Di Natale Senate Video Conference of last speech: Let me begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation from whose land I am speaking today, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people on whose land our national parliament meets and the traditional owners of the lands from right across the country.
Mr President, I hope you don’t mind me saying that, after announcing my resignation—I’m going to share this with the rest of the world—you sent me a cheeky text message saying that you wouldn’t kick me out of the Senate during my final speech. Now I’m not sure how you’re going to do that from Melbourne, but I’m going to do my best to behave.
I didn’t expect that my final speech would take place in a virtual parliament from a locked-down city amid a global pandemic. It’s a pandemic that’s causing untold suffering and hardship across the world. It’s a pandemic that follows a devastating summer of bushfires. And it’s a pandemic that concludes my decade in this parliament. Over that decade, six different prime ministers have come and gone, climate change remains a festering sore on our body politic, economic inequality has been entrenched, race politics has reared its ugly head again and the gap with our First Nations peoples has grown. If ever there was a time for deep reflection and for a reset of our national politics, this is it.
Like many people right across the country, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect these past few months, and I leave the Australian parliament knowing that, despite the turmoil of the past decade, our nation is a better place because of what we Greens have achieved.
One of the first votes that I cast in this place is one of my proudest, as we delivered the world’s best climate laws. The Clean Energy Act was a result of the power-sharing arrangement between the Labor Party, the Greens and Independents, and it showed what could be achieved when politicians ditched the partisanship and cooperated in the national interest. Not long after that, I was fortunate to be able to negotiate a $4 billion dental package to provide millions of children with free Medicare funded dental care.
‘How good’s this?’ I thought. Thanks to the Greens, we had a price on carbon, we had billions of dollars flowing into renewable energy projects and we had the first stage of our Denticare plan to roll out Medicare-funded dental care to Australians across the country. In politics, just as in life, sometimes you don’t know how good things are until they’re gone. That power-sharing arrangement may have been tarnished by former prime ministers’ quests for vengeance, but it was one of the most productive periods in the nation’s history.
The Abbott government that followed is infamous for many reasons, but the jaw-dropping 2014 budget, with its full-frontal assault on Medicare and on schools, is seared in my memory. It was like a horror story. Each election, millions of people vote for the Greens because they share our values. But they also vote for us to hold bad governments to account, and that was never more important than during those Abbott years.
But the great privilege was taking on the leadership of the Australian Greens just as that government ended, and I like to think that those two things may have been connected. Leadership was a responsibility that weighed very heavily on me. As leader, I confronted successive conservative governments and spent much of my time fighting their attacks on the environment and on people doing it tough. But I’m also proud that, along the way, we achieved some real wins for people. Securing $100 million in funding for Landcare as part of our solution to the backpacker tax stand-off was a good day.
Before I was elected to parliament, I often thought these things were the product of careful deliberation and a thorough policy process. But it was a tense meeting with the leader of the Senate in the corridor that allowed us to achieve a great outcome for farmers and for the environment. It took a 28-hour sitting to democratise voting in the Senate after the Labor Party reversed its position and threw everything at us. The Greens policy was based on the very novel idea that, in a democracy, the outcome of an election should reflect how people vote, not backroom deals between political parties. There were lots of wonderful offerings during that long and ugly debate that night, but listening to a senator compare the bill to his colonoscopy had me questioning my life choices.
After years of campaigning against multinational tax-dodging, we negotiated important laws that increased penalties on corporations for tax avoidance and profit-shifting. Labor attacked us because the laws didn’t go far enough, but when will Labor learn that you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Sam Dastyari, of course, led the attack with memes and posters and even a billboard decrying ‘Di Natale’s dirty deals’. Sam, of course, was an expert on the subject of dirty deals.
Working across the political divide carries real risk for a party like ours. We didn’t benefit electorally from the power-sharing arrangement with the then Gillard government, but we got some really important policy wins. Getting good policy outcomes on the rare occasions we negotiated with the Liberals also gave our rivals plenty of ammunition, and it did cut across our own message. But I firmly believe that we owe it to the millions of people who vote for us to roll up our sleeves and deliver Greens policy for them.
Leading our team in walking out of parliament during Senator Hanson’s first speech, rather than sitting in quiet acceptance of her racist views or, worse still, shaking her hand afterwards is another proud moment. Within hours of doing that, our office was flooded with calls, mostly from people from the Australian Muslim community, many in tears, just thankful that they were not alone. Often, during my time in parliament, I felt like I was shouting in the wind. But, in that moment, I knew that our message of solidarity was being heard where it mattered most.
I’m proud to have led the party that supported marriage equality long before it was a popular cause and worked tirelessly with campaigners from across the community for decades until it became law. Our work behind the scenes in exposing the corporate greed in our banking and financial sector was critical in helping secure a banking royal commission. When we first advocated for a levy on the big banks, the Liberals slammed us for our economy-wrecking socialist policies. A decade later, they introduced one. It gave me great satisfaction to be upstairs in the ABC’s studios at Parliament House doing a radio interview with Senator Paterson, freshly out of the Institute of Public Affairs and now defending another sensible Greens idea.
Greens legislation for a national integrity commission to root out corruption was rejected outright by both sides for almost a decade, but we finally won. Now it’s time to make sure that an anticorruption watchdog is up to the job of fighting corruption and is not just window dressing. Medicinal cannabis would still be illegal in Australia if it weren’t for the Greens. It took our bill to gain cross-party support and joint press conferences with people like renowned Greens hater and LNP senator Ian Macdonald for the government to finally start listening. We’ve been a lone voice in this place on sensible drug policy, with reforms like pill testing, supervised injecting facilities and adult-use cannabis. And I know there are MPs in this place who agree with us; I just wish they wouldn’t find their voice only once they’ve left parliament.
The citizenship scandal that saw us lose two fine senators was one of my toughest times in that place. The first phone call, from Senator Ludlam, came out of the blue, and it triggered a series of events that cast a shadow over the 45th Parliament. A Perth lawyer had been digging around and he discovered that Scott had left New Zealand as a three-year-old and had not renounced his citizenship. I initially thought that the second call, just days later, from Senator Waters was a joke. She told me that she was still waiting for legal confirmation but she believed that she had unknowingly held Canadian citizenship.
The legal advice was clear: they were both ineligible to sit in parliament. It’s an archaic section of our Constitution and it needs to be changed, but there was no question about what to do next. In the space of a week they had both resigned and I had lost my two deputy leaders. We had let down our members and supporters, the Prime Minister called us sloppy and extraordinarily negligent and the right-wing media went into overdrive, as they do. Of course, we all know what happened in the weeks and months that followed: politicians from all sides were outed, except this time there were delays, denials, blame and expensive High Court challenges at the taxpayers’ expense. It’s one thing to talk about personal responsibility in this place; it’s another thing to demonstrate it.
So I leave here feeling incredibly proud of our team, who have behaved with integrity and achieved so much. I leave with a deep sense of personal fulfilment that comes from fighting for a cause bigger than yourself. But, if I’m being really honest, I also leave knowing that successive parliaments in which I’ve served have failed to achieve lasting reforms on the things that matter: climate change, homelessness, job insecurity, mental illness and protection of our environment.
It’s easy to put these flaws down to the personal failings of individual prime ministers, but the failings of the past decade are much bigger than that. The very structures that underpin our democracy—many of them established a century ago, have been incapable of responding to the challenges before us. We are currently living through a pandemic of which we were warned but unprepared for. Our National Medical Stockpile was inadequate. Health workers were unable to get masks and we lacked the basic capacity to make our own. Victorians are now locked up in their houses because of the failure of a quarantine system, which failed due to a culture of outsourcing and privatisation. Ongoing outbreaks in aged-care facilities have revealed the ugly truth of how we care, or don’t care, for the elderly.
We were warned about the threat of a global pandemic, and we’ve been warned time and again about the threat of catastrophic climate change. And yet the coalition, the Labor Party, the business community and even sections of the union movement are divided over this issue. Despite having the technological tools to address it, despite significant public support and despite a litany of climate fuelled disasters, they remain incapable of reaching internal agreement. The Liberal Party once believed in protecting the environment—in the notion of conservation. Today they’re dominated by a reactionary rump that represents corporate rent-seekers who want protection from technological change, like renewable energy.
Today, with the climate crisis spiralling out of control, Labor’s climate policy is weaker than it was a decade ago. The Labor Party lost me many, many years ago, but they’re going to lose a lot more people if they don’t muster up a bit of courage and take a stand on climate change. The Business Council worked hand-in-glove with the Abbott government to tear down our climate laws, only to leave their members hopelessly exposed to the risks posed by climate change. All they offer now is lip-service in support of climate action but criticism of anyone with a meaningful plan to do something about it. And during last year’s election campaign we had a powerful mining union in Queensland forcing candidates to sign a pledge in support of coalmining and denying them a chance of a long-term future.
Not so long ago, our major newspapers would hold these institutions and our political parties to account. Today they host fundraisers for them. The dominant Murdoch media continues to shamelessly promote climate denialism and the ABC has been worn down by relentless attacks and ongoing budget cuts. Social media, which was getting started a decade ago, promised to take power away from media moguls and to democratise debate by giving citizens a voice. Instead, it has become a platform for extremes, where conspiracy theories flourish and where anonymity plays to the worst of human instincts. Our institutions no longer reflect who we are or who we want to become. We urgently need a new era of sweeping political and economic reform, and it has to start by making our democracy work for people and not for corporations.
The first political fight I saw up close in this place was when I watched a cashed-up gambling lobby descend on Parliament House like a pack of vultures and shamelessly sink popular pokies reform. Since that time, I’ve seen the same story play out over and over and over again, whether it’s the mining tax, alcohol regulation or action on climate change. The formula they use is always the same: keep the donations flowing; deploy an army of lobbyists, preferably politicians, so they can exploit their connections; host fundraisers; run big campaigns against anyone who threatens your bottom line; pay thousands to get a seat at the minister’s table, and the bigger the cheque, the better the seat. That awful new fence that surrounds Parliament House now is symbolic of this rotten culture. We’ve closed off the building to the community but we’ve thrown the gates wide open to vested interests with deep pockets. A representative democracy should represent the full diversity of its citizens. Instead, ours represents a political class who tread the well-worn path of student politics to political staffer to parliamentary politics.
Our parliament and the Australian nation are two different countries. We need more women, more people from different cultural and economic backgrounds, more young people in our parliament. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to force the introduction of technologies like the one we’re using right now, which is going to make it easier for parents and carers and people with disabilities—those from rural backgrounds—to engage in our democracy.
Our parliament is not representative of how people vote, either. The National Party, with about four per cent of the national vote, returns 16 lower house MPs. The Greens, with almost three times that vote, returns one MP. Yet for nearly two decades a tiny, overrepresented, anticlimate party has been crucial in blocking action on climate change. If we had proportional representation so that our national parliament fairly represented the wishes of voters, the climate change debate would be largely over.
This pandemic has demonstrated the critical role of looking after people. We’ve got to get our democracy working for people. The pandemic has also exposed the lie that government can’t support those in need. For years, the low rate of Newstart condemned people to a life of poverty, and that has only changed because millions more Australians have been forced to live that reality. We now effectively have a universal income, and it should stay. We’ve been gradually heading towards a two-tier, privatised, American style health system, but we know the best insurance against any pandemic is Medicare and our precious public health system. The crisis has again exposed a tough reality for people in insecure and inadequate housing. We need a massive new build of public housing, which would create jobs and investment.
Online communication has been critical for people during this period of isolation, keeping people connected and allowing businesses to continue functioning. It’s now an essential service. Free access to high-quality internet would give many more people opportunity to flourish.
And real action on climate change is nation building. Phasing out dirty, expensive, coal-fired power and gas and replacing it with renewable energy means thousands of new jobs. There are jobs, too, in building network infrastructure and new storage systems and in the electrification of our transport system.
I do leave parliament hopeful that things will change; I do. Unlike the response to climate change, state and federal governments have ditched the partisanship and have been guided by evidence in responding to this pandemic. It’s absolutely true, some terrible mistakes have been made, and they deserve scrutiny. But I also want to acknowledge the many sensible, life-saving decisions, too. There’s also a strong sense of solidarity in the community. It’s been a really, really tough year for many people. Many people are struggling. But the vast majority of people understand that this shared sacrifice is required in order to get us through this together. It’s also a moment when people have been given space to think deeply about what’s important in life. We’re social creatures. We rely on human contact. We rely on each other. It’s a moment like this that puts a lie to the dog-eat-dog, rampant individualism that has formed the basis of our politics for far too long.
I’m optimistic because social movements are building around the world, too, and throughout history it’s these movements that have driven change. Right now collective action on climate change, racism, sexism and inequality is gathering steam. I remember leaving parliament once, feeling especially demoralised after a particularly brutal sitting week, and it was the tens of thousands of passionate, engaged young people at the climate strike the following day that gave me the strength and energy to keep fighting. I want to thank them.
I leave politics feeling confident about the Greens, too. I joined the Victorian Greens two decades ago. We had no state or federal representation, and over what is a short period of time we’ve elected dozens of state and federal MPs and local government councils right across the country. Our party is strong and resilient. We have the support of millions of Australians, and we’re the only party with genuine solutions to today’s problems. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better. We need to continue building a culture of accountability and respect. It’s easy to focus on yourself or perform for a small and noisy crowd, but success lies in reaching outwards and engaging meaningfully with people from right across the community, and that’s what our members, supporters and volunteers do every day. None of us would be here without their commitment, their passion—working tirelessly, giving their time, sharing their ideas and talking to real people to get more Greens elected.
To everyone who’s knocked on doors, made calls, stood at polling booths in the middle of winter, demanded change at rallies, shown solidarity at vigils and done so much more to make this country better, I want to thank each and every one of you. To all of my staff, who have worked so hard for so long this past decade, thanks so much for the long hours, the weekends, the travel away from home, the pep talks and the wise counsel—and just for listening to me whinge. I’m not going to name anyone today, but you know who you are, and I will be forever grateful.
To my team of wonderful Greens MPs: thank you for your unwavering support. You are all incredible human beings, and it has been a privilege to lead this incredible team. To Adam: you’re going to do us proud. To other MPs across the political divide: I know that most of you are here because you believe in making Australia a better place, and I genuinely wish all of you every success in making the next decade better than the last.
To all the people who keep our parliament functioning—the clerks, the Senate attendants, the cleaners and the gardeners—thank you so much. To the COMCAR drivers with whom I’ve spent many a long drive: just thanks for your company. It’s been a privilege.
And to my family: Lucy, thank you for your incredible support these past 10 years. I could not have done this without you, and I hope I can support you in your career, just as you have done in mine, as we raise two fine young boys. To my boys: time to get the footy boots out, because your old man’s back in town. To my mum and dad, who have ridden every bump along the way in support of their little boy: thank you for all of your love—and thanks, Mum, for all those packages of lasagne that I managed to sneak into Parliament House.
In my first speech almost a decade ago, fresh faced and optimistic, I quoted Martin Luther King, who said: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Now older and greyer after a tough decade in parliament, my faith in that idea is a little shaken, but not broken. Sure, there’ve been setbacks this past decade, but it will bend towards justice again. It will bend because we will bend it together. Thank you so much.
Source: The Australian Greens Website licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia Licence.