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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 67

Ms GRIERSON (11:05 AM) —On the occasion of my first speech in this place, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of the Canberra region and I register my respect for the indigenous carers of this great land. I warmly congratulate my fellow new members and thank the staff of this House for the courteous and considerate assistance they have given to us in our new roles.

Today I address the chamber for the first time as the member for Newcastle—Australia's second oldest city, Australia's largest regional city and originally the place of the Awabakal people. For a Novocastrian there can be no greater honour and no greater responsibility than to represent `our town'. I thank the people of Newcastle for the confidence and trust they have extended to me. Being only the fifth person elected to this position in 100 years and the first woman ever to hold this office makes that trust a significant tribute, deserving in return my devotion, dedication and unswerving commitment to prospering the community of Newcastle. I pledge that here today. To achieve this task, I draw comfort and strength from the people and experiences that have shaped my journey here—a journey that in many ways reflects Newcastle's progress and development.

Firstly, I am a proud daughter of the noble working class of Newcastle. Our city, founded by convict labour, was built from the honest sweat and toil of the working people: miners and steel makers, shipbuilders and stevedores, transport workers and tradesmen, shop workers and public servants—men and women who collectively created a great city and a wonderful community.

My family fostered in me a respect for the dignity of work and an appreciation for the struggle of the union movement to gain safe and fair labour conditions. My grandfather was part of that struggle at the Rothbury riots, a shameful event in our industrial history when shots were fired on miners of the Hunter Valley as they protested for a fairer deal in a dangerous industry. In more recent times, Australians also registered their abhorrence and outrage when force and intimidation were once more used against workers. The shameful events on our waterfront will remain forever as a reminder that government's purpose is to promote successful enterprise based on positive and harmonious industrial relations.

There is no greater asset to any organisation's balance sheet than a skilled, committed and loyal work force who are valued and rewarded in return for their contribution and experience. Legislation that compromises this important relationship must fail. Any industrial relations legislation presented to this parliament must be tested against the principles of fairness and decency, not just against the platitudes of fairness and decency that some here may espouse.

Like many of my generation in Newcastle I gained the support of my family to complete a higher level of education than they had enjoyed themselves. I thank my mother for her personal sacrifice and encouragement, which gave me the privilege to serve as a teacher and principal in the public schools of Newcastle for almost three decades. I, therefore, come to this parliament enriched by the youth of Newcastle—guided by their excitement for learning and technology, inspired by their talents and creativity, and strengthened by the courage they constantly display to conquer disability and to triumph over disadvantage and adversity.

But in representing them in this parliament I am mindful, too, of the high expectations our young people hold for government. I also know the disappointment they express when we, the decision makers of this country, perform below the ideals and values that they are taught to aspire to each and every day. Undoing the cynicism they quickly develop when we fall short of their expectations will not be an easy task. If government is to be relevant to the youth of Australia, we must hear their voices and heed their hearts.

I pay the highest tribute to all my colleagues in education. My new colleague and former Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Kim Beazley, was correct when he said that teachers are our most important resource. We entrust to them our nation's greatest asset, the children of Australia. The future prosperity of this nation resides today in our schools, colleges and universities. The solutions to the world's greatest problems will be discovered by some of these young learners. Yet what have we invested in their future?

Since 1996 our investment in education has failed to increase, in spite of the changing demands of modern learning. Although 70 per cent of our students attend public schools, they receive an ever decreasing share of federal education spending. Today, many parents look over the elegant fences of private schools wondering how our public schools can continue to deliver excellence in student outcomes with comparatively so few resources. In our universities the present government over its term of office has reduced funding by more than $700 for every planned student place. Government now contributes less than 50 per cent of the funding for universities, leaving students to contribute almost 40 per cent themselves. No nation that aspires to play a major role on the global stage can afford to neglect its knowledge base. Australia can never hope to become a knowledge nation unless it nourishes the skills and talents of all its people.

From Newcastle I also bring to this new office experience gained in urban renewal and regional development as a former director of the Honeysuckle Development Corporation. This corporation, originally set up by a federal Labor government under the Building Better Cities program, has undertaken the task of breathing new life into an industrial city experiencing urban decline. I pay particular tribute to the then Labor Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Brian Howe, who led this initiative and to my predecessor, Mr Allan Morris, who was determined and tenacious in his pursuit of this program and other programs for Newcastle.

The Honeysuckle Development Corporation has led the creation of a new and vibrant image for Newcastle, transforming disused railway yards, abandoned workshops, rotting wharves and surplus industrial sites into vibrant places for people and communities. The greatest benefit from this exemplary joint federal-state program has been the boost to regional economies through the creation of almost 1,500 jobs. Although some in the Newcastle media would seek to attribute the present change in progress in our inner city to one of its politically preferred heroes, it has been a Labor initiative that has provided the catalyst for change.

Whilst it has been a personal pleasure to work with people dedicated to aligning government, commercial and social goals to deliver community benefits to the people of Newcastle, I regret that the Honeysuckle Development Corporation has been constrained in achieving optimum integration of affordable housing into new prime residential developments. Newcastle has always enjoyed a unique community character and an egalitarian spirit where pretentiousness and conspicuous wealth have not been admired. To strengthen social harmony in our communities the federal government must make a stronger commitment to the provision of affordable housing. I note that in his maiden speech of 1953 the Hon. Gough Whitlam highlighted the decline then in the provision of housing for the people of Australia. It is time to revisit some of these basic government responsibilities.

Newcastle, like many electorates, has a significant proportion of aged citizens. As a former director of the Tinonee Gardens Multicultural Village for Aged Care, I bring to this place some understanding of the needs of our older citizens. It has become increasingly evident that a bottom line approach to aged care that pays too little regard to the principles of compassion and equal opportunity will always fall short in meeting our obligations to older Australians. My personal experiences suggest that reform to aged care policy is urgently needed by this parliament.

In expressing my gratitude to the people of Newcastle for the diverse and rewarding opportunities extended to me I must register my special appreciation of the local membership of the Australian Labor Party. Without their example, commitment and tireless work I would not have been elected to this parliament. Newcastle ALP membership includes three former members of this House, both a former and current state member of the New South Wales parliament and Australia's first female lord mayor. I thank them for the rich Labor tradition that they have established and for their personal support and encouragement.

Newcastle ALP membership also includes a diverse group of Novocastrians who work tirelessly to advance their collective belief in the Labor values of social justice and equity. I am grateful for their influence, humbled by their selfless concern for their fellow man and quite embarrassed at times by their generous efforts on my behalf during the election campaign. To my dedicated campaign team, my loving family, my beautiful daughters and my most wonderful and dear friends: thank you. You provide me with constant inspiration, immense pleasure and pride, and the courage to attempt to make a difference in this place so that Novocastrians and, indeed, all Australians can enjoy a quality of life unsurpassed by any other nation in the world. That so many of you could be here in the gallery today warms my heart.

But now the real journey begins, and I direct the attention of this House to Newcastle—its past, its present and its future. The people of Australia will know some things about our city and our people. They will, no doubt, remember the determination and courage Novocastrians displayed to rebuild and repair the physical and emotional damage wreaked on Newcastle by the earthquake of December 1989. They may also remember that in Newcastle, when faced with the closure of the BHP steelworks, we celebrated together the skill and contribution of Newcastle men and women to 80 years of steel making. In the final hours of the BHP plant the mateship of the workplace and the pride of a city in its steel-making heritage shone through the tears and regrets—regrets for an industry that could so easily have been transformed and modernised had the corporate will been there and tears for the hardship we knew many would experience through retrenchment and redundancy.

Australians may have also wondered at a Newcastle football team's inspiring ability to snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat at two National Rugby League premierships in the past five years. The parochial pride we display in our courageous Knights demonstrates a community spirit and passion that is the envy of many a city and town. Newcastle is as united as its emerging national soccer team in its desire for a suitable football stadium to showcase and nurture its sporting talents.

But many Australians will not know much about the clever industry of the Newcastle of today—industry that will take us into the future. The work of the Hunter Medical Research Institute, supported by our university, our regional health body and community sponsorship, has established a national and international reputation for excellence. Our local telecommunications industry provides ABC services to the Asia-Pacific region and is currently being considered as a suitable foundation for major international investment into the provision of regional telecommunications, broadband and fibre-optic services. We continue to maintain our reputation as outstanding shipbuilders with the successful completion of the Huon class minehunter series, a project that began nine years ago under a Labor government and ends this year on time and on budget. We are also the new home for the CSIRO National Energy Technology Headquarters, a centre that has the potential to put Newcastle at the heart of new energy research and industry development. Our modern port, the most efficient exporter of coal in the world, is also taking on the challenges of the future, with plans for a multipurpose freight terminal to diversify port capacity and function. To sustain each one of these endeavours will take some degree of federal government commitment to regional development.

The recent report prepared by Tasman Economics for the Australian Industry Group on the ADI minehunter project clearly identifies the benefits that flow to regional Australia and to the Australian economy in general when governments invest in regions. The report states that the ADI defence project directly and indirectly generated or sustained an average of more than 1,800 full-time equivalent jobs in Newcastle for each year of the nine-year project. In addition, the project contributed up to $887 million to gross domestic product and up to $492 million to consumption. Governments' faith in Newcastle shipbuilding was richly rewarded and a track record for excellence undeniably reinforced. The report's findings add weight to the call for a sound and sustainable manufacturing policy for Australia, one that insists on a significant level of local manufacturing content in all projects government helps to finance.

So the Newcastle of today has an exciting future. But the Newcastle of today currently has the second highest unemployment rate in the state of New South Wales. Unfortunately, clever jobs are not always within the reach of our unskilled and untrained youth or our mature-age job seekers. Employment and training initiatives in areas of high unemployment such as Newcastle need new approaches with a local focus. Government must take on the challenge of job creation and employment training if we are to avoid a welfare crisis that undermines our social cohesion and further divides our community by wealth and opportunity.

In my concluding remarks to this House I wish to focus further on the role of government in supporting the community prosperity and pride of this great nation. Recent global events have seen Australians divided in their confidence in this nation's ability to deal with new threats. The insecurity many Australians feel about their own future has made them harden their hearts to the human suffering of others seeking asylum on our shores. This is not the Australian way.

On 25 April each year, Australians commemorate what we consider our nation's finest hour. We remember a defeat in battle on the shores of a foreign and unfamiliar land. We remember young men who went with honour to certain death because of their belief that human rights were worth defending, even for allies we then knew little of. Every year we see more young people attend our ANZAC marches and dawn services to show their respect for the courage of those who thought standing up for what is right was the most noble cause of all. It is these principles of courage and compassion for our fellow man and a commitment to our global responsibilities that the government of this day needs to apply to the present situation with refugees fleeing oppression, extremism and terror. In everything we do here, it is the responsibility of members of this parliament to exemplify the highest of human ideals and virtues and to provide moral leadership that strengthens the finest traditions of this nation. The people of Newcastle would expect no less from us. I am proud to represent them here. Thank you.

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