Farewell to a firebrand

Farewell: Doug Cameron giving his final address to the senate.
Farewell: Doug Cameron giving his final address to the senate.

This is the full text of Doug Cameron's farewell speech, made to the Senate on Wednesday, April 3.

I rise tonight to make my final contribution to the Senate which I have had the honour of serving since 2008 while representing the citizens of NSW and the great Australian Labor Party.

My work as a trade union official and senator has given me the opportunity to meet wonderful and interesting people the length and breadth of this huge country.

The overwhelming majority of Australians I've met have been working people. They would probably describe themselves as 'ordinary Australians'.

However, the working men and women of this country are anything but ordinary. In the main, the Australian working class are industrious, loyal, intelligent, politically engaged and big hearted.

They are not xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic or racist as some on the cross benches would have people believe.

The men and women who work in factories, hospitals, on building sites and in classrooms are the people who make this country great. These workers, many of them union members, build and maintain our great nation.

Knowing that I had to make this final speech got me thinking about why I'm here, what brought me to this place and what I've tried to achieve while I was here.

And really, it all comes down to one thing - socialism.

The first leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Hardie, who was born in Holytown, a stone's throw from my birthplace of Bellshill, said this: "Socialism is at bottom a question of ethics and morals. It has mainly to do with the relationship which should exist between man and his fellows. Therefore it is the equaliser in the position of the rich man's too much and the poor man's too little."

The former member for Parkes, Les Haylen, provided another take on socialism and it is also one to which I subscribe. In 1961, Haylen described socialism as being: "Anti-war, anti-poverty, antimonopoly, anti-greed and anti-race discrimination and forever opposed to the savageness of capitalism which has kept the world in fear and misery for centuries... Socialism is a standard of shared goods, jobs and opportunities. It's another word for equality - fair shares."

To this day those opposite view this alternative economic program, one that has served many of our allies so well, as inferior to capitalism and neoliberalism. Well, I'll let those opposite in on a little secret - you've got socialists in your own ranks too - they just won't admit it. 

My old mate Wacka Williams over there is an agrarian socialist if I've ever seen one. Nobody that's been kicked in the guts by capitalism and the banks like Wacka has been could be anything else. What other reason could there be for a farmer and a trade unionist to get along so well?

But it was the late great Leonard Cohen who provided probably the most poetic metaphor for inequality, unfairness and corruption in his song, Everybody Knows. While I'm not going to test the Standing Orders, or your sensibilities, and sing. I will read the first verse.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

Everybody knows that the war is over

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That's how it goes

Everybody knows.

I grew up in Bellshill, a small, working class Scottish town a few miles southeast of Glasgow in North Lanarkshire.

Bellshill was a steel town, an engineering and mining town, a tough town. It was home to a large Lithuanian migrant population which included my mother's family.

I grew up in social housing, colloquially known as the Schemes, with my brother Andy, sisters Marilyn and Sandra, my mother Anne and my father Dougie.

My father, a Sergeant Major in the British Army, served behind Japanese lines in Burma with the British expeditionary forces and then in India. He was a man stricken by the ravages of malaria and war. Like many returned soldiers he ended up abusing alcohol and dying young. He was a strict disciplinarian and authoritarian which I think engendered in me a keen sense of civil disobedience. I am not a pacifist but I hate war.

We never had much money and my mum had a tough time making ends meet. I entered the workforce at age 12, delivering newspapers. I left school at 15 to take up an apprenticeship as a fitter. I joined the union on my first day at work and apart from marrying Elaine it was the best call I ever made.

In 1973, aged 22, Elaine and I left Bellshill with our 14-month-old daughter Lynn and migrated to Australia in search of a better life, one free from sectarian conflict and hardship. Because I had a trade certificate as a fitter and machinist, we had a choice of countries including the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

However, Australia had a reputation as an egalitarian, multicultural country where a worker would get a fair go and a fair day's pay as a result of large, effective trade unions.

We turned up just after Gough Whitlam was elected Labor Prime Minister after decades of conservative rule. Upon our arrival we stayed at the Endeavour migrant hostel in South Coogee. I was, in reality, an economic refugee, the sort loathed by some on the cross benches. As I've looked across this chamber in recent times, I've done so in the knowledge that there are some people in here who would have denied my family and I the opportunity to make a life in Australia if the decision had been theirs.

Fortunately, those with xenophobic and racist views are in the minority and their bigotry will never ever be accepted by mainstream Australians in this proudly multicultural country where about 30 per cent of residents were born overseas.

As a fitter, I was able to secure employment at General Motors Holden in Pagewood, at Garden Island dockyard and at National Springs. I worked with other migrants, many from non-English speaking backgrounds, who shared my dream of living in a bountiful, peaceful country, free of the poverty and divisive politics that had afflicted Europe.

In 1975, I accepted a job as a maintenance fitter at the Liddell Power Station near Muswellbrook. It was at Liddell that I became a union activist and convener. On arrival at Muswellbrook with Elaine, Lynn and our newborn daughter Fiona, we discovered that the house provided as part of the job had been vandalised. When I raised this with the bosses they just shrugged their shoulders.

So here I am, with a wife and two young children and nowhere to live but a dilapidated, dirty, unsafe workers cottage. Fiona was only a few months old.

Luckily for me I was a member of the union and as soon as I spoke to the shop steward he took it up with the bosses and we were given a different house, one fit for a family with a new child. I have never forgotten that act of support, strength and solidarity, and I never will.

In 1982, after seven years on the tools at Liddell and after many industrial disputes, I was elected as a state organiser for the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union.

In 1986, I became the NSW Assistant State Secretary of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union before becoming the Assistant National Secretary.

From 1996 until I commenced my first term in the senate in 2008, I was national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers and the vice-president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

A union is only as strong as its weakest shop and we would use the strength of our 'hot shops', the well organised sites, to raise standards across the industry. Pattern bargaining, as it was known, is the most effective way for working people to get decent pay and conditions. WorkChoices essentially outlawed pattern bargaining and as a result workers' pay and conditions have stagnated while company profits have soared.

Under the current industrial system, workers would have been unable to achieve shorter hours, career paths, superannuation and industrial democracy free from complete managerial prerogative.

John Howard's war on workers and their unions culminated in the waterfront dispute, the introduction of WorkChoices, the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission.

In 2007, when the workers of this country rose up and countered these unprecedented attacks on their rights at work, I was very fortunate to be elected to the Australian senate.

I was encouraged to seek pre-selection by my friend and comrade, Greg Combet - so you can all blame Greg. I was strongly supported by Sally McManus, a great trade unionist and a fantastic leader.

We often hear about the shortcomings of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years - more often than not from the Murdoch press. We hear about the internal fighting, the removal of a sitting Prime Minister and the endless cycle of payback. And yes, that all happened. I opposed the removal of Prime Minister Rudd and I think my position has been vindicated.

The only thing worse than engaging in that sort of nonsense would be to witness it, ruthlessly exploit it and then immediately repeat it as soon as you got into power. And that's exactly what the Liberal Party has done.

Less spoken about are some of the great achievements of the Rudd-Gillard years, starting with the long overdue apology to our First Nations people. Indigenous Australians continue to pay a heavy price for having their country stolen and their culture attacked. Rudd's apology started a healing process and I firmly believe this important work must continue if Australia is to ever reach its full potential.

Another enormous achievement of the previous Labor government was guiding Australia through the economic turmoil of the global financial crisis without the widespread job losses and foreclosures experienced around the world.

It should not, and will not, ever be forgotten that it was a Labor government that shielded the people of this country from the excesses of capitalism. This was real economic leadership by PM Rudd and Treasurer Swan. It stands out compared to the economic vandalism of the Howard and Costello years.

While this Senate has faced some serious headwinds throughout my time here, it's the recent contributions by neo fascists masquerading as patriots that have caused me the most concern. I'll make this point very clearly. It is not Australia's Muslim community that is a menace and danger to our society and to what we collectively hold dear. It's not Australia's Muslim community who invited a toxic foreign entity like the NRA to buy our democracy and expose our community to semi-automatic weapons. It's the extreme right; they are the incubators of hate and intolerance.

It's One Nation, people like Fraser Anning and the extremists on the far right of the Coalition that would destroy this great country if given half a chance.

The very wealthy, self-serving, anti-union former Liberal candidate Pauline Hanson pretends to be a voice for those without financial or political power. One Nation does this while voting with the Liberals on key legislation including the ABCC, penalty rates, free trade agreements and tax cuts for the wealthy.

They pretend to love this country while dispatching their idiotic minions to sell us out to the NRA. They pretend to care about everyday Australians while subscribing to imbecilic conspiracies about the Port Arthur massacre. And now they want us to believe they were all taken out of context with their half-baked plan to hijack this Parliament with US gun money.

I strongly urge working class Queenslanders to give this treacherous, treasonous rabble the boot at the upcoming election.

And I say to the Australian Muslim community - you are welcome here. You are an important part of our multicultural society. You contribute far more than Senator Hanson and her poisonous policies. You belong here as much as anyone else and don't let anyone tell you any different.

One of the most important trips I made as a senator was to the Wilkins Aerodrome in Antarctica with the environment and communications committee where scientists explained to me the impact climate change is having on our planet. How our opponents became so wedged on this important issue is beyond me. I do take comfort, however, in the knowledge that a Shorten Labor government, if elected, will take meaningful action on climate change to safeguard future generations.

Over the past six years, I have been honoured to serve in Bill Shorten's shadow ministry as Labor's spokesman on human services, housing and homelessness as well as skills, TAFE and apprenticeships.

Unfortunately, Australia's housing market is failing. Home ownership is at record lows, rental stress is preventing young people from saving for a home deposit and homelessness is skyrocketing. There are very few social outcomes that so unambiguously and shamefully expose our failure to live up to the promise of being a fair and decent society than the persistently high number of young Australians and older women either at-risk of, or experiencing, homelessness.

We must stop viewing housing purely as a source of investment and wealth creation and recognise that a society as wealthy as ours should view having a roof over your head as a human right. I also believe that, given the social and economic importance of housing, it should be part of the infrastructure portfolio.

I am deeply concerned that too many politicians argue that "equality of opportunity" is the key to resolving social and economic disadvantage. This rhetoric belies the massive difference in opportunity available to the children of the wealthy compared to the children of working class and disadvantaged Australians.

Young people under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government have faced high rates of unemployment and underemployment, wage stagnation and penalty rate cuts, under-investment in vocational education and increases in the proportion of young workers relying on the minimum wage.

This hopeless and dysfunctional Coalition Government has also decimated our TAFE and apprenticeship systems by cutting more than $3 billion from the sector. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices since they were elected and TAFE enrolments have plummeted by 24.5 per cent.

Last night's budget did nothing to address this terminal decline; rather it was a pea and thimble trick designed to fool voters into thinking they are investing more money when they clearly are not.

Among the highlights of my time in the Senate was the delivery of my proposal to establish the national workers memorial in Canberra. The memorial serves the dual purpose of honouring those killed at work and reminding us all of the need for occupational health and safety in the workplace.

If there is one small thing I hope I am remembered for when I leave this place, it is consistency. I've consistently backed progressive causes, even when they have been unpopular. I have never voted for a free trade agreement in the caucus. I've never believed in the magical power of the markets and I have remained extremely sceptical about the virtues of privatisation and competition policy.

Privatisation has not worked in health, in education, in the electricity market or in the vocational education sector. We've seen countless big government instrumentalities handed over to the private sector who more often than not have profiteered while reducing services.

One of the most consistent criticisms levelled at me by the Murdoch press and others is that I engage in class warfare. Apparently, defunding public schools and hospitals, cutting legal aid, closing TAFE campuses, wage theft and cutting penalty rates are not class warfare. If protecting the working class from the excesses of the wealthy elite is class war, I plead guilty.

When I was first elected to the senate a colleague told me that I was no longer a trade unionist but a senator in the Australian parliament. Like many other pieces of unsolicited advice, I ignored this. I have always been and always will be a proud trade unionist.

Many great men and women have served the Labor Party over the years, people like former Senator Bruce Childs, but there is one NSW senator that I would like to single out as having left an indelible mark on our democracy and society - Lionel Murphy. The former Attorney-General's many reforms were driven by a visceral sense of social justice and fierce determination to pursue equality for all.

Lionel sought justice for women in the mid-1970s through his abolition of the Matrimonial Causes Act and the introduction of no fault divorce. His establishment of commonwealth legal aid provided many Australians previously shut out of the legal system with rights and access to legal support. Lionel's well-placed concern about the accountability and transparency of our national security agencies remains of fundamental relevance to Australian democracy today.

Lionel is credited with establishing the senate committee system, an innovation that has provided so much to democratic accountability in this country.

There are far too many good comrades in the Labor Party for me to mention today but I will single out my senate colleagues for special mention. They have been an inspiration and tremendous support for me over the years and I thank each and every one of them for this.

In the other place, I would make a special mention of deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek. I believe Tanya would make a truly great deputy prime minister and I hope she gets that opportunity very soon. I want to also acknowledge Jenny Macklin, one of the most talented, hardworking, intellectually precise people I've ever met - a fantastic contributor to this nation.

My Queensland colleague Murray Watt has been a forensic interrogator in senate estimates and I know for certain he will make a significant contribution to Australian public life over the coming years.

The same goes for my NSW comrades Deb O'Neil, Kristina Keneally and Jenny McAllister - three remarkable women who will continue to serve this nation very well.

One of the most formidable and intelligent politicians I have ever met is my leader in the senate, Penny Wong. Penny, you and I have had our differences on a range of policy issues. You have always argued your position with strength and integrity even though your remarkable powers of persuasion failed to change my mind on trade and competition policy.

I could not leave this place without special mention of my mate Albo. What can you say about Albo? Self-made, raconteur, DJ, numbers man - he is the ultimate political warrior. He dominated the house of representatives as leader of the government and his contribution to Labor now being a genuine alternative government should never be underestimated.

And finally, to my successor and AMWU brother, Tim Ayres - I wish you all the best for the future - I know you will serve the people of NSW well. Good luck comrade.

I leave this place in the knowledge that the labour movement and the Labor Party are in great shape. Sally McManus and Michele O'Neil have reinvigorated the union movement with their uncompromising leadership style. I've been extremely impressed by the way Bill and Tanya have united the Labor Party, leading us out of the wilderness and into contention to form the next Australian government.

Under Bill's leadership, the Labor Party again feels like the Labor Party I joined many years ago. It is unashamedly progressive, pro-worker, pro-women, outward looking and confident. I am quietly confident myself that Australians will give Bill the opportunity to lead this great country. He will make a great Labor prime minister who will govern for all Australians, particularly those without access to wealth and power.

In closing, I want to thank the Parliament House staff who do a tremendous job in keeping this place running. In particular, the cleaners who have been subjected to wage theft and have had to fight tooth and nail to achieve the most basic conditions and entitlements. I also want to acknowledge the hard work of my own personal staff, past and present. They have provided me with the resources, support and advice I have needed to do my job properly. Helen, Siobhan, Rebecca, Jason, Justine and Michael. A talented team. Thank you.

I must mention Phil Morgans who worked with me for over 20 years and was an adviser and friend without peer.

I want to thank my wonderful wife Elaine who has given me the love and support I've needed throughout our lives. We have been married for 48 years. Elaine saved my life when she supported me in recovering from my battle with alcohol addiction.

To my beautiful daughters, Lynn and Fiona, their partners, Rick and Perry, and my beautiful grandchildren, Amy and Scott. Thank you for turning your mum and my hopes for a great life for you in our adopted country into a reality.

Thank you.