First speech, House of Representatives

8 December 2004

Mr GARRETT (9:30 AM) —I rise in the House to speak for the first time as the new member for Kingsford Smith, humbled by the honour that the people of this electorate have granted me. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people, who have lived in the region around Canberra for over 20,000 years. I want to thank the electors of Kingsford Smith for giving me the opportunity to represent them in the federal parliament. I thank them for their confidence in accepting someone who has not resided with them in the past. Now, living with them, I will do my best to faithfully work in their interest.

I want to pay tribute to former members Laurie Brereton and Lionel Bowen, both of whom served with real distinction in this House. Lionel Bowen successfully contested nine elections, being deputy Labor leader for much of his parliamentary career. The positions he held included AttorneyGeneral and Deputy Prime Minister in the Hawke government. His successor and my predecessor, Laurie Brereton, served as a trailblazing minister for industrial relations and minister for transport in the Keating government. He played a critical role as shadow minister for foreign affairs in relation to the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where he persuaded the Labor Party and pushed the Howard government to finally provide the support the fledgling nation so urgently needed in its struggle for independence. Both men—one formerly a suburban solicitor and the other a sparky—were exemplary Labor politicians and I have greatly appreciated their support, as I have the support of the state members for Heffron and Maroubra, Kristina Keneally and Bob Carr, the Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, and colleagues in the House.

Members are rightly proud of their electorates; I am no exception. Kingsford Smith is graced with a series of stunning beaches, framed by headlands interspersed with ocean pools, including the famous Wylie Baths. An active community of swimmers, lifesavers and surfers cherish these special places. The Australian dream has been fully realised in this seat as successive waves of immigrants from literally all over the world—Ireland, Greece, Italy, China, Russia, the South Pacific islands, Bangladesh—have made the suburbs of Kingsford Smith their home. Kingsford Smith contributes to the social capital of the Sydney region and beyond. It is the site of a number of significant institutions, including the Sydney Children’s Hospital, the Prince of Wales Hospital—and I can vouch first hand for their skill—the University of New South Wales, Royal Randwick Racecourse and the National Institute of Dramatic Art.

Kingsford Smith includes `Botany Bay’—and those two words carry much historical resonance for Australians. The bay was so named on account of the huge diversity of vegetation discovered by botanist Joseph Banks when the Endeavour lowered its anchor and the English came ashore. Later, workers cottages sprung up around what became Australia’s first industrial area. Some remain, as does a community of Aboriginal people living in the suburb of La Perouse near to Captain Cook’s first landing site in 1770.

Early history records the sobering fact that, within a very short time after first contact, the local tribes were wiped out by smallpox or driven off by the new settlers. In the present, the truly appalling statistics of Aboriginal health show how much is still to be done to break free of this aspect of our past. And there are significant environment issues here too. Past industrial development has left a legacy of toxic chemical blight which now threatens the marine environment of Botany Bay. There is real concern about planned development on the shores of the bay and also on much-loved Malabar Headland, owned by the Commonwealth. It is our position on this side of the House that this precious parcel of land, listed on the Register of the National Estate, should be returned to the people of New South Wales to become national park and public open space. I commit to pursuing this issue in the current parliament.

It is time to place my gratitude on the record. To Labor Party members in the electorate, to the Kingsford Smith federal electorate council, to the workers in my office, to Simon Balderstone and Kate Pasterfield, to all the supporters who made my passage to the parliament possible, I offer my thanks. In particular, to my family—my wife, Doris, and my children, Emily, May and Grace, who are in the parliament today—I owe an even greater debt of thanks. They bear the burden of living with someone who set out on the public road with all the demands on a private family life this path brings.

I want also to pay tribute to my forebears, who came originally from Europe, and who, by hard work, often in hard times, made this country their home. John Garrett, my great-great-great grandfather, and Tom Garrett, his son, both served in the New South Wales parliament over a period of 30 years in the second half of the 19th century. There was more than a bit of Tory about both of them, it seems, and they were both newspaper proprietors. I want to assure the House that there is no genetic flow-on here. But it was my mother’s dad in particular who strongly influenced me. Although he was seriously wounded in the Great War, as a young boy I never heard him complain of his ailments—although they were many. He was a long-serving Rotarian and member of the RSL, who in his spare time hammered away on a special typewriter translating books into Braille for the blind, a habit he maintained into his 80s. As is often the case, it was only after he died that I came to appreciate the way he lived and to take inspiration from his example.

Naturally, I also want to thank the members of Midnight Oil whom I have worked with for many years—Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey, Bones Hillman and Gary Morris, as well as Arlene Brookes, who worked in our office. It is simply not possible for me to fully express here the unique adventure that we had as a bunch of students who set off to conquer the local pubs and then the world, with a handful of songs about Oz and a dream to have a go at making a living out of music that was not seen as commercial or likely to succeed. And I thank all those punters who came back again and again as we journeyed through their suburbs and cities. Indeed, one of our earliest performances was at Kingsford, where some years later I find myself as the local member. Wherever we played—on beaches, at blockades or in any number of clubs and theatres, wherever our impulse took us—people showed up, and that loyalty gave us space to create and kept us alive.

I acknowledge friends and associates who work out of the spotlight in community groups and local grassroots organisations. I believe they are the best kind of Aussies—the ones who simply care about the country and its people, not about how much they can take from it. They are unsung heroes, helping those who are down and out, volunteering at the neighbourhood centre, trying to protect that remaining patch of bush or bring that local creek back to health. I see such civic engagement—from the streets to the suburbs, from local communities to nationally organised citizens groups, to the contesting of ideas in parliaments—as absolutely central to the health of our democracy. I have always had, as I know many people have, a singular passion for Australia. I do love the sunburnt country, its ancient landscapes, its exhilarating reaches of sand and sea. And I value its traditions, none more so than the freedom to express an opinion. I have protested, sung, marched, written, organised and campaigned on those things I simply believed were important, not just to me but to the life of the nation.

I have reached that point in my life where I want to take the next step into formal politics to work as a parliamentarian and in the future I hope to work as a member of government. I also hope that the measure of how seriously I take this engagement is that I have come here with no higher objective than to make a contribution, to do my bit. The core strands of my involvement in public life are a belief in the need to strive wherever possible for equality of treatment and opportunity, to ensure all people have the means to a decent livelihood, to work for the cause of peace however remote its prospects sometimes seem, to respect the rights and interests of others and to work to preserve the living fabric of nature. I see the Labor Party as the natural place for me to continue this engagement.

Labor has a proud history, a proud record as the primary party of reform and social justice on the Australian political landscape. And I am confident in the party’s capacity for renewal. Labor has always mattered for Australia and it matters to me. Labor has an abiding commitment to fairness, to insisting that government does have a primary role in protecting the wellbeing of people, to having a foreign policy which espouses an independence of thought and action in international affairs. We in Labor are willing to put ideals as well as ideas into the political mix. All these components of the modern Labor Party are important to me, and I reckon they are important to Australia.

The Leader of the Opposition recently remarked that the environment is the `ultimate intergenerational issue’. I agree, and my involvement in this area has been a central part of my political life to date. It is now well understood that humans ultimately depend on the health of the planet for their wellbeing. That recognition has produced a real change in thinking in recent times. Yet our track record in Australia remains abysmally poor. The measurements of ecological health do not lie and what they tell us is that, by most standards and in most areas, we are going backwards. Lamentably, much of this has happened on this government’s watch, for we are now a continent in ecological reverse. Our river systems are sick, salted up and stressed, used beyond their environmental limits. Majestic river redgums on the Murray River are dying, literally, for a drink of water. The scourge of salinity is spreading across the land, eating away at rural communities.

I know that statistics rain down like confetti on this place, but the fact that in South Australia nearly half the flora and fauna face extinction in the next 50 years ought to give real pause for thought. After all, that is only my lifetime up to now—and that has seemed like a pretty short period. This is the rollcall of evolution happening in the space of a few generations, the greatest loss of living things that make up our biodiversity since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. And there is no sign that we are adequately responding to the unfolding tragedy. As we continue to draw down on our natural capital at a far greater rate than it is being replenished, as oil supplies dwindle and populations increase, as each single threat—whether to wetland, forest or ocean—coalesces and collides, so the task of reconfiguring our economy to harness instead of degrading nature becomes more important.

Mr Speaker, honourable members would be well aware that there is one supra issue which presents the most profound environmental and political challenge we will face in the coming century. This is the spectre of global warming. It is now accepted by most reputable, independent scientists and by most governments that massive increases of greenhouse gases into earth’s atmosphere, some 30 per cent since the pre-industrial era, are producing a corresponding increase in the earth’s temperature and that this presents a worldwide problem of immense scale. Humans remain entirely atmosphere dependent, so there is no choice but to respond to extreme climatic behaviour and its many effects. The economic costs of global warming are also rapidly rising with reported losses increasing by five times between the 1970s and the 1990s—standing at $629 billion globally for the last decade. These bills will fall on this generation and then increasingly on future generations unless resolute action is taken.

Yet the Howard government will not commit to genuine mandatory renewable energy targets, and we are talking very reasonable increases from two per cent to five per cent. The government will not move to a national carbon trading scheme, the government will not consider a carbon tax, and of course the government will not ratify the Kyoto protocol—it will not even commit to a plausible alternative program to reduce greenhouse gases by anywhere near the amount needed. The truth is that this government fiddles while Australia burns. Global warming is kicking in, with higher temperatures evaporating our precious water, stressing valuable stock and exposing us to bushfires of greater intensity. Yet we, along with the United States, are the only two developed nations staying out of this international treaty framework.

There is the claim that ratifying Kyoto will harm the economy, yet when the treaty becomes law in February of next year the government will have sidelined Australian companies from the opportunity of opening up business with countries and companies taking part in the international emissions trading framework. The environment loses, business loses and farmers lose. And if we do not enlarge our concept of national interest to include the risks our near neighbours face from the threats posed by climate change, then these marginal communities, especially in low-lying Pacific islands, will lose too.

We need to urgently move to a mixed-energy economy with a much greater emphasis on demand management, use of renewable energy and increased energy efficiency, especially in the transport, building and agriculture sectors. The agenda for the next decade must include sustainability reform. There is evidence that environmental modernisation can help drive the economy, with increased employment, innovation and capacity for additional export income. Germany and Denmark have created entirely new industries based around renewable technologies and energy efficiency. Australia, with its abundant supplies of sun, thermal energy and wind, with its existing expertise in land management and rehabilitation and with its capacity for innovation, could adapt to this path and prosper. But just one conspicuous feature of the last eight years has been the failure by the Howard government to meaningfully address these issues.

It has often been young Australians who have raised a mirror to our actions and who have seen fit to go out and protest the state of our environment—and on occasions I have gone with them. I have opposed the destruction of rainforests in a country of Australia’s relative wealth on many grounds, including loss of biodiversity, loss of beauty, loss of water catchment qualities, loss of scenic amenity and loss of carbon sinks—and, just as importantly, the loss of opportunity for future generations to enjoy and utilise nature, to be healed by nature, to derive long-term livelihoods from nature.

It is no coincidence that inbound nature based tourism makes a substantial contribution to our national economy, especially to youth employment. Thankfully, environmental organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation have seen fit to contest plans by governments to allow oil exploration on the Great Barrier Reef, or to dam the Franklin River or, more recently, to destroy the rainforests of North Queensland. In due course those places became defining iconic sites drawing people from here and overseas to enjoy.

The natural world carries profoundly strong cultural connections for Indigenous communities, as well as the possibility of increasing employment prospects in their country. So degrading the environment is a question of lost opportunity for Aboriginal people as well.

The first speech of a member of parliament offers a chance to express one’s truest ambitions and hopes for the country. At this point in time, what do I think the nation needs? I believe we need to respond to the decline in our environment and the threat posed by global warming and to further modernise our economy by making it truly sustainable. I believe we need to substantively extend the idea of sustainability so that it encompasses not only environmental but social, cultural and economic dimensions. In corporate terms, our social capital must be protected.

I believe we need to reaffirm the principles that have served us well thus far: a fair go for all, including for generations to come; tolerance in our social relations; the upholding of the rule of law; and respect for diversity of opinion and beliefs, framed by an allegiance to Australia and its people. I believe we need, with Australians well informed and willing, to take the next necessary step to full independence as a nation which chooses its own head of state.

I believe we need to take a longer view when it comes to foreign policy—to take a larger view of the national interest. Of course it is important to cooperate with our traditional allies when our common interest is met. It is also important for Australia to contribute to the reform and renewal of the United Nations; to contribute generously, though judiciously, to aid for developing countries; to redouble our efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; and to address the emerging class of new security threats, including transnational crime and climate change, with the prospect of environmental refugees and the spread of infectious diseases. And I do not believe a government should commit the nation to war without this parliament having the opportunity to fully debate an action of such seriousness.

Finally, I believe we need to come to a point of genuine and deep accommodation with Indigenous people. One of the most profound personal experiences I have had to date was to travel to the remote western desert on the `Diesel and Dust’ tour with Midnight Oil to sit with Pintupi and Walpiri elders and be shown the law of these peoples. It is law as significant as the Ten Commandments, unchanged over centuries—its presence a stark reminder of the act of dispossession, the results of which still reverberate today. If we are `the land of the fair go and the better chance’, as Paul Keating observed, then we can and must make amends for that past. I believe this requires sincere acts of real reconciliation that have the backing of the community and the government. So, too, we must redouble our efforts to provide immediate support, opportunity and structures for Indigenous communities to build healthy and engaged lives. I and many other members will be watching with keen interest to see what real outcomes emerge from the government’s renewed consideration of Indigenous health issues and fundamental support to redress the undoubted disadvantage and marginalisation of Indigenous Australians. This nation really does need to get its act together on this issue.

I am proud to be the Labor member for Kingsford Smith. The Labor Party from its earliest beginnings has played a pivotal role in the development of this country from the era when we emerged as a democracy in the late 1800s, through the period of the great Australian settlement, to the present day. While I have outlined a number of very real challenges that I believe we must address, it is with a sense of confidence and knowledge of our past that I claim our future can be made better when we act with resolve and good purpose. I hope I can do that as a member of parliament, and in that spirit I thank the House for the courtesy of listening to my first speech.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!