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12 March 1991 - Current

Mr Gepp
Page 3596
21 June 2017
COUNCIL Inaugural speech MARK GEPP

Mr GEPP (Northern Victoria) — Thank you, President, and I thank the house for allowing me to make my first contribution to the Parliament.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to elders past and present.

As you can imagine, I have received much well-meaning advice about what should be in this speech today. Not surprisingly that advice has been everything from be apolitical to go hard, and with all the variations in between. I am sure what I am about to say tonight will please some and fall short of the expectations of others. That is okay. I am certain it will not match the light on the hill or the Redfern or misogyny speeches of past Labor luminaries, but I will have a crack anyway.

Up-front I want to acknowledge my Aunty Gladys in the gallery today. She is an octogenarian and a stalwart of the Labor Party. She is still president of her Labor branch, and they are managing tonight without her as she has come here to hear my inaugural speech. When I called her to tell her that I had won preselection and would be entering Parliament, she had two things to say to me. First, she said she hoped that I would know when it was time to go, which I did have a bit of a chuckle about. I thought: can I get in there first? The second thing that she said to me was, 'Never forget where you came from'. And I will come back to that theme a little bit later.

All of us here of course have built on the work of others who have gone before us. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my predecessor, the Honourable Steve Herbert, and congratulate Steve on his 17-year parliamentary career.

Northern Victoria is an area of this great state that continues to be an integral part of my family's life. We have a lengthy history through the goldfields of Bendigo, Castlemaine, Newstead and down through to Woodend. Many of us continue to live in these towns today. My mum and my stepfather along with three of my four siblings moved to Bendigo when I was a teenager. Mum remained in Bendigo until she lost her battle with breast cancer some 15 years ago. My younger sister Kathy still lives there today with her family, and my older sister Julie is just down the road at Woodend.

Bendigo, I am pleased to say, is also the place where I married my wife Sue. Sue's family have been a part of the Castlemaine and Newstead communities for well over a century, working in a variety of jobs including farming and local government. I think it was a very proud day for her family when recipes from her grandmother's cookbook were featured in the Newstead Historical Society centennial publication.

Of course the electorate of Northern Victoria Region is much larger and much more diverse than just the goldfields area, spanning over 100 000 square kilometres. Largely rural, it showcases some of the best produce and agriculture that Victoria offers — winegrowing, near and dear to my colleague Jac Symes's heart — and features the Murray River and alpine areas, its lakes and ski resorts, all supporting a vibrant tourism industry.

Tonight I hope that the people of Northern Victoria Region will get a sense of who I am and what they can expect from me as their MP. Like all of us, I have been shaped by my life's experiences, and mine is not a particularly remarkable story. I was born at the Royal Women's Hospital in Carlton, although I am pretty sure that Dad would have relocated the hospital to Richmond if he could. He did not care very much for anything Carlton, and I have got to confess, nor do I.

My earliest memories of our life in the housing commission flats in Flemington include Mum calling from a window from a couple of floors up for my big sister Julie and me to finish playing with the other kids from the flats and come inside for tea. It is also where I went to school for my first time at St Brendan's in Flemington, and life just seemed pretty normal. As the family expanded, our next move was to a larger public housing property in Reservoir, where we stayed for a few years until, unfortunately, Mum and Dad parted ways. From there, with five kids on the scene and in tow, we moved around, including interstate, before landing in Bendigo. Mum had remarried and we formed a bigger blended family with five step-siblings added to the mix.

It was about this time that I really became aware that we did not have much money. Up until then everybody else just seemed to be in the same boat, so life did not seem to be any different for us from anybody else. But it was also at that time that I started to notice the impact that this had on our lives. There were school excursions we could not go on and community activities that we could not participate in. There were so many of us now that it just made the cost of participation prohibitive, or the older kids simply had to stay home to look after the younger ones while Mum was at work. It was starting to dawn on me that we were missing out on opportunities simply because Mum just did not have enough money. I did not understand then and I do not understand now how a child's education or participation in their community should be limited because there is not enough money in their mother's bank account.

I do not tell this story from a sense of bitterness or resentment, but from the perspective that these are the life experiences which formed me and helped me know what matters. On the upside, those shared experiences had the great benefit of creating an unbreakable bond between me and my siblings. They have got beautiful families, and we are very proud of each other.

Growing up we all fell in love with sport, particularly footy and netball. While we moved around a lot, sport was a wonderful way to be a part of the community. Today sport plays such an important role in the lives of many Victorians, as we know, particularly in northern Victoria. It can provide an important bridge to overcome some of those inequalities that exist in our communities. I know from personal experience that sport allowed me to forget just for a bit, for a little while, the challenges that our family faced, because on the field when we were playing I was just like any other kid.

I left Bendigo after sitting the public service entrance exam and was subsequently offered a job in the tax office. I was immediately attracted to the local union, the tax office's branch of the Federated Clerks Union, which subsequently became the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). In my first few months at work the union always talked about an agenda that included better pay, better conditions, safer workplaces, worker training, education and tackling inequality.

I had not had much exposure to unions up until this point in my life, but their agenda resonated with me. It just made sense to me that we could improve people's lives through wage rises, improved conditions and access to the opportunities that inevitably come from education and training. The union also rejected the idea that inequality was just something that we had to accept as normal — something that had become my normality. It was also eye-opening to me that the union wanted me involved and was interested in my views. My involvement did not depend on how much money I had in my pocket, so I was sold. Around the same time something else caught my eye in the tax office: it was a young woman from revenue control on the 11th floor. Her name was Sue, and we have never been apart.

But back to the union. About five years into my tax career it began to stagnate. Other than my role as a workplace delegate for the union and as a member of the local branch executive I really did not settle in the tax office. I was not particularly happy and I left. But my life changed forever when a few weeks later my old union rang me and offered me the job of full-time organiser. Wasn't that a party stopper, to tell people that you were a union organiser for tax workers? But I was chuffed, I was absolutely chuffed. To be offered the chance to work in an organisation whose values I shared was something I never imagined. Fancy being able to advocate for and represent people who need a hand for a living. I thought I had hit the jackpot, and this work became my vocation. But I am sure if you had told the young man who caught the train from Bendigo to Spencer Street to start work in the tax office that this was the beginning of his life's journey, he would have either been very amused — probably — or very perplexed.

But my love for the union movement grows stronger as unions continue to challenge the causes of inequality. It is the unions campaigning to have domestic violence leave included in enterprise agreements so that victims of these terrible crimes are supported when they need it most. It is unions campaigning to ensure that every worker goes home safely to their family at the end of the working day. These are noble pursuits with both industrial and social benefits, and they mean so much to so many people. I have only thanks and admiration for the mighty Australian trade union movement.

Writing this speech has allowed me to go back in time and remember fondly the people who have had a major influence on me and the friendships that endure today. Firstly, Paul Tregillis. Paul is not here today; he is overseas. He is retired, but I am very proud to say he was here at the joint sitting of Parliament a couple of weeks ago. Paul was my first ever union boss so yes, he was the one who gave me the job as a union organiser so he is to blame for me being here today. Paul taught me countless lessons over many, many years. One particular lesson that always stuck with me was that if you believe in something or someone, then go for it, but treat people with respect because you just never know when you will have to work with them again. Paul is still a hero and a role model to me, and I think he still thinks I work for him.

A host of people provided guidance, support and friendship to me during those early union years — people like Ron Ahern, Phil Collins, Phil Khoury, Fiona Grover, Mary Cucuzza, Graham Clark, Shane O'Connell, who has left us now, Brad Oakes, Les Heimann, Mark Burrell, Gidge Rotunno, Loren Rotunno and Phil Gardiner, who is in the gallery today. I still see many of them today and I thank them for their enduring friendship.

And of course I formed many friendships over the years with some great rank and file members, including with my best mate, Noel, who I am thrilled is here today. It was destiny for me and Noel — two union tragics, two Richmond tragics, we had to come together, and we did form that lifelong bond. We even bought a little boat together. I have got to say though, Noel, I am sorry, cobber, I do not think we will be using it much over the next few years; I think I might be a bit busy on weekends. And contrary to our belief, I have checked with the minister and apparently there are fish in the bay — we are just unlucky. Noel and his beautiful wife, Karen, are here tonight, and along with their kids, Paul and Robert, they are very much a part of our family.

I want to particularly mention Kerry Edsall; again I seem to be speaking about people who are not with us anymore. Kerry was a young woman who was taken by breast cancer at far too young an age. Kerry was from Clifton Springs on the Bellarine Peninsula, and she was a call centre worker with Centrelink. At the height of WorkChoices Kerry stood tall as a fierce CPSU representative for her fellow workers. It is one thing to be a paid union official during those times but it takes a special kind of courage to take the ultimate political action of standing up in the workplace against your boss when your boss is the government. But Kerry did that, and she was the light on the hill for so many rank and file members. They could have easily left it to others to pursue better pay and conditions but instead they chose to stand with Kerry in pursuit of a better, fairer working environment. And I continue to be inspired by those people every day; people like Kay Densley, Steve Cocker, Russell Foley, Gilbert Potts, Tanya Edlington, Peter Shirres, Barb Johnson, James Batchelor, Gareth Mills and many more.

To my mates at the Finance Sector Union, and many of them are here this afternoon, I thoroughly enjoyed my five years with you after a long stint at the CPSU and particularly the opportunity to pursue some fantastic public policy positions which are still relevant to this state and this nation today. I want to make particular mention of Darren Martin, with whom I worked closely on many of those initiatives, including procurement policy and consumer best interests duty in financial services. Can you believe that in this country today we do not have a consumer best interests test for people who have no choice but to participate in the financial services sector? We also pursued policies that opposed offshoring of jobs and data. Darren is a great leader and an even better human being.

To all of those who supported me in the lead-up to and during preselection, thank you. There are too many of you to mention without leaving someone out, so I will not run that risk, but I do have to particularly mention a couple of people: Tom, Shaun, Kate, Luba, Marg, Shane, Barb and Andrew, thank you very much.

To my siblings Julie, Tony, Kathy and Jamie, none of whom perhaps share my passion for politics — I think I am the black sheep of the family in that regard — despite that their love and support has never wavered, and I thank them for that. At least two of them and their families are now constituents of mine, so I guess the real test will be whether they tick '1' for Mark Gepp and Jac Symes in the future, and I hope they do.

All of us in this place know how important the support of family and friends is when it comes to doing what we do. I have to let you all down gently — I have the best. My kids Amanda and Daniel are fine young people. You are kind, compassionate and empathetic, and your Mum and I could not be prouder. We are also proud of our little mate Landen, who is our most favourite kid in the whole wide world. If you are watching this Landen, good boy. I will not dwell on everything my wife Sue means to me — firstly, because I will not get to the end of it but also because I could never express it enough. I just say to Sue, I love you and thank you. My final personal acknowledgement is to my dad who we lost 13 years ago. I just wish you were here, Dad.

These are some of the events and some of the people that have led me to today. I believe governments are at their best when they address the inequality that prevents individuals from being their best and reaching their full potential.

I think about the challenges young people in particular face today. Accessing technology and obtaining the skills to use it is crucial. More and more of our young people are leaving the education system with mounting debt. Job security for them is a thing of the past as employment becomes increasingly precarious. Owning a home is a pipedream for many and is more expensive and more difficult than ever before, and real wages have been declining for some time. Indeed the Australian Bureau of Statistics wage price index tells us that at the end of 2016 wages suffered their biggest decline since 2009. At the same time record high company profits surged by more than 20 per cent.

It really is a great honour and privilege to be joining the Andrews Labor government as a member for Northern Victoria Region. This great government is tackling the big issues confronting all Victorians. That is important to me, and I am proud that our government is creating jobs, building infrastructure and implementing progressive health, education and social policies.

Working to address inequality is the ultimate Sisyphean task, and it is why I have worked all my life to give voice to workers and now to the people of northern Victoria. I want you to know, people of northern Victoria and my colleagues in the Labor Party, that every day when I get out of bed I will be focused on addressing inequality and removing the barriers that stand in the way of the opportunity for us all to be our best.

Finally, I want to reassure everyone, but particularly Aunty Glad: I will never forget where I came from. President, thank you for your indulgence. I am ready to go to work.

Honourable members applauded.

The PRESIDENT — Order! I will just make two observations. One of them is that I was one of the people who suggested Mr Gepp ought not be provocative. Mark was pretty good, except for his mention of the Richmond Football Club. The other observation is that when you have been a union rep in the tax office, can I suggest that now you are in politics you will probably look back on that as being the high-water mark of your career!