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Sen. Stephen Conroy (ALP-Vic) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech of Victorian ALP Senator Stephen Conroy.

Conroy was appointed to the Senate on April 30, under Section 15 of the Constitution, to fill a casual vacancy created by the resignation of Senator Gareth Evans. His term will expire on June 30, 1999.

Conroy, 33, is a former research assistant to Senator Robert Ray and a superannuation officer with the Transport Workers’ Union. He is a member of the ALP’s right-wing Labor Unity faction.

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Senator Stephen Conroy.

ConroySenator CONROY(6.29 p.m.) —I would like to begin by thanking the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party for giving me the opportunity to represent the people of Victoria. This is an enormous responsibility which I will endeavour to fulfil. It is certainly daunting following in the footsteps of Gareth Evans. Gareth, as you know, has gone to that other place. I believe, however, that it is important to note some of his achievements.

Gareth held a number of portfolios with distinction, but it is his success as a foreign minister that stands out. Never has Australia’s standing been so high on the international stage. His dedication to finding a resolution to the Cambodian issue has been acknowledged worldwide. His attempts to reform the United Nations have had wide support, and his commitment to the passage of the Mabo legislation in this chamber is one of his personal triumphs. Gareth has not retired from politics, so I simply wish him well in his new position. I am sure that when Labor regains government, it will be in no small part due to his efforts.

Representing the Labor Party has been a lifelong ambition. It is the party which is committed to working Australians. Australia is faced with a critical choice in 1996: it can turn inwards and seek to insulate and isolate itself from what is happening in our region and around the world or it can choose to meet the challenges of the next century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Australia made the wrong choice. The cost of these decisions is still being felt decades later. In that period, Australia slid from No. 2 to No. 15 on the international comparison of living standards. By the mid-1980s we had slipped further to No. 23. It is interesting to observe that, during the 35 years, Labor was in government for a combined total of only five of those years. On the basis of that, it is difficult to take seriously any attempts to portray the Whitlam and Hawke governments as responsible for the malaise of that period.

The growing internationalisation of our economy presents opportunities and challenges. We must grasp these opportunities if we are to sustain our living standards and our children’s futures. We must continue to push our economy on an export orientated growth path. The last 13 years have seen a transformation of our economy. Many would suggest that this has been too much too quickly. I say, Australia cannot afford to wait; survival is not compulsory.

The coalition government must build on these changes if Australia is to forge ahead. It must not give in to sectional interests that want to protect their economic position at the expense of all Australians. This process will require endurance. It may even require, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would say, some courageous political decisions. I believe the Hawke-Keating governments made some courageous political decisions.

I was recently lucky enough to visit the European Parliament and was briefed on the latest developments in the European Union. What struck me most was the maturity with which both major parties in Germany approached the political process, the respect for rival political institutions and the role they play in this democratic process. There was no narrow, vindictive, small-mindedness of spirit in their politics and no desire to crush opposing structures. There was plenty of cut and thrust and political byplay, but the national interest was the No. 1 priority.

It is my firm belief that, if Australia is to progress economically and socially, we must maintain a bipartisan approach to issues like APEC. This is the issue which will determine the living standards of our children. We must engage our Asian neighbours and continue to integrate our economy in the region. We must take the lead on the proposed social clause, which deals with issues such as prison labour, child labour, safety standards and freedom of association. APEC means jobs for our future, but the standard of these is in our hands.

Earlier, I said that this process would involve challenges. The role of the Labor Party is to ensure economic security for all Australians. The Hawke and Keating governments had a proud record in this field, which I describe as the social wage. This record includes: pensions increased and maintained at 25 per cent of average weekly earnings; year 12 retention rates increasing from 33 per cent to 80 per cent; the family allowance supplement; affordable health care for all Australians; an award system that protected low paid workers with regular safety net increases; a progressive taxation system; training opportunities through Working Nation; superannuation for all Australians; and many other reforms.

I have always been committed to providing equality of opportunity. I reject the notion of equality of outcome. To me, this is the critical divide between a social democrat and a socialist. The Labor Party’s next challenge is to confront the changing structure of Australia’s work force. Technological change is forcing the pace as more people work part time and from home. A new type of poverty is beginning to emerge and its impact will need to be assessed carefully. We are seeing a growing gap between the information rich and the information poor. This has many implications for public policy. How do we ensure that every Australian child has the education including the standard of literacy they need to be able to use the new information technologies? How do we ensure that all Australians have access to the information carriers that will revolutionise the way we learn, work and enjoy ourselves? More practically, what can we do to make sure Australians have the skills and backup they need to be leaders in developing and providing these new technologies?

We cannot give up on economic reform or restructuring our economy. Jobs depend on it—Australian jobs. And without jobs, there is no effective social reform, no future we can look to with any confidence. There is no doubt that the restructuring we on this side of politics have undertaken in government has been essential and constructive. But it is also true that, at times, Australians have asked themselves, `What is it all about? Where are we heading?’ At times they have wondered whether our community is losing something in a rush to be lean, efficient and competitive.

My family lives in the north of England and long ago learned what blind adherence to rational economics meant—a blindness made all the more brutal through being untempered by any thought of helping the people hurt by reform or change. Margaret Thatcher drew a line across the middle of England and if you lived above it, `you can make your own arrangements’. Meanwhile, mines closed, shipyards closed, factories shut their gates.

You do not just see the consequences in the north now. I was in London just before Christmas. When people refer to the 5 o’clock rush hour, they are not talking about the traffic. They are talking about the homeless rushing to put their blankets and cardboard down into the doorways of the newly closed shops. Thank God we have a more compassionate society here, and it is to Labor’s great credit that the profound economic changes it has wrought have always been accompanied with a determination to ensure that those affected have been supported and helped to find other work or training.

What more needs to be done? We must never lose sight of the fact that economic restructuring is something we do for the national good. That means that there is a national obligation to support people displaced in this process. We must all be conscious too that change needs to be better explained and debated. It may be that we must look again at the nature of change and in each case ask, `What are we really trying to achieve?’ Is an iota of efficiency here reward enough for the loss of employees’ family time? Does a free market there mean the production of socially undesirable goods, or the encouragement of goods produced by socially undesirable means like sweated labour, child labour or unsafe work practices?

Do we want to encourage industries that need a work force trained simply to follow orders, not to think for themselves? Is cheaper and faster really an alternative to better? Everything a government does is about nurturing and protecting a healthy society. It is not about efficiency. It is not about growth. Those things are only tools, and not the only ones, to make Australia a better place in which to live.

I have always believed that Labor is about civilising capitalism, that economic policy is not an end in itself. Over the next decade I expect governments will increasingly be called to account on that score. Their actions will increasingly be judged by the civilising influence they bring to our society. We, as politicians, will be increasingly asked to explain what we do in those terms.

There is no hiding the fact that there is a growing unease in our community about the direction our society is taking. We all feel that, particularly now, in the wake of the dreadful tragedy at Port Arthur. There is a need now, if not for moral leadership, then for our citizens to have more say, to have more influence, in public matters.

Australians increasingly will demand more say in the way their children are educated, in what is shown on television, in how they work, in how their institutions or governments perform and respond to them. I say to the coalition government: the Australian people gave you their trust on 2 March. You must manage these inevitable changes for the benefit of all, not for the few.

I am particularly proud that I have worked for the Transport Workers Union for the last four years. The TWU is a proud union which, despite its difficulties, has survived and prospered in recent times. Its success has been due to the dedication of its officials and delegates right across Victoria. No union today can survive and grow unless it retains the active support of its members.

There are many friends at the union who I would like to thank for their support, but I am sure that if I tried to list them all I would inevitably leave someone out. I will, however, single out the secretary, Bill Noonan, who has led the union through enormously difficult times with skill, dedication and patience—and that was only when dealing with me! I would not be here today without Bill’s support and friendship. I look forward to being presented with my 25-year honorary membership certificate of the TWU in the future.

I mentioned earlier the need for Australia to improve its skills base. The TWU has been involved in this area. The TWU and its employers in the private transport industry are partners in developing and implementing a comprehensive training agenda for our industry. This is being implemented by the Industry Training Advisory Board. This is an organisation managed by representatives from both the trade union movement and the employers. The entire project has been supported by the industry and the federal government. Its task is to design and deliver relevant training to employees in the industry.

The transport industry has had little experience in delivering structured training. However, nationally consistent standards have been introduced and the industry is now able to develop training programs that are relevant and accepted. This training can deliver outcomes for employers, such as promoting fuel efficiency, competency with technological change and innovation and reducing workplace accidents—to name just a few. For drivers, it represents the recognition of skills and the building of more rewarding and fulfilling career opportunities. This is a win-win situation for the industry. The challenge for the coalition is how it responds to these initiatives now that it is in government.

I was born in England and my family moved to Australia when I was 10. I was lucky and grew up here in Canberra. I joined the ACT Labor Party in 1983. My interests have always revolved around economic and social justice. Through my work with the union I have developed a keen interest in transport and superannuation issues. I hope to continue to pursue these through the Senate committee structure.

I moved to Victoria in 1987 and have lived in the west of Melbourne for almost all of that period. I was honoured to be elected to the Footscray Council in 1993, albeit for a short period before the Kennett government abolished local councils. We hope that elections will be held some time in the next 12 months. My short time in that office was an exciting period when I learnt much about the needs of a diverse community like the Footscray area.

I would now like to thank a number of people, first of all Robert Ray, my long-time friend and now my colleague; second, all of my family in England, who I wish were able to be here today; and, finally, my mum and dad, who have stood by me always.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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