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Monday, 18 February 2008
Page: 541


Mr DREYFUS (4:22 PM) —Mr Speaker, we all come to this place by varied paths. Mine was through the practise of law. I want to speak today about the electorate of Isaacs, which I am proud to represent. I want to speak about the people who have helped me get here, and who I want to thank and acknowledge, and I want to offer some reflections on the work ahead and the contributions I hope I will be able to make.

What we see and do on the way to membership of a legislature must affect how we act as legislators, what we understand to be the role of the elected representative, and what we hope to achieve in our time in parliament. More than that, our experiences on the way here must surely have some effect on what we hope to help others to achieve. Representatives achieve when those they represent thrive. But do representatives in democracies also achieve when sometimes they undertake the difficult task of persuading those they represent that the common good requires the local interest to give way to a larger interest? I think so. Representation, persuasion, unsettling compromise and comforting settlements: all these notions are very familiar to a barrister. They seem to me to be writ large in this place and its work. Today, that is how it seems. Like many in this House, I imagine I will find out soon enough.

First things first in a first speech. I stand here alone, but I got here with much help. I would not be here without the immense support of my family, my friends, and members and supporters of the Australian Labor Party, and I thank all of them. I thank my mother, Phyllis—who is here in the chamber today—and my father, George, for giving me the values that led me here. Most of all, I thank my wife and partner in life, Deborah Chemke, and my wonderful children, Joe, Tom and Laura, for their love and support. I thank all those in the Labor Party and the union movement who supported me in seeking preselection, and I thank the many hundreds of party members and supporters who worked and worked and worked on our campaign throughout the last year. I cannot name all of the many people who have helped me become a member of this House, but let me put some of their names into Hansard, by way of grateful thanks.

I would like to thank Robert Ray, Bob Hawke, Rob Hulls, Michael Danby, Greg Combet, Koula Alexiadis, Roland Lindell, Fiona Richardson and Paul Haseloff for their guidance and support. I thank Roger Connell, Gladys Timson, Melanie Blewett, Russell Cole, Tony Falkingham, Steve Perryman, Graeme Malcolm, Loi Truong, Steve Michelson, Nick Gregory, Kathy Borgas, Tim Lisle-Williams and Youhorn Chea for their hard work and commitment. I thank my campaign manager, Alexandria Hicks, and the members of the Victorian parliament who hold seats overlapping Isaacs: Tim Holding, Jude Perera, Adem Somyurek, Evan Thornley, and particularly Jenny Lindell and Janice Munt.

I have the honour to represent the people of Isaacs—all of the 142,000 people who live in our electorate. Isaacs is in south-east Melbourne, taking in the beachside suburbs along Port Phillip Bay from Mentone and Cheltenham in the north to Carrum in the south. The electorate runs east to Noble Park and Dandenong South, and south to Carrum Downs. These are residential suburbs, but Isaacs also includes two of Australia’s most important centres of manufacturing industry, in Braeside and Dandenong South. These are centres of advanced industry with thousands of manufacturing enterprises making use of world-class technology and the skills of thousands of employees.

It is worth reflecting on the physical changes which have taken place in Isaacs in the last 160 years. These changes show the same pattern of development as in other large cities of Australia. Isaacs is the land of the Bunurong people. They moved with the seasons across the land, which provided all of their needs—particularly the Carrum Carrum swamp and the Mordialloc Creek, which were rich sources of food. Early settlement for pastoral and agricultural farming from the 1840s onwards brought large-scale clearing of native vegetation and draining of swamps. This was followed by small townships, at first connected by rough roads. By the late 19th century, railway lines ran along the bay and to Dandenong.

Through the 20th century, subdivisions spread to create the suburbs which cover most of the electorate. We can recognise from the distinct architecture of each area the years from which the suburb dates. There are still some small areas of remnant native vegetation, notably in the Edithvale-Seaford wetlands, and some green wedge areas in the centre of the electorate. But, in the short time since the first non-Indigenous people came to live in the area, much of it has physically changed beyond recognition.

The subdivisions provided housing for waves of immigrants. Many people came from the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s to settle along the bay and in Noble Park. Other immigrants followed, from all over the world. I have seen the joy, the hope and the pride on the faces of new citizens at citizenship ceremonies. The City of Greater Dandenong, which is one of three municipalities in Isaacs, has people from more than 150 countries within its boundaries. More than half the population were born overseas. The communities of Noble Park, Keysborough, Springvale and Dandenong South are richly diverse, from the long-established groups to the recently arrived. New people are still arriving.

The suburbs that comprise Isaacs are a vivid example of Australia’s great success: the absorption of waves of immigrants into our multi-culture. I think this success is made greater by its ordinariness and its repetition. To say this is not to blind ourselves to the difficulties that can occur during the absorption process. A true representative of Isaacs must be alert to those difficulties and strive to ameliorate them. To my mind, the first and best resource for this work is tolerance.

Tolerance lies at the heart of our Australian multiculturalism. It is a vital democratic value. Tolerance of others—tolerance of different cultural and religious values and tolerance of different political positions—produces inclusiveness and not division. It enables harmonious communities and peaceful political debate. By and large, migrants to our country leave behind them old hatreds and prejudices. When they arrive, they acquire Australia’s understated style of tolerance of difference.

My own family story is a story of immigration, an ingredient in the story of most people in Isaacs and across our country. My grandmothers were both born in 1904, in places and times when neither would have comprehended the events that would connect their children in marriage, and see one of their grandchildren one day serve as a member of the Australian federal parliament.

My mother’s mother was born in Neerim South, in Gippsland, south-east of Melbourne, one of eight children of a sawmill worker who was the grandson of immigrants from England in 1842. My father’s mother was born in Wuppertal, Germany. Her father was in the clothing trade, prospering sufficiently to educate his daughter to fluency in English and French.

She married and, with the Nazis in power, she and my grandfather sent my father, then aged 11, and his older brother Richard to Australia. They arrived at Station Pier in Melbourne in July 1939. They were cared for in a home for Jewish children and they did not know if they would see their parents again. Their parents, my grandmother and grandfather, managed to escape from Germany, arriving in Australia as stateless persons in December 1939. They had failed to convince their parents to leave. Three of my German great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

Australia provided a refuge to my father and his family, as it has to millions of others. My wife too is an immigrant, having come here from Chile with her family in 1972. There are many Australian stories like mine.

The electorate of Isaacs has been ably represented since 1980 by, in this order, David Charles, Rod Atkinson, Greg Wilton and Ann Corcoran. I hope to continue the tradition of public service that they established. For that work, I can draw from the example of my mother’s father who served Victoria faithfully in its Public Service for 51 years.

It is a source of pride to me to represent the electorate named for Isaac Isaacs, a truly great Australian and the first Australian born Governor-General. Isaacs was Chief Justice of the High Court from April 1930 to January 1931 and, for almost 25 years before that, a justice of the High Court. His biographer, Zelman Cowen—who himself became Governor-General—described him as ‘a master lawyer and one of the greatest judges of our federal history’. He was a member of the first federal parliament and federal Attorney-General, having earlier been a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, Attorney-General and Acting Premier of Victoria. He played a large role in the 1897-1898 Federal Convention that drafted our Constitution.

As a parliamentarian and as a judge, Isaacs spoke of the importance of this national parliament, referring to the parliament as ‘the sole interpreter of the national will’. Throughout his career, Isaacs advocated the need for national power, notably in his historic judgement in the 1920 Engineers’ case. And he had a keen sense of looking to the future, which he applied in his work on the nation’s constitutional court. In one decision he spoke of the ‘need to interpret the Constitution as a living instrument capable of fulfilling its high purpose of accompanying and aiding the national growth and progress of the people for whom it has been made’.

From this still unfamiliar seat in this just-beginning phase of life as a parliamentarian, three strands of my experiences on the way here seem likely to be influences on what I do here, both for my own sense of achievement and to facilitate the achievements of others. Those experiences relate to working for and with Indigenous Australians, loving the environment of this fragile and beautiful continent, and puzzling over the planning of our urban environments. Mostly, I became acquainted with these issues and their complexities through the eyes of a barrister, case by case by case. But I have also come to see these aspects of Australian life with a growing sense of the critical importance, to each of them, of the quality of the laws we make, the policy we shape and the administration we provide. I am here to contribute what I can to that.

I have worked in land-use planning for many years. Despite the scale of our continent, most Australians live in urban places. These are man-made environments which are shaped by need, by fashion, by commercial objectives and, most significantly, by governments. They decide on the location and scale of infrastructure and set controls on use, subdivision and built form. We need to work hard on the form of our cities to ensure that housing is kept affordable and that our cities remain pleasant places to live and are sustainable in the long term.

I have worked with and for Aboriginal people, particularly in the Northern Territory. As a young law graduate, I worked for the then newly formed Northern Land Council in the top end of the Northern Territory. I worked more recently as part of the legal team for the stolen generation case decided in the Federal Court in 2000. It was a particular personal satisfaction to be present as a member of this House on its first business day to hear the motion of apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. It was a precise intersection of my professional life as a barrister and my new life as a parliamentarian. This was because one of the members of the stolen generation who I represented as counsel, Lorna Cubillo, was present on the floor of the House to hear the apology the Prime Minister offered last week. I look forward to speaking on the motion of apology.

Aboriginal people have taught me a great deal about the importance of family and, not least, about looking at the land. I wish every Australian could have the experiences I had as a young man of going bush with people who can read the land like a book as they pass through it.

The first time I went to Arnhem Land I was with a man from Oenpelli. He had a name for every place, a story for every place, and he could name every plant and animal. We camped in his country, on the bank of the East Alligator River, and he told me stories of his country. I remember the first rays of the sun warming the early chill of a dry season morning. I remember the glint of a kingfisher swooping over the water. I remember the dense bush all around, overlooked by tall grey-green eucalypts, the same shade as this chamber’s green, the green of a truly Australian parliament. It is in this truly Australian parliament that I hope one day to vote for a bill for an Australian republic.

We all now care about the environment. Environmental issues will be a major part of our political life. I think we can learn here too from Aboriginal people because Aboriginal people are the land and the land is them. Comprehending this asks non-Indigenous Australians to make an imaginative and empathetic leap. Once made, it enriches one’s own life and love of this land. We need to care for the land, to think of the land as our ‘country’, in the Aboriginal sense of the word, as a place to be cherished and nurtured. We need to live in the land in a way that will leave it improved on our passing and not depleted. It can only sustain us short term if we sustain it long term, for our children and our children’s children.

First speeches are full of hopes. I hope that on the day on which I last sit in this place I will be able to re-read this first speech and recognise its themes in what I will, by then, have done here.