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If you don’t fight, you lose: Senator Janet Rice on marriage equality, First Nations justice, climate action in farewell speech

Introduction by Croakey: Greens Senator Janet Rice arrived in federal politics by bike in 2014, having ridden from Melbourne through regional Victoria on a two-week ‘listening tour’ and then on to Canberra – a trek of more than 660 kilometres.

In May, she’ll make the return trip, again by bike, having now retired from the Senate.

In her farewell speech this week, Rice reflected on an intense decade, which saw her work for big policy achievements, including marriage equality, an end to native forest logging in Victoria and WA, and the first national inquiry into poverty in 50 years.

It also saw many disappointments and setbacks, ongoing fights for justice, equity and the environment, and vested interests in play, alongside devastating personal loss with the sudden death of her wife, climate scientist Dr Penny Whetton.

In this #LongRead, Rice highlights the need for a shared evidence base and ‘radical transparency’, to move away from “views that might work well in a soundbite, but that stoke conflict and division, and inflame underlying prejudices”.

She offers many insights, including a powerful glimpse into politics that can work, describing the cross-party collaboration that resulted in the marriage equality legislation as “the best committee process I was involved in over my decade here because it was focused on achieving an outcome that we could all live with – a genuine consensus”.

Her speech also underscores intersections between the political, commercial and social determinants of health.

You can watch her speech here or read an edited version below.


Janet Rice speech:

We are here on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. I acknowledge and pay tribute to the owners of this stolen land and to all First Nations peoples, including the Wurundjeri people where my home and office are in Naarm/Melbourne.

I’m sorry that in my decade in the Senate, we have not made the progress that we should have towards First Nations justice, towards truth telling and treaties.

I’m appalled by the ongoing racism in this country, the deaths in custody, the poverty, the lack of self-determination experienced by our first peoples. I salute the resistance and the resilience of our First Peoples and commit to continuing to work with them for justice after I left this place.

Ten years ago, I came here with high hopes, enthusiasm and a commitment to do my best as a Senator to make a difference in the world.

Now I leave with a sense of achievement, particularly in passing Marriage Equality, establishing and completing the first national inquiry into poverty in 50 years, and being one of the few in this place, along with my colleagues, to advocate for people and issues that too often get ignored by the powerful.

I also leave with a more clear-eyed view than when I arrived of the work and time and energy required to achieve change, to fight the vested interests, and how the struggle for justice is ongoing.

Working in this place certainly has its challenges, but after a decade here, I still believe in our representative democracy. We just have to make it work for us.

Tuning out

Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, too many people have tuned out from our political processes. They don’t think that politicians are interested in listening to them or actually representing them. And sadly, too often when it comes to the major parties, they are right.

And so people decide they’ve got better things to do with their time and energy than tune in.

So why aren’t governments listening to the people?

A big reason is because the wealthy and big corporations have outsized power and influence over both the Liberal and Labor parties.

The majority of Australians want serious action on the climate catastrophe and they want to see precious places and homes of threatened species protected.

People want decision makers to take a long term view, to take into account what the consequences of our actions are. In 10 20, 100 years time. People know that the fantasy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is unsustainable.

Surely it shouldn’t be too hard for us to agree as a parliament that longer than three years’ time matters and to commit to at least assessing legislation and regulations as to their impact on future generations, just as we do with their impact on human rights.

People want governments to properly fund public housing, to end homelessness, and to stop skyrocketing rents. They want top notch public education and health, including dental and mental health into Medicare. They want people on income support to have a liveable income.

But Labor and Liberal tell us that we can’t afford it.

We can. We could increase taxes on the wealthy and the big corporations to fund the things that we urgently need.

But we don’t because the big corporations are calling the shots.

Actions that would reduce the profits of the big corporations or would mean that they have to pay more tax are fiercely fought against by these corporations and their media mates.

And because Labor and Liberal are both trying to appease their corporate overlords, too often they agree to deliver for the corporations rather than the voters, who don’t get a look in. Getting people to re-engage cannot be solved with a quick fix. It requires us to stand up to these companies and instead listen to the people and act on what is heard.

We could do so much better in listening and learning from each other and from the community, understanding where and why we don’t agree and acknowledging that no one person or party has a monopoly on wisdom. We do this to some extent in committee work – but we could do much more.

It’s been a privilege to chair the Community Affairs References Committee for the last two years, and to spend considerable hours of my life in Environment and Communications, Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade and RRAT (Senate standing committees on Rural Affairs and Transport) as well.

Radical transparency

The thing that has kept me committed to committees is the powerful work done to establish a body of evidence that we can agree on. Our differences usually come down to differing views about what to do about the issues facing us.

It would be a huge step forward if we could commit to establishing that evidence base more generally in our work here, including through establishing institutions such as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. This evidence can then underpin evidence-based decision making. I know you can call me naive, I’m obviously still a scientist at heart.

It would be much easier to establish this evidence base if we had radical transparency.

If we are to have serious debates about our future and what it’s going to take to fix things, then we all need to share the same information. Information is power, and too often critical information is hidden to boost a particular case and discredit others.

We need to strengthen our Freedom of Information laws and stop blocking orders for the production of documents to ensure that evidence is available to all of us and so we can shine a spotlight on government decisions that are made that are inconsistent with that evidence.

From Robodebt to Sports Rorts colour coded spreadsheets to documents about dodgy contracts that are ostensibly about modernising Meals on Wheels – this stuff matters.

In contrast, when we don’t have that shared agreed evidence base, there’s little to stop speech after speech in here with people sounding supremely confident even when there is no evidence to support their views. Views that might work well in a soundbite, but that stoke conflict and division, and inflame underlying prejudices.

This may seem like a good political strategy at the time, but it corrodes people’s trust in our democracy and results in people tuning out.

Marriage equality

But despite me seeing some room for improvement in how we work here, I’ve been proud to be part of some big steps forward over the last ten years.

The biggest being marriage equality. I took over as the Greens LGBTIQA+ spokesperson in 2015, when the campaign had already been going for a decade. And despite a conservative government in power, we got there. People were put through the wringer with the plebiscite and the scars are still felt from that —  people’s human rights should never have been put to a popular vote.

However, the committee process that we went through that led to (Liberal MP) Dean Smith’s private senator’s bill was the best committee process I was involved in over my decade here because it was focused on achieving an outcome that we could all live with — a genuine consensus. We sat around the committee room and we debated and we negotiated that bill clause by clause.

Dean, (Labor Senator) Louise Pratt and I were the key players in that room and we trusted each other. (Liberal Senator) David Fawcett did an excellent job chairing. We had different pressures on us, different constituencies, but knew that the only way that we were going to achieve marriage equality was to end up with a bill that we could all live with, which is what we achieved.

The marriage equality legislation we have now is not what the Greens would have drafted. It’s not what the others would have drafted. But we reached consensus on it.

Marriage equality has changed lives. It’s saved lives. It’s created so much happiness and joy and wellbeing and the sky has not fallen in.

Marriage equality meant that I could stay married to my late wife Penny, and she could change her birth certificate to say female without us having to get divorced.

Penny was such a star during the campaign for marriage equality. As a trans woman she put herself out of her comfort zone to speak up, to say love was love, and that all we wanted was to stay married!

And being married to a trans woman inspired me to be such a fierce defender of trans and gender diverse people during the campaign and beyond. I feel so grateful for Penny’s love and support, for our lives together until her sad sudden passing four years ago.

For me now, marriage equality means that my partner Anne and I, who have been together for the last two years, can get married! And news flash – we reckon we probably will! Love you Anne!

Discrimination continues

In the Greens fighting for marriage equality, long before either Labor or the Liberals would give it the time of day, we and the queer community and campaigners pushed the issue to a tipping point; equality could no longer be ignored.

The fight to reach the end of our journey towards equality however, continues. There is still discrimination against LGBTIQA+ people baked into our laws and our society. And just last week we received a stark reminder of this with the debate over the proposed Religious Discrimination Legislation firing up again.

It’s been such a privilege to be a voice for queer folk in this place, to be an out and proud bi+ person, the only out bisexual person in this Parliament.

To everyone who is part of our big rainbow family, it has been such a privilege to represent you in this place.

It’s been a privilege to be a voice for people – especially those whose voices go unheard – and for our planet these last ten years in Parliament.

Breaking the poverty machine

I’m proud to speak up for people living in poverty. More often than not, they’re treated like second class citizens as though being poor or out of work or having a disability represents some kind of character flaw. It doesn’t.

And people on income support deserve far better from politicians that are supposed to represent them.

Every story I’ve shared of someone who is struggling on JobSeeker or DSP or Youth Allowance carries the message that their voice, their voices deserve to be heard.

Breaking the poverty machine is an ongoing campaign. One that must be won.

The small increases in income support in the last budget are better than nothing, but the extra $4 a day still leaves people living in cars and tents with their kids, still only eating one meal a day, living with excruciating tooth ache because they can’t afford to go to the dentist.

In a wealthy country like ours, no one should be living in poverty. Everyone in this place who voted in favour of the Stage 3 tax cuts, that gives you an extra $4,500 a year to politicians and billionaires while doing nothing for the one million Australians in poverty, should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

We can do so much better than this, as the inquiry I established and led on the extent and impact on poverty in Australia shows.

We have to raise the rate of Centrelink payments above the poverty line, to $88 a day and guarantee a liveable income for all Australians.

Local and global human rights

It’s been so humbling to speak up for people across the world who are oppressed and persecuted for standing up for their rights, their homes and their very being.

Last month, I was censured for speaking up for people in the Philippines and protesting the oppressive regime of President Marcos Jr. I would do that again in a heartbeat.

And everyone knows where I stand on Palestine. Palestine will be free. The war in Gaza, the over 30,000 people killed, the starving of the population is genocide, not self-defence. And it is shameful that the Senate still has a motion on the books that says we stand with Israel.

Tibet will also be free. Tibet is ranked by Freedom House as the least free country in the world. It was such a privilege to travel to Dharamsala last year with our Parliamentary Friends of Tibet group. I will keep fighting for a free Tibet. In fact, I am just about to accept an invitation to join the board of the Australia Tibet Council. Thank you to all my Tibetan friends including Karma Singey, the representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Australia, who are joining me here tonight.

West Papua, too, will be free. The shocking revelations in the media this week about the torture of West Papuan freedom fighters shows the oppression that West Papua is under. There’s a contingent here tonight from the Federal Republic of West Papua, including Jacob Rumbiak, their Foreign Minister. Thank you Jacob, and all for joining me here – I’m really touched.

And Julian Assange will be free. God, I hope so. His unconscionable punishment must end.

I’m proud to have contributed to getting people out of Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. Like most of ou