Sen. Chris Ketter (ALP-Qld) – Maiden Speech

Senator Chris Ketter was elected as a Labor member from Queensland at the 2013 federal election.

Ketter

Ketter, 53, was previously an official of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. He began work with the SDA as a researcher in the early 1980s.

Ketter’s term expires on June 30, 2020.

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Hansard transcript of Senator Chris Ketter’s maiden speech.

The PRESIDENT (17:01): Order! Before I call Senator Ketter, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech; therefore, I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.

Ketter

Senator KETTER (Queensland) (17:01): I would firstly like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today. And to you, Mr President, I offer my belated congratulations on your election on 7 July.

It is such a great honour to have been elected as a senator for Queensland. I am now in the ninth week of my term, and I take this opportunity once again to thank the people of Queensland for the trust they placed in me, and the Australian Labor Party, and to say how humbled I am to be able to serve the people in our nation’s parliament and to work with all honourable senators for the good of our country.

John F Kennedy once famously said, ‘The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.’ With that ambit claim, I wish to start on a matter that is less lofty but nevertheless very personal to me: the pronunciation of my surname. It is ‘Ketter’, with an E, not ‘Katter’, with an A. With all due respect to the honourable member for Kennedy, that vowel is very important to me! I mention this in passing because, since my election, I have been appreciative of the earnest attempts by various parliamentary officials to correctly pronounce the surname of this humble backbench senator. This is just a small illustration of the fact that the qualities of courtesy, dignity and respect do pervade the operation of this place, contrary to the perceptions created by the somewhat robust exchanges during the daily one hour of question time.

In delivering this speech, I have the opportunity of setting out what sort of politician I would like to be and what I would like to achieve. I have come to the conclusion that from this time on my work starts and finishes with the fundamental principles of dignity and respect, which are both the means and the ends. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …”

On the principle of dignity, I will have more to say later.

Ketter

I am deeply conscious that the electoral success I have enjoyed is due to the hard work of so many people. No-one has played a greater role in this than my wife, Eleanor. I gratefully acknowledge the many sacrifices that she has made over our 28 years together and thank her for her steadfast love and support. Due to my frequent absences, she has borne much of the responsibility for the raising of our four beautiful children, Catherine, Victoria, William and Laura. I acknowledge our girls, who are in the gallery tonight, and I am grateful for their love, patience and support. I am very grateful to my parents, Ron and Judy, for the many sacrifices they made which enabled me and my younger brothers, Luke and Paul, and my sister, Genevieve, to have the benefit of a Catholic education. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live by the values that were instilled in us, such as belief in God and the dignity of the human person.

The ongoing support of my parents enabled me to go on to complete a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Queensland. In the months following graduation I did not have a clear view as to the career path I should take. I will always be indebted to my grandfather, Bill Thornton, for suggesting that I consider working for a trade union. Bill Thornton is an extraordinary man. He is 99 years old and he is here tonight with my uncle, Brother Neville Thornton. Bill initially resisted my invitation to be here. He did not want to be a bother to anyone. I am very grateful to Neville for making it happen and for his presence tonight.

Ketter

Bill Thornton is a former meatworker and long-time official of the Federated Clerks Union of Australia who found his life’s work in fighting against the forces of communism. Bill, and many other good people who lived through the post-World War II era in Australia, put aside other interests and aspirations and joined what it is said the editor of Ben Chifley’s speeches described as the battle for the ‘soul of Australia’, which was fought out mainly in the ALP and in the union movement. I am grateful to Bill for his life’s work and for his sterling advice to me.

I offered myself for employment at the Queensland Shop Assistants Union in 1982 and was fortunate enough to be accepted by the then branch secretary, John Hogg, who set me to work initially as a research officer and subsequently in a stint of warehouse organising. In 1992 I became first assistant secretary. I rounded out my education with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in economics, which I undertook part-time at the University of Queensland. It was there that I encountered Dr Richard Stavely, whose lectures transcended the dismal science of economics and entered the thought-provoking realm of political philosophy. When John Hogg was elected as a senator for Queensland in 1996, I was elected by the Queensland members of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, or SDA, as state secretary. I am indebted to John for the trust he placed in me and the guidance he provided.

I am a proud unionist, and it is of great concern to me that unions today attract much unfair criticism. The trade union movement has made a remarkable contribution to the fabric of Australian society. Unionists have upheld the dignity of men and women in the workplace and have carried the spirit of the fair go from the shop floor to the floor of parliament. I note that before me there have been two officials from the shop assistants union in Queensland who have gone on to become senators for Queensland. In fact, in both cases those former union officials went on to serve as presidents of the Senate. I have already mentioned John Hogg, who is well known to most of us. The other was a colourful character by the name of Gordon Brown, who was a senator for 33 years from August 1932 and who served as president between September 1943 and March 1951. I am spurred on by the noteworthy contributions my predecessors have made.

Successful unions rely on the commitment and support of their members and activists. In my time with the SDA our union placed great emphasis on appointing and training members to take on the roles of union delegates and workplace health and safety representatives. I want to take this important opportunity to record my appreciation of the many hundreds of ordinary members of the SDA who agreed to take on these roles within our union. The term ‘shop steward’ has certain connotations to people of my generation, but to me it is a title given to the selfless people who put up their hands to help out those in their workplaces who, for a variety of reasons, are more vulnerable to mistreatment. And they do this for no financial gain for themselves—often making their own lives more stressful than they would otherwise be.

In this country we pride ourselves on the great Australian spirit of voluntary community service—we quite rightly celebrate the volunteers of the surf lifesaving movement and the rural fire brigades, to name but a few. But in my experience we do not do enough to recognise the contribution of rank and file union members who take on the role of being the face of their union in the workplace on a daily basis and who are committed to ensuring that other great Australian principle, the fair go, is upheld. It seems to me there is something very noble about those people who go out of their way to uphold the dignity of others in the workplace, whether it be by just listening and providing moral support or by negotiating with line management to assist with resolving local workplace issues.

Ketter

This leads me to draw attention to the importance of the role the trade union movement has played and continues to play not only in our country, but throughout the world—not merely because it is a movement to which I have devoted much of my working life, but because of its significance in the struggle for social justice, freedom and democracy. For support of this proposition we need look no further than the teachings of the Christian church. In 1991 the 6th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia affirmed the role trade unions and professional associations play in protecting those who are weaker in society, the need for people to stand together in solidarity against injustice and the need for Christians to express their discipleship in trade unions and professional associations as one way in which church and work life connect and influence each other. The Catholic church’s official Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 2004 states:

“The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions. Unions ‘grew up from the struggle of the workers—workers in general but especially the industrial workers—to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production.’ Such organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.”

On the international stage, the key role played by trade unions in protecting and advancing democracy was most dramatically illustrated in the tremendous social and political upheavals which took place in eastern Europe commencing at the end of the 1980s. Under the leadership of then SDA national president, the late Jim Maher, the union provided financial and moral support to Solidarnosc, the Polish union and social movement, which was operating under martial law and political repression during the 1980s. The SDA sponsored several visits to Australia by Solidarity leaders in that decade. In an interview in 2008, Jim stated that he was particularly proud of the fact the union played a significant role financially and physically. The fall of the communist regime and the rise of Solidarity under Lech Walesa led to Jim receiving the Polish Commander’s Cross—at the time, that country’s highest civilian award. In 1988 Jim Maher received the Order of Australia for his contribution to Australian and international trade unionism. Jim said, ‘I don’t take great personal credit for that. It was recognition for what the union had done.’ It is widely held that the example set by Solidarity inspired the cause of freedom throughout the remainder of the countries of the eastern bloc, which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. I acknowledge and welcome the Polish Ambassador to Australia, Excellency Pavel Milevski.

During the course of my 32 years with the SDA I worked with many fine individuals, too numerous to name here. However, I do wish to acknowledge the contribution of SDA national secretary Joe de Bruyn, who is here in the gallery. Joe’s intellect, integrity and work ethic over more than 30 years have earned him great respect across the political divide. I am indebted to Joe for the wisdom he always sought to impart through his engaging humour. I am also grateful to former SDA national president and former senator Don Farrell and his wife Nimfa for their friendship and support. Don’s departure this year was a great loss to the Senate, and I acknowledge Don and Nimfa in the gallery tonight. I also acknowledge the presence of Gerard Dwyer and Peter Malinauskas.

Ketter

I wish my successor in the role of SDA Queensland branch secretary, Chris Gazenbeek, who is also in the gallery, and his team every success as they continue the vital work of the union. Just as I am proud of the achievements of the industrial wing of the labour movement, I am also proud of the contribution of the political wing in embedding the concept of the fair go in Australian society. What is the fair go if it is not a recognition of the dignity of each individual person. I believe the essential work of government is to support Australian families and to ensure that, as far as possible, families are able to operate effectively. Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

The family is the basic building block in our society, and there is research to suggest that well-functioning families yield not only a productivity benefit to the economy but also social benefits, such as reduced rates of crime and drug dependency.

Labor in government has a proud record of looking after the interests of Australian families. It has achieved this over many years by establishing a fair industrial relations system and a fair social welfare safety net, at the same time pursuing policies that lead to job creation and sensible economic growth. Over the last 100 years, Labor has focused on real support for families. The first form of Commonwealth financial assistance to families, the maternity allowance, was an initiative of the 1912 Fisher government. It was intended as an anti-poverty measure. Bob Hawke’s pledge on child poverty in 1987 led to a reduction by 1989 in the number of children living in poverty of between 43 and 47 per cent. Another study found that, between 1995 and 2000, child poverty fell in Australia by more than any other OECD country, with Australia moving from the sixth highest rate of child poverty to 16th.

I am a strong supporter of the Australian industrial relations system, which ensures a fair go for workers. The defeat of the appalling Work Choices legislation and the establishment of the Fair Work Act are proud Labor achievements. I wish to single out our world-class occupational superannuation system as a crowning achievement of Labor’s industrial and political wings. I will support improvements which further enhance the capacity of Australian workers to retire with financial security and dignity.

I am proud of the economic record of Labor in office. The Hawke government’s reform of the financial system and the floating of the dollar set the scene for 23 years of continuous economic growth. The creation of over 900,000 jobs over five years, the handling of the global financial crisis and the retention of the AAA credit rating are noteworthy Labor achievements.

I believe that Australians deserve a fair share of the natural wealth of our country. While Queensland’s tourist, agricultural, construction and resources industries are important, I see further diversification, particularly in the knowledge based economy, as being vital to the prosperity of future generations.

I am deeply conscious of the fact that I stand here before you today because so many of the people of Queensland at the last federal election placed their faith in the Australian Labor Party. I wish to congratulate my Labor colleague Senator Claire Moore on her re-election and pay tribute to former Senator Mark Furner for his significant contribution. Last year, Mark was gracious enough to offer this rookie politician the opportunity to campaign with him in the lead-up to the 2013 election. The centrepiece of our campaign was a road trip from Brisbane to Cairns, stopping off at various locations in between, including Hervey Bay, Gladstone, Mackay, Bowen and Townsville. Mark and I worked hard together, and I will never forget the friendship and support of the many party members with whom we engaged in those communities. I look forward to continuing those bonds in the years ahead.

I am also grateful for the support I have received over the years from many other quarters within the party, especially Bill Ludwig, Wayne Swan, who I acknowledged earlier, Con Sciacca, Brian Kilmartin, Ben Swan and Peter Biagini. I particularly acknowledge Craig Emerson, Anthony Chisholm, Shayne Neumann and Jim Chalmers, who are here tonight. I also thank the staff in my office—Kerri, Jasmine, Lucy, Jennilyn and Bart.

Turning to the future, as a father of four, I have recently had reason to become concerned about the political future of the Australia I know and love. Australia is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world and, yet, according to the Lowy Institute Poll 2014, just 60 per cent of Australians believe that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’. Even more concerning, only 42 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds agree that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, and a third of this age group say that ‘in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable’.

This research suggests that it is not so much that Australians support a more authoritarian system; it is that they are disenchanted with the way Australian politics is currently conducted. I believe that the troubling findings of this research are a wake-up call for all of us who would desire an enduring, vibrant democracy in this country. I do not have the answer to this vexed issue, but I do know that unless we tackle this issue together—through discussion and education and not lectures—for future generations we risk losing the gains which we have made in relation to fairness and equity in our society. I also suspect that the more we stick to the principles of dignity and respect in public life the better off we will be.

Mr President, I started my address by quoting JFK and his challenge to change the world. Like you, I am a politician, and words and speeches are the tools of our trade. I may not have changed the world tonight but, for the sake of my children and their generation, I intend to keep trying, one speech at a time.

Ketter

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