I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge Senators Dodson, McCarthy and Lambie, as well as Linda Burney and Ken Wyatt, who sit in the other place. And I acknowledge the 39 Aboriginal language groups that make up the great state of South Australia. There has been enough debate, enough delay. It's time for a voice, treaty and truth.
Mr President, 293,000 children call South Australia home. Not one of them chose the hospital they were born in, the parents or grandparents they have or the postcode where they are growing up. But every single one of them deserves a fair start to life. A new senator has many responsibilities, and I will work tirelessly to fulfil them all. But no commitment means more to me than this: I've come here to stand up for the children of my state. As a Labor senator I'll be fighting for fairness in their future, because Labor is, and always has been, the party of fairness. The best way to deliver fairness is through the transformative power of good public policy, and the place to do that is in this parliament. No-one has more power to do good than those of us in this place—and we haven't a moment to waste, because, for the first time in our modern history, Australian children are set to inherit a future that is less fair than that of the generations that went before them. And, on too many indicators, it is our most vulnerable children who are suffering the most. More than seven percent of children in South Australia live in poverty, with those from our regions and in single-parent households the hardest hit. Children from disadvantaged areas are twice as likely to experience developmental vulnerability as their peers in the wealthiest areas. Whether we look at health, education, child protection or justice, we are failing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children the most, children who also carry the scars of past injustice and trauma forward.
These outcomes aren't inevitable; they are failures of public policy, failures that result from the choices we make or don't make, failures that have left too many children starting way behind the mark. Australia has long taken as granted the notion that generation-on-generation economic growth will drive improvements to our living standards. But that is not the reality for the next generation. Low wage growth, underemployment, unaffordable housing, the precariousness of the gig economy and increasing inequality of wealth mean young Australians are set to inherit a less prosperous and less secure future. These inequities are further compounded by our changing climate, the effects of which will hit the poor and the young hardest. The lifeblood of my state, our precious river, is also set to suffer in a way the next generation simply cannot afford. But none of this inequity is inevitable. Australia should be able to deliver a better deal for the next generation than the previous one had. Successive Labor governments have strived to deliver this through nation-changing policy reforms such as workplace rights, Medicare and the PBS, extending access to higher education, and universal superannuation.
My own family's story speaks to our great national story of generational improvement. My ancestors came to Australia by boat, some in chains, and all were able to build a better life than those who went before them. On my father's side the first to arrive were William Kable and Susannah Holmes, who came on the First Fleet after their shared death sentences were commuted to one-way tickets to the new colony. They became the first Europeans to marry in Australia and the first to successfully launch a civil lawsuit against a captain who had stolen their belongings on the way over. It was a lawsuit that, as felons, they would not have been able to launch back in Britain itself. As convicted thieves, this was not without irony, but it was also a clear sign that in a new land there could be new ways and a new life. On the other side of my family, the promise of a better existence lured out three generations from north London—my great-grandparents, grandparents and mother.
Blue skies were a bonus, but the real transformation for both sides of my family happened through the classroom. My paternal grandfather never finished primary school, yet my parents were both the first in their families to attend university, thanks to federal government policy and a great foundation in the public education system. My siblings and I grew up in an era where Whitlam and Hawke had thrown open the doors of university, and we strode through those doors with eager and grateful steps. In short, my family went from a mid-primary school education to masters level in just two generations. That's the power of education—to unlock opportunity and break down social barriers. It should be available to everyone. And, since it is disadvantaged children who begin life so far behind the mark, it is there that our efforts and our resources must be aimed.
For all of our achievement and promise, educational equality remains the great unfinished work of the parliament and the nation. Through the Gonski report, like the Karmel report before it, Labor attempted to fundamentally reset the educational equation, and on their return to government the coalition swiftly acted to snuff out the promise of equity, fairness and reform. This was a deliberate theft of opportunity from the kids who need our help the most. Few policy failures have been as reckless and unforgiveable as that, because being told they deserve second best is something no child should ever live to hear.
But, even more important than schooling and higher education, is the early education that comes before it. The single most significant policy change I am determined to see during my time in this place is a radical re-draw of the way we fund and deliver early childhood education and care, because the most meaningful way we can smash generational disadvantage is through universal, quality and free education during the early years. If we hold our fire until school age, it will be too late. In the first thousand days of a child's life, critical brain connections are formed. If a child does not develop well during this period and they are not exposed to the right mix of play-based learning, love, nutrition and nurture, then they cannot reach their full potential. That's why we must act now.
I was so proud of Labor's policy to fund preschool for three-year-olds at the last election, and we must not abandon it. In fact, we must extend it to ensure all children can access world-leading early education and care, regardless of what their parents do, how much they earn or where they live. In early childhood education, we have to be bold in our vision, broad in our approach and brave in our means of delivery, and we need to do so in partnership with our early years educators, in whose hands we place our youngest and most vulnerable minds and yet whose critical work we choose to undervalue and underpay. Again, this is a choice—a policy choice and a values choice—and we must change our path.
I first volunteered for the Australian Labor Party some 16 years ago, because within it I found a political home for my Christian values of social justice and fairness. Throughout my career, I have strived to put these values into practice, through the vehicle of public policy, to make our world better for the children within it. I had the great honour of working in the most recent Labor government with Minister Kate Ellis to deliver the most significant quality reforms to early childhood education and care since the sector began. My passion for children has taken me to West Africa, where I volunteered with an NGO fighting child exploitation and forced labour. And I've worked for the incredible Julia Gillard to extend the opportunity of school education to some of the most disadvantaged places in our world. As a Labor senator, my focus will now be on advocating for the children of my state and their future, because, like children all around the world, their voices do not fill chambers of power and influence like this. Indeed, they don't even get to vote for the voices that do.
An essential part of our job as elected representatives is listening to voters. But we should also be listening to the people who can't yet vote at all. So, in preparation for this speech, I sought counsel from some of my younger constituents about what they want us to deliver for them, to let their voices fill this place. Their proposals are worthy of our consideration. Every child I spoke to wanted all Australians to be healthy. They had heaps of ideas for me: 'Eat your fruit and veg,' 'Don't smoke or take drugs,' and, 'Don't die young.' One told me this was all really important; otherwise I would get mouldy teeth!
I wish I could have told these kids that our public health policies are securing a healthy future for everyone, but that's not the case. Generational improvements in life expectancy have been assumed over the last century, but this growth is slowing. If we want to see continual improvements in health, we must tackle the things we know we can prevent, like disease caused by smoking, obesity and alcohol abuse. As a student of public policy at the London School of Economics I saw significant opportunities in applying behavioural economics to these sorts of public health challenges, yet Australia still lags a long way behind other places in using this policy tool.
We must also do more to tackle the regional health divide in Australia, especially in maternal health policy. My Aunty Lynette, from Port Lincoln, felt the impacts of this health divide in a way no mother ever should. Her daughter, born prematurely, needed a level of care only available in Adelaide. As a result, for 17 long weeks, mother and newborn child were separated, with only fortnightly visits and photographs to sustain them. It was a heart-wrenching pain that Lynette felt—one that's still felt by women across regional Australia. These women have fewer options and less support to have their children than women in metro areas. This is especially true for Indigenous women. Horrifically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children die at twice the rate of other Australian babies. If every child is to get a fair start in life, that must begin with good-quality obstetric and paediatric care, no matter where they live. Again, it is a policy choice about what we are willing to value and resource.
Of course, our health isn't just about our physical health. For the three million Australians living with depression and anxiety, and every other Australian with ill mental health, we need to do better. The fact that half of all mental health conditions start before the age of 14 means the time to act is in childhood. I know the consequences of untreated childhood mental health conditions all too well. It's hard to quantify the pain that could have been spared family members that I love had they received the right treatment in time, before their ill health spiralled into drug abuse and self-harm. Until we take mental health seriously and fund it properly, more and more young people will suffer—and their suffering will be on our watch.
The second thing that South Australian children have told me is that they think Australia should have a policy of treating boys and girls the same. Zoe from Prospect told me that boys and girls are 'equally good' and therefore should get to do the same things. For Atticus from Port Adelaide, in practice that means they should both be allowed to become Prime Minister, but—and Atticus was very clear on this point—'only if they are not Liberals'!
Our kids can see that boys and girls aren't always treated equally in Australia, and they don't have to look very far. The gender pay gap and the associated super gap remain pervasive. This has contributed to older women forming the fastest-growing cohort of homelessness in Australia. Domestic violence disproportionately impacts women, as does the burden of unpaid work. This year we celebrate 125 years of women's suffrage in South Australia. But I am sure our suffragettes had higher hopes for the future of equality. Despite the Senate being just a whisker off parity, women still make up only 37 per cent of the federal parliament as a whole and 27 per cent of South Australia's parliament. Women are also significantly underrepresented at board and executive levels in the private sector—something I've witnessed firsthand in my own board work.
We cannot address these statistics without a calm consideration of quotas. Quotas require organisations to consider their female members differently—to see their leadership potential, not just their support capabilities. When there aren't any women amongst them, it forces organisations to ask why and to do something about it. To those in this place who have suggested that quotas push merit to one side, I would add that women are half the population and we have half of all the merit and ability that exists in human society. That's why I don't carry a shred of shame for being a woman representing a party with affirmative action as its bridge to a more equal future, because AA didn't require us to lower our standards; it required us to raise them. When I look at the women on our side who are serving now—not least our leadership team, Senators Wong and Keneally—and when I look back at the many Labor women who have served here before me, I am deeply proud to count myself among them. Of course, when the girls and boys I spoke to have grown up, I hope that quotas won't be required. But the evidence tells us that, for now, they are.
The last thing these children told me was that our policies should ensure they get to have a good job one day. For Harley from Murray Bridge, a good job means being able to buy lots of toys. For Violet from Adelaide's west, it means you can give your kids lots of pocket money. When I was their age I learnt the importance of a good job in a way no family ever wants to. My dad had spent his working life building a business, only for it to collapse. I know what it means to have everything on the line in a family business—because we had everything on the line. I will always remember his distraught face as we stood on the porch and I asked why our car was being taken away. Divorce, disruption and separation followed. It's a story that so many families will recognise when hardship hits. Australia's policy of a genuine safety net was there for us. It meant that my fantastic public education was never interrupted nor our visits to the doctor ever limited by this turn of events in my family's life. And my dad was fortunate: he got a new job and eventually rebuilt the business. I've been so proud to work in it, too, and be part of its journey to become a significant operator of public transport, both in Australia and around the world. And, of course, my time in the family business also afforded me the opportunity to learn an exceptional life skill: how to drive an articulated bus!
But, to deliver good jobs to South Australia's kids, we need policies that will forge a strong economy, because—in my state especially—a strong and resilient economy will not build itself. I firmly believe our best days as a state are ahead of us, but they will only be so if the South Australian senators in this place fight for our future every single day. We'll get more jobs in our state if we work in partnership with business to attract long-term and meaningful investment. And those jobs will be good jobs if we work with our union movement to empower workers to secure fair pay and conditions. Like millions of Australians, I have long been a union member and have benefited from the union movement's work. For so many victories—like annual leave, penalty rates, maternity leave, super—we have them to thank.
But, of course, the fight for good jobs is nowhere near over. Rapid technology change is driving new and unprecedented threats to the security and safety of work. The gig economy, for all its conveniences, threatens the basic rights of workers, including to fair pay and super. It must do better. I commend the Transport Workers Union, and Senator Sheldon in particular, for their work here. For retail workers—of whom I once was one, and who my union, SDA, passionately represents—artificial intelligence and automation are disrupting frontline service and back-of-house roles. These workers, mostly women, mostly young and mostly low-income, cannot afford to be further displaced or devalued. I accept that technological change is inevitable, and it offers opportunities for Australia. But its benefits need to be better distributed and workers need to be better supported in this changing work landscape. The work of our union movement remains unfinished and important. In the fight for fairness in our children's future, I'm with them.
Our children deserve a better deal than the one handed down to previous generations. We can deliver this, but doing so requires us to change the way we design and implement public policy in Australia and to focus beyond the next three years to the next 30 years.
I will use my time in this place to fight for a fairer future for South Australia's children—to stand with Harley, Atticus, Zoe, Violet and every other child in my state. In doing so, I also stand with all of their families, no matter where they live, what they do or who they love. I stand with families who have been here for 60,000 years, and families who have just arrived. I stand with families broken, families mending, families with many kids and families with none. I stand with families with one parent or families where grandparents have had to step in. I stand with them all.
I know that the ability to serve them in this place is not an individual achievement of mine alone. Each of us are the sum of the care, confidence and support placed in us by those that we love and respect. And so, I acknowledge my own family now and the other important people who enabled my journey here today. Firstly, to the people of the greatest state, South Australia: I'm so humbled by the trust you have placed in me to represent you here, and I promise to work tirelessly for you all.
I acknowledge my parents, Neil, Karen and Colin and my siblings who are represented in the gallery by Bart and my sister-in-law, Chelsea, today. To my mother-in-law, Anne: thank you for your willingness to spend half your life with me here in Canberra so that I can be with my son, who's next to you, and do the job that I love. I could not do this without you. To my son's godparents, Brooke and Andy, my friends and my staff: you're all superstars, and I'm stoked that you picked me. Special thanks to Ben Hubbard and my dear friend Timothy Watts for your wise counsel.
Thank you to our state secretary, Reggie Martin and Aemon Burke, who have both shown me so much support over so many years. I also thank future Premier Peter Malinauskas, Sonia Romeo and Josh Peak for their support, but more importantly for their fierce advocacy for the things worth fighting for in our state. My parliamentary colleagues, state and federal, have been a wonderful source of advice and camaraderie, notably my good friends Senator Alex Gallacher and Amanda Rishworth, as well as Nick, Steve, Zoe, Emily and Chris. I also thank my colleagues from the SDA, TWU, FSU and AMWU.
I especially want to thank Senator Don Farrell for his support of me and so many other women in our movement. Senator Farrell has backed in women where it counts—into winnable seats in our parliament—time and time again. Don, your wife, Nimfa, and your daughters have everything to be proud of.
To our members and volunteers who sacrifice so much time to travel with me from Port Lincoln to Murray Bridge, Whyalla to Mount Gambier, Port Pirie to the Barossa, to share Labor's plans for fairness—thank you. I acknowledge the incredible work especially of Amy Ware, Meagan Spencer, Tom Carrick-Smith and Tara Fatehi. Special thanks to the Labor Women's Network, especially to Victoria, Young Labor Unity, our candidates and volunteers, notably: Liam Golding, Michael Iammarrone, Jordon, Joe, Ben, David, Bez, Mikaela and the door-knocking crew.
I've been fortunate throughout my life to be surrounded by strong, passionate and remarkable women, but I've been fortunate beyond words to have the mentorship of two in particular who've travelled from Adelaide to join me today. To Kate Ellis, a great trailblazer of our movement and our parliament: simply, and on so many levels, I would not be standing here without you—thank you. And to Julia Gillard, whose contribution to this place and legacy to our country is immeasurable: Julia, your belief in me has been sustaining, your advocacy humbling and your friendship is one of the most cherished I have ever and will ever have. I promise to make you proud here.
And now to thank my little family. To my much-loved husband, Clint: thank you for the sacrifices you make so I can be here, for all you do for our family and for being my safe space in this world. I wouldn't want to do the adventure of life with anyone but you. I acknowledge my incredible stepchildren Toby, Gemma and Lachlan, and the newest light of my life, my son, Benjamin. Ben, when you were born, you rewrote me. I apologise upfront for the times I will let you down because I'm in this place and not with you. I hope you forgive me, and I hope you understand I'm here because of my belief in the power of this place to change Australia for the better, and the sense of public service within me that compels me to be a part of that. May that belief grow in you too one day.
My kids are my purpose and meaning in life, but South Australia's 293,000 children will be my purpose and meaning in this place. I will be standing up for their future here with fairness as the goal and good public policy as the means to achieve it. Our tradition of intergenerational fairness has defined Australia. It's our most fundamental value as a nation, yet it is slipping away before our eyes. We are handing our children a lesser future than the generations that went before them. I believe our children deserve better, and I believe we can deliver that to them. In my journey of parliamentary service, however long or short, I will settle for nothing less.