Thirty years ago I was a young journalist, inexperienced, working for 2UE, perched in the press gallery of the Old Parliament House, in my first full-time job, looking down on the 34th Parliament. If you had said to me then, 'You'll be one of those MPs one day,' I can absolutely guarantee that I would have used very unparliamentary language and rejected the possibility outright. I had seen the pressures, the scrutiny and the challenges of being in parliament, and I could not think why you would want it.
Yet here I am—not so young, with much greater life experience—and no-one could be more proud or feel more fortunate than me to be in this privileged position. What I had not seen then, and what you rarely see from that gallery, is the journey a person's life takes that leaves them with no choice other than to run for office.
I acknowledge that today I stand on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay respects to elders past and present. I extend that respect to the Dharug and Gundungurra, the people who have cared for my part of the world, the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, for more than 40,000 years.
The 4,300 square kilometres of land I represent is geographically spectacular and dangerous: World Heritage mountains of sandstone escarpments and gum trees that can ignite with heat and wind, a sweeping river whose waters at times engulf the surrounding plains.
I represent villages from St Albans, Mount Wilson and Mount Victoria through to the towns of Glenbrook and Richmond, the rural areas of Bilpin and East Kurrajong, the wilderness of Colo Heights and the suburbs of Mount Riverview and Bligh Park. In no other so-called Western Sydney seat does it take three hours to drive from one end of the electorate to the other, with ferries required to cross rivers along the way.
Historically, the early European settlers were in awe of both these mountains and this river. By the time Governor Lachlan Macquarie, after whom the seat is named, established the towns of Windsor and Wilberforce, amongst others, this was a thriving colonial settlement.
The early goat track across the mountains that is now a much improved Great Western Highway—thanks largely to the efforts of one of my predecessors, Bob Debus—supports the transport of two million visitors a year to see the Three Sisters and experience the uniqueness of the Blue Mountains.
The limitations that nature places on growth throughout my electorate of Macquarie mean we have to be clever. In addition to tourism, we have our Richmond campus of Western Sydney University and our TAFEs, and they need to stay strong, accessible and be able to cater to local business and student needs. We have the Glenbrook and Richmond RAAF bases. We have orchards, farms, market gardens and horse breeding. We have manufacturing and an extraordinary community services sector. Across these industries and more we have a thriving culture of small business and self-employment, from sparkies to artists, writers to builders: self-motivated people who hit the road early to get to a job, or jump on a pre-dawn train and watch the sun rise as they snake down the mountains.
For that reason I am pleased that small business is in my genes. I grew up in my family's newsagency in Sydney. My country-born parents were ambitious to provide for their children. The bank teller turned accountant and the public school music teacher did what many people still have to do to get capital, given that we are one of the few OECD countries not to have some sort of government supported finance for small business: they sold our home to buy their shop. These were parents who modelled hard work—3.30 am starts seven days a week, with Good Friday and Christmas Day the only two days off a year.
There is nothing quite like the experience of being a carsick 12-year-old at 6 am on a Sunday morning in a van, the smell of newsprint surrounding you, freezing cold because one door is off the side of the vehicle so your dad can throw the papers onto front lawns as you read out: 'Tele to 26, Herald to 30, Herald to 32'—sadly, an experience the current generation has been deprived of, thanks to digital media.
Well, Mum and Dad, as it turned out, this newsagency life proved the perfect grounding for every stage of my professional life—working on a breakfast radio show, being a journalist, doing doorstops outside parliament, being a foreign correspondent on a different time zone to Australia, being a long-time commuter and a city-fringe politician—with 5.30 am railway starts no big shock to my system. For me, selling papers was not the calling. Journalism was my choice, but only after an amazing year as a 17-year-old Rotary exchange student to Mexico that opened my eyes to the world and to the challenges of inequality and discrimination in a way my seven public schools had not.
When I first came to this place I unexpectedly found myself the youngest permanent journalist in the press gallery at the start of the second Hawke term in January 1985. Whatever nerves I feel in speaking today were eclipsed back then by the fear of asking a stupid question of Paul Keating, Peter Walsh or Gareth Evans in front of reporters like Alan Ramsey and Laurie Oakes. What a lot I learned about policy, politics and politicians. It has been an honour to have had support over the last seven years from three key figures of that era: Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Neal Blewett—and it is such a privilege to be Neal and his partner Robert's local member.
I covered the 1987 election campaign with both party leaders—a long winter campaign—and, oh, how I want to ask forgiveness from the marginal seat candidates we visited, who, in my radio reports, I barely mentioned. I know now the efforts you were putting in a long way from Canberra, and that your work did not stop when you disappeared from our sight in between sittings.
Only months before this wonderful building was opened my husband and I moved from Canberra to New York and then to London as foreign correspondents. Three years later we were back in Australia. The Blue Mountains became our home. It beckoned because of the big blue skies, the clean air and the lower house prices. Alongside a motivating business partner, Jane Jordan, I started teaching people how to do media interviews. I had crossed to the dark side and become a media trainer.
From Sydney to Darwin, working across a wide range of industry sectors, government agencies and not-for-profits, I had a job that was different every day, intellectually challenging and professionally rewarding. And that is where the story could have ended: a contented life raising two children, operating a growing business and enjoying the commuting lifestyle the mountains offers, with the luxury of dissecting federal politics from afar.
However, John Howard's regime, while benign to many, stirred me into action. I could not sit by and see Australia becoming a backwards-looking and defensive society. Apparently, we no longer cared about being a republic or about Aboriginal reconciliation. We moved away from inclusion and we distanced ourselves from Asia. That was not the Australia I wanted for my children. So I joined the Labor Party, with no clear ambition other than to help get rid of John Howard. Not a bad one.
Then, a decade ago, our family's foundations were rocked by our daughter's first experience of mental illness. I vividly remember a distressing night, standing in my kitchen with my husband, asking: how do other families do this? And while I did not then and there declare my intention to run for parliament, that was the moment I look back on as transformative, when something in me shifted. It turned out we were not the only ones facing the same challenge. Having mental illness in a family makes you question your parenting and your values, and I have learned more from that experience than any other in my life.
I am proud that my daughter, Phoebe, is here today, determined that her history is something not to be ashamed of, but standing tall, knowing she has had the resilience and the strength to battle through some really difficult times. I am equally proud of her brother, Harry, sitting right alongside her, who, like many children in families where illness or disability strikes, has had his empathy and caring genes well and truly developed.
So that was how I became someone who did not just sit around solving the problems of the world at a dinner party, but an advocate and an activist. There is rarely a function I attend where people do not raise with me the issue of mental health, whether it is veterans in my electorate or the relatives of serving Defence personnel, whether it is those caring for the elderly or whether it is mums struggling to know what is best for their anxious and self-harming child. This is something we have not yet got right. People who struggle with mental health, and the friends, families and carers who support them, need better tools and better support structures.
It saddens me that we exacerbate the mental suffering of another group of people, people already fleeing from unimaginably fearful circumstances, by abandoning them to indefinite detention. We are responsible and will be held to account for the additional damage that we are doing, and this parliament must find a better way.
And I worry about the mental health impacts if this government proceeds down the path of a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, which is an open invitation for harmful things to be said and done. As Amber Jacobus, an ASU member, someone who has volunteered on my campaigns and grew up in my electorate with her two mums, says: 'A plebiscite scares me. I think about the kids like me, who will be made to feel ashamed because they will be told their family is worth less.'
The funny thing about standing up on an issue is that once you start it is hard to stop. Injustice is injustice, no matter what form it takes. And to see schools starved of funding made it easy for me as a P&C president to want to promote the wisdom of Gonski, and more recently to stand alongside so many of my local teachers, members of the Teachers Federation and the AEU to make it a key election issue. The result shows very clearly that Macquarie wants Gonski.
It makes it easy for me to fight for a full fibre broadband service for parts of my electorate that are currently facing the prospect of a second-rate service which does not meet the needs of the home based creatives and businesses that thrive in our region and may be forced to go elsewhere. It makes it easy for me to fight to protect the World Heritage areas of the Blue Mountains and the people who choose to live there from the consequences of climate change and from the impacts of a second Sydney airport, which is planned to operate above our skies 24 hours a day—and night.
And it makes it easy for me to want to fight to improve the travel times for Hawkesbury residents, by advocating for a third crossing of the river—and in doing so, to preserve the oldest surviving public square in the country, in Windsor. It is older than Port Arthur and still occupied. The buildings that make up the Georgian Thompson Square is where the Australian concept of a 'fair go' was enshrined in the naming of this square not after a king or a lord but after a reformed convict.
It is so easy for me to fight for secure employment and workers' rights, for dignity for people who are aged or unemployed, for the ABC and the arts, for renewable energy, for quality early childhood education, for the full rollout of the NDIS, for women's reproduction rights and for same-sex marriage. These are fights worth having. And, as I have demonstrated, time and time again—like my Windsor Wolves footy team—I am not one to give up.
My community in the Blue Mountains had a fight on its hands in October 2013. That year was not one of my favourites. I turned 50, I lost an election and my house burnt down. Nearly 200 homes were destroyed by two fires on the same day, in Mount Victoria and in Winmalee, the worst natural disasters in Blue Mountains history. As a community, though, we considered ourselves lucky. No lives were lost. But our suburban streets were like something out of a war zone.
Personally, we were lucky. As a 19-year-old, Harry was home and was able to save not just the cat, his favourite bass guitar and a couple of laptops but also precious photo albums before the home we built and lived in for 22 years went up in smoke. Others were not able to recover anything. What stunned us as a community was a government changing the rules, while fires still raged, to reduce the number of people eligible for emergency payments. What also stunned us, within 48 hours of the fire, was the realisation that most people were seriously, unintentionally underinsured and that they would not be able to rebuild the home that they had.
Three years on, blocks of land still lie vacant because the gap between the insurance payout and the new rebuild cost is too wide. The codes brought in after the 2003 Canberra fires means that construction in bushfire-prone areas can be $50,000 to $200,000 higher. Insurers know that. Most of us realised it after our homes had burned down. If we do not address this situation, every town or suburb hit by bushfire will have exactly the same experience as the Blue Mountains, as we are seeing now on the Great Ocean Road.
People are then forced to make the heartbreaking decision not to rebuild, and the painfully slow road to recovery for a community after a bushfire will be much slower and much more painful. But, as locals put it, 'You can't scare me, I'm from Winmalee.' We are not easily dismissed, and I am pleased that this year the member for Isaacs, in his role as shadow Attorney-General, recognised that the insurance industry and government could work more closely in ensuring home owners are better informed about the actual rebuild costs they face. Insurers may try to place the responsibility at local government's feet, but they take the premiums, they send the assessors out and they are the ones who need to be part of the solution.
As the member for Macquarie, I walk in the footsteps of many great Labor MPs. I am the 15th person to be the member for Macquarie. Two of my predecessors were Bob Debus and the late Maggie Deahm, and I drew inspiration from them both. Maggie Deahm was the first female member for Macquarie from 1993-96 and Bob Debus was our long-standing state MP and minister for everything, before becoming the federal member for Macquarie and a minister in 2007. He was so effective at securing funding for his electorates, and without him we would not have World Heritage listing for our remarkable Greater Blue Mountains.
But Macquarie was also Ben Chifley's seat, and that feels like really big shoes to fill. I take pleasure in knowing that, like me, it took Ben Chifley several goes before he became a member of parliament; that, like me, he played the violin; and that, like me, he enjoyed a good crime novel and a cup of tea. Many of the battles I will be fighting here are variations of the issues Chifley faced. He established the organisation that has become Australian Hearing, which we know should be kept in public hands. He funded theatre, because he saw the arts as essential in a healthy society. He ensured people had access to medicines and public hospitals so that no charge was made to the patient—an early version of what we would now call Medicare. The social security system was established so that there was a level below which, according to Chifley:
… no one should be permitted to fall and without waiting for anyone first to fall a victim to destitution and grievous distress.
What does it say about us that the other side has already introduced legislation in this term of parliament that will take us back to a pre-Chifley mentality?
Chifley's Snowy Mountains Scheme was a visionary infrastructure project, of which our NBN plan is a descendent. The banking sector was a key priority, and Chifley increased funding for the CSIRO, medical research and university research. His words are even more true today than when he spoke them in 1949:
We live in a scientific age, and money spent on research is a necessity for the maintenance of our standard of living and even for our survival.
It is a lovely symmetry that the night I decided to run for preselection for Macquarie was at the Light on the Hill dinner at Bathurst, honouring Chifley, surrounded by comrades from Calare, Macquarie and beyond. Perhaps the member for Lilley, who was the guest speaker at the 2009 dinner, had a role in it, as he discussed Chifley's 'light on the hill' phrase as embodying:
The hope that a better society is possible, and the duty we all have to create it.
I want to thank Mark Andrews for the conversation that started the ball rolling and for the seven years of quiet, unfailing support since then. And Luke Foley, who a few days later, did not laugh at the idea. And every one of my Macquarie branch members who preselected me—not just once, but three times.
Senator Doug Cameron, now my constituent, deserves particular mention, because, along with his staff, he has in many ways been a de facto member for Macquarie for years, and I would not be here without him and his team. Doug's support was crucial in ensuring the smooth delivery of every one of our 2010 election promises—from the construction of the Springwood Hub and Glenbrook National Park upgrades to the new Wolves grandstand and road improvements for North Richmond.
Member for Blue Mountains, Trish Doyle; Hawkesbury councillor, Barry Calvert; and Blue Mountains mayor, Mark Greenhill, and his Labor councillors—the part you have played over many years in fighting the Tories in our part of the world at different levels of government has made my task easier. Thank you. As has the ongoing support of the Macquarie FEC and my loyal comrades vice president Susan Elfert and secretary Peter Letts. To my campaign teams and volunteers from 2010 and 2013: I would love to name you all, but if you got fed by Ron and have a purple Susan T-shirt you know you were there from the beginning. Equally, if you have a T-shirt that says 'I'm supporting Harry's Mum', that one is a limited-edition!
Those in the public galleries who have travelled to be here today and those who could not be here know that while I have loved every minute of it, my journey to this place has not been done lightly or easily. We had a grassroots campaign, with hundreds of locals, and, whether you wobbled or stood in the rain, the wind and the snow, or broke a limb—as two of my volunteers did—or sat on phones for hours on end, I thank you for being part of it. If you stuck with me through not just one campaign but two or more—like Suzie and Moz; Brian; the Kims; Helen and Mike; Maree and Ian; Denise; Pete; Margaret and Bryan; Tori; Chris and Jan; and my new staff, Madeleine and Jack—I am humbled by your support.
To my 2016 team: Mitch Wilson; Sebastian Henderson and the CPSU crew; Tom HB; Hawkesbury campaign coordinator extraordinaire, Leonie Wilbow; Rose Jackson; Kaila Murnain and John Graham in party office; my EMILY's List mentor, Helen Westwood; and members of the ASU, the AMWU, United Voice, the MUA, the RTBU, the FSU and the CFMEU, and of Sally McManus' ACTU 'secret army', helped by the HSU, Nurses and Midwives, Blue Mountains Union Council and Penrith Valley Community Unions—thank you. When you live in an area that has big hills and long walks between driveways, you particularly appreciate the young women and men in Young Labor. Each generation has been amazing, and I hope a beer at the Macquarie Arms helped. Thank you.
To my good friends Anna Grutzner, Alison Reedy, Jenny Nethercote, Mark Carnegie, Phil Davey, Greg Holland, Peter Primrose and Kris Neil, I am grateful that you never gave up hope. And to all the other friends where I have missed gatherings and you have not made me feel guilty—or you have at least forgiven me—thanks; that made it a bit easier.
And, of course, Ron, who would rather I did not mention him at all, but without him I would not be standing here fed and ironed. To my wonderfully creative children, Phoebe and Harry, who did not know what they were in for. But, like my parents, Jan and Bob—who do not seem to mind if I am just popping in to their place for a quick change of clothes or to use the loo—they all accept how important this is to me. I want to thank my brother David, who is here today, and sister-in-law Sarah, and their children, Stella and Henry, who hopefully will be my constituents within a few months. And a shout out to my other brother, Rob, who seems to think the fact of living in Spain excuses him from handing out on election day!
Virtually every member of the Labor frontbench, both in government and in opposition, has been out to my electorate—more than once—and I am pleased that I can now invite Bill, Tanya and the team to my part of the world as a member, not just a perennial candidate. It has taken 20 years for Labor to be once again entrusted with the responsibility of representing Macquarie with the current boundaries. That in itself is a humbling achievement, and I take the responsibility seriously.
When I am asked, in years to come, what I consider my greatest achievement as an MP to be, I promise there will be no hesitation. I cannot predict now what that achievement might be, but what I do know and what my electorate knows, and what this chamber will soon see, is that I will be tirelessly, resolutely, doggedly here to deliver for the people of Macquarie.