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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 4170

Senator LINES (Western Australia) (17:05): Thank you, Mr President. I have some stiff competition today, and I feel that perhaps I should have written two speeches, but I have what I have and I will proceed with that. I would like to acknowledge that I am standing on the traditional lands of the Ngunawal people, and I pay my respects to elders past and present and any elders present today.

I pay my respects to the Hon. Chris Evans, who entered parliament in 1993 and resigned in 2013, a stellar 20-year career. Prior to entering parliament, Chris worked as an industrial officer at my union, United Voice. Chris and I worked together at the union, Chris as an experienced industrial officer and me, a new starter. And here I am again, following on from Chris. In his first speech, Chris said the principles of basic human rights would be his guiding light, and in his valedictory speech he said the memories he would take with him were more about the people he had met—sitting on the ground with Aboriginal people, talking about native title, or at the University of Western Sydney, meeting with the parents of young people, the first in their family going to university, getting that opportunity. Chris emphasised that it has been the contact with people that has mattered most to him, that has left an impression. Chris leaves me with very big shoes to fill.

My father was sent to Australia as part of the UK child migration scheme. William John Henry Lines, Jim, was just 12 years old when he arrived at Fairbridge farm in Western Australia. Dad describes himself at 12 as a city urchin, used to city life. I cannot imagine what a 12-year-old in 2013, separating from their family, being sent halfway across the world, away from everything familiar, would think and feel. Yet Dad says he was intrigued on arriving at Pinjarra to find it all bush and open spaces.

Dad left Fairbridge at 15 and was sent to work as a farm labourer in WA's wheat belt, where he quickly became disillusioned and, after a time, put his age up and joined to fight in World War II. Jim was a commando in the 2/5th Commando Squadron and served in New Guinea. After the war, he retrained, first as a baker then as a carpenter, and spent the rest of his life in the building trades. Dad is now retired and lives in Mandurah. At 91, he has a Facebook page and is a great internet user.

My mother, Nancy McRae, was an exceptional student and won scholarships to high school and university. Nancy was a schoolteacher and ended her career as a deputy principal at a time when women were required to give up their jobs once children were born. During her teaching career, Nancy taught at Queens Park Primary School. Nancy taught many of the children from Sister Kate's Children's Home, now known as Manguri. These children, stolen Aboriginal children, were sent from all parts of Western Australia to live at Sister Kate's. During her time at Queens Park, Nancy made lifelong friends with many of these children and the community. Nancy passed away in 1976.

My stepmother, Mary Davies, was an inspiration to me, being brave enough, against the wisdom of her close friends, to take me in as a troubled teenager. But Mary persevered and showed me kindness, compassion and unconditional love. Mary passed away in 2003. My parents and my stepmum taught me resilience, compassion and to stand up for my beliefs. They showed me that education and politics matter.

For the past six years, I have led United Voice's Big Steps in Early Childhood Education and Care campaign and aged-care campaign. Both of these campaigns focus on winning wage justice for low-paid early childhood educators and aged-care workers. I am pleased to say that the workforce compact bill passed this place today. These campaigns go to the heart of why I am here today: the issue of fairness. I am a feminist and I am strongly motivated around issues of social justice. I have been active around Aboriginal land rights and, unfortunately, Aboriginal deaths in custody. I proudly joined the hundreds and thousands of Australians in the bridge walks, apologising to the stolen generations, when John Howard steadfastly refused to do so. I stood silently and proudly on the lawn of Parliament House when the Labor government gave its heartfelt apology to the stolen generations. I have stood side by side with large groups of people, groups that understand the need to act collectively to make positive change. As a senator I want to work on building coalitions of support—large groups of people standing together with support from the trade union movement, community organisations and other progressive groups.

Politics matters. Who is in government matters. Government policy shapes our country, our communities and our lives. Right now, I look at my state, Western Australia, and I am saddened to report that, despite the riches from the resources boom, we have a state government crying poor and a state government refusing to sign up to historic reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Plan for School Improvement. The Liberal Party made many commitments to the voters of Western Australia during the recent election campaign and is now reneging on those commitments. Western Australians are asking why Colin Barnett will not sign up to the NDIS. People with disability want a national insurance scheme—a scheme based on need, not on budget allocation; a scheme which recognises and makes an assessment across a person's lifetime; and, most importantly, a scheme which gives choice to individuals.

The Gonski review was the most comprehensive review of education in 40 years, based on ensuring real opportunity for all of our children in education, yet the Premier refuses to sign on and the coalition is on record as saying there is nothing wrong with the current system. The Gonski review found that we are investing far too little in our schools, that too many students are missing out and that our school system is not efficient, effective or fair. Alarmingly, there are gaps in student achievement. Australia's overall performance has fallen in the last 10 years. Postcodes are defining academic outcomes. Students in disadvantaged areas are up to three times behind students who live in wealthy areas. One in seven 15-year-olds does not have basic reading skills. These are not the statistics we should see in a country as wealthy as Australia. We need to act now and yet Premier Barnett sits on his hands, despite David Gonski warning that Australia will only slip further behind unless as a nation we act and act now.

Here in this place, if elected a future coalition government will turn its back on the most sweeping review of education this country has seen. The federal member for Sturt, Christopher Pyne's, commitment to education is, 'Same old, same old,' continuing with falling standards and growing gaps in student outcome. My grandchildren, Aiden and Charlie, will miss out on an additional $11.2 million across the next six years in their two schools if WA does not sign up to the school improvement plan.

Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.

The authorship of this quote has been attributed to many, including Gandhi. Despite its loss of authorship, the meaning continues to ring true. Over the past month I have been listening to various groups and peak organisations in Western Australia. I have asked them to give me their sense of our community. I have learnt that there are over 22,000 applications for public housing. This represents around 55,000 individuals, whilst public housing accounts for just four per cent of WA's housing stock. Added to this, of the available private rentals just one half of one per cent were affordable for low-income people. Almost 20,000 people are accessing specialist homelessness services. Of those, 41 per cent were children. Sixty per cent were seeking ongoing accommodation. The majority were women, mainly escaping family and domestic violence, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were over-represented in the 20,000. Every day in Western Australia around 1,200 people, including many with children, request new or ongoing accommodation. Most are turned away.

In May of this year the Australian Institute of Criminology released its report on Aboriginal deaths in custody. The report is alarming. The number of deaths in prison has increased, with deaths in the year 2009-10 equal to the highest on record. The proportion of Aboriginal prisoners has almost doubled in the last 20 years, since the royal commission delivered its recommendations.

In Western Australia, Aboriginal juveniles account for two-thirds of the whole juvenile population. Young Aboriginals are placed in detention at 31 times the rate of non-Aboriginal youths. Across the country Aboriginal people are 11 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned, and in Western Australia it is 18.3 per cent more likely. These statistics are stark because they represent real people, their families, their friends and their communities.

Obviously, more attention needs to be paid to those in our community who need a helping hand. Our society needs to be geared towards ensuring that all of its members are able to prosper. This means our economic agenda must be about people, not the state of the NASDAQ or the Dow Jones Index. Imagine if on our nightly news, along with the value of shares and the dollar being reported, we measured how many people were living rough and how many children were living rough. We measure the road toll. It is time that we measured the real state of our economy.

There are of course opposing views on economics. I do not subscribe to the theory that working harder produces better economic outcomes. In my time at the union I have seen aged care workers, early childhood workers, cleaners, security officers and others working really hard and yet they failed to lift their economic prospects because it is not possible to prosper on rates of less than $19 an hour.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and others, argue that inequality leads to inferior economic outcomes. Key indicators such as health and education are poorer for those living in poverty. In fact, Stiglitz argues that great inequality and concentration of wealth distort political processes. The wealthy elite are able to secure political outcomes in their own interests rather than in the interests of most people.

As private and social interests diverge, more and more of society's resources are devoted to seeking rewards that do not actually add to the wellbeing of all, the cost of which is that some of our smartest minds are used on activities that do not lead to good government or innovation for all. As people live secluded, segregated lives there is less understanding of how others live, and a sense of entitlement, and the rhetoric grows that the well off have created their own good fortune through their own initiative. In the end the result of a lopsided wealth distribution in society means that there is less investment in critical public resources such as health, education, transport and so on. The wealthier a society becomes, the more reluctant the well-off are to spend money on common needs. The rich do not need to rely on governments for parks, education, health and personal security. They can buy all of that for themselves.

There is no definition of poverty in Australia. Different benchmarks are used. What is stark, however, is that, whatever measure is used, Australia is not an egalitarian, fair-go-for-all country. Leading agencies the Australian Council of Social Service, the Salvation Army, NATSEM and others all agree that the poor are middle aged, more women than men, from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and many support children. They all agree that poverty is associated with unemployment or insecure work and is exacerbated by housing costs, which can lead to homelessness and overcrowding.

The picture I painted for Western Australia is, I believe, replicated across the country. As a senator I want to spend my time on building coalitions of support for making our economy fairer, about measuring the economic outcome against the wellbeing of all.

I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to my family, whom I am extremely proud of. They are in the gallery today: my daughter, Renee, my son, Mark, my grandchildren Aden and Charlie, and my partner, Rory Lambert, who, without hesitation, agreed and proudly supported me in my preselection and my appointment as a senator for Western Australia. I thank them for their love and support and for enduring my political involvement in their lives.

I thank my union, United Voice, and I acknowledge my union colleagues in the gallery. I have worked for the union for the past 26 years, the last 11 of which have been in elected positions in Western Australia and in the national office in New South Wales. I want to thank and pay tribute in particular to Dave Kelly, now the state Labor member for Bassendean, Carolyn Smith, the branch secretary of the Western Australian branch, Michael Crosby, the national president of the union, and Louise Tarrant, the national secretary, who today celebrates 20 years at United Voice. These are some of the finest union leaders in the country: people of integrity, passion and commitment who every day work hard alongside some of Australia's lowest paid workers to improve their lives and communities.

To work for a union is a privilege. To work for United Voice is both an honour and a privilege. One of my first experiences at the union was on a picket line outside the Reserve Bank, where a decision had been made to privatise the security staff, resulting in insecure work. That was in 1987. I am sure that this threat to workers' jobs was there before my time and no doubt privatisation will continue to be a threat. Yet United Voice members who experience insecure work and low pay in unrecognised and often unrewarded jobs are incredible people. In my time at the union, I have seen members risk their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their families to take strike action to improve pay and conditions, to stop privatisations and to fight harsh industrial laws. I have shared stories and food in the middle of the night on picket lines and in the heat and the cold and the pouring rain stood shoulder to shoulder with workers as we fought for justice. It is these experiences that have shaped my views, sharpened my sense of justice and made me the leader I am today. It is these experiences that I bring with me to the Senate.

I am immensely proud to be a Labor senator. I thank United Voice for their unswerving support. My selection as a senator is one of my proudest moments. I know that I am taking the views and aspirations of working people with me into the Australian parliament.