24 July 2019
Acknowledgement of First Nations
As I stand in this chamber to make my first speech, I wish to pay my respects to First Nations people and to their elders past, present and emerging. I want to acknowledge Senators Dodson, McCarthy and Lambie, as well as colleagues in the other place, Linda Burney and Ken Wyatt, for their ongoing leadership on justice for First Nations people. I also pay tribute to the great elder, artist and social justice advocate from my home state of Victoria, William Barak. Barak was a highly respected man and leader, and one of the forerunners of reconciliation.
That journey to reconciliation continues, and today I join with the ever-growing gathering of voices calling for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Together we must seek a pathway to treaty so that we may move forward as a nation and to allow us to close the gap, to address all the injustices that First Nations people continue to face in their lives.
The traditions of storytelling, community and family history are central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life and spirituality. While I can never claim to fully know those traditions, I feel they are amongst the many things that we all hold dear.
I know that in my own life the stories of grandparents, cousins and close family friends, of shared history, are the things that I feel connected to and that, in turn, connect me to a community. In particular, my parents’ story, their life together, has inspired me and shaped me; a story I reflect on often and which I wish to share today.
On a balmy Melbourne night in the late 1970s, a young woman attended a dinner dance at the San Remo Ballroom in Carlton. For years, the San Remo Ballroom was central to the social lives of many Italian migrants and their families.
This young woman was in her late 20s. She had migrated to Melbourne from the southern Italian city of Bari with her parents, brother and sisters. They left Italy in 1968 seeking opportunity, the chance at a better life for themselves and for their children to come.
That night, a man in his early 30s was also at the San Remo Ballroom. Like the young woman, he had come to Australia from the south of Italy, from a country town called Conza della Campania, in 1967. His sister had come over some years earlier and convinced him that Australia was a great place where he would get a fair go and a real chance to make a good life.
Paola and Amato met that night, and soon they fell in love. They were married in 1980, and for two-and-a-half decades were utterly devoted to one another and to their two sons, my younger brother, Frank, and me.
Together, we lived in Huntingdale, a working-class suburb of Melbourne’s south east. We were a typical Italian-Australian family living out a very typical story. We had a modest but comfortable home, ready at a moment to welcome visitors. It was a house that was filled with food, family and love.
A nation of migrants
The story of my parents and that of my upbringing is one that is shared by millions of Australians. About one-third of us were born overseas, and around half of our population are the children and grandchildren of migrants.
I proudly count myself in their number.
More than 118 years since Federation, our nation has come a long way to become the vibrant, more inclusive multicultural country we are today. This would not have been possible without the social changes brought about by the work of previous governments, which has fostered greater recognition of the diverse contributions that all people make to Australia’s culture.
The importance of a quality education
My parents, neither of whom had the chance to complete their secondary years, eagerly encouraged and supported my brother and I throughout our studies. It was with their guidance and through our firsthand experience that we came to understand the impact that great schools and great teachers can have on young people.
We both had the great fortune to attend our local Catholic schools—first, Christ Our Holy Redeemer in Oakleigh East, and later, Salesian College in Chadstone.
It was at Salesian where two teachers noticed my interest in politics and encouraged me to get involved and join a political party. My legal studies teacher, Mr Donohue, encouraged me to join the Young Liberals, whilst my social education teacher, Mr Sestito, advocated for Labor. It’s fair to say you know which side I’m on.
The opportunities we’ve had are the fruit of my parents’ Australian dream and their hard work. We were taught that society is based on fairness, equality and the dignity of the individual, living in community, nurtured by family, for mutual benefit and attainment of the common good.
As my parents wanted it for me, so I am now driven to make sure quality education is available to every child, no matter their socioeconomic status, from the earliest moments of their lives to their further education after school and beyond.
Fair pay and secure work
Not only did my parents share with me the need for a good education to get ahead; they also showed me the value of a hard day’s work, and that with a hard day’s work must come a fair day’s pay, because it’s with a fair day’s pay that a family can build a home and a future.
That’s what my parents did, and it’s what I want to work towards so that all Australians can find this security.
I guess you could say it’s not surprising, with those values, I ended up working for a union. As an official for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association in Victoria, I represented some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia. Together, we worked hard to protect conditions such as leave, penalty rates and superannuation, and ensure that those who had suffered wage theft were able to get the justice they deserved.
For example: I represented workers at 7-Eleven who were subject to a systematic pattern of exploitation, driven primarily by a severe power imbalance in the relationship between a worker and an employer. These workers were paid between $8 and $10 an hour, and in one instance I met a young foreign student who was making as little as $5 an hour.
They came to Australia to get an education and improve their future, but, instead, they were too scared to speak up or not aware of their workplace rights. I can’t fathom the fear these workers would have felt, studying and struggling to make ends meet and feeling powerless in the face of employers determined to rip them off, because their bosses had all the power and they had none.
I firmly believe whistleblower protections need to cover temporary visa workers. We need to make franchisors responsible for the underpayment of employee wages if franchisees do not rectify underpayments. We need to increase the penalties for wage theft and make it easier to rectify the nonpayment and underpayment of superannuation.
But our laws don’t just need to adapt to catch the rule breakers; they need to adapt to the changing nature of work itself. Gone are the days of my grandfather, who worked for General Motors Holden in Fisherman’s Bend his whole life. Gone, even, are the days of my father, a life member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union for over 46 years. He worked most of his life in manufacturing. All across the economy, many traditional jobs are disappearing. Meanwhile, the largely unregulated gig economy is growing, leaving many workers vulnerable and unsupported.
Recent research shows that nearly half of workers on a digital platform do not know what they earn per hour. While these workers might earn a quick dollar, over the long term they are left without superannuation, insurance cover for workplace injuries and the adequate leave and entitlements that come with being covered by an award or enterprise agreement.
These workers deserve the protection of the basic employment laws that we in the labour movement have fought so hard to establish, and it is our responsibility in this place to deliver them for those people.
Strenthening the social safety net
We have the ability to take up this challenge. Just walking into this place as an elected representative, I am reminded of the impact that the work that we do here can have on our society. It was 75 years ago in this chamber, albeit meeting in the old place, where debate was had on John Curtin’s proposed Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Bill.
Before its introduction, there existed no national scheme that provided welfare to those who were without work, and its passage by this house represented one of the final pieces of a comprehensive welfare system that had been carefully woven together by successive Labor governments since federation.
Labor understood then, as it does now, not just the importance of decent and secure work but also of ensuring that those in search of it should be able to live lives of dignity. What was in 1944 known as the ‘unemployment benefit’ is today called Newstart, and roughly 700,000 Australians rely on these payments to help make ends meet while they search for a job. Those familiar with the scheme, however, will tell you that making ends meet on Newstart is near impossible.
Today, the single largest group, one in four people on Newstart, are over the age of 55. The shocking truth is that with no increase in real terms to the rate paid since the Keating government, Newstart has actually declined relative to other payments, such as the age pension.
While this parliament has a proud record of establishing the safety net that exists to protect Australians doing it tough, in this space we can and we should do more. It cannot be accepted that in Australia, the best country in the world, we have the second-highest rate of poverty among the unemployed in the OECD, nor can we allow the social security system that we have worked so hard to build to be used to punish those who are in the most need of a helping hand.
A meaningful and immediate increase to Newstart is an important step that we must all embrace in this place, but it cannot by any means be our last. To ensure the hardships that exist now aren’t able to recur, we need to work together to create a framework where changes to these and other elements of our social security system are regularly assessed.
As difficult as it is to make ends meet on Newstart, there are some in our community who struggle just as hard and with even less support. When walking through the streets of Melbourne or any major city in Australia one cannot help but see the growing number of those who are forced to make shelter on our streets.
Homelessness can often be confronting, and it is an issue that we need to address in this place. Homelessness is a powerful and inescapable example of the kind of economic and social disadvantage that some would rather forget exists in our community.
Sadly, homelessness rates are growing significantly. The most recent census recorded 116,000 people as being homeless. In my home state of Victoria, the number was almost 25,000.
The causes of homelessness are many and varied. A shortage of affordable housing is certainly a large part of the problem but so too is the scourge of family violence, drug and alcohol addiction, our nation’s growing mental health crisis, the increased prevalence of insecure work and stubbornly poor wages growth.
The overwhelming majority of Australians who are seeking assistance for homelessness rely on a Centrelink payment, proof that, more often than not, it is impossible to make ends meet on benefits. No person should have to spend a cold winter’s night sleeping rough on the street nor should they have to live from the back seat of their car or on the sofa of a friend.
Its manifest complexity requires a comprehensive response. We have the power in this place to address this issue. In our community, there are multitudes of organisations that already do more than their fair share to help out, be they local governments, not-for-profits or local churches and other faith based groups.
During the last parliament, 93 per cent of government bills passed received bipartisan support, a clear sign that this parliament can come together and work as one to make a positive change. Too many people are counting on us, and we cannot let them down.
All of us come into contact with the healthcare system at some stage in our lives. In September 2017, my wife, Dimity Paul, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has the BRCA gene, and thanks to years of research and women like my mother-in-law, who has survived three primary breast cancers and who was prepared to be tested for this mutation, she is thriving and well today.
Dimity was screened regularly, but it was estimated that her risk would rise late in her 30s, when we had hoped to have a family. However, it was at one of her yearly MRIs that they detected a less than one-centimetre stage 3 cancer. It had already spread to her lymph nodes. It is not dramatic to say that without knowing her genetic status and having regular testing my wife may not be here today.
These past two years have been an emotional whirlwind of surgeries, chemotherapy, drug trials, doctor visits, physiotherapy, tests and scans. She had her last surgery during the recent federal election.
Thankfully, we’ve been surrounded by family and friends throughout this time. Our home has at times resembled a florist. The fridge and freezer have been stocked with meals, and we’ve been kept in good spirits by a steady stream of visitors, who we’re so lucky to have in our lives.
We have been extraordinarily grateful to the team at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for the care and advice my wife has received. Her experience stands in stark contrast to my mother’s.
We could say my wife and I were lucky that her cancer was found and treated early. And we are lucky, of course. But it’s not all down to luck. It’s also down to the good policy and wise decisions that created a framework to identify risk and early incidence of cancer. Early diagnosis is a key to survival, and I’m committed to working with everyone in this place to extend preventative health measures and screening.
I am the 100th person to have taken the oath to represent the people of Victoria in the Senate. I was honoured to receive the support of my party to sit in this chamber earlier this year following the retirement of former senator Jacinta Collins, who I had the pleasure of working for, and who has dedicated herself to serving the community for over twenty years.
Like her, I am committed to shining a light on the issues that affect working Australians, to putting social justice issues front and centre of the national conversation and to working to create a fairer Australia. While senators may differ in policies and approach, all who have the privilege to serve here want the best for Australia and its people.
As a young person, I was inspired to join a movement that believes in working together to achieve shared goals for our community, that puts ideas into action and that places social and economic justice for all, and democracy, at the centre of policy.
I joined the Clayton branch of the ALP in July 2000, at a time when Steve Bracks’s forward-thinking vision was putting Victoria back on track and when Kim Beazley was making the case for an Australia that is skilled and tolerant and confident and free to make its own way in the modern world. I came to understand that cooperation between public and private sectors in implementing solutions to complex economic, social and environmental challenges is imperative.
That is why I am proud to have worked in the labour movement and to be an ALP member, both of which continue to stand for working Australians and their interests.
I want to thank my family and many friends here today and those watching from work or home who have helped me realise this great honour of becoming a senator. I am and always will be grateful to my father for being a wonderful, supportive presence in my life for almost 36 years.
My brother Frank and sister-in-law Amelia: I could not have asked for the great support that you have provided me, and I want to acknowledge your presence here today. I also want to acknowledge my aunts, uncles and cousins, and I thank you all for playing such an important part in my life. My mother-in-law Veida and sister-in-law Fran, who are here today—I’d like to thank you both for sharing in the moment today, and the rest of the family, for the robust political conversations and discussions that we’ve had over many years.
Victorian secretary and national president of the SDA union, Michael Donovan—thank you for all the support and guidance that you have provided me over the last 11½ years. I am forever grateful. To my other SDA colleagues—the national secretary, Gerard Dwyer; the Victorian assistant secretary, Trish Connelly; Antony Burke; Mauro Moretta; John McCracken; Michael Galea; Dean D’Angelo and the many current and former officials, organisers and admin staff, including Darrel Schumacher, who recently passed away and to whom I paid tribute in my adjournment speech last night: I thank you all for your friendship over the last six years at the SDA.
I want to thank the many branch members who I have known over the last 19 years, in particular Leone and Ray Hewes, and Antonio Rossi—the first people I met in the Labor Party—and my dedicated and loyal team of staff and volunteers who have joined me on this journey since 6 March. To Alys, Bastian, Laura, Liana, James, John, Nathan, Peter, Sue, Peachy and Tony: I thank you all for your support. I thank my federal and state Labor colleagues, particularly Senator Farrell and Daniel Mulino MHR, and their partners Nimfa and Sarah.
I thank my many friends, including those who have made time in their very busy schedules to come to Parliament House and sit in the gallery today. Special mention must go to: Manny, Christabelle, Gary, Xavier, Natalie, Sacha, Lucien, Enver, Pelin, Hasan, Sarah, Tully, Josh, Mark, Cam, Emily, Jess, Stuart, Tim, Priya, Anton, Ella, Dev, Sedar—I am finishing up very soon, Mr President!—Sam, Michael, Hovig, and of course Young Labor Unity. I couldn’t have asked for a more reliable and supportive group of individuals, and I look forward to enjoying our friendship for many years ahead.
People who know me very well know that I have quite a few loves in my life: the Collingwood Football Club—
An honourable senator interjecting— Hear, hear!
—the Australian Labor Party; my dog Bismarck, who turns four tomorrow and sends his apologies for not being able to make it today; and of course my wife, Dimity. And I should stress, Mr President, not in that order! I was sworn into this place on our wedding bible, in case you hadn’t noticed, and I think Ecclesiastes 4:12 sums up our partnership. It says:
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Dimity is a woman of remarkable talent, and is immensely capable. She is my greatest champion, my dearest friend, my companion and my love. I first met her back in 2010. We formed a friendship very quickly, thanks to our friend James. It’s not hard to imagine why, given we follow the same football club—for those who don’t remember, it was a great year for Collingwood, having two grand finals. We also share a passion for politics, good food and Farrell wine—the vintage Farrell wine!
Let me mark this day by reflecting on some handwritten words given to me by Leone Hewes:
Always look at a challenge not in terms of success or failure but a test of character. Trust yourself—be open and straight; look everyone in the eye and say yes or no with conviction and honesty. Trust the ‘gut instinct’ which exists within each of us and dare to have a go. Seize the day. Never look back in anger but never forget where you came from. Look for the ‘Light on the Hill’ and never underestimate the power of one to make a difference.
I finish as I started, recognising the First Nations people and acknowledging them for the land where this place of important decision-making stands. May all of us in this place strive together to make this nation a better, fairer place for all Australians. I thank the Senate.