Sen. Joe Bullock (ALP-WA) – Maiden Speech

Senator Joe Bullock was elected at the re-run Senate election in Western Australia on April 5, 2014.

Bullock

The original Senate election of September 7, 2013 was declared void by the High Court after the Australian Electoral Commission lost around 1400 ballot papers during a recount.

Having replaced Senator Louise Pratt in the first position on the ALP ticket, Bullock was the only successful ALP candidate. The ALP also failed to win a second seat in South Australia.

Bullock, 58, an official of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, was a controversial choice for preselection, especially after the publication of a tape of an address he made to the Dawson Society.

In his maiden speech, Bullock paid tribute to the former independent senator from Tasmania, Brian Harradine, who died earlier this year. Bullock said Harradine was “the finest politician I have known”, and “a great Labor senator”.

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Hansard transcript of Senator Joe Bullock’s maiden speech.

The PRESIDENT (17:23): Before I call Senator Bullock, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech; therefore, I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.

Bullock

Senator BULLOCK (Western Australia) (17:23): Thank you, Mr President. Allow me at the outset to apologise for my tardiness in delivering this first speech. Few senators can have delayed their first speech until after they had contested two elections. I can only say in my defence that, although I am to blame for many things, this was not my fault. Late though I am, it would be churlish of me to fail to congratulate the government on their election last year. That said, I need to record my dismay at some of the aspects of the approach of the government as it closes on its first year in office.

While we all want to return the budget to balance, it is simply unjust to impose the greatest burden on those who can least afford it. The government proposes that the burden should fall on the sick, particularly the frail aged, through the $7 co-payment and increasing the cost of drugs under the PBS; on the elderly, by failing to allow pensions to arise proportionate with wages and by increasing the retirement age to 70; on struggling families, by restricting the application of family tax benefit part B and abolishing the schoolkids bonus; on the unemployed, by making people under 30 wait six months before receiving unemployment benefits; on motorists, by increasing the excise on petrol; and on workers saving for retirement, by imposing a 15 percent tax on the super contributions for those earning under $37,000 a year and deferring increases in the superannuation guarantee; and it proposes to make a profit from students by borrowing at one rate and lending to students at a higher rate and to increase the cost of tertiary education by deregulating fees. Against this, higher income earners will pay a higher marginal rate of tax. But while it is proposed that the cost to working people will be permanent the higher tax rate is only to be temporary. I am advised that Treasury analysis shows and the government knew before budget day that low-income families, who can by definition least afford it, would lose $844 a year in disposable income as result of budget measures, while a high-income family after the tax changes would lose only $517 a year. Government senators could benefit from a couple of years organising for the shop assistants’ union, to gain some understanding of the financial pressures on the average Australian family.

I have enjoyed 37 years of such experience, but before touching on that I need to acknowledge some of the many whose lives and example will have a bearing on my approach to the task ahead. Firstly, I want to pay my respect to the finest politician I have known, the late Senator Brian Harradine. I first heard Brian speak in 1976 and was immediately inspired. He was a man of principle, a man of faith, a man determined to make a stand for the values he held dear. In that speech Brian focused more on his union work than on his then new role as a senator. There is no doubt that his words bore upon my decision to work with the shop assistants’ union, the SDA, when that opportunity arose in the following year. In 1979 I joined Brian on the SDA national council, and for over a quarter of a century it was my privilege to spend a week with him each October in the union’s national council meeting. I am proud to regard him as having been a friend. He and I slipped away for lunch in 2006 on the day he was awarded life membership of the SDA. That he was immensely moved by this award demonstrated to me the extent to which serving the interests of shop assistants had remained a priority in his life. Brian Harradine was a great Labor senator.

Secondly, I wish to acknowledge my debt to my parents, Alf and Beulah Bullock. Alf was a toolmaker who lived simply, minded his own affairs, worked with his hands and was dependent on nobody. He strove to make the world a better place by dint of the example of his life. In the 25 years I knew him, never once did I see him fall short of the standards of behaviour which he espoused. In this regard I am constantly embarrassed by my own shortcomings and my failure to be the person I know I should be. As for my mother, Beulah was the epitome of unconditional love.

I also wish to pay tribute to my old school headmaster, Mr James Wilson Hogg MBE, who personified what it was to be a gentleman and made this a condition to which to aspire, and to my old friend Associate Professor of Traditional and Modern Philosophy David Stove. David not only possessed a fine intellect and remarkable wit but was an even more impressively humble human being. He often remarked that he did not know what he would have done for a living if he had not had the opportunity to lecture in philosophy. With far more justification, I am amazed that I have been able to earn a living simply by encouraging people to treat others as they would wish to be treated—especially as this is not even an original idea.

This opportunity to live a life of service was given to me by the best person it has ever been my good fortune to know, Joe de Bruyn. Joe came to Sydney in 1977 to stop the shop assistants’ union falling under communist control and to establish the NSW branch of the SDA. Joe recruited me, among many others, to that task. I intended only to stay until the branch was on its feet but ultimately stayed for 37 years. Joe became national secretary in 1978 and will retire from that position later this year. One reason I am here is that I cannot imagine working for the union without him. I have the deepest respect for Joe de Bruyn.

Under Joe’s leadership the SDA became and remains Australia’s largest trade union. Its membership is predominately young, female and non-full-time. That makes our segment of the workforce most vulnerable to exploitation. Workers in retail have no leverage. As individuals they are price takers. Market power lies with their employers. Without organisation, without someone to argue effectively in their interest, these workers are condemned to the bottom of the labour market. Their inability to negotiate fair wages and conditions on their own behalf makes a nonsense of any system of individual contracts of employment that ludicrously pretends that employer and employee bargain on equal terms. Without representation the employee can only expect to receive what the employer deigns to grant them.

Bullock

Yet in Australia it is often reported that our shop assistants are the best paid in the world. As a result, retail workers who would otherwise languish on rates that would condemn them to a life of subsistence can take their place as full members of society, albeit of modest means, complete with the dignity which is their birthright as human beings.

The standard of living of retail workers in Australian owes nothing to the operation of the market but to a distortion in the market. That distortion in the market is the SDA. The resultant improvement in living standards is something about which everyone associated with the union—secretary, organisers, delegates and members—can be justifiably proud. Whether it be wages, rosters, REST Superannuation, family friendly provisions, health and safety or any of the myriad protections afforded by our enterprise agreements, the SDA has done an outstanding job for our members. We have achieved this through the merit of our arguments, through honesty and commitment, always with respect for and compliance with the law and without the industrial muscle to be able to rely on industrial action. The SDA is a model of how an effective union should operate.

The union movement exists to advance the interests of working people, the majority of whom, whether unionised or not, whether they recognise it or not, owe their standard of living to the efforts of the trade union movement. Industrial work, however, can only achieve so much. That is why unions formed the Labor Party. The Labor Party is our party and indeed can only remain a labour party for so long as the union movement maintains a significant influence within it.

I have been an active member of the Labor Party since 1978 and I can assure you that the ALP is a wonderful party. The ALP is a party of tolerance. It is a broad church that tolerates and encourages members with a wide range of social and economic views. It tolerates me. It has allowed me to take a place here. It has done so for two reasons. Firstly, I have an unshakable commitment to the role of the trade union movement in advocating the interests of working people and their families, particularly the interests of the low paid. Secondly, I accept the rules. Among these, one critical rule is: always vote consistent with caucus decisions. That means you can anticipate that I will always vote in accordance with the position adopted by the Labor caucus, even when, as I expect will sometimes be the case, I disagree with it. This rule would constitute an unacceptable restriction were it not for another great attribute of the Labor Party—pragmatism. Labor understands that there are issues of principle that people of principle could not accept as being able to be determined by majority vote of caucus. That is why Labor has adopted the conscience vote. Conscience voting covers a range of issues, including for example, matters of life and death—and in these I will always advocate the right to life—and issues related to marriage. Labor had a conscience vote on no fault divorce in 1974. I am sorry I missed that division! Related questions attracted a conscience vote in 1957, 1959 and 1961. Other issues such as gambling and hotel opening hours have been held to be conscience issues in some states, so the concept is a moving feast. I am inclined to argue for the widest application possible of the operation of individual conscience consistent with maintaining the level of solidarity necessary to advance the interest of working people.

So, in most matters at least, my vote is determined by caucus. My opinions, however, are my own and when confronted with the temptation to share them my practice has been to yield to it! Having raised the subject of tolerance and given that Senator Day seems likely to raise issues to which tolerance will be a relevant consideration, I am going to yield to the temptation to share some views. I do not need to be tolerant to support the right of people to express views with which I agree. On the contrary, tolerance is displayed in upholding the right of people to express views with which I disagree. A tolerant society is one prepared to uphold the precious right of free speech, provided such speech does not intimidate or incite the injury of others.

Today, tolerance appears in some quarters to be a misunderstood concept. The politically correct place tolerance on a pedestal among virtues but hold that it requires that all sincerely held views—provided that they are not politically incorrect—be held to be equally valid with respect to the holder of them. This is not tolerance but rather a flawed doctrine of moral equivalence. To be tolerant of your views I do not need to pretend that you are just as right as I am but rather to accept that you have a perfect right to hold a view I believe to be wrong, even if I find your view offensive.

In speculating about matters that may come before the Senate I am probably getting ahead of myself. There has been extensive public comment as to the circumstances that led me to be here with respect to which some response deserves to be given. It is tempting to give a blow by blow account of the events leading to my preselection, if only to set the record straight. The temptation to examine in depth the internal operations of the Labor Party has proven to be irresistible to some within the party and is a source of continuing fascination for the media. After consideration I have concluded that such indulgence does little to advance the interests of those whom Labor is pledged to represent and, as a result, I will restrict my response to matters related to my own circumstances and motivation.

I did not expect to be here. Six years ago next month, like my father before me, I suffered a severe heart attack. Having then recently been re-elected to a further four year term as secretary of the SDA I believed that I had an obligation, if I was able, to serve out that term and use it to prepare a successor to take up the heavy responsibility of caring for the interests of Western Australian shop assistants. As I lay for a week in intensive care, I planned to retire on 6 April 2012, the day I would reach exactly the age at which my father died, and a day that coincidentally was his birthday.

During 2011, however, another concern began to play heavily on my mind. Considering the popularity of the then Labor government and the medium-term trend in Labor’s primary vote in Western Australia I began to worry that Labor might only secure one Senate seat at the 2013 election. If that were to happen who would stand up for the interests of Western Australian shop assistants? I prayed about this. I reluctantly concluded that I had to run. After years of hard work for the union, I was looking forward to retirement. My health was uncertain. Nevertheless, I began my campaign. With everyone to whom I spoke I shared my fear that Labor might secure only one senator and I asked for their support to head Labor’s ticket. When it came to the crunch, I won the support of 109 out of the 170 delegates who voted in the preselection. This result was unprecedented, overwhelming and, at least in my view, miraculous.

Union delegates make up half of the Labor Party. I wish to record my thanks to my friends in the SDA, Stephen Price, the AWU delegates and former TWU Secretary Jim McGiveron and his delegates. These are all long-term supporters. In particular, I need to thank Dave Kelly and Carolyn Smith from United Voice, who went out on a limb in their circle by placing their faith in me. The other half of the party is comprised of branch delegates. I could not have achieved the majority I did without the support of dozens of individual branch delegates who cast their lot in my favour. I will always be indebted to you for the confidence which you showed in me.

Bullock

I am naturally disappointed that my worst fears have been realised and that the re-run Senate ballot delivered only one Labor senator from Western Australia. Former Senator Louise Pratt was a tireless and competent advocate of the causes which she espoused. She earned universal respect and the loyal support of a good many party members. When it came to a contest between myself and Louise, I—not unnaturally—backed myself; but I share with the rest of Labor the sadness that Louise was not able to get across the line.

It remains for me now to explain what sort of a senator I hope to be. Firstly, I intend to be a senator for shop assistants. Before the election, I was asked by TheWest Australian’s Andrew Probyn whether my first loyalty was to the ALP or the union. In response, I said that I would always look at legislation from the perspective of its impact on shop assistants. If that meant I was union first, so be it. Thirty-seven years of representing shop assistants cannot be lightly set aside and nor should it be. It is this understanding of and concern for the interests of working people which I feel best equips me to take my place here.

Secondly, I intend to be a senator for Western Australia. The Senate is the state’s house and I intend to stand up for the interests of my state. Philosophically, this is a position with which I am most comfortable. I believe in the principle of subsidiarity and of having the responsibility for making the decisions as close to those affected by the decisions as possible, while having regard for the need for efficient implementation. In this way, decision makers are most likely to be held to account for the consequences of their decisions, and citizens are most likely to regard themselves as true participants in the democratic process with a real say over the decisions that affect them.

Achieving this will entail a reversal of the trend towards the centralisation of power in Canberra, which—in my observation—has been an almost constant feature of the last 40 years. I was most disappointed at the 2009 ALP National Conference to read in Battlelines that our current Prime Minister advocated assuming control over the Mersey Community Hospital in Devonport. It is this meddling in state affairs, this quest for a moment of political glory, that results in the duplication of responsibility, additional cost to government and additional cost of compliance and red tape. It generally makes it harder for the voter to determine who is responsible for decisions, who to blame and who to trust to make things better. Trusting big brother in Canberra frightens me.

I will not repeat those arguments made by Senator McGrath in his first speech, in which he advocated that all health and industrial services be left to state governments, subject to the provision of adequate funding from Canberra. I not only agree with these arguments, but I put them to him a week before the July sitting. As to the GST, the injustice of the current arrangements with respect to the distribution of this tax—to which Western Australians make such a significant contribution and receive so little benefit—is a disgrace which the government immediately needs to address.

More broadly, I hope to espouse the values of mainstream Australia and to give voice to my beliefs. I believe in the inherent value and dignity of every human life. I believe in a fair go and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. I believe in capitalism and in fostering enterprise, risk and reward as a means of delivering economic growth and prosperity. I believe in a level of regulation to offer protection for the weak against the powerful and to limit the excesses of capitalism and destructive greed. I believe in the right of citizens to act collectively for their mutual benefit and particularly in their right to form unions and negotiate collectively.

I believe that the family based on marriage is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state as the best means of caring for the next generation and providing for welfare. I believe in equality of opportunity made possible by the provision of decent health, education and social support. I believe in the responsibility of government to provide adequate defence for the nation. I believe that all Australians should stand equal before the law and the rule of law as essential to a society of ordered liberty.

I believe in democracy, the constitutional monarchy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I believe in Jesus Christ and the right of people of religious conviction to express their views in the public square. While these beliefs may not excite some self-proclaimed progressives, I am always dismayed when they are characterised—as they sometimes are—as extreme. I cannot accept this. On the contrary, I believe that Labor’s stocks will rise proportionately as they are seen to embrace the views of what I believe to be the majority of our people.

In the course of this speech, I have given an explanation of the factors which have led me to be here and of the sorts of issues which are likely to attract my attention. I have, however, left the best to last. There would be no possibility that I would have shown the resolve required to overcome the obstacles to achieving this position without the support of my wife Helen. For over 20 years, Helen has continued to believe that I am smarter than I really am, more competent than I really am and more capable than I really am. She remains stubbornly blind to all of the evidence to the contrary. I can only assume that this is love and I know that—in spite of all of my flaws, which are obvious to me—I love her back.

Bullock

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