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Monday, 18 February 2008
Page: 592

Ms NEAL (8:02 PM) —I acknowledge your elevation, Mr Speaker, and congratulate you, as is the tradition. I can assure you I will respect your ruling and comply in all things, as you would expect. I rise to speak for the first time as the federal member for Robertson. It has been a long and difficult journey. But it is the fulfilment of a calling I have had all my adult life. Firstly, I must thank the people of Robertson. They have elected me to represent them here in federal parliament and I feel honoured. I am dedicated to living up to the faith that they have shown in me. I feel privileged to be a part of the largest Labor government in Australia’s history, led by an energetic Prime Minister of fresh ideas and with great compassion for those who are disadvantaged in our community. His leadership is a large part of why I chose to seek election at this time and to help end the aridness of the Howard years.

Most of all I am proud of the Australian people, who at this election rejected the exploitation of workers and embraced a fairer relationship between employees and employers, who rejected the politics of division and embraced unity, who rejected self-seeking opportunism and embraced a caring society, who turned their backs on mean-heartedness and embraced generosity of spirit, who rejected the short-term exploitation of our environment and chose to protect our natural beauty and to make plans to deal with the challenges of climate change. This breadth of spirit was vividly illustrated last Wednesday with our national apology to the stolen generation, and I look forward to its continuation. I am ambitious for an enlightened social democracy built on the goodwill of the Australian people and formed on the foundations of a strong and vibrant economy.

The seat of Robertson was one of the only three federal seats named after premiers. It was named after Sir John Robertson, the small landholder’s friend. He had a prodigious career in both length and achievement. Like me, he served in both the upper and lower houses but, unlike me, he served in the New South Wales parliament and was a staunch opponent of Federation. Robertson in 1901 was a large rural seat covering a large chunk of rural New South Wales, stretching from Dubbo to just west of Newcastle. Over time, as the population of the area increased, the seat moved east to outer metropolitan Newcastle and then south to become the Central Coast seat in New South Wales that it is today. Robertson is located on the coast between Sydney and Newcastle but has a character all of its own. In the south it is bordered by the Hawkesbury River, in the east by the Pacific Ocean, in the north by Terrigal. It stretches westward to include the hinterlands of Mangrove Mountain and Peats Ridge. The Central Coast is a region of beaches and waterways, with villages and towns scattered between them. In the last two decades that I have lived there, it has become more urbanised but it still retains its unique quality. I know it is a tradition to say that your seat is of unique beauty, but in this case it truly is.

I am the 12th person to hold the seat of Robertson, but it would be accurate to say that the first member to represent Robertson as a Central Coast seat was Barry Cohen. He held the seat for 21 years, from 1969, and was certainly a local champion. His relentless pursuit of local interest is certainly something that I would like to replicate, as I would like to replicate his longevity. I also wish to acknowledge the contribution of Frank Walker, who held the seat from 1990 to 1996 and also had a long and productive career in the New South Wales parliament. I pay tribute to Jim Lloyd, my opponent in the last election, who represented his constituents with genuine concern and ran a strong and vigorous campaign. I wish him and his wife, Kerry, well in retirement and hope they have the opportunity to enjoy the Hawkesbury River that I know they love so well.

I wish to particularly thank the large number of volunteers, both within the Labor Party and outside, who helped me with the enormous task of changing the minds of some 5,000 people. Many thought it could not be achieved, and I would have to say that there were moments when I wondered. I would like to thank my campaign director, Donna Judd, who kept the whole show on the road and sacrificed an enormous amount of time. And of course I have to thank her forever tolerant husband, Graeme, who shared a lot of the burden in terms of time. It is impossible, as many have said, to name all the volunteers and those who helped, but there are some that I must. I would have to say, in naming them, that there are many names that I will spare you, as it would take almost my entire time to do that. I thank Harish Velji, Tom Hollywood, Cathy and Roland Soder, Helen Myers, Paul Collimore and Paul Sullivan, Paul Lister, John Gifford, Chris Calbert, Nick Jacomas, Dave Humphries, Bill Stewart, Jack Woodward, Emma Furness, Kerry Stratford, Mary and Anthony Gooley, Paul Wilson, Andrew Clark, Alison Nolan, Bill Cong, the Sidiropoulos family and Jane Stafford. They really are just a few of the many people who helped.

I acknowledge with enthusiasm the assistance of the Your Rights at Work team, led by Mary Yaager and John Robertson from Unions New South Wales. I also have pleasure in thanking the many unions that assisted my campaign: the Transport Workers Union, particularly Bruce Penton and Tony Sheldon; the Australian Workers Union; the NUW; the ETU, particularly Jim Macfadyen, who is also Gosford City Council Mayor; the USU; the Health Services Union—a member of which has joined us in my northern neighbouring seat of Dobell; the SDA; the FSU; the RBTU; the AMWU; the Nurses Federation; and the CFMEU all helped and all contributed to the ultimate result. I would like to thank the New South Wales branch of the ALP, of which I have been a member for 27 years. My particular thanks go to Sam Dastyari. I would also like to thank many of my colleagues for their assistance, in particular Senators Steve Hutchins, Michael Forshaw and Ursula Stephens, who gave me advice and assistance and, of course, have been my very long-term friends. Many of the other members of this House have also been colleagues and friends for a great many years. I would also like to thank New South Wales minister Tony Kelly and his wife Anne. I immensely enjoyed working with Tony, and already I am missing the rest of the Kelly gang—who worked there also—a great deal.

It is traditional for new members to reflect on their background and to put forth their personal philosophy and the issues on which they will focus in their future years in parliament. I apologise in advance if I am somewhat indulgent, as the opportunity to make such a personal presentation, uninterrupted, does not occur very often. My maternal grandfather, Oliver Hoskin, was born just before the turn of the century. He left, as a 19-year-old telephone mechanic, to fight in Gallipoli, Palestine and Fromelles with many of his generation. He returned home and survived long enough to marry, live through the Great Depression and produce four children before expiring from the effects of mustard gas suffered during the Great War. My grandmother, Georgina Smith, had an iron will and a tendency to be frugal. She supported her children as a nurse and ensured that all her children were well educated—three at university and my mother at teachers college. This high regard for education, and the value of sacrificing to achieve it, is certainly a core principle of my own.

I imagine that my paternal grandfather, Fred Neal, met his wife, my grandmother Grace, an upstairs maid—it is very difficult to imagine that such a short time ago upstairs maids were quite common—while making deliveries as a grocer’s assistant in the Darling Downs of Queensland. He remained a grocer’s assistant all his life. He was a simple and kind man who believed that caring for your family and carrying out your obligations to your community were the only things that really mattered. They lived all their lives in Australia Street, Allora, a town of some 300 people. In fact, by an interesting coincidence, it is the same street where the grandparents of the member for Solomon lived. I do not know what it indicates, but I think it indicates something. My grandmother still lives in Allora at the age of 93.

My grandfather believed that all men should learn to cook, as he said this skill saved his life when, being one of the few men who could, he performed this vital role during the Second World War. My parents, both teachers, met and married in Dalby, Queensland. My father completed a commerce degree while teaching and raising three young children with my mother. During the early 1960s, a policy of recruiting from regional Australia was introduced in the federal Public Service, and the Australian diplomatic service was opened up to those outside Sydney and Melbourne. This led to my father’s selection to join the Department of Overseas Trade.

We moved to Canberra and then commenced a period of travel to a range of places in Europe and Asia. I once calculated that I moved house 13 times before entering high school. Some people on the other side have indicated that this was a matter of some stress for them, but I would have to say that nothing could be further from the truth for me. Every move was an adventure which I learned a great deal from. I learned about the advantages of Australia’s climate, stable democracy, rule of law and a government administration generally free of corruption—despite what the media might say. I learned about the depth of poverty and the impact of lack of access to education and health services on many people in other parts of the world. Most of all, it taught me that change and new ideas are a positive thing and they should be welcomed.

I would like to thank my parents for their care and the opportunities they gave me. My father taught me, by example, that hard work is an essential element of all success and that the ‘in’ crowd is not always right. My mother taught me to stand up and be counted. I would also like to thank my twin brother, Chris, and my sister, Catherine, for keeping me down to earth and laughing with me. Sometimes you need that bit of help. I acknowledge my Botticelli cupids, Alexander and Julian, who are in the gallery today. I am sorry for embarrassing them. They have grown up to be extraordinary young men, and I am extremely proud of them. I also thank in particular my husband, to whom I said on the last occasion and I still hold this to be true: as far as I am concerned, he is always on the side of the angels.

My life has certainly been a kaleidoscope. I consider myself blessed to have had such wide-ranging experiences that allow me to balance and reflect on both the harmonies of our Australian community and the sometimes conflicting views and ideals. I was born in 1963, which makes me, I understand, both a baby boomer and generation X. I have been both employer and employee. I have worked as a union officer for the Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia, where I learned about the need for collective bargaining and the unfairness visited on workers by some unscrupulous employers. I have had the opportunity to meet both Laurie Short and Harry Hurrell, both legends of the labour movement. I have also had a career as a lawyer—which, as has been suggested, is a much-maligned profession.

Contrary to the views of many of those on the opposition side, they are not the only ones to sample the highs and lows of small business. I have established two businesses and have mortgaged my home, worked very long hours and received little reward for the first few months of operation. The life is demanding—but of course there are rewards—but that should never be an excuse to exploit your employees. I have lived most of my life in an urban environment but I attended high school in Orange in the central west of New South Wales. There I learned many skills that I am sure will be useful for my political life. I learned to ride a horse, drove cattle, drench sheep, pick apples, milk cows—both by hand and machine—and, from my grandmother, how to kill a chicken using only my hands.

The accumulated knowledge of these experiences has led me to believe that all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men—or, in this case, women—to do nothing. I hope it will be said at the end of my time here in parliament that I did not stand back and let an injustice occur. At the core of everything we do here should be the objectives of social justice, social cohesion and equality of opportunity. Reform is why we are here. During my initial time here I will pursue a number of priorities. My first, of course, is the repeal of the Work Choices legislation and the abolition of AWAs and the unfairness that flowed from them. This has already commenced, with the introduction of the bill to put this into effect. I have to say that I am thrilled and I am sure my constituents back in Robertson feel the same way. Another of my priorities is infrastructure. I believe that Australia is at a crisis point with a lack of infrastructure, which is strangling our economic growth and limiting the potential of our population. This is due to a failure to invest in the last decade due to a short-term view and myopic outlook that the market will provide.

This crisis is nowhere more evident than on the Central Coast, where a fast-growing population has outstripped our infrastructure and threatened our environment. I have ambitions for the Central Coast and I believe these are shared by the people who reside there. To bring these to fruition we need to invest in our infrastructure, both built and social. I am pleased to see the Infrastructure Australia bill is being given priority. This will help promote this much-needed investment in infrastructure. I am particularly concerned to see that our broadband infrastructure is brought up to a level comparable with the rest of the developed world and that the regions, like Robertson, have the same access to digital information as the capital cities have.

I am also enthusiastic about being part of the Rudd Labor government’s education revolution and to see the way we educate our young people brought into the 21st century. I am concerned about two aspects in particular. If our children, before they enter school and in the first three years of school, do not develop the basic skills upon which to build the rest of their education, they can carry this deficit for the rest of their lives, being denied the quality of life they deserve and denying the community the quality of contribution they could provide. Labor is committed to providing 15 hours of preschool education to all children before they start school. This will go a long way towards dealing with this problem. I would also like to ensure, when children’s skills are underdeveloped in the first few years of their education, that the underlying causes are identified and remedial action is taken. It is not enough to say that we will look to see whether they have those skills; we have to invest the funds to actually remedy the situation.

I am also particularly concerned with the skills development of those aged between 15 and 25 years. Many in this age group fall between the gaps in their transition from school to work. Those who do not complete school or some other tertiary training are twice as likely as the rest of the population to become unemployed in later life. This is a waste of talent that the nation cannot afford. Any civilized society certainly has a duty to train and educate their young people in the transition from dependence to independence. Surely it is also our ability as a community to provide education and training for our young that is a real test of a civilized society. It is certainly an imperative in terms of our economic policies of maintaining growth and containing inflation. A competitive economy requires a skilled workforce. It is my objective to create a guarantee that every young person may continue in formal education, training or employment when leaving school.  We cannot continue to waste our young talent. Finally, I am particularly concerned about the environmental impact on our coastlines, the pressure of development and the need to manage and protect these fragile ecosystems so that we do not lose the beauty that we so much enjoy.

These are my first priorities but there are a number of matters that also fill me with passion. I believe that housing is the fundamental core of a decent life. The failure to ensure access for many people to a home and the increasing number of homeless are a blight on our humanity. I believe that we should assist families to raise and educate their children, particularly at the time that they are born. I believe that Australia should not compete in the world by engaging in a race to the bottom by lowering wages but that we should compete by creating a smarter and more skilled workforce. I believe that our elderly should enjoy a secure and stimulating retirement and should have access to a nursing home when they require it. I believe we have a responsibility to engage in the reduction of poverty worldwide, and I embrace our commitment to increasing foreign aid to 0.5 per cent of GDP. I believe that because it is what is required of a humane society and also because I am convinced that deprivation leads to war, suffering and death. I believe Australia should focus more on our island neighbours in the Pacific region and provide greater assistance in developing democratic governments and the rule of law in that region. I believe that Australia can do better. That is why I am here.