I come to this place from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I was born and bred. It is a region which I am proud to call home and proud to represent as the Member for Bruce.
House of Representatives - 13 September, 2016
I come to this place from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I was born and bred. It is a region which I am proud to call home and proud to represent as the member for Bruce. Like most of us who hail from big cities, electorate boundaries are somewhat ephemeral.
Bruce today is bordered by Highbury Road and Glen Waverley in the north; Blackburn Road, as it runs past Monash University and the Australian Synchrotron; the Pakenham railway line in the south, as it runs through Springvale, Noble Park and Dandenong; and back up the Dandenong Valley creek.
For thousands of years these have been the traditional lands of the people of the Kulin nation—the Bunurong and the Wurundjeri people. With that in mind, I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, as well as to the traditional owners of the land of this place, the Ngunnawal people, and to the elders of other communities who may be here today.
I also want to thank my community for the trust they have shown in me and the Labor Party by electing me to represent them. I ran a grassroots campaign knocking on 14,000 doors over 13 months. Fronting up on people's doorsteps for a chat—or the occasional bollocking, and you get a bit of that—to listen to people one-by-one, family-by-family, is a humbling and intimate process. I will do my very best every day that I hold this office to honour their trust. Every encounter has value, and I hope some of the 'wisdom of the crowd', if you like, stays with me. My favourite question to ask people was: what is most important to you? I thank everyone who took the time to answer that question and to share their views, and I would like to reflect today on what I heard and what I learnt.
The distinguishing characteristic of Bruce is its human diversity. It is one of only two federal electorates where a majority of people—53 per cent—were born overseas. Over decades, people from every part of the world and from every cultural, religious and language group have settled to live and work in the suburbs of Bruce. It is truly a microcosm of humanity. And I had that line before Peter Khalil used it yesterday, I will note.
I am one who cherishes—relishes—this diversity of the multi-ethnic fabric that makes up Australia's multicultural communities. Unfortunately, there are too many people in this 45th Parliament who tap into and take advantage of the fear of diversity. The politics they play is both devious and dangerous. It is devious because it taps into genuine community concerns, such as economic exclusion and uncertainty, and it is dangerous because it trades on the basest of human instincts, to fear 'the Other' and scapegoat 'people not like me'. This is surely the lowest form of politics and the antithesis of good leadership, and it is a path that I know all of my Labor colleagues reject.
I must say that the aftermath of the federal election reminds me of the time that I spent as Mayor of the City of Port Phillip, a large and diverse inner city municipality, from 2000 to 2002. This was at the tail end of the first phase of One Nation. Back then, community leaders spoke up against bigotry. Right now, we need to continue to call out this behaviour because it is morally wrong and because demonising and marginalising people sells out and damages Australia's security and prosperity.
To paraphrase my friend Councillor Meng-Heang Tak, who is the Mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong, Bruce today is Australia tomorrow. Think about those words. Australia is a diverse nation, and the reality is that even greater diversity will be there in the years to come. We can get a sense now of what this could mean from communities like Bruce.
We all want to believe that Australia's best years are in front of us. I wish I could say that I am certain that they are. They can be if we make the right choices, but if we do not, if we fail, then we will be the first generation to bequeath a lower standard of living to our children as well as a less equal society, and that would be a disgrace.
Current indicators are worrying. Despite 25 years of continuous economic growth, inequality in Australia is at a 75-year high, and the transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle classes to the rich continues. More than 2.5 million of our fellow Australians live below the poverty line, unable to fulfil their human potential or contribute meaningfully and fully to our economy, our society and our community.
I have listened to a few first speeches and I have heard other people say those things. These facts are known, but they must not be accepted as our new reality. I worry that the language of social justice has become too soft, that we must speak more clearly about poverty and stark, indefensible and growing inequality. In my electorate of Bruce I see pockets of growing affluence right alongside entrenched unemployment. Young people, migrants and older workers are especially at risk. Thousands more job losses in the auto supply chain loom across south-east Melbourne, which are a direct result of the laissez-faire extremism of this government. In some areas we are at crisis levels already. For example, the unemployment rate in Dandenong is consistently more than twice the metropolitan average, the youth unemployment rate in south-east Melbourne is pushing 20 per cent and there are anecdotal reports of unemployment amongst African youths far higher than that. The social and economic costs are immense, not just from direct expenses but lost productivity, forgone growth and genuine community safety concerns when alienation turns to anger.
I am proud to be a member of a Labor Party that fights policies that fuel inequality, such as the largesse of massive company tax cuts and personal tax cuts skewed to the top end; the current negative gearing and capital gains tax arrangements; a tax on penalty rates for low income workers; cutting pensions and family payments or attacking public education and Medicare. I could go on.
I am conscious, though, of the community's frustration with negativity and the lack of cooperation between parties. You certainly pick that up when you are doorknocking. Too often this century, parliaments and parties have failed to reach enduring agreement in important areas of policy where stability is most needed—for example, climate change and carbon pricing, retirement incomes and the taxing of resources. I am up for doing my bit to listen, learn and find common ground with other views in this place. As long as we stay true to our core values there is no shame in difficult compromise if it solves our shared problems. Finding common ground to solve problems is what the people we represent expect of us, and we sell them out when we avoid it.
I have listened to a few of the first speeches of new members opposite, and I have noticed a theme about Australia's now-precarious fiscal outlook. If anyone opposite is listening—they are probably on the television—I will say this in response: I agree that sustainable budget reform is a pressing challenge for this parliament and that Australia needs to act. Imagine then how great it would be if this government could cut a deal that included serious structural reform where the top 10 per cent contribute rather than consistently asking and picking on and taking from those who have the least, because there can be no grand bargain with us to protect the wealthy and vested interests from the burden of budget repair.
Let me take members back to the streets of Bruce. I mentioned that when doorknocking my favourite question to ask people was: what is most important to you? Given the exceptional diversity in Bruce, you might think that there was no one issue that stood out, but you would be wrong. Overwhelmingly, the answer was education, from parents worried about the government cutting the Gonski needs based school funding; baby boomers who benefited from free education and are worried about their grandkids paying $100,000 for a degree; working-class families who are so proud that their kids are not just finishing high school but attending TAFE or university; or students angry at the prospect of a lifetime of debt. Education was especially important to migrants who, like my mum, have a laser-like focus on education as the key to a better life for their children.
I share that belief in the importance of education because I have lived it. My mum raised my brother and I alone after my dad died when I was four. Although money was tight, Mum used the money available when my grandma died to ensure we got the best education possible. We were the kids who rocked up in the old Torana to the rich school, Wesley College Glen Waverley in Bruce. I then went on to study science and law degrees at Monash University. Mum was the political black sheep of her family for being a Liberal voter—although John Howard lost her in the end! We can talk about that another day. But I need to be careful because Mum died about six or seven years ago, so she cannot answer back and she may haunt me from the grave! She always did think voting was private—but we knew what went on! It was when I was at Monash that she finally accepted I was like the rest of the family—a Labor person. She saw me on TV on the nightly news with a megaphone, leading a student protest against Jeff Kennett. We are forever grateful that she did not see us chucking the oranges!
Without a great education my life could have been very different. Like so many parents, Mum made sure we had what she never had. Mum was a working-class girl from Footscray in Melbourne's west.
Mr Watts: Hear, hear!
Mr HILL: Hear, hear! It explains my footy team—go Doggies!
Mr Watts: She was a Liberal voter?
Mr HILL: I know, we never really got that. Anyway, she was an independent woman. Despite her intelligence she could not finish high school as her family could not afford the uniforms for her to change to a matriculation school. This contrasts with my father's story. His family had access to funds which allowed him to pay his way through medicine at university and reach his potential. I tell this story to explain my deep personal commitment to ensuring that education is available in Australia according to merit, not money.
Education is the most important protection we have for equality of opportunity, and it is also a critical enabler of our future economic prosperity. I learnt this in my professional career as a senior public servant in the Victorian government, most recently in economic development including international education, investment and trade. Over 14 years I also worked in regional development, business engagement, Aboriginal affairs, metropolitan planning and infrastructure. I am proud to have worked as a public servant and was honoured in 2012 to have been inducted as a fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Victorian Division. I intensely dislike the way the term 'public servant' is often deployed in political discourse as a pejorative. People in Bruce have told me how important it is to them that government does its job well. That is because there is a direct correlation between the quality of services and the quality of life enjoyed by citizens. In other words, great societies have great public services, which require excellent public servants who deserve our respect.
Australia has been well served, but the impact of ongoing budget efficiency dividends on the public service is now a grave concern. I believe both sides of politics—and I have served governments of both sides—are guilty of overusing this budgetary technique. It is a question of not just hiding cuts, which may be perfectly justifiable, but also accountability. Through efficiency dividends, cabinets outsource decisions about cuts to the public service—not always with ministerial input, as I know, and usually hidden from public scrutiny. Australians feel the impact of diminished service quality, and I pay tribute to the great work of my union, the Community and Public Sector Union, for their fight to protect services. Of equal concern is the insidious damage this assault does to the ability of our public services to provide long-term, strategic policy advice to governments of the day and to remember the lessons of decades past. Consulting houses have arisen to fill some gaps, but we cannot contract out society's memory, and I believe over-reliance is putting at risk our tradition of great and innovative public services for the next generation.
I think a great deal about the increasingly complex world that my daughter, who is now 20 years old, will have to live and compete in. This much is clear: as Australia's neighbours grow stronger and more confident, it is apparent that the world does not owe this lucky country a living, and we would be foolish to try and build our 21st century economy on the happenstances of good fortune. You do not have to spend long in Bruce to understand how truly connected to the world my community is. People sense we are entering a paradoxical period of strategic uncertainty but incredible economic opportunity. Power is increasingly divided amongst major nations. The so-called rise of China, India and Asia is historically unexceptional—the world returning to normal, as some say—and welcome. But it is less predictable than the security of empire, or the bipolar or US-dominated world we have been used to in my lifetime.
My point is that we will be forced to adapt. I firmly believe that Australia's best future lies in rebalancing our ties and deepening our connections across the Indo-Pacific region—to, as Paul Keating continues to remind us, seek security in Asia, not from Asia. This serves ournational interest, and also that of our dearest, abiding friends. China is critical, though Asia is greater and more diverse than any one country. Despite this strategic uncertainty, we are geographically blessed. We sit at the bottom of a fast-growing region of 4.5 billion people. The centre of the world's economy is returning to Asia, faster than at any time in human history. Australia's opportunities to support Asia's growth are immense, whether through goods exports, manufacturing or services. Growing our national wealth is, and must remain, core business for Labor.
Manufacturing is important. Despite the headlines, it remains the largest single employment sector in Bruce. Local businesses are transforming into high-tech advanced manufacturers and cracking new export markets. Yet if we are successful in moving up the global value chain, manufacturing will be a bit like the story of agriculture in recent decades: greater productivity, higher export output, more highly skilled jobs, but declining job numbers overall. So, we must capitalise on the long boom in services that will come as the middle classes of Asia grow to number more than three billion. We have expertise to export in education, financial services, transport, infrastructure, urban management, health, business services and so on. Government has a role to play in helping business to trade and grow.
Closer economic ties with Asia can also help ensure regional peace and security. I am a person who does believe that the potential for violent conflict is, sadly, a persistent part of our human condition and a risk we need to realistically always be prepared for and guard against. If politics is our alternative to violence then war or state-sponsored violence surely represents the greatest failure of politics. A prosperous interconnected region, while never a guarantee of peace, can be a strong preventative measure.
Deeper regional cooperation is also critical to addressing shared problems, such as climate change or forced migration and this is important, but not easy, work. We share a common humanity, but people in other societies have their own thoughts, values, histories, traditions and norms, and those differences must be respected and understood.
To do so, business people, public servants, diplomats and academics all tell us that we need to develop better language skills and more cultural understanding, and deeper international networks and relationships. As I move around Bruce I see all of this capability in the multicultural suburbs, yet I cannot help feeling that we are not fully leveraging our human diversity and that we need to do more to make sure that the promise of Australian multiculturalism lives up to the reality. Spend time with highly-skilled migrants and you will hear stories of frustration and bewilderment at being denied employment due to that deathly phrase, 'a lack of local experience', or darker tales of people still anglicising their names just to get an interview.
Our society's institutions of power—our parliaments, judiciary, public services and military—still have a way to go to fully reflect the communities we serve. This includes gender, especially for those opposite, as well as class, ethnicity, disability and sexuality. We make the best decisions when all perspectives are considered—when all voices are heard and at the table. I am conscious that as a Rainbow Labor member my election is a very small step to adding to the diversity of this parliament, and I am proud to see more LGBTI Australians in this parliament than the last.
There are other things—important things—that I will talk about another day, given the time: issues such as the lack of real action on climate change; environmental degradation; cuts to science and research; the arts; care for our veterans; housing affordability; the growth and productivity of our cities, in one of the most urbanised nations; or how our region addresses migration and the global refugee crisis.
Or the republic—yes, the 'R' word! I am a proud and passionate republican. Monarchies are by definition undemocratic, illiberal and nonegalitarian systems of government, and these are not Australian values. And I see my daughter up there at the moment going, 'Oh, no, Dad—not one of your antimonarchist pro-republican raves!' So I will stop now—but it is a hot button! I think there is a standing order also that I need to be mindful of.
For now, though, it is important that I say some thank yous, as getting here was only possible with immense support. Thanks to my family, whose love and forbearance I treasure. My daughter Elanor: we are very close, and I have lived at times as a single parent, experiencing that unique joy and loneliness. She is here today, so I will put it on the record: yes, you are the perfect daughter! I am not the only one who thinks this. For years she kept asking why people kept calling her Saffy. I have always had to explain to her it is because of her innate, wonderful qualities and not because her parents are anything like Patsy or Edina!
I have also known the love of two long-term partners, her other parents: her mother, Lorien, and David. Thanks to my brother Damian, and to Flap, Eva, Cynthia, Janina, Oz, Winston, Posy Regina and Paisley Regina.
Thanks to the previous member for Bruce, Alan Griffin, who served in this place for 23 years—a mentor to many, and occasional dementor. That is a Harry Potter reference! That is the sum total of my literary references so far, and I thought that was appropriate.
Thanks to the campaign team and supporters, including Callum Drake, Sarah Spivak, Paul Haseloff, Lee Tarlamis, Matt Broderick, Mathew Hilakari, Ray de Witt, David Hodge, Peter Jabbour OAM and Angie Venuto-Cole; and to our state members of parliament, Daniel Andrews, Gabrielle Williams, Steve Dimopoulos and Hong Lim. Senator Louise Pratt—she was going to be here. Louise is a very dear old friend of mine, but it looks like we found the Senate something to do! So there you go. It is great to be back here with her.
Thanks to Helen Tierney, Kate and Feyi, Dalan and Bawa—actually, Dalan is in the gallery here today. I will stop now! To Penny Sharpe and JoB, Cam Green and Flora Yeh; the CPSU, the ASU and other unions; Ben Knight, Corey Rosevear and the Monash University crew. Thanks to the ALP branch members who time and time again perform impossible feats, as well as hundreds of community members from across Bruce who campaigned tirelessly for over 12 months, giving voice to their values.
Thank you also to my colleagues here, especially Bill Shorten for such strong, effective leadership through the last term, seeing off one PM, and through the campaign. I thank my old friend Tanya Plibersek. We were staffers together last century, when we were young—actually I think that is AA Milne, isn't it? When we were young we used to leave on Wednesdays and sip chamomile tea together. Thanks also to Albo. I remember 1996 when you arrived and the fun faction began—and I am back.
And to the class of 2016 and all the rest, who I am getting to know. I said to Tanya yesterday, actually, as we were walking out of the chamber and we were both feeling quite emotional after some incredible first speeches that my overriding reflection was that if diversity counts for anything, if values count for anything and if knowing who we are here to represent counts for anything then we have the makings of a truly great Labor government, should we be successful and given that honour by the Australian people at the next election.
I will close by saying that if I am fortunate enough to follow previous members for Bruce with a reasonable stint in this place—however I choose to undertake my responsibilities—I would hope for two things when I look back.
Firstly, that my time here would rank well against the two types of people that Alan Griffin observed are called to serve in this place: 'politicians', who work with their party to seek power to effect change, see justice done and progress made and also 'parliamentarians', here for service, to take responsibility and to represent others—most especially giving voice to those without any.
And, finally, that I could be proud of my contribution: that I had the courage to change my view in light of new evidence or circumstances, that I was not still or silent when it mattered and that I could not have worked harder. Thank you.