Thursday, 9 February 2023
Address to Parliament
Address to Parliament
Ann-Marie HERMANS (South-Eastern Metropolitan) (14:03): I wish to acknowledge the land of the Kulin nations, where I was born, and pay my respects to all First Nations people, the traditional elders past and present and their families. I acknowledge and affirm the value and importance of all Indigenous people, including Ms Watt. In doing so, I welcome and thank my good friend Jadah, who flew in from Western Australia in the early hours of the morning, and my Aboriginal friends, family, elders and community in and around Central Arnhem Land representing country and districts from places like Beswick and Manyallaluk. I pay my respects to the elders, and I particularly wish to acknowledge those who are watching online, Loretta, Anderson, Ray, Rachel B and Rachael, for their friendship and acceptance into family and community. Thank you for your patience walking alongside me, teaching me culture, community and language. You have given me a profound respect for your deep faith and your connection to the land and each other.
No-one gets into Parliament in isolation, so I want to welcome and thank all my family, friends, fellow party members and MPs and constituents who are here and listening online and those who wanted to be present today but could not be. Your love, thoughts and support are overwhelming and very much appreciated.
I am humbled to rise in this chamber for the very first time representing the people as the newly elected Liberal Party member for the South-Eastern Metropolitan region. Walking down these historic timber halls of the Victorian state Parliament and entering this grand chamber reminds me of the gravity and the honour I have to serve the people of the south-east and of Victoria. Above all else, I am here to champion my community, a diverse community that is geographically, culturally, economically and socially unique. From the beaches of Frankston and Kingston to the fast-growing suburbs of Casey, the green hills of Upper Beaconsfield and Cardinia, the industrial parks of Greater Dandenong and the established suburbs of Knox, the south-east truly captures the very best elements of our state. Like our geography, our people are incredibly diverse and represent different nations, cultures and beliefs. Some are First Nations people. Some are descendants of European settlers. Most come from a variety of international heritages, cultures and religions, but we all enjoy the Australian country and lifestyle and are grateful for it.
Like many of my constituents, I am the proud daughter of migrants. My father came with his parents and siblings from Sri Lanka. They left behind their home, relatives, friends, studies and most of their possessions and arrived in Melbourne by ship with the hope of a better life. My mother was 12 when she left New Zealand with her family; her father was offered a contract in Melbourne as a Holden mechanic. Soon after marrying in Frankston, my parents bought their first home in Noble Park, where I have my earliest memories. It was from this home that my father planned his campaign as an endorsed Liberal Party candidate for Sir Robert Menzies’s team. My mum said I campaigned for the Liberals from my pram as a baby. I also campaigned for my late uncle Dr Tom Blazé, who was also a proud Liberal, a long-term councillor and three-time mayor of the City of Knox.
Although I have taught in many schools, my first teaching job was in Endeavour Hills, and I have volunteered and worked with disadvantaged students in Dandenong and Doveton as a youth worker. I married into a Dutch migrant family with long-term roots in Cranbourne stretching back many decades. My husband Mark is from a very large family of 10 children. With a lot of his family in the area, we bought our first home in Cranbourne and later moved to Berwick, where my children spent the remainder of their childhood. The south-east is genuinely in my DNA, and it is a privilege to represent the community I live in.
I am a Liberal anchored in our core values of liberty, freedom of association and worship, free enterprise and the right to self-determination for individuals and families. I believe in the value of the family, and I believe in a hand up over a handout, free enterprise over socialism, integrity over corruption and tolerance over discrimination. These are my values, these are the values of my community and these are Liberal Party values. Our party is strong when it brings together the classical liberalism of Menzies and the cultural conservatism of Howard. Our philosophy in action makes governments smaller and citizens bigger by lifting burdensome regulations and taxes and allowing citizens to make their own choices in life. We are not the party of big banks or big unions or targeting lobby groups and big bureaucracies which have influenced the left of politics today.
When I was in school we studied Animal Farm by George Orwell. He made the following observation: all are equal, but some are more equal than others. Does giving all Victorians a fair go mean some people should receive better treatment and more favours than others? Are we living in an all-inclusive and tolerant society if we demean the rights and freedoms of those we disagree with? If only the voices of the loudest and most organised groups can be heard, who is governing for the quiet Australians who represent a significant contingency and whose votes have helped elect people in this room, whether directly or through preferences?
My parents fostered an environment where faith, family, culture and community were a priority. They taught me the value of human life by opening their home to people who were displaced, depressed, abused, homeless and discriminated against. Through their compassion and generosity they modelled the greatest calling of all: to love people and to love God. From their example I say that no Victorian should be persecuted for their deeply held beliefs, especially if it promotes peace, love, tolerance and reconciliation. To those who feel that faith is unwelcome in the boardroom or the Parliament, I say: your voice is welcome!
Menzies believed that the true essence of Australia ‘is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest’ achievement. As a mother of four children; I know this to be true. I had a lot of trouble having children and holding my pregnancies, but through all the pain and heartache of motherhood it has been the most rewarding and challenging career of my life. And I want to thank Jesse, Joshua and Amy, who are here today, and Annie, who is watching online. I chose to leave my career to be with you at home. I was there to watch you take your first steps and to hear you say your first words, and I read your first books to you. You and your generation and the value of everyone’s family are the main reasons I am in this place.
I come equipped with a fresh perspective and decades of experience. I have been a volunteer in Africa; I was in South Africa helping with the racial bridge-building during a time when the apartheid system was being dismantled. I also went on to serve in education systems, in feeding programs and in medical programs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. I have worked with disadvantaged youth and the homeless in Melbourne and regional Victoria and in education at all levels, primary, tertiary, vocational training and particularly in the secondary system. I have also worked in a variety of areas of social work, mostly with teenagers and young adults, two areas of policy to which I now turn.
Having taught thousands of young people over many years, I am fully convinced that education is one of the most powerful tools we have to transform people’s lives. And I want to say in terms of education that I believe parents should have a say in the types of things that are being taught to their children.
My own life has been shaped by a desire to learn and led me to attain two masters degrees while working in a variety of careers and being a busy mum. I strongly support the development of more select entry schools and specialised schools for gifted and talented students, having seen their benefits in the classroom and in my own family. Both my mum and two of my uncles went to select entry schools, and so did one of my sons – and my dad, in Sri Lanka, as well. Being given the opportunity to attend a select entry school broadens the horizons. It helped my son find companions that have celebrated his intellect, and today he is making significant policy contributions in the field of economics.
In the recent education report it was noted that in the aftermath of successive lockdowns students are suffering from anxiety, depression, diminished social skills and other mental health issues. I encourage both levels of government to revisit their support for school chaplaincy programs to provide appropriate, affordable and additional support for students.
I grew up with lots of strong women in my life, and I have always been a strong proponent of women in leadership. My mother worked her way from humble beginnings and through societal expectations. She fought to be educated and have a career. This was at a time when most mothers were at home. She faced wage inequality and was overlooked for promotion because she was a woman, but she never stopped the fight to achieve. With the encouragement of my dad she persisted and always believed in herself. She attended Mac.Robertson Girls High and went to teachers college, even though her mother thought that girls just needed to get married. She received an education scholarship and became a speech pathologist in Melbourne. She has also worked as a vice-principal in one of the largest primary schools in the south-east and was a school principal. Mum showed me the power of tenacity, persistence and courage.
My dad studied medicine, law, journalism and theology. He has often been my confidant and closest friend and has championed and encouraged me through the myriad of seasons in my life. My parents made sacrifices to send me to a good school and taught me that I could do whatever I put my mind to, and I am thankful. After the challenges and health challenges that they have had, I am so pleased and so proud that they are here to witness this moment and the benefits of their hard work.
I also want to thank my very patient husband, Mark, of 27 years. He has been unwavering in his persistence and enthusiasm. He has stood with me and supported me through the responsibilities of political life. And to my colleagues David, Georgie, Wendy, Bev, Renee, Joe, Trung, Evan, Moira, Nick, Melina and Gaelle – I think I have missed somebody; sorry, Peter Walsh – it is an honour to work alongside such a strong and fresh team.
Like many, I have been a candidate before, and I wish to acknowledge and thank the many members and volunteers – particularly Cameron Eastman and Josiah Mathew – and many lower house candidates and their teams who have rallied with me to fight for Victorian families, for the South-Eastern Region and for Liberal Party values. There are so many people I could name. I wish I had time. I want to thank you all. This is your moment as much is it is mine.
To John Pesutto, I want to thank you for your confidence in me and your support. It is an honour to serve in shadow cabinet under your leadership. I know your empathy, listening ear and commitment to collaboration have made you and are making you an excellent leader, and you will be an outstanding future Premier for our state.
With the responsibility bestowed on me as Shadow Minister for Emergency Services and Shadow Minister for WorkCover and the TAC, you will find me to be compassionate and empathetic to the needs of the people, yet also hardworking and tenacious, demanding integrity, safety and good governance, because the people of Victoria deserve it.
Friends, there is a time and a season for everything. It is time for the nameless, voiceless people of the south-east and in Victoria to be heard. It is time for people’s beliefs and freedoms – the beliefs and freedoms of many Victorians – to be respected. It is time for this house to work together for the greater good of the people of Victoria. And I am here for such a time as this.
Sitting suspended 2:26 pm until 2:37 pm.
Sarah MANSFIELD (Western Victoria) (14:37): Thank you, President, and congratulations on your election.
Around six years ago I was working as a GP in a service for people experiencing homelessness. I was seeing a woman whose story was all too familiar by then – a survivor of violence, discrimination, abuse and poverty. During the consultation she said to me, ‘They expect you to pull yourself up out of all this, but it’s like the ladder they give you has rungs that spin and are covered in grease.’ While what she was saying was something I had understood inherently – that the system does a tremendous job of entrenching inequality – it was not always easy to describe. She had provided an image that powerfully captured this concept, an image I could not unsee, and every time I recall that moment I feel her eyes on me asking, ‘What are you doing about it?’
It is an extraordinary privilege to stand in this place as the first regional Greens MP in Victoria. I acknowledge that we are on the stolen land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay respect to their elders past, present and future. Sovereignty has never been ceded, and there is much truth to be told and to be heard as First Nations people fight for justice and treaty, a fight that I commit to supporting in whatever way I can. I also respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners of the country on which my electorate of Western Victoria is located: the Bindjali, Wergaia, Jadawadjali, Bungandidj, Gunditjmara, Djab Wurrung, Wadawurrung, Dhauwurd Wurrung, Djargurd Wurrong, Gadubanud, Dja Dja Wurrung and Gulidjan peoples.
Western Victoria is also home to many First Nations people from throughout Australia, either by choice or because of forcible displacement from their ancestral soils and communities by governments. Our region has seen massacres, genocide and generations stolen – attempts to systematically dismantle a people. But while the wounds of colonialism run deep on country, language, history and culture, many of which will never heal, Western Victoria’s magnificent land, waterways and skies reflect First Peoples’ endurance and survival in our region. The land – the ancient You Yangs, Grampians and Otway Ranges to the grasslands of the west, habitats of the striped legless lizard, koala, growling grass frog and Otway snail. Our life-giving waterways include the Loddon, Moorabool and Barwon rivers, wetlands like Lake Albacutya and Western District Lakes and our bays and oceans such as Corio Bay and the mighty southern sea country, home to the Burrunan dolphin, kunuwarra, platypus, humpback and southern right whales. The wide open-sky country from Portland to Melton is home to the stars, to Bunjil, to the hooded plover, to the golden sun moth, to the grey-headed flying fox and to thousands of migratory shorebirds. I thank those First Nations people in the region who have shared their knowledge and stories with me, and I will continue to listen and learn.
Western Victoria – Djilang, or Geelong, on Wadawurrung country – is also my home, but it has not always been. The eldest of four kids, I was born in Sydney. My mother was an Irish immigrant, one of seven children, while my father and his brother were Australian born with UK ancestors who were among the early colonisers. We moved around quite a bit as my parents followed work opportunities from Sydney to Wollongong to Canberra. Dad worked in retail, beginning at a service desk and working his way up to a career in management. He also has a strong interest in natural history and our environment and brought us up to share this.
Mum left school at 15 and worked all sorts of jobs, including a long stint doing night shifts at a media monitoring company. She would come home, run us all around and then start again, and until I became a parent myself, I do not think I appreciated just how hard that was. She cannot have slept for years. And just as I was finishing my schooling, she decided to become a primary school teacher and began on her later life career, fulfilling her passion for education. Mum has a strong sense of social justice and, no matter what difficulties our family faced, never let us forget our relative privilege.
Our household was always busy, and we all had to chip in to make it work. My amazing three siblings and I are all very different in our personalities and interests, but we have always been close. In the lottery of life I won big with my family. While we had our fair share of challenges, ultimately our ladders were climbable.
School was transformative for me, largely due to teachers who were somehow just what I needed at the points they arrived: Kim Wilson, Kathy Griffiths, Michael McPhillips, Marion Le, Graham Toms, Val Evans and many others. It is perhaps only in the longer term that we can see just how defining teachers’ roles in our lives can be, and for each of them I can look back and see the moments when they shifted my trajectory.
At school I was what is commonly known as a nerd, and I found myself involved in various youth activities, one of which led to a morning tea at Parliament House for me and several other students with a federal MP, who shall remain nameless. I was in high school. It was the late 1990s, and they were heady times in Australian politics. I was excited about meeting a real-life politician. During our morning tea I asked the MP a question: if you could change anything about Australia, what would it be? Their response: ‘Nothing.’ It was profoundly disappointing. I had assumed the only reason anyone would do that job was because they were passionate about making a difference to something. This MP had spent the session trotting out the usual lines about how young people are our hope for the future – something that has always made me cringe. Not only does it deny young people their agency as present drivers of change, but more so it is a cop-out on behalf of those who are in leadership positions with the power to change things now. Always deferring to the potential of future generations is why we see growing inequality, a housing crisis, decimation of our natural environment and an increasingly unstable climate. What would you change? ‘Nothing.’
Not content with doing nothing, I ended up deciding to study medicine, perhaps somewhat naively believing it was the best way that I could make a difference. So with too little money but plenty of excitement, especially about getting out of Canberra, I moved to Melbourne. My uni years were often pretty tough, moving from one dodgy rental to another and juggling work and study, but once again, with some luck and a system that was on my side, my ladders could be scaled.
It was not long before I started to get frustrated with things in medicine. It was becoming clear that a lot of what affected people’s health could not be fixed by a doctor. Access to care was being determined by postcode and income, not need, and many of the things making people sick had nothing to do with health care at all; it was our social and physical environment – people disconnected from nature, from each other. I was restless and eager to find a way to change things, and after graduating I fell into the junior doctor arm of the Australian Medical Association. It was not quite what I was looking for; however, it was the catalyst for an unexpected life-changing meeting. A Geelong-based colleague and I were competing with one another to see who could stage better industrial action fighting for improved conditions for junior medical staff in public hospitals, and while I argue my walkout was better, he won the long game. I fell for his charms and ended up moving to Geelong.
Accustomed to an itinerant life, I had no sense of one place being home, but something about Geelong changed that. Even before I lived there it would hit me – every time I would go past the You Yangs, past the sinister beauty of the refinery lights, past Corio Bay, it just felt like home, and it still does. I have since married my strike-action crush, had two children and live there with our cat, which stays confined to our property 24 hours a day, and four chickens. We feel strongly connected to our community and the very special region we are lucky enough to grow as a family in.
It was in Geelong that I became more politically active. Once again I had struck good fortune, receiving a scholarship in 2011 to the London School of Economics to do a masters in health policy, planning and financing, motivated by a desire to improve access to health care. Out-of-pocket costs were rising, as they have continued to do since. While we like to pride ourselves on having a universal healthcare system, this has been eroded through increasing creeping costs for scans, tests, specialists, GPs, dental care, allied health, psychology, aids and equipment, and medication. We associate bankruptcy as a consequence of health costs with other countries, like the USA, but it is happening here. A growing number of Australians experience what is known as catastrophic health expenditure, where they spent more than 10 per cent of household income on health care, including over a third of the lowest income households. We know that at least one in four people with a chronic health condition forgo necessary care due to cost. A vicious cycle of poverty is the result for many people. Poor health impacts their ability to work and participate in society. Low-income households are less likely to receive the care they need, and they are more likely to be further impoverished if they do – ladders with rungs that spin and are covered with grease.
On my return to Geelong, while working in general practice I noticed that there was one MP who was talking about this and all of the things I had been frustrated about throughout my medical career: Richard Di Natale. He was a federal senator in there working to change things. I reached out to Richard’s office to see how I could support what he was doing, and I was welcomed in by Richard and his team. It opened up my world to a whole movement of people who care deeply about humanity and the environment. Around the same time, I began working in a service for people experiencing homelessness, and it was a tipping point. Every policy failure, every form of discrimination and all the ways our system entrenches inequality were being lived by the people I saw: intergenerational trauma; poverty; the wounds of colonialism; childhood neglect and abuse; violence; racism; transphobia; sexism; homophobia; isolation; asylum seekers hiding from authorities; people who had workplace accidents; gambling addiction; drug addiction; people caught up in the criminal justice system too young, stuck revolving between the streets and prison; burnt and infected feet from walking on hot ground without shoes; injuries from violent assaults and sexual assaults; simple chest infections becoming life threatening on a winter’s night on the street; pregnant people avoiding care for fear of their babies being taken away; people dying – dying – because of their lack of safe and secure housing. And what I was seeing was only the tip of the iceberg. Every day in other practices I saw plenty of people barely hanging on, coming to see me for a mental healthcare plan to help with their anxiety about not being able to afford their next rent payment, living in their cars; families in inappropriate, overcrowded transitional housing for years; women stuck in violent households because they could not afford to leave. On any given night over 25,000 people are homeless in Victoria and over 100,000 are waiting for public housing, and those numbers are growing. Countless more are on the verge of losing their housing. How is this acceptable? In a country as rich as ours, how are we okay with this? I would go home at night, the image of the slippery ladder in my mind’s eye. ‘What are you doing about it?’ There was almost nothing I could do as an individual GP in a clinic. It required system change, political change.
Inspired by Richard and many others, including Steph Hodgins-May, Lloyd Davies and Greg Barber, I decided to run for council in 2017. It was an incredible privilege to serve as a City of Greater Geelong councillor, working with my community for five years with the common goal of building a healthier, more connected and more sustainable Geelong. I would like to thank my councillor colleagues, including Pete Murrihy, and the thousands of council staff for their service of the Greater Geelong community and for their support and friendship. I retain a deep respect and appreciation for the value of local government in our democracy and the need for other levels of government to work with our councils.
Throughout my time as a councillor I was often asked about my experiences of being a young woman in politics, the inference being it must be hard. While it has had its challenges, I have always felt part of a tapestry of women woven together, making each other stronger, many of them pioneers who fought the battles to make it easier for me – the incredible women in my family, my mum, my sister, my many aunties, my grandmothers, my mother-in-law, my brother’s partners; the women who have been my teachers and mentors, like Elizabeth Bennett and Ruth McGowan; my medical colleagues; my amazing friends; those MPs who were never too busy to answer a call, the wonderful federal Senator Janet Rice; Ellen Sandell in the other place and Samantha Ratnam, who I am honoured to join in this place; the Pathways to Politics for Women network; councillor colleagues around the state and Women in Local Democracy in Geelong – the women who reached out with words of encouragement, offers of help or just a knowing look. Thank you, you helped me through even the hardest of times.
In late 2019, pregnant with my second child, I had my first experience of true climate anxiety. Climate change was a major motivator for me to get involved in politics. There is no greater threat to our health and wellbeing. Almost 27 years ago, a few years before I had my morning tea with the unnamed MP, Bob Brown in his first speech to federal Parliament spoke of the urgent threat of climate change, a speech that shamefully could be given today with few amendments.
I have lived through the subsequent decades of debate, of denial, of inaction. I have seen corruption of politics by vested interests and the fossil fuel lobby, the ever more dire predictions and closing windows of time for action while the insidious creep of climate change peppered by increasingly frequent extreme weather events and disasters, displacement of people, ecological disruption and growing instability around the world were a constant reminder of our failure to act, but until then I had not felt so despairing about it.
Having experienced recurrent pregnancy losses, I had always avoided letting myself imagine my future children, but they were now finding their way uninvited into my consciousness. The icy panic would come to me during restless nights when I would hear my grown-up kids asking ‘What did you do about it, Mum? You knew, what did you do?’ I know I am not alone in this experience. These and many darker questions about our future and our role in it haunt a growing number of us.
At that time there was steadily growing community pressure for governments to act on climate change. School students were striking regularly, demonstrating their agency and asking us, the adults with the power to make decisions, asking us, the leaders, to act: ‘This is an emergency. This is our future. What are you doing about it?’ The community of greater Geelong was also calling on us as councillors to recognise and act on the climate emergency. On 20 September 2019 I joined my community in marching for climate, and aside from the Cats winning an AFL Grand Final I have never seen so many people in our streets. Students, workers, health professionals, parents, grandparents, concerned citizens – people who had never been to a protest but were compelled to join this one.
The horrific Black Summer bushfires followed. My parents live on the south coast of New South Wales, and all my family were visiting them over the holiday period. Being eight months pregnant, luckily we had chosen to stay in Geelong, but I remember the constant worry, listening for updates, continually refreshing the Rural Fire Service website and checking in on family members who were marooned and evacuated several times. Then there was the smoke, which we were not spared. There was not only the physical discomfort associated with inhaling the filthy air but the worry about what effect this might have on my unborn child and on my young energetic toddler, who I had to keep cooped up inside to protect from it. Three billion animals, over 46 million acres and 34 human lives lost; homes and livelihoods destroyed; people displaced, climate refugees in their own country; the unmeasured long-term health impacts of smoke and stress – few in Australia were untouched by that summer of fires. No-one could escape the emergency anymore.
Despite the sense of despair and overwhelm, I came out of that period feeling more motivated than ever. As Bob Brown once said, ‘Don’t get depressed, get active.’ What choice was there, really? The greater Geelong community did not give up. They kept making their voices heard, and while it took time to get there I was proud to be part of one of a growing number of councils setting ambitious targets on climate change.
But over the next few years I felt increasingly like we were hitting a brick wall, and I could see a familiar pattern across western Victoria. Our region was being left behind by state and federal governments.
People in our rural and regional areas bear the greatest burden of the impacts of climate change, as we have seen in the recent catastrophic floods which affected communities and industries across my electorate. Despite knowing what we know, despite everything these communities have gone through and will go through, governments are negligently pursuing fossil fuel projects – gas drilling near the beautiful Twelve Apostles, potentially a floating gas terminal in Corio Bay. It shows extraordinary contempt for people and the environment now and in the future.
Our regional and rural communities also have less access to basic services like health care and experience significantly poorer health outcomes. Public transport is at best poor and in many cases non-existent, entrenching car dependence and isolating people who cannot drive, limiting their access to work, education and services. Our rural and regional communities are also facing a housing affordability crisis, driving people into poverty, forcing people to leave their communities, impacting small businesses and services who cannot attract workers and pushing more people into homelessness. And our regional and rural communities can see what is happening to our precious natural environment – our rivers, groundwater, forests, grasslands and our native wildlife – through neglect and a failure of planning and policy to prioritise and value our environment, instead treating it as an afterthought. Councils cannot go it alone – not on climate change, not on the environment, not on addressing systemic inequality. We need other levels of government to do their bit, and time is not on our side.
I decided to take my fight to the state level, supported by people across the region who care deeply about social and ecological justice. There are too many people to name all individually, but I owe them my deepest gratitude for their hard work and their passion. Particularly I want to thank the 11 wonderful lower house candidates – Praise Morris, Sam McColl, Earl James, Ellen Burns, Ricky Lane, Thomas Campbell, Hilary McAllister, Genevieve Dawson-Scott, Rachel Semmens, Aleisha Smith and Courtney Gardner; all of their campaign teams; key organisers, including Judy Cameron; and the countless volunteers and supporters who gave their time and energy. I would also like to thank my recent workplace, Kensington Hill Medical Centre, and my patients, as well as past workplaces, Deakin University medical school, the Australian Journal of General Practice, Point Lonsdale Medical Group and The Living Room. Not only did they tolerate my constant side projects in politics but they actively supported me.
My extraordinary husband, who is the most talented, generous and all-round best human I know, and my amazing kids, I love you more than words allow. Thank you for everything you do and you give up to be part of this. My parents and my ever-selfless in-laws, we could not do what we do without you. And to all the community groups and the organisations in the Western Victoria Region who fight for our land, waterways and skies and for an end to systemic inequality, thank you for being a constant source of inspiration and hope.
I am all too aware of the responsibility that I now have. Every one of us here has been granted an enormous privilege: the power to make real change now, not to defer tough decisions to future generations. If my school-aged self asked me now, ‘If you could change anything, what would it be?’ I would tell her, ‘Dismantle systemic inequality; no more ladders with slippery rungs. Provide everyone with safe and secure housing. Ensure that need, not wealth or geography, determines access to essential services like health care. Allow people to live free from discrimination, violence and abuse. Show solidarity with First Nations peoples’ fight for truth, justice and treaty, and recognise that they have cared for this country for tens of thousands of years. Protect our land, waterways and skies, and treat them as living entities whose health is inextricable from that of our own. Fight to protect our democracy, including our right to protest. Act as though climate change is the greatest threat to human health and wellbeing that we face, because it is’, so when my grown-up kids ask me, ‘Mum, what did you do?’ I can look at them and say, ‘I did everything that I could.’
Sitting suspended 3:00 pm until 3:06 pm.
Joe McCRACKEN (Western Victoria) (15:07): I again congratulate you on your election, President.
I am first and foremost a representative of the people of my electorate – Western Victoria Region. From the Grampians to the You Yangs, from the central highlands to the coast, I love Western Victoria. It is where I was born, where I was educated and where I have worked my entire adult life.
They say you never stop being a teacher – a profession I am so proud to have practised – so I would like to reflect on a few lessons that I have learned over my time to get to this place today. The first lesson: never forget where you come from. My ancestors came to Australia of their own free will, mostly from the Scottish cities of Wigtown and Perth. Most of the McCracken men for about seven generations were named John. It is safe to say they were not blessed with creativity, but they were consistent and economical. And that is where my middle name comes from. But like many families in Western Victoria, I do not fully know the situation that got us to this point in time, but we are here.
I was born in Ballarat and raised in Beaufort, and I am proud to be a country kid at heart. Growing up we had quite a list of pets, and I could never understand why our family friends thought that they were a little bit odd. Let me give you a little sample. We had Kevin the sheep. He was named after the title character of Home Alone. We had a puppy who was a Great Dane bull-mastiff-ridgeback cross. We had Karen – before it became cool – the cat, who is actually still alive today, aged 18. And we had a whole heap of chooks named after characters from Keeping Up Appearances, as you do. All very normal I assure you. I used to love yabbying in our dam. The only problem was the occasional tiger or brown snake, and they were not on the list of pets, I tell you. I played tennis and squash, I rode my bike, because that is how you got around, and I also worked in my parents’ pub. We had the freedom to play outside and get muddy, dirty and wet, and I do not think it did me any harm.
The second lesson: never forget older people. This relates to a very special person in my life, my grandmother Elaine McCracken. I love my nan; she is 101 years old. Nan served as a councillor for the town of Stawell and the Northern Grampians shire. My grandfather Arthur McCracken served as mayor four times over his many years of service. Pop passed away in 1986, before I was born, so Nan decided to run for his seat, and got elected.
In her earlier life Nan suffered through the Great Depression, World War II and losing two children, and she worked as a seamstress, more out of necessity than choice. She missed out on educational opportunities, but she made the best of what she had. She is dignified, diligent and understated. She taught me her ultrasecret weapon for getting what you want out of people, which is going to help me a lot in these times: food. I do not know how many times she would say to me, ‘Joseph, if you ever want to break into a conversation, go with a plate of food.’ And just as a sidenote, she is about the only person in my life that I let call me Joseph. Nan was not a feminist. She was stoic, a good manager and had a nurturing heart. Nan, thank you for your kindness, care and love. I will always be in debt to you.
My third lesson: family is everywhere. The concept of family for me has changed over the years. It used to mean ‘mum, dad and kids’, but when my parents divorced my view changed completely and I found it very challenging. I often bore the brunt of anger, frustration and fear, and it certainly left its scars on me. But it has also taught me a lot of lessons: resilience, empathy. It has taught me a lot about people, and it has helped me to see different perspectives. I have learned to let go. I have learned to forgive others and to forgive myself. I have come to realise that these experiences have shaped me into who I am today, and as much as I did not enjoy it at the time, I would not change a thing.
Family is really the people around you that you care about and love – so many of whom are here today – even though you are not related by blood. I still believe that family is the cornerstone of our communities, but it is a reflection of society that as families change, so do our communities and so must our attitude and thinking toward supporting families. We cannot force families to be what we think they should be. Families are what they are – big, small, blended or diverse. But the family unit is still vitally important, and it is the fabric that binds our society together.
Lesson four: education can free the individual. After finishing my own education at St Patrick’s College in Ballarat, I graduated from the University of Ballarat with a bachelor of commerce and a bachelor of management. I worked as an accountant, but it all got a little bit too exciting for me, so I decided to swap the calculator for the whiteboard markers and become a teacher. It was honestly one of the best decisions of my life. I loved every single moment of being a teacher. I cared for my students greatly. I felt so honoured and privileged to be shaping futures. I loved having a laugh, sharing a joke. For me, banter was everything, and I gave as good as I got – another good training ground too, mind you.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my teaching was in the role of head of humanities. I was responsible for creating curriculum in civics, history, economics and geography, and I led the creation of programs which were factual, evidence-based and, most importantly, non-biased. Curriculum should focus on giving students life experiences in preparation for a future in the real world, not training activists.
One of the biggest insights I have gained in my time in schools is that sometimes the best teachers are not necessarily the ones with a teaching certificate. I have watched my friends who are here today, Sandy Leak and Andrena MacFarlane, work effectively to support students. To all non-teaching staff in schools, your job is just as important as the teachers’, and I want to acknowledge and thank you for the often under-appreciated work that you do.
A good classroom to me is one full of laughter, learning and fun, and I wanted my students to be happy. I have enormous respect for young people. One young person in particular really stands out, and she cannot be here today because she is travelling around Australia. She is an incredible young woman who I taught in my global politics class. She migrated to Australia from the Middle East, and as I got to know her, I grew quite close to her as she confided in me her personal story.
Slavery, fear, sleep deprivation, torture, persecution – I cannot even begin to tell you the horror that this young girl experienced, and I could not help but get involved. After some very difficult discussions and a lot of red tape with some government departments, we managed to emancipate this young lady from her circumstances. I remember after her final exam, when she was leaving school for the last time in order to go to crisis housing, she turned to me and she gave me a hug and said, ‘Joe, you have literally changed my life.’ I was lost for words, and I am never lost for words. The truth of the matter is that this young person changed my life as well. We remain friends to this very day. It taught me that a good education with good teachers can free anyone and the world of opportunity is unlocked.
Local government, lesson five: get back to basics. ‘Getting back to basics’ was my slogan when I ran for Colac Otway Shire Council both in 2016, when I was elected third, and in 2020 when I was elected first with two full quotas. I did not manage to replicate that success at the last state election, but I am going to try next time, okay. I was elected mayor at the end of 2017, the youngest by a margin, and then I served as deputy mayor for two years. I had always strived to see public money spent efficiently and fairly and I hated seeing waste. I campaigned hard to focus on core council services: good roads, fair and reasonable rates, footpaths, public gardens and parks, drains that clear the water easily – the essentials that often get overlooked. Local government should not be involved in the business of other levels of government such as climate change, nuclear disarmament or foreign affairs. Sometimes I felt like I was on the set of the ABC’s Utopia. I will not mention two-way radios or the many, many revisions of the governance rules or that boom gate at Skenes Creek or those mayoral chains, which still haunt me, although I do have to mention a wonderful project that I managed to get off the ground in Petjuli Street and Jacaranda Crescent. It was a great park, and I campaigned very hard for it.
I will always remember the wise advice of Helen Paatch OAM, who said to me, ‘People might tell you that they voted for you, but the only ones you can believe are the ones that said they didn’t vote for you.’ The problem is I do not know which way Helen voted. I just hope she voted for me.
I would like to thank my friends from Colac Otway shire for their friendship over the last six years, particularly Kate Hanson for her honesty and friendship, Jason Schram, Chris Potter, Jamie Bell and Stephen Hart. To Tosh-Jake Finnigan, my friend and replacement on Colac Otway, I know you suffered greatly for shining a light on corruption and I hope you find justice. To Anne Howard, a very capable CEO, I wish you and your team all the best.
Lesson six: loyalty matters. I joined the Liberal Party when I was 19 years old, back in the dying days of the Howard government. One of my earliest political memories was in 1996. We were all crowded around the telly in the lounge room as John Howard swept to office, ushering in a golden era of Australian politics. The Liberal Party should not be afraid to stand for its values, as John Howard and Peter Costello did. We must never forget that we are a centre-right political movement. We are the custodians of both the libertarian and conservative philosophies. Both have prospered in our party in the past and they can again.
I will always be a proud member of the Liberal Party. We are the enablers. We encourage people to stand on their own two feet. We facilitate the great Australian entrepreneurial spirit, not by handouts but by government getting out of the way. If you work hard, you should be rewarded, not taxed into oblivion. We want to see progress while preserving the traditions and settings that attract people from all over the world to call our country home. People lie at the core of our values and principles, and we must never forget that. We are a party of and for the people, and I will always be a loyal Liberal.
Lesson seven: know one’s self. This is perhaps the hardest lesson for me to speak about because it is something deeply personal to me. Most people would not know this about me, and it may come as a shock to some. I actually do have a partner in my life, but my partner is a he, not a she. Jack, I want to thank you for all your support and care over the last period of time. It has been so appreciated. I do not know what I would have done without you. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with this. I have experienced doubt, shame, anxiety and many other things. I have never really talked about it much or made an issue of it, because I never wanted to be defined by it. I hate identity politics, and I will fight against it whenever I can. I have always struggled with the concept of defining a person by one aspect of who they are. A person is made up of a large set of diverse characteristics – age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, occupation. Why do we need to take one of those characteristics, amplify it and define a person in that way? The simple answer is: we do not, we should not. I think LGBT activists in Victoria need to carefully consider their public perception. Many, including me, have difficulty being associated with the movement. Most people in the LGBT community just want to get on with living their lives. Gay people do not need to be treated any differently to anyone else – no separate doctors, no separate radio stations, no festivals and no separate flags. And I question the need for a separate flag to identify the LGBT community, the rainbow flag. Flags represent nations and countries, and the only flags I will be saluting are the Australian flag and the Victorian flag. They are the only flags that do not discriminate on the people they represent.
But I do see this as actually a positive conversation to have. It is an opportunity to consider how we achieve real equality. It is going to require some serious thought, some open minds and, for some, educating themselves – but it can happen. It is not homophobic, bigoted or ignorant to question ill-informed notions of equality. Equality is something I care about, but I mean real equality, not the virtue signalling of the last 20 years that has failed.
My last lesson: be humble and thankful. It might be a problem in this place. To my parents – Terry, my father, and Heather, my stepmum – thank you for all your love, support and care. To Bev McArthur: Bev, I am so thankful that I have had you as a mentor, like you have mentored many other young people in the Liberal Party. You are a wealth of knowledge and experience and you are incredibly smart, and it is a complete honour to serve with you. Some may not know this about Bev, but Bev actually runs the McArthur school of politics, also known as ‘camp McArthur’. Courses are available in philosophy, policy, speechwriting, media, elocution and the course I most recently graduated from, fashion.
A member: You haven’t passed it.
Joe McCRACKEN: I haven’t passed it yet. I can attest the instruction is very direct, but it is of the highest calibre. Bev, thank you for your amazing friendship. You are a great person.
To Richard Riordan and his lovely wife Catherine and family, thank you for your friendship and welcoming me into your home and your lives. I am truly thankful for you taking me under your wing in Colac. To my friends and colleagues at Trinity College Colac: firstly, Melinda Roberts and Sharon McCrae – my two meter maids – you girls have still got it, I think. Thank you for your incredible friendship as well. To my gang, Andrena MacFarlane, Lynne Wheal, Leesa Sharkey, Caroline Grist, Dianne Towers – cuz – Anne Hughes, Sandy Leak: you have made my teaching career so much fun, and it has been so worthwhile.
To my friends in the Liberal Party who helped me get here today – Matthew Verschuur, my trusted friend: thank you for everything. Thank you for your good humour, your impersonations and your support over many years. To my friends in Polwarth and the south-west, Bronwyn and Leigh McKenzie, Ian Pugh, Ian ‘Snag’ Smith – aka ‘the dancing king’ – Kathryn Cecil, Lyn Conlon, Veronica Levay, Peter and Mary Hay, Deb Lorraine, Ellie Read and Matt Baker, thank you so very much.
To my Ballarat friends: Helen and Robert Bath, Vivienne Edlund, Geoff and Di Notman, Leonie Smith, Roger and Caroline Pescott, John and Michelle Dooley, Shandra Cohen, Samantha McIntosh and her husband Greg, and Paul Tatchell and his lovely wife Helen. I have got to say if anyone ever needs any life lessons, go and talk to Paul Tatchell; he is like Gandhi or the oracle. He is an amazing man, and I respect him so much.
To my friends and supporters in Geelong: Wilma Bolitho, Donnie and Andrew Grigau, James Bennet-Hullin, the Honourable Ian Smith, Alison McLeod, the Honourable Senator Sarah Henderson, David Orford and Jo Bryant and our two new superstars Charlie Johnson and Edwina Royce and your families: thank you.
I also need to mention Norma Wells, Margaret and Daryl Barling, Michael Kroger, my good friend and cousin Ross Kroger, Julian McGauran, Ralph Krein and Graham Watt – each in your own way have contributed enormously. To state president Greg Mirabella and his capable preference negotiator Mike Horner, whose work supported my election, thank you as well.
Now, I tricked you, because this is actually my last lesson now. My very last lesson: the present is a gift. You cannot change yesterday, and tomorrow is not written. You only have the present, and it is a gift given each day; that is why it is called the present. And I hope I can make the most of it in this place.
All the experiences of my life, good and bad, have resulted in me being here today at this point in time, and I am so proud to be here. As I look to the future and I think of all the work that needs to be done I think: today is just the beginning.
Lizzie BLANDTHORN (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, Minister for Child Protection and Family Services) (15:30): I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the address-in-reply to the Governor’s speech. Whilst this is not my inaugural speech in Parliament, and nor indeed is it my first contribution in this chamber, it is the first opportunity I have had to explain to this place where I come from, why I am here and what I stand for, so with the indulgence of the chamber, this speech is perhaps a hybrid model.
First, can I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present.
In the first instance, I have not come from very far, just across Queen’s Hall.
A member interjected.
Lizzie BLANDTHORN: It is a different world. As I was standing for re-election to the Parliament, albeit for the Council rather than the Assembly, I did not deliver a valedictory speech as the outgoing member for Pascoe Vale. As such, I take this opportunity to thank the people from Glenroy, Hadfield, Oak Park, Pascoe Vale, Pascoe Vale South and Coburg who elected me to the 58th and 59th parliaments. It was an honour and a privilege to serve them for eight years. Working together we achieved great things: more than $100 million in upgrading and modernising local schools and early years infrastructure, the removal of five dangerous and congested level crossings, the removal of the dangerous roundabout and the installation of traffic lights at the busy Gaffney and Sussex streets intersection, a new home for the indefatigable SES in Hadfield, a new home for our dedicated paramedics in Oak Park and so much more.
But most definitely it is the sharing and the helping in the ups and downs of the lives of local people and local families that had the most profound impact on me. It has been a genuine privilege to be invited into homes, businesses, kinders, schools, sporting clubs, places of worship, festivals and at times protests. It has been a genuine privilege to sit with and stand beside my constituents. There are far too many people to name, and invariably I would leave someone out, but I will be forever grateful for the welcome, the trust and the support of the people of the Pascoe Vale district. I am also very grateful to my Pascoe Vale electorate officers. Without them and their dedication to our district, we would not have achieved such great outcomes.
I now bring my experience to this important house of review as a member for the Western Metropolitan Region, and I extend my gratitude to the people of the region for their support. It is a region that extends from the north-west suburbs of Airport West and Gladstone Park to the waterside suburbs of Williamstown and Altona, a region that extends up the Calder to Sunbury and down the Princes Highway to Werribee. The region is huge, the people are diverse and the needs and concerns are extensive. It is an honour and a privilege to be their voice in this Parliament and in this government.
There is an important distinction to be made about the way in which we are all elected to this Parliament. Unlike in the other place, none of us in this chamber are elected on our own. We are all elected in the name of our respective parties. I thank the people of the region who have again put their trust in our Labor government to keep them safe and to help them live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives, and I acknowledge the tireless efforts of our members and candidates across the west and of course the great Australian Labor movement in securing the support of the western suburbs.
Whilst I grew up in the Yarra Valley and moved to the north as a young adult, I have always been connected by family, by work and through volunteering to the west of Melbourne. My familial connection to the west is initially through my great-grandparents Bridget and William Black, who lived on the distinctive block with the giant palm tree on The Strand in Williamstown. My great-grandfather was an engineer who worked in the rail yards. A source of familial pride is that he designed the heaviest steam train in the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed it is still on display in the Williamstown railway museum. Heavy Harry, as the train is known, also features in artwork on the Level Crossing Removal Project – I had nothing to do with that. Bride and Bill had nine children, including my grandfather Adrian. My family were active in the local Catholic parish. My great-uncle Gavan set up a law practice in Ferguson Street, Williamstown, in 1968, and through my uncle and my cousins it has been serving the western suburbs communities ever since. It must be said, though, that my fondest childhood memories of Williamstown are of my brothers being chased by swans on the foreshore.
Prior to coming to this place I worked in industrial relations, both for a union – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association – and for an employer, formerly the Catholic Education Office, Melbourne. As a union organiser I was assigned responsibility for workers in retailers across large parts of the outer western suburbs. Werribee Plaza became my second home. From Altona and Hoppers Crossing through to Point Cook and Werribee – actually all the way to Torquay – I had the privilege of working for SDA members, some of the lowest paid workers in our society. Yet as the COVID pandemic has taught so many, they are some of the most essential workers in our society. Our membership is also predominantly female. It is young and it is insecure. Working in retail, there is always someone else lining up for your job, and as I did say in my inaugural speech in the other place, while there are some who like to suggest that those who come to this place from a union background lack real-world experience, I can assure them that my members’ workplace was my workplace throughout the western suburbs. From the store level to the boardroom and into the tribunals, some of my most formative experiences have come from working hand in hand with everyday workers from across the west, doing my best to represent their interests as they seek to get ahead in life.
As I have said many times in this Parliament, I thank the SDA for their continued faith in me to represent the interests not just of SDA members but of all working people and their families, and that is exactly what this government has done and will continue to do. We have made sure that Victorians have the next day off when a public holiday falls on a weekend. We have made Easter Sunday and Grand Final Friday public holidays, particularly valued by retail workers and indeed by me as both a Catholic and a Tigers fan. We introduced the portable long service benefits scheme, allowing Victorians working in community services, contract cleaning and security to accrue long service leave entitlements and transfer them from job to job. We became the first state in the country to pass laws making wage theft illegal, protecting the pay of workers across our state. We also made workplace manslaughter a criminal offence, because no Victorian should die at work. Our government has ensured and will continue to ensure we use all possible powers to ensure Victorian workers get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and that they come home to their family and friends at the end of that day.
As I said prior to my election, I also worked as a senior industrial relations officer of the Catholic Education Office Melbourne, as it was then known. One-third of Victorian students are educated in Catholic and independent schools. It is a legitimate and important choice for many families. I worked with schools across Melbourne, including Catholic regional colleges and parish primary schools across the western suburbs. Working with these rapidly expanding school communities to address workforce issues was always a positive experience despite the many challenges. One of those challenges was ensuring that resources and facilities kept pace with demand. I am proud that it is a Labor government that has recognised these challenges and supported Catholic and independent schools, in particular low-fee schools, by legislating for recurrent funding and providing capital infrastructure grants. Across the western suburbs, just in the previous term our government has invested in Catholic and independent school upgrades, including St Paul’s in Sunshine West, Wyndham Christian College, Thomas Carr College, Salesian College in Sunbury, Good News Lutheran College and the proposed Catholic primary school in Tarneit North.
I am proud to be part of a government that supports all students and all families from the early years, through school and beyond, wherever they choose to attend. I am proud to be part of a government that is making kinder free and instituting pre-prep. I am proud to be part of a government that is delivering 100 new schools, ensuring that every one of our growing communities in the west has access to a great local school. Since we came to government eight years ago, every single government specialist school in Victoria has been funded for a major capital upgrade. It is part of our investment of $12.8 billion in new schools and more than 1850 school upgrades. Not only is this investment delivering great local schools, it is creating around 17,500 jobs in construction and associated industries. And we are also delivering the biggest reform to VCE since its inception, with the creation of the new VCE vocational major replacing VCAL. We are continuing to support students and families post school, and we will continue to support the jobs of the future with free TAFE.
I have a familial history in the west and I have worked extensively in the west, but I have also served on the board of a community service organisation that has delivered important family services across the west for decades, the Caroline Chisholm Society. The Caroline Chisholm Society – located first in Moonee Ponds, then Caroline Springs and Essendon, and it also has a site in Shepparton – has provided important services for women and young families across the western suburbs. From material aid to counselling, parenting education and supports, the Caroline Chisholm Society has helped families across the western suburbs thrive. The volunteers who have dedicated themselves to this organisation, serving vulnerable families, remain for me a true inspiration, and the women and children who I have met through this organisation remain a source of motivation, particularly in my new portfolio responsibilities.
However, perhaps my most formative experiences leading me to this place and my greatest inspiration are the lessons I learned in my own family. Some of what I have to say I have said in this Parliament before, but for me it has even greater poignancy in the context of my new responsibilities as the Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers and Minister for Child Protection and Family Services. My mum Anne grew up in West Heidelberg. When she and her siblings were quite young, their father – my grandfather Adrian – had a diving accident and became a quadriplegic. My nanna gave up paid work as a nurse to be a full-time carer. Reliant on social housing and charity, sometimes things were hard, including when my nanna lost her younger son, a toddler, in another accident. But times were always full of love and support, and that helped build my nanna, my mum and her sisters into strong and resilient women, each with a commitment to building stronger and more socially just communities.
My nanna passed away nearly 10 years ago – which I could not believe when I counted it out last night – and whilst I am sure she is in here in spirit, I know she would have loved to have seen me elected to this place in the first instance but more particularly to see me become the minister for these portfolios. Nanna had a strong working Christian faith that drove her to defend the vulnerable and downtrodden in our community. From her work as a carer at home to her time managing Prague House, a home for homeless men, to her volunteering later in life at Mary of the Cross and at the Housing for the Aged Action Group, Nanna worked tirelessly to promote the dignity of every life. I draw inspiration from the example set by my nanna, and as I have said before, I know that her hunger for justice lives on in my mum and in me.
My dad Ian grew up in Bendigo and remains at heart a country person. For many years the family had a successful business in farm and earthmoving machinery. Later in life Dad’s father suffered a workplace accident and acquired a brain injury. Like Mum’s family, Dad’s family knew the effects of living with disability. They also knew what it was like to manage the consequences of a workplace injury in a time before WorkCover. Dad was the first person in his family to decide that he wanted to go to university, and his father copped some criticism for agreeing that it was a worthwhile pursuit. But like my parents have always done for me, his parents empowered him to seize opportunities. There can be no doubt that Dad’s upbringing influenced his lifetime commitment to balancing the right to operate a business and generate wealth with a commitment to fair and reasonable conditions of employment, safe workplaces and real and meaningful opportunities for skill development. This is something that Dad was recognised for in being made a Member of the Order of Australia, and his work in this regard has had a profound impact on my own perspective.
From the very beginning my parents sought to instill in me and my two younger brothers John-Paul and Daniel a sense that the whole world is interconnected and that we all have an obligation to work for the common good – a sense of solidarity. For as long as I can recall dinner conversations involved important policy questions around what constitutes a living wage, junior rates of pay, support for the working poor, freedom of association, the value of unpaid work, a fairer distribution of wealth, work and family life balance, equal access and opportunity, and the rights of the child. We grew up understanding that everyone – young or old, however abled, whether they be a student, a worker, a refugee or a prisoner – is equal and entitled to a standard of living that is consistent with human dignity. We grew up understanding that, yes, some people actually do need more than other people do in order to get ahead in life. Some people do need greater opportunities. We grew up understanding that particularly the most vulnerable people need more support than others to achieve their full potential.
I am proud to be part of a government that has been working to deliver that support for the last eight years, and I am excited to be part of a government that has been given that privilege for four more years. I indeed feel so very privileged to receive the commissions for Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers and Minister for Child Protection and Family Services. I feel privileged to be a voice in our government for those who are most vulnerable.
The government has already invested a record $2.8 billion in child and family services over the last three budgets, including $271.6 million in the 2022–23 budget as part of the Roadmap for Reform. Since 2014 we have funded an additional 1180 child protection practitioners to ensure that we keep our children as safe as possible, and we have tripled the investment in family services from 10 years ago, as I said yesterday. We are seeing the results of this investment. The rate of children in out-of-home care in Victoria is 6.4 per 1000, the lowest in Australia and well below the national average of 8.1 per 1000. We have completed the transition to the NDIS. There are around 150,000 active participants in the scheme. Half of these participants are receiving supports for the first time. We released Inclusive Victoria, the state disability plan, in 2022, informed by significant stakeholder consultations and developed in close collaboration with the disability advisory council. And we are ensuring that across Victoria accessible facilities are available to those who need them.
Since 2015 we have invested over $10 million to construct 70 fully accessible toilets, with more in the construction pipeline, and we did not just stop the former government’s sell-off of public sector residential aged care; we have invested more than $618 million in upgrades to public aged care since coming to government. More than $320 million of this investment was in rural and regional Victoria.
In the carers portfolio our last budget continued the carers employment initiative. We also continued to deliver innovative and flexible support to Victoria’s unpaid carers through $22 million in funding per year for the Support for Carers program. But we know there is more to do, and I embrace the challenge.
In speaking of my journey to this place and in considering the work ahead, I acknowledge the many people who support me, in particular my staff. I do not think any of us would be here doing the things we are doing without our staff, and I am so grateful to all of them. I am grateful to my friends and extended family. There are so many of them – big Irish Catholic family that we are – but they all know who they are. I particularly thank my mum, my dad, my brother John-Paul and his wife Natalie and their children Kiera and Michaela and my brother Daniel. The way in which Mum and Dad have lived both their personal and professional lives is a constant source of inspiration. I am forever grateful for their love, their care and their unwavering support. And my brothers John-Paul and Daniel – I am also grateful for their love and support, and that of my sister-in-law Nat and my nieces.
And of course last but by no means least, Adrian and Patricia: Adrian, I could not do any of this without you. Your belief in me, your wisdom, your counsel, your humour, your cooking – we are definitely a team, and I love you very much. And Patricia, my greatest privilege is the God-given honour of being your mum. I am so very proud of you – proud that you tell the other kids not to chase the birds or feed the ducks; proud that you lead welcome to country at kinder; proud that you already know the words to Solidarity Forever, including all the verses; proud that you are kind and clever and stubborn – and I know that you will do amazing things. As was said yesterday, this job often takes all of us away from our families. You are always, though, my number one priority. I was there for your first words. Other than ‘mum’, ‘dad’ and of course ‘no’, it was actually ‘dog’. You pointed at the dog on my apron and said, ‘Dog’. I love reading you books – the detective dog Nell, Emmeline Pankhurst, The Gruffalo, Cinderella and so many more; you most definitely love to read. I hope that you will always know that you are always with me, my constant inspiration and motivation to help make this place better, more just, more kind and more equal for you, for Kiera and Michaela and Indra and all of your friends. For all children, for all people, all of us in this place have that obligation.
Georgie CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) (15:48): I am pleased to be able to rise and respond to the Governor’s speech. I have just been listening to a number of inaugural speeches and then the minister who has come across from the other chamber into this one, and I think all of these speeches have given us a fantastic insight into understanding a lot of the motivations for people to enter this place but also their backgrounds and some of the wonderful things that they have achieved – but also those around them that have supported them and supported us all as we all have made the journey into the Parliament. It really has given us some great insights into people. I have enjoyed listening to them very much, and as the term carries on we will see more of, I am sure, those personalities and motivations coming out in various ways throughout the Parliament.
But I want to make some response to the Governor’s speech, which was delivered on behalf of the government. Whilst there are so many points in here that are very constructive and that we all agree we need to improve – and I will speak to some of those – there are issues in this that I think we all need to be aware of as well. We have got these challenges that are arising, as we keep hearing, from a national level, from an international level and indeed at a state level, about rising costs, our inflation rates and interest rates that are affecting us here in this country. Those cost-of-living pressures are affecting many, many Victorians, and we have got an ability here in Victoria to assist in delivering good government programs and provide those services to all Victorians.
What I am concerned about is that the increase in cost-of-living pressures that we find, our increasing debt that we find at a national and state level, will drive our quality of living down, and I think that is something we all need to be aware of. What we have seen in the past eight years is a government that has spent and wasted billions and billions of dollars. We went into COVID and we had billions of dollars wasted on infrastructure projects. If that money had not been wasted, it could have been put into our necessary services like health and mental health. The government will say, ‘We’ve had a royal commission into mental health’, but that interim report was delivered years ago and what are the actions? The government talks in this speech about investing in our health care around the infrastructure projects, but we know that they have failed to deliver on the ones that they promised five years ago. This government has a record of promising and talking up big but delivering very little. But when they do deliver there is a lot of waste and mismanagement, and that is going to have a cost for Victorians for years to come.
There are many people that are more qualified than I that talk about the intergenerational debt that will be handed down to our children and their children. I think that should be something that we should all be concerned about, but I fear that the government does not grasp the severity of that and what that will actually mean. Something that I truly believe is that if we need, for instance, a strong health system, it must be sustainable, it must have that investment, but what we have had is failing infrastructure for many, many years. The government will go back and talk about previous governments, and invariably they talk about the Kennett government, but look what the Kennett government had to do after the last time.
Melina Bath: It was a botch-up.
Georgie CROZIER: More than a botch-up, Ms Bath – the state was on its knees. And we were reminded about the sell-offs only this morning through one of those speeches – the privatisation of public services through the Labor government then. They talk about Kennett but what Kennett did was get Victoria back going. The fortunes of that good governance then provided, I think, quite good governments in the early 2000s – Labor-led governments that were the beneficiaries of that and at a federal level through the reforms that were done at that point through GST reforms and others.
I make these points because this speech is a very big spending agenda. Our debt and our borrowings are truly enormous and they are growing and we do not know the true extent of that. As I said, the government talks up big and talks about how in the next four years they will focus on energy, health, education, transport and jobs. We have got an energy crisis; we know that. Energy prices are going up, and that is a massive issue, a massive cost-of-living issue. It is impacting every single household. And it is the vulnerable that are really those ones that will suffer the most because of those rising prices. We have got a federal government saying we are going to give you $275 to bring down your energy prices. This government is saying we are transitioning to renewable energy, but they are not doing it in a sensible, measured way because what it will do is drive up those prices. I am truly concerned about the impact that will have not only on the individual but on our way of life, and of course our jobs and industries will be impacted. Many of us on the side of the house understand those in, for instance, farming communities, the inputs, those that are in business, the inputs, and those energy inputs that they must cater for so that their business can succeed and thrive.
Health – as you have heard me say many times, there is no denying Victoria’s health crisis is still very, very prevalent. I am reminded time and time again about the issues that my office is contacted about, about people who cannot get the surgery that they need. We have got an elective surgery waitlist – that is not elective, it is vital surgery. It is surgery that people need. When they cannot get their surgery, it impacts on their health and wellbeing and their ability to carry out their job. It impacts on their mental health. Often they rely on very strong opioids and painkillers, and that also can drive and cause many, many issues. Of course, as you have heard me say over the last few days, the latest figures that the government needs to provide to Victorians for us to understand what the elective surgery waitlist is are not being released by the government. They just refuse to do it. They make up some pathetic excuse when the data is ready. This is the data from September to December. This is the data collected over that time. We know that the numbers are in the tens of thousands, but what I fear is the extent, and I fear that those on the hidden waitlist are also getting more and more, so the pressures are going right through the system.
The government says it is investing in the health workforce, but we know that there are issues across the system because of experienced nurses leaving. I had a text message last night at 11:15 pm from somebody who had an experience in one of our major hospitals after being diagnosed as having had a mini stroke. What he told me in the text message concerned me greatly. He was texting me at that hour of night to say, ‘You’ve got to understand what is going on. Here is my experience.’ That happens to me all the time – desperate Victorians talking about the care they are receiving or the lack of management and treatment that they are receiving because the system is so stretched. That inability to have necessary and urgent care can be the difference between life and death. It can be the difference between disability and recovery. These issues need to be spoken about, and I will not give up talking about the needs of Victorians, because there is no doubt the health services in this state, despite all the good efforts from those that work within them, have been failing and continue to fail. There are too many people on that hidden waitlist that are dying because they cannot get their surgery. There are too many people on the elective surgery waitlist who are dying because they cannot get their surgery, and there are too many people that are requiring emergency management and are dying because they cannot get the proper treatment.
So this health crisis continues. The energy crisis is there. We have education, where our standards are dropping. The government says it is concentrating on jobs. I spoke about rising interest rates and inflationary pressures that are going to put more pressure on what the government has borrowed. It is basic economics: the more you borrow and the more interest rates go up, the more interest you are going to have to pay. What does that mean? That means less money to go into services like health, like education, like transport. This is a terribly worrying time, I think, for Victorians, because I am not sure the government has a full grasp of what is going on.
The government can spruik all they like about free this and free that. Well, we found out today that the Parliamentary Budget Office post-election report has revealed that there is no new funding beyond next year to deliver free TAFE. This is what I mean – there is no money there to deliver these programs, even though the government has been spruiking that, ‘We’re going to provide free this and free that.’ It is somebody’s money. It is the taxpayers money. Of course we want to provide support to those that need it. Of course we want people to have an education and have access to kindergarten and to provide really fabulous education at that very important stage, or at the other end after leaving school, getting a tertiary qualification and being able to do the best that an individual can – find that opportunity and really be able to do it. But we are finding where the shortfalls are. I think the big talk by the government on their big agenda is going to let down a lot of Victorians as we find out just how stretched the budget is and just how difficult it is that so many of these services and so many agencies and others are running out of money.
There is quite a lot more I would like to say about the Governor’s speech in my reply. There are some good things in here in terms of investing in women’s health. I applaud the government on that, but I doubt whether they will deliver it based on their track record. But I do say it is not just about delivering these initiatives; it is about delivering good health care and having access and equity of access to good health care right across the state. That is not the case when you have got hospitals shutting down, you have got doctors’ contracts being cancelled and you are having amalgamation of health services – that is the decline of access to health care across regional and rural Victoria. I know that those colleagues that come from those areas know exactly what I am talking about because their constituents are telling them as well.
I would like to say more about this, but I will leave it at that and I will leave it to others to make their contributions. Again, can I congratulate all those new MPs on their first speeches. I have enjoyed listening to a lot of the speeches that have come before the house so far.
Sonja TERPSTRA (North-Eastern Metropolitan) (16:02): I also rise to make a contribution in reply to the Governor’s speech, which was delivered by Her Excellency the Honourable Linda Dessau, Governor of Victoria, at the opening of the first session of the 60th Parliament on 20 December 2022. In so doing I feel that the pitch for my address-in-reply today is one of hope and optimism because this government has such a bold and progressive reform agenda. I am excited and optimistic about the future and what this government has to offer the people of Victoria. I will go on to speak about some of the things that obviously occurred and were touched on in Her Excellency’s speech, but also on how they are providing opportunities and impacting the people of the North-Eastern Metropolitan Region each and every day, and some of the things that are meaningful to me as well.
I am honoured to be elected as a member for the North-Eastern Metropolitan Region, and I want to thank the voters of my region for placing their trust in me. I will work every day to represent their interests. It is a privilege and an honour to be able to serve for yet another term and certainly as a member of the government to be returned. As I said, it is a privilege to serve.
The thing that I think most people do not realise about the North-Eastern Metropolitan Region is that it is a diverse region. There are many people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, multicultural backgrounds. Although there might be pockets where there may be wealth, there are certainly people who experience hardship. For example, many people who I meet in my region, many women who I meet in my region, talk to me and tell me about their experiences of family violence. They may live in a well-appointed home, and what goes on behind closed doors may not be visible to people or the general public. But as we know, family violence affects all postcodes and social classes regardless of wealth. Whether you have wealth or lack wealth, it is not a barrier to people experiencing family violence. Something that I have learned in being a representative for people in my region is that sometimes women live in circumstances that do not necessarily portray the real circumstances going on at home and they can often find that a barrier to accessing assistance.
So it is something that I am careful to make sure of: that every woman in my region, regardless of her background, circumstances and the like, is able to access the help that she needs when she needs it. It is challenging. It is a challenge that we continue to face as a government. This government has invested enormous amounts of money in making sure that we can fight the scourge of family violence but that we can also make sure that women can access the resources that they need. One of the highlights in my region, for example, was last year, when this government opened the Orange Door services in Croydon. The east and the outer east for women in my region – the outer east has one of the highest rates of family violence in Victoria, so it was a resource that was opened and well needed in that area, and I understand that it is performing a great function for women who need to access the services that they need. That was a very proud moment, to see the government placing resources directly in my region so that women can access them. And of course there are other services that are placed in my region as well – at Box Hill, for example.
In regard to Her Excellency’s speech, just in regard to investments in the healthcare system – and I touched on this yesterday when I spoke – our investment in our healthcare system is unprecedented. We are investing in health care in a range of ways. Not only are we building new hospitals and upgrading hospitals, but of course we are also investing in our healthcare workforce. We are also making sure that we can increase the capacity for elective surgeries as well. But, for example, in my own region an announcement of a $1 billion upgrade to rebuild the Maroondah Hospital was a fantastic announcement and one that was very well received. Specifically not only are we going to rebuild that hospital from the ground up, but we are going to also expand the capacity of that hospital by 200 new beds. We will also make sure there are 14 extra treatment spaces – because of course as the population grows we need to make sure we have additional capacity in our hospitals to treat people where they live and when they need it – and of course a new emergency department and mental health spaces as well, mental health hubs. We know that one of the things when we talk about the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System is that we are going to implement all of those recommendations, and making sure that people can access mental health care in local communities is critically important as well.
Of course something that is very important to me is public education. We have heard a number of speeches today, and various members have spoken about their humble beginnings and their education experiences. Of course the Andrews Labor government has a strong track record and commitment in public education. We are building new schools in growing communities as well and we are also upgrading existing schools, and that is something that I am most proud of. For example, in my own region – and we have already talked about this; it was announced well before the election – we are upgrading Warrandyte secondary college with an amount of $4.1 million to make sure that students who go to that school can have fit-for-purpose buildings to make sure that they can get access to the best education they can. Melba secondary college – another announcement, which was about delivering on stage 3 of that rebuild, and that is an amount of $18 million to secure that rebuild.
A fantastic announcement which was delivered as well – and one that is very close to not only my heart but I know President Shaun Leane’s heart as well – was the complete rebuild of Croydon Community School, a fantastic collaboration between not only the teachers, the professionals and the educators who work at the school but also the architects, who came up with purpose-built plans to make sure that that school and the students’ needs at that school could be met by the design of that school as well. I think the principal called it the ‘circling of the wagons’, so that no matter where you are in the buildings, they look centrally into the playground areas. There are areas where there is water, natural stone, natural logs and the like, which give it a really nice bush feel. There are beautiful gardens as well, and they have the capacity to have chooks there as well and kitchen gardens, so the kids can really get access to the best facilities that they need and that are purpose-built for their needs. What I know is a school like Croydon Community School absolutely saves lives, because some of the children that attend this school have experienced incredible hardship and disadvantage.
I must say that when I attended the graduation of some of the students toward the end of last year some of the students performed for us at their graduation ceremony, and the calibre of the musicians that are coming out of that school was absolutely something to behold. It was such a privilege to listen to the music that they performed for us. I look at those kids and I think all of them have a really bright future, and it made me feel incredibly proud to share in that moment with them.
There is also the upgrading of Croydon Special Developmental School. And something again that I notice when I go and visit schools in my region is that of course we need to make sure that our students with a disability can learn in fit-for-purpose buildings, and many of the schools that were first built to educate special needs students are now old, outdated and not fit for purpose anymore. So this government really put heart into upgrading schools and public education, because what we know is kids today need resources to be able to learn.
Many, many years ago, often it was just thought that kids with special needs really did not need access to education; it was just sending them off for the day. But I am incredibly impressed by our teachers who every day go to our special development schools and special schools to educate children with special needs. Seeing those kids flourish and the looks on their faces when they are learning in those classrooms really is amazing. So I am incredibly proud of being able to do this, and I look forward to the upgrades to Croydon Special Developmental School. I know one of the upgrades is to the hydrotherapy pool as well, because therapy is a really important part of providing good quality education at those special schools. So I look forward to that happening as well.
And of course with the free TAFE initiative we have placed new courses on the free TAFE list. I know that for many students free TAFE and TAFE generally really does change lives. I am somebody who was fortunate enough to attend TAFE when I left school. In fact I think I was still in year 10, and I touched on this in my inaugural speech. When I was in year 10 I went to learn to type at night at TAFE. I and a girlfriend jumped on the train after school, and we would go on the train line to Meadowbank TAFE college, as it was, and we would learn to type at night. I remember my mum saying to me, ‘Always have a skill. Have something that you can fall back on, because you’ll always be able to find work,’ and that was good advice.
What we know about TAFE is that it provides access to high-quality vocational education and training. I am really proud to have an institution like Box Hill TAFE in my region, for example. I think it will turn 100, if not this year the year after, so it is an institution of incredible longevity. It has survived many attacks by conservative governments. And I might just mention – even though it is just outside my region it is still a part of Box Hill TAFE – the Lilydale campus. That was under threat of full closure by previous conservative governments, and when we were in opposition we mounted a very successful campaign to save the Lilydale campus. It is now a campus of Box Hill TAFE. I have visited the campus. They offer amazing programs for students in the automotive trade but also in electrical trades. As I have said previously, my daughter is looking forward to undertaking an electrical apprenticeship.
A member: Yay!
Sonja TERPSTRA: Yes, there you go. And I trust and hope that she will be able to access that in my region as well, and I am incredibly proud of her as well for doing it.
Also North East Link is another project in my region which will have a significant impact for people who live in my local community. Since I moved into my community many years ago now, I have watched the traffic steadily grow, and the North East Link project will have such a significant impact on people’s lives: removing 15,000 trucks off local roads, reducing travel times by 35 minutes, the 10,000 jobs we are going to create but also planting 30,000 trees on that construction alone. But 10,000 jobs for people not only in my region but further afield – apprentices, people with disabilities – is such a fantastic opportunity. This is where a government can demonstrate how we can use our social capital to do really good work for the communities which we serve. I am really proud of that project. I am excited by it. Every time I drive on the Greensborough Highway I come over the hill at Watsonia and I look down the hill to my left and I can see real progress being made. There are so many cranes on that horizon.
We went down there with the Deputy Premier, the Honourable Jacinta Allan, the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure, the other day. People in my community are excited to see that happening, and it is moving at such a pace. So people now know that we get on with it. We say what we do and we deliver on what we say we are going to do, and people trust us because they can see the progress on that. So all of those things are happening right now in my region.
As I said, whether it is free TAFE or even free kinder – and I am running out of time, so I will not have time to talk about free kinder, but I know the impact that that will make for the youngest and littlest Victorians in my region. And I cannot wait to go out and visit kinders in my region and take out the free kinder kits – which I know kids will love, with so many items of great local content – and talk to the parents. There are also our prep bags for our schools. I get out the frisbee – it is like giving each kid a can of Coke when you fling it around the classroom, and then the teachers take hours to calm everyone down. But that is what school is about; it is about having fun, right? And if kids are having fun and they are happy, they will learn.
Tom McIntosh: Play-based learning.
Sonja TERPSTRA: Play-based learning, absolutely: ‘Let’s see how aerodynamic a frisbee is. How far will it go? How high will it go?’ – all of these things. You learn lots of things just by playing. So for our littlest Victorians, certainly whether you are a preppy or in kinder or right through to year 12 and the like, whether you want to study vocational education – and our senior secondary school reforms now mean that it will be easier for kids to get access to and go and study vocational education and training – or whether you want to do a school-based apprenticeship, all of those opportunities need to come back so we can get kids into work, into secure, well-paid jobs, jobs for the future. Kids are excited to be able to work on renewable energy projects as well.
There is so much to offer Victorians. I am incredibly proud to be a member of this government that has been returned for a third term. I look forward to continuing to work on everything that the government is saying we will be delivering throughout this term and beyond, and I look forward to serving. As I said earlier, it is a privilege to serve. I would also like to congratulate the members in the chamber who made their inaugural speeches today – there were some very interesting speeches made – and I look forward to working with members across the chamber.
Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (16:17): Deputy President, I am pleased to see you back in the chair, as well as the President, in this 60th Parliament. I rise to make my contribution on the response to the Governor’s speech last December, and in doing so I would also like to put on record my thanks for the service that the Honourable Linda Dessau, Her Excellency, provides this state. I have not met her on many occasions, and sometimes, as when we were sworn in last month, it is very perfunctory. But one experience was four years ago on the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday fires in Central Gippsland when she came down and toured the region. I remember going to Kernot Hall and meeting with her and having a conversation, and I was very impressed by her grace and humbleness in response to the people and the lives that were so devastatingly affected by the multiple bushfires that created havoc in our region. So I thank her for the service and the elegance and dignity she provides in the role.
Indeed when I first came in and read the Governor’s speech a couple of times ago, I went, ‘Who wrote this?’ And then of course I realised it is the government’s agenda and indeed the Premier or one of his multiple media gurus had written this down for us to look at. Looking at it, it is a big shout-out to the Andrews government, and one would expect that. It casts the net to share with the public what they believe they are going to achieve, and I am interested – very interested – in the topics that are covered. Indeed under ‘Energy’ the first line is ‘Bringing back the SEC’. When that little bombshell happened sometime in early November prior to the election, I of course was in the Latrobe Valley and handing out how-to-vote cards in and around Gippsland, and it was viewed with great scepticism by many of the people I spoke with on pre-poll. For those hard and fast in the Labor camp, yes, of course it was all fabulous, but many in central Gippsland basically felt that it was going to be a joke.
It was an election commitment announced in the CBD or surrounds of Melbourne and then later on flogged at the Yallourn power station. The energy situation in Victoria is incredibly serious; there is no doubt about that. Since coming in and seeing the closure of Hazelwood and the effect that has had on the Latrobe Valley we have seen the Andrews government’s closure statement on the native timber industry and the strangulation of that and the effect that that is having on our regions. Not only the Latrobe Valley but the broader Gippsland region is really in dire straits, and there are ramifications of that in a wider context. We are going to move toward renewables, and that is the path that we are on, but there is a great danger of falling off the cliff too soon. We need dispatchable power. We need reliable power. Batteries are coming, but with the requirements of batteries there is a danger that they absolutely will not be able to fill that short gap when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing or it is blowing too hard.
The government needs to be very mindful over the next four years about supporting the valley. We have had the Latrobe Valley Authority, and that is coming to wither on the vine. It had $7.5 million in the last budget and half of that was on wages, with the little bit left on projects. What is going to happen? We see the Latrobe Valley is going to be home to the new hub of the SEC. We had the GovHub, but during the course of COVID everyone went home, and many, many of those people have not come back – whether they actually worked in the valley at the same time is a contentious issue. We are seeing the loss of livelihoods and jobs in our central Gippsland area, and it is an absolute concern. You see other areas growing as ours is contracting. The government needs to be most sensitive to this so it is not just lip service.
The cost of living is going up. We know that. We know that the cost of electricity, the cost of gas, the cost of services is incredibly heartbreaking for many families. We know that education is an incredibly important aspect, and it is one that I feel that this house should inquire into and investigate, along with my good colleague Dr Bach, and look at some of the positives that are happening in our schools on a daily basis but look at where the stress points are, look at what is happening in terms of our teachers, our teacher training, our teacher retention – and regional Victoria, we often see, is disproportionally disadvantaged in terms of student outcomes. This has been the case for many a year, but it is time we reflected on that with new eyes, fresh eyes, and asked how government policy can support our regions and retain our teachers in regional areas.
I have time and again heard the concern that school councils have around electing or approving principals and the feeling that they are being separated and left out of those very important conversations, and they seem to often be held in the regional space rather than letting parents and the school community have proper input. And the curriculum – I believe it is important that we now have a look at the curriculum as a whole and with fresh eyes. If you go and talk to many teachers, as I still do, often there is a burden of requirement. And we have to also look at how our standard is going. If it is working, our standard should be going up. We should be matching it on the world stage, but we have seen in terms of the Programme for International Student Assessment report and assessments that Australia-wide we are slipping back. Just because it is Australia-wide we should not just put our cue on the rack and go, ‘Well, nothing we can do.’ It is really important to address those sorts of issues.
Recently we saw the Grattan Institute. We have heard the government talk about its build in terms infrastructure, and the Grattan Institute often are very considered with the reports that they put out. They are saying that flexible learning spaces are not serving children. Anybody who has taught in a classroom and had a large classroom area –
Matthew Bach: Put the walls back in.
Melina BATH: That is what they are saying. It can very much disadvantage certain students. They are saying that as part of this Big Build there should be a retrofit to shrink those classrooms back to a manageable size. I actually know this from a very personal context, because my youngest son had a learning difficulty and he absolutely could not cope in a large classroom setting. He has made good ends and is doing well in life, but he really struggled in those noisy and large classroom settings.
Post-COVID disadvantage and disengagement – we hear, very concerningly, on the ground parents talking about their children having lost contact over COVID and having been removed from the classroom and having had to be at home during those long, long months and the lack of engagement that they have now. And the concern we see now is about truancy – young people are just not engaging as they did. These are concerns that we need to address, and window-dressing in a speech from the government certainly is not sufficient. These are some of the things that I think we need to be looking at.
The Governor spoke about health, and there were a number of initiatives in there. IVF was one of them, and I remember during the course of the COVID pandemic, when the government actually shut down the private services for people going off and getting their IVF treatment, it was very traumatic. We saw recently the AMA and indeed the Victorian president of the AMA Dr McRae, and I am quoting from a recent report, say:
Victoria’s public hospitals are in crisis.
He said over several years we have not been making:
… increased investment in staffing and infrastructure. Factors including an ageing population, an increase in chronic and complex health conditions, and escalating presentations to emergency departments … for mental health conditions …
These are all very significant problems. What we are seeing in a local context, and again the AMA have spoken to this, is that rather than there being 80,000 – or 85,000, which is the government figure, and that is some months old now – on the elective surgery waitlist, they are talking about a figure that they have done independently of 135,000 Victorians on the elective surgery waitlist. And we know that these are not elective; these are must-have surgeries. These are surgeries for which the more the wait is prolonged, the more debility and pain there is, and the recovery rates certainly can be compromised. I spoke with a number of people in the last couple of years about that delayed service and delayed elective surgery, and in the end there was one of them in particular – it was elective; it was a hip replacement for a gentleman in South Gippsland – whose doctor said, ‘It’s no longer elective. You’ve lost that much weight; your stomach’s been ripped apart by analgesics and painkillers to keep you going, and it’s now life-threatening surgery.’ We do not want this to continue.
The concerning thing that we see in some of our regional hospitals – and our regional hospitals do an amazing role; every single person in there, all of those staff in the medical professions and all the behind-the-scenes staff that back them up, are working in very stressful and pressurised situations – is their elective surgery waitlists. I will quote two hospitals – their elective surgery waitlists have ballooned. In the 2020–21 financial year Latrobe Regional had just under 1000 people on that elective surgery waitlist. In the next and most recent report of 2021–22 we have got 1600 people waiting on elective surgery. We see an increase, but not quite to the same degree, in the West Gippsland health service. We know that when we had the election the Liberals and Nationals made a commitment, as they had the previous election, on the West Gippsland hospital and finally, finally the Andrews government were dragged kicking and screaming to announce that they would also commit to the West Gippsland hospital. It is much needed and the most significant priority for the seat of Narracan, the council of Baw Baw and all of those very good people that live there. We thank the Warragul hospital CEO and staff for all of the work that they have done over a period of time working in very cramped conditions in an exceedingly old hospital that is not fit for purpose.
Another thing I would like to cover off on is transport. There is a section here on transport, and what we know is that the lifeblood of our rural communities is our roads and rail. And what we also know living in regional Victoria is that our roads are crumbling. Potholes are the order of the day, and when they are fixed they just deteriorate at a great rate of knots and create frustration and indeed compromise driver safety. Twenty-five per cent of the population live outside the largest city, the metropolitan area as it is classified, but 25 per cent of the population receive – from the Parliamentary Budget Office, these figures – 13 per cent of the infrastructure build for transport, and people are feeling it.
Certainly we look at jobs, and I go back again to the Latrobe Valley. We see other regions growing by the thousands in terms of their job numbers. I love it when the Labor Party quotes regional unemployment as being at an all-time low et cetera – I think the previous federal government also had something to do with that. However, when you look at the regional areas and you look at Latrobe as a small region, a municipality, our unemployment figures are absolutely scary, and again this needs be addressed in a serious way.
I would like to thank the people of Eastern Victoria Region for re-electing me. I look forward to working hard every day to serve the population of Eastern Victorian Region.
Tom McINTOSH (Eastern Victoria) (16:32): I rise to also make a contribution in reply to the Governor’s speech. This Labor government won the election in November by putting forward a positive plan for the future of all Victorians. We did this by addressing the major challenges facing Victoria in a practical and positive way and by demonstrating to the Victorian people that we have the strength and integrity to deliver on those plans. Those plans include a holistic view of the state, not just metro Melbourne but the regions as well, in recognition of the connection between city and country and that the prosperity of one is tied to the other. The plan is for a growing state, a multicultural state, a state with a high quality of life and a state laying the groundwork for reconciliation with First People. We are building the infrastructure that we need in the future, whether that be world-class hospitals and schools, the Metro Tunnel, the Suburban Rail Loop, including airport rail, upgrading regional train lines and TAFEs or removing level crossings – all this while lowering emissions at an accelerating rate. These are the projects and investments that will make Melbourne a world-class city and Victoria a world-class state. To achieve this we need more skilled workers to fill more new jobs with good conditions in construction, energy, hospitals, schools and kindergartens. These jobs need to be secure, and people need to return home to their families safely at the end of the day. These jobs also need to pay well. They need to keep up with the rate of the cost of living.
I want to start by talking about the start that we are giving to our next generation of kids.
A member interjected.
Tom McINTOSH: Just in time. This is about how we look after and raise the next generation who will shape the future of Victoria. The way that we care for and educate our kids will shape the future of the Victorian economy. The people who work in this sector are truly life changing, and every day I am blown away by the care and dedication that our early education workers provide to our babies, toddlers and children, who at such a young age can be on occasion so demanding. Ninety per cent of a child’s brain development occurs before they are five years old, and I am proud that the Best Start initiative kicked off this year with participating kindergartens offering families free kinder. This policy underpins everything we are doing by investing in our young minds at their most critical time for development, emotionally and academically, setting them up for the future. Most exciting to me is that this investment will help our kids identify and control their feelings, and if we can help our children continue to master their feelings and control their behaviour, we can make massive change as a society in big areas like violence, especially men’s violence against women, and mental health.
Not only is this an investment in the future of human capital in our state and the productivity of our state but it is an investment in the productivity of our state right now by allowing parents to work more hours and keep the gains from that work in their pockets rather than spending them on more kinder fees. To support this investment we are building more childcare centres and upgrading hundreds of kindergartens right across the state – like the kinder I visited in Yarram last week where we are investing $2 million to upgrade facilities to accommodate a growing population and the introduction of three-year-old kinder.
This also means local construction jobs and new jobs in early education, which is being supported by workforce initiatives including free TAFE. I studied at TAFE and I am passionate about supporting other Victorians to do so and making sure they do it in a quality TAFE system. Free TAFE will expand so that all Victorians can study for in-demand jobs like health care, mental health, construction, early childhood and hospitality. The government will change the once-in-a-lifetime limits so Victorians can take multiple free TAFE courses, and we will build and upgrade TAFE campuses around the state so that Victorians can continue to study in quality facilities, like the brand new $25 million TAFE in Sale that has been finished and was opened last year. I have toured the excellent facilities in the heart of town and seen how they are offering skills in demand to the local community, like aged care, construction and, again, early childhood education.
Free TAFE is helping Victorians train for their future. This will continue to grow an agile and skilled workforce to provide the goods and services we need, including our clean energy future, with investment in a range of initiatives focused on renewable energy jobs. Making the transition to a low-emission economy is one of our greatest, if not our greatest, challenges. Our renewable electricity target is 95 per cent by 2035. Our emission reduction target is 75 to 80 per cent by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2045. There is no doubt these targets are ambitious, and to provide comfort and certainty to Victorians about power supply, power prices and jobs in the energy industry we are bringing back the State Electricity Commission. The new SEC will invest directly in electricity generation with a commitment to at least 4.5 gigawatts – that is equivalent to the capacity of Loy Yang A – by 2035. Investing directly in generation will ensure that profits will be returned to helping keep bills down for Victorians.
As an electrician I am proud that we will also ensure that there are tens of thousands of good jobs in the energy sector for the next generation, including thousands of apprentices and trainees. In recognition of the workforce skills, the community’s contribution to powering Victoria and the region’s future opportunities, the SEC will set up office in Eastern Victoria, in Morwell. Thousands of renewable energy jobs will be in regional Victoria, including in Eastern Victoria, where Bass Strait off the coast of Gippsland is the first declared offshore wind zone in Australia. In December I joined state and federal energy ministers to make that announcement on Ninety Mile Beach, marking the first practical step in bringing these well-paid, skilled regional jobs into reality. We have wasted no time in starting this massive and important work, with the Victorian government announcing the panel of experts that will help guide the SEC and its investments just this week.
Further driving the regional economy, and in response to increasing financial pressures on Victorians, the government will cap regional public transport fares, making it easier for families and commuters in regional Victoria to get around by train and bus. New trains to support increased demand will be made right here in Victoria, and they will be run on upgraded lines connecting upgraded stations – including the Gippsland line – which are close to new health services. I have visited new stations under construction and have watched the new Pakenham station and elevated line take shape, transforming the space underneath and slashing time spent waiting in traffic. I have watched hundreds of diverse construction workers in hi-vis with well-paid jobs eat at local cafes. They are absolutely full. Travel on new Victorian-made trains will be affordable and equitable between city and country, and they will help people get to new health services.
In Eastern Victoria, as I am sure Minister Shing will attest, a new West Gippsland hospital will be built, an upgraded Wonthaggi Hospital will be built, we are finishing massive upgrades at Latrobe Regional Hospital in Traralgon and a new aged care building will be built in Maffra. I toured the existing Maffra aged care last year and this was clearly a welcome announcement as the existing facilities are dated.
Public health staff have been doing an incredible job through challenging times to continue to provide world-class care for our community, including our older people. Our health workforce has put in a mammoth effort over the past two years, from the nurses, the midwives and the patient service attendants to the allied health professionals, the doctors, the ambos and the ward clerks. I would like to join all Victorians in thanking them.
Right across the country the pandemic has placed unprecedented and sustained pressure on our hospitals and ambulance services. To help manage these significant challenges we have continued to invest and back in our health workforce with a range of workforce retention and attraction measures, which I will come back to. But they also need to work in the best possible environments, so to reiterate my previous comments, the Wonthaggi Hospital redevelopment will be an investment of $250 million to $290 million for the second stage of a major redevelopment. It will deliver extra beds, a new birthing complex and a new outpatient clinic. The new West Gippsland hospital will put patients first – the government will invest $610 million to $675 million to build a brand new hospital for locals in West Gippsland, located in Drouin East. This is a commitment to invest in the growing regional areas that are vital to our state’s continued success.
All Victorians, including regional Victorians, will also benefit from state-of-the-art, large-scale hospital projects, including delivering the biggest hospital infrastructure project in Australia’s history, the new Royal Melbourne and Royal Women’s hospitals alongside Metro Tunnel’s new Arden station, to give patients across Victoria access to the very best of care. From 2025 both the Parkville and Arden medical precincts will have brand new train stations and be linked, making it a 2-minute trip between hospital campuses and connecting them to the Monash Medical Centre in Clayton and the rest of Victoria through the regional rail network.
This investment in both metro and regional health services also drives home the commitment of the government to an equitable and healthy Victoria. This includes Victorian women, with a signature policy of this government to invest in women’s health. Women are 50 per cent of the population and have different health needs, which are going to be missed too often in traditional health services – and we are well aware that this is not a niche policy. The government will create 20 new women’s health clinics, including a dedicated, Aboriginal-led women’s health clinic. These will be supported by an inquiry into women’s pain management, chaired by a panel of experts who will hear directly from women about their experiences accessing treatment. The government will establish a women’s health clinic to visit remote parts of the state and will recruit more women’s health specialists. Support groups and mental health programs for women tackling challenging health issues like endometriosis will be established.
The new trains I mentioned earlier, on the new tracks with new stations, will also support regional Victoria to host the Commonwealth Games in March 2026. This will also be in eastern Victoria. The games will bring together athletes, communities, cultures and businesses in an exciting program of events supporting thousands of Victorians, with the majority in regional Victoria. We will invest in new and upgraded infrastructure that will provide both first-class games experiences and improved facilities for Victorians in the future. Victorians love sport, especially regional Victorians, and the experience of having world-class athletes competing in home towns across the state will inspire and motivate local kids and energise local sports clubs and leagues, all at the same time. More social and affordable housing will be created as part of the athletes villages, supporting more Victorians to have a place called home.
But it is not just the big-ticket items; there are also initiatives to make life easier for Victorian families facing challenges. Families supporting kids with disabilities have been facing challenges, and we have heard that and have responded to that. For these families the government will deliver a package to transform specialist schools through upgrades and more support for students in the classroom. The government will also extend outside hours care to every specialist school in the state and will create onsite space for allied health appointments. NDIS navigators will be introduced into all specialist schools to help families navigate the system, and there will also be more speech pathologists and OTs in regional areas, TAFE transition officers, aqua therapy pools, a Premier’s advisory committee and more therapy animals in our specialist schools – because kids love them and they work.
We will also encourage and support those who look after us when we are sick and get more nurses into the public health system. Thousands of students will have the cost of their nursing or midwifery studies paid for, while scholarships will be available for thousands more who complete postgraduate studies in areas of need, including intensive care, cancer care, paediatrics and nurse practitioner specialties. The government will also provide a $5000 sign-on bonus for nurses who graduate in the next three years, rewarding those who choose to take up careers in Victoria’s public health system. We will introduce stronger nurse-to-patient ratios and more nurses and midwives in the public system to help ease the load on our busy healthcare workers.
We will establish the paramedic practitioner role with an agreed model of care that can strengthen our ambulance service while easing pressure on our busy hospitals at the same time. We will add another 40 MICA paramedics to our ranks and we will incentivise more doctors to become GPs, offering financial incentives for doctors who enrol in the GP training program. The program will be available for two years and we will continue to work with the Albanese Labor government to increase the number of general practitioner and rural generalist GP training places so that even more medical students and junior doctors can join this critically important profession.
It is an ambitious and thorough agenda that this government has committed to, covering health, equality, jobs, climate and the environment, education, the cost of living and other challenges and opportunities facing our community. In all that I have said I am giving only a mere overview of all the work of this government, and I could go on for much, much longer, but everything I have touched on and more is why I am proud of this government, our achievements, our commitments and all we will do for Victorians. I am sure that for all of those Victorians that voted for us in November we will deliver on all the commitments we have made and more, because we bring the team, the people, the life experience and the values that can deliver all that, and that is why I am proud to be here in this government delivering all this and more for the people of Victoria.
Matthew BACH (North-Eastern Metropolitan) (16:47): It is good to rise to join this important debate, and it is lovely to follow Mr McIntosh. I do want to agree with many of the things he said, initially in particular in the area of early childhood. In the area of early childhood there is so much agreement, pleasingly, between those of us on this side of the house and those opposite, and it is excellent that the minister – a fine minister in my view, Minister Stitt – who is in the house presently, has led a reform process to introduce an expansion of the availability of kinder places not only for three-year-olds but also for four-year-olds. And as Minister Stitt knows, my daughter Phoebe is currently in four-year-old kinder at the local sessional kinder with amazing teachers – and our early childhood educators are fabulous and the various other support and allied staff are fabulous.
Of course, as has been aired previously, and I will not recapitulate these arguments now, we have some small concerns around issues concerning some kindergartens that do charge slightly higher fees, but nonetheless I concur wholeheartedly with the comments of Mr McIntosh regarding the huge importance of early childhood education. All of us in this place still want to see participation rates increase further.
It has been interesting for me to note some of the contributions of various academics, child psychologists and other experts to the federal Labor government’s inquiry into school refusal. One of the key themes when you look at those submissions is that all of us as a community can work together to lift the standing of not only the teaching profession but also our schools and our kindergartens. Because while the vast majority of Victorian parents have a really thorough understanding about the huge benefits of education – and Mr McIntosh discussed them eloquently in my view, as did Ms Bath, the former schoolteacher. Most people on this side of the house are former schoolteachers.
Moira Deeming: Almost. Even me.
Matthew BACH: That is right. Mrs Deeming is currently in the house. She is a former schoolteacher as well. But nonetheless, we must all work together because a minority – but still a minority that is too large – out in the community do not quite have the fulsome understanding that we would like them to have about how amazing kindergarten is and how transformational kindergarten is, but also our schools. And I worry about an emerging tabloid narrative, in particular about our state schools. Again, Mr McIntosh and Ms Bath spoke about schooling and the importance of schooling, and this was a key feature of the government’s agenda as outlined in the Governor’s speech.
Of course we see instances of violence in our schools, and we are deeply concerned about them. Of course we see examples of bullying and increasingly online bullying in our schools, and we are very concerned about them. But as a former schoolteacher, I would want to fundamentally disagree with the tabloid narrative that our schools and in particular our state schools are purely hotbeds of violence and bullying and that there are so many teachers in our schools who just are not up to it. In my experience the vast majority of schools are fabulous, supportive places and the vast majority of teachers across the faith-based sector, the independent sector and absolutely our state sector – our fabulous state sector – are wonderful.
The government has outlined its agenda for schools, and I think a kind way of describing that agenda would be ‘anaemic’. It is great to embark upon further capital works, and I suppose that is the government’s brand: ‘We build stuff. We waste a huge amount of money in the process, but we build stuff.’ I understand that. And there are so many schools in my electorate, especially in Liberal seats, who have never been provided the funding that they need. I catch Mrs Deeming’s eye over there. There are so many schools in the west of Melbourne, an area she represents, that have been neglected for so long – call me cynical – because they have been in historically safe Labor seats. Well, that is changing, and a very good thing too. I know Mrs Deeming is going to continue to advocate in a very robust way to seek to get those schools in her electorate that have been overlooked for so long the capital funding they need.
But capital funding is not everything. We also need reform, and there is nothing in the government’s agenda about reform. I want to see significant changes to our curriculum. We have heard today from other members of this place, including Mr McCracken, who made a quite extraordinary initial speech in this place – another former schoolteacher on our side of the house – about the need for significant curriculum reform. This is something, to be fair, the federal Labor minister, Minister Clare, says he is interested to look at. So let us keep an open mind. Let us see what happens, because I want to see a curriculum that is marked by rigour. Even before the pandemic, PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, demonstrated that Victorian children received their worst ever results in numeracy, literacy and scientific literacy. These are the core skills that will enable young people to spread their wings and fly in the world of work in the 21st century, and yet increasingly we are in fact going backwards in the state of Victoria, which Mr Andrews says is the Education State.
We need to have a difficult conversation about teacher quality, and I say this as somebody who has lost a little bit of skin over the last couple weeks for my outspoken support of our teachers. I came out recently to talk about school refusal, to say that we cannot blame our teachers – our amazing teachers – for the fact that we are seeing increasing rates of absenteeism. Just yesterday Jason Clare got to his feet in the federal Parliament and said, word for word, ‘If you’re not at school you’re not learning.’ Now, I do not fully agree with Minister Clare, because I think for children experiencing school refusal there are ways to utilise emerging technologies. But his basic premise is correct: that for the increasing number of kids who are experiencing very significant anxiety disorders – who perhaps may have comorbidities, including being on the autism spectrum – it is so hard to get back to school, but the best evidence demonstrates that we achieve the optimal results for young people both in terms of their learning and their wellbeing when in a supportive way we can work together to get them back to school as often as possible. So I was heartened by Minister Clare’s comments in Canberra.
I am not aware that the government here in Victoria has any similar agenda. Minister Clare said yesterday that he has put the absence crisis we are facing in our schools on the agenda for the next meeting of the state and territory education ministers, so I will be asking Ms Hutchins if she can pop out of the freezer for a moment and confirm for me that she indeed engaged in that discussion and that she agrees with Minister Clare – who it seems to me is a perfectly straightforward and sensible person on all matters educational, as Minister Stitt is – that this is an issue that we must focus on and that is ripe for reform.
I want to see a better curriculum. Despite the fact that I am on the record as being almost rabidly pro teachers and I want to have a complex conversation about teacher quality, the best curriculum in the world and the most amazing teachers in the world will count for nothing if our children are not going to school in the first place.
I am not going to dwell on the idiotic decisions of the government in the last term to close schools right across the state directly against the advice of the World Health Organization. It does not help to simply dredge over those catastrophic decisions. Even though the World Health Organization said that school should only be closed as a last resort – that is what they said, word for word – and even though the World Health Organization said that schools should only be closed in areas with intense local transmission, the education minister at the time – obviously that has changed because everybody has changed on the government benches – said that we should close schools in country areas to level the playing field. It is an amazing thing that an education minister anywhere would think that there is a level playing field between kids in the city and kids in our regions. I would refer anybody interested to the excellent speech of my friend and colleague Ms Bath, a former maths teacher. She was right when she talked about educational disadvantage. We should all be able to join hands in our combined concern about increasing inequality in our education system across regions and certainly across socio-economic divides. I was concerned, I confess, that even though there was a strong forward agenda that we on this side of the house want to support and champion in early childhood, there was no such reform agenda in the broader education portfolio.
I was also concerned that there was nothing presented in the Governor’s speech from the government when it came to child protection. I appreciate the recent comments of the Minister for Child Protection and Family Services, who has joined us in the chamber, and indeed the Premier, that work will commence after eight years of extraordinary failure to seek to reduce the appalling over-representation of Indigenous children in our child protection system. Indigenous children are taken from their parents at a rate of one in 10. One in nine Aboriginal babies is removed by the state. I do not know the Minister for Child Protection and Family Services well – she seems like a perfectly reasonable person to me – but I was surprised that she sought to attack me today in question time on the basis that I politicise this issue. If she thinks I do not care desperately about vulnerable children in our child protection system, she misjudges me. I have been saying that the government should do a whole range of things in child protection for Indigenous children that are in fact exactly the same as the things that Aunty Muriel Bamblett has been saying. I am not sure if the minister’s position is that Aunty Muriel Bamblett should just shut up and stop advocating because that is politicising –
A member interjected.
Matthew BACH: You’re offended, Gayle? Can we stop the clock?
Lizzie Blandthorn: On a point of order, President, I was having my position from earlier in the day mischaracterised and I was ignoring it, but at the point that the language became unparliamentary I would seek that it be withdrawn.
Matthew BACH: On the point of order, President, the language was most certainly not unparliamentary, and I should be allowed to carry on. There is no point of order.
The PRESIDENT: I apologise because I did not hear. Further on the point of order?
Harriet Shing: I have a separate point of order, President, if you would like to rule on that one.
The PRESIDENT: No, I will do this one first. I apologise to the house.
Lizzie Blandthorn: I think that the member opposite, Mr Bach, used the words ‘shut up’, and I think that is unparliamentary. I would ask that he withdraw them.
The PRESIDENT: Dr Bach, if a member has taken offence, the best course of action is for you to withdraw.
Matthew BACH: Of course. Thank you so much. And I will.
I was immensely surprised in question time today that, notwithstanding the government’s appalling failure in this area, since coming to government back in 2014 the proportion of Indigenous children in care has increased by 63 per cent and yet the minister sought to characterise my advocacy on this issue as politicisation of this issue. Thirty Aboriginal children died in the care of the state over the last three years, and yet me having the gall to talk about it is politicisation according to this new minister, my fifth since coming to this portfolio less than two years ago.
As I said before the ridiculous and frivolous points of order were raised, the points that I have been making are entirely the same as the points that Aunty Muriel Bamblett has made. She has shared my comments. She has shared my speeches, as has the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, and so the minister and her staff, who I dare say wrote her ministers statement today, should go back to the drawing board to try to find another means of attacking me. Yesterday it was that my title is not quite right and needs to include ‘family services’. Well, that one fell flat. Today it was the utterly offensive and patently ridiculous and stupid notion that I seek to politicise the appalling and unacceptable outcomes that this government has achieved for Aboriginal young people in care over eight long years, despite the fact that Labor used to criticise the Liberal Party for Aboriginal over-representation. Since then Indigenous over-representation in care has increased by 63 per cent, and I appreciate the fact that the Premier has now said, after eight long years, that this should be a priority. I would have expected and I know that many in the Indigenous community expected to see firm commitments in the government’s agenda, as outlined by the Governor. It is deeply disappointing that that was not the case.
I mean what I say when I take the minister at her word that she is passionate about this. She is new to the portfolio, and so despite her highly partisan and idiotic comments today I look forward to working with her to seek to achieve far better outcomes for Aboriginal children.
Ingrid STITT (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Early Childhood and Pre-Prep, Minister for Environment) (17:02): It is absolutely a pleasure to rise to make a contribution for this address-in-reply. It does give me the opportunity to put on the record my absolute privilege to be re-elected to represent the fine people of Melbourne’s west – the best place in Melbourne, frankly. It is absolutely wonderful to be given the opportunity to represent the Western Metropolitan Region again in the Legislative Council this term, and as somebody who has lived in the west of Melbourne for over 30 years I am really proud of our government’s record of investing in our growing western suburbs. I am really delighted that Minister Blandthorn is joining me in the Western Metropolitan Region. I know that we are going to be doing some great work in our local community as we see our government’s agenda – the Andrews Labor government’s third-term agenda – rolled out and election commitments delivered to people right across the region.
I have lived in the west for many years, and I must say I have never seen so much investment across so many different portfolios occurring in Melbourne’s west. And I know that often it is hard to communicate that perfectly all the time to the electorate, but I do think that this term will see some very exciting projects completed, which will actually make a huge difference in Melbourne’s west, including some of our important Big Build projects like the Metro Tunnel, which will mean that people in Melbourne’s west, particularly along the Sunbury line and other lines in the west, will be able to literally turn up like some of the great modern cities in the world and a train will arrive within 5 minutes. We are all incredibly excited about that project and the impacts it will have on public transport networks in Melbourne’s west.
Obviously living close to Sunshine, I think that the transformation of Sunshine as a regional hub will also mean that Sunshine will be able to actually make the most of the economic benefits that will come from that revitalisation project.
It is an exciting time, and that upgrading of the Albion station, an $80 million election commitment, will bring back to life one of the great jewels of the west in my opinion. It is a really historic flour mill that sits alongside the Albion station. I tell you what, if it was in Albert Park or South Melbourne, it would be a mecca for the local community, and that is the vision that we have for Albion when this project kicks off. So I am very excited about the commitments that have been made in public transport for the west.
We have obviously got some fantastic health infrastructure projects that are also in progress in the west. Footscray Hospital is going to be an amazing facility and will make such a huge difference. It will also be a learning hospital, so we will be able to train the next generation of nurses and doctors and allied health professionals at that hospital, and it will obviously link in with the other hospital networks in the west. We know that our population is absolutely booming, so it is incredibly important to deliver these projects and we are getting on with doing that.
I want to also just call out some of the issues that during the election campaign I know resonated very strongly with people in my region, including of course bringing back the SEC. I think everybody agrees that the system in Victoria, where it really is a for-profit system, has failed consumers. This is the opportunity to reset that and put power back in the hands of Victorians but also be an absolute driver of innovation, traineeships and apprenticeships in our state. I am just so proud that our government and our Premier led such a bold policy offering during the election campaign, and I think that it was something that really resonated with people in Melbourne’s west. Everybody had a story about struggling with their power bills and struggling with trying to navigate a system where it is not always transparent where you can get the best deal. So of course not only has our $250 power saving bonus given money back to consumers in their pockets, it has also given them the ability to find a much better deal for their households, and that is so important at the moment when families are struggling with the cost of living.
I do also just want to talk a little bit about some of the commitments we have made in my two portfolios. In the environment we have a few really wonderful projects that will be of great benefit to people not only in Melbourne’s west but in other parts of the state as well. We have committed to a $6.14 million wildlife welfare package to support sick and injured wildlife, something I know people care very deeply about, particularly in the aftermath of some of the emergencies that we have had in the state – bushfires, floods and storm events. We also committed $11 million in funding to protect and enhance the You Yangs, which I know is an important public land offering for people not only in Geelong but also in the outer west. It is a very popular place, and we will be upgrading that facility to the tune of $11 million in infrastructure upgrades, so that is terrific.
There are a range of other initiatives, including – and this gives me a chance to get Wilbur and Charlie back into Hansard, because that has not happened for a while; I have not had that opportunity – $13.4 million to build six new dog parks in Armstrong Creek, Wollert, Sydenham, Mount Waverley, Wantirna and Endeavour Hills and upgrades to 22 dog parks, so there will be lots of very happy good boys and good girls right across Victoria, I am sure. We are literally the dog capital of the world, I think. Dog ownership in Victoria is sky-high. We have also obviously got a number of really important commitments around suburban parks, which will be exciting.
And in Melbourne’s west the government is investing $5 million to plant 500,000 trees in the west so that we can actually get that tree canopy percentage in the west up where it should be. It is much, much lower in percentage terms than other parts of our city, and we know that there are so many heat-related illnesses and that heat stress is becoming more and more of a problem as we see the weather patterns changing and climate change taking effect. This is something incredibly practical to address that problem and something that I think generations to come will thank us for, so I am very excited to get on with that work.
I did want to just talk a little bit about our Best Start, Best Life reforms. There is no question that many young families were absolutely thrilled with our free kinder election commitment, and of course that is only one part of the reform agenda that we have in our early childhood education and care portfolio. Ninety per cent of a child’s brain develops before they are five, so this is an investment in not only those young children when they are young but it is an investment in our people for the future. We want people to realise their full potential, and all the research tells us that early childhood education is the best way to deliver that outcome, the best way to give people the best start in life. We know that free kindergarten has been taken up by 97 per cent of services, which is an incredible tick of approval by our kindergarten providers for this initiative. Despite what Dr Bach says about some high-fee-charging kindergartens, our government is funding kindergartens better than we ever have and we have struck the rate per kinder place at a very generous level compared to what it was at, so that is something I am very proud that we have been able to do to support our fantastic kindergarten services.
Free kinder is going to save families around $2500 per child per year. When we introduced free kinder as a COVID-recovery measure in 2021, we saw the participation rate of children attending kinder go up. And I have got no doubt, from the anecdotal evidence that I am hearing from the sector, that free kinder, going forward, will have exactly the same effect. People who had never taken their children to kinder before, in 2021 turned up for the first time, and often they were families that may not have really understood or been able to afford kindergarten before we made it free. So I hope this is something that is a bipartisan issue and that nobody in their right mind would argue that we should not be offering free kindergarten. It is an absolute game changer for families who might not have been able to afford to send their children to kinder prior to this initiative, so we are pushing on with these reforms.
We have also committed to introducing a free pre-prep year. Between now and 2032 we will roll out 30 hours a week of play-based learning for every four-year-old, so that they will be receiving 30 hours of free kinder in the year before they go to school. That is effectively doubling the dose that they get now. We are sitting at 15 hours of four-year-old kinder at the moment. That will also have a profound impact on their ability to start school and really thrive once they get to prep.
I could not begin to think how we would be able to roll out these important reforms without our wonderful workforce. They really are special people, kindergarten teachers and educators. They go above and beyond every day. I know that, a little bit like maternal child health nurses, they are a really trusted person in the community. I know when I had young kids I really relied on the advice of my kinder teacher for my kids, and just as a nice little segue, I went and opened a kinder in North Melbourne last year and my children’s kindergarten teacher came up to me and said, ‘Ingrid, I don’t know if you would remember me, but I was Shauna and Darcy’s kinder teacher.’ And I said, ‘I do remember you, Michelle, and they remember you too.’ So that was just a really nice thing. Of course saying thank you and being appreciative is one thing, but we need to invest in our workforce, and that is what our government will do. We have committed $370 million to attract and retain the workforce that we will need to deliver these reforms over the next decade, and I am determined that we are going to be able to land those big numbers of teachers and educators that we need to attract to the sector, and we will be supporting them in every way we can so that they can get on with what they do best: delivering wonderful early childhood education and care right across our state.
Just a little final word on infrastructure. One of the reasons why we are taking the time to roll out these reforms in a steady, logical way across the state is we learned from our three-year-old reforms that you cannot just turn the tap on; you have got to be able to build the workforce you need and have the kindergarten infrastructure in place before you start increasing the hours that are available to families. So we have a massive infrastructure program that we are pursuing, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to update the house regularly about how that is going. But we are literally going to be building kindergartens in all parts of the state, and we will also be delivering 50 early learning centres and running them in areas where we know there are not enough places available for families to get that long day care offering. So it is an exciting time in the early childhood sector and the early childhood portfolio, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to outline some of the initiatives today.
That debate on the address-in-reply be adjourned until later this day.
Motion agreed to and debate adjourned until later this day.