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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 55


Mrs IRWIN (9:50 AM) —I am proud to rise, in my first speech in this House, in reply to the speech of His Excellency the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, on the occasion of the opening of the 39th Parliament. I would firstly like to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your appointment and to wish you well in office.

The 39th Parliament marks a significant milestone in Australia's history. Within the term of this parliament, Australia will enter its second century as a nation as part of a world entering a new millennium. It should be a time of great promise and optimism, a time when the people of Australia and of the world can reflect on what has been a century of great change—a century which has seen the best and the worst excesses in human behaviour.

From an age when scientific endeavour and emerging skills in social organisation promised to provide a world free from disease, free from want and free from oppression, we should have expected a new century to be bright with hope and promise. Instead, we face an age of uncertainty, an era in which the electorate demands both more and less of governments and an era in which governments appear more willing to restrict their role and to reduce their responsibilities than to address the problems faced by the people of Australia. This is the challenge for this parliament—to redefine the role of government and to redraw the lines between collective and individual responsibility and between what governments direct and what is left to the market to decide.

For governments in the coming century, their goals must include restoring hope and certainty to citizens. It is not good enough for governments to limit their scope to what they see as possible. I am reminded of the words of Hillary Rodham, speaking at her graduation nearly 30 years ago, when she said:

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.

Mr Speaker, I come to this parliament ready to take up that challenge. As a woman, I am especially proud to represent the electorate of Fowler, named after Lilian Fowler, the first woman mayor in Australia. She served as the Mayor of Newtown from 1938 to 1939.

Lilian Fowler had earlier become the first woman alderman in New South Wales—in 1928—and went on to serve in the New South Wales parliament as the Lang Labor member for Newtown from 1944 until 1950. In a remarkable career, Lilian Fowler showed the capacity of women not only to serve in public office but to mix in the rough and tumble of ALP branch politics. It is interesting to note that, like me, Lilian Fowler had served in an electorate support role to a Labor member—although, I would point out that, unlike Mrs Fowler, I succeeded the former member on his retirement, not by defeating him at a general election.

The electorate of Fowler was created in 1984 and was held from that time by Ted Grace. Like so many of his constituents, Ted migrated to Australia and in 1962 settled in the area he came to represent. His fight for basic services in what was at the time an outer urban area led him to serve on Fairfield City Council, Prospect County Council and, ultimately, as the member for Fowler. Ted's Irish background has made him a formidable advocate for the causes he believes in and a warm friend to those who have come to know him.

Mr Speaker, the electorate of Fowler is unique in many of its characteristics. Lying in the south-western districts of Sydney, the electorate includes the suburbs of Cabramatta, Canley Vale, Canley Heights, Wakeley, Mount Pritchard, St Johns Park, Bonnyrigg, Endensor Park, Lansvale, Warwick Farm, Liverpool, Cartwright, Sadlier, Ashcroft, Heckenberg, Busby, Miller, Hinchinbrook and Green Valley. Fowler is almost evenly divided between the local government areas of the City of Fairfield and the City of Liverpool.

Prior to European settlement, much of the area was occupied by members of the Cabrogal clan of the Darug tribe. The clan takes its name from the cahbra grub, a staple food for the clan and found in the creeks in the area. The name Cabramatta literally means `creek of the cahbra'. To the west of the present day electorate lives the Gandangara people. Both groups have land councils in the area today.

The district of Fowler was one of the earliest areas of European settlement in Australia. Explorations by Bass and Flinders, as well as by Watkin Tench in 1791, are recorded. Permanent European settlement commenced at the close of the 18th century. Liverpool was named the first Macquarie town in 1810 and became the centre of a farming community that stretched west to the Nepean River. In 1856 Liverpool became the second centre after Parramatta to be linked to Sydney by rail.

Most of the century that followed saw steady growth. However, since the Second World War the district has developed to the stage where, today, few tracts of vacant land remain. Fowler is now a fully developed urban area integrated into the broader south-western region of Sydney. Some industries are located in the electorate, although the bulk of employment opportunities are in adjacent districts where large manufacturing, transport and distribution facilities are located.

Mr Speaker, the 1996 census provides a picture of the Fowler electorate which suggests that it is far from being middle Australia. Indeed, if you look at the comparative rankings of the 148 electorates represented in this parliament, Fowler tends to fall into a band at the extreme end of the scale. Fowler has the sixth largest population of all electorates in Australia. However, it is the make-up of this population that makes Fowler unique. It is a young electorate, ranking 15th with a median age of 30. This is influenced by a relatively low population of older people, with only 7.9 per cent over the age of 65, and a high proportion—8.7 per cent—under five years of age.

The census figures confirm that Fowler is the most ethnically diverse electorate in Australia. Fowler ranks as the highest for residents born overseas, 51.3 per cent; born in South-East Asia, 22.2 per cent; born in a non-English-speaking country, 47.8 per cent; and born overseas or of overseas-born parents, 68.5 per cent. That is more than two out of every three residents. Fowler also has the highest number of persons born overseas and resident in Australia for less than 5 years, 9 per cent; the highest number not fluent in English, 17.7 per cent; and the highest number speaking a language other than English at home, 60.4 per cent. The problems faced by this large proportion of my constituents can be seen in reduced employment prospects and poor access to services.

When we turn to the area of employment, we see another stark picture. Fowler has the highest rate of unemployment at 17.9 per cent, while youth unemployment ranks third highest at 29.1 per cent. At the same time, Fowler has a low work force participation rate of 54.3 per cent. The make-up of the Fowler work force provides further insights. Fowler ranks highest in the number of persons describing themselves as tradespersons or labourers, 31.6 per cent. It has the fourth lowest number with tertiary qualifications, 87.2 per cent, and the fourth highest number with no qualifications, 67.2 per cent.

Fowler has the lowest number of persons in professional occupations, 12.4 per cent. It ranks 14th lowest in participation by women, 40.9 per cent, and has the 11th highest proportion of employees, 94.5 per cent. Twenty-six per cent of persons described their employment as being in manufacturing—the second highest rate in Australia.

For such a work force, it is not surprising that 40 per cent of families have incomes below $500 per week and the median family income is $617 per week. While these figures are low compared with the national averages, it should also be pointed out that they apply in a relatively expensive place of living and represent families struggling to establish themselves in a new country. There is a relatively high number of couples with dependent children—the seventh highest number of one parent families with dependent children and the third lowest number of couples with no dependent children.

Mr Deputy Speaker, if `Struggle Street' has a name, it is Longfield Street, Cabramatta, Castlereagh Street, Liverpool, or any number of streets in the Fowler electorate. Families where income earners are unskilled and have poor English language skills, face dependency on social security benefits or, at best, poorly paid employment and uncertain prospects for the future. The picture painted by these statistics does not suggest a work force ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century.

What has been the approach of the coalition government to this situation? For those needing to improve English speaking skills, the government has restricted access to the Adult Migrant English Service. For those seeking employment, the government's Job Network has been a total failure. For those seeking skills training, the government has abolished hundreds of training programs. For those seeking a living wage, they face one-sided negotiations on wages and conditions under the government's Workplace Relations Act.

I would not suggest that there are simple solutions that would overcome these problems, but it would be equally foolish to suggest that many of the residents of Fowler described in the statistics I have cited would be carried along by a wave of new industries. It is more likely that they will join the ranks of the working poor, denied the opportunities to participate in the higher order of skilled occupations, a permanent underclass in a divided society.

The biggest challenge facing governments today is to find ways to avoid this potentially disastrous division. I will concede that it is difficult but, as I said at the beginning of this speech, our challenge is to master the art of making what appears impossible, possible.

My path to this place has been assisted and influenced by many people. I would like to take this opportunity to mention and thank some of those people. I have served a long apprenticeship in preparation for this day. It is just on 32 years since I joined the Guildford branch of the Australian Labor Party. I might add that two other current members of this House, the honourable member for Reid and the honourable member for Batman, joined the same branch in that era.

The influence of my family, especially my grandfather, Frank Pittman, and my parents, Alan and Lois Welsh, ensured that I joined the Labor Party as soon as I turned 15. While I could hardly have imagined at the time that I would represent the ALP in this parliament, my concern for the issue of Australia's involvement in Vietnam, as well as the need for an extra number in the branch, started me along this path.

Many people have guided and assisted me. My father, Alan Welsh, served as a Labor alderman on Parramatta City Council. My mother, Lois Welsh, was secretary of the New South Wales Labor Women's Committee. She showed me the importance of commitment to the cause of Labor and the skills of networking. My involvement in the labour movement was extended when I began working for trade unions, the first being the Sheet Metal Workers Union. I had the privilege of work ing for a great trade unionist, Tom Wright, the then secretary of the union. I learned two important lessons from him during the equal pay case of the late 1960s. The first is that nothing worth while is achieved without struggle and the second is that the prize has to be worth the cost of the struggle. There was no shortage of radicals in the 1960s. There were many who had fire in their hearts; there were few who also kept a cool head.

Through Young Labor politics, I was able to meet many who have gone on to high public office, including two still serving in this parliament—the honourable member for Kingsford-Smith and the honourable member for Watson. I also met my partner of 28 years, Geoff Irwin. It was the usual story. He was the dedicated Prospect-Werriwa Young Labor Association President and I was the faithful secretary. Love at first sight? He liked the way I kept the attendance book!

In 1975 I became the electorate secretary to Jack Ferguson, at the time the New South Wales Deputy Leader of the Opposition and, within a year, Deputy Premier. That opportunity introduced me to the side of an elected member's work that few appreciate. When you are confronted each day with the effects of government decisions on ordinary people, you obtain a better insight into the workings of government and the disadvantages faced by those in our society who are least able to deal with the bureaucracy. My experiences working for other members, including Dr Richard Klugman, the Hon. Ross Free and my predecessor, Ted Grace, have confirmed my belief in the importance of this aspect of a member's work.

In 1975 I had the opportunity to attend the Women in Politics Convention held in Canberra during International Women's Year. When I look around me today and see the increased representation of women in this parliament, I realise that women have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Speaking of 1975, today is, of course, 11 November, Remembrance Day—a solemn occasion, but also, for those on this side of the House, a day of infamy. It is also the second anniversary of the founding of a group dedicated to seeing more women elected to parliaments. I speak of Emily's List. I was grateful for the support offered to me by this fine group and I know that many other Labor women candidates are thankful for the resources and support they received from Emily's List. I look forward to seeing a greater number of Labor women in Australian parliaments as a result of this assistance.

I must also thank my campaign team and the genuine rank and file members of the Labor Party in the electorate. In Fowler we achieved a remarkable result, making it one of the safest Labor seats in Australia. My thanks go to my campaign director, Councillor Nick Lalich of Fairfield City Council, as well as the Mayor of Fairfield, Councillor Chris Bowen, for his campaign advice; Councillor Bob Watkins for his assistance; my assistant campaign director, Joy Petrovic; Sam Bargshoon; Rob and June Elkins; David Grace; Justin Lee; Marlene Meyer; and a host of dedicated campaign workers. I was also assisted by a number of family friends: Gordon and Lyn Lambert, Barbara Sheather, Greg Garvin, Bob and Nada Hunt.

I must single out one campaign worker who performed above and beyond the call of duty. Peter Fraser, who we nicknamed `the Captain', worked tirelessly throughout the campaign. Even a heart problem could not keep Peter away. Three days after having a pacemaker inserted he was back on the job.

I would add a special thank you to my family. As I am sure all members are aware, families make many sacrifices when a family member is in public life. For my husband Geoff, my daughter Rebecca, my son Blake, my parents, Chris Hunt, my wonderful sister Helen and her husband Osvaldo Del Gallo can I say thank you for your support, love and understanding.

Finally, I would like to thank the people of Fowler who have placed their trust in me to represent their interests in this parliament.