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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 41

Senator NETTLE (11:17 AM) —Imagine yesterday if the Governor-General had delivered a speech outlining a positive and an optimistic vision for our country. He could have spoken about the importance of celebrating and treasuring the unparalleled natural beauty of this continent, protecting for the future of us all, including our children's future, the magnificent forests of Tasmania, ensuring that the ancient environments that are found nowhere else in the world are preserved and that, through their preservation, we are all left richer, giving a gift to the world.

He could have announced the urgent measures required to put our communities on a sustainable footing—initiatives in energy policy, transport planning and investment infrastructure, agricultural practices—that would not only ensure that our environment is not degraded but also make our nation more self-sufficient and create tens of thousands of jobs in the process. But he did not. He could have announced concrete measures to improve working conditions and lessen family stress that has been universally recognised as a concern to most Australians. He could have announced the introduction of a genuine paid parental leave scheme to enable parents to spend those first few crucial months at home with their newborn child, whilst guaranteeing them a right to return to work. He could have announced measures to nurture cooperative workplaces and support small community businesses and in doing so bring sustainability to people's lives. But he did not.

Imagine if the next three years of government saw a massive investment in our public education system. Imagine yesterday if our head of state had announced billions of dollars of new money for our public schools, thousands of new teachers, new facilities and nationwide promotion of public schooling, a commitment to abolish university fees and an investment in our future by backing ourselves to provide one of the best education systems in the world. How much better would Australians feel about themselves today if yesterday the Governor-General had announced the immediate release of children and their families from behind the razor-wired detention centres. Imagine if he had announced a massive injection of funding to overseas aid, to bring our commitment to reducing world poverty to UN recommended levels, or announced the return of our troops from Iraq and a commitment to end the murderous adventurism of such an invasion. But the Governor-General did not make such announcements yesterday, because this is not the kind of vision that our short-sighted Prime Minister is interested in.

The re-election of the coalition government is a tragedy for this fine nation. The government's control of the Senate from July next year will compound it because this government promises more of the divisive, short-sighted and anti-public agenda that we have come to know over the last nine years. In the absence of the check that the Senate has provided, the government will seek to enact laws to threaten our environment, to erode our civil liberties, to undermine our public services and to continue our involvement in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. They will attack the rights and protections of working people and their unions, divert more public funds to the wealthy through high-income earner tax cuts and corporate welfare and attack the most vulnerable members of our community—Indigenous Australians, refugees, people living with disabilities and people living in poverty. They will also seek to attack democracy itself by preventing Senate scrutiny and potentially change the way that the Senate is elected to reduce the presence of the minor parties and the Independents.

In the area of health, the government plans to further privatise Australia's health system. It has extended and seeks to further extend the differential higher GP rebate to several marginal electorates. The safety net, which promotes inflationary out-of-pocket charges, has already exceeded budget estimates and the government has no plan to address this. The government wants to increase the private health insurance rebate for people aged over 65, at a cost of $445 million over four years. The rebate draws scarce health dollars away from the public to the private sector where capacity to pay, not medical need, drives who receives care. Speaking of drugs, the price of scripts filled under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will rise by 21 per cent from January, and Treasurer Costello has already flagged further increasing the patient charge for essential medicines to reduce the cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The Greens are committed to strengthening our public health system, and we will continue to speak out against the government's drive to privatise essential public health care.

In the area of education, the government wants to set up a private TAFE system to compete with our strong and high-quality public TAFE system. The funds would be far better spent reversing the government's cuts to the existing public TAFE system. The government wants to impose individual contracts on university academic staff and restrict the services currently provided by student unions. The university sector and the Senate rejected these proposals last year.

Private schools under this government will continue to receive a greater slice of federal funds, including $300 million for infrastructure under the coalition's election announcement, but the funds must go directly to parents and principals. The Greens are supporters of public services and public education and we will continue to call for increased spending on public services, rather than individual tax cuts. We will fight the proposals to further privatise our public education system.

The government's 30 per cent tax rebate for child care will assist the wealthy most of all. The Greens say the funds should be used to improve the targeting of the child-care benefit, or to invest in more child-care places and improve the low salaries of child-care workers.

Industrial relations appears to be the first cab off the rank in the government's divisive agenda. All Australians should have a right not to be unfairly sacked. The government is proposing that if you work in a workplace of 20 or fewer employees, as many Australians do, and you are unfairly sacked, you should have no right of appeal. Why should some workers have the right to challenge an unfair sacking and others have that right taken away? The government also wants to take away your right to redundancy pay if your workplace has 15 or fewer employees.

This is just the start of the divisive agenda the government has for industrial relations. It wants to reduce the matters covered by awards, so that things like long service leave are not covered by awards. It wants to further restrict people's right to strike, further limit the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission, restrict the right of workers to meet in their workplace about an issue of importance to them such as safety or workplace concerns. The government is seeking to define the workplace relationship so narrowly that superannuation entitlements can no longer be part of a workplace agreement. This means that young people—young women in particular—and people from non-English speaking backgrounds who are casual workers will have even fewer rights. Their bosses will be able to sack them with no explanation, and they will have no right of appeal. Or their bosses may insist that they sign an individual agreement, which has fewer conditions than the agreements of everyone else in the workplace who is covered by a collective workplace agreement that they negotiated with their boss. If the new worker does not sign the agreement, they do not get a job.

It has not taken conservative big business figures long to start lobbying the government to go even further. A group of them wrote to the Prime Minister last week flagging, among other measures, moving even further away from international labour standards and safeguards, and threatening the withdrawal of income support where it deters someone from looking for paid work. The Greens call on the Prime Minister to reject their call. We say that the rights of men and women working hard in Australia, whether as casuals or in a large or small business, must be upheld. Working people should have the right to decide together how they will negotiate with their employers.

On top of the tax cuts for high income earners in the May budget, at a cost of $14.7 billion over four years, the Prime Minister has flagged further cuts to the top marginal income tax rate. At the same time, the government has failed to address the problem of high effective marginal tax rates for income support recipients moving into the work force, levels of income support which keep people impoverished, and the rise of the `working poor'. Nor has the government closed the loopholes exploited by high-income earners, which cost billions of dollars in revenue each year, money which could be directed to those in need. The Greens support progressive taxation where people contribute according to their capacity to pay to fund public services that are available to all Australians.

In the area of defence, the 920 Australian troops in Iraq will remain there indefinitely. Despite government statements that there would not be an increase, pressure will continue to grow from the United States to increase the deployment. Creation of a new armoured expeditionary combat force of 3,000-plus troops suggests that the ADF is preparing for future overseas combat operations similar to that currently under way in Fallujah.

The multi-million dollar expenditure on greater integration of the ADF with the US military will continue and US training exercises and weapons testing in Australia will expand if this government gets its way—an enormous blow for those people who live in Shoalwater Bay in Queensland, and at the Bradshaw and Delaware bases in the Northern Territory.

While the situation in Iraq will continue to place a brake on White House plans for widening interventions in the Middle East, Australia may be asked to support and participate in pre-emptive strikes on Syria or Iran. Australian involvement in developing national missile defence will continue under this government, with growing concern from China and critics of a new arms race. The Greens believe we need an independent foreign policy and cooperation with our neighbours to address the root causes of terrorism.

In the area of international trade, the government is reported to be intending to further weaken intellectual property laws to appease US companies before the free trade agreement between Australia and the United States is finalised. The Thai-Australia free trade agreement is before the Senate this week and the government wants to continue to negotiate agreements with South-East Asian countries and/or join an ASEAN free trade agreement. The Thai free trade agreement will have a negative impact on Australia's textiles. It will hurt Thai farmers and diminish the Thai government's capacity to regulate Australian business investment. The government wants to push ahead with a China-Australia free trade agreement, despite concerns about China's longstanding poor human rights record. Greens parties around the world are working to support trade agreements that involve all countries in a transparent and accountable way and that respect international labour laws, human rights and stringent environmental standards.

The government has a raft of other issues on its agenda. It wants to proceed with the full privatisation of Telstra. The Greens recognise that only a publicly owned telecommunications system will deliver this essential service equitably to all Australians in rural, remote and regional areas as well as in the cities. The government wants to make it easier for the large metropolitan media moguls to buy up more of our media. The Greens, however, support independent and community media.

The coalition may seek to alter the Senate voting system or to introduce voluntary voting. The government has long talked about such issues, and several ministers have raised these issues publicly since the election. The Greens want to strengthen democracy. We advocate proportional representation for the House of Representatives, and we will be working to return the Senate to the chamber of accountability it was designed to be.

Having dismissed community calls for reconciliation, land rights and a treaty, the government is taking away the elected Indigenous body and instead appointing its own advisory council. Having failed to address the root causes of Indigenous disadvantage, the government is now looking at introducing measures where Indigenous Australians are to receive financial support only if they meet certain behavioural standards. The Greens will speak out against such attacks on the first Australians. We will continue to call for the government to acknowledge, and apologise for, past wrongs committed against Indigenous Australians. We will continue to pressure the government to work constructively with communities and individuals to address the causes of disadvantage that shame our nation.

Yesterday hundreds of Australians, including many people on temporary protection visas and bridging visa E, gathered at the front of Parliament House for the opening of parliament. They gathered to remind the government just how many Australians—indeed millions—across this country are working to ensure that people who arrive in our country fleeing persecution from elsewhere are treated with compassion and the great Australian spirit of a fair go. The government needs to uphold its international responsibilities to asylum seekers. The Greens and refugee advocates will keep the government accountable on this front.

The government plans to give the green light to a new and larger nuclear reactor in the heart of the great city that I live in, Sydney, next to schools, kindergartens and communities. It seeks to do this at a time when communities across the country have spoken out with one voice: `We want to live in a nuclear-free Australia. We want a nuclear-free future for our country.' Government proposals for nuclear waste dumps have been rejected by communities across this country, yet the government continues to pursue its agenda for a bigger, newer and potentially more dangerous reactor right in the heart of Sydney.

The Greens have a positive vision for this country; it is starkly different to the one outlined by the government. The government's program for its fourth term is riddled with poor policies, which will cause more harm to the many Australians who are not among the privileged group for whom this coalition government governs.

The government's program will do nothing to advance peace and justice. It will do nothing to protect our fragile earth. The government will control the Senate from July next year, but that will not change the positive and optimistic vision that the Greens bring into the Senate and that we have for this country. We will speak out for compassionate treatment of asylum seekers. We will speak out for the need to protect our beautiful natural heritage. We will speak out for the need to invest public funds in our public services and for the need to provide services for the most disadvantaged members of the community.

In July next year there will be two more Green voices in the Senate. Rachel Siewert from Western Australia and Christine Milne from Tasmania will join Senator Brown and me to double the number of Greens represented in the Senate. We will challenge the government at every turn. Christine Milne will bring with her to the Senate nine years experience in the Tasmanian parliament, where she was leader of the Tasmanian Greens. Rachel Siewert has spent the last 16 years heading up the Conservation Council of Western Australia, and in July next year she will bring to the Senate a wealth of experience from working with regional communities on natural resource management issues.

From 1 July the Greens will be needed more than ever in the Senate. We will work to advance the positive vision that we have for this country, for a just nation and for a world founded on the principles of social justice, peace, democracy and ecological sustainability. We will not stop until this compassionate voice for Australia is heard loud and clear. We will speak out in parliament, in the community, in the media, at rallies, at demonstrations and at public meetings all across this country. That is how the Greens will continue our role at the forefront of progressive social change in this fine country. That is how we will bring a positive and optimistic vision for a just, fair and beautiful Australia into being.