First Speech - Robert Simms
Thank you Mr President.
I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal people. I acknowledge their elders past and present. This is and it will always be Aboriginal land.
Mr President, it is an honour to stand here today as the 3rd member of the South Australian Greens to represent our party in the national parliament and as the 96th person to represent South Australia in the senate. I want to pay tribute to my predecessor here in this place, Penny Wright.
As a founding member of the Greens in South Australia Penny has made an enormous contribution to our movement and was a strong voice for my state this in Parliament. She stood with local communities in Kangaroo Island to protect their environment and economy from oil and gas exploration. She worked with residents in Mt Gambier in their fight against Coal Seam Gas on their farmland. She advocated for the building of Australia's first solar thermal plant in Port Augusta.
Penny was also a fierce and passionate advocate for an increased investment in and focus on mental health, particularly for those in the regions.
Penny has been a driving force behind the growth of the Greens in South Australia and has been friend and mentor to me and so many others in our party. Thank you, Penny for all you have done. I know you will continue to fight for green values in the community.
I also want to thank the members of the South Australian Greens for placing their trust in me and giving me this remarkable opportunity to represent our shared values in the national parliament. I joined the Greens in 2007 and 8 years on continue to be inspired by the passion and integrity of the people of Green politics. I know I will continue to draw inspiration from that here in this place.
The Greens are more than just a political party, we are a people powered movement working together to bring about positive social change.
The history of social change in our nation and across the planet tells us that when good people work together with passion and purpose we can change the world. Workers who founded our union movement and fought for a fair pay. Environmentalists who fought to save the Franklin Dam from destruction. Women who fought for the right to vote. Gay and Lesbian activists who fought for law reform. History tells us that by working collectively communities can achieve positive change.
It is this belief in the power of politics to change lives for the better and to make the world a better place that has always inspired me as an activist and it will continue to inspire me as a Greens Senator.
Mr President, I wouldn't be in this place without the love and support of my family and its great to have them in the gallery today. I want to thank my parents Marion and Brian for supporting me throughout this political journey and in all things in life. I know their values will be a good basis for my work in the parliament. I also want to thank my brother Michael who has always given me wise advice and my half-sister, Rachel.
My family has always been one that enjoyed talking about current affairs. I remember my Dad, Brian, remarking that people often say it's not polite to talk about politics or religion and lamenting that these are in fact two of the most interesting topics of conversation. And indeed I remember a lot of discussion around the family dinner table about these things.
In particular, I remember having interesting debates with my late grandmother Majorie who used to visit us from Leeds each year. Now, I think it's fair to say my grandma's political philosophy was a little different to my own, but I know if she was still here today she'd be very proud - probably celebrating with a gin and tonic in hand.
As well as encouraging an interest in current affairs, my Mum and Dad always instilled in my brother and I a sense of community and civic responsibility. We also had the benefit of a big extended family, with four sets of aunties and uncles and lots of cousins. As children we spent considerable time in Broken Hill, where my Mum is from. But also kept in contact with our family in Yorkshire in the UK where my parents were married and where I was born, before my family moved to Australia in 1987. In many ways, Yorkshire and Broken Hill are very different and so as a child I did have the opportunity to learn a bit about the world.
Mr President, I'm a proud product of public education. I went to Flagstaff Hill primary school and later Aberfoyle Park High - at that time the biggest public school in the state. I was involved in the SRC and the debating club - some might even say I was a bit of a nerd.
I had a very happy childhood, but at times, as a young man growing up I did feel as through I didn't quite fit in. I wasn't always sure of my place in the world and didn't always have the easiest time at school.
I stand here today as an out and proud gay man. But it certainly wasn't always so.
I remember I was around 12 when I realised I was gay, I was in my final year at primary school. It was a secret I carried for a long time - indeed I didn't tell anyone until I was in my early twenties. I had no conception of what a gay life might look like and was scared for the future. I have to say, standing in the federal senate talking about coming out wasn't exactly what I envisaged for my future as a closeted teenager in suburban Adelaide!
These days I'm very comfortable in my own skin, but I think it's important to talk about these things because I know this is still not easy an thing for many young people today. I hope that through my work here I can make things a bit easier for people in the future. I have always had the support of my family and friends on my journey with sexuality, but I know not everyone is that fortunate.
Despite all that we've achieved on the road to equality, there is still much more to be done. I know young people are still bullied at school for being same-sex attracted or transgender and homophobia and transphobia are still a dangerous force in Australian society.
But I want to say today to any young person who might be struggling with their own journey with sexuality or gender identity, things really do get better. Our nation is changing, our world is changing and you have a bright future ahead of you. Be brave, be strong and be proud of who you are.
It's my own experiences with sexuality that underpins my support for marriage equality. I know when I was a young person that that reform would have made a big difference to me. It actually would have changed things quite a lot. A positive symbol that no matter who you are or who you love, all are equal before the law.
The time has well and truly come for our nation to finally turn its back on the homophobia and discrimination of the past. This parliament must get this job done.
It's interesting that the thing about me that I would have done anything to change, is now one of the things I cherish the most. Being gay has given me the capacity to look at the world in a different way - to imagine how things should be, to look beyond the rules of the world I grew up in. For me the personal is political and my experience has strengthened my resolve to fight discrimination and to stand up for outsiders. That's fundamental to my political philosophy and I'm proud to be a member of a political party that fights to create a fairer and more equal society for all.
The fight against homophobia and transphobia is of course part of a much bigger struggle for justice in our world - a struggle against a fear and hatred of difference, a fear and hatred of others. We see that ugly hatred and fear in racism in this country as well. It should be named and it should be challenged head on.
It's this fear and hatred of others that has been fundamental to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and it was this issue that lead to my political awakening as a young person. I was at high school at the time. I was horrified by the images on the evening news of boats being turned away and of children sewing their lips together.
I was appalled that our nation was turning our backs on the world's most vulnerable people - people coming to Australia seeking our help and protection. It is a sad indictment that more than a decade on, the brazen cruelty of mandatory detention continues. What kind of nation let's children languish in island prisons? I believed then, as I still believe now, that this policy has no place in a civilised society. Indeed, it demeans us all.
I am proud to stand here as a representative of The Greens - a political party that has always had the moral courage to stand up for these people. I never lose hope that love and compassion will triumph over hatred and fear and that our nation will soon find its conscience.
Martin Luther King once said that "darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
I believe with love and compassion we can change our world. Whether we are black or white, gay or straight, aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, whether you are born here, or whether you arrive by plan or by boat - it is love that is the foundation of the human experience. It is love that unites us all. And it is love that has been severely lacking in our nation's approach to this issue. Let Australia be a country that celebrates generosity, rather than just prosperity. For if we do that, we will really be the richest country on earth.
Mr President, I started to take political action when I started my Law/Arts degree at Flinders University. I remember being approached by a member of the Flinders Uni Education Collective about the Howard government's plans to increase HECS by 30 per cent. I knew that that wasn't fair. So I decided not to get mad, but to get elected. So I got elected to my students association. I ended up being elected state education officer for the national union of students and later education officer of my student association before becoming Flinder's Student President.
These were challenging times for the student movement, as we fought not only the Government's fees agenda but also its plan to destroy student services and representation through Voluntary Student Unionism. Indeed, I remember watching on in dismay as this senate passed VSU into law. A decade on, it is clear that, try as they might, governments will never silence students fighting for fairness and equity in education.
Universities are vital to our nation's future. Not because they are fundamental to the growth of our economy - although that is certainly the case - but because they are a public good. Universities are not just degree factories, they provide pathways for citizens to reach their full potential and realise their dreams. They provide avenues for the exchanging of ideas, building knowledge, reflecting on our world and finding solutions. The Greens have a very strong record in fighting for those important principles and standing shoulder to shoulder with the student movement.
Mr President, I join the parliament as a member of the so-called generation debt. A generation that may never be able to afford to buy our own home - squeezed by mammoth HECS debts and sky-rocking property prices. Indeed, I've lived in share housing ever since I moved out of home and like so many people my age, have lived pay to pay for many years. Obviously, my circumstances have changed somewhat in recent week.
But there is something very wrong in our country if you need to be on a Senator's salary before you can think about home ownership. We do need to take a serious look at negative gearing, for is it fair that those who already have a foothold in the property market, should be able to slam the door on those trying to find a way in? It's not fair and it needs to be changed.
Being shut out of home ownership is just one of many issues confronting young people today. Long term work is hard to find, we've got increased casualisation and short term contracts and that impacts on young people. We need to look at how we can encourage businesses to employ young people, because of course we know once you get that first job, that foot in the door other opportunities will follow. And of course, we shouldn't expect young people to surrender their rights at work or give up their penalty rates, in order to secure employment.
Government needs to provide support to young people looking for work - not harm them with punitive policy. It's a sad irony that in many ways, young people are so often the victims of decisions made in this place, yet so often shut out of the political process.
I started my working life in the community sector as a Policy Advocate for the Youth Affairs Council of South Australia and I do want to be a strong voice for issues affecting young Australians in the parliament.
Mr President, my home state of South Australia is a leader in social reform in this country. South Australia was the first place in Australia before Federation to grant universal suffrage to women in 1895 - and the first place in the world to give women the right to stand for parliament. In 1966 South Australia became the first state in the nation to prohibit racial discrimination with the passage of the Prohibition of Discrimination Act.
40 years ago this year South Australia lead the nation as the first state to decriminalise homosexuality. It is an honour to stand here today as gay man representing our state in the federal parliament. I want to acknowledge the courage of those who fought so hard for that reform, who risked imprisonment simply for being who they are. It is their struggle that made the future brighter for people like myself and I say thank you for that.
Mr President, these are just some examples of South Australia leading the way. For it is our state that has always been a leader in positive social change and innovation in Australia. It is that spirit that we must harness as we confront the challenges that lie ahead.
As an incoming South Australian Senator I know my state faces some big challenges, but with these challenges comes enormous opportunity. As our economy transitions away from coal and carbon, we can create new green jobs for the future. We should harness the skills of our manufacturing industry, to create new jobs in green innovation, supporting the production of technology like electric cars, light rail and cutting edge renewables. In places like Port Augusta there is the potential to create new jobs in energy production through a solar thermal power plant. South Australia can lead the world with green technology. The technology of the future.
South Australia has a reputation for quality food and produce and can also lead the way with sustainable agriculture. For too long the lifeblood of my home state, the River Murray has been a political play-thing. We need a plan that ensures that it's governed by the science, not the politics. There are many industries within my home state who are showing the way with sustainable water use, and I know we can make much of that in the years ahead.
South Australia is the hub of creativity in our country.
The Adelaide Fringe one of the biggest open-access arts festivals in the world typifies our thriving arts scene and culture. Indeed alone, Adelaide hosts ten major festivals a year and these create huge opportunities for tourism for my state. We need to be doing more to support the arts community, not just in South Australia but right across our country.
For despite the huge benefits it brings for tourism and hospitality, valuing the arts is about more than that. The arts are not simply about entertainment, the arts hold a mirror up to society. The arts enrich the collective soul of our nation. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, but we are enriched by the experience. It's time government investment reflected that value.
As a South Australian Senator my mission will be to ensure that we make the most of these opportunities. I know there is an exciting future ahead and that South Australia can strengthen its status as a world leader in sustainability and creativity. The sky is the limit for our state.
Mr President, across our country it is clear that we need a different style of politics. The failure of today's politics to address the social, economic and moral challenges of our time is failing our country and our planet. If we don't change course we will leave a bitter legacy for future generations who follow.
It's often said that politics is the art of the possible, but I respectfully disagree. I think politics is about making what once seemed impossible, possible. It's about achieving the unimaginable. Its' about challenging the status quo, it's about taking on the established order, it's about moving beyond the reality and inspiring with the dream. And to achieve change we need to be brave enough to swim against the tide.
Imagine what we can achieve as Australians, if our politics appeals to the best in us, rather than the worst. If politicians talk the language of love and compassion rather than the language of hatred and fear. If we look to help people in trouble, rather than blaming and shaming them. If we build an economy that guarantees that no one is left behind, rather than an economy that guarantees only some get ahead. If we deal with the challenge of climate change today, rather than leaving it for the children of tomorrow.
The Australian Greens are a force for hope in our politics and I'm honoured to be able to play my part in promoting our positive vision here in this place.
Mr President, I want to conclude by thanking all those - who like my family, have supported me on my road to the senate. My many friends from my time working in the Greens, from my time at university and from school - there are too many here today to mention you all by name, but thank you for believing in me and encouraging me in this journey.
I also come here as someone who has had the opportunity to work for 3 Senators - Natasha Stott Despoja, Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young. I want to thank them for their advice and guidance over the years. Senators Ludlam and Hanson-Young I look to working with you. I also want to thank all my Green colleagues for welcoming into this role and in particular Richard Di Natale's office for all of their support and assistance over the last few weeks.
Finally, I want thank my staff who have worked very hard to get the new office up and running. It's been a busy time and I thank you for your hard work and dedication.
Mr President, it's an honour to be here and I'll be working very hard to justify the faith so many have placed in me.