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Speech: Suspension of Standing Orders

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:31): The women MPs here today—Labor, Liberal, National Party, crossbenchers—all of us are here because our forebears literally rattled the chains. It was not because some MPs arrived at work, sat on the leather benches and decided, 'Now women should have the vote.' It was because actions were taken. Women were arrested; they were force-fed; they were abused. And one died. The actions were tough. They did that because they believed passionately that women should have the vote. And we benefit from that today. Society benefits. Those MPs who are trying to shut down this debate do not want to recognise that at times laws are wrong and at times laws do need to be rewritten—and they need to be broken to achieve that. The people who take that action are people we thank today.

So much of what progressive society has built has not been because MPs arrive at work and suddenly think: 'We'll do the right thing and we'll make it a fairer, more equal, more just society, where people don't get killed at work, where we save our precious environment.' It is because of action and, often, civil disobedience where people are getting arrested and putting themselves in the front line. It was not so long ago when some of the MPs here sat in the front foyer with climate activists, families, who had come here to put forward their voices and their concerns for the need for rapid action on climate change. I thought that was a very fine day. And it replicates what happens so often—usually outside our parliaments, sometimes inside our parliaments—where actions are being taken. I acknowledge that at times people might wonder why the law is being broken. But it is being broken to demonstrate a great wrong. The great wrongs in our society have at times been extreme. If the likes of the coalition, the Liberals and the Nationals—

Senator Ryan: Your fellow travellers didn't like protesters. They used tanks.

Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge the interjections from Senator Ryan. It is good to see Senator Abetz is back here. Senator Abetz, if your forebears had been in power when women were trying to get the vote, they would have done—

Senator Ryan interjecting—

Senator McGrath interjecting—

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I acknowledge the interjections—would have not given us the vote. There is a section over there on the coalition benches who would not have given women the right to vote.

Senator Ryan: It was a Liberal government that did it, you fool!

Senator RHIANNON: Come on! Your forebears were the people who were force-feeding women.

Senator McGrath: You didn't want anyone to vote. They rolled the tanks into Hungary—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, resume your seat.

Honourable senators interjecting—

Senator Rhiannon interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order. You do not have the call at the moment, Senator Rhiannon. Senator Abetz, on a point of order?

Senator Abetz: Yes, on a point of order, I ask that those comments be withdrawn, especially when they have come from a senator who claims that she does not like people being offended, insulted or humiliated because of their race.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, on the point of order?

Senator RHIANNON: I did not insult anybody in terms of their race. I was talking about the Liberals and Nationals and made reference to Senator Abetz. I included all the senators on the government benches—of their position with regard to the issue of women voting.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator McGrath, on the point of order?

Senator McGrath: On the point of order, there was a reflection on Senator Abetz's forebears. That was a direct link to Senator Abetz and his family, and it should be withdrawn.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: We are not going to debate across it. I have heard what you have said, Senator Rhiannon. And I must say I actually agree. I thought I heard you refer to Senator Abetz's forebears and make reference to that. I hear what you say—that that was not the context that you were using—but, in order to enable the Senate chamber to move forward, I would ask you to withdraw those comments.

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to withdraw. Thank you.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Rhiannon. Senator Rhiannon, you have the call.

Senator RHIANNON: There is a very important issue—which I acknowledge is contentious at times, but again it is very relevant to this debate—and that is the conditions the workers enjoy when they go to work these days. They do have lunch breaks. Although it has been eroded, there is a certain period of time they go to work for. They have a certain level of pay and superannuation. There is occupational health and safety. Again, these were not given to them by employers. These rights were not given to them by the likes of Liberal and National Party MPs coming to work. They were given to us because the MPs came to their senses after such very radical actions by unions—often going on strike, often occupying the workplace. I go back to the stonemasons of the 1850s, who led the struggle for a shorter working week, for an eight-hour day. These are conditions that have been so important for building a quality of life in Australia. Again, it was not politicians doing that but civil disobedience—strikes are a form of civil disobedience.

But what have we been exposed to in this debate? We have been exposed to such a sanctimonious approach by the Liberals and Nationals. And what have we got from Labor? We have Labor calling this a stunt. I understand that the Greens will also be denied leave, denying us the ability to vote and to consider the Greens motion on this very important issue. It is not a stunt—that is not the message that Labor needs to get. Yes, I realise that they are in a difficult position because their leader, Bill Shorten, was out there so quickly condemning civil disobedience actions which have been a part of how the Labor movement has been built as well. But this misses the opportunity for Labor to allow the debate and to get up there and correct the record.

Civil disobedience is a very fine part of our history. It is something that we should be proud of and it will most definitely continue. With the urgency of the inequality that our society is facing and the threat of climate change there will be more such actions, and I welcome them.

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