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Sen. Nita Green (ALP-Qld) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech by Senator Nita Green, ALP, Queensland.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Senator Nita Green, ALP, Queensland.

The PRESIDENT (17:33): Order! Before I call Senator Green, I remind honourable senators that this is her first speech; therefore, I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to her.

Senator GREEN (Queensland) (17:33): The town of Yarrabah is a short drive from my home in Cairns. It is home to the Gunggandji people, a community of artists, activists, teachers and leaders. It is the place where elders, including Aunty Ruth and Uncle Alf, started to organise a campaign that built toward the 1967 referendum. They understood that the necessary ingredients for change were present in the Australian community and that they could, if they persisted, achieve reform and amend the constitution. In acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we meet on today and the traditional owners of the land I live on in Far North Queensland, I want to pay tribute to Yarrabah, its elders and the activists who refused to take no for an answer. They are ready to lead again and deliver a voice to parliament. I extend to them my support and solidarity.

Mr President, tonight I’m going talk to you about some of the incredible people who inspired me to become a Queensland senator. I was encouraged to run for public office by people who stand up for what they believe in, who speak up on behalf of others, those who encourage us tohope for the future and insist on making change. These are not the so-called quiet Australians. In fact, many of them are very noisy, and I truly believe that this is an important time to celebrate those in our community who don’t remain silent when they witness injustice.

Firstly, though, I want to say thank you to each and every Queenslander who I am very honoured to represent. After being elected I made this commitment to Queenslanders: in my role as a senator I will be, above all else, hardworking and incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve my community. That work starts here and it starts now. I love Queensland and I love Queenslanders, so I feel incredibly lucky to be in this position at this time. I am even luckier to call Far North Queensland home.

Queensland is rich in resources and opportunities. Our vast state consists of many communities, all with their own unique identity. And nothing unites us more than our dislike of people down south trying to tell us what to do and how to live.

A government senator interjecting—

Senator GREEN: Exactly! Brisbane. When I leave this place I want to be able to say that Queensland has more apprentices and job opportunities for young people; has better schools, hospitals and aged-care facilities; has better roads, ports and major infrastructure; has a booming tourism industry; and is equipped to make the most out of the industries of the future.

I believe that these are things that we can all work on together. We know there needs to be more money spent on big infrastructure and shovels in the ground now, in order to grow regional Queensland. But right now all we’ve got is a lot of promises. Further, the loss of 12,000 apprentices in Queensland means we are facing a skills shortage, which this government wants to address by expanding the skilled visa program. We want these projects built now and we want them built by local workers. In order to grow regional Queensland we also need to have some hard debates. I am ready to take on these debates and win them for Queensland.

Job security for Queenslanders and the dangers of climate change are interlinked. Queenslanders want and deserve secure jobs. On this, let me be clear: whether it is a mine operator in Clermont, a tourism operator in Cairns, a farmer in Innisfail or a Torres Strait Islander on Boigu Island, I will work to ensure that every Queenslander has a genuine role in securing the future of the jobs that feed their families and help create the communities that they call home.

The only way to win an outcome that ensures a prosperous and healthy future for our state is to listen to Queenslanders, not talk at them or speak about them in abstract terms. Every regional Queenslander deserves to be treated with respect. Listening to and respecting Queenslanders is what I have been doing, and it is what I will continue to do as their elected representative in this Senate.

Our community is made up of many types of Australians. We’ve heard a great deal about quiet Australians of late—what they believe; what they want their government to do. We are told they are defined by what they are not. They’re not noisy. They don’t criticise. And we are told they don’t really have time for politics, which I don’t think is entirely true. It seems to me a false value is being placed on being not just quiet but passive or disinterested in politics. It’s a view that dismisses Australians who are concerned with what goes on here, who are outspoken, who stand up and make change. History has shown us, time and time again, that we should encourage debate and dissent. In fact, it is dangerous not to. Despite the divisive politics around the world, you’ll often hear young people talk about the importance of hope and change. During past times of upheaval and uncertainty, others have often spoken about these ideas.

In 1966 Robert F Kennedy spoke at the University of Cape Town to young South Africans hopeful of change. A fragment of that speech was later recited by Ted Kennedy during the eulogy that he delivered for his brother. With his voice breaking, and in spite of the uncertainty of the time, he chose the passages of Kennedy’s speech about hope and the ability of one person, and particularly young people, to make great change. Kennedy said:

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.

… … …

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage such as these that the belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

When Ted Kennedy delivered those words he was the same age as I am right now. He stood in St Patrick’s Cathedral, having just lost two of his brothers, and yet he spoke about hope and insisting on change. Yes, we should respect our quiet Australians, but there will always be a place for people who choose not to remain silent and instead stand up for an ideal to improve the lot of others or strike out against injustice. We also need vocal Australians to inspire us, to lead us and to prepare us for the changes ahead.

The advancement of women’s equality and empowerment has been shaped by some very noisy women. I am here today because of the strong noisy women who fought for the right to vote, for equal pay, for equal work and for greater representation in parliament. This includes Senator Claire Moore, who worked tirelessly to give a voice to the voiceless. Now there is a new generation of strong women ready to demand more changes and greater equality. So thank you to all of the strong young women of the Labor Party who inspire me and give me so much strength, especially Jess, Laura, Jo and Alana. I also want to make special mention of two noisy women, Ellie Whitaker and Emily Brogan, who have supported me on every step in this journey.

My mum is also a strong woman, and without her I wouldn’t be here today. Despite the disapproval of her parents, my mum married my dad who was 20 years her senior. Mum was a nurse in an operating theatre, and, like most nurses I meet, she is smart and tough and incredibly hard working. Her primary purpose and concern is always the welfare of others.

Dad was charming and intelligent. He worked hard on night shifts. He was a printer at Fairfax. I knew that he had an important job, because he got the news out. He was a big man, and as a kid you could bury your head into his shoulder and feel protected. I loved him very much. But he was also an alcoholic and he suffered from depression. He was cruel when he was sober and he was abusive when he was drunk. He was supposed to protect us, but no-one protected us from him.

When I was three or four years old, my mum left in the middle of the night—me walking along side my brother in a stroller and our bags on our backs. When I asked her why we were walking the long way around the block, she said, ‘So daddy doesn’t see us.’ Leaving, finally, for good, almost 10 years later, was the best decision my mum ever made. We were homeless for the first few nights after we left, because the rental that mum paid for wasn’t liveable. Tragically, domestic violence remains one of the biggest drivers of homelessness for Australian women. We finally settled in a small community of town houses occupied by families on minimum-wage jobs, single parents and new migrants. Mum packed shelves at night to make ends meet.

I have no doubt that it was hard for mum to leave. She shouldn’t have had to do it on her own, but, like so many women, she did. For all the struggle that life of a single mother would bring, every day I was so grateful to be safe. It made who I am today—tough, resilient and unwilling to accept that some Australians have to settle for less just because of where they were born or who their parents are.

One in five women in Australia has experienced family violence. Sadly, hospitalisation rates as a result of family violence are on the rise. Family violence is a health crisis and a cultural crisis, and it has to stop. We can’t be hopeful or well-meaning anymore; we must demand that it changes.

Mum gave me many gifts throughout my life: a safe home, self-belief and the understanding that tough times don’t last forever. She has three rules in life: you have to be home on Christmas Eve, never ride a motorcycle—she’s a nurse—and never ever cross a picket line. So, on top of all of the other gifts she gave me, she made me a good trade unionist.

As a young person who always felt that a country as rich as Australia should look after our most vulnerable first, I was naturally drawn to the trade union movement. Being a union member is about making noise, because being in a union makes your voice much louder. The hopes, rights and voices of a single worker are amplified through our collectivism. Unionism is the personification of those tiny ripples of hope Robert F Kennedy spoke about. It is the coming together and the knocking down of the walls of oppression, injustice and greed.

The Queensland Trades and Labour Council worked alongside the elders in Yarrabah in the lead-up to the 1967 referendum because they saw injustice and oppression in the conditions and the discrimination faced by Indigenous communities. As a union lawyer, campaigner and industrial officer, I’ve met many Queenslanders who have been subjected to exploitation, wage theft and workplace safety breaches and have faced discrimination in the workplace. Without union representation and the support and solidarity of their workmates, these workers would have had little to no chance of achieving a fair and just outcome.

This week we have seen a worker killed and others seriously injured in two separate crane accidents in Far North Queensland. We need strong unions in this country because every Australian worker has the right to come home to their family at the end of the day. My union—the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union—has a proud tradition of standing up for what is right. The recent victory for workers at the long-running Esso Longford dispute highlights the strength, tenacity and commitment of the AMWU and its partner unions in fighting for a fair go for Australian workers. I applaud each and every delegate and official from the AMWU and other unions for their dedication to supporting workers. I thank especially Queensland State Secretary, Rohan Webb, and Ann-Marie Allan. I also thank Peter Koutsoukis and Rod Hodgson from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, who gave me a chance and the opportunity to grow.

I note that Senator Sheldon has been in the party since he was 14 years old. When I was younger I didn’t plan to come to politics, but in 2011 at the national conference the Australian Labor Party inspired me to be part of change. I wasn’t a member or a volunteer at the time, but I got to witness the robust debate on the Barr-Wong amendment that led to marriage equality becoming part of the party platform. In speaking to her amendment Senator Wong said something that resonates with me to this day. She said, ‘Equality does not diminish the worth of your relationships; it simply recognises the worth of ours.’ Meanwhile, the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, reassured teenagers around the country that they were ‘just fine’. The now Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, spoke of Labor’s preparedness to examine itself and move forward. Albo articulated how Labor would take up the fight for the elimination of all discrimination—be it based on race, gender or class. When the vote was finalised, the then ALP national president, Senator McAllister, simply said the words, ‘I declare the amendment carried.’ From that moment onwards, I saw a place for me in the Labor Party because I also believed in fairness and equality. Labor, not only a party of government but in government, held the same view.

Seven years later, as a member of the Labor Party, I took all the hurt and fear that I felt about the same-sex marriage plebiscite and threw myself into campaigning for marriage equality. In my role organising volunteers in Brisbane and throughout Queensland, I had the chance to meet so many wonderful people. They were gay, straight, old and young and all they wanted to do was fight for change. They were the tiny little ripples that created a giant wave of support.

One of those volunteers stands out the most. A few days after voting closed, I organised an event to thank our volunteers. Amongst the rainbow flags and streamers, I spotted a man wearing a Transport Workers’ Union t-shirt. I have to admit, he looked a little out of place! He came up to me and said, ‘This campaign saved my life.’ I knew from the way that he said it that he meant what he said. I hugged him, feeling proud of the work we’d done and relief that we had saved his life. But there was also white, hot anger—anger about the lives that we couldn’t save; anger about the number of LGBTI people who commit suicide; anger about all of the people who were forced to live their lives like I did for a long time, unable to be fully and authentically themselves.

In the end, Queensland—my Queensland—voted 60.7 per cent for yes. From Coolangatta to the cape, Queensland said yes to equality and love. I want to acknowledge Rainbow Labor and my friends from the Equality Campaign. I am very proud to know you all. Thank you Joseph, Patrick, Georgia and the rest of the team. And thank you to George Simon, a good ally who told me that he would lie down on a road for any of those people, so I was completely nuts if I didn’t take the chance to work with them. I’m so grateful I listened to his advice.

I am very thankful for the work that many in this place did to achieve marriage equality. I acknowledge Senator Dean Smith especially and Senator Wong, Senator Louise Pratt and Senator Janet Rice and the other champions and allies we have in this house. In the end, no single party or politician delivered marriage equality. The victory belonged to many Australians, and I want to acknowledge the LGBTI activists who worked for decades. They spoke out not only when it was unpopular but when it was unthinkable. I want to acknowledge all of the allies who had never fought before but marched with us. They wrapped their arms around us when we needed it the most. Australians showed that, collectively, they can be powerful and vocal and respectful and loving. We demanded change and we got it.

Before I finish, I want to say thank you to my friends and family who travelled here today. A special thank you to my oldest friends, the ones who knew me before politics and still put up with me afterwards, especially Jackie and Jess. Thank you, Ben, for your help, advice and chocolate runs. Thank you to my colleagues in this place new and old, and a special thanks to Senator Murray Watt, who I met at my first campaign meeting. Who would have thought we’d be here now? Thank you for your friendship, humour and advice. Thank you to my wife’s family for making me feel so at home. Thank you Vicki and Warren, who couldn’t be here tonight, but I know they send their love. Thank you to my mum and my brother, Rohan, for everything you have done for me.

During the recent election campaign, Mum would text me out of the blue and say something along the lines of: ‘Are you on the bus today? How is Penny?’ At the same time, I discovered I had a strange new Twitter follower. I put two and two together and discovered that my mum had created a Twitter account just to follow what I was doing on the campaign, which made me realise, of course, that I was being a very bad daughter. Mum, I promise to tweet a little less, to call a little more and to make you proud every day.

Finally, to my wife, Lacey: Lacey is funny, sweet and wise. She is the coolest person I know. She’s a teacher, a designer and a very good cook. Life with Lacey is always an adventure: she’s either taking you on one or she is happy to come along on yours. Our lives have changed in so many ways since we met. I am proud of her, and she is proud of me. Thank you, honey, for your support today and every day and the huge sacrifices that you will make now and into the future. I love you very much.

The elders in Yarrabah, with all of the barriers that stood before them, refused to take no for an answer. The union movement in Cairns stood beside them and fought for change, as they have done now for over 200 years. Sometimes this parliament lags behind the momentum for change that builds in our community. It was true of marriage equality; it is true of constitutional recognition. That’s why we need Australians who stand up and speak out. If you are a young Australian and you want to change our country and make it better, you can. Never give up, join your union and don’t be afraid to make some noise. Thank you.

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