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Larissa Waters, the first Greens Senator for Queensland gives her First Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 23 Aug 2011

Thank you, Mr President.

I am so pleased that we start our days in this chamber by acknowledging the traditional custodians of this land, the Ngunnawal people. To that daily ritual I add my personal respects to this ancient and enduring culture of our land.

It is with great pride that I give my first speech today, the first ever speech of a Greens Senator representing Queensland.

Queensland has a long history of Green activism, but it has taken us 20 years to gain a voice in federal parliament. So today is a historic occasion. I am privileged to be the first Green elected at any level of government in Queensland. A congruence of history, many years of campaigning by dedicated people, the inspirational leadership of Senator Bob Brown and being in the right place at the right time has meant this remarkable opportunity has fallen to me. Expectation is high and need is great, for there are many pressing issues confronting Queensland.

I want to begin by paying tribute to the Queensland Greens members whose efforts over those long years have put me here today, particularly Drew Hutton and Libby Connors, and more recently Ian Gittus, Mark White and Sam La Rocca. I stand on their shoulders and draw on their wisdom. Likewise, I wouldn’t be here without the thousands of committed Greens members, volunteers and campaign workers who share this victory today. Some of them are in the gallery tonight, including former Democrat Senator and now Greens member, my friend Andrew Bartlett. I’m touched that they are here to share this moment. To my eternally hard-working staff who are also here tonight, thank you for everything you do for me. Collectively, we will make a difference, and let’s have fun doing it.

It is a great honour but also a huge responsibility to stand here as the voice of 312,000 Queenslanders who voted one year ago for a fairer and more sustainable future. I hope to do justice to their faith and trust in the Greens.

Eight months ago our state suffered the worst flooding since 1974, with devastation of our towns, our countryside, our homes, and tragically, the lives of 35 Queenslanders, 4 of them children. The sheer destruction was almost incomprehensible. And yet from the depths of this loss, grew a great sense of common purpose. People rallied to help neighbours and strangers alike. I will never forget the image of a man rescuing an injured kangaroo joey from floodwaters, carrying it in his arms to safety. There were countless acts of great selflessness and bravery. Overwhelming adversity was a great unifier.

It is with the confidence of that deep community spirit, that I have unshakeable hope for our future. The challenges we face are great, and the experts are telling us that we must act quicker than those with vested interests in the status quo would like, but we will make it. Despite the awesome global task of arresting climate change and preserving this wondrous planet for those yet to come, we will do it.

That determined optimism is what drives me in this place. It is what keeps me going despite the long hours away from my two year-old little girl, Lana, who is up there in the glass gallery. When she is older I want to be able to tell her I did everything I could to give her a better future, and ensure she can enjoy the beauty and diversity and glorious joy of this one planet and its multitude of species.

In another life I went to drama school, so indulge me a Shakespeare reference. Hamlet, in one of his regular self-pitying moments, laments ‘the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals’ as a sterile promontory, a quintessence of dust. He needed to get out more. And clearly he’d never been to Queensland! My home state is blessed with verdant rainforests, stunning beaches, rich but scarce farm lands, and abundant community spirit. Queensland has a vast and rugged beauty. And we have the privilege of living on the shores of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem in the world, an internationally significant biodiversity icon.

Like many other Queenslanders, I feel a fierce protectiveness towards our Reef. From my first visit at age 11 to a remote Reef island as part of a turtle monitoring expedition, I have loved this underwater paradise. I’m not alone, and today it supports a 6 billion dollar tourism industry which employs 67,000 people. Yet this great employer and money spinner for Queensland, this ancient natural wonder, is threatened by climate change and is being turned into a coal and gas highway, in the race to double Queensland’s coal exports by 2030, and ride the coal seam gas boom for its 25 year life span in the dying days of the fossil fuel industry. It is a sad irony that the burning of those fossil fuels is endangering our coral ecosystems through ocean acidification and increased water temperatures, just as the proliferation of massive tankers, and the millions of tonnes of dredging within the Reef world heritage area for new coal and gas ports, is directly threatening our Reef.

The extraction of coal and coal seam gas is also threatening that other great Queensland industry, agriculture. Queensland has just 2.2% good quality agricultural land, yet the coal and coal seam gas miners want to go into our best food producing land, sitting on top of the Great Artesian Basin, and turn our food bowl into an industrial wasteland. Well, you can’t eat coal and you can’t drink gas. It beggars belief that neither the state nor federal government is taking a long term view of how we are going to feed ourselves if the groundwater table drops or aquifers are contaminated.

The coal seam gas industry is still trying to work out what to do with the billions of litres of water it extracts from the coal beds. It doesn’t need a water licence, and considers water is a waste product. In the driest continent on the planet, who could ever conceive of water as a waste product.

Food security should be beyond politics and it should not be sold out for short term royalties and offshore private profits. We don’t know enough about our underground water resources to understand what new connections gas well drilling and hydraulic fracturing might create. We need a moratorium on new approvals until we fully understand the risks. The precautionary principle demands it, and the community demands it. And likewise there is no co-existence between open cut coal mines and farming – those huge 30 megatonne mines eat up the landscape. Those generational farming families of our rich Darling Downs should be applauded for the strength of their spirit and their campaign against this rapacious industry.

Why risk it, when we have alternatives to energy production, but no alternatives to food? We have wonderful solar resources in Queensland, some promising geothermal deposits, wave and tidal potential, and to a lesser extent, wind. Innovative nations like Spain are rolling out remarkable new solar thermal technologies which can supply baseload solar power. I want to see Queensland have a part in that, and lead Australia’s charge towards the new low carbon economy. Numerous reports tell us that renewable energy generation is more job intensive than old coal, and that we have the technological capacity to power our nation with 100% renewable energy within a decade. That is such an exciting prospect, environmentally and economically. We need to be making plans now for just transitions for coal-based communities so no-one is left behind when the day comes that the world doesn’t want our coal anymore. Getting rid of the 11 billion dollars of fossil fuel subsidies would be a good - and fiscally responsible - start.

The carbon price is another vital step. I cannot think of a greater honour than to be part of the Parliament that passes climate laws, including the complementary measures like 10 billion for renewable energy and almost 1 billion for biodiversity. That will be a great day for this nation. It is the tireless work of my dedicated and incredibly bright colleagues that will deliver a carbon price. I want to thank them for being a constant source of inspiration for me, on this and many other issues, particularly Bob and Christine. I feel so privileged to be part of this visionary and brave team.

I come to this place from the community legal sector, from one of Australia’s 200 vastly underfunded, non-government, not-for-profit legal practices. Eschewing the emptiness of corporate legal work, I spent the bulk of my working life on an award wage as a public interest environmental lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office in Brisbane, an organisation which is a great unsung hero of many legal improvements in Queensland.

It was a privilege to work with individuals, community and environmental groups who sought to use the law to protect the environment. Those busy folk who took time from their own working and family lives to fight for causes bigger than their own self-interest. They didn’t sit back and accept bad environmental outcomes, they didn’t allow developers or government to get away with unlawful conduct, they weren’t deterred by the sheer magnitude of the David and Goliath challenge to powerful interests. They put their time, their money and themselves on the line and fought for the public interest. They remain my heroes.

Working in a community legal centre brought home to me the lack of genuine access to justice. Having good laws on paper doesn’t do much if people aren’t aware of their rights, aren’t able to enforce them, or can’t afford legal advice to even know where to begin. The risk of crippling court costs in public enforcement cases, the sheer complexity of environmental laws, and the lack of understanding of the handful of rights people actually have to protect the environment all need redressing. We need legal aid for the environment, and all community legal centres need more recurrent funding for services, and decent wages at least in parity with the public sector.

I would like to thank my boss at EDO, the gracious yet tenacious Jo Bragg, for her tutelage on the application of the law, politics and negotiation. I miss her companionship, gentle guidance, and constant support of me. She is a true friend and mentor.

During those 9 years at EDO I am particularly proud of using our federal environmental laws to stand up for the Great Barrier Reef, and being part of the team who successfully argued that when conducting environmental impact assessment, the federal Minister must take a broad approach and must consider the purpose for which development is proposed. In that case, it meant that the EIS for the proposed Nathan Dam on the Dawson River needed to consider the likely run-off of endosulfan and other pesticides and fertiliser into, ultimately, the Great Barrier Reef.

It was also an honour to work on a case that protected 896 rare and threatened plants in world heritage quality rainforest on beautiful Springbrook plateau in the Gold Coast hinterland, one of my favourite places in the world.

But those wins were sadly rare. Over the years I grew increasingly frustrated with the limits of the law to achieve good environmental outcomes. I got sick of having to tell people that they had no legal rights to stop that new coal mine, or protect that local patch of bushland, or stop that infrastructure going right through koala habitat. I realised that the laws needed changing to give people more rights to protect the environment for the common good.

That’s what encouraged me to seek to make change through politics.

Our family was never very political, but a reverence for nature and a love for all living creatures was imbued in my upbringing.  I won the environment prize at Rainworth State School in grades 4, 5 and 6, and my sense of injustice was ignited in my early teens when reading David Day’s Whale Wars about the international whaling fights of the 1980s. At 14 I turned vegetarian because of my love for animals and later for ecological reasons, and have continued that decision for 20 years now.

So the Greens were the only choice for me. No other political party captures my beliefs and values so entirely, operates with unfailing integrity and honesty, stands up for what is right even if it is controversial, and has living within our ecological means and treating each other with more kindness as its central tenets.

In that decision I have been supported by my family. My parents always encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and I would not be here without their teachings. They are in the gallery today along with my wonderful step-parents. Mum and Nick, Dad and Anne, for your patience, love and support, I am forever grateful. I hope to do you proud in this place. I want to particularly thank my mum, Lorraine, who is now giving up a well-earned retirement to be our part-time nanny. From being the best mother in the world to me, she is now the best grandmother a girl could hope for.  I couldn’t do this without her. Not everyone is as lucky as I am, so we need better support systems for women, particularly young women, to encourage them into politics. I thank the strong women who have gone before me in this place and paved the way.

My step-sister sadly can’t be here today but my aunt and some dear friends are – it means a lot that you are here.

To my partner Brendan, I love you. Thank you for letting me do this and for always knowing exactly what to say. You are a wonderful father to our little girl, and I am so lucky to have you. To little Lana, you are the light of my life and it is you that keeps me going. Although you are too young to understand, I hope you will be proud of your mum, and learn to dream big.

I often wonder what the world will be like when Lana is my age. Despite my unfailing positivity, with a world population heading for 9.2 billion by 2050, I worry at the scarcity of resources and I despair at the inequity of their distribution.

We need to address the sheer numbers of humans on this fragile and finite planet, but we must also address our over-consumption. We are richer now than at any time in history, we have more stuff, but are we happier? The endless treadmill of consumption is not enriching our spirit or fulfilling us.  As a society we are becoming more detached from the natural world and from our communities. As a shameless optimist, I can envisage a different future. I see sustainable cities and towns, with active, healthy citizens, who have better work-life balance and the time to engage in their communities, in settlements designed for people and not cars, with local health and educational services and local food production. Real communities.

I am not alone in these aspirations. The re-localisation movement is somewhat ironically going global. And for good reason. The impact of our current consumption is such that we need 1.5 Earths to fuel our greed, and with population growth patterns and business as usual we would need two planet Earths by 2030. We have presided over the fastest rate of species extinction in history, sending biodiversity into massive decline. I don’t believe that we have the right to do that. We are caretakers of this unique planet and we need to deliver it to future generations and to other species in better condition than we inherited it. To do that, we need to start living within our ecological means, and address the disparity of wealth that sees millions of children living in poverty without clean water or enough food. We must recognise that in a finite system, there must necessarily be limits to growth, and that we can have shared prosperity without growth. And above all, that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the planet.

In this great time in history when the fate of the world and its life support systems is so finely balanced, we in this place must have the courage to be leaders in our community, and yet also give voice to our communities. I see a lot of lobbyists walking these halls, powerful, vested interests, captains of industry. I see less non-government organisations and very few ordinary community members. As the only Queensland Senator from outside the major parties, I want to give progressive Queenslanders their voice back in this parliament.

If when my time is up, I leave this place having contributed in some small way to improving our environmental laws with better community rights, consideration of cumulative impacts, and federal oversight of water, the lawyer in me will be delighted. If I leave this place having been part of putting a price on pollution to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the mother in me will be happy. If I leave this place having delivered better funding to community legal centres, seeing the proceeds of our mineral wealth shared more fairly, and helping vulnerable people in our community of all creeds, the humanist in me will rejoice. If I can do all of those things, I will feel that my time away from my little girl and my family was worth it.  

For many years I have had a screen saver which says “make a difference”. Now more than ever I have that chance and I am grateful and so humbled by it. It is with a big heart and a passionate belief in the goodness of humanity that I undertake this journey. I hope to play a part in creating a fairer, safer and happier future for the generations to come. I look forward to working with all of you to do so.

Thank you.

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