Senator the Hon Bob Carr: First Speech

Bob Carr, Senator for New South Wales

First Speech - 21/03/2012

Mr President, I am advised by the Parliamentary Library that I am Senator number 548. All those senators, of course, are household names, their likenesses hanging like relics on the walls of a thousand schools, their names tripping to the tongue of a grateful nation and their public service celebrated in every corner of Australia. But you might suspect I jest!

In truth, it is a very great honour to be here; to be able to serve your country, a country whose history, geography and people you think you know, in this Senate. In truth, since I was 15 and finished reading Finn Crisp's biography of Ben Chifley, I have been inspired by the honour of representing my 'grand old party' in a parliament.

A friend of mine, John Wheeldon, served in this Senate—the late John Wheeldon, who represented Western Australia in this Senate. I remember listening to the radio as a student and hearing his maiden speech in the Senate in 1965 when he was opposing waterfront legislation introduced by the Menzies government. John Wheeldon once said to me that he was so enamoured of serving in politics that he would rather have been a member of the Legislative Council of British Guinea than editor of the Times. Norman Mailer, the American novelist, who I counted as a friend, said on one occasion that he had an adolescent crush on the profession of writer. I could say that as an adolescent I had a crush on the profession of being a Labor member of parliament.

I am advised by the Parliamentary Library that I am the only premier of New South Wales of any persuasion to serve in the Senate, although there are former premiers—five of them—who served in the House of Representatives. I pay tribute to one of them, a political opponent, John Fahey. I fluked an election win against John Fahey, who was a formidable premier, and someone who the Liberal Party of New South Wales should pay its courtesies and respects to. I have always admired him, and he went on to be a very sound finance minister, although not up to the standard of my colleague, Senator Wong.

If I have to pick another former premier of New South Wales who served in this parliament, it is George Houston Reid. And I wonder if the Senate would pardon me if I dwelt for some minutes or so on a man who, with a drooping moustache, a slipping monocle and a high, pipsqueak voice, served as an opposition leader in New South Wales, as premier from 1894 to 1899, for one year as Prime Minister of Australia and as the first High Commissioner—he was the man who bought Australia House. Then he went on to serve in the House of Commons. This, I might add quickly, is my last territorial claim on the Australian parliament!

Reid was described by Dr Evatt in a beautiful book that captures the flavour of Australian politics over 100 years ago called William Holman:Australian Labor Leader. William Arthur Holman, the second Labor Premier of New South Wales and later a Nationalist member of the House of Representatives, was himself a former New South Wales premier serving in this parliament. Evatt, in this book on Holman, spends a bit of time on George Reid. He says:

Under the average height, weighing over seventeen stone, Reid soon overcame the severe handicap of so rotund a figure. With a piping voice and slow enunciation, he was able to employ his single eyeglass so effectively that, although his audience laughed often, they always laughed with him and not at him. Indeed, he often employed a very keen sense of humour for a very serious purpose ... Reid was one of the greatest platform speakers and one of the ablest parliamentarians in Australia. The critical crowds of the industrial electorates began to realise that Deakin's rhetorical flourishes lacked the substance, the logic and the argument of Reid, well wrapped up as his speech often was in satire, humour and plain rollicking fun.

Evatt went on to write:

His enemies had confidently expected that Reid's fondness for the pleasures of the club, the theatre, the ballroom and the table would ensure his failure as Premier. These social temptations, it was thought, would frequently divert him from his parliamentary duties, so if the protectionists could not put him out, at least Parkes, Wise or McMillan—

Free Traders like him—

would put him out. But Reid's enemies were profoundly disappointed. Until 1899 he reigned almost supreme in New South Wales.

But when my forebears in the New South Wales Labor Party did vote him out, because they got a better deal on shopping hours reform from his opponent—support in return for concessions—Reid was deprived of the chance to come here as the first Prime Minister of Australia. Leadership of the conservative forces passed to the protectionist, Alfred Deakin, and away from the Free Trader, Reid.

Reid was passionate about free trade because he believed in social justice. He believed that there was something wrong in the colony of New South Wales getting most of its tax revenue from customs duties, because that increased the cost of living of working families. That was why he was a Free Trader. He fought battles to get a reformed budget—a different fiscal policy—through the Legislative Council of New South Wales, going to the people when the upper house rebuffed him. He argued for a tax on land and an income tax to take the place of this total reliance on inequitable customs duties that hurt poor families.

He said in one brilliant speech:

The working classes are spoken of as selfish and grasping, but they have gone on for nearly 40 years bearing nearly twice their share of the taxation of the country without organised opposition to this positive injustice affecting them. Put that alongside the conduct of the Legislative Council and I would like you to tell me which is the narrow, selfish, grasping class in the community.

It is an honour to be making my maiden speech here, years after I thought I had left parliamentary service behind, and to be doing so while serving the country as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I subscribe to the view that Australia is a creative middle power and an activist middle power that defends its interests—which is, after all, the essence of foreign policy—but which sets itself a model of good citizenship. I acknowledge straightaway that large slabs of bipartisanship exist in foreign policy, not least in the treatment by the coalition of our commitment to Afghanistan, and I believe that 1,550 Australian fighting men and women would be grateful for that.

I remember celebrating the end of the Sydney Olympics in October 2000. The closing ceremony was a wry celebration of the Australian character. I remember that as I left the stadium I passed Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, and because the ceremony had been full of esoteric references to thongs and Hills hoists and other Australian symbolism I thought I should not apologise but explain. I leant over and said to Henry, 'Henry, you've got to understand we are a very funny people.' He had a distant, quite emotional look in his eyes and he said, 'You know, this is the only other country I would consider living in.' I thought that a tribute to what I described three weeks ago as the sweet, funny, brave country we call Australia.

The fact is, the land we call our own—the land owned by these sweet, funny, brave people—is being transformed, as is the rest of the planet. Yes, since the late eighties I have been an unapologetic believer in the grim reality that human activity is changing the earth's climate. Everything I have looked at in all those years has strengthened my belief that this is the truth. Each decade has been warmer than the previous decade since the 1950s. Australian annual average daily maximum temperatures have increased by 0.75 degrees Celsius since 1910. Average global mean sea level for 2011 was 210 millimetres above the level in 1880. Average global mean sea level rose faster between 1993 and 2011 than during the 20th century as a whole. And so the indicators accumulate, all of them pointing to and all of them confirming the fact that it is human activity that has driven this process.

An article in the Economist magazine over a year ago did not question the reality of this phenomenon or the role of humans in driving it but only posited that it was too late to stop and we had to adapt. The Economist said this global warming was mankind's 'craziest experiment', and I do not think we could have put it better. Bill Clinton described global warming as nature's weapon of mass destruction and the brilliant author Bill McKibben, in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, reminded us that this is the way we live now—this phenomenon is upon us. What was prophecy when I first started reading about it in the late eighties and early nineties is the way we live now. He said in his book:

Here's all I'm trying to say: the planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists. The stability that produced that civilization has vanished; epic changes have begun. We may, with commitment and luck, yet be able to maintain a planet that will sustain some kind of civilization, but it won't be the same planet, and hence it can't be the same civilization. The earth that we knew—the only earth that we ever knew—is gone.

His book plays with the spelling of 'earth'—eaarth—which is his device of reminding us that the earth today is different from the earth of only a decade or two ago. Human activity has changed it. This is how we live now. It is upon us. It is the way we live.

I do not want to waste the time of the Senate by rehearsing arguments. I have here a list of countries that have implemented a price on carbon or an emissions trading scheme and I have a list of those that are applying a tax—implicit or explicit—higher than the one we have. I wish I had been in this house to have participated in the debates on this issue from 2009.

I am proud to stand here as someone who as Premier of New South Wales introduced three things on this subject. Firstly, I introduced the end of broadacre land clearing in 1996. Peter Beattie in the early 2000s was to implement a similar measure in Queensland. Together that ban on broadacre land clearing in these two states enabled Australia to say that we had met—or almost met—our Kyoto obligation. It was state Labor governments fighting with large sections of the primary producer community that produced that outcome

Secondly, as Premier I was proud to introduce what I am assured by the World Bank is literally—actually—the world's first carbon trading scheme. The New South Wales Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme came in in January 2003. The European scheme did not come in until two years later in January 2005. We applied a limit to the emissions from the power sector and required offsets where those emissions were exceeded.

Thirdly, I was proud to stand with representatives of the housebuilding industry and the environment movement in 2004 and introduce what I am assured were the toughest standards for new housing in New South Wales on energy and water. Those BASIX standards have stood the test. They have built into houses a requirement for natural air conditioning to minimise the reliance on air conditioning, for example, producing that 40 per cent reduction on energy use.

I want to share a pessimistic vision with the Senate. What if the shock we have sustained to the planet and to our way of life through changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere that surrounds the earth is actually a precursor to another huge environmental shock? Bear in mind that global warming has caused, by this crazy experiment, a change in the chemical composition of the atmosphere around this planet. If you had gone up and filled a test tube with air from one of the highest mountains on the planet in, say, 1950 and then did the same thing today, the air you would be trapping in the test tube would be chemically different. It would be a different product. This is the experiment we are engaged in. This is what we are living in. But what if this shock, this chemical experiment with the earth's atmosphere, is only the first of a series of shocks we might sustain?

And what about the oceans? Their chemical composition is changing as they absorb more and more of the carbon that our civilisations have been emitting. According to one measurement, the Southern Ocean, which lies between us and the environment of Antarctica, absorbs about 40 per cent of all the human-driven carbon dioxide released around the world each year. The chemical composition of the oceans is changing—a process known as ocean acidification. Currently about one-quarter of the carbon dioxide released each year by human activities is absorbed by those oceans. As the concentration of carbon dioxide increases, the water becomes more acidic. Its chemical composition changes as that of the atmosphere has been changed, and so many disastrous implications follow. Among other things, there is a change in the exoskeletons of marine animals: they become brittle and frail, introduced to a sort of osteoporosis.

Then there is what is happening to the earth's coral. I spoke a moment ago with a group of ambassadors from all around the world, UN ambassadors brought to Australia to discuss with us our bid for the United Nations Security Council. It was the UN ambassador from Serbia who said that, as a diver—Serbia is now a landlocked country, but the ambassador used to represent Yugoslavia—he cannot find a coral reef that is intact from chemical change. When I told him I was going to give a speech and refer to ocean acidification, he understood implicitly the change that is going on.

We are an island state with the third-largest marine jurisdiction in the world. My parliamentary colleague Senator Feeney tells me that, with our landmass and that of the South Pacific, we occupy 20 per cent of the earth's surface. We have a great issue here. With our partners, the small island states of the South Pacific, there is a lot involved in it. I understand that those small island states are eager to have us make a commitment to the blue economy.

My colleague the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, who I see in the gallery, is going to go to Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, in June, with bold Australia ideas, a program and a sound record in this country of ocean management. But this is a global challenge.

I want to address another global challenge. One month ago, US soldiers burnt copies of the Koran at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Days later, young people destroyed 238 war graves in Benghazi, Libya. Whether intentional insult or error of judgment, such acts can look like cultures at war. Senators may recall the sense of cultures being at war that was felt on hearing reports of the terrible dynamiting by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan—those statues carved in stone 15 centuries ago. At such times, people might subscribe to the notion that we are being tugged toward the nightmare that the American writer Samuel Huntington predicted in his 1996 book the TheClash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. I remember King Abdullah of Jordan saying at a Davos conference in 2004:

Let us avert the clash of civilisations, and help the overlap of cultures.

I think those were eloquent words. That notion of an overlap of cultures, I think, is inspiring, especially compared to the alternative notion of monochrome monoliths destroying one another's statuary, smashing one another's grave sites and burning one another's books.

There have been in the world's history some marvellous cultures of tolerance, and we should dwell on them. In southern Spain, in medieval times, Moslems, Christians and Jews lived and worked together in the polity known as Al-Andalus. Andalusia, of course, springs from that Arabic noun. One of the caliphs, Abd-ar-Rahman III, who ruled between 912 and 961—his name has probably not been spoken in this Senate chamber for many years—appointed a devout Jewish scholar, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, as his foreign minister. Why recall this all these centuries later? Simply because of the symbolism. Here was a Moslem ruler who appointed a Jew as his foreign minister. It is what King Abdullah must have had in mind: an overlap of cultures.

In that civilisation, Al-Andalus, while Christian Europe's libraries were small, the caliph's library at Cordoba reportedly burst with 400,000 volumes. Jews in this civilisation had their sacred writings translated into Arabic, because they liked the sinuosity of the language. As Maria Rosa Menocal wrote in The Ornament of the World—a beautiful book that I commend to the Senate—this was a society that had the courage to 'live with its own flagrant contradictions'.

I have sometimes asked Chinese politicians as we have talked over dinner, 'What was your favourite dynasty?' More often than not, they nominate the Tang dynasty, ruling between 618 and 907. It was a time, according to many of my Chinese interlocutors, 'when China opened to the world and the world opened to China'. Its sometime capital was Xi'an, a walled city of one million people, with mosques and churches and Buddhist monasteries where ancient texts from India were being translated into Chinese. Persian princes in exile made it their home. The grid-like streets were thronged with tradesmen, horsemen, acrobats and musicians who travelled from central Asia along the silk route. You can see statuettes showing them with their non-Chinese features and dress in the museums of China today; they were staples for Tang dynasty tombs. According to recent research, it seems Chinese civilisation, especially under the Tang and Song dynasties, was more cosmopolitan and diverse than we can imagine from this distance. The empire was full of roving foreigners learning from Chinese civilisation. China opened to the world and the world opened to China.

Sydney businessman John Azarias recently wrote an account, that was published in the Financial Times, of the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy whose '"constant companions of the mind" were the multi-ethnic worlds of the Seleucids, of the Ptolemies, of Byzantium and of the Ottomans'. It was, as Azarias said, 'a quintessentially Alexandrian spirit'. Again, this culture was untidy, overlapping, contradictory and pluralistic—not a culture demanding conformity to a single religion or language—surely rich enough to fit King Abdullah's ideal of 'an overlap of cultures'. As I remember hearing Bill Clinton say once: 'Our differences make us interesting. Our common humanity is more important.'

We should ask what we Australians can do, in our modest way, to steer the world away from Koran burnings, the bombing of Buddhas and the despoilation of brave soldiers' graves towards peaceful overlap and pluralism. We can make sure that our multicultural society continues to tick over. I do not think there is a need to fetishise multiculturalism or to give it a capital M but, simply, to relax into our easygoing Australian ethnic and cultural diversity based on tolerance and respect. We can redouble our efforts in the Alliance of Civilisations—and earlier this afternoon I met another UN ambassador who was a member of that alliance—sponsored by the governments of Spain and Turkey. We can enhance our work in the region for interfaith dialogue. We can work with Indonesians, the largest Islamic nation in the world, which continues to spurn extremism.

As Burma democratises we will give it increased aid, of course, to educate and feed its starving children. We will encourage it to resolve complex internal conflicts and to entrench human rights. But we ought to find a bit of extra money, because I understand that in a corner of Rangoon you can find a few streets that include a synagogue, created by Jews from Iraq in the 1890s, sitting next to a 1914 Sunni madrasa, which in turn faces a Hindu temple not far from a Hokkien temple and not far from Methodist, Catholic and Anglican churches—all nearby.

Running foreign policy is about protecting our national interest, although by every tenet of diplomatic doctrine that comes first and foremost. It is also about being an exemplary global citizen when it comes to protecting human rights and protecting the world's oceans. To this I would like to add that in foreign policy we may also promote and defend cultural diversity, the idea of a planet of seven billion that celebrates and does not deny its contradictions.

Mr President, I reflect for a second or two on the vagaries of political life, the planetary alignment of democratic politics that deposited me on this bench. As I said three weeks ago: I am enlisted for the duration. What an honour to serve.

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