I would like to acknowledge and pay my respect to the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people, upon whose ancestral lands this chamber is built. I pay my respect to elders both past and present and acknowledge their enduring connection to these ancient lands.
I thank the people of the ACT for the support they have shown me and to the membership of ACT Labor for giving me the honour of becoming the 8th senator for the ACT.
I take over from a long serving senator – the Hon Kate Lundy. Kate served her community and her party with distinction during her 19 years’ service. She was a senator who broke down barriers and set an exemplary standard that others want to follow. I am lucky to be able to call Kate a friend and to follow in her footsteps - thank you Kate for the support you've shown me and the gentle persuasion used to get me to come into this place.
Mr. President, 104 years ago on the 1 January 1911, nine hundred and ten square miles of land were excised from NSW to become the Federal Capital Territory and the site of the national capital - it was, according to the media reports at the time, an occasion “when a young Australian nation and the community of the limestone plains crossed paths”.
The “bush capital” –with more than half of our jurisdiction dedicated to national park and nature reserves –delivered on the desire to have a modern city that co-existed within the natural beauty of the area that had originally drawn the federation fathers to this place.
Mr. President this is my place.
It’s a city of four seasons where the dry intense heat of summer drives you indoors until the sun goes down, where the glorious colours of autumn create picturescapes that seem to pretty too be true, to the subzero temperatures of winter when the air feels almost too cold to breathe, until the blooms and early warmth of spring signals the welcome end to the winter hibernation.
It’s a place where you can explore the stories that created our nation and its identity – through our wars, our art, our laws, our democracy, our history – we are the custodians of our nation’s story, our national spirit and we are proud of this role.
From our earliest days Canberra has been seen as a government town, a place where politics happens and, at times, we wear this reputation like heavy saddle bags – but we are so much more than that.
In just over 102 years Canberra has grown into a mature city forging its own identity separate but complementary to the role of the nation’s capital.
And it’s not just the locals who think that Canberra is pretty great – in 2014 the OECD recognised us as the World’s most livable city. It’s hard to get better than that!
We are Australia’s largest inland city, a diverse community nearing 400,000 living within a region of close to 600,000. One fifth of our population is born overseas and our people have been drawn here from nearly 200 different countries.
We are big enough to enjoy the benefits that city living brings but small enough to maintain a strong sense of community – never clearer than when in 2003 bushfires ripped through our urban fringe, killing four, seriously injuring many others, destroying more than 500 homes and damaging almost 70% of the ACT pasture, forest and nature parks.
As the seat of government it is no surprise that Canberra’s economy has been dependant on government and government services, but Canberra also has a private sector that punches above its weight with a flourishing small business community, a growing export industry and an innovation and entrepreneurial sector that is developing quickly and is globally reaching.
Canberra has a developed a reputation as a world class knowledge centre - with institutions like ANU and the University of Canberra who, along with the UNSW, Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University and CIT educate 44,000 tertiary students each year. Collectively these institutions contribute $2.7 billion a year to our economy and create 16,000 full time equivalent jobs. CSIRO and NICTA contribute to the knowledge economy and, despite the funding cuts they’ve suffered, remain renowned internationally for their research and commercialization outcomes.
Our tourism industry contributes $1.6 billion to the ACT economy and is one of the Territory’s largest private sector employers, supporting 14,700 jobs. There is huge opportunity for growth in this sector with the newly completed Canberra International Airport, particularly when international flights come to this city.
Mr. President, with the with the exception of Robert Menzies, conservative administrations have never been great friends of Canberra. In 1996 when John Howard took the razor to Canberra our community hurt and our economy went into recession. In 2013 Joe Hockey, in perhaps his first housing affordability gaffe sent a warning of what was to come when he joked the impact a Liberal government would have on our local housing market when he said “There is a golden rule for real estate in Canberra – you buy Liberal and you sell Labor”.
In 2014 the Liberal cuts were back – approximately 6000 jobs lost here in one year alone– but unlike in 1996 our economy has proven its resilience and whilst we feel bruised the ACT economy has continued to grow throughout.
Mr. President, it’s often struck me as odd that for a city that was handpicked as the home of democracy – Canberra’s own citizens have had to fight, over many years, to gain democratic rights equal to other Australians.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the people of the ACT were given a limited voice in the Australian Parliament and it wasn't until 1966 before full voting rights were granted. Under Gough Whitlam, Territory representation took a giant step forward with the creation of the seats of Canberra and Fraser with the Senate following in 1975 – but only after both the West Australian and Queensland Governments, failed in their respective High Court challenges to oppose it.
It’s not widely known that ACT residents weren’t allowed to vote in constitutional referenda and plebiscites until 1977 when it was put to the states in a referendum and it got up– amazing that I’m here really considering how hard it is to win a yes vote this way – and looking at the results Queenslanders remained unconvinced at the time with 40% voting no!
And it didn't take ACT residents long to show their independence and exercise their new rights when they became the only jurisdiction to vote for Waltzing Matlilda over Advance Australia Fair as the preferred national song in a plebiscite held later that year.
The march to full democracy continues at a slow pace. The 26 year old Territory legislature remains constrained by provisions of the Self Government (Australian Capital Territory) Act 1988 whereby the ACT parliament can still have its laws overturned and are prevented entirely from passing certain laws that are available to the States.
There should be a review of these constraints conducted co-operatively between the Commonwealth and ACT Governments with a view to removing these constraints and allowing the Assembly to govern without interference.
Mr. President, my parents arrived in Canberra in 1969 from the United Kingdom via New Zealand following my father’s recruitment to the Australian Public Service. The Canberra of that time had a population of just 70,000 people although it was growing rapidly. For a young couple from the UK with no family or friends I can only imagine the culture shock of arriving and settling with young children in one of the new suburbs on the urban fringe of the city.
Betsy and Charles Gallagher took their responsibility to rear their children as independent, educated and community minded citizens seriously. My brothers, sister and I were taught that we had to contribute to our community if we were to be full participants in it.
My parents were open- minded to the world around them and they encouraged the same for their children. They understood that every family was different and that lived experienced for some was hard. We were taught from our earliest days never to judge anyone – never to think we were better or worse than anyone else. In our non-religious home the values of love, kindness, care, compassion, understanding and forgiveness were fundamental parts of our upbringing.
Living without my parents in my life is a source of great sadness - but the values they instilled in me continues to influence and shape my perspective on life and the decisions I take. I remain eternally grateful for the guidance and love they gave me.
Mr. President I graduated from ANU in 1991 and spent the next decade working in the community sector primarily with people with a disability arguing for improved rights and voices for vulnerable people. This was the time when a great Labor reform - the Disability Discrimination Act had come into operation, and I saw first -hand how good laws change lives for the better. I helped to close down sheltered workshops and large residential institutions and I learnt to be a fierce advocate for those who couldn't speak for themselves. I saw up close how important an adequately resourced disability sector is to ensure human dignity and that is why when I was Chief Minister of the ACT – we were one of the first governments to sign up to the NDIS vision under Julia Gillard’s government.
I later put these advocacy skills to good use when I joined the trade union movement as an industrial organiser for the CPSU. Organising under a Howard government seemed hard enough but I suspect in hindsight it was a relative workers’ paradise compared to the anti-union attitude of the current government. To all of those working people who are fighting just to maintain conditions and get a fair pay outcome - all strength to you.
I can't really pin point the exact reason why I chose politics in 2000 - although the lack of women members in the Assembly ranked highly.
It is disappointing to me that, in 2015, women remain so underrepresented across Australian parliaments. Women constitute just under 30% of all elected representatives across Australia and hold just 25% of all ministries across all parliaments. We must recommit across party lines to encourage more women into political organisations, support them when they are there and mentor them into roles and positions within parties and across parliaments.
If increasing the number of women in politics was one motivator for me to give politics a shot – so was motherhood. In 2000 I was a single mum with a young child and I was struggling to find my place in the world following the death of my daughter’s father just 3 years before –issues like paid parental leave, equal pay, sole parent pensions, childcare and family payments, flexible work arrangements and affordable health care all took on a new relevance in my life.
Motherhood and political campaigning drew me back in from a self- imposed wilderness and helped me to find my voice again and in the 2001 Territory elections I became the candidate that wasn’t expected to win - who did.
I spent the next thirteen years as a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly contesting four elections successfully. Twelve of these years I spent as a Minister across various portfolios including three as Treasurer, eight as health minister and three and a half as Chief Minister. It was an incredible privilege to serve in these roles and I'm proud of the work we achieved as a Labor government that was prepared to invest in and build our city –not only in terms of infrastructure, but also with services and by way of promoting social inclusion.
In what turned out to be my last months as Chief Minister I committed myself to providing a lasting solution to the Mr. Fluffy asbestos tragedy that has plagued our city for the past 50 years. Whilst it is early days in this program I have no doubt that the decision to buy back affected homes and provide owners with a financial solution and finally remove the asbestos threat was the right one – both for affected owners and for the city. It remains a blight on this federal government's record that they refused to step up and take any responsibility – financially or morally - for something that happened on the Commonwealth’s watch prior to self-government.
As a member of executive government for more than a decade I gained invaluable insight into the important role that governments’ play in building and creating resilient communities.
In that time I always tried to do the right thing for my community– as opposed to the easiest or the most popular.
I learnt the importance of showing leadership when it’s needed, in displaying judgement, having the ability to listen, to learn from others, and to accept that government is not always right and that acknowledging mistakes is often as important as celebrating victories.
I learnt the importance of a fearless and non-partisan public service and the need for strong accountability mechanisms - including complaint, dispute and audit bodies which provide independent oversight and act as a check and balance on executive authority. Laws and policies to provide access to government information and provide avenues to pursue public interest disclosures are equally important.
I learnt that good governments can accept criticism, disagree with it but never feel the need to silence it.
I learnt the importance of using evidence to underpin government decisions, of involving experts and stakeholders in policy development and ensuring that different opinions are heard and valued – even if they are ultimately disagreed with.
I learnt that when speaking with my community honesty was definitely the best policy and that not having the answer and saying so was better than trying to fudge it.
Mr. President, I am a supporter of an Australian republic and for reaching agreement on the best way to formally recognize the first peoples of this land.
I am a supporter of equality across the board – no if’s no buts, no caveats.
I support a fair Australia, a diverse Australia, and an Australia that looks to the future openly and optimistically.
I support a country that provides for all its citizens and ensures that any economic agenda includes, at the centre, the capacity to create jobs, and provide essential services which support each one of us live a dignified and meaningful life.
I believe that governments should manage their budget in an economically responsible manner and at the same time invest in and provide for their citizens, particularly the most vulnerable.
I believe that universal access to health and education, affordable housing, fair wages and conditions and pensions are fundamental components of any social contract in a fair minded and prosperous country.
I believe that we can have debates on national security to keep our community safe and still show compassion and care for people fleeing persecution and seeking refuge in foreign countries.
I believe that politicians should not shy away from the harder, more complex, and more divided debates. It’s exactly these types of debate – on issues like climate change, housing affordability, domestic violence, the rising burden of chronic disease - that need strong leadership and advocates that champion solutions for them.
I believe in the unions and the role they play in ensuring workers, particularly those on low incomes are able to bargain for reasonable pay and safe workplaces.
And because of all of this - I have been a proud member of the Australian Labor Party for the last 20 years.
As the enduring party of progressive politics and the party of reform the Australian Labor Party has led the national debates which have helped to shape modern Australia.
This is a record of achievement for which we are rightly proud - whether it be in indigenous rights and recognition, healthcare, superannuation, pensions, the economy, education and skills, equality, multiculturalism, infrastructure, industrial relations or the environment – it’s been Australian Labor that has fought for the changes that came – and for the rights that we all enjoy today.
And this work never ends.
As Labor senators and MP’s this record and building upon it - is what motivates us in our work every day.
And as the party of reform we cannot exempt ourselves from it. We must get serious at adopting reforms that give party members a greater say.
All Labor pre-selections should be open to a full membership ballot. One vote one value. This requires candidates to earn the votes they get. It promotes transparency, accountability and will deliver a better outcome for the party.
The labor movement should have influence in the Labor Party but that influence can be used without seeking dominance. A respectful and close relationship can be maintained whilst at the same time allowing party members a greater say.
This is the way it has operated in the ACT for more than a decade and we are without doubt the most successful ALP branch in the country.
Mr. President, we live in arguably one of the world’s most successful federated systems. Over the past 114 years the federation has endured as a strong partnership between all governments in Australia and this partnership has been critical to our success as a nation.
But the system is not perfect.
There are areas of duplication and areas where improvements could be made. But any reform agenda must not simply be an exercise in pursuing one government’s political agenda over another or an exercise in blame-shifting, cost shifting or placing unreasonable expectations on smaller governments.
And the $80 billion cuts to health and education funding should remain the No 1 item on the agenda.
Because whilst the colour of various governments might change over time there are some things we know for sure - on the streets and suburbs of Australia – where it actually matters - there aren’t going to be any less patients needing care in hospital and there aren’t going to be less children in need of an education.
Mr. President, I was lucky to be ACT Health minister for more than 8 years. The creativity, passion and dedication that I witnessed every day in that role has left me with a lifelong interest in this area. The Australian health system delivers high quality outcomes but it is under enormous pressure and under the policies of the current government this is only going to get worse.
I’m not a mathematician but if the costs of providing hospital services are growing at 5.5% per annum yet a major funding partner – the commonwealth - are only prepared to provide increases of 1.7% - at some stage this is going to create a major problem for health care systems and patients which will take years to undo.
The state of preventative health care planning at the national level is a disgrace. The unprecedented efforts of the previous government have been disbanded or defunded. Resources are needed to plan, to prevent and to stop the rapid growth in chronic disease across the community, particularly amongst vulnerable populations. Never has this work been more important than it is today. Failing to address this now will create demand down the track which will be impossible to meet and unaffordable to provide.
Finally to this great chamber I speak from tonight. The architects of our constitution were a clever group. They created this chamber to embed – within the heart of our most important democratic institution – a measure of protection for the states and a check on hubris, which history shows is sometimes the unwelcome baggage that travels with executive power.
As I have watched the national political scene since the last election, it has been clear to me that it has been this place – the Australian Senate – that has stepped up to perform its constitutional role and to push back against the overreach of the Abbott Government.
It is a chamber well accustomed to knocking the barnacles off the ship of state, amending, and yes refusing, legislation that doesn’t have the isn’t in the national interest. In this respect, it is a kind a dry dock for legislation and any complaints that the Senate should simply wave on through the policy and legislative excess of the current government either don’t understand or don’t like the checks and balances of our democratic system.
It has not been a feral Senate, as Tony Abbott has suggested, but rather a fearless Senate, a fair Senate, a Senate that has listened to the Australian people where the current government has not.
Mr. President I have been very fortunate in life to have such wonderful friends, many who have come to share this moment with me today. I thank them for that friendship and laughter we have shared and for always being there when I’ve needed it.
Tonight I would like to specifically acknowledge those that have played a significant role in my career in politics. Firstly to Wendy Caird and Margaret Gillespie – these women met me when I was at my lowest point in life –I was unemployable and they gave me the dignity of a job. I am forever thankful for the potential they saw in me and for the time they invested to get me back on track.
To Jon Stanhope – my mentor and my friend. We forged a great partnership in am incredible lucky to have had Jon’s support throughout my political career
I met The Hon John Watkins AM 6 years ago and we got off to a bumpy start but over time we grew to greatly respect each other, he has been incredibly generous to me – with his time, advice and guidance.
To Mike Samaras and Stephen Jones - we met more than 20 years ago through a shared friend and even though he is no longer with us you have honored his memory and become wonderful friends of mine in the process.
To my sister Clare and my brother’s Richard and Matthew who join me here today. Whilst I am the one on my feet tonight I know how proud our parents would be of all of us and the adults we have become.
To David, who taught me to love again – it all began with our shared love of the beagles - thank you for walking along side me this past 10 years and for always being there.
To Abby, Charlie and Evie – thank you for keeping it real. There is nothing more important to me as you three. You are my greatest love and it’s such an honour to be your mum.
Finally can I thank all the people who have helped me to settle in to my new role over the past 3 months. In particular, to Penny Wong, Anne McEwen and Joseph Ludwig. I appreciate the time you’ve given me and the guidance you have provided.
To my new colleagues here in the Senate and those in the house – thank you for your warm welcome and I look forward to working with you and contributing to the federal labor team, I know that I come to this place with a lot to learn – I will listen, learn, take advice, and work hard to be an effective senator for the people of the ACT and for the Australian Labor Party.