House debates

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Governor-General's Speech


12:24 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

as you do—that we became very connected and I actually revealed to her that in those years previously I was the person who had eliminated her in the preselection ballot that led to her leaving the party. She forgave me and she has been an enormous support politically. She is a very constant, and often correct, critic and has sacrificed much for me. She left school at 15, pushed out to work by her mother despite her academic ability. One of the best times of her life was to go back to East Sydney TAFE, do the higher school certificate and matriculate. She got to university and then faced the demands of countering a huge stacking of the branches, which was motivated by people's attempts to overcome development rules, basically to get their own way on developments. It was an enormous struggle at that time, night after night going out and recruiting—it was my first experience of ethnic recruitment—with people like Frances Rees, who worked for Tom Uren; Samir Bargashoun; and Phil Gordon. I thank Maureen for her endless support over the years.

Through her, of course, I have had the support of my stepkids, Anthony, David and Lynda, and the moral support of Mark, who has been married in Austria for 30 years but has always been very supportive. I am particularly thankful that my stepdaughter, Lynda Voltz, is now in the state parliament of New South Wales and is, I am pleased to say, a very independent person who does not get pushed around by factional warlords. I also acquired Maureen's ex-husband Bruce as a constant support on election day. He has always been there to support me.

I am, indeed, from a very political family. The member for Berowra has mentioned this on occasion. My father, of course, left school at 13 during the Depression, was retrained after the Second World War and eventually became Deputy Premier of the state. He left the state parliament acknowledged by all as the best-read person there, despite leaving school at 13. But we are even more political than that. My two grandfathers were politically active—one in the Communist Party, the other in the Country Party. The father of one of my grandmothers ran as the federal Labor candidate for Reid against the Langites, and when Paul Keating went back to Galway, to his home village of Tynagh, the person who greeted him, as chairman of Galway County Council, was my father's second cousin. So, all four lines of our family have been in politics. Tonight in Sydney Colm Dolan, who is the son of that second cousin, will become an Australian citizen, having migrated from Ireland under our skilled intake.

I want to acknowledge the support of my brothers and sisters, because it is indeed a very strong political family and you would expect that. All of them and their partners have always been there, both on election days and throughout campaigns. Importantly for me, as a person who never wanted to be owned by any institution, my fundraising historically has been penny-ante and localised, and they have always been there for that—as were those nieces and nephews who could be supportive: Chris, Sarah, Aneta and Merryn.

I want to acknowledge a wide variety of people. I should say here that I am running three functions at restaurants to thank people.

Opposition members interjecting

No, no—I am putting them on for the hundred-plus people who have helped me in my life. I cannot mention everyone today, so I will thank them in that fashion. But I do want to mention a certain group of people: Sue and David Rosen, Jo Smith, Peter Manning, Carol Lawson, Lennie and Denise Wiltshire, Greg Shaw, Paul Higgins, the Sidiropolous family and Durga Owen. They are people from outside my electorate who, wherever I have been a member, have come and supported me.

I will turn to my staff. My father thought I was an idiot for going to the office nearly every day when parliament was not sitting. He said, 'You're just a glorified social worker.' That might be the case, but my staff have been part of making sure that we were very effective social workers. Julie Bouloux and Lorraine Zaher were with me for about 25 years. Neither joined me when I moved to Werriwa. They left for personal reasons, one going to Queensland and the other thinking it would be better to get a job locally. Maurice Campbell has been with me for about 30 years. Although he is focused on political, Labor Party campaigns and those sorts of things, he has another important responsibility: he heads our gambling club, which we run out of the office. John Murphy, a friend and former colleague, said—in a rhetorical way—'Laurie, does that guy ever do any work besides running the betting syndicate?' He has been very successful. We have won about 14 years out of 15. Emily Zaiter, who is present here today, Linda Perrett, who started in 2005, and Steve Christou, who started in 2007 have been with me for very long periods of time.

As I said, three of my staff were with me for over 25 years. They were very good at public relations in the electorate. I can sometimes tell people where things are at and be a bit gruff when they do not have a very good case, but they have always been there to smooth things over. My attitude in life is that people would rather get a negative response the next day than wait around for a letter in three weeks time—and my staff have been part of that. They also provided support in running functions, keeping the diary and making sure that we were an effective electorate office.

In more recent times David Voltz, Alex Morrison and Alex Peck have done part-time work with me. I also want to acknowledge Vicki Meadows. Should Anne Stanley, our Labor candidate for Werriwa, be successful at this election, Vicki will have worked for four members of Werriwa, which is no mean feat. I have had long-term relationships with staff. It has been a great experience in my life, and we have had many social events outside of work.

As a glorified social worker, I always appreciate it when I am walking down a street in Ingleburn, and a Sierra Leonean guy walks up and says: 'Do you remember me from 15 years ago? This is my wife and my kids, who are here as a result of you.' I caught a taxi a few weeks ago and, as is typical of my whole life, a Lebanese taxi driver thanked me profusely for getting the department to change its mind with regard to a visitor visa for his brother. I have Colombian refugee friends who actually came here because of my help. I will never equal the member for Berowra's numbers, but there are hundreds and hundreds of people who owe their future in this country to my activities and those of my office.

I want to recognise the Parramatta immigration liaison team: Jan, Sam, Ian, Ruth, Robyn, Ralph, Tomas. It has been a tradition for them to come to our restaurant Christmas party every year. I have so much respect for them and thank them for their efforts. They are classic public servants—professional and always there. We had that relationship with Centrelink staff for many years. Under previous Labor and Liberal governments they were of great service to us. But I am sad to say that in recent years the staffing reality, where people are on the phone complaining about them for two hours, has led to a very sad deterioration of matters.

David Bitel, who went to law school with me, has always been there to provide me with free legal advice on cases—it is very sad that he is suffering from cancer at the moment; it is very serious—and he has been ever supportive.

I want briefly want to talk about the staff I had when I was parliamentary secretary for immigration. We did a few things. We had a national consultation with regard to settlement, and there were great outcomes from that. Whilst we have question marks about our refugee intake policies, we are acknowledged around the world as leaders in settlement policies. When the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres—the former Prime Minister of Portugal—came to this country, he said: 'You have the best system in the world. You should be more vocal about it in international fora.'

I established a national advisory committee with regard to multiculturalism, with Andrew Demetrio at the head. Unfortunately, a rather ill-advised attitude in the Labor Party cabinet at the time knocked over our original suggestion. Peter Scanlon went on to spend millions of dollars of his own money to establish the Scanlon Foundation, which does tremendous work in multiculturalism. I advise every member of this House to look at the research that they have done on this about the attitudes of the Australian people. I am pleased to say that my adviser Carla Wilshire went on to become the director there. At that time Sarah Gestier-Garstang, Hanah Noura, Jodi Lewis, Nadine Clode, who were seconded to the office from the department, provided tremendous support. At that time we also had a new national statement on multiculturalism and rebranded Harmony Day. I also want to acknowledge my advisers in opposition and government—Warren Gardiner, Khaldoun Hajaj and Aisha Amjad—who were all a tremendous source of support.

I want to turn to my electorates. In 2010 my seat was wiped out and I, unfortunately, was denied the right, in practical terms, to contest a number of seats in preselections. I want to thank Julia Gillard for standing up to the factional powerbrokers and backroom boys who tried to wipe me out. It was tremendous loyalty at the time. She stood up to major forces in my party.

That was very difficult. Chris Hayes was an extremely popular member in Werriwa, and even as a result of the positive outcome of us retaining seats we still have the ridiculous practice that I move through four seats every morning and he moves through four seats in the opposite direction to actually represent our electorates. So, it was very difficult, very challenging, and I want to thank the people who gave me very early support. It was a daunting experience to go to the Macquarie golf links to meet Councillor Anne Stanley and John McLaughlin, the president and secretary of Werriwa FEC. But they soon got behind me, as did councillors Aaron Rule, Wal Glynn, Anoulack Chanthivong, Mark Pearce and Brad Parker and my brother-in-law, Paul Lynch, the state member for Liverpool. It was tremendous that we had that support from the party organisation, in very difficult circumstances.

That was a great outcome in terms of life experience. I have come to represent a very different electorate: large numbers of Centrelink issues, and disabilities, as the member opposite would acknowledge, are a major facet of that electorate, and there are tremendous local voluntary groups and workers. I do not think any other part of Sydney has so much commitment. I have come to learn that the semi-rural area still had an attitude that they raised all the money for charities, and they stressed at every event that 'the money stays here.' It was a very different experience. Internet access is a massive issue out there. Current housing development of semi-rural areas is basically becoming part of urban Sydney. As I said, it was a great experience.

Despite the rather difficult times of 2010, the party organisation had I think a very credible outcome in 2013 to hold the seat against massive spending by the Liberal Party, unprecedented in Werriwa. I also had a preselection, despite this image of being imposed and of how dreadful it was that I was imposed. We had a preselection ballot, and I got an East German, Walter-Ulbricht-style majority of 93 per cent in the preselection ballot! One of the great ironies in life—and I particularly appreciate it—is that after the result I had a phone call from Graham Richardson, and he said, 'Laurie, you and I have never been friends or associates, but I just want to say that you holding Werriwa is just unbelievable.' That was testimony to the party organisation.

I will turn to Reid. I had the second-longest term of its eight members—and I was one of six of the eight who never had a royal commission investigation into them! It is a high-NESB area—new arrivals, multiculturalism; that is the nature of it. I really enjoyed that. I have to say, Reid has a lot of Labor Party history. Percy Coleman, the federal secretary of the federal Labor Party, was defeated as a federal member by Joe Gander. Charlie Morgan was knocked over by Tom Uren in a preselection ballot and went on to get 17 per cent as an Independent, which is no mean feat. Regarding the party organisation there, I want to go back to Michael Hanna, who first persuaded me not to step aside for other people and let other people go into politics in the area. Apart from a few friendly words at my father's funeral, he has not spoken to me since I supported the first Iraq war. But I have not forgotten his support at the time. And then there were Bob Lipscombe, Alan Clarke, Therese Wood, Tony Latimore, Karen Fitzsimmons, Phil Gordon, Paul Garrard, Kim Yeadon and all of those, and, from more recent generations, Joanna Devine, Martin Byrne, Caroline Staples, and those people who really are not in leadership roles but worked their guts out at polling booths: Alex Petrov, Ian Pandilovski and Brian Long.

I have always had an attitude of massive attendance at branch meetings. I had 17 to 19 branches back in Reid. I tried to attend each of them every month. With Werriwa it is a lot easier as they have only six branches; it is great. I had an attitude that I did not want to be anyone's prisoner in politics, so that is why throughout life I really stressed that local connection and commitment. I saw other people's futures become basically controlled by even their enemies because they neglected the branches. I always believed that people who work for you on an election day deserve a lot.

Harry Jenkins, in his valedictory speech, spoke of 'exposing ourselves to what is different'. As the kind of kid who at primary school knew every world capital and prided myself that I knew more than every other kid in the school about the world, I, like Harry, am very thankful that I have had the opportunity through this parliament to learn a lot overseas: at the United Nations, to go to seminars there and workshops and to visit various NGOs; to visit Palestinian camps and to see the work of APHEDA; at the Thai border camps; in Lebanon to meet people across the political and religious spectrum and to see the bombing of South Lebanon; in Bangladesh, unfortunately having to be accompanied throughout by police and military, to visit the areas of the indigenous Jumma people; in Turkey, to meet with the leadership of the Alevi and the Kurdish communities; to see the malnutrition in Timor; to see refugee and immigration practices in virtually every European country; to see the attitude of Denmark on leadership and renewables; and to go to Hungary and understand the experiences of the Roma Gypsy minority and the discrimination that they face. It has been a tremendous opportunity to really learn more.

I want to now talk about—to borrow an American expression—'work across the aisles'. I have always appreciated the ability to work with people in other political parties on areas where I have firm beliefs. In my areas of foreign aid, development, women's focuses, human rights and international affairs there are a number of groups in this parliament: Parliamentarians for Global Action, Amnesty International, Australian Parliamentarians against the Death Penalty, and the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development. Obviously, on my side, there have been people like Senator Claire Moore, John Langmore, Maria Vamvakinou, Janelle Saffin, Duncan Kerr, Melissa Parke, Lisa Singh, Alan Griffin, Kelvin Thompson and many others, but I guess that is to be expected by me. But a very early experience that I found valuable—I was pushed into this by Warren Snowdon—was to head the parliamentarians in support of East Timor.

In that experience, I had significant cooperation from a number of members on the opposite side of this parliament and, more particularly, Democrats senator Vicki Bourne, who really was a tremendous activist on this issue. I think probably one of the most moving outcomes of that activity was when about 25 members of this parliament—mostly of the Labor Party Left, a few right-wingers, a few Democrats and a number of Liberals, including Russell Broadbent and Michael Atkinson; there were a few other Liberals—threw in $100 each so that I could go to the United Nations for the decolonisation hearings and to link up with parliamentarians from the former Portuguese colonies, Canada, Japan and the United States. I think that was great cooperation and support from all sides of this parliament. To work particularly with Julian McGauran and John BradfordPhilip Ruddock was at many of the meetings—on that issue was really appreciated.

I have worked with Sharman Stone around women's issues and development; with Jane Prentice and Richard Di Natale—unfortunately my retirement and his elevation to the leadership of the Greens has meant the end of that—to have a group on West Papua to ensure autonomy there, at least, and human rights; with Lyn Allison to go to Lebanon to see the destruction of the southern part through the Israeli bombing and the use of cluster bombs; and more recently, outside this parliament—as much as this activity is—with Greens members in New South Wales, John Kaye and Jamie Parker, around the question of Burma, going to a variety of ethnic groups, the Rohingyas and the National League for Democracy. It is tragic that this week John Kaye, the upper house member in New South Wales, passed away. A few weeks ago, at a function on the Burmese cause, I was sad to mention his illness to the 500 people who were there.

I want to also acknowledge the people outside this parliament who have faith in campaigning by MPs and who come to us about issues of human rights. I could mention many others, but Moustapha Hamed; Kabita Chakma; the Jubian family; Pat Walsh; Necla Dag; Dr Myint Cho; Tony Lamb, a former member; Varuni Bala; Selima Begum; and Hanni Gayed are all people who have come to me about human rights issues. They have faith that members getting off their backsides, being out there at rallies in the streets of the city, being outside embassies at demonstrations and raising issues in this parliament have a value. It has also been worthwhile to engage with many ambassadors and to converse with them about the issues and, in some cases, to be pushed by them on these human rights issues. Obviously, we all understand that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also there to be supportive and to give us information and make sure these issues are taken up.

I want to recognise the staff of the parliament, most especially—I have to say—the library. It does not matter to members much these days with the internet and Wikipedia et cetera, but back when I first arrived I was asked about the differences between federal and state parliament, where I had been. I said that basically you lose contact to some degree with your electorate, being a federal member as opposed to a state member. You are not there as often. Secondly, the conviviality of the state parliament is far greater because you have known these people through your local party organisation in your state. The third thing was the abysmal research support that state parliamentarians in New South Wales had. Anyone that was half decent was grabbed by the incoming government to work in a ministerial office. To come down here and to have that tremendous support was so refreshing.

The parliamentary liaison officers, under Labor and Liberal governments, are sometimes in invidious situations in trying to be objective and give advice to people on the opposite side, but they have been tremendous. There are the dining room staff, the committee secretariats, the cleaners and the drivers. Indicative of this was a conversation I had with John Chapman—unfortunately, like Anthony Albanese, he is a devotee of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, but he has been a driver for 33 years. That really shows you that kind of thing.

In conclusion, I want to wish my party the best in what is going to be a very competitive election. I particularly hope that Councillor Anne Stanley succeeds me in Werriwa. She was selected in a preselection without challenge and has given tremendous service to the community both inside and outside the local council.

At my father's funeral, the renowned Australian journalist Mike Steketee asked me about an expression I used at that funeral. I said that my father's motto was 'know your value'. He asked me, 'What do you think it meant?' What it meant was, basically: do not be too self important and never be anyone's lackey. I hope that I have fulfilled that in my career, and I thank everyone for their attendance.


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