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Senator Penny Wright gives her valedictory speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 20 Aug 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:00): I stand here to make my valedictory speech with an immense sense of gratitude. First, I am grateful for this opportunity to put a few things on the record and to say some much needed thankyous.

As many people already know, I have made a decision to step aside from my position as a senator for South Australia after only four years due to an illness in my family. It was not an easy decision to make, but it is the right one. I am also very grateful for the opportunity I have had to be the 546th Australian senator since 1901. It is an opportunity very few Australians have. Through some great luck in 2010, it fell to me to be the second Greens senator for South Australia and the 95th senator elected to represent my state. I sincerely thank the South Australians who trusted me with their vote and I hope they feel I have vindicated their faith in me. So it has been four short years and four very long years since I first came into this place. It has flown by, but it also seems a lifetime ago that I made my first speech on 17 August 2011. I am definitely older and a bit greyer. I remember someone telling me that Senate years are like dog years: each year in the Senate is like seven ordinary years, and I am sure that is right. It has been an amazing journey.

When I first started, people asked me what it was like. I used to respond that it was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. Most would understand, but occasionally someone would ask, 'Why?' and I would answer: 'Well, imagine you start a new job'-everyone can relate to that-'and then imagine it is not one job but at least four. You are a policy maker, a salesperson, a media performer and a manager, but there is no job description and you are doing all of this on a stage with half the audience hoping you will fall off.' But, as we here all know, it is a job like no other. It is very creative, we make of it what we will and we make of it who we are.

For a stickybeak like me, a great aspect of this work has been the unique right that we have as senators to completely ignore our mothers' advice to mind our own business. Instead, we can indulge our curiosity, stick our noses into everyone else's business, invite ourselves to places, ask questions and find out things, and most people welcome it. I am prepared to admit there might be some notable exceptions-witnesses on Senate inquiries into tax avoidance spring to mind!-but of course we then need to turn that information to a purpose and do good in the world. The Senate committees are just a formal example of that, so I was very lucky to chair the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for close to four years as well as having a stint on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement in my early days and as the Greens representative on the Parliamentary Joint Committee for Human Rights since it was first established in 2012.

Legal and con inquiries have covered a multitude of topics from court fees to forced marriages, but there are two which particularly stand out in my memory. One looked into the death of Reza Barati, the 23-year-old Iranian man who died a lonely death after a riot on Manus Island. He as the same age as my daughter. This was one of the hardest inquiries I have chaired, facing up each day to hear evidence that was very hard to process. I have never forgotten that, while we go about our daily lives with our families and with our friends, there are men living there on Manus Island, day after day, without any prospect at all that things will get better.

The other inquiry I am most proud of was the legal and con consideration of the value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia which looked into our patently failing system of law enforcement and asked, 'What changes can we make to reduce the number of aboriginal Australians being locked up in our jails?' They are some of the most imprisoned peoples in the world. I took heart from this inquiry because it demonstrated to me that exposure to ideas and new information can change minds and views. It is not a novel idea, I will admit, but reassuring all the same. Perhaps we do not see the evidence of that in here-and I count myself in that as much as anyone-as much as we would like to. But some of those who were sceptical about the notion of the inquiry at the start came to warmly endorse the principle of justice reinvestment by the end. This issue is unfinished business for me. I want to see our systems change to tackle the causes of crime and I want to see the amazing results in Australia that justice reinvestment has achieved in the US: less people in jail, stronger communities.

Being a senator exposes us to amazing experiences if we are willing to grab the vine as it swings past. So, soon after I started, I found myself sitting in a container in Queensland in full PPE-personal protective equipment for those us in the know-as I was surrounded by flames licking up the walls of that structure. I was telling myself that the firefighters who had organised the whole shebang would surely not risk any scandalous headlines like 'Singed senators' or 'Poached pollies'. This was part of an inquiry into Adam Bandt's landmark bill to support firefighters who contract cancer in the course of their work. Again, the experiences we shared on this committee helped change minds, incontrovertibly demonstrating to us the debt that we owe firefighters because they are often the only ones running into a burning building when everyone else is running out. Adam's bill was ultimately passed unanimously, a rare but very agreeable example of our capacity to work together in this parliament for the national good.

There was also that time I donned a bite suit that made me look like the Michelin Man-not very stylish but highly practical, and apparently it is recommended couture for anyone being attacked from behind by a German shepherd. That was just one of the many pleasures I experienced when I visited Amberley air base for a week as part of the ADF Parliamentary Program

Now that was a great opportunity to test some assumptions-on both sides-and I was made exceedingly welcome and learned lots. A highlight was travelling in a C17, the aircraft used for delivering aid supplies and assisting with medical evacuation when Australians are providing emergency responses at times of natural disaster and crisis-work that I am immensely proud of.

Less adrenalin fuelled but thoroughly rewarding was the extraordinary hospitality I experienced in rural Australia as I conducted a tour over about 18 months to hear about gaps in mental health services in country areas. Although the scones and lamingtons proved hazardous to my waistline, I just loved the chance to learn from people who could help me develop policy that was relevant to their needs. One Friday night after a few days on the road I was flying back to Sydney from Orange. The attendants solemnly went through the safety drill from the front of the plane determined not to be distracted by the fact that I was the sole passenger on the flight, sitting in the very back row of the 34-seat plane listening dutifully. At this point I probably should point out that, although I had the plane to myself, it was a regular scheduled flight. So any resemblance to Choppergate is purely coincidental.

My rural tour sums up my favourite part of the work that we do-the rewards from meeting people, hearing their hopes and fears, amplifying their voices and being able to reflect and validate their concerns in the national parliament. It is very good for democracy. For me, making connections, taking the risk to be real and listening with an open heart are really the most exciting parts of being a senator. And if it sounds like a 'Girl's Own Adventure', well, it really has been. I would like to see many more 'girls' coming on this adventure, and I hope that in some small way I have helped show that ours is a perfectly respectable profession. I think the trick is to find a way of doing politics that is congruent with one's own personal style. Encouraging this will lead to more women putting their hands up.

We work in a challenging and often adversarial environment which rewards behaviours that would actually have you disciplined or ostracised in a normal workplace. As a guiding principle, I have found it helpful to remember the advice of one of my favourite cartoonists from the 1980s, Kaz Cooke-advice usually dispensed by the spikey-haired sharp-nosed young female figures that she drew-to 'keep yourself nice'. After all, when I leave here all I will really have left is me. I have also been mindful of the sage advice I heard once to 'be polite to those you pass on the way up as you may meet them again on the way down.'

As I look ahead, I know I am going to enjoy some sleep and luxuries like reading for pleasure, having the time to reflect and reconnecting with friends and neighbours, who we all miss in this place. While I am sorry to be leaving, I know that my party, the Australian Greens, is in a good and growing place. I am thankful that I have been able to work with wonderful colleagues-my Senate companions and Adam flying the green flag in the House of Representatives. I have experienced the inspiring leadership of three leaders: first Bob Brown, then Christine Milne and now, all too briefly, Richard di Natale. I have worked in a variety of workplaces over my career, and I can say without any doubt that these are some of the most intelligent, talented and dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to work with. I am going to miss you all very much, my friends.

In South Australia, I am very heartened by the mature, collegiate state of the party Mark Parnell and I helped establish in 1995. We have come a long way since then. The calibre of the people who put their hands up to fill my position and the efficient and professional way the SA Greens responded to the challenge of a speedy but fair preselection process attests to this.

I also believe the Greens are in a strong place because the 21st century challenges are our challenges. They are pressing and they require an approach that is different to what has gone before. However comforting and tempting it is to turn back to old, familiar viewpoints and solutions, we cannot live in the past. We cannot 'unknow' what we know now; we just have to have the guts to face it and make decisions for the long term based on the information and evidence that we have. We only have this one beautiful, fragile planet with an atmosphere and an environment that we are a part of. Like any other animal species, if we destroy it we destroy our own chance of survival.

Before I finish I have quite a list of people to acknowledge-without whom I could not have done my job in this place. There are the Senate staff, led by Rosemary Laing, who have been unfailingly courteous and helpful-and proud! Right from that first day of Senate school, we newly elected senators, the class of 2010, were left in no doubt that democracy resides right here in this house of review, with the important job of scrutinising that sometimes wayward House of Representatives-with Odgers in our arsenal when the going gets tough or uncertain. Thank you to the committee secretaries and their excellent staff, who are so professional in all they do and who are willing to go above and beyond to get the job done. They spin hours of evidence and reams of documents into comprehensible gold. Thank you to the cleaners-those good fairies who visit while the rest of us are sleeping to keep our offices pleasant and habitable; the chamber attendants-so attentive and anticipating our every need; and the security guards who help keep us safe and endure what must be times of acute boredom. Special thanks to Ian and Peter and the Comcar drivers, both here in Canberra and in Adelaide and elsewhere. If any of you are listening, please do not ever underestimate how lovely it is to be greeted with your smiles and kindness on a cold Canberra morning when we are a long way from our family and friends.

Finally, Mr President, at the risk of an awkward 'aw shucks' moment, I would like to place on the record my appreciation of the even-handed and considered approach you have brought to your role. I think we first met on the law enforcement committee-and we have both moved beyond that at this point. At a time when the position of presiding member of a parliamentary chamber would probably not be at the top of the pops in terms of career aspirations, you have been even-handed and thoughtful. You even listen carefully to the questions in question time!

That may not be a strict breach of the standing orders, but I am sure it is a breach of the conventions!

Now to my staff-I could not have done it without you. Lisa Marlin has been my office manager since day one. I vividly remember walking with Lisa around our empty Adelaide CPO suite on that first day, her notebook and pen in hand, starting a 'to do' list that has never come to an end. Thank you, Lisa. Anna Chang has been a tower of strength while working for me as a campaigner and cheerfully turning her hand to any role or challenge that cropped up. Anna continues to support and encourage me, even to this day. Thank you to the policy advisers who served me over time: Graham Goss; Amy Barry-Macaulay, who is here today; Clare Quinn; Sarah Moulds; and Simon Bakker. I have been spoiled by your exceptional skills. Thank you to my campaigners: Shen Mann; Erin Brooks; Rachelle Sandow; Emma Gorman and Ogy Simic. And a huge thanks to Sharon Reid, who is so adaptable she morphed through three positions in the two years that she worked for me. Thank you to my media advisers: Lauren Zwaans; Jenny Maisel; Danielle Forsyth, who worked miracles for me; and, most latterly, Cambell Klose, who has been a great support in the last few challenging weeks. Thank you also to those staff who have helped me by filling in over the last few weeks and who are here today: Lucy, Emily, Olivia and Eithne.

Thank you also to my friends and the many people who have sent me some kind messages in recent times, especially my focus group, who would meet me for coffee on Saturday mornings to help me to focus on what really matters-and, as we all know, it is not always what we think is important in here. Special thanks to Pat Tobin, who has been a very good friend for me in Canberra-offering support, encouragement and friendship right from the early days when I was in a wheelchair after I had been hit by a car.

Finally, thank you to my family. My daughter, Ellie, follows politics with great interest and has had the uncanny knack of sending me cards and funny, encouraging text messages just when I needed them most. Thank you for the love and support of my big boy, Felix. I do not know if he has actually got here from Melbourne-yes? Good! It was a near thing. Felix is very interested in current affairs and ideas, but less fascinated by party politics. I had to laugh when I was sitting in that seat over there in June 2013 during the height of the leadership tensions in the last parliament, when a text message lit up my phone. It said: 'Hi Mum. Can I come over and use your kitchen to cook Ruth a chocolate mascarpone cake for her birthday?' I suspect he did not even know I was in Canberra. I responded by texting: 'Yes, love. And by the way-yes, I am in Canberra; and yes, we do have a new Prime Minister!' I love the fact that while he is clearly not a political tragic, I have raised a son who wants to make his girlfriend his signature cake for her birthday. I have always told him that the ability to cook was a very attractive quality in a man. And thank you for the love and support of my youngest boy, Mungo, who has a great sensitivity to ideas and ethics, a soft heart and a gift with words. Indeed, I noticed a Facebook post he made today when he described me to a friend as 'a good egg with awesome values'. How could I argue with that?

My final thanks are reserved for my husband, Mark, who has accompanied me on this journey every step of the way and right up to this point. He knows that his most important job is to make me laugh and, so far, he has managed it pretty well. If he ever stops, he knows that is it-he is dropped! This has not been an easy decision to make, but it has been made easier by the fact that it is the right one, and I feel very lucky to have a husband and kids that I love above all other things.

In my first speech I concluded by saying:

When I stand here to make my last speech I would like to think that I have contributed to making Australia a kinder, fairer place.

Well, I have had a shorter time to try to achieve that than I would have anticipated, but I am confident that I have done the best I can. Thank you.


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