Wednesday, 21 September 2022
Member for Keysborough
Member for Keysborough
The SPEAKER: It is now my pleasure to call members to make valedictory statements. I am looking forward to hearing the reflections of our colleagues as they reflect on their parliamentary careers, as I am sure all members in the chamber are too. In order to ensure that everyone’s statements start on time, I ask members to restrict their congratulations in the chamber and I ask members who wish to congratulate each other with a handshake or a hug to do so outside the chamber. I will, however, relax the prohibition against clapping at the end of speeches. One of my roles as Speaker is to help make the most of the chamber’s limited time and to ensure members and their guests who may be visiting to share these moments are treated with respect and not kept waiting.
Before I call the member, can I acknowledge Cr Steve Staikos, the mayor of Kingston council, who is in the gallery today.
Mr PAKULA (Keysborough) (14:51): The member for Eltham and the member for Footscray dared me to start my speech with that line from The Wedding Singer, which is ‘I have a microphone and you don’t, so you’ll listen to every damn word I have to say!’, but I think it would be inappropriate for me to start like that so I am not going to.
Leaving a career is a moment which causes you to reflect on the journey of life. I have watched my own kids—and I am glad they are here today—as they have grown and begun to develop interests, whether they are academic or sporting or occupational. You start to see them gravitate towards certain endeavours, whether it is getting their own bank account, buying a car or getting their first job, and I am at that stage with them now. The thing that is confronting is that for me personally that stage of life feels like about 5 minutes ago. I recall being in my mid-teens, admiring Cain and Hawke and Keating and bizarrely wanting to be a trade union official, having a deep interest in politics, being devoted to the Labor Party and joining the party and thinking of politics as a vocation and something that I wanted to be involved in, and I got to do it. And now it is all over. It puts me in mind of the closing line in Goodfellas when Henry Hill, having left the life and moved to the suburbs, says, ‘I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook’—which I should say is not my intention.
I have been asked countless times in the last three months whether I miss ministerial life, and the answer is categorically no, but it is still a realisation at the age of 53 to know that you have reached your first real pivot point in decades. Until now everything has been fairly linear—university, law, trade unionism, politics, cabinet. The continuum has broken, and it is an odd feeling to arrive at that point. But it is also an appropriate time to say some thankyous and to offer some reflections, which will be, by necessity, incomplete.
I do want to start with my alma mater, the National Union of Workers. In 1993 I walked into what was the strongest industrial and political outfit in Victoria—at least that was my view. The NUW gave me the best education a budding Labor activist could have. It was industrially strong and creative. It played the leading role in migrating Victorian workers to federal awards after the Kennett government abolished the state industrial system. It was full of talented people: smart former storemen and packers; tough, assertive women; exceptional industrial advocates—I am looking at one to my right—the cream of the working class, topped up by academics. Now, we were not called ‘academics’—there was a little word in the middle, but the Speaker has told me I am not allowed to say that word in the house.
The union was at the forefront of efforts to ensure that working people had a say in the boardrooms, in the creation of capital, so that workers had dignity in retirement. They were the ballast of the Labor right. They aimed to put quality people into Parliament and to deliver Labor governments. In my time there the credit for that most specifically goes to people like Greg Sword, Denis Lennen and Charlie Donnelly, and for the longest time I was very privileged to represent that tradition in this place. The union is still industrially successful. It is a matter of sadness to me that it has, since its amalgamation, vacated a part of the field that it once occupied—that ballast that I talked about. I think it has been a bad thing for the Labor right and a bit unfortunate for the party, but time moves on. We cannot control matters once we are gone.
One of the happy coincidences, though, of working at the NUW was that in 2006 three of us entered Parliament together—the Treasurer was the assistant general secretary when I started and Jaala Pulford and I worked together in the Victorian branch for 12 of my 13 years there. Now, it might come as a surprise to people, but Parliament is not generally replete with trusted confidantes! Much of your working life is spent dealing with people who are trying to do you a serious mischief, so to spend my time here with not one but two people with whom I share a culture, a history, a tradition and a friendship has been a stroke of extraordinary good fortune. So Treasurer, thanks for all the cash, especially for racing. As for the Minister for Small Business and minister for medical research et al, seeing her manage her ministerial responsibilities for the past eight years in the context of her family’s unimaginable grief has put any problems that I have had into perspective.
In the same way that a baby can be lucky in its choice of parents, I have been lucky in my choice of leaders. When I engaged in political self-immolation by trying to unseat Simon Crean in 2006, that could well have been it for my political career. But Steve Bracks stepped in, threw me a Legislative Council lifeline, made me a parliamentary secretary and has remained a great friend and sounding-board ever since. John Brumby gave me my first opportunity to serve as a minister, even if it was only after his preferred candidate responded to his offer of a cabinet post by refusing it, retiring from Parliament and leaving the country forthwith. The episode proved two things: it is good to hold your form when you get bad news, and do not argue with Brumby about who sang Cat’s in the Cradle, even when he is wrong. I cannot speak highly enough of John though. Even when his sentences started with, ‘Mate, you’re on another planet’—which they frequently did—I was learning something from him.
And Dan. I think if I started pissing in Dan’s pocket now after 16 years, he would probably think less of me. It is not the way that we relate. There was a time there when people tried to make Dan and me bad friends, but it never worked because it misunderstood our shared ambition for the party, for the government and for the state, and it completely underestimated our mutual respect. Dan always gave me excellent portfolios, and he let me manage them. For my part, I never forgot that premiers sometimes have strong opinions about said portfolios. He absorbed my occasionally boisterous disagreements with patience; sometimes I even persuaded him. But critically I always accepted that where our judgements differed, as you would expect them to over 16 years, the ledger was squarely in his favour. He was right much more often than I was. He has led a brave and consequential government. I think I said that in my statement when I left the ministry. He has always been focused on moving the place forward, and he has been prepared to bear for all of us on this side the opprobrium, which far too often descends into bile, that comes from making hard decisions, and I thank him for everything he has done.
All of us here are lucky to have the support of the Parliament and the committee staff, and I thank them certainly for the work that they did while I was both on the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee and chair of the Privileges Committee. We also have wonderful, dedicated people who work in our offices. I have had too many to compile an exhaustive list, but I want to thank my exceptional electorate staff, who have provided so much support to me and to the good people of Western Metropolitan Region, Lyndhurst and Keysborough—of which I will be the only member ever: Sebastian Zwalf, Christine Donnelly, Katherine Kirkwood, the late, great Jodi Dack, Tim Miller, Alex Fawke, Michael Xing, Molly Ashworth, Elijah Buckland, Scotty David and Monica Bladier.
Some of my electorate office staff eventually joined my ministerial office—people like Claudia Laidlaw and Charlotte Gray—and they worked alongside another great group of people. As a minister the line between success and failure is often about as wide as the shadow cast by one’s staff. So apart from Claudia and Charlotte, my deep gratitude is owed to Chris Reilly, Amanda Billows, the Honourable Harriet Shing, Brett Hope, Jarrod Dobson, Mit Lolas, Steve Moynihan, Andrea David, Trystyn Bowe, Tully Fletcher, Sharon Broomhead, Holly Little, Anna Jurkiewicz, Sabina Husic, Anthony Illot, Melissa Arch, Simon Shiell, Chris Leach, Sarah Wilson, Penny Guadagnolo, Sally Carroll, Mounir Kiwan, Shaun Phillips, Saskia Wells, Anthony Templeton, my driver for a decade Lyndon Fracaro, and Olga Tsironis, who was my executive assistant for many years.
That leaves the three stars of the show, the people who served as my chiefs of staff. Shane Lucas was my editor at Lot’s Wife in 1987, and we have been mates ever since. As I watched his career in the Victorian public service blossom I thought, ‘If I ever make cabinet, I’ll try to pinch Shane from the VPS’. He was exactly what I needed. He was experienced and trusted, he spoke the language of the Premier’s private office and he doused my more combative instincts. He would have been with me longer if Brumby had not moved me to public transport in 2010, which meant about 15 calls per evening from the PPO to Shane, which was a bridge too far.
If Shane doused my combative instincts, Adrian Browne inflamed them. If I was pissed off, AB was more pissed off. If my instinct was ‘Tell them no’, his was ‘And tell them to get stuffed for good measure’. But we also called him Cautionary Browne, and for good reason. Not only was he ever present with the phrase ‘If I could just inject a note of caution here’, he also read every word of every brief before it hit my desk, and I can only imagine how many reports got punted back to the department before I ever saw them. That is not to cast any aspersions on the amazing public servants who assisted me, and if I could just digress for a moment to acknowledge Howard Ronaldson, Jim Betts, Greg Wilson and Simon Phemister, who were the four secretaries I worked with so closely—they and all of the officials did an unbelievable job. But back to AB, he was with me from 2008 until the beginning of this year, apart from the four years in opposition, and without him there is no way I would have survived as a minister for as long as I did.
Finally, the incomparable Christine Tyrrell. Ministers who are in the job long enough tend to become associated with a particular staff member. The former Minister for Planning and Peter Keogh are a good example of that. But for me that was Christine Tyrrell, even though she worked for me, left, worked for me again, left again and finally returned this year as my chief. And to illustrate that, when I called the PPO to ask them when valedictories would be, Ben Foster said to me, ‘Final sitting week—I’ve already told Tyrrell’. When I pointed out that Tyrrell did not work for me anymore, his response was basically, ‘Yeah, come on’. Tyrrell has done every job going: electorate officer, adviser, media adviser, deputy chief and chief of staff. She made sure there were lollies and savoury Shapes for the road trips. She reminded me when it was somebody’s birthday. These jobs are pretty unforgiving. We all need a Tyrrell, and I am lucky that I had mine.
We also need a supportive family. My mum, Adele, my late father, Lou, and my sisters, Rita and Tammy, were always embarrassingly proud of having a son and brother not just in politics but on the TV. My kids have known nothing other than Dad being in the public eye. When I was elected, Ben was four and Eva was one. I am not going to claim that I am retiring to spend more time with them, because they are 20 and 17 now so they probably do not want me to, but in any case the great thing about state politics is you do get to be home quite a lot. I am still sure they copped their share of unwelcome questions at school when I did something newsworthy, but the evidence at home was that it did not seem to bother them much. You see, my solution to bad stories, particularly during COVID, was to not watch the news. We have only got one living room, so I would go down to the bedroom and read a book while the news was on. I would hear Ben coming down the hall. He would open the door and go, ‘Papa, you were on the news just now’. I would say, ‘Yeah’, and he would go, ‘It was bad’. ‘Thanks, mate. Get out!’.
Regarding the journey that I mentioned at the start of this speech, my wife, Lisa, has been alongside me for all of it. At uni we started going out. We got engaged and married when I was at the union, at the Treasurer’s behest—that is an in-joke. We have raised our family together whilst I have been in this place, which means that in reality she has done most of the raising and I got to do the things that we do here. But we have got a lovely home, our kids are better than all right, and for all the holidays and the food and the downtime—all the basic sanity-preserving stuff—it is Lisa who deserves the credit. I am sure she would say it is now time for me to pull my weight a bit more, and I think my excuse for not doing so is about to evaporate.
I want to conclude with some reflections about this job and the real concern I have about how any of us would hand-on-heart go about convincing the next young idealist that this is a career that they should pursue. On any measure I think it is a less attractive proposition than it was even 20 years ago, and that is not about the abolition of the defined benefit scheme—not entirely anyway. There is email, social media, more extreme forms of abuse, a febrile political environment, a headline-hungry fourth estate and a seemingly relentless trend toward expanding the definition of what is considered improper and simultaneously narrowing the prerogative of the electorate to be the arbiters of such conduct. Some of those things we cannot do much about—Twitter is not going away; public discourse does not feel like it is about to get more polite—but most people are here to try to make positive change, and I am not sure we tell those stories well enough.
We receive the kudos for the big things we do. In my own portfolios I am put in mind of the implementation of the Betrayal of Trust recommendations, the work to assist business through the pandemic, the acquisition and extension of major events and working with my friend the member for Altona on voluntary assisted dying. Those sorts of things are incredibly rewarding, but they are also well understood. What is not so well understood are the countless little wins we are able to achieve for our communities every day. I think of the publican in Stawell who was on the verge of going under and whose business was saved through a cooperative effort that involved me, Minister Pulford and Ed O’Donohue when he was liquor and gaming minister. During COVID restrictions I received an email from a CBD restaurant owner named James who thought he was in the wrong category for Licensed Hospitality Venue Fund support because of a quirk in his liquor licence. I called him and sent a public servant down to have a look at his venue, and it was a much larger venue than his licence suggested, which put him in a higher category for support. That bloke stopped me in the street the week before last to say thanks, and it was easily the highlight of that week.
I am also reminded of Cheryl, a grandmother who approached me at a street stall in Dingley to tell me about her grandson with severe epilepsy and the benefits to him of medical marijuana. That conversation begat another conversation and another, and it got the ball rolling on the legalisation of therapeutic cannabis. I think about Cheryl quite a bit and the potential for a single person talking to their MP to generate significant change. We should talk more about those sorts of things.
We should be just a tiny bit kinder to each other. This is not the regular exhortation to raise the standards of parliamentary discourse—we have heard that in the last couple of days—but it is just an observation that courtesy and reasonableness are free. When I was in opposition it was the petty slights that I resented, the failure to provide an acknowledgement at an event, the letter from a minister that was so full of invective that you could not convey it to the constituent who raised the original query. That sort of thing depletes the karma bank, and it gets remembered and, importantly, it comes back with interest. If I have ever fallen short of those standards myself, I hope it has been the exception. But give the acknowledgement, write the courteous reply, and remember that members also have partners and kids and parents, so maybe do not make egregious accusations against people unless you are pretty confident they are justified. I think the circumstances where somebody who submits themselves to public life actually deserves to have their reputation or their livelihood permanently compromised are incredibly rare, and we should remember that about one another.
Lastly, I say to this Parliament, however it is comprised: guard your sovereignty jealously. Never forget that it is this arm of government that is formed by the will of voters. Representative democracy is a good thing. Making commitments to voters in return for their support is not improper. The allocation of public funds is not something that should be solely within the purview of public servants, and if voters disagree with our priorities, they have a way of letting us know that. I first had this argument with a lawyer, and I think the member for Rowville was there when I had it, and the member for Preston would have been there. It was an argument I had with a judge at a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing in 2007. I do fear that an idea is taking root that voters cannot be relied on to assess these matters and that the only way to keep politicians in line is to have lawyers and judges be the final arbiters of the appropriateness of political decisions. Well, I am a former Attorney-General. I know how devoted the judicial arm of government is to the notion of the separation of powers. Let us never forget that it cuts both ways.
And that, my friends, is that. It has been great fun. Be smart, be tough, be brave, be kind. Carn the Blues! Join the union, and vote Labor. Farewell to you all!