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Fiona Phillips (ALP-Gilmore) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Fiona Phillips, the ALP member for Gilmore, New South Wales.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Fiona Phillips, ALP member for Gilmore.

The SPEAKER (12:02): Before I call the honourable member for Gilmore I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend to her the usual courtesies.

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (12:02): I acknowledge that we’re gathered here today on Ngunawal country. I acknowledge all the First Nations people on the New South Wales South Coast and the many tribes, groups and clans that make up the Yuin and Dharawal nations. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge the presence of Uncle Tom Moore, a respected elder in our community, who has joined us here in the gallery today. I thank our local Aboriginal elders that I have met over many years through work and community. I am profoundly grateful for knowing you and what you continue to do in our community each day. At a National Sorry Day reconciliation walk in May I joined with hundreds of locals on the walk from Nowra to the Bomaderry Aboriginal Children’s Home. This home played a heartbreaking role in the stolen generation. The community came together, from babies to adults, to listen, to learn and to heal with former residents and their families. As the member for Gilmore I will continue to walk with you on our journey to reconciliation.

Gilmore is named after the great progressive Dame Mary Gilmore. Featured on the $10 note, Mary Gilmore was a legendary poet and author. She was instrumental in advocating better rights for workers, Aboriginal people and women, and, amongst many feats, fighting for the age pension. I hope there’s a part of Mary Gilmore inside all of us in this chamber—to have the courage to stand up for what’s right, to defend our most marginalised and to reduce disadvantage so we can all live in a better place and world.

In 1957, my great-aunt Hazel first used a tape recorder when she undertook voluntary work for the Talking Book Service for the Blind. She persuaded Dame Mary Gilmore to make some introductory comments about her book Old Days, Old Ways. Over the years, there were further recordings with Mary Gilmore. Over 27 years Hazel recorded the life stories of 1,290 Australians. Today, I take great comfort that those recordings of life stories are preserved just down the road in the National Library.

Libraries from local to national, like all our civic institutions, from the ABC to our local galleries, are places of inquiry, reason, knowledge, learning and story. They’re places of inspiration and imagination, and we ought properly fund them and respect them for the role they play in our democracy.

I stand here today as a proud mum. I’m proud I attended my local public primary school in Terara. I’m proud that I attended my local public high school, Nowra High School. I’m proud that I’ve been a part of my local community my whole life, working with local schools, at HMAS Albatross, at our local university and as a TAFE teacher.

My dad and mum are not alive today, but I grew up with strong women. My mum was a Strong—I say Strong by name but stronger by nature. I never really knew how strong she was until I became a mum. My nan had told me that she had torn up her own manuscripts when she was told she could not accept a job with The Sydney Morning Herald. My mum had trained at our local TAFE, or then ‘tech’, in dressmaking and millinery, but her work in a shop in Nowra ended when she married. They both taught me the value of a good education and that it is essential for women to have equal opportunity.

We’ve come a long way since then, but there is still so much more to do. My dad, like many, died of heart disease far too young at just 55 years of age. I was 21 at the time. But, as a young teenager, I stood in the kitchen in my family’s home in our dairy farm on the New South Wales South Coast and listened to my father. He was standing listening to the radio and he said, ‘I don’t know how people go into politics without life experience.’ Well, that was enough to turn me away from politics! Some years later I was woken in the middle of the night by my father in distress saying loudly, ‘I’m going to sell the farm.’ Thankfully, that did not happen, but those words haunted me and still do.

I decided from that moment that some day I would help people like my dad. I studied economics to try and work out how the world worked. I went on and worked mainly as a TAFE teacher, married and had four children. However, it was my TAFE students and what they taught me about how the world worked that have led me here.

I draw inspiration from Mary Gilmore. I will always fight for what is right and for the disadvantaged. I see her ethos reflected in my own community in people helping the homeless, our veterans groups, our passionate climate change activists, our surf lifesavers, our rural firefighters, our Meals on Wheels volunteers, refugee activists and teachers and nurses; they all give so much and make our lives better. Today, I honour and thank all voluntary groups and all those caring professionals that taught me that most valuable lesson of all: solidarity or mateship, whatever you call it. It’s lending a hand when it’s needed; it’s standing together in strength; it’s working together, not against each other; and it’s a generosity of heart. It’s the way my father would drive around the local area, a dairy farmer, with me alongside while he would stop and talk with everyone and offer a hand to anyone who needed help. He taught me these values.

With nothing to do with politics and at 39 years of age with four young children aged nine, eight, six and five, I found out that my local council wanted to close Nowra’s community swimming pool. I learnt that elected representatives can get it wrong, especially when they stop listening. It’s how I accidentally entered politics: a farmer’s daughter, TAFE teacher, mother of four, masters student and campaigner to save the local pool. I’m pleased to say the community won that battle. The new Nowra Aquatic Park was opened in 2015, and it’s a credit to everyone involved and to Shoalhaven council. In the space of a single campaign, I came to understand the importance of not being a bystander, of lending a hand and standing together with my community. But it will always be a reminder for me that in whatever we do, in whatever decisions we make or policies we aim to bring in, community and people are paramount.

For the benefit of the House: Gilmore is a long coastal strip on the New South Wales South Coast from Minnamurra in the north to Tuross Head in the south. It is around a four-hour drive. It covers three local government areas: Kiama, Shoalhaven and Eurobodalla. It has over 100 villages and towns and even more beaches, bays, rivers and parks. It is the most visited holiday area in New South Wales, and it is easy to see why. Our towns and villages have a friendly country charm, with small family businesses and dedicated volunteer organisations which really are the lifeblood of our community. We are home to world-class primary producers—our incredible dairies, wineries and fisheries, and the best oysters you can find. It is very exciting to witness the growth of a small-scale artisan food industry, with sustainable food production and farmers markets that showcase our producers.

Arthur Boyd’s nationally important art collection also has its home on the South Coast, at Bundanon and Riversdale. I look forward to the new world-class art gallery being built at Riversdale, with $22 million in federal funding, and seeing this project flourish and the exciting tourism and jobs that will come to our region.

Gilmore is an area that people visit and want to move to. Many retire here—from Wollongong, Sydney and Canberra—or move here working with Defence. Our large defence presence in Gilmore centres around the Navy’s only air station—HMAS Albatross, based at Nowra—and, nearby, the Navy’s officer training college, HMAS Creswell. The defence industry is strong and growing. As a former worker in Navy aviation at HMAS Albatross, I want to see our defence industry grow. The defence sector provides so many local jobs and provides small businesses with opportunities for skilled work. We need to grow it locally. The private and community sector is home to some exciting growth opportunities too, particularly with the renewable energy sector, which needs greater certainty from government.

Gilmore has one of the highest numbers of age pensioners in Australia. Our community is a better place because of them, and we warmly welcome new retirees. As our population ages, we need to grow the number of local aged-care and health-service workers. We need to gear up in trades and construction and ensure tradies get the protection they need from shonky operators. Many people, like my husband, are self-employed tradies or work in family or small to medium-sized businesses. For many, it is tough but rewarding, and I recognise the financial risks and pressure that self-employed people are under.

But with our area’s natural beauty come many challenges. Two-thirds of people in the Batemans Bay and Moruya areas have to travel out of the area for hospital treatment. This can mean a trip of two to three hours each way. There is no public transport, so there are worrying consequences as a result. Mental health treatment is a major concern not only impacting individuals and families but also placing strain on local hospitals and services. That’s why I was happy during the campaign to see the government match Labor’s commitment to a full headspace for Batemans Bay. But we need to get much further. We need to get on with a new Eurobodalla hospital. But we also need to make sure that we have mental health inpatient beds as well. At Shoalhaven hospital, which has suffered from bed block and the cancellation of elective surgeries, acute mental health services are needed.

I hear story after story from pensioners about the need for more public dental care. Many local pensioners told me about their extraordinary wait—two years—for dentures. That is a common story. We have a responsibility to our elderly and disadvantaged. Too often, it is an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality. That’s simply not good enough. Having a pensioner wait two years for a double knee replacement in their local public hospital is not good enough. Having a pensioner wait years to access support to stay in their home is simply not good enough. An aged-care system that is so understaffed that aged-care workers can’t provide the care they so long to provide is not good enough. The lack of emergency, short-term and affordable housing is simply not good enough. Where are our priorities if we don’t look after our elderly and disadvantaged?

Parts of my electorate have the lowest workforce participation rate in Australia—around 47 per cent. That’s 20 per cent below the national rate. So many people have given up looking for work. The rate of Newstart is about $40 a day, and it doesn’t cover the costs of living, let alone the costs of looking for work. Sometimes the cost of getting to a job interview is more than the daily rate of Newstart. We need to re-engage those that have given up. The government must lift the rate of Newstart to equip people for work. The government must invest in TAFE to train and re-skill our jobseekers in aged care, health services, trades, hospitality and other growth industries. The government should bring forward the investment in the Princes Highway, which will help to create new jobs and stimulate jobs growth in sectors like hospitality, construction and primary production. We can do better as a country, and we must. The greatest investment we can make is in our people, so we can begin to reduce the systemic disadvantage in our region.

And the government must focus on our dairy industry. When local dairy farmer Rob protested to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Nowra during the recent election campaign, he shouted out: ‘Prime Minister, it’s cheaper to wash your car in milk than it is in water!’ Well, farmer Rob is exactly right. Where have we gone wrong in society when our dairy farmers can’t get a fair farm-gate price for their milk? When you put milk in your tea or coffee, right here in Parliament House or around the country, know that dairy farmers are selling their cows to survive, and that the fresh-milk market is critically at risk. At what precise point will the government act?

The government should turn its attention away from nuclear energy proposals. Let me make this very clear to those on the other side of this House: if you pursue any plans for nuclear energy, our community will fight this every day. Accidents happen. Natural disasters happen. The risks it poses to human health are profound—let alone the risks to the reputation of our primary producers and the hospitality and tourism industries that thrive on our environment. I will never accept a nuclear power plant being built in our community.

I of course have many I need to thank. Firstly, to my husband, Glenn: thank you. Apart from you being the best husband and dad, I often think how lucky I am to have married a carpenter! Carpentry has taught me more about politics than I would ever have realised: strong foundations; determination; doing a job right the first time; nail after nail, door after door. To my four beautiful children—fast growing into young adults—Henry, Sophie, Bart and Huey: I couldn’t be more proud of you. Thank you for who you are. Thank you to my dear big brother David and sister-in-law Sue, here today, my dear brothers and all my family.

I’d also like to thank my incredible team of supporters and volunteers. In the gallery, we have a huge number of people here, which is fantastic! We have a big busload of supporters that have travelled from the South Coast. More supporters again have travelled from all over Gilmore, and from Sydney and Canberra. I’m a little overwhelmed. I owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone that helped with our campaign. Thank you for never losing your faith over many years.

To Simon Zulian, our campaign director, who led the most amazing, smart, inspiring local campaign: thank you. To Gwen Price, who has been there from the beginning over many years—an absolute gem, and with so much wisdom—thank you. To our army of dedicated volunteers, branch members and supporters that have been out there with me every day: thank you. Our red-shirt army became quite famous around our towns and villages. Whether it was at the markets, at street stalls or the red-shirt coffee club—you were everywhere. Know that you have kept me going every day, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. To Amy, Zack, Amy, John, Rose, Georgia, Briony and Erin: your expertise was pivotal. To our volunteer coordinators, Stuart, Imogen, Pat and Geoff, Tom and Rick, Deb, Gillian, Ellie and Helen: thank you.

Thank you to Young Labor; you provided such critical support and energy to our campaign. To Callum, Courtney, David, Josh and Jonah, Labor’s national secretariat, thank you. To Labor’s leadership team and to New South Wales Labor, Kaila, Rose and George: thank you. In this chamber, to Stephen Jones, a good friend and mentor: thank you. To Senator Jenny McAllister, thank you.

At the start of the campaign I said: this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And what a marathon it’s turned out to be. That marathon involved knocking on tens of thousands of doors and an army of around 100 shadow ministerial visits in Gilmore. Thank you to Bill, Tanya, Anthony, Richard, Kristina and every shadow minister and MP that came to Gilmore; it means so much to me.

Thank you to the best Labor neighbours I could ask for. For the first time in decades, the map is now red from Helensburgh to the Victorian border. I thank the community and public sector workers and your union. Your support was incredible. You brought the campaign new energy and life as we knocked on doors. I thank the nurses, teachers, early childhood educators, cleaners, maritime workers, service workers, health and aged-care workers, manufacturing workers and more. Thank you for all you did. I sincerely thank Unions Shoalhaven, the South Coast Labor Council and ACTU, who have advocated for local workers’ rights over decades and continue to fight for workers, to change the unfair workplace rules and to protect penalty rates and better services, including local transport. Thank you.

There was just a little bit of national media interest in Gilmore during this election campaign. I was sometimes asked by media about the so-called ‘star candidates’ during the election. But I say here to this parliament that the stars are the people of Gilmore, the people who opened their doors and shared their often harrowing stories; people disillusioned with politicians; people choosing putting food on the table or fixing their cars; people waiting years for surgery or dental. To each and every person I met who told me their story: you are the stars. I will always work for you. To all the people of Gilmore, whether you voted for me or not, I want you to know that I’m humbled, thankful and resolute. My job is to work hard for you and for our whole community. It is the greatest honour of my life to serve and represent you in the parliament. Expect to see and hear a lot from me, because I think the most important part of my job is listening to you. Every day that I’m here I will work with you.

To conclude, when I was growing up, over the back fence was a very large rustic tin hay shed. In many ways, it reminds me of this chamber. But this particular hay shed had lots of rectangular bales of hay, with a chook shed attached. Like any family with kids and friends, we sure had fun. We built giant forts with the bales of hay. There were kids, farm dogs and chooks. We tried to avoid the tiger snakes as much as possible. We would even find rotten eggs and corn cobs in the hay, and hurl them from one side of the fort to the other. Life in the country is good, but it also can be tough. We in this chamber should always fight for our regional areas. In the spirit of Dame Mary Gilmore, may we progress.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel and Deputy Leader of the House) (12:25): On behalf of the government, I congratulate the member for Gilmore on her inaugural speech and look forward to working with her and her community as we seek to deliver the veterans wellbeing centre which was announced for her electorate during the campaign.

Debate adjourned.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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