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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 75

Ms KING (11:39 AM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, may I congratulate you and the member for Scullin on your election to this chamber. It is with honour and humility that I rise to make my first speech in this place as the representative of the people of Ballarat. I want to thank the people of my electorate for the faith they have placed in me, and promise to do all I can to give them the voice they deserve in this parliament. The seat of Ballarat is as old as the Commonwealth itself, and was first represented in this place by Alfred Deakin. The electorate is home to John Curtin's birthplace, Robert Menzies' primary school, and James Scullin's first tilt at federal parliament.

In the past 100 years, both Labor and non-Labor parties have held the seat. Over the past two decades, two respected members— John Mildren from this side of the House and Michael Ronaldson from the other—have worked hard to represent the people of Ballarat, and I plan to uphold and enhance their standard of representation. Keen observers of politics will be aware that both John Mildren and Michael Ronaldson spent their first terms in opposition, only to find themselves on the government benches soon thereafter. It is another Ballarat tradition I plan to uphold.

The Ballarat district and, in turn, the seat, gains its name from the description `a good resting place', given to the area by the Wathuarung—its original inhabitants. Though still a good place for members to enjoy a short break, Ballarat's history has been less than restful. The Ballarat gold rush of the mid-19th century changed the Western District of Victoria and, indeed, the colony forever. The discovery of gold brought tens of thousands of diggers to Ballarat from 16 different nations. Their work with pick, pan and spade brought unprecedented wealth and, for a time, prosperity to our part of the continent.

The failure of the colonial government to heed the diggers' desire for a say in their governance and the imposition of an inequitable licence fee led to the Eureka rebellion of 1854. It was a rebellion that helped crystallise the very meaning of our democracy— the right of every citizen to representation. Ballarat's Eureka spirit is not just a matter of 19th century history. The people of Ballarat were keen supporters of Federation and also played a significant role in the labour movement's fight for an eight-hour day.

In recent years, the City of Ballarat has proudly raised the Aboriginal flag over its town hall in recognition and celebration of the indigenous peoples' prior occupation of our land and their continuing contribution to our nation. As honourable members will observe, not least from the recent election result, Ballarat has never been frightened of going against the tide.

I joined the Australian Labor Party for one reason and one reason alone—only Labor is committed to a fair go for all Australians. The current government has had little regard for the need to create opportunities for all our citizens. It has been content to see people at the margins—the unemployed, the young and the poor—drift further from the focus of mainstream policy making. The policies pursued by this government have seen growing numbers of people from the aged to the very young feel that they are being punished for the circumstances in which they find themselves; for instance, the 62-year-old plumber who, finding himself unemployed for the first time in his life, rang my office last week, humiliated because he has been told that he now has to attend a three-week course on resume writing—a course that he does not believe will assist him in getting another plumbing contract.

This election was a bitter one. The Prime Minister has been exhorting us, since his headland speeches of 1996: `I want to focus on those things that unite us not divide us.' Yet, his every action points to the opposite. It is well past time that we accept this statement from the mouth of the Prime Minister. He has divided us on education policy, taxation policy, employment policy, immigration policy and on how the unemployed are to be treated. He has pitted regions against each other, and his continued attacks on the thousands of men and women such as the workers at Bendix Mintex in my electorate, who choose to be members of the trade union movement, should be rejected for the old ideology that it is.

In the context of this government's policies, many people in my electorate are rightly concerned about their chances in life. That concern is sometimes translated into a belief that we should concentrate on looking after our own citizens first before we assist those seeking asylum in this country. I believe that in this country we have the capacity to do both and that as a nation we will be richer for it. I am proud to be part of a Labor caucus, led by Simon Crean, that is determined to show compassion to asylum seekers. Long may the aftertaste of this election stick in the throats of those on the other side of this House as they attempt to extricate themselves from the mess they have made of our immigration program.

This government has vacated its responsibility to create an inclusive, cohesive society. It has withdrawn from service delivery in key policy areas. In many cases, the government has vacated the field of service provision with the vain hope that the private and community sectors will fill the void.

An important policy area for women and families in my electorate is that of child care. There is a drastic shortage of child-care places in most cities and towns in the electorate of Ballarat, and the government has failed to address the emerging crisis. Almost every day since the federal election, a woman has telephoned or visited my office to advise that she is unable to return to work or to take up study because she is unable to obtain affordable child care. In Ballarat there is a lengthy waiting list for family day care, occasional care and full-time child care. In Ballan there is simply no child care suitable for working families. Choice in child care can operate only when there are actually places to choose from. Private and community providers are simply not filling the void left by government. It is time for government to recognise that child care is not a lifestyle choice for women; its provision is a fundamental component of ensuring that all Australian families have decent employment, education and economic opportunities. The provision of child-care services, particularly in regional Australia, is a significant challenge for this government and one I will pursue on behalf of my constituents. Let us hope that the debacle this government has made of the family tax benefits system, which has left many families in my electorate with a debt, is not replicated with the introduction of the fairly limited `baby bonus'.

As the representative of a regional electorate, I will give particular attention to those issues that impact on Australians living outside the metropolitan cities. I am passionate about good regional policy and will not join city based journalists and academics in a damaging discussion about rural and regional decline. Regional communities do face significant challenges; population change, withdrawal of government services, and the provision of employment and education opportunities are matters to which regional community leaders and policy makers must turn their minds. But the real story in regional Australia is how small communities are facing up to these challenges and not just surviving but thriving.

One of the most vibrant communities in my electorate is the town of Avoca. When the big banks threatened to pack up their money bags and leave town, the people of Avoca created their own community bank. The bank is a success and is serving as an inspiration to other towns in the electorate of Ballarat and surrounding regional electorates. Recognising that Avoca needs to adjust to the changing economy, community leaders developed a plan for a new convention centre at the local turf club. Then, at the last election, they extracted sizeable promises of funding from both sides of this House to ensure that their project would be realised.

Communities in other parts of my electorate are similarly resolved to tackle current challenges and to work to make our towns and cities even better places to live. What the people of my electorate need is a fair go from government: decent services, decent infrastructure and a place at the table when national policy is formed.

With glorious, historical Ballarat at its centre with a population of 83,000, my electorate also encompasses Halls Gap, Stawell, Creswick, Avoca, Daylesford, Hepburn, Clunes, Talbot and Ballan and a multitude of other smaller centres. Its industries include mining, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and a growing service sector in health and education. It is home to some of the world's best wineries, it hosts magnificent country race meetings, it produces a large proportion of the nation's confectionary and it boasts two universities: the University of Ballarat and the Australian Catholic University. Since the 1850s Ballarat has benefited from a vibrant multicultural community drawn from every corner of the world. The quality of life enjoyed by the residents of Ballarat continues to attract people from all over.

I draw to the attention of the House the recent decision of the Victorian government to relocate some functions of the State Revenue Office to my electorate, and I commend the benefits of decentralisation to the government. I similarly note with approval the Victorian government's support for faster rail links to Ballarat and the unprecedented investment in rail infrastructure. My town and many other Victorian towns will benefit from this development.

As the member for Ballarat, I will work with all sectors of the Ballarat community to grow our region. I will work with local government, small business, medium and large industries, unions, community organisations and the growing health, tourism and education sectors to make Ballarat a stronger, more prosperous and fairer place for the future. Employment growth must be a local and national economic priority, and I pledge to do all I can to grow employment opportunities for the people of Ballarat.

The provision of better infrastructure, including communications, is a major issue in my electorate. The government is kidding itself, and fooling no-one, when it says that the full sale of Telstra will mean better services in rural and regional Australia. On behalf of the people of Ballarat, I pledge my firm opposition to the further privatisation of our national telecommunications carrier.

In the north of my electorate, the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline is an excellent example of what can happen when good environmental, economic and agricultural policies coalesce. I urge the government to fulfil its election commitment of $4 million for the next stage of the pipeline, and I also urge it to commit funds for the remaining stages of the project.

On behalf of the people of Ballarat, I will hold the government to its commitment to the Deer Park bypass as a high priority.

I am proud to be the first woman to hold the seat of Ballarat. I am also proud to be supported by Emily's List and to be one of the growing number of women who are in our parliaments today. When I was preselected as the Labor candidate for Ballarat, some people told me that Ballarat would never elect a woman. Of all the things I was concerned about in the election campaign, this was never one of them.

Eight years ago I sat in this House and listened to the first speech of the member for Fremantle. In that speech, she implored other women not to wait to be pressured into political life. She said:

... put up your hand and demand that you participate.

Back then, I did not imagine I would have the courage to follow her advice. Well, I did and today I stand here as an observer no more. I want to do everything I can to help other women realise their potential and to encourage them to take their place in this parliament and others around the country.

In every step I have taken I have stood on the shoulders of women like my mother, who is here in the gallery today. I thank her sincerely. I also want to thank my father, who taught me from an early age that it is important to keep your promises. His personal battle out of poverty has provided each of his children with a reason to try harder in everything that they do.

I want to thank my campaign team, who worked tirelessly to win this seat for the Australian Labor Party. In particular, I want to thank Joe Helper, Chris Reilly, Mathew Jose, Kirsty Jennings, Peter Hanley, Jeff Rootes, Darren Cheeseman and Danny Michell. I recognise the work of hundreds of ALP members and supporters in Ballarat, Daylesford, Clunes, Creswick, Avoca and Stawell who fought this campaign for well over 12 months. It is your hard work promoting our message of a fairer, better Australia that ensured Labor's election win in Ballarat.

Thank you to Robyn and Sharon, who established the Friends of Catherine King, for their constant support. Thank you also to the Ballarat labour movement, in particular the members of the Ballarat Regional Trades and Labour Council and its secretary, Graeme Shearer. I also want to thank my partner, Mark Karlovic, whose patience, humour and intellect challenge me every day.

To the member for Brand: you are a man of great honour, dignity and intellect. I am sorry that this country has lost the chance of having you as someone I believe we would have been proud to have as leader.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!

Ms KING —Finally and most importantly, I want to thank the people of Ballarat. I recognise the important task you have given me as your representative. My pledge is that I will represent you with energy, passion, decency and honesty. I stood for parliament because I want to make our region and our country a better place—now and in the future. It is a task to which I now turn my undivided attention.

Honourable members—Hear, hear!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—Order! Before I call the honourable member for Dickson, I remind the House that this is the honourable member's first speech. I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.