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Valedictory

Carmen Lawrence MP has been an occasional Webdiary columnist for much of Webdiary’s existence – her archive is here and here. This morning she gave me permission to publish her valedictory speech to the House of Representatives.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for occupying the chair at this moment. I appreciate that gesture.

I am retiring not because I have lost interest in policy but because I desire to engage in the community in a different way. I hope I can continue to make a contribution to Australian life. Although I have been in politics for 21 years, I guess I have always believed that politics is not a career or a lifetime occupation; it is a privilege of representation.

You could not expect from me a dispassionate assessment of the Howard-Costello government’s achievements and flaws, but I know that my concerns—which I will enunciate—are shared by a great many Australians. I part company with them and with their views at an early stage of any political debate. I disagree with them not only about how to respond to the challenges we face as a nation but even about what those challenges are. I do not, for example, share the Prime Minister’s image of the ideal Australian—his Australian everyman with a cricket bat and Gallipoli nostalgia. It may be a useful political device but, apart from the fact that it excludes women, it hardly embodies the creativity, energy and vision needed for our times. It is a complacent and limited view of us.

I have been horrified over the time that we have been in opposition and the Howard-Costello government have occupied the opposite benches that they so blithely involved us in the illegal invasion of Iraq, sanctioning the deaths of many thousands of innocent bystanders. Over four years ago, the government joined with the United States and sent our soldiers to invade Iraq. They made a fateful decision while many of us said that they should desist. A lot of Australians protested, multitudes marched and the majority of us made our opposition clear. But we were ignored and derided by the government and their supporters, and the Howard government took us to war. I ask today: whose position has been vindicated? It gives me no pleasure to say it and some, like my mother, would say it is not polite, but we told you so. There is no joy in restating the many forthright and prescient warnings that the Bush administration was about to unleash a whirlwind of destruction, but it must be said since the government have not and apparently will not acknowledge that they were gravely mistaken.

As many anticipated, Iraq is at a stalemate. The war has not yet ended and it shows no sign of diminishing in intensity. The PM’s ‘months not years’ promise looks as foolish as Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands have died, and the cycle of revenge killings has escalated. Bloody suicide bombings are daily events. More than a million people have been displaced within in Iraq, and double that number have fled to neighbouring countries. Ethnic strife is rampant. Children die in droves from preventable diseases, as basic services have been reduced to a primitive state. There are reports today of an outbreak of cholera which has already killed 10 people. The US’s own agencies agree that regional instability is worse and Iraq is now spawning a new generation of Islamic radicalism. As we told the Prime Minister at the time, war is not a solution. I say to the Prime Minister, his cabinet and his members today: you were wrong—appallingly, brutally wrong.

I have been dismayed, too, that on so many fronts the Howard-Costello government capriciously withdrew our support for good international citizenship; that they engineered and justified the brutal treatment of asylum seekers, including little children, and washed their hands of the deaths of over 300 people on the SIEVX; that they surreptitiously endorsed the Hanson agenda; and, I have to say, continue, as one editorial put it, ‘to hector minorities for political gain’. The Howard-Costello government knew which buttons to push and had no compunction about pushing them, despite the potentially damaging consequences to our social fabric. I have disagreed with the government too when they have systematically singled out Indigenous people for ‘special treatment’ to pressure them to assimilate into the mainstream. We have just witnessed in the Northern Territory and indeed have been debating another ‘instant solution’ devised without reference to Indigenous people and without enlisting their engagement. They are to be the objects of policy again rather than its subjects; their agency is denied.

Like many Australians, I have objected to the Howard-Costello government habitually construing disadvantage as resulting from individual moral failing and acting accordingly; that they have been relentless in their attacks on organised labour, so important to protecting the wellbeing of Australian workers; that they have systematically bullied critics into submission, narrowing the sources of advice to government, stacking boards and committees with fellow travellers, politicising the public service and misleading the public on so many occasions that we have lost count; that they have dramatically shifted the provision of health, education and social services toward private consumption and undermined the core of our egalitarianism; that they continue to pay lip service to the very real threats posed by global warming and; that, frankly, they could not give a stuff about the cultural life of the nation.

Reciting the full catalogue of my disaffection would be tedious, but I mentioned those things to give some sense of the scope of my disagreement with the Howard-Costello regime. Since I have a number of colleagues here today—and I thank them for attending—I will now proffer some gratuitous advice to my colleagues who remain and who I hope will be on the government benches after the next election. After a decade of conservative government, there is much to be done. First of all, we need to broaden our horizons about what is possible for our people. It is rare to hear this Prime Minister talk of anything but the state of the economy. He seems to think that Australians are only interested in stuff. I argue that we need a better balance between material goals and the quality of people’s lives. The economy is not all that matters in people’s lives.

Surely, we need a strong economy. But we also need a strong intellectual and creative life. We need the time and capacity to enjoy family, friends and recreation. We need to ensure the protection of and enjoyment of our natural environment. We need active engagement of all community members in the development of that community and the enjoyment of our cultural life and heritage. We should remember too, as the unlikely George Soros has warned, that an open society can be threatened by excessive individualism. He said:

Too much competition and too little cooperation can cause intolerable inequities and instability—

And I agree. The contemporary position of many governments, including this one, is that Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ should be allowed almost unfettered operation to allocate goods and services in our community, including health and education. What that view of the world fails to understand is that Adam Smith himself was a very strong proponent of the need for institutional controls and the insertion of humane values into the operation of the economy because he recognised the limitations of market forces. The marketplace, competition, efficiency—such concepts underestimate the necessary human dimension to our lives. We continue to allow this agenda to dominate our policies at the cost of our humanity, our inventiveness and equality in our society.

Hopefully you will have the opportunity to rethink what constitutes ‘the good life’. I think that is overdue in a world on a fast track to self-inflicted ill health and planet-wide damage to forests, oceans, biodiversity, and other natural resources. It is fair to say that we are consuming the resources of this planet at a pace that far outweighs the planet’s ability to renew them and absorb the resultant wastes. Extraordinary energy and creativity will be required to halt and reverse environmental damage in this country, let alone in other parts of the world, and to make that contribution to the reduction in greenhouse gases. I think it requires no less a change than thinking about the meaning of progress and possibilities for the future. Denial and delay, which we have seen from this government, are simply no longer tolerable. There is a growing awareness amongst Australians that many of our practices are not sustainable: the degradation and loss of soils, air and water pollution, deforestation and global warming, depletion of our resource base and reduction in biodiversity. We need urgently to satisfy our needs, and perhaps to redefine them, with less impact on the earth’s natural environment.

It is clear to anyone who looks that the current pattern of energy use is not sustainable. There is no prospect of extending our pattern of supply and use to the entire human community; it is simply impossible. This will require changes in both personal and political commitment. Finding modes of human development and economic growth which are genuinely sustainable is, I know, a complex task and it requires understanding of the physical, chemical, biological, social, political and economic influences. It is difficult, so perhaps it is understandable—although it is not forgivable—that many have concluded that the task is well nigh impossible and they would rather bury their heads in the sand. The current government certainly behave as if they hope these problems would go away. As Ian Lowe has said: ‘We need to recognise that our society is totally contained within natural ecological systems. There’s no prospect of mass migration to another part of the cosmos if we make a mess of this planet, or a rescue by friendly aliens. We really should be behaving as if we intend to be permanent inhabitants of the earth, rather than temporary visitors with a mission to loot, rape and pillage.’

I am confident that a future Labor government will be a more compassionate administration and will help shape a more compassionate society. The Howard-Costello legacy is dangerous: you get what you deserve and deserve what you get. It is mean-minded and narrow and refuses to acknowledge the role that chance plays in all of our lives or to look at the benefits that are conferred by privilege or the barriers that are confronted by the marginalised. I know that a future Labor government will abandon the routinely punitive response to disadvantage that we have seen. I look forward, too, to a reduced emphasis on fear, threats and coercion which, I have to say in my view, was exemplified in the excessive security response and cost that we saw at APEC.

As the Chasers demonstrated, at one level it was an hilarious overreaction, although at great cost, and I think it made Australia a paranoid laughing stock in parts of the world. I am very keen to see in the future a reverse of the creeping authoritarianism which has been evident in policy, legislation and media commentary in this country. There has been an increasing tendency for our political climate to be dominated by those threats, by insecurity and division, for dissent to be depicted as un-Australian, for the range of opinions shaping government policy to be circumscribed and for public access to information about government actions to be limited. If coercion is to be the underpinning value in public policy, it is inevitable that it will fail.

I hope too—I am confident indeed—that a future Labor government will recognise that imposing policy from outside hardens resistance to it. It is always inferior to encouragement and engagement. Note the comments by Chris Sarra, whose success in the Cherbourg community has been regarded as best practice in Aboriginal education. He said that the federal government’s intervention in the Northern Territory and the punitive response to truancy would reinforce the idea of Aboriginal children as pitiable. He said that we should instead encourage children to be proud and strong, to ensure that schools are places that engage and interest them, that challenge teachers. As he said:

If the teacher believes the child will learn, then the child will learn.

I know too that, under a future Labor government, there will be a renewed commitment to a much more muscular form of egalitarianism in education and health in particular, reducing the gaps, intervening early, making major reforms to Medicare, which are needed if it is to be sustained as a genuinely universal system where quality health care is delivered to everyone regardless of means. Similarly in education: it is a great shame in this country that the educational gap due to socioeconomic status is amongst the widest in the OECD. That represents a terrible waste of talent. It also sells young people short. I think it is important, too, to remember that education is not just about employability. We need a wider set of objectives; we need to advance the expansive development of intellectual powers that go beyond the acquisition of fact and bare proficiency at skills that the labour market requires. We should view education as a public good which benefits everyone by adding skills and knowledge, which improve our society as well as the economy. If we have a well-educated, well-informed, highly trained population our collective benefits are immeasurable. Perhaps that is one reason why the concrete thinkers amongst politicians often fail to take account of them—they cannot run the ruler over them.

Labor will need a specific remedial focus on those who have either been ignored or received the blunt end of the government’s policies. Policy to assist Indigenous Australians in particular should receive the highest priority, the shameful neglect of people with disabilities and their families reversed, assistance and rehabilitation of refugees damaged by incarceration will be needed, as will support rather than coercion of single parents attempting to improve their capacity to support themselves and their children. I would argue too—and I hope Labor will adopt—a comprehensive program of parliamentary and electoral reform. We certainly need a greater engagement of the community in the process and less cynicism.

Finally, I know that a Rudd Labor government will renew our commitment to be good international citizens, to work energetically to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the use of violence to solve conflicts and to embark on a more than token commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, particularly the amelioration of poverty, especially in our region. I know, too, that Labor will resolve never again to have an Australian government engage in illegal, pre-emptive strikes as in Iraq, remembering that it is always better to prevent deadly conflict than deal with its consequences. Good luck!

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