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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 4458

Senator FARRELL (5:01 PM) —Thank you, Mr President. I take this opportunity to once again congratulate you on your appointment. Like all the new senators, I shall be grateful for your assistance and, I am sure, your patience. It is an extraordinary honour to be elected to the Senate. All of us come to this place at a pivotal time in our country’s history. Blessed as Australians are with opportunities and resources, we also face some very significant challenges. We have great responsibilities to discharge, and the way we approach the challenges of the 21st century will determine the sort of Australia we leave our children and our children’s children.

The votes are in, amigos, and, as they have done so many times in the past in times of war and national crisis, last November Australians turned to the Australian Labor Party to find solutions for seemingly intractable problems. I am proud to be able to play a small part in this work. It is a matter of great sadness that my father, Edward William Farrell, is not here today. Dad would have loved to have been here. He was a political aspirant with great passion and optimism. He stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Boothby five times between 1961 and 1972 and for the Senate in 1975. My sister and brother were early campaign workers, helping out and handing out each time Dad stood for election. Dad never lost heart and nearly every May school holidays as we drove to Sydney he would drive us past Old Parliament House here in Canberra, declaring with irrepressible optimism that he would be there after the next election. Of course, he never was. I know it would have given him immense pleasure and pride to see me in this chamber today—as it would have given my mother, Mary Heptinstall. Like so many, Mum was taken from us by breast cancer far too early, but she instilled in me a strong sense of social justice as well as a love for that quintessentially Australian game, Australian Rules football. Today of all days I miss them both very much, but I am delighted that my sister Leonie, her husband, Peter, and their daughter, Erin, as well as my younger brother, Andrew, his partner, Claire, and their children, Elsie and Mabel, have been able to join us today.

Last year’s electoral success to the Senate and my years of work for the SDA owe a great deal to many people. But no-one has been more important or contributed more to me than my wife, Nimfa. Twenty-five years ago, Nimfa made the decision that hundreds of thousands of migrants had made before her. She left her home in the Philippines and everything and everyone she knew to marry me and start a new life in Adelaide. As our family grew in size, much of the child-rearing was left to her. The sacrifices she made to enable me to pursue my career were enormous. I thank her for her love and support and for that of my children. My daughter Mary is hoping—as we all are—that she will finish studying law and international studies this year. My middle girl, Tess, is studying media. She sent me a beautiful email this morning and is currently on her way to work in an orphanage in Brazil. The marvels of modern communication, in which South Australia I am pleased to say leads the nation—yes, that is true!—means that she can watch my speech live in London, and I hope she is doing that at the moment. My youngest daughter is Emily. She is a Jonas Brothers fan and studies at Loreto College in Marryatville. All of its students were here today. Occasionally there is Mary’s friend James, who started a new job recently in Aboriginal health. I say to James that he will be pleased to know that closing the gap for Indigenous Australians is a high priority for this Labor government, and I look forward to playing a part in this as a Labor senator. Two of Nimfa’s nine siblings were also able to come by today—Wilma, who has flown in from the Philippines, and Jess. They are here with Peter.

In these days where small is good and there is a constant drive for centralised decision-making and efficiencies, it is a little bit unfashionable to support a two-tiered form of government. Recently I read Robert Caro’s absorbing book on the Lyndon Johnson presidency. I recall a section about the drafting of the American constitution. A puzzled Thomas Jefferson, who had hurriedly returned from France, asked George Washington over breakfast why he had unexpectedly agreed to a two-tiered form of government. Washington replied with his own question. He asked Jefferson, ‘Why did you just pour tea into a saucer?’ Jefferson replied, ‘To cool it.’ Washington smiled and said, ‘Just so—and we pour House legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.’ Like Washington, I am in favour of a senate or house of review to cool legislation and provide checks and balances. My guess is that many of today’s opposition members and senators, as well as ex-members and ex-senators, now wish the Work Choices legislation had been considerably more cooled—perhaps cryogenically frozen—in this chamber.

It was, in fact, the Work Choices legislation that encouraged me to run at the last election. As a unionist for 32 years, and like so many other ordinary Australians, I was appalled by the Work Choices regime that the coalition foisted on ordinary Australian families. This was not the Australia I wanted to be part of, and I felt so strongly about it I wanted to have a hands-on role in dismantling it. I wanted to be directly involved in restoring the sort of Australia my parents and grandparents’ generation worked and fought so hard to build and protect. I am delighted to say that one of our first pieces of legislation was the abolition of Australian workplace agreements. Shortly, we will be introducing legislation that restores balance in the workplace. As a nation, we are so much better than Work Choices.

My early years were spent at Crafers in the Adelaide Hills. We then moved to Forestville, near the family shop where I started my long connection with the retail industry. Subsequently, we moved to Panorama for a couple of years before settling on Goodwood Road, Daw Park. The southern Adelaide suburbs were a different world in the 1960s. At a little Dominican parish school, St Therese’s, I made some friends for life including singer songwriter John Schumann. We both moved to Blackfriars Priory School in Prospect, where I met my great friend Simon Milazzo, who is here today with Josie. I started at Adelaide University, where I studied law, meeting another lifelong friend, Peter Bok, now one of Adelaide’s most celebrated artists. Like lots of students, I worked as a shop assistant during my spare time—for some six years at my uncle Joe’s kiosk at the Cleland Wildlife Park in the Adelaide Hills. Although my mother is not with us today, I am delighted that her brother, my uncle Joe Heptinstall, is here with his wife, Josie.

I joined the SDA in 1976 as an industrial officer under the late Ted Goldsworthy. Ted grew up in an orphanage, was self-taught but, in my experience, there was no better advocate for working families. I owe him much as I do to my subsequent boss, John Boag, and his wife Dulcie. His daughter Rachel is here today. I was elected as assistant secretary in 1980 and became secretary in 1993.

Through the union, I was able to continue my studies at the Kennedy School of Government in Boston, where I got a glimpse of what was soon to be lurking around the corner in Australian workplaces. As federal president, I worked closely with the SDA’s Joe de Bruyn, Jim Maher and many good people around Australia including Chris and Ellie Ketter and Michael Donovan, who when the chips were down could always be relied on for support. There was no day that I did not enjoy my work with the union and the chance it gave me to improve the lives of our members. I look back now and I see one of our greatest achievements, as leaders of the SDA, was the development and implementation of a superannuation scheme for our members, REST Superannuation.

When I first started working, superannuation was a privilege not a right. Married women almost never got it, part-timers never got it and casuals certainly never got it. Until then, super was generally only available to males—mostly professionals—working with a single employer over a lifetime. We fought to change that. We took on the retailers and they fought back. They dragged us all through the courts but, in the end, we won. Now super is a near universal right. We extended it to women, we extended it to part-timers, we extended it to casuals and then the Hawke-Keating government extended it to nearly everyone else. We created a system of savings for retirement for Australian families, established a whole new industry and we succeeded in entrenching a nationwide superannuation system that has now become a world leader. There is still unfinished business, though, and we must ensure that women who move in and out of the workforce for child rearing are fairly treated. We might want to consider accessing pension payments from super accounts through ATMs and, ultimately, the scheme needs to be boosted by higher contributions so that eventually all working Australians can retire with dignity.

It is a function of first speeches that new members and senators outline their key interests and policy drivers. The continual development and improvement of Australia’s superannuation system—however unsexy that might seem to some—is going to be one of mine.

Despite successes like this, much remains to be done and I have left the South Australian branch in the capable hands of secretary Peter Malinauskas, assistant secretary Sonia Romeo—here with Dan—and their very hard-working and committed staff. The union today is big, strong and self-reliant. Over a lifetime in or on the fringes of politics, I have more than most to thank and time simply does not permit me to mention all of them. I appreciate the indulgence of the Senate and the indulgence of many people who will not be named here. The important thing is that you know who you are, as I do too.

Always there to offer sage advice have been Paul Holloway, Michael Atkinson, Michael O’Brien, Carmel Zollo, Trish White and their partners Wendy, Joan, Jane, Lou and Joe. Also there in the early days were Mark Bishop, Steve Hutchins and Gary Gray. Tom Koutsantonis has been a tower of strength in times of trouble as have been Bernard Finnigan, Jack Snelling, Tom Kenyon, Michael Brown, Tung Ngo—the list goes on. Each of you represents a part of the future of the ALP in South Australia. Some of my former work colleagues also won at this election: Amanda Rishworth and Nick Champion, who joined Kate Ellis, Annette Hurley and Dana Wortley.

Alex Gallacher from the Transport Workers Union was one of the people who convinced me to run again. I received a heap of support from other union officials, including John Camillo from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Debbie Black from the Finance Sector Union and Bob Geraghty from the ETU. In addition, I want to mention the new member for Port Adelaide, Mark Butler, who was prepared to fundamentally change the confrontational way in which factional politics had been played in South Australia.

I also want to thank my staff: Sevi, Matt, Aaron, Dani, John, Brigitte and Kate. I want to also acknowledge former senators John Quirke, Geoff Buckland and Linda Kirk, whom I thank for her contribution to this chamber. I wish her all the best for the future.

I am a proud South Australian. I am very conscious of my responsibilities in this place to my home state. I was born in the river town of Murray Bridge and, as such, the plight of the river affects me deeply. There is an extremely urgent need to rally to its aid—one that transcends state borders. The problem of the Murray-Darling Basin is a national problem demanding a national solution. The coalition’s response to this most critical national challenge was—and I am not sure I can say this charitably—less than effective. So yet again it is left to Labor to develop and implement the solutions. The Rudd government is giving this issue priority and has committed meaningful funds to buy back water as well as funds for an expanded and fast-tracked desalination plant to secure drinking water long term.

As Sandra Postel, the Director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project, said:

For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports. We have been quick to assume rights to use water but slow to recognize obligations to preserve and protect it ...

This is one of the truly great challenges I mentioned at the outset of my speech. I pledge today to work as hard as I can to help restore the river of my early years. Failure is simply not an option.

In closing, I am reminded of the words of the American labour leader the late Walter Reuther. He had been a leader of the United Auto Workers union and a supporter of the New Deal. He was a socialist in his youth but later became a fierce anticommunist. Reuther said:

There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.

I pledge to heed that calling with all my energy and determination in the certain knowledge that there is no greater calling than that of public service to the families of our great nation.