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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 372

Ms McKEW (Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) (1:37 PM) —I rise to speak for the first time in this House as the new member for Bennelong. In line with the historic importance of what has been said in the parliament this week, I wish to acknowledge, first and foremost, the original Bennelong. Along with another resident of Sydney Cove, Colbee, Bennelong was captured, taken from his family, but befriended by Governor Arthur Phillip. Bennelong eventually travelled to England and met King George III, a trip which can be reasonably described as the equivalent in today’s terms of a trip to Mars.

It is a complex story, the story of early European settlement. The historian Inga Clendinnen refers to a brief period in those early years where there was a ‘springtime of trust’. She talks of the honour and courage of the men of the First Fleet and the creative resourcefulness of the ‘Australians’, as she calls the Indigenous population. This is something about our history that should be known—that there were individuals and there were moments when trust and goodwill ruled hearts on both sides of the divide. The universal disaster did not have to happen and it does not have to happen now.

For Bennelong there was no happy ending. When he returned to his own land after three years in England, he was scorned by the Europeans and by his own people. He was the first of tens of thousands of Aboriginals who have attempted or been forced to straddle both worlds, only to end up lost between both. The brewer James Squire provided shelter for Bennelong in his last years, which is why he lies buried in an unmarked grave near the site of the old brewery in Kissing Point in Putney, in the electorate that now bears his name.

A question for us all as we start out on the road to reconciliation is to ask: what was Bennelong trying to do in forging a friendship with the British? At the very least, we can say he was making a connection, attempting to build a bridge. And that is what we need to do. It is my sincere hope that in offering an apology for the suffering and injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we can make a new start and work together in a meaningful way. As Martin Luther King said nearly 50 years ago:

We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.

What I have learnt from a lifetime of reporting is that we are at our best when we work together and when we appreciate difference. Diversity enriches us. It lifts the spirit.

First of all, I would like to pay tribute to the work and extraordinary commitment to public life of the previous member for Bennelong, John Howard. His service to the community and representation in the federal parliament for 33 years is a great record and a fine achievement. Mr Howard was a hardy warrior for his beliefs, and that too should be acknowledged.

I come to this place with the firm view that the contest of ideas matters, belief matters and knowledge matters. While it is true that the great ideological struggles of the 20th century are behind us, the ground has shifted in this new decade and in this new century. The sheer complexity of modern life bewilders many, but the new century is a rich one and there is much to appreciate. The monocultural Moorooka that I recall from my girlhood in the 1950s and sixties has vanished. These days the place is enlivened by the presence of many African families. As my mother Mary, who is in the gallery today, often says, with a more than disapproving nod about my irregular attendance, ‘These families are filling the pews at Sunday mass.’

The seat of Bennelong, which I am proud to represent, provides a near perfect snapshot of how the country is changing. Join the throng on the weekend in the Eastwood mall and you will find that Rowe Street is both a modern-day Babel and a dynamic part of cosmopolitan Sydney. While parents race around to fit in 101 chores, the teenagers have mobile phones strapped to their ears and the younger ones are plaguing their parents and saying, ‘When do we eat?’ The body language is clear, while the verbalising is as likely to be in Chinese as in English or Korean.

There are other changes. The Kims are forming partnerships with the Kellys. The Lis are walking down the aisle with the O’Farrells. For some, these changes are unsettling. But there is a younger generation that is entirely at ease with who we are and what we are becoming. Exceptionally well educated, many have secured a second degree from an international university and are multilingual. Some will be in mixed-race marriages. What they all have in common is that they will see their professional lives as crossing borders. They will be citizens of the world, trained here initially but orbiting around the world and working and playing in those places that will enrich them.

They will still call Australia home, but when they are in Delhi, Hong Kong or London, what story will they be telling about home? How do we want the Australian story to look for the coming generation? I think it needs to be a big story and that it is time to revive some big ambitions about how we build sustainable cities, how we restore our rivers, how we recreate a first-rate education system that elevates excellence for all and how we treat everyone with dignity and equality, regardless of physical ability, race or sexual preference.

What we need is a new imagining, a revived sense of what is possible. The negativity and the tedium of the culture wars will not get us there. But look at our history with all its warts and all its failures and you will still find plenty to inspire wonder, hope and optimism. You will also find that, if there is a common animating principle in Australia, it is that we look forwards, not back. Survey the suburbs, towns and farms of this country and you will find the desire to assure the happiness and independence of the next generation is inextinguishable. This altruism is in the nature of most human beings—it is one of the better angels, to which all good governments should listen. How hard we work to satisfy that desire and how well we succeed is a measure of our progress as a nation and as a democracy.

What people want now, I think, is an intelligent national conversation. The prevailing orthodoxy, to this point, has been that, because we are enjoying such bounty, we are indifferent, to the point of being somnolent, about the bigger societal questions. Well, I happen to think that 2007 demolished that idea. Most of the commentators missed the mood shift. But it is there. It is real. All sorts of people know that politics and policymaking matter. Our national spirit matters. The lesson for me from the past year is that there is a great reservoir of goodwill that lies untapped beneath the surface of our national life, and smart governments will find ways to liberate and direct it.

Many of us lead charmed lives. I am one of them. It was not always thus. I had a good deal of unhappiness in my early years, which is why I identify with scratchy teens. But at some point I just got on with it. Being curious helped. I am also convinced that any success I have enjoyed in my professional and personal life has come about because of the generous embrace of friends and mentors. What they have in common is a well-developed joie de vivre and, importantly, a deep appreciation that no problem is so great that it should not be tackled over a decent lunch—at some length.

So, along with many people in this chamber and many others who helped get me elected, I have been the lucky beneficiary of rich opportunities. But in recent years many of us have been feeling something else—an unease, a stirring in the soul, a sense that things are not quite right, that too many are missing out, that, far from leading charmed lives in the lucky country, too many Australians are leading pinched lives. What it is, this stirring in our souls, is a realisation that our famed egalitarian spirit is more talked about than real. This is the paradox of modernity: alongside the exceptional economic prosperity the country has enjoyed, we are also seeing what Professor Fiona Stanley calls an increase in the social gradients. When we look at the key indicators for the development, wellbeing and health of our children and our young people, the gaps are not shrinking; they are widening.

The experts all tell us the same thing: that 50 per cent of a child’s educational performance is determined before that child even enters the formal school system. Yet still, today, 20 per cent of Australian children do not have access to a quality preschool. Among Aboriginal children, as with so much else, the reality is so much worse. Only 46 per cent of four-year-old Indigenous children receive a preschool education. Regrettably, the Commonwealth has been the missing player in this most critical area. We know that those children who are missing out on an appropriate early learning experience will struggle in the first years of school. So this is where the education revolution begins. It begins before school with significant fresh investment and a new approach that integrates care and early learning. I am proud to be part of a government that has put this issue at the very centre of its policy approach. How successful we are will determine whether or not in future publications Professor Stanley can remove the question mark that she currently has in her title Children of the Lucky Country?

For this to happen, we also need to see a revival in the capacity of governments to do things, to get on with it. Part of the sheer thrill of being elected to this chamber at this point in our history is that it coincides, I think, with a revived belief in governments as active players and navigators of our national life. For too long, governments have suffered from withered imaginations and from a collapsed will. For our grandparents it was so different. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed at the peak of the Great Depression. The planners had the foresight to put in eight lanes. The same could be said for the Storey Bridge, an iconic part of the Brisbane landscape and a piece of engineering that is part of the McKew family history. I come from a family of builders, and my grandfather Joe McKew ran the Evans Deakin plant which built the bridge in conjunction with Dr John Bradfield. As the family story goes, every time a new span of the bridge was due to be manoeuvred into place, all the McKew boys, including my father, Bryan, were marched off to mass. Divine help was deemed necessary to assist with the engineering. The point is, these were big projects, undertaken when the country was smaller and poorer. But there was nothing small about the enterprise.

When we consider our major cities today, particularly Brisbane and Sydney, and how the metro infrastructure can struggle to get people to work on time, surely it is time to reconnect to the enterprise and ambition of the past. We need nothing less than a return to nation building—but in a modern way. We need to recruit the talents of our innovators and our technologists, our teachers, our writers and our best policy thinkers. In my own electorate we have significant research and educational institutions—Macquarie University, the CSIRO and the Northern Sydney Institute of TAFE. There is also an emerging technology corridor of leading global companies in ICT, medical devices, media and environmental technologies. But the potential of this corridor is yet to be realised. We need an innovation economy, one that recognises that comparative advantage in the modern world is underpinned by those things that the private sector cannot provide: a workable tax system, first-rate health and education systems, and strong research networks. That is the 21st century role of government.

I come to this House as a proud member of the Australian Labor Party, a party that has always had as a core belief the view that active, reformist policymaking should be directed towards maximising equality of opportunity. I like the way the Melbourne philosopher John Armstrong puts it:

The proper goal of power is civilization. And civilization depends, crucially, on spiritual prosperity: upon what we care about, on what we admire, what sorts of ideals and hopes we have.

Part of what I care about—friendship, beauty and the life of the mind—was nurtured by my teachers at All Hallows Convent, a school that sits high above the Brisbane River and overlooks the bridge built by my grandfather.

The older I get the more I appreciate that I was taught by women, by lay and religious staff, who seemed to me to know what was worth knowing. When one considers the deep provincialism of Queensland during this period, this seems extraordinary. But the best of these women were not bound by borders or prejudice. They did what all good teachers do: they took their charges on a journey and fired the imagination.

Wherever you look across this country you see the work of women. It is a particular joy for me to come to this place as one of 40 female representatives. From the time of Federation, it would be 40 years before the first two women, Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons, were elected to the federal parliament. One could say that things have moved at a glacial pace. Part of the explanation is that in Australia, never an easy country for women, it is still too hard.

For most of our history the value of labour has been split on a gender basis. The institutional die was cast at the beginning of the 20th century when the basic female wage was set at 54 per cent of the male rate. For decades, Jessie Street, Edna Ryan and others fought to correct this historic injustice, but it would take until the 1970s and three landmark equal pay cases to remove gender classifications from job descriptions. It remains a continuing disgrace that, 30 years on from these cases, we still cannot say that pay justice for women has been achieved. Women’s workforce participation now stands at 58 per cent and the educational achievements of women have never been higher. Yet, whether you are behind the counter of a cafeteria or in the executive suite, if you are female, wage parity is not guaranteed.

When we consider the wider economic picture for women, it is not what it should be. Australia remains one of very few developed countries to have no national system of maternity leave, and returning to work and negotiating flexibility is still problematic for mothers. Is it any wonder that women find themselves in midlife agonising about their limited retirement savings following a life of interrupted work? It is time for this country to junk its historic ambivalence towards female workers and embrace once and for all a set of policies that recognises the real worth of everyone’s labour. A few years from now I want to be able to say to the young women graduating from Ryde Secondary College and Marsden High School or those on the campus of Macquarie University in my electorate and their equivalents across the country that Australia is closer to being the meritocracy it should to be.

I am here in this place first and foremost as a representative of my local community. If you look inside the suburbs that make up Bennelong, you see the real, contemporary, rather amazing Australia. And it is not the same as what you see on TV. It is much more complex, subtle and wonderful. As I said on the night of 24 November last year, I spent 30 years interviewing Australians—often the most admired and most powerful Australians; many of them in this place—but now I know I missed the best of them. To get to know them you have to knock on front doors and listen to them in the street—and you find out so much more when you are not carrying a camera and a microphone. It is the stories that are so compelling, stories that cry out for greater attention.

I thank the House for the courtesy of listening to this first speech, as I thank the many, many volunteers and ALP branch members, without whose help and belief I would not be here. Throughout 2007, the women and men, and the boys and girls of the ‘purple army’, as they called themselves, were united under a simple banner: nothing is impossible. The foot soldiers of the purple army are among the finest and most selfless individuals I have ever met. I would like to thank in particular Lucienne Joy, John Range, Trish Drum, Michael Butterworth, Sally Sitou, Richard Ho, Marie Faulkner, Louise Rose, Tim Quadrio, Senator John Faulkner and the Hon. John Watkins for their friendship and guidance. And to my partner, Bob, a political legend if ever there was one: you are to me the reason for everything.

I hope my time in this place validates and vindicates the faith you have all placed in me. Like all members, I come here wanting to make a difference. To the people of Bennelong, your needs come first. I will not let you down.