Aspiring Labor Party leader Ben Wyatt mapped out his political priorities in his maiden speech.
Aspiring Labor Party leader Ben Wyatt mapped out his political priorities in his maiden speech.
YESTERDAY I was sworn in as a member of the state parliament of Western Australia. There was one unique and extremely significant difference in my swearing in from that of any other member of this place before me – I am the first member of parliament of any state to have sworn my allegiance in the oath of office to the people I represent, rather than to the Queen of Australia.
I by no means, however, wish to disparage the work of the English monarch. However, as a proud supporter of the republican cause, there can be no doubt that the age of an unelected monarch on the other side of the world symbolically heading our state and our nation should be long gone. This is no doubt true in practice, and the fact that, as an Australian, I have, and feel, no bond whatsoever with the office of the British Crown makes me particularly proud to swear my oath to the people I account to rather than to Buckingham Palace.
Globalisation has increased the intensity and speed at which worldwide activities impact on our everyday lives. We watch with great concern as decisions by transnational corporations impact on our lives, regardless of what actions are taken by Australian governments.
We watch as oil prices reach levels that mean people in my electorate sacrifice other household expenses to keep their cars on the road. People in my electorate watch concerned while the basic employment rights that have been developed over a century ... have been sacrificed on an unsubstantiated argument that such sacrifice is necessary to increase productivity at a time when we, as a nation, have never been so productive.
Globalisation creates many exciting opportunities and, indeed, many challenges. How do we ensure that everyone in our state, from inner-city Perth to all our distant regions, takes advantage of these times? How do we, as members of parliament, continue to think global and act local? What does that mean anyhow? How should government respond to globalisation?
As this process restricts the role of government further and further to simply that of a regulator, we need to consider – if this is the case – what role government should play to ensure that the operation of global markets does not leave people behind in poverty and without access to these advances in technology? It is these challenges that brought me here today as a member of the state Labor Party.
It is my belief that one of the fundamental roles of government is to address inequality and injustice. In this tradition, the Labor Party is the party best placed to respond to these challenges. We are fortunate to be enjoying the current commodity boom. I say to my colleagues that enormous responsibility comes with these economic times. Today, our greatest responsibility is to develop a sustainable economy for WA. We all know that our state is overly reliant on the resources sector. We cannot continue to rely on the growth of external countries to be the linchpin to fuel our own wealth creation. We know that beyond the resources sector there is a Perth diaspora. Our greatest talents in the arts, education, training, medicine and science are finding homes all over the world. What are we doing?
WA’s economic base
It is incumbent on me, as someone who has benefited enormously from our community, and on all of us here to ensure that we leave our community, our state, in a condition better than how we found it.
We need to broaden our economic base. What I am saying is not new; indeed, the Industry and Technology Development Act recognises this issue. Section 3 of the act states that the role of the WA Technology and Industry Advisory Council is to, among other things, encourage the establishment of new industry in this state, encourage the broadening of the industrial base of this state and promote an environment that supports the development of industry, science and technology and the emergence of internationally competitive industries in this state.
I see research and development in particular in the areas of biotechnology as the pointy end of what we, as a society and as an economy, need to focus on. WA has the potential to become the world leader in biotechnology. It is not only vital for living standards for people all over the world, but also a key area in which this state has a solid reputation and can continue to grow.
How do we also strive for the balance of wealth and happiness?
How do we ensure that these economic times are used responsibly to guarantee that we, as a state government, the deliverer of services, deliver these services effectively and efficiently?
How do we ensure that all Western Australians share in our economic wealth and have access to basic citizenship entitlements such as education, health, power, water, environmental health and security?
Most people in this place know my father, Cedric, who is in the house today. He represents much of what our state is and can be. Dad was born in Meekatharra and taken as a young child to Sister Kate’s home, interestingly enough, the remains of which are in my electorate. He ended up in the Clontarf home for boys and ultimately his football talents took him to Aquinas College, which I also attended.
Dad is currently the coordinator of the Jigalong community, a community made famous by the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. I make regular trips to Jigalong and continue to be in awe of the country where the Martu people live.
Jigalong, like hundreds of other communities, is a community afflicted with abject poverty. It is clear that the problems facing communities such as Jigalong and Halls Creek are not issues that can be quarantined to the portfolio of indigenous affairs. I repeat that these are issues of poverty; poverty that many Australians would be horrified to know exists in our country and in our times.
Those of us fortunate enough not to experience real poverty are often confused by what this word means. It simply does not mean ‘material deprivation’. Poverty of the kind that is passed from generation to generation is exclusion – a lack of power and respect – that is more often than not afflicted upon people who are controlled and bullied by the welfare machine.
The reason that globalisation has exacerbated isolation is that those in poverty, often termed ‘outsiders’, are further removed from this process and, accordingly, poverty becomes further entrenched and much harder to fight. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. The rich may be getting richer, but the poor are in retreat and decline.
While the globalisation of our economy has created enormous wealth, it has also become a great social isolator. At the same time as the inner-city areas are experiencing unsurpassed wealth, the poor, both rural and metropolitan, are falling further behind. They are isolated and forgotten, and angry and suspicious of the process that has cast them aside. It is on this basis that I want the indigenous debate to proceed. It should proceed on the basis that it is a poverty issue and a social isolation issue, and not a simple case of an Aboriginal welfare issue.
This is another reason that I stand here as a Labor member of parliament. It is the Labor Party that traditionally has represented the poor and isolated in our community.
It is my firm belief that the Aboriginal cause sits hand-in-glove with the regional development cause. Unless we can bring real economic benefits to our remote indigenous communities, and the board members of Indigenous Business Australia successfully managed to do that in a number of remote communities across Australia, we will not be able to provide real alternatives to the levels of poverty currently being experienced.
The Perth diaspora I referred to earlier is in reverse in one particular area; that is, resources. We are at the cutting edge in technology in this area and attract the best talent from across the world.
The private resources sector is leaping ahead of state and federal governments in respect of developing relations with Aboriginal landowners, local content in employment and environmental consideration. This fact is often lost in the heat of debate. Looking at current best practices may teach us, as parliamentarians, a great deal. I look forward to working closely with the engine room of our state as a member of this place.
An education, be it university based or skills based, is the one great social equaliser. Thanks to the commitment and hard work of my parents and the generosity of the Rotary ambassadorial scholarship, I stand here today a very fortunate recipient of amazing educational opportunities in both WA and the UK. These benefits should not be destined for the lucky few, but should continue as the basic building blocks of our society, regardless of background.
My campaign was based on an overwhelming sense of optimism and hope for my electorate and our state. While there is always more to be done, we are a lucky state in fortunate times. However, it also became apparent that there is a disturbing sense of cynicism in our community directed towards our elected representatives at all levels of government. While not the sole contributing factor, I have no doubt that this was partly to blame for the low turnout at the by-election that saw me elected to this place. Only 61 per cent of eligible voters cast a vote. As the member for Victoria Park, one of my priorities will be to re-engage with these people who feel let down and somehow ignored by our political process.
• This is an edited extract from Labor MLA Ben Wyatt’s maiden speech to state parliament, delivered on March 29 2006.