First Speech to the 58th Victorian Parliament

Ms THOMAS (Macedon)

Thank you, Speaker, and may I extend my congratulations to you on your appointment. My congratulations also to the Premier and ministers on forming the 12th Labor government here in Victoria. I also extend congratulations to my newly elected colleagues on all sides of the chamber. It is a great privilege to serve as a member of the 58th Parliament, and I am sure that like me you possibly still cannot quite believe the honour and responsibility that have been bestowed upon you.

To the Premier, Daniel Andrews, congratulations on a history-making campaign. Premier, your relentless focus on the issues of concern to Victorians — investing in our schools and TAFEs, ending the war on our paramedics, supporting job creation and delivering better public transport — resonated strongly with the electors of Macedon.

Standing here I wish to acknowledge members of the Kulin nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. In my electorate of Macedon I acknowledge the Wurundjeri, the Taungurong and the Dja Dja Wurrung as the traditional owners of the land.

To the people of Macedon, it is my privilege to represent you and in doing so to continue in the footsteps of the previous member, Joanne Duncan. Joanne Duncan is well loved in Macedon for her tireless advocacy on behalf of her community. Amongst other things, her work resulted in significant investment in schools, a new Kyneton hospital, the connection of seven towns to natural gas and the hugely popular Gisbus. Importantly, Joanne is well remembered for her readiness to assist individuals and groups to navigate their way through our sometimes complex government systems. Joanne treated everyone who sought her out with care, dignity and respect. I also thank Joanne for the support and encouragement she has given me in seeking election, and I certainly hope to follow in her footsteps in my diligent representation of the people of Macedon.

I have lived in the city, in Melbourne’s northern and south-eastern suburbs. I have lived in the country — Tallangatta, Wodonga and now Kyneton. I have worked in the public, private and community sectors. I have been both a union organiser and a ministerial adviser, but I have also held executive roles in the public service, with one of the big four banks and at Plan International, one of the world’s largest child rights agencies. I am a teacher by trade and have worked in communications, advocacy, public policy and management. I hope to bring these experiences and some of the skills I have picked up along the way to this place. Most importantly, however, I bring the values — Labor values — instilled in me by my parents, Kath and Michael Thomas. Those values are a commitment to fairness, justice and equality and a responsibility to speak out when these values are under threat.

Throughout my life I have strived to stand up for the disadvantaged, the lowly paid and those experiencing hardship and to ensure that prosperity and opportunity are shared by all regardless of the circumstances of their birth. I have a passion for public policy and have always enjoyed working to solve some of society’s most intractable social public policy problems, particularly those that impact children. Within my electorate I share the concern of the Auditor-General about the increasing achievement gap between city and country students in our schools, and I look forward to working with the Minister for Education to reverse this trend. I am also very honoured to be appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Health, and I congratulate the Minister for Health on the speed with which she has set about addressing ambulance response times, an issue of immediate concern to my constituents.

I want our nation’s prosperity to be shared by all, and I hope to use my time in this place to enhance the life opportunities for the people doing it hardest in the electorate of Macedon. In doing so I recognise that in our society women and girls are still over-represented on indicators of inequality and disadvantage and under-represented in the forums that influence our social and economic wellbeing. As a member of this place I hope to do my bit to better balance the scales. I am proud to call myself a feminist and proud to be a member of a party that has actively sought to increase women’s representation and influence within its structures. Indeed, back in 1908 Labour Prime Minister Andrew Fisher exhorted his colleagues at a party conference to recognise that:

The presence of women means good to our movement …

On some social questions men are mere novices compared with women, and women’s aid and cooperation therefore is invaluable and all powerful to the Labour Party in helping towards the solution of social and industrial reform.

How right he was.

Some 30 years later, Mrs Fanny Brownbill, the then member for Geelong and the first Labor woman to be elected to this house, would illustrate Prime Minister Fisher’s point when she used her first speech to implore the railway commissioners to lift the ban on perambulators on our suburban trains, a ban first implemented following an outbreak of infantile paralysis that kept on after the epidemic it passed. As Mrs Brownbill noted:

Honourable members will agree that a mother’s life is, to a very great extent, one of sacrifice, particularly while her children are young. If we were to allow the railway ban on perambulators to pass unchallenged, we should be doing an injustice to large numbers of mothers.

It would be four long years before the ban was lifted. But 77 years after Fanny Brownbill first spoke on the issue I like to ponder how proud she would be to know that it was her party that would see not one but two women promoted to the important and challenging portfolio of Minister for Public Transport — two women, by the by, who have had firsthand experience navigating perambulators on our public transport system.

I passionately believe in the importance of women having strong voices in this place. Our stories and our experiences need to be heard. They need to be recorded, and they need to be acted on. We all know that our published histories have not always done justice to the contribution of women. As a former student and teacher of history, I believe I have an obligation to use my privileged time in this place to write women’s experiences and achievements into our public record. As Clare Wright recently noted in her book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka:

But still we have to keep reminding the cultural gatekeepers that women were there too, and that their stories are just as vital, just as valid and just as vibrant as the stories of the men.

I want to use this opportunity to put on the public record the important work of some women in my electorate. I have been struck time and again by the willingness and commitment of so many women in my electorate to use their personal experience as a catalyst for wider social change in the same way that our Australian of the Year 2015, Rosie Batty, has used her deeply personal tragedy to highlight the scourge of family violence in our community. I am in awe of the selfless courage of the many women in Macedon who are speaking out on matters that deserve government attention but are too often swept under the carpet.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Tamara Wilson from Gisborne. Tamara has established P.S. My Family Matters, a support group for parents and siblings of people with mental health issues in the Macedon Ranges.

I would like to acknowledge Toni Mellington from Kyneton for establishing the Macedon Ranges Multiple Sclerosis Support Group to lobby for better access for and inclusion of people with a disability and for more and better footpaths in our country towns so that people requiring a mobility aid are still able to get out and about safely in their communities.

I would like to acknowledge Belinda Spence, a family violence survivor, who is campaigning locally for better support services and housing options for women and children seeking to escape family violence in our region.

I would like to acknowledge Jo Gibbs from Riddells Creek, who along with her husband, Steve, formed Critical Response to agitate for improved ambulance response times following the death of their son, Matt. It was my privilege to welcome Steve this morning for a cup of coffee here in this place.

I would also like to acknowledge public education activists Kathleen Murray from Daylesford and Lisa Ohlmus from Kyneton for campaigning tirelessly for investment in government schools in the Macedon electorate. Their hard work paid off — the Minister for Education listened. I look forward, as I know the minister does, to working with both of these women to deliver on Labor’s commitments.

Of course there are many other examples, and many other women and men who have shared their personal stories of adversity with me over the last 12 months. The Labor Party recognises that behind these stories of individual hardship and disadvantage there are systemic inequities to be tackled. Put simply, Labor believes government has a positive role to play in redistributing opportunity, and again I congratulate the Premier and his government on not wasting a minute when it comes to implementing a comprehensive plan to restore fairness and opportunity to our state.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my friend, mentor and former boss, Lynne Kosky. It was a great privilege to work with Lynne as an adviser in the first term of the Bracks government. So much has already been said about Lynne, and indeed I will say more at a later date, but again I wish to acknowledge Lynne’s enormous contribution in improving equity in our education system and the life chances of so many thousands of young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and her beloved west.

I also believe the Victorian certificate of applied learning (VCAL) to be her signature achievement. In implementing a high-quality vocational education program and year 12 certificate, Lynne achieved education opportunity for thousands of young people — 73 000, I believe — who might otherwise have dropped out of education, including, as it happens, my nephew, Ethen, now in his first year as an apprentice, having successfully completed VCAL.

Lynne provided me with great encouragement, support and lots of hard-headed political advice during my campaign, and in typical Lynne style, she was also quite adamant that my preselection was nothing compared to her own. Lynne is very sadly missed, but her incredible legacy will live on.

The electorate of Macedon is renowned across the state for its natural beauty — the Macedon Ranges, Hanging Rock, Trentham Falls and the Lerderderg and Wombat forests — its mineral springs, our farmers markets, our festivals and our food and wine. The region is home to a diverse community of farmers, artists and craftspeople, retirees, small business owners and families in all shapes and sizes. It is important to recognise that Macedon is an electorate of small towns and communities, and I intend to speak up strongly on their behalf, ensuring their needs are not overlooked in favour of the city or the large regional centres. I look forward to working with the Premier and ministers on delivering significant investment to Macedon, most notably building an education precinct in Kyneton, including a trades hub, and the completion of the rebuild of Daylesford Secondary College.

Our commitment to provide legislative protection for the Macedon Ranges will also ensure that we protect the very characteristics that make our region a wonderful place to live and a favourite tourist destination. The government’s commitment to support renewable energy projects in the electorate is very welcome. The community of Macedon recognises that we must take action on climate change to protect our environment for future generations.

In conclusion, I wish to acknowledge the magnificent work of my campaign team and committee led by Chris Gingell, local Labor Party members, some of whom are here tonight, and Labor supporters inspired to join our campaign. Margo, Greg and Julie: thank you. To Renee Pope-Munro, wrangler of volunteers: our phone banks and doorknocks were brilliantly executed. I would also like to pay tribute to the many paramedics and firefighters who live in my electorate. It was my privilege to campaign alongside you. Again to my family, my rusted-on parents Labor Kath and Mike: I know how proud you are. My partner, Graham Kent, who this year is celebrating 40 years of public service as a member of Victoria Police; my daughter, Olivia, and to all my dear friends in the gallery, the Macedon campaign has been a team effort. I thank you for your encouragement and support. I will not let you down.