Tuesday, 20 September 2022
Member for Kororoit
Member for Kororoit
Ms KAIROUZ (Kororoit) (15:53): When I first rose to my feet in this place a little over 14 years ago I did so with my family proudly watching me deliver my inaugural speech. Today they are watching me give my final speech from home, but one person is absent: my dear sister, Paula. I have had not the opportunity to tribute Paula in this place, so I ask for indulgence to take this opportunity to say a few words. The thought of delivering my valedictory speech without the presence of my soulmate and best friend by my side fills me with sorrow, especially considering how proud she was of me on the day of my speech. Many of you know that Paula suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on 12 July 2021. Paula left us with a huge void in our lives, a void that can never be filled but a void we must learn to live with.
Learning to do this has been extremely difficult. Paula was a successful lawyer. She was larger than life and lived her life to the fullest after it almost ended in her 20s. Paula beat cancer and lived, and I do not mean lived to breathe; I mean she lived life to the fullest. She loved life, and life loved her back. Paula had a sharp intellect and a wicked sense of humour. She was kind-hearted, beautiful, vivacious and mischievous. Paula was healthy and strong. She died suddenly without any warning and without saying goodbye. But what gives me solace is that Paula knew she was loved, and we knew that she loved us too.
All the excitement I had in my life was because of Paula. Any trouble I ended up in was when I was with Paula. The funniest and the best moments were with my sister; the saddest and the darkest moments are now because of Paula’s passing. I miss how she would put on a show for me when lighting and puffing on her favourite Montecristo or Cohiba cigars and sipping on a negroni to get me jealous just because I refused to smoke a cigar in public. I miss the little things with Paula, things that may sound trivial when verbalised but were important to me. I miss her instructing me what direction to avoid or to look at by simply telling me the time. I miss our chats, our laughs, our arguments, her hugs and her voice. I am a person of faith; however, sometimes—in fact many times—I found myself questioning my faith during my grieving process. What I will never question, however, is that Paula will remain in me and in my heart, and her memory and her spirit will live through me every single moment.
As much as I would like to keep this speech positive and concentrate on my achievements as a member of Parliament, unfortunately this is going to be the last opportunity that I have to canvass important matters that have been in the public domain for more than two years now, so I ask you to be a little patient with me and give me an extra few moments. I speak of course of a sensationalist commercial television program that was proven to be a fabrication but which has led to much disruption. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I coincidentally shared an office floor with someone who was at the centre of factional politics at a leadership level in the Labor Party. I employed former staff of a mentally ill person who had decided to blow the Labor Party and the Andrews government up by recording us unlawfully and recording ministers not only of his own party but within his own grouping. I speak about Anthony Byrne.
I was not second in charge of any faction, no faction had control over two-thirds of the Labor Party’s membership and I did not engage in industrial-scale branch stacking for the past few decades. I was a minister doing my job. I was collateral damage in a power play for control over the Labor Party. Yes, I was very much factionally savvy in this place, and I was always prepared to offer my time and my experience to new MPs in the right faction and particularly within my group. I was not a factional player in the party organisation, let alone second in charge of an influential subfaction, which would have required the time and the experience of juggling alliances and competing interests, which would have required deep relationships with key people in the factional leadership in the party organisation. I did not have those relationships. I was too busy doing what mattered to me, and that was doing my job as a minister.
However, like every MP in a safe seat, I was very protective of my patch, as every MP has the right to be. That was the extent of my factional involvement. Ironically, after my preselection, which involved various competing clans in the Labor Party in the western suburbs, I set myself the objective of managing the well-known, volatile inter-clan rivalry in the western suburbs so I would not be sucked into the fray. I was largely successful in that endeavour, as evidenced by the fact that during my term as a member of Parliament branch-stacking wars between Labor Party groupings in my patch of the west did not resurface.
From 2014 I had been around the cabinet table, first as a cabinet secretary then as a minister, where I remained until the fabrications of the 60 Minutes program. I have a big problem with the way IBAC and the Ombudsman conducted themselves, and I will talk about that in a minute. What the hearings did show is that none of the accusations shown on the 60 Minutes program were factual. That is a remarkably bad strike rate, especially when you consider the full coercive powers and resources of the state—I do not mean the government, I mean the state—were deployed to prove the 60 Minutes narrative.
I offer a piece of advice to everyone in this house. I say to you: always make sure that you never lose sight of your family and loved ones as you go about the tireless and sometimes thankless task of trying to improve the lives of Victorians. Politics should be a noble pursuit. But let me tell you firsthand that politics also attracts the worst of the worst characters in our society who are in it for the wrong reasons.
Anthony Byrne and Alexandra Stalder are two people I knew through my relationship with my former union. I was not close to them. I would not have had more than a handful of conversations with them in the past decade. I did not have a problem with them, and they should not have had a problem with me since we did not interact enough to cause each other ill feelings. I employed two former Byrne staffers who were factional activists in his office and who wanted to branch out into policy work at a ministerial level. It turns out that they were planted in my office by Byrne as spies to tear me down, which included recording my conversations. Their recordings were not significant enough to be published because there was nothing to record. Why? I do not know, but I will offer you this because I think it affects all of us here and all of those who will serve here in the future: the decision by some in my party, who are not in this place—the party which I loved and served faithfully for more than half of my life—to support, celebrate and then exploit the actions of two disturbed individuals will have a lasting impact on Australian politics. Anyone could do it but nobody did because the consequences to all future engagements in political life would be so devastating. Once the sugar hit of the headlines had passed, those celebrating the demise of their rivals would have understood that from now on they too were not safe. From now on no-one is safe. Every person in politics these days is armed with broadcast-quality video and audio recording devices, and any one of us can be recorded at any time using the same kind of illegal tactics.
I do not think I have met anyone in public life who could survive the broadcast of their most intimate private conversations with their most trusted colleagues, with all the indiscretions, rude words, excessive candour and frankness which are often involved in those. A politics where the Surveillance Devices Act 1999 does not apply because a cowboy journalist can claim it is in the public interest to broadcast any of our private conversations is toxic and doomed. It is a politics without trust, where its practitioners need to whisper in corridors, use encrypted apps and hide in the shadows like gangsters. It is a politics unworthy of this grandest of grand buildings.
When history repeats, and sadly it will, I hope serious consideration is given to giving prison terms to those who pretend to be your friend and secretly record and broadcast private conversations as a political weapon against rivals. I believe it is just a matter of time. There is a Lebanese saying which may be unparliamentary, so I will paraphrase: ‘A thief thinks everyone is a thief’. I have no doubt that the people who set up the illegal recording thought that they would find systemic improper activity involving money. We know who they are, and we know what they got up to themselves. A thief thinks everyone is a thief. The 60 Minutes program was promoted as the biggest political scandal in Australia’s history, and two integrity bodies were allocated to forensically investigate their fabrication. In the end they found nothing. The only breach in the law was the leak of the draft report.
It would be logical to conclude that I am satisfied. I am not. IBAC and the Ombudsman should never have dragged the inquiry on for so long. The reason IBAC and the Ombudsman held public examinations was that they deemed electorate officers performing factional tasks as serious corrupt conduct. The Ombudsman knew from day one that even if staffers were used for factional purposes, that would not have been deemed corrupt conduct requiring a public examination. The Ombudsman knew from day one that the allegations pertaining to staffers were allegations of breaches of the code of conduct: in other words they were matters for the Parliament and not the integrity bodies. Yet the Ombudsman allowed the investigation to go on for two years and predictably after two years referred these matters to the Parliament. It was disingenuous, it was an abuse of power and it was a waste of taxpayer money. It was also a denial of natural justice to leak the report before I had the opportunity to reply to the allegations in the report. Furthermore, IBAC investigated the internal affairs of a private organisation, which is well beyond their jurisdiction. They are not funded to do that.
The IBAC and the Ombudsman’s investigation shows that when you do the right thing, no matter how malicious those with extreme powers are, intent on bringing you down, you are safe. I am fortunate that I come from a very proud family. My upbringing would never allow me to gain financial advantage through wrongdoing, nor would I ever be part of allowing taxpayer funds to be misused. I never went cap in hand asking for a cent. I did not receive gifts and benefits. I did not misuse my entitlements or seek favours for donations, and I did not waste my budget and make false promises. I did not fundraise and then divert money away from my party, and I did not siphon off community grants. I have paid my taxes, and I have put my hand in my pocket. A thief thinks everyone is a thief.
I served on Darebin council for over 10 years as a councillor and twice as mayor and was elected as junior vice-president of the greatest party of all, the Australian Labor Party. In June 2008 I was elected to represent the district of Kororoit. Being the first female in Victoria of Lebanese descent to be elected as mayor and to Parliament, I hoped that young women in my community were inspired to join political parties and get involved. I hope they continue to be.
After Labor’s defeat in 2010 I became Opposition Whip. I like to think that I played an important role in the election of the Andrews Labor government. Being whip during that time was one of the most important positions in opposition, because the numbers were so close. The Baillieu-Napthine government had 45 members; the Labor opposition had 43—a difference of one vote. Then Liberal MP Geoff Shaw turned independent and delivered the Labor opposition 44 votes on many, many good days—but that was not easy. It was stressful, but it was enjoyable. There was no room for leave, complacency or error—and I apologise to those that bore the brunt of my robust administration as whip. My dealings with the former member for Frankston were black and white. He did not like the cleverly worded, misleading commitments and statements that too many politicians engage in, and I had the advantage of being direct.
I look back now with so much warmth, and I smile and remember the chaos, the stunts and the traps. When it was on it was on. We would do almost anything to disrupt this place. We walked out en masse on the government on several occasions. The government walked out en masse on the government, and the Speaker walked out en masse from the speaker and would often throw out members during question time like it was happy hour. And just like a Tuesday menu special I would get thrown out almost every Tuesday. I am grateful that I played a leading role and contributed to, yes, some of the shenanigans but more importantly to the election of the Andrews Labor government. I am grateful that I worked with the best in the Premier, the Deputy Premier and the member for Monbulk, who never deviated from the strategy of winning government and who ran rings around the parliamentary leadership of the Liberal Party. They led a disciplined and united team. Thank you. I thank you for the leadership, the laughs and the adventures, and I wish you well for the future.
When the Andrews government came to office in 2014 I was given the responsibility of being the Cabinet Secretary, the best job in government. I was intimately involved with the government’s agenda, and I learned the tricks of the trade, the most important being respecting processes, because good process protects government and leads to good outcomes in government decision-making. I subsequently led the consumer affairs, gaming and liquor regulation, local government and suburban development portfolios. My team and I developed some groundbreaking reforms in delivering the strongest reforms and protections to renters in the country and striking the right balance between the government, the gaming industry, responsible gambling advocates and problem gamblers. We recognised the value of the growing liquor industry, particularly to employment in the entertainment and tourism industries. I thoroughly enjoyed working with communities, businesses, NGOs and academics across the state to make sure our suburbs were vibrant, livable and revitalised places in the suburban development portfolio. I went back to my grassroots experience in the local government portfolio in rewriting the Local Government Act 2018. I am grateful and humbled to have held those positions. I am acutely aware that I am one of the few to get to hold those important positions, and I thank my colleagues for entrusting me with those roles.
Reflecting on what it has meant for me to be a member of this majestic chamber, I realised that all I ever wanted to do was to improve the lives of those I swore an oath to represent and protect. My motivation and my inspiration in my role as a member of Parliament has been to be the voice of my community, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds and those from migrant communities that have not lived in Australia for long and who are often afraid and not trusting of government. I learned a lot from the community I represented. I knew what they wanted because I lived local, shopped local and ate local. I moved into Caroline Springs within two months of winning the by-election. Because I lived in the community I understood what the community’s needs and concerns were. I do not believe you get the same level of connection with your electorate if you do not live in the community. This is something that Labor must do better on. The reason I immediately moved into the area is that I felt that I would be disrespecting my constituents if I did not. My message to all sections of the Labor Party is: listen to those communities, do not take them for granted and do not leave them behind, because they will leave you behind.
I am proud to be part of a team that delivered policy reforms that directly benefited communities in the west and billions of dollars of much-needed infrastructure. I am extremely proud of the delivery of the Caroline Springs train station, the Deer Park train station, the Joan Kirner Women’s and Children’s Hospital, numerous new schools and school upgrades, level crossing removals in Deer Park, Derrimut and St Albans, the millions of dollars that were spent on bitumen to improve our roads and of course the smaller but no less important projects that went a long way.
Today I step away from my parliamentary career and public life knowing that I never deviated from my beliefs, even though they were perceived to be archaic or unpopular. I always supported the underdog, even though it was not in my personal interest to do so. I was probably resented, perhaps respected, but I was always true to myself. They say if you want a friend in politics, get a dog—I did, Henry is his name—but I have been one of the fortunate ones to keep the same friends I had before entering this place, and I have made a couple of other lifelong friends along the way. I thank the people that I thanked in my inaugural speech, even though some are no longer with us today and others I do not see anymore. I thank the people that I cried with, laughed with and even argued with. I can never thank the people of Kororoit enough for showing their faith in me in the 2008 Kororoit by-election followed by three decisive election victories. It has been the greatest honour of my life serving you.
I thank the members of the Labor Party—the branch members, that is—and the countless volunteers who supported me and supported many other Labor candidates to deliver some wonderful victories. I could not have beaten my opponents and grown the margin of my seat from strength to strength if it had not been for their loyalty and support. To the good people of the Labor caucus, thank you for the numerous calls and messages and care and support that you gave me during the last couple of years. You are a fabulous group of people. I enjoyed working with you, and I will always barrack for you.
To the members who are sitting on the opposite benches of the political divide, thank you very much for the respect and the courtesy that you have always extended to me. I wish you well. To the clerks, the parliamentary attendants, the Hansard team, the catering team and other parliamentary officers, particularly Barry Cull, who has been responsible for my electorate office while I have been on leave, and Micky Rootes from the Premier’s office, who has always kept my electorate office up to date, thank you.
I thank my drivers, particularly Rob Brens, who always treated me like one of his daughters.
I thank my hardworking and honest ministerial staff, particularly Michael de Bruyn, Dr Elie Khalil and Adele Elasmar, all of whom I have known since before I entered this place.
I thank my loyal and hardworking electorate office staff, Kirsten Psaila, Chris Kelly, Tony Peng, Diana Biewer, Dinesh Chauhan and Bobi Acevski. Everything that was achieved in the portfolios and in the electorate is because of your commitment, your professionalism and your work ethic. I am very sorry for the way you were treated by those working from their ivory towers for simply doing your job. All your volunteerism, or free work, in assisting me in my public duties, which you considered to be helping your own community, has been so publicly questioned by those who sit in judgement of you and who are used to monetising every single word they utter. This is something that the mercenaries with the guns for hire that are the lawyers who sat in judgement of you do not understand—the concept of working for a cause, for values or for ideals. You were bullied and you were brutalised by those who have never stepped foot inside an electorate office and who have probably never set foot in the outer western suburbs. You were also abused and left with considerable emotional damage by IBAC and the Ombudsman, and you never put in an overtime claim. You always went above and beyond the call of duty in your roles, doing your jobs servicing the electorate after hours and on weekends, assisting me in my public duties and ensuring that every stakeholder and every constituent walked out of our office satisfied. You did this because of your sense of community pride and activism. I am so proud to have worked with you and to have achieved everything together. I will appoint all of you in a heartbeat.
To my loving and supportive family, thank you for reminding me each day that I am loved and that you are proud of me. I thank you for all the support you have given me my entire life. I am so fortunate to have you as my family. I love you more than life itself and more than words can describe. I promise you that I am not going anywhere. I will be present, and I will always be right by your side.
Being a member of Parliament has been the greatest honour of my life, and I realise that I have had a fortunate career. There are many good people that have served a long time in this place and have not had the same opportunities I have had. I came into this place in 2008 and had a great trajectory from backbencher to whip to cabinet secretary and then to minister in the space of 12 years, so I leave this place with a great sense of accomplishment and a sense of gratitude.
So what is next? I will still find a way to contribute to society and help those in need, but I am going to live life and I am going to take chances. I am not going to wait for anything, and for once I am not going to try to control things that are uncertain. I will light a cigar and sip on my favourite whiskey whenever and wherever I want, because life is too short. However, the one thing I am certain about is right now is the oldest I have ever been and the youngest I will ever be again. Thank you, and I bid you adieu.