I was asked to speak at the 40th anniversary of the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association, a courageous organisation that empowers migrant and refugee women to achieve gender equality in all areas of their lives. Speakout’s equitable and democratic structure is the basis of its longevity.

It is with deep appreciation that I join you for the 40th anniversary of the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association. Thank you for the invitation.

I say that with great conviction as during the many decades that I have been active in politics, in a range of community groups and as a member of parliament, my work has crossed over with activities of the Association.

At rallies, forums, trade union events and at your 30th anniversary I have seen up close how excellent the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association is. 

I do have to say that this 40th anniversary celebration has a lot to live up to as the 30th celebration, held at Parramatta, was wonderful. I attended, and then spoke about the occasion when I was in the Senate. My comments then are still relevant today so I would like to share with you some of what I said about the Association:

“They provide not just assistance to others, but also inspiration, strength, and the means to achieve a new life. In honouring them, I do hope that they will become more visible to us all. Everybody in this parliament should learn about the Speakout Association. It is an excellent model of an organisation that has continued, over three decades, to stay true to its principles and objectives of access and equity.” Ten years later these words are just as accurate. 

It is phenomenal that the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association is entering its fifth decade. And it is worth reflecting on this achievement. I have worked with community groups over five decades and have noticed that many  have a short lifespan. I firmly believe the Association’s longevity is because of its equitable and democratic structure, and of course its outstanding staff and members. This is what has enabled the Association to flourish. 

40 years is a significant achievement and I think it is worth considering some wider lessons here. 

Right now Australia and and the whole world are not in a good place – inequality, domestic violence, wars, job insecurity, discrimination, racism exploitation and environmental destruction are all on the rise. 

I think the Association’s democratic, equitable and collective structure provides a model for all of us and for all countries. Seriously a solid dose of democracy and equality would go a long way to solving the problems I just summarised. 

In these tough times it is wonderful to be able to celebrate the Association’s success story – for me it provides hope and vision for what humanity is capable of.

I would particularly like to congratulate the Executive Officer, Jane Corpuz-Brock, for her consistent, principled work. Jane’s collective style, building alliances and addressing the immediate and long term needs of immigrant and refugee women is outstanding. 

I would also like to pay tribute to Lina Cabaero, a past treasurer and very active and dedicated member of the Association. Sadly Lina died last year after a long illness. Lina’s energy and commitment are legendary. She was a great organiser, committed to working for the oppressed and marginalised. Her contribution as coordinator of Asian Women at Work was huge. We naturally remember Lina as a proud Filipino, but she was also a committed internationalist. Lina’s death was tragic, too soon, and so sad. I extend my condolences to her family and friends and all her colleagues at the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association.

When I think of Lina my thoughts do turn to wondering what she would be organising around if she was with us now. It is not hard to guess. I think if she was here right now Lina would be reminding us that to improve the lives of immigrant and refugee women, of all workers, and all disadvantaged people our priority must be to defeat the Liberal National government at the coming election. 

There are so many reasons that we need a change of government. Morrison is making our society less safe – from his failure to act on women’s rights, to end insecure work, to provide homes for all, to abide by our international obligations to allow refugees to settle here, and to take climate action. The list of policies that are making our society less safe are long because the Liberals are locked onto the dangerous neoliberal ideology that is about scaling down the role of government, scrapping regulations so businesses can maximise their profits by exploiting workers and the environment. 

If governments allow companies to pay low wages and deregulate health and safety and other working conditions, then companies are able to increase their profits. Similarly if companies are free to pollute the air and water they save money.  

This government is led by a Prime Minister who is committed to downgrading the role of government when it comes to improving people’s lives and protecting the environment. 

This approach has played out in a dramatic way during the pandemic. I believe the Liberal’s contributed to people’s suffering during the Covid crisis and their policies caused the number of deaths to rise. 

Remember the tragedy in so many aged care centres – hundreds of vulnerable men and women died. The failures on quarantine, vaccination availability and Covid testing was caused by this government. The past two years have been a stark reminder that governments that outsource their responsibility, like the Morrison government, that fail to work for the public good need to be voted out.

When I speak about why Australia needs to expand its public services – like more funding for public hospitals and public housing, free education from child care through to university and TAFE and so much more people ask me but how can we pay for it.

We can. We can turn around these bad policies quite quickly. Australia is a rich country. An increase in taxes on billionaires and the collection of all outstanding taxes would help inject urgently needed funds into our public services. 

Private companies should not be able to profit from selling health and education services.

To give one example. Pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars out of the Covid crisis. Just one company, Pfizer, made over $25 billion in US dollars last year from selling vaccines to countries like Australia. Their profit margin was massive. In the first quarter of 2021 Pfizer profits were 44 per cent above what they were the previous year. 

If we had had the Covid crisis in the 1900s we would have had a publicly owned body, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, to work on the required vaccines. That would have meant the costs would not have been so high, and any profits made could have been returned to public purse. That did not happen because in the 1990s CSL was privatised. Overnight Australia lost so much knowledge about producing vaccines that had been built up over 100 years of CSL operations. 

Privatisation of essential public services was a major cause of the weak and often disorganised response to Covid. This was certainly the main reason so many elderly people suffered and died in aged care homes. When aged care became a profit making business the quality of care suffered. Sadly it is easy to understand why. Aged care companies can increase their profits when they employ minimal staff.

It was under a previous Liberal government lead by John Howard that aged care was turned into a giant profit making business. And the profits have rolled in, but you wouldn’t think so as the aged care industry has been calling for more government funding. 

That turned out to be a big lie thanks to a study commissioned by the Royal Commission into aged care. It found that most of the companies and providers involved in aged care are making a profit. In the 2018 financial year profits came in at $1.1 billion and 74 per cent of aged care providers were found to be making a profit. 

I do acknowledge the job of companies under capitalism is to make profits but it should not be at the expense of the health and well being of elderly people. But that is what is happening in our aged care centres every day, and the staff are also suffering. 

This issue is very relevant to migrant women as the aged care workforce is 90% women and 30% migrant. It is the workers in these centres, who carry the burden of trying to deliver quality care to their patients when they are under staffed and under paid.

Another problem many women from community and linguistically diverse backgrounds are facing is family and domestic violence.  The bias and racism of the government is on display when it comes to dealing with this problem. Those on temporary visas are particularly vulnerable as many are ineligible for support and services including safe housing and crisis payments. There is a clear need to review and restructure the Family Violence Provisions of the Migration Regulations. 

March 2022 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association, 40 years of a lot of hard work, significant achievements, and innovative campaigning. The Association has very much set the agenda for the changes needed to address the problems women from diverse backgrounds face. 

And this has not just been a big city issue the Association has taken its work into regional and rural areas with the 2005 conference held in Coffs Habour. The establishment of the Association’s crisis accommodation – the Multicultural Women’s Shelter – was a huge breakthrough.  

And the informative, inspiring thread that weaves its way through all of the Association’s amazing work is the publication “Speak Out 40 Migrant Women Tell Their Stories”.  Jane sums up the achievements of these stories in her foreword to this publication. She states, “These CALD women’s stories bring to our attention gender equality, safety and respect and the challenges of migration.”

A major research project by the Migration and Inclusion Centre at Monash University underlines how reform in this area is urgently needed. The report is called the “Migrant and refugee women in Australia: The security and safety study”.

The survey undertaken for the report reveals some of the impacts of Covid-19 on the lives and safety of migrant and refugee women. The research takes into account these women’s experiences and the need for this diversity to be reflected in programs and policies designed to make women’s safety and security a national priority.

Since March 1982 when three hundred women gathered in Sydney to speak out on issues affecting migrant and refugee women of non-English speaking backgrounds the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association has been on a mighty journey. Forty years of service is a fantastic milestone. I warmly congratulate all those involved – now and over the past decades. You can be proud of your achievements on the personal and wider political level. 

I share your values of dignity, respect, safety and social justice and share your vision of a society that values the rich and diverse contributions of immigrant and refugee women.

Congratulations on your 40th birthday. Your anniversary and the 40 years of achievements are cause for celebration. I appreciate being able to join you on  this occasion.

Thank you. 

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