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Alicia Payne (ALP-Canberra) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Alicia Payne, the ALP member for Canberra, ACT.

Listen to Payne (23m):

Watch Payne (27m):

Hansard transcript of maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Alicia Payne, ALP member for Canberra.

The SPEAKER: Before I call the honourable member for Canberra, 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 PAYNE (Canberra) (16:59): I want to begin in this place by paying respect to the Ngunawal and Ngambri people and their elders, past present and emerging. The beautiful land covered by the electorate of Canberra and on which our parliament meets is their country. It is a mountainous region with a harsh climate. Living here required great knowledge and skilful custodianship of the land, which the local Indigenous people exercised for tens of thousands of years. When resources were seasonally abundant, such as the bogong moth and yam daisy, there were gatherings of more than a thousand people at a time and important ceremonies were held.

I acknowledge that this land was never ceded and that this institution, our parliament, has often failed to represent the First Nations people of Australia and has inflicted much hurt. Just down the road from here stands the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Its establishment in 1972 marked a key moment in the Indigenous rights movement, and it remains today a marker of the ongoing fight.

I am proud that this 46th Parliament has made an early commitment to work together towards a voice to parliament and to progress the response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Our response to these issues will define how history sees this parliament, and I look forward to participating in this.

It is the greatest honour to represent the people of Canberra in the parliament alongside this Labor caucus. I’m proud to follow in the footsteps of the great Labor women who have represented the seat before me—Ros Kelly, Annette Ellis and the former member Gai Brodtmann, whom I particularly want to honour today. Gai was an exemplary member of parliament. She gave her heart and soul to serving her community over the last nine years. Gai was a fierce advocate for the Australian Public Service and for women. Everywhere we went on the campaign trail, everyone knew Gai and said they were sad to see her leave the parliament. Then they reminded me what big shoes I have to fill.

I also want to thank the member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh, who represented a large proportion of what is now in the electorate of Canberra. Andrew’s friendship and support over many years has meant so much to me, and again, I’m aware I have a lot to live up to in representing his former constituents.

Canberra is often dismissed as a ‘bubble’—as somehow not being a real city. A boring and sterile place out of touch with the rest of the nation. But those of us who live here know that is not true. The Canberra we know and love is a caring, progressive, multicultural and connected community. Canberrans are passionate about issues of social justice and protecting the environment at the local, national and global levels. So am I, and I am proud to represent my altruistic and forward-looking community.

We are proud of our city, our nation’s capital, that combines immense natural beauty with a unique planned environment designed to complement it. Canberra is home to our national institutions that tell Australia’s stories, honour our history and showcase art and culture from around Australia and the world. These institutions bring people to our capital, and it is important we take pride in them as a nation and ensure they are properly resourced.

With five universities and the CSIRO in the electorate, the pursuit of knowledge and breakthrough is a key part of the daily life of Canberra. Canberra’s passionate business community work hard to make our city the vibrant place that it is.

We are a city with high average incomes and low unemployment, which means it can be a particularly difficult place to be poor. Standing up for a strong social safety net is as important for the people of Canberra as it is around the country.

Community organisations work very hard to support Canberrans in need and to make our community inclusive, with creativity and resourcefulness on tight budgets. I saw this first hand as the President of the Belconnen Community Service and as a volunteer at the Early Morning Centre in Civic, serving breakfast to people coming in from the freezing Canberra cold.

Canberra is an environmentally aware community, and we relish our connection to nature. One of my favourite parts of the campaign was engaging with the volunteer groups who work hard to care for our local catchments and bushland. Action on climate change was the issue most raised with me during my campaign. Like most Canberrans, I understand that if we don’t take action to protect our environment, all our other aims are redundant. There is no point talking about social justice if we destroy the world we live in; there is no point talking about the economy if it is not sustainable. Protecting the future of our planet matters to me, and to the Labor Party. Our nation must move forward on this issue with urgency.

Canberra is home to the Australian Public Service, which also doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. In this town it is our major employer. Most of my father’s career was in the Public Service, and I learnt from a young age from his example of hard work and professionalism, including the importance of providing frank and fearless advice to either side of politics. This is vital to our democracy. I saw this same dedication in the people I worked with at Treasury. There is a great pride in serving our nation’s government and, through it, its people, and this is part of the character of our city.

To me, Canberra is home. It is the community where I grew up and have chosen to make my adult life. It’s where I attended my local public schools—Urambi Primary, Kambah High and Lake Tuggeranong College—and where I was born and gave birth to our son in the Canberra Hospital. It’s where I’ve played sport and volunteered with local community groups, where I’ve worked and where I met my husband, Ben.

Both sets of my grandparents made Canberra their home in the late 1960s, having moved around Australia extensively before that. For my mother’s parents, Joan and Gordon Handsaker, this was because Gordon was a school principal. For my father’s parents, Joan and the Reverend Jim Payne, this was because Jim was a church minister.

In a proud Canberra tradition, my parents met as first-year students at the ANU. They were brought together by receiving the same comment on their first essay as ‘naive and verbose’—undeserved, and certainly not something I’ve inherited!

The lived example of community service of my grandparents and then my parents—my mother, Patricia, a teacher and then academic in political science and my father, Stephen, a journalist who then made his career in policy in the Public Service—has been an inspiration to me. They taught me from an early age to be aware of the challenges that others may be facing and the importance of contributing to the community we live in, and that your right to vote is precious, as there are people around the world dying for that privilege many of us here in Australia take for granted. My parents also made sure that I knew that as a girl I could do anything that boys could.

I wanted to study economics as it seemed to me the study of how the world organises itself—how we distribute income and what levers can be used to affect this. I was privileged to study political economy at Sydney university—a degree that was established by protesting academics and students who wanted the right to study the full breadth of economic thought, recognising that the economy operates in a social and political context and that the dominant neoclassical theory is just that: a dominant theory.

Among the protesting students was our leader, Anthony Albanese, and I thank him for what he helped to establish. This was a very formative time for me in shaping my values and solidifying the issues that I have committed to pursuing. These remain key to why I am here today.

I first became politically active on the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the Refugee Action Collective at uni. At the time, we were protesting because the detention centres were run by private companies and because people, particularly children, were suffering major mental and physical health impacts while in detention. I never would have imagined that almost 20 years later our nation’s treatment of asylum seekers would have actually deteriorated.

We have an international obligation to people exercising their legal right to seek asylum. We have an obligation as human beings to treat people better than this. This issue is deeply important to me, as it is to the people I represent—the people of Canberra who turn up every year in their thousands for the Palm Sunday march in Garema Place and the members of ACT Labor who are tirelessly active on this issue.

For my honours thesis I did a study of policy responses to unemployment in Newcastle following the closure of the BHP steelworks. I interviewed steelworkers, some of whom were fourth generation working at the plant. The loss to them, to their families and to the community was deep—a loss of identity and of planned futures. But Newcastle’s experience shows what can be achieved when employers, unions and governments pull together, how a community can be resilient and the difference policy can make.

In Sydney I became very involved in my church at Newtown Mission, volunteering in the drop-in centre. At Newtown Mission, the Newtown community came together for friendship, support and hope. People experiencing homelessness, poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, loneliness and isolation, and many who had lost the care of their children came together to share a meal and a conversation. I made many friendships there and was inspired by being part of a community united against poverty and exclusion. People there supported one another in radical ways, committing themselves with a profound dedication to others and to equality. Those experiences cemented my drive to do what I could to fight against poverty and inequality.

In my work I’ve pursued finding policy answers to these problems—as a researcher at NATSEM, a public servant and a policy adviser as part of the Labor team. My belief in the power of good policy and the difference it makes in people’s lives is what brings me to this place. NATSEM, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, was established at the University of Canberra in 1993 by Professor Ann Harding and has contributed independent analysis that has informed some of our nation’s most important policy debates since then—showing how a change to tax or social security policy can have vast impacts on families, households and regions. I was privileged to work with Ann and the other dedicated and brilliant researchers there, including my now husband, Ben Phillips. It showed me the power of numbers to shed light on the impacts of policy and the vital importance of this analysis being independent and publicly available.

I believe two things have been fundamentally important to alleviating poverty and inequality in Australia, and keeping our economy strong—the right to fair wages and a social security system that is there for us all when we are unable to work. Both of these have characterised the unique Australian system since soon after Federation. In 1904 an industrial arbitration court was established and in 1907 the formative Harvester judgement ruled that workers be paid a ‘fair and reasonable’ wage for a man to support a wife and children. The decision introduced employee needs into the wage equation. Although limited to a male breadwinner nuclear family model at the time, this was a profound concept. The living wage is something that unions continue the fight for to this day. We have unions to thank for the eight-hour day, weekends, sick leave and safe workplaces, to name a few. I’m proud to have been a union member my whole working life before I was an ALP member.

In 1908 the age pension was introduced, establishing as a statutory right access to income support for Australians who are unable to work. The universal means tested pension was in contrast to the insurance model being adopted by many other countries at the time. It was based on the income people were able to put away over their lives.

So from the early beginnings of the Australian nation the idea of fair wages and a safety net for those unable to work were enshrined, and they work hand in hand. In 2006 I joined the Labor Party to fight against the Howard government’s simultaneous destruction of both these foundations of the Australian social contract. WorkChoices, introduced that year, sought to destroy workers’ rights to organise and bargain for fair pay and job security. At the same time the government made the decision to force single parents off the parenting payment and onto the lower Newstart allowance on their child’s eighth birthday. NATSEM research showed just how deeply this change would push single parents and their children into poverty.

Both these fundamentals of the Australian social fabric continue to be undermined in today’s Australia. The Australian Building and Construction Commission treats unionists like criminals, workers have lost their penalty rates, and real wages are stagnating. Our social security system has long failed to provide adequate support to the unemployed, to a point that, for many, dire poverty is impeding their ability to find work. The Newstart allowance is too low. The government should review it and increase it as an urgent priority.

Today around 739,000 Australian children live in poverty and almost one-third of single-parent families live in poverty. We need to do better for single parents, predominantly mothers, and their children. Single parents do one of the most demanding and important jobs there is—one I have deepened respect for since becoming a mother myself. We should invest in our nation’s children and give them the best start in life. Social security is one of the most powerful tools governments have to address and prevent poverty.

In May, we lost one of our most loved Australians, and greatest of Labor reformers, Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Something that was not mentioned much in the celebration of Hawke’s achievements was the commitment he made in 1987 that by 1990 no Australian child would live in poverty. While the quote is often ridiculed, what is less talked about is the success of the changes he introduced. Hawke announced a package of measures—including a family supplement linked to wage growth, uniform rent assistance for social security recipients with children, and a new child disability allowance—and, for the first time, used the tax system to collect child support payments from non-custodial parents. These measures immediately cut the number of children living in poverty by a third. By 1994, poverty rates for children of jobless couples had reduced by up to 80 per cent and by 50 per cent for jobless single parents.

In 2009, the Gillard Labor government—and my former boss, Jenny Macklin—lifted one million older Australians out of poverty when they implemented the largest increase to the pension in its history. The social security system is a powerful tool to address poverty. It is about shoes on feet and meals on tables. It is tightly means tested to those who need it most, more so than in any other OECD country. It is a system that we should be proud of. To be proud of our social security system is not to say that it is a preferable option to working; it obviously isn’t. It’s obvious that a job is the most reliable path to prosperity and inclusion in our society. It’s about recognising that each of us, at some point in our lives, may be unable to work—due to health, caring or parenting responsibilities, or an increasingly unstable job market—and that, as a society, we will support each other. Part of the battle is against the disinformation and demonisation of social security and those receiving it. Dispelling these myths is a battle I commit myself to, alongside standing up for a strong social safety net to support us all.

In this place we have great power to make changes if we have the will to. I joined the Labor Party 12 years ago because I wanted to do whatever I could to fight for a fairer, brighter future for all Australians. That is the great mission of our party and what I will work for every day that I am in this place. There is a song by Jewel that, to me, expresses so well what it means to be an activist in the fight for social justice, whether it is in grassroots politics, taking the practical action of solidarity in our communities or in this place speaking up for those we represent:

My hands are small, I know

But they’re not yours, they are my own

ut they’re not yours, they are my own

And I am never broken

We are never broken

… … …

Because where there’s a man who has no voice

There ours shall go singing.

In closing, I would like to take the opportunity to thank those without whom I would not be standing here. I have had the great privilege to work with three giants of our party: Lindsay Tanner, who showed faith in me at an early stage, which meant so much to my journey here; Bill Shorten, who lead a progressive platform and whose love of, and incredibly hard work for, the Australian people is an inspiration to me; and Jenny Macklin, who I’m thrilled is here today. Jenny has been, and I know will continue to be, a tireless and formidable advocate for social justice. She is a warrior for equality, who has always approached the fight with the facts and the evidence. What she has achieved has driven some of our greatest social reforms. Working with her has been a profound inspiration to me.

I also want to thank Bob McMullan, who was one of the first people I met in our party. Without his encouragement and support, I would not be here today. I have always appreciated his guidance. Thank you, ACT Labor. We are an active and democratic branch, of which I am a product and a champion. I know you’ll keep me accountable. To you and Labor volunteers all around the country, thank you for the work you do to share the Labor message and fight the Labor fight. Your generosity of time and energy is not something I will ever take for granted. To Jacob White, thank for being on my team and for the hard work and vision you bring to it. To my campaign team, who worked tirelessly, cleverly and always with a smile, I couldn’t have done it without you.

To my family and my dearest friends, many of whom are here today: your love, support and inspiration mean the world to me. To Doug and Lainie Phillips: I love being part of your family, and keep up the good fight in Ryan. To my husband, Ben: I love you with all my heart and could not be here without your support, encouragement and counsel. I am inspired by your curious mind and your commitment to getting the truth out there. To my little Paul: you are the greatest joy of my life, and I am thankful for you everyday. Nothing will ever be more important to me than you and your dad. Thank you to my parents, Trish and Steve. Everything I’ve ever done has been made possible because of your love, support and belief in me and the example that you have both set for me in all that you do.

What I want to thank my mother for most today, and every day, is the example she has set for me in her profound love for others—not just her family and friends but all people. When someone is in need, she will go over and above in every way that she can, because that is what love is, and she will always challenge me to walk further in the shoes of others. It is in this spirit that I undertake this role of service. I feel very deeply the responsibility that I have to work my hardest and to always have an open heart to the people of Canberra and those all around Australia who rely on us in this place to pursue a more inclusive and just Australia.

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