Cathy O’Toole (ALP-Herbert) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Cathy O’Toole, ALP member for Herbert.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Cathy O’Toole, ALP member for Herbert.

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

Ms O’TOOLE (Herbert) (17:24): Mr Deputy Speaker, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet here today in Canberra, the Ngunnawal people; the traditional owners of the land in Townsville, the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people, and the Bwgcolman people, the contemporary Aboriginal name for Palm Islanders, which means ‘many tribes’. I acknowledge their elders past, present and future, and I am proud and privileged to say that I share this great land with the oldest living culture on earth.

It is with great humility, pride and privilege that I stand in this place today as the Labor member for Herbert. I know better than most that democracy is at its best when it is clearly evident that every vote counts. It is with huge enthusiasm that I say the seat of Herbert has been delivered back to Labor after 20 long years. I pay my respects to the last long-serving Labor member for Herbert, the Hon. Eamon Lindsay, who successfully held the seat of Herbert between 1983 and 1996 during the Hawke and Keating years. I also pay my respects to my predecessor Mr Ewen Jones, who was the member between 2010 and 2016. The seat of Herbert is a Federation seat that has been held by 11 members since 1901, all of which have been male—until now. For the first time in history, after 115 years, the seat of Herbert is held by a female member, and that has been no mean feat, even in 2016.

I come from a working-class family. My father, Les, is a first-generation Australian on the paternal side of his family. His father came to this country by boat from England as a 10-pound Pom. My mother, Marie, is also a first-generation Australian on the paternal side of her family. Her father was born in Mount Lebanon in Lebanon. His family story is one of difficulty and tragedy, as the life of an immigrant in Australia both before and after World War I was not easy, especially for people for whom English was a second language. My parents grew up in the Depression years, where success was based on hard manual work. My parents were not afforded the opportunity for a secondary education, let alone a university education. My parents entered their married life with the intention of giving their children a better life than they had experienced and, for my mother especially, that resulted in a steadfast commitment to ensuring that her children had every possible opportunity to access the best education.

I am the eldest of five children, all born within seven years. We were not a wealthy family, but the values of honesty, trust, respect, compassion and the right for all people to be treated with dignity and respect were both practised and expected. My youngest sister, Janice, is here today in the gallery. My extended family is large and ranges from nearly-newborn to age 86. I am married and have three children and three—soon to be four—beautiful grandchildren, who are the delight of my husband’s and my life. My husband, Dennis, is here today in the gallery as well. My son, Liam, and his fiancée, Eszter, grandson Riley and almost-born granddaughter Lilly; my daughter Jane and her husband, Stian, granddaughter Matilda and grandson Jack; and my daughter Louise and her fiancée, Katrina, who I hope in the very near future will be able to marry—without the potentially destructive and divisive plebiscite—and be able to have children of their own.

I left school in year 11 at the age of 16, to take up a hairdressing apprenticeship, and in my second year my mother and I purchased the business and I became self-employed at the age of 18. Under the stewardship and guidance of my mother I learned to be an effective and efficient small-business owner of a number of successful hairdressing businesses. My husband and I eventually bought my mother out, and we continued to grow and diversify our businesses and to employ and train successful apprentices and other staff. I have a very deep understanding of the issues that small businesses are facing throughout the electorate of Herbert, and I am committed to working closely with the Townsville Chamber of Commerce and Townsville Enterprise to grow and diversify Townsville’s economic sector. This experience led me to a vocational education and training teaching career with TAFE Queensland, where I commenced my university education as a mature-aged student. Since then, I have achieved a number of tertiary qualifications. During my time at TAFE, I was involved in the development of a range of competency-based curriculum projects across a diverse range of industries. I have also owned and operated my own Registered Training Organisation. As the member for Herbert, I am committed to ensuring the growth of our great public TAFE system, in support of the vocational education and training sector.

In 2002 I moved into the mental health community sector, firstly as the CEO of a mental health specialist Disability Employment Service that operated in Townsville and Charters Towers. I then became the CEO of a medium-sized community-managed mental health organisation that operates across north and west Queensland, from Palm Island to Mount Isa, with a head office in Townsville. This change in career enabled me to become active in advocating at the peak body level for the most vulnerable people. I held the position of President of the Queensland Alliance for Mental Health and was a state council member for a number of years. I also held a position on the national peak body Community Mental Health Australia. I am absolutely committed to working with the community sector in order to ensure that the needs of vulnerable citizens across all ages and cultures are met.

So what brought me to the world of politics? I guess it started with my youngest sister, Janice, who was very politically active in her early 20s in university and then as the Queensland State Secretary of the Australian Services Union. Janice was also a member of the federal executive of the Labor Party. Both of my grandfathers were shop stewards in their workplaces and staunch union and Labor people. The Hon. Mike Reynolds, who is married to Janice, also played a significant role. Mike is here in the gallery today. The call to action came, however, with John Howard’s Welfare to Work program in 2006. That got my blood boiling to the point of immediate active engagement with the Labor Party, and shifted me from a passive fellow traveller to an active party member. The unfairness and punitive nature of this policy was outrageous, coupled with the fact that in my work I was expected to implement this unworkable policy, which had a drastic impact on our society’s most vulnerable citizens.

Labor values of a fair go for everyone are consistent with my personal values and beliefs. I am driven by honesty, integrity and purposeful and meaningful work that is grounded in human rights and social justice, and that is why I became a member of the Australian Labor Party. I believe that it is impossible to talk about economy without reference to people and the role they play in community, because people collectively form a society. Therefore, ensuring that all people at every level within our communities experience a fair go will create a flourishing society which will in turn create the space for a strong and thriving economy. Surely that is the role of government.

I sincerely thank the women and men of Herbert for putting their faith and trust in me, and I give my word and absolute commitment that I will be their strong and constant voice in this parliament, because North Queensland deserves a fair share of the distribution of Australia’s wealth. This is especially the case when North Queensland more than pulls its weight in terms of Australia’s productivity, industry and people.

Herbert includes Magnetic Island and Palm Island. Palm Island is recognised as one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia, with a large number of economic and social issues. However, it is also a place of magnificence and beauty. It is a place of resilience, hope and capacity, and it deserves the opportunity to be a thriving community. Both in my professional work and as a candidate, I have developed a very strong and close working relationship with Mayor Alf Lacey and council members, and I am determined to work in a collaborative and cooperative partnership to address the social and economic inequalities.

Townsville is also a very proud multicultural city. It is also a resettlement city. Herbert covers an area of approximately 946 square kilometres and it is on the doorstep of two World Heritage Listed areas: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest. Herbert stretches west from the city of Townsville, predominantly north of the Ross River, and includes the Defence establishment of Lavarack Barracks, which is the largest Army base in Australia, and the RAAF base in Garbutt, which has played a strategic and key role in times of warfare and in peace. Australian Defence Forces are deployed and continue to be deployed from these Townsville Defence establishments to go to serious conflicts in areas such as Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. I am committed to supporting our Defence personnel in their campaign for better wages and working conditions. I am also committed to supporting our ex-service personnel—veterans both male and female—and their families in their fight to secure appropriate services in our community.

The electorate of Herbert has historically been one of the most diversified regional economies in Australia, with copper and zinc refineries and, until more recently, a nickel refinery. Townsville is noted for its port facilities, including a bulk sugar terminal, which is the largest of its type in the Southern Hemisphere; a prawn and fishing industry; the export of beef; and a thriving tourism industry, including a modern cruise ship terminal. Townsville is also home to James Cook University and now Central Queensland University, and research institutions, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the CSIRO.

However, people in our community are doing it tough right now. Our unemployment is approaching 15 per cent, one of the highest rates in the country; youth unemployment is nearly 20 per cent; small business is struggling; and business confidence is low. When my predecessor, Ewen Jones, was first elected to the seat of Herbert, unemployment was only 5.4 per cent, despite the largest global economic contraction in 75 years. Now, after six years of the LNP ‘stewardship’ and three years of an LNP national government, it is approaching 15 per cent. During this time, Townsville suffered a double whammy, with three years of an LNP Campbell Newman state government, with thousands of public sector jobs decimated from our economy.

Unlike our conservative opponents, Labor believes in a proactive role for government in the management of our economy. We do not accept the passive wishful thinking of the LNP’s trickle-down economics. Townsvillians are capable and resilient people. We have been in tough times before and I know that with strong and collaborative leadership between the three levels of government and our community we can move forward into a much brighter and more prosperous future.

I give the people of Townsville my word that I will fight tooth and nail to ensure we get the projects that were promised by the Turnbull government to our community during the election campaign, which include: the construction of the Townsville stadium linked to the new cities deal; the Townsville Eastern Access Rail Corridor; a water feasibility study to secure a reliable water supply for our residents and for the future residential, commercial and industrial growth of Townsville; the Singapore deal and the realisation of economic and social benefits to our city; and the $5 million for an upgrade to Illich Park in Aitkenvale.

I am determined that all of these projects and commitments made by the Turnbull government include local jobs and opportunities for local contractors and local small businesses, which will grow our economy and local business confidence. All of these projects must be expeditiously delivered to Townsville, to urgently improve the city’s unemployment rate and economic base.

Labor already brings proactive policies in regard to the global climate change crisis. Unlike the Turnbull government, we do not bury our head in the sand and allow the climate change sceptics to have their way. As the member for Herbert I will work rigorously to make Townsville the renewable energy capital of Australia. I will work collaboratively with James Cook University, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO and other research institutions to ensure that we are a globally significant knowledge hub for sustainable tropical ecosystem management, conservation and development. I will fight hard to ensure that workers’ transferable skills are identified in order for them to successfully transition to the new industries and jobs.

As the member for Herbert, I recognise the growing importance of the tropics globally. The James Cook University State of the tropics report indicates that the tropics currently are home to 40 per cent of the world’s population, and this is projected to be more than 50 per cent with two-thirds of the global population of children under 15 by 2050. This creates excellent opportunities for Townsville as a globally significant knowledge hub for sustainable tropical development. It is my firm belief that the government’s Northern Australia development program needs to be as focused on social and educational infrastructure as it is on physical infrastructure, and in particular on the need for meaningful engagement with Northern Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I will always stand up for Labor’s values, principles and policies that put people first. I will fight for Townsville’s Community Legal Service; affordable and accessible aged care supports; recognition of quality early childhood education; access to needs based funding for schools, as envisaged in the Gonski Report; access to universities for all students; the full rollout of Labor’s NDIS and the absolute protection of Medicare.

I did not get elected to this position on my own or by sheer luck. The journey for me started in November 2012, when I was endorsed to run in the 2013 campaign. That was a tough time for Labor, but I was fortunate to have some loyal Labor people such as the Hon. Mike Reynolds as campaign director and, in particular, Billy Colless, Alec McConnell and my daughter Jane as my key campaign workers.

The 2016 campaign was a very different machine with a very different election campaign strategy, including over 100 positive Labor policies, with each and every one resonating in our community. I would like to thank Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition, who kicked off the campaign in Townsville, clearly demonstrating his commitment to regional centres. He returned several times during the course of the campaign, which reinforced this commitment.

I would also like to thank Tanya Plibersek, Anthony Albanese, Catherine King, Kate Ellis, Steven Conroy, Claire Moore, Kim Carr, Doug Cameron, Brendan O’Connor, Stephen Jones, Andrew Leigh, Andrew Giles, Gai Brodtmann, Sharon Claydon, Chris Ketter and Murray Watt, who made the time to visit and support me and my community during the campaign.

To Bill Marklew, CPSU state secretary, and Nadine Flood, CPSU national secretary, who believed in me and supported our campaign: thank you. To the ASU, ETU, United Voice and the RTBU, who also provided valuable support: thank you. I also thank the people and my colleagues of the Queensland Labor Party.

Strong campaigns are built on strong foundations—that is, like-minded people who have a shared vision of Labor values and a deep commitment and belief that they can win. I was privileged and honoured to have a campaign team that met these qualities. My sincere thanks go to Stephanie Naunton, my extraordinarily committed campaign director, who is also here today; Jackson Hitchcock, a dedicated field organiser; my wonderful daughter Jane, my campaign treasurer; and many, many other amazing committee members and volunteers who worked tirelessly above and beyond the call of duty and all expectations.

To the special people, and there were many of them, who scrutineered over the 29-day recount, which was led by my campaign director Stephanie Naunton: thank you for your dedication and support in what was an intense and stressful time. To my family, my husband Dennis, who is also here today: thank you for your support and understanding. You have always been there for me and you have supported every career decision that I have made. You have also supported me through 37 years of marriage. Thank you to all of my large extended family, and in particular my parents, who constantly told us as we grew up: ‘You can be whatever you want to be, as long as you are committed and work hard.’ My parents taught my four siblings and me that we would not be defined by our social standing or how much money we had but by how we lived our lives, how hard we worked and how well we respected the rights of others, especially those less fortunate than our selves.

In closing, I would like to say that as the member for Herbert I will be committed, determined and professional and I will make every minute count, as my community expects and deserves no less.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta): I congratulate the honourable member for Herbert and I wish her every success in this parliament.

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