Inaugural Speech

I would like to begin by thanking the outgoing member for Monbulk the Honourable Mr James Merlino for 20 years of service to the electorate and to the wider state of Victoria. Mr Merlino most recently held the roles of Deputy Premier, Minister for Education and Minister for Mental Health. My thanks go to him for his two decades of dedication and for his friendship and mentoring of me. Thanks must also go to his wife Meagan and their children Sophie, Emma and Joshua in supporting him to undertake his important role. Mr Merlino certainly set a high bar for all of us in this place, not least of all me. It is not often one would describe a politician as beloved – sorry, fellow members – but after the thousands of conversations I have held across the electorate, where so many expressed to me just how well liked and respected he was, I believe I can safely make that claim here today. Victoria’s loss with his retirement is now Hawthorn Football Club’s gain as he takes his place on their board of directors. But I would please like it noted that Mr Merlino’s unwavering love for Hawthorn just proves that no-one is perfect.

The electorate of Monbulk now takes in the majority of the Dandenong Ranges, located to the east of Melbourne. Its western border commences in parts of Ferntree Gully, Boronia and the Basin, and it extends east to the town of Gembrook. Thirty-five towns with their own proud histories line this district of hills, gullies, a multitude of waterways, temperate rainforest and an abundance of trees. It is a beautiful place. Monbulk has a thriving tourism industry, including the famous Puffing Billy Railway, the 1000 Steps and the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden. The soon-to-be opened Chelsea Australian Garden at Olinda is sure to become another Victorian if not Australian icon. This is all in addition to the natural beauty found across the ranges, to which tourists have been daytripping since the 1870s.

The name Monbulk is believed to come from the local Indigenous word Monbolok, meaning ‘hiding place in the hills’, where it is thought that warriors would go to rest after battle. So it is clearly a place where people have gone to find peace for thousands of years. But for all its beauty the district of Monbulk is also vulnerable to bushfires, storms and landslips. The duality of the majestic and destructive force of nature is all too apparent across this electorate. The spectre of bushfires from years past still lingers for many. This coming 16 February will mark the 40th anniversary of the Ash Wednesday fires. The town of Cockatoo was devastated by the fire. They have not forgotten; nor should we. When storms hit, the power goes out, sometimes for days. In the case of last year’s storms, many were without power for weeks. Along with the loss of power comes the loss of telecommunications. These two issues are critical for all who live across the electorate. The solutions are unlikely to be simple, but I will work with all levels of government towards finding them.

My story, like that of many others here in Victoria, started with immigration to this country. My father Paul and his parents and three siblings emigrated from Naples, Italy, in 1969. He was 17 years old – a year younger than my son is today – moving to a foreign country with a foreign language on the other side of the world. My mother Renata was born here just after her parents emigrated from the Veneto region of Italy in the late 1940s. When my nonna gave birth to my mum she could not understand the nurses speaking to her in English. I can only imagine how frightening and overwhelming that must have been for a young woman of 23, away from her family and community, birthing her first child with no clear understanding of what was happening to her. How brave she was.

The courage my family had to start a new life in a completely different country is the story of many who form a part of the rich multicultural tapestry of our state of Victoria. Last year’s census found that 30.2 per cent of households in our state used a language other than English and both parents were born overseas for 41.3 per cent of Victorians.

This is something of which we should be incredibly proud. For as long as we continue to welcome and support those who seek a better life here they will enrich our society with their culture, skills, different experiences and perspectives, not to mention the amazing food – speaking of which, my interest in politics started at our family dinner table in my early teens. It was a frequent topic of conversation. My parents were committed believers in social democracy and the Labor Party. They never voted any other way. The names of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating were hallowed in my house. Although they were small business owners from the time I turned four, my parents always identified with the social justice values for which the Labor Party stands – ultimately that no-one should be left behind. They believed that those who were less fortunate were deserving of support and that ensuring people could live decent lives would result in a better society for everyone within it.

I also have a very good friend who now sits in the other place, Ms Lizzie Blandthorn, who would talk of politics with me on the bus, in class, before school, after school – anywhere and everywhere. Her connection to the Labor Party and the union movement was strong, as were her powers of persuasion, and I decided in my late teens that I should join the party too. It was and is the party for the people, for the workers, for those who are not fortunate enough to be born into privilege, for those who need a hand and for those who will lend one to them.

My interest continued throughout my university years when I studied politics at the University of Melbourne through my bachelor of arts. I was fortunate enough to go on exchange for a semester overseas at the University of Manchester and found myself a job working in the local student pub. It was a dive. It is not uncommon when you are young to presume that the world as you know it is largely replicated across other countries. Whilst working in Manchester I learned that in the case of industrial relations our Australian system was quite special and certainly not the same as in the United Kingdom. In 1998 my hourly rate at the pub I worked in was £1.95. A few weeks into my new job I went to buy a toothbrush from a Boots pharmacy only to discover it cost me £2.50. My hour of work could not buy me a toothbrush. My indignation and fury were palpable. How was this possible? Wasn’t there a minimum wage like we had back at home? The short answer was no. In fact it was not until April 1999 that the United Kingdom’s first minimum wage was introduced. By contrast, we established a wages board in 1896 in Victoria, and the Harvester decision of 1908 set our first minimum wage. We beat the English by 91 years, but who is counting? If I was not already assured of the importance of the Labor Party and unions in this country, I was utterly convinced of it after experiencing the paltry wage many of us were subjected to back in the UK.

A couple of years later I heard the calling to become a teacher and completed my diploma of education. I entered the classroom in 2002, teaching English, history and geography over the next seven years at Firbank Grammar School and Pembroke Secondary College. I loved it. It is one of the great privileges to be able to teach young people and guide them on their journey into the next stage of their lives. Some of the best people I know are teachers and educators. Indeed, most of my closest friends and my two sisters-in-law are or have been. They are selfless in their work and dedicated to the education and wellbeing of young people. We all owe them our gratitude. Alison, Sally, Kate, Jacinta, Jane, Michelle and Jenny: you are some of the best of us.

Education is the great leveller, and this government has done so much already to ensure Victorian children get the best start in life. I will advocate strongly for schools so that staff have the best settings to deliver exceptional education for students. One of my proudest moments during the campaign was announcing the upgrading of Emerald Secondary College. I look forward to seeing this come to fruition.

When my teaching schedule clashed with my capacity to secure child care, the plight of many a working primary carer, I found a new part-time role at the national office of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, where I worked as an industrial officer. With the memory of my experience in Manchester still fresh, I was full of passion for the work which unions do in securing better conditions and pay for workers.

We defended a tax on penalty rates and won the case to change the adult rate from 21 to 20 years for workers in retail and fast food. Some of the most brilliant minds dedicated to improving the lives of others were in that office. Greta Brewin, Ian Blandthorn, Julia Fox, Sue-Anne Burnley, Therese Bryant, Katie Bittlestone and Matt Galbraith – I learned so much from all of you, and I bring that knowledge into this place with me now. The collective power of people working towards a common good should never be derided or diminished. We need only look to countries where minimum wages mean people barely subsist, conditions like annual or personal leave do not exist or are grossly limited, and occupational health and safety is largely ignored. They are places where unions have little presence, if any at all, and consequently workers are treated poorly. Unions give voice to the vulnerable, and I will always proudly support the important work they undertake.

After five years of industrial relations work I decided that I needed a different direction and a job closer to home. Mike and I bought the local organic store, which turns 40 next year. Climate change and environmental issues more broadly are the biggest existential crises we face across the globe. In running this business, where we minimised waste and packaging and we championed sustainable chemical-free farming and food processing, I was able to live my values once again. We have only one planet, and as custodians of it we must do our utmost to mitigate the change which is occurring. It is the least we owe to our children and their children to come.

Although I am the daughter of small business owners, it was only after managing my own for six years that I truly appreciated the hard work which goes into running a business and employing staff. Small businesses are the largest employer collectively in this state and across the country. I truly understand the challenges they face and will bring those experiences into this place. Thriving, stable businesses employ happy, well-treated staff. They are deserving of our support. To the staff we employed over the years, some of whom are here, my thanks to them all for being the best staff anyone could find. Some have become my friends, and I am so grateful to them for their work and friendship.

It is through a desire to help others that I find myself here today – to give voice to those who do not have one or struggle to be heard over others. It has been said by those who know me well, and probably by most people who have been more than five minutes in my company, that I can talk underwater. I was even berated for talking and singing in class one day when I was not even present, so clearly my reputation preceded me. Well, I am here to put my capacity to speak to good use, but with the promise to always listen more and to listen carefully to what the constituents of Monbulk have to tell me and to bring their stories into this place with me in an effort to help those who need it most.

Being elected to Parliament required the work of many wonderful people who gave of their time freely to support our campaign. I thank them all, including Amit; Andrew; Anne; Bev; Ian; Kate; Kara; Kelly; Maria; Mr Michael Galea, currently giving his inaugural speech in the other place – he has probably already given it; Michelle; Sophie; and Tricia. Thanks to you all. I must also make special note of Pam, our secretary, and Liam, our campaign director. Both are deserving of the highest thanks one can give. The work they undertook was demanding yet executed with precision and never a complaint. To the members and friends of the wonderful Monbulk branch of the Labor Party, thanks for climbing the mountain with me to knock on doors, for picking up the phone to talk with voters and for standing at street stalls and stations in the rain, hail, more rain and very little shine. Special mention must be made of Andrew, Tricia, Warwick, Rudy, Vander, Lynne, Adam, Pat, Ken, Di and Lucius – the amount of time they all gave up to help this campaign was extraordinary. Thank you also to Mr Michael Donovan, national president and secretary of the Victorian branch of the SDA, and Dean D’Angelo and the hardworking SDA young Labor crew, notably Ella Gvildys and Adam Steiner, for all their support and effort.

To my dear friends and family here in the gallery today and those who could not make it, including my in-laws in the UK, Anne and David, Alison, Sally, Simon, Pete, Amelia, Tom and Sam, I am grateful to have them all in my life. My sister Laura and my old friends Jane, Connie, Michelle, Kate, Lucy, Louisa, Sarah, Matt and Sam, thank you for decades of friendship and for putting up with my political chatter over the decades. Now I have a position where I can talk politics all day long and possibly leave you all in some peace – possibly.

To my mother and father, who is no longer with us, thank you for raising me and imbuing me with your values of social justice. Thanks for all your love and support. I know that wherever Dad is he is proud and he is loving this moment.

To my husband Mike: when I went to study in Manchester, I travelled with the dream of exploring the United Kingdom and Europe and spreading my 20-year-old wings. I came back with a fiancé, almost giving my parents synchronised heart attacks. Here we are, 25 years later. I am so glad we found each other. Mike, you are my greatest supporter and defender but also the first to tell me when I need to pull my head in. I am blessed to have you, and I love you. My Alex and Bella: the resilience each of you has shown through the challenges you have had to endure in your short lives is remarkable. I stand in awe of you both and how you have coped with all that you have experienced. I could not be prouder, and I love you with all my heart.

It is a true honour to stand here having been elected by the people of Monbulk – to represent them and give voice to their needs in the Parliament of Victoria is a privileged position. It is a responsibility which few have the chance to hold, and I will not take it for granted. Never in my wildest dreams, as the granddaughter of poor migrants and as a pub worker earning less than a toothbrush an hour, did I think I would be standing here in this place, a member of the most progressive government this great state of Victoria – indeed Australia – has ever seen. I am so very grateful and so very proud to be a part of it. I promise that every time I enter I will pause to remember the work I have to do for the people I represent, with a true desire to leave this place better than I found it. And I hope that when I leave these chambers for the final time, I will have made everyone proud.