Before I became involved in politics, I was running a small suburban legal practice in Adelaide. But in the mid 1990s I began to see client after client whose lives had been damaged in some way by the introduction of poker machines into pubs and clubs.
I never dreamt I would actually become a pollie but at the time hardly anyone was talking about the harm caused by the proliferation of poker machines in our community and I just thought, ‘Enough is enough. Someone has to speak out in support of the people being devastated by this industry’.
I first became involved in politics in the 1997 State election, when I campaigned on a ‘No Pokies’ platform, in opposition to the flood of poker machines into my home state and the damage they were causing.
I never expected to win, but I wanted to make a stand. Incredibly I secured a seat in the South Australian Legislative Council with a little under three per cent of the state-wide vote due to a large number of preferences being directed to me.
Over the next eight years, I worked to fight the spread of poker machines and their impact. I also campaigned on issues where individuals and communities weren’t getting a fair go, including asbestos victims, victims of crime and land tax.
At the 2006 State Election I was re-elected with 20.5 per cent of the state’s vote. I was as shocked as my political opponents, who had predicted I was cactus.
By 2007 I had become concerned that the major parties in the South Australian Parliament would also block much-needed reform of the poker machine industry, largely because State Governments had become hooked on poker machine taxes.
So I decided to leave state politics and run in the November 2007 Federal Election.
I felt I had to try and do more and this seemed like the next logical step. If State and Territory governments wouldn’t reduce the harm caused by poker machines, I decided to try and see if I could make the Federal Parliament step in.
I was elected to the Senate with just under 15 per cent of the State’s vote.
Since assuming my role in the Senate in July 2008, I have continued to fight for changes in the key areas of gambling reform, the water crisis facing Australia, consumer protection, food security and the destructive impact of cults.
Some of my biggest achievements to date include negotiating the fast tracking of $900 million in funding for the Murray Darling Basin, river communities and stormwater harvesting as part of the 2009 stimulus package; my campaign for victims of Scientology which has now seen the creation of a Charities Commission to crack down on cults; rallying the Federal Government to secure a suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia, as well as working with Lower House Independent Andrew Wilkie and the Federal Government to implement ground-breaking national protections for poker machine gamblers.
I believe the most important part of my job is speaking up for people who might not otherwise have a voice.
I guess how I feel about what I do is summed up in the last line of my first speech in the Senate:
I would rather go down fighting, than still be standing because I stayed silent.