SPEECH (House of Representatives): First Speech to Parliament

21 May 2018

My first speech to Parliament.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the House for the opportunity to make this speech. I believe it's respectful and appropriate to begin with acknowledgment of Australia's first peoples. Today I pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging, as well as all Indigenous Australians in this room and beyond. My seat of Batman is on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, a proud people who have survived all challenges over the decades and prospered.

Batman is a vibrant inner-city electorate with an electric arts and music culture and a tradition of community activism. The by-election that elected me was fought between competing progressive campaigns. This says much about the unique values of our beloved Melbourne borough. I acknowledge that genuine love of Batman's diversity and engagement motivated the campaign of my opponent, Alex Bhathal, as much as it did mine. I would like to thank everyone who worked on and supported me during the election and especially Bill Shorten for his leadership, his personal announcement and support.

The Aboriginal community has always been at the heart of Batman's identity. It is the home of the Aboriginal Advancement League, the mighty All Stars football team and the Aboriginal voice Radio 3KND—that's Radio Kool n Deadly—just to name a few. But my seat is named after John Batman. He was a mercenary in a private army who, in concert with the British military, spent the 1820s and early 1830s tracking and hunting the Indigenous people of Tasmania. This history is not disputed. The man himself wrote of shooting dead two Indigenous Tasmanians who were wounded and captured in a raid because they wouldn't walk at his required pace. His colonial contemporary the artist John Glover described Batman as 'a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known'. I mention this history because I stand side-by-side with the thousands of people of my electorate who would prefer instead to acknowledge Simon Wonga, the Wurundjeri leader of the 1850s. I mention this because in this parliament, bestowed as we are with the great and rare privilege of serving all Australian people, we can never forget the brutality, the cruelty and the disposition of this land's First Nations. I also commit myself to the implementation of the Uluru statement and a First Nations voice within this parliament.

Today is my first speech in this House. But my actual first speech was to my dad's 'dinnertime parliament', where he was always the Speaker and each of us nine Kearney kids—yes, nine—was cast in a parliamentary role. Mick Kearney was a publican, like his own mum before him. She was a working widowed mother who, in her own way, was a beacon for what women can do if they get an opportunity. Nanna and my own mum, Nance, sowed the seeds for my own feminism. I am so proud to be standing here today in parliament, where women are 48 per cent of the Labor caucus. Nance ran the kitchen of our pub, the Lord Raglan. She was a tireless worker, community organiser and mother. The rowdy debates of those dinnertime parliaments were very good practice for a pub that was full of politicians and priests, footballers and fighters, academics and alcoholics. It was the favourite drinking place of the mighty Richmond Tigers. It was busy, crowded and loud.

Catholicism certainly informed my parents' view of the world, but it was the community they created in that pub that formed mine. Mum and Dad had an extraordinary sense of civics and were generous to a fault—from organising haircuts and meals for the bar flies whose only family was the Lord Raglan to helping out the parish school in Hoddle Street, providing a helping hand for local people and even helping their business competitors in other pubs when they needed it. When there were hotel strikes, my dad still fed his staff and their families every night.

It was that large extended family of pub life and the working class in the suburbs where I grew up that nourished and inspired in me the most important value in my life—as a mum, as a nurse and as a trade unionist. It is the value I hope will define my contribution to this parliament. It is the value of solidarity. Solidarity is the expression of our shared humanity. It is the importance of not merely reaching out but standing beside. Solidarity is not individual charity but collective empowerment. Solidarity does not subsidise; it does not patronise. It is the fundamental recognition that the greatest human dignity is the experience of opportunity and equality.

And not only did the Kearneys have a family parliament, we also had a family trade union. It was called the 'Kearney family union'. All nine kids were members. We paid dues and we made demands on the bosses—that is, mum and dad. We even went on strike once, when mum wanted to get the cat spayed. This led to a sit-in in the kitchen. A strike breaker appeared, my mum, with a broom, and we were forcibly dispersed. We didn't win that one—and neither did the cat! But we were happy with the fight we put up, and dad thought we were just wonderful. My dad died at the age of 54, from a rare pituitary cancer, in 1984. I was 21.

It was in that year that I began my nursing career. Nursing demands immediate solidarity with people in their hours of greatest need. Nursing is also about teamwork and collaboration across the health professions. It obliges hard, exhausting physical and emotional labour. Yet no-one had a more humble appreciation of its rewards of community and generosity than I did when I found myself pregnant with twins in the middle of my training. With the support of the Mercy Hospital and my family I was back at work to finish my training when the twins were only seven weeks old. I went on to have another two wonderful children, and I worked full-time shiftwork all their young lives.

I could not have done that without my mum and my village—that is, my sisters and brothers. Two of my wonderful sisters are here today, as are many members of my lovely big family. I know that the others are watching. To them, I say thank you. And those beautiful twins, Bridget and Alex, are in the gallery today, together with Ryan, my son, and their partners Ash, Justin and Marcella. My youngest, Elizabeth, and her partner are overseas. I have an extended family now, and they are all here as well—my step family Lil, her partner Davey and Ros. My stepdaughter, Maeve, and her partner live overseas. I want to make a very special mention of my beautiful granddaughter, Isla. May there be many more Islas—children!—to light up our lives. I also acknowledge my loving Canberra and Sydney families, some of whom are with me today. I love you all very much.

I learned directly from my experience about the needs of working mums and the crucial need for paid parental leave because I didn't have it. Raising children should not be a struggle for economic survival. Everyone deserves the financial security to bond with their babies. Everyone deserves access to quality child care. When my fourth child, Elizabeth, was born, my husband was a chef working split shifts. I worked full-time night shift at the Austin Hospital. Our lives were a tag team wrestle to feed and care for our family, and it nearly destroyed us both. Be aware: I will take on anyone in this room who has a crack at the federal Paid Parental Leave scheme and paid parental leave entitlements in enterprise agreements. Every primary carer deserves the very best our nation can provide.

I worked at the Austin Hospital while completing a degree in education at La Trobe University, a world-class university that I'm proud to say is in the seat of Batman. I progressed to become head of clinical nursing education at Austin Health. What I taught is what I learned. Nursing is about listening—listening to patients, listening to colleagues, listening to difference and accommodating it. At Austin, I learned how quality vocational education and training can complement and enhance the work of service providers, even as it trains its students.

One of my most rewarding roles at the ACTU was to sit on the board of Skills Australia. You can never invest enough in education, and it makes me so proud to represent an Australian Labor Party that will restore the full Gonski funding model when it wins government, as well as opening the doors to a re-established, properly funded and accessible TAFE system. It also makes me proud to represent the party of Medicare, one that defends with ferocity a quality universal healthcare system.

It was in 1993 that I began my union journey as a rep for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, during the struggle it was to overcome the savage staffing cuts of the Kennett government. Chronic understaffing resulted from cuts to nurse numbers, and the workloads were unimaginable. The fight lasted years, not just to protect jobs and improve conditions but to defend standards for the quality of care. John Cummins is a legend of the Victorian union movement. He would always finish a speech with, 'Dare to struggle, dare to win.' And he'd say, 'If you don't fight,' and the workers' loud response would always be, 'You lose.' We nurses heeded that lesson, and we demanded nurse-to-patient ratios. We took direct industrial action, and it was really, really hard, but we fought until we won. I'm proud to be part of a union movement that fights not only for its members' benefits but for the benefit of the whole community.

I was also at the Austin when Jeff Kennett tried to privatise it, which would have been a disaster. Australians are right to distrust privatisation. It rarely delivers benefits to everyday people. We won that battle, and the Austin was saved with the election of the Bracks Labor government. In that campaign, I worked with the wonderful Jenny Macklin, the member for Jagajaga, who I'm excited to join as a colleague today. I became honorary president of the Victorian branch of the ANMF, and then honorary federal president, while continuing to work full time as a nurse. I take this opportunity to thank my comrades both at the Austin and in the ANMF for the encouragement and support that have led me here, especially the wonderful Belinda Morrison, Lisa Fitzpatrick, Mark Petty, Jen Hancock, Jill Iliffe and Lee Thomas, just to name a few.

In 2003, I was elected assistant federal secretary of my union and started to work heavily on aged-care funding and policy. While some enterprises in aged care are caring providers that struggle to stay afloat, too many are simply investors who cut costs and services to maintain profit. When 80 per cent of your industry income comes from the federal government coffers, your company should not be listed on the stock exchange. It should not be an option to keep your books a secret. Staffing and skill mix is at a crisis point in private aged care, and it must be fixed. We must show solidarity for the needs of our ageing population, because how we treat our elderly says everything about our values as a nation.

My experience of aged care and other privatised services has disabused me of any faith in trickle-down economics. Nowhere on earth has diverting national wealth to the richest resulted in gains for ordinary workers, let alone those who are vulnerable or poor.

Our own history demonstrates that, when you provide an unemployed person with a Newstart increase or a low-income family a tax cut or a wage rise, they spend every dollar of it. I learned from my publican parents what it means to an enterprising small business to see consumer spending increase. It is what the Rudd government did to save Australia from going into recession, even depression: pump money into the economy for the benefit of those who will spend it quickly.

Australia's relatively high minimum wage has been the bedrock of our economy and stopped us going into recession more than once. Let me acknowledge Justice HB Higgins, who established Australia as the nation with the first living wage in the world when he delivered the Harvester judgment in 1907. He said wages should be sufficient for a human being to live in a civilised world, regardless of an employer's capacity to pay. His judgement spoke to a fair go and a more equitable society. Of course, it took decades for the same consideration of workplace equality to apply to Indigenous Australians or to women or even to our LGBTIQ community, who have all fought their own battles within the great movement of working people.

Poor old HV McKay, the owner of Sunshine Harvester, never got over the judgement against him. He was still railing against the setting of fair wages 15 years later, insisting that pay should be 'a minimum wage for the minimum man, and a maximum wage for the maximum man'. That was the ideological battle in 1907 and 1922. It is still the battle today.

For the last decade, corporate profits have been steadily increasing to an all-time high, while the share of wages is at a record low. Workers work longer and harder in less-secure, more fragmented jobs. This is the real economy that working Australians live in, not the fantasy world that neoliberals would have us imagine. Australians have BS detectors taller than the telescope at Parkes. They can see the unemployed in our suburbs and towns. They know their wages haven't risen in real terms. They know that enterprise bargaining is one sided. They know that there are fewer apprenticeships for their kids, that TAFE hasn't had the funding to provide opportunities and that casual jobs can stay casual jobs forever. They know that gig economy jobs are more prevalent and that permanent workers have to take pay cuts or become independent contractors in the very same place they used to be an employee. Penalty rates have been cut, and wage theft is rampant.

I congratulate the fearless Sally McManus, the ACTU and state Labor councils for leading the campaigns to deliver fairness on the job and workplace rights. Unions fight for better minimum standards and a new living wage, even for those who are not members of unions.

Labor's commitment is to change workplace relations laws to make them fairer for workers. Labor will change the rules. I do not believe it serves working people or Australia to give handouts of $80 billion in corporate tax cuts to the big end of town, not least of all $17 billion in tax cuts to the big banks, whose combined after-tax profit was over $31 billion last year. Last year, employment did not jump in financial services, and wages didn't shoot up either—not even a trickle.

Eighty billion dollars! Budget items this size should be for nation-building infrastructure, for job creating, for revitalising depressed communities and for modernising services. Eighty billion dollars can build skills, support innovative projects and target and fund growth strategies for high-wage, high-skill industries, like niche manufacturing, science and technology, logistics, education, health and social services. There's also the need for new jobs as we transition industries to meet the new reality of climate change, and it could also better be spent ensuring that we live up to international obligations.

That brings me to the issue of asylum seekers, a passionate and emotional issue for the voters in Batman's community. I think proudly of the great achievements of both sides of this House, of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, who with bipartisan support provided sanctuary to those fleeing the consequences of war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and later from the events of Tiananmen Square.

I cannot comprehend how a nation that provided a safe home to so many in the wake of World War II, including our large Jewish community of Holocaust survivors, allowed the Tampa and the children overboard scandal to evolve into the shameful policy of indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru. Racist dog whistling has demonised and vilified a community that has everything to give Australia. And the sacrifice of this human potential has been made solely for political gain.

The facts remain the facts: the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are from places of conflict and the overwhelming majority have been assessed as refugees under the international convention to which Australia is a signatory. We are a rich country. We can afford to take more refugees. However, I doubt we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women, and children to years of punitive indefinite detention. We must, as a priority, move the asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement and ensure that indefinite detention never happens again.

My commitment in this House is to the cause of humane refugee policy. It is to foreign policy and foreign aid that proactively supports people as they flee conflict. It is to assessment, not punishment, within a fair time limit, and as part of regional agreements for humane resettlement. It is to collaboration with the UNHCR and more funds for its operation, as well as a greater permanent intake of refugees with the expansion of our humanitarian program. It is to ensuring all refugees have access to social services and income support. Offering sanctuary to refugees does not need to compromise or undercut other paths to citizenship that Australia offers to migrants, like family reunions. My own community in Batman is living evidence that we have actually done this before.

Just as migration benefits us, so too does meaningful engagement with our neighbours in the Pacific and Asian countries. In my role as ACTU president, I was on the board of APHEDA, an international aid agency led in true solidarity by the wonderful Kate Lee. APHEDA runs small-scale aid projects that empower communities. But APHEDA and the many other aid agencies need more resources to expand their work. The United Nations and the OECD international benchmark for official development assistance is 0.7 per cent of gross national income, and our current aid budget is 0.27 per cent. Shamefully, we're 16th on the OECD list of contributors.

Labor has committed to increasing our aid contributions. Lifting the living standards and opportunities of our neighbours is in our national interest, especially as we grapple with the global climate emergency. Sea level rises aren't some theory or a future problem for our Pacific neighbours. Our practical solidarity both assists them and prepares us for the changes to come. Strategically, it's a bit rich to voice concerns about the growing influence of China and Asia in the Pacific, when many of those countries see Australian leadership dwindling. Nor is it good enough for Australia to act as someone else's police force in the region or globally. Labor's recognition of the climate emergency is the framework for our policy deliberations from environmental protection to job creation. I was proud to promote Labor's commitment to climate action as both ambitious and achievable during the by-election. Labor has clear goals for reduced carbon emissions, for renewal energy, for decarbonising our economy. We comprehend the reality of climate change as it impacts on refugee movements, health and land use. We are committed to our responsibilities under the Paris agreement. As we urgently shift away from thermal coal-fired power, we need to protect our World Heritage areas, including the Great Barrier Reef. In the task of transitioning energy generation to renewable sources, we're committed to a just transition for workers and communities that rely on coal-based industries. We will never abandon any community. We will bring them with us, into the creation of new, clean industries, jobs and opportunities. This is what the Andrews government in Victoria has done to support the closure of Hazelwood Power Station through a just transition approach—an initiative that I was proud to support as ACTU president.

I am here, of course, to ultimately fulfil the obligation of the labour movement and the Labor Party: to make people's lives better. I will not be the last on this side of the House to quote Ben Chifley's speech to the 1949 New South Wales Labor Party conference. Chifley said:

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective—the light on the hill—which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand.

This is the solidarity to which Labor commits. Of course, that light on the hill keeps moving. The moment you think you reached the ultimate goal of justice and fairness, it seems just that much further away. But, in making the journey, in challenging ourselves to reach out for that light, we change ourselves, and we change the course of society.

I am both humbled and excited to be continuing my journey in public life in this parliament as a member of the Australian Labor Party. I am excited to join a most excellent cohort of comrades representing Labor in this House and the Senate. This journey, as I have said, has been supported by so many, but none more than my long-suffering, hardworking, wonderful partner, Leigh Hubbard, whose wisdom and love keeps me going. In honour of the many people I've referred to in this speech, but especially the thousands of union members I have had the privilege to serve, I recommit myself to making solidarity the cornerstone of everything I do in this place. I hope my small contribution ultimately adds to the brightness of that magnificent light on the hill, as we collectively strive to achieve that great objective of the mighty labour movement. May that light be a beacon for us all.