Sen. Kristina Keneally (ALP-NSW) – Maiden Speech

Senator Kristina Keneally (ALP-NSW) has delivered her first speech to the Senate, watched by a large contingent of Labor members, including Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Keneally

Keneally, 49, has filled the casual vacancy created by the resignation of Sam Dastyari. She was formally chosen by a joint sitting of the NSW Parliament on February 14, 2018. She is the 98th woman elected to the Senate since 1901.

Keneally was the ALP member for Heffron in the NSW Legislative Assembly between 2003 and 2012. She was Premier of NSW between December 2009 and March 2011, leading the ALP to defeat after sixteen years in office. Keneally has worked as a commentator on Sky News for the past three years. She was the ALP candidate in the Bennelong by-election last December.

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Senator Kristina Keneally (ALP-NSW)

Senator KENEALLY (New South Wales) (17:07): Thank you, Mr President. In the year before this chamber opened, 1987, just after I graduated from high school, I took a job on an assembly line at Johns-Manville, a fibreglass manufacturer who had two factories in my hometown of Waterville, Ohio. The work was tedious and hot. But the hourly rate was good, compared to other jobs, and it helped me save for my up-front university fees. I worked eight-hour shifts, sometimes 12 hours, on a crew of four. We wore these heavy canvas jumpsuits. When slivers of fibreglass got caught between the canvas collar and the back of our necks, or in the space between the cuff and the inside of the wrist, the itching would drive us crazy.

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We operated one end of a giant machine that made these huge sheets of white fibreglass. Our job was to get the fibreglass off the machine and wrapped in plastic. Our product looked like massive paper towel rolls as we shipped them down the line. My main responsibility was to attach adhesive tape to a four-metre-long rotating spindle so it could grab the next sheet of fibreglass as it came off the machine. The spindle rotated at about three kilometres an hour. I was told to stand back three metres, holding the tape on a specially designed hook, and given a safety stop switch.

Months earlier, a young woman named Leslie Lambert had my job. She did not have the same safety equipment or practices. When Leslie was working there, the spindle rotated at about 20 kilometres an hour. There was no instruction to stand three metres back. There was no hook or safety switch. One afternoon Leslie was caught by the adhesive tape and spun around 10 times, cracking her head and back on to the machine, before she was thrown to the floor. She died. Leslie was 19.

I never met Leslie but I know from her obituary that, like me, she was putting herself through university. I also know that she, like me, was a member of the Teamsters union—a union which had been pushing for safer conditions in that very factory. Only a few months separated Leslie and me—a few months between a dangerous workplace and a safe one. And yet the difference is also 31 years—31 years in which Leslie Lambert has lain in a grave in East Swanton, Ohio, 31 years in which I have been able to raise a family, study, work, travel and simply be alive. I know that the Teamsters Union made their members’ safety at work a priority. I know that they had my back as a worker—and I have never forgotten that. The importance of a safe workplace and the role that unions play in keeping workers safe is seared into my very existence. Here in the Senate, I will continue to fight alongside my colleagues in the union movement for all Australians to be paid a living wage and for all workers to be safe at work.

I thank you, Mr President, and all Senate colleagues for the kind reception I’ve received and for the opportunity to make a first speech today. I recognise the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay my respect to elders and thank them for their custodianship of country. Alongside those words of respect, I want to restate my support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I believe it is within the imagination and the capacity of Australians to amend our Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of this land and to accord first nations peoples a long-overdue voice in this parliament.

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As I arrive in the Senate, I acknowledge the service of my friend and predecessor Sam Dastyari. I don’t think I have met anyone who is as passionate about politics as him, and yet Sam’s greatest gift is his capacity to engage with people who have no interest in politics whatsoever. I thank him for his service to our movement and I wish him every success in whatever he turns his hand to next. I thank especially my Labor colleagues, including Don Farrell and Penny Wong, for their warm welcome to the federal caucus. My arrival changes our internal dynamic somewhat. The Labor Senate team is now 61 per cent female. The New South Wales Labor Senate team of O’Neill, McAllister, Keneally and Cameron is 75 per cent female—and 50 per cent very strange accents!

Senator Cameron: Speak for yourself!

Senator KENEALLY: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that! I thank my Australian family and friends for their presence in the chamber today. Many of them were also in attendance 15 years ago, when I gave my first inaugural speech as the member for Heffron in the New South Wales parliament. It is humbling to have a second go at a first speech and to share it with friends old and new.

My parents, John and Cathy Kerscher, and my brothers, Kevin and Jeff, are in the United States. I wish they could be here. I thank my parents for the magnificent start to life that they gave me and my brothers. I am both a seventh-generation Australian, through my mother, and a migrant to this country. I came to Australia from the United States in 1994 under the skilled migration program. Despite the fact that my mother was born in Brisbane and an Australian citizen at the time of my birth, the patriarchal nature of Australian citizenship laws in 1968 did not allow my mother to pass on citizenship by descent. However, Mr President, I can assure you that not only did I take Australian citizenship in 2000 but I renounced my American citizenship in 2002.

When I gave my first first speech in the New South Wales parliament in 2003, I outlined three commitments that I said had shaped my life and that I wanted to shape my political contribution: a passion for social justice, the importance of community and living life with energy and enthusiasm. I did my best to live up to those ideals. The Keneally government started the first program in Australia of government issued social impact bonds. We put caring for people with a disability at the centre of government. We changed the law to legalise same-sex adoption. We lowered public transport fares and made trains run on time 95 per cent of the time. Our emergency department waiting times were the best in the country. We funded schools and TAFE properly. We kept 11,000 people in work during the GFC and avoided a recession in New South Wales. We drove the development of Barangaroo. We did these things while cutting taxes and keeping the budget in surplus and the AAA rating intact through the GFC.

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But I don’t pretend we did everything perfectly or right. The Keneally government sold electricity assets in the already privatised retail sector and we sold the generation rights while retaining state ownership of the power stations. In doing so, we completed the transactions begun by the Iemma and Rees governments. I stand by those sales. The O’Farrell government’s inquiry into the electricity transactions found that we acted with integrity, achieved value for the taxpayer and took the best options available to us. But Labor in New South Wales did not explain the reasons for the transactions well enough or often enough, and, as a result, we did not take the community with us.

For the past three decades, governments around the world have undertaken the privatisation of government owned assets and services. There can be good reasons to do this. But I have yet to see compelling evidence that privatising monopoly public assets—for example, the electricity distribution system of poles and wires—provides an economic or social benefit to the community at large, to the government’s budget over the long term or to workers. We serve in a community, not an economy. We must always guard against an uncritical faith in the market and the private sector, especially when it comes to the delivery of core public services. A society is only healthy when its most vulnerable members are supported, protected and included. Fairness doesn’t trickle down. Building a society that includes all of us is a job for all of us, and that is why I am a member of the Australian Labor Party.

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I’m also proud that Bill Shorten and federal Labor’s first major commitment in 2018 is to create a national integrity commission, because a government loses its authority if individual members of that government betray the community’s trust. One might imagine that this fact alone would be enough to motivate elected representatives to act ethically. Yet history in New South Wales—indeed, all jurisdictions in Australia and governments of all stripes—teaches us otherwise. What I and the people of New South Wales know from ICAC inquiries is that, when people choose to act corruptly, they do it in secret. When it comes to safeguarding trust in our democracy, sunlight isn’t just an effective disinfectant; it is an essential precondition. All of us in this place serve a sacred trust—the people’s trust—and I remain hopeful that a national integrity commission can become a bipartisan project.

Looking forward, I come to Canberra ready to join Labor’s efforts to reduce economic inequality. Labor is at its best when we prosecute redistributive progressive policies, take on vested interests and explain clearly the benefits to working people. This is what Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam did so well in campaigning for an end to restrictive trade practices. It’s what Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Bill Kelty did when they advocated for lower tariffs and labour market reforms, balanced by improved social wages and private savings. Such progressive reforms demonstrate our best policy and our most effective campaigns—effective because they demonstrate whose side we are on. Labor rightly argues that Australia cannot sustain giving tax breaks and cash back to the wealthiest in our community, while penalising the poor and demanding that pensioners, low- and middle-income earners and students bear the brunt of budget repair. Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen are showing the same policy courage and core commitments as Whitlam, Hawke and Keating as they prosecute Labor’s positions on negative gearing, family trusts and dividend imputation.

I also look forward to promoting Labor’s plans for cleaner, greener and cheaper energy. Fifteen years ago in New South Wales, Jenny McAllister and I started a small advocacy group called the Labor Environment Activist Network. Today, LEAN is a national body in the Labor Party. It engages our rank and file to develop and promote good environmental policy within the Labor movement and the community. LEAN successfully campaigned within the party for a 50 per cent renewable energy target. Scott Morrison once described LEAN as ‘an infiltration of radical activists within the Labor Party’—a solar cell, if you will. Senator McAllister, now that we are both here, I guess the infiltration is complete!

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To be completely candid, I never imagined I would come back to politics, not because I lost faith in political action with the Australian Labor Party, not because I lost faith in myself; simply put, I thought my race was run. The privilege and the opportunity to serve as an MP, a minister, the 42nd Premier of New South Wales and the first woman to hold that office—indeed, in the first government in Australia to be led by two women—was more than one could hope for in a political lifetime. I’m filled with gratitude to those who supported me, especially the rank and file Labor members in Heffron. I never expected so much, and I couldn’t ask for more.

My time out of politics did allow me to pursue particular passions, such as working with Stillbirth Foundation Australia to raise awareness and much-needed money for research. Twenty-two hundred babies in Australia are stillborn each year. That’s six babies a day—six babies who die every day in Australia. Surely we can do better than this as a nation. On 18 June 1999, one of those babies was my daughter Caroline. The rate of stillbirth has not changed in Australia for decades. It’s a national public health crisis, with major economic impact and a devastating effect on families. When it comes to stillbirth prevention, there are things that we know that we’re not telling parents, and there are things we don’t know, but we could, if we changed how we collected data and how we funded research. I thank all members of the Senate for voting today to hold a select committee inquiry into stillbirth. And, as a senator, I will continue to make stillbirth research and prevention a priority.

I gratefully acknowledge the many organisations who’ve allowed me to contribute to their important work these past few years, including Basketball Australia, Opportunity International, the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, the United States Studies Centre, The Guardian newspaper, Catholics for Ministry, the Referendum Council, and Souths Cares, the charitable arm of the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs—and, of course, Sky News.

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When I told my 17-year-old son that I was nominating for the Senate, he said, ‘Oh, great. Now I’m going to have to listen to people telling me all the time how they saw you on television talking about politics.’ I pointed out that talking about politics on television is exactly what I had been doing for the past three years, and he said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Mum, but I don’t know anyone who watches Sky News.’ It may come as a surprise to my son, but there are people who watch Sky News. Many of them are in this building. Some of them I could even identify when they popped up on our segment, ‘Name that MP’.

The people I worked with closely at Sky were collegial, smart and hardworking. By far, the best part of my job at Sky was to co-host with Peter van Onselen. PVO is intelligent, sharp, quick witted and occasionally funny. As a journalist, his loyalty is always to the truth. Now that I’m here, I accept that occasionally he’ll need to offer his frank public assessments of my political positions. And, PVO, I would expect no less. I also loved that Sky allowed me to experience the adrenalin rush of live news coverage. There is nothing quite like it—well, almost nothing.

I said that I’d thought my time in politics was over, and I had made my peace with that. But when the call came from Bill Shorten to stand as Labor’s candidate in Bennelong, I knew the moment he called that I would say yes. Rationally, it made no sense. A 10 per cent margin is a significant hurdle, especially when the well-liked incumbent is still in the race. And I do, as I did on election night, congratulate John Alexander on his win. But I said yes anyway, because I knew that Labor would mount a strong case, despite the odds in the seat, and because I believe there are fights worth having on behalf of working people against vested interests, on behalf of ordinary Australians against inequality and disadvantage, and on behalf of communities that have been forgotten and taken for granted for too long. And if life in the Labor tradition teaches you anything, it’s that sometimes it’s not the victory but the struggle. We did not win in Bennelong but we put our case and made our argument. And we had incredible support in doing so, especially from Sally McManus and the ACTU, Mark Morey and Unions NSW, and the many trade union secretaries and supporters in New South Wales that I have known and worked with for many years.

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I thank the many federal Labor colleagues who supported the Bennelong campaign, including, of course, Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen, Anthony Albanese, Michelle Rowland, Jason Clare, Ed Husic, Catherine King, Amanda Rishworth, Jenny Macklin, Joel Fitzgibbon, Matt Thistlethwaite, Deb O’Neill, Penny Wong, Doug Cameron, Jacinta Collins, Jenny McAllister and Tony Burke. The Bennelong campaign was well coordinated by the exceptional New South Wales ALP General Secretary Kaila Murnain, Assistant Secretary Pat Garcia and state organiser David Dobson. I also thank Korena Flanagan, Sabina Husic, Jerome and Karen Laxale, Peter Kim, the rank and file Labor Party members in Bennelong, and Young Labor.

Our army of 4,000 volunteers is now a campaign machine. When I visited the Batman campaign two weeks ago, it was obvious that many of the volunteers who cut their political teeth in Bennelong were now helping elect the fabulous Ged Kearney. It would’ve been terrific to achieve a Batman result in Bennelong, but the swing we did achieve will see 21 seats change hands at the next general election. The Bennelong campaign showed Labor’s passion and determination for a more equal Australia. We will take that fight up again at the next federal election. The Bennelong campaign reminded me why I was drawn to politics in the first place. For all its faults and failings, this place is where you get to turn campaign promises into community progress. This is where we continue the 117-year-old project of building a better and more equal Australia, and there is nowhere else I would rather be.

In conclusion, I thank my family, friends, former advisers and staff and my new Senate staff members, who are here today. Each one of you has in some way inspired me, supported me, challenged me or buoyed me, and I am a better person for your presence. I especially thank the people who, early on in my career, gave me good advice and opportunities to test myself—John Watkins, Michael Egan, Bob Carr, Sandra Nori and Barry Unsworth—and my long-time personal friends Chris Siorokos, Emma Maiden, Kate O’Rourke, James Hmelnitsky, Catriona Webster and Dave Ingham. My cousin from Sweden, Jessica Karlsson, is in the chamber. Our shared ancestor, Neil Anton Anderson, jumped ship in Brisbane in 1884. I doubt he could have imagined this gathering of his descendants in the Australian Senate today.

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To the extended Keneally family here today—Patrick, Stella, Josie, Matt, Tilly, Sam, Kate and Tom—and the ones who couldn’t get here—Bonnie, Zach, Tim, Nyna, Elsie, Dan, Daisy, Ted, Jane, Margaret and Judy—thank you for the years of love and support. A very special thank you to my mother-in-law, Jane Keneally, who is a great example of generous and joyous love. I know she joins with me in wishing that her late husband, my father-in-law, Dr John Keneally AM, could be here tonight.

And I of course thank my husband, Ben. In 2003, I told the NSW parliament that Ben Keneally is the greatest husband and father in the world. It was a bold statement. My evidence base was small; we’d only been married for seven years. After 22 years, I can advise that I did not mislead the parliament! Ben gives me and our children unconditional, patient, supportive and generous love every single day. Nothing I have done or ever will do is possible without Ben. Ben quoted a Billy Bragg song when he proposed to me. Let me now quote one back to express how I feel about him:

The sun came up, the trees began to sing.

The light shone in on everything.

I love you.

Finally, I dedicate this speech to my three children. Our daughter Caroline never drew breath, but she changed me forever. She enlarged my understanding of love and loss, and she taught me to survive. She made me brave, almost fearless. Our sons, Daniel and Brendan, are now young men. They are the sunshine in my life. My sons are confident, generous, hardworking and community minded. I am so proud of them. No matter what else I might do on this earth, being Daniel and Brendan’s mother is the best role I’ll ever have. For them, and for all young people in Australia, I want to help build a stronger, fairer and more generous nation. And now that this first speech is done, it’s time to get on with that task. Thank you.

Keneally

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