First Speech: Hon Alannah MacTiernan MP

Member for Perth, Western Australia

20 November 2013

Ms MacTIERNAN (Perth) (16:41): Thank you, Madam Speaker, and congratulations on your ascent to the chair. Firstly, I want to give my very great thanks to the people of the Perth electorate for the faith that you have placed in me. It is truly a great honour to be elected to represent you and I pledge that I will do my very best to advocate on your behalf and to take our community forward.

The people of Perth know that it was not an easy decision for me to contest the seat. I was loving my gig as Mayor of Vincent and we were doing exciting things there. But what persuaded me with the many punters who rang, emailed, bailed me up on the street and told me that I had a duty to do it. In the end I agreed—there are big issues that need to be addressed nationally. And I have been given the opportunity to learn a few things over the last 25 years or so that could allow me to make a useful contribution to the national debate.

It was the enthusiasm of the Labor supporters that really kept me going during what was a very intense campaign. It was energising to encounter so many people across all demographic groups that still see the Australian Labor Party as a positive force, a force for good in our society. It really put the wind beneath the wings. I also thank those many people who normally are in the blue team who were prepared to support me. To the unions who encouraged and supported me, thank you very much. To the individuals and the businesses that gave us the money to do what had to be done, thank you.

Of course, I want to acknowledge the fantastic people that worked on my campaign. It was a delightfully professional operation. I was so grateful for those always cheerful troops who joined me at the railway stations at 6.30 am, or spent their weekends and evenings at shopping centres, mass leafleting, doorknocking or phone canvassing. To the tremendous team that coordinated the election day presence, you were the best. And to the outdoor campaign, we really blitzed it.

As always, I had extraordinary support from my immediate and extended family and my brilliant friends. I simply could not have done any of my 10 elections and 25 years in public life without your love and faith in me. To my dearest Umi and Atlas, thank you very much for your competitive enthusiasm for the photo ops. And a big thanks to all those who have come today.

I need also to thank my comrades and staff, past and present, from the state parliament. We have been a great team. There are so many people I would like to individually recognise, and I will elsewhere. Guys, you know who you are—and you know I love youse all! But I do need to make special mention of Daniel Pastorelli, the calm and impeccably organised campaign manager, who knows when to hold and knows when to fold. Daniel, this is our second successful campaign together. And a special thanks to Rita Saffioti and John Carey for connecting me with Daniel and for the work that we have all done together for so many years, and to former colleague Tom Stephens who has always been such a great support. To Lenda and Kelly who channelled me on social media, thank you for such a good job of being me. I want especially to acknowledge Steve Keogh and Richard Farrell, loyal friends and spear carriers who have been with me since my very first election, and to my partner, Derek, who insisted I take this on even though he knew it would make his life tougher, thank you so much for your loyalty.

I pay tribute to Stephen Smith, my predecessor, for his 20 long years of dedicated service. Stephen is massively respected across the electorate of Perth and, indeed, across Australia. Not only is he valued as a local member, but people are also proud to see Stephen representing Australia with such distinction and grace in the roles of foreign minister and minister for defence.

Thanks also to another predecessor, my old mate Ric Charlesworth. I had worked on Ric's and Stephen's campaigns and it was great to see them reciprocate so enthusiastically. And if I could just illustrate the strength of the Labor tradition in Perth, it was poignant to have the grandson and great-grandson of another of my predecessors, Tom Burke, working on the campaign.

I will go light on the autobiography—I am a little bit over me. I will just say that I grew up with an enormously strong sense of being an Australian—a strong attachment to the landscape, an understanding that the opportunities that we enjoyed were brought to us by generations who fought for universal suffrage, a fair wages system and free education. I grew up with a deep fondness of Aboriginal people and an understanding of the value of embracing our black history and healing the wounds of the past. I always understood that these things do not just happen. In a democracy you cannot say that someone should do something—that someone is you.

Here are a few of the things that I think should be done. I have come to understand why so many Australians are leaving school after 10 to 12 years unable to confidently read and write. The Productivity Commission report on literacy and labour market skills cited evidence that more than 40 per cent of working age Australians did not have the literacy and numeracy to effectively participate in society. International studies reflect that the last major study ranked Australian last in literacy in the seven English-speaking nations assessed.

Some seven years ago, Lee Musameci, the principal at Challis, a government school cluster in my then seat of Armadale, challenged me to get involved with her school's determination not to accept that their students should be doomed to the pattern of failure that has been accepted for decades. Like many, I had wondered why so many kids seem to struggle at school and why there were so many children with learning difficulties. What I learnt from firsthand observation and from my work as a chair of a parliamentary committee and from working with extraordinarily dedicated principals, teachers, academics and researchers, is that our prevailing pedagogy is actually creating the problem. We are generating 'instructional casualties' by allowing the 'whole language' pedagogy to retain its ascendancy in our instruction of literacy—and I might say to the Minister for Education that this is not a party political issue; this is a problem that has been with us for at least two if not three decades. In this whole language belief system, reading is acquired naturally as speech is. The emphasis is on creating a word-rich environment and encouraging the guessing of the written word from pictorial clues and context. But the research shows us over and over again that while there are students you can learn to read in this way, many do not. It is an approach that particularly fails kids from lower socioeconomic and Aboriginal backgrounds. It may even disadvantage boys.

The written word is a code and we need to train children to decode it in a systematic and highly structured way. Teaching to this code will see 95 to 97 per cent of children learn to read readily. This is not a right-wing 'back-to-basics' campaign, nor is it a campaign to remove creativity from learning and teaching. It is a campaign to stop the education of so many Australians particularly those from less privileged backgrounds from being undermined by a few hundred academics and mid-ranking state education bureaucrats whose attachment to whole language and its mongrel child, the 'balanced approach', is prioritised over science. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the teachers union. When confronted with endemic failure, these proponents blame poor parenting and the fact that many kids are coming to school with developmental vulnerabilities. And this is true, and here I want to acknowledge the invaluable insight we have into this problem through the Australian Early Development Index.

It is true we all need to improve the development of zero- to three-year-olds, but even without that we can be delivering so much more in the school system. Indeed, these developmental challenges make it even more necessary that we get the instructional technique right and not muck around with methodologies that have no scientific backing. Explicit instruction of these skills is not boring or cruel. I have seen classrooms of four- and five-year-olds totally engaged as they learn sounds, letters, blends and grammar. Not only do they learn to read, they learn to succeed. I have witnessed an incredible turnaround in test results in schools who have challenged the orthodoxy. We cannot keep talking about the value of education unless we address this basic building block. Literacy is the foundation stone of our transmission of knowledge.

We need to build on the national infrastructure we have in place with ACARA and NAPLAN but we must insist that the clear direction of rigorous research be embedded in the national curriculum. We need to ensure that NAPLAN does not mask the problem by setting a minimum standard so low that it is a meaningless guide to functional literacy. We need to ensure our university faculties of education embrace scientific rigour. This is truly a national issue. It goes directly to our future as a nation, which must compete globally. We cannot walk away from this.

Nor can we walk away from the challenges presented by global warming—its reality, its cause and the response. It has been appalling to watch how the consensus that existed across Australia in 2007 has been destroyed. Unlike most of my colleagues, I do not believe that the Prime Minister is a climate change denier—that would merely indicate scientific illiteracy. This is something much worse. This is a moral indifference to what happens beyond one's own political horizon.

The opportunity to wedge the community was spotted as many were transferring their worry quotient from climate change to the global financial crisis. It was ruthlessly exploited. The government is abandoning not only a price on carbon but all the associated architecture established to give us the scientific and economic advice and to provide the much-needed vehicle for investment and vehicles for research and development of renewable energy technology.

Pricing of carbon has worked. It has reduced our emissions from the electricity sector by 6.1 per cent while at the same time the economy has grown by 2.5 per cent. It is interesting to look at how focused we are on honouring the sacrifice of former generations of Australians at war. We understandably speak with reverence of the culture of duty and sacrifice at the front line and on the home front. But we are now hearing that Australians today cannot be asked to accept any inconvenience or impost, no matter how great the threat.

By not confronting the problem now, not only will it make it hard to address later but we lose the opportunity to be at the forefront of technological development. We will see the easy option taken. And, just as the Australian economy became flabby and uncompetitive under tariff barriers, it will languish under a carbon protection scheme. Australians see that the climate is changing. They get that there is a risk. But we need the leadership of solutions. We need to inspire the community with the vision of a 21st century technology that can turn this challenge into an opportunity.

I am also a committed advocate for Western Australia. A brief bit of my history here might be relevant. At the age of 18, I was given a one-way air ticket to Perth organised by my older siblings. Thanks, guys! This adventure totally changed the direction of my life. I loved Perth immediately. It was sunny. People were good natured and totally welcoming. Some used to say that Perth was good from the neck down, but I never believed that enjoying life was incompatible with intelligence, compassion and engagement. Ever since then, with a couple of work stints in Melbourne and Sydney, I have been living in WA. I have never regretted that decision. I have well and truly had the operation.

Some eastern staters, even on my own side, think that we are a mob of whingers. Indeed, until I became a minister in the WA government, I thought my beloved fellow West Aussies were a little bit neurotic about the eastern states' attitude to WA. I soon learned the errors of my way when I started attending the ministerial transport council in 2001—

An opposition member interjecting—

Ms MacTIERNAN: and saw how off the radar we were—yes, in 2001 it changed—and that the cause of this was not hostility but unfamiliarity. The east-coasters had travelled on each other's roads but not on ours. WA was almost a foreign country. I always remember that around 2003 I obtained a leaked copy of the proposed new national transport plan charting the roads that would attract Commonwealth funding. The east coast was crisscrossed like a game of snakes and ladders, joining all those economically important towns: Tamworth, the Stand by Your Man capital; Mildura, very important for dried fruit; Shepparton, which does canned fruits—all very important. But I pointed out that WA just had one road east and one road north, and it did not even include the Burrup. I was asked, not, 'Where's the Burrup?' but, 'What's the Burrup?' It was, of course, one of the major export-earning areas for the country, producing vast tonnages of natural gas and iron ore.

It has often been pointed out that WA for many years has been the net beneficiary of Commonwealth transfers, but people are not so familiar with the fact that WA's future development was actually held back for a good decade by federal policy indifferent to our needs. Most of Australia's iron ore is in WA, and, in the latter half of the 1930s, Japanese interests wished to reopen and expand mines that were there. The government of the day understandably did not want to offend the Japanese but did not want to facilitate their war effort, so they deliberately sexed down the estimates of our iron ore reserves and said to the Japanese, 'Oh gosh, sorry, we don't have much of the stuff; we'll need to keep it for our own use,' a totally sensible posture at the time. Of course, once the war was over, Western Australians just presumed that the truth would prevail, but throughout the 1950s the federal government refused to lift the ban, and it was not until 1960 that WA was allowed to export iron ore—to commence development for the export of iron ore and to take that great leap forward.

Today WA gets 44c in every GST dollar it collects under a deal negotiated by conservative governments of Howard and Court. I do not expect the GST arrangements to change anytime soon, but there are many other ways in which funding metrics are designed for the economic structures of the eastern seaboard and in that way are skewed against our very different economy.

We are growing rapidly. Our contribution to GDP has gone up from 10 to 14 per cent in the last 10 years. To sustain this extraordinary growth, we do need more federal assistance with infrastructure. I want to particularly acknowledge the support of Martin Ferguson and the then minister for infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, for being so responsive to our case and for massively boosting federal spending in WA infrastructure, even making the investment into those previously off-the-map Pilbara port roads.

But it is not only road funding that we need. Perth is growing by 1,000 people a week, and our public transport needs some massive investment to keep our city functioning. It is an environmental issue, as private passenger transport is a major contributor to our carbon footprint. It is also an increasingly important social issue, with family and community life being compromised by long commute times and residents of outer suburbs spending as much as 20 per cent of their income on private transport. And it is an economic issue: 78 per cent of Western Australians live in greater metropolitan Perth. It is a population that drives the mining industry that is fuelling our national economy.

Indeed, 80 per cent of Australians live in big cities. More than ever, we need a federal government that understands the economic importance of cities and how central mobility is to exploiting the diversity and specialisation of skills that are at the heart of the economic benefit of a city. I had the opportunity to oversee the doubling of Perth's passenger rail system in just six years. We showed that, if you provide first-class public transport alternatives, commuters will convert in droves. We saw public transport use in the area increase immediately by more than 350 per cent and substantial increases in patronage across the network. Expanding the network makes the entire network more attractive.

It is preposterous that we have a federal government that says, 'We don't do cities and we don't do metropolitan rail.' When was the last time we actually had a Liberal federal transport minister or a conservative federal transport minister from the city? I am very proud to be part of the Labor team that has a long commitment to the cities and to delivering the infrastructure that will allow the cities to thrive and to provide their residents with a good life, and that is what we are here for: to understand and deliver those things that we need as a community to allow each and every Australian to have their place in the sun. It is as simple as that.

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