Senator Lee Rhiannon – valedictory speech

photo of Senator Lee Rhiannon
August 13, 2018

Building strong relationships with the Palestinian community has been a significant aspect of my work. My visits to Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and my work in parliament have provided the opportunity to challenge the dominant narrative and shed some light on the reality facing the people and the region. I look forward to continuing this work.

Full speech

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:00): I’ve been very fortunate in my life. Being a senator with the opportunities it presents to work with communities for social justice, genuine democracy and the environment has been a huge privilege. I thank the workers in this building: the cleaners, the groundspeople, committee staff, security, Hansard, IT workers, librarians, COMCAR drivers, catering staff, attendants and all the other staff who make this mini-city hum on parliamentary sitting days and keep it going 24/7. And I thank the Senate Clerk, Richard Pye, and his staff; and the head attendant, John Brown, and all the attendants. Your ability to second-guess our needs is one of the wonders of this place.

While I continue to feel like a political outlier when I am in parliament, it’s my engagement with workers and staff here that makes me feel more at home. I also thank all Greens senators, and Adam Bandt, our lone voice in the House of Representatives. I look forward to when Adam has some Greens company in the House, and I’m sure it’s coming. My appreciation of Greens members and supporters has no bounds. Through good times and the not so good, you have been a rock and one of the joys is working with you and enjoying how you burst the insular Canberra bubble.

I thank all my staff and those I have worked with in the past. I leave this job after years of working with the wonderful Helen Bergen, Brigitte Garozzo, Rebecca Semaan, Bjorn Wallin, Alana West and Linda Wilhelm. I’ve appreciated your hard work and support and sharing the political achievements and setbacks of this job. My biggest thanks go to my family. ‘Support’ is an inadequate word to encompass the loving, entertaining, irreverent solidarity, plus the dose of helpful critical feedback I’ve received from them. To my children and grandchildren, Jaya, Mimi, Rocco, Kira and Jack, we’re always there for each other and always will be. As we know so well, politics can turn nasty. Yes, for us as MPs, it can be tough, but for families and loved ones it can be particularly hard. They feel the pain and see through the lies, but they do not have the ready means to make their views public. I want to acknowledge what my family has been through.

My first visit to federal parliament was 50 years ago. It was 1968. The Vietnam War was raging and the Paris peace talks had stalled. With a group of high school friends, we organised a protest under the slogan ‘Paris must mean peace’. We collected names on our petition, lobbied for support from prominent individuals and organisations and decided to demonstrate outside the US embassy and meet leading opponents of the war, Dr Jim Cairns and Tom Uren. The Hansard for 16 May 1968 shows that some conservative MPs speaking in the House of Representatives misrepresented our motives as ‘communist inspired’. This was despite the broad support from Reverend Ted Noffs; Reverend Alan Walker; Ken Thomas, the founder of the Liberal Reform Group; and a number of unions. Yes, the parents of a few of us were in the Communist Party, but so what? The attacks then are not dissimilar to what I and sections of the Greens experience today. As a 16 year old, the lessons I learnt in 1968 have stuck with me: organise, involve people in the campaign, build allies and don’t be put off by bullying, insults, and McCarthyist tactics of right-wing politicians and the media.

The Cold War type casting of my recent work has confused some politicians, who have said to me that I don’t fit what they expected. This has resulted in some interesting comments. I participate in the AFL and NRL parliamentary tipping competitions, and have even won. A Liberal senator inquired once about my success, adding that he had discussed this with his colleagues as they could not understand it. The clear subtext was: ‘We don’t get it. You are a Green, you are a woman and you are Lee Rhiannon. How did you win a footy tipping competition?’ If a valedictory speech is supposed to be about one’s successes, I would include in that list taking some small steps to break down the stereotyping of me and other Greens.

I spoke earlier of feeling like an outlier. For me, parliament had been a place where we went to protest, not to get a job. Parliament has been an institution of the state and big business and too often responsible for inequality, discrimination and environmental destruction. But, at the same time, parliament is meant to be democratic, and democracy is something I am deeply committed to.

So what was I supposed to do in this job? My actions started on day one in the New South Wales upper house. I am the first New South Wales state MP not to take the title ‘honourable’, and I am proud to be the first Greens New South Wales female MP. For me, becoming an MP was an opportunity to help expose the excessive privileges that go with this job and shake up the comfort zone that cross-party deals had delivered for too long.

The Greens’ commitment was to stand with the people, not put ourselves above them. This meant exposing two-party deals over entitlements. The abuse I copped in the chamber over this was intense but it was our work on corporate political donations that really pushed the anger of MPs of both major parties off the Richter scale. This was in the 2000s, when, in some years, developer donations to Labor exceeded the money they received from unions. Reading out the amounts of developer contributions to parties and MPs resulted in colourful exchanges, although the more accurate descriptor is ‘extreme abuse’.

The Greens’ ‘Democracy for Sale’ campaign, based on a user-friendly searchable website, gave the public and journalists the tools they needed. The scandals cascaded into the media, and I am proud of the role my office and the Greens played in exposing the massive conflict of interest that parties create when they accept large corporate donations. In 2002, to much ridicule from major party MPs, I introduced the end developer donations bill. By 2009 Labor buckled and introduced the ban. Other electoral funding reforms that the Greens had championed followed.

I do not detract from the seriousness of the recent misogynist remarks made in this chamber but, for me, the behaviour in this parliament has been mild compared to my time in the New South Wales parliament. The abuse was directed not just at me but also at my parents, and two offensive speeches were made about the valuable political campaigning of one of my children.

It is disappointing that, at a federal level, we still do not have a national corruption watchdog. I know my federal Greens colleagues are passionate to continue the campaigns for a national ICAC and for lobbying and political donation reform.

Another consistent theme of the Greens’ work, and one that I have endeavoured to build into my work in parliament and with communities across the country, is active opposition to the sell-off of public assets. The interest in our publication, Sold Off, Sold Out, reflects growing public support to renationalise and revitalise public services that have been privatised. I will continue to be involved in these endeavours when I leave this job.

This work highlights why we need a party to the left of Labor. First off, a comment on the coalition: I don’t think there’d be anyone here who would doubt my hostility to the ideology of the coalition, even though I have enjoyed working with some individual coalition members on committees. But dealing with the Labor Party has presented a dilemma for the Left in this country for over a century. Here we have a social democratic party that has too often embraced neoliberalism and acted in the interests of big capital. Labor has played a major role in the privatisation of precious public assets. Yet history shows us that Labor in opposition is a different beast from the party that forms government. This is an enormous tactical challenge for the Greens and the broader left. That’s a subject for another time, but for now I did want to share with you a comment from a chatty New South Wales Labor right MP. He said: ‘We need Labor left. How else could we mobilise socialists and the left to vote for Labor and elect right-wingers?’

Naturally, as an advocate for the public sector, I am deeply committed to public education. In the 1999 New South Wales state election, when I was elected to the New South Wales upper house, the Greens ran our first public education election campaign. We called for the redirection of funding away from the rich private schools to public schools. I know the Greens’ campaign helped revitalise this demand across the public education sector. Our commitment to righting the wrong decisions of successive coalition and Labor governments on public schools, TAFEs and universities is a constant of our work and of our election campaigns. In recent months the level of deception that the Turnbull government engaged in during the debate over their 2017 school funding bill has become more apparent. The Greens were right to vote against the government’s plans—the so-called Gonski 2.0—that benefited private schools and will mean nearly nine in 10 public schools will not receive enough funding to meet the needs of each student by 2023.

I pay tribute to John Kaye, who died in 2016. He was a great Greens New South Wales state MP. John was a public intellectual whose insights and campaign initiatives built broad support for the Greens and for our stance on public education and our pioneering work on climate change for 100 per cent renewables. John’s death has been a huge loss. He was not just a colleague; he was a very valued friend.

I picked up the housing portfolio after the 2016 election, and I feel very fortunate that that happened. At the moment we’re putting the finishing touches to the Greens’ universal social housing initiative. This plan is much more than an attempt to make the housing market less brutal; it radically redefines what it means for housing to be a human right.

My heart goes out to the many communities affected by the PFAS contamination. It is a huge, unresolved issue. We have been successful in setting up inquiries, but what the impacted locals and workers need is compensation to help rebuild their lives.

Building strong relationships with the Palestinian community has been a significant aspect of my work. My visits to Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and my work in parliament have provided the opportunity to challenge the dominant narrative and shed some light on the reality facing the people and the region. I look forward to continuing this work.

What I have loved about my parliamentary work is the opportunity to work with so many people. That is the essence of my politics—to engage with people with the hope that they will become active for the public good. It is a key part of our democracy. We have tabled private members’ bills to end the live export trade and the testing of cosmetics on animals. While I’m proud of this work in parliament, it is the strength of public opinion and public actions that will end the cruel treatment of animals.

The 2014 Abbott-Hockey budget provoked resistance amongst so many communities. Our website whatwillmydegreecost highlighted that the result would have been $100,000 degrees. Working with the National Tertiary Education Union, the National Union of Students, Labor and a number of crossbenchers, we defeated the higher education cuts. Twice in this chamber, that shocking bill was voted down.

My work with union members has been a delight, and I highly recommend this to help an MP stay grounded. From the solid support of the Meat Workers Union for our end live exports bill, backing MUA actions to save jobs, campaigning with the CFMEU against the Australian Building and Construction Commission, working with education unions on funding issues and backing the ACTU’s Change the Rules! campaign, the Greens recognise the vital progressive role that unions play. Sometimes our solidarity with unions raises issues with our allies. A few years back I joined striking coalminers at an Xstrata mine in the Hunter. I was quizzed later on how we could do that if we back an end to the coal industry. Easily. Mine workers and the environment are both exploited, and we need to campaign with coalminers when they fight for decent wages and conditions. At the same time, we work for a just transition to ensure mine workers and mining-dependent communities are not left stranded as the world turns its back on coal.

One of the highlights of my time here has been committee and estimates work, and being a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. In 2015, all parties agreed to the JSCEM report recommending amendments to the Electoral Act that would end undemocratic Senate group voting tickets and leave it up to the voters to determine their own preferences. However, when the legislation came on for debate, Labor backflipped and ran a dirty campaign to make out that we were working with the Liberals out of self-interest. The many Labor voices in this debate conveniently forgot that they had previously backed the reforms at a federal level and in the New South Wales parliament. If Labor believed the lies they peddled about Senate voting reform, they would have promised to reverse the changes we voted in. No such commitment has been given. Those reforms stand, and they’re important.

What is the future of the Greens? I believe it can be long and fruitful, but the challenges that all progressive parliamentary parties face are upon us. We need to remain a progressive, democratic party of the left. That means resisting careerism, hierarchical control, bullying behaviour and the associated leaking and backgrounding. If we fail to stand up to that sort of behaviour, not only will the Greens suffer setbacks but our contributions to building social movements will be reduced, we will lose members and individual members will be hurt. We need to engage constructively with the great progressive causes of our time. The future of a liveable planet depends on it. It is inspiring to see that, around the world, social movements for transformative, emancipatory change are on the rise. Thanks to a poll taken by the Centre for Independent Studies, we can quantify this interest in Australia. The poll found 58 per cent of surveyed Australian millennials are favourable to socialism, and 59 per cent agreed with the statement that ‘Capitalism has failed, and government should exercise more control of the economy.’ The Greens can take heart from these trends.

There are two people I wish to pay tribute to. In 1990, Geoff Ash asked me to join the Greens. I remember he put a good case, but what won me over were our four pillars—our principles that guide our policies and actions. A few years later, in 1993, we started going out, and this year is our 25th anniversary. I wish to thank him for his support, love and acceptance. Geoff has been active in the Greens for longer than I have. Some might say it was a bad move for him being my partner; the abuse and misrepresentation that has come my way for no good reason has sometimes rained down on him. His years of volunteer work for a progressive, democratic Greens have made a huge difference.

I also wish to thank Jack Mundey. The green bans movement, which Jack led, helped give the Greens our name. The green bans style of radical work, supporting grassroots initiatives, building broad alliances and taking direct action, continues to serve as a great model for the mass campaigns we now need to build and win. It was thanks to a CFMEU green ban and a massive community campaign that we saved the iconic Bondi Pavilion from a Liberal-planned privatisation. We had a similar battle in 1987 and a repeat in 2017, and we won on both occasions. To Jack and all the BLs, although our workplaces are worlds apart, your political style and approach has been with me every day as a Greens MP.

I would like to thank all my friends and colleagues who have joined us today. I know it’s a long way to travel. Particular thanks to Kerry Nettle, a former senator of this place, and David Shoebridge, a Greens MP in the New South Wales parliament.

Before I came into parliament, I believed that people working together are the drivers of progressive change. Our history illustrates this truth. Winning the right to vote for Indigenous people and for women, withdrawing our troops from Vietnam, ending apartheid in South Africa, securing decent employment conditions, saving the Franklin River and, most recently, the marriage equality victory and so much more testify to this truth. The streets are where the action is. I’ve been privileged to be a member of two parliaments. I’m leaving parliament, but I’m not leaving politics. I look forward to returning to the streets. Thank you very much to all my colleagues in this place.

Link to parliamentary Hansard