Mark's Inaugural Speech
May 3rd, 2006
I am particularly proud to be here today as the first member of the Greens in South Australia to be elected to this parliament. It was nearly 11 years ago that I called together a group of friends to meet in my loungeroom. I also invited Dr Bob Brown from Tasmania. My hope was that this group would establish a credible Green party in South Australia. From those early beginnings the party grew and saw its vote steadily increase from election to election. Buoyed by the success of our colleagues interstate, we knew it was only a matter of time before we had success in South Australia. With my election, the Greens are now represented in six of the nine Australian parliaments. I would particularly like to thank our four senators and all the other elected Green members around Australia who have encouraged and supported our endeavours in this state.
My pride at being here is tempered by the huge sense of responsibility that I owe to the members of our party and our supporters. I know that I am here today because of the effort put in by thousands of people over the past 11 years. I have been entrusted with the task of bringing to this place the Greens' core values of peace and non-violence, social justice, participatory democracy, and respect for the environment. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously and I commit to doing my utmost to repay the faith that my party and the people of South Australia have placed in me.
I came to South Australia from Victoria with my wife, Penny, just over 16 years ago. What I did not know at the time was that two of my great-great-grandparents had actually beaten me here: they arrived at Port Adelaide from England, one in 1850, the other in 1854. So, rather than being just an expatriate Victorian, I was quite chuffed to learn that my forebears were actually pioneers in the early settlement of South Australia. My ancestors settled on York Peninsula, Kangaroo Island, the Mount Lofty Ranges, and the Mid North. Their remains are found in cemeteries all over the state.
My decision to come to South Australia was motivated by similar reasons to my ancestors' 150 years ago: I came here for work. However, I have to say that it was very different work from that of my ancestors. They lived tough lives clearing the land to make it productive for agriculture. I came here to work for the Wilderness Society, to help the campaign to protect what was left of our wild natural places. How times have changed. I am not one of those who blames our pioneering forebears for the changes they made to the landscape; I believe that we live in our own time and place and that what we do reflects prevailing values. Where I am less understanding is when environmental destruction is perpetrated by those who know better or where it is born out of greed rather than ignorance or necessity.
With the European settlement of South Australia being then only 14 years old when my great-great-grandparents arrived, no doubt they would have had contact with the traditional owners of the land, both here in Adelaide and in the surrounding areas where they settled. Today, at conferences and formal gatherings, such as in this place, we often acknowledge and pay our respects to the Kaurna people as the traditional owners of the Adelaide region. That respect has been a long time coming. At times it can also smack of hypocrisy if we say the words whilst ignoring the real and present disadvantage faced by the descendants of those people whom our farming forebears displaced all those years ago.
Reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia is still very much a work in progress, but events such as the walk across the King William Street Bridge six years ago, whilst largely symbolic, serve to remind us that underlying values of decency are widespread in our community. An important role that we have as parliamentarians is to show leadership in a way that allows these values to come to the fore. Whether it is deserved or not, members of this place hold positions of some respect in the community, and we have the capacity to help bring out the best in people, or we can send out alternative messages of dog eat dog, look out for number one, and greed is good.
One thing we often find difficult in the Greens is to explain to people that we are not a single issue party. I will be talking a fair bit about the environment today, because for the past 16 years my paid work has been in that field, but the Greens also have a lot to contribute in terms of social justice and economic issues. Nationally we have led the debate on the appalling treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Personally, I believe that some of my life experiences, such as working as a live-in carer in the disability sector and more recently as a respite carer of a young boy with cerebral palsy, give me a pretty good idea where we have failed some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I have also worked in the housing sector, having set up a free legal advisory service for tenants in regional Victoria some years ago—a service that continues to this day.
Having a university degree in commerce, majoring in economics, and a Masters degree in regional and urban planning, I am confident in engaging in key debates over the economic and social development of this state. Many of the economic indicators against which we judge our performance as a state do not measure genuine progress or, indeed, any of the most important things in life. Growth in the GDP does not tell us whether we are a more compassionate society, whether we have time to read our children stories before bed or whether people with disabilities or mental illness are given the support and opportunities they deserve.
I came to a career in environmental conservation largely through the inspiration of my wife, Penny, whom I first met at law school in Melbourne 24 years ago. One of my first conversations with her was about a trip she had just taken to Tasmania. But it was not a holiday. Penny had just come back from the Franklin River blockade, where she and her sister, Flick, had both been arrested for the heinous crime of trespassing on public land in the magnificent rainforest wilderness of South-West Tasmania.
I believe we all owe a great debt to those who are prepared to go out on a limb to risk their liberty or even their careers to protect our special places. Such people may fall foul of the laws created in places like this, but sometimes that is what it takes; it is necessary. What struck me about that campaign to save the Franklin River from an unnecessary and destructive dam was that there were people in the world who talked about caring for the environment and then there were those who really stood up to be counted. I was pretty much an armchair conservationist in those days, but that campaign gave me a real fright. It was so close and could so easily have been lost.
After a close federal election and a split High Court decision I decided that sitting on the fence or in the armchair just was not good enough, and I wanted to do more. So, in 1988 I quit my job as a solicitor, and Penny and I spent a year cycling around Europe. That was another part of my environmental road to Damascus—which shows what a poor understanding of European geography I have. Seeing what passed for forests, wetlands and beaches in much of Europe only served to reinforce that in Australia we have so much of our environment that is still in good condition, still supporting a diverse range of plants and animals and still capable of protection and conservation if only we have the will. One such area on which we will be judged here in the time of this parliament is the Coorong, which is rapidly dying due to a lack of environmental flows down the River Murray.
After returning from Europe with the travelling bug out of our systems and having made a new start in Adelaide, Penny and I were committed to treading a little more lightly on the planet. With not much money and living in cheap rental housing, we even made our own low impact soap to wash the kids' cloth nappies. We did not own a car for the first four years in Adelaide, and that helped fuel my passion for working on sustainable transport issues. The first organisation I joined in South Australia was the Cyclists' Protection Association, now called the Bicycle Institute of South Australia. I was also the first public officer of the group People for Public Transport, which had its work cut out for it when the Labor government of the day moved to slash public transport services by one-third as a cost cutting measure. It also threatened to stop all trains, trams and buses at 10p.m. on week nights. With a tenacious community campaign, we managed to prevent the curfew, but the service cuts ran deep and patronage, not surprisingly, continued to fall.
Not long afterwards, Penny's parents, Hugh and Les, gave us an old car, which we accepted, and to this day I do not think many people understood why we would voluntarily wait at a bus stop with a baby and a toddler when we could be like normal people and drive everywhere. It was around this time, in the early 1990s, that I wrote a small book entitled Greening Adelaide with Public Transport. I remember that the then transport minister, Diana Laidlaw, bought 10 copies. I am not sure whether she or any of her advisers actually read it, but some of the ideas have since surfaced in TransAdelaide policy and practice, so perhaps it had some impact. The thrust of the book was quite simple, and it is as true today as it was back then when I wrote it. It is that, for the passenger transport sector to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, we need to seriously address car dependence; and that making public transport more attractive, more reliable and, most importantly, more frequent was a vital component of any greenhouse strategy.
Recently, the Director of the South Australian Museum, Dr Tim Flannery, described climate change as `the greatest threat facing humanity today'. The warning bells do not ring any louder than that. This government has promised legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and described this as the centrepiece of its environmental agenda. That sounds very good. However, the reductions necessary will not be met unless all sectors are targeted, including the transport sector. So far, the focus of government transport policy is bigger and better roads to reduce congestion. To my mind it makes about as much sense as going to the doctor with a congested nose, only to be told, `We'll have to widen it.'
Two books on transport have pride of place in my library. The first is a hard cover copy of the original 1968 Metropolitan Adelaide Transport Strategy—the MATS Plan for Adelaide. This book is an example of what happens when you give a packet of texta colours to traffic engineers. These days we try to restrict the sale of felt pens to help prevent graffiti, but even the worst graffiti vandal is not a patch on the architects of the MATS Plan, who managed to obliterate the whole of Hindmarsh under a freeway cloverleaf. The second book is the 1994 British Royal Commission into Transport and the Environment. That commission advocated the abandonment of freeway building and road widening projects, mainly because they do not work.
Experience everywhere shows that traffic expands to fill the available space, and you are back where you started. Although this royal commission report was written by leading figures of the British establishment, Friends of the Earth gave it the following endorsement:
This report is extremely good news. It shows that traffic growth can be controlled and presents a credible package of measures to meet people's needs whilst protecting the planet.
I am happy to lend the report to honourable members, but not the MATS plan. I look forward to seeing how the government will reconcile its greenhouse and transport policies.
In 1996, after spending six years as campaign coordinator with the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation, I decided to re-enter the legal profession as a solicitor with the Environmental Defender's Office, a new community legal centre specialising in public interest environmental law. In many ways, this was my perfect job—a marriage of my legal training and my environmental work. In this new role, I could pick and choose clients according to the environmental merits of their case, and I did not have to charge them for it. We judged the importance of a matter by its environmental and public interest credentials and not by the size of the client's bank balance.
Whilst the Environmental Defender's Office has given me some of my most satisfying professional experiences, I must say that it was frustrating in the extreme to have successful court challenges overturned by the executive arm of government through regulations, or, in this parliament, through legislation. It seems that every time we had a win for the environment in court, or we looked like winning, the government would step in, always on the side of big developers or polluting industry and never on the side of the victims of pollution, or those seeking to protect and defend the environment.
In 1999, I successfully represented the Conservation Council of South Australia in one of this state's longest ever environment trials. The case was over tuna feedlots in Louth Bay near Port Lincoln. Our win in that case lasted less than a week before the government stepped in with special regulations. These regulations did not address any of the environmental concerns raised during three weeks of evidence; they simply abolished the right of appeal. The defeated aquaculture proposals were then photocopied, relodged and approved, this time with no appeal rights. That was seven years ago, but the government is still doing it.
Regulations to limit rights of public appeal against development of the commons—because that is what the marine environment is—the commons—have been gazetted twice in the past few months. It is a real indictment of public policy in this state that the only response to those who are critical of development is to remove their rights of representation and appeal.
Another example is as recent as two weeks ago. As an environmental lawyer, as many people here know, I have represented the Whyalla Red Dust Action Group in its ongoing campaign for a healthy environment and relief from the harmful dust emissions from the OneSteel Whyalla Steelworks. Despite the Environment, Resources and Development Court saying, on several occasions, that the company had a case to answer, the previous parliament saw fit to undermine the rights of the people of East Whyalla and effectively sentence them to many more years of pollution at levels that are known to cause harm to human health.
On 18 April, the Supreme Court found that the residents had no standing to pursue the case and that the company had no case to answer. The court cited the legislation passed in this parliament as a reason for barring the action. The people of East Whyalla never even had the chance to have their claims tested in court before the government stepped in to protect the company from the consequences of its actions. It is this type of behaviour that has encouraged me to seek a voice where the laws are made rather than just where the laws are applied.
Apart from my wife Penny, there are many others who have helped form my world view and who played a role in my decision to stand for election to parliament. First and foremost are my mother and father, who provided a stable and loving home where many of the values that I hold dear were formed. These included values of community service. In fact, it never occurred to me not to put my hand up for volunteer community work, because I was taught from an early age that contributing to your community was the glue that helped hold society together.
Mum passed away a few years ago, but I am delighted that my father Max Parnell has come over from Victoria to share in my first speech today. Also here today are my three children, Felix, Eleanor and Mungo. Whilst their more recent memories of their dad are of long hours in meetings or in front of a computer, for most of their very early years I did part-time paid work so as to be able to share both the work and the fun of family life with young children. Without you kids I would not have had the opportunity to run the lunchtime chess club at school, or help out with the pedal prix team, and I also would not have the distinction of being probably the only lawyer (male lawyer, at least) to have been granted an adjournment in a court case on the grounds of a conflicting engagement—having to convene a local playgroup. I am told that my Goldilocks and the 17 bears routine is still a model for inclusiveness at the Eden Hills playgroup.
I am also pleased to say that my three children attend state schools—Eden Hills Primary, Blackwood High and Glenunga International High School—where, as they say on the sign at the school gate, we are public and proud.
Lastly, I would like to finish where I started by thanking those who have supported me, those who have provided inspiration, and also all the members and supporters of the Australian Greens, whose efforts over many years paved the way for our historic entry into this parliament. To my fellow legislative councillors, thank you very much for your welcome and your encouragement. I look forward to working with you all over the next four or eight years and beyond.
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