Governor-General’s Speech: Address-in-Reply

Jason Clare, Member for Blaxland

‘On 27 December 1941, Prime Minister John Curtin issued a clarion call to the nation. In our darkest hour and with the looming threat of invasion, he called on a generation to steel its resolve and make ready the defence of Australia. Curtin’s call reached a young man from Australia Street, Camperdown, Sydney-a young man who had just turned 18. Eight days later he joined the Australian Army.

Not old enough to vote in 1941 but old enough to know his country needed him, old enough to be part of the first army to defeat the Japanese at Milne Bay, old enough to be torn open by mortar fire. His name was Jack Clare and he was my grandfather. On the other side of the world, my other grandfather was a prisoner of war. Athol Neate was captured in the doomed defence of Crete and spent the next 2½ years in Stalag 18A in Wolfsberg, Austria.

I tell their stories because their names deserve a place on the national public record. They were men of courage and fortitude, like their generation and like their Prime Minister. And, while the challenges that face us today are very different, meeting them will require the same determination and national resolve. They require us to harness the skills of the Australian people and their readiness to serve. The noblest thing that we can do is serve our country. Australia knew that in 1941, and Australians know it today. Whether we are teaching the young or caring for the old, fighting the fires of the Australian bush or fighting for the rights of others, our service matters. This place, this parliament, is also about service. Many outside here do not believe that, but they want to, and so do I.

In June 1966, under the shadow of apartheid, Robert Kennedy left this message with a group of young South African students:

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope …

It is a message that is just as relevant today as it was then. People of courage and belief can make a difference. It is this faith that will drive my public service. And it explains what happened to Australia on 24 November last year, when a ripple of hope washed away the politics of division and fear.

Thank you to my new colleagues who carried this message to the Australian people, thank you to those who carried the torch through the darkness of over a decade in opposition and thank you to my friends in this place-the members for Prospect, Watson, Fowler, Banks and Reid-for your wise counsel and advice. To these I add the state members for Toongabbie, Cabramatta, Fairfield, Auburn and East Hills; former Premiers of New South Wales Bob Carr and Neville Wran; Senator-elect Mark Arbib; and New South Wales ALP General Secretary Karl Bitar. I owe a special debt of gratitude to my campaign director, Tony Stewart, the state member for Bankstown; to my campaign team-amongst them, Brian and Elizabeth Langton, John McLaughlin, Jim Bakopanos and Myra Pengilly; to my amazing staff, Ingrid, Chris and Sally; and to my partner, Davina, the sunshine of my life.

An even greater debt is owed to my local branch members. They are the backbone of the Labor Party, and I thank every single one of them. They do not seek glory or recognition. They know that when you change the government you change the country, and they are the change-makers. It is because of them, and people like them across the country, that I stand on this side of the House today. Last week we saw how much we have already changed when a Prime Minister had the courage and the decency to say one simple but important word, to apologise to the stolen generations and to send forth a tiny ripple of hope. Today this country is a little better, and we all stand a little taller because he did. His actions give proof to the words of Robert Kennedy.

Most importantly, I thank the people of Blaxland for the support and trust that they have placed in me. Their faith in the Australian Labor Party has never wavered, and I am determined to be worthy of this precious trust. It is a great responsibility to be elected to the Australian parliament and an even greater privilege to serve the people I grew up with-my friends and neighbours, my old school mates and team mates. Blaxland is where mum and dad built a home and raised a family. They still live in the same house today. It is where mum works at my old high school, helping generations of Blaxland kids grow up, and it is where dad works with many others in the manufacturing industry. Sitting in the gallery, they are the proudest parents in Australia, and I am a most grateful son. To mum and dad, I bring to this place the values you have taught me: the importance of doing what is right, helping others and getting involved in the local community. On the sporting field and in the classroom, they always encouraged me to do my best, and they taught me the harder you work, the luckier you get. Also in the gallery is my high school history teacher, Peter Valenti. Peter brought the stories of John Curtin and Robert Kennedy to life, and he awoke in me the possibility of public service to improve the lives of others. He is now a school principal and is still inspiring young people in Blaxland.

I was the first in my family to go to university. The Australia that existed before Gough Whitlam did not give my parents the same opportunity. I studied law to help people. I quickly realised the best way to do this was not by arguing the law but by changing it. Bob Carr gave me that opportunity, and that is what we did. We changed the criminal law working with police and victims of crime. It was an honour to work for a man with such passion for public service. Each morning he would say to us, ‘What can we do to help someone today?’ He was a leader in the Labor tradition-a tradition and a party that believes in reward for effort, help for the needy and opportunity for all. It is a party whose commitment to a strong economy is matched by its commitment to a fair society.

Australians care about fairness. We argue about it in our pubs and clubs, around the barbecue and here in this chamber. It is in the title of our national anthem. It is the great barometer by which we judge things. It is part of our history. In November 1907, Justice Henry Bournes Higgins handed down the Harvester decision. This infused the concept of fairness into our industrial relations system. That was November 1907. In November 2007-100 years later almost to the day-the Australian people reaffirmed their commitment to fairness and threw out a government that had whittled it away. I am fortunate for many reasons but, above all, I am fortunate to be part of a Labor government, a government that will put fairness back into the lexicon of this parliament, a government that will put fairness back into the workplaces of this nation and a government that will put fairness back into the pay packets of working people-people like those who live in Blaxland.

Blaxland was created in 1949, in the early years of the postwar boom, when men like my grandfather staked their claim in the new housing estates of Western Sydney. Since that time there have been only three members for Blaxland-Eli Harrison, Paul Keating and Michael Hatton. I pay tribute to their contributions and place on record my sincere appreciation to Michael for his support and advice. All served the people of Blaxland with distinction. Paul Keating’s service went well beyond the boundaries of just one seat. He rendered the Australian economy competitive and prepared it for the 21st century. It took courage to float the dollar and vision to introduce reforms like compulsory superannuation. He also had a bold vision of Australia and our place in the world-strong and independent, engaged with Asia and reconciled with Indigenous Australia. It is a vision whose time has come.

Blaxland is an important part of the great Australian story. The traditional custodians of the land are the Dharug, Dharawal and Eora people. Rock paintings dating back 3,000 years can still be found along the Georges River. Matthew Flinders was the first European to explore and chart its waterways. Almost 100 years later Sir Henry Parkes settled on its banks. They are two men whose public service helped shape a nation. One gave Australia its name and the other inspired its Federation.

In the years between Flinders and Parkes, bushrangers plied their trade along Dog Trap Road and convicts built the historic Lansdowne Bridge. When the railway came to town 100 years ago, it brought with it a land boom. Paddocks were subdivided and suburbs born. After the Second World War, when Australia opened its arms to the people of the world, many settled here. Blaxland is now one of the most culturally diverse places in Australia. Working people from 130 different countries, speaking more than 60 different languages, call it home. It is a place of churches, mosques and temples, where different languages grace our shops and our homes welcome everyone, no matter where they were born, how they worship or what language they speak. This is where the new Australia is being forged-a courageous, cosmopolitan, cohesive Australia, where being Australian is not about where you come from but where you are going.

It is a place famous for its sporting heroes, people like Steve Waugh, Jon Konrads, Lenny Pascoe and Jeff Thomson, and a place brimming with unsung heroes, people like Jihad Dib, the Principal of Punchbowl Boys High School-a place that was threatened with closure four years ago because violence and disruption were so bad parents stopped sending their kids there. The school was failing. But, under his leadership, a lot of hard work has turned that around. This year’s year 7 is the biggest in 13 years. Enrolments have sprung up by 35 per cent in the last two years. And literacy improvements are 3½ times the state average.

Another local hero is Mark Newey. Mark is a real estate agent. Last year he helped eight families fend off a bank that wanted to throw them out on the street when the owner of the block of units defaulted on his mortgage. Mark fought for these people and convinced the bank to let them stay in their homes.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a Mark Newey on their side. Last year 300 families in Blaxland lost their homes, more than anywhere else in Australia, more than ever before. This is the real and unravelling legacy of the Howard government. Blaxland is the mortgage stress capital of Australia. I was speaking to a real estate agent in Cabramatta last week who told me that he has four repossessed houses on his books. That’s just one agent. Just one month. The sheriff at Bankstown Court told me there are about 30 repossessions about to occur in the next two weeks. Young families who sell up before the sheriff arrives find the value of their home has plummeted. The median house price in Blaxland has fallen by 16 per cent in the last three years. Many now have negative equity in their homes. It means they owe the bank more than the house is worth, making the threat of repossession all the more frightening.

The last housing boom was great for some but it has made life tougher for others. The rate of homeownership is dropping. So is the proportion of first home buyers. I want to make sure the great Australian dream still means something to future generations-where a mortgage is an investment, not a trap.

It is a challenge for any family to build or buy a house. It is just as big a challenge for governments to turn rows of houses into a working city, to build infrastructure. Seventy per cent of Australians live in our major cities. They are the engine rooms of our economy. Improving the performance of our economy means improving the performance of our cities-making them work.

I have seen firsthand how important good infrastructure really is to our economy. For the last four years I worked for Transurban, the Australian company behind the successful Westlink M7 project. I saw the M7, and its 144 bridges, rise from the ground and the positive impact it has had on local families and businesses. The M7 is not just a road; it is a magnet for economic development. Even before the M7 opened, some of Australia’s biggest companies were flocking to relocate along its corridor. In the last three years it has helped to create 10,000 new jobs and generated almost $3 billion in economic development. It is a good example of what good infrastructure can do: fix the bottlenecks in our cities and the bottlenecks in our economy, improve people’s lives and make business more efficient, which helps us tackle inflation. The Business Council of Australia estimates we have a $90 billion infrastructure deficit. To tackle this task, like many others, we must bring a willingness to work together: working in partnership with state and local governments, with the private sector and with the community to renew our nation-building zeal, to build the infrastructure we need not just for today but for tomorrow.

On 20 January 1830 my great-great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Sydney Cove-in leg-irons. Thomas Clare was transported to Australia from Dublin. His heinous crime: stealing books. We have come a long way since then. He was sent to the other side of the world as punishment for wanting to read; now it is a national priority. It is certainly the top priority at my old primary school, Cabramatta Public. The principal, John Rice, tells me 80 per cent of kids starting kindergarten speak little or no English. Few can spell their name. But give it three years and their literacy and numeracy skills are at or above the state average.

What a powerful message this sends. Our education system is the most powerful cause for good in this country. Run well, it can ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their potential. It is the great equaliser in an unequal world. If we are serious about equal opportunity for men and women, for rich and poor, for Indigenous and multicultural Australia, then let it begin with the youngest Australians. Let us be the government that again invests in public education. Let us be the government that ensures postcodes do not determine opportunity. Let us be the government that recognises the importance of teachers to learning outcomes. And let us be the government that unleashes the potential of the next generation.

We start by giving every child access to high-quality preschool. The impact across Australia will be profound; the impact in Blaxland will be greater still. In the last few months, I have visited all 52 schools in Blaxland. What I found is a microcosm of our community and a window to its future. The number of children who currently go to preschool in Blaxland is well below the national average. Retention rates are also lower.
We need to fix this, not just for their sake but for ours. Our future prosperity rests on their shoulders. If every child in Blaxland has access to preschool, they will have the same chance as other children and they will perform better at school. If they stay longer at school, they will earn more and add billions to our economy. And, if they get a degree or a trade certificate, they will give this country the skills we need to compete in a shrinking and more competitive world. It is for all these reasons that we need an education revolution, and places like Blaxland need it most of all.

Mr Speaker, I promise to make the most of this extraordinary opportunity, to be worthy of this place and those who sent me to it, to serve with a fraction of the courage of my grandfathers and with all of their commitment. John Curtin inspired their generation and my grandfathers inspire me: not to defend a nation but to defend the humble hope of a family home; to protect the basic rights of working people and their dignity at work; to turn a new page in the great Labor tradition of nation building; to invest again in our youngest Australians; and to build a better Australia for the grandchildren of tomorrow.
As the poet Alexander Smith said:

A man does not plant a tree for himself; he plants it for posterity.

Our great responsibility is to govern not just for this generation but for the ones that follow. The pace of change and the challenges ahead demand it. Here in this place is where we can meet these challenges. This is where we can turn the Australia of our imagination into something real. Australia needs more people ready to serve and more voices to create ripples of hope. That is why I am here. That is why I am a member of the Australian Labor Party. And that is what I will do on behalf of the people of Blaxland.’