New Queensland MP Peter Russo puts ordinary people above Party pressures

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Man of the people: Peter Russo at the Brisbane Dragon Race Festival, 7 June 2015 (Image via @PeterRussoMP)

In his maiden speech to the Queensland Parliament, new Sunnybank MP Peter Russo said that the protection of the rights of ordinary Queenslanders would be the "guiding principle" in his Parliamentary career — a novel approach for this particular State, writes Alex McKean.

A QUOTATION most often attributed to Plato states:

‘One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.'

The previous government of Queensland was led by individuals whose difficulties were on daily display. Just as the long suffocation of the corrupt era of Joh Bjelke-Petersen motivated talented individuals to enter politics and to build a better vision of what Queensland could be, so the disregard for the rights of ordinary Queenslanders of the more recent past has caused some to participate who wish to see principles placed above the inferior currency of the populist.

In his maiden speech, delivered last month, Peter Russo, the new Labor Party member for Sunnybank in the Queensland Parliament, identified the trigger for his standing for office as the attacks by the LNP Newman Government on the judiciary. In particular, the "disgraceful and misguided attack on the integrity of the president of the Court of Appeal", which he said came from an obvious lack of understanding of the separation of powers.

He also cited the wholesale sacking of public servants and the "climate of fear", which led to his being banned from attending his local school – located in the electorate for which he was standing – during the campaign period.

In his speech, Mr Russo focused on just a few, albeit very important issues: education, infrastructure, justice and the better welcoming of refugees.

It is commonplace for new MPs to spruik projects, including the provision of better schools, which are needed in their electorate. These are important issues in the daily life of the people who have just elected the new MP, an event so recent that gratitude to the voters remains intact.

It is more unusual for a maiden speech to traverse controversial issues, such as the manner in which refugees are treated — and even more unusual still to do so from a perspective of an appeal for a principled and compassionate approach to people so thoroughly demonised by both major parties.

Peter Russo recounted his own family history, describing his grandfather as an economic refugee from Sicily. He told the story of his father’s time in an internment camp during WW2, because he had not yet received his Australian citizenship — an example of an historical failed policy driven by xenophobia, from which contemporary leaders steadfastly are refusing to learn.

More encouraging still were the new Member’s contributions to the debate about the administration of justice in Queensland, a topic with which he is familiar from his long career in the law.

Mr Russo reflected on the continuing practice in Queensland of gaoling 17-year-olds in adult prisons.

He appealed to the principles enshrined in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory, saying:

"We are out of kilter with the rest of Australia. We are out of kilter with what is right."

He said of the trend toward mandatory sentencing that it was disliked by prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges because it takes away the flexibility of dealing with people as individuals and called on the Parliament to

"... have the courage to let the judiciary do its job."

Mr Russo said that the protection of the rights of ordinary Queenslanders would be the "guiding principle" in his Parliamentary career, noting that the ACT and Victoria had already introduced a Bill of Rights, saying it was time to reignite the debate on this topic in Queensland.

Rarely does a new MP have the courage to come into Parliament and make a principled stand, particularly, where those principles conflict with the policy of their party. What is even more unusual is that – at least in the case of the introduction of a Bill of Rights – the principled position taken by Mr Russo is one which requires the Government to impose limitations upon its own powers and prerogatives.

In what he promised would be his last television interview, in January 2015, Tony Fitzgerald AC QC, described the movement over the years away from the reforms introduced in the wake of the inquiry which bears his name as

"... bit-by-bit, to the old-style politics where the winner takes all."

If this trend is to be reversed, it will be necessary for politicians like Peter Russo to continue to stand up and maintain their adherence to long-cherished principles, notwithstanding the pressures and temptations that arise in the course of political careers.

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