Wednesday, 21 September 2022
Ms BURNETT-WAKE (Eastern Victoria) (18:23): Thank you, President, for the last time. It has been a great honour and privilege to be the first female Liberal member of Parliament to represent the residents of Eastern Victoria. I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity, and I am proud of the work and the impact I have had. I have met many wonderful people and community groups during my time representing Eastern Victoria, and I know many of those connections made will be lifelong. I am thankful to have had tremendous support from my family and friends and a number of my colleagues too.
Firstly, to my family—my husband, Peter, and our sons, Dylan and Adrian—thank you for the love and support. You are my foundation. To my parents, my sisters and their families, thank you. To my staff, who have been on this journey with me—Julia, Taylah, Sarah, Michael and Ranj—thank you for all your contributions. I could not have done this job without the dedication, loyalty and support you all provided.
In my inaugural speech I spoke about the Liberal Party as family, and I certainly have a supportive one. Thank you to Holly Byrne, Frank Greenstein, Scott Newstead, Ben Zerbe, Michael McKinnell, Alistair Osbourne, Sarah and Ray Krummins, Aaron Violi, Gareth Ward, Steve Macarthur, Sophie Wiseman and all the other members, too many to mention, who have supported me too. I should also mention the Knox Ranges Liberal women’s group—Janet Williams, Kerrie White, Jen Fenandez and others. You ladies are truly inclusive and have the best interests in seeing women elected and supporting any woman. Thank you for your support and for coming today. To all my Liberal colleagues, thank you for your support. It has been wonderful to get to know my non-Liberal colleagues in this place, as well as the parliamentary staff that work so hard to support us and keep this place running smoothly.
Although my time here has not been as long as I wished, I have been rather busy. I have talked a lot, something I have always had a bit of a reputation for, but a good quality for a politician, surely. Taylah, one of my wonderful staff members, has informed me I have spoken 95 times over 14 sitting weeks. I am informed that is more than some MPs have spoken in their entire career of several terms—no names mentioned. As well as talking in this place a lot to advocate on behalf of those I represent, whether it be debates on bills, motions or adjournments or in constituency questions, I have been actively involved in committee work. The committee work has been an unexpected highlight. I have had the privilege of working on three different inquiries: the inquiry into Victoria’s criminal justice system, the inquiry into children affected by parental incarceration and most recently the inquiry into extremism in Victoria. I have learned a great deal from these inquiries, and they were all important; however, the extremism inquiry is especially timely.
I entered politics because public service and assisting those who need help have always been something I have done. I have always approached life with an attitude of ‘If I can help, I will’. And if there is a way to get a positive outcome for those that I represent, I will find a way. I am also often asked why I am in the Liberal Party. Not long after I first started, Fiona Patten asked me, ‘How does a girl from Moe end up in the Liberal Party?’. It is a fair question. For me it is about true liberal values. I believe in individual freedom and free enterprise. People often like to label politicians. I have been labelled everything from a right-wing conservative to a woke, leftie, greenie social justice warrior. Neither label is accurate.
I am very much liberal in the original sense that Menzies proposed. I am a fiscally conservative, free market liberal who is socially moderate. I am happy to be labelled ‘liberal’ if that is what it means, but not when reactionary extremists try to appropriate the word to describe their menacing agenda of hatred, repression, exclusion, division and opposition to hard-won women’s rights. What they want is not liberal, it is reactionary conservatism. I believe passionately in true representative democracy and stable governance that represents the majority and works in their best interests. We need to be compassionate and address the issues facing vulnerable minorities, but the heart of democracy is delivering the best outcomes for the most people.
Regardless of economic and social philosophy, at their best all political parties should work to prevent the theft of power by self-appointed elites and autocrats. There is a mood for change in the way politics is done and who the community want to represent them. It represents an opportunity for change and improvement but also a danger that extremist groups will be allowed to set the agenda. We can see that voters are also worried by these groups—as they should be. When voters are disappointed by all the choices offered to them, they lose faith in democracy. When people cast their vote and it makes no difference, faith in the electoral system is undermined. Some are seeking alternative ways to bring about change. We cannot afford for people to turn away from democracy, because the alternative is all too obvious—it means less freedom, less prosperity, less fairness.
A lesson from the extremism inquiry is that extremist groups share a range of toxic characteristics that do not appeal to the majority. Most have an anti-democratic, autocratic agenda. They may disguise this as restoring freedoms or correcting fabricated injustices, but their real goals are to increase the power, wealth and influence of their self-appointed leaders and to scapegoat minorities for fiscal and legal policy failings. It is their determination to subvert democracy and the law that makes them unacceptably extreme. They cannot win mainstream support legitimately, and they rely on misinformation and cult-like practices to build a following. These dishonest actors are currently thriving in an environment where sensational lies get more social media engagement than the truth. Chillingly, political events in the US have encouraged factions who now believe the time has come for their racist, nationalist, LGBTIQ-hating, pro-conversion and anti women’s rights agendas to come to the fore. Their family values are far from mainstream Australian family values.
Coded language and deniable symbolism allow demagogues to incite violence and division while protecting themselves from laws intended to stop the hate speech they spread. They use obscure language and references to disguise aggressive, menacing behaviour on the internet and render it deniable. These cults try to splinter our society while, ironically, speaking of oneness and unity. Their extreme positions always serve a divide-and-conquer approach. Ordinary Victorians need to awaken to the threat from these groups. Some are involved in politics, building factions with detailed and effective plans to undermine and corrupt democracy in Victoria and Australia today. ‘Infiltrate, impact, impel’ is their strategy. They are seeking routes to destroy the guardrails that obstruct their autocratic goals, and it is fair to say that this is not the exclusive preserve of right-wing groups. Their goal is to target faltering democratic institutions, where a well-organised minority can effectively disenfranchise the majority, removing moderate representation options for voters and degrading faith in democratic process.
Truth, honesty and clear, unambiguous language are being destroyed by relentless engines of misinformation, both local and foreign. I do not see any signs that the war over language, our very words, being fought between the extreme left and right is subsiding. Rather, it is escalating, with ordinary people constantly being divided and forced to pick sides on fringe issues. Vulnerable groups are being used as political footballs as each side indulges in Orwellian propaganda. These groups and practical, moderate policy are victims of this lurch towards extremes that leaves voters frustrated by dogmatic attacks on freedom, from both sides.
Politics is a transactional numbers game. If you are in a political party, you need the numbers to get preselected, after which you need the numbers to get elected. Then you need the numbers to pass bills and motions. If we do not have a representative Parliament but groupings who have extreme views and hold the numbers, it means they will be able to set the legislative agenda without democratic checks and balances. That is concerning. I have previously stood in this chamber and said, ‘Change is on the horizon’, and it is. We must be vigilant, and we must ensure that our democracy is upheld.
Despite all the concerns, I want to remain positive in the face of distressing events, both local and global. I believed that becoming involved in politics was the right way to be most effective and to do the most good, not in service of some abstract cause or idea or for the bidding of others but directly for the benefit of the eastern region, Victoria and Australia.
Moving forward I am not sure if I will return to politics. That is yet to be determined. However, what I do know is that I will carry on public service in some form. I will pick up my volunteering. I will be active in my local community. I will try to do good wherever I can. I look back at my time here with great pride and fondness for the people I have met and knowing just how brutal and challenging but rewarding stepping into the arena of politics can be.