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Senator Richard Di Natale's Address in Reply Speech

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on, the Ngunawal people, and I want to pay my respects to their elders past and present. I want to acknowledge that their land was stolen and never ceded, and I look forward to a respectful dialogue in the 45th Parliament to achieve a just settlement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country.

Our Constitution says:

… the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws.

It is not just some aspirational statement; it is the law of the country. Our country's future is determined by this chamber as much as it is in the other place across the Marble Foyer. We have the same powers and we are elected to represent the interests of our constituency, our state and the nation. We are not elected to placate the needs of lobbyists in the government's ear and the donors in their pocket.


The government, of course, will argue that it has a mandate to implement its entire election agenda, but it is a facile argument. People cast their vote for a variety of reasons and motivations, and no government can claim to have popular support for each and every issue they hold—especially a government elected with the slimmest of majorities. Let us not forget that those of us elected to this place also have a mandate. We Greens have a mandate to honour and respect the wishes of more than one million Australians who voted Green at this election. They supported us because we believe in tackling dangerous global warming as a matter of urgency. We believe that unless we act now we risk leaving the planet uninhabitable and we will see entire nation states disappear, coastal inundation affect our own homes, our food production threatened and our cities bombarded with heatwaves and storms. We believe that we are a country that should care for people irrespective of their background and life circumstances and whether they have arrived here by boat or by birthright. We believe that poverty and inequality are corrosive, that trickle-down economics has failed and that if we are to realise this nation's true potential we need to make decisions in this place that narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. We believe in a country that enshrines equality in its national laws, whether it be the right to marry someone you love or to live a life free from hate speech.

Caring for people and for the environment that sustains us is what the Greens believe and that is what we will fight for in this, the 45th Parliament. Yet here we are at a critical juncture not just here in Australia but right around the world, and here we see a government totally unprepared to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of us. It is not mitigating catastrophic global warming, eliminating harmful inequality or ending the needless suffering of those seeking our protection. Instead its No. 1 legislative priority is the abolition of the ABCC, which seems to come out of the Prime Minister's desperation to unite a divided party room through a bit of good old-fashioned union bashing. We have seen the carbon price, described globally as template legislation, scrapped. We have seen the renewable energy target wound back and we are on the cusp of destroying research into renewable energy in this country, with over $1 billion taken away from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Australia is on its own in the world. No other country has gone backwards on clean energy policy. We are swimming against the tide of global investment.

Last year's Paris agreement told business and policy makers that we are all heading towards a zero-pollution world. Last year was also the hottest year ever recorded, smashing the previous year's record, which smashed the record before that. We are entering very dangerous territory where any hope of humans curtailing runaway climatic effects and extreme weather is almost out of reach. Yet in the midst of this we have a government whose very own climate policy has little or no chance of achieving its own measly pollution reduction targets. Just look at what is going on in Queensland right now, where the negative impact of tree clearing over the last few years has wiped out the paltry gains made under the government's policies to pay polluters. A staggering one-third of the $6 billion in spending cuts in the government's omnibus bill comes from cutting research, which just makes a mockery of this government's election commitments around innovation.

Under this government poverty is growing, people that need support are falling further behind every year, and regions are becoming more depressed or abandoned in part as a result of trade deals that further concentrate wealth within privileged cliques. We have seen out-of-pocket costs for Australians' medical care on the rise as universal health care is gradually eroded through policies like freezing Medicare indexation and increasing co-payments. Household debt is now the highest in the world, while the astronomical explosion in property prices means that aspiring first home owners can never hope to keep pace with the gains enjoyed by propertied investors, yet the government refuses to tackle negative gearing or capital gains tax reform. We are pricing young people out of the Australian dream.

It seems that Malcolm Turnbull has not learnt the lessons of his predecessor, and he continues to balance the budget off the back of Australia's poorest people. Consider this: he is halting the only real-adjusted improvement in government payments for over 20 years—the clean energy supplement that helps people on low incomes keep the lights on.

We like to talk about the great Australian tradition of egalitarianism and the spirit of the fair go, but they are slowly becoming a thing of the past.

We have to note, with disappointment, that Labor appears set to support both the cuts to renewable energy and to the most vulnerable Australians. I just call on them to reconsider their position and to join with us to oppose those cuts.

We are being told that we need to cut support for the vulnerable—that those with limited means are the ones that have to pay so the government can live within its means. Do not believe it. There are other choices.

Of course we understand that there are structural issues within the budget. It cannot continue on its current trajectory. We accept that.

We should also acknowledge that the structural problems we now face are, in part, due to the huge cash giveaways of the Howard-Costello era that could not be sustained once the rivers of gold from the resources boom dried up: giving successive tax cuts for high income earners, making superannuation earnings tax-free for retirees, taxing capital gains lighter than income and freezing fuel excise. All four of these measures were short-sighted, finely tuned to the electoral cycle and designed to curry favour with their targeted constituencies.

Taxing capital gains as income has been ruled out by the government, despite three-quarters of the benefit going to the top 10 per cent of income earners. And, not content with having inflicted around $40 billion in lost revenue through those massive income-tax cuts of the Howard-Costello era, the Liberals now want to go further in this budget by reducing taxes for the top 25 per cent of taxpayers.

The Greens stand unequivocally against this failed trickle-down theory that pretends that somehow tax cuts for high income earners will magically create prosperity for everyone else. The US writer Will Rogers took on the theory when he said of President Hoover: 'President Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn't know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night. But at least it will have passed through the poor fellow's hands.' That is what we are dealing with right now: a failed ideology that this government continues to pursue.

It comes down to priorities. Tough decisions cannot be made until we get priorities lined up with what the public wants and deserves. How on earth is it possible that we can go to an election campaign with a bipartisan commitment for a two per cent spend on defence spending—an incredible increase in the defence budget—and yet have no targets for spending on health or education? Few everyday Australians would support that nonsense. Yet it is the policy of both of the major parties. How is it that industry policy is only directed at military hardware in marginal states? Again, remarkable—having industry policy dressed up as defence policy.

Why are we not declaring war on runaway greenhouse pollution—something that we know actually threatens us right here right now? We could use industry policy to create jobs and secure a bright future through building clean energy right across the country. We could get investment in the right places through investing in productive infrastructure and investing in people to break entrenched inequality, and pricing harm so that the community no longer has to wear the costs and we put an end to big business and big polluters getting big benefits.

Solid, stable revenue means we can create jobs and prosperity in areas that the private sector simply will not invest in: public education; public health care; Indigenous rangers to care for country; protecting the reefs and forests; preventive health and research into new frontiers that will help us reap benefits into the future. These are all jobs-rich pursuits that enhance the national interest. When the Treasurer says, 'You need to cut taxes for the wealthy to create jobs,' the jobs that he is talking about are jobs like tax advising, financial planning and property conveyancing, and jobs for luxury car salesmen.

The choices that we make today determine the character and quality of our nation. And these choices—let us forget all the posturing and rhetoric—are ultimately made by us. We senators decide who carries the burden of budget decisions. Should it be single parents or multinational tax dodgers, superannuants, polluting industries or workers whose jobs have disappeared? It is our heavy responsibility, because it is we who will make these decisions.

We senators also have to choose whether we want to unite this nation or to divide it. This country will be watching some new senators' first speeches very closely in the coming days to see whether it is division or unity that is offered to the Australian people. When I had the great privilege of giving my first speech, I said:

Multiculturalism is one of this country's enduring successes. Rather than dividing us it compels us to be clear about those things that unite us as a community: respect for our democratic institutions, for universal human rights and for equality of opportunity. The real value of multiculturalism lies … in the fact that relationships with people from different cultures offer important insights into our own.

We often hear about newly arrived migrants having to adopt our values—to share our values. But let us remember: we also learn from theirs. And I stand here today as the proud son of an immigrant family. It was national leadership, embodied in the courage and vision of politicians who came before us who made some tough decisions, that enabled my parents to seek out and create a better life for themselves and for their children. But I do fear that we are on the precipice of damaging support for what I think is one of this nation's greatest achievements: our multicultural nation.

Let us always remain united against harmful views that scapegoat one group of people for the problems of another. I understand that people who advocate that division often do so because they feel frustrated or marginalised and left behind. We need to work hard. We need to engage with them. We need to understand people's concerns. We need to address, first and foremost, their social and economic needs.

But hurtful and divisive attacks on people from different cultures or religions should be called out, not given a silent nod of approval or used in some proxy war to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act. And make no mistake: the Greens will call them out. There is no place for racism or bigotry in this chamber or indeed in the Australian nation—no place at all. Let's not use mealy-mouthed words to justify actions that have no justification in this parliament. Racism damages people, it harms people, and we have a duty to call it out whenever we see it, wherever we see it.

Thankfully, we know that the overwhelming majority of Australians are with us. They embrace diversity. And we must give strength and support to the positive voices of hope and inclusion in our communities so that they can speak out and shine a light on the path forward that we must take together as a nation. The indifference to the future of First Australians cannot continue as it is. In his 1968 Boyer Lecture, WEH Stanner called out the 'great Australian silence'—that Indigenous voices were completely missing from the Australian story. While our history books may have been corrected somewhat, our statutes and policy books are still part of that great Australian silence. On that note I want to acknowledge Senator Pat Dodson and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy: you will both make this chamber a better place, and we welcome you here.

The First Australians have still not seen any fundamental shift towards involvement in policy development or control over service delivery really since the apology to the stolen generations. I was there as an observer, sitting there on the lawn watching that speech. It was an inspiring gesture to open the parliament almost 10 years ago with the apology to the stolen generations—a rare moment of unity, something that we all should embrace. There were very high expectations that a new dawn had arrived: the First Australians and all Australians with political power, walking on a shared pathway together. But it is with great sadness that I have to say that things in many respects have gone backwards since that moment. The bipartisan approach, with the heavy-handed intervention in the Northern Territory, and the BasicsCard, show that we have so much more work to do. Whitefellas are still making all the decisions.

We remain the only postcolonial country without a treaty, and crucial Closing the Gap indicators are either stubbornly unchanged or going backwards as a result. We Greens stand here ready to offer a brighter future. We offer the Australian community a voice for a long-term vision for this country that does not take the easy way out, that has the courage to take up these difficult challenges and to turn them into national advantages, national prosperity. We do not fear being the lone advocate in this place for the thousands of innocent people who are being locked up in detention centres under laws sanctioned by this chamber. We will never tolerate knowingly and willingly punishing these people to send a message to another group of people. No decent society does that. And we do not fear the political cost for advocating against the damage done to innocent people in this government's name. The Prime Minister talks about the morality of budget repair, but what about the immorality of locking up innocent people—innocent children—indefinitely in those offshore hellholes?

We do not fear arguing forcefully for the opportunities of shifting towards a clean energy economy as the global transition moves forward, with or without us. We do not fear raising debt to build crucial public infrastructure that will enhance our national productivity. We understand that debt is sometimes necessary for the nation to advance and prosper. The outgoing Reserve Bank Governor, Glenn Stevens, told us that monetary policy has reached its limits in our current economic environment and that now it is up to fiscal policy, and particularly infrastructure spending, to carry us through into the new economy. We will carry this message through the parliament.

We do not fear increases in spending on quality health care and education. What is the purpose of having a debate around our budget if we are not talking about the things that advance us as a society? What is the purpose of raising revenue if not to provide for universal essential services to the citizens of this country? We do not fear raising revenue to fix our budget challenges. For years we have advocated that we have a problem with revenue in this nation, and we welcome the reluctant acknowledgement of that, only recently, by the Treasurer. We have options available to us to fund the public services that Australians want and deserve. We can charge mining companies excise on their fuel, like ordinary, everyday Australians pay, and charge the big four banks for the huge advantages they get from being too big to fail. We can put a price back on pollution and crack down on tax avoidance by companies and wealthy individuals and redirect the wasteful private health insurance rebate into prevention and dental care.

The election platform that the Greens took to this most recent election shows that we can create a fairer society—one that protects the environment, one that cares for people, one that invests in public infrastructure—while reducing the budget deficit. We can re-create the Australia of the fair go, and this is the vision the Australian Greens put forward to the 45th parliament.

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