SENATOR KRISTINA KENEALLY
DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS
SHADOW MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND CITIZENSHIP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY
SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES
AUSTRALASIAN UNION OF JEWISH STUDENTS ANNUAL POLITICAL TRAINING SEMINAR
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 16 MARCH 2021
Good afternoon, everybody – and welcome to Parliament House.
Thank you for coming today.
Parliament House – and politics in general – is getting a very bad rap at the moment.
And don’t get me wrong, much of that bad rap is well deserved.
But I think that many young people look at what’s going on in the news and think – I don’t want any part of that.
If there is one thing that you take away from our time today, I want it to be this – politics still matters.
I hope this trip serves as a clarion call to public service, because it is more important than ever.
And it’s more important than ever that our Parliament represent the people it serves.
We need people from every corner of Australia’s diverse communities to be a part of this process.
A part of the problem that we face is that the work of this place cannot be abbreviated into a snappy political package on the nightly news.
Because despite what you see on TV, we actually do get a lot done here!
The bulk of our work doesn’t happen in front of the cameras, and it doesn’t attract the attention that in many ways it should.
In fact, some of our best work happens through the Parliament’s committees and inquiries.
I’d like to focus on the work of these bodies with you today: to demonstrate how this process works, how it drives measurable progress, and how when we have different voices contributing to the political debate, we can achieve amazing things for the Australian people.
On my first day in this building, I achieved something that I regard as the high point of my public life.
I am a mother of three – two sons, Brendan and Daniel, and a daughter, Caroline, who was stillborn in 1999.
Many of you may not know this, but stillbirth affects six Australian families every day.
It is likely that some of you here today have a stillborn sibling, or that your parents or grandparents or other family members have been affected by stillbirth.
2,200 babies are lost to stillbirth each year.
Shockingly, the rate of stillbirth has not changed in this country for over 20 years.
In those 20 years, some 44,000 babies, all who were wanted and loved by their parents, were lost to us.
Quite tragically, these young lives were lost to us in large part because we as a country had not spoken about the issue of stillbirth, had not sought to understand what caused stillbirth, and were not providing parents and clinicians with the advice that would help prevent stillbirth.
What we know is that this is not an intractable problem. There are things that we can do to save lives.
The Netherlands has achieved a 60 per cent reduction in the number of stillbirths in that same twenty-year period.
And so, on my first day here in the Parliament, I initiated the Senate Select Committee into Stillbirth Research and Education.
The role of a parliamentary committee is to examine an issue and provide recommendations to the Government on how best address the problem.
Committees and inquiries are created by a vote of the Senate, and in this instance, the Stillbirth Inquiry enjoyed broad support from every party in the Chamber, big and small.
Committees can investigate specific bills or broader issues – depending on the Terms of Reference, which are effectively the marching orders for the work of the inquiry.
These Terms of Reference specifically describe what the committee is responsible for discovering and reporting back on.
The Stillbirth Committee was charged with discovering what we could do better in Australia – whether that be through education, data collection, or research –to lower the rate of stillbirth in Australia.
The Committee conducts this investigation through public consultation.
Any individual or organisation can contribute to the Committee’s work, either through written submissions or by appearing at a public hearing.
The Stillbirth Committee received 268 written submissions – an extraordinary number which underlined precisely how important this issue was for so many Australians.
Among those pages were stories from grieving parents, dedicated research from prominent academics, and the lived-experience of medical clinicians serving in hospitals across the country.
The Senators on this committee read their stories, we sought to understand their research, and it ultimately informed our work.
It was difficult and emotional reading.
After completing all of these hearings and reviewing the numerous written submissions, the committee prepared a report with a series of findings and recommendations.
I will admit – the findings made me incredibly angry at times.
It’s because the Committee found that there were clear, simple and relatively inexpensive steps that we could take in order to prevent and reduce stillbirth in Australia – and we simply had not done so.
The Committee’s report made recommendations in three key areas – prevention, investigation, and support for grieving families.
These recommendations have already begun to shape policy – both the Labor Party’s and the Government’s – and we will continue to advocate for the outcomes and recommendations that emerged from the inquiry.
This inquiry is an exemplar of what can be achieved in this place.
In some ways, the committee process is democracy at its best.
People-powered and expert-driven. Policy informed by science and experience. Outcomes and solutions focused. Partisanship parked in the pursuit of improving the lives of ordinary Australians.
The Stillbirth Inquiry is not an anomaly.
Right now, the Senate is conducting inquiries into autism, media diversity, temporary migration, job security, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder – even the impact of feral deer, pigs and goats on our agricultural sector.
And you may have never heard of any of them.
If there is an antidote to political apathy in our country, perhaps it’s a peak behind the curtain of the tireless work of our parliamentary committees.
Their work creates a forum to inform legislation and better our nation, often away from the fierce battleground of the Parliament itself.
And that is the power of this place – that we can take things that were taboo and bring new attention and effort to solving problems that once seemed intractable.
And I say this with confidence, that Stillbirth Committee never would have come about if there weren’t female leaders in Parliament.
When people ask me why we need more women in Parliament, it’s because we need representatives that represent the issues of importance to fifty per cent of this country.
We still have a way to go in reducing the rate of stillbirth in Australia, but we were able to effect change on an issue topic that for too-long was ignored.
There is another committee inquiry that I wanted to discuss with you today – one that is underway as we speak, and one that I imagine you might see in the news.
And it is one that I know is very important to the Jewish community.
It is the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into right-wing extremism.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is a bipartisan body which includes members of the Senate and the House of Representatives and is the peak forum in Parliament for matters relating to national security.
The PJCIS, as it’s known, has begun an inquiry into the rising tide of extremism and radicalism in Australian politics today – and, particularly, the growth of far-right extremism in our community.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said in February last year that violent right-wing extremism now accounts for a third of its counter-terrorism work, and that they have observed small cells of these terrorists meeting across the country, saluting Nazi flags, inspecting weapons and training.
Make no mistake. Right-wing extremism in Australia is real – and it is on the rise here, as it is around the world.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect storm of conditions for far-right extremists to flourish.
The proliferation of “fake news” – either by the political fringe or by foreign actors hoping to agitate against our democratic institutions – has created sub-communities of individuals with views that are, simply put, dead wrong.
Donald Trump didn’t win the 2020 Presidential Election. Bill Gates isn’t installing 5G microchips via COVID vaccinations. Progressive Politicians and Hollywood Actors aren’t satanic, paedophilic cannibals. There aren’t “good people” on both sides when white supremacists and Nazis are involved.
But the internet has meant the world has gotten smaller – today, you can chat with people anywhere in the world, often under the veil of anonymity through encrypted platforms.
Right-wing extremists know this, and they are sophisticated in their use of the Internet.
Unprecedented times present unprecedented challenges – particularly for disaffected individuals trying to understand their place in a world that is difficult, tumultuous, and isolating.
It’s under those auspices that a new wave of far-right extremism has flourished. White supremacist and neo-Nazi organisations were some of the earliest users of the Internet to radicalise, recruit and spread insidious ideologies.
For disillusioned people, the far-right offers simple explanations to supposedly inextricable problems. These views are allowed to fester online in forums where their ideas go unchallenged, and their beliefs serve to give misguided purpose to the disgruntled.
If there is any doubt as to where this can all lead, I remind you that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the tragic loss of 51 lives when an Australian-born terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch.
We grieve this tragedy – and we must take the necessary steps to prevent its reoccurrence.
We contend with a radical political movement that uses conspiracy as a catalyst for violence, dragging people from disaffection to extremism through the same online tactics used by Jihadist extremist groups to recruit for ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
But consider this - unlike Jihadi terror groups, until recently the Australian Government had never proscribed – or made illegal – a right-wing terrorist organisation.
This is in part why these organisations are emboldened to gather in plain sight and intimidate the public with their putrid prejudice.
Nazi salutes, Klu Klux Klan chants and burning crosses were all on display as a group of 30 Neo-Nazis terrorised communities in the Grampians over the Australia Day weekend – the same period we commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It’s no coincidence that many of these putrid idealogues spout the same hateful, anti-Semitic bigotry that propelled so much hatred and destruction in Europe in the 20th Century.
And so how do you battle an enemy like this?
An enemy that is emboldened by perceived successes, and able to freely proliferate online.
Well, first, you start with the truth.
It’s important that we as a community are aware of what is lurking in the shadows, and conscious of the things that it does to manipulate minds and inspire violence.
A good first step is acknowledging both the presence and severity of the issue.
No matter where you land on the political spectrum – red, blue, green or otherwise – we should always stand strongly and loudly against voices which preach ignorance and hate.
If we cannot agree that the dehumanising ideologies of fascism – and every ‘ism’ that it serves to underpin – is beyond the pale, then we cannot have that ‘good faith’ trust that drives bipartisanship and compromise.
This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a character issue.
When we hear people say “right-wing extremism isn’t a threat”, this isn’t just intellectual dishonesty – it’s mudding the waters and giving coverage to people who extol these views.
And then secondly, you provide the tools that can be used to combat this extremism.
Far-right extremist groups have proliferated in Australia in part because we have not adopted policies that can adequately target and police these movements.
It is the view of this Parliament that something must be done – for the security and prosperity of our nation.
That’s why last December, Labor successfully forced the Government to refer this issue to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Just like with the Senate Committee into Stillbirth Research and Education, the inquiry will be bipartisan, it will be evidence-based, and it will be solution-focused.
The Inquiry is still in the evidence-gathering phase. It will examine Australia’s existing tools to combat right-wing extremism and consider new measures to assist security agencies and the community to keep all Australians safe from this rising terrorist threat. We must be on the front-foot because right-wing extremism presents a clear and present threat to our democracy.
And that, ultimately, is why politics still matters – because our institutions allow for truth-telling, they allow for reflection, and they allow for the careful deliberation and application of laws that will ultimately prevent the degradation of our society by the forces of violent extremism.
The simplest way to decide whether something is important is to consider the counter-factual – without our democracy, where would we be as a nation?
I would argue that the work that we do here is central to the success of Australia and its people – despite the snippets you might catch on the news, or in your newsfeed, each day.
I hope in your time here you get the chance to see the important things that are done in the pursuit of prosperity and security of the Australian people, because I believe that the best advertisement for this place is the work that is produced, often tirelessly, for our communities.
And I hope you consider a career in politics yourself.
Politics does matter, and it is vitally important that we preserve the role of our institutions – particularly against the threats that seek to undermine it.
I’m looking forward to answering any questions you may have.