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Peter Khalil (ALP-Wills) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by the new ALP member for Wills, Peter Khalil.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Peter Khalil.

The SPEAKER (13:08): Before I call the honourable member for Wills, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (13:08): Mr Speaker, I congratulate you on your election to the chair and I begin my first speech by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we meet on, the Ngunnawal people, and their elders past and present. I do so because it is a profound mark of respect for the peoples and cultures that have been present on this land from the beginning of time.

I stand in this place because I was elected by the people of Wills to serve them and to make a difference to their lives. I am conscious of being charged with an enormous responsibility bestowed with great honour. Even though it is somewhat improbable that I stand here, I am living proof that in this country politics matters, that it can make a profound difference to people’s lives.

My parents, Fayek and Georgette Khalil, are here with us in the gallery today. They came to Australia from Egypt 47 years ago. Just like those who come today, they were escaping a region where conflict was the norm and opportunities limited. Their sacrifice and that of millions of other migrants helped build Australia—not just its physical environment but the diversity of its culture, the generosity of its peoples and the depth of its humanity. I say these things too because nowhere is this diversity, this generosity of spirit, this decency better reflected than in the people of Wills.

My parents sacrificed so much of their own lives, their dreams and ambitions, to give my sister, Ellen, and I a better life. We started out in an inner-city Melbourne housing commission. Dad had to give up a career in Egypt as a lawyer and he worked for Australia Post. He became a union man, a shop steward, and later was on the state executive of the Victorian postal workers union. Mum gave up her uni degree in Egypt and worked at the Reserve Bank printing labs and as a preschool carer and an interpreter. They worked hard to give us a chance to make something of a new life in Australia.

It was not always easy. There were times of great hardship and ugly prejudice. I grew up in Australia in the seventies and eighties, a world very different from the one we live in today. Racism was more overt and considered acceptable by some. I experienced much of it directly. I will always remember my Grade 6 teacher, Mrs Hendrix, a coloured South African woman, who told me that in apartheid South Australia my parents would not be able to travel on the same bus, because of the difference in their skin complexion. That troubled me deeply as a 12-year-old, but it also awakened in me a yearning for social justice and a nascent political activism.

Although I was a serious kid who went to concerts in support of the ANC with my dad and who read Gandhi and Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, I was also like every other Aussie kid: I really loved my footy—Aussie rules, of course. My grandparents lived in a housing commission in Preston, and my Auntie Gigi—Giselle—who is here today too, went to Preston East High School with Peter Daicos, the great Collingwood champion. She introduced me to Dakes at the Preston fish and chip shop in 1978, when I was five years old, and I was Collingwood for life. I remember dragging Dad down to Victoria Park to watch the Magpies every second Saturday. I would sit on his shoulders as he stood in the outer.

While footy gave me great excitement, agony—1979, 80, 81, 2002 and 2003; I was too young for 77—and some great joy in 1990 and 2010, it taught me deeper life lessons. Dakes was an ethnic, more usually called a wog in those days—and other terrible things—much the same as I was being called in the schoolyard. Despite the abuse, Dakes was a champion. His exploits inspired me, and I started to believe in myself too. I learnt to ignore all of the hatred and prejudice and to let my actions do the talking and that lots of hard work and a little talent will always make you a winner.

My parents also instilled in us the critical importance of education to our futures—education and the lasting impact of dedicated teachers like Mrs Hendrix and my year 9 politics teacher, Mr Sestito, who ignited my passion for Australian politics. I met recently with one of my predecessors in Wills, Bob Hawke, better known, of course, as one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers, and I asked Bob whether with all the achievements of his administration there was a policy that went unheralded. He told me that, when he became PM in 1983, only a third of students in Australia finished year 12. Only a third. Through policies his government put in place, by 1991 it had almost tripled to 90 per cent. Bob was particularly proud of that achievement. It was the visionary policy achievements of Labor governments—the one he led and those before and after—that gave me access to a quality education. I am and will be forever grateful.

Mine is not a unique story. Millions of Australians, whatever their ethnic background or their socioeconomic status, were given opportunities through Labor Party policies based on fairness. For my migrant family, affordable housing, Medicare and access to education were life-changing. The Labor Party’s commitment to equality of opportunity is not just a three-word slogan. It meant something to me and my family as it means something to millions of Australians, allowing them to make positive contributions in their lives and to those around them based on their merit and hard work, not on their postcode or their pay cheque, their gender or ethnicity, their religion or culture.

My parents also instilled in me the importance of giving back to the country that has given us so much. They often told me that Australia is not the lucky country, but, rather, we are lucky to be Australian. Migrants like my parents got much from the lucky country, but they also gave much to making it better, more prosperous and as open as its beautiful broad skies. I will do my utmost to advocate for and represent the people of Wills with all my wit and judgement, skill and experience, passion and smarts. I thank them for entrusting me with this great privilege.

When I reflect on what is important in our lives I think immediately of my family, as we all do. We love our families, and if we have children we would do anything for them. We also cherish the bonds we share with our friends and the importance of making an effort for them. Whatever god we worship or not, whatever cultural beliefs we have and whatever ideologies we adhere to, it is a central part of the human condition that we are fulfilled by our connection and service to others.

Yet the public are cynical of politics and politicians. We become lightning rods for people’s frustrations, disappointments and anger. The raw quest for power can threaten to overshadow our more noble instincts. More often than not, the public’s expectations are low, and when they are high they are seldom met. However, at unique and rare times in history politicians become the vessels for inspiring leadership, visionary change or simply doing good. That can only be when we keep our eyes affixed on our very own compass star—the shining light that guided us each to serve in this place, even amidst the voracious storms that rage around us and all too often consume our national politics. We can yet, with a steady gaze on that guiding star, serve to protect and defend the values that make our democracy great while passing new laws that reform our nation, advancing an even greater and fairer Australia. The responsibility and burden for this we happily bear. It signifies something great and important within all of us—a deep desire to make the lives of those around us better.

While a public servant for the Australian Department of Defence, I was sent on a posting to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, tasked with helping to rebuild Iraq following the removal of Saddam’s regime. Although I believed at the time the Iraq War was a strategic and humanitarian disaster, I made a choice to serve my country. I worked in Iraq on rebuilding and training of the Iraqi army that is now taking on Daesh, building the ministry of defence and public service, and negotiating for the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Sunni tribal leaders to jointly fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. While I faced danger, I was ably protected. I thanked the diggers of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment as we moved through the Baghdad streets in the very agile Australian light armoured vehicles.

No matter our ideological beliefs and how we choose to serve, we must recognise the importance of open and honest debate, differing opinions and different beliefs. Australia is a successful migrant country because of our wonderful multicultural model. I am proud to be Australian whilst also embracing my cultural heritage. I do not have to choose between identities. Our multicultural model works because we embrace and do not just tolerate cultural diversity. This diverse and fair society that generations of Australians have created and nurtured is worth protecting. We must educate that difference is not to be feared but embraced. We must all stand up to racism and prejudice. To those who would peddle it in this parliament by playing on fear and ignorance: ‘I will stand steadfast against you.’

I am particularly honoured to be one of the first of two Egyptian Australians elected to the 45th Parliament. The other of course is Dr Anne Aly, the member for Cowan. We are also the first African Australians in this place. I look forward to representing our brothers and sisters who have migrated from Africa and the Middle East. I am also the first Copt to be elected to this place. The Copts are adherents of one of the oldest sects of Christianity that emerged almost 2,000 years ago. Our history stretches back thousands of years connecting us to ancient Egypt. The Coptic language is the last form of the ancient Egyptian language. The Copts have faced the violence of sectarian persecution, as have many other ancient peoples of the Middle East. The Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, the Yazidis and the Kurds have all been on the front line, taking the brunt of violent extremism of Daesh. They deserve our support.

In Australia and in many Western democracies this is a moment in history where we face a fractious body politic exacerbated by or perhaps driven by the ugly rise of demagogues. These charlatans pull from their sleeves the same three-card trick played throughout history: first, identify an angry segment of the population and tell them they are just as angry; second, find a minority to scapegoat, like Asians, Muslims or Mexicans, and blame them for taking all the jobs; and, third, throw in a dose of fear, accuse the scapegoat minority of harming our way of life, stir the angry mob until it reaches boiling point and then claim only the demagogue can fix it. Of course we all know there is no substance to any of it, let alone real policies that can effect genuine change. To those religious and ethnic groups being used as political footballs: ‘I will stand by you, with you and for you. Know this: Labor will defend the multicultural society that we have built and we will never let the hateful dividers rip apart the egalitarian fabric of Australia.’

We must not, however, fall into the trap of blaming the people who are disaffected and angry. They are being exploited, they are genuinely fearful of the threats we all face and they are uncertain of their place in our society. While there are many winners in our globalised world, there are also many people who have lost out. Thousands of workers have lost or are about to lose their manufacturing jobs. Many live in Wills. Not all of these workers, after 20 years or more in a Holden or Ford plant, can become baristas or start-up tech gurus in our so-called exciting innovation society. I say to these people: ‘We the Labor Party and the labour movement are doing the hard yards to develop—and upon winning government will implement—policies that retrain and retool workers, provide vocational education, establish job creation programs and provide support to families that are struggling.’ I say to all of those people who feel disconnected, lost and angry: ‘Do not give yourselves to the haters. Keep faith in us. There will be better days ahead.’

I look forward to being the representative for the people of Wills, which is a diverse and socially progressive microcosm of modern Australia. In suburbs like Coburg, Pascoe Vale, Glenroy and Fawkner, to name a few, 60 per cent of residents were born or have at least one parent born overseas and 40 per cent of households are bilingual. Multiple faiths and over 60 ethnicities are living in harmony.

Wills has a magnificent arts community. The suburb of Brunswick has the highest concentration of artists in Australia. The arts matter. A thriving arts sector is the heart and soul of any society. It cannot be measured in traditional economic terms—its metrics are intangible—but its social benefits are invaluable. I will continue to support Labor’s great policies for the independence and return of substantive funding to the Australia Council and in addition be a voice and a pen on issues, such as parallel importation, that are of great import to authors, of which there are many great ones in Wills.

Wills has a commitment to the environment. Residents have led the way on climate change action, with one of the fastest rates of home and business adoption of solar panels. In the suburbs of Fawkner and Glenroy pensioners have roofs covered in solar panels because it makes environmental and economic sense.

Wills has a social heart that beats strong, exemplified by the work of 11 neighbourhood houses that do so much for the local community. There are many vibrant Italian and Greek pensioner and social clubs—and I enjoyed playing bocce in Fawkner with some of them during the campaign.

I have chosen to serve to change people’s lives, to channel their hopes and dreams, because I believe that Labor values make a difference. I believe in equality of opportunity, access to education, affordable health care and social justice. I believe in equality before the law, regardless of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity or religion. I believe in fighting for job creation, because a job gives a person dignity. I believe in tackling climate change for our and future generations, in sustainable living and in funding for infrastructure and public transport. I believe in a successful multicultural society that celebrates and embraces diversity.

Equality, not privilege; diversity, not divisiveness; hope, not fear. I will fight for these values for the people of Wills and for the nation, as have great Labor governments done for the best part of a century—delivering the reforms that have made all of those so lucky to be Australians.

Prime Minister Curtin, who led Australia through the darkest days of World War II put it much more eloquently than I when he said that the Labor Party and the labour movement stand for:

… humanity as against material gain and has more resilience, more decency and dignity, and the best of human qualities than any other political movement.

The Labor Party has always stood for improving the lives of Australians—for putting people first. It also has a tradition that seeks to extend these values beyond our shores. Prime Minister Chifley spoke of reaching for that light on the hill—to bring something better to the people: better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. Our objective to reach for that light on the hill was and still is to aim for the betterment of all humanity.

That is why I am committed to Australia’s role in the world as a good international citizen, making a difference to people’s lives across the globe. In 2005 I had the opportunity to testify before the US Senate foreign relations committee on security policy in the Middle East. I spoke before then Senator Joe Biden and then Senator Barack Obama. I was struck by Senator Obama’s compassion and search for real solutions. Over a decade later, President Obama is hosting a summit on refugees next week. I call on everyone in this place and those government ministers attending the summit to put aside partisan politics and work to find sustainable and compassionate solutions to the international refugee crisis. As a son of migrants who came from Egypt, escaping a region engulfed by war, I can appreciate the yearning for a life of peace, security and opportunity. For the best part of a decade, and in the recent federal campaign when discussing asylum seeker policy, I argued strongly for an increase in our intake and an end to indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru.

I supported our leader, Bill Shorten, when he made clear that if we won the election one of his first acts would be to negotiate with the UNHCR the resettlement of the refugees to safe and secure countries. We should not be fixated on countries like Cambodia or PNG which have woefully inadequate infrastructure but look to other countries, including New Zealand and Malaysia. But I recognise that even this falls far too short in our moral, legal and international obligations as a good international citizen.

I believe Australia has a moral obligation, at the minimum, to take responsibility for the care of those refugees that have been physically or emotionally damaged by the long-term detention that we have submitted them to. I also think we should re-examine the assumed nexus between detention centres and discouraging people smugglers to ascertain how much this argument holds in the context of robust turn back policies.

Whilst I support the ALP policy I also look forward to playing my part in the ongoing debate and change on this issue. I will advocate that Australia take a leadership role in developing an international agreement in which multiple countries increase their quota intake of refugees so we can begin to find solutions for 25 million asylum seekers and refugees in UNHCR camps around the world. An international agreement between 10, 15 or 20 countries agreeing to take an additional 30, 40 or 50,000 refugees a year each would start to be a real solution, resulting in a million or more refugees being resettled to safe haven each year. If we can as an international community come together to tackle climate change that threatens our planet we can and must come together to find a way to deliver safety and security for millions of refugees. We can and must do away with the lowest-common-denominator policies that have poisoned our political culture. We can and must do better as a nation.

So I speak on this not because it is popular, nor will I resile from the issue because it is unpopular, but because it is simply the right thing to do—because I believe that true leadership is not about appealing to the fear that lurks in our darker angels but appealing to our better angels.

No-one gets to this place without the support of literally hundreds of people. I want to thank the over 1,000 ALP members in Wills, the volunteers—the true believers—who worked tirelessly during the campaign. I salute you, for it is your commitment to the Labor cause that wins elections.

I would like to pay a special tribute to my predecessor, Kelvin Thomson, acknowledging his many, many years of service and advocacy. Thank you, Kelvin, for all your support and wise counsel. Ben Davis, the Victorian Secretary of the AWU, a great union leader of a great union: his wise counsel to me was summed up in four words, ‘Talk to the voters.’

Thanks to Theo Theophanous and his wife, Rita, who are in the gallery, for their strategic guidance, support and friendship, and to Steve Michaelson, also known as Mocca, and Shannon Threlfall Clark, who headed up my campaign team with great professionalism and efficiency.

Thanks to the rest of the campaign team: Carole Fabian, Councillor Lambros Tapinos, Hasan Erdogan, Chris Anderson, Mel Sherrin and Iva Bujanovic, our campaign field organiser, and to my many state colleagues—Minister Philip Dalidakis and Debra are here today. And special thanks to Speaker Telmo Languiller—thank you for your support. To Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek: you have run a tremendous campaign—but more than that you are Labor leaders we can believe in. I thank you and all my federal colleagues—too many of you to thank; you are all my friends as well—for your support over many years

To His Excellency Mohamed Khairat, the Egyptian ambassador: I bet he never dreamed that there would be not one but two Egyptian Australians elected to the federal parliament! Your Grace Bishop Suriel, Abouna Michael: thank you and the Coptic community for your support. And to Robert Ray for his political wisdom.

Thanks to my family, friends and supporters who have made the trip to Canberra for today: to my life-long mate John Jardim, Rose and my goddaughter, Emma, and Erin; to David Noakes, Tiff, Ollie, my godson, Coco and Zoe; and to Priya Saratchandran, Joseph Hanna, Robert Ishak, Simon Banks and Justin Di Lollo. Thanks to my Aunt Gigi, her partner Barry, Aunt Julie, my uncles John and Jerry—who cannot be here—and to my maternal grandmother, Nana Ellen, who is 92 and is here today; to my sister Ellen and my nephews Oscar and Ethan; and to my parents Fayek and Georgette—once again, I love you and I thank you all.

To my wife, Lydia: your sacrifices—the small ones you make every day as well as the big ones you have made and I know will also make—are the very reasons I am standing here today. Thank you for your patience, your wise counsel, your remarkable intelligence and, most importantly, for your love.

To my children, Cassius—the shadow minister for dinosaur welfare!—and to Aya—the parliamentary secretary for loud screaming!—I hope that I can do some good in this place that will make you proud of your dad, and make Australia a better place for your generation. I love you and your mum very much. I hope I can do you all proud and make something of my service.

Herein lies the magic of this place. It resides within and through that call to service, because I can serve and make a difference in the lives of not just my family and my friends but on a grand scale to tens of thousands of people across Wills. The tempest that rages in this place most often at 2 pm belies the quieter work MPs do for their constituents. I know it is not only sound and fury as we strut upon this stage. We have an awesome responsibility and a rare privilege to work even in the eye of the political storm and make our shared political values into realities. The magic of this place is that I—as a most improbable candidate—was elected to truly serve the people of Wills and the nation that has given me so much by making what I believe true for the many, not just the few.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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