Sen. Murray Watt (ALP-Qld) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech by Queensland ALP Senator Murray Watt.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Queensland ALP Senator Murray Watt.

The PRESIDENT (17:26): I am sure there is no need to remind senators to listen to the next first speech in silence.

Senator WATT (Queensland) (17:26): I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners of the lands of my home state, Queensland.

From November 2010 to January 2011, an unprecedented series of floods and cyclones hit my state. Thirty-six people lost their lives. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Seventy-eight per cent of our state was declared a disaster zone. As the Brisbane River broke its banks and silently inundated properties, I joined tens of thousands of other Queenslanders to clean up the carnage, in what became known as the mud army. Unlikely partnerships were formed. I worked with the evangelical church in my then electorate, which previously I had known as the source of my local political foes. I helped strangers and friends I had not seen in years. But I was not special. Tens of thousands of Queenslanders did the very same thing. It was expected that you would help. Amid all the heartbreak, we stuck together to rebuild communities in what was the largest piece of collective action I have ever been involved in.

As our then Premier, Anna Bligh, said at the time:

We are Queenslanders; we’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.

And get up again we did. But that summer changed Queensland and changed Queenslanders, including me, forever. For me, the memory of that collective action will shape how I approach every day of my job as a senator.

It is an honour to give this, my first speech, as one of two new Labor senators for Queensland. In the words of our great poet Judith Wright, Queensland is ‘my blood’s country’. My father’s family hail from North Queensland and my mother’s from the Darling Downs.

Growing up in Brisbane, it was fashionable in some circles to see Queensland and Queenslanders as backward. At times, our state governments entrenched this image as they set new benchmarks for political and cultural repression. But this view was always deeply misplaced. It ignored Queensland’s business achievements, our scientific innovation, our cultural contributions, our spectacular biodiversity, not to mention our sporting triumphs! Even in politics, Queensland has often led. We elected the world’s first Labor government in 1899 and abolished the death penalty more than 50 years before most other Australian states. Just last year, the Palaszczuk government became the first in Australia to have a majority female cabinet. Today’s Queensland is forward-looking, with so much to offer our country and the world. I look forward to being an ambassador for today’s modern Queensland.

We are, of course, Australia’s most decentralised state, and this brings unique challenges. Queenslanders’ sheer distance from political decision-making can breed alienation from and distrust of politicians. This sense of feeling ignored even reaches our state’s more populated south-east corner—places like the Gold Coast, where I intend to establish my office.

Queensland has been well served by outstanding Labor senators—most recently by Jan McLucas and Joe Ludwig, whose service and achievements I acknowledge. In particular, Jan was a true champion of our state’s north, travelling vast distances to listen and to advocate. Both Jan and Joe are great examples for any new senator, and I hope to meet the standard they set. I am privileged to join three other Queensland Labor senators: Senator Moore, who I have known and respected since childhood; Senator Ketter, whose diligent committee work is well known; and my friend Senator Chisholm, who will soon deliver his own first speech. We will all work hard to ensure Queensland has a voice in this place.

As a new senator I come to this place with strong Labor values: a deep commitment to fairness, equality and justice. I come with a firm conviction that being elected to parliament offers an unrivalled opportunity to convert those values into tangible gains for those who need it most. Like all new senators, I also come to this place with personal and professional experiences which inform my values—as a father, a husband, a son, a brother and a mate, and with a career spent working to improve the lot of others.

As a result, this is not my first first speech to a parliament. In 2009, I stood before the Queensland state parliament as a newly elected member to begin what became a very short lived political career. In what proved to be spectacularly bad timing, I entered state parliament when the Labor tide was going out and went on to lose my seat—along with 43 of my colleagues—only three years later. It is reassuring that merely one term in this place will triple my time as an elected representative! That experience means that I will not take a moment I spend here for granted. I am incredibly fortunate to have been given a second chance in public life. In preparing this speech I re-read my first speech to the Queensland parliament, and what struck me most was the similarity between the themes in that speech seven years ago and the themes I am touching on today. At one level, I guess that demonstrates clarity of purpose, but it is also a useful reminder that the road of reform is long.

Occasions like this also offer an opportunity for reflection on what you stand for and why. I grew up in the southern suburbs of Brisbane in a loving home. Like most Australian families, we were not desperately poor and we certainly were not rich, but even that solid start in life was a distinct improvement on my parents’ childhood. My dad, Neville, grew up around Mackay, leaving school at 14 to work on his family’s dairy farm as a canecutter and in other hard physical jobs. My mum Kathy’s family went wherever work was available for her father, from Brisbane to the Darling Downs. Sadly, unemployment—and the poverty that went with it—was a regular feature of family life.

Education was the essential ingredient in both Mum and Dad achieving a better standard of living than their parents. Both Mum and Dad completed university as adults, while working and raising two kids. Both gained teaching qualifications. Mum eventually became a school deputy principal and Dad finished his career doing something he truly enjoyed—as a bus driver for the local council. Fortunately, my brother, Glen, has upheld the family tradition by becoming a teacher and by marrying one as well. That is why a belief in the power of education is core to who I am. My parents’ support for my own education is just one reason I owe them so much. While my father is unwell right now, I am so pleased that Mum and Glen can be with us today.

But my political awakening really happened around an old laminate-topped table in Toowoomba, on the Darling Downs. Each school holidays my family would travel up the range to visit my beloved great-aunt and great-uncles. They were big in personality and ideas. To me, they were giants who I adored, and the political education they gave me was priceless. My great-uncles remained, to their dying days, committed socialists. While they each left school at a young age, they were worldly men and fought hard to make a difference not just for themselves but for others as well.

I remember, aged around 14, asking Uncle Michael what annoyed him most. His doctrinaire response was this: ‘The private ownership of the means of production.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew it was pretty radical. While times have changed and their version of socialism did not lead to the utopia my great-uncles had hoped for, the hours spent dissecting current affairs around that kitchen table forever imprinted my values: fairness, equality and justice. By allowing an impressionable teenager to participate, they taught me the importance of inclusion. Their rejection of the mantras of the mainstream media of the time taught me to question the status quo. Their opposition to the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen regime was pivotal to my studying law and, ultimately, to fighting for others’ basic rights.

But those great-uncles also taught me other great values which I think are particularly important right now: the value of community, a concern for others and something bigger than just yourself; and the value of collective action, like that displayed by the ‘mud army’ in the Queensland floods. To me, this is what defines Labor. We are the party of the people, of standing together and of standing up for each other. We support individual freedom but believe this should not be at the expense of others, because a society where individuals act without regard for others is no society at all. In Labor, we understand that we grow best when we grow together, and this understanding has never been more important. Inequality is becoming more entrenched; power is becoming more concentrated; and people are anxious about their jobs, their family’s safety and their future.

In this place, we will make choices about how we deal with these challenges. When we do this, I will always be for moving together. Unfortunately, not all political voices share this view; instead, we see Australians divided into ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’, the ‘taxed’ and ‘taxed-nots’. Even worse, extreme voices have re-emerged which actively fan the flames of prejudice and division. Rather than building bridges, they build walls.

These views are actually out of step with Australian values. Our nation has always solved its big challenges by pulling together. Facing potential invasion of World War II, Australians showed unity of purpose on the battlefield and on the home front. As our economy was modernised in the 1980s, business, governments and unions came together to restructure our economy in a way that sought find a place for all. That is why I am confident that today’s attempts to divide us will fail because it is not what Australia is about.

This shift towards division is disguised as a rally cry for the poor, the disenfranchised and the fearful. But those left out do not want division either; they want to belong. I know these people; they are my family. They are the farmers and manufacturing workers I have represented as a lawyer. They are the people I doorknocked during the campaign. Not one of them tells me that their burning issue is to abolish the Family Court, that climate change is a UN sponsored conspiracy or that they obsess over Halal certification of food. They tell me they want a plan for the jobs of the future, not conspiracies and beat ups.

These people do feel uneasy about changes they see around them. These changes and the resulting disillusionment with mainstream politics have never been greater. But we do not calm this unease and we do not solve the real problems these people face by dividing our community and breaking down the trust we have in each other. Instead, we need to reach out to understand and to bring people together. And it is only by working together that we will solve the big challenges that face our nation today—challenges like providing economic security, ensuring quality public services and building international cooperation.

Right now, Queensland’s economy is in transition after the mining boom. High unemployment is hurting too many, especially in regional Queensland. I met a young man in Rockhampton last month, who had completed several training courses, had applied for over 100 jobs and had travelled as far as Sydney in search of work. He had slept in his car so he could pay for food but still he kept at it, searching for a job, any job to no avail. He was visibly relieved to have finally found work pumping fuel at a local petrol station but his point was simple: it should not be this hard. This kid is not a ‘leaner’ but we are failing him and thousands more like him.

Even those in work find themselves with wages barely rising, with increasingly precarious employment and with being subjected to tricky new employment arrangements that leave them more exposed. And of course sitting above all of this is ever-present technological change, which threatens to redefine and disrupt the very nature of work. Some say the solution is a race to the bottom—to individualise the workplace, to remove penalty rates, to make it easier for employers to hire and fire. The better way—the Australian way—is to create work together, like the partnership between business, unions and government that opened up our economy in the 1980s. Like the Queensland government’s Smart State strategy, which I helped design, and which brought business, schools, training providers and universities together to create new jobs and modernise existing ones. There is a role for government in the economy, and it is not to sit back and hope that prosperity will just trickle down.

Having a job is the greatest engine to lift and keep people out of poverty. But it alone cannot meet every human need. Nourishing our minds and maintaining our physical wellbeing are also vital if we are to fully participate in our community. That is why well-funded and quality public services, like education and health care, are so important, especially in a decentralised state like Queensland.

Ensuring that all Australian kids, whoever they are, have the same educational opportunity, with a needs based funding system, is the biggest thing we can do to help them achieve their dreams. These types of reforms also have a huge payoff to the nation, with a skilled workforce lifting our productivity and our shared wealth. But the benefits of strong public services like this and universal public health care—something endorsed by Australians at the recent election—are not measured in dollars. By contributing to these services together and using them together, we all buy into our community. As President Obama said, in his second inaugural address:

The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.

Naturally, many of the greatest challenges our people face are not fenced in by national boundaries. There is no border that prevents the effects of climate change. A nation, acting alone, cannot make multinational corporations pay their fair share. The horror we feel on seeing human rights abuses is not diminished by them happening overseas. These challenges are international in nature as are their solutions. Australia is well placed to contribute, with a history of leading positive change in the world. And we live in the most dynamic region of the world, replete with opportunity.

International cooperation presents our best chance to solve another challenge that has faced our country for decades—our treatment of asylum seekers. I have a personal connection to this issue, having been the lawyer for an Australian-born baby, Ferouz. Ferouz is the son of two Rohingyan asylum seekers, who fled persecution in Myanmar before arriving in Australia by boat. Despite being born in Brisbane’s Mater Hospital—the same hospital where I was born and my two children were born—Ferouz was deemed to have arrived in Australia by sea. This absurd conclusion rendered this Australian-born baby, only days old, subject to immediate transfer to detention in Nauru. After an intense legal, political and public campaign, we succeeded in forcing this government to back down. Ferouz, his family and over 100 other Australian-born babies of asylum seekers were not transferred to Nauru, were released from detention and were granted the right to apply for protection visas. Far from being a drain on Australian society, Ferouz and his family are now living fulfilling lives in Melbourne.

I am well aware that the asylum seeker debate is one of our most politically charged, but I think most Australians want to see us deal with this in a better way. Most Australians want us to be a country that faces up to this challenge, like we always do, instead of shying away from it. It is deeply unfortunate that this debate has been framed around a false choice: we can have deaths at sea or we must treat people inhumanely. No-one on any side of politics wants to see people die at sea and no-one feels good to see people treated so poorly and in indefinite detention. The truth is that there are other options. In particular, a long-term solution to this issue will require more than Australia acting alone. It will require genuine engagement with our regional neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia. It will require a different tone in our dealings with those countries, one of respectful partnership rather than a one-sided list of demands. Through international cooperation and by working together, especially with our neighbours in Asia, we can solve so many of our nation’s future challenges.

This mission will, of course, not be achieved by me alone or even by one political party or one government. It takes a large group, and it took a large group to get me here. Unfortunately, I do not have time to mention the many people who have assisted me to date, but I hope that you all know how grateful I am for your help.

It is impossible to imagine a society where wealth is shared and where everyone gets a fair go without an active union movement. I am proud to be a union member and particularly proud to be a member of United Voice. I know that I come to this place thanks to the support of thousands of Queensland workers who have banded together through their unions to put Labor representatives into this Senate. I thank those workers, without whom I would not be here. I pledge to work every day on your behalf. I also thank the many political comrades who have assisted me, including a number of people in this chamber and the other place, and the old friends from outside politics who have helped keep me reasonably grounded over all these years. It is a pleasure to have some of you in the gallery today.

Finally, to my closest friend, my wife, Cynthia, and to my inquisitive and energetic children, George and Abby: it is impossible to describe the love we share for each other or the gratitude I feel for you supporting me in this adventure. Having done this before, I well understand the sacrifices you will make as we take this step. When I am away you will never be far from my mind and when I am home I promise lots of backyard soccer, trampoline jumping and even more Ari jewellery.

It is the responsibility of every one of us here to speak the truth and to act in line with what we think it means to be Australian. For me, it is the combination of fairness, equality, justice and community. These things make us uniquely Australian. Our mission is to make these enduring values real in a way that works now for everyone in our nation. By banding together we grow together. That is the thing I was reminded of as I cleaned the mud with my evangelical neighbours after those devastating floods. That is what I want to help bring to this place and to my huge, sprawling, rugby-league-loving and diverse electorate of Queensland on every day that I am fortunate to be a senator. Australia is a remarkable country. We have achieved so much. Let us seize our nation’s potential by working hard and by working together.

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