Inaugural Speeches

About this Item
SubjectsChildren; Terrorism; Women; Welfare: New South Wales; Australian Labor Party: ALP: New South Wales
SpeakersKeneally Ms Kristina; Speaker
BusinessInaugural Speech
Commentary Kristina Keneally Maiden Speech Inaugural speech

Page: 732

    Ms KENEALLY (Heffron) [7.30 p.m.] (Inaugural Speech): In the 1999 State Election campaign the seat of Ryde was a marginal seat. It was an important seat, held by the Labor Party, but necessary for the Liberals to win to take back Government. Walt Secord, Director of Communications to the Premier, keeps a close eye on a targeted seat like Ryde, and one afternoon Walt rang the Ryde campaign office. A young woman answered the phone. Walt spoke to her briefly and then asked to be put straight through to one of the campaign directors. And what was Walt's first piece of advice that day? "Get that woman with an American accent off the telephones." Well, I got off the phones that day, but today I have the floor.

    It is a great honour and privilege to stand here as the member for Heffron. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and my colleagues for the opportunity to address the Legislative Assembly tonight. I enter this Chamber as an American-born Australian citizen—the first in the New South Wales Parliament, and only the second in an Australian Parliament since King O'Malley entered the South Australian Parliament in 1896. O'Malley later won a seat in the first Australian Federal House of Representatives. He was an energetic and innovative representative who made many contributions to Australian life, including founding the Commonwealth Bank. While I seek to emulate his energy, I do not suggest that we take up one of his most notorious pieces of legislation: introducing prohibition in the Australian Capital Territory. I think Canberra is dry enough already.

    What Walt did not know when he rang the Ryde campaign office that day is that I am the granddaughter of a lively Brisbane barmaid, Patricia Anderson, who fell in love with and married an American GI, George Powell. My grandparents had a daughter, my mother Catherine, while they lived in Brisbane. She, in turn, grew up and married an American serviceman, my father John. And I have married an Australian—though not a serviceman—my husband, Ben. So you see, the ANZUS alliance has a very particular meaning in my family. In the United States I was active in politics as a registered Democrat. I worked my way through university on the factory floor of a fibreglass manufacturing company, and I was a member of the Teamsters Union.

    In my last year of university I worked as an intern for Ohio's Democratic Lieutenant Governor, and I was president of the National Association of Students at Catholic Colleges and Universities, a peak body representing roughly 40,000 students. I first came to Australia in 1992 and I moved here as a permanent resident in 1994. My previous work and political experience meant that I immediately found a natural home in the Australian Labor Party, and within a few months of getting off the plane I was stuffing envelopes and letterboxing for John Watkins in Ryde. I continued volunteering for the party in marginal seats and in local campaigns. In 2000 I became a citizen and proudly joined the Australian Labor Party.

    Tonight I would like to speak about three ideals that animate my life and motivate my political activity. I hope these ideals will inspire me to make a distinctive and valuable contribution to this Chamber and to my electorate. These ideals are a passion for social justice, the importance of community, and an energy and enthusiasm for life itself. The first is a passion for social justice, and throughout my life I have been committed to helping people. This includes a year in voluntary service immediately after university, teaching in a primary school adjacent to a Navajo reservation. My students were a mixture of indigenous, Mexican and Spanish.

    One little boy, Sylvester, was from the Navajo reservation. He was 12 years old and in year 3. He could not read or write, and he barely spoke to anyone who was outside his immediate family. To be honest, in the beginning I had no idea how to help him. But I soon discovered that Sylvester had an amazing talent for art. Indeed, he was a fantastic artist. I got him to draw the words in his spelling tests, rather than write them. He started to show a bit more interest in school. The other students noticed and admired his abilities. By the end of the year Sylvester had made great improvement: he had started reading and writing and had even started on maths. Most significantly, his social skills leapt ahead: he made friends and participated in class.

    More recently I worked as New South Wales Youth Co-ordinator for the Society of St Vincent de Paul. The young people I recruited and trained for Vinnies did amazing things, like running night patrol vans through Kings Cross and visiting people with mental illness in boarding houses in Ashfield. Working with Vinnies and with students like Sylvester taught me that a society is only healthy when its most vulnerable members are supported, included and protected. Only in the ALP do I see this same commitment to social equity, and that is why I am a member of the Labor Party.

    My passion for social justice has its roots, without a doubt, in my Catholic faith. The Catholic Church has a proud tradition of social teaching, starting with the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum: The Condition of Labor in 1891, and continuing with strong statements about peace, the environment, and economic justice. However, the church has had another significant influence on my life: it made me a feminist. I became a feminist activist at age eight, when I rang the local bishop on a talk-back radio program to ask why girls could not be altar servers. His unsatisfactory answer prompted me to see how women are disadvantaged in the church and in society. My feminist agitation continued, including writing a feminist column for my university newspaper and getting a graduate degree in feminist studies in religion. By the way, it is common for girls to be altar servers today, but I still think we have a long way to go to achieve equal opportunity in my church, and indeed, in the wider society.

    But what is equal opportunity? Feminism appropriated the liberal tradition of equal rights for all to fight for women's right to vote, for equal pay for equal work, and to break down the formal and informal power structures that have excluded women. This was necessary and good. Yet feminism cannot continue pursuing gender rights without recognising that class can be just as oppressive to women. Let me give an example. The right to work in paid employment has long been a feminist goal for women. In 1884 Friedrich Engels recognised that the ideology of women as weak and timid was fundamentally a bourgeois myth designed to shape the families of middle-class men whose economic position did not require their wives to work. Meanwhile poor women were working, not timidly, not weakly, but out of economic necessity in factories, coalmines and domestic labour.

    Today in Australia the women with the highest work force participation are those who are married to men with full-time jobs. Feminism has helped turn on its head the myth that Engels described. But women with the lowest work force participation are single mothers: 75 per cent of single mothers are not in paid employment. The next level of low work-force participation is among women who are married to unemployed men. It used to be that women worked because the economic conditions required them to do so. Now it seems that the better one's economic situation, the more likely one is to work.

    The statistics about the lives of sole mothers on income support paint a bleak picture. A recent study by the Centre for Mental Health Research shows that 70 per cent of sole mothers on income support experience multiple problems such as childhood adversity, domestic violence, alcohol problems and depressive illness. Compared with other mothers, they were three times as likely to have been raped, physically assaulted, or threatened with a weapon or to have suffered other significant psychological trauma. My fear for feminism is that it does not sufficiently advocate for this group of women. All too often feminism's public debates, particularly those in the editorial pages of our papers, are concerned with the challenges faced by university-educated, highly skilled and extraordinarily advantaged women accessing more benefits and better job opportunities. Unless feminism more fervently takes up the challenge of class as well as gender, it risks becoming a marginalised movement and, ironically, a movement that marginalises. As American feminist Rosemary Radford Reuther said:

    Equality at affluent levels remains token. Its visibility and acclaim only serves to disaffect poor women, working-class women, minority women, and women as housewives from feminism.

    The second ideal that motivates me is the importance of community. My parents instilled in me a practice of community involvement by the example they set. What I learned growing up is that we are all responsible for the community in which we live. I hope I have been able to give something back to my local area in the past few years through volunteer work at my sons' preschool and at my parish in Kensington. My local community is a fantastic and exciting area of Sydney. I live in the heart of Heffron, in Eastlakes, which is a diverse and friendly community. In Heffron the community has long involved both residents and industry. Much of the light industry is moving out and residential development is coming in.

    I am proud to say that the Carr Government has already supported the infrastructure to meet the needs of our growing community, including the Eastern Distributor and the southern arterial roads project. But we also must ensure that remaining industry, such as Port Botany and Sydney airport, are good neighbours who respect the desire of residents for a safe, clean and pleasant environment. To that end I am proud of the Carr Government's commitment to get container trucks off Botany Road and I pledge to work hard to make sure that heavy traffic does not increase on our local streets.

    Although getting planning and infrastructure right is essential to developing healthy communities, even more important is the task of supporting the people who live and work in them. The element of community is often most important when tragedy strikes. Many families in Heffron were struck by the Bali bombings. They lost loved ones or friends and the local community supported them. Recently I attended the dedication of a memorial garden at Tempe Public School for one of its former students, Abbey Borgia, and her mother, Debbie. Abbey and Debbie were well known at Tempe Public School as Debbie was an active member of the schools parents and citizens association and Abbey had a wide circle of friends.

    I spoke with Abbey's father, John Borgia, after the dedication and he told me what a zest for life Abbey had. He said that the most difficult thing for him and his sons, Blake and Ben, was the quietness of their house now. Our community cannot bring Abbey and Debbie back but the beautiful garden, the lovely ceremony held by the students of Tempe Public School, and the presence of the community gave that family support. John, Blake and Ben now know that many people in the community share their sadness and miss Abbey and Debbie. For an afternoon at least, their community filled the quiet in their lives.

    Abbey's passion for life is a worthwhile example for each of us. Life on this earth is short and each day that we have is a gift. This leads me to my third ideal: living life with energy and enthusiasm. Nothing has taught me more about the importance of living life to the fullest than becoming a mother. The most important and instructive experience I have ever had is that of nurturing new life, bringing a new and unique person into the world and giving that child the opportunity to learn, love and grow. Each of my three children—Daniel, aged five, Brendan, aged two and Caroline, who died at birth—have, in their own way, opened a new dimension of love and enthusiasm in my life. [Extension of time agreed to.]

    My children remind me that small things matter; that learning to do up the buttons on your pyjamas or pouring your own cereal is important. In their eyes it is even more important than winning the State election. This perspective has enlarged my life and, I hope, made me more empathetic and determined to value each day as a chance to do something, no matter how small, to bring happiness to the people around me. I do not always succeed in this task. Tiredness and stress intrude and often my children do not get the best of me. But I love my kids more than anything and I hope that if I pass something on to them it is compassion for others and a passion for life itself.

    Finally, I acknowledge that I stand here today as the member for Heffron in large part due to the hard work and support of many people. I would like to recognise them and thank them. To start, I want to thank the former member for Heffron, Mrs Deirdre Grusovin, for her years of service to the people of the electorate. Mrs Grusovin was known in the electorate as a hard worker and I hope to be similarly known. I also thank the voters of Heffron. I am humbled by their overwhelming support and I pledge that I will fight for our area.

    I am also honoured by the support I received from ALP branch members in Heffron. Sadly, time does not permit me to name each of the 100-plus booth workers who helped on election day, but I hope they know that the party and I gratefully acknowledge their contribution. A number of branch members were key supporters and campaign workers. I thank Lola Neilley, Ross McInnes, Selina O'Connor, Yolanda Kelly, Ron Duff, Brian Troy, Peter Chambers, George Glinatsis, Graham Tier and Isabel Leguizamon.

    The campaign team was the heart and soul of the Heffron ALP campaign. I express my heartfelt appreciation to Nikos Paipetis, Warwick Neilley and particularly Matt Thistlethwaite and my campaign director, Mark Castle. I would like to thank Tim Gleason, who not only gave great advice but also is proof that Eastlakes produces great people. I thank the ALP head office for its fantastic support, especially Eric Roozendaal, Mark Arbib and Johno Johnson. I would like to acknowledge the significant backing from Randwick Labor Club and its director, Ken Murray, the Greek consultative committee, and Harry Andrews. In addition, thank you to the South Sydney Leagues Club and George and Noelene Piggins for their help. Go the Rabbitohs!

    I would like to thank the Government Ministers who gave assistance by visiting the electorate during the campaign—the Premier, Bob Carr, as well as Carl Scully, Michael Costa, Morris Iemma, Frank Sartor and John Hatzistergos. I give thanks also to my ALP colleagues at the Federal and council levels for their assistance, namely, Anthony Albanese, Tony Pooley, Anthony Andrews and George Newhouse. I would like to especially thank the Mayor of Botany Bay, Mr Ron Hoenig, for his support. Along with the Premier, Ron is undoubtedly one of the most successful Labor politicians in the country and I am grateful and lucky to have him as a mentor and friend.

    I express appreciation to my friends who supported me in various ways during the campaign—Jeff Kildea, Peter McNamara, Rachel Morris, Tim Mitchell, Penny Wright, Kate O'Rourke, James Hmelnitsky, Emma Maiden, Chris Siorokos, Adam Searle, Allison Chivers, Cathy Sherry and Catriona Webster. I must also acknowledge and thank my former flatmate, Andrew West, who was the first to encourage me to stand for preselection in Heffron. Without Andrew's relentless insistence these last two years that I ought to run for Parliament I might not be standing here today.

    Finally, I would like to thank my family, who rallied behind the campaign, doing whatever was required—babysitting, fundraising, you name it. A big "thank you" to John and Jane Keneally, Tom Keneally, Josie and Matt Byrne, Kate and Dan Copping, Patrick Keneally, Elsie Keneally and Bonnie Malkin. Finally, I thank my husband, Ben, whose support for me has never wavered, whose belief in me has never failed, and whose love for me has never faltered. Without Ben's support and willingness to reorganise his career to become the primary carer of our two children, none of this would have been possible. I tell him often that he is the greatest husband and father in the world, and now it is on the record. Ben, life has been an adventure since we met, and this is one of the best trips we have had together.

    Mr Speaker, thank you again for the time I have had this evening to address the Legislative Assembly. I hope that the ideals I have spoken about tonight—a passion for social justice, the importance of community, and an energy and enthusiasm for life—will guide me through my time in the Legislative Assembly and assist me in making a worthwhile contribution to the people of Heffron.

    Mr SPEAKER: I congratulate the honourable member for Heffron. I acknowledge the presence in the gallery of a large contingent of members of her family and friends. I acknowledge also the Hon. John Johnson, a former President of the Legislative Council.