This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by the new ALP member for Fremantle, Josh Wilson.
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Hansard transcript of Josh Wilson’s maiden speech to the House of Representatives.
Mr JOSH WILSON (Fremantle) (16:36): Thank you, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, and I congratulate you on your election to that position. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and the traditional owners of my electorate, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and I pay respect to elders past and present. I have the honour of being sent here to represent the mighty federal electorate of Fremantle, the place where the Swan River, or Derbarl Yerrigan, meets the Indian Ocean, in the land of the Whadjuk Noongar, the place known for thousands of years as Walyalup.
I am proud to say that I have been shaped by Fremantle, by its landscape and its culture; by its function as a place of industry and trade and the arts; a port city; a place of arrival, whose multicultural diversity and cohesion has been hard won and is precious; a place that looks out into the world and welcomes people, whether they come for a short or a long time, with open arms; a place defined by the heat and by the sea.
Representing Fremantle is a great responsibility. There is no role or task that I can imagine being more meaningful to me in this life, and I am going to pour myself into this work—at home, in my electorate, and here in this place. I relish the fact that this work spans the full range: from helping a person who has come to you when every other door is closed to working in this place to shape national laws and policy, and I think one should inform the other. If you are from WA, it is work that literally spans the continent, and I look forward to all of it. I hope I can undertake the task with energy, humility, dedication and good humour. My constituents in Freo and my children will let me know if I do not.
While I am brand new to this role, it seems to me that our work in parliament, at best, is about making difficult judgements. They are difficult because the problems they address are often wicked and the remedies they apply are scarce and imperfect. They are difficult because very few judgements will be free of impact. Very few decisions in the public and national interest will leave everyone the same or better off. And, if that is the threshold test for reform, or even for budget repair, then we are not going to get much done.
As a person of Labor values, I believe our work is fundamentally about the custody and stewardship of the things we share: public health and education, public transport, fair and safe working conditions, and our environment. And it is about forging change so that we share and participate more equally and responsibly in Australia now, more equally and responsibly between this and future generations, and with our fellow women and men across the planet.
The Australian economy has just marked a quarter century without recession, and that is remarkable. But the real story of those years is not the quarter-by-quarter growth numbers, and we are not here simply to be brokers or bookkeepers in some marketplace, or to administer a system whose form is taken to be unchangeable and whose inequities and imbalances, even through a period of growth, have to be accepted as somehow reflecting the natural order. We are here to look hard at inequality and social exclusion, to look hard at injustice and environmental damage and to do something about it, with our touchstone being the circumstances of people who are trapped by severe disadvantage, as we seek to help those who stand furthest from the light.
I am the 11th representative of Fremantle, a federation seat, and I follow in the footsteps of some relatively well-known former members. Since the Second World War, they include John Curtin, Kim Beazley Senior, John Dawkins, Carmen Lawrence and Melissa Parke. That is a tough line-up to follow. I had the privilege of working with both Carmen and Melissa, and I am grateful to have benefited from their guidance and friendship. I recognise and pay tribute to the standard they set as Labor representatives who held fast to the pursuit of social inclusion, social justice and humanitarian principle.
When Carmen Lawrence gave her first speech in this place in 1994 she remarked on the centenary of universal suffrage. My daughters are here today and I am glad they are able to see a parliament, especially on this side, that is replete with women who are ready to make a contribution and take their place here on merit, because women have been ready to make their contribution on that basis for a long time, and that process is not finished. Let’s remember there are 72 seats in this place that have not yet been represented by a woman.
It was a privilege to work with Melissa, who is here today, especially as part of a Labor government that brought in the first set of major 21st century national reforms, including: a national apology to the Stolen Generation and to the Forgotten Australians; the National Disability Insurance Scheme; the National Broadband Network; an unprecedented network of national marine protected areas; and the enabling conditions that have stimulated a burgeoning renewable energy industry. Together, these acts of creation, and many others, represented a much needed step-change in our social democracy. Each of those reforms is carrying us towards a fairer, more sustainable and more creative Australia, and in time each shift will settle deeply within our social fabric so that it will be hard to imagine that it was ever different. That is what Labor does.
Last week I spoke with a young dad in Spearwood who said how much the NDIS meant in terms of supporting his son, who has autism. I also attended an open day at Tuart Place, a centre for people who were in out-of-home care as children, and presented them with an Australian flag that hung in this place on 16 November 2009, the day the Prime Minister said:
Today, and from this day forward, it is my hope that you will be called the ‘Remembered Australians’.
During the first week in parliament I was briefed on the rollout of the NBN over the next 12 months to 29,000 households in the heart of my electorate, covering areas like Coolbellup, Kardinya, Hilton, Samson and Hamilton Hill—suburbs where in some cases people still have no access to line broadband.
Good government, responsive and reforming government, is not just important, it is necessary, but there is more to be done. There is a danger, I think, when you come to participate in the work of parliament, not that you will be deluded into thinking that we happen to exist at an especially crucial moment in history but that we might be deluded instead into thinking that all the big changes have been won; that what is left is only marginal, asymptotic progress along the curve. On any reasonable assessment, that is not the case. There is in fact a great deal more to do.
The Fremantle electorate is bound up in a number of those challenges: in the need for action on climate change and renewable energy; in the need to hasten the too-slow progress to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; in relation to the future of work in this country, its forms, quantity and conditions; in regional leadership and our engagement with the wider world; and in the need for smart and forward-looking urban design and planning, and the delivery of matching transport and communication infrastructure.
Granted, city planning sounds boring and technocratic, but unless we get it right we will consign families in outer metro areas to lives limited by unaffordable housing, dislocated from jobs and services and characterised by congestion in suburbs where people struggle to feel connected to their neighbours because there is no reason to walk or ride through the streets, no local shops or community centres and poor public transport. The local governments in my electorate—Cockburn, Fremantle, East Fremantle and Melville—are seized by this challenge but they are frustrated at not being met halfway by state and federal governments. There is no better example right now of that frustration than the Perth Freight Link. My community is fighting to be on the right side of a decision that divides between two very different futures.
Despite the absence of planning and cost-benefit analysis, despite the absence of environmental approval in accordance with the EPA’s own policies, the state and federal coalition governments still intend to press ahead with the most expensive road in WA’s history—a privately operated toll road that cuts the Beeliar Wetlands in half, locks us out of rail freight and public transport, locks us into greater road congestion and, essentially, serves to stitch up our public port for private sale. People have been fighting to save those wetlands for 30 years—people like Patrick Hume, Joe Branco and Kate Kelly. Now there are thousands who are fighting for a sensible freight and transport plan, an outer harbour with matching road and rail links that keeps our port in public hands and functions as a much needed major economic catalyst in an area of stubborn unemployment, and, above all else, saves the Beeliar Wetlands.
In Fremantle the future of work is coming into sharp focus at a point when the number of full-time jobs in Western Australia has fallen for 18 consecutive months, a bleak run that we have not seen since the last recession in the early 1990s. On the campaign trail it was notable just how many people talked to me about jobs lost, contracts coming to an end and not being renewed, and when there was work on offer the fact that it was in similar roles for a lot less money. Employment in resources, manufacturing, construction, maritime work and related trades is under pressure and jobs across the public service are being cut or squeezed, weakening our social safety net and weakening our capacity in areas like science and research, and tax collection.
One of the most distinctive things about Fremantle is its loud and proud arts and culture workforce—the ordinary, everyday presence and production of musicians, architects, artists, writers, dancers, street performers and even circus performers. Arts practitioners and businesses are the very definition of the creative economy, and you would be hard-pressed to find leaner and meaner enterprises or people and organisations that do more with less, so it is incredibly disappointing that in my electorate of Fremantle arts funding and support bodies have been subject to so much chaos in the last couple of years.
For all of those reasons, we need to think hard about and plan carefully for the future of work in this country. The technological innovation and disruption that some are calling the second machine age will no doubt offer improvements in productivity yet are not, by any stretch, guaranteed to deliver a smooth transition from older to newer forms of work. We simply cannot afford to be complacent or sanguine about the relationship between growth and jobs or innovation and jobs, let alone the relationship between economic growth and rising inequality.
The question of work is particularly acute in the context of closing the gap. This is one area where progress is not merely off track; it is going backwards. As a councillor and deputy mayor in the City of Fremantle, I was very fortunate to work with a united council that made efforts to advance practical and symbolic reconciliation. We established the long-awaited Walyalup Aboriginal Cultural Centre, we began to address the paucity of Noongar names and signage in our public realm and we introduced a successful four per cent Indigenous employment target. I am very conscious that these achievements are tiny in the scheme of things and that meaningful change needs larger scale program and policy input in areas like social housing, needs based education, employment support and justice reinvestment.
Fremantle is a dynamic and multicultural place, notwithstanding the fact that we have our fair share of dark history. It is outward looking and open, with strong links into our region and great potential for those links to become stronger still, especially throughout the Indian Ocean rim.
I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to see a bit of the world, first as a kid of wandering parents, then under my own steam, including through my work as a writer and photojournalist—some of the places were a bit more humid than this. I was in the Solomon Islands for the 10th anniversary of RAMSI in 2013 with foreign minister Bob Carr and with Melissa Parke, in her role as Minister for International Development. I do not think there were any organic steel-cut oats on that occasion, but we did visit an eye clinic where the Fred Hollows Foundation, with the support of Australian aid, was doing brilliant work not just giving back sight but also liberating children from the burden of caring for blind parents or relatives and making it possible for them to attend school.
I was in Kabul in 2014 as an independent election observer for the audit and recount of the Afghan presidential election, and I shared that work with my friend the new member for Solomon. It was a reminder of how contingent and fragile democracy can be, and a very limited but intense experience of how much damage the Afghan state and its people have endured.
Earlier this year I was in Nagasaki as part of the Mayors for Peace initiative, which saw the installation of the first Australian sculpture in the Nagasaki Peace Park. That sculpture was created by people from Yalata and Oak Valley in South Australia, communities that were forced from their land as a result of the Maralinga bomb tests and, in that sense, the bestowal of the sculpture formed a link between atomic survivor communities. The Hibakusha people we met in Nagasaki and Hiroshima joined with the South Australian mob in expressing a clear message: never again.
In this world, and in our region, Australia has a role to play in terms of development assistance, in fostering international cooperation and fair trade, and in supporting peace and disarmament. We do live in a time when the greatest challenges, whether they are climate change or resource management or conflict, can only be overcome by nations working together. At the moment, however, there is not a lot to be optimistic about on that front. It feels like the prevailing force in the world is centrifugal, spinning out towards fragmentation and self-interest rather than towards unity of purpose.
Throughout our history Australia has played a role in leading international cooperation. It is critical we put our shoulder to that wheel again, but that cannot happen if we continue to ransack Australia’s overseas development assistance budget, which in addition to reducing poverty and saving lives—if you were not convinced that reducing poverty and saving lives was not good enough—dollar for dollar is one of the best investments we can make in regional security and economic development. And that cannot happen if we continue to approach our responsibility to asylum seekers by cleaving to the divisive extremes of fear and demonisation or righteousness. The operation of the centres at Nauru and Manus Island has been unacceptable, and indefinite detention is wrong. We know that creating a properly constituted regional settlement framework is possible. It is not easy, but it is possible, and we can begin that work by engaging with the UNHCR and our regional neighbours, by increasing our humanitarian intake and by finding resettlement places for people currently held in detention as a matter of urgency. It cannot be said better than my colleague and most often neighbour here, the member for Wills, earlier today, and I thank him for putting it so well.
Those are some of the areas in which I hope to make a contribution in this place, recognising that in many cases I will join others in a collective effort supporting progress in the wider cause rather than looking for a place on the grandstand. And speaking of grandstand: I am grateful to have some people here with me today that form part of my extended tribe: my mum, Poonam, and my sister, Gy; my aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Mark Aarons; long-time family friend and wise woman, Joan Sheridan; one of my oldest and best mates, John Hill; and, above all, my wife Georgia and my children, Oscar, Priya, and Abby. I know that my dad, GR; my brother Mo; and other family and friends will be watching and listening elsewhere.
None of us is a Lone Ranger, and to be honest that is a mercy. Even at this early stage I know it would be impossible for anyone to put their heart and soul—and sweat, as it turns out!—into their representative work without the love and support and honesty and good-natured ribbing that only family and friends can provide.
My dad has a pretty fierce sense of right and wrong. He and I are maybe too similar in that way, but I love him. For years he gave his time to the good governance of not-for-profit cultural organisations, driven by his love of music and the arts, and I’m glad I got a bit of that too.
My mum, who is here today, is the most optimistic and accepting and resourceful adventurer that I have ever known. When I was growing up I did not always appreciate some of the feats of loving parenthood that she managed to pull off in extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes I was guilty of being self-conscious about the way we lived: the fact that we moved a lot, we pulled together interesting meals, we lived in strange countries—and even that she cut our hair. As I have got older, with a much better appreciation of that strength of self and that unconditional love, I have really come to marvel at my mum’s energy, positivity, and generosity of spirit. I wish I had more of it. And thanks for the haircut!
My brother and sister and I have shared a lot. My brother is not here today, but my sister is. As kids we lived with Mum in a bamboo hut in India; we were the Australian oddities at school in Long Island, New York; and we came to mostly amicable bedroom-sharing arrangements in probably fifteen different rental houses on the limestone ridges and in the valleys of Fremantle. I am grateful we all live there close by still.
And last but most of all, the beating heart of my world is my own family: my wife, Georgia, and our children, Oscar, Priya, and Abby. I love you.
On the theme of acknowledgments and with fewer tears I want to thank those who travelled the road of the Fremantle campaign with me. Campaigns are not just a means to an end; campaigns have value in themselves. They are the way we come together and pursue something bigger than our individual interests. I want to thank the WA Labor Party and the labour movement in the west for their huge practical and moral support. I pay tribute to the organisational and morale-lifting work of the WA Labor team, led by Patrick Gorman and Lenda Oshalem, often mentioned in dispatches today, and carried forward by hundreds of valiant people within Labor’s Community Action Network.
I thank local state members Fran Logan, Peter Tinley and especially my fellow member for Fremantle, the state member for Fremantle, Simone McGurk. For my own sake, I have to particularly acknowledge the fantastic support of the rank and file Fremantle electorate branch members and my campaign team, especially David Settelmaier, Matt Bowden, LeeAnne Willows, Kath Longley, Nick Chinna, and the four Peters: Peter White, Peter Feasey, Peter Woodward, and Peter Tagliaferri, who is also here today.
And I do want to mention the two small left unions that roared: Sue Bowers and the Community & Public Sector Union—Sue is here today—and John Welch of the Western Australian Prison Officers Union. Thank you both for standing up when it appeared there was not much hope or much point.
To bring my slightly damp first speech in this incredible place to an end—that will not make sense to people reading this in the future!—I am happy to say that I am a romantic when it comes to representative democracy. I think it is one of the best things. I do not agree with Winston Churchill; I think it is one of the best things. It deserves to be valued. It deserves to be performed with maximum effort, and cultivated with great care, with its essence and structure respected and its live parts allowed to flourish and be renewed. As a new member in this place I intend to listen and learn, to not hold back for fear of making the odd mistake or the odd joke, to participate and work hard in good spirit and good faith, to make a difference and always to apply myself in dedicated service to the people of Fremantle.