Senator Wright: First Speech

Penny Wright, Senator for South Australia

First Speech - 17/08/2011

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:26): It is a tremendous honour to stand here as a senator for my state of South Australia. I am also very proud to be representing the Australian Greens. As Greens we are guided in all we do by four clear principles: social justice, environmental sustainability, peace and participatory democracy.

I would first like to acknowledge that we are standing on the lands of the Ngunawal people and I pay my respects to their elders, past and living. Indeed, everywhere we stand in Australia we are standing on Aboriginal lands. Those of us who came later are privileged to share this ancient continent with the original Australians. It is just that we acknowledge their rightful place, their prior occupation over 60,000 years and their sovereignty, both in our Constitution and in our everyday lives.

I am conscious that I owe my presence here today to many people and I offer them my thanks for their generosity and commitment. They were Greens party members and supporters, and friends from my community. They volunteered thousands of hours to elect a second Greens senator for South Australia in the faith and hope that the greening of the Australian parliament will be a good thing for Australia and for the future. As well, over 100,000 South Australians voted for the Greens, some of them for the first time. I am mindful of the trust that resides in every vote.

There are a growing number of Australians who believe that we need to do things differently if we are to meet the challenges that this century brings us. They see the Greens as offering a courageous and creative vision for achieving this. I wish to thank my Greens colleagues in this parliament and throughout Australia for their support and welcome. There are now many of us working to bring our values to the parliaments of Australia. I would particularly like to thank my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for her help and encouragement throughout the election campaign and since.

I was fortunate to have wise and loving parents. Above all things, they encouraged me to be true to myself. Neither of them is here today. My father, Hugh Wright, died 15 years ago after a full and energetic life. My dear mum, who is 89, is too frail to travel but is watching this on a computer in Adelaide. If people would allow me an indulgence, I would just like to say, 'Hello, Mum.' They are both here with me in spirit and live in the values they modelled to their children every day—kindness, fairness, honesty, humility and courage. I hope to bring those values to my work in this parliament.

I made my home in South Australia 20 years ago with my husband, Mark. We came for his work and the family-friendly scale of Adelaide. It has turned out to be a wonderful place to raise our three children, Felix, Eleanor and Mungo, in the foothills of Adelaide, amidst a strong, caring community where people look out for each other. I thank my kids and Mark for their unwavering support and love for me. The feeling is absolutely mutual. They are my rocks.

Throughout my life, I have been blessed by loyal friends. I cannot hope to name them all, but a few deserve a special mention because of their generous role over the last two years in helping me to reach this place. There were some unexpected challenges along the way after I was hit by a car last year and did most of my campaigning from a wheelchair. I place on record my particular thanks to Carla Humphries, Jo McIntyre, Liz Davies, Kathy Gadsden, Jennifer Bonham and Marian Browett. That is not to say that I have not had support and encouragement from many other people.

I was lucky to be born into a big, rambunctious family, No. 6 of seven children—and anyone who comes from a large family knows how important your number is! So I was introduced to politics at an early age. There was a span of 19 years between my eldest brother, Neil, and my youngest sister, Felicity—and Pam, Prue, Gavin and Ian were in between. Being one of the youngest, I grew up hearing passionate discussions around the dinner table, and my older siblings brought the world of ideas and current affairs into our home. In the 1970s, that included the Vietnam War, feminism and Aboriginal land rights. There was also a growing understanding that human population pressures and technologies were threatening the natural world.

As well as ideas, they brought their partners—from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, as it was then, Denmark and Taiwan—and then introduced me to the world. I visited Pam in Papua New Guinea, just before independence, and I have visited Flick in many places, including Cambodia and the Aboriginal townships of Yuendumu and Oenpelli. Flick cannot be here today—she is in Cambodia—but I send her my greetings.

These experiences have all made me what I am today. I am curious and passionately interested in the rich variety of cultures and viewpoints in Australia, and yet I also believe that the things we have in common are vastly greater than our differences. Being part of a big family means that I feel connected to many parts of Australia. I was an auntie at six and a great-aunt at 30, and I have many beloved nieces and nephews across the nation. Some of them are here to help me celebrate today.

My early years were spent in the country town of Red Cliffs, near Mildura, and I still identify to some extent as a country girl, although I moved to Melbourne when I was seven. I attended government schools, and I am grateful to many dedicated teachers who challenged me and encouraged me to learn and excel. There was one in particular who introduced her year 9 English class to debating and public speaking and probably had little idea what a monster she was creating!

Universal quality public education is crucial for a fair and thriving society, and I have witnessed the increasing sectarianism of schooling and the exodus of parents from the public system with regret. To change this trend, government schools must be properly funded and valued. In an increasingly divided community, where people's destinies are often determined by their postcodes, quality public education can be a unifying force. It fosters connection and understanding by bringing together children who would otherwise always move in different orbits. For many children, it is the lifeline that will help them achieve their potential. I believe we are all impoverished when our public schools are starved of adequate funds. A fragmented society of have-lots and have-littles is not healthy for any of us, however privileged we are. In this parliament, I will work to promote and strengthen public education.

At Melbourne university I studied law and arts, and my course was set when I met Mark in a crowded lecture after I had been to an early but well-lubricated breakfast of calamari and claret. Since then, we have spent our life together, much of it on bikes, sharing many joint projects to make the world a better place. It has been a great journey. As a lawyer, I have mainly worked in the 'little' end of town, with people who find life challenging, including tenants, people on low incomes and people who live with mental illness. I have also taught public health and environmental law.

I learnt more than torts and taxation law while I was at uni. My most important lesson happened at the Franklin Dam blockade. In the fight to save the river from the same fate as Lake Pedder, I chose to be arrested, although I was jeopardising my future legal career. It was not just the beauty of the site or the spurious case for the proposed dam that drove me to take this step; it was also the cynical decision by the Tasmanian Premier to stop a peaceful protest by making it a crime to trespass on what had been public land. Down at the Franklin, I saw the strength that comes from people standing together for a shared belief in what is right. Each time I return to Strahan and see the beauty of the Gordon and Franklin rivers, which now draws people from all over the world, I am reminded of how right that action was and that we can all make a difference.

All around Australia, there are places that have been saved by persistent greenies, environmentalists who will not give up—and we all benefit. John Sinclair battled Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s to stop sandmining and forestry on Fraser Island. It is hard to imagine that anyone visiting that beautiful World Heritage listed island now would bemoan the decision to protect it. In South Australia, I am proud to say, after a long campaign by many, including the Greens and the Wilderness Society, the magnificent and archaeologically unique Arkaroola region will now be protected from mining. Again, I am sure that future generations will give thanks for that decision.

This century brings some huge challenges. At one time, the earth seemed so vast it was inconceivable that we could ever reach its limits. But it is now clear that our planet is finite and that we are living beyond our means. Population growth from one billion to seven billion over 200 years, coupled with massive industrialisation, has led to overuse of the earth's resources and pollution. Those of us who read the science and will not turn away from the evidence, however tempting it is to do that at times, have been aware of the signs for years. We face increasing water scarcity, more extinctions happening now than in the last 65 million years, collapsing fish stocks and peak oil. These are all symptoms of a crisis that will not go away just because we ignore it.

Too often, governments do not respond to these signs and proceed as if the environment were some kind of optional extra which we can choose to factor in or negotiate away. Conventional economic theory reinforces this view. It was developed at a time when the environment was thought to be limitless, so it does not properly account for the real environmental costs of any particular activity. Because of this, we often have no indication of the threats to the very things that we rely on for life—clean air, clean water and the means of growing food—until they become so scarce that it is almost too late. The current fierce controversy over coal seam gas mining is a case in point. It threatens long-term food production and aquifers on some of the most productive farmland in Australia. We must not proceed full steam ahead without fully understanding what is at stake. In the 21st century there is a risk that we will see the Cree Indian prophecy applied on a global scale:

Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

We cannot negotiate with the environment when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin either. It is agreed that the problems in the basin stem from decades of poor short-term decision making. Scientists predict that there will be 90 per cent less rainfall by the end of the century due to climate change. The science from the Wentworth group has been carefully developed and peer reviewed, and it tells us that 4,000 gigalitres is the minimum amount of water to be returned to the river for a healthy river system. If we do not heed the science, the Murray will die from the mouth up— first in South Australia but ultimately affecting every community along its length. Of course, we must help the communities in the basin to adapt to changed conditions—we must share that responsibility—but this is not a contest between the environment and people. The environmental constraints are not negotiable. If we end up with another politically driven short-term decision, the Murray's fate will be sealed. Here, as elsewhere, the science must prevail over the politics.

It takes courage to face up to these environmental challenges squarely without flinching, and it takes integrity to communicate them to an electorate that is not always willing to hear about them. Many people are understandably confused or fearful, especially at a time when simplistic slogans and frightening hyperbole are often substitutes for reasoned debate. But members of this parliament have no excuse for ignorance; we have access to the best information and advice available. We have been entrusted to be here. We have a duty to inform ourselves properly and then to make the best decisions in the long-term national interest on behalf of the people who voted us in. To me, that is the definition of leadership.

When it comes to climate change, we Australians are the highest carbon polluters per head on the planet. We often hear calls for responsibility over rights, so it is shameful that some political and business leaders are urging that we should shirk our fair share and dig our heels in until we are forced to act. This is especially so when our Pacific neighbours like Kiribati and Tuvalu face inundation. If we are unable to treat asylum seekers humanely, even at this point, how will we cope with the many climate refugees who will inevitably be forced to flee their homeland in the future? We have a moral duty to take responsibility for our role in their predicament.

Morality aside, it is only a matter of time before industries and nations must become low carbon. Australia can choose to meet this challenge by steadily moving away from fossil fuels and our traditional 'dig it up and sell it' culture to a cleaner economy based on renewable energy, energy efficiency, smart technology and innovation or we can refuse to change as urged by some and end up like General Motors in the US. For years their competitors developed more efficient cars spurred by high fuel costs in the rest of the world. But General Motors functioned in a fool's paradise protected by low oil prices in the US. They kept making cars the same old way until the height of the global financial crisis, and it was only then that they were saved from bankruptcy by a bailout of taxpayers' money reportedly to the tune of $49 billion.

We now have a clean energy strategy for Australia, including a price on carbon. This will be a vital sign to the market that the cost of carbon pollution can no longer be ignored. I am immensely proud of the role the Greens have played in ensuring that climate change has been squarely on the agenda in this term of parliament. This is a commitment we made before the election and it is one we have honoured.

I want to see an inclusive Australia, where all people can participate fully and achieve their best. Most Australians like to think that we are an egalitarian nation, and I think it says something good about the national psyche that this is important to us. Sadly, though, on any clear-eyed view there is a growing gulf between those who are doing well and those who are not. In Australia today, an unemployed person with rent assistance gets $295 a week. At the same time, the average CEO of one of the top 50 companies gets $123,000 a week. In Australia today, it is estimated 105,000 people are homeless, many of them young. In Australia today, we lock up people, including children, who come here fleeing war and torture. The asylum they seek was a responsibility we took on in 1951 when we signed the United Nations refugee convention. Indeed, in Australia today we redraw the map to pretend that some parts of Australia are not really Australia at all. The legal term for this is excision. It sounds innocuous enough but it actually means notionally cutting away swathes of our territory. As a lawyer, I have been ashamed to see the legal contortions we have engaged in to avoid our international obligations. How have these things come to pass in the land of the 'fair go'? And why is it 'extreme' to name them and seek to change them? One way of promoting fairness is to keep our most important institutions in public hands so that they are available to everyone, irrespective of their income or status. Services such as good quality public transport, housing, health and education allow everyone to share the benefits of living in a community and having their basic needs met. In this parliament I will fight for those services.

At this point I should also mention public broadcasting. I fought passionately to save the ABC from funding cuts and attacks during the Howard years. While it is not necessarily essential for physical survival, I believe that an independent, quality public broadcaster—free from commercial influence—is essential for the survival of our own quintessentially Australian culture and to provide the information which is the currency of democracy. I watch with concern as many of the qualities of the ABC we fought for in the 1990s are now under threat by decisions that are being made in 2011.

When I stand here to make my last speech I would like to think that I have contributed to making Australia a kinder, fairer place. If we practise kindness and fairness I believe that we can meet the challenges this century brings. If we act fairly we will balance Australia's interests with those of other nations, we will balance the interests of our species with the needs of other species—and by doing that we will actually enhance our own chance of survival—and we will balance the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow. That is what the Greens stand for. In all my decisions I am guided by the idea that we do not just inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. I hope they will look kindly on the decisions we make in this parliament.

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