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Senator Natasha Stott Despoja (Dem-SA) – First Speech

This is the text of Senator Natasha Stott Despoja’s First Speech to the Senate.

Stott Despoja was appointed to a South Australian casual vacancy in November 1995. She replaced a former leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator John Coulter. At 26, she was the youngest woman ever to sit in the Australian Parliament.

Stott Despoja was elected in her own right in 1996 and 2001. She was leader of the party in 2001-2002. The Democrats were in decline at this stage and did not win any seats at either the 2004 or 2007 elections. When Stott Despoja and three others finished their terms on June 30, 2008, thirty years of parliamentary representation of the Australian Democrats came to an end.

Hansard transcript of first speech by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja.

Senator Natasha Stott DespojaI rise in this chamber today as the youngest woman ever elected to a federal parliament. It is an honour that I cherish but for no longer than it takes other young women to be chosen by an electorate that has shown it wants true representation of all sectors of our population. I look forward to the day when I look across this chamber from my seat and see such a diversity of faces–young people, old people, different ages, men and women, and the many cultures that make up our nation, including indigenous cultures–that we no longer have to strive for it. When that time comes I think we will accept that neither youth nor age, any more than being male or female, black or white, is a virtue in itself, except that it deserves to be represented in a system that claims to be representative.

Accepting and including difference with tolerance and respect is what Australia has shown herself to be all about, and I think we are all proud of that. I hope you will consider that what I have to offer is worthy of this great chamber and that what I have to say is of more interest than my footwear, which the media seems to notice so frequently. The truth is that last year I was given very big shoes to fill when I replaced former Senator John Coulter after he retired due to ill-health. I am pleased to say that Dr Coulter is in the gallery today, looking much more robust after surgery. In fact, I served only two days in this place before the federal election when the electors of South Australia showed great confidence in my party, giving me a quota in my own right and saving me from the fate of being the shortest serving senator.

John Coulter’s eight years in this parliament will be remembered for many things: his negotiation of the ethanol package, his time as leader during a period of consolidation for the Australian Democrats, his staunch defence of public funding for the CSIRO and his commitment to research and development. He remains one of Australia’s most committed environmentalists and I look forward to continuing his work, be it fighting for an end to uranium mining and its export, reforming our constitution to include an environmental power, or highlighting our threatened species, a cause many of you will have become more familiar with over the Easter break–that is, assuming your chocolate bilby made it through staff security checks.

I thank John for his wisdom and his support. It was during his time as leader that he took a chance by employing me as a researcher. I was very young, but fresh from campus and fuelled by a desire for social reform. I was given responsibility for the education, training and youth portfolios, areas dear to my heart and ones I also gladly act as the spokesperson for today. It was through this work that I discovered not only the wonders of this chamber but the many opportunities there are to effect change through the parliament and law making.

We live in a time where legislation is greatly affecting destinies. Equal opportunity legislation and sex discrimination laws have changed lives for the better without dampening the fierce individualism that Australians wish to maintain. I think the native title package has the potential to go the same way towards righting institutionalised and ancient wrongs in the relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It seems natural to me to want to be a part of this process–one that puts into laws the nation’s best aspirations of fairness and decency and also fosters decent dealings between people. Some of the best, if not all, changes for the better in Australian society have been initiated or supported by laws of this parliament.

I should say that at this time of national grief and overwhelming loss of life in Tasmania, Australians need no reminding that the first duty of government is to maintain and secure public safety. Whatever we considered the major issues to be in advance of this session, I think what happened on Sunday afternoon in Port Arthur must change our priorities. We must ensure that any legislative powers we have and all our wisdom and will are used to prevent another such massacre. I express my deepest sympathies for all those suffering personal loss as a result of that dreadful event.

If I can speak at all for the youth of this country it is to say that we want to respect our institutions and our leaders and we want to pursue change that makes individuals free and able to pursue their hopes and dreams whatever their circumstances. We want respect for our land and sea, the rivers and sky of this great country. We want our environment cared for and protected. For this, too, we look towards legislation to draw all Australians into a shared determination that Australia shall be a healthy continent, its beauty and its life-giving forces sustained forever.

This philosophy underpins the Australian Democrats. We are committed to the notion of intergenerational equity–the notion that we have a responsibility to promote fairness not only within current generations but between one generation and the next. It is this concept of ecological sustainability, combined with the Democrats’ commitment to social justice and democracy, that made me join a political party. I bring to the parliament the values of that party and values that have been formed in the late 20th century, an education enhanced or limited by decisions made in this parliament and the experiences of a peer group and my parents, which reflect contemporary challenges.

I am part of a multicultural generation, born in Adelaide to Shirley Stott and Mario Despoja, hence my name. I have spent nearly all my life in the state that I represent, apart from a brief period in Canberra when I attended Canberra Boys Grammar as part of a co-educational experiment. That the school is boys only today suggests that the experiment failed.

Senator Boswell–No-one else could do that.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA–It has not dampened my enthusiasm for taking on male-dominated institutions based in Canberra. My mother is my enduring role model. She took on the male-dominated institution of journalism while raising two children. It is her experiences that have given me insight to the many problems that face single mothers in our community, just as her severe deafness has taught me literally to speak up. On that note, I would like to acknowledge that we have a hearing loop system here for people who are hearing impaired. I hope we do not have to wait too long before our parliamentary broadcasts of question time are subtitled so that we can actually make the workings of parliament more accessible to the 11 per cent of the population who are hearing impaired.

Recently I addressed a women’s group that my mother had spoken to the year I was born, except in 1969 so appalled were some women at my mother’s intention of being a working mother that they walked out in disgust, but not before predicting that her child would be a delinquent. I am not sure whether politics qualifies as delinquency, but it is a sign of progress that 26 years later her daughter can address that same women’s group, as a member of the federal parliament, without too many forecasts of doom and gloom.

But we still have a long way to go in our society before women have equality with men. I am glad to say that South Australia has led the way in legislative reform for women. And, of course, I belong to a political party that has the best record when it comes to women’s representation. Not only that, we have achieved what no-one else has done, and that is elected a female leader, a tradition we have continued with the fine leadership of Senator Cheryl Kernot.

Even though my state may have been the first place in the entire world to grant women the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament in 1894, today only 20 per cent of our elected representatives to the federal parliament are women. In fact, Parliament House, as you all know, has a glass ceiling–literally, as if to emphasise this political difficulty for women.

I would like to pay tribute to my colleagues and acknowledge the presence in the gallery of my mother, my friends, family, party members, and staff members and also acknowledge the life-long support of my brother Luke and my godmother Heather Duncan. A lot of people have supported and fostered my political involvement, beginning as it did in secondary school with involvement in the State Council of Students and International Youth Year activities. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill’s advice to his son: politics is like piano playing; the earlier you start, the better.

My political awakening came as a student at the University of Adelaide. I am part of ‘Generation HECS’, that group of graduates who have accumulated debt for no other reason that their decision to broaden their knowledge. One former minister, when he heard that I was the Australian Democrats’ higher education spokesperson, and shadowing his portfolio area, said, `Trust me to get the former student activist.’ But I covet this portfolio, not simply as a former campus president, but as someone who is unshakeably committed to the belief that education is a right and that education, be it primary, secondary or tertiary, is a community resource.

In 1974 tertiary fees were abolished and that opened up our tertiary institutions, challenging their unspoken privilege and increasing access for traditionally under-represented groups, such as women, disabled people, people from differed socio-economic backgrounds, as well as Aboriginal and Islander people. But that legacy of the Whitlam era was under threat when I arrived on campus in the late 1980s. Policy changes by the federal government aligned education with economic objectives and students were designated consumers to justify the re-imposition of fees in a new form–the higher education contribution scheme.

The Democrats were, and remain, the only party to recognise that the concept of students as consumers is a distortion. In undertaking their studies, students not only seek qualifications to assist with employment, but are also broadening their political, cultural and social horizons.

Education offers empowerment. It is one way that individuals can affect their own destinies. And those people who protest against disincentives to education, such as fees and loans, should not be told simply to ‘get a job’. Nor should young people struggling to find work in today’s workforce be told by the media, or anyone else, to ‘get a haircut’.

Mr President, it is often said that some cultures have a special respect for the aged. I think our society has a special fear of the young. They are so often stigmatised as lazy, unappreciative of parents, easily lured to drugs, and uncaring about their country, their history and their language. I think we need to ask whether some people, perhaps no longer categorised as young, are allowing themselves to repeat atavistic fears that have no foundation in reality.

No group in society has been more consistently subject to structural change and its cruel and cutting edge, and for a longer period, than the young. I do not underestimate the pain of older workers whose jobs have disappeared nor devalue the struggle of women to find their role in the work force, but often young people feel defeated before they even start out and, as they experience the hardship of disappearing jobs, they are derided as dole bludgers and layabouts.

For four years I have conducted the Democrats’ Youth Poll, the only survey by a political party that gives young people a chance to express their views on a range of topics–employment, education, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The Youth Poll paints a very different picture of young Australians. It shows a very caring generation–caring about employment prospects and concerned about their families and teenage suicide levels. They are anxious to be a part of decision making processes and determined–absolutely determined–to ensure that the environment is not further degraded. Perhaps even the vilified Paxton young people care more about the big picture–the nation, their future–than some media will ever allow us to know.

However, it is true that young people show disdain for politicians and are cynical about the political process. The Youth Poll shows that only 1.5 per cent of young people trust us. Research may show that a majority of young people do not know that we have a constitution or believe that Jim Bolger is a professional surfer, but our own Senate standing committee reports into active citizenship reveal that over 80 per cent of secondary school students want to know more about the electoral and political processes.

Civics education will go some way towards addressing this but we have a responsibility. We have to ensure that young people’s issues are addressed and that they are drawn into this process, the process that so affects their destinies.

The priority for any government must be the creation of jobs for young Australians–long-term, sustainable jobs–not the ‘McJobs’ that Douglas Coupland talks about in Generation X, which he defines as `low-skilled, low-valued and low-paid jobs’.

Employment growth needs a healthy economy, but an economy cannot stay healthy in the long term without us making sure that we use our national assets–our environment, our savings–in a sustainable way. We must link employment creation with environmental protection, something the Democrats have long recognised. We have pushed for a long time for jobs in sustainable and future industries, such as high technology fields, value-added manufacturing, and the fast-growing environmental industries. This will ensure continuing quality of life, both now and extending to all future generations of Australians.

It is an exciting time to be a member of the federal parliament as we debate questions central to our nation’s future and to how we will be seen in the next millennium. As co-chair of the South Australian Republican Movement, I look forward to being part of a movement that involves all Australians in its discourse, especially those who are among the strongest supporters of the move to a republic–young people. The republican debate also offers us the opportunity to assess our democratic institutions and their fitness.

We can afford to feel proud of the fact that we live in one of the longest continuous democracies in the western world. But this does not mean we should not seek to update or review our democratic systems. We should reform our constitution to reflect contemporary challenges, to recognise prior ownership, to refer to Australia’s natural and geographic heritage and to enshrine in all states the bicameral system of parliament.

Increasingly, Australians look to the upper house as a check on executive power, just as they rely on the Democrats as their parliamentary watchdog. Our role is about much more than ensuring accountability. The role of the Senate is not only to keep the government honest but also to give the government a few ideas as well. The role of this chamber has changed over time. We no longer operate as a states house but have refined our responsibility as a genuine and deliberate house of review, a house in which I think the views of the populace are more fairly reflected and represented. This role will no doubt come under the spotlight in the coming long months and will confirm what many of us here already believe–especially Democrats: that the real action takes place on the red leather benches. I am honoured to take my place on these benches today and I thank honourable senators for their indulgence.

I hope that before I leave this place young people will no longer be unrepresented in this chamber or in the other place. I hope that I can make a contribution to help bring that about. I am aware of how big an aim this is and how modest the talents I bring, but if hard work can do it then I shall make that contribution. Thank you.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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