Mr SNOWDON (Lingiari) (15:11): Last night we saw a very successful collaboration across the parliament to ensure two seats for the Northern Territory into the future. I want to thank the Prime Minister and the government for supporting the resolution, which was formulated by Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which was put to this parliament and got bipartisan support. It guarantees us in the long-term the seat in the Northern Territory. So I thought today might be a good day to do it, to come here and indicate that I’m about to roll the swag. I’m a bit of a relic. I’m the only one left in this parliament—Senate or House of Reps—from the Old Parliament House. I’ve taken the decision that I won’t be contesting the next election. I was first elected 33 years ago. I’ve had 12 elections and 31 years now in the parliament, having lost, sadly—not my delightful day—an election in 1996 but was re-elected in 1998. It’s been an absolutely enormous privilege to serve the people of the Northern Territory for that time. And I will continue to serve them until the next election.
Of course, Christmas and Cocos Islands were also part of the seat of the Northern Territory where I was the single member for four elections. They are also part of the seat of Lingiari, my current electorate, which, just to remind you, is 1.34 million square kilometres and half the Indian Ocean.
It’s a great, great honour. There is no-one else in this chamber who will have watched this speech, but the great Mick Young stood at the dispatch box when he was retiring from parliament and talked about what an honour it is to serve in this parliament, and it is. It is a huge honour for all of us, no matter where we come from, to serve our communities, to serve the nation in this place. It’s been my great honour, my great privilege, to be able to serve here as the member for the Northern Territory and the seat of Lingiari for 31 years now. I can’t think of a greater honour, frankly. I don’t think there’s any better public services you can do than to speak, represent your electorate, represent your community and speak up on behalf of it. But it doesn’t come without cost, as you well know.
This part will be very difficult for me. My family have shown love, loyalty, sacrifice, forbearance and given me support over such a long period.
Elizabeth, my partner, gave birth to Frankie, our first daughter, a fortnight before the first election that I ran in—a fortnight! She was in good shape. Within a fortnight after the election, she was driving up the Stuart Highway with me as the new member for Northern Territory, showing off the child. Frankie is a wonderful young woman. We’ve had three other children since. Tom, Jess and Jack have not known anything other than me being a member of parliament. I have to tell you that that meant many, many years where I was only home eight or nine nights a month, such was the travel required. In fact, I did a bit of a calculation late last year and worked out that over the years I’d been flying in the air for two years. Ludicrous, but nevertheless true. So I want to say thank you, Elizabeth. I love you. I love you, Frank, Tom, Tess and Jack. You are a credit to your mother because she raised you. I was an observer—tolerated, but an observer.
I obviously want to thank my friends in the Labor Party and the trade union movement for their ongoing support, and the community for working with me over those many years and years still to come. My colleagues here in the caucus—I’ve had a lot of them.
An honourable member: Name them!
Mr SNOWDON: I might start! I’ve known a lot of them. Remember, I’ve seen come to the dispatch box now eight prime ministers, starting with Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, obviously. I had the great privilege to serve in this period. I’m unique in this place—well, we’re all unique, but in this case, in the Labor Party—because I’ve been in government for 15 years and a member of the executive for 12 of them: six as a parliamentary secretary or assistant minister and six as a minister in various portfolios.
You all know what an honour it is to be able to work with some of the best people in this country, the people who serve us. So I take great pleasure in remembering all of those people I’ve worked with, including my own staff—electoral staff and ministerial staff. I remember two people in particular, and I want to remember them because they’re dead: Carol Burke, who used to work for me in my Darwin office, and Jack Crosby, who worked for me. Both of them passed away in the last five years, but both of them gave sterling loyalty and service to the community as well as to me.
We don’t get many opportunities to express the disappointments we sometimes have. Over the period I’ve seen a bit of shenanigans. I’ve been shafted a bit, it won’t come as a surprise. But I’ve hung in. I think the interesting thing about the parliamentary process and about our caucus is that, despite the differences we have, we have a common purpose. There are some who are pretty adventurous. We see it from time to time. They think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. They last about two rounds of the revolving door, and then they’re off. On the other hand, we have people of commitment on both sides of the parliament, and we need to recognise that commitment for what it is. My colleagues, I’m so pleased, so honoured, to be part of your team.
I contemplated talking about a whole range of historical events that have taken place over this period, but that will be for another time. There were some interesting times had.
There have been some interesting times inside the Labor Party—I kept notes by the way!—especially when there have been leadership disputes. So I know who did what to whom and how often they did it. I’ve got very good records, so watch out, you mob!
I want to just pay tribute briefly to the cooperation across the parliament on parliamentary committees. We have the adversarial politics across the chamber; we all understand that. But the truth of it is this parliament works really well in the committees. My colleagues who are here and who chair the committees that I’ve been on over the last little while will, I’m sure, agree that we’ve been blessed by the way in which the committee system has worked for us. I want to thank in particular an odd bloke, the member for Leichhardt. We’re on a committee together. He keeps saying: ‘What do you get when you get two Warrens together? A lot of rabbits.’ I’m not sure about that. He’s one in the spotlight. And I thank the member for Berowra for his companionship and good work. He’s a good person.
My first election was an interesting experience, as they all are. I had to win a marginal seat off those opposite, which I did, ultimately. But the NT News was not helpful. One banner headline was ‘Friend of Gaddafi’.
Mr Albanese: Some things haven’t changed!
Mr SNOWDON: Also they called me a ‘left-wing loony’. Well, they might be right! But prior to entering parliament I had the great honour and privilege at one period to work with the great Nugget Coombs, a really remarkable Australian. I worked with him and Maria Brandl, an anthropologist, on a project in the north-west of South Australia where I worked and lived out of a little Pitjantjatjara community called Pipalyatjara. I worked with Nugget on this project. It changed my life. It’s the reason I ended up here. It changed my life because I was living and working with Aboriginal people in a very remote place who were being oppressed, and who still are in many ways, and who were going without. I was doing a project which was examining the impact of government programs on traditional socialisation. One of the programs I was looking at was CDEP. I won’t go into the arguments about CDEP here, but it’s given me a history. So it was very important to me. Off Nugget, who was a mentor of mine, I really learnt what public service is—not only about public service and the way we should engage in it but the importance of the Public Service. I think we in this place need to comprehend how important the Public Service is to us and to the Australian community.
I then went back to teaching for a while after doing this research project out of the Australian National University. I went to work with the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, where my boss was Pat Dodson. He still is! Things don’t change. He’s up there—look! As I’m sure Pat will attest, we were guided by some great Aboriginal leaders, some great people of great wisdom from the bush. They weren’t literate. English was their second or third language. They were old men, largely. There were not many women in these leadership positions at the time. I know they taught me a great deal.
It was what they taught me, and the time I spent with Pat, under his guidance, that drove me to believe I should become a member of parliament.
So, having a very strong belief in social justice and a belief in the need to do something right, I contested the election. I went to that election knowing that I needed to rely upon the strength and wisdom of Aboriginal people. I stand here because of them. The only reason I became a member of parliament and have remained a member of parliament is the support I’ve been getting from the Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory. I’m not talking about just marginal support here. I’m talking about successive elections where I’ve been getting 80 and 90 per cent of the vote. That puts me in a pretty unique position, given that 42 per cent of the population of Lingiari are Aboriginal people. I am their voice in this place. I owe them so much. I have learnt so, so much. I’ve learnt about respect and humility and I’ve learnt about patience. They have such great patience.
When I stood up in the Old Parliament House on 17 September 1987 to give my first speech, I said, among a number of things:
As a nation we have yet to recognise and accord Aboriginal people the justice that is their due.
It is still the case. I said:
This nation cannot pretend to wear the mantle of maturity until the indigenous rights of Aboriginal Australians are given formal recognition and the demands by Aboriginal and Islander people for compensation for lands stolen and for social and cultural disruption are addressed. In my view, this should involve appropriate amendments to the Constitution.
This was 1987. I said:
It is time that the politics of division in this country were put aside so that at last the injustice of the Aboriginal dispossession is recognised and dealt with in a way which is satisfactory to Aboriginal Australians.
That was 30 years ago, and here we still argue about the need for a voice to parliament, a makarrata, treaty-making, truth-telling. We have an obligation. We have a chance. We should be able to do it, Prime Minister. We should be able to do it. Come with us. Let’s make it happen.
I want to conclude by reminding you that I’ll be rolling my swag at the end of the term, not tomorrow. But I want to just finish by reading a quote from Xavier Herbert. It’s not immediately relevant today, because land rights has been achieved, by and large, except for the deficiencies in native title, which are a discussion for another day. He said this, and I think it’s a really strong statement that bears out the need for us to actually do things. Before I read it, I want to thank Pat, Malarndirri and Luke for your wonderful support. He said this:
Until we give back to the black man just a bit of the land that was his … without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him—until we do that, we shall remain what we have always been so far, a people without integrity, not a nation but a community of thieves.