Anne Aly (ALP-Cowan) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by the ALP member for Cowan, Anne Aly.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Anne Aly, ALP member for Cowan.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Coulton) (16:08): Before I call the honourable member for Cowan, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend to her the usual courtesies.

Dr ALY (Cowan) (16:09): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Coulton. May I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your election. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and the traditional owners of Cowan, the Nungar people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I would also like to take a moment in recognition of the significance of delivering my first speech on this most holy day for Muslims, Eid al-Adha, and to wish all Muslims a peaceful and blessed Eid.

I am incredibly humbled to be here today as the person chosen to represent more than 96,000 electors of Cowan and their children, who may not be able to vote but whose welfare is ultimately the reason I am here. I use the word ‘represent’ in its full sense. My electorate was named after a woman, and not just a woman but a groundbreaking one: the first woman to be a member of this parliament, Edith, later Dame Edith, Cowan. Today I stand here not just as the first graduate from the university named in her honour to be elected to the federal parliament but as the first of Egyptian-Arabic heritage, along with my colleague the member for Wills, Mr Peter Khalil, and the first Muslim woman. I mention the latter points not to claim any special accolades but because they mark a significant moment in the history of this nation, especially right now and especially given the circumstances of my election.

I was born in a part of the world where the passing of time is marked by war and where the birth of a girl child is greeted not with ululations or congratulations but by the clicking of tongues. But it is not the circumstances of my birth that define me. I was not born in this country, but I am surely born of her. I never knew my maternal grandfather—he died long before I was born—but by all accounts Mahmoud Osman was a simple man without much of an education. He sold textiles in a small space on the high road in a small village around 200 kilometres south of Cairo, and although he lived in a time and a place where women did not get an education, my grandfather was determined that his daughters would all finish high school and attend university. Although the men who frequented his little shop told him that he was doing the wrong thing and that he was better off finding them suitable husbands, he would not be moved. So committed was my grandfather to ensuring that all his daughters were university educated that by the time my mother finished school he had already enrolled her in nursing school at Cairo, unknown to her and despite her protestations. On her first day at nursing school, he drove her the 200 or so kilometres and stood at the front gates of the country’s largest hospital, demanding to see the room that his daughter would be sleeping in for the next three years. Legend has it that my grandfather was the first and perhaps the only male to ever be allowed into the nurses quarters of that hospital.

So it was through a father’s love for his daughters and his sheer determination to see his daughters educated that my mother became a qualified nurse. She retired in Australia having worked at some of the country’s major hospitals as a matron and a director of nursing.

My parents arrived from Egypt at the Bonegilla migrant camp in Albury Wodonga in 1969, later settling in the outer suburbs of Sydney. Despite having qualified as a textiles engineer, my father, like many migrants, ended up taking a job for which he was overqualified, though no less grateful. He became a bus driver, and together my parents built a life for themselves and their three children. I started my schooling at a Catholic school and I ended it at an Anglican school, having attended several public schools in between. Those years shaped my view of Australia and my place within it. Coming from a practising Muslim household, I would read from the Bible and sing hymns at morning chapel service while fasting for the holy month of Ramadan and celebrating the holy days of Eid. When I asked my mother what I should do during chapel service when we read the Lord’s Prayer, she responded that I should also bow my head in prayer and remember that we all worship the same God. Most importantly, I learnt that the values that make us Australians are measured not by the colour of our skin or by our religion or where we were born but by our dedication to the fundamental principles of equality and fairness.

At an age younger than most I found myself a single mother, after a marriage breakdown, and as a result I brought up my two young sons on a single parent pension of just $200 a week. I responded by becoming a mature-age student, and it was through education that I was able to become who I am and have a career as an international academic, culminating in being asked to speak at the White House, at President Obama’s countering violent extremism summit, and, more recently, receiving the prestigious Australian Security Medal. I know through my own life that, no matter what problems beset them or what circles they fall into, every young person has it within them to rise above their youthful mistakes and find a valued place in Australian society.

Over the last decade or so I have devoted much of my working and personal life to understanding how and why people, especially young people, become attracted to and engage in violent and dangerous ideologies. I have worked with governments, academics, and civil society in countries including Indonesia, India, Singapore, Kenya, Jordan, Nigeria, Israel, the Maldives, the United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, of course, here in Australia.

I have worked with former violent extremists, I have become an advocate and a patron for victims of terrorism, I have advised the families who have lost sons and daughters to violence and hatred, and I have mentored young people who have sadly fallen prey to such dangerous ideologies. I have seen the worst of humanity, and I have often despaired, but I have also seen its best through the eyes of people like Phil Britten, Louisa Hope, Jarrod Morton-Hoffman, Gill Hicks and Michael Gallagher—all of whom have survived terrorist attacks; and through the work of organisations like Together for Humanity; the Bali Peace Park Association; and Youth Futures WA, which provides essential services to young homeless people in Cowan; and, of course, the inspiring young people who have worked with my own organisation, People against Violent Extremism—or PaVE.

PaVE has worked with all governments in Australia to be the first organisation in the region to develop a social media campaign against violent extremism and to deliver the MyHack program, which harnesses the skills, talents and knowledge of young people to address violent extremism within their own communities. Last year we received funding from the Australian government and the US Department of State to run Australia’s first ‘hackathon’ on countering violent extremism during the Australian CVE summit. I am proud that my expertise and work has put me at the centre of our nation’s efforts to keep Australians safe from the scourge of violent extremism.

Personally, I have mentored young people who have, sadly, fallen vulnerable to radicalisation, and I have helped families divert them from a destructive path. The ripple effect that reaching out and changing just one life can have on entire communities cannot be underestimated. I was most moved by the words of one young man who, in a quiet moment of contemplation, whispered to me, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead or in jail.’ I am pleased to say that that young man is now successfully enrolled in a university degree, is a leader in his community and is looking forward to a bright future.

The fight against terrorism is a fight for reason, and we cannot afford to let it be hijacked by populism or by party politics. This is not the sort of issue where pointing out the gaps in our policy response should attract accusations of being soft on terrorism or insinuations of appeasement or, even worse, supporting terrorism. We have to get this right, because the currency here is people’s lives. That is why I will continue to argue for a reasoned, balanced and, above all, smart response to the threat of terrorism.

Our response to terrorism needs to be intelligent and proportionate, and that means putting resources into the sorts of programs that tackle the problem at its source and which develop a strong civil society capable of responding with the necessary agility to the changing nature of the threat. Governments and institutions need to recognise their limitations and use the tools of influence that are most effective in building up the immunity of young Australians against the infection of radicalism with all its hatreds and all its dangers.

As those who followed my campaign will know, the nature of my work resulted in ugly tactics being employed against me. We could dwell on what happened during the campaign, perhaps unproductively, but given the gravity of the charges and the fact that nothing less than protecting Australians against terrorism was involved, passing over it completely would be wrong. We have to face up to this sort of thing and pledge never to repeat it, because we cannot afford to let partisan politics loosen the unity of purpose that is needed to combat dangerous terrorist movements. So let me make this one observation: in a tight election contest the appeal to the worst angels of our nature did not work. Those smears never had a chance, because they could only have been made by people who fundamentally do not understand the essential decency of those who live in outer suburban electorates, like Cowan; they could only have been made by people who only ever see the working-class outer suburbs—places like Girrawheen, Wanneroo, and Lockridge—through their statistics, their focus groups and the windows of a passing bus. They never get to know the outer suburbs through the eyes and the lives of real people. All that filters up to them are a series of abstract impressions, usually abstract grievances, niggles, resentments, regrets, effusions of bad temper—an incoherent disaffection with the world—all inaccurately reported and all taken out of context with no complexity, no nuance, no humanity, no reality and, most importantly, no hope of producing the answers that people are seeking. What they do not see is the way that people actually live—as people connected to each other by the bonds of community, trust and mutual respect. They do not see people as neighbours in the same streets or blocks of flats, friends with the same interests, shoppers at the same shopping centres, parents of children who attend the same schools and volunteers whose children play soccer, cricket and netball altogether. They do not see the things, the invisible, intangible and unmeasurable things, that make outer suburban communities survive and thrive.

It is no secret that I find the politics of division, this attempt to break down those bonds and set people against each other to win votes, to be desperate, dangerous and undemocratic, especially at times like this, when unwise words can be bullets. According to such people, the electorate that I represent should be a stronghold for the kind of politician represented by the likes of the One Nation Party. Instead, it voted for me. Instead of division, it voted for a different sort of nation—a tolerant nation; a unified nation; a peaceful nation; a nation happy with the reality of what it now is, a multicultural country whose people are better than the peddlers of division would have us believe.

This is a critical time in Australia’s political history, a time when our parliament is beset by an unprecedented polarisation of ideas and ideologies, a time when our only chance to move forward as a nation is to come together, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, in mutual respect and with a common goal of serving our nation. It is a time when we should not allow important discussions about our future to degenerate into a competitive agenda of rights, for all rights are worth pursuing and worth pursuing with vigour. I do not accept, for example, that the right to freedom of speech is any less or any more important than the right to safety and security for all our citizens. Too often those who espouse their right to freedom of speech argue that it is undermined, weakened, by those who would call out bigotry or racism or who draw attention to the ability for hate speech to mobilise violence. So let me be clear: I will defend freedom of speech to the last, but I will not stand by and allow the proponents of hatred and fear, no matter where they come from, to claim some form of moral superiority as they browbeat fellow Australians into accepting second-class citizenship.

We may live in an era of unease and of extremes. I do not know how we found ourselves in a time when asking for a little more compassion, a little more reason, a little more empathy for those less fortunate attracts accusations and hate mail, sadly, sanctioned by some of the very people who sit in this chamber. But I believe that with goodwill from all sides the centre can hold. Cowan has proven it. But holding the centre together requires more than just political will. It needs strong moral leadership. That is what all of us here in the parliament have a duty to provide, and that is what I intend to try to provide.

The electorate of Cowan, like all of the outer suburban electorates of Australia’s major cities, represents the best of our country. And if the outer suburbs represent our new demographic heartland, it is a warm and trusting heart indeed. But those places need our support. They need the sorts of policies that Labor took to the election: a secure Medicare; a Gonski needs-based funding model for our schools; more apprenticeships for our young people; affordable higher education; and the winding back of negative gearing, to allow young families to buy a home and gain a stake in our society.

But we need more. We need to understand that our economic growth has to be spread broadly. This is the big lesson of the world today: when the wealth we generate is shared unequally, the good it does is undermined. We cannot afford to have a middle that is rising while the periphery is declining—inner suburbs booming while outer suburbs stagnate and economic inequalities tearing at the fabric of trust between institutions and the people they are supposed to serve. This is the next great challenge for our country. We cannot progress as a nation until we deal with the fundamental and irrefutable reality that growing up in the outer suburbs means you start life on an uneven playing field. Someone in Girrawheen is five times more likely to be unemployed than the average Western Australian. A child living in Wanneroo is 30 per cent less likely to finish year 12 than a child living in Perth. A family in Lockridge will have less than half the household income of one in Cottesloe. And in the last five years the number of young homeless people in Cowan has risen by a staggering 22 per cent.

The reality of this inequality is represented in the stories of the people of Cowan. People like Maureen, who, at 75, had to take out a credit card to pay for her medical bills, because she just could not afford them any other way. Or Sean, who worked for 30 years in the construction industry before losing his job. Now in his 50s, he cannot find another job but he cannot afford not to either. Or Robert, an enterprising young man who is keen to develop a start-up business but cannot, because his internet speeds are just too slow. And Anh, a young Vietnamese Australian who dreams of one day forging a career as a rap artist—and he is not half bad! These are not just statistics. They are a reality. And this is not just a matter of justice; it is a matter of extreme national importance. The affluent inner suburbs of our nation cannot provide all the intelligence, knowledge, skills and energy our country needs to become all it can be. That is why I am calling for, and dedicating my parliamentary career to, the creation of a national strategy to deliver the benefits of growth to the outer suburbs of every city in Australia, from Lakemba, where I grew up, to Cowan, which I represent, and to every outer suburb in between. That means a plan to provide better services, better schools, better infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly of all, decent jobs for the people on our city peripheries. We need to promote the people on the edge. We need to talk about how we plan to distribute our wealth just as much as we talk about how we plan to grow our wealth. The era of putting the economy first and our society a distant second is over. We have to have an eye to growth and fairness, economy and society, and that is what I, as the member for Cowan, will endeavour to do—for my electors, for my sons and for the sons and daughters of Australia.

But I would not be standing here today if it were not for the faith, dedication and absolute belief in me shown by so many people both inside and outside of the Labor Party. The circumstances of my preselection were serendipitous. I was in the middle of the busiest time of my career, sharing the stage with former world leaders at the Club de Madrid’s Madrid+10 policy dialogue in Spain—

Mr Laundy: As you do!

Opposition members: As you do!

Dr ALY: as you do—and then joining a panel of international experts at the United Nations in Vienna on the judicial responses to terrorism. Walking out of the United Nations building that day, I said to my husband, ‘All this work, all this talk and I know I will go home to Australia and it won’t make any difference because there is no political will.’ It was just a few days later that I received a call, out of the blue, urging me to run for the seat of Cowan. Unbeknownst to me, the architect of all this was a young man who had heard me speak, for about 10 minutes, at a Young Labor event. That young man, Robbie Williamson, became my campaign manager and is now my most trusted adviser. Thank you, Robbie, for your vision, your dedication and for believing in me.

Thank you also to the incredible men and women who worked on my campaign—Bec, Matt, Travis, Hussein, Lorna, Amy, Justin and Margaret Quirk MLA—and the hundreds of volunteers who gave up their precious time, too many to mention here but particularly Ruth, Lara, Bobbie, Justin and the irrepressible Clim.

Many thanks also to my Labor colleagues: to Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek—thank you for your leadership and your absolute commitment to putting people first; to Mark Dreyfus and Ed Husic—thank you for your advice and guidance and always being there on the other end of the phone, even if my question was a stupid one; and to those at WA Labor, Patrick Gorman, Lenda Oshalem and the team.

To my extended family: my love and thanks, be you an Aly, an Allen, a Rida, an Osman, a Serougi, a Dupagne or a Bacon—and yes, the irony of a Muslim woman with a family named Bacon is not lost on me.

I would not be here today without the love and support of the three men I admire most. To my husband, David Allen: Dave, you are my rock and it is only with you by my side that I have been able to soar. Till the end! To my sons, Adam and Karim: it seems like only yesterday that I held your tiny hands in mine and shed tears about all the things that I was unable to give you. And now you take my hand in yours and I am in awe of the fine young men that you have become, despite your mum.

And my parents. To my mother, Hamida: thank you for telling me every day that I am strong like you and for showing me how to be strong. To my father, Mahmoud, who sadly passed away last year: you are loved and remembered, Dad.

Finally, to the people of Cowan, to whom I pledge to always be a strong and fair voice: this is not a journey I can walk on my own. Throughout the election campaign, I told you that the only promise I could make you was that I would always listen, always represent you and always open my door to you with integrity, honesty and sincerity. I know I have a lot to prove to you and I hope that you will hold me accountable. I look forward to working with you, and for you, in service and with honour.

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