Gabrielle’s Maiden Speech to Parliament

Ms WILLIAMS (Dandenong) — I am pleased to second the motion. In commencing my address-in-reply, I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present. I also wish to congratulate the Speaker and Deputy Speaker on their election, our new ministers and shadow ministers, and all other newly elected members.

My presence in this chamber is the product of much hard work, not just by me but by a large number of others who worked tirelessly to ensure that a value set they hold dear has a voice in Parliament. It is an incredible honour to be charged with giving voice to an ideology and a set of values as important as those embodied by the Labor Party and the broader labour movement. It is an incredible honour to be one of so many who have stood in this place defending the rights of working people and unashamedly espoused, and at times demanded, equity, fairness and opportunity, particularly for the most marginalised in our community.

I have had a lot of support on this journey and a number of mentors, each of whom has left an indelible mark on me. For now I will start with those who most directly supported my recent political journey. They are Alan Griffin, the federal member for Bruce, and Lee Tarlamis, a former member for South Eastern Metropolitan Region in the Legislative Council. They have been my rocks, and I often refer to them as good cop and bad cop. Lee nurtures, and Alan tells it how it is but is always constructive. These two men have listened to me, guided and counselled me and demonstrated enormous confidence in my abilities even when I did not. I have grown so much as a consequence of their support.

I also owe great thanks to my parliamentary colleague, friend and mentor, Lily D’Ambrosio, the member for Mill Park. She is proof that politicians can be both tough and compassionate. I would also like to acknowledge my campaign manager and friend, Matt Broderick, who is always cool under pressure, and my broader support team, including Mat Hilakari, Pat Gibson and the inimitable Ray De Witt. I must also pay tribute to the incredible team of volunteers: over 150 at my last count. Over the course of the past year they have dedicated their time and energy to the Dandenong electorate campaign and to the election of an Andrews Labor government.

Perhaps most importantly I owe great thanks to the people of Dandenong, who are the true reason I am here today. Dandenong covers approximately 62 square kilometres in Melbourne’s south-east and is home to 156 different nationalities. It is the most multicultural electorate in the state and the second-most multicultural electorate in Australia. We are a proudly multicultural community, where diversity is not just tolerated, it is embraced. Dandenong’s diversity is its best asset, and in the years ahead I would like to ensure that we do even more to make it Victoria’s premier multicultural hub and a leader in multicultural cuisine, festivals and related tourism opportunities.

Dandenong is already home to some vibrant cultural hubs, including Little India, the Afghan Bazaar and the Dandenong Market, but we can make these even better, and we can do even more to showcase and celebrate our diversity. In some ways this has never been so important. The change of government federally has brought with it some worrying attempts to dismantle Australia’s rich multicultural fabric — attempts to create needless divisions with an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach.

Earlier this year the federal government sought to withdraw the protections afforded by the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. It essentially sought to condone behaviour that humiliated, offended or insulted on the basis of race. In my community, this move was met with great fear. When governments seek to make changes like the ones that were proposed, they are sending a message to the Australian public that it is okay to be racist, and those who may have thought racist thoughts begin to articulate them, those who might have articulated them start acting on them and so we see an escalation of unacceptable behaviour and the degradation of respect within our community.

I have never been spat on because of my race, nor have I been called names. My parents were not harassed when they dropped me off at school, and I have never been racially taunted or threatened. But when politicians start putting forward regressive measures like those recently pushed by the Abbott government, and One Nation before that, many in Dandenong do experience these things. I have heard their stories, and I will stand up for them always.

It is a source of great pride to me that in Victoria both sides of politics stood in opposition to the federal government’s proposed changes. Both major parties reiterated their support for diversity and social inclusion. I was extremely proud when as then opposition leader Daniel Andrews promised to reinstate the section 18C protections in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 at a state level should the Abbot government be successful in abolishing them. Thankfully it did not come to that.

In addition to its multiculturalism, Dandenong is characterised by its significant manufacturing industry. We hear a lot about hardship in Geelong. I do not seek to downplay that in any way, but I want to point out that the loss of the automotive industry is hurting Dandenong too. Dandenong is home to a large number of car component manufacturers and related industries. We have lost some businesses already, taking with them hundreds of jobs. There are predictions that a further 3000 jobs will be lost in the Dandenong area over the next three years. That is 3000 families under stress — 3000 families who do not know what the future holds. These people deserve our attention. They need to know that we take their stress seriously and that we will work to help them. I promise to be an advocate for these people and the industries that support them.

I said earlier that I would not be here but for the people of Dandenong, and this is undeniably true. I would also not be standing in this chamber but for the profound influence of my family. I am the youngest of four girls. My father is an electronics technician, and for most of my life he and my mum have run a small business repairing household electrical goods. Both came from humble beginnings, and they worked incredibly hard to support our family and create for us opportunities they never had. Growing up, I remember a household that was very engaged in the issues of the day. I remember conversations about politics and current affairs, particularly among my mum’s family.

When I think of Mum’s clan, I think of the docks. My grandfather, Frank Mulholland — Poppa, as I called him — worked as a wharfie and then later a clerk on the waterfront. My nan’s brother, Ted McCormick, was also on the waterfront and served as Victorian president of the Waterside Workers Federation. Many other family members, including my father, worked on the waterfront at different points in time too. I doubt any of them would imagine how important this history is to me. Ted McCormick died when I was a teenager. Although I remember him, I never had an adult conversation with him, but I am immensely proud to have come from stock who embraced the labour movement and its values, just as I have.

As for my Pop, I remember a thoroughly decent and honest man and a man of great integrity and generosity — all attributes I want to bring to political life. Nan and Pop did not have it easy. Nan was a primary carer to my Aunty Kathleen, who at five years old was struck down by encephalitis. She emerged from a prolonged coma with severe disabilities. Together, Nan and Pop had to deal with the heartache of this tragedy, as well as the daily grind of meeting Aunty Kate’s needs and the needs of their six other children, including two children with special needs. I would have loved for Nan and Pop to be here to see this. Sadly, Pop passed away many years ago, and Nan is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Nan’s sister, Aunty Pat, only just missed out, passing shortly before last year’s federal election. I am not sure she would have coped with an Abbott government, but she would have loved to have seen this. There has not been a single day since my preselection when I have not thought of these people and quietly hoped that they would be proud, wherever they are.

Thankfully the McCormicks were still well represented on polling day. Aunty Margot McCormick has been an enthusiastic supporter, along with her son, Bryan, daughter, Jan, and grandchildren Georgia and Molly. Thanks also to Annette Campbell, fairy godmother Terri Ryan, Steph and Gerry Giampiccolo, and John and Jenny Tresidder, whose presence on the campaign trail kept alive the memory of those who could not be there.

This brings me to my parents. It is not easy watching someone you love put themselves up for public criticism. For this reason my mum and dad have watched and supported my journey with some trepidation. A parent’s job is to nurture and protect, and it must be terrible to realise that there are times when you cannot do that. For my parents and big sisters, this is one of those times. In saying that, I am blessed to have my family by my side in all that I do. I owe a big thankyou to Mum and Dad and to my sisters, Kirrily, Angie and Marnie, and their partners. Their love makes me strong, and I hope I can make them proud.

While family history is influential, it is not definitive. In my case the lessons from previous generations have been reinforced by my own life experience. My core belief is simple: you can fairly judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable, and you can reasonably judge our political leadership on this too. While studying at Monash University I was fortunate to spend some time in Belfast, researching motivational factors for individual involvement in political violence. After countless conversations and formal interviews with ex-prisoners, I was struck by the recurrence of an underlying theme: disillusionment with political leadership — indeed distrust of an entire state system — and a sense of abandonment. The consequences of a breakdown in trust between the people and the political system are profound; they can be tragic and long lasting. I walked away from this experience in Ireland feeling very grateful to be Australian and very interested in being a part of a positive culture in Australian politics. To this day I still feel very strongly that one of government’s main objectives should be to be inclusive and accessible.

Years later, when I was working as a solicitor, I was again reminded of the importance of ensuring that our most vulnerable are not forgotten. As most young lawyers do, I regularly took on pro bono matters through the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic and the Public Interest Law Clearing House. For many sitting in shiny, comfortable offices overlooking the city, there is not often cause to think of how many people in our community are homeless and how many of them are pulled deeper into a cycle of desperation as they unavoidably intrude upon rules and regulations that were not necessarily designed with their circumstances in mind.

Every week we would work to take some of the pressure off by seeking clemency on public transport infringements and other penalties accumulated in the daily struggle to just survive. The sheer volume of these matters was alarming. Every matter may have been little more than basic legal work for the solicitors working on it, but when you scratched the surface it was far more than that. Every matter marked a person drowning. It is incumbent upon all of us to never accept as inevitable conditions like those. As political leaders we must work to eradicate the kind of hardship that sees people without food and sleeping rough.

During my time as a solicitor I also took on a position as director of a not-for-profit disability health organisation. Disability Sport and Recreation (DSR) provides and promotes sport and recreation opportunities for people with disabilities throughout Victoria. Involvement in physical activity not only greatly improves the mental and physical health outcomes for people with disability, it also facilitates greater independence and provides respite for carers.

My time with the organisation changed my perspective on the limitations of disability. I met people who have achieved more than many of us ever could — people like Sam Bramham, OAM, Shelley Chaplin and Leanne Del Toso, all Paralympians. They, like so many others, are not defined by their disability, and the organisational support they received from community groups like DSR empowered them to overcome barriers to participation in our society.

From a policy perspective, it is not only about the provision of care but more often about empowerment. In 2013 I participated in a DSR fundraiser that involved cycling around Fiji with a group of both disabled and able-bodied cyclists. When I think of that trip I think of Pete and Meran Hyden. Pete was rendered paraplegic in a car accident about 18 months prior to the trip. He and Meran were still adjusting to the substantial impact this accident had on their lives. Watching them both complete the tour and having the opportunity to ride with them was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Both were determined to prove to themselves that they could meet the challenge, and they were determined to take the journey — physically and emotionally — together. I remain very passionate about the disability health sector and about the role of community organisations and volunteers across the state. This, in addition to my family’s experience of disability care, is why it is such an honour to have been appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Volunteers and Carers. It is a responsibility I take very seriously.

Finally, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, the Honourable John Pandazopoulos. John’s story is a great one, and a great one for Dandenong. A proud Doveton boy whose parents migrated to Australia from Greece in the 1950s, he was 29 years old when he was elected in 1992, and by that time had already accumulated several years of service to the community as a City of Berwick councillor and mayor. He served the people of Dandenong for 22 years as the local member and achieved great success as a minister in the Bracks government. There are plenty of reminders of John’s legacy across the Dandenong electorate, including the aptly named John Pandazopoulos Hall in Doveton. There is also the state-of-the-art Dandenong High School campus, and the redevelopment of central Dandenong. I wish John all the best and hope he gets a much-needed break before embarking on his next adventure.

I am enormously proud to be the first woman to represent Dandenong, and being the first allows you to lay claim to all manner of things. On that basis I can lay claim to being the smartest, the tallest, the funniest and the best looking woman ever to represent Dandenong — until the next one, anyway. On that score I sincerely hope there is no shortage of women seeking to follow this path after I am gone. I would like to be the first of many strong women to take up this mantle in Dandenong. I thank the chamber for extending this courtesy to me.