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Wednesday, 24 June 2015
Page: 4474


Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (17:00): Let me begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional custodians of Canberra. I pay my respects to their elders past and present. In a glass case down the hall, just 250 steps from this chamber, is a copy of the Magna Carta. For some, it will seem curious for a Labor senator to begin a first speech with a document signed by the English aristocracy 800 years ago this month, and yet the Great Charter captures a crucial moment in the democratic struggle for liberty and justice. It is a timely reminder of what a privilege it is to represent our nation's oldest continuing party, one of the world's oldest labour parties, in one of the world's most stable democracies. As a parliamentarian, I am a beneficiary of the countless battles that proceed liberal democracy and, as a Labor senator, I inherit a legacy that stretches back beyond the founding of our Commonwealth. Labor was there in the first Australian parliament, where we sought to secure the franchise for working people and for women.

More than 20 years ago I was proud to join Labor's ranks. In 2011 it was one of the great honours of my life to be elected Labor's national president, to represent the thousands of men and women who place their faith in our movement and in our values. As president I was proud to champion the important first steps we took to renew our party, delivering real opportunities for our members to participate in our politics. In this place, as in my former roles, I intend to take that 800-year-old democratic tradition seriously. The earliest Labor parliamentarians understood the potential of democratic representation and the power of government to deliver a just and more equal society. Labor's cause stems from the conviction that liberal rights mean little if they are not accompanied by the right to exercise them. The pursuit of equality is much broader than a mere balancing of the financial scales. Equality enables us to participate in all of those things that define us as human—to participate in the arts and in politics, to be part of community and to revel in the natural world. It is sometimes said that Labor's project is dead. For some, we are the victims of our own success, a party founded for a collection of needs already met, a group of physicians looking for a disease that no longer exists. This is false. Inequity and injustice persist.

I am a proud daughter of the Tweed Valley. Born in Murwillumbah, I was the first daughter to Don and Alma McAllister and the first grandchild to Lyall, Ollie, Beth and Bill. I was born during a big flood—although not as big as the floods in the following year, 1974, which nearly swept the town away. Don and Alma established their family in the Tweed hoping, I think, that my sister, Libby, and I might live in rude health immersed in the natural beauty of that rural landscape and cocooned by the intimacy of a small community. Indeed, the Tweed was a place rich in community—a place that valued theatre and music as much as sport and surf lifesaving and where people looked out for one another. We were replete with local examples of community leadership—people who knew that success was dependent on the right balance of fun, respect, discipline and common purpose.

But like many regional communities, the Tweed was, and remains, a place troubled by unemployment and by disadvantage. It was common that some families had little work. It was frequent that people would get by on very low incomes. And professional qualifications and university degrees were the exception rather than the rule. Like many young people from regional Australia, in pursuit of education and work I moved to the city. And I was overwhelmed by the realisation that what was typical for my community was not typical for others. Others thought it normal to enter the bar, academia or medical practice. Others planned for lives overseas or to follow their passions for fine art, performance and music. I have never lost the shock of those early years—the enormous gap not just in wealth but also in self-confidence between the community I grew up in and the one I entered as a student.

I left school more than 20 years ago but these challenges remain. Inequality still exists and Labor's project continues. Inequality still exists between the wealthy and the poor. In 2013 the ABS found that the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australian households account for more than 60 per cent of total net worth, while the poorest 20 per cent account for just one per cent. Between men and women, inequality persists. Decades after we fought to establish equal pay for equal work, women still earn on average almost 19 per cent less than men. Between those with property and those without, inequality persists. In many of our major cities many with good incomes remain unable to buy a home. And it persists between the cities and the regions. Compared with major cities, life expectancy in regional areas is one to two years lower and in remote areas it is up to seven years lower. And, of course, in its most extreme and shocking manifestation inequality persists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Knowing this, no social democrat could accept that it is time to rest.

Labor's tradition rejects inequality but also seeks to extend prosperity. We reject simplistic arguments that pit one against the other. In the same way, our tradition recognises that neither the market nor the state alone can, or should, drive our fortunes. Markets are powerful instruments for innovation and the allocation of resources. And yet all markets are underpinned by the state—underwritten by public investment in people and in infrastructure. In my lifetime we have experienced a period of immense economic change at the same time as we are reaching the ecological limits of the physical world. For our generation the great challenge will be to ensure that our economies are able to respond to a world defined by resource scarcity whilst also fostering human potential. I am passionate about ensuring that government institutions and processes are able to meet these challenges.

I have had the good fortune to work in senior roles in the New South Wales public service and to interact with public servants from many different jurisdictions. From watching my colleagues in those places, I learnt a great deal about leadership—about the steady and certain articulation of purpose and values, about the value of careful listening and about the mutual respect necessary to develop great teams. I am specially indebted to the terrific female leaders who, by their example, demonstrated that diverse leadership styles are not only possible, they are in fact desirable and effective. I have carried those lessons with me since. I hope to practice them in this place also and to support young women as I was supported.

More generally, every day my public sector colleagues showed me that there is both skill and honour in delivering great public outcomes. Too little credit is given to the intelligent, ethical men and women who enter public service. Equally, too little attention is paid to the economic significance of the public sector. The government sector accounts for approximately 35 per cent of our GDP. Any serious plan for our country requires a plan for the public sector, harnessing its power as an employer, a purchaser and a policy maker to stimulate innovation and productivity and to drive excellence.

For the last four years I have been fortunate to work for a global infrastructure firm, and I am honoured to have a number of colleagues in the gallery this evening. That experience has shaped my view about our nation's future with Asia. About six months ago I was invited to Singapore to take part in a gathering of our firm's senior leaders. On the first night, at a welcoming barbecue, I stood with colleagues drawn from as far afield as Sri Lanka, China, the Philippines and New Zealand. It was an incredibly diverse gathering, and it was brought together to work out how the many talented individuals in our national businesses would collaborate together within our region. It was a striking manifestation of our Asian century with its promise and its challenges, a century in which Australians must both compete and cooperate with individuals and organisations from across the globe.

Australia is the right economy, located in the right place, to grasp the opportunities presented by Asia's rise. However, success will require more than geographic good fortune. We need to think carefully about education, about investment in first-class digital infrastructure and about substantially improving our innovation capabilities. We need to think carefully about how our cities and towns will enable us to respond to these opportunities. As a child on the North Coast, I watched as governments sought to approve developments on coastal land at the expense of parklands and beach access. I saw selfless community leaders resist this dismal vision for our villages and towns, fighting not against development, but against poor quality development that enriched just one person, not the whole community.

It is unsurprising that these experiences drew me to environmental causes and sowed the seed for the creation of the Labor Environment Action Network, a grassroots body which continues to be a forceful voice for environment protection. However, it also laid the foundations for a lifelong passion for communities that are designed to work. Australia's first Minister for Urban and Regional Development, Tom Uren, was passionate about tackling the unequal distribution of opportunity built into the fabric of our cities—sewering the suburbs, protecting our heritage and delivering green space. Tom was a Labor hero, and I was fortunate to receive both guidance and support from him.

Decades later, we understand that cities are key junctions of the global economy, key sites in the collection and connection of ideas, innovation and economic activity. For the first time in human history more people live in cities than in regional or rural communities. Australia is uniquely placed to reimagine urban life. For much of our history we have been an urban nation animated by rural myths. We have been, and remain, one of the most urbanised nations on earth. From my time in the infrastructure sector, I know that Australia is blessed with an army of talented professionals champing at the bit to bring their creativity and skill to shape sustainable, productive and liveable cities. The innovations and improvements that we can make to our own cities will not only improve the health and wealth of the vast majority of Australians, but will also be key intellectual exports that help shape the nature of urban life in our region.

In an interconnected world change occurs faster than ever before. Left unchecked, the expectation that our citizens unfailingly accommodate themselves to the demands of the global market has the potential to damage the social bonds that cement our communities. Long hours, irregular hours and insecure work, crippling commutes and challenges in finding housing near friends and family have far-reaching impacts. We should ensure that the economies and the cities we build in this century enable rather than compromise our communities. We should jealously guard our traditions of dignity and decency in our workplaces. We should be careful that the precious accomplishments of Australian multiculturalism are not thoughtlessly discarded or undermined by false choice between cultural diversity and economic or national security.

In our pursuit of prosperity we should not miss the significance of our national cultural life. Investments in the ABC and SBS, in our national performing and collecting institutions and in the myriad of small, creative institutions reap both social and economic rewards. Our artists hold up a mirror to our society. Sometimes they flatterer us, sometimes they shock us. They always assist us to craft a story, our own story, about our past and our future. Ultimately, the good life is not just about ourselves or about our wealth, but about the relationships of kindness and reciprocity with our family, our neighbours and with strangers.

I come to parliamentary politics an unashamed idealist and a believer in the promise of our young democracy. This place provides enormous opportunity to do good, to explore ideas and to connect with the community and, of course, to hold the executive to account. As a house of review, this place offers opportunities to invite the public into the processes of our parliament. I take seriously my responsibility to protect and nurture these processes, to champion the institutions of our democracy and to maintain trust in public service as a crucial part of public life.

I also come to this chamber as part of the progressive wing of New South Wales Labor. I acknowledge the courage of Lionel Murphy and the others who followed him—Senators Gietzelt, Childs, Faulkner, Campbell and Cameron. Each put their own stamp on the role. As the first woman senator from this tradition, I hope to do it justice.

I wish to thank my predecessor, John Faulkner. I would like to thank him for his moral clarity and purposeful leadership. In recent months, these sentiments have been echoed by the many people who have spoken to me of his intellect and his integrity.

Many commentators call for greater diversity among our elected representatives. A diverse parliament relies on employers supporting staff who seek to combine their professional lives with political involvement. I am immensely grateful to AECOM's executive leadership and those people in the public service leadership who supported me during the last decade and gave me so many opportunities.

I have grown up through Labor's ranks, and the labour movement has shaped much of my life and my political beliefs. I wish to acknowledge the pioneering Labor women who have championed women's interests and representation, including many who have personally supported me. To my union friends and the great Australian union movement, know that I will always be proud to associate myself with your work, which transforms the lives of working Australians and their families. I say to my many political friends, some of whom I have known for over 20 years, that through your friendship and your political energy and dedication you have given me so much. There are too many to name individually, but Tim Ayres and Verity Firth have been with me for every win, every loss and every major decision. Thank you all.

I thank my parliamentary colleagues—among whom I count many friends—for the warmth of your welcome in recent weeks. It is an honour to serve alongside you. I wish to acknowledge two longstanding friends from the other place. Tanya Plibersek entrusted me with her first campaign and has been a loyal confidante ever since and a shining example of ethical public service. Anthony Albanese supported me from the beginning and has never stinted in lending his conviction, courage and counsel to any of my endeavours. My staff have been outstanding in these early weeks. To Kate, Adam, Casey and Kun—thank you.

In the gallery I am supported by aunties and uncles, as well as old friends. I thank them for their kindness, their friendship and their patience with the demands that politics places on any relationship. My mum, Alma, my dad, Don, and my sister, Libby, are also in the gallery this evening, along with Libby's children, my niece and nephew. My mother-in-law, Josephine, is also here. No-one could ask for more love or support than I have been gifted by my beautiful family. Each of them live lives grounded in community, care and service. I hope my own contribution will do justice to their examples. I thank my husband, John, for his love, companionship, optimism and creativity in imagining how this life might work well. To my boys, our sons, Finn and Ted—I know you are proud of me, as I am of you. Finally, I say to the people of New South Wales that I commit myself absolutely to serving your interests and the interests of our democracy. Thank you.

Honourable senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): Order, senators and members! If you have some discussions, sorry—we have to get on with some business. We actually work over here, contrary to popular belief among those from the other side.