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Balancing the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 4 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (13:04):  It is now over three years since I stood in this chamber and made my first speech. At that time I was very mindful of the responsibility and the trust the voters of South Australia had placed in me. In 2011 I looked forward to my future work in the Senate with a mixture of both urgency and optimism. Today, just over halfway through my term, it is a good time to take stock. I am still very conscious of the trust and responsibility that I carry, and it is clear to me that there is so very much to do to see the kind of Australia that I want to bequeath to my kids: a healthy, fair and caring society and one where we all have a chance to participate fully, to live together in peace and to feel proud of who we are no matter our nationality, our religion, our wealth or our sexuality. It will embody some of the best aspects of the Australia where I grew up, with a unifying belief in the principle of giving people a fair go and a strong sense of connection and community.

The urgency I felt three years ago has not abated, and I am still optimistic because in the end it is the only option, but we must never take progress for granted. We must remain vigilant and fight to make sure we do not go backwards at the whim of a relatively few powerful people who are effective and ruthless at advancing their own interests even though it damages or destroys many others. The struggle to combat climate change, to urgently reduce the carbon pollution which threatens our very future, is a case in point.

The renewable energy target and carbon pricing on electricity saw the electricity generating sector reduce carbon dioxide emissions since 2008, but the government has demolished the carbon price and has deliberately caused uncertainty about the renewable energy target to prop up the profits of its troubled fossil fuel backers.

Since then electricity related carbon emissions are already up 2.1 per cent since June last year, even though electricity output actually fell. This government's deliberate strategy to erode investor confidence in renewable energy has been successful so far. There has been an 88 per cent drop in large-scale renewable energy investment in 2014 in Australia, seeing our global position drop from No. 11 to No. 39 behind renewable energy luminaries like Burma, Panama and Costa Rica.

My state of South Australia has a very proud track record when it comes to renewable energy. It was No. 1 for solar again in 2014 and provided 49 per cent of Australia's total capacity for wind. The renewable energy industry is crucial South Australia's economy. If the RET remains in its current form there will be an extra $2.3 billion in large-scale renewable investment by 2020, with the creation of 2,490 extra jobs-and those jobs are needed in South Australia. The alternative-reducing the RET-would be unconscionable: there would be the loss of that $2.3 billion investment; 990 jobs lost; increasing power bills; local businesses going overseas; and South Australia having to buy more coal and gas from interstate. Any political parties that take us in that direction will stand condemned now and in the future.

Our collective fate depends on preserving the environmental assets which sustain life on earth. The case for protecting the environment is even clearer today than it was in 2011. Every week there is more information to remind us of the way we are overusing the Earth's resources and the consequences, and yet we have a government which has systematically downgraded measures, on so many fronts, to protect the environment we all rely on: delisting World Heritage; reinstating logging; winding back marine parks; and defunding the legal services that help citizens defend the environment on behalf of all of us. How ironic that this is a government which is fond of talking about intergenerational equity. Just last Friday it was the environment minister, Greg Hunt, of all people, who praised his government for:

 ... ensuring that we're not leaving a massive legacy for the next generation, of transferring costs of the next generation.

But that is exactly what they are doing when it comes to environmental integrity. It does not get much more inequitable than to trash the fundamentals of survival-the atmosphere and the environment we live in-leaving our children and our grandchildren with a planet that will struggle to sustain life and a diminishing number of species to share it with.

I will now turn to education because it is hard to think of a more important or pressing investment in our human capital. In my first speech I spoke of the importance of quality public education as a force for building understanding and empathy by bringing Australian kids together and transcending divisions. This seems even more important at this point, at a time when our community has the potential to become more and more fractured-geographically by wealth and privilege, and culturally by background, nationality or religion. Three years on, I am the Australian Greens spokesperson for schools and I want to see a great school for every kid, no matter where they live, country or city; no matter how wealthy their parents are; no matter whether they are Aboriginal or have recently come to Australia from overseas; and no matter whether or not they have a disability. Although we hear a lot of talk about more school choice these days, I believe that real choice, meaningful choice, means having the choice to send your child to the local school knowing they will have access to education-a school that is properly resourced with well supported teachers, strong leadership, buildings and grounds in good condition, warm in winter and cool in summer, materials and technology that are necessary for learning in the modern world and a curriculum that includes academic subjects but is also rich in music, sport, art and creativity. The only way to ensure this-what should be a minimum standard of education for all children-is to have a public education system which is properly funded and supported and available to every child. If parents want to opt out of such a system and choose another option that is their choice; but let that not be because as a society we have chosen not to support and value the system that still guarantees an education for the majority of kids. I am not describing a Rolls-Royce education system here; I am describing the minimum that we as a community should be able to expect if we want to ensure that every kid in Australia has the opportunity to reach their potential.

And why wouldn't we? What society can afford to miss out on the intellectual capital of so many of its young people? The Gonski panel recommended an increased investment in education of $5 billion a year. That would bring us closer to the OECD average and help our poor performance in global literacy and mathematics assessments. They recommended that this funding should be distributed on the basis of need. Just imagine a great school for every kid. What would that look like in Australia?

When I made my first speech I remarked on the legal fictions that successive Australian governments have used to deny our international responsibility for refugees who come to us seeking a place of asylum. Since then, we have seen a government that has unilaterally rewritten the refugee convention to suit its own grubby domestic politics, so that people can be returned to a country where they face torture or worse. I also remarked on the growing divide between rich and poor in Australia, and there is no indication that is getting any better. I am saddened to think that these issues, and many others, remain with us. There is undoubtedly much more work to be done if we are to prevent Australia from becoming a country where people believe they can only survive and prosper at the expense of others. I will continue to do that work.

As I said in my first speech, when I stand here to make my last speech I would like to think I have contributed to making Australia a kinder, fairer place. If we practice kindness and fairness, I believe we can meet the challenges this century undoubtedly brings us. If we act fairly we will balance Australia's interests with those of other nations; we will balance the interests of our species with the needs of others, and by doing so we will actually enhance our own chance of survival; and we will balance the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow.

That is what the Greens stand for. That is why I am proud to be Australian Greens senator. In my future work in this parliament I will continue to be guided by my belief that we do not just inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. That is a guiding principle and one we would all be wise to remember.


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