Senator MARTIN (Tasmania) (17:01): Thank you, Mr President. Senators, ladies and gentlemen, I acknowledge the Ngunawal people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
A few weeks ago a local journalist from The Advocate, a tough little north-west newspaper not known for giving away easy free kicks, came to see me. While a kind profile piece was run, it was accompanied by the headline: ‘Steve Martin, Bradbury of the Senate’. As we know, Senators, Steven Bradbury is, of course, the Australian speed skater legend who came from behind to win gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics as the other skaters skittled each other at the final bend. Others might take this headline as an insult or a backhanded compliment—perhaps that was even my instinctive response—but on reflection I have come to welcome the comparison. If nothing else, I’m in good company. We now have a small army of Bradburys in this chamber, thanks to section 44 of the Constitution. But, more importantly, there is a hidden moral in Bradbury’s unlikely success story about being positive, having a dream, backing yourself against the odds and giving things a red-hot go. Steven Bradbury was not the world’s best speed skater. He wasn’t the strongest or the fastest. Frankly, his prospects were pretty dim. Imagine the self-doubt he had to overcome and the setbacks he faced along the way. But there he was, at the Olympics. He drew on all his courage and determination to get there. He put in all the hard work and then, at the fateful final turn, twice the gods smiled, the luck came to his side and the glory was his.
The Advocate was right. It is positivity and determination along with the good fortune that sometimes follows which have delivered me into this rare and humbling position as a federal parliamentarian representing the great state of Tasmania in this Senate. It is a responsibility and an honour which I will take with great seriousness and humility. That same optimistic philosophy has carried me through the ups and downs of a career in small business, a sports shop, a newsagency and a Mexican restaurant. It has underpinned my longstanding involvement in community activity, from setting up a youth group to organising a grassroots campaign which saved the Mersey hospital to proudly serving in the Tasmania Fire Service and as an alderman and Mayor of the City of Devonport for many years.
My point is that none of this was served up on a plate. All of it took hard work. All of it took a willingness to take a risk on what seemed at the time like distant and unlikely outcomes. This philosophy of optimism, of having a dream and backing yourself to get there, is, I believe, one we can all draw on whatever our political views. Moreover, it applies to us not just as individuals but also as a community.
For too long political discussions about Tasmania have been overwhelmingly focused on the negatives. Time and again we are treated to tales of doom and gloom about failure, falling behind or not catching up. We hear discouraging words like ‘malaise’ and ‘stagnation’ and ‘straggler’. We read that Tasmanians work less, earn less and are less productive than their mainland counterparts. We hear that our state ranks low in terms of education and literacy, wages, health, employment, investment and house prices, and it tops the states per capita in the sad categories of obesity and welfare receipts. The unsurprising effect has been to create a grim picture of a miserable state struggling in virtually every metric of economic and social development.
Well, I don’t buy into that narrative, and neither do Tasmanians. It doesn’t stack up with the feeling on the ground. In recent weeks I’ve been driving around the state, speaking to lots of people, north and south, in towns and cities, boardrooms and universities, farms and community halls, and I can tell you that there is today an unmistakably vibrant sense of optimism and excitement about our future—and all Tasmanians know what I’m talking about.
For the first time in many years, the state government has been returned with a clear majority. Business confidence is up. Unemployment is coming down. Trade is growing, especially in agricultural exports, into the megamarkets of East Asia, most notably China. Building approvals are also up. This means benefits for both housing and the construction sector. Tourism—again, largely from China—is growing faster in Tasmania than in any other state. Even some of our problems—our new problems like housing shortages in Hobart—are symptoms of success, as surging demand for residential properties is driving up values. These are small and somewhat isolated data points, to be sure. They are contrasted by others which reflect ongoing difficulties, but taken together they are the early signs that things are going right—that, after a long and difficult period, we are on the cusp of a more sustained era of success. The pendulum is swinging our way.
The big ships which glide into the Mersey and pass my office every morning are called the Spirit of Tasmania. They are aptly named because there is a human spirit in Tasmania which rises above the ABS data. It is a spirit built on a combination of resilience and sensitivity, toughness and kindness, a strong sense of community, equality and a deep love for
I don’t invoke this to gloss over or skirt our many difficult issues; I do it to recast them. They should not be seen as incurable problems, because they are not. Embedded in each challenge is an opportunity. In Tasmania, words like ‘growth’, ‘investment’, ‘productivity’ and ‘competition’ have tended to be used to describe a seemingly far-off dream. Our challenge is to harness that Tasmanian spirit, to bend it in ways that make these things everyday features of our economic reality.
We are well equipped for the struggle. Opportunities abound in mining and tourism. Our climate is the envy of rural and regional communities in Australia and around the world. We also have some of the world’s cleanest air and purest water. The combination of above-average annual rainfall and free-draining soil creates unparalleled fertility, perfect conditions for rearing livestock, for horticulture, for aquaculture, for winemaking, for dairy and for growing fruit. Our agriculture sector is strong because it plays to our natural strengths. In each of these
Strong industries need access to strong markets, and it is here that the government can do more. First, we need to strengthen our biosecurity. The recent outbreak of fruit fly in north and north-west Tasmania came as a shock to the system. While it looks to be contained, the incursion should serve as a timely reminder and a wake-up call. Fruit fly and other pests pose an unacceptable risk to our agricultural exports. They threaten the livelihood of our farmers and the reputation and economic wellbeing of our state. Our trading partners will not accept lax standards or lax compliance, and neither should we. I am proud that in my first week as a senator I was able to successfully negotiate a six-figure grant for Fruit Growers Tasmania. That money will be spent on a public awareness campaign to enhance compliance with biosecurity regulations, to ensure that a few bad imports do not destroy our exports. It’s a good start, but we must go further. We need better coordination between federal and state governments to prevent and deal with infestations, as well as better resources to detect, isolate and eradicate threats as they appear.
Second, Tasmanian exporters need to be assured of a level playing field. Tasmania’s unique geography offers some extraordinary advantages, but it also has its drawbacks. Most notably, it adds to the cost of getting goods to market. Unlike their counterparts on the mainland, Tasmanian businesses do not have the option of using road or rail before on-shipment to international markets. It is for this reason that the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme matters so much. Under the scheme, our exporters are entitled to a rebate which compensates for the added cost of having to ship goods by sea. I welcomed the expansion of the scheme back in 2016 and I commend the government’s commitment last week to stick with it for the time being. We do, however, need a more concrete and long-term commitment on the expanded
Third, we need responsible foreign policies which safeguard our economic future. Australia has benefited greatly from China’s rise. It was China’s massive demand for minerals which underpinned the mining boom that steered us through the global financial crisis and created an unprecedented era of wealth and prosperity for our country. Tasmania was dragged along to an extent, but it is only now that we are beginning to directly and fully capitalise, as a state, on the extraordinary opportunities made available by the growth of China’s economy and booming middle class. As China is the biggest overseas market for Tasmanian exports and biggest source of overseas tourism, investment and international students, our economic prospects as a state and a nation are
Over the longer term, our most fundamental challenge as Tasmanians is education. Sir Douglas Copland, the first ever professor of economics at the University of Tasmania, described education as ‘the most profitable investment a community can make.’ He was right, and the evidence is undeniable. According to Saul Eslake, each additional year of school attained, on average, leads to between six and 19 per cent economic growth over the long run. People with a degree earn an average of 50 per cent more over their lives than those whose education ends at year 12. In turn, people whose education finishes at year 12 earn 40 per cent more than those who finish at or before year 10. The pattern is clear enough.
But it’s not just financial. In addition to being more prosperous, people who are better educated tend to be less prone to gambling, drug abuse, alcoholism, obesity, crime and chronic illness. In short, a better education means a better life. If we are to seize our opportunities, if we are to boost workforce participation and productivity, if we are to enjoy a future in which we are healthy, wealthy and wise, the challenge falls largely on education.
Education has long been a difficult issue in Tasmania. Most of it comes down to an overly fragmented schooling system. Unlike other states, Tasmanian public schools—and, in some parts, its Catholic schools—have historically ended at year 10. Years 11 and 12 are delivered through separate colleges. The effect is to up-end the lives and educational pathways of students at precisely the time they need stability. To complete years 11 and 12, our students often have to travel further and at greater expense. Their peer groups and support networks are dispersed, and that crucial bond between teacher and student, in which four years have been invested, is broken and must be re-formed.
Predictably, this is where too many educational journeys end. But let me be clear: this is no indictment on the individual colleges themselves. They are good institutions and they are staffed by passionate and professional teachers and principals. In many cases—for example, at Don College in Devonport—they consistently produce excellent results. The problem lies with a system which stacks the decks against them and in which too few
Families matter just as much. It is in the home where our education begins—bedtime stories or dinnertime discussions, questions asked and answered, counting, drawing and learning about colours. These might have been seen just as a childish pastime, but we now know they are building blocks of success. That is why in the coming weeks I will be expanding my program ‘Books for Babies’. Under the scheme, we will be giving a free book to as many babies as we can who are born in Tasmania this year. The idea is to give our kids a little leg up, a gift of encouragement as they set out on their lives of learning. With good government programs and an educational culture built on encouragement for learning in the home, the school and beyond, we have every reason to be excited about the future.
Let me end on one issue on which Tasmanians can be forgiven for feeling less optimistic. I speak, of course, about the troubled state of Australian Rules football—specifically, about the ongoing neglect by the AFL of Tasmania’s ambition to be represented in both the men’s and women’s game at the most senior level of the competition. Almost 30 years after the creation of a so-called national league, Tasmania remains without a team or even a genuine pathway. This is a disgrace! New South Wales has two teams; Queensland has two teams; so do South Australia and Western Australia. And Tasmania has none.
Having excluded our blokes for decades, the AFL had a recent chance to make amends, with the creation of the new AFL women’s comp. They failed to do so. So now they’re excluding our girls, and this is also unacceptable.
Let me assure you that this issue is about more than just football. It’s about equality, community and national inclusion. It also has deep social implications. Some years ago, AFL Tasmania conducted an interesting experiment. They wanted to see whether the unemployment rates in Burnie’s local football teams lined up with the overall unemployment rate in the town. What they found was astounding. Where unemployment for men aged 18 to 30 hovered somewhere around 20 per cent, in the football clubs it was zero. There’s a number of reasons, of course. Young footballers are well equipped with the kinds of skills which make them highly employable. They work in teams, they’re good under pressure, and they’re fit, healthy and disciplined. The footy teams were also acting as a social support network; where a player lost a job, the word went out and another job was found.
According to Professor Jonathan West, also from the University of Tasmania, it is the loss of a local football team that spells the greatest trouble for country towns, and this is exactly what is happening. AFL in Tasmania is in crisis. Burnie and Devonport have withdrawn from the state league. The stands are empty. Community involvement—once, nearly half the population, in some form or another—is plummeting, and our kids are understandably deserting footy in droves to play other sports.
After dragging his heels for months, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan is today finally in Tasmania to help staunch the bleeding. More needs to be done. Only by creating a road map to a men’s and a women’s team in the senior comps can we fully re-energise Tasmanian football, one of our biggest social institutions.
I am realistic. I understand that you can’t get a team with a click of the fingers. But I’m also eager. What I ask is that a new and updated business plan be commissioned to jump-start the process, and I stand ready to work with the AFL and AFL Tasmania on this important issue, and I am prepared to use all the moral and political weight of my office to do so.
It would be remiss of me to conclude this speech without some important acknowledgements. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a whole state to raise a senator. Tonight I offer my heartfelt thanks to the people of Tasmania, for it is an honour and privilege to be representing you here today. I promise to fight for our great state with every bit of dedication and tenacity I can muster.
I also wish to acknowledge my family, who are a great inspiration and a source of endless love, encouragement and support. When I was elected as mayor of Devonport in 2011, it was a proud day for both my parents, John and Patricia Martin, though, sadly, Dad passed away on my first official day as mayor. Dad was a proud man. He was also a footy legend who believed in a firm handshake and the idea that your word is your bond. It was through his service as a volunteer firefighter that he instilled in me a strong commitment to my community service. As for my mum, she’s also very proud. Her patience and gentle guidance, her kindness and good humour have helped shape who I am. I am incredibly proud of my children, Rachel and Alex. They are both grown up now and each has a beautiful daughter, Ilse and Edie. Both my grandchildren said they want me to become Prime Minister. I told them they would just have to be patient. My brother, Brett, and I have always been very close, playing sport together, delivering newspapers and serving in the volunteer fire service. It meant a lot to me that Brett and his wife, Karen, were here the day I became a senator.
Most of all, I want to thank my beautiful and intelligent wife, Susanne, who’s in the gallery tonight. Everyone here knows how tough a life in politics can be on a family. Susanne is always there and has been fully supportive of everything that I do. She’s a very understanding and patient woman, and she is really my rock. Susanne, I love you and I’m very lucky to have you. Thank you for being in my life.
Beyond my family, I take this opportunity to recognise a few people who have played an inspirational role in my life. Gary Davenport, a Tasmanian basketball legend, has been a lifetime mentor. As a boy, basketball was a huge part of my life, and I often snuck into the stadium to watch him play. Later, as teammates, he once hit me at full pace in the back of the head with his trademark look-away bullet-like pass. This taught me to never take my eye off the ball. Gary told me to take it as a valuable life lesson, and it has been. Deborah Thomson is a more recent friend who courageously told a story of 15 years of abuse in her book, Who’s Life Is It Anyway? Deborah is
In that vein, I acknowledge all past and present members of that amazing group. They embody the spirit of optimism of which I spoke, and it has been an honour to have played a part in their journey. Founded in 1996, the idea of Enormity was to empower young people to make a difference to the issues that matter to them. After all, young people are today’s consultants for tomorrow’s world. Enormity members have done amazing things, from representing Tasmania in a range of international events to actively campaigning to stop human trafficking and child prostitution. Their work to raise awareness of homelessness through their winter coat appeal has been nothing less than extraordinary. It is an appeal that went nationwide, securing the support of former prime ministers Howard, Rudd and Gillard and current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In leaving the group, one of our former presidents, Leah Lynd, wrote me a letter, which I had framed. In it, Leah writes of how the group gave her ‘self-worth, self-respect and a place to belong’. Leah then talks of how the lessons she learnt in Enormity will stay with her forever. She concludes by saying:
And now in moving on,
I leave not the little girl
terrified of the world as I was,
but as a confident woman,
certain of her place in it.
I believe in myself and
have seen what I can achieve
no matter where I end up.
I arrived here in the federal parliament in rather extraordinary circumstances. I have been humbled by the warmth and generosity of all my colleagues here, both in the chamber and in the offices that make this place tick. For that, I give thanks. I also acknowledge Jacqui Lambie and the JLN for giving me the opportunity to run on their Senate ticket in the 2016 election.
In order to get here, I referred myself to the High Court to deal with questions about my eligibility. The issue was whether a mayor or a local alderman was an office of profit under the Crown for the purposes of section 44 of the Constitution. In securing a decision from the full bench, I am proud to have set an important legal precedent. This decision clears the way for mayors, aldermen and councillors to run for the federal parliament without having to sacrifice their jobs and livelihoods—and they are precisely the kinds of people we need here. To my incredible legal team, Philip Solomon QC, Dr Charles Parkinson and the hardworking solicitors at Corrs West-garth Melbourne, I say thank you.
Finally, I acknowledge my brilliant staff—Brooke, Raoul, Brian, April, Janine and Rodney. Working for me sometimes must feel like a labour of love. Their passionate and dedicated support for me in this role is an inspiration every day.
This is an exciting time for Australia and Tasmania. We have so much to gain and so much to offer. As I set out in this role as a senator for Tasmania, I’m honoured to be part of that journey. In conclusion, I leave you with this thought from Dr Seuss, a towering figure in childhood literacy: ‘It’s not about what it is; it’s about what it can become.’ Thank you.