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First Speech

4 May 2021

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (17:18): Thank you, Mr President, and thank you, Treasurer, for your
kind words. I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Kaurna people. I
pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. This is and will always be Aboriginal
land.


I want to begin my first speech in this chamber by recognising the tremendous contribution
of my predecessor Mark Parnell. You are right, Mr Lucas, he is a giant of Green politics and indeed
of state politics more generally.


I can tell you it is a daunting thing to have the honour of following two great leaders in our
Green movement in South Australia: Penny Wright in the Senate and now Mark Parnell in this
chamber. It really is wonderful to have them both here today. The South Australian Greens were
formed in Mark and Penny's lounge room 26 years ago and it is a credit to their vision and leadership
and also the tireless work of our Greens members and volunteers that this movement has extended
its reach from that very lounge room to the floor of the Senate and to this Legislative Council.


Mark was the first South Australian Green elected to represent our party in the parliament,
back in 2006. He has been a remarkable advocate, a strong and tireless voice for our environment
and for social justice. From fighting for workers' rights—who could forget the legendary eight-hour
speech that was given in this place?—to standing up for renters and defending the rights of residents
to shape their neighbourhoods, Mark has always fought for those who are traditionally shut out of
politics.


So thank you, Mark, for your service to the Greens and to the people of our state. While you
have retired from this parliament, you have left a very big mark on South Australian politics. To quote
my colleague Tammy Franks, it is clear that the Greens are a movement, not a moment, in South
Australia. Mark, you have been integral to cementing our place here, so thank you for that. I wish
you all the best for your retirement, and may the fourth be with you.


I must say how excited I am to be working with my friend Tammy Franks. Tammy and I have
been friends for nearly 20 years. We have supported each other through many of the highs and lows
that are so often part of political life. I know that we are going to make a great team. I want to thank
Tammy and her office for welcoming me into this parliament. Tammy and I first met through former
Senator Natasha Stott Despoja's office. It was Natasha who gave me my first political job when I was
a 17-year-old uni student. It is great to have Natasha here with us today. I know that her remarkable
public service continues to inspire young people.


I want to thank the members of the South Australian Greens for giving me this remarkable
opportunity to represent them and the people of South Australia. I can tell you, as a young person
growing up in the southern suburbs, I never imagined that I would have the honour of representing
our community at every level of government in our country. It really has been an amazing ride over
the last six years from the city council, to the Senate, back again, and now here in this Legislative
Council. I hope I will be here for some time to come. Robs have a very good track record of long
service here, I note.


Reflecting on my political journey and the twists and turns that have happened along the
way, I am really grateful to my family and my friends for the love and support they have given me.
My family has expanded a little over the last few years and I am now dad to Ava. I have had some
really amazing opportunities in my life, but I must say, being asked by my friends Jess and Emma to
be a donor dad and to help them start their family really has been the greatest gift. Ava has brought
a huge amount of joy into all of our lives, and together we have created a big rainbow family—three
sets of grandparents, aunties and uncles—so thank you very much, Jess and Emma, for that.


I also want to thank my mother and father, Marion and Brian, and my brother, Michael, for
always supporting me during my public and private life and for giving me the confidence I need to
pursue my passions. All of us who do political work know how vitally important that support from
family is.


I was born in Leeds in the United Kingdom—do not worry, I gave up my citizenship some
time ago—and I moved here with my parents when I was a boy. It is fitting that the Leeds Town Hall,
near where my father worked more than 50 years ago, served as the architectural inspiration for this
very building. So while my English family cannot be here today, there is a strong influence from the
UK here in this place. My mum and her sisters were from Broken Hill and I spent a lot of time there,
as a young person growing up, on family visits. My aunties and uncles have been a big part of my
life as well and it is great to have them here today too.


I grew up in the southern suburbs, in Flagstaff Hill, and I am a proud product of public
education. I went to Flagstaff Hill Primary School and later Aberfoyle Park High, but I started my
political journey at Flinders University—I think there are a few Flinders alumni here. When I started,
I signed up for the campaign against the government's push to increase HECS fees.


While we did not win that fight, it demonstrated to me the importance of working with the
collective and with social movements to bring about change. That has always underpinned my
approach to politics and it is going to guide me in this place. I was proud then to be a member of my
student union and I am proud to have maintained my union membership in my many workplaces
over the years.


If a week is a long time in politics, six years feels like a lifetime. I am reminded of the dramatic
changes that have unfolded across our planet since I gave my first speech in the Senate back in
2015. Indeed, the world is now a very different place: Brexit, the rise and fall of Donald Trump, a
reckoning on racism and misogyny in public life, a pandemic that has killed more than three million
people worldwide and an unfolding economic crisis that continues to destroy lives and livelihoods,
and all of this against the backdrop of a climate crisis that has shaken our state with catastrophic
drought and fire. To say that we are living during a challenging period in world history is an
understatement.


While we talk about South Australia being lucky in terms of our exposure to COVID-19, and
it is true that we have fared a lot better than many places around the world, there is little cause to
celebrate for many people in our community. As well as being a public health emergency,
COVID-19 has shone a light on the pandemic of inequality that has been spreading across our globe
for decades and has taken hold in our own state. It is clear that 'business as usual' is simply not
working. We need a new direction.


In my first speech in the Senate, I quoted Martin Luther King Jr, and today I draw inspiration
from his words once again. In 1967, Dr King warned that:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines
and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of
racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.


Fast-forward 57 years and Reverend King's words seem more prescient than ever. Rather than
becoming a people-oriented society, the move towards the thing-oriented society has continued at
great pace.


If we are to overcome the crises that we face, we can no longer put private profit above the
public good. We need to confront the economic system that is destroying our planet and our
communities. Now is the time to restore the balance. Now is the time to advance people-focused
policies to finally close the gap between the rich and poor, because everybody has a right to a good
life. That should be the right of each and every South Australian.


Sadly, for many in our community, their lived experience is very different. South Australia
faces the highest unemployment rate in our nation and many will be hard hit by the federal
government's refusal to increase the rate of JobSeeker payments in a meaningful way. I fear that
this decision is going to plunge more and more South Australians into poverty in the days ahead. It
is time for all sides of politics to commit to increasing JobSeeker and to stop punishing those who
are hardest hit by this recession. These people need our help.


Our state also faces a housing crisis. Housing is a human right and yet it is treated as a
commodity in South Australia. We do not have enough social housing or affordable housing stock
and walking through the CBD you will see buildings that are literally sitting there empty while we have
people sleeping on the street. What kind of society allows that to happen? Other places around the
world are looking at what can be done to incentivise landlords to make their vacant properties
available, but not here in South Australia. We need to remedy that.


With house prices on the rise, home ownership is becoming increasingly out of reach for
many in our community, yet South Australian renters have some of the worst protections in our
country. In our state there is no presumption in favour of pets. That forces those who are seeking
rental accommodation to make the difficult choice between moving into a new place or leaving a
member of their family, their family pet, behind. Once someone secures a rental, they operate in a
system that is heavily skewed in favour of their landlord. Having lived in shared housing and rental
accommodation during my 20s and 30s, I know these pressures all too well.


Rental prices in South Australia continue to soar. Adelaide is the second least affordable
capital city in Australia. The government's moratorium on evictions is due to expire at the end of this
month, and many renters will be really concerned about what comes next for them. The government
needs to extend this moratorium to give them certainty.


South Australians should no longer be forced to accept a housing system that puts private
profit above the public good. It is simply not good enough to say, when it comes to housing, 'Hands
off; let the free market decide.' Surely, now is the time for us to introduce rent controls or rent capping
so that we can protect vulnerable people from rent hikes.


Change is also desperately needed when we look at our approach to the environment and
to our climate. COVID-19 has caused a huge disruption. It has impacted on virtually every aspect of
our lives, but the grim reality is that this will be a rehearsal. This will be the curtain-raiser for the
climate crisis unless we take dramatic action, and we need to take that action today.


Our state has made some encouraging strides when it comes to reducing carbon emissions,
but there is still much work to be done. Once again, we are seeing vested interests doing everything
they can to try to tip the scales in their favour. We know, for instance, that gas is the new coal, and
it has a terrible environmental impact. Despite this, South Australia continues to mandate gas
connection and gas use for new homes.


This kickback to the fossil fuel industry makes no sense at all. It drives up prices for South
Australian families and it drives up their carbon emissions. We know that all electric homes, those
powered by solar, save households an average of $14,000 over 10 years. South Australia's love
affair with gas needs to come to an end, and this is something that I intend to tackle during my time
in this place.


Transport policy is another area that is in need of attention. While so many cities around the
nation and around the world have used COVID-19 as an opportunity to expand cycling networks and
to improve pedestrianisation, transport policy in our state continues to focus on cars at the expense
of everything else. It is an appalling indictment on our state's capital city that it can hold a car month,
yet it cannot complete the east-west bikeway. What kind of a disgrace is that?

It is time for us to stare down the critics and show the leadership we need to make cycling
infrastructure actually happen in our state. We need this if we are going to reduce carbon emissions,
and we need it if we are going to improve community health and wellbeing.


This vision is needed when it comes to fixing our public transport system as well. For years,
governments of both persuasions have viewed public transport as a system of last resort for South
Australians. Having grown up in the southern suburbs, I know all too well the impact of state
government cuts to those services. Privatisation of transport has been a disaster for our state.


It is time to take back control of our public transport network and build an integrated network
that people actually want to use. Rather than cutting stops, let's put a stop to the cuts. Let's expand
the reach of our trains, our trams and buses and make public transport free. This would reduce
carbon emissions and it would also reduce congestion on our roads.


Protecting our green space is also essential in this fight against the climate crisis. The natural
world so often provides a space for refuge and quiet reflection, and it cools our homes and our
streets. Like so many South Australians who were working from home last year, I was reminded of
just how vital that public green space is to our community health and wellbeing. Sadly, we are seeing
it being compromised in pursuit of the mighty dollar.


Consider the Adelaide Parklands, the lungs of our city, the biggest urban park system in our
country. Sadly, over the years we have seen this viewed as free land for developers or even sporting
clubs. Well, our precious green land should not be carved up and sold off to the highest bidder,
because once it is lost we can never get it back. Like my predecessor here, I intend to continue to
be a strong voice for our public green space.


There are jobs to be created in Dr King's transition to a people-oriented society. Building
social housing, building public transport infrastructure, caring for our public space, better resourcing
our schools and hospitals—all of these things would create meaningful long-term work. We can
kickstart our economy and create jobs that are good for people and that are good for our environment.


Imagine if South Australians had a jobs guarantee, a commitment to providing meaningful
work at a living wage, a job for everybody who wants one, a guarantee for jobs that reduce inequality
and that fight the climate crisis. These are the kinds of bold ideas that we need to embrace if we are
going to build a better tomorrow for our state.


I have talked a lot about the challenges that lie ahead, but there is also a lot for us to
celebrate. Through all the trials that we have endured over the last 12 months, we have also
demonstrated what can be achieved through cooperation—global, national and local cooperation.
Global efforts to develop vaccines, temporary increases in JobSeeker payments, pop-up bikeways
in Melbourne and Sydney, temporary hotel accommodation for people who are homeless—there is
so much that we can achieve when there is the political will to do so, and we have seen the powerful
role governments can play, particularly state governments, in delivering positive outcomes for our
communities.


As a gay man I am reminded of the remarkable strides that have been made in the fight for
equality in recent years. As Nelson Mandela once said, it always seems impossible until it is done.
During my time in the Senate the fight for marriage equality was front and centre, and it was a
wonderful day when that reform passed the parliament. It has played a big role in increasing visibility
for LGBTI people and in reducing stigma.


I want to recognise the leadership of this parliament in finally axing the homophobic gay
panic defence, which has been a long-term campaign for the Greens, and legislating to remove spent
convictions for gay men. These are big achievements, and I am hopeful that this parliament will also
take action on other vital areas: banning conversion therapy and ending religious exemptions that
allow discrimination of LGBTI people.


For me, the recent advances in LGBTI rights serve as a reminder of what can be achieved
through community action. I have always believed that, while the parliament makes the laws, it is the
people who drive positive social change. That has been the story of every activist's struggle
throughout our history. I know that, while the challenges we face are great, through collective action
we can and we will achieve the change that we need, and I am really looking forward to being able
to play my part in amplifying the community voice here in this parliament.


Our state has been very well served by the work of LGBTI rights activists, and I really am so
grateful to them for making life easier for people like myself. I want to acknowledge trailblazers like
the late Ian Purcell, Greg Mackie, Margie Fisher, Jenny Scott, and so many others who have been
bold and inspiring advocates for our LGBTI community in South Australia. Of course, I want to
acknowledge the work of the Hon. Ian Hunter as an out gay man in this parliament over many years.
I look forward to working with you, Ian, and I am very pleased that we have doubled our
LGBTI representation here in the parliament today.


I want to thank the many Greens friends, members and supporters who are watching this
stream online. There is a watch party happening in our Greens state office as we speak. I hope you
guys have some popcorn happening. I am really so fortunate to have a strong and supportive
friendship group in my life. While I cannot mention everybody, I want to acknowledge some of my
close friends in the Greens, who I have worked with closely over the years: Lisa Adams, Emily
English, Sean Cullen-MacAskill, Malwina Wyra and Dominic Mugavin have been big supporters on
my political journey, and I thank them for that.


It really is an honour to be here. Might I say, as somebody who has experienced the ups and
downs of political life, nothing worth having comes easy. I will be working very hard to ensure that
my tenure in this place is a little longer than the nine months I served in the Senate. I have a sense
that this sequel might be even better than the original.


It is a real privilege to have this opportunity to serve the community, and I look forward to
working with you. Thank you very much.