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Kerry Nettle - 2007 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture

Lee Rhiannon 3 Jun 2007

The 2007 Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture was given by Greens Senator Kerry Nettle on the topic of "Compassion in Politics" on 3 June 2007.

Since being elected as a Federal Greens Senator for NSW in 2001, Kerry has been a leading progressive voice in the Federal Parliament and the community on issues such as peace, asylum seekers, civil liberties, public education and women's reproductive rights.  Kerry has an Environmental Science degree. After university she lived in Kakadu National Park working with the Traditional Owners of the land to successfully stop the Jabiluka Uranium Mine being built.

Tonight we are on Aboriginal land. The land of the Gadigal people of the Eura nation. For many years before any of us or our ancestors were here Gadigal women would have stood on this land, cared for this land and their people. 

I can imagine strong Gadigal women being full of compassion for their country and their people and I can imagine that passion for their land and people driving to the way in which they engaged in the politics of decision making of their community. A genuine and heartfelt form of leadership is driven by compassion for ones fellow man, woman and country. 

Tonight I want to share with you the stories of the strong and compassionate women that I have met in my years of activism and politics. Many women who have chosen to engage in strong and compassionate politics have been an inspiration for me and they continue to show me that the strongest and most effective form of political engagement is compassionate politics.

In 1998 I like many others took up the invitation of the Mirrar people to travel to their land in Kakadu National Park and World Heritage area and join them in their struggle to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine from being built on their land. While I was there I met not just strong and compassionate young and old activists but far stronger and far wiser Aboriginal women such as Jacquie Katona and Christine Christopherson who worked for the Mirrar people in Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation. 

I also had the great pleasure of meeting Yvonne Margarula. Yvonne is the senior traditional owner of the Mirrar people and she has led the fight to stop Jabiluka uranium mine. The other week there was a wonderful photo of Yvonne on the front page of the business section of the Age newspaper. The caption under the photo was a quote from Yvonne. She said, "We stopped the mine. My country is at peace and I am very happy." 

I can just imagine Yvonne saying that. She is a strong woman. She is a compassionate women and she bring compassion into politics. 

Compassionate politics is not an oxymoron. Compassionate politics is a strong and effective form of political engagement.

Perhaps one of the best known examples of strong and effective compassionate politics was when Bob Brown stood up for compassion when he called on the federal government not to turn away the asylum seekers that had been picked up by the MV Tampa. That was strong and effective politics and it was compassionate and it is compassion that has driven so much of the refugee activism that we have seen in Australia over recent years. Some of the refugee activism has been expressed by particular religious groups but much of it has been driven by the compassion of ordinary Australians reaching out to others.

I spoke earlier about Yvonne Margarula the senior traditional owner of the Mirrar people. There are many other strong Indigenous women like Yvonne throughout Australia standing up for their community and the future of children in their community. In fact in almost every Aboriginal community there are older women who work tirelessly to improve the circumstances of their children, grandchildren and local community. I met a group of women in Alice Springs who run a night patrol in their local community that is designed to look after the people in their community that have a substance abuse problem. 

Women in Aboriginal communities are doing incredible and incredibly hard work in their communities to end the cycles of violence and abuse whether it be domestic violence or substance and sexual abuse. Some of these community initiated programmes are having incredible success. Where governments have chosen to support these programmes then even more fantastic results become possible. Governments should be supporting such programmes in order to improve the lives of Aboriginal men, women and children. These programmes represent compassionate strong and effective politics.

Paternalism and the jackboot politics of intervention are not strong and do not produce results in Aboriginal communities or in Iraq.

Before the invasion of Iraq there was a group that took a series of photos of ordinary Iraqis and they made up an exhibition of the faces of Iraq. My office printed up these photos and displayed them as a backdrop for a press conference calling on the government not to invade and bomb Iraq. Someone from the press gallery cried at that press conference when we brought the human faces of the Iraqis into parliament house for that day. It was strong effective compassionate politics and the reaction of the women from the press gallery told me that it does not happen enough in Australian politics. 

But in recent times there is one issue where we have seen strong compassionate and effectives politics being displayed by female parliamentarians from across the political spectrum and that is in the area of women reproductive rights. 

Women coming together from across the political spectrum at the beginning of last year saw Tony Abbott's veto on the availability of RU486 removed. Later many of the same women worked together to ensure the passage of legislation allowing stem cell research to occur in Australia. In recent weeks the same women and a few men, such as doctor Mal Washer, have been working together to call for Alexander Downer to lift the ban that prevents Australian aid money from being used to provide information about abortion. Australia is the only country apart from the US that imposes this restriction on how Australian government aid money is used. The ban means that if a pregnant women enters  health clinic in PNG and for whatever reason including a life threatening reason wants or needs information about how to access a safe abortion (which is perfectly legal in PNG) then if that health clinic receives any funding from the Australian government then they can not provide that information to the women. 

There have been some successes in women working together to improve women's reproductive rights but there is much work to be done to get rid of the vestiges of the Harradine era. I work to improve women's reproductive rights because I care about the health of women in Australia and around the world. For me it is compassionate politics.

I was giving a talk to a group of young greens at Sydney uni some time ago and I was telling the group about the experiences of women, their families and friends who have rung a phone number advertised as a pregnancy counselling services and the phone was answered by a volunteer from a right to life organisation and they were told that contemplating abortion would be sinful and murderous. A young women asked me, "how do you know which services are which?" that prompted me to produces the greens guide to pregnancy counselling services that has since been distributed to women's health centres and youth centres around the state. It is not compassionate to mislead or deceive women about what kind of pregnancy counselling service they are accessing and that is why I am a proud co-sponsor of a private members bill to introduce transparency in advertising for pregnancy counselling services. I think honesty is important.

I said earlier that we don't see enough compassion in Australian politics. We don't see enough of it in international politics either, but it is out there. 

I travelled to Palestine and Israel in January of this year. I travelled there because I wanted to see the what life is like for Palestinians who are living under occupation and I also wanted to meet with the Israeli Palestinians that make up the strong, compassionate and inspirational peace movement that is so important in that conflict ridden part of the world. And that is precisely what I saw. I was amazed by the commitment to peace, democracy and human rights that I saw from Palestinians and Israelis that I met. 

The first day I arrived in Israel I attended a demonstration in Jerusalem on a street corner outside a swanky hotel. I stood on the street corner with a group of Israeli women and their supporters who have stood on that street corner every Friday at 1pm for 19 years calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I have attended women in black demonstrations in Australia and it was great to have the opportunity to attend a women in black demonstration in Jerusalem where the women in black movement began indeed on the same street corner where Israeli women first gathered on a Friday 19 years and 1 week before to call for an end to the occupation. There were Palestinian men doing roadwork in front of us. They had been bussed in from the occupied territories nearby to do the roadwork. The guy in front of us was amazed to see these Israeli women protesting. The Israeli women that I was standing next to explained to me that this was probably the first time that he had ever seen an Israeli person calling for an end to the occupation. She spoke to him to explain to him what we were doing and what she as an Israeli women thought about the occupation of Palestine. He beamed. At first he had seemed curious then when she spoke to him bemused, initially a bit wary or confused and then pleased and perhaps even proud of his fellow human being. 

I think that part of what made that experience so powerful for me was that it was compassionate strong politics that was about justice. 

There is a growing form of politics that is about climate justice. This is a compassionate form of politics that expresses compassion for the future and future generations. I remember hearing the stories about the disbelief that representatives of Pacific Island nations experienced when the Kyoto protocol was being negotiated and they could not believe that the international community was prepared to allow global warming to continue to such an extent that their countries would become threatened. 

Women from Tuvalu have visited my office as part of a trip to Australia to ask the Australian government to act responsibly and kerb our greenhouse gas emissions. The Tuvaluan government and the government of Kiribati have also asked the Australian government to talk to them about Australian accepting climate refugees from Tuvalu and Kiribati. When Tuvalu first asked the Australian government to discuss this issue in 2001 Phillip Ruddock who was at the time the Immigration Minister said no and things have not improved since. That is why I introduced a private members bill last week to recognise climate refugees and to set up a system by which Australia can accept climate refugees. 

To do so would be to engage in compassion based politics. And also clever strategic politics as the battles for limited resources fuel more conflict in our region and around the world. 

Compassionate politics are not just possible but are necessary if we are to look after our collective futures. I believe that compassionate politics is strong effective politics and that it becomes even stronger if it was a basis in justice and equality. 

This is the kind of politics that I believe that The Greens stand for and participate in and it is the kind of politics that I want to be a part of in the lead up to this election and beyond.

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