12 March 1991 - Current
Dr CUMMING (Western Metropolitan) (16:18:23): I wish to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. Thank you, President, and congratulations on your appointment. I would also like to congratulate all members. I stand here today before you all with an immense amount of pride. Elected to represent the western suburbs, a community that I have such a deep personal, professional and political connection too, it is an honour and a privilege as well as a dream come true. I wish to start by thanking the people who voted for me. And there are a number of people who deserve my thanks and my gratitude. My family—my mother, my five children, my brothers and sisters—who have always loved and supported me, giving me nothing but the truth, however hard that may be to hear. My friends who have always been there, supporting me through the challenging times and helping me to celebrate the best of times, and for the countless hours that they have helped with election campaigns. I thank the members of my electorate for trusting me to represent them. I will work hard to represent you and to justify that trust. Within my electorate there are many community leaders who I am honoured to know. From our Indigenous and ethnic groups to our business leaders, you allowed me into your lives and I have learned so much from all of you, including resilience, acceptance and embracing our differences. The many people in local government—counsellors, administrators—from whom I have learnt so much. And the many strong women who have already led by example, who have blazed the trail for me to follow or have walked with me along the way, at times lending a shoulder to cry on. I am the proud daughter of Margaret and Colin Cumming, born in the Williamstown Hospital, the youngest of six children. My family home was in Bunbury Street in Footscray, largely surrounded by industry and with a beautiful view of the city. My playground was the Maribyrnong River. As children we canoed in this historic river but we did not swim. My father warned us against swimming due to the occasional shark attracted by the blood pumped from the abattoir into the saltwater river. One of my earliest childhood memories was my mother taking me to an Aboriginal elder in Keilor. I played with sticks in his lounge room as my mother talked. As we were saying goodbye he placed his very large, weathered hands gently upon my head. I looked up at him and he looked at my mother and he told her I was a cockatoo and that my spirit came from the Maribyrnong River. Well, this story stayed with me as wherever I travel I always feel like I am home when I cross the Maribyrnong River. I often wondered what it meant to be a cockatoo. Recently I spoke to Uncle Larry, a respected Aboriginal elder in the Footscray community. He explained that the cockatoo is considered the messenger. It is their job to collect messages from far and wide and deliver them to whomever they are meant for. The message may be delivered as a feather on the ground or you may hear the messenger call out, and they are telling you, 'Not now’, 'Don’t worry, the help you need is coming’, or just, 'Take the time to stop and think’. I thank you, Uncle Larry. My education began at St Monica’s Primary School in Footscray, a school with 105 pupils from 52 different nationalities. It was the 1970s. The Vietnamese community was just settling in after the Vietnam War. I continued at Christ the King in Braybrook, an all-girls school with a primary school attached. The land on which the school is built is small and mainly concrete. Sport was played after walking up the road to Churchill Avenue. There was no library in Braybrook at the time. At a whole school assembly the then Premier, Joan Kirner, AC, came to visit and encouraged the girls to get involved in politics. Premier Kirner called for questions. The room went quiet and I felt the need to say something. I got to my feet and, although I cannot recall the question, the whole school looked on. A teacher later gave me a pat on the back and said, 'Well done’. My friends questioned if I was embarrassed, and I said, 'No, somebody has to do it’. Somebody had to do it, and I guess that is how it all began. My paternal grandfather was born and raised in Scotland—just 16 years old when he enlisted to fight in the First World War. After the war ended he was offered a soldier settlement in the Mallee. My maternal grandmother travelled to Australia by ship to meet him. They married and they had three children. The Mallee was hot and unforgiving. They lost a baby daughter and decided to move to South Melbourne. My father did not like school and left at the age of 14 to work in the Melbourne dockyards, before he took up tram driving. During the Second World War my maternal grandfather was taken from his village in Germany because he was protecting the Jewish community. He was sent to the Russian front and never returned. After the war ended my mother travelled to Australia from Germany. Mum settled in South Yarra with other German immigrants and began working as a tram conductor. That is where she met my father, a tram driver. After they married my parents lived for many years in Williamstown before moving the family to Bunbury Street, Footscray, when I was 10 months old. Dad worked for the Williamstown and Footscray councils as a gardener in the botanical gardens and as a lifeguard at the Footscray pool. Amongst my fondest childhood memories is playing in the cold pool while waiting for my dad to finish work. To help support my family my mum started a second-hand business by dragging furniture from the Footscray tip. She also washed people’s clothes, and she caught and skinned rabbits to feed us all. In the late 1980s Footscray council decided to buy all the land between Footscray and Dynon roads fronting the Maribyrnong River for a private development called the Quay West project. My family home was amongst the parcels of land, and my mother was adamant that compulsory acquisition should be for the benefit of the greater community and not for the benefit of a developer. Compulsory acquisition is usually reserved for the building of a hospital, a school, public roads or transport infrastructure. The day before Christmas the council served me, at just 16, with the compulsory acquisition papers. When my parents arrived home that evening they were obviously very upset, my father choosing to stay home and guard the property rather than attend the family Christmas at my sister’s. It may be hard for you to understand how much this upset my father. On 20 January 1989 he had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 54. After my father passed, my mother continued to fight the council. She was right, and the then state government was forced to pass the Footscray Land (Amendment) Act in 1990 so that it could eventually take our family home. My mother, Margaret, is extremely generous, community minded and, if you have not figured it out by now, a strong, independent and resourceful woman. I am pleased that Mum is here today, at the age of 85, in the gallery with members of my family and friends. I know she feels very proud. It is my mum to whom I attribute my strong sense of caring for the community. Mum instilled this into me and my siblings constantly by helping and standing up for those in need. My father gave me many things, especially my sense of humour, as my German mother has none. Dad always said, 'Don’t you ever think that as a woman you can’t do anything’. He said, 'You can do anything you want’. January this year was the 30th anniversary of his passing, and I am sure he is here with me today and very proud of all that I have achieved. During the 1980s Mum set up her second-hand business in Footscray before moving her business in the local area a few times until the family bought a building on the corner of Geelong Road and Barkly Street in Footscray, commonly known as Green’s Corner or the Imperial Art Palace. I love learning, and while I have no problem with comprehension, while at school I struggled with reading and spelling. In my final year of high school I made an appointment to meet a careers adviser, as I felt that I should leave school. My reasoning was that I was not achieving the results to get into university, and I wanted to study natural medicine. He queried the areas I had difficulty with and recommended testing, and I was diagnosed as being dyslexic. Fortunately I received appropriate support and was able to continue with my education as planned. I studied traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, initially at a private college in Camberwell, and I later completed my degree at Victoria University in St Albans. I have worked hard all my life, including while I studied. In my younger years I worked in a modelling school teaching deportment, as a supermarket cashier, at carnivals and in clubs and bars. At 19, keen to broaden my experience, I joined the Army Reserve as a medic and a preventative medicine technician. I was also licensed to drive 10-tonne trucks. I proudly served our country for 10 years as a reservist. In my early 20s I opened the first of my many businesses—a cafe in Yarraville. Since then I have owned and run several cafes and Chinese medicine clinics in Melbourne’s west. My love of the western suburbs runs deep. I am a true born-and-bred westie, proud of my wonderful community. But as a young adult driving in the eastern suburbs for my studies and to meet friends I could not help but notice the differences—the big parks, the leafy streets, the well-maintained buildings and the extensive public transport. When I interacted with people from the eastern suburbs and told them that I came from the west their reaction was a flat, 'Oh’. I would openly question where that reaction came from. I realised that people from the east had a view that my home in the western suburbs was lesser than theirs, often having formed their opinion without ever having visited the west. I questioned, 'Why does the west look so different? Why are our infrastructure and public amenities so poor? Why are our communities effectively viewed and treated like the poor cousins of Melbourne?’. The political path was a natural choice for me. In early 1997, in the final year of my health science degree and while completing my corporal’s training, I ran as an Independent for the newly formed Maribyrnong council. I knocked on 5000 doors and was elected. I proudly served consecutively for 21 years, winning seven elections. In my last election I received 35 per cent of the vote, getting the quota with no preferences needed. I also served two terms as the mayor, elected by my peers. I ran for state government a number of times in the lower house, each time trying to highlight social issues important to my local community. During those 21 years I gave birth to my five beautiful children: Willem, Violet, Zara, Xavier and James. Over that time I have had people close to me suffer mental illness and drug addiction, I have seen close friends lose their children and I have been a victim of domestic violence. Believe me when I say I have seen firsthand how these social issues truly affect individuals and families and communities and how stretched the police and the community support services are. Today you have heard just a few of my experiences that have formed the person I am here today. These, alongside my 21 years as an elected member of local government, is why I stand here before you. The thread that has run throughout my experiences, my number one driver, my passion, is helping people to help themselves. However, the number one ingredient in helping people to help themselves is listening to what people actually want and giving them the opportunity to be part of that change. Unfortunately there are members of our community who feel disengaged with politics, and some even feel angry when they are required to vote. I believe this is because our government is telling them rather than consulting and including them. The community are sick of the two-party system and of politicians behaving badly. If there were only two football teams in the AFL, why would you watch it? I stand here today with a very large crossbench of extraordinary, caring people—an example that the community wants the Parliament to keep up with the times. They wish for us to act professionally, to be respectful to each other. They do not want us to interject or call each other names. They want respectful and healthy debate. Robert Murphy, the former Bulldogs captain, remarked to me that he does not want me to start sounding like every other politician. I will remain true to my community. I will continue to speak just as my community speaks to me. I consider myself a centre politician who wishes to hear both sides of an argument to form a balanced and fair plan for moving forward. As an Independent I am not tied to party policies or agendas. I am allowed to respond to the community’s actual needs, and that is an extremely freeing feeling. As a member for Western Metropolitan Region I represent one of the most diverse and one of the fastest growing areas in this country. Our needs are understandably many. I am pleased to note that the current state government considers large infrastructure projects a priority, because there are still so many more projects like these to be delivered in the western suburbs of Melbourne. I also acknowledge the current commitment to the Footscray Hospital and planning for a new Melton hospital, a mental health inquiry and the local government rates review. I am coming here with a 20-year list of things that I have had to watch not get done. You name it, I want it fixed; the west deserves the best. In particular I aim to help the most vulnerable members of our community through improving health services and community safety. Higher levels of care for our veterans, the elderly and the disabled are urgently needed. We need improved services and better accessibility to these services. We need to develop a more comprehensive medical model to tackle drug addiction. Residents in the west are significantly more likely to experience obesity and less likely to engage in physical activity, and there is a higher proportion of residents with chronic diseases and disabilities. The community facilities available in the west are frequently ageing and in poor condition. We desperately need a long‑overdue increase in spending on community infrastructure. These upgrades include creating hubs where people can socialise, engage in physical activity and receive support and investing in initiatives to tackle youth boredom and help the young to engage with their local communities and their education. We need positive places where people can socialise without feeling the need to hang around, for example, pokie machines. Please allow me to be blunt. I hate pokies and would love to ban them, but if this government is so addicted to the revenue it takes, I would hope at the very least that the gambling revenue that comes out of my community is spent back in the local area. We can create more jobs by providing the infrastructure that the west needs. Job security is important to both our younger and our older communities. The struggle to find secure employment opportunities is well known. Jobs and recreation are needed for people where they live. Our communities need to feel safe and we need to keep them safe, including by having more police on our streets with better resources. It is crazy to think that they do not have modern mobile technology at their fingertips and that a police station often only has four laptops for all its members. We are in times when more CCTV cameras are needed in our community spaces, as well as safety bollards for large community events. Since my childhood I have been concerned about waste. Recycling has always been a big passion of mine. Unfortunately when it comes to how we deal with our waste, I believe that Australia has not just dropped the ball but has kicked it out of the park. In the early 1980s I went to Germany with my mother—her first time back home. Germany had well-established systems of communal recycling and a strong culture of looking after its environment, and I felt inspired. Visiting China in the 1990s, they had engaged German waste specialists to develop long-term policies to deal with their waste. Items such as disposable nappies are not part of Chinese culture. Of course the human challenge has always been to live in harmony, both with each other and with the environment. For the last 20 years I have sat on waste boards and have been consulted numerous times by various state governments regarding solutions to waste problems. The consultations became talk fests, and every state government during that time lacked the political will to make it a number one priority. I grew up during the 1970s and the 1980s with campaigns such as Keep Australia Beautiful, focusing on 'Do the Right Thing’ and binning your rubbish. We dutifully binned everything, later recycling, recovering and sorting. Unfortunately we have hit a point where sorting and resource recovery are almost impossible. I live close to rivers and the stunning beaches of Melbourne, and over the last 10 years I have noticed a considerable increase in plastic floating in the water and clogging up our beaches. We are drinking and eating plastic. Past governments have been too slow and not forceful enough in tackling the problem. We are now 20 years behind where we should be, and the saddest thing is that it did not need to be like this. We have allowed big business to make products that last one season and are cheaper to throw out than to fix. We have been left with an extraordinary amount of e-waste and now coffee cups. Addicted to ease and comfort, as a country we have embraced the disposable lifestyle at the expense of our future. We cannot keep this up. We cannot expect things to change if we do not make the changes. We have hit a point of crisis. We need to move beyond sorting and recycling. One solution is to divert our organic waste and create nutrient-rich compost soil for our future food. At least in the short term serious consideration needs to be given to incinerating rubbish that has no value. This has the potential to create energy sources and deal with the sheer volume of the problem. Rather than individual councils and campaigns, it is going to need a statewide approach with regional contracts if we are to have any chance of getting the amount of waste that has built up out of our environment. Travelling to school and work within the community takes far too long in the west. We need safer means for people to travel around their communities, especially when walking and cycling. A heavy number of trucks travel through the west each day and night. I support trucks having designated routes and speed restrictions, as this has proven to increase safety in Europe. Why this has not been taken up is beyond me. The west urgently needs a significant shift in state policy to address the critical need for affordable housing. We need better use of vacant and disused land. Most public housing is well beyond its use-by date. We need to be forward thinking when it comes to funding models, reforming state taxes, including our land tax and stamp duty, and further reforming our local council rating system. The last state government reviewed the Local Government Act 1989 and recommended some changes. In its current form it does not go far enough to change the council rating system. Councils only have two choices, and both of them are archaic. They do not reflect a modern tax system. We need to make sure that the review of the act is not rushed through. We need to make sure that it is thorough and that it will stand the test of time. The Valuation of Land Act 1960 also needs to be reviewed and changed to make council rates a fairer system for all. I acknowledge this is a long list; however, I also know that this is what my community wants, because I have been listening to and representing my community for 22 years. Throughout my terms on council I consistently worked towards progressive and innovative solutions to benefit my community. Even though I love to talk, my biggest joy is listening to others and having their words form my views. This is my role as a member of this Parliament. I am merely the messenger of my community—a cockatoo, if you wish. As well as that, I will never be afraid of hard work or putting up a good fight for something that I believe in. Just like that secondary school girl standing before Joan Kirner, I still believe somebody has to do it. I am happy for that to be me in partnership with my community. Finally, let me leave you with a quote that I feel sums up my commitment to my electorate. They are words by well-known author and researcher Professor Brené Brown: Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them. Go Doggies! Thank you. Members applauded.