First Speech: Joanne Ryan MP

Member for Lalor, Victoria

18 November 2013

Ms RYAN (Lalor—Opposition Whip) (16:01): One of the warm memories I have of the federal election campaign of 1998 was seeing our Labor candidate for Lalor, Julia Gillard, speak humbly and fondly of her predecessor as local member, Barry Jones. On countless occasions that year people said to her, 'You'll have big shoes to fill'. Now I know how she felt.

The electorate of Lalor has been well served by our members of parliament. Our area was proud of Jim Cairns' passion for justice and peace. Our area was proud of Barry Jones' dedication to knowledge and reason. I was so glad to see Barry last month at the launch of Clare Wright's marvellous book, The forgotten rebels of Eureka. He was as generous as ever, and I assured him that the spirit of the oaths taken under the Southern Cross still lives in the seat named for Peter Lalor today.

But we were so proud of Julia Gillard. Every day for 16 years we saw our local member set her alarm clock early and go out and stand up for the things she believed in and the things we believed in. She made a difference at Werribee Primary School; she made a difference in Washington DC, and from the first time I met her, when we were working to stop CSR and the Kennett government from turning our city into a toxic dump site, to this day, when she is working to improve education around the world, Julia Gillard has remained one of us—a decent, sincere, hard-working, unpretentious and optimistic person who endured more and achieved more, much of it in this very chamber, than I could ever describe here. She is a mighty Australian, a great Prime Minister and a bonza local member. I will just try to be worthy of my part in her succession every day in this place.

So, with my first words in the House I thank Prime Minister Gillard. And there are some other people I also want to thank today. Thank you to all those who encouraged me to seek preselection for this seat and who worked to ensure that our local members had the opportunity of a ballot—in particular, Paul Howes, my colleague Senator Stephen Conroy and Werribee branch president, Susan Foster.

Thank you, too, to my state colleagues: Tim Pallas, Jill Hennessy, John Eren and most particularly, Telmo Languiller, for their support during the campaign and beyond. To my federal colleagues, thank you for your welcome. It is a privilege to be a part of this passionate, committed team.

Thanks also to everyone who worked with me and for me on all the campaign days. Thanks to Anthony for being there for everyone and to the remarkable Rondah Rietveld, who led a magnificent campaign team. And thank heavens there were too many of you to name, or we would never have got all the work done! Thank you all.

One very special person, who will be annoyed at being singled out, is my great mate, Michelle Fitzgerald. Michelle and I had long been friends when we joined the Labor Party in 1996. Fitzy—thank you for everything, and I mean 'everything'. People who say that the Labor Party has lost touch with our values or lost touch with our community should spend some time with Michelle. That is all I need to say about her, and all I need to say about that.

Thank you to my family, without whom there would be nothing. John, I love you. Michael, Anthony and James, I am so proud of you. My boys now joke that despite the new career not much has changed; I will still get recesses and I will answer the bells! To my mum, my brothers and sisters and the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews: thank you for your support, not just during the election campaign but always.

And thank you, above all, to the electors of Lalor, who gave me their precious votes, and to every elector of Lalor who took part in our great democracy on 7 September 2013. You are Lalor people and I will represent you all here in this place.

I stand here today because of four things. I am here because I am a Werribee person, I am here because I am the woman my family made me, I am here because I am a teacher and I am here because I am Labor. The culture that I love in my community, the values I carry from my childhood and career and the beliefs that I cherish in my party all hold together as one. Ours is a diverse and growing community. Indeed, it bears a resemblance to the home of our namesake. Like Ballarat during the gold rush, Lalor is a place of opportunity, a place where settlers from around the world come to test their fortunes and to make their homes. It is a place where the diaspora comes together to create a unique mixture of culture and language, and where traditions are accepted, created and cherished.

But instead of the sprawl of ramshackle tents and timber buildings of Peter Lalor's Ballarat, ours is a modern, thriving city. When Julia Gillard first stood as candidate in the 1998 election, 169 votes were cast in Point Cook. At the most recent election over 10,000 voters in Point Cook made their voices heard, and I have no doubt the population will continue to grow.

And yet, despite this growth, Lalor is a place of deep-rooted history. It was the home of the Woiwurung and Wathaurung people before it became a stopover for early settlers travelling between Geelong and Melbourne. Little River was the place my ancestors chose to settle in the 1850s and I am truly proud that it forms part of the electorate I represent today.

Lalor is also a place of breadth. It extends, as the Werribee Football Club song describes, from the playing fields of Melbourne to the sands of Chirnside Park. It is a place that encompasses both new and old, and with this come significant challenges: not just the adversity associated with meeting employment, infrastructure or service needs, but also, and most importantly, the challenge of continually building a connected, inclusive and just community. This challenge is met every day because, despite their differences, the people of Lalor share the same spirit.

We are home to an ethic of service: we know how to help each other. We are home to an ethic of struggle: we know how to fight for what is right. And we love our people and our place. In Lalor we know that fairness and opportunity are something that we have a responsibility to achieve for one another. We know that, even in a great social democratic nation, society is not always fair. And that means we know that we have to take care of our own. That is the spirit of our Indigenous people. The fight of local Koori people, including my nieces Caity and Alix, to proclaim their history and heritage is testament to their tenacity. I reflect upon this every time I take part in an acknowledgement of country.

That is the spirit of the people who have family roots in the district going back to the 1840s. They came and they built. I reflect on it every time I go to my electorate office, which is on land once owned by grandfather and where my uncle and his family built their home. And that is the spirit of the people we welcome to Lalor from all over the world every year. They have made the same journey my ancestors made from Ireland and Scotland, that the Italians, Greeks and others made following World War II. I see it in our Asian, African and South American communities and in people of dozens of other creeds and places of origin—the very same character, the very same beliefs. They arrive ready to be part of our community, like they have been here all their lives.

Madam Speaker, that is the spirit of our area. I am here to represent that spirit because I am a Werribee person. Werribee is under my fingernails and under my feet. And I am here to represent that spirit because I am the woman my family made me. They are in my blood and bone.

I am here because I am a Ryan, granddaughter of Joe, an Irish Catholic farmer who was vehemently anti-conscription in the first war and who served his community not in uniform but in government—three times president of our shire. I am here because I am a McNaughton too, granddaughter of Kit, his wife. A century ago next year Kit was nursing in Egypt and on Lemnos and then in France. She served the men of Gallipoli and the men of the Somme. She finished her service as Australia's first plastic surgery nurse and she received the Royal Red Cross First Class. I am here because I am a Farrell, granddaughter of Bill: a Tasmanian, a miner, who enlisted, aged 21, in 1914. He described himself as 'an Anglican, with no prior service but a good rifle shot'. He fought with the 12th Battalion, Third Brigade, and later with the 51st. And I am here because I am a McCarthy. Lillian, my grandmother, was one of 13. She knew about service to family and showered love on us all—and, yes, that Anglican digger had to convert to Catholicism to marry her. That was what diversity look like in those years.

My father, Gerald, and my mother, Dot, made our home at Werribee Park and later in Werribee. I am here because of them. My father was a dairy, sheep and grain farmer—and if you know farming, you know that means he showed his eight children what work was. My mother became a widow in 1973—and if you know widows you know that means she showed her sons and daughters how to rely on themselves. My mother taught us about inclusion and patience and love. All were welcome in her home and in her heart. Mum raised eight of us: two teachers, two disability advocates, a lawyer, two truck drivers and a publican. She taught us that each of us could and should do whatever it was that fulfilled us. I often joke that there are two genetic strands running through us: one entrepreneurial, the other public service. I think the publican probably did his share of both!

I grew up in that family and I grew up in that community. They taught me service and struggle and to love that place. When you are the seventh child in an eight-child pile-up, you also learn to speak your piece. School for me was St Andrews and then MacKillop College, when it was just a couple of portables in a cabbage patch. For a while I worked as a packer, and for my sins I even worked in sales. But the teaching degree I began at Melbourne State College in 1980 was the great professional moment of my life—before today. Teaching became my passion and my life. I remember my students at Darwin High School, Laverton High School, Galvin Park Secondary College and, most recently, Moonee Ponds Primary School. Tom Carroll, one of those students from Laverton, is with us today. He represents them all.

Year after year those kids would come in thinking in black and white and they would leave seeing the shades of grey. Year after year those kids would come in feeling small and they would leave writing their lives large. Teaching English, I could help them out at the start of their lives as citizens not just as consumers. Looking at them, I knew that there would come a time when they would want to write their story. Teaching them, I knew that in that moment they would not be alone or unable because they would have the language to participate and the skills to make their voices heard. Working in the classroom alongside those young people gave me such an opportunity to make a quality intervention and make a difference in a life. Serving as a principal gave me a whole other insight into the big picture challenges to ensure quality in every classroom, to minimise between-school differences, to change teaching practice, to realise the potential of every child.

It was also then I fully recognised the achievements of another Western suburbs Labor MP. Lynne Kosky, then Victorian minister for education, was the first to implement genuine needs based funding for our schools. This seminal shift radically enhanced how we could teach and foster our young people. I was fortunate to see Lynne in the electorate on Saturday at the Point Cook Relay for Life. As always, she was out in front, leading her community to support one another.

It was also as a teacher and principal I experienced the transformative impact of national partnerships funding, another Labor achievement. As a principal in Melbourne's western metropolitan region, I experienced firsthand the changes the funding and research based improvement strategies could achieve. Inspired and guided by regional network leaders and committed local leadership, we implemented strategies that saw our region become the fastest improving region in Victoria over four years. I saw firsthand the positive difference this made to student learning and to family expectations. I saw that when governments get serious, lives change. That opportunity and that insight will be with me every day here, in every issue and debate.

I am also here—and I am only here—because I am Labor and, really, I am Labor because of CSR. The dramatic story of the campaign to save my town from the toxic fate that threatened us in the 1990s is well known in my electorate. And it is literally a dramatic story. With a friend I wrote a play about it called Hole in the Ground. I could be here till Christmas telling you of all the things a lot of us did in those days, but I will not because I respect the conventions of a first speech to avoid partisanship and controversy and, believe me, when I talk about what Premier Kennett and CSR wanted to do to us there is not much that is bipartisan or uncontroversial in what I had to say.

But what I do want to reflect on today is what I learned and what my community learned in that campaign. We learned that we had a voice and that we could make it heard in Spring Street and beyond. We learned to collaborate, to organise and to fight. This was no crude exercise in populism. We did not just win the campaign, we won the argument. We overcame through head not just through heart and, when the business was over it turned out that this vital development was not so vital after all. It was never built anywhere, and there is a lesson for all leaders in that.

The fight was led in true Lalor fashion by a diverse bunch—a suburban solicitor who cut his teeth fighting for Indigenous land rights in Queensland, Frank Purcell; a farmer, long-serving local councillor and leader in our community, Julian Menegazzo; an academic, a tireless activist for social justice and the environment, Harry van Morst; and me. We were joined by our community in all its shapes and sizes.

I will never forget the amazement and excitement and delight of many of my conservative friends in a place which still had many of the features of an old Australian country town when they found out that the unions were coming. We were 15,000 gathered in protest at the Werribee racecourse on a bitterly cold autumn night when we heard that Trades Hall was not only supporting us but that union women and union men would stand alongside us and join the blockade if it came to that and they would not leave until the job was done. It was our Eureka moment, when we knew we would persevere, knew we would prevail.

It was also a stark moment of understanding who was on our side and to whom we could turn for help. We knew from day one that it was no accident that the leaders of a Liberal government and CSR thought this dump should be in our postcode not in theirs. We rapidly found out it was no accident. It was the unions and the Labor Party led by John Brumby we could turn to for support—the same people that will always stand alongside those in need, that protect our kids with their strong work ethic and eagerness to please from the vulnerabilities of an unsafe workplace, that have fought and won the conditions we take for granted and who with courage and kindness fight for those unheard. So, yes, I come here very proud to speak for Labor.

We have a lot to do in this place—infrastructure, health, disability care. My community needs services and infrastructure and we need them from all levels of government and we need them on time. Our nation needs more too. We need real action on climate change and continued commitment to an inclusive, caring and just society. We need economic growth and job creation. We also need to have what my predecessor described as a 'sophisticated conversation' about the role of gender in this country.

But what must underpin all of this is education, because nothing matters more. It is a tribute to Labor's legacy in education of generations past that someone like me from a family like mine is standing here today. I am here to accept a great responsibility—to hold on to that legacy and to fight for it. But I also come to fight for the future. I carry with me the hopes of those I have worked beside—hardworking, creative, collaborative teachers and principals who are dedicated to the complex work of taking every child on a productive and fulfilling learning journey. I will be fighting for them, for our schools and for students. I will fight to ensure that promises are kept and that the future of our kids whether they be in Woolwich or Werribee is not determined by their postcode, and to ensure that education is held up as the great equaliser and liberator it truly is.

I know this as a Werribee person, as the humble daughter of Ryans and Farrells and McNaughtons and McCarthys, as a teacher and principal, as an activist and as a passionate Labor representative. That is the service ahead of me in Canberra. And because the politics of a democracy is a contest of interest and ideas, that is the struggle ahead of me in Canberra too. It is not the way of these speeches or the nature of these occasions to reflect on the political forces we oppose. There will be time for that. Thank you, Madam Speaker, I cannot wait.

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