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Elizabeth Coker (ALP-Corangamite) – Maiden Speech

The new ALP member for Corangamite, Elizabeth (Libby) Coker, has delivered her first speech to the House of Representatives.

There were twenty-seven new members of the House elected at the May 18 federal election. Coker is the last to deliver her maiden speech. She is the last of nine new ALP members.

A former teacher and journalist, Coker was a councillor on the Surf Coast Shire Council, having been elected in 2008 and serving as mayor in 2009-10 and 2012-13.

Coker unsuccessfully contested Corangamite at the 2016 election. At this year’s election, she defeated the Liberal Party’s Sarah Henderson, who held the seat for two terms from 2013. Henderson is about to be appointed to fill a casual Senate vacancy.

Coker secured a 1.04% swing, winning Corangamite with 51.07% of the two-party-preferred vote. She polled 35.47% of the primary vote, an increase of 1.41%. The Liberal Party polled 42.33% of the primary vote, a decrease of 1.34%.

Corangamite, a Federation seat established in 1901, is in the south-west of Victoria. It extends from the suburbs of Geelong, through Queenscliff and Colac, and through the towns along the Great Ocean Road.

Listen to Coker’s speech (31m):

Watch Coker (31m):

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Libby Coker, ALP member for Corangamite.

The SPEAKER (17:18): Before I call the honourable member for Corangamite, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend to her the usual courtesies.

Ms COKER (Corangamite) (17:18): I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, and pay respects to elders past, present and emerging. To the people of Corangamite I say: thank you for your trust; I pledge to be in this place a strong voice for you and our amazing communities. I also thank the Australian Labor Party for giving me this opportunity and our leader, Anthony Albanese, for his support.

It is the values of Labor that inspire and motivate me: opportunity, solidarity, egalitarianism. Ben Chifley said 70 years ago, ‘We are a labour movement determined to bring something better to the people, better standards of living’. Chifley’s ‘Light on the hill’ was about working for the betterment of mankind, not only here but anywhere where we may give a helping hand. That objective is as worthy today as it was in those postwar years, when Labor built a modern, multicultural Australia.

I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in the seat of Corangamite, the Wathaurong people in the east and the Eastern Maar in the west. I am proud to welcome representatives of their respective nations to the gallery today, Gareth Powell and Jason Mifsud.

To sum up what I stand for, it is a fair future. I entered politics mostly because of my beautiful daughters, Lily and Isabel. I would often think about the future I would wish for them: respectful, sustainable and inclusive. To enable that fair future, we must make choices about policy. Those policies must reflect our success in making—and winning—the argument for progressive change. The choices we make will speak to our collective capacity to overcome fearmongering and irrationality, whether about taxation, religious freedom or climate change. These policy choices will also reflect our capacity to overcome self-interest and to focus the electorate on the greater good of our society and our nation.

One of the key challenges in making a better Australia for all of our children is to address the great contradiction that our success has been achieved in someone else’s land at their expense. Paul Keating, in his inspirational 1993 ‘Redfern’ speech, said that advancing the rights and recognition of our First Nations peoples is:

… a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be—truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.

My hope is that Lily and Isabel will understand more about what Aboriginal people know about this great country than I do. This is important because, as Keating said, knowing our history cannot be separated from the history of Aboriginal Australia, and that includes understanding what it means for all of us that Aboriginal land was stolen, never ceded.

Corangamite refers to Lake Corangamite, a beautiful word meaning ‘bitter’ or ‘salty’ in the Gulidjan language. It is as beautiful as the iconic parts of the electorate: the Great Ocean Road, the Otways, the Bellarine and the open spaces of the golden plains.

I stand today to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, its call for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island sovereignty, a voice to parliament enshrined in the Constitution and truth-telling through a makarrata commission. We must act with urgency. By the end of this parliament, it will be 29 years since the Mabo decision and 14 years since the national Apology to the Stolen Generations. It is incumbent on this generation of politicians to take a big step forward.

I also add my voice today to those calling for a national treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples. I am proud that Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria has led the way with treaty legislation and a treaty commission. My plea to the members in this place is: don’t be left behind. We need to provide leadership and a path not just to recognition and a voice but to treaty as well.

Words of apology or recognition are important but are not enough without concrete actions. Recently, I asked the First Nations leaders in Corangamite what message they would have for those listening to this speech. Paul Davis, chair of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Corporation, said: ‘Today there is little acknowledgement, understanding and respect of the Wathaurong culture, cultural authority and traditions across its country. We welcome bipartisan progress towards true reconciliation that provides a safe ground for all Australians to work together, and to recognise, honour and cherish the truth of our collective history and heritage.’

There will be challenges and debates about how to best achieve a fair settlement and recognition of sovereignty, but First Nations people must be at the centre of that process, and we must all have pride in the outcome. The Uluru statement said it very powerfully:

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

As a new member, I say to First Nations people of this great land but especially to the people of my electorate: I walk with you.

To achieve a fair future, we must recognise that we’re facing a climate emergency and do more for our planet. I was appalled at the indifference of this government in refusing to agree to the Tuvalu Declaration at the recent Pacific Islands Forum, a statement driven by the real prospect that rising oceans will submerge several Pacific countries. Indeed, our own coastline is already under threat. In Corangamite, tidal surges are increasing in severity, and erosion is already threatening our fragile coastal flora, fauna and infrastructure. We need a national response. I urge the government to work with the states to develop a well-resourced coastal management strategy to counter these devastating effects. Likewise, we need a national strategy for plastic use and waste management, especially now that China and other countries refuse to take our waste. I would like to acknowledge the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University, who are doing amazing innovation with recycled materials. We have the technology. All we need are the political will and investment. I am well aware that fixing the effects of climate change or managing waste won’t address the root cause of the problem, the extraction of fossil fuels and our carbon emissions—issues I will return to in a moment.

I grew up in Beaumaris in Melbourne in the seventies, a time that was crucial to forming the principles I hold dear. I particularly want to acknowledge my mum, Fran, who is in the gallery today, and thank her and my late dad, Jack, for their love and amazing contribution to my life. Dad was a senior public servant with the former Broadcasting Control Board. At heart, he was a country boy with a big heart and an even bigger capacity for yodelling. Dad instilled in me a strong sense of fairness and a love of people. He always stood up for the underdog, often ringing ABC radio when he got a bee in his bonnet. ‘It’s Jack from Anglesea here,’ was his opening line.

My mum, Frances Mann, was a nurse. She trained at the Royal Melbourne and went on to care for children with severe disabilities. Mum is socially progressive and quietly works to make the world a better place. She wants women to be equal citizens and has often shared her frustrations about having to give up work when she got married, as well as the difficulties of returning to work and study with young children. Of course, there has been a revolution since mum’s time. I am so proud that in this place our Labor Party caucus is almost 50 per cent women. But the struggle for gender equality is nowhere near over, not while women do more of the caring and domestic work, run a long second in terms of senior jobs, pay and retirement incomes, and are underrepresented in decision-making bodies. I was so proud of the policies we took to the last election to start addressing some of these inequities—child care, free kinder and the payment of superannuation contributions during parental leave.

Beaumaris was an amazing place to grow up. It was a time of progressive ideas and debates about nuclear arms, abortion and the Vietnam War, issues my parents discussed with us around the dining table. And it was Gough Whitlam’s time. He was a giant who changed our social and cultural landscape. My journey has its roots in these times, which brings me back to the issue of our time: climate change.

My first real activism occurred when my family moved to Port Macquarie. On a trip home from university, I was shocked to see the rainforest being cleared for housing and to find refugee koalas in our garden. Mr Speaker, I have an admission to make. One night, sitting on my boyfriend’s shoulders, I spray-painted ‘stop the destruction’ on the huge real estate sign advertising the land that had been cleared. I returned to university, but soon afterwards my mum sent me the newspaper article about my artwork. The reward poster followed shortly after. Mr Speaker, you will be pleased to know I have moved on from spray-painting signs, but I also understand why people are frustrated over government inaction on climate change, on plastic waste, or on inappropriate development. We have seen in the last few months ridiculous statements criticising peaceful activism such as the student climate strikes—and a big shout-out to those who will attend the next strike around the country and around the world on 20 September. Many things that we take for granted—bans on asbestos, lead-free petrol, an untamed Franklin River or an independent Timor-Leste—started with isolated voices doing very brave things. We need to see such activists as people of courage and as active citizens.

Governments around the world are taking action. Even the conservative United Kingdom government, paralysed by Brexit, passed legislation in July committing to zero carbon emissions by 2050.

As climate change speeds up, there will be increasing numbers of climate change refugees. I wholeheartedly support a more humane and compassionate approach to asylum seekers, an end to cruel indefinite detention, the retention of the medevac legislation and the extension of welfare and work rights to refugees already here.

The coalition provides no answers and has no plan for climate change. Under their watch carbon emissions have increased every year since 2014. It’s unlikely they will meet their weak commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030. They have no 2050 target. They will put no price on carbon, even though BHP and many other large corporations publicly support one. The coalition keep talking up coal-fired and even nuclear power—outdated and expensive technologies.

I’m proud that at the last election Labor made comprehensive but achievable commitments to increase renewable energy, to mandate electric vehicles and to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Labor also committed to ensuring that the federal environmental laws consider the impact of mining and development proposals on climate change.

In and around my electorate there are three new, properly planned, large-scale wind farms, and I welcome them. In addition, there is the possibility of green hydrogen, which has no carbon emissions and which can be distributed through our natural gas networks. We can develop a huge export market to both Japan and Korea, who have committed to putting hydrogen at the centre of a non-carbon, non-nuclear energy future. Labor promised strong support for green hydrogen at the election, but the coalition has done little, despite receiving the Chief Scientist’s report almost a year ago.

Let me be clear: high-grade metallurgical coal is still necessary for steel production; but, ultimately, thermal coal will be replaced by other energy sources. Already we have a number of major mining companies, investors and insurers exiting coal. We need a plan to transition from thermal coal—a just transition, a fair future. Miners, their families and their communities deserve our respect, not to be cast on the scrap heap by market forces, like much of our manufacturing workforce.

Germany shut its black coal industry down over several decades. It’s an example of what is possible. It went from over 600,000 miners to the last miner walking out the door in the Ruhr valley in July this year. The Germans had a plan and a slogan: no one will be left behind, and they weren’t.

We can’t pretend this change isn’t happening or that thermal coal has a bright future. As the biggest coal exporter in the world, Australia has to take responsibility and reduce our carbon footprint.

In Corangamite, the Anglesea coal mine closed in 2014. The Eden Project, from the UK, is working with Alcoa on a $250 million ecosystem attraction within the rehabilitated mine site. If water and other issues can be solved, the Eden Project could create 350 jobs and turn the site into a destination which celebrates our local ecology. But to open these doors we have to work together and we have to have a plan.

My third major wish for a fair future is to build a world-class education system, providing opportunities and pathways for all young Australians. Education is empowerment. Decent schools mean that a child who comes from the most disadvantaged circumstances can succeed in life with the right support. Education allows students to grow and flourish as people and as citizens. Education is an investment, and it is never wasted.

My school years began at Beaumaris North Primary School. After I was elected to this place, I was surprised to receive a letter from my year 4 teacher, Mrs Giddens. It was remarkable that she remembered me. She even included a copy of my grade 4 class photo. It shows how special teachers are. They not only teach you things; you become a part of their life and they yours. After graduating, I taught in outer Melbourne. It was a tough environment, and I learnt just how challenging teaching can be. But those students taught me that, if you want people to listen to you, you need to engage with them; to show an interest in them, just as Mrs Giddens showed interest in me. Education continued to be part of my working life over many years both as a teacher and as a journalist. As a former journalist, I am concerned for press freedom and media diversity. We need a balanced and fearless media to keep governments accountable, and that freedom has been under attack in recent times. It shouldn’t be. And we need our ABC to be properly funded.

There is so much that needs to be done in education. We need to give every three- and four-year-old access to free kindergarten, fully fund our schools through proper needs based student resourcing and address the capital expenditure divide. Federal infrastructure funding for public schools is totally inadequate. We need to expand technical and non-academic pathways for secondary students. We need to fix the skills crisis by boosting apprenticeships and traineeships, which have fallen to a record low level. And we must rebuild TAFE—make it the centre of the training system and reposition it to provide the technical skills required for a high-road economy.

I mentioned jobs. Employment is the pathway to prosperity and self-esteem. We shouldn’t stand idly by and watch high-skilled, well-paid manufacturing and public sector jobs disappear while the market replaces them with low-paid, low-skill insecure work. Creating the jobs of the future requires thought and resources. We need to ensure investment in research, technology, start-ups, value-adding industries and other areas of advantage like logistics—shamefully, this government has ripped $4 billion from R&D in the last two budgets. We need sector plans, like the famous Button car and steel plants, for each targeted industry. We need to plan properly, because that is what many other countries are doing, otherwise we will be left behind.

In Corangamite, like most electorates, unemployment is much higher for young people. Those over 55 also struggle to get a job and now constitute 25 per cent of the jobless. Newstart is totally inadequate at $40 a day for a single person, an impossible amount to live on. It hasn’t increased in real terms for 25 years. It should be increased as a matter of urgency. Unemployment is a waste of potential and a drag on our economy. The seminal 1945 white paper on full employment prepared by Mr Coombs and John Curtin said:

The Government believes that the people of Australia will demand and are entitled to expect full employment …

But by the mid-1970s we had dumped that expectation in favour of a deliberate policy of five per cent unemployment, designed to drive down both wages and inflation. It’s time for a rethink.

One option, together with bringing forward infrastructure spending, is a job guarantee program. Such a program would expand and contract with the economy and could create a fully employed workforce in targeted age groups. Jobs would be provided through NGOs, local government and the public sector—jobs that provide socially useful work for real wages rather than simply paying the dole. These jobs could be part time and be combined with skills training. There would be a cost to pilot a jobs guarantee program, but unemployment already has huge financial, social and health costs. And the benefit would be enormous. It would create a pool of job-ready workers with real skills and stimulate the economy, in turn feeding demand for more private sector workers. Catholic Social Services Australia and Per Capita are already considering how a jobs guarantee might work. We should, too.

For several decades there has been a sharp rise in part-time, casual contract work, now affecting over 40 per cent of the workforce. I was proud Labor committed at the election to beef up our laws to make work more permanent, to ensure that labour hire, gig economy and contract workers are treated more fairly and to limit sham contracting. There are two main protections for workers’ rights: strong laws and well-resourced enforcement, and strong trade unions. A 2016 ANU survey shows that voters think corporations now have more power than unions—a reversal of survey results from the seventies. That shift isn’t surprising; it reflects how ordinary Australians perceive their own fortunes at work and the growing example of corporate abuse. They see that unions are often unable to stop such changes and that governments are too willing to protect the powerful. Workers see an increasing number of people trapped on award wages. Even where they have the benefit of an enterprise agreement, Australians see their wages flatlining and improvements becoming harder to win.

Despite repeated calls by the Reserve Bank, this government refuses to stimulate the economy or increase wages to address record-low economic and wage growth. For hundreds and thousands of low-paid workers with virtually no capacity to bargain, the legal minimum wage has become their maximum wage. We need a living wage not a minimum wage. Award wages should enable a worker and his or her dependents to live reasonably, at least in frugal comfort—to paraphrase Justice Higgins in the Harvester judgement, which set up our wages system in 1907. The Fair Work Commission needs that power again.

I travelled to Melbourne recently with some amazing early-years educators to rally for better pay. These people do such vital work, preparing our next generations. They deserve better than minimum wages. Penalty rate cuts also need to be restored in industries like hospitality and retail. The enterprise bargaining system needs to be rebalanced. Workers should be able to bargain at whatever level they choose, not just at the enterprise level. Employers shouldn’t be able to undermine bargaining as they can now by simply terminating agreements. There are simply not enough resources for enforcement, and, like the financial sector, there has been too much soft-touch regulation. Employers rarely face penalties for wage theft. This needs to change.

The second limb of protection for workers is unions. I’m proud to be associated with a fantastic trade union movement which works tirelessly for its members in often difficult circumstances. Unions and the ACTU directly negotiate or affect the wages of over five million workers, but they also advocate for society-wide improvements that benefit us all. It was unions who fought for Medicare. They won industry superannuation, paid parental leave and nurse-to-patient ratios. It was Labor that legislated these improvements in government, but the fight began with union members. When I was mayor of the Surf Coast Shire, we worked with the ASU to deliver the first ever paid family violence leave in an enterprise agreement. Paid family violence leave should be a legislated national employment standard. But legislation, we have seen in this place in recent times, is not about making unions better; it is about trying to dismantle one of the few protections that Australian workers have: their union.

As I said earlier, politics and government are about choices. This government could have chosen to properly fund Gonski, to provide free dental services for older Australians or to establish a green hydrogen industry. They didn’t. Instead, they chose to reduce company tax and our tax base. Instead, they chose to give those on more than $200,000 a year a huge tax cut, costing almost $30 billion. Instead, they chose to continue negative gearing, with the benefits going to 30 per cent of taxpayers and making home ownership harder for young Australians. They have chosen to punish welfare recipients as if they are morally responsible for their own circumstances. These are their choices—choices made for a few, not for the many.

We all need reliable, high-quality services. I spent a decade as a councillor at the Surf Coast Shire and two years as mayor. It was a valuable experience. I’m so glad that Mayor Rose Hodge and Councillor Margot Smith are here today, and I thank council colleagues for teaching me so much. At the heart of every council is services. Balancing many competing expectations is difficult, but I hope that experience has prepared me for the complex debates in this place. There are enormous challenges for nationally funded services, particularly the NDIS, aged care, mental health and public housing. In government, Labor wants to deliver a wide range of services and fund them through broad based progressive taxation, redistributing money from those who have the means to pay to areas of greatest need. That is what makes Labor different. Those on the other side champion discredited trickle-down economics and the view that tax should be flat, not progressive. Australia’s tax-to-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the OECD, just above the US. If we want to fix the real problems facing many families, we have to plan to grow services and maintain a revenue base that will fund those improvements. Better services and better regulation is what I’ll be fighting for in this place.

Finally, I want to thank the wonderful people who’ve helped me to this point: the ALP branch members, some of them here today, who are the lifeblood of our party; the mentors, the friends at Aireys Inlet and beyond. You know who you are. You did the work, you supported me and kept me going. I’d like to thank the Labor MPs in and around Corangamite, in particular our deputy leader, Richard Marles, for his constant support and advice. Many others have supported me in the last federal election campaign, especially Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek, who built a united team and a progressive policy platform that I was proud to campaign for. I’d also like to thank Brendan O’Connor, Jenny Macklin and Mark Dreyfus for their encouragement during my long journey to this place. From the 2016 campaign I thank Michaela Settle. From the 2019 campaign, I owe much to the talented Annie Nash and to Tauren Peel, my dedicated sidekick. I would also like to thank my amazing team, who I now have here, led by Leigh Hubbard. You’re awesome. Throughout the last six years I have also had huge support from trade unions. In particular, I thank the CFMEU, the ETU, the RTBU, HACSU, the FSU, the TWU, the AEU, United Voice, the Victorian Trades Hall and the Geelong Trades Hall.

Last but not least, I thank my beautiful family. To my mum and dad, thank you for giving me such a solid foundation on which to build. To my siblings, Martin, Stephen and Janet, who are here today, I’m so grateful to have you by my side. You are such decent, caring human beings and I love you dearly. To my girls, Lily and Izzie, I know it has been a tough journey at times, but nothing of real value comes easily. The gift of life is precious and you are precious to me. Finally to my soul mate Hugh, my husband. Hugh is a builder and a surfer. He has supported me without reservation. I would not be standing here in this place without his enduring love and support. I thank Hugh and love you for all you are.

The people of Corangamite have given me the privilege of serving in this place. They have entrusted me with the task of speaking for them. They have asked me to do my best to make a fair future, not only for them but for everyone in need of a helping hand. I will give my all to live up to that responsibility and strive to reach the light on the hill. Thank you.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta): I congratulate the honourable member for Corangamite and wish her well in her parliamentary career.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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