Richard Marles' first speech to parliament

I start by acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of this land, and also by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land in the electorate of Corio, the Wathaurong people. In acknowledging these people as the traditional owners of their land, I would also like to acknowledge the strength of their identity. Indeed, it is the strength of identity of all of Indigenous Australia which has allowed these people and this ancient culture to survive numerous threats, not the least of which has been European settlement.

We are lucky that Aboriginal Australians are our first Australians. The power of their identity serves to illustrate how important identity is for all peoples. It is the source of all collective action. It is the source of all public policy. Politics at its grandest is all about identity: searching for it, clarifying it, giving expression to it.

In this, my first speech to this parliament, I would like to talk about the identity of three places which mean everything to me. I grew up and have spent most of my life in the city of Geelong. Since 1849, when Geelong was first incorporated by the New South Wales parliament, it has had many identities. In the 18th century it was a gateway to the goldfields. Later it became the centre of Australia’s wool industry, as our major wool port. In the second half of the 20th century, Geelong has been Victoria’s industrial city in the same way that Newcastle and Wollongong have been in New South Wales.

As the member for Corio, my electorate covers the bulk of Geelong. As we sit here in 2008, Geelong’s identity is on the move once more. Sixteen per cent of the working population of Geelong now works in Melbourne, and that figure is on the rise. Within the next 20 years, if we are not already so, we will be connected to Werribee, Melbourne, Frankston and Sorrento as part of a greater Port Phillip Bay metropolis. And the question is: how will we maintain our identity within that metropolis? Our challenge is to ensure that Geelong does not merely become an outer suburb of Melbourne. Geelong’s identity must lie in becoming an alternative economic centre in the greater Port Phillip Bay metropolis, in the same way that San Jose is, relative to the San Francisco Bay area.

In part, that is about Geelong promoting itself as a lifestyle city. With our north-fronting bay, our raised peninsula, our wineries, our historic buildings and our proximity to the Surf Coast, there is no better place to live around Port Phillip Bay. But mainly it is about fully exploiting Geelong’s existing infrastructure. With our own airport, seaport, Highway No. 1 and the national rail gauge all located near each other in the north of Geelong and Geelong itself located on the corner of Australia, there is every reason for Geelong to be not only a regional but a national transport and logistics hub. With a world-class university and TAFE college producing a highly skilled population and with cutting-edge technology coupled with our existing industrial base, there is no reason why Geelong cannot be a global centre of manufacturing excellence. But the critical ingredient in all of this is confidence—knowing that we in Geelong can do things as well as anybody else in the world. That is actually why Geelong’s AFL premiership last year was so important to the town. Just imagine if I had not mentioned that!

For new nations we talk about people engaging in an act of self-determination, which implies that they have something to determine, that there is a confident identity which unites them as a people and which they in turn present to the world. Any nation which does not have that confident identity struggles, and that struggle is being had by our nearest neighbour to the north, Papua New Guinea. People who have seen themselves as highlanders or from Manus, as Trobriand Islanders or Papuans, have been asked to forge a nation combining all of these people and many more. While Australia was a caring and benevolent colonial power, the truth is that we did very little to prepare these people for what has turned out to be a tremendously difficult task. And so in 2008 Papua New Guinea is bleeding. All its social indicators are poor, such that life expectancy in PNG is the shortest of any nation outside of Africa. Port Moresby is now one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and there is an unknown rate of HIV infection which is drawing comparisons with sub-Saharan Africa. As always, it is PNG’s poor who are the worst victims.

And yet, with its abundant resources, PNG could be a wonderful success. Ultimately, of course, it is for PNG to determine its own future but, as PNG tackles its issues, it is very important that Australia is there as a strong partner not only out of affection for a close neighbour but also in our own national interest. Since 1975 I think all levels of Australian society, not just government but corporate Australia and the community sector as well, have failed to maintain the bonds which used to exist with Papua New Guinea prior to independence. It has been my privilege over the last few years to have visited PNG on numerous occasions, mainly on behalf of the ACTU but also as a member of Labor’s International Party Development Committee. It has become a passion of mine to encourage across all Australia a much greater degree of engagement with PNG. This engagement is needed by Papua New Guinea, and Australia must be the very best friend that we can be.

In contemplating national identity, inevitably my thoughts turn to Australia’s own identity. When we allow our finer spirits to soar, Australia has a national ideal which is the very envy of the world. It is described by words like ‘egalitarianism’, ‘fairness’ and the spirit of ‘a fair go’. And all of this is grounded in the idea of mateship. Charles Bean, the famous Australian First World War correspondent, said in relation to the Australian troops both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front:

… the chief article [of their creed] was that a man should at all times and at any cost stand by his mate. That was and is the one law which the good Australian must never break.

Mateship is at the heart of our great military image, which is not Nelson standing on the deck of the Victory peering out at the French fleet as he was about to impose upon them a terrible defeat. Nor is it a group of American marines raising the flag on the heights of Iwo Jima in an emphatic symbol of victory. No, our great military image is of a medic leading a donkey, on the back of which is an injured digger—one Australian helping another, a mate helping a mate.

That spirit of mateship is very much alive in Australia today. We saw it in the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games, which absolutely celebrated the famous aspects of Australian life—the culture of Indigenous Australians, the Great Barrier Reef—but which also celebrated ordinary Australians in that wonderful scene with the men and women wearing their stubbies and workboots, using angle grinders and sending sparks into the night sky. What other nation, what other culture, would put on display to the rest of the world the most ordinary of its people to show that they are extraordinary too?

Mateship has played a role throughout our history. In the early pioneer days, out in the bush, husband and wife became the best of mates in a way which broke down the barriers of traditional gender segregation. As we sit here in 2008, that is really now the norm in Australia, where the vast bulk of couples regard their husband or wife as their best mate. That is particularly Australian. It is very important that when we consider the concept of mateship we do so in its grandest context as being all about men and women being mates.

At our best, mateship has played a role in our immigration policy, as we have welcomed people to Australia from all four corners of the globe as mates. Mateship has been at the heart of the reconciliation process, because Aborigines are mates too. Mateship is an Australian ideal, but it does not seek to define the ideal Australian. Mateship is about all Australians—men and women, black and white, rich and poor—mucking in together and then celebrating that fact. It is fantastic. It is uniquely Australian and with it we have been and will continue to be simply great.

But there has been a darkness to the Australian character as well, which we cannot ignore. We have seen it most notably in our history in the White Australia policy, which was national policy and bipartisan policy embraced by every prime minister from Barton through to Menzies. It was actually the Curtin government, when negotiating the arrival of American troops into Australia to use our continent as the base for the offensive campaign against Japan, that raised concerns about African-American troops coming here because this was, after all, a white continent. The Americans, rightly, objected to that. But, ultimately, a compromise was reached where those African-American soldiers were based in the north of Queensland, far away from offending the eyes of the population centres in south-eastern Australia. That is a terrible story, but it happened, and we have to acknowledge it. This darkness has been apparent in the policies which gave rise to the stolen generation and in a policy of intentionally brutalising new people on their arrival to Australia so as to discourage others from doing the same. We have seen it at work in the Pacific solution.

How we reconcile these two aspects of the Australian character is difficult. How do you reconcile a sense of togetherness with a sense of exclusion? How do you reconcile bigotry with mateship? The answer is: you have a national discussion in the context of nationhood. Yet here we have another curious fact about our country. As David Day, the eminent Australian historian, has put it, Australia is the reluctant nation. On 1 January 1901, the vast bulk of the Australian people did not see it as our independence day. Rather, it was the coming together of six British colonies to form a new British entity in the South Seas. From that day, right through until the rejection of the republic referendum in 1999, our path to independence has been drawn out and ambiguous. With the notable exception of Paul Keating in the early nineties, that road to independence has lacked any kind of national discussion such as that which occurred between the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams at the outset of the American republic. I actually think that it is the absence of that national discussion which has left, at times, our national character somewhat unreconciled.

And yet we have a need for a strong national identity now more than ever, because borders are far more transparent than they were in 1901 and we no longer sit under the umbrella of an empire. Who we are and what we stand for is there for all the world to see. Whether or not we can confidently assert an Australian brand into a globalised economy has everything to do with whether or not Australia will succeed in the global economy. But to do that we need to understand our own brand first.

I think the wonderful side of the Australian character, mateship, is well known. But it ought to be enshrined, in my view, in our national documents. So, personally speaking, I agree with John Howard that mateship ought to form part of the preamble to the Australian Constitution. But the darkness in the Australian character is less understood. There are some who say that there is a deep-seated streak of racism in Australia. I disagree with that because I actually think that Australians have been incredibly generous to people from all over the world.

Yet I do believe that non-Indigenous Australia, from the very beginning of European settlement, has been beset by a sense of insecurity. At different times we have felt insecure about the distance from the motherland, England. We have felt fearful of our Indigenous population. We have been worried about the size of our continent and how small a population we have to occupy it. And we have been anxious about the Asian region in which we live and what designs may be had on our own land. In more recent times there has been a certain economic insecurity. How will we continue to make things? How will we continue to have a manufacturing sector in Australia when our nearest neighbours are able to make things for a fraction of the price? I think it is when we have indulged this sense of insecurity as a nation that public policy in Australia has manifested in doctrines like the White Australia policy, the stolen generation or the Pacific solution. So to me there is no more important issue in a national discussion. There is no more important issue for the future direction of Australia than to face up to these insecurities.

In the 21st century Australia needs a new birth of confidence, because the issues which caused us anxiety in the 20th century frankly are no longer relevant in the 21st century. I do believe that the vision put forward by Kevin Rudd and Labor at the last election captures this new Australian confidence. It is right that we reject an unfair set of industrial laws which, at their worst, allow one Australian to exploit another. There is no mateship in that. It is also right that we base our economy on a highly skilled, well-educated population bringing to bear the best technology so that we can make the best products and deliver the best services in the world. That is not only the smart play for Australia; it is the fair play. With high-skilled jobs come high-paying jobs, and that gives us the financial base for the egalitarian society and the Australian spirit of a fair go.

Whether or not you believe that the policies put forward by Labor at the last election represent the best recipe for fostering mateship as our national ideal, what also matters is that we have a discussion about what our national ideals are. This is an exciting time. The nation’s response to the stolen generation apology last Wednesday absolutely demonstrates that in 2008 Australia is ready to shed the insecurities of the past and to seize the future with a renewed confidence and hope. Mateship is a very powerful ideal with which to do that. It comes from the country as a whole. It is an ideal which has the capacity to endure, but it is an ideal which will only endure—indeed, it will only be a national ideal—if it has bipartisan support.

Now is also a wonderful time to have that discussion, because at the last election 25 per cent of this parliament turned over—one of the largest renewals since Federation. There truly is a new generation in this parliament. I believe that we have a job ahead of us to better understand who we are as a people. We have a job ahead of us to restate the very idea of Australia. And we have a job ahead of us to forge a strong and unshakable national identity which eschews insecurity and fear, which is grounded in confidence and which celebrates mateship and the spirit of a fair go as that which makes us fundamentally Australian.

It is a wonderful privilege for me to be standing here as a part of the fantastic Labor team led by Kevin Rudd. I would like to start my thankyous by thanking Kevin and all the Labor movement for simply giving me the opportunity to be a part of this. I would also like to thank the electors of Corio for putting me here. I stand here as their representative but I also stand here as the representative of many friends and family, without whom I would never have been given the privilege of serving in this parliament. But before acknowledging them, I would like to acknowledge the former member for Corio, Gavan O’Connor, who served in this place for 14 years. He was a tireless advocate for the people of Geelong. He contributed to national public policy, particularly in the area of agriculture. On behalf of all those in Corio, I would like to thank him.

To this point in time, my career has largely been spent in the trade union movement—first at the Transport Workers Union, where I worked under John Allan and Steve Hutchins and alongside Glenn Sterle, Tony Sheldon and Andrew Watson; and then at the ACTU, where I worked under Sharan Burrow and Joe de Bruyn. I owe a great deal to each of these people, as I do to the union movement, which will always hold a very special place in my heart.

There are a number of Victorian parliamentarians, who are friends of mine in this place, whom I would also like to acknowledge because they have given me support and guidance for a long period of time: Kelvin Thomson, Nicola Roxon, Michael Danby, Stephen Conroy, Robert Ray and Anthony Byrne. And it is a particular joy for me that I have been elected into this parliament at the same election as David Feeney and Bill Shorten, both of whom have been dear friends of mine for more than 20 years. I would like to acknowledge a group of school friends who have shared my life from childhood: Darren and Jo Fox, Peter Little and Gitte Horn, William Reeves, Ninian Lewis and Clare Lawrence.

In Geelong we have been pursuing a struggle to reinvent the Labor Party after a period in the 1990s when our fortunes were very dim. This has been a most difficult and trying task. I have to thank state MPs John Eren, Lisa Neville, Michael Crutchfield, Jaala Pulford, David Saunderson, Cameron Granger, Lou Brazier, Alex DiNatale, Peter McMullen, Kathleen Pender, Geraldine Eren, Clare McClelland, Ann Clark, Roger Lowrey, Jill Petersen, Gavin Penn, Glen Menzies, Mark Donohue, Jade Butler, John Maroulis and Darren Lamont. You know what each of you means to me and, while it may be me who is standing here, it is your collective spirit which inhabits this chamber.

Saverina Chirumbolo, who has suffered the unusual ordeal of working with me for eight years, needs a special thanks. My productivity is largely dependent upon her, and I thank my lucky stars that she has agreed to join me on this next part of the journey.

I have been very fortunate to grow up in a loving family, many of whom are here tonight: my parents, Fay and Don Marles; my parents-in-law, Vince and Judy Schutze; my brothers and sisters Jenny Green, Liz Marles, Ken Quail, Vic Marles, Geoff Westcott, Jason Schutze, Brendan Stafford, Melissa Schutze and Albert Landman; my uncles and aunts, Robert and Ive Buntine and Richard and Jan Inglis; and some friends who are very much family, Susan and Carlo Bernardini, Leonie Sheedy and Ron Joseph.

Finally, my most heartfelt thanks go to my own family: my children, Sam, Isabella and Harvey—each of whom pays a price for my being here—and my wonderful wife, Rachel Schutze. It is she who makes the wheels of my life turn. It is she who reminds me that in the midst of political adversity it is familial love that really matters. It is she who makes all things possible, and my guiding motivation in this place will always be to make her proud.

– February 18, 2008

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