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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 81

Ms VAMVAKINOU (12:09 PM) —Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you and the other office-bearers in this House on your election. I also thank you personally for the warm welcome you extended to me and my new colleagues at the recent seminar for new parliamentarians.

The electorate I am so proud to serve and represent here in the House is named after Arthur Calwell, a member of the House of Representatives from 1940 to 1972, a senior minister throughout the 1940s and Labor's leader in the 1960s. It was Arthur Calwell who introduced the Displaced Persons Scheme in 1947. That scheme enabled around 170,000 refugees from the wreckage of war torn Europe to make their homes in Australia under the auspices of the International Refugee Organisation. It marked a first tentative departure from the White Australia policy and it paved the way for multiculturalism.

Arthur Calwell is to be commended for having the courage to make a bold and far-reaching decision without fear of public opinion. He did what was in the long-term interests of this country without being dissuaded or frightened off by the so-called majority view. Calwell's motto `Be just and fear not' is good advice for politicians in any age. Multiculturalism is one of the modern foundations of our nation. It is one of our proudest achievements. Nowhere is this more evident than in the electorate of Calwell where two-thirds of residents are either first or second generation Australians.

I am pleased to say that most Australians celebrate multiculturalism. In the last five years, however, we have seen others challenge multiculturalism because they cannot accept the true nature of the contemporary Australian identity. It was horrifying to see xenophobia and race used by some as a campaign weapon in the last election. Pandering to the darkest elements of the Australian political psyche, particularly at a time of intense economic insecurity, may well offer short-term political advantages, however, it will do enormous damage to Australia both internationally and domestically in the long term.

What both Calwell the man and Calwell the electorate named after him teach us is that cultural diversity is not a mere slogan; it is an inevitable and, 55 years on from the Displaced Persons Scheme, an integral part of Australian life. The electorate of Calwell has benefited from the many significant milestones of our immigration history. It is very much a microcosm of Australian society. It has been the place where many postwar migrants joined a community of Anglo-Celtic Australians and together set about making a go of it on what was then Melbourne's urban frontier. The electorate of Calwell is the home of the original inhabitants of the Wurundjeri and Marin-Balluk clans of the Woi Wurrung tribe.

At this point I want to acknowledge our indigenous people as the original owners of this great continent. Our Calwell community has always been at the forefront of settling displaced persons. Beginning with Scottish and Irish pioneers, to the first wave of postwar migrants from Europe, to the more recently arrived new settlers from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, we continue to embrace and encourage their contribution because we recognise that their presence enriches Calwell's cultural fabric.

Our diversity of cultures and backgrounds also means a diversity of faiths and religions. The electorate of Calwell has one of Australia's largest concentrations of residents who observe the Islamic faith—in excess of 15 per cent, I believe. The electorate of Calwell also has one of the largest concentrations of Turkish born and Turkish identifying Australians who started arriving here in large numbers after the White Australia policy was officially axed in 1967.

In recent times members of my electorate have come under a great deal of pressure and have been subjected to considerable prejudice and harassment. Despite this, however, they have conducted themselves in a dignified and exemplary manner, seeking to reassure the broader community that, as Muslims, they are devotees of peace and humanitarianism. Part of my community work in Calwell has involved chairing a religious leaders forum. The forum represents a diversity of religious faiths, with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs all participating.

Following recent international events, the religious leaders forum has been active in the community, encouraging tolerance and urging restraint. I would like to acknowledge the important role played by Father Malcolm Holmes from the Uniting Church in Broadmeadows, Imam Younis Jan from the Broadmeadows Turkish mosque and Sheik Famini Imam, leader of the Arabic-Muslim community in Victoria, who have all shown that they not only talk of religious tolerance, but also practise it. I would like to also single out Mr Yasser Solomon, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, who is also a local resident. Yasser's tireless work—especially in the wake of September 11—to convey the true meaning and practices of Islam has been commendable.

Australians of Islamic background have been unfairly demonised and, although many of us can understand that this is the result of ignorance, it must also be said that much of the hostility they have been subjected to is deliberate and wilful. I look forward to a time when these excuses will wear thin and the generally receptive and tolerant nature of this society will be allowed to flourish once again. The fabric of multicultural Australia is woven from our shared experience. Its strength lies in our ability to value our collective humanity over our differences. This is essentially one reason why the different cultural and religious communities of Calwell work well together. They have learned how important cooperation is to achieving shared goals.

Calwell is predominantly a blue-collar constituency that continues to receive an unfair distribution of wealth and does not fully share in Australia's economic prosperity. A great part of the electorate has experienced poverty and deprivation and continues to bear the brunt of economic restructuring and the loss of local jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Recent job losses at Vodafone and South Pacific Tyres and the collapse of Ansett have all hit this region hard. We live in a society in which there are winners and losers and where not all citizens are necessarily treated equally. We need social reform to remedy these injustices and only the Australian Labor Party has the will and capacity to achieve this.

People voted for me because they wanted a Labor MP in a Labor government. I feel sad because a lot of the people in the electorate of Calwell were depending on a Labor victory. Surely they would have been the beneficiaries of a Labor government. I believe that effective representation involves empowering the community you serve so that it can help itself. It will be my job and proud duty to share in this work. As former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner would say, `Power comes from other people.' Many times in Calwell we have seen the surge of hope that a united community brings to a struggle. Activists like Sonya and John Rutherford of the Broadmeadows Progress Association are examples of what can be achieved by commitment to and participation in our local community. Instead of treating people with hostility because they look different, follow different customs or speak different languages, we should be encouraging them to actively participate. This is especially important for recently arrived migrants and in particular migrant women who tend to bear the brunt of racist attacks, partly because their traditional dress makes them highly visible and partly because most racists are cowards who prefer soft targets. There are a lot of misconceptions about what migrant women can and cannot do. We can only shatter those misconceptions by getting out and demonstrating our abilities, our ambitions and our leadership skills, just as I hope to do here in this House.

The next challenge, of course, will be to get women from more recently established migrant communities to take up leadership roles where they can make a real impact on decision-making for the benefit of our community—Muslim women, for example, who are often unfairly stereotyped. Through my association with Muslim women in my electorate and those I have met through the Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria, I have found that many are highly educated—the teachers, the doctors and the social workers of their communities. We need their intelligence and experience in all aspects of Australian life.

Migrants and working people in general have always been aspirational, wanting better education and jobs for their children. Like most other people, the residents of Calwell hope that their children will have a better life than they have. That is their central aspiration. That was, indeed, the case with my parents. A substantial portion of my electorate of Calwell is made of young families who are the children and grandchildren of first generation migrants—people who have come here or who were born here and who have managed to get an education, learn a trade or profession or maybe start their own business. They represent the migrant success story. Our Calwell families, particularly in the north of the electorate, however, continue to battle hard. The battlers and the upwardly mobile all come from the same beginnings and they recognise that they are part of a single community. That is why improving the quality of local life becomes another important goal.

Calwell's success stories have learned to negotiate the system and their increasing influence has empowered them to tackle it head-on. They are using their social and economic resources to improve the communities they live in, not to flee them. The aspirations they feel for their children and their neighbourhoods have not made them insensitive to others' needs. The people of Calwell are motivated by a strong sense of fairness. I believe that when they look around Australia today they see deepening inequality and growing injustice. Whether they be battlers in commission homes in Coolaroo, wealthier couples in Greenvale mansions or young first home buyers in the housing estates of Hillside, they know that this is wrong and they know that it can be addressed through social action. They know and I know that Calwell has a lot to offer and is a great place to work, study and live. One of my jobs as the member for Calwell will be to make sure that the rest of Australia knows it too.

One of our many hidden treasures is the Kangan Batman Institute of TAFE whose aviation, automotive and other training programs attract students from throughout the Asia-Pacific and from as far afield as Turkey. It was pleasing to see the institute named Training Provider of the Year for 2001 in the recent Victorian training awards. The presence in the electorate of a major educational institution like the Kangan Batman TAFE is important because education is so central to the aspirations of Calwell residents.

It was the same when I was growing up. My parents, and in particular my late mother, were very determined that my sister Helen and I had an education that would give us the skills we needed to achieve our goals in life. We got that education at public schools in Carlton, where we lived, and in nearby Brunswick. My formative years in the seventies were spent at Princes Hill high school which at the time was at the cutting edge of public education. It was known as a multicultural village with students present from over 40 different ethnic backgrounds and with a tradition of very progressive teaching and learning attitudes. At that time the funding of public schools was a priority and tertiary education was free. The system was good enough to get me into the University of Melbourne and increased my choices in life.

Things have changed a lot since then. We are now expected to believe that governments are not responsible for educating the nation's children and we all face many challenges to ensure that the next generation of schoolkids achieve their best. There are parts of my electorate where few adults have formal qualifications. No more than one in eight has a trade and only one in 10 has been to university. Around two-thirds have no qualifications at all.

I am committed to improving education outcomes for local kids. They are entitled to excellence in public education with the highest possible standards and learning opportunities. As a product of the state school system myself—and as a teacher in that system—I know its capacity to transform people's lives. Unfortunately, many young Australians are now being denied these advantages. It is critical that we reverse the creeping marginalisation of public education and strengthen our state schools while still supporting real choice between public and private sectors.

Equal access to a quality education is the right of every Australian child, not just the privileged. And the only certain and equitable way to ensure that every child has access to quality education is through public provision. My highest priority in this House will be to advocate improvements to public education that will benefit the people I represent. That means creating lifelong learning opportunities for Calwell's adults, especially through the TAFE system. It means increasing the educational resources available to Calwell's children through state primary and secondary schools. It means recognising the absolutely central importance of public education not only in equipping Australia for success in the knowledge economy but in enriching the lives and expanding the horizons of individual Australians.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in large parts of Calwell. The electorate has a large manufacturing sector and high youth unemployment. Kids who feel there is no place for them at school leave early, have trouble finding work and in many cases are at risk of living their lives in poverty. The answer is to equip these kids with skills they consider meaningful and which are in demand among local and international employers. The abolition of the technical education stream in Victoria closed off a lot of opportunities for Calwell kids, especially for boys. We can make good that loss—and keep kids at school longer—by increasing the capacity of secondary schools to deliver vocational training. That does not just mean recognising VET programs as part of the school syllabus. It means equipping schools with modern workshops and staffing them with the specialist teachers required to make those programs work.

I have had the migrant's advantage of being bilingual. I am fluent in both Greek and English. In fact, I have taught Modern Greek in secondary schools. My experience is hardly unique. Calwell is a multilingual community, like so many others around Australia. The nation as a whole, however, is not taking advantage of this or building on the opportunities our migrant communities have given us. Through a lack of foresight, policy makers may have missed the opportunity to create a genuinely multilingual education system and society in Australia.

Economic development agencies boast that Australia is multilingual, and they reel off statistics about how many languages are spoken here. They recognise the dollar value of language skills. What they do not acknowledge is that Australia's language skills are being eroded due to neglect and the misapplication or resources. Since the 1996 federal election, 16 languages have been eliminated from the curriculum of Australia's universities. We must make an extra effort to ensure our children have the opportunity to learn languages other than English. This will not only improve Australia's access to external markets and expand our economic opportunities but also broaden our intellectual horizons and improve our understanding of people different from us.

Greece is my birthplace. I was born on an island in the Ionian Sea called Lefkada. I was four when my family came to Australia in 1963. I did not have much say in the matter—but I am glad we did. After a long period of adjustment, my parents are glad they did, too. They came here seeking a better life—for their children as much as for themselves—and they found it. Like so many migrants, the price they paid was a sense of dislocation and loss. My parents have been a part of the Australian story for 40 years. They have built a life here and have raised a family, and they have come to feel that Australia's story is also their story. In fact, on election night my father said that my win in Calwell vindicated his decision to bring us halfway around the world four decades ago. He had plans! While I do not think my father needs me to justify anything he has done in his proud life, that one word made me aware of just how big a gamble my parents felt they were taking by coming here and of just how hard it is to leave one's homeland. No-one sails away lightly from everything they know and love.

There is no question that for my family the gamble has paid off. Australia has given me opportunities I may never have enjoyed in Greece. It has given my parents opportunities they may never have enjoyed either, especially the opportunity to open up new horizons for their children. Should we as migrants and refugees then be ashamed of wanting these opportunities? Should Australia, our new home, be ashamed of unlocking them for us?

Giving hope and comfort to people less fortunate than us is the mark of a civilised society. Our nation is not and probably never will be a great military or economic power. However, we can be a great moral power. We can lead the world in doing the right thing, and we can teach the world the meaning of a fair go. We did it in the forties when Arthur Calwell launched his postwar migration program, which not only offered a new start to the refugees and other migrants who came here but also saved Australia from being narrow-minded and inward-looking. We did it again in the seventies, when the Fraser government opened Australia's doors to refugees fleeing from Vietnam and Cambodia. We can do it again in the new millennium by showing a modicum of humanity to those who arrive on our shores fleeing terror.

And finally our next great challenge as a nation is to create an Australian republic with an Australian head of state. Our present Constitution chains us to our colonial past. It is silent on reconciliation with the indigenous Australians robbed of their land, their dignity and even their children. It is silent on the recognition of Australia's ethnic diversity and the development of multiculturalism. It is an obstacle to Australia assuming its rightful place among the truly sovereign nations of the world.

There are three things an Australian republic must address. It will say sorry to indigenous Australians and acknowledge that mistakes have been made in the past, and it will promise that the Australian people are ready to start putting those mistakes right. To the many Australians who come here from places other than the British Isles and to the many Australian-born who feel no connection with Britain it will be an assurance that this is their home too and an invitation to share fully in shaping its future. It will be a declaration of Australian independence and a demonstration that we are ready to stand on our own two feet. My presence here is not just a measure of one migrant's progress. It is a measure of Australia's progress towards building an open-minded, open-hearted and egalitarian society. The people of Calwell have put me here to help defend that society and I will not let them down.

Finally, whatever one achieves in life is usually done with the assistance and support of other people, and in my case there are many people who have played a significant role in my overall journey. I will never be able to mention everyone, because time does not permit that. However, I want to acknowledge the profound influence my late mother Stella had on my overall development, in particular her generosity to others and her love of poetry, my father Peter, who has a strong sense of justice and has worked hard for most of his life to ensure that we never went without, and my sister Helen, whose incredible strength of character and sheer will is a source of great inspiration.

My sincere thanks go to my many friends and comrades in the ALP who have supported me and believed in me, in particular members of my campaign committee—Joanne and Victor Dougall, Kosmos Felekos and my campaign director Jason Murray— and to everybody else whom I could not possibly name. I look forward to working with you all to continue our struggle to make a difference. My thanks also go to my good friend Christos Tsirkas, who for the last two decades has encouraged and supported my political involvement, to my former employer and now colleague, Senator Kim Carr, whose incredible energy and unyielding dedication to the socialist objective has had a profound influence on the consolidation of my own political ideals, and to my husband Michalis, whose presence in my life has made a significant impact. Quite simply, without his support I would not be here. Finally, my thanks go to my two children, Stavros and Stella, who have opened up a whole new world to me—the exciting and fulfilling and often trying world of motherhood. I have finally understood my own mother's anxieties and sacrifices, and because of that I am surely a better person.

The SPEAKER —Order! Before I call the honourable member for Ryan, I remind the House that this is the honourable member's first speech. I therefore ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.