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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 227


Mr MITCHELL (6:01 PM) —Today I humbly and proudly rise as the elected member for McEwen. It is both an honour and a great privilege to be elected to the Australian parliament to serve in this place as a representative of a vibrant, strong and resilient community. I shall never underestimate the responsibility that comes with this honour, nor the opportunities that it brings to help shape a better Australia for our future.

Today, as I reflect on the journey that has brought me to this place, I consider the formative events in my life, both personal and professional, all of which have shaped my perspectives on the issues confronting our great nation. I grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne, in the working-class suburb of Dallas, a suburb that has enjoyed great improvements under the current member for Calwell’s time in this place. Our family home was not blessed with all the material trappings of wealth, but we enjoyed a very warm and loving environment. Both of my parents worked very hard to give us opportunities in life. I am now able to reflect fondly on those times we had as kids packing up the car and the caravan and heading off to the far-flung corners of Australia, taking in all its magnificent sights and experiences.

I was always raised to accept people as they are, to acknowledge that it is our unique personalities and character traits that make our diverse and accepting Australian society a great one in the context of a sometimes intolerant world. Likewise, my parents always encouraged me to pursue my interests, trust my instincts and back my judgments. It is from them that I first learnt the value of serving the community, of helping others and of seeking to do what is best. It is to them that I wish to first say thank you. George and Lorraine, you have been an inspiration. I also want to thank my sister, Glenda, and my brother-in-law, Gary, who have always been pillars of strength to me, encouraging me to follow my dreams and giving me support in those endeavours.

But it is with a heavy heart that I want to acknowledge those special persons in my life who cannot be here to share this occasion. First, there is Carol, the mother of my partner, Lisa. Carol was a true salt-of-the-earth mum. She showed over the many years that a mother’s unconditional love and enduring encouragement is the bond that keeps a family together. Carol was always supportive, always interested in what you were doing and always quick with a ‘Robbie, would you like a cup of coffee, love?’ That was Carol’s way of taking the opportunity to sit with you and ask, ‘How was your day?’ and ask what was going on with your life. There are many jokes we can make about mothers-in-law, but my mother-in-law was a good one.

Also, I would like to acknowledge my younger brother, Jason, who passed away suddenly from Marfan syndrome when he was 29. It is a little-known disease that affects on average one in 3,000 people, yet most of us, doctors included, have little knowledge of the symptoms and effects. Marfan syndrome is a life-threatening disorder of the body’s connective tissue. It is caused by a faulty gene that hampers the elasticity of arteries. For most people with Marfan syndrome the most serious problem is in the aorta, which becomes prone to dissection and a tearing between its layers. Should the aorta tear, you have an immediate life-threatening problem, and, in Jason’s case, death occurred very quickly. It is one of the reasons I am incredibly proud of the fact that this government delivered a national organ transplant authority. The authority will help many Australians receive life-saving transplants, and that is all because a Labor government chose to make a difference.

After leaving school in year 10, I completed an apprenticeship in shoemaking. I worked in tough conditions in a workplace that was poor in its respect for its workers. Yet, despite those hardships, I was constantly buoyed by the positivism and high work ethic of my culturally and ethnically diverse colleagues, who had often been suffering from extreme poverty and oppression when they left their home countries. They shared one common aspiration: to better their lives and the lives of their families. Reflecting upon this period of my life, I can now see the many parallels between that experience and the experience of modern Australia, a country that is sometimes struggling to understand the challenges of our diverse community and, in equal measure, to grasp the benefits of it. Yet we are driven by a fundamental desire at the heart of our national being to build a better Australia for ourselves and for our loved ones. I recall today with fondness the many people I met there, some of whom I am proud to still call friends today.

This period had an indelible effect on my sense of justice in the workplace, in particular my personal disdain for discriminatory practices. To me, no form of discrimination is as abhorrent as that which preys on personal weaknesses, such as an inability to speak fluent English or an individual’s lack of understanding and comprehension of their workplace rights. I believe that it is the right of every working Australian to expect a safe, discrimination-free workplace. I also firmly believe that working Australians should be able to collectively bargain for a better future.

Following my apprenticeship, I spent a few years as a service contractor for the RACV and as a tow truck operator before moving into the transport industry and building a career in sales and management. It was there that I spent more than 10 years working with owner-drivers, mechanics and fleet owners, supplying their replacement parts to keep this vital industry on the move. The experience enabled me to better understand the issues faced by truck drivers and fleet operators, issues that continue today, such as long hours, poor pay rates, non-uniform road laws and, sometimes, unscrupulous operators who will continue to pressure owner-drivers to risk their life and limb for a pittance. More can and should be done to provide a safe and secure workplace for the transport industry workers of Australia and, in turn, the travelling public.

It was during this time that I had the good fortune of meeting Mr Don Nardella, a man who I continue to consider to be a great friend. Don encouraged me to join the Labor family, to be part of a movement which shares my values of fairness and support for those in need—a movement which, as former Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley said in his famous Light on the Hill speech, strives to bring something ‘better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people’. He went on to say:

If the movement can make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the government is striving its hardest to do its best, then the Labour movement will be completely justified.

These words still ring true today. The obligations of the labour movement then remain the obligations of the labour movement now—to strive for the betterment of our society and our nation, to support those who have put their trust and their faith in us that we may improve their lives, and to be there to support those around the globe who need a helping hand. We are the Lucky Country and I believe it is incumbent on us, as a matter of international decency, to aim to meet the Millennium Development Goals, to help those who, for whatever reason, find themselves in a country less fortunate than ours.

It is with these obligations in mind that I recall the first time I had the great pleasure of meeting a gentleman who would become a mentor and a sounding post for me, a man who in his own right embodied the values of Chifley. The man I refer to is Peter Cleeland. As members would be aware, Peter sadly passed away in 2007. But it is my firm belief that his legacy of public service remains a standard to which others should aspire. As a policeman, as a councillor and as a federal member, Peter gave so much of himself to his community, and, in my case, he gave me a start down a path the result of which, in part, is my presence here today.

I first met Peter at a local community festival. Following a pleasant exchange I left with a native tree and, importantly, an invitation to the next ALP branch meeting. Suffice to say my gardening skills meant that the tree did not last long, but my friendship with Peter continued for many, many years. Peter introduced me to great Labor people, many of whom have been involved in the most recent election campaign, most notably my good friend Councillor Pam McLeod. These people assisted and encouraged me to develop my understanding of the political process. To my mind this was critical to my journey, as I had decided by this time that I could not effect change for the betterment of our communities without being prepared to put myself forward, to stand up to scrutiny and to be part of a movement to make this country better.

In 1999 I gratefully received the endorsement of the ALP as its candidate for the Central Highlands in the Victorian Legislative Council. History records that I was not elected. Ben Hardman won the seat of Seymour, Andre Haermeyer retained the seat of Yan Yean, and, most importantly, Steve Bracks led Labor to a historic victory. In the following years I watched as a minority government delivered a new style of leadership—one which would listen and act for all Victorians, no matter where they lived—and ended the conservative parties’ treatment of regional Victoria as the toenail of the state.

In 2002 I decided to again stand for preselection. On this occasion I was elected to the Legislative Council, where under Steve Bracks we started a challenging process of parliamentary reform. At the same time, the state government placed an emphasis on rural and regional community needs, in turn delivering much needed investment in infrastructure and services that has allowed regional Victoria to grow and prosper. It was during this time that I also met Joe Helper, who has become a great friend to me, and I thank him for his assistance in my being here today.

In 2007 I received support from the ALP to stand for the federal seat of McEwen. As I reflect upon this period I can honestly say that, despite the end result, this was an exciting time for all involved. The campaign had a real energy about it. It was clear that the Howard government had become arrogant and out of touch in the eyes of the community and that Labor was ready and able to govern. As members would recall, McEwen came down to the wire. It took some eight long months and five recounts to finally get a result. Sadly, it was not the result that I had sought.

Those members who sit here today who have themselves been the unfortunate recipients of electoral defeat will understand the period of self-reflection that inevitably follows. It was in this time that I recall the words that I had learnt at a very young age: it does not matter how many times you get knocked down; what is important is that you get back up one more time. That campaign and the community support I received made me more determined to continue on and work for the ALP victory in McEwen.

As the member for Maribyrnong quoted to the House in 2008:

Mankind … is divided between the party of Conservatism and the party of Innovation, between the Past and the Future, between Memory and Hope.

Never more evident were these words than at this year’s federal election. We had Julia Gillard’s Labor Party ‘moving forward’—moving forward in protecting the economy, moving forward in health and moving forward in education and infrastructure. On the other hand there were those opposite. Their message was clear: stop, cut, end, turn back—not an inspiring plan, hardly what one would call a vision for the future of this great nation. They are stuck in the past and not offering the community any hope, any innovation or any future.

McEwen is by its very nature diverse—diverse in topography, diverse in demography and diverse in the needs and the wants that will drive our communities towards a more prosperous future. There are the growing outer-metropolitan suburbs of the south, the regional towns and communities across the north and west and the leafy ranges of the east. There are sections of the electorate which require better access to health, education and job opportunities to grow and survive, while other rural areas have suffered through the worst drought in living history and need continued economic support.

In 2009 the local community was devastated by the disaster we know as Black Saturday. Whole towns were ripped apart and decimated by these awful fires—fires which, in the space of a single day, had become the deadliest and worst-ever natural disaster in Australian history, with a death toll of 173, more than 2,000 homes lost, several townships completely obliterated and more than 7,000 people displaced and struggling to rebuild their lives. The scars on the landscape are slowly beginning to heal but we should remember that the scars in the hearts and the minds of the community may never heal.

Personally, I was pretty lucky on that day. The fire came into our street on three sides. I want to put on record my thanks for the unbelievable courage and dedication shown by our volunteers in fighting this raging inferno. They kept it at bay and saved us from joining the many families who lost all they had. It was a terrible night. I recall a lady in a car driving very slowly down our street. I went over to her and she sat there sobbing at what she thought she had left behind. Was her husband still alive? Did she still have a home to go back to? Sadly, I felt a deep sense of helplessness. Having no water and no power, I could not even invite her in for a cup of coffee or a drink to try to ease her fears. But I stayed with her until she was composed enough to continue to town, to her family, just before the rain of burnt gum leaves started to fall in our yard. Yes, it was a sleepless night for me, but my family was safely out of the area already. As I said, we were lucky. At a community meeting some days later I met that lady who had driven up my street. I am glad to say that both her husband and her home survived.

At this point I wish to pay tribute to the former member for McEwen, who worked tirelessly for the community during the days and months that followed those tragic events. I also wish to acknowledge former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who led a government which acted decisively and assisted the member for McEwen by opening up direct lines of communication and delivering assistance and extra resources to help her at that extraordinary time of community need. Ms Bailey’s long career is evidence that she indeed served her party well in this place and I really wish her well for her future.

Election campaigns are never about the candidate alone. They require the support of a network of people willing to contribute and sacrifice their time, and certainly my campaign was no exception. It is my belief that the strength of the ALP is derived from our branch members who for so long have manned our polling booths, held fundraisers, attended street stalls and helped out campaigning. I do not for a moment doubt that we would not have been successful in McEwen without the fantastic support, the hard work and the commitment of all the members and volunteers. So to all involved, I say a special thank you for your long-standing commitment to our party locally.

Young Labor came out to help on many occasions during the campaign—they are a dedicated group of young adults who believe in our party. This was obvious when they spent the day in the rain and the hail letterboxing the Romsey community. I pay tribute to our union friends who have been so supportive in campaigning in McEwen against Work Choices in particular. I want to thank Caesar Melham and the AWU, Wayne Mader and the TWU, and Michael O’Conner and the CFMEU timber workers who were there with me all the way. I also appreciate the support, guidance and advice I have received over my journey to this place from my friends in the parliament—Senator Steve Conroy, the member for Maribyrnong Bill Shorten, Senator David Feeney, and of course my neighbour, the member for Scullin Harry Jenkins.

The former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, came out and campaigned with me—he is a man who loves the party so much that he continues to travel the country to support our candidates. Of course, to Julia Gillard, our Prime Minister, who I have known for a long time, I want to thank her for her continuous support, for her great leadership, and for the visions and plans that she has for this country and our community. I thank all the members of my campaign team, and in particular Denise Power, Santo Spinello and Carmel Barrot. Carmel has been with me throughout the ups and downs of this journey and her loyalty, dedication and commitment have never wavered. I would also like to say a special thank you to Claire McClelland. Claire’s patience, friendship and work ethic are something to be admired and I cannot thank her enough. I do not think we would have achieved this result without her.

I want to thank our local community. This campaign was about moving forward and it inspired so many voters to get involved in the political process for the first time. It was truly amazing to see the emails and grassroots support I received from community members who stood up and took their own action to ensure a better future for our country. I want to note a couple of these people in particular, such as a woman who emailed me and made me laugh on one of those darker campaign days. Such moments of levity can be worth their weight in gold. In her email she wrote:

I’m really hoping that the Liberals don’t win this election because if Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister I’m leaving the country.

I assured her we were doing our best to keep her here. And there was the pensioner who hand-wrote a letter saying:

I heard the ALP needs money to keep pressure on the campaign … The ALP has already done so much to bring Australia forward it can’t stop now … I hope this donation helps … PS: I wish I could give more.

She enclosed $30 of her pension. And there was the lady I met at a street stall in Doreen who emailed me saying:

I lead a comfortable life. Whatever the result on August 21st, nothing much will change for me … But it is not about me, it’s about my three grandchildren, and your kids and the type of society we want them to grow up in.

This was part of a letter that she wrote, printed and hand delivered to her community:

Sometimes a person has to stand up against political policies that are blatantly unjust. Sometimes a person has to stand up for what is right, responsible and fair. On August 21 I will be voting against the Liberals and I hope you will do the same.

In my mind this is what the political process is all about. It is about our future, our community and their voice. It is not just about what I will do; it is about what we can do together. This is why I chose to stand again to represent our community and listen and work with them to deliver a better Australia. I firmly believe it is our job to leave this country in a better place than it was when we arrived.

Mr Speaker, I reserve the most important thankyous for the end. Firstly, I want to give an extra special word of thanks for the non-stop support and love to my partner, Lisa. Lisa understood that I needed to spend time away from the family to pursue my dreams. This meant that she inevitably had to shoulder more of the family workload, often attending important events in our daughter Rachael’s formative years on her own. Without Lisa’s unqualified support I would not be here today. I want to thank Rachael for her support over the years. As Rachael is very aware, it is sometimes not easy being the child of a politician, especially when you get your photo in those flyers that go out to the electorate!

I am honoured and proud to be given the responsibility of representing the good people of McEwen in this place and I look forward to representing their views and contributing in a constructive way to a government that will govern for all Australians. I thank the House for extending me the customary courtesy.