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Sharon Bird (ALP-Cunningham) – Maiden Speech

This is the first speech to the House of Representatives by Sharon Bird, the ALP member for Cunningham.

Bird regained Cunningham for the ALP at the 2004 federal election, defeating the Greens member, Michael Organ, who had held the seat since winning it at a by-election in 2002.

  • Listen to Sharon Bird (22m)

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Sharon Bird, ALP member for Cunningham.

Ms BIRD (1:19 PM) —It is an incredible honour to be chosen by the people who make up the community in which you live to be their representative, their voice in the federal parliament. So many good people contest elections and put forward their visions for the nation and yet so few of us are honoured with victory and the responsibilities that come with it. I would like to express my appreciation of the important and effective role that the Hon. Stephen Martin played as my Labor predecessor in the seat of Cunningham, both through his parliamentary career and through his tireless and enthusiastic advocacy for our region.

At the 2002 by-election the people of Cunningham sent a strong message to the Labor Party. They returned Michael Organ as the member for the two years preceding this year’s election. Michael is a person of commitment and integrity. I wish to take this opportunity to wish him and his family well for the future.

Each of us brings to this House our direct experiences of both the triumphs and the troubles of the people—individuals, families and communities—that make up our electorates. Over the past 20 years my area has seen significant change that has brought many exciting new opportunities and shown us new horizons. As a region, we have aggressively taken up the challenge of the industry restructures of the 1980s and diversified our economic base with great success.

We have a vibrant small, medium and home-based business community in the Illawarra that employs 83 per cent of the local people. The people in these businesses not only provide employment and growth opportunities but also are active in supporting the community in which they and their families live. At fundraising events in my electorate I am often impressed by the number of small business people actively involved in fundraising for really good causes in our area. It is insightful to talk to them about the challenges they face in a modern economic community.

I acknowledge the work of the Illawarra Business Chamber and the Wollongong office of the Australian Industry Group in researching and advocating on behalf of their memberships. Sometimes we disagree, and we will no doubt continue to do so on some issues, but I value the positive and consultative approach they always bring when raising their concerns with me. I recommit today to continuing my role in that constructive relationship.

Over the last few weeks I have been visiting many tremendous local organisations and companies that are involved in exciting new ventures and growth in our area, including a local catamaran maker which exports internationally and employs over 50 local people and 14 apprentices—it makes very nice catamarans, I might add—and the local conservatorium of music, which is hopefully soon to be exporting its music education programs into Asia. I also visited the opening only last Friday of new facilities by 313, the music, entertainment and arts training organisation. We were entertained by a recent local success story, the group Porcelain, which has only just signed an international contract.

Wollongong is officially titled `City of Innovation’. It is clear from these success stories and so many others that we do more than pay lip-service to this title. We act on innovation, seek opportunities and retain confidence in our capacity. The arts, culture and entertainment sector in Wollongong’s economy is also important and growing. This is yet another indication of the way that Wollongong has responded to the major challenges that have taken place over the last 20 years. This sector provides nearly 5,000 jobs or seven per cent of our employment. The development of the arts and cultural industries in Wollongong not only provides jobs and opportunity to grow our economy but also, crucially, acts as a focus for innovation, talent and creativity.

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and recognise the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today and of the land encompassing my electorate of Cunningham. I had the opportunity to meet with local Aboriginal elders and community workers during my candidacy. Against multiple barriers and too often under attack, they continue to advocate for their people. They represent resilience in the face of much adversity and I recommit today to assisting them in my new role.

The people of my area have built on the determination and resilience of our forebears in the mining and agriculture industries. My own family has worked in the Illawarra mining industry since the early 1900s. The unshakeable belief in the need to support each other through good times and bad which was forged in a dangerous and difficult industry has left a strong legacy of communal responsibility in me, my family and, indeed, the whole community in which we live. As a region we enriched our diversity and optimism by welcoming migration. For decades migrants have settled in Wollongong to work in the steelworks and other industries. At the same time, they have made a considerable contribution to the wonderful arts, entertainment and gastronomic diversity available to us—although the member for Watson assures me that I need to visit his electorate to truly appreciate that. This complements their important economic contribution to our region. My parents tell of the novelty of visiting one of the first coffee shops, located in Globe Lane, Wollongong—coincidentally, where my office now sits—and enjoying the exotic experience of a glass of apple cider or a cup of continental coffee and a slice of blackforest cake. We continue to welcome people from around the world who settle in our region, including our newest arrivals from the African nations in crisis today. We live the positive experience of tolerance and diversity each day.

Our area has a very distinctive geographic identity, sitting between the escarpment and the sea. You will have to excuse me if I sound like a travel brochure—I am quite attached to the area. It gives us our wonderful lifestyle and provides important economic opportunities through both tourism and our capacity to attract businesses by providing lifestyle advantages. An excellent example is the world-class University of Wollongong. Each year it attracts thousands of students through its excellence in research and education, but marketing its high-quality programs is no doubt made easier when you add Wollongong’s unique lifestyle advantages. Talk to any person from the Illawarra and they will describe the emotional pleasure they feel when, after being away from home for any length of time, they reach the top of Bulli Pass and look down at the breathtaking panorama of the Illawarra spread out before them.

Not only do we enjoy the beauties of our geography; the uniqueness of the landscape also gives us a very strong sense of identity with our place and our community. This, I believe, greatly contributes to our optimism and strong sense of community. Our area has been through many changes. We have met them with resilience and grown stronger. We do not, however, accept that there is no downside to change. We know from hard struggle that there are always potential victims in even the most promising of circumstances. I believe that the challenge of good government is not only to seek out opportunities for increased prosperity but also to ensure that all people are able to take advantage of the new circumstances. I have been a member of the Australian Labor Party for 27 years—I do not always admit that, but I do today—because we are a party that takes seriously the need to find sound policies and programs that open doors for all people and actively seek to assist them in overcoming barriers that nature, society or life circumstances have placed before them.

Over the last three years that I have been talking with local people as the Labor Party candidate, it has become absolutely clear to me that there are some groups in my community whose struggle to access a healthy and constructive life has become increasingly difficult. When my colleague the member for Lalor visited our area I asked her to focus the entire visit on the issue of mental health because several local organisations had been telling me about the growing number of people needing assistance and their shrinking capacity to provide help. I was astonished, after the visit, by the number of people who contacted me. Most simply wanted to express their appreciation that we had raised the profile of the issue. So many people had a family member or friend who had experienced a period of mental ill health and had become aware of the stigma and lack of services for both sufferers and their families and supporters. I sincerely believe this is a crucial public policy issue for the future. It will become even more urgent as we begin to see many more crises in our communities that occur when mental illness is not given a priority. I have given a commitment to these people and groups to continue to advocate for them in this parliament and I reaffirm that commitment today.

During the campaign I attended a forum on poverty in Wollongong. I had already met with many of the organisations that attended the forum over the years preceding the campaign and I found their commitment and professionalism an inspiration. It is true that economic prosperity has resulted in material improvements in the lifestyles of many in our community. It is equally true that the pace and demands of the new economy are even more likely to leave too many people behind. Our local St Vinnies tell me they have experienced a 17 per cent increase in the demands on their services in the last few years. Many groups who have traditionally experienced hardship and poverty as a result of poor educational outcomes; poor health, wellbeing and safety experiences; or neglectful and abusive life circumstances are still as trapped in the poverty cycle as they ever were.

However, a new trend is emerging. Families who appear to be relatively well-off materially are increasingly seeking assistance. Some of the apparently more affluent suburbs in my electorate have families registering for food hampers this Christmas for the first time ever. Many families are clearly living on optimism about their capacity to service their personal debt. Rising house prices and the large mortgages that come with them mean that many families are committing a larger and larger proportion of the family budget to mortgage payments. Their lifestyle is then often supported by the significant use of credit cards. It is not uncommon for families to be balancing several forms of credit commitments at the same time. This clearly means that they are only one setback away from financial hardship: one period of prolonged ill health, one period of unexpected unemployment or one major car repair or other unexpected expense. The spending optimism is often balanced on a fragile capacity and hides an underlying constant worry about the next bill to come in.

It is not easy in the current environment to raise these issues. You cannot help feeling a bit like the bore at the party who is warning about the potential hangover the next morning. Clearly people are enjoying their material consumption, and to raise concerns about the potential for financial problems is a bit like prodding a wound. I firmly believe, however, that it would be irresponsible not to be talking about this issue in this parliament. It is irresponsible to allow this level of personal debt and the increased potential for significant losses to be ignored. It is unfair to simply rely on our charity organisations, already struggling to meet current demand, to do even more. Addressing housing affordability, access to affordable health care, access to reliable work and reasonable working conditions and access to affordable child care are all crucial responsibilities for government, but even more so given the financial challenges so many families face today.

One of the issues that have caused great concern in our area over recent years has been our unacceptably high level of youth unemployment. I well remember the huge annual intakes of apprentices at the steelworks and the coalmines when I was a teenager in the area. Over the last 20 years these have almost completely disappeared. Like so many other areas with a significant manufacturing base, we now face the disgraceful situation of both high youth unemployment and high skills shortages.

The Illawarra Regional Development Board commissioned a report in August this year on the size and nature of the skills shortage in our area. They did this in recognition of the increasing restraint this problem is placing on the growth of business. The board recognised the importance of quality data at a regional level to develop appropriate regional strategies for addressing problems. I commend their foresight in recognising that national and state focused data and strategies are important but are far more useful when complemented by additional region-specific data.

As a member representing a region in this parliament, it is my intention to advocate for more extensive regional development programs based on sound research and consultation with the specific regions themselves. I look forward to the final report of the Illawarra Regional Development Board to provide the analysis needed to add to the anecdotal evidence from businesses of the increasing problem of the shortage of skilled workers.

I must say that I found myself somewhat stunned in my first week in this parliament—and I rushed to rewrite part of my speech—to hear various members opposite make claims that my colleagues have failed to give due attention to the importance of technical education and training. As a former TAFE teacher and coordinator of joint schools-TAFE programs and traineeship programs, not surprisingly I take pride in being a strong advocate for our excellent TAFE system and I have followed debate on these issues over the years very closely.

My colleague the member for Throsby very effectively advocated, over the three years of the last parliament, a new approach to creating apprenticeship opportunities in our area, and a very successful program is now running. I reject completely the claims by government members that Labor have failed to promote the importance of vocational training. In fact, we have had to drag this government kicking and screaming even to address the fact that there is a skills problem in this country. Throughout my campaign, I raised the concerns of local individuals and organisations, including my former colleagues at TAFE, about the issues of youth unemployment and skills shortages, and today I reaffirm my commitment to continue to advocate on these issues.

I realistically expect to experience both frustration and satisfaction in working as the federal member for Cunningham—it is a combination of experiences that I am well familiar with—but I am also familiar with the importance of perseverance in the pursuit of good outcomes for the people I sought to represent and who have now placed their trust in me.

I have several other concerns that I wish to fight for over the coming weeks, but I would like to give notice of one in particular, following also on some of the work done by my colleague the member for Throsby in pursuit of the allocation of a Medicare licence for the MRI machine based at Wollongong Hospital. It is well past time that the federal government took their responsibility for this matter seriously and provided the licence, and that they gave public hospitals a bit of a priority in their allocations.

A candidate in any election never wins through their own hard work alone. It is a team effort, and many people have helped me over many years. I would like to take this opportunity to place on the record my appreciation for their efforts. I would like to thank the many dedicated branch members and party supporters who letterboxed, attended fundraising events and staffed polling booths. They took a blow in 2002, and they rallied around their commitment to our party and their belief in a better Australia under a federal Labor government. Their support was invaluable, and I say to them today: one more rally around and we will be there.

I would also like to thank the volunteers who staffed my office—Craig, Paul, Liz, Berna, Rhys, Michael, Wilf, Stan, Joan, Reg and Chris—and the branch campaign team of Kevin, Bob, Evan, Ryan, Justin and Marc. Thank you also to my fellow elected representatives in the Illawarra: Senator Michael Forshaw; member for Throsby, Jennie George; my state colleagues; and the many local government colleagues who gave me invaluable support during the campaign. I also received tremendous support from EMILY’s List, and I would like to thank Karen Mow for the many small but crucial tasks she undertook to help me—particularly remembering to take photos on election night.

I am deeply appreciative of the support of the members and officials of the union movement in the Illawarra and the South Coast Labour Council, in particular Richard Olsen and the TWU members, Mark Armstrong and the MUA members, Mick Lane and members of the CFMEU building division and Bob Mitchell and members of the CFMEU mining division.

There is one group of people spread across New South Wales who could not help directly that I wish to acknowledge. For the seven years prior to my election I was enormously privileged to work with a team in the Youth Justice Conferencing Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Juvenile Justice. This group of people, under the inspiring and supportive leadership of the director, Jenny Bargen, demonstrated every day the true meaning of public service. We were privileged to work with a truly innovative and successful piece of legislation introduced by the Carr government, which established restorative justice practices for juvenile offenders—a true success story. The team I worked with truly believed in their purpose and seriously applied themselves to delivering a high-quality program. I really valued working with them and I appreciate their efforts in supporting me.

I say to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow ministers who visited the electorate: thank you for your support, advice and encouragement. Thank you also to the tireless Alison who helped organise so many of these visits.

I bring to my new role a strength that has sustained me throughout my life—the wonderful support and unending faith of my family. I am proud of the values they have instilled in me and the example they constantly provide to me. I thank my maternal grandparents, Jimmy and Mavis Kerr, who taught me the value of strong beliefs and strong family, and my paternal grandmother, Annie Reed, who always had time to listen and made me feel I was special.

I thank my aunts, uncles and cousins, who always rally around to support me: my Aunt Cath, whom we sorely miss, and Uncle Kevin; Jim and Vanessa; Lorraine and John; Arthur and Lynn; Bob and Jane; Norm—also missed—and Jan; and Jack and Jeanette. I have 17 cousins, whom I will not name, but I very much value their numbers as well as their support and friendship.

To my former husband, Barry, and his family, Merv and Ruby, Russ and Cheryl, Barb and Tom, I say thank you for the years of support and encouragement that you gave me in so many ways. My great appreciation and thanks go to Gino for his faith in me and his invaluable encouragement and support.

I often jokingly comment that one of the reasons I am a survivor is that I have four younger brothers. The truth is they enrich me as a person each and every day. I thank Kev and Sharon and the kids; Rod and Dana and the girls; and Anthony and Maria and our newest little member Nicholas, who staffed his first polling booth and attended his first fundraiser at the age of three months. I also thank my other brother, Brett. You have all been through very difficult times with me on my journey here and your companionship has been a great strength to me. I am so pleased you can all be with me today.

I hardly know where to find words for the next two people I want to thank. It seems impossible to begin to describe what they have done for me, but I know they know how much I value what I cannot even begin to put into words. To my mum and dad, Bev and Kev Reed, I simply say thank you and I will not let you down.

Finally, I wish to thank the two most important people in my life, my sons, Michael and Chris. I know that sometimes you probably thought Mum was a bit mad to persevere with her dream, but I never doubted your love and support. You both make me very proud as I look at the wonderful young men you have grown into, and I am so glad to have you both here today.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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