First Speech

31 August 2020

I rise today with great ambition for the people of Eden-Monaro, determined to make a difference in the lives of the people I now represent. So I will start by thanking them for electing me to this place. I won't let you down.

I invite those here to listen for opportunities to work together to build vibrant, happy and prosperous regional communities. No one person has all the answers, but together, united, we are a powerful force. There is much to do, and I will work with anyone willing to ensure the best for the people of Eden-Monaro.

I speak at a momentous time for Australia and the people of Eden-Monaro. We are rebuilding from the most damaging fires Australia has ever seen, battling a once-in-a-century pandemic and enduring Australia's first economic recession in 30 years. And we face a climate in crisis, including years of devastating drought. And yet, despite these enormous challenges, I've never been more optimistic about our future. I'm optimistic because I know that our communities are home to hardworking and resilient people—people that have moved this nation forward with each passing generation.

I'm lucky to live in one of the most naturally stunning electorates in the country, the mighty Eden-Monaro. From the top of Australia, Mount Kosciuszko and the Snowy Mountains, to the rolling green hills of Tumut and Tumbarumba; from the sapphire waters of the far South Coast to the rocky plains of the Monaro; from the suburbs of Queanbeyan to the vineyards of Murrumbateman, we are proud to call Eden-Monaro our home.

I want to pay tribute to and thank the traditional custodians of the lands and waters of this place I call home—the Ngunawal, Wiradjuri, Ngarigo and Yuin peoples. I recognise their continuing connection to the land, waters and people, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. Leaders at every level need to go beyond voicing our respect, though. True respect comes with an active and attentive head, heart and hands. Our Indigenous sisters and brothers have walked this land for over 60,000 years. Their connection is rich and deep, something we all need to spend more time understanding and respecting. Our shared history needs to be told in its absolute truth—a history laid bare for our children to know, a history that needs to be acknowledged—so that we can shape the connections and relationships we all want and need for a better future.

There are stories in our history that point to what is possible—that point to a trust and goodness across all cultures. One such story has its roots in Yuin country, on the far South Coast of New South Wales in my electorate. Historian Mark McKenna, from the University of Sydney, tells the story of 17 shipwrecked sailors from Sydney Cove who, in 1797, walked from the southern tip of mainland Australia to Port Jackson. One of the leaders, William Clark, kept a diary. His great fear along the way was encounters with what he referred to as 'hostile savages'. His experience with our First Nations people could not have been more different. After almost two weeks of walking, backed by the hospitality of the Gunai people in East Gippsland, the sailors reached the Nadgee River, just over the Victorian border in Eden-Monaro, home to the Thawa people of the Yuin nation. According to Dr McKenna, this is where they made what Clark calls 'friends'. The Thawa people walked with the struggling sailors all the way to Pambula, showing the sailors the way, feeding them and helping build rafts for river crossings. Not all the shipwrecked sailors made it to Sydney. Clark was one of three who did. Clark reported to the then New South Wales governor, John Hunter, that the group only survived because of the help of Aboriginal people along the way, or, as Dr McKenna puts it, 'a succession of guardian angels'.

This story epitomises the values of cooperation and respect that we need to continue striving for every single day. Our Indigenous leaders are showing us the way, asking those who gather here to enshrine a voice for our First Nations people in the Constitution, acknowledging their ongoing and everlasting connection to this country. For my part, I will look to establish a group of elders or endorsed representatives from the Ngunawal, Wiradjuri, Ngarigo and Yuin nations across the Eden-Monaro electorate whom I will consult and meet with, drawing on their wisdom as my service grows.

I'm here today because a great servant of our nation and of Eden-Monaro retired. I want to thank Mike Kelly for his nearly four terms as our local member. Both literally and figuratively, I have big shoes to fill in following Mike. I wish Mike, Shelley and Ben all the best for their future.

The opportunity to stand for Labor and be a representative in this House follows some of the darkest and hardest days my family and the many I now represent have ever faced. In the days heading towards last Christmas, I was excited to be spending some time with my young family. My youngest boy had just finished preschool and would be heading to 'big school' with his brother and sister in 2020. Some precious time with my fast-growing kids, on the back of what had been a big, busy year for my husband and me—simple downtime together in our beautiful coastal backyard—was everything we wanted for last summer. The fires that followed, now burnt into our history books, landscape and community, changed everything.

In the final weeks of 2019, fire was already widespread across New South Wales and was on the move. The Currowan and North Black Range fires were destroying homes, infrastructure and landscapes, from Braidwood and Bungendore to the Eurobodalla. Our crippling drought, the changing climate and the obvious danger we were all in had every community in Eden-Monaro under pressure.

The full potential of this dangerous mix was unleashed in the middle of the night on the last day of the year. The people who saw a firestorm unleash itself upon homes and farms west of Cobargo on New Year's Eve speak of it as an angry spirit or a wild animal that couldn't be tamed. We lost lives and homes on that night, as we did on a number of days and nights that followed. Indeed, Eden-Monaro was on fire for the next seven weeks as fires moved in and out of places like Pericoe, Batlow, Colinton and Devils Hole.

The true character of these communities was revealed on those days of black and orange skies. People stepped up and they stepped out to assist anyone who needed help. Evacuation and relief centres at places like Tumut, Narooma and Merimbula became life rafts manned by heroes from all walks of life. What guided that work during those days of uncertainty and fear was a deep commitment to each other, a sense of goodness and a sense of what needed to be done.

The communities of Eden-Monaro can be very proud of what they've achieved together so far. We need to use those values to reshape our future based on the lessons that we've learnt along the way. The soaking rain we've had over the last few months cannot be allowed to dampen or delay the work and change that still needs to take place.

The horrors of those days throughout December, January and February—days where the sun didn't seem to rise—are still very real and very fresh in minds. Friends and family wake up with deep and lasting trauma. Tears are still flowing today, and nightmares still wake us at night.

Knowing what to do and how to respond on a personal, professional and political level has not been clear or easy. But I am here to supercharge the response to bushfire recovery, to fight for each and every one of the thousands of people affected by the fire last summer. There are lives, jobs and businesses that need hope in their future again, and people and places who need to see and feel action that moves us all to a more secure, locally-led future.

In the blink of an eye, our dependence on supply chains located a long way north, south and west was exposed. Fuel ran out, supermarkets were empty, stock were without feed, and power and communication were impossible for many. Regional infrastructure needs to be more robust and resilient—our lives and our livelihoods depend on it. This is not just about safety. It's also about local jobs. We need to broaden the capacity of regional communities by investing in key communication infrastructure, ensuring our networks are up to scratch to attract families and professionals to the regions.

Our economic drivers, the foundations of regional livelihoods, have been hit hard. There is not a person, business or industry that hasn't been impacted by our black summer. Asking 80,000 tourists to leave the Bega Valley at the height of our tourist season is something I will never forget. And, because of coronavirus, the impacts across Eden-Monaro are now deeper and they are hurting harder. An environmental crisis driven by climate change has rolled into a health crisis and now an economic crisis. We need our leaders to come together now more than ever. And the recommendations of this royal commission need to be implemented and not ignored. Let me be clear: the partisan politics of the last decade or more just won't cut it into the future. A reset button has been pushed. We need to work together—that's what people expect.

Speaking to scared and frightened faces, in groups large and small, during this time reinforced to me the importance of leadership. Local leadership matters, especially in our darkest of days. Leaders show up. Leaders walk with their communities. Leaders are motivated by what they see and feel, and they look to drive action for betterment and change. That’s why I'm here—and that is why I'm part of the Labor Party that Anthony Albanese leads.

I stood for Eden-Monaro because I believe we need to do politics differently. In my role as a local councillor and mayor, I worked hard to reach across the aisle to find common cause with other local members in the region and with other levels of government. I did the same in my years as a lawyer before that—advocating and fighting for solutions so that no-one is left behind.

And solutions are what we need right now. The impacts of climate change are writ large across the Eden-Monaro landscape—from the bare, black forests at the back of Tilba Tilba, to the spoilt grapes of Murrumbateman, to the empty campsites at Tathra and to the not-always-snowy Snowy Mountains. And who can forget the choking smoke that hung in our sky and lungs for days on end. Action on climate change is long overdue—and you don’t need to travel far from this chamber to see firsthand the impacts of that failed leadership. It is time for the Morrison government to listen to scientists, industry, experts and Labor, and finally commit to net zero emissions by 2050. We need a recovery plan that will deliver jobs and growth based on the opportunities that flow from action on climate change.

Our response to the needs of our environment will create the jobs and economic opportunities we need for the future—a future where no worker, especially those worried by talk of climate action, is left behind or forgotten. As I travel the towns and villages of Eden Monaro, people talk of the jobs that once existed in regional towns and the jobs that we need again in the future—the land managers that work in our forests, national parks, farmlands and estuaries. A pile-on of cuts and centralisation of decision-making over many years has eroded core jobs in regional communities.

This summer we saw what happens when we turn our back on the responsibilities that come with living in a natural environment. Ultimately decisions were centralised, local knowledge and decision-making was lost—and the pay packets that go with those women and men were stripped out of regional communities.

We now rise to the challenges of a global pandemic. Many in my community are carrying a great weight at the moment, a weight already made heavy by drought and natural disaster. People and places are hurting. But as I heard in Batlow, Tumut and Yass earlier this month, local communities are planning for renewal rather than recovery. They are seeing the opportunity that comes from adversity, and they wake each morning with a spark that inspires action. I now stand with those local leaders, ready to make sure the voices of our community are heard here in Canberra. I will be banging down the doors of decision-makers to ensure Eden-Monaro is not left behind or forgotten following the disasters of 2020.

We need a plan for our future, a plan for jobs, a plan to reinvigorate regional towns and a plan that centres on hope and positivity. Work on that has started, in collaboration with local communities and other levels of government, and I look forward to sharing those stories with the House.

Before I sit down, I want to reflect on the people and experiences that have shaped and supported me in my life. I have lived in regional Australia for most of my life. I love the way of life it affords me: the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone at the local pub, the way that sporting or service clubs become part of your extended family, the way that other parents look out for your children if you’re running late—and that happens often!—and the way that people wave to you as you drive by.

The fact that I now get to represent this amazing electorate in parliament is testament to how our regions operate. I’m not from the political class. I’m here to relentlessly pursue better outcomes for our children so that they don’t have to leave for the city seeking work and fulfilment. I fought for these outcomes when I became the youngest person ever elected to the Bega Valley Shire Council. In my second term, I went on to be only the second female mayor of the Bega Valley. It is an honour and a privilege to be the member for Eden-Monaro and even more so to be the first female member for Eden-Monaro.

Looking around this chamber now, I couldn't be prouder to be part of the Australian Labor Party, a party that takes equal and diverse representation seriously. Our party has a mix of gender, age, religion and cultural backgrounds, and we must continue to encourage more diversity to the party and parliament.

I want to thank the Labor Party—Labor family now—and the many volunteers who have helped during the campaign. An army of members and supporters rallied to get me across the line. You can rightly claim credit for your role in our win—people like Marlene at Wamboin; Judith at Yass; James, Bill and Ezma at Queanbeyan; Leanne at Jindabyne; Sharon at Fish Pen; Jim at Narooma; Joe at Bombala; Col at Batlow; and Mark at Captains Flat. You and those like you—and there are far too many to mention, people who hold Labor values dear—braved snow, icy winds and coronavirus to get us across the line. Your time and energy fills my tank, so thank you very much.

To our leader, the member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese: he took a gamble on me when he asked me to run in this by-election, knowing we were in the middle of a pandemic, knowing this would be an uphill battle. But he simply said he knew it was the right thing to do and that I was the right person for the challenge. Thank you for the trust you have placed in me to do this job. Thank you also to Paul Erickson and Bob Nanva.

To a mentor who has always shown great faith in me and pushed me to do more and to be more: thank you, Kate Lundy. You have been such a terrific sounding board over the years, and I am lucky to call you my friend.

To two great Labor leaders that I've never met: firstly, to Kim Beazley. You, sir, are the embodiment of a statesman, someone who commands a room and all the attention in it. You invigorated me to join the Labor Party in university. I look to follow your example of intellect, dignity and warmth in public service. Secondly, to Julia Gillard: thank you for being the first. I knew it was significant at the time, and I know it even more now. We share a desire to stand up for what is right each and every time, a desire to bring the conversation back to the people we serve and the advancement of women in leadership.

To my squad—I shouldn't have looked up! To my friends from Eden Marine High School, the University of Canberra, the mum's groups and the workplaces along the way: thank you for your support and friendship.

To my family: as a child, I never asked my parents or my family how they voted—it's not really one of the things you talk about! I've always just known that we were a Labor family, a family that works hard for everything we have and has had nothing handed to us easily. It was instilled in me from a young age that nothing comes free in life and you create your own luck.

My dad was in a union his entire working life. To him it was a no-brainer—'united we stand' to achieve the best for each other, from his early days with state owned energy corporations to his last job with Bega Cheese. My mum finished her working life as an aged-care worker, and she too was a union member. My grandad was a union delegate for most of his life with Victorian Rail; my gar was a member of a union in his early days with the Australian Paper Mill; and my uncle, who worked there too, was a union representative for the mill and later a state delegate for the pulp and paper industry. It strikes me how important it is not only to have industry in our regions but also to make sure those workers are fairly represented by unions to make sure those jobs stay in our regions. I want to thank the union movement for its enduring commitment to workers. It's needed now more than ever before.

My parents never finished high school, but the one thing I always knew, without question, was that my parents would do anything for their children to get ahead. My dad completed a plumbing and gas-fitting apprenticeship before working as a dredge driver at the State Electricity Commission at Loy Yang. My mum worked in retail after leaving school with a dream of owning her own business, and when the Popes settled in Merimbula my parents ran a sports store for 11 years. They would love to have been here today but have had to travel to Victoria to be with my Nanny Hobby, who is moving towards the end of her journey with dementia. Nanny Hobby is one of the hundreds of thousands of Australians who deserve better from our current aged-care system.

My siblings and I are close, inspired by the example of our parents Kaye and Glenn. My older sister, Narelle, who's in Victoria and can't be here either, and younger brother, Michael, talk regularly, arguing along the way but more so supporting and celebrating each other's lives and our young families. My nieces are like my own children, and I love them fiercely. Rhylee, Charli and Franki are each smart, independent and cheeky—just like their mums and dads.

My parents made sacrifices to make sure all of us kids could excel in whatever we chose to do. I was the first in my family to attend university, and my parents supported me when I first moved to Canberra. My dad would cook meals and freeze them for me to take home after each visit to break up the baked beans—the only thing I could cook. And my brother gave me his old car so that I'd have a more reliable form of transport when I was at uni. I worked three jobs to pay my rent, buy food and get by, but my parents were always only a phone call away.

My husband's family is just as special and important. Brad's parents, Judy and Graham, are like mine—family first. They are always there to help whenever we ask. Brad's brothers, Ian and Matt, are among his closest mates and, having known them now for much of my life, they are as much my brothers as they are his. Their kids Hamish, Beverley and August are all firecrackers, and I love them like my own—smart, thoughtful, with a dash of attitude.

It's true I met my husband in high school—on the school bus actually. He tells me that he knew he'd marry me from the moment we met and, well, I like the way he says it, so I never really question it. Brad is my biggest supporter. He's my centre, my calming voice, my cheerleader and my best friend. And I've found out more recently: he has great insight on this political game we play. He certainly has the measure of those opposite! Thanks for pushing me to take this journey, thanks for picking up the slack when I'm away and thanks in advance for learning to cook more meals!

Brad and I have three extraordinary children together—Ruby, Max and Jack—each with the same set of genes, raised in the same manner, but each with very different personalities. They are the reason I pushed myself to take on this campaign and win, they are the reason I work hard, the reason I want regions to prosper and the reason I will be relentless in pursuing the development of regional Australia.

Like most parents I want them to succeed in life. I want them to get a quality education, have access to good health care, have the ability to work, buy a house, raise a family and build a life wherever they choose. Ruby, my girl: you're sweet—well, sometimes—smart and strong and your laugh is infectious, and I hope it never changes. Maxi: you're exactly like your dad. Your smile lights up the room, and your sensitivity to those around you still astounds me. You nail whatever you put your mind too. And Jacka: you came into the world big and fast, and that's how you live your life. You're loud, you're competitive and you have a wicked sense of humour.

'It's always better when we're together'—it's a line from a Jack Johnson song that played at our wedding and completely sums up our life. But not only that: bringing people together is the legacy I look to build as the member for Eden-Monaro. I vow to advocate for each and every one of you so that together we can achieve a brighter future for your family and mine. Thank you.