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Wednesday, 16 February 2000
Page: 13525

Mr BYRNE (10:31 AM) —Mr Speaker, it is a privilege to rise today to give my first speech in the people's house at this time. I can think of no better time to be elected to parliament and no greater electorate to have the honour and privilege of representing than Holt, a community in which Labor values run very deep. I would especially like to thank the voters of Holt who supported me in significant numbers at the by-election on 6 November last year. However, like many of my colleagues here and in other great representative chambers across our nation, I know that this support had everything to do with the fact that the initials `ALP' were alongside my name on the ballot paper. Our party not only is the oldest political party but is the strongest. It is part of our national fabric. Time and time again when the chips are down the Australian people look to the ALP to rebuild, to re-energise and to renew the Australian dream. I would like to thank the Australian Labor Party for endorsing me as its candidate in Holt and allowing me the opportunity to speak out for the local community and the challenges it faces and the solutions that will help us through them.

I am here at a time when Australians are again looking for solutions to problems that are tearing at our social fabric, a time when the community is experiencing a crisis of faith in government, particularly in the regions and outer suburbs of this country. This is at a time when the stakes for our community have never been greater and the threats to families have never been worse. The opportunities for Australia to grow and prosper have never been greater than they are today. It may well be that the last century was the American century. The United States emerged from isolationism to assert a strong and, in the main, reasonable leadership role in the world in areas such as regional defence, information technology and the opening up of the international economy. Why can't we here in this region aspire for this century to be the Australian century, 100 years where the great potential, the tremendous promise of Australia, is manifested in achievement, manifested in pursuing all the opportunities of a new economy, manifested in all Australians participating in the information technology renaissance, with access to this information in all Australian living rooms, not just in a select few, manifested in us playing a key collaborative role in the region as defenders of freedom, democratic values and human rights—universal, not just Australian, values?

Our local economy, hit so hard by the opening of competition through the removal of tariffs, cannot be allowed to miss out on the great hope of the New Economy. The information age may be the talk of the town in Sydney and Melbourne but it is out of reach for most families in Holt, many of whom have described their working lives to me in a manner that is most eloquently summed up in a poem written in 1892 by Henry Lawson:

They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone

That want is here a stranger, and that misery's unknown.

. . .

My windowsill is level with the faces in the street.

Drifting past, drifting past

To the beat of weary feet.

While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.

And cause I have to sorrow, in a land so young and fair

To see upon those faces stamped the marks of want and care.

I believe many of those faces of want and care will decide that the time has come for a change. It has happened before throughout our history. They have done this before in times of need. They did so with Curtin and Chifley during the dark hours of World War II and the aftermath of postwar reconstruction. They did so when they chose to socially progress the nation with Whitlam and when they chose Hawke and Keating to internationalise and progress the country economically. They will do so again when they turn to Kim Beazley in a bid to address serious issues of inequality, a sense of exclusion, of being locked out by the big end of town, the loss of a sense of community and economic hardship that will only be exacerbated by the introduction of a GST.

I am particularly fortunate to be following in the footsteps of three great Labor members who represented the electorate of Holt in the past, those being Max Oldmeadow from 1972 to 1975, Michael Duffy from 1980 to 1996 and Gareth Evans from 1996 until last year. I have the great pleasure of being able to work with Max Oldmeadow, who continues to reside in the electorate and plays a vital role in his support for community based agencies in Dandenong. I will continue to value and draw on his patient advice and counsel in the years to come.

I also acknowledge Gareth Evans, who left this place last year and has recently taken up an appointment—as President of the International Crises Management Group in Brussels. There are very few people I have met in my life who I would characterise as persons of substance. Gareth was one of those. The energy, drive, resolve and dexterity that he displayed as Minister for Foreign Affairs has previously been well noted in this place and should act as a template for all those who contemplate assuming this role in the future.

I was fortunate to be the last person elected to this federal parliament in the last century and the first to give an inaugural speech in the next. I have been elected at a time when the standing of politicians in our community has reached a new low. But at the same time the community is crying out for governments made up of these very same politicians to address serious fault lines that have emerged in the structure of our community—fault lines between the have and the have-nots, the employed and the unemployed, the sick and the well, employers and employees, the rich and the poor, and most recently the divide between the city and country, city and regions and city and outer suburbs.

These fault lines are like tectonic plates moving apart. They are, in fact, threatening to tear the country apart. These fault lines are demonstrating themselves in areas such as the massive uptake in antidepressant and tranquilliser prescriptions in the past couple of years. They are showing in ways such as the unacceptable upward spiral of youth suicide, showing in the rising incidence of family breakdowns and in rising crime, and showing in the heroin epidemic which is brutally sweeping its way through our country and, in particular, my electorate. It is an epidemic which is literally sucking the life out of the young and excluded in our community. It is an epidemic where people are dying within some hundreds of metres of my electorate office.

Our community has 800,000 kids growing up in families where no-one has a job. This is not much smaller in size than the city of Adelaide. Over 200,000 Australians have been out of work for a year or more; 105,000 Australians are homeless. All of this is happening in our country at the end of the 20th century. There are too many Australians who believe that governments and politicians have abandoned them. There are too many who are suffering a crisis of confidence in the institution of government and its capacity and willingness to provide what we all believe are essential services, such as health, education and welfare for the disadvantaged.

In addition—and this was an incredibly strong sentiment when I was doorknocking in the Holt electorate during my by-election campaign—the economic recovery has failed to deliver benefits to families and working people. Many of these people told me that they were labouring under excessive personal debt to enable them to do the most basic things, like fund their children's schooling, pay for mortgages or just get through the week paying bills. I fear for the many people in my electorate that I doorknocked when interest rates rise again. They were angry that they were working so hard but feeling like they had received so little. They were angry that they did not have as much time to spend with their families as they wanted and did not have time to enjoy their lives out of work. They were apprehensive about what the future held and angry that the government just did not appear to give a damn about them or their lives. Not only are they disillusioned about the vacation of government from the community, they also believe that those who are socially disadvantaged are being trivialised and demonised by the same governments and policy makers whom they trusted to provide services to the community.

There is a pervasive sentiment that sections of our community are being driven against each other for political ends. This cannot be allowed to continue, for if we do nothing in this place and out there in our electorates this community sentiment will corrode the country. Governments who practise the politics of division unwittingly unleash dangerous currents of violence and hate, much of it against innocent victims. They precipitate a dangerous rent in the social fabric of a community which goes against everything we stand for as Australians, particularly with inherent belief in fairness to all within our community. We have all seen the ultimate result of this dark form of politics spewing venom and bile and messages of hatred in this place. It is a dark stain on this country's history when people in my electorate have been afraid to walk the main streets of Dandenong and Springvale South because their names are not Smith, Jones or Hanson. They call this dark form of politics wedge politics; I call it un-Australian. I say it should have no place in this country.

At the same time as there is this demonisation by government, there is a strong belief that governments are designing policies for the selected few, not for the many. These are policies designed for the inner cities of this country rather than for the rest of it. This is exacerbating this sense of disillusionment further, further increasing these fault lines, particularly in my electorate and, I believe, in the rest of the country. They do not believe that there is a sense of essential Australian fairness in government when it is skewed towards High Street, Armidale rather than Maramba Drive, Narrewarren. They have been disenfranchised and their sense of powerlessness and frustration is not being helped by images of arrogance and lack of concern about economic policy by policy makers and their beneficiaries. A recent example is the media reporting of Westpac traders cheering on TV the latest interest rate rise. This was regarded as insulting by all thinking Australians. What I suspect was just as galling was the banks' mad scramble to jag up their rates as quickly as possible. If only interest rate reductions were passed on so quickly.

At the same time as I read about these well remunerated individuals cheering, I wondered how many of the people I had doorknocked would begin to find it difficult to service their mortgages or to pay school fees, or to pay their gas, electricity and telephone bills, or to pay their car registrations—even their food bills. How much investment in my region and in the country would be halted and how many jobs would be lost? People are concerned about what they view as a callous disregard by policy makers and governments about the effects of their policies on those who live in the outer suburbs and regions. These are the very same people who have been buffeted by the profound technological changes and job restructuring that have swept through our country and who have been swept away by the tidal wave of globalisation. It is callousness beneath contempt when policy makers turn on those who have been the victims of these changes, which have wiped out jobs and industries, single them out and tell them that it is their fault that they are in the predicament they are in.

The people of this country believe that it is our job as their elected representatives to provide appropriate community support programs, encouragement and training to our most disadvantaged community members—not to crucify them. If these attitudes of policy makers are not rectified, there will be, without any doubt, more dramatic displays of disenfranchisement and social discord than we have seen yet. I believe that we have seen weather veins of this discord and that it will be one of the major issues that will have to be addressed by governments in the next five to 10 years. What we do in this place will have a profound bearing on whether we can stem this rising tide of community disillusionment and disenfranchisement.

October and November 1999 was a significant time to be a candidate for election to federal parliament. Not only were we having a once in a generation referendum on our nationhood, we were also enduring an interregnum period of state government prior to the election of the Bracks Labor government in another by-election campaign in the south-east suburbs of Melbourne. This unique concurrence of events created some uncomfortable situations, like the time I doorknocked in Narrewarren. The lady at the door greeted me very enthusiastically. She was fulsome in her support for me and was looking forward to seeing me in the new government. I was incredibly heartened until she asked me how my campaign for the state seat of Frankston East was going. But mostly it provided me with one of the richest experiences of my life. The people of Holt welcomed me to their homes, and they did not complain when I arrived on their doorsteps at all times of day and night. They did not object when I greeted them at shopping centres on weekends. They were welcoming and encouraging when I appeared at train stations when they were going to and coming from work, sometimes at ungodly hours like 5.30 in the morning. I have had many experiences in different electorates in the country. I have never experienced the openness and tolerance that was extended to me during this campaign. It says much for the quality of the people who reside in my electorate.

Let me tell you a little about this great electorate. Its centre lies 30 kilometres south-east of the Melbourne CBD in the suburb of Dandenong. Dandenong is truly Melbourne's second city, with an estimated $40 million-a-week retail turnover. It has a very high proportion of tradespeople and labourers, some 28 per cent of its work force, but one of the lowest proportions of professional white-collar workers, at nearly 14 per cent. This compares interestingly to something like 44 per cent of white-collar professionals in the federal seat of Higgins.

Manufacturing is the key employment source in Holt, accounting for 30 per cent of its work force. This is the highest level in the country. Holt is the manufacturing heartland of this country. Many of these manufacturers are seeking a government with vision and will that will bring the next GMH, or its new manufacturing equivalent, to the electorate. It is fascinating to note that, of the 1996 census ranking of the 20 top electorates which had a high proportion of manufacturing as the basis for employment, 19 were held by the ALP and one was held by the coalition. The one seat that was held by the coalition in 1996, Kingston, subsequently fell to the ALP in 1998 and is now very ably represented by my colleague David Cox.

Holt also has one of the lowest proportions of government employees in the country, at some 10.3 per cent, which is particularly interesting given that it has a high migrant population in need of government services. Additionally, most people, some 94.7 per cent of the working electorate, are employees, not employers. This again is one of the highest proportions in the country. It is a seat where the median age is about 30 and where approximately 20 per cent of its residents are on some form of social security assistance. A large percentage of the electorate have recently purchased homes. It also has a large number of young families who will need to access services such as health and education in the coming years and will need to find jobs that will have to be generated in the new economy.

This is one of the key electorates that are sensitive to interest rate rises and inflation. If interest rates continue to rise, as we all anticipate before or after 1 July this year, my electorate will disproportionately feel the effects. What support will there be for those in my electorate? The people of Holt are not hopeful, particularly if the government's actions in the latest round of Job Network tenders are a guide. Whilst the seat of Dunkley, held by my Liberal Party colleague Bruce Billson, which has an unemployment of rate of 7.8 per cent, was awarded 16 Job Network sites—up from nine the last time around—my electorate, with an unemployment rate of eight per cent, received funding for two sites, down from three last time. What does this say about the priorities of this government?

Holt is one of the most ethnically diverse electorates in the country: some 140 different nationalities, or three-quarters of the world's countries, are represented in my electorate. While 42 per cent of those in the electorate were born overseas, another 20 per cent of the electorate are children of one parent born overseas. This diversity provides an electorate of great dynamism, vibrancy and richness. It is a mixture of peoples that works as it does nowhere else on earth. There has been much talk recently, particularly during the referendum debate, about the national identity and what it means to be Australian. If you look at Holt, I think you will find the answer to who we are and where we are going as a community. If you ask me what it means to be an Australian, I will ask you to come down to the Dandenong markets on a busy Tuesday, Friday or Saturday and I will show you what it means. I will show you what it means to be Australian in the face of the Somali woman shopping for groceries, in the face of the elderly Vietnamese gentleman buying fish at the store and in the faces of the Afghani family buying fruit at the stalls. People from all over the world who come to this marketplace are being shaped by and are shaping our land.

No-one comes to this place without the support of many people. It is impossible to thank everyone who has helped me, but I certainly thank all of those who have been with me, particularly, in times of need. There are a few that I would particularly like to single out and thank. First and foremost are my wife, Debbie, and our two beautiful children, Nicholas and Josephine. Your love has sustained me and nourished me. I come to this place a more complete person only because of you. I will do everything I can in this place to justify the faith you have in me to do what is right for our community.

To Michael Donovan in particular, Victorian secretary of the shop assistants union, go my heartfelt thanks. Without your support and encouragement I would not be here. I also thank Joe Debryn and Don Farrell who started me on this path many years before. My thanks go to Senator Jacinta Collins for her tolerance and forbearance when I worked on her staff and to three friends who have always been there for me in times of ill and good: Senator Stephen Conroy, David Feeney and Andrew Landeryou.

I stood for the Labor Party because our party is committed to giving the Australian community a voice. We are only as strong as our weakest link. If we allow hundreds of thousands of Australians, if not millions, to live thinking that their voices will never be heard just because they do not live in the inner cities of Sydney or Melbourne, we weaken Australia. If we allow tens of thousands of kids to live without hope of a job or a decent life, we not only condemn them to lives of missed opportunity, we weaken Australia. For all that this country has achieved—for all our wealth, our national pride and our great democracy—we must all reflect on this fundamental truth: we will be judged one day on how we treat the most disadvantaged among us. There is no avoiding it; we cannot escape it. Be it young Aboriginal prisoners or ripped-off textile workers, our obligation to them and our obligation to ourselves is to provide nothing less than an equal opportunity for all Australians.

In closing, if I were asked by someone why I stood for parliament, I would answer in these words from Robert Kennedy after George Bernard Shaw:

Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not.

Debate (on motion by Ms Worth) adjourned.