time I have debated with the industry, quoting studies, experts and reports that quantify the devastating effect these machines have on those who become addicted. But I now realise this has played in a way into the gambling industry’s hands. I quote an expert and then all they do is quote some other expert with some dubious figures in order to muddy the waters.

The industry do this not because they want to win the argument—they know they cannot; their position is untenable. Instead, all they really want to do is to keep the argument going, because as long as they can do that they can keep their machines running and take money from problem gamblers and their families. Their arguments and their denials all echo the tactics used by the tobacco industry in decades past. I say enough is enough. The debate is over. These machines are unsafe and need to be removed from the community.

State governments have also become addicted to these machines, thanks to the $4 billion a year they receive from poker machine taxes. My decision to run for the Senate was triggered on 11 September last year, when I read about the then opposition leader’s views on poker machines. He said he hated them and that he knew something of the impact they have on families. I was encouraged. Not only was the now Prime Minister right; the Australian people knew he was right on this and many other issues. My message to the Prime Minister is simple: I want to work constructively with him, his government, the crossbenchers and the opposition to eradicate this scourge from our suburbs as well as internet gambling from our lounge rooms. As Tim Costello says, ‘With online gambling, it’s now possible to lose your home without ever actually having to leave it.’ Poker machines are a litmus test of good government. If governments are willing to sacrifice their own citizens for gambling taxes, what else are they getting wrong?

When I first made it into the upper house in South Australia, a lot of politicians—state and federal—approached me in the same sort of way I suspect they would have approached the village idiot. I remember meeting the Hon. Philip Ruddock at a community event in Adelaide in 1998, where he asked me what party I was from. I replied I was an Independent who had run on a ‘no pokies’ platform. He looked at me stunned and said words to the effect of, ‘You actually got voted in on that?’ His reaction and the initial reaction of a number of my state parliamentary colleagues reminded me of Tony Benn, the old left-wing warhorse of the British Labour Party, who once said:

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.

This was my experience in state politics, and I hope on key issues I will experience the same here. So the poker machine industry can consider itself put on notice.

I also want to work constructively with the government, and indeed all my colleagues, on what I believe is the biggest crisis facing our nation and my state in particular—that is, the crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin. It is too big and too important to be treated as a partisan issue. This crisis not only reflects environmental failures but also represents a failure of Federation. For more than a century state governments have put parochial interests above the national interest and allowed this once great river system to be drained to death’s door. We know from the High Court’s decision on Work Choices the extent of Commonwealth power. I believe that power should be used for the good of the entire river system and the communities that depend on it for their survival. The irrigators need help and the environment needs protecting. This should not be about state against state, region against region or irrigator against environmentalist. With one river system, there should be one set of rules to run the rivers in the national interest. Governments should not give in to the temptation to play divide and rule as the river dies. It was Mark Twain who likened the River Murray to America’s great river the Mississippi. However, as the Courier-Mail’s Mike O’Connor wrote last week:

Were Twain to see the Murray River today it is unlikely he would repeat the comparison, for the Murray and its sibling the Darling are dying, strangled by a combination of political apathy, cowardice and stupidity.

In 1999 Phillip Coorey wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser of a leaked CSIRO report that said Adelaide’s water would be too salty to drink on two days out of five by 2020 unless there was a major shift in water management along the Murray-Darling river system. We are still waiting for that major shift. I cannot accept that the Council of Australian Governments agreement of 3 July this year, which will not be fully implemented until 2018, reflects the urgency required. The science says we cannot wait. How can one of the wealthiest, smartest countries on the planet be facing an environmental disaster in the Coorong and Lower Lakes reminiscent of the devastation of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union? This is not a crisis the current federal government created. Like a tragic game of pass the parcel, they just got left with the mess when the music stopped. The government did not cause the problem, but they do have the power and the opportunity to deliver a solution. I believe that only a full federal government takeover of the entire basin will achieve this.

In October 1942, during the heat of a federal election campaign, allegations emerged about a ‘Brisbane line’—that is, the nation north of Brisbane would be dissected from east to west and the area above the line abandoned in the event of a Japanese invasion. I wonder whether there is a vertical South Australian line. Perhaps it starts somewhere to the east of Renmark, a line not planned or premeditated but nonetheless caused by political decisions, a line that deems part of this country as expendable. Make no mistake: not acting is still making a choice. This line will come into being in the absence of bold action on water. None of us wants to see that come to pass, but perhaps by imagining the worst we will be spurred on to fix this problem.

I also want to play my part in helping raise the level of political engagement in this country. Donald Horne referred to Australia, with calculated irony, as the ‘lucky country’ to make the point that we should not rely on luck alone, and I think he was right. Luck is great, as long as you do not count on it. We must never take our luck for granted and we must work hard to protect what we have. This place—the Australian Senate—by virtue of the powers afforded to it by the Constitution, is entrusted to play, amongst other things, a watchdog role over the executive arm of government. I say, as would many others, that that role was diminished in the last three years. And good governance is not just about what happens in parliament. The authorities set up by acts of parliament—whether they be the ACCC, the Australian National Audit Office or the Ombudsman—have to be given real authority and adequate resources to do their jobs. Our trade practices laws need to reflect a commitment not just to free markets but also to fair markets.

Good governance is also about the freedom to speak out when it is in the national interest. In 2007 News Ltd journalists Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus were convicted of contempt of court. Their ‘crime’ was refusing to testify in a matter relating to senior public servant Desmond Kelly. Mr Kelly had been accused of leaking cabinet documents that showed the then government intended to short-change war veterans’ entitlements to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The story was in the national interest. The public had a right to know. The journalists and any source should never have been charged.

Nor should Allan Kessing have been charged and convicted. He was a Customs official accused of leaking the report on security breaches at Sydney airport that lead to a $200 million emergency upgrade in airport security. For democracy to work we need to know not just the good things about a government but also the things that do not reflect well on it. If we really believe in a citizen’s right to exercise democratic choice, surely we must all agree this has to be an informed choice.

Finally on the topic of good governance, I note that we are not just the lucky country; we are also meant to be the clever country. That does make me wonder whether it is that smart to be cutting the budget of the CSIRO, given all the challenges created by climate change. Policy choices must also be informed and based on the best evidence available.

A lot of people talk about the power of this senator or that senator, but none of us have any power other than the power entrusted in us by the people, the voters. They give us this power and they can take it away. That is why I do not swear allegiance to a party and that is why I do not owe allegiance to any one ideology. That is what I believe Independents must do. An Independent must take every issue as it comes and ask, ‘If we change things, who might it hurt and who will it help?’ and then hopefully make the right choice. I also do not believe in horse trading. Horse trading implies a willingness to vote for something you do not believe in in order to get something else you want. When people do try to horse trade they can end up with a donkey or, worse still, end up making an ass of themselves.

The task ahead will not be easy. It is going to be hard work, but I have been given the job and I am ready for the responsibility. I am acutely aware of the expectations and obligations that face me. I am reminded of that quote from my role model, and some might say my kindred spirit, Woody Allen, in the opening scene of the movie Annie Hall. The film opens with Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, looking into the camera and saying:

There’s an old joke—um ... two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’

Woody goes on to say:

Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life—full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

I am sure that is how I am going to feel while I am here, but I would not have it any other way. The great Australian novelist Tim Winton once said that ‘ordinary life flows with divine grace’. I like that quote. It is another way of saying that everything and everyone has value, and I think that is important to remember.

Anyway, I have probably said enough for now. I am conscious of never taking more of the Senate’s time than I need to to have my say. I have got the next six years to get to know everyone here, but if you want the Reader’s Digest version of my approach to this job, here it is: I would rather go down fighting than still be standing because I stayed silent.