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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 5404

Senator THORP (Tasmania) (17:03): Mr President, I am very pleased and proud to stand here today in this place. I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered and their elders, past and present. Please extend my thanks, Mr President, to all the staff of the Senate, who have been so welcoming and helpful in the short time I have been here.

I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of my predecessor, Nick Sherry, and thank him for his 22 years of exemplary service to both this place and the state of Tasmania. As Australia's first Minister for Superannuation, Nick worked hard to provide better retirement incomes for all Australians. He set up the Cooper review, the first systemic, in-depth review of Australia's compulsory superannuation system. As Minister for Corporate Law, Nick had responsibility for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and oversight of the Australian stock market during the most serious global financial crisis in 75 years. Nick played a key role in the Henry review of taxation, foreign investment matters, productivity reform issues, international economic regulation and global accounting standards. Thank you, Nick, and best wishes for your future.

In the gallery today are my husband, Toby, my parents, Marjorie and Ron Williams, and my son James and his partner, Fiona. I thank them for their unconditional love and support—and particularly today for their moral support. My thanks go, too, to my dear friends and comrades, Senators Carol Brown and Anne Urquhart and Minister Julie Collins—three wonderful women to whom I owe so much.

I am delighted that today in the gallery are my good friends and colleagues from the union movement, Chris Brown from HACSU and Helen Gibbons from United Voice. I also recognise John Short from the AMWU, who is unable to be here today. I applaud their tireless efforts to improve the lot of Australian workers and their families.

I stand here, Mr President, as a proud member of the Australia Labor Party and a proud Tasmanian. I have the incredible good fortune to have been born in the most beautiful place in the world. Tasmania is a state made up of over 300 islands. We have incredible forests and the most stunning coast and waterways in the world—a little biased, perhaps. We are blessed with clean air and the incredible, resilient Tasmanian people. Tasmanians value their home.

I also had the good fortune to be born into a proud working-class family. My family worked in forestry, in farming, at the zinc works, at Cadburys and at the hydro—every generation working to provide a good life for the next. My family have backed me every step of the way, ensuring I could pursue my dream and become a teacher.

After finishing university, I taught at high school level. After teaching for a couple of years, it became clear to me that the students who displayed the most challenging behaviours were the ones I most wanted to engage. I returned to study and completed a post graduate qualification in special education. Through a combination of serendipitous events, I found myself working with the inspirational Joan FitzNead, a life member of the ALP, at a small school for high school girls. They had either been expelled or were refusing to go to school. This experience had a profound effect on me and for the rest of my teaching and subsequent careers, working with disengaged kids has been my passion.

While we could and did get some great results with the girls, helping them re-engage with learning, it became very clear to me that the circumstances in which the girls lived had a much greater impact on them and their life chances than anything we could do in a school setting. The effects of poverty and family dysfunction deprive many Australian children from reaching their full potential. It is unacceptable to me that, with all the wealth of this country, hundreds of thousands of Australians do not get to reach their full potential. Far too many are caught in the poverty cycle.

We must ensure that every child is born into circumstances that give them the best start in life. We need to ensure our new parents have access to all the support and information they need to care for their children. Young mums and dads need to know how to care properly for their babies: good nutrition, health care and suitable accommodation. We need to ensure they are not socially isolated and have access to employment, training where necessary and opportunity for social interaction. Where this support is not provided by family and community, we must intervene.

When children start school, they do not all start from the same point. Many children start school ready to learn. They come to school having been exposed to a rich set of experiences. Many have already developed beginner literacy and numeracy. For them, school is a positive experience. For others, it is not. Where that deficit exists, whether through language barriers, a learning disability or a home where poverty has limited their life experiences, we have a responsibility to address that deficit. When we fail to engage a child in learning, we drastically reduce their life opportunities. We waste their potential to live fulfilled lives for themselves and we also lose their potential from the life of our nation.

Whenever I see or read of young people entering the justice system, I despair. How does it happen that one of our own gets to this point? We must stop this waste. When our young people make poor life choices, make mistakes, there must be a path back from that. All our young people have the right to safe, appropriate accommodation. All our young people have the right to leave formal schooling qualified to enter fulfilling employment. Where they do not, we must intervene. The gifts of our country are not for a privileged few; they are for all our citizens.

My vision is for a fair and equitable society where the value of each and every Australian is recognised—a place where every citizen has a roof over their head; a place to call home; a place where every parent has access to a job and knows they can feed and clothe their family and provide them with richness of experience. Hardly surprising, then, that I am a member of the Australian Labor Party. The Labor Party has always stood for social justice and equity.

The Scullin Labor government increased social service payments to people caught up in the Great Depression. The Curtin government introduced the first national system of widows pensions and increased child endowment and invalid pensions. It began funding public hospitals and introduced a centralised and uniform income tax system. The government led by Chifley dramatically broadened the base of the Australian social contract, but it was not easy. Chifley successfully led the change to our Constitution to give the Commonwealth control of social services, created a real public health system, legislated for construction of the Australian National University, started the Snowy Mountains scheme and invested in the creation of Holden.

Meanwhile, Australia played a huge role in the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under the leadership of UN General Assembly President Doc Evatt. At the same time, great postwar reformers like British Labour leader Clement Attlee and US Presidents Roosevelt and Truman pursued society-changing social democratic reforms in the face of stiff resistance from conservative forces. Then, like today, they fought the merciless self-interest of the privileged elite on every reform. But this is what Labor governments are about—spreading opportunity and equity, not entrenching power and privilege.

Whitlam got our boys out of Vietnam, abolished university fees, introduced Medibank, increased the age pension and introduced a single mothers payment and the Racial Discrimination Act. Hawke's Labor government reformed industrial relations and trade, introduced the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The government led by Paul Keating led the way on reconciliation, created Australia's superannuation scheme and introduced legislative protections for our endangered plants and animals.

Since this Labor government came to office in 2007, we have seen the abolition of Work Choices. We have injected massive investment into our tertiary education sector, established a national school curriculum, and built Trade Training Centres in Schools throughout the nation. We have significantly increased and reformed the aged, disability and carer pensions. We have doubled health funding and, after too many years of neglect, this government has given mental health the focus and funding it deserves. We are reforming aged care and we have launched a national disability insurance scheme. We are building a national broadband network and tackling climate change. We have already seen the fear campaign from Tony Abbott on the Clean Energy Future reforms evaporate to nothing. But make no mistake: fear is all the Leader of the Opposition knows.

I am fiercely proud of the fact that we on this side of the chamber are prepared to tackle the big issues and build a competitive future for our nation. We are driven by our fundamental belief that it is our responsibility to leave a better world for our children than the one we inherited. All the while, we are ensuring that those Australians who need the support the most receive it. The working and middle classes of Australia will always be better off under Labor.

This is a party and a government I am proud of. The values of the Labor Party are ones we should all celebrate—a belief in the value of all our people and their right to a good and healthy life. Our proud political history, steeped in the struggle of the trade union movement, is always in my mind as I approach the challenges we face today. The history of the Labor movement teaches us to have mutual respect for the worth of others, and solidarity with all people regardless of their background. It is a history and a cause that drives us to manage the economy in the interests of workers, always reforming and restructuring our economy and society with an eye to improving the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.

I do not buy the rhetoric from conservative forces in this country that says Australia's workers should have to sacrifice fair wages and decent conditions for some unstated, so-called productivity gain. The workers of this nation built this country and it is they who continue to create the wealth that sustains us today. No factory, no mine, no construction project or transport operation, no hospital, school or office block can operate without the hard work and dedication of their workforce—and that includes every worker. Let us not forget the hard work of the cleaners of our nation. Often forgotten and sometimes out of sight, these men and women are absolutely integral to, and often the heart and soul of, any workplace. They deserve greater recognition, better conditions and fairer wages.

It has only been when Labor governments have worked hand-in-hand with our trade union movement that we have been able to achieve the great reforms that underpin modern Australia. The recent pay equity case for social and community service workers shows us what can be achieved when we work together. It also shows us that, even in the 21st century, there is still much work to be done to ensure every worker receives a fair day's pay for a fair day's work—and equal pay at that.

This Labor government will never forget the workers of this nation. We are ensuring textile outworkers are protected and not exploited, putting safety first for our nation's hardworking truck drivers, rebuilding Australia's shipping industry and putting fairness back into our building industry. And we will remain a country that makes things, through our commitment to supporting jobs in manufacturing. There is so much more to be done.

We have the opportunity to transform Australia by implementing the recommendations of the Gonski review, improving early childhood education and creating a truly world-class aged-care system. Only Labor has the ability and the courage to achieve these great things for our nation. These essential reforms must be the absolute priority of this Labor government. Locking in appropriate school funding must come before we consider any reduction in the corporate tax rate. The true character of a nation can be measured in its level of dedication and support for universal, quality, secular, public education.

We must support our teachers, who dedicate their lives to supporting and nurturing the talent and creativity of the next generation of Australians. Gonski gives us an opportunity to ensure that no child is left behind. To invest in our most disadvantaged children is to utilise the full potential of our people and to spread equity and social cohesion in our society. I am heartened to see the broad consensus within our community on these reforms and the desire to move Australia past the bitterly divisive battles bestowed upon us by the previous government's schools funding policy.

The National Broadband Network will transform Tasmania's economy and take us forward, in one giant leap, to the digital age. The productivity benefits from the NBN are enormous and the investment from its rollout is supporting over 800 jobs in Tasmania.

This federal government, in partnership with the Tasmanian Labor government, is investing in the most substantial irrigation development project in our state's history. We are investing $220 million to secure water, the lifeblood of agriculture, to prime agricultural land right across the state. We are ensuring Tasmanian farmers will have the most secure and plentiful water supply in the nation.

Only Labor will deliver these nation-building projects because only Labor believes in them. If it were up to the other side, these things would be declared entirely the responsibility of the private sector and we would never see these massive capacity-building projects come to fruition.

This federal Labor government is committed to the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme, recognising the disadvantage Bass Strait presents to us when it comes to connectivity in the national highway and rail network. Since coming to office in 2007 we have expanded this scheme to incorporate intrastate sea freight to King Island and Flinders Island.

Yet all of this investment to Tasmania, all of the work this Labor government is doing to expand our productive capacity and increase the prosperity of the Tasmanian people, is at grave risk. It is at risk from the most populist and destructive federal opposition leader in the history of our federation. If the federal coalition wins the next election, Tasmania will see over $l billion ripped from our state year after year. We know a coalition government would strip away hundreds of millions of dollars in GST payments to our state, forcing the closure of hospitals and an end to support for our industries in tourism, forestry, construction and manufacturing. This would devastate Tasmania.

Mr Abbott has pledged to take well over $100 million from Hydro Tasmania, causing power prices for Tasmanians to skyrocket. Mr Abbott has also pledged to axe the NBN and rip apart our fibre-optic cable future. He has pledged to rip hundreds of dollars out of the pockets of Tasmania's pensioners, students, families and taxpayers. He is pledging to shut down our state, lock the door and throw away the key. He must not be allowed to destroy our state.

I am proud to be a founding member of Emily's List. The struggle for women's rights is sadly far from over. Women are still under assault from those people that think it is their right to dictate to a woman what sort of health care she is able to access. All women everywhere should have access to contraception, sexual health services and the right to terminate a pregnancy. I will always stand with the sisterhood in this fight.

I would also like to state on the record that I will be voting in this place in favour of marriage equality and to remove discrimination against same-sex-attracted Australians. If this Commonwealth parliament fails to do what is unequivocally and inarguably right, Tasmania will. I am proud that my state is prepared to move ahead and legislate to recognise same-sex relationships through state-based marriage laws.

As a Tasmanian I am aware that we have a particular set of circumstances that must be recognised nationally. We have a small, ageing and dispersed population. We have a high level of persons living with disability and a high percentage of people in receipt of government assistance. We have less than our proportional share of Commonwealth Public Service jobs. We are an island state and need to have that recognised through proper funding of the cost of doing business across Bass Strait. Half our state's land mass is protected in reserves and we have an incredible network of marine parks and world heritage sites. The rest of Australia loves our beautiful wilderness and heritage. They need to recognise the effort that goes into preserving that for all Australians.

Let me dispel some of the myths put about that attempt to paint our state as mendicant. We have an amazing array of natural assets. We have mineral, forestry and fisheries resources. We produce everything from world renowned salmon and sheep's wool, quality cheeses and chocolates, aluminium, iron ore and zinc products, shipbuilding and marine training. We have secure water resources and prime agricultural land that will allow us to become the food bowl of the nation, and we have a thriving poppy-growing industry. We have an abundance of clean energy and currently supply 50 per cent of the nation's renewable electricity. We are building one of Australia's largest wind farms at Musselroe Bay. Our dairy industry is undergoing major investment and we are seeing significant expansion in aquaculture. Our taxation levels are the lowest in the country. With our natural advantages we can look forward to a great future.

There are significant ways that the federal government can work proactively with Tasmania to ensure a good future for the state. We must ensure our fair proportion of Commonwealth jobs in Tasmania. Ensuring proper access to Australian government services in our regions requires appropriate levels of Commonwealth public sector staffing. We need to keep Public Service career pathways and job opportunities available to Tasmanians to ensure we do not bleed talent to the mainland. Strong, secure and vital public sector jobs in our state also help to keep families in Tasmania.

Our nation works best when all our citizens, no matter where they live, are given equal consideration and support by government. We need access to the same level of Commonwealth services in agriculture, veterans affairs, legal services, health care, social services, customs and meteorology.

Launceston has at our disposal excess and fully connected call centre facilities at the Techno Park in Kings Meadows. There are a number of Commonwealth agencies that require customer call centres to service the entire nation. Australians rightly expect timely access to government services, which can only be delivered by a well-supported network of front-line staff. We are ready in Launceston to take up any additional demand that may exist for call centre operations.

It is important that Tasmanians have equal access to their senators across the state. That is why I have based my electorate office in Launceston. I look forward to working with northern Tasmanians to achieve new opportunities and bring our fair share of Commonwealth services to the region. Let us recognise that as an island state we have a unique set of challenges and that these need to be addressed. That is my role as a senator for Tasmania—working for that action.

I am supported in this endeavour by the love of my family and friends, and I do so in memory of my beloved nephew Ricky John Williams, who left us in October last year.

I dedicate myself to working for the best interests of my state of Tasmania and to progressing the policies of the Australian Labor Party, as it addresses the social inequity that, sadly, still exists in our country. I will never forget our true purpose, our history, our background and I will always stand in solidarity with the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the working men and women of this nation. Thank you.