First Speech 27/8/2008

Thank you, Mr President. Might I congratulate you also on your election win yesterday. It is a great privilege to be elected to represent the Australian Labor Party and the people of the beautiful state of Tasmania in the Australian parliament. It is my intention to carry out my role with dignity, loyalty and integrity.

I bring to the Senate strong convictions and ambition for the people of Tasmania. I would like to see Tasmania continue to prosper through sensible development while nurturing our people and caring for our beautiful and unique environment. Tasmania, one of the world’s most mountainous islands, has many special qualities and, as an island state, a unique identity. It is made up of one major and approximately 334 smaller islands. It has beautiful coastlines, rugged mountains, farmlands, cities and towns of all sizes. It is home to friendly, hardworking people who live a variety of different lifestyles right across the state. Over one-third of the state is reserved in a network of national parks and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area. It has a strong and diverse economic base with employment continuing to grow. Tasmania is truly a beautiful environment in which to live, work and play.

I grew up in an average middle-class family during the 1960s and 1970s, the fourth child in a family of five. I was taught to work hard—my mother and father both worked until they were nearly 70—to be resolute in whatever task I was undertaking, to look out for others, to enjoy and celebrate life and that with rights come responsibilities. Even when young I believed in a fair go for all, in a strong sense of community, in opportunity, in freedom for people to follow their dreams and in assisting people who need a helping hand. It was little wonder that I joined the Australian Labor Party with its similar ideals.

Growing up in Hobart and surrounding suburbs I attended Taroona and Lenah Valley primary schools, Ogilvie High School and Hobart Matriculation College. I have been in the full-time workforce for just on 30 years, beginning in psychiatric health research and medical and clerical administration. I lived and worked in Canberra in the early 1980s and was employed as an accounts clerk for a local hardware chain. Interestingly, my primary role was facilitating quotes for supplies to the businesses involved in building this beautiful place. I then worked for over 10 years in the childcare industry. Following that, I became an industrial officer and trainer with the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Services Union. In the three years prior to being elected, I was employed by the Tasmanian state government as a ministerial adviser and electorate officer. You can see that I bring to the Senate a vast range of skills and life experiences. In so doing, I believe I may be the first former childcare worker to become a senator in the Australian parliament—certainly the first former family day carer.

The journey that brought me that to where I am today began in the early 1980s when I became a childcare worker, in particular, a family day carer. I quickly realised that the wages and conditions in the childcare industry were not commensurate with the responsibility of caring for other people’s children. Along with two other day carers, Margaret Midgley and Rosalie Pyke, I decided to try and do something about improving the working conditions and professionalism of family day carers.

Similar to piece workers in other industries, family day carers are generally award free; in fact, they are deemed to be self-employed in most areas but have few industrial rights and are controlled in what they do and how they do it by three levels of government and a plethora of paperwork. Recognising the need for decent wages and conditions and appropriate and accredited training not only for home based carers but for childcare workers as a whole, we approached Trevor Cordwell, then Tasmanian secretary of the Municipal Employees Union and now the Australian Services Union. The branch took up the cause and, with the involvement of the union’s federal office and the MEU Victorian branch, we began a long battle in trying to achieve an industrial award for that sector of the industry. Having belonged to unions previously, this experience reaffirmed my long-held belief that, by becoming involved in a union and acting and bargaining collectively, workers increase their chances of improving their working conditions. I would like to record my thanks to those delegates and workers that I had the honour of representing. Most members I have had the privilege to know seek only a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, contrary to anti-union propaganda you too often hear.

The area of employment and training has long been of great interest to me. One of my greatest achievements while at the Australian Services Union was being able to develop and implement a return-to-work program—initially for 20 long-term unemployed mature-age women—for the childcare industry. The pilot program involved placing employees with host employers and developing and organising off-the-job accredited training as part of their employment. These workers were employed under the relevant industrial award and enjoyed a mix of supervised work experience, structured training on the job and off the job and the opportunity to develop and practise new skills in a work environment. This was the first time a program of this type had been developed for the childcare industry and was later taken up by other organisations across Australia. Over a decade later, some of the women from that initial pilot program are still working in the childcare industry. Some are working in areas where they are able to develop other skills, such as food preparation; and others, having been supported and found their feet in the world of work and study, have continued on to further study. The success of this initial program led to the Australian Services Union placing over 300 long-term unemployed people in various occupations across the broad sphere of local government occupations in Tasmania.

National investment in education in Australia has not been keeping up with the rest of the world. Since 1995, Australia’s public investment in tertiary education has reduced by seven per cent compared with an average increase by other OECD countries of 48 per cent. It is disgraceful that Australia cut its public investment in tertiary education.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hawke and Keating governments implemented economic reforms. The first wave opened up and internationalised the Australian economy. The second wave implemented wide-ranging changes centred on national competition policy. Benchmarked against the United States economy, Australia’s labour productivity fell between 1998 and 2005, almost completely losing the relative productivity gains of the 1990s. A significant reason for this occurring was underinvestment in education.

It is now time for the third wave and that needs to centre on investment in human capital so that we can position Australia as a competitive, innovative, knowledge based economy that can compete and win in global markets. In the official launch of the Howard government’s election campaign in 2007, Mr Howard said nothing with regard to labour skills and training, universities, productivity, or investment in infrastructure and technology, such as high-speed broadband or innovation. Poor skills constrain productivity, innovation and investment. Improving skills can help to build a fairer and more prosperous society with higher social mobility and fewer regional discrepancies.

Australia’s economic prosperity can only be guaranteed by having a highly skilled workforce. We must develop and invest in skills that allow us to perform effectively in secure, sustainable and satisfying employment to ensure national economic prosperity. We need to ensure that the workforce has relevant and valued qualifications to allow the Australian economy to grow, innovate and prosper. We need to expand opportunities for Australians to undertake vocational education and training through apprenticeships or institutional based learning. We need to provide Australians with portable, national, mutually recognised and consistent vocational qualifications. We need to meet the needs of people from educationally and vocationally disadvantaged backgrounds to help them gain qualifications and employable skills. We need to maximise training opportunities for existing workers to continually update and raise their post-school qualifications and skill levels so that we prevent workers being forced into low-skilled and precarious employment. We need Australia to become the educated country, the most skilled economy and the best trained workforce in the world, not to continue the trend towards the lowest common denominator.

More than anything else, it is strong productivity growth and high levels of workforce participation that will make Australia competitive. No policy is more important than Australia’s investment in human capital and in the education, skills and training of our people, who deserve to be able to increase their skills and have the opportunity to lead fulfilling and secure lives.

In the 2007 federal election, the Australian people voted for change with a massive swing of support to the Australian Labor Party. Nationally, the ALP’s first preference vote increased by 5.7 per cent in the House of Representatives and by 5.3 per cent in the Senate. This was a response to the platform of policies put to the Australian people by Kevin Rudd and the then Labor opposition. These included clear and strong policies on workplace reform, our response to climate change, the education revolution and reform of the health system. The swing to Labor was also a response by the Australian people to the previous government’s arrogant handling of its majority in the Senate.

In Tasmania, the ALP campaigned strongly to restore the balance in the Senate and Labor’s Senate first preference vote increased by a massive 6.6 per cent. Of all the states and territories it was in Tasmania where the ALP did best in translating its underlying support from the House of Representatives into Senate first preference votes. Tasmanians made a statement to change the make-up of the Senate. My presence here reflects that decision by the Tasmanian people in particular and I owe a great debt to them for putting their trust in the Labor Party by electing three Labor senators on 24 November 2007.

What do I want to achieve while in this place? I will work towards developing a prosperous Australia with a strong economy and a strong community, for you cannot have one without the other. For too long the previous government focused on quick political fixes. For too long our national budgets concentrated on the next election, not the challenges facing our country, and for too long the previous government failed to invest in Australia’s future. They did not appear to recognise that what we do not do leaves an appalling legacy for our children and future generations.

Australia has the opportunity now to look forward, to lift our sights and to start making the decisions that will give future generations a better Australia in which to live. We need to build an economy that is strong and dynamic enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century with optimism and with confidence.

Australia has a number of long-term challenges that we have to tackle to give us a chance of building a prosperous future. We have to boost education and training to build our skills base. We need to build world-class infrastructure to remove restrictions in our economy that are obstacles to growth. We need to invest in innovation, research and development to boost our competitiveness and to retain the vibrancy in our economy. Investment in the areas that drive our economy is vital to build the industries of the future that will sustain Australia’s economic and social prosperity. The longer these challenges are neglected the harder it will be to deal with them. In implementing the Rudd government’s vision for the future of Australia there is no time to waste.

In 2007 people voted for a fairer society and for a government which would provide greater opportunity for all, which consults and engages with the community and which acts in the best interests of all. As an elected representative of the Tasmanian people, I look forward to being a part of this exciting new era in Australian politics. I believe in an Australia that is prosperous, fair and caring. I want to see people thrive in a society where we care for each other, help those in need and strengthen our shared community assets for the benefit and enjoyment of all. We live in a world in real turmoil where there are great challenges to our future not just economically but environmentally and socially. I believe there is great goodwill to face and tackle these challenges and I hope that goodwill spills over into this chamber.

In March of this year I underwent emergency surgery for the removal of two brain tumours. It was not a very pleasant experience but one that was made easier by the wonderful staff at both the Hobart Private Hospital and the Royal Hobart Hospital, especially staff in the neurosurgery ward and high-dependency unit. I thank everyone involved at these facilities—even the nurses taking blood samples, although at the time I was not endeared to them—for the dedicated, professional and caring manner with which they carry out their jobs. I also thank my family and friends for their love and prayers through this time. I am pleased to report that I am recovered and ready to represent the interests of the people of Tasmania and the democratic parliamentary process. I look forward to contributing in all aspects of my role as a senator.

I owe thanks to a great many people for the privilege of standing before you today. As always, it is difficult to ensure people are not forgotten when saying thank you. If I do miss someone, please accept my apologies in advance.

I would like to pay tribute to the 2007 ALP campaign team in Tasmania, in particular Senator Carol Brown and the ALP state secretary at the time, Julie Collins, who is now the federal member for Franklin. I thank senators Nick Sherry, Helen Polley and Kerry O’Brien for their support. I thank the other Tasmanian House of Representatives members—Dick Adams, Sid Sidebottom, Duncan Kerr and Jodie Campbell—who, though candidates themselves, helped with my campaign. It is a great privilege to finally join you in the parliament, and I am proud to be part of the federal Tasmanian Labor Party team. I also thank Grace, Julie D, Kacee and Dona for their help and friendship.

The election campaign the ALP ran in 2007 was disciplined, strategic, well coordinated and very successful. I thank the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd; the ALP national secretary, Tim Gartrell; the national secretariat staff; and the volunteers involved. I thank the former Premier of Tasmania, Paul Lennon, and the former Tasmanian Treasurer, Dr David Crean, for supporting and encouraging me over many years. I thank the many state branches and members of the ALP in Tasmania for their support.

To my small but dynamic campaign team of Daniel Hulme and Geoff Butler—thank you for the hours of work, assistance, laughs and friendship. I also thank Nicole and Heather and their respective families for being so understanding and patient. I thank Margaret and Roger Midgley, Eric and Tracy Siedler, Phillip Tardif and Tania Parkes, Rosemary Rush, Dianne Hodel and Lorraine Norris, all long-term friends and active supporters. To our dear friends John Boddington and Sue Fairbanks, Breh, Emily and my godson, Daniel—thank you all for many years of love, support, encouragement and friendship. I thank David Llewellyn MHA and his wife, Julie, who have encouraged and mentored me, and I thank David’s staff, past and present, who have supported me in my goal to represent Tasmania in this place.

I thank Paul Slape, Trevor Cordwell, Sean Kelly, Brendan O’Connor MP, Darell Cochrane, Brian Parkinson, Russell Atwood, my dear departed friend Phil Smythe and others at the Australian Services Union for believing in me and in what I was trying to achieve for childcare workers. You gave me chances and experiences to pursue those beliefs and others that otherwise I would not have had. Many thanks also to those other unions who have supported me over many years.

Thank you to all those people who volunteered their services, especially the Benson extended family and those members of Australian Young Labor who helped out on my campaign. The future looks bright with such energy and enthusiasm amongst our future political aspirants.

In being here I do not follow in any family dynasty, although I do admit to family members, by marriage, on both sides of politics previously serving in the Tasmanian parliament. My parents, who are in the gallery today, believe passionately in my work and involvement in the ALP. I know they are proud to see me standing here as a senator representing the state and the party that they have supported all of their lives. Thank you, Mum and Dad, for all your assistance and encouragement. To my extended family members who have been there throughout the highs and lows and who have constantly offered support, love and caring, thank you so much. Finally and most importantly, to my family, Robert, Kieran and Alissa, who are also in the gallery today, thank you for your support and love. I thank the Senate for their patience.