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First Speech


Senator Urquhart (Tasmania) (17:02): Thank you, Mr President. I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders. I am proud and humbled to be a representative in the Australian Senate for the people of Tasmania—an idyllic island state where I was born and raised. This great country, Australia, provides opportunities for people from all walks of life, regardless of their educational qualifications, to work hard and make a better life. My working life began on the afternoon shift at the potato factory in Ulverstone, and who would have imagined that beginning would have led me to be standing here today delivering my first speech.

Australians can achieve anything with desire, hard work and opportunity. From those first few months on that factory floor I have spent my life representing workers, those who felt they did not have the capacity or the opportunity to speak up for themselves. It is my goal in this place to represent all Tasmanians and, in particular, those Tasmanians who struggle to be heard. I stand here today as one of six Tasmanian Labor senators, one of three Labor women elected on the 2010 Senate ticket. Congratulations to Helen and Lisa, I look forward to working with you both, along with Carol, Catryna and Nick.

I was born in Latrobe, Tasmania, the second child of Tom and Betty Polden. My older sister Jan, younger brother Adrian and I had a happy childhood. I have fond memories of the time spent with our grandparents, Nanny and Granddad Blazely, who worked a dairy farm at Meander—a beautiful farming community nestled under the Great Western Tiers. Granddad worked hard all his life. When he was young, he worked in the bush splitting shingles and squaring sleepers.

I recall mum telling us that when she was a toddler, she lived with Nanny and Granddad in a bush tent outside Eden, in New South Wales, so Granddad was able to work in the bush. This would have been an extremely hard place for Nanny to be raising a child; something we would not entertain today!

Sunday lunches were nearly always held at Nanny and Granddad Polden’s home at Quoiba near Devonport. The family feasted on the traditional roast meal, and we would never get out the door without a basket full of food for our school lunches. My favourites were Nanny’s chocolate brownies and raspberry slice, and even with the exact recipe I can never get them to taste the same as when she made them. How lucky I am that I was able to grow up having such great times with my grandparents.

It is great to look back and know that our children also grew up to experience love from all four of their great-grandparents as well. My mum is the eldest of 13 children, while my dad was an only child. Mum was determined that we would have all the chances in life that she was never able to. I was able to learn ballet and piano and enjoy many other experiences my mother could not have. I always dreamed of being in the Australian Ballet, but unfortunately by the time I was old enough they did not make tutus in my size!

Dad was extremely proud and excited when I was elected to the Senate last year, as he was with all of his children’s achievements. He was looking forward to being here tonight, but sadly he passed away on 16 May following a short illness. Although Dad isn’t here today, he was able to enjoy the knowledge that I had been elected, and we did get to celebrate both this and the achievement of my sister obtaining her advanced diploma in nursing last year, with Dad insisting on taking us all out to dinner. Dad, you are greatly missed by us all, but we are richer for having such a wonderful man as our father.

In July 1980, I commenced work at the Edgell-Birds Eye factory at Ulverstone, now Simplot. I worked afternoon shifts so my husband, Graham, could care for our four-year-old twins, Jason and Belinda, after his day at work. It was here that a work colleague and friend, Jenny Clarke, encouraged me to become a union delegate for the Food Preservers Union. Ten years later, in August 1990, I became an organiser with the Food Preservers Union, which later amalgamated to become the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the AMWU. Following this amalgamation I had the pleasure of representing not only food workers but also metal workers, print workers, vehicle workers and technical workers—quite a diverse group. This provided me with the opportunity to meet people from right across our great island state. In doing this I regularly clocked up over 50,000 kilometres each year. After six years as the AMWU’s Tasmanian president and with the support of Senator Doug Cameron, who was then the national secretary of the AMWU, I became the first female state secretary of the AMWU in 2004, and held that position until May this year.

My union has a strong history of representing the rights of its members and of setting the progressive agenda for all workers. The AMWU seeks to create opportunities for jobs growth and is not about turning a blind eye to progress. The AMWU is the driver of innovation, which is demonstrated in the AMWU plan for low-emissions industry and technology development in Australia—a plan that was released in May this year. I would like to pay tribute to the current national leadership of Dave Oliver and Paul Bastian, two great union leaders who I have had the pleasure of working with over many years.

There is much commentary about these roles. The term ‘union boss’ is flung around by parts of the media and those on the opposite benches as some sort of a negative. Well, I am proud to have been a union boss. It is a job that is hard work, but it is also extremely satisfying. I have spent many bitterly cold Tasmanian mornings and late nights at work sites, providing information to members, listening to their concerns and then bargaining on their behalf. I have held positions on both the ACTU and Unions Tasmania executives, as well as on Tasmanian industry councils. In these roles my focus was always on protecting and strengthening workers’ rights and long-term jobs growth for our future. I am and will always remain a proud member of the AMWU.

The years I spent in the trade union movement also led me to take an interest in politics and I joined the Australian Labor Party in 1995. I have represented the AMWU at every Tasmanian state conference since 1995, putting forward motions dealing with workers compensation, training opportunities and improving conditions not just for AMWU members but for all workers. Although none of our motions were opposed, progress in getting these improvements to legislation has been slow. For many years the same motions would be proposed, and I am heartened to say that some progress has been made in some of these areas. My work as a union official would not have been possible without the hard work of AMWU delegates representing union members in their workplaces. The delegate’s role is one of the hardest jobs in the union. Rarely is the delegate rewarded with even a thank you, and when times in a workplace are difficult delegates are usually the first person workers will go to. To all the delegates I have worked with, I say: ‘Thank you for the role you have played and continue to play. Thank you, for ensuring union members are represented in their workplaces. And, thank you for the support you provided me as an official.’

My time with the AMWU provided me with many long-lasting friendships and great comrades. I have worked with many loyal and committed people, in particular, my dear friend Jennifer Dowell. We carry with us always our days with the ‘foodies’. We forged not only a great working relationship, but a friendship for life, and I am pleased that she is able to be here tonight. The list is long but I would also like to mention, Shane Littler, Donna Sargent, Peter ‘Secret’ Cozens, John Short and my friend Bryan Green, the Deputy Premier of Tasmania. These people were great to work with and we have some unforgettable memories.

During my years in the trade union movement, there has been a change of workplace culture in many areas of the Australian manufacturing industry, particularly in the treatment of women in the industry, although there is still more to do. Gone are the days where women could not drive forklifts, because it was a ‘man’s job’. Gone are the days when women were given the lower paid jobs and the men were given the higher paid jobs. Now the jobs are awarded on skills not gender. Unfortunately, this struggle has not been won across all sectors. We still have a way to go in the community, retail and childcare sectors.

I welcome the historic decision by Fair Work Australia in May this year that recognises that social and community services workers in the not-for-profit sector are underpaid and that part of the reason is that this sector is female dominated. I also recognise the support that the Australian and state Labor governments have provided in their submissions to this case. I await with interest Fair Work Australia’s decision on the level of the pay increase. It is imperative that all governments, state and federal, work together to meet their responsibilities and provide funding increases that the independent umpire decides are appropriate.

One of the most significant campaigns organised by the trade union movement, that I have been involved in, was the Your Rights at Work campaign. This campaign saw the end of WorkChoices, legislation in which many workers’ conditions were put back decades. Workers no longer felt they could speak up for fear of reprisal, something no human being should feel. Australians should have the right to go to work, participate in their workplace, be shown respect, receive a decent wage and get home safely to their family. This was one of the most well-known and effective campaigns during my years in the trade union movement. I am honoured and proud to have played a role in it and in the abolition of WorkChoices. As Martin Luther King Jr said:

History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.

I say: may we never see anything like Work Choices before this place again.

As I outlined earlier, I worked at the Simplot factory in jobs which are labelled by many as unskilled. I stand here today to dispute this. Having been one of those ‘unskilled’ workers, I know just how many skills are needed to run the machines within the factory, how many skills are needed to conduct tests in the laboratory, how many skills are needed to pack the product ready for distribution and how many skills are needed to inspect the product to ensure food safety is paramount, and I know that all these jobs require a high skill level. The AMWU food division has sought to ensure that food workers, these so-called unskilled workers, have their skills recognised within the structure of the Australian Qualifications Framework. This has been an extremely long road, with resistance from many employers. There was a fear that providing workers with recognition of their skills would cost them more, with no benefits. Through the hard work of my union, its delegates and its members, food workers in many food and confectionery factories are now recognised for their on-the-job and other training. This competency based training counts towards a trade qualification, providing evidence to employers of the skills a worker possesses. Some employers now recognise the benefits of competency based training results in improved information for management on the skills a worker holds and any future training requirements that are needed. Productivity levels have increased and, also importantly, morale in these factories has improved.

I recall when the Simplot Scottsdale factory closed in 2003. It was important to ensure the workers were given recognition of the skills they had learnt on the job over the years of their employment. Many of these workers had joined the workforce directly from high school and some had even left school early to work at the factory. A number of them had low levels of literacy and numeracy. For most workers, the skills learnt on the job had never been linked to a qualification. People did not think they would need to worry about it—management or workers. But all workers had skills that could be transferable to a new workplace.

On one occasion at the factory, I was having a conversation with Wally, who had worked there for over 35 years. I asked him what he thought he might do after the closure and whether or not he had obtained any certificates through recognition of prior learning. Wally told me that he was not sure that he would have any qualifications, other than his BA. I was taken aback. I thought, ‘How did Wally have the time to complete a Bachelor of Arts while working shift work for so many years?’ And Wally did not strike me as being someone who would be interested in this type of qualification. I said to him: ‘I didn’t know you had a BA! When and where did you do that?’ He replied, ‘I did it couple of years ago when it was offered across the factory.’ He and some others had done it together. This made me more inquisitive. After more questioning of him, I learnt that Wally’s BA was a certificate for his breathing apparatus training. It was the acronym that he and his workmates had used for the course. Wally was extremely proud of his competency and that it had been recognised with a vocational certificate. For many of these workers, like Wally, who left school at an early age, obtaining a certificate to recognise their skills gave them a sense of accomplishment they were rarely able to experience.

Competency based training has given food workers the opportunity to obtain a qualification that is equal to that of tradespeople. The recognition of prior learning importantly also gives workers a sense of achievement that they have never experienced before. Men and women like Wally, with years of toil and years of being told that they are ‘unskilled’, are provided with a certificate that says, ‘We recognise what you’re capable of.’ All workers, regardless of their previous education, should be able to achieve a qualification that has portability for them to take wherever their life takes them.

I would like to thank my friend Les Cameron for the support, knowledge and assistance he has given to me and those workers over the many years of the implementation of the food processing certificate qualification. Les’s manner and the way in which he goes about his role makes people with all levels of education feel comfortable about having their skills recognised within the structure of the Australian Qualifications Framework.

The path my life has taken would not have been possible without the love and support of my parents, Tom and Betty. Mum is here tonight. Thanks, Mum, for always being there and giving us all those opportunities. To my husband of 35 years, Graham, you have always been there to support me, always been there to accompany me and always been prepared to offer advice, even when I thought I did not need it. I thank you for your unconditional love.

My thanks also goes to my sister Jan, who could not be here tonight. She is busy preparing to donate a kidney to her husband, Max. The achievements in her life have been an inspiration to me. And thanks to my brother, Adrian, and his wife, Kim, who have come from Karratha to be here tonight. Their constant interest and encouragement in the choices I have made have always meant a great deal to me. Thank you also to my extended family. To our two children, Jason and Belinda, you have grown into adults that we are extremely proud of. You are providing a safe, loving environment for our four grandchildren. Thank you both. Belinda and her husband have recently moved back to Tasmania from Western Australia. It is great to have them back home and to have them here tonight. Our eldest grandson, Shaun, is in his third year of a boilermaker-welder apprenticeship—something he dreamed of doing for several years. When he was in grade 10 he was even more positive that an apprenticeship was what he wanted to do. His mother said to him, ‘If that’s what you want to do, then go for it.’ Although quietly spoken and reasonably shy, he went out and did just that. He is now excelling at his trade and loving it. Aydan, our second eldest, is in grade 8. Since returning home he is enjoying the lifestyle that rural Tasmania offers. It is great to have one of our grandchildren so close. We hope Shaun will return from Western Australia when his apprenticeship is completed.

Our two youngest, Charlize and Cody, are also in Western Australia, with their parents, Jason and Hayley. They could not be here tonight because of work commitments, but I know they are here in spirit. As a grandparent, I hope they are able to have every opportunity to achieve whatever they want from life. I know their parents will assist them in achieving their goals.

I see it as my role in this place to ensure that we leave to our grandchildren an Australia that is better than it is today. My party, the ALP, is the party to do that. It is a party that has a long-term vision for this nation. It is all well and good for the Premier of Western Australia, Mr Colin Barnett, to take cheap shots at the Tasmanian economy. What Premier Barnett conveniently forgets is that Tasmania is in fact the second-fastest growing state economy in Australia. We are growing faster than Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Tasmania has come a long way under a state Labor government. Our unemployment rate has gone from double digits to around 5½ per cent. Our population has grown, and we have the second-lowest taxation severity of all states. We do make a fair contribution to the national economy, and in many areas we lead the nation. Tasmania continues to be a state of opportunity.

Some credit for the resilience and strength of the Tasmanian economy must be given to the track record of the state Labor government. I am currently a Tasmanian ALP vice-president. I thank the state ALP for the support they have provided me. Since joining the ALP I have met many great people and made many friendships along the way, and I would like to mention just a few of these. I thank Senator Carol Brown for her friendship and guidance. Carol is always there for that reality check when needed. I also thank Carol’s staff, Brenton, Stuart, Julie and Rikki, for their ongoing support and assistance; Julie Collins, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Services—a hardworking and outstanding member for Franklin; John Dowling, State Secretary of the ALP, for his good humour, advice and assistance; and the Tasmanian Young Labor group: you are an inspiration, and I know our great party will be in good hands into the future.

To the members of the Bridgewater/Brighton and Leven branches of the ALP: it has been great being a rank-and-file member of your branches. I thank the many branches who sent letters of congratulation on my election to the Senate. I thank my great staff: Lyn, with whom I have worked for the past 20 years; Amanda; and Matt. They are all here tonight. And I thank Ian, who just joined us a couple of weeks ago and is holding the fort back home.

I also thank the Clerk of the Senate and all the staff here at Parliament House. Your knowledge, support, friendliness and assistance have been invaluable in working through the maze of information, areas and procedures of this house. I have had the pleasure of working with an enormous number of people from many backgrounds over the past 30 years. Each of them has given me experiences. Some I have enjoyed and want to remember; some I would rather forget. But they have all been experiences and part of life’s learning, and I guess the experiences I have here will be similar. I am excited by the challenges and opportunities this place brings. During my time in this place I want to be a voice for those who need a voice. I want to offer a helping hand to those who need it and be a strong advocate for Tasmania. I hope that I can contribute to ensuring a better Australia for Shaun, Aydan, Charlize, Cody and for all our grandchildren.