Maiden Speech

Being elected as a senator for Queensland is a daunting task. The expectations of Queenslanders weigh heavily on me to protect our natural wonders, provide hope for the future and represent the many different cultures that make up my great state, including the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners, custodians and elders of the lands of Queensland, whom I acknowledge. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today: the Ngunawal and Ngambri people and their elders past and present.

I believe we are in danger of being swamped by cheap populism, bigotry and falsehoods. There are many significant challenges facing our country, but the views espoused by some of my new senatorial colleagues are born in the politics of fear and isolation. This is not to be dismissive of the voters who elected us. They sent a powerful message that I intend on listening to and addressing in this speech.

For those who have known me a while, there is a pre-Stella me and a post-Stella me. There is no doubt that the first version would never have become a senator. I am very lucky to have Stella in my life and I thank her for the ongoing sacrifices she has made for me to be here today.

Hello to our three beautiful children, Elouise, Sofia and Xavier, who are all starting to understand that I am away a bit more than normal. The first thing Elouise did when the sitting calendar came out was check whether it clashed with her birthday. Sure enough, we are sitting on 30 November—her eighth birthday. Not one to waste an opportunity, Elouise immediately requested a more substantial birthday present. I am sure the Parliament House gift shop will deliver the perfect present for an eight-year-old girl! Sofia, when I am travelling I will keep an eye out for those rare Beanie Boos you are chasing. Xavier, I think your kicking is coming along very well—very good off the right foot, but I promise to do more practise on the left foot. Whilst I can sometimes get caught up in the work I do as a senator, there is nothing more important to me than being a good dad. Over time I hope you get a better understanding of the work that I do in this place and I hope that is something you can be proud of, but I will always strive to be the best dad I can be.

Of course, there is an element of fraud for any Queensland Labor member to stand in the upper house of a parliament given the events of 1922, when we abolished the state upper house. I hope I can make a difference to justify the outrage from the grave the suicide squad of 1922 is no doubt feeling.

I pay tribute to former Queensland Senators Jan McLucas and Joe Ludwig for their dedicated service and enormous contribution in this chamber; particular thanks to Joe for his advice and guidance over many years. Thanks also to Senators Ketter and Moore for their support. I look forward to working with my new Labor colleague Murray Watt.

I intend to do the impossible in this speech: prove to my Labor colleagues that former state secretaries have a heart and a soul! My good friend Senator Dastyari has made a head start on me in this regard.

I have always been fortunate in my life, but from a young age I always understood some people were less so. I was named after Anthony Porter. Anthony was born with extreme physical disabilities. Not long after his birth Anthony's family were told not to expect him to survive beyond his first birthday. My mum, Marion, volunteered to help care for Anthony as part of a community effort to help the Porter family manage life and attempt to help Anthony's long-term recovery. Some of my earliest memories are in the company of Anthony and his family and friends. Despite Anthony's challenges he possessed a magnetic personality and a wicked laugh that drew people to his court, and despite his struggles I find most of my memories of him are happy ones.

Whilst for many years Anthony defied the odds, he did not lead a long life, passing away in the year 2000 at the age of 31, but his remarkable family along with other community members were able to set up a long-lasting service to help families confronting similar challenges. That house was called Handihome, but is now called NIRAN. The title comes from the first two letters of the names of its original residents: Nicole, Irene, Annette and Anthony. NIRAN is based in Aspley, not far from where I live. It provides full-time care for disabled people and has housed numerous over the last couple of decades. When you spend any time at NIRAN house you get a sense from the parents of the people who live there how grateful they are to have such a service. As the parents themselves get older in life their concern always turns to who will look after their children when they can no longer do it themselves. The start-up of the National Disability Insurance Scheme is providing great hope to these families and, I am sure, countless others around the country. I will be vigilant to ensure the NDIS delivers for those who need it most.

My family has a long history of helping with fundraising and other activities at NIRAN. My mum currently serves as president and all my family assist in one way or another. This community-mindedness has been at the heart of my upbringing and has been inspired by my mother, Marion, who still dedicates much time in her life to causes such as NIRAN and St Vincent de Paul along with myself and many family members. The work I have done with St Vincent de Paul in my local community over the last seven years has given me a tremendous insight into the daily struggles many families have. Whether it is assisting in callouts or the annual Christmas hamper delivery, it keeps your feet firmly on the ground. Standing with a mum in suburban Brisbane with a couple of bags of groceries and some toys, and handing them over to her as tears well in her eyes, you know that without this, Christmas would be just another day and there would certainly be no toys under the tree come Christmas morning. The saddest part about this is that when you do it again the next year and see a lot of the same families.

It is this upbringing that will drive my ambitions and hopeful achievements for as long as I am in this place. For many years I served as state secretary of the Labor Party in Queensland. I oversaw success and failure, but I come here stronger and more experienced for it. History-making state election wins in 2009 and 2015 certainly outweigh any disappointments. I will be forever grateful to the branch members and MPs who supported me through my time as secretary. Particular thanks go to Sharon Neame, Linus Power, Jimmy Sullivan, Anika Wells, Jon Persley and Premier Palaszczuk, who worked closely with me in my time as secretary. Thanks also to my current staff—Bart and Liam.

As secretary, and now senator, I have enjoyed enormous support, even when this has not been the easiest task for many people. But I will always be thankful and endeavour to honour that support by being a representative they can respect. Thanks to Ben Swan and Scott McDine and the AWU for their unwavering support; to Chris Gazenbeek and the SDA; Peter Biagini, Scott Connolly and the TWU; Gary O'Halloran and the Plumbers Union; and to Neil Henderson and the ASU. Thanks also to my good mates Paul Howse, Andrew Fraser and George Wright for their friendship and guidance over many years.

I have also been fortunate to have some excellent mentors: Wayne Swan and Mike Kaiser are the two most significant. It is tremendous to be serving in the same parliament as Wayne, and Mike has always made time to provide advice that was timely.

I also have some great friends who serve with me in the current parliament, in my great mate since my days at uni, Jim Chalmers, and in my predecessor as state secretary, Milton Dick. It is exciting to be serving with you both, along with my good friend the member for Blair.

My father, Neville, passed down two beliefs: one was in the Carlton Football Club and the other was in the Australian Labor Party. It is fair to say that I have got much more joy out of my Labor membership than I have from my Carlton membership over the last 20 years! My father's family had a long history of involvement in Labor politics in his home state of Tasmania. The Apple Isle is also the home state of my mother and all my brothers and sisters. I am the exception, as my family moved to Queensland not long before I was born.

While at primary school I can remember the disdain my parents had for Sir Joh and their excitement at the emergence of Wayne Goss. By the time of his sad passing I was able to call Wayne Goss a friend—his style of honesty, integrity and perseverance for reform is one I hope to honour with my work as a senator.

Growing up the youngest of five had its advantages, especially at Christmas time. Once my brother and sisters entered full-time work, the quality of Christmas presents improved greatly! Thanks to John, Melinda, Michelle, Dearne, Les and Karen for their love and support, along with my nieces and nephews Riley, Billy, Lochie, Tom and Kenzie. Thanks to the extended Chisholm, Leary, Bowes and Nothling families, many of who have travelled here today. Thanks also to Stella's family: Maria, Carlos, Jason, Charlie, Stacey, Isabel and Amelia.

My upbringing was more focused on what you had, rather than what you did not have. A good example is the family car. Until the early 1990s it was a blue 1974 XB Falcon. How no-one died from the fumes coming through the rusty floor in the back seat is a miracle. It is these experiences that shape your ambition and priorities. Home ownership is a challenge for many Australian families, my own parents included. What many people take for granted is simply unattainable for some. The median house price in Australia is now around 5.6 times what the median annual income is. This is up from a ratio of less than three in the late 1980s. Labor has made a brave first step in tackling this issue with its recent policy with regard to negative gearing. It is important for the nation that we continue to tackle the generational disadvantage that is looming from an unfair housing market. We must be prepared to push harder.

Another aspect of home ownership that needs urgent progress is that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Imagine growing up in a community, on land that is your traditional country, but you are unable to purchase your own house—generation after generation. For too long there has been very little progress on resolving land tenure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Whilst I can understand the fears and uncertainty of people within communities on changes to land tenure, for the prosperity of future generations I believe change is vital. Any change cannot be at the expense of the rights of traditional owners.

Another associated challenge with home ownership and financial security for many people is financial literacy. When you grow up knowing money is tight, it becomes a subject that parents and children do not discuss. This can only add to generational disadvantage. Any lack of literacy also increases the risk of people being taken advantage of by unscrupulous operators. The start of compulsory superannuation means more working people are involved in actively planning their financial future sooner, but more must be done to ensure financial literacy is improved amongst all members of the community.

As involved as I have been in politics over the last twenty years, I was always careful not to let it dominate my life. It has come close many times, but never quite got there. The key to this for me has been maintaining some old friendships that date back as far as primary school. My Wavell High mates Matt and Leisa Bauer, Paul and Megan Kay, Stu and Lavinia Affleck, Paul and Miranda Fabre, and my primary school friends Dan Goodwin, Ben Hollis, Lonnie Swain, Chris Channon and Robbie Ward are all still close friends today. None of them work in politics, and for me they provide a regular reminder of what is important in life and where politics fits into it for most people. I hope that does not change.

It has been said before that Queensland is the most decentralised state in mainland Australia, where more people live outside the capital than in it. It is also arguably the most diverse state. Torres Strait Islanders live a very different lifestyle to people in New Farm, and there are plenty of differences between the average day of a miner in Blackwater and of a surf instructor at Burleigh. In any other continent these cultures, climates and communities would be separated by national borders or further state borders. This diversity results in quite different economic, social and health outcomes across the state. Too often, the pain of an economic downturn has a larger detrimental impact outside of Brisbane. Current unemployment in areas outside of Brisbane is a percentage point higher on average than it is within Brisbane. This is up from a difference of just half a per cent three years ago, indicating a growing divide.

Wages data in Queensland also highlights differences across the state. The average wage in Greater Brisbane is almost five thousand dollars greater than in regional Queensland. This also underscores the importance being a senator for all of Queensland. I have already spent time in many regional towns throughout Queensland, and this will remain a strong focus of my work.

We also see this volatility electorally. The recent election saw the lowest vote for the major parties in Queensland since World War II, a combined 74.1 per cent. So this was not a business-as-usual election. Fears about economic inequality and technological change, job insecurity, low wage growth and high unemployment are some of the factors that drove people to look for alternatives.

Queenslanders are a loyal mob. Many of us like to stick close to work and family, so for many the idea that their future does not lie in their traditional workplace or community is hard to accept—especially when rapid change can often leave small towns or regions behind. Coupled with being told to work until you are 70, this combination, for many people, does not make for an exciting time to be alive. It makes them fearful for their future and that of their children.

It is only Labor that can ease these concerns, provide solutions and a long-term vision that Queenslanders can grasp. For a state like Queensland with such wonderful natural assets, like the Great Barrier Reef, getting the balance right between protecting these pristine environments and providing long-term prosperity and jobs for many workers is a challenge we must get right.

I understand the importance of a growing economy and the role business plays in creating jobs and economic wealth, but this cannot be unfettered. For every kid that finds their way and makes a start that is fantastic, but for those who miss out or do not have the same luck the state must be there to provide that support. Whilst I believe much of the vote drivers behind this are related to challenging economic conditions, there is a real distrust of politicians and a lack of faith in our ability and our parties to get the answers right. There is also a cynicism around the system.

One aspect which I believe needs urgent attention is donation and disclosure reform. Whilst Labor has a better record than the conservatives is this regard, we can always do better and changes in this area that are bipartisan survive electoral tides. I intend to be active in this important debate to ensure public confidence in our democratic systems.

Today marks the fourteenth anniversary of the Bali bombings where 202 people lost their lives, including 88 innocent Australians, most of whom were just enjoying a holiday in Bali. This is a stark reminder of the danger facing Australians at home and abroad.

Since 11 September 2001 more than 30,000 Australian Defence Force personnel have served in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 have served in Iraq. Currently, we have more than 2,300 Australian troops deployed in operations around the world. It is important to recognise the work our armed forces do and ensure they, and their families, receive appropriate and ongoing support throughout their lives.

The threat from terrorism has subsequently led to significant legislative changes designed to protect Australians. I will be vigilant in my duties as a senator to support laws and actions that protect us. There is a fine line to tread with the Australian people for legislators in this regard. At a time of real threat to our people, Australians are trusting of parliament taking action. But if parliaments or governments abuse this goodwill, the consequences will be felt for generations to come by making the country less safe.

We cannot let hate, fearmongering or divisive politicians seek to exploit genuine fears for political gain. Protecting Australians must be the priority, but it needs to be balanced with civil liberties and protecting our privacy. It is important that all members are prepared to question proposals or legislation. It means you are doing your duty to the Australian people for generations to come.

In closing, the challenge we face as senators is a great one—growing inequality, rapid technological change, the urgent need to better protect our environment, an increased threat to the safety of Australians and an impatient public. Being elected a Labor senator is a tremendous honour. I look forward to playing my part in solving these great challenges, speaking out on behalf of Queensland and dedicating myself to representing those people who need it the most. I thank the Senate.