Sixteen years, a handful of elections and an immeasurable impact – Senator Rachel Siewert’s service and passion cannot be OVERstated. In her valedictory speech delivered to the senate this month, Rachel reflects on her achievements and laments that which is left unfinished.
By Rachel Siewert
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people ...and acknowledge elders past, present and emerging.
I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the boodjar which I live and work on, Boorloo, Perth.
Boorloo is located in the country of the Whadjuk Nyoongar people, who have been the Traditional Owners of the south west of Western Australia for at least 45,000 years.
Sovereignty over this land was never ceded. This land always has and always will be Aboriginal Land.
First Nations peoples continue to practice their culture and strengthen their communities, despite the policies and interventions of governments … over more than two centuries.
Their culture is thriving and growing … and their fight for justice is gaining momentum – Despite the punitive and paternalistic policies of successive governments that have sought to deny First Nations peoples their rights… and their proper place at the heart of our nation. Having the longest living history and culture still thriving on this ancient continent is what helps make us uniquely Australian.
It has been a great pleasure to work with First Nations peoples and organisations around this country. Thank you for the support you have given, and the knowledge and wisdom you have shared.
There is still so much unfinished business; many injustices that need to be put right.
We still have some of the worst First Nations health, education, employment and life expectancy outcomes in the world. We have by far the highest rates of over-representation of Aboriginal children in our child protection system. And the numbers of Aboriginal youth within our justice system are the worst of any developed nation in the world.
I am so pleased that there will be two strong and determined Aboriginal women as part of our Green team in this place to drive change.
It has been a privilege to represent the people of Western Australia in the Senate. I have always been driven by achieving better outcomes for people and planet.
In my first speech I said, “We need to remember that we live in a community, not an economy, … that our economy is one means of sustaining that community - an important part, definitely, but only one part. It is one we need to get right, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Ultimately, what we all want is the opportunity to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. If instead of striving to be richer we could strive to be more equal, everyone's wellbeing would improve … and we would have healthier communities … based on compassion, honesty, fairness, justice, respect and equality."
This statement is as true today as it was sixteen years ago.
We have seen over the last two decades what happens when we put the interests of the wealthy ahead of those of the broader community. Wealth doesn’t trickle down and it does not float all boats. Now more than ever it is critical that we put the people and the planet ahead of all else.
The pandemic laid bare how important a strong and inclusive community is … and how important it is to look out for everyone in our community.
COVID showed us that poverty is a political choice. In a country as wealthy and prosperous as Australia, it is shameful and unacceptable that we have so many people living below the poverty line... that so many are homeless and struggle to have enough to eat.
Early on in the COVID crisis we had a small taste of what it could be like if our economy was truly designed to serve us. Briefly, across the political spectrum we were all truly in it together and focused on the best community outcome.
For the first time in over two decades people on income support had enough to get by, those experiencing homelessness were given shelter, and communities came together to support each other.
After having campaigned in this chamber and across the country for an increase of income support for well over a decade, I was overjoyed when the Government suddenly doubled the rate of Jobseeker last year during COVID.
After decades of community campaigning, we finally got to see first-hand the dramatic increase in the quality of life brought about because people who were being marginalized and excluded finally received an adequate living income.
We heard first-hand the impact this made on people on income support. I shared many of the accounts that were entrusted to me in this chamber.
The COVID crisis shone a light on how broken our social safety net really is. Suddenly a significant number of Australian households needed to access income support for the first time in their lives. In doing so, many people discovered how complicated and punitive our social safety net has become.
We saw the biggest shift in attitudes in decades everywhere across our communities ... but, it turns out, unfortunately those attitudes toward the poor and excluded did not shift very far in this place.
For decades there has been an approach by successive Governments, reinforced by our mainstream media, that seeks to undermine the character of those who are struggling to get by … and seeks to blame them for the desperate circumstances they find themselves in.
Our income support system seems designed to grind people down, to rob their lives of hope and meaning … rather than assisting them to find their purpose in life, to make a contribution to society, and to live a good life.
We are again seeing the Government pursuing people for overpayment errors made by Centrelink. At the same time, our Treasurer and Prime Minister refuse to do anything to recover the hundreds of millions of dollars in Job Keeper subsidies made to billionaires and big corporations.
Has the Government learnt nothing from Robodebt?
Through this crisis the Government has clearly shown that poverty is a political choice that they quite deliberately continue to choose to make… We have seen how they can provide our citizens who are out of work with a living wage – and how effectively this stimulates local economies and improves outcomes for all in our community…
Instead they choose to entrench economic inequality by only increasing the Jobseeker pay by a mere $3 a day – keeping the payment below the poverty line.
Remember this includes single parents, people with a disability who can’t get DSP, older workers being discriminated against and ageing into retirement in poverty.
We can – and should – imagine a country where everyone has the opportunity to live their best life … to find and develop their talents … to follow their passion and build meaning and purpose in their lives … to be given the opportunity to make a contribution to our community … and to be recognised for it.
Our role in this place should be to make those dreams possible, not to crush them. We are given a unique opportunity here to create a better country.
Now is the time for an unconditional liveable income so that nobody lives in poverty.
The climate crisis
Now I want to turn to the biggest crisis we all face - the one that threatens not just our health and wellbeing, but the health and resilience and ongoing viability of all life on this planet.
It is with a heavy heart – and an immense sense of disappointment and frustration – that I stand here to acknowledge after sixteen years in this place, that we as a Parliament representing the Australian community have failed to achieve anything meaningful and constructive for them in the face of the existential threat of climate change.
We did have legislation that was starting to work but it was torn up.
We are in a climate crisis – it is code red.
The first duty of government is to keep people safe. We do have a duty of care to all children and our future generations.
In the last few years we have seen the start of a dreadful acceleration of the rate of catastrophic extreme weather events across Australia and around the world. We have faced fires of a scale and ferocity never seen before, knowing at the same time that conditions will only get worse.
Droughts, cyclones and floods continue to become more frequent and more severe. As they continue to cause more widespread damage, the resilience of our ecosystems - their ability to recover and continue to sustain life - is eroded. In turn, their degradation and loss contributes more greenhouse gasses. It is a vicious circle.
The climate crisis is damaging our vital ecosystems, all the life we share this planet with, our health, our water, our ability to grow food, and the air we breathe.
Climate change now threatens all species, and if we fail to act quickly and comprehensively, many more species will be lost to extinction within our lifetimes.
All the while, donations from the fossil fuel industry continue to influence political decision making.
The latest IPCC report adds more detail to the science and more certainty to the predictions of temperature rises and habitat loss – but, fundamentally, we already knew and have known for a long time that we have to act with a sense of urgency.
This is a collective shame on this Parliament. History will judge us very harshly - because the evidence is there in black and white in Hansard – that we knew about this monumental threat to our community and our planet.
When the lives and livelihoods of Australians were threatened by the coronavirus, governments listened to the science ... and took action.
It is beyond time to treat the climate crisis as the national emergency it is and take urgent action.
We are running out the clock on this crisis. We have very little time left to prevent catastrophic climate change.
We already know that the last two decades of inaction have cost us and our children very dearly - and increasingly there is a risk that things will get away from us, and our efforts will be too little, too late.
Behind the scenes
I would like to reflect on some of the important and often unrecognised work that we achieve in this place.
Unfortunately Parliamentarians agreeing and working together is not all that newsworthy - and I think perhaps we should all, including the media, look at what we click on and report that reinforces conflict and controversy, and failing to seek out and share stories of good processes delivering positive outcomes.
One of the ways we can achieve outcomes is through the committee process. But I do acknowledge that not all inquiries end up in us singing kumbaya and agreeing.
It has been my privilege to be the chair of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee for a number of years. Working together in committees and with the community, we have been able to shine a light on:
- past adoption practices,
- the experiences of former child migrants and forgotten Australians,
- hearing health,
- suicide prevention,
- the violence abuse and neglect of disabled people,
- indefinite detention of people with cognitive and psychiatric impairment in Australia,
- the aged care sector work force,
- out of home care,
- grandparent carers,
- income inequality,
- lyme disease, and of course...
... and so many more.
One inquiry that stands out for me was the 2012 inquiry into Forced Adoptions.
I will never forget the trust and confidence people in the community had in the committee to share their very personal and often traumatic experiences. Because of their courage we have exposed this dark chapter of our history and made immeasurable changes to the lives of those in our community who were so badly affected by this inhumane treatment. Thank you.
During my time here I have been supported by so many Parliamentary staff and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the procedure office, the table office, the Library and Hansard, Comcar drivers and all the wonderful people that keep this place running, and where would we all be without our Aussies fix?
Thanks to the fantastic chamber attendants who keep us on track: Stephen, Diane, Wally, Rosemary, Adrienne, and Fiona.
I would like to thank all the committee staff for their dedication and support during the many senate inquiries I have chaired, referred and participated in. In particular I would like to thank the Community Affairs References Committee secretariat for their support and for always ensuring that we could hear the experiences and voices of the community in this place.
My work here would have been greatly diminished if it had not been for the support and generosity of our deeply valued stakeholders and the community and not-for-profit sectors. I would not have been able to manage my portfolio responsibilities and campaigns without your expertise, and the time you have spent over many, many years. This has been invaluable to help us to raise pressure and achieve outcomes on key issues.
I would also like to thank all of the staff that I have worked with in my office, the whips office and the broader Greens team over the last sixteen years. I have received so much support from all of you over many years and I could not have done this work without your dedication, expertise and patience.
A special shout out to all my office staff over the years. Thanks to Rebecca, Bridget, Nicola, Scott, Fluffy, Tim, Chris, Dee, Donna, Tenille, Jo, Nadine, Georgia, Andrew, Jess, Eloise, Fernando, Claire, Harriet, Ryan, Tarek, Ogy, Elliott, Giz, Dave, Alan and my current amazing team - Rose, Lucy, Cana, Grace and Alison. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for we are truly a team and I will miss you so much.
As I said in my first speech - I stand here, the fourth in a line of strong Green women Senators from the West. I pay tribute to Jo Vallentine, Christabel Chamarette and Dee Margetts and thank them for the support they have given me. I know that our next WA Senator Dorinda Cox is also a force from the West to be reckoned with.
Thank you to our volunteers at the Greens WA. Your commitment to our values and passion for making our community better means that I am lucky enough to have been able to represent you and our beautiful state for the last sixteen years.
When I started out here, we were a much smaller team, in fact there were only four of us. I want to pay tribute to Bob Brown and Christine Milne who both guided and mentored me during the beginning of my political career.
I also want to thank Richard and Adam for their support and guidance and commitment to our Greens movement and I thank all my Party Room colleagues.
It has been an honour to work with you all.
I would also like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of the people who have sent me such lovely messages.
Finally and so importantly, I would like to thank my family. The people in this place have the same family issues as everyone else... We face the ups and the down, the crises ...children being sick, or simply being teenagers ...supporting our parents as they age...
So often our families have to cope with these issues without us because we are here in Canberra, on the road or in a meeting.
My family's love, support and understanding has seen me through many challenges and I am so lucky to have had you all by my side during this journey. Thank you for always being there for me.
Watch Rachel’s final speech here:
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