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Legislative Council

18 March 2020
Inaugural speech
Matthew Bach  (LIB)


Dr BACH (Eastern Metropolitan) (17:23): Thank you, President. It is really an honour and a privilege to have been selected to fill the vacancy left in this house by my old friend Mary Wooldridge. Mary made a huge contribution to our state over a significant parliamentary career, obviously firstly as the member for Doncaster in the other place, as a minister across a range of really important social portfolios and then more recently in this place as a member for Eastern Metropolitan Region. As a member here in opposition she held numerous shadow portfolios and other leadership positions. I am sure that I speak for all members of the house when I wish her all the very best as she, along with her husband, Andrew, and the rest of their family, open an exciting new chapter. On a personal level, ever since I started work on Mary’s staff way back in 2006 she has been a great friend and mentor to me, despite the fact that since then my career has taken me far and wide. I know, for my part, that I have very big shoes to fill.

Three short days before being sworn in as a member of this house I was teaching my English class at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School, where I was the deputy principal and also the head of the senior school. People have asked me what compelled me to leave a role in education, a career in education, for a seemingly very different calling here in this place with you. The answer really is very straightforward: I have always been driven to enable others to have opportunities. And for me that is personal.

The fact is I was not born into the embrace of a biological family. My biological father, a Greek immigrant, and my biological mother were very young, and they were not in a position to care for me. They made what I think was a really courageous and sacrificial decision to put me up for adoption. That decision was in my best interests. I spent a short time in foster care before being adopted by my mum and dad, Heather and Neil Bach, a schoolteacher and a minister of religion. Mine is not a hard luck story; it is a good luck story. I feel so thankful for the opportunity that I have been given to come into a family with a huge amount of love and a deep respect for education and also for aspiration. Mum and Dad gave me a great education, firstly at a series of local state primary schools and then at Melbourne Grammar, where I received a 90 per cent fee reduction. I have tried my very best to use these extraordinary opportunities for good. I have used them to forge a career as a Liberal adviser, then in academia at the University of Melbourne and more recently in education.

I have certainly worked hard, but I also know that I have a huge amount to thank this state for. I feel so lucky that I was born into a state that has historically embraced liberal values and historically has recognised the inherent worth of every single one of us, regardless of colour, creed or class. And I feel deeply honoured to now be in a position to seek to ensure that all Victorians can have the same opportunities that I have had.

In doing this, the needs of the people of Melbourne’s east, of course, will always be foremost in my mind. It is them that I now have the privilege of representing here. While Eastern Metropolitan Region is largely a residential area, it is also a place of much beauty. It includes the Blackburn Lake Sanctuary, parts of the Yarra Valley and the Dandenong Valley Parklands. The people of Melbourne’s east are active and engaged. The region has a bustling local economy, and it is home to some of the state’s most successful manufacturers. Religious organisations, service clubs and other community groups thrive. The people of our region are diverse, having come from all four corners of the globe; a quarter speak a language other than English at home. And yet what knits us all together is a love of family, a desire to work hard and to be rewarded for doing so and also a deep respect for our state’s democratic heritage and institutions.

As I seek to represent the people of Melbourne’s east some core principles will guide me, and these principles are drawn from my Christian faith and my desire to see my two-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and all those in generations to follow have access to great opportunities. Firstly, Victoria must be free; with all of us able to think, worship, speak and associate as we please. Victoria must also be safe so that women and children in particular can be free of violence. Victoria must be a place where people are judged not as members of a group but as unique individuals. And here in Victoria, with hard work every citizen must be able to reach their full potential. Because I value these things, I joined the Liberal Party all the way back when I was at university. I knew then that what motivates Liberals is a desire to protect and expand the freedom of the individual, to enable equality of opportunity and also to foster a humane society. The first of these aims is freedom, and without it the others can never be achieved.

There is no denying that our party and our political opponents have a different view of the importance of freedom. When I was a boy and the Cold War was coming to its end, there was so much hopefulness about the future of freedom. In 1989 and 1990 I was living with my parents and my brother in the UK. I remember the sense of optimism in Maggie Thatcher’s Britain as the Berlin Wall came down, the Ceausescus in Romania were executed and communism started to crumble across Eastern Europe. Then, in my teenage years, in the 1990s, again I felt such confidence in the cause of freedom. Communism in Eastern Europe was dead, and it appeared to be in its death throes in Asia and Latin America also. Professor Francis Fukuyama confidently pronounced the ‘end of history’, by which he meant the end of ideological struggle and the final victory of freedom over Marxism.

But if we fast-forward to today, we must admit that much of our confidence was misplaced. Marxist ideas have not died; rather they have evolved. We used to be told that the poor were oppressed by the rich. Well, now we are told that everybody else is oppressed by the powerful. This creed, which is often referred to as identity politics, divides us every bit as much today as Communism did in the past: black and white, gay and straight, atheist and believer, man and woman. Martin Luther King, Jr, famously looked to a day when we would only be judged by the content of our character. But identity politics judges us as members of a group and simplistically labels us either victims or oppressors. In both cases individuals are stripped of dignity and the content of their character is disregarded. By this way of thinking, freedom is the enemy. Too much freedom has made one group powerful and oppressive and therefore has led to the oppression of another. The answer, we are told, is more government, less liberty. But this is back to front. Any attack on freedom is an attack on all of us, especially the powerless. It was the economist Milton Friedman who proved that freedom is the best check on arbitrary government, which always entrenches the interests of the powerful. Every great advance of civilisation has been made by free individuals, not by governments.

So regardless of race, sexuality, gender, religion or any other category, there is so much that unites us all as Victorians. People from around the world have flocked to our state, often fleeing tyranny, united in their desire to make a better life for them and their family and also to embrace the opportunities that only come with freedom as democracy. As legislators, therefore, let us never seek division. Rather, through the protection of freedom, let us seek unity and a Victoria in which every unique citizen can be their very best. These are my principles. They have been my guiding star in the past. I will always look to them in the future.

This Parliament, of course, is a place where principles must be put into action, and our party has always been one of bold ideas to make our state a better place. This is how I intend to apply my principles. Here is my first big idea: let us revolutionise state schooling by bringing in the very best elements of the private system and by taking power from bureaucrats and giving it to principals and to school communities. As a teacher who has had the privilege of working in five of the very best schools in the world, both here in Australia and in Europe, the importance of education is crystal clear to me. Only with a great state school system can Victorian kids—all Victorian kids—hope to achieve their dreams.

Now, sadly, we know this is not the case today. I am sure all members of this house have been alarmed by the ongoing publication of irrefutable evidence showing that the standard of education that Victorian children are receiving in our state schools is poor, and it is getting worse. This is despite ever-increasing government funding. On the other hand, the respected Programme for International Student Assessment shows that many private schools are helping their students to achieve better and better results.

How have we failed? What can be done? Firstly, private schools have far greater freedom than state schools in implementing the curriculum. Currently the curriculum is needlessly cluttered. State schools are subject to close scrutiny from the education department to ensure that they are covering every single element. Decluttering the curriculum must be a priority. We should also give state school principals the power to do what I always did as a school leader, which was to mandate a focus on the most important parts of the curriculum to ensure the basics—literacy and numeracy—are taught well.

Students also need time to read and write far more, yet our education bureaucrats are obsessed with fads and fashionable programs that leave teachers no time to teach. Currently, by central edict, our state schools deliver programs on obesity, mindfulness, bike riding, diversity, pot plants, the construction of gardens to attract frogs, sleep hygiene, gender fluidity and positive gender norms, and much other trendy nonsense. All the while an appalling number of Victorian children can neither read nor write.

The best private schools run none of these programs. Instead they protect class time—teaching and learning time—above all else. They have compulsory reading programs across all year levels, and they make sure that as much work is done as possible, including regular written examinations, with a pen and paper, away from screens.

Most state school teachers are fantastic; a minority are not. And so teacher quality must also be part of this conversation. And yet because of the power of education unions we have not had a meaningful debate about teacher quality in our state. We urgently need to allow state school principals and state school leaders to do what I did as head of a private school, which was to reward the many excellent teachers, to performance manage struggling staff and to sack the minority who just are not up to it. We also need rigorous teacher appraisal programs in all our state schools. The best programs, which operate in excellent private schools, involve regular lesson observations by a school leader and student feedback for every teacher in every class. By learning from the many successes of the private system, we can fix our broken state system. It is about great educational outcomes for all Victorian kids.

Another challenge I want to discuss today is supporting vulnerable families. My dream—and I know it is a big one—is that all vulnerable kids should grow up with a nurturing and loving family. This is an ambition I have pursued before. In 2010, when the coalition won government here in Victoria, I had the privilege to be the lead advisor on many successful policies and reforms to assist the vulnerable, as Liberal-led governments do so well. We put schools in every youth justice facility in the state. We negotiated the national disability insurance scheme agreement and secured Geelong as the national headquarters. We put in place a whole-of-government action plan to prevent violence against women. We carried out a major reform of the child protection system to protect kids from violence and abuse.

Well, now, there is far more work to do. We need comprehensive and innovative services to address the full range of challenges that vulnerable families face—from mental illness to drug and alcohol abuse, violence and homelessness. Vulnerable kids who make mistakes must be given every opportunity to make the most of a second chance and families must have protection from those who would do them harm. This means that violent, sexual and repeat offenders must face far stiffer punishments than they do now. Preventing violence against women and their children should be a particular priority.

Everybody knows that as Liberals we care deeply about good economic management, supporting small business and ensuring public safety, for example. We also believe that loving families are the fundamental bedrock of any society worthy of the name. It should be noted that in supporting the vulnerable, I will always act to uphold the sanctity of life.

A free and thriving Eastern Metropolitan Region and a free and thriving Victoria require excellent services—in education and community services, also in health, public transport and many other legitimate areas of state government action. They also require both economic and environmental sustainability. When we reduce the size of government and resist increasing bureaucracy, when we lower and abolish taxes, when we show restraint and prudence in the way we spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money, then individuals and communities thrive. When we respect and protect our natural resources, when we act to reduce waste, when we deal responsibly with the challenge of climate change, then also individuals and communities thrive.

As I conclude, there are numerous people that I would like to thank. All successful candidates receive a great deal of support and help. While I was thrilled to receive an overwhelming endorsement from my party, I did not achieve that on my own. So to all those who supported me I say thank you. My particular thanks for overseeing the convention at which I was successful go to Peter Clarke, our party’s chairman for Eastern Metropolitan Region. I look forward to working closely with Peter. I also thank my Liberal colleague in Eastern Metropolitan Region, my honourable friend Mr Atkinson. He has welcomed me very warmly to this place and will continue to be, I have no doubt, a great source of wisdom and advice for me. While I have thanked Mary already, another great mentor of mine and my wife has been Andrea Coote, a former and much-revered member of this house. A further friend in politics has been Neil Angus, the member for Forest Hill in the other place. My political journey really started in the trenches with Neil back in 2006. You will not find a more dedicated, hardworking and effective member.

Of course, more than anybody else, I should thank my family. I want to thank Mum and Dad for their constant love and guidance. I value the support and friendship of my brother, Jono, and his wife, Aleisha, immensely. My sister and brother-in-law, Molly and Jamie, are dear friends and have been a great source of strength through the process that led me here. It is now a joy to see our little one, Phoebe, with her much-loved cousins. I also need to thank my parents-in-law, Geraldine and Phil, for their care and encouragement, along with that of Amy’s brother, Jim. Finally, no-one deserves more thanks than my extraordinary wife, Amy—smart, unflappable, determined, caring, encouraging, successful. I could not imagine a better life partner, and I certainly could not imagine a better mum to our little one, Phoebe.

So it is with immense pride and a deep sense of responsibility that I start my work here in the Parliament. My commitment to the people of Victoria, and first and foremost obviously to the people of Melbourne’s east, is that this work will be characterised by an unerring fight for freedom. Only by protecting and expanding freedom will all Victorians be able to experience the kinds of opportunities I have had by being born in this great state.

Members applauded.