From the Senator for South Australia


This is my last chance to speak to you as a Greens senator for South Australia as I have made a decision to retire.

By Senator Penny Wright

Two years into the Abbott Government's term and the chaos and dysfunction has worsened. While there were predictions that Abbott would prove to be an extreme Prime Minister, I have been taken aback by just how ruthless and despotic he has been willing to be, casting aside any pretence that he is governing for all — always privileging the wealthy and influential whenever there is a choice to be made.

This is my last chance to speak to you as a Greens Senator for South Australia as I have made a decision to retire — due to an illness in my family. (Indeed, by the time you read this I may have already stepped aside and I made my Final Speech in the Senate on 19 August.) While this has been a sad and difficult decision, I know it is right for my family and will give my successor the best chance to contest the next election.

Now — more than ever — Australia needs us — the Australian Greens. This parliament has shown starkly the dangers and destruction that can be wrought so fast when we have two old parties fighting it out for the spoils of office – with hugely ideological and ruthless Conservatives on one hand, and an insipid and floundering Labor Party, on the other, with no vision and no coherent policy platform, at the mercy of the power brokers who call the shots from behind the scenes. 

As a result we have seen the fraying of the social safety net when it comes to vital services in my portfolio areas of Mental Health, Legal Affairs and schools. This has resulted in huge holes when it comes to services, widespread uncertainty for large numbers of people working in these sectors, and a loss of valuable staff and important skills. 

On a more macro scale the parlous state of government has eroded the chance that many Australians will ever have of crossing the divide between having enough and having far too little to be able to participate in our society with dignity. Health, access to justice and a quality education are all social determinants of wellbeing and full inclusion in the community. They are slipping further and further from the reach of many Australians. 

Despite this — we must take some heart from the wins we have had along the way – knowing that we always make a difference – just by being there. With the Abbott Government looking to hit those most vulnerable, we were often the last line of defence. We disallowed Abbott's 'Divorce Tax' (twice!) that would have increased the cost of getting a divorce by $350. Aware that this would disproportionately hurt those most vulnerable — including women and children seeking to make a fresh and safe start – I am exceptionally proud to have been able to thwart the Government on this one.

Mental health is one of my passions and over the past four years I have met so many inspiring workers, champions and people in local communities all over the country Recently, I have worked to raise awareness of the little-understood but devastating condition of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and achieved a successful motion acknowledging BPD Awareness week for the first week of October each year. My work for better mental health services in rural regions has continued, as has my acknowledgement of other conditions like psychosis and eating disorders, and I've been advancing the cause of Youth Mental Health.

Another key fight has been blocking this government's ideological agenda in our schools. We have exposed the Abbott Government's push for new 'corporate schools' that would partner with businesses such as McDonalds or IBM and  fought their attempts to impose their views of the world on students throughout Australia through tampering with the National Curriculum and inserting religious chaplains into schools.

In the Legal Affairs arena, access to justice is a fundamental right. Without it we can only guarantee justice to those with large wallets. This year we have focused strongly on community legal centres and the funding they receive to carry out their very vital and highly valued work. Sadly, the government's removal of some vital funding and ongoing funding uncertainty has had a devastating impact on a number of centres and their staff. Larissa Waters' Greens-initiated senate inquiry into family violence has found some community legal centres are already so underfunded that work is being undertaken by law students rather than qualified practitioners. Law centres which provide specialist services, such as Indigenous or disability services, are particularly vulnerable.

It's hard to imagine how much worse things could have been had we not been successful in our campaign against the Government's changes to funding. But, thanks to our sustained advocacy, $25.5 million of cuts did not go ahead. I have continued to put pressure on the government to increase funding for legal assistance and end uncertainty around funding models, to ensure that 'justice' does not become collateral damage in the Abbott Government's imagined war against budgetary debt.

2015 has also been a busy year in terms of standing up for the rule of law, for human rights and for a bit of dignity in Parliament.  Sadly, the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta did not inspire the Abbott Government to take a careful, rational and evidence based approach to counter-terrorism and criminal law. However, I made it clear to George Brandis and the government that the Greens will not stand by while they attempt to bypass the courts when it comes to citizenship. The old parties have no shame in using rhetoric about security to trade our freedoms for rushed, ineffective and misinformed laws. I have worked hard to hold the Labor and Liberal parties to account for laws which could have terrible implications for human rights and for the rule of law. 

And I can't go without briefly touching on the exciting things happening in South Australia that give me hope for the future. Up in Port Augusta there has been a phenomenal, community-led campaign to replace two closed coal-fired power stations with a state-of-the-art solar thermal plant and wind energy. Similarly, our green car initiative could pivot South Australia to be on the forefront of the burgeoning sustainable car market.

Now it's time to say a huge thank you to all my Greens colleagues in the National and State parliaments. It has been a pleasure to work with you all over the past four years. We are so fortunate to have such passionate, dedicated and competent people among our ranks.

I would also like to send greetings and a heartfelt thank you to our Greens members, who are the heart and soul of our party.

And finally, I would like to thank my staff, current and former, and also those who have volunteered in my office over the years. They have worked tirelessly to help me achieve the wins we've had and the gains we've made. My visible work has been the tip of the iceberg of countless hours of blood, sweat and tears from a formidable team of people.

To finish up — let's always acknowledge how crucial it is to have our Greens voices in our parliaments. The record will show we were there — on so many matters where there would be a deafening silence otherwise.  So many Australians rely on us to reflect and articulate the values, hopes, decency and commonsense they have for our country and our planet.