First Speech: Andrew Giles MP

Member for Scullin, Victoria

14 November 2013

Mr GILES (Scullin) (12:50): I am so pleased that I am receiving the call from you, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, my neighbour and friend. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to elders past and present. My thoughts now are also with the traditional owners of the land I represent in this parliament. It is an honour and a very great privilege to be in this place. I thank the electors of Scullin for their belief that I can represent their concerns.

The Scullin electorate speaks to me of Melbourne's diversity. Over 37 languages are spoken at homes in Scullin. The multiculturalism of Melbourne's north is a tremendous strength and is characterised by a great interest across cultures and traditions as well as pride in particular heritage. I particularly thank the hundreds of ALP members and the many volunteers who did so much to keep Scullin proudly Labor at the last election, especially the hardworking members of the campaign committee chaired by the formidable Maureen Corrigan.

I am proud to be the fourth member for Scullin, and that I carry on a strong Labor tradition in Melbourne's north. I propose to do all that I can to keep it that way. The electorate remembers a great Australian, James Scullin—Prime Minister in difficult times, of course, but much more than that. He was a man who foresaw the Great Depression and who continued to make a selfless contribution to our country and the Labor cause long after he left high office.

My predecessor, Harry Jenkins, has left big shoes to fill, as I am all too often told! I do not propose to fill them; Harry remains a one-off. But I shall be very proud if I can bring to this role some of the qualities he always displayed: a great love and respect for community, for our party and for this parliament. It can be said that, in holding public office, Harry genuinely built public trust. I am, and always will be, grateful for his support and guidance. Harry succeeded his father, Dr Harry Jenkins, whose presence is everywhere across Melbourne's north. It is a wonderful legacy of extraordinary service as a community activist, as a local GP and as a state and then a federal representative. How often constituents remind me of 'Dr Harry' speaks to his impact so many years after he retired. I feel an affinity with Ted Peters, as he and I bookend 44 years of representation by Harry Jenkinses. Ted Peters became the member for Scullin at the time of 'the split'. He stayed the course with Labor when that must have been very hard for him to do.

That I come to be here is the result of the efforts of many, many people who have shaped my life's course—too many to properly acknowledge here. But it is important that I make some acknowledgement of some critical contributions. I am very fortunate to have been born to my parents and in the circumstances of my birth. To Richard and Vee I owe everything—so many opportunities and extraordinary love and support. I am so pleased that you are here today. I am even more pleased that my brother Ed can be here, away from work and family in London. In every measure but that of time he is my older brother, and he is certainly much the wiser. Jill Constable is my wife and my best friend. I do not have the words to do justice to her or our relationship, much less what she means to me. I can only say this: thank you for everything. Whatever I achieve in this role will be as nothing against family life with Jill and our beautiful young children, Daniel and Alice. The extended Constable and Garratt families, and most especially Joyce and Jo, have overwhelmed me with generosity and always made me feel as if I were one of them. I am terribly sad that Cec, my father-in-law, is no longer with us. This would have meant a lot to him, and that means the world to me.

Harry Truman famously advised that those of us looking for friendship in politics should get ourselves a dog. My experience over 23 years in the Labor Party has been very different—well, most of the time. There is no doubt that the friendship and support of so many in the Labor movement has enriched my life. I will not forget that I stand here for you. I am so pleased to be here with good friends and mentors, including the member for Jagajaga and the member for Bruce, and I am thinking of all the activists that I work with and have worked with—people with big hearts and clear eyes, typified by my friend Paul Erickson.

In my working life, I have also been fortunate. As a lawyer, I worked for two great firms, Holding Redlich and Slater & Gordon. Peter Redlich and David Shaw, in particular, taught me so much about the law, justice and life. It is wonderful to have former colleagues Andrea Tsalamandris, Cain Jackson and my great friend Toby Hemming here today. As a lawyer, I saw myself as first a listener and then a problem solver. I hope to build on that approach while I am here. Acting on behalf of the asylum seekers on board the MV Tampa set firm my resolve to be heard in public life, to stand here for those denied the chance to speak for themselves, to ensure that this parliament is the first and the best safeguard for the standards of a genuinely democratic and decent community.

The opportunities that I have had to work in politics have brought me much satisfaction as well as a deeper understanding of the possibilities of government. Working for Lily D'Ambrosio and Gavin Jennings was a privilege, and I learnt much from them—two politicians, two people I admire, two friends. Lily is also a local state member, along with Danielle Green, Bronwyn Halfpenny and Colin Brooks. I am so pleased to be able to work with all of them for our communities. I owe a debt of gratitude to Lindsay Tanner, the person who taught me so much about politics, practically and intellectually, and led me to imagine I might be able to make a contribution.

I am very proud to be a unionist, especially a member of the Australian Services Union. I am thankful for the support I have received from many unions throughout my involvement. It is of great importance to me that I thank and acknowledge my staff: Sally-Ann Delaney, Lori Faraone, Paul Frayne, Jim Tilkeridis, Justin Mammarella and Damian Apolloni. You all do wonderful work. Working alongside you means much to me and I hope to do justice to your support.

I have been elected to represent the people of Scullin. To me, this means being both a local advocate and a contributor to wider debate. Across Melbourne's north, Scullin encompasses Wollert to Thomastown to Hurstbridge, comprising a journey across many aspects of our culture, as well as geography. It combines long established suburbs like Watsonia North, green wedge communities such as Yarrambat, and dynamic centres of new growth in Epping North and South Morang—all different communities, united as outer suburban areas of Melbourne's north. They are great places to live and to work, but they are facing some significant challenges that must be addressed. Outer suburban communities both deserve and require the attention of our national government. We cannot allow Melbourne to become a city of two halves, with jobs and prosperity pulled to the centre. I am proud that Labor took a cities policy to the last election, continuing a tradition that goes back to Whitlam and Uren through, of course, Brian Howe, maintaining and advancing a principle of government that all Australians deserve fair access to services, no matter where they live. Grassroots activists across Scullin, such as the Aurora Community Association, are doing great work speaking up for liveability. I look forward to supporting their work of building community in growing communities.

The reasons that people have come to live in these communities are many and varied. We celebrate a rich and vibrant Indigenous heritage and welcome newly arriving communities, including many who have escaped oppression. There is, right across the Scullin electorate, a great sense of pride in place. But within the electorate there is also significant disadvantage and some emerging social problems. I am deeply concerned about the prevalence of family violence and the rates of mental health issues affecting young people. We must do more to address these epidemics whilst never losing sight of the need to tackle their root causes. A November 2012 VicHealth report highlighted the social as well as health problems associated with long commutes. The relationship between where we live and where we work is a vital one. Most people in Scullin travel some way outside the electorate for work. And right across Scullin, urgent investment is required to support our transport infrastructure—in particular, public transport.

This government's refusal to support urban rail projects will hurt families in Melbourne's north. And just as the provision of infrastructure impacts how we live, so too economic policies more generally carry with them social consequences. Gideon Haigh, in the Age yesterday, reminded me of this. He is in my view correct to write that we must also judge the policy decisions and choices we make by those consequences 'if we wish to live in a society rather than simply fit into an economy'. And let me be clear: I wish to live in a society.

It was heartbreaking to recently hear that 123 workers will lose their jobs at Golden Circle in Mill Park. Thousands of families in Scullin work in manufacturing, and they deserve a government that values and supports their jobs. Beyond manufacturing, more needs to be done to support employment in Melbourne's north. There are some great opportunities, such as the Melbourne market relocation, an important work being done by local governments to promote the northern suburbs as a distinct regional economy. I look forward to supporting this work, to building partnerships and working to realise the possibilities of this dynamic region, a place with so many natural advantages but also extraordinary people.

I am proud of the work of the governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. I will be heard in defence of their legacy and in support of Labor's reformist mission. Our recent reforms—education funding, carbon pricing, the NBN, DisabilityCare—are not just stand-alone policies; they will be enduring elements of the fabric of Australia's social democracy.

Like many others on this side of the chamber, I continue to be inspired by Ben Chifley's `light on the hill' speech, not as a historical curiosity but as a call to arms for a movement of change—a call to dream large. It fills me with confidence that Labor's best days are ahead of us. It is also, to me, an enduring warning against the trap of mistaking means for ends. Labor is not just about putting more income in workers' pockets or electing politicians to this place; it is about creating for our citizens a sense of belonging, of security and of hope. I fear this trap has become easier to fall into over the last 60 years. When Chifley spoke in 1949 he was responding to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. It is incredible to think how much has changed since then. Australia has been reshaped. We are open to the world and are a genuinely multicultural nation. We have recognised that we cannot ignore the talents of half our population and have begun to properly acknowledge Indigenous Australians. We are more prosperous, better informed and living longer. In the last six years we made great advances. But Labor's work is far from done.

When I think of the light on the hill, I think of a more equal society. We are, most of us, quick to claim fairness, I think, as a national characteristic and a national virtue. And this is a good thing. I am all for fairness. But I am concerned to advance equality. The question is: should we ever subject a person to lesser treatment or deny anyone a right because of who they are? To me, the answer must always be a resounding no. If marriage is a right granted by the state, it must be granted to all—as it will be, I am sure, not because this is somehow inevitable but because of the power of people coming together in a just cause, as Australians have done so often to change the way we live, through trade unions, through social movements and through the work of the Australian Labor Party, and as we will do, to complete our Constitution, if I may borrow the Prime Minister's words, through recognising our Indigenous peoples and when we have an Australian head of state.

There is no more important consideration for anyone who seeks to engage in this process of change than what values they bring to bear in their participation in our national conversation. This is particularly important for those of us who find ourselves on the opposition benches, I believe. Why does being out of power matter? What are our objectives when we seek to gain power for working people and the vulnerable? What are the ideas and policies that we will seek to build public support for over the coming years? We should not be afraid of asking ourselves these questions. For me they speak to the essence of what it means to approach politics from a progressive perspective—to ask whether we are doing everything we can to deliver a fair and just society and, where we are not, to ask ourselves what is to be done.

Harry Jenkins's first and last speeches both invoked James Scullin's epitaph: 'Justice and humanity demand interference whenever the weak are being crushed by the strong.' This injunction is worth repeating. It speaks to a higher calling in politics and to the possibilities of government. It lends a moral imperative to the role I have now. Those of us with the power to act must do so: to stand with constituents and support them in working through the problems they face every day, reaching out to make sure I am listening to all the voices within the electorate, not just the loudest; to stand up for compassion, justice and equality, knowing that this will not always be an immediately popular cause; to play my part in expanding trust in our great democracy and our political processes; and to make sure there is a real conversation in the community about political issues that genuinely informs representation—a dialogue that is respectful, mature and responsive. We must be prepared to listen and to have the arguments over solutions to the challenges we face.

For the many to have power against the few, they must have faith in collective institutions. However, it appears that faith is waning. Fewer young people are enrolling to vote, and more voters are, it seems, deliberately casting informal ballots. As I see it, this frustration with politics rests on a sense of alienation. One thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that the more insecure someone's working life is, the less likely they are to have faith in our political institutions and our traditions. To rebuild faith we must show leadership and instil confidence that this institution is a place where positive change is made, a place where hope is stronger than fear, as we heard last night.

And there are grounds for optimism; I am seeing it at a local level. I think of the Whittlesea Community Connections AGM last Sunday—a room filled with community activists sharing their stories, celebrating wins and planning the year ahead. I think of the young man I met doorknocking in North Epping, just devastated that his citizenship would be confirmed only after the election, meaning he would not be voting, but determined to make his contribution. And I think of the hundreds of Labor members in Scullin, from life members to those in Young Labor—of their selfless work in the cause of a more equal society. We must harness this optimism, and reject cynicism—including the all-too-pervasive sense that politics is just a form of combat sport or light entertainment. The buck stops here, of course.

It was extraordinary to be in this chamber last night and to hear the contributions from and about the member for Griffith. It was this parliament at its best, I believe. I am resolved to do whatever I can to present myself in the manner described last night, which is to tie together the optimism in the community to the representative politics that we are all part of. I want to persuade more people to vote Labor, of course, but I also want to do all I can to build our party as a movement of change. A larger, more open Labor Party of ideas will be, I am sure, a foundation stone for a stronger, more inclusive Australian democracy.

I am excited that in the UK, Labour's Ed Miliband is speaking of a race to the top. To me, this means a drive towards a more equal society where everyone has every opportunity to achieve their potential. It is a powerful idea and a powerful reminder that ideas are at least as important as issues. As a society the right policy settings to secure jobs and growth are vital, but so is our storytelling or our sense of purpose about where we are going, how and why. If we can articulate our goals, build a shared sense of hope in this task, and if we can realise the great powers of government, this is a race that Australia can win.

Today, across Western democracies the very idea of government is under attack, directly through the work of the Tea Party and its supporters and more obliquely by the adherents of the misleadingly named Big Society. Both camps, it appears, are found in the present government. This government apparently believes that it should do for people what they cannot do, or cannot do efficiently for themselves, but no more. What a narrow and defensive view of our collective capacity! I reject this formulation and will do my best to articulate a more positive vision of government for the future. I am in no doubt that we, the progressives, do have the better side of this argument about government. That the conservatives only discovered the courage of their convictions after the election speaks volumes to this.

We must be bolder in making the case for government. We can refresh and reframe social democracy through applying first principles to the issues of today and tomorrow. What can and should government do to help make a good society? And how can we, collectively, do more to help each other lead fulfilling lives?

In this speech I have touched on three issues—the fight for equality; rebuilding a sense of hope in formal politics; and defending an active role for government. These are the concerns of the moment. They relate closely to the questions before this parliament and to my sense of how Labor should respond and rebuild as we hold this government to account. I believe them to be enduring and propose to be consistent while I am here in making the case for a more equal society through building collective capacity in the actions of Labor governments to come. The issues of the day that dominate political conversation will no doubt change. Direct Action will, of course, soon be forgotten, but Labor's purpose and our story will continue. For my part I hope to be held accountable as an effective advocate for this sense of what politics can be and what we can achieve together.

I started this contribution by talking of the honour and the privilege it is to be here, which is what representing the people of Scullin in Australia's parliament means to me. But what really matters, of course, is what this might mean to others. It is a rare and extraordinary opportunity we here are collectively given in this place. We are enabled to speak up for others and to play a role in changing the circumstances under which they live their lives. Hopefully, we will expand opportunities and give more people a sense of hope, of agency, and of being full members of just, sustainable and equitable society.

I hope to be judged on whether I seize this opportunity and make a difference. I thank honourable members.

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