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Laura Smyth (ALP-La Trobe) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech of Laura Smyth, the ALP member for La Trobe, in the House of Representatives.

Smyth is the first Labor member for La Trobe since 1990, when Peter Milton was defeated after serving for 10 years and 4 terms. The electorate includes outer eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, including Boronia, Ferntree Gully, Cockatoo, Narre Warren, Pakenham Upper, Tecoma and Upwey.

A swing of 1.42% delivered La Trobe to Smyth, who secured 50.91% of the two-party-preferred vote.

Smyth, 33, is a lawyer. She was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

  • Listen to Laura Smyth (21m)

Hansard transcript of Laura Smyth’s maiden speech to the House of Representatives.

Ms SMYTH (12:46 PM) —Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to give voice to my reasons for being here and to record particularly my thanks for the considerable efforts of all of those people who have assisted along the way and who have had such confidence in me that I have been capable of being elected.

I have flown into Tullamarine quite a lot recently and, each time that I do, I remember the first Melbourne landing that I made with my family in 1983. Nineteen eighty-three was part of a different era, at least for those of us on this side of the chamber. I was almost seven and I really did not know very much about Australia. I certainly did not know what it was going to be like here. It had not occurred to me that I would grow up anywhere other than Dunmurry, in Belfast. I just remember leaving my grandparents at the kerbside and watching them wave us goodbye. I remember the haze of smoke in the non-smoking section of our flight as it wound its way through every conceivable airport destination in the Northern Hemisphere and much of the southern.

My first contact with the Australian Labor Party was somewhat indirect but quite fateful. Our plane was stranded on the tarmac at Jakarta for several hours because Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had flown into town and was being given a 21-gun salute. Almost three decades on and he is still very much a show stopper, and deservedly so.

Reflecting now on what my parents undertook almost 30 years ago to come to a country while having nothing, knowing barely anyone and leaving behind family and everything familiar, I am struck by their bravery and their resilience. They handled the upheaval of migration quietly and without fuss, as they have done with most things in life.

Belfast is a now a city with promise. It is a pleasure to visit, and its people, with their black sense of humour and their immense pride, deserve the peace and the prosperity that they have worked incredibly hard for. In the early 1980s, it was rather a different place.

Dad taught at a local Catholic primary school in Twinbrook, a Catholic area of Belfast. I went to school each day with him. Kids at our school would sometimes fall asleep in class because they had been out rioting late into the night. I remember being in the back of the car on the way to school one day when Dad stopped at a roadblock, a usual occurrence. A child casually holding a gun stepped up to the window and said, ‘I’m not coming to school today, sir.’ Teachers at our school wondered where kids were vanishing to en masse when the bell rang at the end of each school day. They discovered that most of the school was going to throw stones at the ‘pop-ups’—the armoured vehicles which drove through the neighbourhood with soldiers who would step out of the roofs.

My parents and others like them made a concerted effort to try to get kids away from the city on school camps during the most dangerous parts of the year so that they did not get caught up in the very worst of the troubles. Living in a mixed area of Belfast, my parents tried to live as normally as possible in a city divided. As they continued to see their children being hassled and bullied because of sectarianism, they realised that they had to leave.

I speak of this because the situation in Belfast always, always reminds me of how fragile our democracy can be. It reminds me that, while we have institutions and procedures, checks and balances, these are of little value when there is a breakdown of basic trust in a society and amongst citizens. We have countless examples around the globe of communities which are painstakingly trying to rebuild trust and, with that trust, a future for themselves. We think of these as far-off troubled societies. We do not think that, with just a little less trust, a little more animosity and a failure to share the spoils of our society fairly, these same troubles could affect virtually any democracy, including our own.

No-one can overestimate the damage caused by setting up a division or a wedge in a society, setting citizen against citizen and preying upon the most base emotions in ourselves. It is not something to be experimented or toyed with. We can have differences of opinion. We can, in this place and in the community generally, have robust debate, but we must have honour in our dealings with sensitive issues of public policy. Matters which affect our longstanding human rights obligations and the dignity of our society, in particular, should not be treated casually.

Tampa, back in 2001, and the plight of the SIEV X were classic examples of the kind of division that the Howard government, with the notable exception of a few of its backbenchers, was content to see thrive. As it did for many others, this reinforced my belief that we all have an obligation to stand up for basic human rights. As it did for many others, this drove me to volunteer my services in the judicial review of certain applications for asylum. Work like this is not about being a bleeding heart. It is about consistency. The rule of law applies to us all, and we must apply it fairly. We cannot apply it selectively, we cannot use it politically, and it must be fair and beyond reproach. This must be our approach to all international obligations to which we have committed ourselves. I believe that we can and must be sensible and pragmatic in our handling of these issues. But we must do so without victimising people who are already victims.

Human rights protections and the way that we treat the most vulnerable in our community reflect the basic strength of our democracy. I have long considered that the way that we treat the most marginalised and disenfranchised of people reflects this. The status of women; the respect which we afford to Indigenous peoples; the efforts to which we go to ensure rights protections for gay and lesbian people; providing opportunities for the disabled, the homeless, children and the aged—these are the things that reflect the progress, and the health, of our society. Let us speak rationally about those matters as legislators; let us not set out to cause division for political ends. It is curious that conservative parties, which have had a tradition of asserting the rights of the individual against the might of the state, have now abandoned this. Individual rights do not seem to matter to these people. The next election does.

I joined the Australian Labor Party as a 16-year-old. I had heard Paul Keating’s speech at Redfern, I heard him talking about a republic and—as with so many of us on this side—I loved his words, his zeal for the big things and his withering disdain for the small. And what followed him for 12 years was so terribly small.

During the Hawke-Keating years, Labor had implemented significant reforms to the economy. It had taken our legacy of the eight-hour day, social security, maternity leave, workers’ compensation and Medicare and moved us another step on. As just one example of this, the superannuation system remains a demonstration of just how effective the Labor Party and the union movement can be in achieving sustained national reform. The pool of assets generated and acquired by superannuation funds plays an increasingly important role in the Australian economy. This year, assets under management of Australian super funds are equal to 94 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product. By 2020, it is estimated that those assets will amount to $2.6 trillion. Our superannuation industry increasingly generates investment, provides capital, creates employment and will, I hope, in future have a more expansive role to play in the development and ownership of more of our national infrastructure. It supports working Australians right now and, with the increased superannuation guarantee levy, it will in future give all retirees participating in superannuation the quality of life that those opposite would never have made a national priority.

It is extraordinary that, more than 20 years after Labor mooted a superannuation system in this country, the fundamental benefits of that system are still being questioned by our conservative counterparts. Though they have come to accept a basic need for superannuation, they still resist any increase to the superannuation guarantee levy to better provide for the retirement of working Australians. Once again, those who regularly laud themselves as the saviours of the economy and the voice of commerce have demonstrated a desperate lack of vision.

For the last nine years, I have worked as a corporate lawyer. I have had the fortune to work as an external lawyer and, in some instances, an in-house lawyer in businesses which have supported jobs and industry throughout Victoria and Australia. I have worked for manufacturers, distributors and exporters. I have worked with government agencies, hospitals and superannuation funds, with longstanding family businesses that have contributed to the prosperity of the country through generations and new enterprises making the best of emerging markets and new technologies. In recent years, I have been especially fortunate to have worked at Holding Redlich. The firm has been extraordinarily supportive of my endeavours to represent La Trobe in this place and I am particularly grateful to Michael Linehan, who is in the gallery today, Lou Farinotti, Chris Lovell and Peter Redlich, and all those who I suspect will be watching in Studio 350. In coming to work for the firm, I realised that my views were not dissimilar to its original objectives: to be able to run a strong practice in corporate and property law while supporting legal work for the benefit of the community. I am very glad to have worked for them.

Having walked much of the electorate and spoken to many thousands of its residents, I know that La Trobe does not lend itself to easy definition. It takes in some of the fastest-growing suburbs in Australia. Pakenham, Officer and Berwick, Beaconsfield and Narre Warren are now attracting new families and new industries. Planning for the development of those parts of the electorate will be crucial and it is Labor that has its focus on sustainability, new infrastructure, hospital and school funding, innovation and job creation for our newest regions. It is Labor that has renewed the relationship of the federal government with local government, and I consider that partnership to be a very effective one. It is in the dialogue with our community about sustainability that we are again set in stark relief against the opposition’s situation. It has no sustainability ministry and little, if any, policy in this area. Its focus on growth has been largely and almost exclusively in fear-mongering about migration. Labor is addressing the practicalities and the logistics of making growth benefit communities such as those in La Trobe and ensuring that our quality of life is sustained.

The electorate is named for Charles La Trobe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Victoria. Charles and I may have had little in common, he with his propensity for mountaineering and me with my white-knuckle fear of heights, but I suspect we would have shared the view that the Dandenong Ranges is amongst Victoria’s and Australia’s most valuable environmental assets. It takes in much of the spectacular beauty and forest-scapes which were so well captured on canvas by Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Charles La Trobe had the foresight to preserve significant tracts of land throughout Melbourne for use as parks and gardens and had a vision for our future environment. It is important to me that we protect the biodiversity of the Dandenong Ranges. It is important to me that we ensure that it is retained for future generations. At a local level, this means having the foresight to support initiatives to better protect native flora and fauna. At a national level, this means having the absolute foresight to support whole-of-economy reforms, to set a carbon price and deliver on our global environmental commitments.

To live in and around the Dandenongs is to be instantly involved in community organisations and activities—CFA, Landcare, the local Neighbourhood House, church groups, environmental groups, and the list goes on. One of the things which I hope to do during my time in this place is to encourage more young adults to become involved in our community through local leadership initiatives. I have started to encourage this in our electorate. Volunteering, community connectedness and participation in important civic activities have perhaps declined as we have become more time-poor and focus our energies elsewhere. It is extremely pleasing that the electorate of La Trobe is already home to an impressive group of young community activists and aid campaigners, active members of World Vision, Oxfam and other organisations. During the campaign, I was approached by a number of them asking if I might mention our Millennium Development Goal commitments in this speech. I am very pleased to be able to do so. I would particularly like to address those goals which focus on the welfare of women in developing countries.

I have never been much of a believer in role models, but the characteristics which I most admire are resilience, tenacity and compassion. There are millions of women in the developing world who demonstrate those qualities and the very best of humanity in the very worst of conditions that humanity and nature can inflict—women in the floods of Pakistan, in the upheaval of Afghanistan and in the unspeakable atrocities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; women who are still regarded as the lowest of the low, who care for and educate their children and keep their communities together; and women who are still not afforded control over their fertility, health or basic finances. Just as we share in the benefits of a global community, so we must also share in our humanitarian and human rights obligations to that community and, most particularly, we must do our best for women in developing countries.

The generosity of Australians has been made apparent time and again during global crises. The current government have shown their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, in particular the improvement of maternal and child health throughout our region and around the globe. This government’s recent commitment of $1.6 billion to improving the health of women and children over the next five years will have an extraordinarily profound and lasting impact on infant mortality rates and women’s health in the developing world. Since 2005, we have doubled our overseas aid program. Labor have committed to increase our aid budget for developing nations to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015. We have done so even against the backdrop of the global financial crisis. I support the target of contributing 0.7 per cent of GNI in overseas aid and progressively increasing our aid commitment until we are able to reach that goal together with other nations around the globe. I am extremely pleased that young people in my electorate have made this their priority: to campaign against poverty and for a fairer world. People, no matter where they are from, deserve a basic quality of life. That is what Labor are about and that is what I am about.

The opportunity to represent my community in this place is a tremendous honour. I am grateful to all La Trobe electors for giving me a very fair hearing during the election campaign and for the support of so many local residents and community leaders. The opportunities which the Australian parliament presents to each individual member and senator are considerable and it seems to me that much of the skill of a successful parliamentarian must be in whittling down to those things which he or she wishes to achieve in what is a relatively short period of time.

My priorities are civic involvement, jobs for my community, ensuring that Labor’s significant commitments in education and health continue to be delivered, and making decency the benchmark in our treatment of those who are disadvantaged by virtue of their finances, health or cultural background.

The La Trobe campaign was owned very much by local branch members and supporters, Young Labor members and students, colleagues, friends and family. I am delighted that many of them are in the gallery this afternoon. Through the sunburn, the windburn and the very soggy shoes of the La Trobe campaign in 2010, there were three people who were indispensable: Gavin Ryan, Chris Davis and James Raynes scraped, cajoled and, in many instances, duct-taped it all together, and I am forever grateful to them. We always knew that at the end of it all there would either be a victory or a sitcom script in the making.

I am indebted to Phil Staindl, who is also in the gallery this afternoon, for his extraordinary generosity and his guidance. I regret very much that he is not a member of this place. Mat Hilikari, Sarah Wickham, Garry Muratore and his family, Barbara Crisp and Geoff Champion were the backbone of the campaign. Everything that they took on they did and they did it with good humour. I am incredible grateful to Jacqueline Cameron, Marita Foley and Toby Yiu for their incredible generosity and friendship. My many thanks to Senator Gavin Marshall, Mark Dreyfus, Brian Tee and James Merlino for their considerable support and belief in me, and to Senator Jacinta Collins and Alan Griffin. I am also very grateful to the CEPU Communications Branch and particularly Matt; and the tenacious campaigners of the TCFUA, the CFMEU, the AEU and the VIEU and EMILY’s List.

There are many, many more whom I have thanked in person and will continue to thank, whose efforts contributed to what was very much a community based campaign and victory. My family has been in equal measures supportive and protective. I would like to acknowledge the perpetual support of my parents, Eddie and Mary, my brother and sister, Francis and Deborah, and Deborah’s family. I thank my partner Matt, who came to all the dawn train-station visits and the debates, and who extracted mirth from the campaign at every opportunity. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the support across the miles of two delightful, principled and extremely strong women, my great-aunts Patricia and Mildred Jordan. They are in their 80s and have just discovered the internet. I feel sure that they will be watching this.

Since joining Labor in my teens, I have known it to be a party capable of leading with both intellectual rigour and compassion; pragmatic and responsible in its handling of the economy; a constant focus on jobs; a very solid sense of our place in the world and our capacity as a nation to lead. But at the party’s core, there is a fierce desire to make life considerably better for working people and people on the margins.

Labor are a party which was built on a belief that life should be made better for ordinary working Australians. We are a party which has sought to unite Australia through reforms which make life better for all of us. Universal health care, abolition of discrimination, prioritising education and rights at work are all reforms which have united and strengthened our community. We will not bow to the pettiness and division that will weaken and undermine the civil society that we have fought so hard to create. We have rightly set ourselves an ambitious reform agenda and we will build on the very significant gains that Labor have already made for working people.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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