Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

First Speech

5:15 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Pursuant to order, I now call Senator Gichuhi to make her first speech and ask that honourable senators extend the usual courtesies for a first speech. Senator, can I apologise for the delay in commencement, but at least we have everyone in the chamber for you.

5:16 pm

Lucy Gichuhi (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Today, I, Lucy Muringo Gichuhi, happily stand before you as the first black African-born senator in the history of Australia. I am deeply honoured to be given the privilege of serving the people of Australia as a senator. To all Australians, I say thank you. It is with this sentiment that I honour those who came before me, faithfully leading Australia to build the outstanding nation we see today.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area. I pay my respects to the elders, past and present. I also acknowledge the Kaurna people in my home city of Adelaide. To my father, Justus Weru, my late mother, Agnes Njeri and all my siblings, I am who I am because of you. Thank you. To my husband, William, and daughters, Peris, Agnes and Joy Gichuhi, all I can say is thank you.

I was born and raised in Kenya. I have worked locally and overseas. I attended Hiriga Primary School, Kabiru-Ini Primary School, Mugoiri Girls Secondary School, Lwak Girls High School, the University of Nairobi, the University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide. I have professionally worked with Ernst & Young, Postbank, ActionAid, Madison Insurance Limited, the Auditor-General's Department, Kaylene Kranz International College and the Commonwealth Senate as a senator for South Australia.

There are some key things that I hope to focus on in my time in office as a senator. These are: education in a broader sense, family finance and welfare, senior affairs and aged care, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

On a warm summer day in 1999, I arrived in Australia for the first time. My initial impression was how different Australia was compared to the home I had left behind. In Kenya, the majority of people are black Africans. But here, landing in Perth, seemingly all the world races were represented in just one city. Right in that airport, I encountered Australians, Europeans, Asians and Africans from all over the world, living and working together harmoniously. I learned how beautiful it is when differences bring us together. Whoever we are, whatever we call ourselves, wherever we come from, it is this great asset of diversity that made me fall in love with Australia. The diversity of colour, race, cultural backgrounds and religion go towards making up what we believe it is to be Australian. We are all Australians. We do not have to conform to any one mould or image. We are whole through our many differences.

Nineteen years later, as a lawyer, I know that to migrate to a country and get citizenship in that host country is not a right; it is a privilege. I am proud to be a black African Australian. As a leader and as a senator, my role is to take my responsibilities seriously, showing respect and kindness to my fellow Australians. Landing in this south land, I understood most clearly that my central responsibility was to become skilled and equipped to do whatever was needed to grow a strong family, community and essentially to help build a stronger Australia. This is what I believe we are all called to do.

I believe that as a senator of this nation, one of the most important laws is to motivate and inspire people to be all they can be. To do this, many factors must be taken into consideration—of importance is freedom of choice, conscience, thought and belief. Every person has fundamental needs, whether they are spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial, relational, social or even political. They are all valid needs. Australia is what it is because we have the ability to have freedom of choice as individuals—a concept which was entrenched in the Constitution by our founding fathers. It is this vision of our founding fathers that I wish to help preserve.

I remember growing up on the beautiful slopes of Mount Kenya. Sometimes I would take my father's cows to graze in pastures near Hiriga plains. My young mind was free to wander. As I matured and became more self-aware, I found I had freedom to choose and think about anything I wanted. I even remember dreaming of the Australian merino sheep after a geography lesson in class 4. My father taught us to aim for the sun so we may land on the moon. Even though I was young, my mind allowed me to stretch and roam the possibilities that the world offered. I may not have owned a pair of shoes yet, but while dreaming of my future potential I discovered that poverty came in many differential forms, shapes and sizes. Wearing shoes could mean that walking to school would be more comfortable, but soon I realised that true poverty was when a person is unable to freely choose their own destiny. It is when a person does not have options. This could be the result of spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial, social or even political inhibitors. These inhibitors are often the root cause of true and absolute poverty.

My role as a senator is to ensure in any way I can, great or small, that Australia does not slip into the latter form of poverty. Most importantly, Australian civil institutions, such as the legal, political, electoral and socio-economic institutions, must remain transparent and accountable to every Australian.

One of the roles of the Senate is to continuously review and renew our legislation and other institutions as entrenched in our Constitution of 1901. I am touched that the preamble to the Constitution says in part:

… humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth …

The themes of humility, blessing, divine reliance, agreement, unity and permanence are dear and close to my heart.

There was a sense of rescue after landing in Australia. The first few weeks and months were characterised by wonder and excitement. On arrival in Adelaide, there existed a meet-and-greet program, which supported my husband, our three young daughters and me, providing us with subsidised housing and other types of supports. I saw good roads, free schools and education, and the availability of, and ability to use, simple household appliances!

Years later it is hard to imagine our experience with a vacuum cleaner. Our house in South Australia, located in Kilburn, was fully furnished. But there was a piece of equipment, which had the shape of a tortoise, stuck to the wall. For the first few days, we stopped our children from touching or even going near it until we worked out what it was. Two weeks later we had a house inspection, and the inspector complained that the carpeted floor was dirty. I explained that I was doing everything possible to clean it, demonstrating how my husband uses a broom to clean the floor. The inspector asked why we were not using the vacuum cleaner. We explained that we did not have one. He pointed to the tortoise-look-alike gadget that was resting in the corner of the room. Lo and behold, before he left the carpet was spotlessly clean!

Every day, I wonder how many spiritual, emotional, mental, health, relational, financial, social and political tortoise look-alikes are stuck to the walls of our life just because we do not recognise them for what they are. I will never forget discovering the most beautiful parklands. To this day, I still marvel at the beauty of our parklands.

The generosity of Australians fulfilled the vision I had as a young girl. I had faith in the ability of a person to nurture and support a fellow human being, just because they are human. I realised what a good system of governance could do for its people. President Abraham Lincoln's words in the Gettysburg Address came to my mind: a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Far away from home I felt safe, secure and free, despite having no locks or high fences around our house, which is what we were used to in Nairobi. I felt physically safe. Even though I had only a few dollars in my bank account, I knew I could raise a young family. I knew I was able to pursue my long-held dreams. I knew I could get a job. I would provide food and housing and, above all, give quality education to our children. It was a time I will never forget. As a senator, this is what I want to preserve. I desire for every Australian to experience the things I felt when I first landed. I believe every government should do whatever it takes to grant its citizens security, physical and otherwise.

Every rescue mission involves one difficult phase—the empowerment phase, or the pursuit of dreams. This is where the rubber meets the road. Having migrated to Australia as professionals with permanent resident visas, it took my husband and me less than six months to find full-time employment. The first challenge we encountered was when we realised that the school day starts at 8.45 am and ends at 3.15 pm, while work starts at 9 am and finishes at 5 pm. Clearly, one of us would have to give up full-time work to look after our three children. It was the first time in my life that I considered giving up my career, then as an auditor with the Auditor-General's Department. We chose to dedicate a significant part of my salary to securing day and after-school care for our daughters so that both of us could work full time. I wonder how many parents have given up work as a result of this mismatch between school and working hours. In 1974, in his first speech to parliament, referring to that year's federal budget, the Hon. John Howard said:

… it is quite clear that freedom of choice for parents is under blunt attack, and indeed it is under blunt attack.

To this day, one of my primary concerns is how to balance work and home life while raising young children. I think of the difficulties that parents face, especially single parents. I think of those who attempt to return to work after putting their children through school. I think of parents who do not have adequate superannuation in their accounts, simply because they chose the wellbeing of their children over employment. I think of those who cannot afford to buy a basic house for their family. I think of students fearing an enormous HECS debt. I am particularly saddened that families with special needs children suffer, given that their parents have little freedom of choice when it comes to their children's education.

This phase was one of the steepest learning curves I would encounter in my life. Managing my family's finances was part of it. It was at this point in time I became keenly aware that what is lacking in most schools' curriculum is the teaching of financial intelligence, legal awareness and personal leadership skills. Despite William having a bachelor's degree in accounting, he and I were no exception. Even with two incomes, we were not able to resist the offers of multiple loans—a home loan, personal loans, car loans and credit cards. Soon, we were stuck in the trap of paying huge amounts just to cope with these loans and the ever-increasing household bills.

After several visits to financial counsellors, banks and other financial advisers we were better equipped to understand this very complicated financial landscape. By continually seeking expert help from financial and legal professionals, we were able to avoid the welfare trap. I feel for many people who have fallen in and have lost hope of ever getting out. I remember the first time we found welfare money in our bank account shortly after our arrival in Australia. We were terrified because we were not used to receiving money for nothing from strangers. All I knew was that the only time you get money is when you work for it. I said to my husband, 'We will have to return it.' When we first attended the bank manager to inquire about it, we discovered the fact that we were eligible for welfare money because we had three children and no current employment. However, what we did not know was that if you have a job this money would cease because it is means tested.

The message was quite clear: I could choose to be a victim and receive a handout for a long time, or I could choose the more challenging but empowering road and find a job and learn how to balance work and family life. I did not have long to decide because by the end of that financial year I already had a welfare debt. At that point in time, it could have been very easy for me to depend on welfare to see me through the daily activities of life rather than actively update my qualifications and skills and seek employment. I quickly learnt a new term: means testing. I had to put an end to this tedious welfare-work dance. I chose to work, even if that meant going back to school and changing my career path to suit my circumstances. Every day, I wondered just how many people are caught in this trap because they do not have the option or freedom to choose a different path. Again, quoting John Howard, in his first speech, with regard to how that 1974 budget would affect ordinary Australians, he said:

They are not privileged people, but they are people who feel they ought to have the right to exercise this freedom of choice. That freedom of choice is under very, very severe attack …

For many people who are able and willing to work, the trap is between balancing their welfare receipts and any income they may get by engaging in employment. This trap creates stress on those who soon discover they are unable to find a way out. Welfare now becomes their only choice. This creates a welfare-dependent syndrome that could be intergenerational.

Sadly, it is not only individuals that are affected. Some companies and institutions have a corporate welfare mentality. We are witness in this current education debate. Christian, Catholic and private independent schools are currently jostling to keep their federal funding levels. The debate on the education funding methodology is confusing and complicated to the everyday Australian. How can we keep the education system accountable and transparent if we do not understand it? In South Australia, companies such as Holden, Mitsubishi and others have closed their manufacturing plants, while others like Coca-Cola have moved their location, because the government would not provide corporate incentives to help them remain profitable. Where is the sustainable business model?

As an accountant I believe the corporate welfare mentality should be traded for a sustainable business model mentality. Instead of just giving away money the government should be giving industry a sustainable approach, including better pricing of essential services, in order to retain existing companies and attract new ones. I have learnt that spending money you have not worked for fundamentally changes who you are and inhibits your capacity and ability to become all you could be.

As a senator, I know we have one of the best welfare systems in the world. I believe it could be better and more sustainable. But I would like to see that welfare does not disadvantage even one person who decides to work. Our Prime Minister, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, has said that a job is the best form of welfare. I agree. There should be checks and balances to help a person wean themselves off welfare effectively. Far too many people are feeling the weight of punitive measures from powerful institutions when they are unable to break from financial burdens and the welfare trap.

I come from humble beginnings. From my childhood my parents and teachers nurtured and guided me to accept and value a disciplined way of life. I will never forget my late mother's advice. She said, 'Always remember that as a woman you are the backbone of your family and, hence, community. As a woman the spiritual, emotional, mental and financial destiny of your family depends on your womanly wisdom.' Rest in peace, Mum. I miss you so much.

Every day after school as one of 10 children I had to share in the daily tasks. This involved milking cows, going to the garden to pick vegetables, picking coffee berries and sometimes babysitting my younger siblings. We would help each other to learn how to read and write while preparing ourselves for competitive school exams. We would sit around a stone fireplace on the dirt floor of our house and cook dinner while reading. With no electricity, we relied on the light of a paraffin lantern to do our homework. Sometimes, when my parents could not afford to buy paraffin, we used the light from the fireplace to do our homework. From this I learnt character and a strong work ethic, which would serve me well as a working mum with three young girls. It gave me a strong sense of sacrifice, respect, sharing, and the value of hard work.

These values gave me the courage to accept and deal with the challenges we encountered as new migrants. My husband and I face these challenges, as does every other working family, irrespective of their country of origin, colour or religious background. Without these values, my self-esteem would have suffered and I would have taken the easy road of quitting.

When growing up I had a great relationship with my grandmother. In a small two-room hut in a village called Gathu-ini, in Nyeri County, Kenya, my grandmother instilled in me all the wisdom a grandmother could through sheer love and storytelling. My grandmother lived alone, her other children and grandchildren occasionally coming to visit. I was one of those grandchildren who took turns in keeping her company during school holidays.

I had a special bond with my grandma. She taught me to cook. She told me stories. In that small hut, grandma and I shared her bed as the other room was where her goats and chickens slept. Sometimes the goats would stand around the fireplace while we cooked in tall stories. Occasionally, when my cousins came by, we would all sleep on the floor, next to the goats, by the fireplace. There was so much laughter and a lot of stories about anything and everything, including the Mau Mau Uprising. Grandma emphasised what it meant to be a woman, and the role of a mother and wife. We loved the humorous stories about relationships. One day grandma explained that the only part of the body a woman should use to make money was her brain. And because she explained in Kikuyu language, my mother tongue, we understood exactly what she meant. Needless to say, grandma was one of the solid rocks on which I stand. She taught me that the true beauty of a woman is her brains and that no-one should ever bully me for physical appearance, body, colour, size or shape. She explained that such things are completely out of my control. As a teenager, I hung on to grandma's words. I still do. The day my grandma died, aged over 100 years, I felt like a carpet had been lifted from under my feet.

In Australia, I encountered aged care when I worked as an international student liaison in a college that trained carers and nurses. When I look into the eyes of ageing Australians, having witnessed the dignity grandma had growing old, I wonder if they feel the same dignity, respect and freedom that I saw in grandma. The need to value and look after our seniors is central to any civil and noble society. The need for dignity and respect and freedom has to be maintained and preserved. The lack of a federally regulated staff-to-resident ratio for aged-care homes in Australia could be one of the main root causes of the many problems and sad stories that have been reported in the media lately.

As a society, we can never forget that our older Australians are the people on whose shoulders we stand. They worked and paid taxes so we could have the life we have today. I wonder why we can't tap into the human resources of our seniors. Our seniors could tell the young ones stories. My daughters lost the ability to have an active relationship with their grandparents when we migrated to Australia. Any social interaction that can link youth and seniors could help bridge the ever-widening generation gap.

Worldwide, a number of different models have been tried to better integrate aged-care residents with the community. One example is Europe, where retirement and nursing homes have been co-located with facilities such as schools, colleges, shops and community rooms to encourage this interaction. As a senator, I hope to be involved in any manner in reviewing the Aged Care Act 1997. This would put into place a system of continual review and renewal of the registration, to effectively take care of our seniors. I note that about 25 per cent of our population falls into the baby boomer generation. Is our aged-care system ready to provide for more than five million Australians who will soon need it? I would like to be a voice for our seniors.

Australians, let us transcend culture to make a difference—like my inspiration, Queen Adelaide, who, in 1818, migrated to England from Germany and made a difference by restoring honour to the English court and insisting on educating the young. Culture is much more than just the colour of a person. We have special practices and traditions that no longer serve us in 2017. We must take a strong look at the emotional and mental habits that prevent us from being the person we could be in positively contributing to our society. This includes the renewal of physical and relational ways that divide us. I am talking about introducing financial and economic systems that will give us an abundance mentality. We need to encourage social and political interaction that goes beyond individualism, for this is what will renew and preserve Australia as a great nation in the world.

Being the only black African Australian senator is my point of difference. I do not know what your difference is. What we do with our differences, our unique gifts, is our choice. Let us choose wisely.

Finally, let us talk about culture. I was born in the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya. One of the Kikuyu culture's traditions is with regards to marriage. When a man takes a girl for marriage he pays dowry to the girl's family, because the girl will now contribute to the prosperity of the man's family. Her new family prospers from the girl's had work and contribution. Australia, you have taken a girl from Kenya; you may probably need to consider paying dowry. God bless Australia.