Sen. Hollie Hughes (Lib-NSW) – Maiden Speech

This is maiden speech to the Senate by NSW Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Senator Hollie Hughes, Liberal, New South Wales.

The PRESIDENT (17:00): Pursuant to order, I now call Senator Hughes to make her first speech. I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to her.

Senator HUGHES (New South Wales) (17:00): I’d like to acknowledge that we’re meeting today on the traditional lands of the Ngunawal people. I acknowledge them as custodians and traditional owners of this land and I extend my respects to elders past and present.

I am so deeply humbled to stand here in this chamber as a newly elected Australian senator representing the state of New South Wales and the Liberal Party of Australia. My journey to this place began 44 years ago. Of all the political leaders to share a birthday with, it turned out I was fated to share mine with Abraham Lincoln. I’m sure none of us in the class of 2019 would claim to be heirs to Lincoln, but, standing here in this great parliament, we all feel the power of his words—his description of democracy that has never been bettered, ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people;’ his conviction that democracy has to be protected—it has to be worked for, fought for and sacrificed for; and his strong belief, one that I share, that politics is about empowering individuals, not engineering society.

Today I think of the founders and builders of our own Australian democracy—politicians inside this parliament but also countless everyday Australians outside it—and I make this observation: until relatively recently, that history of our country, and so many others, has been told as the history of great men. Of course, our Australian democracy has indeed been shaped by great men—too many to name—from our own founding fathers through to Menzies, Hawke and Howard. But our history is also every bit as much the story of strong women, from pioneering parliamentarians who have served with such distinction here to the women in every community around the nation who work and fight and sacrifice every day for a better life for themselves and their family.

In my own personal story, strong women loom large. I’m thinking of Thelma McQuillan, my maternal grandmother, who, judging by every wartime mini-drama ever made, committed the sin of all sins by conceiving a baby out of wedlock. But, unlike many women at the time who feared social castigation and in spite of immense pressure, Thelma did not give up her baby. She kept him and raised him with the fierce love that we knew her for.

Thelma went on to marry my grandfather Charles—Chicka—who raised baby John as his own. That strength and steely determination was passed down to my own mother, June. Whilst Mum cannot be here today—the toll of severe dementia—I’ve never known a woman so strong and so selfless. You see, when my mum married my dad, Dennis Nolan, 50 years ago this past March, mum was a flight attendant. It was then both a legal requirement and an accepted part of society for women to resign from their jobs once they got married. In one generation, our society has moved from a place where women had to remain ‘available’ if they wanted to have a job to where a woman who is both married and has children can be elected to the Australian Senate. I pay tribute to all the women, and especially all the mums, serving in Australian parliaments today, like my friends Lucy Wicks and Sussan Ley in the other place.

Having a family was very important to my parents and I grew up knowing how desperately I was wanted. I was my mother’s eighth pregnancy. My beautiful mum lost seven babies before me, all at different stages and some not early. My parents were in the planning process of adoption when I became determined to make an appearance on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I like to think it was a sign of early political ambition! My mum and dad went on to welcome two more babies into their lives after me, my brothers Tim and Sam. After a lot of heartbreak, they finally got the family they tried so hard for, and my brothers and I could not have been more loved.

Without the fortitude of these women, without their strength at times when it would have been easier to conform to patriarchal norms, I would not be the person I am today, and nor would I be standing here before you. Strong women form the core of my being. But while I had these amazingly strong women in my life, I do have to fess up to being my father’s daughter. We’re alike in almost every way: our personality, temperament and even the fact we both pretty much have the worst two singing voices to ever grace this earth! While my dad cannot be here today, as he is caring for my mum, I want to acknowledge him. At the time of their lives where ’till death do us part’ has real meaning my dad as excelled in his new and difficult role.

My family history meant my own pregnancies were often hard fought and anxious, but three times I have been blessed to hold my own newborn babies, Millie, Fred and Rupert. Everything changes in that moment you meet your baby for the first time. You know your life has new meaning. Your perspective shifts forever and for the better. Millie, Fred and Rupert, who are here today, are the greatest blessings in me and my husband Stewart’s life. I am here today because of my parents and grandparents. I rise today determined to make the most of every second in this place because of my children. The strengths and perseverance that they have shown me give me all the purpose I could ever need, and I hope they see the same resilience in me.

I want to take some time today to reflect on another strong woman whose influence has helped shape my path to this place. A woman who had the strength to dissent, to ignore what the hierarchy insisted upon and to resist calls for her to know her place, even to the point of imprisonment. A woman who knew, even 400 years ago, that women in time will come to do much. That woman was Mary Ward, founder of the Loreto order and ever present at John XXIII College in Perth and Loreto Kirribilli in Sydney where I went to school. Mary Ward fiercely believed in the education of girls and the enabling of young women to do anything a young man can do. When you grow up with the legacy of Mary Ward as your educational philosophy it never occurs to you that you can’t or won’t. I was encouraged throughout my childhood and education to strive to be the best I could be and never feel constrained by my gender or anything really for that matter.

As I embark on my term in the Senate, I bring with me an amazing network of strong Loreto women who support and encourage me no matter what. Women such as Shayne Miller, Belinda Bremner, Lisa Whibley, Susannah Lawrence, Anna Chandler, Amanda Rawnsley, Mary-Lou Jarvis, Aerin Gordon Heinrich and, of course, Deb Gordon. In this highly critical, often viciously judgemental, online world we must never lose sight of the importance of real, tangible, unconditional friendship and love.

For those of you not to benefit from Mary Ward’s teachings, but who have shown me the true meaning of friendship, plus demonstrations of understanding the importance of dissent: Lucy Purcell, Susan Adamson, Lisa McGee, Victoria Bertie, Edwina Vine and Paula Richardson thank you for always being there.

Along with the example of Mary Ward, the other great philosophy I bring with me to the Senate is, of course, grounded in the timeless values of the Liberal Party. The belief in equality of opportunity, free enterprise and reward for hard work.

I joined the party in 2002 and ever since then it has given me the priceless chance to put my personal beliefs into political action, as well as the chance to meet incredible party members and inspirational party leaders. Serendipitously, one of those leaders was a certain Scott Morrison, who saw me working on a local campaign with my then mentor, Rhondda Vanzella, and brought me into campaign headquarters first for the 2003 New South Wales state election and then for the brilliant 2004 federal campaign. It’s my great privilege, 15 years later, to serve under Scott as Prime Minister and as part of a government determined to do the right thing, create opportunity and secure prosperity for the quiet Australians.

Elections bring people together like no other experience in politics. And I have been fortunate to work with some amazing state and federal directors and campaign teams who remain colleagues and friends to this day: Mark Neeham, Tony Nutt, Chris Stone and Andrew Hirst, Louise De Domenico, Jarrod Lomas, Luke Nayna, Mitch Redford, Alicia McCumstie, Vincent Woolcock, Susan Leithhead and Reg Chamberlain. Particularly, I have been blessed by friendships with three people that have included births, deaths, marriages and everything in between. To Alex Hawke, Nick Campbell and Bill Heffernan: the three of you have been with me since the beginning and are here with me today. Your support has been unwavering and words really cannot fully convey the weight of my thanks. I tried to think of some of the many words of wisdom that Bill has passed on to me over the years. Unfortunately, none of it was repeatable here is this place!

To Scott Farlow, Taylor Martin, Natasha Maclaren-Jones, Damien Jones, Tobias Lehmann, Dean Shachar, Simon Fontana, Chantelle Fornari-Orsmond, Penny Fischer, Yvonne Keane and Joe Tannous: I’m so very grateful to these people and so many others—too many to name—in the party and the organisation for your presence in my life over the years. Thank you to Danielle Blaine, a former federal executive colleague, a mentor and, more importantly, a friend, for always believing in me.

To my friends who have become family—Michael Tiyce, Lee Furlong, Adla Coure, Marie Simone, Marie Sutton, Kent Johns and Anne-Marie Elias—you provide support and humour whilst always demonstrating a sense of community and the importance of giving back. A huge thank you for all the support from the Salt & Shein Team. It means so much that all of you are here today. Whilst politics can be adversarial, at times relationships across the political divide can become some of the most important. To my lovely friend of 15 years, the member for Oxley, Milton Dick: what a journey it has been for both of us since that young political leaders trip in 2004. I have no doubt that our friendship will remain strong, boosted by the fact you sit in the other place!

All of you here in the chamber, have played a part, in one way or another, in helping me to stand before you today. As we all know, my journey to the Senate has been anything but typical. In the immortal words of Sir Paul McCartney, it really has been a long and winding road. The door it has led to—the door to this chamber—is one of many that I thought might never open to me. Now that I’m here, I am determined to use every minute in this place to strive to open doors for Australians. For those Australians who feel that their road to help is just too long and winding and especially for those whose voices are going unheard in our national and political debate, these are the Australians who I came here to represent.

I am proud to be part of a Liberal team that is dedicated to strengthening our nation with a strong, forward-looking economic agenda that is focused on the aspirations of all Australians. But there are two areas I am deeply passionate about, that are very close to my heart and that I will pour my blood, sweat and tears into. The first is drought assistance and regional economies. The second is autism and disability support. Fortuitously for me, I get to work for a Prime Minister who has promoted the NDIS portfolio to cabinet, ensuring it is now a national priority, as well as bringing the importance of our country communities to the forefront of the national debate. To come into this chamber sharing my passions with the Prime Minister’s priorities gives me even more drive to work as hard as I can for him, for families, for the quiet Australians and for everyone.

Let’s start with the drought. This crisis, occurring in many parts of regional Australia, seeps into every aspect of rural life, the way water would be sucked into every skerrick of a dry creek bed. I have experienced this firsthand in own family. Stewart, myself and our three kids spent over a decade on the land, running a farm services business, helping to harvest and being involved in the local community in a multitude of ways. We would be making a little money one year and smashed by a flood the next. We were always trying to do the best we could to make it work. Stewart was out on his harvester for long hours, away for months every year, as he chased the work.

Like so many other Australians on the land, we struggled along and we kept it all together, until climate and fate dealt us a double blow. First, sustained drought devastated our small business and then my mother’s decline accentuated the need for us to be closer than a 10-hour car ride away. It was incredibly difficult, seeing everything we worked so hard for gone, but we have each other, our health and three wonderful kids. We’re rebuilding, trying to start again, in many ways.

So many others don’t have that same option, and this is the real tragedy of drought—the businesses reliant on agriculture which don’t have land based assets as a safety net, businesses that for too long have been left out and allowed to fail. Yes, it’s the market, but, once they’re gone, they’re gone. Grass grows when it rains; businesses don’t reopen. Towns wither and die, and it becomes so much harder to provide essential services to those left behind. There are businesses such as Mick and Zelch Cikota’s Econo Lodge Moree, expanding in the face of drought, supporting a town that is facing a third year with no winter crop; or Print Anything, which Georgie and Roly King run across three country towns all impacted by drought.

Farmers are the backbone of regional economies, but families are the lifeblood of the towns that centre around them. They are resilient and determined, but they need our help. They need Liberal government help. They need this parliament’s help.

I’ve always fought for families in rural and remote New South Wales, whether it was securing the return of QantasLink services to Moree through a community led campaign, along with the indefatigable Lou Gall and Gig Moses, or establishing a rurally focused charity for special needs families. As a senator for New South Wales I will continue to fight for our farmers and the communities that depend on them; to honour their relentless efforts, not with sympathetic words but with real action—not bandaid solutions but policies that create long-lasting, positive change.

We need a big, bold, optimistic vision for the economic future of our primary industries. We need a plan to droughtproof agriculture without destroying our stunning natural environment. How good would it be if we could repurpose our existing infrastructure—like the NBN, which encapsulates regional Australia—to provide families with a secure income in places where they are primarily dependent on agriculture? We are a nation of innovative, smart thinkers. We can figure this out. For those farmers who are agile enough to adapt to change and harness new technology, I will work hard to bolster their visions, rather than cutting a blank cheque for those who simply aren’t willing to do the work.

I’m determined to build on my personal experience, my years of advocacy, and my legacy as chair of both the Liberal state and federal rural and regional committees, and use the platform this great chamber provides to be that strong, loud, voice—that thunderous fighting spirit—for my country constituents.

I also intend to use my voice in this place to speak up for another community, one our family unexpectedly joined over seven years ago, when my gorgeous son Fred was diagnosed with autism. Fred is the light of our family’s life in so many ways. Whether it’s all the developmental milestones he’s passed, when doctors said he wouldn’t; his love of Godzilla, New York and San Francisco, old-fashioned media; or just he and I watching David Attenborough specials, there is no-one more loved, or who brings more love to this world, than our ‘Freddo Frog’. And, while we did not choose to become part of such a large club as the autism community, we have found it to be one united by a great passion and determination to succeed. These children and adults work so hard every day just to get by. They don’t ask for much. They just look to us in government to provide an easier path forward for them.

I am a huge supporter of the NDIS. I am a huge believer in the NDIS. It has given us a significant infrastructure and building block from which all in the disability community can receive much more significant support. But there is a lot more work to be done to make it truly fit for purpose. And we need to remember as parliamentarians, as Australians, that the NDIS is for all of us. Whether it is as the parent of a child with autism, whether it is due to a loved one being injured in a car accident, the NDIS is here for all of us at any given moment, and that’s why we should all be invested in it. That’s why we should all make sure that we get it right as we move into the future.

In 2013, I established the Country Autism Network. It is a charity to assist rural and regional families and help them find their way through the autism maze. At the beginning of this year we were asked to partner—and I say ‘we’ because I’m no longer on the board of the organisation—with Surfers Healing, a charity originally founded in the US by Izzy Paskowitz, former world champion surfer and father of Isaiah, who has autism. Izzy discovered early in the piece that one way to keep Isaiah calm was to take him out on the water, and since he started this charity it has taken thousands upon thousands upon thousands of children surfing all around the world. Surfers Healing has a committee in Australia run by Steph Smith, Sean Tobin and Belinda Hitchcock, and they do the most outstanding job. They asked to partner with Country Autism Network, as they require an Australian charity to work through. They partnered with us and they gave me the privilege and the honour of taking close to 800 autistic kids surfing at the beginning of this year. If you ever want to see the personification of joy, I suggest you take up the opportunity, especially for those colleagues in New South Wales and Queensland. They do an absolutely outstanding job in the way that they work.

I do want to acknowledge some of the amazing autism families that I have had the chance to work with and to witness the amazing efforts that they put not only into their own children but also into the community as a whole, particularly Sam and James Best and Benison O’Reilly, who literally wrote The Australian Autism Handbook, Charmaine and Jack Fraser, David and James Langford—I’m going to forget someone now because this is not written down—and Viv and Isabel Hodgson. There are just so many wonderful, wonderful people who make such a difference every single day to not only their own child’s life but so many other lives around them.

I was lucky enough to get some of them together the other week. One of the things that we talked about was our experience at diagnosis. Even though we all thought we were kind of past that—we’re all quite a few years into the journey—we established that one thing that has stayed with all of us was the darkness that we all felt. The one thing that stuck with us from that time of diagnosis, at the beginning, was the isolation and fear that you felt. And when you do finally pick up the phone and make a phone call, the last thing you need is red tape. The last thing you need is reams and reams of paperwork and challenging situations to get the assistance you need. We need to do better at that. We need to do better at the beginning, because that is where we can help, and it’s where we can change the trajectory for these children as we go forward.

With that, thank you everyone. It’s been an amazing journey. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for so many of the people in this room. Luckily, I talk about autism all the time! I will wrap up more formally. If my journey to this parliament has taught me anything it’s that Australians are deeply resilient, inventive and optimistic. We have the capacity to shape the brightest of futures. As Australia’s representatives in this great democracy, it’s our responsibility to walk alongside our fellow Australians—to hear them, to support them and to empower them.

My long and winding road to the Senate would not have been possible without the support and friendship of so many of the people that I’ve touched on in this speech, none more so than my incredible husband. What a ride it’s been! Stewart, hopefully we see a little more of the bright side for a while, but your humour, resilience and dependability has seen our family through it all. I love you. My incredible parents; my children, who light up my life; the strong women who surround me, support me and inspire me—Aerin Gordon Heinrich, Hannah Monaghan, Amy Lehmann, Jane Beer, Candice Steffensen, Abbey Neeham and Callum Gurney; my amazing team—we’ll just clock this up for a story later on!; the Liberal Party colleagues, whose values I share and whom I’ve worked alongside for so long; the rural and regional communities; the families and carers of autistic children; and the many others I’ve had the privilege of meeting—everything leading up to this point only makes me more determined to honour your belief in me for as long as I have the privilege and responsibility of serving in this place. As your representative in the Senate, I will never lose sight of where I come from, who I represent and why I’m here: to keep travelling the long road, to keep opening doors, to keep fighting, to keep speaking up, and to play my part here for a better Australia and a stronger democracy. Thank you.

The PRESIDENT: We have a number of people waiting to make their first speech. I ask senators to resume their seats as quickly as possible. I thank senators for their courtesies.

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