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Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Page: 859

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (16:57): I acknowledge the traditional owners, the Ngambri and the Ngunawal people, on whose country we meet today. I pay my respects to elders past and present and to future leaders.

I have to say how humbled I am to take my seat in this chamber, the Senate of the Australian parliament. Even as I say that, I have to pinch myself to be quite sure that it is real. How can it be that the daughter of Irish immigrants, Jim and Mary O'Neill, who possessed little formal education and less money but had a pocketful of dreams, big hearts and workers' hands can end up in this place? How can it be that in one generation this generous country has offered me a life of opportunity such that I stand here today?

At the heart of that question lies the answer of powerful influences of family, education, health, the economy and politics. Paul Keating in his speech to the Irish parliament noted that in 1898 a huge sign was erected near the site of Australia House in London. It said:

Go to Australia. You will have a hearty welcome, a generous return for your energy and enterprise and a climate that is the healthiest in the world.

That is what my parents found, and it is what I hope to advance in my time here.

I salute all my colleagues with whom I had the privilege to work in the 43rd Parliament and I thank you for making the journey over to this place on the other side—such a long walk!


I now stand ready to do the work of our time and build on the achievements for those who have served in this place since Federation. I have been advised by many senators on both sides of the chamber that this chamber is far more collegiate than the place from where I have come. As I say to my children: we'll see.

I am particularly proud to be here as a Labor senator for the great state of New South Wales. I commit here today to do my very best for the people of my home state and to advance the Labor cause, because it is in doing so that I believe I can best serve my community and my fellow Australians.

The other place afforded me the opportunity to represent my local community in the seat of Robertson on the New South Wales Central Coast. It is a period in which Labor delivered for our community in health, in education and in community infrastructure, and I am proud of our record there. The things we built are powerful and lasting expressions of what we believe in. We renewed our schools, every single primary school on the coast. In those schools we not only fed the dreams of kids who saw buildings going up, kids who will in turn become builders; we kept local roofers, plumbers, painters, earth movers, fabricators, drivers and so many other tradies and building professionals in work. We did that because of our belief in the power and value of keeping Australians working.

We built the much-needed Central Coast regional cancer clinic, and hundreds of local families have had the benefit of the care and healing possible because of that investment and access to health care in the midst of our community, near family, near friends and near workmates. We did that because we believe that every Australian, not just some Australians, should be able to access the health care they need, a healing that they need in their community. We built the GP superclinic at West Gosford, as well as the rehabilitation unit at Woy Woy for the same reasons. These things stand now as physical reminders of how we as Labor express our beliefs about making sure that people who live in regional Australia are not overlooked.

These investments in bricks and mortar will stand as testament to our Labor beliefs. They reveal us as the builders in this nation. Labor is the party of heart, of hope and of endeavour, supporting people who work and serve in our community. Our teachers in every primary school will teach in buildings that befit the work they do, for our children and through them for the future of our great nation. Our doctors and nurses, our occupational therapists, and other health professionals will also work in new and purpose-built places that will enable them to do their healing work and achieve the best possible health outcomes for those in our community who come into their care.

Building the fabric of our community, building the infrastructure for the future, ensuring the environment is not destroyed, investing in the potential of the vulnerable as well as the strong—these are things we believe in too. We expressed them in the delivery of Medicare Locals, in the rollout of the NBN, in the pricing of carbon and in the delivery of community infrastructure. Through the regional development fund, we delivered money to critical regional infrastructure. On the coast we enabled the completion of Coast Shelter, by investing $890,000 in ensuring that there is a decent place for community members and community workers to deliver the care and programs that improve the lives of homeless and vulnerable people in our community. Our investments improved the lives and life outcomes of tens of thousands of 'Coasties'.

The Central Coast is indeed a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family. And my endeavours here will be directed at making sure it stays that way—despite looming threats. Senators, I am blessed with a wonderful, healthy and, most of the time, happy family, who are here today and have to listen to me yet again and without interruption. The lives of our families are interrupted by our service here. Our lives and those who love and live with us are enriched, as well as impoverished and certainly reshaped, by our service in this place. We are the willing ones who offer ourselves in service of this country, through our dedicated work in this place.

But, senators, our families are compulsorily acquired, pressed into their own kind of service by dint of their connection to us. They love and watch with eyes that reveal their fears for us in the battle and their pride in us in being warriors for a democracy that is remade and reshaped here every day. They above all know the demands of this work on our minds, our hearts and our bodies. They also share in our delight in what we can and do and achieve in this work we undertake.

I want to thank you Paul, Caitlin, Brianna and Noah for all the times you have made do with so much less of my love, my care, my time and my attention than you deserve. You have done so for a long time and you have done so in order that I could share my care, my love, my time and my attention with so many others. I thank you today for your generous spirits and your endeavours with and without me. It is only because you as my family are so strong that I can do the work I do.

Mum, you are also a rock. Your love and belief in all of us—there are six children; four of whom remain—if bottled, would be a banned substance, because it gives us an unfair advantage over so many other kids who were loved so much less. I acknowledge here today my brothers Jimmy, Tim and Eamon and their families.

Now for a twist. John Donne, in 1611 or 1612—depending on which source you go to—explained, in a beautiful poem that he wrote to his wife Anne, how strong love at home binds us and makes being away from one another bearable. It is called A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. This is an extract:

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to aery thinness beat.


If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two ;

Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th' other do.


And though it in the centre sit,

Yet, when the other far doth roam,

It leans, and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.


Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.

My dear family, you can always be assured that my heart is always with you and, when my work is done, I will be home. Hang in there with me, team. Family is vital. We need to look after one another, to love one another, to forgive one another and to have holidays together. Thank you.

The reason I selected John Donne's poem to explain how much the love at home means to me is because of a teacher, a very fine teacher, by the name of Mrs Yule. I was in a classroom at St Patrick's College, Campbelltown, in year 11 and Mrs Yule came into take an 'extra'—a replacement class, as our regular teacher was absent on that day. Period 5 on a Tuesday afternoon after lunch, we opened our books and with her rich Scottish accent—yes, I did say Scottish, Senator Cameron—I heard John Donne's poem come to life. We read and reread the poem, holding up each line, each phrase, each word for closer inspection and delight.

In those days we undertook what would probably have been called a Leavisite analysis. Today we might call it a postmodern deconstruction and a reconstruction by means of resistant reading—resistant, that is, as in critically aware, not resistant as in 'we don't want to read this stuff'. Whatever you call it, it was quality education for me. So much had been invested in the formation and professional development of that teacher, in the provision of a classroom, so much invested in the selection of the text, invested in the students around me and invested in me as a learner in order to make my learning happen in that powerful way on that memorable day. And it would not have happened if that elusive quality that the best teachers have was not present that day. Mrs Yule's teaching revealed a deep pedagogical competency, a rich knowledge of the field, a curriculum that framed it, but it was how she cared about our learning in the end that made the difference. That care was the critical ingredient that brought it all together. And I expect that many of you know exactly what I mean.

Nel Noddings is a leading educational thinker who articulates the way in which that ethic of care that creates transformative learning experiences for all students can happen—and I mean all students, not just the ones who succeed early and reap the rewards all the way down the line, but the other ones, the ones who fall and then fail and fail and fail, but then recover something wonderful in an encounter with a great teacher, and succeed. The students bring what they bring with them from home. Some have lots of cultural capital on board when they arrive, others have little or none—and that is what schooling is supposed to make up for.

The critical nature of the work of the teacher is borne out in the work of our own Ken Rowe. As he wrote in 2003 and 2004, teachers do indeed make the difference. But we are also graced in the chamber today by another giant in the world of education: I acknowledge Professor Terry Lovat. His work on values education and the positive impact it has on learning and life outcomes is internationally acclaimed. It is indeed the ways of being at school that support ways of knowing and doing at school. An entire literature shows that if we can get the context of learning to be safe, supportive and enabling, teachers teach better and kids learn better, they are also happier and, funnily enough, they become more and more successful in test performances.

In our hearts we all know this power of the great teacher to effect great learning. We know that it is enhanced or diminished by the school context in which they work. It is why we continue to invest our hopes and our dollars in education because, despite the challenges we face right now in this country, we know—just as great educational advocates such as John Dewey, Paulo Freire and Sir Henry Parkes did—that education is an investment worth making. It is a critical part of improving the lives of our citizens and, through that endeavour, a critical way of supporting and sustaining our democracy.

Quality learning and teaching at school, though, is not the case for every student. Indeed, as the Gonski review revealed all too clearly, there are deep and growing clusters of students in our schools who are failing. For some of our children and young people, forced into school by legislation for 13 years, in the most formative period of their lives, school will be the worst period of their lives. Too many students in Australia are not getting the type of learning experience, the type of schooling experience they need to become full participants in our democracy. The Gonski review found out that, despite our espoused support of education, the critical funding levels of schooling were inadequate.

The old and prevailing funding models that produced the outcomes we are seeing right now are those established by the Howard government. Gonski reveals that the old model has to go and that needs based funding for all students in all schools in all communities across the nation must be our new model. We know that the old model did its worst damage to the most vulnerable, who are now performing in tests at levels at least three to five years behind other young people born on the same day as them, but not born into the 'right' kind of family to have school success. Kids in cities, kids who are not Indigenous, kids who do not speak another language at home before they go to school, kids who do not have disabilities, kids whose parents are rich—they are doing better. But the old Howard funding model is so bad that even these kids are now being dragged down from the top too.

Needs based funding for students must be delivered not just for the benefit of the most vulnerable but for the common good and the benefit of all of our children. Money is part of the answer. We must all get that here, and we must get it at the same time. Everyone else does! Every parent, every teacher and every business person knows that money is always part of the answer. You can't pay for more and better qualified and equipped teachers without money. You can't offer the level of professional salary so teaching is chosen as a profession over accountancy or law without the money. You can't pay for professional development to keep teachers up to date with the latest evidence based research and pedagogy without money. You can't pay for learning resources, you can't pay for learning experiences, you can't pay for release from face-to-face time, you can't invest in new technologies to meet the demands of changing workplaces if you don't have the money. You can't provide for the social and psychological, the physical and practical needs of learners, teachers and educational leaders if you don't give them enough money to do the job.

So we must heed the facts, not decry them. We must change to a transparent and accountable needs based funding model now. And we need to put in the full amount required—$14.6 billion over the next six years—to redress the shameful reality that we as a nation, on our watch, are failing our children and young people. We have been failing them for decades across successive governments of every persuasion, at every state and territory level as well as at the national level. That is why Gonski's rich and detailed report matters so much. It is a report card: it clearly shows us where we are failing. It is a blueprint for how we need to invest and change what we have been doing. Other countries have invested and improved. We, in contrast, have rolled out reform agenda after reform agenda without the dollars needed to truly transform the learning trajectories of all of our students—every one of them.

Finding all the money—not just some of it, all of it and now—though a critical first step will unleash further war words about education. Almost everyone has been to school and everyone has an opinion. Education is a space in which ideas are highly contested, where great research is set against appeals to common sense that do nothing more than dress up inequity as a natural outcome of diversity and excuse failure where we should see neglect.

There will be war words about a quality agenda; war words about literacy and numeracy; war words about testing and diagnosis; war words about 'no strings attached' money and targeted accountability; and war words about the right level of parental engagement. These will be accompanied by war words about the curriculum that are both ideological and industrial in nature, war words about local or central decision making and war words about pedagogy. The problem is that, with war words, we will produce casualties in the battle and those casualties will continue to be our children and our collective future. War words have the potential to be great distracters.

Frankly, the Australian people are over war words, weasel words and promises they are told they misheard. They want our schools fixed; they want our kids happy, healthy and learning; and they want the old fights about education to stop. They want the rancour of cheap political shots to cease. We can do that, if we really want to.

I suggest, senators, that our nation needs us now to avoid the appeal of the distractions that will titillate the media, who are there to make money out of the telling of conflicts and dramas. Our job is bigger than that. Alongside our fellow citizens we are here to build a nation. We must keep our eyes on the prize. In education, that prize is a better future for all Australians by the fulfilmentof our compact with students, who we do force into our schools for 13 years of their life.

That compact to keep our eyes on the prize is clearly articulated in the Melbourne declaration, agreed to by every state and territory, which declares two clear goals: namely, to promote equity and excellence; and to ensure all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, active and informed citizens.

The PISA report released today clearly shows that, in the areas that are measured in these international tests, Asian countries like China, Singapore, Korea and Japan are pulling ahead of Australian students in maths and reading. Our student performances as learners in these international tests are in decline, especially our girls, our Indigenous kids and those young people who have had the misfortune to be born into a family with a low-socioeconomic status. Australian students from a wealthy background show a difference of about two-and-a-half years of schooling, compared to students from the lowest socioeconomic group.

Once again, that shameful reality of the reproduction of disadvantage in our schools is out there for all to see. Our dirty educational laundry is flapping in the breeze for all to see. That fact is intolerable, and a 'no strings attached' funding policy moving forward will only perpetuate that inequity. If we are to change the outcomes of schooling in the country to improve PISA, we will need both carrots and sticks to make the changes that will be necessary to honour the promises to our young.

As Labor leader Bill Shorten said today—and I thank you for being in the chamber for my speech—'Education should not be the political football it is today. It should enjoy the bipartisan support and recognition afforded to many other important issues of state.'

In this chamber, in our caucuses and in our communities we can drive that change. I live on the Tudibaring Headland on the land of the Guringai and Darkinjung peoples, who are the custodians of that place and the lands that stretch from the Hawkesbury River to the shores of Lake Macquarie and the lands of the Awabakal people.

It is a pleasure today to see Stuart McMinn, one of my own students, here with me, a man growing in leadership in the local Indigenous community. He is both a student and a teacher of mine. I am proud to call him a friend and delighted that he could be with me today. I hope you will take this message back to the community.

I want to make some brief remarks about Indigenous matters. The displacement of our first peoples, the wilful and deliberate destruction of culture, the attempts to dilute, displace and destroy were all too effective, too well resourced and speedy. Our efforts to redress, by comparison, have often been too poorly resourced, ineffective and tardy. But there are signs that we are awakening to the responsibilities that fall to our generation to renew and recommit to the long journey of healing that is needed in this country. We said sorry. How hard was it to get to that? But we finally did it. That reset the clock. It brought us a new starting point from which to measure the efforts of our time, the efforts on our watch, and the outcomes of better, healthier, happier lives for our first peoples.

I declare today, Mr President, that it is my intention to bring to this chamber a notice of motion that proposes an annual joint sitting of parliament, to hear the Prime Minister of the parliament and the Leader of the Opposition deliver the annual reports on Closing the Gap. I will seek the support of you, my colleagues in this place, and, if successful, I will ask for it to be sent to the House for its assent.

The reason I propose this is that, in my role as the member for Robertson, I sat in the chamber and heard very carefully prepared reports, delivered by the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the then Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott. I looked to the press gallery and I saw empty seats. Without the grand drama of question time, without the gladiatorial feats to draw in the crowds of onlookers, the Closing the Gap reports failed to draw interest or column inches. Yet, in my view, these are vital and important reports for the parliament and are the most important indicators of healing and growth of this nation. They are very public soundings of our progress.

Until we overcome the 20-year life expectancy gap we cannot turn our heads away. We cannot rest, we cannot throw up our hands in despair, we cannot let this nation-defining matter slip quietly away into the background, displaced by other pressing concerns of the day.

In concluding my remarks I want to acknowledge the presence in the gallery of my other families: the extended O'Neill clan, especially my Uncle Mike—originally from Kilquane, Castletownroche, County Cork—and his family; the Macinantes and the Dwyers. I am terrible at getting to family events and attending to all the niceties, but I hope that my work here makes you proud to be related to me—at least on most days!

Can I acknowledge members of the secretariat staff in the gallery today, who work with such professionalism and who endeavour to support us in our workplace. I look forward to continuing to work with you in the years ahead.

I would also like to thank my tireless campaign team, who worked with me against now seemingly insurmountable odds for so many months. Young Labor: you are champions.

I want to thank the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party for putting their support and belief in me over so many years, especially Jamie Clements. I would not be here without you.

Kaila Murnain: you are simply amazing! Courtney Roche and George Houssos: without you, I do not know what I would do. Thank you for everything and best wishes on the imminent expansion of your family.

To the volunteers from the Labor Party and the community that came on board during the campaign: thank you. Never before have we seen so many community members volunteer to support our campaign. It is a testament to what the Labor Party did on the coast that that happened. To my colleagues from my days as a teacher and lecturer in education, thank you for your service of our people. And thank you for your many kind wishes and words of encouragement.

Without unions, Labor would not be. The belief in the right to a decent life for the working people of this nation is in our shared DNA. We are two halves of one whole, two different manifestations of a set of beliefs that unite us—beliefs and their enactment that differ profoundly from those we oppose. That joint purpose but distinct presence is a key part of our strength. The power of that partnership is borne out in the legislation of the last parliament: changes to superannuation, the delivery of fair wages for the feminised community care sector, changes to equal opportunity, safe rates and so many more pieces of legislation.

Thank you to Greg Donnelly, Gerard Dwyer, Barbara Nebart and David Bliss of the SDA for your support and guidance over many years. Indeed, thank you to all the affiliates of New South Wales Labor. Mark Lennon, it is an honour to stand beside you in the fight for the lives of Central Coast workers. Thank you to all those listening and watching from afar today. Thank you for your very many good wishes.

I want to convey a special thanks to those of you who have travelled to be here with me today—all of you. As I make my first speech to the Senate, many of you have travelled from the beautiful Central Coast, our home, to be here. Indeed many of you came and joined me in 2010 for my first speech to the House of Representatives. You have stood alongside me in the fight for our cause. I thank you for sharing today with me and I want you to know that your presence greatly enhances this day.

I am a worker. The Labor Party, the party of workers, is a natural home for me. Like my parents before me, I embark on this next journey of my life with a pocketful of dreams, a big heart and a worker's hands. I am ready for work.