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Thursday, 3 June 2010
Page: 5196


Mrs IRWIN (12:59 PM) —In what may be my final speech in this House, I wish to make a few remarks reflecting on my close to 12 years as a member of this parliament and express my thanks to those who have made my time in this place memorable. In my first speech in November 1998, in a parliament which would see Australia and the world entering a new millennium, I saw my challenge in a quotation by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who on her graduation expressed this thought:

… for too long now, our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practise politics as the art of making what appears impossible, possible.

That is not an easy challenge, you would agree. On the same day as I made my first speech, the newly elected member for Griffith, now our Prime Minister, quoted Keynes’s well-known remark:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.

The member concluded:

Debate, therefore, about fundamental ideas … about the proper role of the state in the economy and society, is critical to an informed discussion about policy.

So it is with some sadness that, when I reflect on my years as a member of this parliament, I note there has been little achieved in this place in addressing these challenges. Indeed policy—whether it be economic, social or foreign affairs—is increasingly framed within a straightjacket of orthodoxy. Think tanks, academics, editorial writers and radio shock jocks all sing from the one song sheet, all the slaves of some defunct economist. They cast a long shadow over governments and, it seems, this parliament.

When I was first elected to this parliament, I had already been a member of the Australian Labor Party for more than 30 years. I have been described by some journalists as being the outspoken member for Fowler or ‘old Labor’. I wear those comments as a badge of honour. I believe that there are, as the title of the well-known Ben Chifley pamphlet declared, things worth fighting for. I saw my role as carrying on the causes that so many former members had fought so valiantly for.

I am one of the few remaining members who began their political life in what was the Labor Youth Council in the late 1960s. Its leaders then included Paul Keating, Laurie Brereton, Bob Carr and Leo McLeay. While we were on opposite sides of the factional aisle in those days, Leo proved to be a great supporter and friend during my earlier terms, and I thank him. Along with Michael Lee, those people held the soul of New South Wales Labor, and I believe Michael might have proved to be a fine Labor leader in time.

I should also mention Labor’s leader for most of my time here, Kim Beazley. On three occasions I walked proudly with Kim to caucus ballots, and each time he lost. I half expected Kim to ask me not to walk with him anymore, as I must bring him bad luck—so for that, Kim, I apologise. To my mind, Kim Beazley was the greatest Labor leader never to have become Prime Minister.

In my time here, my spirit has not always made me friends on either side of this House, but I believe it has earned me the respect of those who I hold in high regard, especially Senator Steve Hutchins, who has made that very long journey from the Senate to be here today, and that is all that matters to me, Steve.

On issues such as drug addiction—especially drug law reform—unemployment, single parents and refugees, I, like the Member for Kooyong, have not been afraid to take up the cause, even when doing so has not been in line with the popular view. And then there is Palestine. It could be said that foreign affairs matters are not often debated in this House, the Iraq War being one exception and the short debate on my Middle East peace motion in 2002 being another. The nature of that debate explained why that issue is rarely discussed in this parliament. Even the 2006 war on Lebanon did not raise more than a ripple of concern. It seems that our reluctance to participate in real debate about the Middle East has placed a muzzle over the parliament on all foreign affairs issues.

A large part of the work of backbench members is their work on policy committees. I have had the opportunity to serve on a number of committees which have conducted inquiries into issues of great concern to me.

I mention some of the inquiries which influenced me and which I believe have produced reports addressing some of the most important issues facing Australia today. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration report entitled Not the Hilton, which was tabled in 2000, reviewed migration detention centres at that time. The report raised concerns about conditions in migration detention centres and recommended improvements. However, unfortunately, in the wake of the Tampa incident and the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, it seems that most of the committee’s recommendations were thrown overboard by the Howard government.

My longest committee experience was with the variously named committees on family and community services, and my friend Annette Ellis, the member for Canberra, chairs the current committee. The social policy area has always been my main focus in public life, and this committee conducted a number of inquiries which covered some of the thorniest issues faced in our society. We began in my first term with an inquiry into substance abuse. As the often-described ‘drug capital of Australia’—Cabramatta—was in my electorate, the issue was of vital importance to me. As with later inquiries, there were widely different approaches to the problem of drug abuse as well as a great deal of common ground. Not surprisingly, I found myself contributing a dissenting view on some parts of the final report tabled under the title, Road to recovery.

The next inquiry was into the controversial area of child custody. With the member for Riverina as chair, the inquiry made forthright recommendations on shared parenting and other custody issues which, thanks to the continued advocacy of the chair, have since been included in legislation. Other inquiries included overseas adoption and balancing work and family. Again, in the last inquiry, along with my Labor colleagues, a significant dissenting report was included.

In terms of winning and losing on the many issues confronted, I would have to say that I have lost more than I have won, which has brought some of my friends and some people in the media to award me the portfolio as the ‘minister for lost causes’. Perhaps because of my record, or in spite of it, I was appointed as the first Chair of the Petitions Committee, which was established in this term of the parliament. You could say that I have found my spiritual home, along with my deputy chair, a man of integrity, Russell Broadbent, the member for McMillan. I have certainly found it to be the most rewarding of my many roles in this place. In guiding the committee in its formative years, I have attempted at every opportunity to make the committee a sounding board for the people of Australia in this parliament and to welcome public participation in the parliamentary process. I am very pleased with the progress we have made and I look forward to the many potential developments in the petitions process which can enhance our parliamentary democracy.

The other role of members of this place is their work in the electorate. Having worked in electorate offices since 1975, I have seen the value of this part of a member’s duty. In assisting me to represent the people of my electorate of Fowler I have had the benefit of a loyal and dedicated staff. As I frequently remind them, it may be my name on the door, but we are all part of a team. I have been fortunate to have had long-serving staff, including Joy Petrovic, who has been with me from the beginning. Joy has assisted constituents efficiently and sympathetically as well as keeping me organised—and she has had to on many occasions—in times of acute chaos. I wish Joy and her husband, Petro, well in their future life with their family in Cairns. Margaret Brindley, also known by us as ‘Have a chat’, is the heart and soul of the office, whose political knowledge has been invaluable and whose service to constituents has been outstanding. Rocco Leonnello’s knowledge of the electorate, assistance with community groups and advice have been second to none. John Alam has ably supported me, particularly in Canberra. I promised him when he started with me two years ago that it would not be boring—and I think I have delivered on that front, John. Pina Violi, my relief staff, was thrown in at the deep end when she started but has been quick to learn, in spite of the political culture shock.

Others who have given so much of themselves in the past include Justin Lee, the wild man of my office and an adviser of the first order, and Dean Superina, who has always been a calming influence. Last but not least, Grahame Hungerford, who was with me for nine years, brought a touch of creativity as well as nitpicking correctness to the task. Grahame could be lovable, although infuriating at times, but he was dedicated and loyal to the end. All have shown great understanding and empathy with our local community and I could ask for no better support than I have had from all my staff in my years in this parliament.

I should at this time add my thanks to those on the other end of the phone—the parliamentary liaison officers in the various government agencies, in particular, Immigration, Centrelink and Veterans’ Affairs. Probably the most rewarding aspect of my work has been the small personal victories won on behalf of constituents, sometimes against an unfeeling bureaucracy but more often simply by putting a case on behalf of people who did not have the experience or resources to do so themselves.

In an electorate such as Fowler, where economic and social disadvantage are more commonly found than in most parts of Australia and where too often people are not aware of their rights or are afraid to press for their entitlements, I have always been proud to speak out on their behalf and felt especially receptive to their concerns. In such a diverse community as Fowler, community organisations have a special role to play. I am proud to have been associated with the ex-service organisations in Fowler—‘my boys’, as I call them—at Canley Heights RSL, Liverpool RSL and Cabra-Vale ex-services, and I specially mention the boys at Bonnyrigg Men’s Shed.

Indigenous and migrant community organisations have been crucial in developing the greater community of the Fowler electorate. Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian, Croatian, Serbian, Lebanese and so many other community associations and religious bodies provide the pillars for integration in our greater Australian society. I have been pleased to work with these organisations to benefit our local and national progress.

To my loyal ALP branch members go my sincerest thanks for their loyalty and support, for their patience and for their assistance. They are too many to mention by name, but let me acknowledge two people: Sid Hugen and Joan Windsor, whose wise counsel and staunch support over the years have been much appreciated. Without the support of the people of Fowler, my role here in this esteemed chamber would have been all the more difficult. It has been a singular honour to represent them, and I trust that my representation has played a small part in helping them to fulfil their aspirations.

After 11½ years as the member for Fowler, like many other members I could say that I have never stayed in one job for this long. For me that has meant travelling to Canberra from my home in Sydney. Considering my work as a staffer since 1990, that is now 20 years of driving down from Sydney. I can say that the road has improved quite a bit in that time, and I think at times I could almost make the drive with my eyes closed. But I am fortunate in that for the last 10 years I have had the hospitality of Anne and Michael Gardiner to look forward to on my arrival. I have come to feel a part of the Gardiner family and I have been privileged to share in their lives. As a member spending 20 or more weeks a year away from home, being able to spend some time with an ordinary family while in Canberra has kept me in touch with the real world, something that other accommodation would not have provided. While family are only a phone call away, it is always more comforting to have warm and caring people like Anne and Michael with whom one can share the ups and downs of each day of parliamentary life.

Another part of my extended family in Canberra—and I will mention them—have been the Comcar drivers. Always courteous and always friendly, they have helped me get off to a good start to each sitting day and seen me safely home after a hard day’s night, as well as kept us all in touch with the real world in, I will add, a most discreet way.

The same can be said of the attendants and security staff here at Parliament House. When you think of the time we spend locked away in here during sitting weeks, it would be impossible to endure if it were not for the friendly smiles and happy remarks of those staff. And I would especially thank the dedicated clerks and committee staff who make it all possible. If I have caused committee staff some angst over the years by insisting very strongly on making dissenting reports, they certainly showed no outward signs at the time.

And if I may, through you, Mr Speaker, make my peace with the chair for my many lapses in decorum.


Mr Windsor —No!


Mrs IRWIN —Yes, I am apologising! I do not know if I hold the record for female members of this House—I may share the record with my friend and my mentor, the Hon. Janice Crosio, former member for Prospect—for the number of occasions of being sin-binned during question time, and possibly two or three times being asked to leave for 24 hours. But I assure you, Mr Speaker, that this morning—and you are going to be very, very proud of me—I finally did take the trouble to read standing order 94 and I can now see what all the fuss was about. And having said that, can I thank speakers past and present for the many indulgences I have been allowed over the years and in particular today.

Which leaves me with the other 148 members of the House, friends and foes alike. As has been said before, not all the foes are on the other side of the House and not everyone on this side can be counted as a friend. Can I say to the friends, and they definitely know who they are, I thank you for your friendship and support over my years in this place. And to those friends who will go on to the next parliament, can I offer the tribute made by Les Haylen—a man I have had discussions with for many years, along with his son Wayne—in his book Twenty years hard Labor:

To my mates in Canberra, the ones who saw clearest, fought hardest and suffered most in the struggle.

Mr Speaker, there is one other group that I must thank: my family. Unlike Petro, I am leaving this until the last. When I look back over what now seems a short time, I have seen my children, Rebecca and Blake, grow into adulthood, complete university and establish their own homes, and I am so proud of them. I have been blessed with two beautiful grandchildren, Liam and James Hunt, and I lost my beloved father, Alan Welsh, in 2006. Family life goes on regardless of what happens here in Canberra. With my mother, a true believer, a life member of the party, Lois Welsh, and my sister, Helen del Gallo, I have known the love, support and comfort of a very, very close family and I have been sustained through the highs and definitely the lows of life as a member of parliament by the love and support of my best friend, my husband, Geoff.

Those members fortunate to have a loving partner will understand the bliss at the end of a sitting week of returning to a home-cooked meal and a chance to shrug off the mask of life in Canberra. Thanks to Geoff I have been able to return for another bout, refreshed, rearmed and ready for another battle. While there is much that I will miss in Canberra, I am looking forward to the role finally of being a full-time wife, daughter, sister, mother and grandmother.

Mr Speaker, like Hillary Clinton I have not made the impossible possible, but I have definitely given it my best shot. I do leave this place with my heart bruised but it is definitely not broken, my spirit tested but not bowed and I leave with my integrity intact.