First Speech: Nickolas Varvaris MP

Member for Barton, New South Wales

11 December 2013

Mr VARVARIS (Barton) (17:07): Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to commence my inaugural speech by expressing my sincere and deepest respect to and admiration for the concept of this parliament, to its origin and painstaking advancement through the years that have made this country prominent in the world, and I pledge my unreserved dedication in serving to the best of my ability within this temple of democracy. My respect, admiration and support continues further to Her Majesty the Queen and to our present constitutional system of government.

As a person born and raised in the St George area of Sydney, within the constituency of Barton where I was elected, I am blessed to have achieved my standing in this House and, of course, grateful and indeed humbled by the honour my constituents and the men and women of my party have bestowed upon me. In making my first speech, it would not be right to disregard the great work done by the former member for Barton, the Hon. Robert McClelland. I have had the opportunity to work very closely with Robert in my role as the Mayor of Kogarah City Council, and, as the former member for Barton, he was a man who got on with the job and who many in my electorate have always spoken very highly of. In his 17 years as the member, he served his electorate and party well and followed in the great tradition set by his father, the Hon. Doug McClelland AC, former senator and President of the Senate. It was disappointing to see how he was treated by the party that not only he but his family had devoted their careers to. It has come as no surprise that, no matter who I have spoken to at parliament about Robert, they have all described him as a wonderful person of great character. Robert, you have certainly left me with big shoes to fill.

Madam Speaker, my warmest congratulations on your election—a proper recognition of your widely-acclaimed services to this nation. I, too, extend to you my total support in your vital role.

Barton is a seat that is the very definition of multiculturalism. Barton has never been regarded as a safe seat for the Liberal Party, and I am humbled to note that only two Liberals have had the honour to represent this electorate before me. Even former Liberal Party member and World War II heroine Nancy Wake, who ran twice, with swings that exceeded my own, failed to gain the honour of representing the wonderful people who reside in Barton.

The seat of Barton is the birthplace of Australia as we know it today, starting in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay and the beginning of European settlement. The First Fleet, followed by the Gold Rush, boosted Australia's total population from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871, marking the beginning of Australia's multicultural society.

Multiculturalism to me is not just a slogan or passing fashion. I see it as a whole component of life in Australia which has been pivotal in the pursuit of a variety of goals over the years, including the principles of social justice, the recognition of identities and appreciation of diversity, the integration of migrants, nation building and attempts to achieve and maintain social cohesion. Multicultural diversity on a democratic platform guarantees our shared values in future, and, if it were limited to a three key-word formula, for this unique success, I would nominate 'tolerance', 'unity' and 'justice'. In a sense, I feel that the same values of tolerance, unity and justice can be applied on a greater scale, with dignity and mutual respect, law and security for the wider Australian family, the people we represent.

I wish to acknowledge and thank the Hon. Philip Ruddock for the genuine interest that he has demonstrated towards migrants in Australia over an extensive career to date, including as Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. I would also like to thank representatives from a host of different nationalities that are present today in the gallery. In particular I would like to acknowledge the Ambassador of Greece, His Excellency Charalampos Dafaranos, and his wife, Eva Dafaranos, and the High Commissioner of Cyprus, His Excellency Yannis Iacovou. I would also like to note the attendance in the gallery, from the United States of America, of Major General Roosevelt Mercer Jr, the Director of Plans and Policy, United States Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska; and the first Australian-born astronaut to journey to space, American Paul Desmond Scully-Power AM.

Whilst the electorate of Barton is culturally and religiously diverse, there is one defining element that unites us all, and that is family. I stand before you, the son of a Greek Orthodox parish priest, a person raised within a religious environment, and one in which life revolved around serving the needs of the community. It has recently dawned on me that, although I never followed in my father's footsteps in the church, our paths are more aligned than would meet the eye. I am very proud of the work my father has done in serving our community. My father has been serving the St George community for over 40 years. He has dedicated his life to improving the lives of his parishioners by looking after and fostering the spiritual, educational, welfare and cultural needs of the area. Growing up in my family, it was not uncommon to be taken to every type of event that you could imagine, attending weddings, christenings, funerals, cemeteries, hospitals—and the list goes on. From this I came to appreciate that such events are not for appearances but serve as a more important role in being able to interact with and absorb the issues that affect people. So at an early age I became very aware of the multitude of circumstances and challenges everyday people are faced with. Since very early, I was always taught and guided by the principles of family and faith, modesty and respect to my fellow human being, and I was firmly expected to strive in my education like my father, to apply all that I had received at all levels of my education for the benefit of all.

My parents migrated from Greece and were married in this country in the early 1960s, attracted to Australia by the fulfilled promise of a better life. The hardships in their country of origin had taught them a single and profound lesson: to work hard and honestly, and appreciate the value of education for their children, which they considered the key to a better life.

It was tolerance, unity and justice that my family instinctively applied in our upbringing and allowed me to grow, and moulded my life through hard family finances that were overcome only thanks to the highly-developed skills of the joint treasurers of the family, my father, John, and my mother, Ourania. Raising properly a family of five children was a herculean task at that time. They both worked hard, not only to provide for us but also to contribute to the greater Greek community of Kogarah, where they were pivotal in establishing a very successful Greek community association and an aged-care centre. I vividly remember my mother visiting hospital patients every Monday for over 30 years, something she did not out of obligation but out of her drive to assist those in need. Their combined efforts have been recognised and appreciated by many state and federal dignitaries and the ecumenical ecclesiastic authority.

With the gratitude my parents expressed in every manner and on every occasion for the blessed opportunity that their destiny held in relocating to this country, their constant reminder to all five of us—myself, my brother, Con; sisters, Sylvia and Chrissa, and my twin-sister, Irene—was: 'honour our name'.

Being a twin child of a Greek migrant family of seven, I have fully lived the experience of the cultural melting pot, amidst the struggle and sacrifices of our parents and grandparents who were the labourers that built the roads, the railways and the majestic Snowy Mountains scheme. They were the factory workers, the coffee lounge owners and farmers whose children would later become builders, businessmen and professionals.

I was fortunate to attend good schools with committed teachers. I would like to pay tribute to the headmaster of Trinity Grammar School, Roderick West, whose comments when I was in year 7 have remained with me for life. He stressed the importance of utilising the opportunities and experiences that a well-rounded education could offer. I would also like to acknowledge the support and mentoring given to me by Max Taylor, the former director of the school's Society of the Arts, in developing an appreciation in the arts during my schooling career.

This experience was a lesson well learnt. It equipped me with social skills and proved valuable later in my life, in particular during my 14 years on Kogarah City Council, six years of which was as mayor. It is a highly multicultural place with diverse cultures of mainly Greek, Chinese and Arabic-speaking backgrounds, to name a few, all of whom live, work and prosper harmoniously.

During my 14 years on Kogarah City Council I received my taste for politics and love for serving my community. I am very proud of the achievements made whilst I was on council. All councillors from all sides worked together in a collaborative manner to deliver the very best for the people of Kogarah. We upgraded Kogarah from suburb to city. We delivered a cleaner, greener and sustainable city.

Kogarah City Council was recognised as a leader in the field of environmental sustainability and Kogarah was named amongst the world's most liveable cities at the International Liveable Communities Awards in December 2012, along with being awarded the state and national title of Most Sustainable City by Keep Australia Beautiful. Kogarah won the New South Wales Green Globe Award for being the leader in sustainable water management in the state, and achieving a Sydney Water 5-star accreditation for total water cycle management. We implemented water-sensitive urban design using litter traps and baskets on all stormwater outlets, preventing rubbish and soil entering our precious waterways. We were and still are the only council in New South Wales to have implemented a sewer-mining program for irrigation purposes.

We fostered culture and arts by implementing the Kogarah Art Prize, which attracted national attention, and kicked off the mayor's Music at Twilight concert series and a widely supported public arts program. Our appreciation for our multicultural local government community saw us play host to a number of cultural festivities, such as Australia Day, TVB Jadeworld Carnival, the Asian Cultural Festival, the Being Greek Festival and the Boshonto Mela festival.

Upon my election to Kogarah City Council I recognised the council was in a poor financial situation. In response I drove the implementation of long-term financial planning, disciplined fiscal management and I can proudly boast that the council is debt-free and one of a handful of New South Wales councils that received a positive report card from the New South Wales government. I am also proud to say that Kogarah City Council provides quality services for a lower budget and fewer staff than most in the state.

We did not accomplish this by imposing more and more costs onto the ratepayer. We accomplished this by implementing strategic and innovative measures. Through all my experiences on the council I have realised the importance of partnerships between federal, state and local governments, working together to provide services to the community. As I now embark on a new journey, serving a wider constituency, I will build on my experiences and knowledge, successes and milestones, to deliver even more for my area.

It is common practice when preparing for your maiden speech to peruse inaugural speeches made previously. There is one particular maiden speech that I would like to mention. It is the speech by former Liberal member for Barton James Bradfield. In his speech, when acknowledging the former member, Mr Bradfield stated 'I realise that he—' referring to Mr Reynolds—'came here under completely different circumstances from those under which I came here only on the day before yesterday. He came here when the economy was healthy and when everything was rosy. On having a glance at his maiden speech I noticed that it was unnecessary for him to talk on matters of the economy. We did not have any of those problems then. We did not have the problems that are outlined in the Governor-General's Speech.' It seems that Mr Bradfield, who was a member of the Fraser government had, like us, inherited a problem, so there are certainly similarities. If we want to get Australia back on track, it is important that we direct funding for projects that will deliver real returns for all Australians. As custodians of the public purse it is unacceptable to waste hard-earned taxpayers' money on projects which deliver little or no benefit to our community.

The time has now come for me to thank those who have played a pivotal role not only in my current election but all the way through my working career. As I have mentioned, I have lived my entire life in the St George area, and although a career in parliament has not been a lifelong ambition, I am grateful for the opportunity to represent an electorate with which I share a lifelong association.

Firstly, I would like to thank the emeritus mayor of Kogarah, Sam Witheridge, for paving the road and giving me the opportunity to serve the people of Kogarah at the early age of 25. Life in politics, and being a citizen of a country where the 'fair go' is an everyday expression, has made me privileged to serve the nation that provided me with the opportunity to apply the principles and values of freedom, integrity and justice taught to me by my family and teachers.

I would like to acknowledge the friendship and guidance provided by the executive at Kogarah City Council, in particular the general manager, Paul Woods, and his directors Evan Hutchings, Rod Logan, Andrew Sharpe and Amit Chanan. There have also been some exceptional councillors who I have had the privilege to have worked with over my 14 years as a councillor. In particular I would like to acknowledge the late Councillor Col Ritchie, who served on the council for fifteen years. Those who had the opportunity to know Col would know that he was a formidable and imposing yet generous individual. For those reasons, and the fact that he always said what he felt and thought without holding back, he polarised how others viewed him. But what remains etched in my mind is his passion for the local community. Despite suffering for several years with a terminal illness, he continued to front-up to the council time after time and continued to fight for his constituents and what he believed in. Very few people have had as much of an impact on me as Col has, and I do miss his companionship. I would also like to acknowledge his beloved wife, Gai Ritchie, who is in the gallery today.

I would also like to acknowledge the previous mayors and longstanding Labor councillors Michael Platt and Nickitas Katris for the balanced approach that they have taken in fulfilling their duties. They have been strong advocates for their community and, irrespective of party politics, were always willing to work together with me in the interest of the community.

I would like to acknowledge the great friendship of and support received from the Deputy Mayor of Kogarah City Council, Councillor Annie Tang. She has been a great guide to understanding the large Chinese community within the electorate and together we have developed several partnerships that have generated beneficial cultural, social and learning exchanges. These partnerships have resulted in the gifting of two significant pieces of public art, one of Lei Bow and the other of Bruce Lee, and the design and construction of a major Chinese garden park in Kogarah, Ma'anshan Friendship Park. I would like to acknowledge the Shunde Association and the various community groups that have assisted in this coming to fruition. Representatives of these groups are in the gallery today.

I would also like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the many men and women who worked tirelessly throughout the campaign to ensure that the people of Barton secured the representation that they deserve. I would also like to thank my fellow councillors: Mayor Stephen Agius, Councillor Sam Stratikopoulos, Councillor Nicholas Aroney, Councillor Nathaniel Smith and, in particular, Councillor George Katsabaris.

I would like to thank Rockdale City councillors Councillor Ron Bezic, Councillor Nick Micovski, Councillor Paul Sedrak, Councillor Lydia Sedrak, Councillor Petros Kalligas and, in particular, Councillor Peter Poulos. I would also like to thank Canterbury City councillors Councillor Michael Hawatt and Councillor Con Vassiliadis. I would also like to thank the Mayor of Hurstville City Council, Councillor Jack Jacovou. I have always believed that local government is the closest level of government to the people, and without that local knowledge and support our campaign could not have been as effective as it was.

I would also like to thank the following individuals who stood by my side throughout the campaign and were there without fail when needed to offer any support needed. These were: Bryce Macryannis, Nathaniel Openshaw, Byron Zhou, Sam Elmir, Rami Abdullah, George Vassiliadis, Costa Potiris, Jim and Yvonne Liaros, John Aslanidis, George Hatzikiriakos, George Mavrocordatos, Benjamin Jiang, Ye Feng, Wen Zhao, Nihong Chen, Juanling Zeng, Binkun Wan, Peng Qu, Weiliang Wang, Yuanyuan Wang, Hua Liu and Benjamin Chao AO and the many Young Liberals who committed to giving up their weekends throughout the campaign.

I would like to acknowledge all my supporters who have given so generously to support my campaign. There are too many to mention individually, but you know who you are and your support is very much appreciated. In particular, I would like to thank the many people in the gallery, who have made the journey to be a part of this important day. I would also like to acknowledge the support received by the ethnic media, some of whom are in the gallery today.

I would like to thank both of my former employers—in particular, George Cassim from CCS Partners and Bill Kamper from Kamper & Co—for the guidance and support that they have given me, throughout my career. I must stress that having to tolerate an employee who has been embroiled in public service as much as I have would have tried the patience of even the most tolerant of people.

In view of the history of this great electorate, Barton and my campaign did not attract the attention and support that was afforded to seats that were identified as marginal. There were, however, several people who had great belief in me, one important individual in particular: Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who continually fought to secure the same opportunities for my electorate as were provided to other seats which were considered to be more winnable, even though this was a difficult assignment at times.

I would like to thank the Prime Minister, the Hon. Tony Abbott, for his support and belief and his genuine concern in the issues that affect my electorate. I would also like to thank the ministers who took time out of their busy schedules to support my campaign, these being our Madam Speaker, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, the Hon. Julie Bishop, the Hon. Joe Hockey, the Hon. Scott Morrison, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, the Hon. Greg Hunt, Senator the Hon. Eric Abetz, Senator the Hon. Arthur Sinodinos, the Hon. Luke Hartsuyker, the Hon. John Ajaka and former Prime Minister the Hon. John Howard.

Since being elected to council over 14 years ago, I have continually sought to improve the Liberal brand in the St George region. When first elected, the region had two Labor federal members, three Labor state members and only six Liberal councillors out of 39 across the surrounding councils. This has progressively shifted to two Liberal federal members, two Liberal state members and 16 Liberal councillors. This is a remarkable transformation for the Liberal Party in the St George region, and is clearly linked to our local representatives acting on behalf of the diverse community that resides in this great area.

As I also reflect on the diversity of this seat, it is important to note that the majority of seats with large populations of people who speak a language other than English or who were born overseas have not historically been held by the Liberal Party. Reference to census data from 2009 on the top 10 ranked seats in both of these rankings reflect this fact. I believe that there is much needed to be done to better reflect the changing face of our community and to remain relevant to the changing face of Australia's community into the future. The success of the Liberal Party in my seat of Barton and the seat of Reid should be used as a template to address this issue in the future. I am committed to ensuring that this gap closes and that we learn even more about how to communicate our message to all communities more effectively.

I would also like to acknowledge one of my opponents at the recent federal election, Rockdale City Councillor Michael Naji, who ran in the election with the goal of making Barton a marginal seat so that the community that he is so passionate about would finally see funding and resources go into much needed infrastructure after being neglected for so many years. Councillor Michael Naji's efforts have been rewarded, with Barton becoming one of the most marginal seats in Australia. I know he has worked tirelessly to deliver for his community and I make this commitment: I will take up his fight for them in parliament as well as the broader community.

I would also like to thank my godparents, Andrew and Eleftheria Condoleon, for all of the support that they have given me throughout my life. I would like to thank my in-laws, John and Diana Mitrothanasis, for the unwavering support that they have offered to me from when I first met my wife, Dorette. They too have been a part of this long journey and have stood by us at all times.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the vital importance and position that family has in my life. I have taken the values that I have learnt from my parents and I now apply the same family values in a more blessed way to raise, with my wife Dorette, our own family, with two children, lovely Renae and young John.

I would like to thank my wife, Dorette, for allowing me to serve in an area with which I have had a lifelong connection and to which I wish to give back so much. What most people would not know is that I was elected to council in September 1999 and married the week after, so Dorette has had to put up with me being away from home for countless evenings throughout our marriage whilst I attended to my duties. I am eternally grateful for all the support and love she has shown throughout this period, even when public life became difficult from time to time. Dorette has undertaken more than her fair share in raising our two beautiful kids, and is an impeccable mother and wife.

I thank my family for allowing me to serve and for understanding my struggle to balance long hours of public life and the precious time with you at the home that I love so much. Like my father before me, I aspire to raise our children to enjoy a bright future and a better quality of life.

Back to top

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print