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Senator Nick Sherry (ALP-Tas) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech by Tasmanian Labor Senator Nick Sherry.

Hansard transcript of Senator Nick Sherry’s maiden speech.
Nick SherrySenator SHERRY (3.37) —Mr Deputy President, I extend my congratulations on your election to the position of Deputy President of the Senate; also, my congratulations to Senator Sibraa on his election to the position of President. I also offer my congratulations on the maiden speech of Senator Herron. I am not sure what it feels like to be the first person to give a maiden speech but I certainly know what it feels like to be the last.

It is with a great mixture of humility and pride that I give my first speech here today in the Senate. In particular, it is a great moment for me to be representing my State, Tasmania, and also for me to be representing my Party, the Australian Labor Party, yet again in government.

The State of Tasmania was discovered by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. He called the island Van Diemen’s Land. Then he sailed away and it was largely forgotten. The next to visit Van Diemen’s Land were the French explorers who left little but names again, such as D’Entrecasteaux and Freycinet. Van Diemen’s Land was also on the visiting list of the Americans and the Russians, but they were beaten by the English, who, recognising Tasmania’s geographical isolation, realised the possibilities of a penal colony to end all penal colonies. Over the next 50 years of first settlement, approximately 40 per cent of all the convicts that were sent to Australia were sent to Tasmania. In touching on the theme of Tasmania’s geographical isolation, I would like to acknowledge and thank the Hawke Labor Government for continuing to recognise the difficulties that the isolation has caused for our State by ensuring that the freight equalisation scheme was retained in full and unchanged in the recent Budget.

Senator Newman —In real terms?

Senator SHERRY —The freight equalisation scheme is of great importance to our State. In answer to the interjection, it was retained in real terms. I wish to draw the Senate’s attention to not just the disadvantages that are created by Tasmania being an island State, but also the advantages. It is a State with a unique environment, a unique history and a unique cultural background. It was that background that attracted my parents to the State of Tasmania in the mid-1950s-my mother because she was an English migrant who had originally settled in Sydney and found the climate too hot to bear; my father because he wished to find a permanent position in radio and ultimately as a television announcer.

My mother was of Scandinavian-Swiss background. She was brought up in a fairly comfortable middle class family in the outer suburbs of London. Her family were committed socialists. Her father was an architect and a staunch pacifist who served four years in prison during World War I because of his beliefs.

My father, Ray, served in the other place as the honourable member for Franklin from 1969 to 1975 and for a few short years as the State member for the same seat. My father was born in Sydney, the son of Spanish-Irish parents. He was born during the Great Depression. The Great Depression was an era which caused enormous problems for most people in this country. For my father it was a particularly difficult period because he was orphaned at a very early age, his parents dying in a motor vehicle accident. My father’s brothers and sisters were fostered out and he was never to see them again. As an orphan he had to struggle to feed himself and to educate himself, leaving school at the age of 14. When my father talked about the years of the Great Depression-and he very rarely talked about them-his comments were couched in terms of his determination to ensure that such events never occurred again on the face of this planet.

As I mentioned earlier, it is with pride that I speak here today, but it is mixed with sadness because my father, although he was aware that I was preselected for what is regarded as a safe position on the Senate ticket, was not to see my election to this place; he died late last year.

I would like to acknowledge the role that my wife, Helen, has played in supporting me through that particularly difficult period. I also acknowledge the support she has given me over the last five years in the various roles I have played in the political and industrial movement.

Clearly, it was the influence of my family that originally led to my interest in politics. I first stood for a political position at college in year 12 when I was elected President of my college. It was a noteworthy election for one primary reason-I was elected by 13 votes on Friday the 13th. Since that day I have always considered 13 to be my lucky number.

I went on to the University of Tasmania, where I majored in political science and administration. I was Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Students Union. However, I was not noted for my academic study. Like many students I found going through university without financial support somewhat difficult. So at the end of my first year I obtained a full time night shift job at Wrest Point Casino. During those four years my life was a whirl of working at the casino by night, student politics by day and precious little study in between.

My work at Wrest Point led to my activity in my trade union. Appropriately, with a name such as Sherry, it was the Federated Liquor and Allied Industries Employees Union of Australia. In that union I was elected as State Secretary at the age of 23, after a four year struggle involving three ballots and two Federal Court hearings. I then spent 10 years as State Secretary of that union.

During that time I was involved in the traditional industrial activities that some would like us to be involved in and those on the other side would like us not to be involved in, including a position as a Federal councillor of my union and also as a national negotiator in a number of key industries in this country.

It was not just my union activity and industrial activity that led to my interest in politics. Over the last 10 years I have also been deeply involved in the hospitality industry in a number of areas, including a position on the board of management of the college of hospitality in Tasmania, as a member of the Employment and Skills Formation Council, as a nominee of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and also involved in various training organisations, including the tourism hospitality training committee in my State. But it was in representing individual workers and protecting them against exploitation that added to and confirmed my belief that in our society individuals need protection, where appropriate, from those who have greater economic circumstances.

In addition to my family background and my industrial involvement, I have been provided with inspiration by a number of individuals in the political labour movement. I do not wish to comment on all of them, but I simply mention one who has been particularly important to me, and that is the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Clem Attlee. He led the British Labour Party for 20 years, and was Prime Minister for 6 years. He was a person not renowned for his great oratory but certainly was renowned for his discipline and his commitment to the labour and socialist cause.

Clem Attlee also led a government that could, quite rightly, be termed to have carried out the most revolutionary changes in any society in economic and in social terms in any democracy in this century. There were such changes as the National Health Act, the Education Act, the nationalisation of a number of key industries and, above all, the recognition that the United Kingdom was no longer a world power and the recognition that there was a need to reside peacefully over the conversion of an empire to a commonwealth of nations. Many of the changes that occurred at that time would not be relevant in today’s society. But Clem Attlee and his approach to British society and to the British Labour Party provided an inspiration to me.

On my election to the Senate I take the place of Ray Devlin. At this point I acknowledge the work that Ray did on behalf of Tasmania, particularly those people on the north-western coast of Tasmania.

The election as a senator is slightly less vigorous than some of the previous elections I have been through. I have been a candidate not only in union ballots but also for the the State seat of Franklin. The only noteworthy event to me in the Federal election was being attacked by a dog and having it reported in the media under the headline, `Dog takes a nip of Sherry’.

There are two primary principles in the Labor movement that I believe in very strongly and I believe separate us on this side of the chamber from those on the other side of the chamber. The first is the Labor Party’s absolute commitment to democracy. Shortly I will come to some examples to dampen the horrified looks of some members opposite. The other principle that I strongly adhere to is the Labor movement’s determination to protect those in less fortunate economic circumstances in our society.

In terms of the Labor movement’s commitment to democracy, I refer to a couple of examples. The first is the recent events that have occurred in Tasmania. As many would be aware, last year the previous State Liberal Gray Government called an early election. Its members discovered that 17 is not bigger than 18. But they would not give up office. They were determined to press on and demanded another election, having just lost one.

This sort of behaviour totally discredits our democratic system. Gray is still at it: he is still trying to have another election, calling on the Tasmanian upper House to reject Supply, not on the basis that there has been any economic incompetence or indeed any corruption-in fact, if one looks at the economic incompetence one sees that it lies with the previous State Liberal Government and if one looks at corruption one only needs to see that one of Tasmania’s leading media magnates is resident in Risdon prison-but on the basis that a school is being closed or that a hospital is being closed. That is supposed to provide the reason for a fresh election.

The other example I wish to draw to the attention of the chamber relates to the events of November 1975. We all know what 11 November was traditionally remembered for prior to 1975. The only comment I make is that on that day I swore that I would never forget.

In terms of the economic advancement of individuals in our society, the Labor Party ensures that, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, the individuals in our society are protected from those in stronger economic circumstances. It is the Labor Party that, where appropriate, uses the State to protect individuals in our society. I wish to give an example of where I believe it is appropriate that that is carried out-in the area of industrial relations.

I note with interest that many of the first speeches of Opposition senators and honourable members in the other place were devoted to industrial relations. They talked of freeing the labour market of rigidities and restrictions. They talked of individual employers having the ability to negotiate freely with individual employees, onerous restrictions imposed by awards being removed, and no interference from third parties such as unions and industrial commissions. They said that, if this happened and individuals had the right to sit down and negotiate with employers on an equal footing, it would lead to a boost in productivity and everyone would be happy.

That is far from the truth. In reality, if we examine the bargaining power in any system such as that, we see that it is the employer who is in the dominant position. I draw the attention of honourable senators to an example in the hospitality industry. Imagine an employer having the right to negotiate with individual employees, one by one. The proprietor, flanked by his legal advisers, would call in the individual workers and engage in this process of collective bargaining. I submit that we know what the outcome would be. The employer would submit to the workers, `If you don’t cop $6 or $7 an hour, you don’t have a job; take it or leave it’. That is the sort of equity that the Liberal and National parties are arguing for in their industrial relations changes.

A range of problems is facing this country: the balance of payments; public sector infrastructure, including railroads and ports; severe regional unemployment in many areas; the distribution of wealth and the environment. I wish to touch on a number of problems associated with education and training. At present there are two stark ways in which we can improve the economic circumstances of this country: one is to decrease wages and decrease conditions in order to be more productive and the other is to increase the education and skill levels of our workers in order to increase productivity and output. I much prefer the latter.

However, there are in this country a significant number of problems in attaining that improvement. If we are to be a clever country, greater investment in training and skill formation is required. At present our investment in that area is mediocre by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development standards. I draw the attention of the chamber to the Minimum Training Guarantee Act which was enacted earlier this year as an example of a way in which this can be encouraged. It is in the area of skill formation and training, the less glamorous side, if you like, of the education debate to which I wish to draw attention.

In this country millions of people are locked out of the education and skill formation structure. They are locked out because the training system in this country is not coherent, it is not portable and it is not interrelated. Some of the problems include a lack of appropriate formal training in many industries and a lack of access to training including the problems of funding, functional illiteracy and the apprenticeship scheme.

I still find it incredible that one of the major props for our training structure is the trade system-a trade system that is a thousand years old and in many ways acts as an impediment to training in that it restricts, by virtue of age, people being able to obtain apprenticeships. It also, I suggest, has acted strongly as a disincentive to females obtaining access to the trades system.

The example I have given in the trade area suggests that the structure of training itself does not provide sufficient flexibility for persons to enter and continue in training throughout their working lives. Training should be delivered in a more modular form so that, if they wish and depending on their age and their attitude, persons can add to their training for the whole of their working lives.

Training in this country is not sufficiently integrated. If people move across an industry or within an industry, there should be a logical career path for them to follow. Training is not properly accredited in many industries-a theme I will come to a little later. The quality of trainers in many areas is very poor. Overall, training should be linked to satisfactory career paths for individuals and also to wages and skill levels.

I mentioned earlier the problem of private providers of training. Recently electors have drawn my attention to a number of problems. Those problems concern the quality of training offered by private providers. In my State of Tasmania-and I am sure in many other areas of Australia-there are many private courses being promoted by various organisations. Two within the hospitality industry have been drawn to my attention. The providers of these private training courses talk about giving diploma and certificate courses. They advertise the places at which these courses are taught, such as Wrest Point. They give government registration numbers and talk in fairly glowing terms about the future for people who undertake these courses.

The two particular courses I am talking about were drawn to my attention by a number of electors. On checking into these hospitality training courses, I found that neither had any formal registration and that the providers had sought registration but had been rejected. The Government registration number in the advertisement was not a registration number of the training course but the membership number of their employer association. The private providers claimed to give diplomas and certificates. That is totally misleading. If those courses are not accredited, the title `Diploma’ or `Certificate’ means absolutely nothing. The content of the courses on evaluation is not in accord with recently established national standards in the hospitality industry.

Heavy promotion is given to the venue. People who read the advertisements in the case of Wrest Point, which I have mentioned, will see that it seems to indicate that Wrest Point is delivering the course. On checking, the general manager of that establishment found to his horror that his establishment had been booked by this training company not on the basis that training courses were to be provided but on the basis that the training company was having a function there.

Individuals pay quite a deal of money for the privilege of attending these courses. In this case, the individual who came to me had to pay $200 and, on attending the course, was asked to pay further money for materials. When the examination was conducted at the end of the course, the training providers and the supervisors left the room. So everyone cheated and everyone got an A plus. Having completed this examination in which everyone obtained an A plus, the participants were urged to go into the work force and work for nothing to gain experience-in fact, urging individuals to breach the industrial law. I suppose to add insult to injury from the point of view of being a Tasmanian, on investigating and making my phone calls, which were quite difficult to make, I found the courses are based in Sydney.

It is that area of private providers of training in which there is very little regulation or control. It is an area that I believe needs a great deal of research and one which I have referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, of which I am a member.

The challenge that this country faces, particularly in the economic sphere, is a very difficult one. The future economy of the world in the 1990s and well into the next century will be dominated by the Asia-Pacific region, of which we are a part. It will also be dominated by the north Atlantic countries as a co-dominion. We are part of the international economic system; there is no way of avoiding that. The challenge for the Labor Party will be to ensure that we can successfully compete against that economic system. The challenge for the Labor Party will be to ensure that for the people of Australia this is carried out in terms of our social justice and equity goals. The challenge for me as a senator for Tasmania will be to ensure that those goals are carried out. That is a challenge that I intend to meet.

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