Mr NATHAN REES (Toongabbie—Minister for Emergency Services, and Minister for Water Utilities) [7.32 p.m.] (Inaugural Speech): Congratulations to you, Mr Speaker; a fine appointment. It is an honour to be in this place and to have been put here by 49,000-plus voters in Toongabbie, and it is an honour to be here as a member of the oldest parliamentary party in the world that advances the causes of workers and their families.
On the campaign hustings and at their front doors the people of Toongabbie told me four main things. They said, "You will be far more interesting than Peter Costello on budget night". Seriously, first, they said they expect their member of Parliament to be accessible. They are not overly keen on emails, faxes and text messages; they want to see their elected member face to face if he or she is to represent them. That means more home visits, more mobile offices, more contact, more engagement and more conversation. Second, they expect their member of Parliament to know the issues of their neighbourhood and to fight on their behalf in pursuing those issues. Third, they expect their member of Parliament to be upfront with them: not to make promises the member cannot deliver on, not to pretend there is a simple answer when there is not, and to give credit where credit is due.
Finally, where there is an issue to be resolved or a question to be answered, people do not care which tier of Government is responsible, they just want the problem fixed. People want a return to consensus wherever possible, a return to communal discussion and an end—a final end—to the blame game. Those expectations are fair and reasonable and it is my intent to deliver on each of them.
I grew up in Western Sydney, attended the local State school, Northmead High, and left at the end of year 12—the only student of 220 who, as I recall, had not applied to go to university. Instead, I completed an apprenticeship with Parramatta council and then worked as a greenkeeper, where I had plenty of time to think as I watered, rolled and mowed the cricket wickets. I eventually started at university, working nights as a garbo to help pay my way. The formal training during my apprenticeship was of practical use, but it was the life experience of working in a large council of 350 men and a handful of women that was the biggest reason for me being here today. The lessons I had absorbed over the years were crystallised in that period when I was also the union delegate for the depot and the secretary of what was in those days the Municipal and Shire Employees Union [MEU]. I was also the Secretary of the Granville sub-branch and, according to John Howard, a menace to our civilisation.
My activity in the union exposed me to arguments and experiences, wins and losses, dreams and shattered dreams, that cemented my commitment to the labour movement. Growing up, I recall my mum and dad reacting to 11 November 1975, when the duly elected Leader of the House of Representatives was sacked by the un-elected John Kerr in conspiracy with Malcolm Fraser and his constitutional vandals. I remember in particular the debate that sacking sparked, not just for mum and dad but between mum and dad and their friends. I remember the adult friendships that sacking wrecked and those it bonded into something stronger: comradeships, commitment and a party ideal. I was seven when it happened and, other than a very faint recollection of dad making me watch man walk on the moon, it was my first real impression of a serious world out there, outside the safety and quiet of home. It was a period in which there were actions being taken by and on behalf of those I loved that were based on what I would subsequently come to know as principles and values: a way of thinking and a cast of mind with a distinctly Australian infusion.
Starting in 1975 my eyes were opened to those key elements of our social fabric: fairness, justice, accountability, a fair go, and that Jack is as good as his master. Of course, this was not something that I was able to articulate at the time, but I knew in the aftermath of the dismissal when dad and his mates went around to newspaper sellers in the city and bought all the newspapers so they could pull a tarpaulin over them in order to maintain the rage that there was something new going on in my world. Later on, mum's commitment to the party and to feminism made just as deep an impression on me. Mum has always backed the underdog, the marginalised and the minorities, including the Left. Mum was never tempted by the urgers of corporatisation of the Australian Labor Party.
When I hit the workforce in my first full time job at 17, I was able to make better sense of the values, education and experiences I had absorbed. I worked with men who were unable to read or write but who carried newspapers under their arms, such was their needless shame. I worked with men who were desperate to take advantage of the second chance they had been given having just been released from jail. And I worked with people who through no fault of their own, their parents or their schooling were likely always to do it tough. Whilst campaigning it was brought home to me again that every family, every home has its own story, its own tragedy, its own triumphs, its own way through the fiery hoop that is our life on earth. Those of us who have been lucky enough to kick a few goals lately should acknowledge the role of good fortune in our destiny. Equally, misfortune can wreak havoc on even the hardest working and best-intentioned families and individuals.
A comfortable, contented existence rearing a family can be rent asunder by fate—perhaps a relationship breakdown or a period of illness, unemployment, raised voices or a moment of emotional accident that changes everything. These ordinary, everyday events in a life can change some destinies forever and put good, decent people on the margins of involvement in their tribe and their community—involvement in its decision making, its contests and its victories; this power asymmetry we find everywhere we go, this insiders/outsiders phenomenon that, at its worst, can give rise to the sorts of massacres we see in America all too frequently. I believe it is a big part of my work—and our work—to think about these things: to think, for instance, that the first entitlement of every human born is a quality education that lets them choose with pleasure and dignity where they will go in the world; to think of what happens to people in their ninetieth, and now their hundredth, year; to think that in the future maybe all of us should go beyond year 12 at school_as I almost did not_in order to position ourselves to take advantage of opportunities.
For Australia, the story is in the numbers_if we want to continue to punch above our weight in the global ring, we need to make sure we are trying, and trying hard, to be the best-educated population in the world. There is an economic argument for an emphasis on education but just as critical is its import for our social architecture. It is beyond dispute that living standards and socioeconomic situations affect our health and the health of those around us. The research links health with education—how long one stayed at school and the gladness of heart of the family one grew up in.
The guiding principles for the health of our community should not be determined by what people can afford, but rather the values we want our society to embody. For example, how can we provide health care for those who need it most in our society if a government believes one's sickness is one's fault and that medical costs should be decided by market forces, no matter how sick one is? That is the Howard health care ethic; a slow but inexorable move towards privatisation of our health system in which the market will decide, according to income, who gets to be treated by a scarce medical workforce—and, left unchecked, the market will decide. It will decide to let the poor and the ageing take their grumbles and their aching teeth to their graves. We can do better than that. User pays is no way to treat matters of life and death. User pays will not get young doctors to rural areas with shrinking populations. User pays will not stop the referral of the sick to treatment centres far from home.
About three years ago I was in Hyde Park at lunchtime and I watched as a couple walked towards Macquarie Street. Aged in their early sixties, they held each other's hand and he had a yellow x-ray envelope under his arm. Their style of dress spoke of Sydney's western or south-western suburbs: simple, neat, unassuming. They had that sense of unfamiliarity with their surrounds and were clearly using each other for support as they headed towards a Macquarie Street specialist. I have no idea whether the news for them that day was good or bad, but I do believe it is unfair that the Macquarie Street services they were travelling to were not available closer to home. Think of it—Macquarie Street, the legal, medical and legislative establishments, the power and the privilege that all exist in that precinct. We know that in many cases the people accessing those systems are doing so at times of extreme anguish and anxiety. We could not design a precinct more intimidating and disempowering if we tried.
In redressing these power imbalances, it has been Labor governments that have sent resources to the west and south-west of Sydney. Further, this State Labor Government has forced the Commonwealth to move, at about the same rate as the Middle East road map, on initiatives as obvious as a medical school in Western Sydney. For too long Western Sydney was an afterthought for policy makers. We from Western Sydney know that. Despite the institutionalised bias in many quarters, Western Sydney continues to punch above its weight. Western Sydney is Australia's third biggest economy, worth in excess of around $70 billion annually and home to one in 10 Australians. Western Sydney is kicking on. The employment prospects for young people are much, much better than when I left school 20 years ago. In those days, parts of Western Sydney had general unemployment rates of about 15 per cent and youth unemployment was through the roof.
Today there has been a 180 degree turnabout, and a large part of that is due to State Labor governments recognising Western Sydney's potential, putting in the planning instruments, the infrastructure, the schools and colleges, and the right policy settings to encourage investment and growth that are making a world of difference to a new generation. We need to make sure through our urban centres planning, transport investment, delivery of infrastructure and partnerships with local government, and the education of arriving strangers that those gains continue and are built upon. Further, we have to involve our communities in the planning and delivery of services and investment and the cultural uplift and good living that will follow.
Anyone who has campaigned hard in an election cannot help but notice how little engagement many people choose to have with politics and the political process. I lost count, when doorknocking, of the number of people who said to me, "You're the first candidate that's knocked on my door in X years." The record during my campaign was from a lady who said that no-one had knocked on her door in 55 years. All members in this place would have heard similar remarks. That proves to me that we need to do more to sell the idea that politics is a bridge between a desire for the good and the machinery of the possible, and that regardless of ideology we in politics are here to try—at least to try—to bring about the changes that make this world a better place. The distance that can exist between us and the electorate too quickly grows to cynicism and then outright condemnation of us, our system and the polity and democracy in general. I am brand new in this place but I hope in my time here I can do my bit to narrow that distance. Part of narrowing that distance is to improve parliamentary standards and I hope we in this place, old hands and fresh faces together, can take the opportunity to do this with an independent Speaker and a new Leader of the Opposition more civilised and gentle of speech than the previous one.
Finally, I want to say thank you to some people. Each thank you will be necessarily short and rest assured I am making arrangements to thank the hundreds of supporters and friends who assisted me before, during and after my campaign. Firstly, I thank my partner, Stacey. She is the most decent, selfless, patient and generous person I know. She has been a tremendous support and influence since we met when I played the undertaker's pimply apprentice in the school production of Oliver. My debt of gratitude to you for your style and grace can never be adequately repaid, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I thank also Rachel and Clarissa for your support and friendship since you were children at Little A's.
I thank Mum and Dad for encouraging me to always question, to help me define right from wrong—and for making me finish sixth form. I thank in chronological order Andrew Refshauge, with whom I began to work in December 1997, Craig Knowles, John Della Bosca, Bob Carr and Premier Iemma for their patience, support and guidance as I worked with them in government. I thank Marcus Schintler and Kirsten Mulley for their tolerance and counsel at important times. I thank Derek Margerison and Jason Kara for running my campaign. We doorknocked every house in the electorate at least once; and they thought I was mad when I said we were going to do that on countless 35 degree days. They kept me sane, fed and watered—although they would probably argue about me keeping sane! I thank also Barbara and Lucy, their respective partners.
Thank you to Macca, my best mate of 27 years, his wife, Katrina, and boys James and Will. Thank you also to Greg Knight, Kim Gibbs and Harry. When we lined up together to enrol for our TAFE apprenticeship courses on 10 February 1986 none of us guessed things would turn out like this. You have been there from the start. Thank you very much. Thanks to my sister Emma, my nephews Samuel and Oliver, and Emma's partner, Greg, who makes all the necessary arrangements. Thanks too to Mark Hanlon, Chris Moutter, Alison Houghton, Liam Hogan and Rose Khalilizadeh for turning up over and over to doorknock the entire electorate. I thank Jenny and James and Teddy too. Big thanks to Nicole Scott and the soccer kids! A special acknowledgement to Elaine and Bill Evans, Yvonne Hennessy, Srini Peres, Albert Murfet and Victoria Brookman, who staffed my office and answered the many calls from constituents, volunteers, well wishers and the occasional crank call.
A special thank you to Helen Taylor and, regrettably too late, her husband, Tom. Thank you to the branch organisers, Lisa Lake and the efficient Wentworthville branch, Michelle Rowland, Alex Bukarica, Brian and Judy Thomas, Bob Christie, the Facchin Family, Maria Power, Tony Day, Rodney Rammers and Lalor Park branch. Thanks to the Herlinger family, who ensured that the Toongabbie branch would always rise to a challenge, and finally the cool head of Barjinder Pal who effortlessly organised the Seven Hills branch to cover more booths than any other. Thanks to all my colleagues who donated their weekends and leave time to help me, including Paul and LJ, Mick Chouifete, Kitty Connell, Jeremy Anderson, Jason Clare—who I was delighted to see preselected last weekend—Mario Falchoni, Emilio Ferrer, Paul Reidy and Craig Sheehan. Thanks also to Omar Jamal, Cathy Parmeter and family, Phil and Ruth Mahony, Fifi Esber, Didier Silarsah, Antony Dale, Felix Eldridge and Young Labor, Mark, Karl and Prue Guillame at Head Office, Prabhu Salvadoss, Dinesh Sethi, Rob Creasey, Mel Stewart and Dan, and the whole Collins family headed by Mel. Thank you to Father Arthur Bridge for your support and guidance, and to my Aunty Kerrie, Marg Perri, Sandra Butler, and also Eddie and Ross.
Thanks also to the Transport Workers Union, the Public Service Association, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Community and Public Sector Union and the United Services Union. I literally would not have had a campaign without you. I thank Paul O'Grady, John Faulkner, John Watkins, John Lee and Luke Foley for your counsel and guidance. I thank also Anthony Albanese and John Graham, as well as Janette Allen, Todd Clewett, Anjali Bhati, Jacqui Henfrey and Susan Calvert for your tremendous fundraising efforts. A special thanks to Bob Ellis and Vivian Skinner, both of whom travelled long distances to give me a hand. Thanks too to my good mate Rob Grieve and his wife, Lucy, who still managed to assist despite expecting a baby. I thank Tanya Gadiel also for her advice and John Maclaughlin for his support. A special thanks also to my dear friend Davina Langton, and her colleagues Eammon and Kirsten in the Premier's office. I extend my thanks to everyone else who believed enough in our fight to place a poster in their yard or on their front fence or do a round of letterboxing. In conclusion, I thank all of those who sit behind me, and in front of me, for your patience, counsel and friendship over the years. It was much appreciated, thank you.