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Legislative Council
Dr Ratnam

01 November 2017
Inaugural speech


Dr RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan) (17:24:13) — I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my deep respects to elders past, present and emerging. I thank them for caring for this country for tens of thousands of years. I will do everything I can to ensure that there is a treaty with our first nations people and that true justice is achieved.

I stand here today humbled, proud and honoured to be a member of this state Parliament for the Northern Metropolitan Region representing the Greens.

I do not stand here alone; I stand on the shoulders of all those who have come before me — those who have sought to serve their communities through political life both inside and outside our parliaments. I acknowledge all those who have had the courage to break new ground — those troublemakers who fought and struggled their way into the halls of power when people like them had not been allowed to enter before. You made it possible for someone like me to stand here today: a migrant from a war-torn country now representing the people of Victoria in the country that I love.

I am here today because I care deeply about our state, our country and this planet. This is a time when so many people seem disheartened about the nature of politics, but I am hopeful that through real leadership, vision and courage together we can reinvigorate our collective faith in democracy. We can restore and renew the significance of what we do in our parliaments and at all levels of government.

In many ways I had no choice in becoming politically conscious and aware. In 1983 Sri Lanka was rocked by anti-Tamil riots. We were lucky; when the mobs came our Sinhalese neighbours took us in and sheltered us. But children have their own way of knowing what is going on. Amidst the smoke and chaos, I remember seeing the adults cry and knowing in my heart that something terrifying was going on.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Tamil Sri Lankans, our family had to leave our home in search of a more peaceful life. We were some of the lucky ones. We had the option and ability to leave but will never forget all those who were not able to — those lives that were lost in the 30-year war that tore Sri Lanka apart. Growing up with war changes how you see the world. It has helped me understand and value peace and to think about what peace actually means. It made me realise that who we elect as our politicians really does matter. For so many millions of people around the world, the politicians they elect can mean the difference between war and peace, poverty and prosperity.

With our suitcases in hand, our family travelled across the world. We first landed in Canada then travelled once more, making our permanent home here in Melbourne. This city and country welcomed us with open arms and gave us every opportunity to succeed.

When we arrived in Australia in 1989 this country was alight with discussions about multiculturalism. There was an overt recognition of the value and success of multiculturalism and an enthusiasm to celebrate it. Australia was opening up, seeing itself as part of Asia and the world. This newfound celebration of multiculturalism had a profound impact on our lives. We experienced little racism and felt like we had a place here. As a product of multicultural Australia, I will always cherish and defend this amazing and successful aspect of Australian life.

It was the experience of migration that inspired me to get involved in community work. Through our journey and migration across continents, countries and neighbourhoods, I learned that what governments do really does matter. Like so many thousands of migrants who journeyed to this country, my parents worked hard and did everything to make a better life for their children. We had to be pretty independent as kids. We found that in places where we had access to schools that we could walk to or ride to or where the library was close by or where playgrounds or a swimming pool were accessible it was easier to settle and make new friends. Where we had access to great-quality public schools and health care we felt cared for and were able to begin to dream big dreams.

And dream big we did. My brother is now an accomplished doctor, my sister is a highly regarded lawyer and I stand here as a member of Parliament. The credit is not ours; the credit goes to this great country. I will work to ensure that everyone, no matter where you are from or how you got here, has the same opportunity for a happy and prosperous life.

I am a proud product of the state school system here in this great state of Victoria. A big shout-out to Mullauna College, my high school. It served us well and equipped us for a life after school, despite sometimes having limited resources. We had a great-quality education with some of the best teachers you could have hoped for. But when I entered university I was confronted with a reality check: I was told that only a small proportion of people at that university at that time were from public schools. The vast majority were from private schools. I wondered if this meant that people in private schools were somehow smarter, but I learned that was not true. They were better represented at universities because of the resources that those schools could offer their students. With more resources, students get better results.

I became curious about these inequalities that somehow gave advantage to those with more money. It did not seem fair to me.

I decided to dedicate my life to social justice. I became a social worker, first volunteering on the Margaret Oats Collingwood soup van and beginning my career as a drug and alcohol therapist. I saw lives torn apart by addiction and harm come to people because governments were not courageous enough to embrace harm minimisation approaches. The day I lost my first client to overdose was a day that changed me.

In 2004 a ceasefire was agreed to in the war in Sri Lanka, and I went back to volunteer in the north. I saw the carnage of war and a community ready to rebuild. Constructing buildings is easier than rebuilding hope, and sadly the country descended back into war.

After two years I arrived back in Australia more passionate than ever to create a more peaceful and just world. I continued my work as a social worker in international development, mental health and settlement services for newly arrived migrants from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. Through this work I saw how our country seems to have gone backwards in how we regard our diverse communities. Segments of our community are regularly demonised by political leaders and in the media.

Multiculturalism is not just about enjoying a food festival or going to a big event. Multiculturalism is about allowing people to be treated fairly and warmly no matter where they have come from and how they got here. Multiculturalism to me is about being different but not being made to feel different. It is about a genuine care, love and acceptance of who we all are. If we want our state and country to thrive, we need to open our hearts once more. The Australia I know and love is the one that has generosity in its DNA.

I have worked with people who have come to Australia seeking refuge and asylum. It is a speech for another time, but they are some of the most amazing and courageous people I know. We can do better in how we welcome and treat them, and I will never stop fighting for that.

I also began to learn around this time about the threat posed by global warming and climate change. I was confounded by the lack of action. I read more, I talked more to people who were fighting for our environment, and I was so deeply worried. It was equal parts outrage and equal parts hope that made me join the Greens. The Greens were standing up for the values I was fighting for. They were thinking far ahead, to the world that would be inherited by generations not yet born. I found a political home in this party.

I joined the Greens because I wanted to do something. I wanted to help take action on climate change and social justice. I knew and valued the role our political system has in creating social change, and I knew I had to somehow get involved. I also knew that everyone had to get involved and active if we were to save our environment and protect our earth. As I got more involved, I became more hopeful that change was possible. I came to understand the work being done by our Greens councillors at the City of Moreland, Jo Connellan, Toby Archer and then Lenka Thompson, and was inspired by their work to put my hand up for local council elections.

Serving on Moreland council for five years as a councillor and mayor has made me even more optimistic. I want to sincerely thank the people of Moreland for supporting me. Nobody can really prepare you for your work as a local government councillor. I want to acknowledge our councillors across this state for working tirelessly, often with little recognition and reward, for the incredible work they do. I also thank the many community members who volunteer their time to engage with council on local issues. I thank particularly all those who volunteer to be on council advisory committees and groups, some of whom are here today. Councils could not be nearly as effective without you.

To my Greens team at Moreland — Mark, Natalie and Dale — I know you will achieve amazing change, and I am so glad to have been part of your team.

There is nothing like working in local government to instruct you about what happens when other levels of government get it wrong. And when they do, many of our councils have to step in. I reject the assertion that councils should stick to 'roads, rates and rubbish'. Councils are leading on the big issues such as climate change, pokies and planning, and so much more.

I stand here representing thousands of people who want our governments to do a better job — to care, to take action on the issues that are fundamentally affecting their lives.

I would also like to acknowledge the young people I have met on my journey. It is common today to hear that young people are disengaged from politics or that they are apathetic. I do not believe this. My doctoral research on young people and their attitudes to global citizenship confirmed this for me. Young people are worried about their futures; they want a fairer society and they want to save the planet. And they are willing to work for it, taking to the streets, knocking on doors. My work in politics has only borne this out. It is Australia's young people that are at the vanguard of all of the progressive movements. The Greens would not have achieved the success we have without them.

I would not be here if not for my friends and colleagues in the Greens. Your vision and leadership inspired me to get involved. My beloved Moreland Greens — thank you for helping make Brunswick my home, because when I met you I knew I had found my people. I saw our Greens leaders stand up for people and our planet with courage and dignity in the face of opposition and dismissal. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you and then you win. Thank you to Bob Brown, Christine Milne, Richard Di Natale and Greg Barber — you are true heroes to me. Thank you to my Greens MPs team for all the work that you do and for entrusting me with your confidence to lead the Victorian parliamentary team. I am so honoured to work with you.

To my dear family, I am here because of your love, support, belief and encouragement. To the Mathers and Sivalinghams — the journey we have been on together is part of my core, and I am eternally grateful for the care and love that we share. To my husband, Colin, thank you for your unwavering belief in me — for being there with humour, wit and kindness always.

We lost our formidable grandmother this year. To not have her here saddens me, but she is a part of who I fundamentally am now. Thank you, Archie, for teaching me to be an activist and a fighter. Thank you for demonstrating to me that women have every right to a part of our political system.

My parents instilled in us the perseverance to make the best of every opportunity we had. Like so many others, they sacrificed so much along the way. Every migrant to this country leaves a bit of their heart behind somewhere — their childhood memories, their cultural traditions, their community, their family, their friends. Thank you for everything you have done for us and continue to do for us.

My mum taught me how to love unconditionally, and my dad inspired me to care limitlessly. He taught me not to forget the people and causes that everyone else forgets. I will do everything that I can to make sure that no-one is forgotten or left behind and that our future generations are the reason we make every single decision here. Together we can create a community that cares and leave behind a natural environment intact. The earth does not belong to us ; we belong to it. To the people of Northern Metropolitan Region — I am here to serve you and I look forward to working with you and all Victorians.