Senator Singh: First Speech

Lisa Singh, Senator for Tasmania

First Speech - 16/08/2011

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (16:58): I stand here today with a sense of honour at being part of the Australian Senate. To have the chance to contribute to our Australian democratic processes and speak on behalf of so many in this chamber is indeed a privilege.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders. I would like to congratulate all the new senators on their election to this place, and you, Mr President, on once again receiving the confidence of this chamber in your office. And I would like to acknowledge the outgoing senators, especially outgoing Labor senator for Tasmania Kerry O'Brien for his contribution in this place and to Tasmania. I would like to express my gratitude to the people of Tasmania for entrusting me and Gillard Labor with their vote, for participating in delivering a politics of hope—hope that we can do things better, that we can represent people better and that we can work better together to strive for a better future.

Coming as I do from Australia's Antarctic gateway, I bring with me a Tasmanian sense of resilience to the depths of this Canberra winter. But I also bring with me from that proud island state a great sense of humility at the privilege of representing its people. I stand here grateful for the diversity of my heritage, the care of my parents and the encouragement in standing up for myself and for others.

These experiences have taught me so much and I stand here with the knowledge that my presence in the Senate is part of a broader Australian story shared by so many in so many different ways. I look forward to a day when looking around this chamber we can capture the spirit of that Australian story with a truly representative parliament, one of a diversity of backgrounds, age, gender and identity.

Just over half a century ago, a 10-year-old Indo-Fijian boy set out with his family on their boat Tui Bua on the calm Koro Sea between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. His journey to resettlement in the capital to attend a new school with his brother was interrupted by a fierce rainstorm, leaving them shipwrecked and adrift. Clinging onto a makeshift raft made from two single beds and a drum, without food or water and sharks swimming nearby, they were almost certain to die. After three days drifting through the Bligh Water, they were rescued by a local fisherman. Their survival was indeed a miracle.

That boy survivor was my dad—the grandson of Laxman, an indentured labourer from India with strong Rajput warrior roots and the son of a teacher and political leader, Ram Jati Singh OBE, who had pushed for change in his society and in whose footsteps I would follow some 40 years later.

But my grandfather's dream for his son—one of 12 children—my dad, was for him to be educated in a place of opportunity. My father travelled to Australia as an international student in 1963. He eventually met my mum in Tasmania and in that famous year of Gough Whitlam and Labor coming to power, and the Pong video game being invented, I was born.

Growing up in Hobart as an only child, I was influenced by my maternal grandfather, Les Southern, a returned servicemen and well-known police officer with an opinion on most things. I admired him greatly—the larrikin inspector who had carried Truganini's ashes out to sea—and I wanted for a time to be just like him. He had a strong ethic of doing what was right and using the law as a guide. He had always been predisposed to the belief that social and legal reform is the way to make our society more just, more compassionate and more understanding.

Along my journey, I have been influenced spiritually by all those people whose faith in their beliefs is mirrored by faith in people—a belief in the enduring importance of our actions and our treatment of each other. My strength to stand up against injustice is modelled on some of the most heroic and courageous leaders that have and do walk our planet. I have long admired and followed Mahatma Gandhi and his principle of ahimsa.

But more recently I was elated by the release last year of Aung San Suu Kyi, as I have followed her fight against the oppressive regime and its effect on the people of Burma. I admire her as a heroine of great proportions and it would be a privilege to be in her presence one day. To that end, I pay tribute to the late Lyn Andersch, who left Burma as a young woman and became a voice for refugees and migrants in the Tasmanian community.

I have also been lucky to have the wisdom and friendship of former Senator Kay Denman, who I am pleased to say is in the Senate today. Kay exemplifies those values of social justice and equality, and her legacy in this place is remembered by me and many others as that of a woman who stood up for those in need and facing discrimination.

Such wisdom has come from many quarters. I also want to thank the former long-time member for Denison and Labor minister, Duncan Kerr. I was 15 years old when Duncan won his seat, the first Tasmanian to win a seat for Labor in over a decade. Duncan has influenced me greatly and helped me realise the capacity we have as leaders to effect change through law. The people of Denison are so much the better for having had Duncan as their representative for so long and I know just how much he is missed. If I can do half as well as Duncan in federal politics then I will have achieved a great deal.

I would also like to take the time to pay tribute to my family and colleagues, and acknowledge the presence of some of them in the chamber today: my partner in life, Colin Grubb; my proud father; my son, Jack; my sister, Abilene; staff members; and friends. I also want to acknowledge my son, Darcy, and the love and guidance of my mother. I thank them for their love and their support, and for their support for my political involvement. Thanks also to those volunteers of the Australian Labor Party, to my local branch, to the unions and to those in the community who were willing to work hard to make sure Labor people were elected to govern.

From my early days growing up in North Hobart volunteering for St Vincent de Paul, I felt that something must be done about injustice—be it poverty, exploitation or discrimination. I have always wanted to play a role in turning that injustice around through the values of compassion, equality and respect for diversity.

I have spent nearly all my life in a state where we care not only for each other but for our pristine environment and quality of life. In the last decade especially, Tasmania has gone from a state fearful of what is new and different to one that revels in diversity and is prepared to embrace change.

Tasmania has led the way in recognising same-sex couples and led the way on renewable energy. New businesses are making the most of new technology and capitalising on Tasmania's capacity to produce fine food, wine and tourism experiences. We are prepared to face up to the challenges of a new economy and adapt our traditional industries, as we have seen in the landmark forestry deal struck between the Prime Minister, the Premier and so many normally disparate parts of the Tasmanian community. It is these achievements and the knowledge that so much more can be done which motivates me to be here today.

My belief in social justice was galvanised by what I saw as an undermining of the capacity of people to participate and by policies pushed or pursued by the Howard coalition government which were serving to perpetuate the most destructive elements in our society. In this period, Australia was one of only two OECD countries without a paid parental leave scheme, essential for enabling parents to maintain a balance between work and family. In this period, the government tried to undo the policy of multicultural­ism that had served the nation so well for so long, preferring instead to force homogeneity through fear and distrust of difference. And, of course, in this period was Work Choices, which attempted to destroy the rights of working people and finally unseated that government.

Under Labor, a new set of values underpin government policy that favours our common humanity. We are the party of reform, of looking to those common services that our communities need and will need in the future, because we believe in our society, we believe in a politics of hope. That is why I joined the Australian Labor Party. Our party speaks to those values of decency, of inclusion and of the importance of striving for something better for every person.

It is Labor's philosophy that guides me, stemming from Ben Chifley's light on the hill speech, 'bringing something better to the people', and the courageous leaders thereafter who have pursued social security to nation-building; native title to investment in the arts; superannuation to Indigenous rights; and workplace relations to caring for our environment. Labor's history is the history of forward-looking reform in this country. It is the story of governing in the interests of the whole community and the community to come.

My experiences as a student at university, as a young union organiser for the Australian Education Union and later as the director of the Tasmanian Working Women's Centre encouraged and prepared me in organising for the women's and peace movements. It prepared me to stand up for people's basic human rights. I am pleased to be sharing the Senate today with five other female senators from Tasmania. I would like to pay tribute to new Senator Anne Urquhart. I look forward to working with her and my other Tasmanian federal Labor colleagues.

I would like to thank EMILY's List, of which I am a proud member, for their support and especially the support of Joan Kirner, whom I have looked up to over the years and who has encouraged me and so many Labor women to make that leap into politics knowing the support of EMILY's is there for them.

In 2006, I was elected to the Tasmanian state seat of Denison under the Labor government, starting my term as a backbencher before having the opportunity to serve as parliamentary secretary and then as minister. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to drive reform in workers' compensation, asbestos manage­ment, putting rehabilitation at the centre of corrections and focusing on our future with regard to climate change.

I was fortunate to work as a Tasmanian minister with the federal Labor government to end Work Choices and introduce our Fair Work Act. My federal counterpart in these important reforms was none other than the Prime Minister and I look forward to working with her once again as a parliamentary colleague on the positive agenda she has for this country.

Sixteen months ago I lost my seat in the Tasmanian parliament in an electoral shift that would prove prescient for the nation. Like, I am sure, anyone who loses an opportunity to finish the job they started, I felt that I had more to contribute. I have always believed in the dignity of decent work and of safe work. In recent years I have become deeply concerned about the suffering of workers and their families from asbestos related disease.

There is a dark legacy of asbestos in Tasmania from the days of Goliath Cement works where hundreds of workers slowly contracted deadly asbestos disease without their knowledge and our towns remains riddled with it. I decided that I would continue to contribute in this area, setting up Asbestos Free Tasmania Foundation as its founding CEO to seek justice for victims and educate the community. I would like to thank the board of Asbestos Free Tasmania Foundation for all their support, as well as unions, especially the AWU and United Voice, sponsors, and Cancer Council Tasmania, without whom the organisation would not have got off the ground. I also thank the now Tasmanian Minister for Workplace Relations, David O'Byrne, for continuing on with the asbestos reform agenda. I look forward to continuing to support redressing the legacy of asbestos through national policy as initiated by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans.

I was fortunate to be elected to the Senate at last year's August federal election, taking the sixth senate spot for Labor, and I thank the Australian Labor Party for that opportunity. But Tasmania and the nation's voters sent a message with that election: that they want the values of our party articulated, that they have become tired of parties taking majority for granted, that they believe in community, that they believe in hope. They believe it is time for us to work together.

I have a vision for Australia where no-one is left behind, no matter what their background, gender or circumstance. I see that vision being achieved through education and creativity. I have a passion for education and the arts as they are the key by which lives can be transformed, empowered and made so much the richer.

Education is fundamental to gaining an understanding of our society and economy, and the skills with which to contribute to it. But more than purely vocational, education is fundamental to the development of good citizens and to engagement with communities. There was once a time when language studies in Australia were a high point in our education system. Today, despite the opportunity we have due to our proximity to Asia, few Australians learn the languages of our region. It is shameful that we are the only Western country located in Asia but are the lowest ranked OECD country for second language skills. Ironically, more students took second languages during the time of the White Australia policy in the 1960s than they do today, and this level continues to fall. Equipping our children from school with the capacity to travel and explore and to talk with people who speak languages other than English is part of ensuring Australia's place in the world.

Australia's place in the world is a proud one, with a history of engagement. We were a leading nation in the creation of the United Nations and we were one of the first democracies to give women the vote. We are active participants in peacekeeping and in making the lives of countless people around the world better through our aid program—a thousand quiet hopes delivered by a thousand quiet heroes.

Yet we still, in my view, have a way to go in fully declaring ourselves as the architect of our own destiny. As a former state convenor of the Australian Republican Movement, I hope that in my time in this place Australia becomes a truly independent nation with our own head of state.

I believe in gender equality and in the need to empower women and girls both here and across the globe and to teach them about HIV and AIDS and sex education. It is neither just nor right that women and girls continue being sexually exploited. Trafficking and exploitation continues in the darkest corners of our nation and in countries just a short plane ride away. As leaders in the country we have a duty to do something about this. And we must not fool ourselves. Prejudice lives unconsciously amongst us and as community leaders and political leaders it is up to us to set the standard, to show humanity towards people of different cultural backgrounds who have fled persecution or arrived as migrants, and educate ourselves about the differences between us and the things we have in common. As Bobby Kennedy remarked after the death of Martin Luther King, what we need is 'love and wisdom and compassion towards one another'. I believe that the majority of people in our nation want to live in peace and want to work together to have a decent quality of life and share the opportunities that Australia has so many of. But it is only through compassion and understanding towards each other that this can be realised.

I am proud to live in one of the longstanding democracies of the developed world. To that end, I believe we need to change our Constitution, acknowledging in its preamble the Indigenous peoples of this land. They are more than deserving of this, as our country's first people. Australia today is not the Australia for which men like Andrew Inglis Clark and Sir Edmund Barton, democrats of their era, wrote our Constitution. We are an inclusive nation; we recognise and respect the diverse groups that make up this nation. And together, through respect, we become one. Our Constitution should reflect that. It should reflect the dignity of all people, especially the Aboriginal people of Australia.

It is an exciting time to be entering federal politics and to be part of great reforms for our nation's future. We are at the crossroads, faced with the choice of embracing a new age of clean energy or acting as though we are still in the era of industrialisation, burning fossil fuels and creating more and more pollution. As Labor people, we have a history of reform and care for the environment, as reflected in the efforts of ministers like Tom Uren.

As a Tasmanian, I know a bit about this clean energy stuff. I am proud to come from a state that is run predominantly on renewable energy and I pay tribute to those forefathers, many of whom were migrants, who worked to create the Tasmanian hydro-electric scheme, from which we continue to draw most of our energy today. It is now time for the rest of Australia to catch up—and time is of the essence.

I believe our quest must be not only to make economic activity in Australia more environmentally sustainable but to assist developing nations to do likewise. I believe that, as a developed nation, we have a duty to lead and support developing nations as they transition to a low emissions trajectory. They cannot take the dirty, energy-intensive path that developed nations have blindly taken over the last century. But neither should they be denied the prosperity enjoyed by developed nations. This challenge is about global climate justice and it is about intergenerational justice.

I am proud to join this chamber and this government, which is prepared to look to the future and not just retain the status quo; that is prepared to invest in services and infrastructure for the next generation, like the National Broadband Network, and to rearticulate the value that we place on clean air, clean water and the world in which we live. As I mentioned at the outset, I come to this place being true to my values, standing up for what I believe in and being committed to the government's agenda. I also come to this place in the hope that, despite differences in philosophy, we can respect each other in this chamber in the shared hope for the future of all Australians.

As I embark on this new chapter of political life, I draw strength from those Labor Party members and senators who have gone before me and whom I share this parliament with today. I am proud to be part of a government which is decidedly not conservative because it believes in changing things for the better. And we have the courage of our convictions. I look forward to contributing to this place and to the nation, not just as a Tasmanian senator but as a member of the Gillard Labor government, in the hope of playing my part in making the world a better place.

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