Sen. David Smith (ALP-ACT) – Maiden Speech

Senator David Smith has delivered his maiden speech to the Senate.

Smith

Smith, 48, is a Labor senator, representing the Australian Capital Territory. He was elected in a special recount of votes from the 2016 election, following the disqualification of Katy Gallagher for dual citizenship under Section 44 of the Constitution. He was declared elected by the High Court on May 23, 2018 and sworn in on June 18.

Prior to his election, Smith was the ACT Director of Professionals Australia. He previously worked as an advisor in the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, an industrial relations manager for the Australian Federal Police Association and a policy advisor in the ACT Chief Minister’s Department.

Smith’s term expires with the next dissolution of the House of Representatives. Katy Gallagher was this week endorsed by the Left faction to contest an August preselection against Smith, a former convenor of the Right faction.

  • Listen to Smith’s speech (22m)
  • Watch Smith’s speech (25m)

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Senator David Smith.

The PRESIDENT (17:03): Order! Before I call Senator Smith, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech and, therefore, I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.

Senator DAVID SMITH (Australian Capital Territory) (17:03): Let me begin by acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. It’s a particular honour to be able to serve in the same Senate as Senators Dodson and McCarthy. Let me also note my thanks to the Clerk of the Senate, the Usher of the Black Rod and others for the warm welcome I received when I arrived at this place last month. We here in the Senate are keeping you busier with inductions than you could ever have imagined.

Smith

The reaction of my daughter Stella when she realised I was coming to work in this place was one of excitement and concern that I might have to attend too many meetings. I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary personal sacrifices that people in this chamber make to represent their electorates and the impact that this can have on their family lives. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to represent the ACT knowing that most nights of the week I can return home.

I am honoured to become only the ninth senator for the ACT to represent all people of the Australian Capital Territory in this chamber, and to do so as a member of the Australian Labor Party. In the ACT, Senate representation only came in 1975. Walking these corridors, I am aware that I walk amongst giants, as well as standing upon the shoulders of giants that have gone before me. I recognise those who have come before me, from Susan Ryan and John Knight through to Bob McMullan, Margaret Reid, Kate Lundy, Gary Humphries, Katy Gallagher and Zed Seselja. In particular, I would like to recognise Bob for the wise counsel he has provided in my early days in this place. That advice and support, alongside that provided by Annette Ellis, Gai Brodtmann and Andrew Leigh, has been invaluable.

Smith

In mid-February this year I commenced a journey, a journey I did not expect to lead me here. For the last four years I have participated in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. It’s an important way to raise awareness and raise funds to address a serious issue in the capital region and across the country, and one we are sometimes insulated from within the Parliamentary Triangle: homelessness and poverty. Earlier this year The Canberra Times reported that one in three people were being turned away by ACT homelessness services because of a lack of funding and resources. In a city as prosperous as Canberra, this shouldn’t be the case.

This year I decided to do something a bit different that took me beyond the 12 hours of the sleep-out. So, in mid-February, I commenced a 790-kilometre walk, a Camino de Canberra, from Hall to Gordon and to all the places in between. I walked with other Canberrans and talked about issues that mattered to them and their communities, not just in the capital region but across the country. I walked with school teachers, community lawyers, social workers, union organisers and everyday mums and dads. While we talked about some of our current challenges—insecure employment, housing affordability, rising utility bills in a city where heating is a must and ensuring kids are getting breakfast before school—we also talked about the opportunities and the capacity to build coalitions across communities despite differences.

Smith

I made the 790 kilometres by the skin of my teeth and last week, when the parliament rose, I joined with more than 140 community and business leaders across the capital region to sleep out in the grounds of the National Museum of Australia. The thermometer dropped to minus five degrees, but we were still in an environment that was temporary and safe, with the knowledge that a hot shower and a warm bed were not that far away. This is not the case for more than 100,000 Australians on any night of the year.

As I said before, this is not where I expected this journey to turn, but the opportunity for me here is to work with you all to address rising inequality across our communities and regions, and to work with organisations like Vinnies to bring dignity and hope to every member of our community. That work is done on the back of the extraordinary network of volunteers across this region. Anyone who thinks Canberra has no soul is unaware of the thousands of unpaid contributions made by Canberrans across so many different organisations every day.

Smith

One of the first people I met in this place was the other Senator Smith. Senator Dean Smith informed me, in that early week, that there had only been three Smiths in the Senate since Federation and that we were two of them. Yet I am not just a Smith; I am a Grealy, a Walsh, a Lloyd, a Centenera and a Garcia. Like the majority of Australian families, my family’s story has roots elsewhere: in Ireland, Wales, the Philippines and Spain. The Smiths came from Meath, the Grealys from Galway, the Walshes from Cork, the Lloyds from Brecon, the Centeneras from Bicol and the Garcias from Manila.

My maternal grandmother came to Australia in the 1890s under a false surname, escaping the poverty of rural South Wales to a hard, distant land. My great-grandmother’s portrait of Robert Emmet, the Irish patriot, had pride of place in the Grealy home for more than half a century: a reminder of the fight for freedom and the generations of Irish families that migrated to break the chains of poverty.

My in-laws left the Philippines in the early seventies for both economic opportunity and to escape the Marcos regime. This story of dislocation, political unrest, poverty and sadness is the overwhelming international narrative of the last 150 years. Yet here in Australia, while suffering homesickness and fear, they found hope, opportunity and compassion.

Smith

This remains a critical and difficult challenge. We have a responsibility to those facing the same challenges our parents and grandparents faced to treat them with dignity and compassion and ensure that their human rights are upheld. We can do better but we won’t unless we work across the aisles without fear of an errant quip being used on Sky News. Australia needs to be a leader in human rights within this region—not just in the way we treat those who seek refuge, but also in speaking up for human rights across our region. I commend the work of my colleague Chris Hayes MP in highlighting the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, with the forced displacement of over 600,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, the destruction of hundreds of villages and the extrajudicial killings carried out by the security forces. In such circumstances we should not be maintaining a military aid program funding the training of officers of the Myanmar military.

My parents journeyed to Canberra for public service—not just the notion of doing a job, but being part of something bigger and working for the common good. Their story is similar to thousands of Australians that have moved to this region to play their part in the national story. My mother trained as a teacher, working with kids in Collingwood before coming to Canberra to work for the bureau of stats in a building that had also been moved from Melbourne. She had had to resign because of the marriage bar. She threw herself into family and community life, working with the Caroline Chisholm Society, the Catholic Women’s League and starting and running the clothing pool at Marist College Canberra.

Smith

My father lost his parents young and put himself through night school before completing degrees in commerce and economics. Work took him from Brisbane to the mines in the Northern Territory before he made the fateful decision to take up a Public Service job offer in Canberra. In a 30-year career he worked across the industry and science portfolios before spending the last decade of his career in the tax office. Committed to an impartial Public Service, he left his Labor leanings at the door and only actively engaged in politics post his Public Service career.

My brothers and I had that notion of service reinforced during our education at Sts Peter & Paul and Marist College. My brothers too have committed their lives to the common good and public service, if in different ways. My brother Paul is a senior lawyer with Legal Aid. After 20 years of commercial practice, he decided he wanted to give something much more substantial back to the community. My brother Bernie went from the shop floor of Woolworths Mawson to work for the SDA, and he’s worked for them for more than 20 years fighting for a fair go for retail workers for things that many of us take for granted—being able to share public holidays with your family, getting a reward for working unsociable hours and encouraging the public to treat them with some basic respect.

Smith

Targeting public servants has been easy game for a number of governments despite the criticality of a strong diverse public sector to deliver the government of the day’s policy programs and respond to complex emerging challenges. It has always horrified me how those who dedicate their life to public service can have their work belittled, particularly by those whom they serve. I saw this firsthand as a junior public servant in the old Department of Employment and Workplace Relations with the outsourcing of the Job Network and cuts on the workplace relations side that saw one in four of my colleagues without a job. The expertise and talent we lost may have benefitted other organisations but it punched a generational hole in our capacity to provide comprehensive quality policy advice and placed immense pressure on the public servants that remained.

In engineering and science areas of the public sector it was the beginning of a considerable decline, accompanied by the removal of recognition for professional expertise in the classification structure changes of 1999. In the last 10 years, I have worked in the labour movement for and alongside science, engineering and technology professionals across the public and private sectors. It’s easy for politicians to talk about the importance of our children studying STEM subjects at school and then through our TAFE and university systems—expensive and difficult courses. There is no point if there isn’t genuine investment in jobs worth doing and career paths with reasonable reward.

In the public sector, at all levels, we have seen a significant devaluing of science and engineering expertise and growing gaps at a time when the challenges we face require more, not less, expertise informing our infrastructure, health, communications, defence, agriculture and water policy areas, with significant cuts to the CSIRO, Australia’s flagship science and engineering research organisation.

Smith

In areas such as defence this is staggering, given the billions of dollars invested in complex technology and its maintenance. In defence the loss of engineering capability was a key factor that led to the maintenance failure and decommissioning of the Manoora and Kanimbla, at a cost of both the practical loss of critical capability and a capital cost of close to $500 million. And, despite reviews urging the rebuilding of the engineering workforce, instead we have seen further untargeted job cuts and the outsourcing of critical engineering roles.

Strong government needs to be driven by a workforce motivated by the public good rather than commercial interests. Limiting the size of the public sector workforce by artificial staffing levels and then blowing out the budget on contractors and consultants is nonsense, but it is a nonsense that we are all paying for through opportunities lost and through the creation of significant, ongoing conflicts of interest.

Rebuilding public sector capability and integrity won’t be easy, but it’s a mission that is required if we are to have good government. And rather than rely on a ‘cargo cult’ mentality that thinks investing in STEM education alone will lead to innovation and economic growth, we need to lead by example and invest in rebuilding a government engineering and science workforce and supporting a national research workforce.

I am a Smith. Worse I am a David Smith. There are a few of us, so there is a need for some disambiguation. Firstly, I am not Sir David Smith, the former secretary to the Governor-General. Sir David lives in a suburb near mine, and his epistles to The Canberra Times supporting the monarchy confused acquaintances of mine. For the record, I firmly support an Australian republic with a head of state that is one of us. Our sons and daughters across the capital region, and across the country should not be denied the opportunity to aspire to positions of public service on the basis of birthright, religion or gender.

It is also important to distinguish me from other David Smiths in the labour movement. When the news broke that I had become the new senator for the ACT I was variously described as a union hack or a union boss. Much as I might have liked to have thought my role in Professionals Australia led to the latter description, it was a confusion between me and the National Secretary of the Australian Services Union, David Smith. Fortunately The Canberra Times did not also confuse me with David Smith, the AMWU National Vehicle Division Secretary.

I will settle for union hack, though, if what that means is working with and for working people and their families in their workplaces at industry level for the last 14 years and if it means acting as a comfort when things go wrong, advocating against rising inequality, and making the case that all working people should be treated with dignity and respect. Pope John Paul II famously stated that unions were an ‘indispensable element of social life’ and ‘advocates for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people’. This is a struggle that we are engaged in now: the undermining of collective bargaining, the restrictions on union representation and activity, and the deterioration in the rights and conditions of working people across their country. We need to change the rules; we need a Shorten Labor government.

Smith

There are many people I need to thank for the support that they have provided me on this journey—my blood brothers Daniel and Stuart. We started our Labor journeys together at school and continue them today. I can only hope to live up to the standards that you have both set. And thanks to those friends and family that we have bored to tears with our obsession but who have supported us nonetheless. It brings me joy to see many of you here today.

It wasn’t hard to be inspired to make a difference in a local Labor Party that included Terry Higgins, Ros Kelly, Terry Connolly, Bob McMullan and many others. I am particularly indebted to Paul Whalan, Don McCallum, John Hargreaves and Craig Simmons and the cohort of comrades that joined around the same time as me. I have met so many good people on the way from the beginning in 1990 to now.

In the Public Service I was lucky to learn from a strong group of Public Service leaders that believed that serving the government of the day didn’t mean leaving your ethics and values at the door, including Paddy Gourley, James Smythe, Bernie Yates and Kate Bosser. And I worked for senior managers that treated their employees with care and decency. Their example is one which could be the basis for rebuilding faith in public service leadership.

For the last 14 years I have worked in the labour movement with the Australian Federal Police Association and Professionals Australia. It was an honour to work alongside Jon, Mark and Craig and the many delegates and members in that remarkably diverse, challenging and complex organisation—the Australian Federal Police.

In my 10 years with Professionals Australia I have worked with great people across our membership, within the union and across other unions. In Chris Walton, I had as a mentor one of the great, thoughtful, caring labour movement leaders. Chris always made us think about the essential value and contribution our members made to making our communities better, but this could only work well when they worked together. He helped me balance work with the challenges presented by changes in life, particularly juggling family commitments with young children and then the challenges caused by my father’s deteriorating health. I also owe a debt to all my colleagues in Professionals Australia, particularly those that have worked with me in the ACT. The work we did was nothing, though, without the amazing work of our delegates and members across all our workplaces—a job that is getting harder in an unnecessarily adversarial industrial relations environment.

Across the labour movement there are too many to name, but I must mention Neville Betts, Athol Williams, Bev Turello and Mike Nicolaides.

I wish to particularly acknowledge my staff: Chris, Kim, Karl, Nick, Mikey and Bryce. They have made a significant sacrifice, understanding that their decision to join me is at an uncertain time. In these last few weeks they have gone above and beyond in a challenging environment.

I thank you and want to remind you that I am a North Melbourne supporter. ‘Shinboners’ fight, and I will fight!

Finally, I could not be here without the support of my family and friends, but in particular I could not be here without the support of my immediate family: Liesl, Marcus, Eamonn and Stella.

Smith

Marcus, Eamonn and Stella make us immensely proud. Our focus group of a 14-, 12- and nine-year-old is invaluable. It is amazing how often children see things more clearly than we do.

Coming to Liesl Maria Centenera. I met Liesl in the late nineties in the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. The first time we met I thought I had made a good impression. I was wrong. However, time and maybe persistence changed that view. We shared similar values about the importance of family and community, fairness in the world of work and commitment to making a difference. And to make a difference, sometimes sacrifices have to be made and opportunities deferred. While in the United Kingdom, I worked for Slough Borough Council while Liesl was the chief legal counsel for the Commission for Racial Equality. In returning to Australia, while we both worked part time to better balance our growing family, the truth is that Liesl always lifted the heavier load. During the time Liesl was a senior executive in ACT government and I held senior roles in the local labour movement, we ensured there were no conflicts of interest in relation to the issues for which we had responsibility. Integrity is fundamental to good public life. To support my decision to run in 2016 and then be placed to serve in this chamber, Liesl stepped away from her Public Service job and instead threw herself into community and family life. I could not take this opportunity without the support of the smartest, most loyal and decent person I know. I look forward to the time when I can do the same for Liesl.

Smith

I did not expect to be provided with the opportunity to serve the people of the ACT in this chamber, but it is an opportunity I take seriously for there is work to be done.

The fight against rising inequality is real but, as Springsteen sang, ‘I believe in a promised land’.

I would like to leave you with the final public words of another Smith, John Smith, the former leader of the UK Labour Party, a man who would have been likely to be Prime Minister if it were not for his untimely death: ‘The opportunity to serve—that is all we ask.’

Smith

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