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Sen. Tony Sheldon (ALP-NSW) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech by Senator Tony Sheldon, ALP, New South Wales.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Senator Tony Sheldon, ALP, New South Wales.

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

Senator SHELDON (New South Wales) (17:03): I acknowledge the traditional owners of this place and pay my respects to elders, past, present and emerging. I’m so proud to be in the Ngunnawal country in the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, a House for all people. And I pledge to progress the agenda of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to recognise First Nations people in our Constitution.

I start by thanking those responsible for me being here—first and foremost, my family. My compassionate and progressive parents, Neil and Gwen. They were both born in marriages of mixed religion in the 1920s, quite the scandal of the day. They later raised my brothers and sisters in the Catholic faith, as I raised my own children, Liam and Lily—who are here today. All four generations have interpreted religion in their own way, and have their own relationship with faith, both religious and not. But our guiding principle was perhaps best expressed by the American Protestant, Charles Monroe Sheldon—would you believe, a great, great uncle of mine. In the book In His Steps, one of the most read books about faith in human history, he asked and answered the question: what would Jesus do? It’s a simple question to get us all, regardless of our beliefs, thinking about the ethical and moral implications of what we do in life, and the consequences of those actions.

I reference this book because my parents shared this philosophy. They lived a life of service. They did this whilst raising six children, any of whom, not doubt—of course, not me!—caused them to question their faith from time to time. Dad was an industrial chemist, born in Lewisham, and mum was a nurse, born in Mudgee and trained at Bathurst Hospital. They were committed Labor people and fierce anticommunists, or ‘groupers’, as anticommunists were called at that time. Yet they believed so deeply in democracy that they campaigned in the 1950s against outlawing the very communism they despised.

In 1972, Dad was asked by Senator Arthur Gietzelt, the legendary Labor Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, to run as a Labor candidate for Cook, the seat now held by the Prime Minister. They are both Sharkies tragics, but I add that that’s probably where the similarities stop. Dad declined the chance to be an MP, and it was a time when mum, as a woman, would have never even be considered, and that’s a shame. What it did mean, however, was that the Sheldon household was one of fiery and spirited debate. Such was the vigour, Mr President, that we could have used your services and standing orders. On the winning side were my siblings, Cath, Diane, John, Lynne and Phil. On the other side was a young Tony. Standing here today, as a senator in the parliament of Australia, with my family in the gallery, the temptation to re-litigate those lost battles under the veil of parliamentary privilege is absolutely overwhelming, but I will resist. I am forever grateful to my parents and siblings. I thank them for their love, counsel and friendship.

I joined the ALP at the age of 14. The fact that one wasn’t allowed to join until the age of 15 didn’t seen especially important, particularly when your dad was a returning officer! From this day on, the ALP, and the trade union movement, would become a second family. In this extended family, I’ve met and worked with the very best. I speak of the National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, the mighty Michael Kaine. Michael’s a formidable leader and the best friend and best lieutenant a person could have. He has a stellar team, including: Nick McIntosh and Emily McMillan; New South Wales is led by Richard Olsen and his deputy Mick Pieri; and across the country there are John Berger, Tim Dawson, Ian Smith and Peter Biagini. They are able, committed and decent people, one and all.

I want to pay special tribute to a man who was a special friend and mentor, former senator Steve Hutchins. When ex-Labor parliamentarian Michael Lee gave the eulogy at Steve’s funeral, he quoted from Kim Beazley: ‘The industrial movement is critical for a democracy. Ordinary Australians can speak through it on the needs of everyday Australians in a debate dominated by privilege and elites. Grounded by this, Steve took the voices of working people into a parliamentary career of real substance and achievement.’ I recall in 1994 Steve called me and my workmate Wayne Forno to his office. He was as fired up as you could be, rallying against the low wages of our members and the greed of some of the transport industry’s major clients. He asked this question: ‘What good are we if we allow this to continue?’ He then told us that they needed a 15 per cent wage increase over two years. Privately, Wayne and I thought Steve was being a little bit optimistic. Truth be told, we may have used different and much more exotic language at the time, given the scale of the ask, but we fell in behind the leader, as loyal people do. What happened next?

This great man, with no hope of success, succeeded, bringing all the benefits it generated for hundreds of thousands of both union and non-union transport workers’ families. Millions of dollars were then spent generating and sustaining thousands of jobs. If all of Steve’s leadership could be condensed into a sentence, it would be this: never limit yourself beliefs, always upsize your dreams and then fight like hell to achieve them. Thank you, Steve. Rest well, comrade. I welcome to the Senate Natalie, Xavier and Linda, Steve’s family, here today. My friends, your dad, brother and husband will always be one of the greats.

In the movement, of course, there are other greats as well. Wonderful men and women like Gerard Hayes, Graeme Kelly, Alex Glayson and Bob Nandar, Daniel Walton and Bernie Smith, Gerard Dwyer and Barbara Neebard, Michael Crosby—with a tie—Mich-Elle Myers, Arthur Rorris, Nadine Flood and Natalie Lang, Martin Cartwright and Steve Purvenus, David Smith, Robert Potter, Shane Murphy, Michael O’Connor and Paddy Crumlin, of course. I also offer a sincere thank you to the secretary of Unions NSW, Mark Morey. Mark is doing an outstanding job for all affiliates and their communities in New South Wales, aided by his deputies, Thomas and Vanessa.

To another outstanding union leader, Sally McManus, I say this: leadership is about having the courage of your convictions. By that definition, Sally McManus is pure leadership. Good on you, Sally and Michele and the team at the ACTU, including my good, thoughtful and determined friend Scott Connolly. I’m here with the intention to change the rules, as is our shared credo.

In New South Wales, I also thank and recognise Kaila Murnain, alongside her deputies Pat and George. Kaila has reformed the culture of New South Wales ALP head office in a way which was sorely needed. I thank Daniel Mookie, a true and loyal friend of great integrity, as well as Adam Searle and Mark Buttigieg, who fight every day in the New South Wales parliament for working people. Thank you for joining me today.

I thank former leader Bill Shorten, a man who has given his life to working people. Bill was right to call out the influence of Clive Palmer, a person who won’t pay his workers’ wages yet claims a right to the moral high ground. I also enthusiastically endorse the new leader of the parliamentary Labor Party, Anthony Albanese. There is no-one more authentic than Albo. Someone remarked to me the other day that they were surprised to see the Leader of the Opposition on television wearing a Rabbitohs jersey. I responded by saying I’m truly surprised any time I see him in a suit and tie. I suspect Albo might say the same thing about me.

I also acknowledge all of my caucus colleagues, both in the House and in the Senate led by Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally. And I welcome my fellow new ALP senators, Tim Ayres, Marielle Smith, Raff Ciccone and Nita Green. I also acknowledge some splendid friends from the other side of politics: Duncan Gay, the former roads minister in New South Wales, and Mike Gallacher, the former minister for police in New South Wales. They are decent people who made negotiations and discussions robust but always rewarding.

On this note, again, I reference Steve Hutchins’s magnificent 15 per cent pay rise victory. I also recognise Lindsay Fox. Lindsay has always been direct, honest, frank and true to his word. With Lindsay it’s always been an interest based negotiation to get a fair outcome for all parties. The sort of negotiations I have also enjoyed with the likes of the unique Michael Byrne from Toll—an old friend—Paul Ryan, Peter Anderson, Peter Fox and Hugh McMaster, Laurie de Peace, Maurice Boroni, John Begetti, and Terry and Arthur Tzaneros, two wonderful people, employers who also understand that honest and genuine disagreement can yield good results. These are the captains of industry who distinguish themselves from a small minority of others. I refer to the Leigh Cliffords of the world, people who are not in control of their ideology and who would and have grounded an airline for pride. Enough said about these types. I will have plenty of opportunities in the next six years.

I have entered parliament with 42 years in the workforce. Every battle scar and every victory are lessons I carry with me to this very moment. I’ve been a garbo and a bar attendant. My first job was as a 16-year-old amusement park worker at the Punchbowl fair. For the record, and as a rejection of the claim of my children, I stress that I was not the amusement! I was the Ferris wheel operator, working unpaid for six weeks on the promise of more work, which never arrived—an early lesson never forgotten.

Later I stood with decent and hardworking brewery workers in the first-ever sit-in in Castlemaine brewery against unfair and uneven wage increases. I stood up against the likes the infamous Bellino brothers, of Fitzgerald inquiry fame, who ran illegal nightclubs in Brisbane, grossly underpaying their workforce. The inquiry was a response to a series of articles about high-level police corruption, reported by Phil Dickie and then immortalised in the Four Corners report by Chris Masters in 1987. I’ve led what the local paper called the ‘petticoat picket’ at Cedar Lake on the Gold Coast, against sexual harassment, discrimination, victimisation, underpayments and bullying, where men and women were sacked because, they were told, they were ‘too old’ to be a good image for the company.

I’ve taken calls from truck drivers who were being force-supplied by their employers with drugs to keep them awake in an effort to meet the cost demands of clients—drivers who were told that if they contacted the police or didn’t take the drugs they would lose their jobs and worse. I’ve been to the funerals of those who have paid the ultimate price, comforting loved ones in the depths of unimaginable grief. That is why I vow that I will not rest until this parliament restores safe rates into this country.

I witnessed the collapse of the national airline under a narrow-minded government. I’ve stood with brave men and women, like Dave Lupton from Ansett—and Dave’s with us today—for more than 100 days to win a government-guaranteed redundancy payment. Like many others, I’ve sat at the witness box at a royal commission, with no prima facie case to answer for anything. That trade union royal commission will be forever remembered as a wretched abuse of executive power, where the presumption of innocence became a presumption of guilt. And all the while the government of the day evaded, protected and denied the misdeeds of a banking sector which was institutionally, morally and culturally corrupt, demonstrating the real aim, which is this government’s obsessive culture war on working people and their representatives. My four hours in the witness box—I won’t go so far as to say that Justice Heydon and I became friends; that would obviously be a bit much—but by the end, the commission understood that the Transport Workers’ Union was a collective of terrific people bonded by decency, integrity and a determination to support our members. I add that these were also the values missing in the executive ranks of the banking sector.

Friends, beyond our shores I’ve been honoured to lead negotiations for international safe rates agreements and road safety under the auspices of the International Labour Organization, including in the Mekong Delta and South Korea. I take this opportunity to advise the Senate that as of July this year South Korea has achieved safe rates.

I’ve observed with a quiet but growing rage as migrant workers without the rights of Australian citizens have their labour exploited. This undercuts the wages of local labour as well, a crazy double whammy benefitting very few.

I’ve watched with concern as both Labor and coalition parties tore down multiple prime ministers, with the unintended consequences of emptying the reservoir of goodwill that our people have towards their democracy.

I’m in this place to speak up for dignity, good work and rewarding jobs, for decent wages and safe conditions, for long-term employment that allows you to get a mortgage and provide for your family with certainty—the pathway to economic freedom. We must reject aggressive, value-neutral supply chains monopolising and using technology as a barbed wire chain around the throats of business and workers down the line.

I would also like to reference perhaps the greatest achievement of my life, solely because it was utterly unique in Australian political life. I have managed to receive a written apology from Senator Eric Abetz. Sure, Eric, the apology was in order to head off defamation proceedings. But, with Eric, one takes what one can get. I wish you could’ve gone to court, Senator. My mortgage could’ve used the relief. But, in fairness, I also appreciate the frank conversations I’ve had with Eric and other conservative workplace ministers over the years.

What all these experiences and observations mean is that I entered parliament with broad perspectives. In my inaugural address, I’d like to share three of these.

The first perspective is about what government’s role should be in designing and regulating markets. Simply put, governments and parliaments must start leading with effective market design and regulation, rather than chasing with ineffective versions of neither. There are now modern, international goliaths in the information age, just as there were international behemoths in the first industrial and global trade ages. I speak of Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google and their like—unaccountable titans who seek to have the market operate in their self-interest. The regulation of these global tech giants by democratically elected leaders is failing in our economy and our democracy. Governments need to catch up and get out in front of deregulating these disrupters, and my pledge in this place is that I will do everything in my power to thoughtfully and unapologetically disrupt the disrupters.

We must tackle the tax relationship. We need to hold these global companies economically accountable so they can contribute their fair share of tax, like France is doing with its new three per cent digital services tax on revenue generated in its territory. France, like India, has had the courage to implement this simple, transparent tax—one which tackles head on the scourge of multinational tax avoidance. The OECD and a number of European countries are looking at this and other tax models, and it’s time for Australia to do the same. I say that, as responsible legislators, we cannot wait for other countries to act. We cannot stand by and watch while our tax base is eroded and, with it, our ability to provide health, education and other critical infrastructure for our citizens.

We must better define the regulatory relationship with these companies. We need real laws, not toothless voluntary codes, to ensure that all workers, consumers and small businesses have their rights, including data rights, protected and have a fair go in this emerging information economy. In saying this, I recognise all the good brought about by innovation, and I do welcome it. But regulating the transaction cost is our job, so let’s get to it.

Second, I have a perspective about the question this Senate must consider if we are to avoid the future of work being less utopia and more dystopia. I have watched the transport industry become ground zero for the impacts of a changing global economy and the massive technology driven disruption of firms like Uber, Foodora and Deliveroo. Make no mistake, this disruption is coming to every corner of our economy. The basic rights of working people are under threat from the gig economy, tech platforms, artificial intelligence and worker surveillance systems. Don’t believe the spin. This is not a sharing economy. It’s an on-demand economy, and it’s incumbent on us to enforce and create rights for these workers. That includes the right to fair pay and superannuation. While the coalition nurtures wreckers of Australian world-leading superannuation, I believe we should extend superannuation to every worker in Australia, including those in the emerging gig economy.

As the recent Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers found, Australia has no coordinated approach to managing the future of work in Australia. I regard this fact alone as a very bright red-light risk for Australia. Ultimately, how can there be prosperity if we enter a world of permanently high unemployment and permanently higher underemployment?

I also have a perspective on the dangers our body politic faces if a lack of political engagement further deepens the trust deficit. Whether it be the banks, the Catholic church, the parliament or the tax office—indeed, even the national cricket team lost the faith of our people for a period of time. What I see is an alarming loss of trust in institutions, some fraying of our social cohesion, and a growing sense that many institutions are more self-serving than selfless. In 2019, the Lowy Institute Poll found that 30 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds said that, in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable. That’s one in three young people. Polling carried out by the Australian Museum of Democracy said that, if current trends continue, Australians’ trust in their politicians and political institutions will drop to less than 10 per cent by 2025. Putting this in a commercial sense, a business with so little trust from consumers will simply go out of business. That cannot be the fate of our democracy.

Our parliamentarians generally have a lot of common ground, and it’s a tragedy that the Australian public is not more aware of it. We need a parliamentary office to communicate the good bipartisan work that gets done here. I believe in plain speaking; in evidence-based policy; in less politics and more policy; and in governments and parliaments who lead and not follow—all underpinned by a core belief in the very decency, fairness and compassion my parents taught their children, Whilst I look forward to the ferocious debate, I utterly reject the notion of winning at all costs, because I believe in my duty to the people of New South Wales and of Australia.

I wish to conclude with the final but most important acknowledgement: I want to thank all of the members of the Transport Workers’ Union and every working person who has supported me for so many years. I say to every transport worker in Australia: because you are the men and women who carry Australia, you deserve the respect of all Australians. Some of you are no doubt listening on parliamentary radio as you drive a long haul on the Pacific, Sturt, Bruce or Eyre highways; some working late shifts at the airport, or sitting in the tearoom; and others just getting home, exhausted, to their waiting families. I want to say to these great men and women: it has been my honour to serve you. I’m here because of you, and, now more than ever, in this place I am your servant. To those families who have lost loved ones on the altar of profit, driven by greed or misused technology, or allowed by failed regulation: I remember every single one of you.

I’m honoured to be in this wonderful chamber, and determined to do good and to grasp the moment with everything I have. Thank you, senators; thank you, friends; thank you, family; and thank you, good President.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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