Introduction by Croakey: The importance of implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, listening to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, acting urgently and ambitiously on climate change, and boosting health services have been themes resonating through many new MPs’ first speeches to Australia’s 47th Parliament.
With the Federal Government being urged to boost its ambitions on climate action to protect of health of Australians and the planet, the first speeches of newly minted politicians show the pressure for action will continue.
In a look at the first speeches of some key independents, First Nations politicians and health professionals, Croakey has also found strong support for addressing social inequity and boosting an overworked healthcare sector.
All these speeches began with an acknowledgement of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri People as the Traditional Owners of the lands where the Parliament stands, and paid respects to their Elders past and present.
Croakey editor Cate Carrigan reports below, in the first of two articles examining relevant speeches that may be of use/interest for Croakey readers.
Beyond the bedside
When proud Wiradjuri man Dr Gordon Reid stood to deliver his first speech to the 47th Parliament, his ancestors were with him.
The new Labor member for Robertson on Darkinyung country on the New South Wales central coast credited his victory to those who came before.
“It is our essential duty to listen to our Elders, to hear them and to understand them, so that our light might shine brighter today than it did yesterday. This begins by implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full,” Reid told Parliament.
As his parents Bryan and Leanne, both small business owners, watched from the gallery, Reid said they recognised the importance of education to overcome barriers, walking him to school and being there when he graduated from medicine at the University of Newcastle.
The emergency department doctor spoke of the importance of good health, saying it was not just about being well.
Reid said health is the strength of a society and a community: having access to affordable and equitable care and services and safe and secure housing; high quality education for your children; having a strong, clean, protected, and sustainable environment; and a sense of belonging through cultural acceptance and representation.
It was his work in healthcare that drove Reid to politics, he said, explaining that shifts in the emergency department when the high-pitched “bat phone” heralded the arrival of another seriously unwell patient made him rethink his life.
Reid told Parliament of ambulances pulling in behind those already ramped, of waiting rooms full of the unwell – many unable to afford or to see a GP in a timely manner – of corridors busy with those fleeing domestic violence, and others at risk of homelessness with nowhere else to go.
“Shifts like this formed a turning point for me. I stand before you today not because I no longer want to be a doctor – I love being a doctor, and I will always love being a doctor – but because, by undertaking this most important role, my skills and my experience will no longer be limited to the bedside,” said Reid.
Through politics, Reid wants to improve the lives of everyone in the community and use his experiences to bring about informed systemic change.
“I will fight day and night to ensure that those in power – every person in this place, including myself – are held to account, because the health of our nation depends on it,” he said.
For Reid, future generations “should be at the heart of every decision” and we must provide them with an environment and a planet where they can continue to grow, to love and to become whoever they want to be, he said.
Reid also paid tribute to his Nan, Aunty Robyn Reid – who was watching from the gallery – as “an incredible Aboriginal Elder and leader” who has provided endless support to the local Aboriginal community.
A woman who grew up with severe abuse, his Nan secured social housing at Newtown in Sydney – something she described as a blessing – going on to become the first in her family to own their home.
“Every person deserves the right to have a secure roof over their head, and I will endeavour to ensure that those sitting in the emergency department waiting room, those on our streets and those at risk of homelessness have just that,” said Reid.
“A nation’s health depends on its ability to care for its most vulnerable”, said Reid, whose office reported a strong and positive response to his message and insights into the strain of the hospital system.
Courage and leadership
In his first speech to Parliament, the ACT’s first independent senator and former Wallabies Captain, David Pocock, made an impassioned plea for action on climate change and the biodiversity crisis, saying there’s “no greater challenge”.
“Today the systems that sustain life on earth are at the brink of collapse. The climate as we know it is breaking down, and the impacts are now being felt with distressing regularity. Extreme weather, drought, bushfires, hailstorms, and floods are having a devastating effect,” the first independent to hold the balance of power told the Senate.
But Pocock, who spent his early years on a farm in Zimbabwe where he developed a deep appreciation of nature, told Parliament and supporters – including family members in attendance, his wife Emma and parents, Andy and Jane – that it was not too late to turn things around.
“Thanks to ancient Indigenous wisdom and the latest in science and technology, we have never known more about these life support systems, what we’re doing to them and what can and must be done to halt this catastrophic decline and begin to reverse it,” he said.
With Alyawarre woman and the former Chair of the Lowitja Institute Aunty Pat Anderson watching from the gallery, Pocock told the Senate of his support for a First Nations Voice to Parliament, describing the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a generous offer to all Australians that can guide the treaty-making and truth telling process we need for reconciliation.
Laying out his social justice priorities, Pocock – whose speech was the first in the Senate to translated by an Auslan interpreter – called for a focus on health and wellbeing, and “courage and leadership” to tackle the housing crisis, attract and maintain healthcare workers, ensure the elderly are cared for with dignity, and that people don’t have to fight to get the care they need under the NDIS.
“It’s on us to make the changes, and it’s not too late,” he said.
One of the so-called ‘teal’ independents, Member for Mackellar in Sydney Dr Sophie Scamps paid tribute to the community action that won her the seat, saying she stood in Parliament not “for myself, not for a party but as a voice for you, the people of Mackellar.”
Speaking of the 2022 election as a watershed moment that may change politics forever, Scamps said an “unprecedented wave of grassroots democracy has resulted in the largest ever Lower House crossbench” and the Parliament has more women than ever.
Scamps, a GP with no previous political experience, who “had watched in awe as the Independent movement swept across Indi and then Warringah” put her success down to “listening” to her community about their concerns and priorities, particularly on climate change, and having a group of strong, everyday women work alongside her.
Time and again, climate change was the first issue people talked about and were most desperate for our government to act on and we must do that now, she said.
With a strong contingent of her volunteer army watching and her family watching on, Scamps also prioritised health, pressing for access to good jobs and affordable housing, expanding strained mental health and boosting community healthcare as “chronic disease, population growth, an ageing population, climate change and future pandemics will continue to strain our healthcare services.”
Reflecting on the power of being listened to, Scamps called on Australia to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart and Enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.
“After more than 200 years, I hope that Australia is finally ready to listen.”
The independent member for the Melbourne seat of Kooyong, Dr Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist who gave up her position to run for Parliament, used her first speech to praise the Australian health system, saying our medical professionals are as good as any in the world.
Ryan told Parliament the system had been under enormous strain during the pandemic, with doctors, nurses, allied health and other healthcare professionals finding it very difficult.
Ryan said Australia needed to ensure healthcare remains “fit for purpose, accessible and resilient”.
“There are many challenges to that, including not just an ongoing pandemic and an exhausted workforce but economic challenges of staffing and technology, new diagnostics and therapies, rehabilitation, and disability support. These are challenges both of equity and of ethics,” she told Parliament.
But it was climate change that remained the greatest challenge of our generation and after a decade of ineffective action, we need increased ambition and urgent action to transition to a net zero emissions world.
“We stand on the precipice of a great opportunity: a transformation to a new clean energy economy – an economy which will not need to rely on volatile markets and international security for a secure energy supply, an economy that is moving away from polluting fuels and combusting vehicles to quiet electric vehicles and clean air for our children,” she said.
In a reminder of her community-base, Ryan said the people of Kooyong, like all Australians, value fairness, integrity and respect and had sought change not for their individual interests but for decency and democracy and, above all, for the next generation to be safe and prosperous in a hospitable world.
Ryan said Kooyong voted for the many communities across Australia affected by droughts and floods; for those in education, science, the arts and the caring professions who felt ill supported by the government during the pandemic; for women who are underpaid and for First Nations Australians still struggling for recognition and for immigrants subjected to fear and suspicion.
In recent years many Australians had perceived a dimming of the light of Australian democracy – Ben Chifley’s light on the hill – but, Ryan said, a candle was lit in 2012 in the seat of Indi by Cathy McGowan, her family and supporters.
They “harnessed the power of a community and demonstrated the possibility of a new political paradigm in this country—independent representatives chosen by their community ….. That first candle inspired more, individual but with collective effect, first in Warringah and now in Mackellar, North Sydney, Wentworth, Curtin, Fowler and Goldstein.
“My final words are to the next generation, to the future of our country. My children. The children for whom I provided medical care. Those schoolkids on the Glenferrie Road tram. The young adults of Kooyong wondering how to pay for their tertiary education and their own homes: Yours is the light that has guided me to this place. Keep shining brightly. Your voices are being heard.”
It was the pandemic that led to Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah’s political awakening.
Delivering her first speech with her parents, aunts and uncle, campaign volunteers and medical colleagues in the gallery, the new Labor member for the Melbourne seat of Higgins said she stopped sleeping in the first half of 2020 as she watched healthcare workers in Italy die.
At a time when vaccines were a pipe dream, Ananda-Rajah said her colleagues spoke of their fears and of feeling powerless against a medical establishment that refused to believe COVID was spread by droplets.
Ananda-Rajah felt forced to act amid shortages of PPE, staff infection and rising fear, co-founding Health Care Workers Australia and advocating for better masks, reporting of healthcare infections and recognition of aerosol spread.
“What I’ve learnt, I now bring to Parliament – that is, the need to listen to the front line. Whether it’s health care, business or the environment, those at the coalface know the problems and will proffer solutions before they become crises,” she said.
Standing in the chamber, Ananda-Rajah still felt the pull of medicine, where over 25 years in the public hospital system she had seen “the sins of society wash up in our public hospital system: homelessness, poor education, childhood trauma, social isolation, poverty, racism, unemployment and climate change”.
“I prescribed pills for problems rooted in disadvantage,” she said, adding that as “a doctor, I saw things as they were. Now, as a Parliamentarian, I see things as they could be”, and where barriers can be identified and dismantled.
Climate change would exacerbate inequality, she argued, calling it “the threat multiplier” that made ironing out inequality a matter of urgency.
Ananda-Rajah, whose Tamil parents fled ethnic violence in Sri Lanka in the 1960s, going to the United Kingdom and then Zambia, before migrating to Australia, said she’s proud to be one of the 50 percent of new Labor members who are from culturally diverse backgrounds.
A spokeswoman for her office said the reaction to the speech had been overwhelmingly positive with her message on COVID and health resonating with many in the electorate.
Mutti Mutti and Wemba Wemba woman Jana Stewart, Labor’s first Indigenous female senator for Victoria, used her first speech to pay homage to her mother, her great-grandmother and her nan, for being her inspiration.
Stewart, who was 35 weeks pregnant with her second child when she spoke and gave birth four weeks later, told the Senate how the strong matriarchs in her family had shown her who she was: a proud Mutti Mutti, Wemba Wemba, Barababaraba, and Yorta Yorta woman.
She said her mother had urged her – the oldest of six – to withstand the sticks and stones and make it easier for her siblings, while her nan who told her never to forget where she came from.
“It is because of them that my children will always know where they belong, and it’s because they both survived some of the worst policies our nation has ever seen – they survived this country’s attempt at a First Nations genocide.
“They raised strong Aboriginal children who were taught to be proud of their culture and identity in spite of living in a society that told them that they were not equal because of their Aboriginality,” she said.
Watched by her son Jude, her parents Josephine Kelly and Ronald Briggs, nan Elvie Kelly, and some of her brothers and sisters, the Senator described sitting in a classroom as a child and hearing the teacher reading out the grim Closing the Gap statistics and feeling her future was being read out: unemployment, early death, chronic illness and less chance of finishing school.
Hearing First Nations people being talked about in deficit language was not unique to high school but was everywhere, and Stewart called for Australians to rethink the way they talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, saying words are powerful and words matter.
A former family therapist, Stewart first realised the power and purpose of politics when the Victorian Labor Government made a commitment to a treaty with First Nations people.
Stewart said she’s in Federal Parliament to change the nation, to do something about family violence, about racism in primary schools, high school and everyday life, and about the employment and pay gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians.
“It has been heartbreaking for me to have comforted families through their trauma, grief and loss and to have attempted to repair their trust in the system. These are not the easy things, but these are the things that matter – because people matter,” she said.
Stewart told Parliament the burden of these failures falls disproportionately on kids in contact with the justice system, and that “resources, race and class of your family” determined how you were treated.
It was time to adopt the position of United Nations on the rights of the child and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14, she said.
“Criminalising children, young, almost guarantees they will be back within one year or two, and, in most cases, it cements their pathway into the adult system,” she said.
Shrugging off criticism that talking about race and privilege might make people feel uncomfortable, Stewart argued they are things that shape everything we do and how we do it.
Stewart, who received a standing ovation for her speech, emphasised the importance of truth telling about the treatment of First Nations Australians, saying Australia success as a rich, multicultural nation is being held back by the weight of collective shame and guilt we carry because of our history.
(Note from editor: this article was corrected on 6 December to note that Senator Stewart is one of six siblings, rather than three as initially published.)
Stay tuned for part two in this series of articles by Cate Carrigan.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on the Uluru Statement from the Heart