Speech given in the Senate on 2 August 2022.
I would like to start by acknowledging that we are on Ngunnawal country. I'd like to pay my respect to their elders past and present. I'd also like to acknowledge all First Nations people here this afternoon. It's a privilege to call Ngunnawal country home. Canberra, the 'meeting place' of our nation, is usually talked about as a young city, but we live in a place that has been inhabited and looked after for tens of thousands of years, hundreds and hundreds of generations. We live in a country with an enviable democracy, a vibrant multicultural community, overachievers on the world stage, abundant natural resources, staggering—if unequally distributed—national wealth, awe-inspiring beauty and the oldest continuous living cultures in the world.
Like many Australians, I came here from distant shores. The story of Zimbabwe is one that is well known. My own family story has been told many times. This is not a story of my family alone but of so many families who now call Australia home. I am grateful to my mom and dad, Andy and Jane, who are here this afternoon, for leaving all they knew to give me and my brothers more opportunity. Again, there are many others who have done this. I would like to acknowledge the contribution immigrants continue to make to our country. I am obviously white—moon tan white, as many of my former teammates would remind me!—and I don't want to conflate my experiences of migration with the many migrants whose experience is shaped by the colour of their skin. We are making progress as a country, but it's in all of our interests to continue doing the work to build a more inclusive society that celebrates difference and diversity.
I grew up on a farm, and, despite seeing the challenges of farming—like a freak hailstorm destroying our crops the week before we started picking, and you've got a massive overdraft—agriculture's always drawn my attention, pulling me back time and again. Growing up on a farm instilled in me the importance of hard work and an understanding of how small and insignificant we are, in the face of nature, how at the mercy of the elements we are. It also sparked in me a love of nature and a fascination with the natural world. Unable to escape the pull of our relationship with the land, I went on to study ag and have been involved in farming and conservation projects.
While our modern national psyche may be more and more urbanised, and, collectively, we may no longer consider ourselves an agricultural society or deeply connected to the land, we still are. There is no civilisation, as we know it, without agriculture. Our society cannot be sustained without the people who spend their life on the land, whose blood, sweat and tears and generations of knowledge help feed and clothe us, farmers who love their land and need our recognition and support.
We are part of nature, and our long-term wellbeing as families, communities and nations is totally linked to our ability to cooperate with one another, to meet our needs, to build communities based on respect and equality, while also maintaining the health of the land that sustains us. As we know, we aren't doing a particularly good job at this, and, as a result, we're facing some serious challenges. Like many colleagues here in the Senate, I stand here wanting to take on these challenges, to find ways to build the kind of future where we can all thrive.
I stand here as a result of the work of the many others, of proACT, Canberra's very own 'Voices of' movement, led by Clare Doube, Glenn Cummings, Laurie Dunn, Steph Harvey, Cam Reid and others. This group of Canberrans were frustrated with politics and dared to believe that they could change it. My success was due to the more than 2,000 amazing volunteers, some of them joining us today, who joined the campaign.
Despite what you see on the news, Canberra is so much more than the sum of the decisions made in this building. Yes, we're a city of roundabouts and politicians, but we're also so much more than that. We're a growing city with a strong community spirit, built on a passion for lifelong learning, good public policy, a connection to our environment, the arts, sport, defence, science and technology. We're appropriately called the Bush Capital, from Namadgi and Tidbinbilla, down south, all the way up to Mulligans Flat, in the north, and all the other places that we know and love.
We have a vibrant and growing multicultural community. We're also home to five universities, hosting tens of thousands of students with researchers and young leaders tackling some of our most complex problems. Universities should be accessible and affordable to all who want to study, regardless of their background or chosen field. We must continue to fund research for the public good. As the pandemic so starkly highlighted, our need for this is great and ongoing.
Many Canberrans work in complete service to our nation: the world-leading scientists at the CSIRO and their tireless contribution in research and helping solve the problems we face; those serving our nation in defence, from ADFA to Duntroon and the thousands working on our physical and cyber security; our public servants, some 60,000 dedicated, professional, passionate people who work for our communities across more than a hundred federal departments and agencies; our national institutions that tell the stories of where we've come from and who we are. We're also a city of tradies, nurses, teachers, hospo workers, service staff of all kinds, construction workers, professionals and innovators. No matter what job Canberrans do, they care about the future of this city. They care about the people who live there and they care about making our whole country better.
That's why, when I was asked by people in our community to have this first speech live-translated into Auslan, I didn't hesitate to say yes. So thank you, Mandy, for being here today and translating my words. I understand that the difference between Mandy being there in the Broadcasting studio and here on the floor of the chamber is the difference between accessibility and inclusion. Today we've achieved the former but not the latter, and in future I hope we can achieve both.
Our territory faces many of the challenges faced in other parts of the country. We're in the midst of a housing crisis. We struggle to attract and retain the healthcare workers needed to care for our growing population. Our businesses are struggling to find staff and keep their doors open. Too many of our elderly have been left without dignity in the very facilities designed to care for them. So many people have had to fight for the support they need under the NDIS. The cost-of-living crisis is creating a new class of working poor—and, in some cases, working homeless—in our suburbs. People in our community face mental health challenges, often without the funds or ability to access the services they need to get help. Too many are employed in insecure work, leaving them vulnerable to the rapidly changing economic conditions. The changing climate is changing our lands, making us more prone to extreme heat and bushfires, severe weather events and species extinction. Invasive species are destroying our unique habitats and wildlife. These are all challenges that are being felt across the country. We share in them. We understand them. And we want a hand and a voice in solving them, for the benefit of our community and the nation.
Here in the ACT, we've been denied rights held by the states. It's time for us to restore the right of the territories to make decisions for themselves—to ensure that our Legislative Assembly here in the ACT gets to make decisions about the future of Canberrans, not MPs from around the country whose own constituents already enjoy these same rights. Yesterday, legislation to restore our rights as a territory was introduced into the House of Representatives. This is not the first time the parliament has tried to repeal the Andrews bill, but I hope it will be the last. I will work with everyone in the Senate chamber to support a vote giving us equality with the states. I would like to acknowledge the many brave, courageous people who have supported this campaign over many years and those I spoke to ahead of the election—not least of all, those who decided to speak out, including Samuel Whitsed and Sam Delaney, who I'm honoured to have here today.
Beyond territory rights, there are many issues before us. With trust in political institutions at worrying lows, this parliament has the opportunity to begin to restore the faith of Australians in both government and governance. From increasing transparency to the implementation of a robust integrity commission, to reforming political donations and truth in political advertising laws, we have a real chance to strengthen our democracy and ensure Australians can trust in the decisions that are being made in their name. We also need greater protection for whistleblowers who take great risks in service of the public good.
We have an opportunity to enshrine in our Constitution a First Nations Voice to parliament. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous offer to all Australians to enshrine a voice that can guide the treaty-making and truthtelling process that we need, to move towards reconciliation. Aunty Pat Anderson is here tonight. Alongside Professor Megan Davis, Aunty Pat oversaw the largest deliberative process with Indigenous people on Australia's Constitution in our nation's history, and I would like to acknowledge Aunty Pat here tonight.
There is no greater challenge than facing up to the climate and biodiversity crises we face. We live in truly unprecedented times. Generations before us faced their own unprecedented times: world wars; famines; pandemics; natural disasters. Many of our forebears put their lives on the line to build what they saw as a brighter future. Many lost their lives doing so. Others gave up their freedoms to build a more equitable society—activists who were at the time vilified, arrested and even killed, many of whom we now hold up as heroes for their lives of service and commitment to building a better future.
Today the systems that sustain life on earth are at the brink of collapse. The climate as we know it is breaking down, and the impacts are now being felt with distressing regularity. Extreme weather, drought, bushfires, hailstorms and floods are having a devastating effect.
We're also seeing the impacts on the state of the environment. The sixth mass extinction event is underway. The last one 66 million years ago was due to a massive asteroid. This time we're causing it. As farmer and writer Wendell Berry said:
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.
It's on us to make the changes, and it's not too late.
In the midst of this doom and gloom is an invitation to begin to turn things around. Thanks to ancient Indigenous wisdom and the latest in science and technology, we have never known more about these life support systems, what we're doing to them and what can and must be done to halt this catastrophic decline and begin to reverse it. We know what we're doing and we know what we need to do. We are one of the first generations with this knowledge and probably the last to be able to do anything about it. Some of our failure has been a failure of imagination, a failure to imagine how great our future can be. Our future can be great if we actually focus on the things that matter—the long-term health and wellbeing of our families, our communities and our land. This takes courage and leadership.
It seems to me that a big part of politics is about dealing with problems in a way that turns them into opportunities. We have an opportunity to begin to write a new story, a better story, a story that is built on accepting responsibility for where we are and finding the courage to change where we are going. This is not about naive thinking or just hoping for the best; it's about a new kind of pragmatism where our actions actually match the scale of the challenges.
While I have already thanked many of the people whose efforts and contribution helped bring me to this place I would like to make mention of a few others. There are the many elders whose knowledge and wisdom is recorded in books. I am grateful for my brothers, Mike and Steve, and the lessons we continue to learn together. There is my family, now scattered across the country and across the globe, and there are those like the Trathounds, the Stirzakers, the Saunders, the Mulabears, the Mastersons, the Motutus, the Clarkes and the O'Keefes, who have treated Emma and I like family. To Rick and Tracey Laird, Brian Walker, Nick Able, George, Robert Bump, Funuluga, the rains lands regeneration team, the Bartbridge farmers and many others: I thank you. And of course, my wife, my friend, Emma: thank you. To my incredible team who worked tirelessly to serve the people of the ACT, whose brilliance and enthusiasm astounds me every single day—Fiona, Sam, Rory, Katia, Lincoln, Tom: thank you.
To my new colleagues: thank you for your care for our great country. I hope through debate and collaboration we can find ways to deal with these great challenges we face and make a real difference in the lives of those we represent. Not only is it the first time the ACT has had an independent senator; it's the first time we've had someone on the crossbench with the balance of power. I intend to use that power in the best interests of the people of the ACT to achieve practical outcomes, like pushing the Commonwealth to forgive our historic social housing debt. It's been done for Tasmania. It's been done for South Australia. It's time to do it for us. For too long we have been neglected, ridiculed, looked down at or flat-out ignored. Canberra is the nation's capital. I want this to once again be a source of great pride. No longer are we a safe seat. Investment now has to flow into much-needed infrastructure, including community infrastructure. The days of the ACT getting less than a quarter of its fair share of infrastructure funding by head of population are over. We also need more equitable representation, and that's an argument I look forward to prosecuting over my term. We need to continue our legacy of leadership on everything from marriage equality to the smart energy transition, which we so desperately need to accelerate across the country.
I laughed recently when I read some commentators calling me a kingmaker. It's certainly not a mantle I seek; instead, I'd prefer to try and be a peace broker in the 47th Parliament. The challenges facing us are so important. I want to be part of making sure we don't just end the climate wars but we win them—we win them and we start to lead as a country on climate action and biodiversity conservation.
I'm not here to stand in the way. I'm here to offer my perspective as a representative of Canberra, Jervis Bay and Norfolk Island in the hopes that we can make politics about people. For me, part of doing that is making sure this place and the business we do in it better lives the values of the people who we've been sent here to represent. So, finally, I'd like to say thank you to the people of the ACT. Whether you voted for me or not, I'll work on your behalf for the next three years. I'm committed to being accessible and transparent, and I certainly know that you'll hold me to account. Thank you.