Yesterday afternoon Senator Steve Hutchins presented his valedictory speech to the Senate:
Cleaver Elliott, the then Deputy Clerk of the Senate, when asked what is a senator’s most important speech, said ‘It is the last, not the first, as it is a chance to speak to the future.’
My last speech is to be just that, a record outlining some of the decisions and experiences that are most memorable from my time in the Senate. I hope that, both for my family, who are here today, and for those reflecting on this period in Australian history in the future, this contribution is a valuable account.
I would like to clarify for the record the circumstances surrounding my decision to contest the No. 3 position on the New South Wales Labor ticket in the 2010 election rather than a more secure number. The New South Wales ticket at the last election was headed by Senator Faulkner, a senior government minister at the time, and in my view the most appropriate candidate to fill the No. 1 position. He should have headed the Senate ticket six years earlier.
At the time, my cancer was relapsing, I was very ill and had no desire to go through that preselection. However, the then general secretary, Eric Roozendaal, decided to put John and I through it. I might add, John did not know I was ill. My decision this time was simply based on love.
In June 2009, my lovely wife, Natalie, had gained preselection for the safe Labor seat of Keilor in Victoria. This decision was made by the national executive of the ALP and I was a proxy that day. I voted for her and, in doing so, knew that life would never be the same. Natalie was elected to the Parliament of Victoria in November last year. We have bought a house there and our son goes to St Augustine’s College. Once she was preselected, the die was cast. I was always heading south.
I would have been No. 2 behind John Faulkner if I had chosen to be. In fact, on the afternoon of the meeting to discuss the ticket at Trades Hall, I was under considerable pressure not only from my party and union colleagues but also from significant elements of my faith, the Catholic Church, to secure the No. 2 position. Truth be told, I probably should have opted to retire prior to the election but believed at the time that as an incumbent I might have had a better chance than a new No. 3 to get that spot, as did others. While I did not succeed, I do not regret the decision to run in that slot. Incidentally, our New South Wales ticket was the only group in Australia to receive DLP preferences.
On the topic of my home state, the ALP brand is terminally damaged in New South Wales. Voters will reflect on the behaviour of key figures within that parliament and the union movement before the last election without mercy for a long time yet. What was once the most durable and effective state government in the country is now a depleted husk of an opposition.
One of the defining moments in the decline and fall of the New South Wales ALP was the debate over the electricity industry. Certain unions mounted a public campaign against the Iemma Labor government’s policy of privatising electricity generation in order to secure the capital necessary to fund capacity expansion. As we now witness, electricity prices continued to soar in New South Wales. The wisdom of this policy should be beyond dispute. The campaign was led by John Robertson, as head of Unions New South Wales, and Bernie Riordan, the failed state party president, who at the time still held that role. Both individuals are involved in the ETU and owe a lot to its patronage. General Secretary Karl Bitar sided with these individuals in the ultimate act of treachery.
The party machine betrayed and undermined its own elected government to further the interests of the ETU and its patrons. The interests of workers, who were given strong guarantees by the government, and the interests of the people of New South Wales, which motivated the policy, did not rate with these men.
Events worked out well for Robertson, however, who was appointed to the Legislative Council. He replaced Michael Costa, the well-regarded Treasurer, who resigned along with Premier Iemma, when their principled attempt to introduce the government’s policy to the New South Wales parliament was opportunistically voted down by the coalition. Ironically, John Robertson then went on to champion privatisation in the prison industry and now the man that destroyed Labor in power is the party’s leader in opposition.
But, for the people of New South Wales, the biggest insult was to come from the efforts of Eric Roozendaal. As minister responsible for privatising electricity retail, he faced such objection to the sale price from the boards of these public companies that eight of the 13 directors resigned. Their replacements were appointed immediately from Roozendaal’s own staff and the deal was done. On the advice of the Chief of Staff, Walt Secord, now sitting in the Legislative Council, Premier Keneally prorogued the parliament early to avoid an inquiry occurring before the state election. The damage was well and truly done by this stage and New South Wales Labor, now led by an undeserving John Robertson, is in opposition after four of the most shameful years in its history. Upon entering this place I had much more positive reflections on the New South Wales government in those early Carr years.
When I made my first speech to the Senate I was determined to give voice to those in our country whose experiences and contributions had never been acknowledged. In a way the inquiries I was able to participate in gave me the opportunity to learn about the lives of ordinary Australians and some of their extraordinary experiences. I can recall all those inquires and some of them have made a mark on me that will last a lifetime.
The first inquiry that I chaired was into the extent of poverty in Australia. This commenced in October 2002, when I was chair of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee. It was a distressing journey into the experiences of the disadvantaged, the have-nots, the given-ups and the given-up-on, real people living extremely hard lives here in Australia. We did try to blame the then coalition government for these people’s hardships and, certainly, the former government did contribute but, for many of these individuals, the problems were long-term and well entrenched before 1996.
The most important lesson that the Senate should learn from that inquiry is this: it does not matter how women and children got into the predicaments they are in; they are there and we need to help them. In the past, no matter how well-intended our policies and actions, policy in this area had a habit of never failing, being abused or realising nothing—a waste of time. We have now finally instituted a system that is fair and firm—a system that I believe will ultimately work. These reforms were a core plank of Wayne Swan’s budget this year. This was a traditional Labor budget—a hand up, not a hand out. Give all people the chance and, through their actions and the support of others, they can take advantage of new opportunities and build their livelihoods. Australians are capable and hardworking people, and Wayne’s budget will help them turn their aspirations into reality.
I was to participate in another inquiry that would have a considerable impact on me personally. After some years Senator Andrew Murray, a child migrant to what was then Rhodesia, was successful in lobbying both me and the then shadow minister Wayne Swan to consider an inquiry into children in institutions. This was one of the most harrowing periods of my time here.
The inquiry examined the treatment of children, whether born in Australia or child migrants, who had been either forcibly or voluntarily placed in institutions. This came to be known as the inquiry into the forgotten Australians. It was a very sad and painful inquiry. There were hundreds of written submissions—if you could call some of them written. There were many phone calls, mostly to the dedicated secretariat, led by the avuncular Elton Humphery, who I hope is here today—there he is—along with Christine McDonald and Ingrid Zappe. I read each and every one of these submissions and often cried at what was in them. They were all sad. They were from men and women, mostly in their 70s and 80s, attempting to provide us with an understanding of what for most of them was the nightmare they enjoyed as young boys and girls.
Even now, I think of them and their written words and their courage in coming forward to tell us what happened to them: the abandonment, the fear, the shame, the self harm, the loneliness—problems that exist to this day—and, not least of all, the suicides that resulted. These people’s stories are etched in my memory—the most reprehensible experiences and impossible to forget. We were all shaken to the base of our souls. Our hearts sighed. We were bewildered. We wondered time and time again how adults could do such things to children. How could men and women of faith routinely abuse boys and girls sexually, physically and psychologically? Why didn’t someone step in? Why were they able to get away with it? We all know the answers—and so do those still alive. They relive that terror daily. There is no way to describe what these boys and girls went through, other than to say that they entered the gates of hell. I wanted to share with you one story in particular but I thought that would be unfair. Instead, I encourage you to read the report and all the stories. Never let the suffering of these children be forgotten.
Senator McLucas went on to finish the inquiry, along with Senators Moore and Humphries. These three senators have tales that would make you sob—and, every now and then, we would. The Forgotten Australians report was a tribute to the lobbying of the Care Leavers Australia Network, particularly by Leonie Sheedy, which eventually led to the apology by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 16 November 2009.
I went on then to defence, and Senator Evans had been highlighting for some time the injustices and irregularities that were occurring in the Australian defence forces. These entrenched situations were leading to the breakdown of morale, a culture of bullying and, far worse, suicides. Senator Evans convinced the Senate of the need to establish an inquiry into military justice. I am not sure that it was welcomed by the hierarchy at Defence, but it was agreed to by the government.
The inquiry focused on the operation of procedural injustice but also heavily on suicides and accidental death. Our first hearing was in Hobart and we were confronted by the angry mother of Eleanor Tibble. Eleanor was an Air Force cadet officer, a proud member of the corps. She was a leader and she was highly regarded.
Only in her mid-teens, she was taken advantage of by someone much older. Of course, in the view of ‘the boys’ club,’ it was all her fault. The boys’ club swung into action to protect their own. Eleanor was disciplined, threatened with discharge and humiliated. The cadets were her passion and she felt abandoned and confused. Not long after these events, Eleanor took her own life.
This and many other cases left the committee confronted by the sheer inhumanity that existed in all levels of Defence. It became clear that we had to act. The final report, with some 40 recommendations, was prepared by the erudite Dr Kathleen Dermody and presented to the Senate on 16 June 2005. To his credit the then Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, had cabinet adopt substantial changes to military justice. However, core elements were not in the legislation presented to the Senate.
When the bill was presented, the whole committee considered that it had not gone far enough. We heard that coalition senators threatened to cross the floor unless those core elements were in the bill. Senators Johnston and Payne and former senator Sandy Macdonald that day brought justice to the military. I know that the legislation was successfully challenged in the High Court, but I do not believe anybody can say that the system is as rotten as it was then. The action of those senators that afternoon put Defence on notice, and there is no doubt in my mind at all that there are men and women alive today because of their actions.
I highlight these two inquiries to place on record how much I appreciate the staff involved, who, more than us senators, bore a lot of the sorrow, anguish and pain. But not all inquiries are as personally searing as the one I just mentioned.
After 2007 I became Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission, now the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. We commenced an inquiry into serious and organised crime to uncover where the dark spectre of its influence lurks in our society. Seizing unexplained wealth, preventing corruption and providing law enforcement with the tools they need to eradicate such organisations were high on our agenda.
On my watch I had the chance to work with great people, no more so than the indefatigable Dr Jacqueline Dewar, who framed our major report that led to the Commonwealth enacting comprehensive crime legislation. We gave the agencies the power to break up the baddies. Additionally, last Thursday the PJC presented a significant report on maritime and aviation security. This represents 2½ years of great work by Dr Tim Kendall, Tim Watling, Dr Jon Bell and Bill Bannear.
My family and friends are here today. They came here really to make sure I am going. To quote from Dante’s Inferno:
‘In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight path was lost.’
That was me after my first fight with cancer and subsequent recovery. Then came along Natalie Sykes, my wonderful wife, who has been of so much support and encouragement. Over those very dark years when my cancer returned she was there. What sort of person marries a cancer survivor? What sort of person uproots her life, her comfortable existence in Victoria, to venture north? What sort of person acts as a nurse, caretaker, confidante and motivator? What sort of person takes on five stepchildren as friend and adviser? Only one very much in love, and one I love very much.
My six children are here this afternoon—Lauren, Julia, Michael, Georgia, Madeleine, Xavier; my son-in-law, Leon; grandson William; Michael’s partner, Lesley; and young Jacob. All these kids have been through so much. This final speech must be, for all of you, a great relief. Mr President, all these children have had to put up with so much from 1999 to 2004, when I was diagnosed with cancer and relapsed. On both occasions, I spent time in palliative care wards. It was emotionally difficult for all of them but they were a strength for me. Of equally tremendous support to me was my little sister, Linda Mary Veronica. She is up there somewhere in the gallery. She has been there for me on so many occasions. Without her, sometimes getting through would have been impossible.
Many mates are here. I think my oldest mate, Michael Lee, is up there somewhere—even though he did drop a desk on my foot when we were at school together. I have forgiven him. A lot has been written about Michael. If he had survived 2001 and moved into a leadership role rather than others, you do not need to wonder where we would be today.
Old mates like Leo McLeay and Ross Free could not make it. Almost all my ex-staffers, except one, are in the gallery. Colleagues from the Transport Workers Union have come down—the president, George Clarke, and the secretary, Wayne Forno, of the New South Wales branch. And I thank Tony Sheldon, who could not be here today. If only other trade unions had their integrity and intelligence, the movement would not be in the trouble it is in.
I would also like to thank my current staff, who are here today: Linda Bourke, Julia Hine, James Young, Amber Setchell and Mark Zoellner. They have been an exceptionally professional and hardworking team, despite the temptation to wind back after 2010.
I would like to place on record my thanks to Professor John Cartmill, the surgeon who has operated on me so many times, and Dr Patrick Leoma, a St Mary’s GP, both of whom have been of great assistance to me. I literally owe my life to them. I want to thank those who have made my journey so agreeable, particularly, if I can say it, my Labor Right colleagues here in the Senate.
When I arrived in Canberra I made two lifelong friends: one here on the floor and one in the gallery. I once said to a family member that I was going to meet the bishop at the Holy Grail and to come with me. My family member only heard ‘holy’ and thought, ‘That would be right—him seeing a bishop at 8 o’clock at night.’ Imagine her surprise when she got to meet Senator Mark Bishop at a bar called the Holy Grail.
If only I could share with you some of my and Mark’s stories, they would turn your hair grey or white. They certainly do not affect Mark’s hair colour. Remarkably, it never changes. Irrespective of these quirks, Mark is one of the sharpest minds I have ever encountered. I think it is a shame that under our current system Mark has not been placed in the ministry. Maybe one day.
Don Farrell is also someone I have known since we were at Harvard together. He is a great bloke. I say that because he may speak tonight. ‘Sterlie’ is someone I first met in our TWU days. I think we first met at a racecourse in Perth. He is the salt of the earth—but don’t ruffle him or else.
I have so many other mates here. There is Senator Arbib, who used to work for me—now I work for him. There is Senator Feeney, who used to work for me—now I work for him. There are many of my colleagues here from the House of Representatives and, of course, my old good mates Chris Hayes and Craig Thomson, who have always been there for me.
I have so many friends in the gallery. If I acknowledged you, it would be unfair. The friend in the gallery is my old mate Ian Meldrum, the demure proprietor of the Holy Grail. It is a controversial venue on occasions but always a watering hole for many a Labor figure. Ian quietly shares a drink with you. You can say what you like—rant, rave—while Ian patiently stands by and listens. I believe he has missed his calling in life. He is more a priest than a publican.
How could I forget the ever-patient Ian in Senate Transport? With what he has had to do he should get a Public Service medal. I will miss him. I also thank all the Comcar drivers, past and present, particularly those in my home state of New South Wales.
I would also like to recognise other friends in the gallery tonight: Sashikala Prenawardhane, Acting High Commissioner of Sri Lanka; Dr Gary Song-huann Lin, representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office; and two old and dear friends, Sid Morris and Peter Nolan. John Lawler, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Crime Commission, who I worked with closely in my time with the law enforcement committee, is also here tonight.
Queen Victoria told her Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington that there were three things she hated in life: insects, turtle soup and Tories. I have some mates on the other side and a particularly good mate in Senator Parry, whom I think you all know is a former assistant commissioner from Tasmania and undertaker. But I have not changed my mind on Tories.
To conclude, I believe we are all motivated by what the great English reformer William Beveridge said is a real issue: under what conditions is it possible and worthwhile for men and women to live as a whole?
I want to finish my speech to this chamber with a quote from the Bible, the New Testament. This is a letter from Saint Paul to Timothy. I think it sums up not just my feelings but everybody else who is going:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day—and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearing.