Ross Hart (ALP-Bass) – Maiden Speech

The new ALP member for Bass, Ross Hart, has delivered his maiden speech to the House of Representatives.

Hart

Hart regained the Tasmanian electorate, based on Launceston, from the one-term Liberal member Andrew Nikolic at the July 2 election. He achieved a two-party-preferred swing of 10.13%, one of the largest of the election. The ALP primary vote was 40.50% and the two-party 56.09%.

Hart is a lawyer who has practiced in Launceston as a partner at Rae and Partners. He was President of the Law Society of Tasmania in 1994-5.

  • Listen to Hart’s speech (26m – transcript below)
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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Ross Hart, ALP member for Bass.

Mr HART (Bass) (12:54): I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present.

I was honoured to attend the welcome to country ceremony prior to the opening of parliament on Tuesday, and to witness the wonderful first speech of the member for Barton yesterday. It is also important to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that comprises my electorate of Bass. I acknowledge the connection the traditional owners of the land in north-eastern Tasmania have with their land and country, and I respect their continuing customs and traditions. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands now called Tasmania—their stories, their culture and their history must be acknowledged and respected. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

Hart

I wish to thank the very many people who have made it possible for me to stand here today in this extraordinary building as a member of parliament. I thank the chair of my campaign committee, Senator Helen Polley, who is in the chamber here today. I would particularly like to thank Elliott Bell for his long and dedicated service to my campaign. I also wish to extend my most heartfelt thanks to the amazing Amy Jenkins, who acted as field organiser for the campaign—a campaign which was won on the ground, with literally thousands of conversations with the electors of Bass about the matters that were important to those electors.

There are others too—Yvette, Fay, Victor, Jennifer, Susan, Lewis, Jane, Andrew, Jack, Greg, Rob, Elaine, Marian, Andrew, Phil and Astra, Adam and Coby, David, Woody, Marita and many more. I am sorry that I cannot use my allocated time here today to list everyone. Thank you also to my friend and mentor, Michelle O’Byrne, a former member for Bass in this federal parliament.

I wish to pay particular tribute to the teams of people who doorknocked, handed out how-to-vote cards and contributed in many varied ways to a successful campaign. To my comrades in the union movement, thank you once again. You provide for the empowerment of people who would otherwise be disenfranchised, particularly those who are in a low-paid or insecure work. To Tim Jacobson of HACSU, Jannette Armstrong of United Voice, Paul Griffin of the SDA and other unions: I thank you for putting your trust in me. Your members inspire me. They dedicate themselves to improving the lives of working people.

It is also important that I mention my friends at the MUA, the CFMEU, the Australian Maritime Officers Union, Rainbow Labor, the Tasmanian Left and the Bass Labor branches and affiliates, all of whom were energised by this campaign. I was proud to acknowledge the Labor movement on election night and I do so again today in this House.

I stand here today after having served 30 years as a legal practitioner in private practice, both as a commercial and a commercial litigation lawyer. I represented both individuals and corporate clients and, because of the nature of Tasmania, many family businesses. I understand the pressures of small business. I have lived and worked in my northern Tasmanian community for the whole of my working life. Small businesses do well when everyone does well.

One of the remarkable aspects of a small community like Tasmania is that whilst people might disagree on their politics they will put that aside if they have confidence in someone as a professional who can focus on the relevant issues in good faith. I look forward to representing all of those who voted for me and, most importantly, I send a message to those who did not vote for me. The role of a member is to represent the electors of a division and I will do my best to ensure that the residents of Bass receive representation in this place.

I thank the former member for Bass Andrew Nikolic for his service in this place. I commended him for his service to the electorate on election night and I do so again in this place. We must not forget that public service demands sacrifice, and sometimes that sacrifice goes unrewarded.

Hart

Bass is based around the city of Launceston and its greater urban area. It is described by the Electoral Commission as a provincial electorate and, in many respects, represents a microcosm of the larger Australian electorate. It has a manufacturing past, most notably based around textile production and the automotive industry, and a significant rural sector. Until the 1990s, there was a substantial industrial base at Inveresk railway workshops. It was a Labor government that invested funding to facilitate economic transition to address jobs lost when that industrial past was left behind with the closure of the rail yards.

Northern Tasmania’s economy now rests, to a large degree, on education, health care and the rural sector, including viticulture, forestry and tourism. Much of the good work being done now in exploiting tourism and food and wine was identified in analysis undertaken in the mid to late 1990s under the auspices of the Northern Tasmanian Regional Development Plan. I was fortunate to serve in the organisation with Lance Barnard—another former member for Bass and, notably, a former Deputy Prime Minister in the first Whitlam ministry. Lance Barnard showed me that you did not need to raise your voice or bang on the table to win an argument. He also showed me that it is important to listen and allow people to say their piece—and then win them over.

My connection with industrial Launceston and its future development was renewed when I was appointed to the board of the Inveresk Railyard Management Authority. With the UTas transformation project, some 16 years later Inveresk will again play a prominent role in the future of Launceston, Bass and Northern Tasmania.

I was also honoured to serve as a council member of the Tasmanian health organisation North, then responsible for public healthcare services in the north of Tasmania. I know the importance of Medicare in ensuring access to public health care and the role of federal funding to sustain our public healthcare system.

Whilst I have a background in legal practice, with experience in regional development and health governance, the focus of what I wish to speak about in the balance of my allotted time today is on the broad themes of disadvantage and inequality, framed as aspects of justice for my community and a better future for all. I wish to talk today about how the government’s focus on budget repair disproportionately affects those who are in receipt of government benefits or on low income whilst notionally being employed. These effects are not just economic. But first I need to give some context for what I will talk about.

We often hear about the golden days of the 1950s and 1960s, prior to Thatcherism and neo-conservatism, when everybody got a fair go—unless, of course, you were Indigenous or female or affected by the White Australia policy. The truth, as we now know, is that those days are not something that could, or should, be reinstated. However the sense of community then present in our suburbs and regional towns may be at risk today in our present society in terms of what might now be described as ‘social connectivity’. In those days, we probably thought about whether you ‘belonged’ to the community. This issue is particularly important today if you are in receipt of Newstart allowance or on a disability pension or under-employed. We now understand that rising inequality means a greater likelihood that the long-term unemployed and low-income earners are more likely to lack social support—the social connectivity to allow you to actively participate in today’s community. This was the subject of academic discussion some years ago but is now framed in the context of, or discussion about, inequality.

Hart

The long-term unemployed suffer in many ways which are difficult to comprehend. One way, which is easily overlooked, is the fact that a person experiencing long-term unemployment is highly likely to lose their support networks, which are vital for their continued participation in community life. This is not readily obvious but it does become clear when you realise how low the payment is that we expect a recipient to survive on.

Low income by itself, if support networks are in place, may involve disadvantage. But my fond memories of university, despite the fact that I had little money, emphasise the many networks, particularly support networks, I enjoyed as a student. They sustained me. In contrast to this, unless those networks are already in place and very robust, a person who is in receipt of Newstart is unlikely to maintain strong connections with a support network, which may be very necessary to maintaining physical and emotional health. So, when we speak of disadvantage, in my experience we must think of multiple layers of disadvantage—and the very worst layer of disadvantage is the erosion of the support networks that are capable of keeping a person connected with a community.

How can a person who has parental responsibility, who may be on government benefits, who has an obligation to search for work and also the school or sporting obligations of a child or children, have any resources left to engage with community activities and maintain support networks? When we fail to progress any real increase in the very basic level of support to the most disadvantaged in our community, we are condemning those people to isolation and a potential threat to their health and emotional wellbeing.

I know that those agencies that are tasked with supporting the long-term unemployed understand the level of support that is required to not only locate employment but also keep that person in employment. This is a practical reflection of the isolation which comes from being excluded from society. I would like to see not just a practical increase in the level of benefits available for those who are on Newstart or a disability pension, or for that matter the aged pension, but also practical steps to support the maintenance of networks necessary to maintain the health and emotional wellbeing of the most disadvantaged in our society.

Community groups and welfare agencies have had multiple programs defunded or restricted. Too often the performance measures that service providers are assessed by in this space are financial rather than ‘soft factors’ such as customer satisfaction. And sporting groups speak about supporting ‘grassroots sport’. But the practicality is that, in areas where there is extreme disadvantage, that must mean investment in hyper-local activities—that is, at the suburb level or even at the street level—to be of any practical benefit. In many respects some regional communities are doing better than suburban communities because of the local institutions which had been maintained, such as the local cricket, football or soccer club. A suburban community might lack that level of engagement, unless the local suburban football team has well and truly engaged with the local community.

How is this relevant to the people of Bass? As at March 2016 there were 4,837 Newstart allowance recipients and 4,838 disability support pension recipients in Bass. There are also many who can only be described as underemployed, or who are in insecure employment, not represented in the official figures but reflected in levels of disadvantage. People on low incomes, whether within the allowance or pension system or not, are likely to find it difficult to find and stay in housing and seek medical help. They are more likely to be unwell or to be unemployed. The unemployment rate in Bass was approximately 7.4 per cent as at May 2015, according to ABS figures. The rate of poverty in Bass extends from 12.13 per cent in West Tamar municipality to 20.81 per cent in George Town. Thirty-three per cent of Tasmanian households depend upon income support payments as their main source of income. Low-income families have an average disposable income of $359 per week, compared to an average for all households of $1,224 per week. Thirteen per cent of Tasmanian households have an after-tax income of less than $281 per week.

Hart

I was fortunate to be able to campaign, over an extended period of time, within my electorate on the simple but positive themes of jobs, education and health. There is no doubt in my mind that these issues resonated across the communities I spoke to. It was reinforced in every conversation. The mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ at the centre of the government’s campaign was contrasted with the very simple Labor message around well-paid jobs, protecting penalty rates, education in the form of ‘Your Child. Our Future’ and substantial investment in the University of Tasmania transformation project.

People in the electorate of Bass, particularly those on low incomes or in receipt of allowances or benefits, also well understood that only Labor would stand up to protect public health, Medicare and our public hospitals. Given the substantial research undertaken in the area of social determinants of health, northern Tasmania is at the centre of an unfortunate coincidence of low income; pockets of extreme disadvantage; greater incidence of chronic disease, including those likely to expose the health system to greater demand; and a federal and state government refusing to face the reality that the public health system could not sustain removal of funding.

The 2014 federal budget had an immediate impact upon me. I watched the delivery of the budget by the then Treasurer. I felt physically ill. I knew from my involvement in health governance that substantial cuts to acute hospital funding, particularly for chronic and multiple morbidities, would expose the health system to significant pressure. The advice that I received at that time was clear, if brief. Detailed financial analysis as to the budgetary position of a hospital with a budget of $350 million per annum, run on a financial knife edge to a break-even position every year, I found, can be reduced to a short summary. The summary was: it’s bad—really bad.

That aside, my immediate concern was for those young unemployed, under the age of 30, as the government assumed that they would be able to survive without income for six months of every year. Either that or business and the community would be required to bear a burden to support an underclass of unsupported unemployed living in absolute poverty.

That budget was unfair, and the government which attempted to deliver that budget remains determined to deliver many of the programs and cuts announced in that budget despite a change of leader. That leadership claims a mandate, subsequent to the election on 2 July, for a program which still requires the disadvantaged, low-income earners and those on allowances and benefits to pay for the cost of budget repair whilst the government insists that trickle-down economics in the form of $50 billion of tax cuts will create jobs and growth. I was concerned and remain concerned about rising inequality and, it seems, the disregard for unemployed and low-income people and the marginalised within our communities, whether it is in northern Tasmania, elsewhere in regional Australia or in public housing in our large cities.

The plan Labor took to the election was based around a positive plan for the electorate and a positive plan for Australia based around investment in people, in education and in infrastructure—infrastructure like the NBN—and, importantly, in protecting our public healthcare system. I am proud to say that, in hundreds of conversations, particularly in areas which can only be described as disadvantaged, there was a general understanding and agreement with Labor’s proposal to make additional investments in education as a driver of economic growth. There is correlation between lower educational attainment and health outcomes, and economist Saul Eslake has long campaigned to the business community within Tasmania that investment in the education and skills of our young people will drive better economic performance. I agree. This is something which provides a strong pathway to a positive future for Tasmania, which I am committed to work upon during my time here.

I thank the entire Labor leadership team—the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten; our deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek; Penny Wong; Chris Bowen; Mark Dreyfus; and others—for their wonderful support of me during the election campaign. This included specific policies announced for Bass including the commitment of $150 million towards the UTAS transformation project. This project benefits not just people within Bass but also the electorate of my good friend the member for Braddon, with the relocation of the Cradle Coast Campus. The aim of the project is to drive enrolment in UTAS’s northern campus through new state-of-the-art facilities at Inveresk. Thus the railway workshops of Launceston’s industrial past become essential to a future which involves transforming the lives of young Tasmanians through education and training.

Hart

I am doubly proud that this commitment was made prior to the formal launch of the campaign and that the Tasmanian Labor team and visiting shadow ministers hammered the government on their commitment to this vital project throughout a long winter campaign until the government finally relented and committed to the project. There is no doubt that this project—with $150 million of federal money, $75 million of state money and $75 million of university funding—will provide important jobs in construction, as an infrastructure project, and will also, in the long term, play a significant part in the revitalisation of the CBD of Launceston as well as driving better education and job outcomes for young Tasmanians.

I am also strongly committed to continuing my advocacy for improved sewerage infrastructure discharging to the Tamar River. There has been significant private and public investment in tourism infrastructure in Launceston in addition to vital federal funding for flood protection. However, Launceston’s sewerage system carries the distinction of being one of the very few remaining combined sewerage and stormwater systems in the world, because when it was originally commenced in the 19th century it was state-of-the-art for the time.

Labor made a commitment of $75 million towards TasWater’s $250 million sewerage infrastructure project on the basis that the project could not be further delayed. The burden of such a large project would rest on ratepayers and municipal councils within Tasmania without federal government contribution. This echoes the commitment made by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to supply sewerage infrastructure to Western Sydney. Labor has the vision to build and invest. It is significant that Infrastructure Australia has assessed the project as within its top priority projects.

I wish to say some words about the Labor Party that I know and love. Labor stands for people. Labor recognises that we live in communities and the fact that we are not simply consumers in an economy, with overriding individual self-interest. We believe that there is public good in investing in the future. That is why we invested and we campaigned on the transformative power of the investment in education in driving economic growth, particularly in a state of below average income and poor education and health outcomes. Talk of present debt being a burden on our children ignores the obligation we have to invest wisely for our children and the wise investments that have been made by taxpayers past. At a local level, people understood that investing in education meant that the child next door or the child over the road would receive the best education and that would be a public benefit—a public good. Similarly, people understand that paying taxes sustains public education, a universal public Medicare system and public infrastructure. This is the Labor way: putting people first.

Finally: my family. I have my dear wife, Annie, and my son, Pete, in the gallery here today. Pete is studying architecture and design at UTAS’s Inveresk campus. He is the future for young Tasmanians. To my family: thank you for indulging me in the long hours of my legal career, hours when I should have been with you both. I regret that I was not there when I should have been.

To my mum and dad: thank you once again for investing your love and values in me. I know you will be keen to see and hear about this week’s events when I see you next. I know that your interests will now be capably looked after by the member for Lyons. If not, I am sure you will let me know!

To my sister, Sue, and brother-in-law, Kip, also in the gallery today: thank you for your love and support. I know you have had a difficult couple of years. It has been fantastic to have you here this week.

Finally, to the people of Bass: I will do my best to serve my community; a community I grew up in and a community that has sustained multiple generations of my family. I am deeply humbled that you chose me to serve.

Hart

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