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Senator Ursula Stephens (ALP-NSW) – Valedictory Speech

Senator Ursula Stephens was a two-term Labor senator from New South Wales.


First elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2007, Stephens was defeated at the 2013 federal election. Her position was taken by the Liberal Democrats candidate, David Leyonhjelm.

Stephens was Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Prime Minister for Social Inclusion in the first Rudd government following the 2007 election. She was also Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector during the same period.

Stephens gave her valedictory speech to the Senate on June 24, 2014. Born in Ireland, she concluded her speech with a short Irish song.

Three other ALP senators defeated at the election – Mehmet Tillem, Lin Thorp and Louise Pratt – also gave valedictory addresses. After their speeches, eight of their colleagues paid personal tributes.

  • Listen to Stephens’ speech (28m)
  • Listen to Stephens sing an Irish farewell song (1m)
  • Watch Stephens’s speech (28m)
  • Listen to Senator Eric Abetz – Lib-Tas (7m)
  • Listen to Senator Penny Wong – ALP-SA (12m)
  • Listen to Senator Nigel Scullion – CLP-NT (5m)
  • Listen to Senator Helen Polley – ALP-Tas (3m)
  • Listen to Senator Carol Brown – ALP-Tas (13m)
  • Listen to Senator Anne Urquhart – ALP-Tas (6m)
  • Listen to Senator Helen Kroger – Lib-Vic (3m)
  • Listen to Senator Dean Smith – Lib-WA (3m)

Hansard transcript of Senator Ursula Stephens’s valedictory speech to the Senate.


Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (17:31): I thank everyone for their patience this afternoon. It has been a long afternoon.

The art of oratory is to be concise and precise—and we have excellent models to follow. The Lord’s Prayer is a mere 69 words long, the Declaration of Independence is but 297 words and the apology to our stolen people is 360 words long. I will do my best to emulate these great examples and the words of President Franklin D Roosevelt: ‘Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.’

I acknowledge all of my colleagues who are retiring on 30 June and thank them for their friendship and support. We work very closely together as a team here. People outside of parliament do not perhaps understand the friendships we develop. I wish you all good luck in your future endeavours.

When I was elected to the Senate in 2001, I knew my work was going to be challenging and exciting, but I did not for one minute anticipate that it was going to be so much fun. The truth is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the long hours—believe it or not—the intellectual challenges, the hard-fought battles, the small victories and the many friendships that, as I said, have defined my time here.

We have heard from others today and during the week about their mixed feelings in leaving this place, their relief at having the chance to pursue other interests and opportunities being tempered by their sense of loss at the chance to continue contributing to the national debate. As you might expect, I agree with that ambivalence.

But my overwhelming feeling, like that of many colleagues we have heard from today, about my political term coming to an end is one of gratitude—to the Australian Labor Party of course and to the people of New South Wales—that I have had the good fortune to spend the past 12 years devoted to advancing the quality of life of all Australians. Not only is this a great cause, but where else would I work on a daily basis with such a diverse group of bright, highly motivated people and where else would I get to measure my accomplishments by the success of my colleagues and by the work that they do to create a better world for everyone?

We hear almost daily the most cynical remarks about political life and about how disengaged the younger generations are. But I would like to take this opportunity to recommend a life of political leadership to young Australians, especially to young women—and, more especially still, to young Labor women. I remind them of the wise words of Pericles:

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

Although I must warn you, colleagues, that the young are getting younger—as we can hear from up there in the gallery.

I was talking to some young school leaders recently and I asked them what the most significant event in their life thus far had been. I was quite taken aback when they said, ‘Facebook, smartphones and wi-fi’. When I asked, ‘What about September 11?’, they said, ‘We would only have been three or four at the time, so we don’t really remember that.’

We need to remember that fact—that what shapes future policy will be the needs and the aspirations of these generations—those whose memories are not embedded in stories of war and constitutional or economic crises. At one of two generations removed from the formative influences of our lives, they have very different expectations and aspirations. I want to assure them, though, that politics is the most fulfilling and satisfying endeavour—and we need them to be involved.

But a politician can only do so much. We quickly realise that, however much any one individual can achieve, it cannot compare with the power and the passion of a band of willing, public-spirited people determined to bring about change. Several such people are here with us this this evening and they represent the sector of our society that works in the hardest and darkest places: dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, with poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness, both here and abroad. We need to cherish and encourage these people who spend their lives in the service of the most needy. I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with all of you and I salute you all for your dedication and commitment.

The poor may always be with us, but I have no patience with the idea of dividing those in need into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories. One thing is clear to me: however tough the challenge, we have no choice but to look after each other. On the way to work last week, the traffic was delayed because a duck had been hit and injured by a car—it could only happen in Canberra. What held us up was not the wounded duck; it was its companion. Despite all the traffic and the fog and the danger, the duck hovered over its fellow creature, concerned for its wellbeing. I thought to myself: yes, even a duck looks after its mate.

Last week’s report from the UNHCR found that for the first time since 1945, at the end of World War II, there are now more than 51.2 million people displaced from their homes across the world. In other words, the number of people forcibly displaced today is almost double the entire population of Australia. On top of refugees, last year 1.1 million people applied for asylum in developed countries, and a record 25,300 of these asylum applications were for children who were separated from or unaccompanied by parents. We simply cannot be apathetic in the face of the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures. It is playing out on our television screens every day as we witness the unspeakable abuses around the world—in Iraq, in Syria, in Nigeria and in the Central African Republic, to name a few. While we debate, lives are being systematically and brutally destroyed.

Here in Australia we are hiding serious human rights violations of refugees and asylum seekers at our offshore processing centres. We are not the only country falling short of our human rights obligations. The USA, with all its resources and wealth, resettled only 36 Syrian refugees last year. In contrast, Germany took 25,500 people from Syria. Neither China nor Russia resettled even one refugee last year.

So how on earth did we get to this. Dame Mary Gilmore, in her poem called Nationality, which many of us learnt at school, puts her finger on the nub of the problem. Let me remind you of it:

I have grown past hate and bitterness,

I see the world as one;

But though I can no longer hate,

My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,

and all men must be fed;

But this loaf in my hand,

This loaf is my son’s bread.

The truth is that we are at a point now where we must find a way, somehow, to feed our own son and also look after our fellow human beings in need.

Of course, intervention always has its consequences, but we need to remember that inaction has consequences, too. This is as important for me in my post-political life as it is for all of you my parliamentary colleagues, and indeed for all Australians. It is a mark of our dignity as human beings not to turn our faces away from the challenges that lie before us, but to go ahead and meet them.

I have always believed that most people want to and need to contribute to making a better world, and that an essential part of my political responsibility was to help remove whatever barriers might be preventing them from achieving their aspirations. I know that when barriers are removed and people succeed and thrive the rewards are immense, for them and for all of us. I know, too, that for programs and services to be more efficient and more effective in public policy terms they need to fit the people we are, rather than expect people to mould themselves to structures that comprise what is an inflexible service system. That is the underpinning principle of citizen-centred service delivery and social inclusion best encapsulated in our vision for the NDIS.

You know that I have never been an adversarial politician. Instead, I believe in the power and potential of respectful negotiation, collaboration and relationship building. Even in defeat everything worth working for takes time, effort, commitment and the determination not to give up simply because it is a long, hard road.

I recently met a doctor who reminded me that in fact we had met before, over 20 years ago. That was when he was a young Indigenous lad facing a bleak future. I had enrolled him in a program that blended academic skills with life skills, fitness, and driver training. As a result of his efforts he gained entry into the police academy. He rose to the rank of senior sergeant before deciding a few years ago to train as a psychiatrist. He is now completing his medical registrar’s course. I am telling this story because I am so proud of his efforts, and because I am glad that I was able to play a small part in helping to remove the barriers so likely to prevent him from realising his potential—his Aboriginality, his poverty, his upbringing in a remote part of Australia, and his low level of education. But there is still so much work to be done, both inside parliament and in the wider world, to protect the interests of people just like that young man.

I believe that the key to meeting these challenges is education. I have an unshakable belief in its intrinsic value in helping each individual to sustain a rich inner life, its value in opening up opportunities to people whose existence might otherwise be severely curtailed, and, on a broader scale, of course, its value to the fabric of our society. Indeed, education has been the common thread in all I have done in my own life, here, in teaching children and adults, in consulting, in the public service and in undertaking research—and that will continue.

As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, I have loved the complexity, the intellectual rigour and the privilege of working in areas of national security, and also the perennial debate we have here about balancing national security interests with the privacy of individuals. But I have to say I was caught off guard, literally, when I bumped into the Director of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation in a local coffee shop in Goulburn last weekend. However, he reassured me my secret was safe with him.

We do not have many chances in our political life to be at the beginning of something and to see it through. So I am also very proud of the work done in establishing the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, and to have been part of that committee since its inception, shaping the way in which it would work, would educate you as our colleagues and would consider our national legislation through the new lens of international human rights.

Unfortunately, that cannot be said for the work that I have been involved in over many years in the space of charity law reform and strengthening the not-for-profit sector, because the Abbott government identified early that it would abolish the ACNC—the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. I cannot understand why, given that it emerged from the original calls across the board in the Industry Commission of the 1990s, was repeated again in a series of parliamentary inquiries, and by the 2010 Australian Productivity Commission. For the sector, the abolition of the ACNC represents a backward step, unravelling the reform that provided greater transparency and better administration. Frankly, this is one election promise that the government could break with good grace.

So I am leaving some unfinished business for the new Senate: how best to meet the structural challenges of the social economy; how to invest in the workforce; and how to strengthen the financial capacity of the sector. These are important policy and service challenges for the future.

Australia’s place in the world is reflected through our foreign policy. My work on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade have taken me to all corners of the world, physically and metaphorically. None of us here underestimates the importance of our committee work.

The foreign affairs committees and their subcommittees are charged with strengthening our interactions with the diplomatic corps, and dealing with issues that underpin Australia’s relationships with the rest of the world. The current inquiry by the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee is a case in point, bringing us into close contact with multinational organisations, businesses and global initiatives. It highlights too the interaction and interdependence of our foreign policy and the role of our Defence services.

We have so much to be proud of, but we also have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to shine a light into the dark corners that have been the behaviours of our government agencies and our institutions, and we should not shy away from that and what it reveals.

Friends and colleagues, some of my memories that will endure from my time here include: my first Senate hearing of the Legal and Constitutional the Affairs Committee, not here but on Elcho Island; the Bali Memorial Service in the Great Hall that brought so many of us to tears; the apology to the stolen generations and the subsequent apology to the forgotten Australians; and our most recent work on the joint committee on the NDIS.

I leave knowing that everything that I have done here I have tried to do on the basis of principle. There are constant and ongoing efforts to sway, to duchess, and to compromise us as politicians. But as others have said—in their own way—the only worthwhile contributions we can make to this place are by being true to our beliefs; not by wavering in the breeze, or being for sale to the highest bidder.

Of course, our work is not confined to Canberra. And the thrill of meeting popes or poets, presidents or princesses goes nowhere near the enduring satisfaction of working hard for a constituent to resolve an intractable issue, like the recent success of my year-long advocacy in unravelling the poorly managed family reunion application of a Somali constituent. He hadn’t seen his eight-year-old son since he was a baby, but finally, through the persistence of my staff and the support of departmental officials, the family was reunited in Sydney.

Friends, it was Barack Obama who reminded us that, ‘All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time’. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart or whether we commit ourselves to an effort, a sustained effort, to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children and to respect the dignity of all human beings. Well, our work in this place is meaningful because, like the ducks, we are not meant to go it alone—we need each other. And certainly I have enjoyed generous support and wise counsel from my political colleagues and I thank you all. Thank you too, to my staff, collaborators, mentors, friends and family, and the extended NSW Labor family for helping to make my Senate career both memorable and rewarding.

So what next for citizen Stephens? Well, it is home to the country for me for a while. I love country life and feel very much a part of my Goulburn community. I’ll continue to be involved in Labor politics because I have always believed that conservative governments have to be held to account. That is the role for us in Labor in opposition at the moment: to embrace change without ever compromising our values or diluting our principles. This is true not just for our elected representatives but also for the rank and file members whose lives are conducted far from this lovely building.

So, I plan to use my experience to continue working for the cause of justice both here in Australia and internationally through contributions to the work of the United Nations Development Programme and as a member of the Advisory Board of the International Humanitarian Centre. I still derive enjoyment from teaching, mentoring and writing, and plan to do all these from time to time; however, I promise there is no political memoir in the pipeline.

I want make sure that the next chapter of my life allows me plenty of time to spend with the ever-patient Bob—who is here tonight—with our children and our wonderful, noisy, boisterous grandchildren, Gabriel—who is up there—Xavier, Adele, beautiful baby James and No. 5, who is about to arrive very soon.

My sincere thanks and farewell to everyone who supports the work we do here: from Tim and the staff in the Members and Guests Dining Room, to the hardworking Broadcasting staff beavering in the basement and everyone in between, Ian and Peter in Senate transport and the crazy troupe of Comcar drivers, the attendants, librarians, cleaners, Hansard, security, mail, committees and, of course, the officers of the Senate. You all provide extraordinary service to this place and, don’t forget, through your work to the Australian people. Thank you—or as the Irish would say, as a tip to the Irish ambassador: Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

Mr President, as you know, it is the gift of the Irish to always have a snatch of poetry or the fragment of a song running in our heads for every occasion. We are all familiar with the lovely Irish blessing, ‘May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.’ That is not the one I have chosen for today. Today I have chosen a personal favourite:

Of all the comrades e’er I had

They are sorry for my going away

And for all the comrades e’er I had

They would wish me one more day to stay

But since it falls unto my lot

That I should go and you should not

So fill to me the parting glass

Goodnight and joy be to you all.


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