In a speech not widely covered, the maiden speech by One Nation’s Stephen Andrew proudly referenced both his ancient roots and retold the suffering they endured under the hand of the white man.
Queensland’s Parliament sat for another week last week, and the sitting on Wednesday seemed like any other normal sitting day. Members of Parliament partook in a spirited debate on the legislative issues up for debate that day, and on occasion, one would stand up and give a brief speech about an issue affecting their community. It was business as usual on George Street.
In the mid-afternoon of that same day, the speaker of Queensland Parliament addressed the chamber and made it clear to those in the chamber that it was the first speech for the next member who was about to speak, and then he called on the member to finally address the chamber.
“It is with much pride, as a fifth-generation Australian South Sea Islander, descendent of the sugarcane labourers known as the Kanakas, that I would like to acknowledge the ancient first people of Australia and their descendants of all tribes, who cared for and walked these lands for many thousands of years. We as Australian South Sea Islanders have always respected their people and their traditions.”
These were the introductory words of the Member for Mirani, Stephen Andrew, as he made his maiden speech in Queensland Parliament that afternoon. While it is a fact that has not been widely covered, Stephen’s speech is a historic moment for our country. He has the distinction of being the first South-Sea Islander person elected to any parliament in Australia, and even he understood the importance of that very moment, and what his election meant to a community of people who have often lacked a voice in our nation’s political institutions. He used the opportunity to share the story of his great-Grandmother who was taken from her family in Vanuatu and blackbirded to a cane farm near Mackay. He spoke further about many of his ancestors, who were flogged and beaten by the pastoralists they had been assigned to, and he detailed some of the injustices that many South Sea Islander people faced after being blackbirded.
He spoke with great pride about the diversity and the richness of the electorate that he was elected to serve, Mirani, which straddles the coast between Mackay and Rockhampton, he introduced foreign dignitaries from Vanuatu who had travelled to Brisbane to watch his speech, and concluded his speech by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in pidgin. His passion and pride for his own South-Sea Islander culture was on display for all to see, albeit ironically in the very same chamber that had allowed for the practices of blackbirding and the subsequent enslavement of South-Sea Islander people to happen when Queensland was a mere colony. As Stephen’s maiden speech found its rightful place in parliamentary hansard, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a strange moment to observe; it felt very out of place for someone who was also elected as the first One Nation MP to Queensland Parliament in almost 20 years.
With time we may gain greater understanding of why he considered it to be the party to represent his views. He could become a refreshing change from the populism and division One Nation is known for.
It wasn’t until he thanked Pauline Hanson in his speech that you realised that Stephen Andrew is a member of a party that sits on the right-wing fringe of our political spectrum. It is a party that rejects the notion of multiculturalism, has at times called for the restriction of “muslim immigration”, and with a policy to disband the Racial Discrimination Act, it is nothing short of interesting to hear one of their elected representatives talk about the historic injustices faced by a multicultural group of people at length. It would also be fair to say that, when compared to One Nation’s representatives in Federal Parliament, or even those in Western Australia’s upper house, it would be quite uncharacteristic for anyone from One Nation to acknowledge first peoples in a speech. Much of the language used in Andrew’s speech is in stark contrast to more populist, divisive rhetoric often used in speeches made by Hanson and other One Nation senators in Canberra.
Where Pauline has repeatedly decried the scourge of Aboriginal welfare and criticised the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony as being “too Aboriginal”, Andrew speaks of the respect he has for the traditions and culture of our first peoples. Where Pauline has screamed about Muslims invading the country and not accepting Australian values, Andrew talks about the injustices of those who were flogged and beaten and forced to accept those values.
When Andrew started to talk about the alienation that regional Queenslanders felt when South-East Queensland made decisions for them and denounced what he viewed as the lack of common sense approaches made by our democratic institutions, it was then that it started to make sense as to why he would have sought election under the One Nation banner, but even then, his words still deviated away from much of the language used by his federal counterparts.
“The bush is the bush, and the city is the city” was one quote from his speech. While certain people in the South-East may view this sort of rhetoric as one that is held by gun-toting rednecks from North Queensland, this is still a view which is shared by a large number of people in regional Queensland, even those regional Queenslanders who voted Labor or the Liberal National Party. To call out George Street for ignoring the opinions of regional Queenslanders is hardly a controversial stance nor something which could be considered an issue championed with a far-right wing ideological bent – well, not for that part of the world anyway.
Stephen Andrew’s maiden speech asked more questions than it answered and perhaps with time and upon seeing how he will vote on certain issues, we may gain a greater understanding of just what it is about One Nation that appealed to him in the first place, and why he considered it to be the party to represent his views. That said, it is also very clear that Stephen Andrew is his own man, and perhaps he could become a refreshing change from the policies of populism and the rhetoric of division that One Nation is often known for. At the very least, there is now a champion of South-Sea Islander causes sitting in the Parliament of Queensland, and he is willing to make sure that their voices will be heard.