21 August 2002
It is an extraordinary privilege and honour to stand here today in this place and to have the opportunity to speak in this chamber. To be a member of the parliament of this country is almost beyond my comprehension.
I start by acknowledging the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the fact that we stand on their land. I congratulate you, Mr President, on your election as our President and I also congratulate those newly elected senators with whom I take office. At the outset, I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the two outgoing South Australian senators, Rosemary Crowley and Chris Schacht. Both have made enormous contributions as Labor representatives. I particularly want to thank former Senator Rosemary Crowley for her support of me over the years and when I sought preselection as her replacement.
My thoughts this morning were of my late paternal grandmother or Poh Poh, as I called her in her language. She was a diminutive woman with an indomitable spirit. A Chinese woman of the Hakka or guest people, she was my grandfather’s second wife. When the war came to Malaysia, she and the rest of the family were in Sandakan, a name that many who fought in Australia’s defence will be familiar with. Most of the family died during the war and she was left alone to care for my father and his siblings in unspeakable circumstances, which she did through extraordinary determination and a will to survive. She was barely literate; she was humble and compassionate but the strongest person I have ever known. Her name was Madam Lai Fung Shim and that her grand-daughter is here today would have been a source of pride but also probably some consternation to her. How much the world can change in two generations.
Perhaps this family history is why I place such an emphasis on the need for compassion. What lies at the heart of any truly civilised society? Surely it must be compassion. Compassion must be that underlying principle, that core value at the heart of our collective consciousness. If not compassion, then what? Economic efficiency? Or the imposition of some subjective moral code, defined by some and imposed on the many?
To call for compassion is not a plea for some bleeding-heart view of the world or a retreat to weak or populist government. Nor is it to shirk the responsibility of leadership to make hard decisions when these are called for. But it is to assert that those with power should act with compassion for those who have less, and that the experience of those who are marginalised cannot be bypassed, ignored or minimised as it so often is. Compassion is what underscores our relationships with one another, and it is compassion which enables us to come to a place of community even in our diversity. Yet this country in recent times has been sadly lacking in compassion.
Let us reclaim the phrase ‘one nation’. I seek a nation that is truly one nation, one in which all Australians can share regardless of race or gender, or other attribute, and regardless of where they live, and where difference is not a basis for exclusion. We do not live in such a country. We are not yet truly one nation. But it is the task of political leaders to build one.
We are a nation in which where you live determines your likelihood of success, where disadvantage has become more entrenched, where the poor are getting poorer and where this government fails to act to bring real opportunities to those who have few. The shared dream of an egalitarian Australia is increasingly becoming a myth. Income distribution over the last decade is characterised by a disappearing middle, but there are increasing numbers of low- and high-income earners.
There is a widening gap between poor and rich Australia. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. One driving force is the increasing openness of our economy to the world. Much has been written and said about globalisation. We are part of a globalised economy, for better or for worse, and that will not change. This presents us with both enormous opportunities and enormous challenges. The shape of our country in the decades to come will be largely determined by how we deal with the changes brought by globalisation. We must ensure that the benefits are shared. We must equip Australians better for this new world. Allowing the marketplace to determine the outcome will simply entrench disadvantage and exacerbate existing inequalities. This will undermine the fabric of the Australian community.
One thing my father always told me was this: ‘They can take everything away from you but they can’t take your education.’ For him the opportunity that he was given to study defined his life—particularly under the Colombo Plan scholarship to Australia. It gave him opportunities he would never otherwise have had and enabled him to climb out of the poverty he experienced as a child in Malaysia. It is a large part of how I come to be here today.
We know that, when a child is born in this country, that child’s access to learning opportunities and how much schooling his or her parents have are factors that will have an enormous impact on the child’s future. Why, then, do we find it acceptable as a community to remove resources from our public schools and give them to wealthier private schools?
Another dimension of the increasing inequality in this country is a spatial one. Inequality can be increasingly described on a regional basis. By ‘regions’ I do not only mean rural areas; I am also referring to metropolitan areas—those areas in our cities and outer metropolitan areas which are vulnerable and disadvantaged. One commentator has described these areas as ‘islands largely outside the main traffic routes of economic growth’. I say government has to redirect the traffic.
Look to my own state of South Australia. Over 70 per cent of the labour force in certain suburbs to the north and north-west of Adelaide have no post-school qualifications. Many of these areas have disproportionately high levels of low-income families, and in some areas youth unemployment is in excess of 30 per cent. Why do we think that this is acceptable? We must bring a regional focus to our work. We must look to better ways of providing support to communities that are struggling. An adequate social welfare system is a baseline policy only—something we must have to provide a social and financial floor, a level below which we consider it is unacceptable to allow people to slide. It is not a substitute for policies of opportunity.
At the last election Labor enunciated a plan for education priority zones. This targeted particular areas of educational disadvantage, recognising that educational opportunities are so important to future outcomes. We must build on this initiative. We must develop ways of delivering economic assistance with a regional dimension. Let us not forget that one of the early acts of this government was to scrap the bulk of the Commonwealth’s regional development responsibilities. The then minister, Mr Sharp, justified this decision on the basis that there was no ‘clear rationale or constitutional basis for Commonwealth involvement’ in this area. I say that there is.
It is the responsibility of the national government to truly govern for all Australians regardless of where they live. We should identify economic priority zones—communities which are vulnerable or struggling, in which the opportunities for work and education are unacceptably limited. It is not enough simply to dismiss these communities as ‘lazy’ or criticise the number of families on welfare. We should provide additional resources to these communities, their schools and their young people. And we should ensure that there is a regional dimension to our industry development policies.
Our cities are not homogenous, nor is there equality of opportunity between different metropolitan areas. You cannot govern with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Bringing a more regionally focused dimension to economic policy is fundamentally an issue of equity. It is a Labor agenda.
I seek a nation that is truly one nation, one in which all Australians can share, regardless of race. Instead, I believe we are in danger of being swamped by prejudice. Let us speak openly and honestly about race in this country, about what last year’s election signified and about where we are now. Let us speak openly about the damage that has been done and let us do it without being subject to the dismissive and disrespectful taunts about political correctness. In recent years there has been much preaching from the current Prime Minister about political correctness— that we have had too much of it. Instead, now we have a climate in which someone who speaks out about injustice, prejudice or discrimination is dismissed as simply being politically correct. Compassion has been delegitimised—instead it is seen as elitism. It is as if we have developed a new orthodoxy, one in which it is correct to defend racism but incorrect to defend tolerance. We have a new political correctness.
When I and many others speak of the way this government engenders division and not unity, we do not do so because it is politically correct. We do so because we believe it, because we see it and because it saddens us. We say that what has been done and said is wrong, not because we ascribe to some obscure elitist moral code but because we believe it is harmful to our community. Prejudice and distrust cannot build a community but they can tear one apart.
Australia is a country of vast distances and open spaces and many different environments. It is no less diverse in its peoples than in its landscape. This diversity can be an aspect of our shared identity or it can be the fault line around which our community fractures.
In the decades since the arrival of Europeans to this land, race has been a rather uncomfortable topic for us—first, in the subjugation of the Aboriginal peoples of this land, and later in how we dealt with the various waves of migrants to our shores. We all know that we had the White Australia Policy until the late 1960s, with bipartisan support.
We have also had a rather uneasy relationship with Asia for much of the postwar period. Phrases such as ‘the yellow peril’ and ‘two Wongs don’t make a white’ exemplify the darker tendencies of our history. Over the years this relationship has matured as our selfperception has broadened, but this aspect of our history can still resonate today.
My mother’s family can trace its origins back to my ancestor Samuel Chapman, one of the original settlers in South Australia, who arrived on the Cygnet in 1836. However, I came here from Malaysia as a child in 1977. It was a hard time to leave a familiar place and come to somewhere where you and your family were seen as so different. Racial abuse was not unusual. It used to lead me to wonder, ‘How long do you have to be here and how much do you have to love this country before you are accepted?’
Over the years since that time, we saw our community move forward and come together and start to engender a national identity that was truly inclusive. Critical to this was the articulation of our place in the Asia-Pacific region by the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating. Equally powerful were his discussions of Kokoda and the fall of Singapore as being among the defining moments in our nation’s history—moments when we came to realise the limitations of the protection offered by the mother country, Britain; historical moments which remind us how inextricably linked we are with the region in which we live.
I remember returning from Malaysia after visiting my family there during this time. When the aeroplane wheels hit the tarmac, I recall feeling like this really was my country—not just in my heart, but that I was included and that our national identity was for me as well. Nationhood is so much about a shared history and a belief in a shared future.
How different Australia is today. Never forget that it was this current Prime Minister who called for a reduction in Asian immigration in 1988. He said that the pace of Asian immigration was a cause for concern. You might take that to mean that those Asians who were here in 1988 are welcome, but not necessarily all of those who have arrived since. The Prime Minister premised his arguments on the grounds of social cohesion. You have to ask what effect his own comments had on social cohesion. I know how it felt for me and my family and many like us during this time.
Then there was Pauline Hanson, who said we were in danger of being overrun by Asians. And what did the Prime Minister do? Did he, as the Prime Minister, show that moral leadership which was called for? When asked to comment on whether Aboriginal and Asian Australians should be protected from people like Pauline Hanson, the Prime Minister said:
Well, are you saying that somebody shouldn’t be allowed to say what she said? I would say in a country such as Australia people should be allowed to say that.
What sort of message does this send to our community? That it is acceptable to rail against people who look different? That these sorts of comments are no different from any other sort of political commentary? Leadership was called for, not to deny freedom of speech but to assert the harm in what she said. Leadership was called for, but it was not provided.
Then there was the Wik legislation and the government’s claims that people’s backyards and homes could be threatened by native title. We saw our Prime Minister on national television, holding up a map of Australia to show just how much of Australia the Aboriginal people already had rights over. And then there was the Tampa. Who can forget that most enduring image of last year’s election campaign, that photograph of the Prime Minister, in sober black and white, attempting to look statesmanlike, with the slogan: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ This is the statement which epitomises Prime Minister Howard’s vision for this country. This is the core of what he offered us at the last election. It is a statement of self-evident fact. It is not a policy statement. Of course we decide who comes to this country. So why say it? The only reason that you would is if you wanted to strike a chord of discord or if you wanted to foster division.
Then there is the ‘children overboard’ affair, where the Australian people were lied to about the actions of asylum seekers. Despite the relevant minister being informed that the reports of children being thrown overboard were incorrect, this government failed to correct the record. What motivates a government to do such a thing? What underlies this litany of divisive politicking is a lack of compassion, a lack of compassion for the other, for those who might be adversely affected.
There may be some who will say I am being too critical. I ask them this: when has your Prime Minister, John Howard, done or said something that made you feel proud to be Australian? When can you point to a time when he exercised his leadership to bring Australians together? Contrast this with what we saw at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sydney—the black elder and the young girl, the sense of optimism and togetherness felt by all, how it felt in our hearts when we sang, ‘I am, you are, we are Australian.’
I believe that the vast majority of Australians are good-hearted people. We have a sense of fairness and a commonsense approach to the world. This keeps us grounded. I also believe the factors which most weigh on social cohesion are economic hardship and political leadership. People do not share if they do not have their fair share. Nor do they listen if they are not listened to. So we must work to create a nation where there is a fair share for all. We must listen and discuss, not lecture. But we must never again go down the path that was shown to us last year, where the fault lines within our community were opened up for base political purposes. Let us hold on to that shared belief, that common purpose that arises at certain moments in our history. Let us truly be one nation.
As I said at the outset, it is an extraordinary honour to be in this place. You only get here with the support of many. The first acknowledgment I make is of course to those people in South Australia who chose to support the Labor Party at the last election. They put me here, and it is them I represent. I thank the members of the South Australian branch of the party who saw fit to preselect me. I am grateful for and humbled by their support. I hope I can justify the faith they have shown in me. I want to make special mention of a few: Mark Butler, Ian Hunter, Patrick Conlon, Jay Weatherill, Stephanie Key, Senator Nick Bolkus, Susan Close, Steve Georganas and Steven May. I also thank the many trade unions that chose to support me. It might be unfashionable to be a trade unionist these days, but I wear that badge with pride. I especially thank the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union; the Australian Workers Union; the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union; the Australian Services Union; and the United Firefighters Union for their support. I am honoured that unions representing working Australians in such a diverse range of occupations chose to support me.
My family and friends have always been a great source of support to me. Many are here today to share this experience. I thank them for being here, for their love and support until now and in the future. To my father, I wish you could have been here, but know that you taught me many things that I can draw on, now and tomorrow. To my mother, your intellect, mischievousness, sense of humour and unfailing love sustain me. I want to make special mention of my younger brother Toby, who turned 30 on the day I was elected to this place, and died 10 days later. Your life and death ensure that I shall never forget what it is like for those who are truly marginalised. Finally, I thank Dascia, Courtney and Rohan, without whose love and support I would never have considered standing for preselection, and without whom I would not be here today. Thank you, fellow senators, and thank you, Mr President.