Senator Janet Rice – valedictory speech, in which she mentions her belief that Palestine will be free

March 26, 2024

Everyone knows where I stand on Palestine. Palestine will be free. The war in Gaza, the more than 30,000 people killed and the starving of the population is genocide not self-defence, and it is shameful that this Senate still has a motion on the books that says we stand with Israel.

Senator RICE (Victoria) (18:02): We are here on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. I acknowledge and pay tribute to the owners of this stolen land and to all First Nations peoples, including the Wurundjeri people where my home and office are, in Naarm/Melbourne. I’m sorry that in my decade in the Senate we have not made the progress that we should have towards First Nations justice, truth-telling and treaties. I’m appalled by the ongoing racism in this country, the deaths in custody, the poverty and the lack of self-determination experienced by our First Peoples. I salute the resistance and the resilience of our First Peoples and commit to continuing to work with them for justice after I leave this place.

Ten years ago I came here with high hopes, enthusiasm and a commitment to do my best as a senator to make a difference in the world. I leave with a sense of achievement, particularly in passing marriage equality, establishing and completing the first national inquiry into poverty in 50 years and being one of the few in this place—along with my colleagues—to advocate for people and issues that are too often ignored by the powerful. I also leave with a more clear eyed view than when I arrived of the work and time and energy required to achieve change, to fight the vested interests and how the struggle for justice is ongoing. Working in this place certainly has its challenges, but after a decade here I still believe in our representative democracy. We just have to make it work for us.

Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, too many people have tuned out from our political processes. They don’t think that politicians are interested in listening to them or actually representing them. Too often, when it comes to the major parties, they are right, so people decide they’ve got better things to do with their time and energy than tune in. Why aren’t governments listening to the people? A big reason is that wealthy and big corporations have outsized power and influence over both the Liberal and Labor parties. The majority of Australians want serious action on the climate catastrophe, and they want to see precious places and homes of threatened species protected. People want decision-makers to take a long-term view to take into account what the consequences of our actions are in 10, 20, 100 years time. People know that the fantasy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is unsustainable. Surely, it should not be too hard for us to agree as a parliament that longer than three years matters and to commit to at least assessing the impact of regulations on future generations, just as we do with the impact on human rights.

People want governments to properly fund public housing, to end homelessness and to stop skyrocketing rent. They want top-notch public education and health, including dental and mental, in Medicare. They want people on income support to have a liveable income, but Labor and Liberal tell us that we can’t afford it. We can. We could increase taxes on the wealthy and the big corporations to fund the things that we urgently need but we don’t, because the big corporations are calling the shots. Actions that would reduce the profits of the big corporations and mean they have to pay more tax are fiercely fought against by these corporations and their media mates. And because Labor and Liberal are both trying to appease their corporate overlords, too often they agree to deliver for the corporations rather than for the voters, who don’t get a look in. Getting people to re-engage cannot be solved with a quick fix. It requires us to stand up to these companies and instead listen to the people and act on what is heard. We could do so much better in listening and learning from each other and from the community, understanding where and why we don’t agree and acknowledging that no one person or party has a monopoly on wisdom. We do this to some extent in committee work but we could do much more.

It has been a privilege to chair the Community Affairs References Committee for the last two years and to spend considerable hours of my life in the Environment and Communications Committee, and in Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and RRAT as well. The powerful work done to establish a body of evidence that we can agree on has kept me committed to committees. Our differences usually come down to differing views about what to do about the issues facing us. It would be a huge step forward if we could commit to establishing an evidence base more generally in our work here, including through establishing institutions, such as a parliamentary office of science and technology. This evidence could then underpin evidence based decision-making. I know, you can call me naive; I am obviously not a scientist at heart!

It would be much easier to establish this evidence base if we had radical transparency. If we ever have serious debates about our future and what it will take to fix things then we all need to share the same information. Information is power and too often critical information is hidden to boost a particular case and discredit others. We need to strengthen our freedom-of-information laws and stop blocking orders for production of documents to ensure that evidence is available to all of us so we can shine a spotlight on government decisions made that are inconsistent with that evidence. From robodebt to sports rorts, from colour-coded spreadsheets to documents about dodgy contracts that are ostensibly about modernising Meals on Wheels, this stuff matters.

In contrast, when we don’t have that shared agreed evidence base, there is little to stop speech after speech in here with people sounding supremely confident, even when there is no evidence to support their views, views that may well work in a soundbite but that stoke conflict and division and inflame underlying prejudices. This may seem like a good political strategy at the time but it erodes people’s trust in our democracy and results in people tuning out.

But despite me seeing some room for improvement in how we work here, I have been proud to be part of some big steps forward over the last 10 years, the biggest being marriage equality. I took over as the Greens’ LGBTIA+ spokesperson in 2015, when the campaign had already been going for a decade. Despite a conservative government in power, we got there. People were put through the wringer with the plebiscites and still feel the scars. People’s human rights should never have been put to a popular vote. However, the committee process that led to Dean Smith’s private senators bill was the best committee process I was involved in over my decade here because it was focused on achieving an outcome we could all live with, a genuine consensus. We sat around the committee room, and we debated and negotiated that bill clause by clause. Dean, Louise Pratt and I were the key players in that room, and we trusted each other. David Fawcett did an excellent job chairing. We had different pressures on us and different constituencies, but we knew that the only way we were going to achieve marriage equality was to end up with a bill that we could all live with, which is what we achieved. The marriage equality legislation we have now is not what the Greens would have drafted, and it’s not what the others would have drafted, but we reached consensus on it, and marriage equality has changed lives. It’s saved lives. It’s created so much happiness and joy and wellbeing, and the sky has not fallen in.

Marriage equality meant that I could stay married to my late wife, Penny, and she could change her birth certificate to say ‘female’ without us having to get divorced. Penny was such a star during the campaign for marriage equality. As a transwoman, she put herself out of her comfort zone to speak up, to say ‘love was love’ and that all we wanted was to stay married. Being married to a transwoman inspired me to be such a fierce defender of trans and gender-diverse people during the campaign and beyond. I feel so grateful for Penny’s love and support and for our lives together until her sad sudden passing four years ago. For me now, marriage equality means that my partner, Anne, and I, who have been together for the last two years, can get married. A news flash—we reckon we probably will! I love you, Anne.

In the Greens fight for marriage equality, long before either Labor or the Liberals would give it the time of day, we and the queer community and campaigners pushed the issue to a tipping point. Equality could no longer be ignored. However, the fight to reach the end of our journey towards equality continues. There’s still discrimination against LGBTIQA+ people baked into our laws and our society. Just last week we received a stark reminder of this, with the debate over the proposed religious discrimination legislation firing up again.

It’s been such a privilege to be a voice for queer folk in this place, to be an out and proud bi+ person—the only out bisexual person in this parliament. To everyone who is part of our big rainbow family, it has been such a privilege to represent you in this place. It’s been a privilege to be a voice for people, especially those whose voices go unheard, and a voice for our planet these last 10 years in parliament. I’m proud to speak up for people living in poverty. More often than not, they are treated like second-class citizens—as though being poor or out of work or having a disability represents some kind of character flaw. It doesn’t. People on income support deserve far better from the politicians who are supposed to represent them. Every story I’ve shared of someone who is struggling on JobSeeker or the DSP or the youth allowance carries the message that their voices deserve to be heard.

Breaking the poverty machine is an ongoing campaign, and one that must be won. The small increases in income support in the last budget are better than nothing, but the extra $4 a day still leaves people living in cars and tents with their kids, only eating one meal a day and living with excruciating toothache because they can’t afford to go to the dentist. In a wealthy country like ours no-one should be living in poverty. Everyone in this place who voted in favour of the stage 3 tax cuts that gifted an extra $4½ thousand a year to politicians and billionaires while doing nothing for the one million Australians in poverty should be deeply ashamed of themselves. We can do so much better than this, as the inquiry I established and led on the extent and impact of poverty in Australia shows. We have to raise the rate of Centrelink payments above the poverty line to $88 a day and guarantee a livable income for all Australians.

It’s been so humbling to speak up for people across the world who are oppressed and persecuted for standing up for their rights, their homes and their very being. Last month, I was censured for speaking up for people in the Philippines and protesting the oppressive regime of President Marcos Jr. I would do that again in a heartbeat. Everyone knows where I stand on Palestine. Palestine will be free. The war in Gaza, the more than 30,000 people killed and the starving of the population is genocide not self-defence, and it is shameful that this Senate still has a motion on the books that says we stand with Israel.

Tibet will also be free. Tibet is ranked by Freedom House as the least-free country in the world. It was such a privilege to travel to Dharamshala last year with our parliamentary friends of Tibet group. I will keep fighting for a free Tibet. In fact, I am just about to accept an invitation to join the board of the Australia Tibet Council. Thank you to all my Tibetan friends, including Karma Singey, the representative of His Holiness the Dalai Llama in Australia, who are joining me here tonight.

West Papua too will be free. The shocking revelations in the media this week about the torture of West Papuan freedom fighters shows the oppression that West Papua is under. There’s a contingent here tonight from the Federal Republic of West Papua, including Jacob Rumbiak, their foreign minister. Thank you, Jacob, and all of you for joining me here; I’m really touched.

And Julian Assange will be free. God, I hope so! His unconscionable punishment must end.

I’m proud to have contributed to getting people out of Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. Like most of our work, this was definitely a team effort. So many MPs in this place worked so hard in the weeks after Kabul fell, advocating for people in Afghanistan who were desperate to get out. Some of the people my team and I worked with managed to be amongst the lucky ones who got here and are forever grateful for Australia to have given the opportunity of a new life. And just last week we heard that two teenagers who my office had been advocating for for a year, who were separated from their mum and left in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over, have just received visas to come to Australia.

There are many more refugees that Australia could and should be accepting, and we have to stop the racist demonising and scapegoating of refugees and asylum seekers, such as through the appalling legislation that is being rammed through the parliament today and tomorrow on the spurious grounds of national security that is not supported by evidence. So the campaigning continues.

I’m proud to have spoken up in my speeches and advocacy here for the people of Myanmar, Kashmir, Ukraine, Iran, Hong Kong, East Turkestan, China, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Cambodia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Artsakh and Armenia, Sudan, Western Sahara, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo and Pakistan—to name a few. Human rights matter for all people across the world, and we cannot afford to pick and choose whose human rights we uphold. We should not discriminate because of political expediency, cultural biases, and historical and often very unjust so-called security arrangements.

Lastly, I want to speak about the issue that got me started in politics that will always be close to my heart, that I’ve spent more than 40 years campaigning on: ensuring that our environment and native forests are protected and that our climate is safe for the whole web of life and for all the generations of life to come. The big win in this space that I’ve been proud to be a part of in the last decade has been the end of native forest logging in Western Australia and Victoria. These were wins that were achieved because of the campaigning of millions of people over decades, supported by Greens in parliaments who have been listening to the majority of Australians who want to see an end to native forest logging across the country. Our forests are more than mere commodities. They are our breathing spaces, a mosaic of life that’s bigger than us. They soak up and store massive amounts of carbon and they deserve to be protected.

At least we finally now have a recovery plan for the Leadbeater’s possum—10 years of estimates questioning finally paying off! And now for protecting swift parrots and greater gliders and all of our precious animals and birds threatened by logging, and seeing off forest management activities, including in Victoria and Western Australia, that are not grounded in forest protection. The campaigning continues.

Everyone who knows me knows how much collaboration and teamwork mean to me. Nothing worth doing is ever done alone, so I want to close by saying a huge thank you to everyone who has shared my journey over the last decade. Thanks for your support during the hard times when my wife, Penny, passed away suddenly in 2019—something that you think you could never get through, but you do. I learnt a lot about myself, about love, about life and about the power of community and the natural world to support and nurture and heal. Experiencing such a loss has made me wiser, more empathetic and loving, more spiritual and a better representative because of that.

Thanks to my amazing staff. All of us politicians here would be nothing without our staff. T hanks to my current team: Rachel, Shani, Vic, Shreya, Nic, Claudia, Sam and Luci. And thanks to those who have gone on to other things: Tarek, Georgia, Mia, Simon, Sam, Matija, Rachel, Simone, Ellie, Nat, Alyssa, Srishti, Harry, Freja, Gid, Illiana, Joe, Flis, Maddy, Pavel, Chelsea and Adam. What an incredible bunch of folks you all are! A lot of part-time workers! I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks to my wonderful Greens colleagues and former colleagues and all the staff, led so capably by Adam and by Richard and Christine before him. I will miss you all.

It has been a great honour to have chaired our party room for most of the time I’ve been here and to have facilitated us through so many decisions—almost all of them made by consensus, aided and abetted by copious cups of tea. I’m pleased to announce that my teapot is being bequeathed to the Greens party room archive.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of our Greens workers and volunteers. Thanks to every branch, every working group, national council, state councils, every member, every supporter and every voter. We are a great green ecosystem, and we wouldn’t exist without each other. I’ve been so proud to see the Greens grow over the decades. I was one of the founders of the party in Victoria 31 years ago, and I know that we are on track to continue to grow in size and in power. Bring on the next election! It is truly inspiring. The Greens and the communities we represent are what gives me hope for a healthy future—another world which is not only possible but she is on her way.

Thanks to all the advocates and campaigners I’ve worked alongside. There are far too many to mention, but I do want to shout out to all the First Nations reps, social justice advocates, unionists, aged-care campaigners, young people, queer folks, women’s groups, environment groups and climate groups galore. I hope to keep working with you post parliament, too.

Thanks to everyone here and in the House who I worked with over the years, sharing support for just causes, learning together, hearing people’s stories in committees and parliamentary friendship groups, negotiating together, travelling together and just hanging out and having a chat—connecting together across political differences. Those have been treasured experiences.

Thanks so much to all of the staff who support us here, from the clerks and attendants to the cleaners and the Comcar drivers. We could not do our work without you.

Thanks to my mum, my kids—John and Leon—my sisters and brother, my friends who I haven’t seen nearly enough of over the decade but who have stayed there for me, supporting me personally and politically. I’m so looking forward to having more time with you all.

Thanks to Anne for sharing the highs and lows, putting up with the late nights and hardly seeing me as I arrive in Canberra for parli weeks. I’m so looking forward to having much more time with you and lots of adventures over the rest of our lives together. There’s so much that I’m looking forward to having more time for: from working with people to build skills and working collaboratively, to campaigning, spending time out bush and at home and in my garden, playing and listening to music, and being on my bike, beginning with riding home from Canberra to Melbourne in May, as a bookend to my ride here a decade ago. Anyone who would like to join me for all or part of the way, please get in touch.

At the end of my time here, I am acutely aware that I stand on the shoulders of giants and that my work is just part of a movement of billions of people around the world, including my amazing colleagues here and soon-to-be Senator Steph Hodgins-May, who I know will be awesome.

My final words: stay hopeful that things can change and keep working determinedly towards that change. Just because we haven’t reached where we need to be yet doesn’t mean we can’t and we won’t. We have to keep at it because one thing is certain: if you don’t fight, you lose. So onwards and upwards! Thank you.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard