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Kate Thwaites (ALP-Jagajaga) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech given to the House of Representatives by Kate Thwaites, the ALP member for Jagajaga.

Listen to Thwaites (16m):

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Kate Thwaites, ALP member for Jagajaga.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (16:41): Before I call the honourable member for Jagajaga, 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 THWAITES (Jagajaga) (16:41): It’s important I begin this speech by acknowledging Australia’s first peoples. I pay my respects to the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge that the seat of Jagajaga is on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

It is an honour to have been elected as the member for Jagajaga. In Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, Jagajaga is well known as a generous and well-connected community where people’s lives are occupied with family, work and involvement in our wonderful schools, playgroups, RSLs and sporting clubs. In Jagajaga we enjoy our open spaces. The iconic Main Yarra Trail winds its way through parklands, wetlands and playing fields where thousands of people walk, ride, play and compete in the sports they love every week of the year. We also hold dear the legacy of the 1956 Olympic Games athletes village in West Heidelberg, which is now home to our Somali community and the many community organisations that work with them and others in the area.

I grew up in Jagajaga. My dad was a local lawyer and my mum a local school teacher. Both instilled in me a strong sense of community and a curiosity for what else was out there in places across our country. I was always an avid reader as a child and I learned to interpret the world through stories, so it was perhaps inevitable that I started my working life as a journalist. In this role and in my subsequent work as an adviser and as a public servant, I have been privileged to hear the stories of people from across Australia and to reflect on the power that those of us in this place have to help shape those stories for better or for worse.

The stories that have helped shape me and driven me to be standing here today are from people who are most dependent on what we do in this place for their livelihoods, their wellbeing and their security. On election night this year, I received an email from a woman in my electorate. I’d met her and her young daughter in a queue at a prepoll station a few days earlier. She emailed me to explain that she was a single mother who had left an abusive relationship and was working hard to try to pay rent so she could continue to live near the excellent public school she sent her daughter to. She asked that I not forget her when I was elected to this place. And I won’t, because, as a member of the Labor Party, I will strive to build a community where the stories of people like this woman and her daughter are heard, validated and acted upon. In doing so, we will build a stronger and more resilient community for all of us, including those who otherwise feel like they live on the margins of our society. I believe that progressive politics succeeds when we deliver these people security in their lives and hope for the future.

I also believe that the work we do in parliament often seems to be at its most effective when we, the people’s elected representatives, move ourselves away from being the centre of the story—when we listen, open ourselves up to conversations and give voice to the people whose stories have not been heard. I saw the power of this firsthand when the Gillard Labor government built the National Disability Insurance Scheme. For many years, people with disability, their families and carers had been trying to tell their stories over and over again, but, to put it bluntly, governments weren’t listening. It took a Labor government that was ready to listen and to act to build the scheme.

At the time, I worked for the former member for Jagajaga, who was the Minister for Disability Reform. I remember the courage and determination of people with disability and their families during this time, but what I remember most was their immense joy and relief when the NDIS was finally established. We haven’t yet realised the potential of the NDIS, and making it work must involve an unswerving commitment on our part to listen to and act upon the stories and experiences of those people who rely on it.

On a personal note, the NDIS changed my life. I met my partner, Daniel, when we were both working at the National Disability Insurance Agency in Geelong, spending many hours together commuting on the train from Melbourne. We are perhaps lucky—and I hope the member for Corangamite forgives me for saying this—that there was not a faster rail link between the two cities then, as Daniel is sure that it was the time we spent together on the train that convinced me he was the one, not that I’m for one minute saying that we shouldn’t work towards faster travel times between our major centres!

Back in 2002, my first job outside of Jagajaga was in Bourke, in far western New South Wales, where I worked as a journalist at the local Indigenous community radio station, 2cuzFM. It was an eye-opening experience for a young and naive white girl, as Aboriginal people generously told me their stories while also making fun of my strange choice in footwear. And Birkenstock sandals are still my preferred summer choice! These were the first of many stories I have heard and listened to from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Later in my career, when working for the former member for Jagajaga in her capacity as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, I travelled to many remote communities, listening to the needs and aspirations of our First Australians. It is a privilege to have had this experience and to realise there is so much power in the story of our First Australians, the custodians of the oldest living culture in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not a story that many of us grow up hearing. It’s not in our lessons and we haven’t all had the opportunity to listen and learn directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But the potential is there for us all to appreciate and understand what is the greater, complete national story. Of course, for this to happen we have to be honest about our shared history. We have to walk with and listen to Indigenous Australians, and then we have to act. The parliament has shown it has the capacity to do this, as it did when Kevin Rudd delivered the national apology.

More recently, the parliament asked Aboriginal people what they wanted for their future, but, sadly, when they answered, the response was muted. The opportunity is still there. We must act on the Uluru Statement from the Heart to establish a voice for truth-telling and for treaty, and we must welcome the voices and stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to guide decision-making in this place.

It is impossible for me to give this speech without acknowledging the seriousness of the climate emergency and how its impacts are most acutely felt by those people with the smallest buffers in their lives. I remember working in Vanuatu with Oxfam Australia and speaking with a young man there about climate change. He told me how the warming climate was already affecting the amount of food he and his family could grow to keep them all healthy. In fact, his story was powerful enough to shift the views of an older Australian man who happened to be standing near me at the time. I do believe there is a climate story powerful enough to drive the action that allows humanity to survive and to flourish—a story that will allow my daughter and the generations that follow the opportunity to lead safe and healthy lives and enjoy the natural beauty of this wonderful country; a story that sees us doing our part to support that man I met in the Pacific and people like him, with funding for mitigation and adaptation, and an aid budget that is growing rather than shrinking.

I am confident that Labor’s commitment to real action on climate change, with a focus on creating more jobs, more economic opportunities and a better future for us all, will resonate with Australians. And I take hope from the passion and conviction of the young people in Jagajaga and in communities across the country who have spoken out and spoken loudly about the need for climate action.

I have also heard the conviction of the people and groups in Jagajaga who have spoken out about our need for a humane approach to asylum seekers. I believe this can be achieved while maintaining our sovereignty and our borders. I also want to highlight two issues that have become close to my heart through my working life: the importance of a free and fair press and the value of the ABC. The eight years I worked at the national broadcaster were spent with thoughtful, intelligent colleagues who took seriously their responsibility to tell stories that reflected voices from across our country, to make decision-making understandable and transparent and to hold power to account. This work relies on the ABC being properly funded and being free of political influence. It is absolutely crucial that journalists—all journalists—are able to go about their work without fear of possible retribution or intimidation, sanctioned or otherwise. Our identity as a nation and the freedoms we all depend upon depend on it.

And my daughter is not quite making the whole speech, but it’s a nice segue because I stand here today as a working mum with a 17-month-old daughter! I’m not the first working mother to be in this chamber and I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one here now. As more and more of us come together in this place, I think we show that it is possible to be both a mother and a parliamentarian. But it’s not easy, and this is far from the only workplace where women are still trying to figure out what it looks like to be the mother they want to be and pursue the career they want to have. When my daughter, Harriet, was born, I took nine months maternity leave—some paid, some unpaid. My partner then took three months unpaid leave to care for her. He now works three days a week while I work full time. I realised that our arrangement was unusual, but I didn’t realise just how different it was until Daniel starting quoting statistics from Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought to me to prove how much of a unicorn he really is! Only three per cent of Australian families have a part-time working dad and a full-time working mum—three per cent. We can and we must do better than that, because, while this has a host of poor outcomes for women—lost income, missed promotions and a more uncertain retirement—it is also robbing Australian men of the opportunity to reduce their paid work to care for their children and to experience the highs and the lows that come with that. Things have to change.

Labor started making it easier for parents to juggle work and family when we introduced paid parental leave. It has made a huge difference in the lives of many Australians, but there is more work to be done. I am convinced that we need a culture shift in our workplaces so that they are no longer built on the premise that there’s a wife at home who is the primary carer. We need to address the bias—conscious or not—that after a baby is born it is women who will work part time before the children start school, who will carry the mental load and who in some cases will leave the work force forever. We need to tell a new story about the important role that men can play as carers at home so that men who want to take that opportunity feel that they can do so without being viewed as a unicorn.

We also need a childcare system that doesn’t rely on parents in our cities essentially winning a kind of lottery if they somehow manage to score a place in a centre within half an hour of where they live—one where the value of early education for our children and the value of our early educators are clearly recognised and paid for. I passionately believe that Labor has the track record and the will to make this happen—to build a society where men and women feel fulfilled in our workplaces and in our homes and where our children benefit from this.

Now to the thankyous. Firstly and mostly, thank you to Daniel for your constant love and unwavering support. I wouldn’t be standing here without you. And to my daughter, Harriet, who teaches me about a different form of love every day.

To my parents, Daniel’s parents, my brothers, their partners and my nephews and to my wider family of aunts, uncles and cousins: thank you for all the ways you support me.

To my mentor and friend Jenny Macklin—I have mentioned the previous member for Jagajaga a number of times already and I think the enormous impact she has had on me is clear—thank you for all you have done for our community, for our country and for being a wonderful guide to me.

Honourable members: Hear, hear!

Ms THWAITES: Jagajaga has actually only been held by two members prior to my election. I would also like to acknowledge and thank the inaugural member for Jagajaga, Peter Staples, as well as the member for what was then Diamond Valley in the Whitlam government, David McKenzie. Our community still benefits from your work.

It takes a very large team to win an election, and I want to thank each and every volunteer who stood at prepolls and at train stations early in the morning, made phone calls and doorknocked to get a new Labor member elected. Thank you to my local branch members and campaign team and especially to Antony Kenney, who from the very first days when I couldn’t work out how I would get my non-sleeping baby and me out of the house, let alone hold a functioning conversation, got the campaign on track and helped get me elected. He did this all the while being an extremely decent human being.

To the organising team, Mitch, Takara, Jude and Emily: thank you. To the state and national Labor campaign teams and my Labor neighbours Andrew Giles, Ged Kearney and Rob Mitchell as well as my state colleagues Vicki Ward, Anthony Carbines, Colin Brooks and Danielle Green: thank you. And thank you to the caucus and our leadership team, Anthony Albanese and Richard Marles, and our leaders during the campaign, Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek, for your warm welcome and support. I am so looking forward to working with all of you.

Finally, to the people of Jagajaga, thank you for the opportunity to represent you. I assure you that I am here to make sure your stories are heard and that together we create a fairer and kinder country.

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