First Speech: Clare O'Neil MP

Member for Hotham, Victoria

2 December 2013

 Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (16:32): Thirty years ago, a group of Cambodians purchased a large piece of land in Springvale South. They had a vision of a regional temple, where thousands of local Buddhists would gather to worship but, when construction began, it was beset by problems. At this time one of the congregation began to be visited in her dreams by a Bunurong woman. 'This is not your land,' she would repeat night after night. The monks conferred and agreed that a shrine would be built to honour the Bunurong, and the congregation began to leave gifts of fruit, avocado and nuts. From there, construction ran smoothly and today Clarke Road temple is one of the largest in Melbourne. Still, worshippers leave gifts at the shrine to the Bunurong to show their respect to the traditional owners of that land.

Just to the north is Westall Secondary College, one of the most multicultural schools in Victoria. The school sits opposite the site of the old Springvale Enterprise Migrant Hostel. Between 1970 and 1992, 30,000 migrants and refugees called this hostel their first Australian home. They received food, shelter and services and were allowed to find their feet in a new land. Each day, while parents took English classes and looked for work, their children would cross Westall Road and access free, quality education. A generation later, those students are making their own contributions as doctors, lawyers, scientists and community workers of Melbourne's south-east.

Up Fairbank Avenue stands the Corning factory, where scores of local workers are making and testing the fibres that will be a part of the National Broadband Network. The factory floor is not dirty, and the workers do not sweat. This is modern manufacturing, made possible by a clever and adaptable workforce. Just down south, the trucks of Butler Market Gardens in Heatherton are setting out to deliver their speciality Asian produce to supermarkets around Melbourne. They have been at it for six generations. Market gardens like this one once stretched right across Cheltenham, Moorabbin and Clarinda, and today the gardens that remain form part of Melbourne's green wedge, which we call lungs of the south-east. It is fiercely protected from development by local activists who fight to preserve this area's rural character. Nearby, in the early evening, the netball courts at Duncan McKinnon Reserve will be filled with shouts and squeaks of rubber soles as girls of all grades get together for a regular game. Families surround the sidelines—husbands cheering for their wives, brothers for their sisters, dads for their daughters.

This is my electorate of Hotham. It will always be the traditional land of the Bunurong and will be ever lucky for the migrants who have made our local area their home too. It is a place of industry and enterprise, of community and family—proof of this country's achievements and its potential. This is Hotham; this is modern Australia. Whether I am at home or in Canberra, fighting for the people of Hotham, who have placed their trust in me, will always come first. So it was for Simon Crean, who gave 23 years of his life to this electorate and to making Australia a better, fairer, more open country. He was, and is, a reformer, a thinker, a negotiator, a doer; a politician who brought a good mind and a good heart to every task. He was equally at home in the suburbs or in a country town, on the factory floor or in the boardroom, at the footy or at the opera. He is one of my Labor heroes and a person in whose footsteps I am honoured to walk. Simon also has a great track record of supporting Labor women. When I joined the Labor Party at 16, Simon was the first member of parliament I met. He helped me when I ran for council as a 22 year old and, a year later, he endorsed me as the mayor. Now, he has backed me all the way to federal parliament.

Standing in this House is for me part of a family tradition. I come from a long line of battlers, bohemians and radicals—of people who fought for what they believed in. My first Australian ancestor, John O'Neil, arrived in chains, arrested in London for boxing in the street. They say that on a 10-point scale of Irish wildness, John and his wife Ellen would probably have scored an eight or a nine. In 1853, they caught wind of a chance to escape poverty fast. They hired a dray, and with their three children, pitched a tent in the Ballarat goldfields. According to the family historians, when the injustice of the goldfields officers crossed a line, John joined the rebellion that would form the foundation of Australian democracy. John's great grandson, my grandfather Lou, was built from the same stuff. He was at various times a wool classer, a bar clerk, a station hand and a communist, but he was always a proud trade unionist and at one stage was jailed for fighting for rights that today we take for granted.

My mother's father was a frustrated poet. He won the Courier-Mail writing competition three times, but he saw out his days trapped in a job where he did not get to use that fine mind. My grandmother Clare was a kind and wise woman with the type of quiet, steely resolve needed to raise four children without money or support. Like so many of her generation, she missed out—no more than a grade-4 education, no income, no choices. They were a wonderful family in a tight-knit Catholic community in Brisbane, but they were trapped by the times.

My parents were raised by these people, and in their spirit. Mum and Dad were book publishers. My father, Lloyd O'Neil, started out in the book trade as a 16-year-old bookseller at Angus and Robertson. He used to tell the story of a woman who came in looking for a gift. They found the right book and, as he was ringing up the purchase, he said, 'And the best thing is this one was published in Australia,' and she said, 'If that's the case, I don't want it.' It was the cultural cringe, neatly wrapped in one encounter.

From there, Dad made publishing books about Australia his life mission. He published more than 1,000 titles—on everything from sport and cooking to art, politics and history. He was no jingoist but he believed that the Australian experience was like no other and that it had created a distinctively Australian voice that deserved to be heard. He used to say, 'I would prefer to publish a lesser work of Henry Lawson than the best work of William Faulkner.' For Dad, and for our family, books about Australia were inherently good things—not because Australia was better but because they were books about us.

My mother shared these views, taking some of Australia's best ideas into form as books. Mum is one of the great perfectionists of Australia's publishing industry and ran her own dynamic publishing house. Many of her bestsellers were books on women's health, women's politics and women's money—knowledge she saw as essential to the independence of the modern Australian woman. Mum introduced me, even as a tiny little girl, to Australian art and theatre. She taught me about feminism and showed me that, when women work together, we are unstoppable.

It was, and remains with my stepfather Brian, a family where to be original and creative was infinitely more important than kicking goals and acing exams. It was a household full of ideas about what Australia is and what it could be: a brave country; an open and creative republic, wise to its history and culture; an independent and respected presence in the world; a fair, decent country that valued things that matter—jobs, the arts. And it was a household where it was absolutely implicit that we would be doing something to see Australia reach this potential. That is the tradition in which I become a member of parliament.

I think back to what my grandfather Harry could have done if he had had a proper education; how my grandmother Clare might have had her own money and, with it, her freedom; what grandfather Lou might have achieved if he had not been forced into poverty, sharing a one-room flat in Kings Cross with my young father. I think of how they missed out, and so did Australia. The root of disadvantage was, in every case, economic.

I had this in mind almost a decade ago when I set out to try to understand more about economics and business. I have been lucky in that time to study with some of the world's most famous economists. I have sat in boardrooms and worked in workplaces in mining, manufacturing, telecommunications and retail—just about every part of Australia's economy. I have closed the trading day at the New York Stock Exchange and helped a group of Aboriginal women build a business that will one day provide them with their first jobs.

What have I learned? For the growing parts of our economy, the old lines of labour and capital have all but disappeared. Working people—more than two million of whom now own their own businesses, and almost all of whom are shareholders—know that a fair society needs a strong economy, and that means businesses that work. The big thinkers in Australian business also know that government is essential to helping them succeed—and I do not mean in a narrow sense. I think we modern students of economics know that government should not be building great tariff walls or controlling the big macroeconomic levers. But if we take our noses out of economics textbooks and look at how our economy really works, we will see that government provides the platform on which our businesses compete—and win—globally. Other countries exploit low wages or low export costs, but in Australia our source of advantage is our skilled population, our world-class infrastructure, our safe and lively cities and our culture of invention and scientific research. In all of these, government matters.

As the countries we compete with grow, this parliament faces the challenge of making reforms that will keep Australia ahead of the game. Over the next decade, global demand for food is going to double. How can we help Australian scientists and farmers be part of the agricultural revolution that will be required to meet this demand? Australia's temperature could rise by up to five degrees by 2070, creating radical changes to our weather, our rainfall and our environment. How can we help our energy, tourism and primary industries adjust?

By 2020, the world will face a shortage of about 40 million skilled workers. How will Australia compete in this environment? By 2025, more than 60 per cent of global GDP growth will come from just 600 cities around the world. None of them is in Australia. How can we help more parts of our economy connect with these cities so that more Australians can benefit from this growth? By 2070, Melbourne's population will double to 8.5 million. Sydney will be of a similar size. How can we make sure our cities are places where creative people, who will generate wealth, will continue to want to live?

Government need not answer these questions alone, by any means. But all will require good policy and clear communication from our political leaders. And there is one reform that will trump them all. In every business or organisation I have worked in, whatever it is trying to achieve, the driver of success or failure is people. If Australia is going to thrive in a world of fierce and unrelenting competition, we must have one of the best education systems in the world. Being the best is achievable and it is real. But, at the moment, we are moving in the wrong direction—sliding further and further back down in international rankings.

At my school we had a big gym and plenty of Bunsen burners, but what mattered to me most was having Mr Farnsworth nurture my love of politics with his superb impromptu lectures on the history of the Labor Party and the Whitlam dismissal.

What seems to get a bit lost in our conversations about education in this place is that it is teachers who matter most. This parliament should lead a conversation about how to attract, train and retain the best and brightest Australians, young and old, in this national endeavour.

We focus a lot in the education debate on secondary schools. But students of public policy are coming to terms with the reality that I think Australian mothers have known for generations and that is that, by the time a child starts secondary school, much about their life chances has actually already been determined.

My first experience of caring for a child was as a foster parent. A baby came into our care straight from hospital, seven weeks premature, tiny and defenceless. All that stood between that perfect, sleepy little baby and a house of violence and chaos, between having a chance and no chance, was government.

The main parties in Australia differ in their beliefs on many things. But I know that we all believe that children are worth protecting. So this should not be an area where we need any reform. Yet, of the more than 12,000 children who are currently living in care in Australia, about a quarter have lived in 10 or more foster homes. Today, more than 1,000 children are locked up in immigration detention, with limited access to education, and many are subject to abuse and self-harm.

Each child subjected to fear and to danger, each child who misses out on an education, on proper health care, on the very best start in this abundant country of ours is the special failing of the people in this room. In my time here, I want to help change that.

Another area of bipartisanship in this House is improving the situation for Indigenous Australians. Two years ago, I lived for nine months in the searing heat of North East Arnhem Land. I worked in an Indigenous community which continues in its traditional language and culture but which is beset by crises in health, housing and employment. For many decades politicians have said it is shameful. I want my generation to be the last to have to say it. To make things right, some things are going to have to change. No two Aboriginal communities are the same and, hard as it is, we are going to have to learn to work with each community individually. We need to narrow the chasm that exists between public policy made in Canberra and policy implemented on the ground. And we need to help Aboriginal people strengthen their voice.

We do face a lot of challenges in Australia but, when I look to the future, what I actually see is a lot of opportunity. We are made to tackle what this next century will throw at us. We are a small country, nimble, fast and strong. We are on the doorstep of some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Globalisation has become our reality and we have adapted. Our resources have given us a head start, as long as they do not dumb us down. We have a people who are open and willing to change, when they understand what is required and why it is necessary.

I know this because of what I see when I look back. The Australian story is a rather unlikely one. Our first people have sustained the oldest living culture in the world by surviving on a most inhospitable land. When a group of half-starving criminals sailed into Botany Bay, they learnt how to change and they survived. Through immigration, we have brought more than 150 cultures to our country and we have done it peacefully.

Our economy has made profound transitions, not once, not twice, but probably a dozen since Federation. Change is part of who we are. We have used times of difficulty and transition to make our country better. And we will do it again.

When I turn my mind to the big issues of the future, I know that I will not do it alone. I want to thank my team of personal advisers: my completely brilliant brother Patrick; my wise stepfather Brian; and my wonderful mother Anne, who has sacrificed so much for me. To the Munzel family: you have taught me so much about life in the bush and I feel privileged that you are a loving part of my family, too.

To Helen, Ian, Joan, Phoebe, PK, who are here, and to Dan, my wonderful cousin: thank you so much for all your support.

I want to thank Nick Staikos, who ran a fantastic election campaign and who continues to serve his community through my office, along with Carina, Barb, Robyn, Luke and Koula.

Thanks to Geoff Lake and Tim Holding for their unfailing support, advice and friendship. Thanks to Hong Urn, Martin Pakula, wonderful state colleagues who represent their communities so admirably. I want to thank Julie Warren, Tim Kennedy and Charlie Donnelly at the NUW, who are showing us all what it takes to run a growing, successful, modern union. Thanks to Matt Rocks at the TWU and Nick Bantounas for their support and counsel.

I want to thank Hotham's wonderful local branches, led by a group of inspiring true believers: the indomitable Amy Duncan, who has just celebrated her 80th birthday; Steve Staikos; Steve Dimopoulos; Heang Meng Tak; Youhorn Chea; Loi Truong; Sean O'Reilly; Gael and Charlie Mitzi; the Sapir family; Jeffrey Lim; and many others. I want to thank fine Labor women, like Ann Barker, Judith Grayley and Jaala Pulford.

And, most of all, I want to thank my partner Brendan. Brendan is the finest person I know. He is my best friend, the father of our beautiful boy, a man whose commitment to living what he believes inspires me every day. I know that, if I can come home after each week in parliament and look him in the eye, I can be proud of the work that I do here. And that pride will not come from sitting on this green leather.

Since I was elected, I have thought about a girl named Sarah, who made me her sister and showed me what life in Arnhem Land communities is really like.

I thought about Amanda, who visited me in my office last week in utter despair about her son who is four years without a job, out of training, and has given up.

I thought about beautiful little Rachel, the baby we had the privilege of caring for and about how I might be able to provide more safety and structure for other little girls like her.

I thought about the dairy farmers of Brendan's community in northern Victoria, whose annual fortunes run with the weather, who worry sometimes for years at a time about putting food on the table and about how I might now have the chance to do something big, something real, for those Australians. That is when I will feel proud of what I have done. Thank you.

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