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Rachel Siewert - Farewell Speech

 I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunawal people, and I acknowledge elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the boodja which I live and work on, Boorlo, Perth. Boorlo is located in the country of the Whadjuk Noongar people, who have been the traditional owners of the south-west of Western Australia for at least 45,000 years. Sovereignty of this land was never ceded.

This land always was and always will be Aboriginal land. First Nations peoples continue to practise their culture and strengthen their communities, despite the policies and interventions of governments over the more than two centuries that white people have been here and that Australia has been colonised. Their culture is thriving and growing and their fight for justice is gaining momentum, despite the punitive and paternalistic policies of successive governments that have sought to deny First Nations peoples their rights and their proper place at the heart of our nation. Having the longest living history and culture still thriving on this ancient continent is what helps make us uniquely Australian.

It has been a great pleasure to work with First Nations peoples and organisations around this country. Thank you to all of the First Nations organisations and groups I have worked with over these 16 years. Thank you for your support and your knowledge and wisdom that you have shared. There is still so much unfinished business with many injustices that need to be put right. We still have some of the worst First Nations health, education, employment and life expectancy outcomes in the world. We have by far the highest rates of overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in our child protection system. The numbers of Aboriginal youth within our justice systems are the worst of any developed nation in the world. I am so pleased there will be two strong and determined Aboriginal women as part of our Greens team in this place to drive change.

It has been a privilege to represent the people of Western Australia in the Senate. I have always been driven by achieving better outcomes for people and planet. Just to confirm, this is my formal farewell speech. However, as I will be here for another week, provided we are sitting, it won't be my very last word. You can't expect, surely, that I will sit here silently for a week. You're spot-on. In my first speech I said:

We need to remember that we live in a community, not an economy, that our economy is one means of sustaining that community—an important part, definitely, but only one. It is one we need to get right, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Ultimately, what we all want is the opportunity to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. If instead of striving to be richer we could strive to be more equal, everyone's wellbeing would improve and we would have healthier communities based on compassion, honesty, fairness, justice, respect and equality.

This statement is as true today as it was 16 years ago. We've seen over the last two decades what happens when we put the interests of the wealthy ahead of those of the broader community. Wealth doesn't trickle down and it doesn't float all those boats. Now more than ever it is critical that we put the people and the planet ahead of all else. The pandemic has laid bare how important a strong and inclusive community is and how important it is to look out for everyone in our community.

COVID showed us that poverty is a political choice. In a country as wealthy and prosperous as Australia, it is shameful and unacceptable that we have so many people living below the poverty line and that so many are homeless and struggle to have enough to eat. Early on in the pandemic crisis we had a small taste of what it could be like if our economy were truly designed to serve us. Briefly across the political spectrum we were all truly in it together and focused on the best community outcomes. For the first time in over two decades people on income support had enough to get by, those experiencing homelessness were given shelter and communities came together to support each other.

After having campaigned in this chamber and across the country for an increase in income support for well over a decade, I was in fact overjoyed when the government suddenly doubled the rate of the JobSeeker payment during COVID. After decades of community campaigning, we finally got to see firsthand the dramatic increase in the quality of life brought about because people who were being marginalised and excluded finally received an adequate living income. We heard firsthand the impact this made on people on income support, and I shared many of these accounts that were entrusted to me in this chamber.

The COVID crisis shone a light on how broken our social security net really is. Suddenly, a significant number of Australian householders needed to access income support for the first time in their lives. In doing so, many people discovered how complicated and punitive our social safety net has become. We saw the biggest shift in attitudes in decades everywhere across our communities, but it turns out unfortunately those attitudes towards the poor and the excluded did not shift very far in this place. For decades there has been an approach by successive governments, reinforced by our mainstream media, that seeks to undermine the character of those who are struggling to get by and seeks to blame them for the desperate circumstances they find themselves in. Our income support system seems designed to grind people down, to rob their lives of hope and meaning, rather than to assist them to find their purpose in their life, to make a contribution to society and to have a good life.

We are again seeing the government pursuing people for overpayment errors, many of them most likely by Centrelink. At the same time, our Treasurer and Prime Minister refuse to do anything to recover the hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper subsidies made to billionaires and big corporations. Have we learned nothing from robodebt? Through this crisis the government has clearly shown that poverty is a political choice that we quite deliberately continue to choose to make. We have seen how they can provide our citizens who are out of work with a living wage and how effectively this stimulates local economies and improves outcomes for our community. Instead, they've chosen to entrench economic inequality by only increasing the JobSeeker payment by a mere $3 a day, keeping the payment below the poverty line. Remember, this includes single parents, people with a disability who can't get DSP, older workers being discriminated against and the ageing entering retirement in poverty. We could and should imagine a country where everyone has the opportunity to live their best life, to find and develop their talents, to follow their passions and build meaning and purpose in their lives, to be given the opportunity to make a contribution to our community and to be recognised for it.

Our role in this place should be to make these dreams possible, not to crush them. We are given a unique opportunity here to help create a better country. Now is the time for an unconditional liveable income so that nobody has to live in poverty in this country.

Now I would like to turn to the biggest crisis we all face, the one that threatens not just our health and wellbeing but the health and resilience and ongoing viability of all life on this planet. It is with a heavy heart and an immense sense of disappointment and frustration that I stand here and acknowledge that, after 16 years in this place, we as a parliament representing the Australian community have failed to achieve anything meaningful and constructive for them in the face of this existential threat of climate change. We had legislation, and it was starting to work. And it was torn up. Shame!

We are in a climate crisis. It is code red. The first duty of a government should be to keep people safe. We do have a duty of care to all our children and our future generations. In the last few years we have seen the start of a dreadful acceleration of the rate of catastrophic-climate extreme-weather events across Australia and around the world. We have faced fires on a scale and ferocity never seen before, knowing at the same time that the conditions will only get worse. Droughts, cyclones and floods continue to become more frequent and more severe. As we continue to cause more widespread damage, the resilience of our ecosystems and their ability to recover and to continue to sustain life is eroded. In turn, their degradation and loss contributes more greenhouse gases. It's a vicious cycle.

The climate crisis is damaging our vital ecosystems, all the life we share this planet with, our health, our water, our ability to grow food and the air we breathe. Climate change now threatens all species. If we fail to act quickly and comprehensively, many more species will be lost to extinction within our lifetimes. All the while, donations from fossil fuel industries continue to influence political decision-making. The latest IPCC report adds more detail to the science and more certainty to the predictions of temperature rises and habitat loss. But, fundamentally, we already knew and had known for a long time that we have to act with a sense of extreme urgency. This is a collective shame on this place, in my opinion. History will judge us very harshly because the evidence is there in black and white, in the Hansard, that we knew about this monumental threat to our community and our planet.

When the lives and livelihoods of Australians were threatened by the coronavirus, governments listened to the science and took action. It is beyond time to treat the climate crisis as the national emergency that it is and take urgent action. We are running out the clock on this crisis. We have very little time left to prevent catastrophic climate change. We already know that the last two decades of inaction have cost us and our children very dearly. Increasingly, there is a risk that things will get away from us and our effort will be too little, too late.

I would like to reflect on some of the important and often unrecognised work that we have achieved in this place. Unfortunately, parliamentarians agreeing and working together is not all that newsworthy. I think perhaps we all, including the media, should look at what we click on, and report, that reinforces conflict and controversy, and at failing to seek out and share stories of good processes delivering positive and good outcomes.

One of the ways that we can achieve outcomes is through the committee process—and it would come as no surprise to anyone in this chamber that I'm a big supporter of the committee process. I acknowledge that not all the inquiries we undertake through the committee process have us singing kumbaya and agreeing, but there have been some very good outcomes from committees and they drive change. It's been my privilege to be the chair of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee for a number of years. Working together in committees, and with communities, we've been able to shine a light on many, many issues. These include: past adoption practices; the experiences of former child migrants and forgotten Australians; hearing health; suicide prevention; violence and abuse and neglect of disabled people; indefinite detention of people with cognitive and psychiatric impairment in Australia; the aged-care workforce; out-of-home care; grandparent carers; income inequality; Lyme disease; robodebt; and so many more.

One inquiry that stands out for me is the 2012 inquiry into forced adoptions. I will never forget the trust and confidence people in the community had in the committee to share their very personal and often deeply traumatic experiences. Because of their courage, we exposed this dark chapter of our history and made immeasurable changes to the lives of those in our community who were so badly affected by this inhumane treatment. That is where this place shines. I remember so clearly the day we delivered the report: people spoke and we in this chamber all stood up and clapped for the mothers, the children and those affected by forced adoptions, who were all in the gallery. We clapped for them, and it was a day I think we can all be proud of.

During my time here, I've been supported by so many parliamentary staff. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Procedure Office, the Table Office, the Library, Hansard, the Comcar drivers and all the wonderful people who keep this place running. And where would we be without our fix from Aussies?

Thanks to the amazing and fantastic chamber attendants who keep us all on track: Stephen, Diane, Wally, Rosemary, Adrienne and Fiona. I would like to thank all the committee staff for their dedication and support during the many Senate inquiries I have chaired, referred and participated in. In particular, I'd like to thank the community affairs committee secretariat for their support and for always ensuring that we can hear the experiences and voices of the community in this place. One of the important things that I hope will continue is that we ensure that we hear the voices of the community in this place.

My work would have been greatly diminished if it had not been for the support and generosity of our deeply valued stakeholders and the community and not-for-profit sectors. I would not have been able to manage my portfolio responsibilities and campaigns without your expertise and the time you have spent over many, many years investing in various issues, campaigning and advocating for change in this place. I thank you for your invaluable help to help us raise pressure and bring the issues out here in this chamber. I think together we have made some changes to some key issues.

I would also like to thank all the staff who have worked within my office, the whip's office, the whip's clerks and the broader Greens teams over the last 16 years. I have received so much support from all of you over many years, and I could not have done the work that I've done without your dedication, expertise and patience. I would like to make a special shout-out to all my office staff over the years. It's a long list. Thanks to Rebecca, Bridget, Nicola, Scott, Fluffy, Tim, Chris, Dee, Donna, Tenille, Jo, Nadine, Georgia, Andrew, Jess, Eloise, Fernando, Claire, Harriet, Ryan, Tarek, Ogy, Elliott, Giz, Dave, Alan and my current amazing team: Rose, Lucy, Cana, Grace and Alison. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We have truly operated as a team at all times, and I will miss you so much. I note that a lot of those staff are currently working for other Greens senators, in the Australian Greens or in the leader's office, and many have gone on to other very exciting work.

As I said in my first speech, I stand here as the fourth in a line of strong Greens women from the west. I pay tribute to Jo Vallentine, Christabel Chamarette and Dee Margetts, and I thank them for the support they have given me over the years. I know that our next WA senator, Dorinda Cox, is also a force from the west, and she is very strongly to be reckoned with. Thank you to all our volunteers at Greens WA. Your commitment to our values and your passion for making our community better mean that I have been lucky enough to be able to represent you and our beautiful state for the last 16 years.

When I started out here we were a much smaller team. In fact, there were just four of us. I want to pay tribute to Bob Brown and Christine Milne, who both guided and mentored me during the beginnings of my political career. It did take me a long time to realise I was actually a politician. I would also like to thank Richard and Adam for their support, guidance and commitment to our Greens movement, and I thank all my party room colleagues. It's such a shame you can't be here. I'm sending my love to you all. Thank you very much. I have enjoyed working with all of you, It's been a great honour. I would also like to thank, again from the bottom of my heart, all the people who have sent me such lovely messages over the last couple of days. It's very much appreciated. Senator Keneally, I'm using your trick of the tongue in the top of the mouth!

Finally, importantly, I would like to thank my family. We all in this place have the same family issues as everybody else. We have our ups and downs. We have family crises, children being sick or simply young people being teenagers. We support our parents as they age. We cope with the loss of loved ones. So often, our families have to cope with these issues without us because we are in Canberra, on the road or in a meeting. We all have missed, I'm sure, so many family occasions. My son will really hate me saying this, but I missed his school ball and seeing him in his formal suit. That can never happen again, and so many people in here have had the same.

My family's love, support and understanding have seen me through many challenges, and I'm so lucky to have you by my side. During this journey, it's been up and down and bumpy sometimes, but overall I think that we have managed to make some change. Thank you all, to my family, for being there and being on my side. I thank everybody in this place also for the support that you have shown and given to me. Thank you.

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