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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 159

Ms O’NEILL (1:07 PM) —I move:

That the Address be agreed to.

Mr Speaker, first and foremost, let me acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunawal people. I pay my respects to their elders past and present. In honouring the traditional owners today, I also reflect back to the beginning of the previous parliament in 2008, which saw the historic national apology to the stolen generations. May the hope and spirit of that day live on through this and future parliaments so that the promise of a better life for all Indigenous Australians is fulfilled.

Mr Speaker, I join those who have extended their congratulations to you over the last day on your re-election to your high office. I stand here today humble, but with a sense of awe and anticipation—a self-confessed chronic optimist. And there are many reasons to be optimistic.

I am proud that we live in a country in which a woman who grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney—that’s me—can be asked by her parliamentary leader—a woman who represents the western suburbs of Melbourne—to reply to an address by another woman, our female Governor-General. I salute all the women and men who have worked towards enabling this possibility. As Her Excellency observed, this should not only be an inspiration to the women and girls of our nation but a confirmation to all Australians that we are a nation of freedom and opportunity, where you can aim high and see your hopes fulfilled regardless of your gender or where you were brought up.

As a person who has dedicated her life to the teaching profession, I am also delighted to be able to work for a leader and a party that understands the transformative power of education. So thank you, Prime Minister, for today’s opportunity, and for the hope you embody for the people of my electorate on the New South Wales Central Coast.

The seat of Robertson, which I represent, covers the southern part of the Central Coast. Just an hour and a half north of Sydney, our beautiful beaches, bushland and waterways make us one of Australia’s most visited regions. It is a place of stunning natural beauty—and a testament to the local Darkinjung and Guringai peoples and their ancestors.

Robertson stretches from the northern shore of the Hawkesbury River along the coastline to Wamberal Lagoon, before zigzagging north-west through Narara and Niagara Park up past Kulnura. The electoral boundary then snakes back south, until it rejoins the mighty Hawkesbury. These 978 square kilometres are a slice of regional Australia that is closest to our biggest city. There is rich agricultural land on the plateau at Peats Ridge, Mangrove Mountain and beyond—an area endearingly described in Peter FitzSimons’s recent memoir, A Simpler Time. Along the coast, our famous beaches from Terrigal to Umina Beach are major tourist drawcards, as is the boating playground of the Brisbane Water, home to more than a million plump oysters.

The people of Robertson are generous of spirit and generous in sharing this part of the world with each other and with visitors. Many locals selflessly volunteer their time at surf clubs and our emergency services, such as the Rural Fire Service, and other community associations. The attractions of the Central Coast have proved a great drawcard to the growing population of Sydney, and the expansion of our population in the last 30 years has been enormous. This has led to ever-growing challenges to our infrastructure. Most evident is the pressure on our roads, our rail, our schools and our health services. Our daily commuter population is estimated at around 40,000 people.

We have a large percentage of retired people in Robertson, a large percentage of young people and a growing number of young families making their way in the world. Meeting the needs of this particular demographic combination will continue to be a challenge. But I stand here today as the Labor member for Robertson because both young and old, families, small business owners, workers and retirees understood something very important on 21 August this year. The people of Robertson kept faith with Labor. They voted for a Gillard government, because it is a government committed to social inclusion, a government focused on delivering access to better health and education services, a government committed to a better infrastructure, and a government with a clear and steady focus on a strong economy. These are the core issues for the future of Robertson and indeed the whole of regional Australia.

In my work here in the parliament and at home, I bring the values instilled from a loving family life and significant role models who have influenced me. Those who know me well know I am a person who treasures my family, my Irish heritage and my Catholic faith. I am the eldest daughter of six children born to Jim and Mary O’Neill. Jim was a wild hurling Irish Corkman who we lost to cancer back in 1989. He brought his Irish eyes, his Irish accent and his blushing Kilkenny bride to Australia, determined to live as big a life as possible. Mary, my mum, was lured here by film-reel vision of Aussie washing drying in the sunshine on a Hill’s hoist, and the sight of a backyard populated by happy, healthy children with access to a quality education and the chance to live out their dreams.

My parents started life like so many young immigrants—with hope in their hearts, a capacity for hard work and a love for the best parts of the culture they left behind. Our family are all proud Australians, who celebrate our Irish heritage through dancing, music, song and story—ways that connect us to our ancestors. My mother, Mary, is in the gallery today, along with my husband, Paul, and our three children, Caitlin, Brianna and Noah. I am glad to share this day with my brother, Sean, his wife, Jacqui, my Uncle Mike and my cousin Christine.

As well as my sense of family, I bring with me a love of place and country. I travelled north—some might say emigrated—from Sydney to the Central Coast 25 years ago. I had just married Paul, a surfer who loved the left hand surf break at the beach that the local custodians call Tudabaring Headland. It means ‘Where the waves pound like heartbeats’. More recent residents know it as Copa Point. Paul and I lived and raised our children just up the road from that magical surfing break. Bouddi National Park lies just to the south. In the local Aboriginal language, Bouddi means ‘heart’. This area is literally our family’s heartland. There is a lot to love.

Beyond family and place, my enduring love, my passion, is education. I love its power to transform the lives of those who embrace it. Education enriches and fulfils those who share it and those who receive it. It is a great source of inspiration to me that it is an educator, Mother Mary MacKillop, who will become Australia’s first saint later this year. Mother Mary established an orphanage and school at Kincumber.

I fell under the thrall of education at the age of four. Listening to the Kindergarten of the Air, I can still recall the black-and-white lino tiles on the floor, the formica table, the radio on the kitchen bench and my mum smiling at me as she turned on that radio and opened to me the wonderful world of learning. Mum did her best to keep me entertained with stories and promises of being allowed to attend school when I was big enough. From the age of about 3½ I stood at the white painted fence of my parents’ first home in Curran Street, Blacktown and pointed out to my mother every single school uniformed passer-by who was smaller than I. I was hoping each day to persuade her to allow me out the gate and up the road to school, where I knew something wonderful was happening. Finally, at 4½ when the first day of school arrived, mum and I and my sister and brother headed up to St. Andrews, Marayong. I disappeared into a classroom and found a desk. I started school by myself. There was no teacher in the room and I am told that my disappearance caused some concern.

I tell this story today because it illustrates something I now know as an adult, who has given 25 years of her professional life in the service of education. We all know how vital the early childhood years are in developing a disposition for learning and a disposition towards schooling. This is an ongoing challenge for all Australian parents, carers, teachers, elders and community leaders: to link kids with learning.

The School of the Air may have been overtaken by TV, video and the iPad, but it is now clearer than ever that technology plays a vital part in making quality educational experiences accessible to those who want to learn but are confined by age, by disability or simply by the tyranny of distance from people and the options to select for learning that excites them. That is why, as an educator, the possibilities of stable, high-quality, high speed internet access where we live, through the National Broadband Network, is a policy of which I am very proud. In my own story, learning happens both inside and outside classrooms. It is my belief that learning happens both inside and outside programs and formal curricula.

Learning is a natural phenomenon—it is part of our everyday life—and, when formal education meets a learner at the point where their interest lies, learning is a joyful experience of growth that benefits the individual, the community and our national productive capacity. I acknowledge my professional colleagues, my fellow teachers and the work all teachers do in schools. But I am mindful that not all students find school such a positive or enabling experience. That is why we need to continue to adapt and change how we offer education. We need initiatives such as trade training centres and a full range of learning content and learning sites to ensure all students, whatever their age, are able to discover and develop their talents.

I personally thank Miss Walker of St Anthony’s, Girraween, my first class teacher, who opened up new worlds to me by teaching me how to read. It has been a real source of joy to read each night of my life by dim light and discover other times, other worlds and other people’s stories. I bring all of that reading with me and deeply understand the importance of basic literacy for all. I also must thank my high school teachers, the Good Samaritans at St Patrick’s College in Campbelltown. Mrs Writer introduced me to Shakespeare through Julius Caesar, while Mrs Yule revealed the beauty of poetry to me in a single lesson on Donne. Miss Milne gave me words to understand literature and language. Mrs Sneddon and Mrs Malone, who arranged theatre and concerts, opened my ears to orchestral music and my eyes to new ideas that have nurtured in me a deep love of music and the arts. I also want to thank Sister Magdalena for being a powerful model of compassion.

Making these kinds of interactions available to all students is so important, for teaching is much more than books and exams, results and certificates. Teachers prepare us for life in the community. I see schools as critical sites in which our citizens practise our democratic capacity—our capacity to get along with one another. We need to practise ways of being a good citizen in our time, our country, our region and our world. We need to think and learn about our beliefs and our values as citizens in a democracy. This is such an important field that I think deserves much greater emphasis.

Values education is in fact the field of my doctoral studies, and one in which Australia has some world leaders. One of them is Professor Terry Lovat, my mentor from the University of Newcastle, where I work on the Central Coast campus. I have recently spent my time there as a lecturer in the School of Education. I thank you, Professor Lovat, for being here today. I thank my lecturers and tutors at Sydney university, the University of New England, the Australian Catholic University and Deakin University and my colleagues and students at the University of Newcastle for their inspiration and humanity. I mention Professor Keith Crawford, as a wonderful writing and teaching partner.

Our educational infrastructure is such an important part of our future. The renewal of our school buildings in Robertson is a sign of good economic management. Indeed investment in infrastructure, in every sense, is so important for our region. Our infrastructure deficit on the Central Coast is a major structural impediment to economic growth that impacts on the quality of life of our residents and visitors every day. That is why, as I was campaigning at the doors of our local residents, I was proud to say that it was the Labor Party who, in our first term in government in this new century, installed our first federal minister for infrastructure.

Our $20 million investment in advancing fast rail, and the increased role for Infrastructure Australia that will drive that development, testifies to Labor’s commitment to the regions outside major cities. I acknowledge the work of all those who plan and all those who build our roads. It is the task to which my Irish-born father gave his working life and the tradition which continues in the work of my four brothers. I fondly recall the awe in my father’s voice as we drove north on a holiday not long after the completion of the first section of the F3. For the people of Robertson, that infrastructure build was the beginning of opening up the Central Coast and the regions north of us. In the immediate future, the engineering possibilities that are now known to us offer the potential for a critical link between the F3 and the M2 that would decrease travel times to Sydney for workers, for tourists and for businesspeople who travel that route.

Time on the road is time away from family and friends. In my time as the member for Robertson, I understand that a key part of my role as a connector of all levels of government is to ensure that local infrastructure deficits on our Central Coast are redressed and that future planning for our region ensures that we build with an eye to the future. In this regard, I make no apology for articulating today my determination to seek the earliest possible rollout of the National Broadband Network for our region.

 We live in a global village with business, health and learning opportunities that have the capacity to radically improve our lives through stable, high-quality digital connection with others outside our region. In Robertson, as in other regional areas across our great nation, we have a population that is in love with where we live. But we need high-quality jobs to ensure that our children can plan for future lives where we live. Currently, so many of our young people, our young parents and our experienced workers can only find work or seek out professional challenge by leaving the coast. Some coasties leave permanently; others commute daily. Such a loss of capacity in our region has too great a cost both socially and economically. It is my view that the NBN and the opportunities that it offers to large businesses and service providers to relocate physical capital to the regions is the opportunity of our lifetime to re-envision the possibility for lives in regional Australia.

I would like to take the time remaining to me to acknowledge my family, friends, students, professional colleagues and my fellow Labor Party members, a number of whom have made their way here today. I have long held the belief that we can achieve far better and far greater things when we work alongside one another in a spirit of hope and possibility for the future, shielded from the loud voices of cynics who would have us abandon our dreams. I stand here today only because friends and supporters have at various times of my life encouraged, enlightened, challenged, debated with me or guided me in good faith. The fact that our hard-won victory in Robertson brought one of the seats that tipped the balance in Labor’s favour is a source of great pride for all involved in our campaign.

I had a great team working with me. There are many people to thank, from those who were there at the beginning to everybody who pitched in and handed out on election day. Let us keep working for the future of the place we love. My special thanks go to Jamie Clements, George Houssos, Matt Pulford and Alison Rahill, Trish Moran, Paul Lister, Richard Mehrtens, Michael Buckland, John Gifford, Chris Hepple, Megan Hopper, Bill Stewart and many others inside and outside the office who gave such great support in so many ways. Thank you to Ron and Gabrielle too. There would have been no victory without the sterling support rendered by the New South Wales ALP party office. I thank Matt Thistlethwaite, Sam Dastyari, Chris Minns, Kaila Murnain, Brendan Cavanagh and Luke McDermott. My deep gratitude goes as well to the hardworking ministers and senators who visited the Central Coast. And of course there was the irrepressible and eternal Bob Hawke and Blanche d’Alpuget. There were many campaign anecdotes that could easily have sprung from the pen of Robertson’s longest serving member, Barry Cohen. Barry kindly shared with me his time, advice and endorsement.

As the 13th member for the seat of Robertson, I acknowledge the hard work of all former members and thank them for their service. There were some Central Coast true believers who would have loved to be here today. Were they still with us, Royce Cummins, Brendan Hannelly, Ken Cowles and Shen Myers would have relished being here to see the new Labor government and our Prime Minister in full flight. They are here in spirit, with many others, close family members and friends who I wish were here this day.

I would also like to acknowledge the great Australian trade union movement. As a Labor person my values are reflected in the values of the union movement—a commitment to fairness, to respect, to the common good and to equity for all Australians. My sincere thanks go to the Secretary of Unions New South Wales, Mark Lennon, and the President of the ACTU, Ged Kearney, for the work that they do and their commitment to the Central Coast. My thanks go to the SDA for their long-running support—particularly Gerard Dwyer, Barbara Nebart and former official, now New South Wales MLC, Greg Donnelly, and David Bliss. Thank you, too, to Graeme Kelly of the USU, Mick Doleman of the MUA, Bernie Riordan of the ETU, Wayne Forno and Tony Sheldon of the TWU, Brett Holmes of the New South Wales Nurses, and the many other unions who look after the interests of working people on the Central Coast. They do this by campaigning to keep council workers directly employed and by keeping so many other important things in our workplaces. I know the value of the work that unions do, and I do not take union support for granted. I also acknowledge, the support and guidance of my fellow Central Coast Labor parliamentarians Craig Thomson, Marie Andrews, the member for Gosford, Grant McBride, the member for the Entrance, David Hams, the member for Wyong, as well as Gosford councillors Jim McFadyen and Vicki Scott. My heartfelt thanks goes out to all of you—people and organisations—for your support and your faith in the Labor Party.

 I promise the people of Robertson that I will serve my community and my country with every ounce of energy that I have to give. Our fellow citizens have sent us here to govern wisely, with dignity, with grace, with integrity. The structure of this parliament is not an aberration; it is the will of the people. There will be learning to do, new skills as legislators to be acquired, new ways of being parliamentary citizens to be enacted and new ways of advancing our nation that will be sought of us. But this is our time and I embrace it with full consciousness of the honour bestowed on each of us who take our seats in this, the 43rd Parliament of Australia.

The SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Lyons —I have pleasure in seconding the motion and reserve my right to speak.

The SPEAKER —Order! Before I call the honourable member for Ryan, I remind honourable members that this is her first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to her.