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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 7119


Senator PAYNE (New South Wales) (22:01): I am going to speak in the main this evening about the launch of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Early Literacy, which was held in the parliament last week. However, first I want to address the highly personal attack on a hardworking coalition member of the other place, which was made in this chamber by a Labor senator last Thursday. I found the remarks of Senator Thistlethwaite on that occasion very disappointing, attacking my colleague Joanna Gash MP.

Mrs Gash was elected to the position of Mayor of Shoalhaven City Council in the previous weekend's local government elections. Mrs Gash is a popular, energetic and hardworking local member of the federal parliament, and Senator Thistlethwaite's description of her constituents as 'the forgotten people of Gilmore' is so far from reality as to verge on the farcical. I expect that Mrs Gash will execute her duties as mayor with the same enthusiasm and drive as she has for many years as the member for Gilmore while she continues to be the member for Gilmore until the next election.

As a member of former Prime Minister John Howard's class of 1996, Mrs Gash has provided a strong voice for her constituents and, as many will attest, she is certainly not afraid to rattle some cages to get her local residents the services she promised them during the term of the previous government. The 'forgotten people', to use Senator Thistlethwaite's description, who reside on the south coast of New South Wales in Gilmore surely must not have felt too neglected when they voted to elect Mrs Gash to the position of mayor of Shoalhaven City Council. The inconvenient facts which were left out of Senator Thistlethwaite's remarks last week included the fact that Mrs Gash secured 63 per cent of the mayoral vote and was hardly operating on a secret that she was also the member for Gilmore.

Senator Thistlethwaite was not on particularly strong ground when he called for Mrs Gash to move on. She is the Shoalhaven's first female mayor—perhaps a long overdue event; but, nevertheless, a very important role for Mrs Gash to fill. She appears to have taken at least six other spots on the council with her team. So, whilst it might be convenient to spray around the political invective, I think ignoring the democratic wishes of the people of Gilmore—in this case their vote in the local government elections in New South Wales—whilst convenient to Senator Thistlethwaite does not accurately represent the situation in Gilmore.

Further on the subject of my remarks this evening, last week I had the great privilege of launching the Parliamentary Friendship Group on Early Literacy, along with the federal member for Lindsay, the Hon. David Bradbury MP, Assistant Treasurer, and also a fascinating group of energetic Australians from Paint the Town REaD. It was also encouraging to see the many members from both sides of the political divide and from both the Senate and the House of Representatives attend the launch last week. Their support of this initiative highlights just how important it is for us all to work together to improve the early literacy of our children and to give our children the best possible start in life.

I particularly want to thank the organisers of Paint the Town REaD. It is a wonderful early literacy capacity building program that has been doing absolutely fantastic work in the community since it was launched in 1996 in Parkes, in regional New South Wales. If you had been there last week, Mr President, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the town crier of Parkes was planning to take over the parliament itself, along with the Mayor of Parkes. I particularly want to thank two individuals from Paint the Town REaD for the contribution they make to the community, in particular, and to this exceptionally important cause.

I want to thank Rhonda Brain from Parkes. She is an extraordinary woman. She has an energy like I have never seen. She is unstoppable. She wears her white overalls with her red reading splotches all over them, almost wherever she goes. In fact, I do not think I have ever seen Rhonda without something red on to signify Paint the Town REaD. The most wonderful thing about her energy and her commitment to this cause is that it is contagious. You cannot help when you are in her company for 60 seconds but to decide that the most important thing you need to do as well is to address the challenges of early literacy in this country. I also want to thank Barbie Bates, who is another indefatigable organiser for Paint the Town REaD and who has the assisted enormously in spreading its message, particularly across Western Sydney, which, as my colleagues will know, is very important to me. They were unstoppable in getting politicians of all stripes on board to support this particular initiative last week.

Mr President, you were probably the recipient of an enthusiastic letter from Rhonda Brain where she could see a vision of the children of Canberra appearing here in the Senate chamber to have stories read to them by members of the Senate. I am not sure that the standing orders extended quite that far. I do not think it was possible on the occasion, but I loved her mental picture, and I loved the idea that we might be able to do something like that in this place at some stage. We came to an excellent compromise. It was a beautiful day last Wednesday, and after the formal launch in one of the committee rooms upstairs and the cutting of a very red Paint the Town REaD cake, many of us went outside to meet with children from the child-care centre here in the building and from other child-care facilities around Canberra to read stories to them, with many of the animal patrons, if you like, of early literacy and Paint the Town REaD.

The success of Paint the Town REaD is evident in its expansion since the very early days of the initiative into Western Sydney, into western Queensland and also into regional Victoria. I hope that together we can all build on this foundation and work towards improving early literacy for our children and giving them the best possible start in life.

We had an extraordinary time when we were reading to the children; however, it might be said we were overshadowed by Rooby Roo, who is the very popular kangaroo mascot of Paint the Town REaD and who absolutely entranced the children who were sitting outside in the sun with us. They were fascinated with wanting to get her to read their books to them. She is not able to read, so that was a small technical difficulty, but we mere mortals—mere senators and members—filled in as best we could in those moments where it was clear that Rooby Roo may well have caused some of the children to cry if they did not get a story read to them at the time.

This particular launch followed National Literacy and Numeracy Week 2012 which was held just recently and comes under the umbrella of the National Year of Reading 2012. The National Year of Reading 2012 is a collaborative project. It links public libraries, government and community groups, and commercial partners and the public. It is an initiative that comes in response to the very startling figure that almost 46 per cent of Australians cannot read effectively at a basic level.

The National Year of Reading 2012 has three aims: to ensure that all Australians understand the benefits of reading as a life skill and a catalyst for wellbeing, to promote a reading culture in every home and to establish an aspirational goal for families of parents and caregivers sharing books with their children every day. I think we would all agree that they are extremely worthwhile goals. The launch event was also significant because it kicked off the Paint the Town REaD's third annual conference, which went from 12 to 14 September.

I love Paint the Town REaD. It is a fantastic grassroots organisation that involves local groups organising their own year-round events as well as an annual Reading Day which focuses on the message, 'Read, talk, sing and rhyme with your child from birth'. I have seen Rhonda Brain persuade fully-grown adults dressed in corporate suits and work gear to do the most extraordinary things in large rooms in front of other people—things that you might think they would normally be embarrassed to do. But for this cause of early literacy, everyone is willing to have a go.

The Reading Day held every year engages the whole community: young children are read to in their local shops by shop staff and celebrities, by high school students and by volunteers. The NRL is involved. Local politicians are involved. Any organisation you can think of that wants to support children and support their development is welcome and happy to become involved. The groups are locally owned and locally run by community leaders such as school principals, councils, NGOs, community health workers and early childhood educators.

I think the piece de resistance for me was seeing Ransley Street in Penrith, which runs between Centrebet Stadium and the Penrith Paceway, acquire a new street sign not so long ago. It now has a bright red sign above Ransley Street that says 'Reading Street'. I would hope the ambition of Paint the Town REaD and the other excellent early literacy groups that abound in this country is to have at least one street in every community renamed Reading Street.