To be elected to this House as a Labor representative is a great honour. To be elected as the first woman ever chosen by the Victorian branch of the Labor Party to stand for an historically safe seat is more than a personal honour; it is a Labor landmark, as is the record number of Labor women sitting in this House. It is a cause for celebration and will inspire us to ensure that many more women follow us into this parliament. Having reached this place, my first task as the new member for Lalor is to thank the outgoing member, Mr Barry Jones, for his service to the local community over the past 21 years, for his contribution to Australian political life and for his personal support and encouragement.
Barry Jones has a unique place in Australian political life. Barry is famed throughout Australia for his intellect and is respected throughout Australia for his genuineness and compassion. In an age of cynicism about politicians, Barry Jones is one of the few politicians of whom Australians are truly fond. In the electorate of Lalor he is loved. While he will be sorely missed from this House, Barry will continue to serve the Labor Party as its national president and will continue his passionate engagement with Australia in his writing and public speaking.
The electorate of Lalor, so ably served by Barry Jones, is situated in Melbourne’s outer west. Young families flock to Lalor and new housing estates are constantly being built. Part of Melbourne’s industrial heartland, Lalor contains the Altona petrochemical complex, the Laverton industrial estate and the Toyota manufacturing plant, as well as the Point Cook and Laverton air bases. Far less well known and perhaps surprising to some, given the standard imagery of Melbourne’s west, Lalor encompasses a significant agricultural precinct at Werribee South and throughout the electorate you find internationally protected wetlands. Lalor also contains major tourist attractions, including the historic Werribee Mansion, the open range zoo and the State Rose Garden.
As part of Melbourne’s industrial west, the people of Lalor have always had to try harder. There is a sense of community and a fighting spirit often missing from the sleeker suburbs. That fighting spirit is now being called upon in a major community campaign to stop CSR turning the local quarry at Werribee into a toxic dump. There are only two reasons why Werribee has been selected as the site for this toxic dump: CSR wants to make money by filling its disused quarry with toxic waste and the Kennett government thinks Werribee is no more than a dumping ground because Melbourne’s sewage farm is located there. But Premier Kennett and CSR are wrong.
When the Victorian Premier turns to the west, he holds his nose and closes his eyes. If he opened his eyes, he would have seen the 15,000 Werribee residents who rallied to stop the dump. And by now he should be smelling the scent of a political defeat because this is a fight that Lalor, named for that great fighter against injustice Peter Lalor, will win.
The electoral division of Lalor has enjoyed great stability and quality in its parliamentary representatives. Since its creation in 1949, apart from the curious aberration of being represented by the Liberal Party for one parliamentary term, Lalor has been represented in this place by only three members: Reg Pollard, Jim Cairns, the famous antiwar advocate, and Barry Jones. Whilst its parliamentary representation may have been stable, like all of Australia, the electorate of Lalor has undergone a radical transformation since World War II. In Lalor, as in our nation generally, the twin forces of globalisation and rapidly changing technology, particularly information technology, have remade and will continue to remake our lives.
The prevailing mood of insecurity is an understandable community response to the swirling winds of change which threaten to blow us to unknowable destinations. In Hugh Mackay’s Mind and Mood study and in Clemenger’s Silent Majority report, we find a society in which individuals increasingly feel insecure and powerless to control their lives in the face of rapid economic restructuring and social change. Most tellingly of all, parents believe their teenagers are facing a tougher world than they themselves faced. As a community, in common with societies throughout the Western world, our response to insecurity has run from simple nostalgia to the spectacle of the frightened turning on the vulnerable. Endless remakes of the songs and movies of the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of reactionary politics have something in common—both seek a return to a mythical, simpler time, a deep and dreamless sleep.
Various conservative politicians, some with subtlety, some nakedly, have encouraged this dangerous trend. So-called ‘wedge politics’ sells the big lie that the answer to insecurity is to tread on the weakest amongst us. This shabby opportunism has hurt many and helped none.
For far too long public debate in Australia has failed to nourish or inspire us. For far too long it has been limited to the day-to-day monitoring of the health of our economy rather than the morals and goals of our society. The end result of this political cycle is a weary people who no longer believe what politicians say and who think the politicians saying it do not even believe it themselves.
In my view, the electors of Lalor, and the Australian people, are looking for a return to passion and conviction in Australian politics and to the clear articulation of values. They rightly want to know what their politicians stand for, what we believe in and by what measures we are prepared to be judged. If the politics of values comes to the fore, then the Labor Party will win that contest. It is only the Labor Party that can claim to be based clearly upon a value system, a value system that has endured since the Labor Party’s formation, even though the policies based upon those values are constantly revised in order to meet the needs of a changed and changing world.
We stand for the right of ordinary Australians—those who have neither wealth nor power—to a fair go, to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, to be recognised and valued as citizens and to have a say in their nation’s future.
Our values are fundamentally democratic and collective. We understand the great enduring truth that individuals are immeasurably strengthened by being members of a team, of a society, and that a strong community provides the best platform from which individuals can excel. And we understand that the key aspiration of each generation of Australians is to ensure that the generation to follow, their daughters and sons, will lead a better life. These values—our core Labor values—are true signposts which take us beyond some of the sterile debates of the past.
Our conservative opponents would have Australians believe that our nation will only find its place in an open and competitive global economy if we sign up to the cult of individualism, to the survival of the fittest. By contrast, Labor—guided by our values—understands that, just like the most loving homes produce the confident kids who are able to face the world and take the risks necessary to get ahead, a nurturing and caring society is the best foundation for the individuals who will ensure Australia competes in the global market.
A strong economy and a strong society are not contradictory goals. Indeed, you can only achieve a sustainably strong economy by creating a strong society. A country is strengthened by individual security and national inclusiveness.
But security alone is not enough. A vision to satisfy Australians, a Labor vision, must also be a vision of opportunity, a vision whereby each and every Australian, no matter what their personal circumstances, is given an opportunity to develop and to excel, a vision whereby we can truly believe that the opportunities for the next generation will be better.
My personal story shows the difference that opportunity can make to a life. My father John and my mother Moira, who is watching from the gallery today, migrated to this country with my sister Alison and I as assisted passage migrants in 1966. Immigrants need courage and creativity; they need open minds and sturdy hearts. What the last red-headed woman who made a first speech in this place will never understand is that the vast majority of migrants come here determined to make a better life for themselves and their kids, and they are prepared to work unbelievably hard to achieve that dream.
My father worked in a variety of blue-collar jobs before training as a psychiatric nurse. My mother worked as a domestic in an aged care institution. Between them they have contributed more to this country as workers, as citizens, than they ever cost it. And because they chose this country, while they still have their accents and their culture, they love this country and the lives they have made within it. Because they chose this country, they take nothing about it for granted: they celebrate and know its worth. And that is the truth of our history of migration, our history of multiculturalism.
In return, Australia has offered me opportunities that would have been beyond my parents’ understanding when they stepped off that boat in Adelaide in 1966. It would have been inconceivable to them that their child, and a daughter at that, could be offered the opportunity to obtain two degrees from a university and to serve in the nation’s parliament. I have only been able to take up those opportunities because of the excellent state education system which flourished in South Australia under the Dunstan Labor government and the access to universities made possible by the Whitlam government’s abolition of up-front fees.
In coming to this House, I bring with me a passionately held view that it is fundamental to Labor’s vision, to our compact with this and the next generation, that Australia not only offers the opportunities I enjoyed but offers the opportunity to train, to retrain, to excel, throughout life. Around the world now there is a trend back to the Centre Left, to social democratic parties that stress the importance of raising the educational standards of all citizens, not just a lucky few. This is because not only economists but ordinary people understand that the future of Australia and the future of themselves and their children is tied to educational success.
Australia cannot afford to waste talent. But, under this government, we are engaging in that shameful and cruel waste. We are denying Australians access to opportunity. In its 1996 budget, this government took $1.8 billion of public support away from our university system. The inevitable result has been a decline in the number of students starting courses at our universities. When the cuts took effect, Victoria tumbled from having the second highest growth rate in commencing enrolments to being the state with the biggest fall, a 4.7 per cent fall in commencing enrolments—a statistic which speaks of misery and lost opportunity.
Perhaps worst of all, under this government we have returned to a system of privilege rather than merit in our universities, a system of allowing the rich to buy a place while those with better entrance marks but not enough money miss out—a system which was eradicated by the Whitlam government when I was in primary school.
Of course, inequality in our education system is not just confined to higher education. Let me give you just one example involving my own electorate. High achievers are those talented young people who come in the top 7.5 per cent of results in their year 12 marks. Last year, one very good but very exclusive ladies college in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne alone had 111 high achievers in the pivotal subject of English. The 40 working-class secondary schools north and west of the Yarra, including the schools in my electorate, managed only 84 between them.
The students from my electorate are not any less intelligent than those from Higgins or Kooyong but their educational opportunities are not the same. Certainly, this massive discrepancy would be lessened if we as a nation were prepared to seriously tackle the inequality of opportunity that exists in our education system and create a high-class state school system. My predecessor, Barry Jones, used to say that unfortunately postcodes are probably the strongest factor in determining a person’s expectations of success in life. It will be one of my priorities in politics to ensure that in the Australia of the future the famous quizmaster is, for once, wrong.
My passion for education is not only the product of my own personal experience; it is the result of having campaigned on these very issues as a university student. One of the features of this parliament is that every few elections there arrives a new generation of politicians distinctly different from the people who preceded them. People today make a lot of the new generation from the other side of this House who emerged from the battles with left-wing students on our campuses in the 1970s. I come from the generation of students who followed. Like them, we fought what we saw as self-indulgence and pampered extremism. Ours was a radicalism fashioned by a desire to be practical, much like my Welsh forebear, Nye Bevan, who was just one of the people from whom we took inspiration.
I will not pretend that the antics of a bunch of university students had much relevance to real working people, but we were always conscious that we were part of a wider movement to create a fairer society and give others the opportunities we were fortunate enough to have. We always understood the value of working collectively, of unionism. While experience in the student movement inspired those on the other side of the House to dedicate themselves to the destruction of unionism, it inspired us to work with and for unions. It inspired me to spend eight years as an industrial lawyer defending trade unions and working people. In this place, I will remain fiercely committed to working with unions and to working for fair industrial laws.
Our youthful anger may now be tempered by experience but the same beliefs in fairness and the same fire remain. Those friends from university have remained my comrades since the early 1980s. They are people of intelligence, public spiritedness and integrity. We stuck together and we retained our common goals. Today you can find them fighting in our great trade union movement to protect the jobs of timber workers, rubbish collectors, home care workers, nurses and Aussie post workers, defending injured workers in the courts and helping prepare the ALP for the new millennium.
Today I pay tribute to them and especially to the most committed of them all, Michael O’Connor, who has been my closest confidant since those heady days. I would not have reached this place without his support and without the support of the friends and family members who care about me and have turned up in remarkable force today. My sincere thanks to: my mother, Moira; my father, John; my sister, Alison; her partner, Paul; and their children, Jenna and Tom. To Darrell Cochrane and Joan Kirner for never once wavering: my thanks. To Robyn McLeod: thanks for your friendship. To John Brumby, who so richly deserves to be the next Premier of Victoria: thanks for the opportunity to work with you and learn from you. To the member for Batman, Martin Ferguson: thanks for your help and personal support. And to my wonderful supporters in Lalor, including Terry Bracks, Henry Barlow and Fiona Richardson watching from the gallery today: I will do everything in my power to make you proud.