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Legislative Council

05 February 2019
Sonja Terpstra  (ALP)


Ms TERPSTRA (Eastern Metropolitan) (16:17:38): President, in rising to speak today, I pass on to you my warmest congratulations on your recent appointment to the office of President of the Legislative Council, commencing on and with Victoria’s 59th Parliament. First and foremost I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land upon which we meet, the Aboriginal people of the Kulin nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. This always was and always will be Aboriginal land. I am honoured to have been elected as a representative for the Eastern Metropolitan Region. My journey to this place was not necessarily one of well-laid-out plans, but something that arose out of a career that was dedicated to improving the lives of working people. I was born in New South Wales and am proudly public school educated. Along with learning the usual school curriculum, I attended local public schools where students came from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I was welcomed into the homes of many of my school friends, enjoying a richness of multicultural experiences, and was embraced by those families during meal times and other times of cultural festivities. I was fortunate to have a number of 'mums’ at one time or another as well. These early experiences gave me an appreciation of the importance of inclusivity and community that arises from our public school system. Our public schools take all and welcome all. My parents were working-class people. My mum, Patricia, was a seamstress who later acquired further skills to work in a clerical capacity in the union movement. Her early years were punctuated by family violence and alcoholism, which left her with an unmitigated desire to leave home as early as she could. Sadly in later years she found herself having to take care of three of her younger siblings when her own mother passed away when she was just 21 years old. My dad, John, immigrated to Australia at around the age of 21 from the Netherlands. His own early education was interrupted due to the ravages of war in Europe, but as a truck driver he continued to work, and through on-the-job training he gained stable employment in mechanical workshops as a mechanic. Both my parents valued education, but it was my mother who impressed upon me and her sisters the importance of it and the importance of the union movement and why politics mattered. In later years my mother would say to both me and her sisters, 'You can do anything you want to’, encouraging us to think in unconstrained ways about what might be possible—and not to think less of ourselves simply because of our gender. Both my parents worked hard to bring together a small family, but despite those early beginnings my mum suffered a lengthy bout of mental illness, followed by the breakdown of my parents’ marriage. Then a few years later my dad passed away at age 52 due to cancer. I was a young teen, and obviously these were difficult years. My mum did her absolute best and returned to the paid workforce; initially she struggled to find employment. She continued to raise me and my brother as a single parent. There were many challenges along the way. But fortunately for me it was the friendships forged during my public school years and being welcomed into the families of others that would sustain me. Consequently, from these challenging times, I came to develop a range of skills and attributes that I believe stand me in good stead today, such as resilience, persistence, forthrightness, integrity, a strong sense of fairness and a disdain for injustices visited upon those who are powerless, or on those that rely on government assistance to have a decent standard of living. During these turbulent years, schooling was tough going. I had already decided that school was not for me and during my year 10 studies I attended the local TAFE college at night, along with a close friend. There I learned to type and to attend to other clerical duties. At the completion of year 10, I left school and entered the full-time workforce at around the age of 16. I worked for a few years in a variety of clerical jobs until I gained employment working in the union movement in a secretarial capacity. During these years, I also undertook further studies at my local TAFE, which included learning shorthand and simple bookkeeping. I was indeed fortunate to have many mentors in my early years in the union movement. I want to acknowledge Warwick McDonald, who, as the secretary of the Water Industry Salaried Officers Union, encouraged all women within that office to develop their skill sets within that office, no matter what their role. It was here that I gained a greater insight into the importance of the union movement and how conditions and protections were gained. Many training and development opportunities were made available to me through those early years, in both formal and informal settings. I have fond memories of spending countless hours discussing politics and world events with Warwick and my former colleagues. We still have these discussions today when we meet. This in and of itself was a continuation of my education. And it was through the union movement that many doors opened for me. Later, with the help of my colleagues, I was successful in gaining mature age entry into studying law at the University of Technology Sydney—the second woman in my extended family to attend university and the first in my immediate family. Six years of part-time study was to follow. I joke today that I fear I have suffered some form of short-term memory loss as a consequence of having to endure countless closed book exams with only the benefit of taking in a pen to write with. But I made it through those days, attending evening lectures three nights per week and also working part-time as a fitness instructor in various local gyms. I then had a short departure from the union movement when I left my secretarial job and gained employment with Rockdale council in the rates department. It was here that I became a member of the Municipal Employees Union, as it was at the time. After a short while with council, I saw an advertisement for an organiser’s role with that union. Having applied for that position and coming from the shop floor, I was successful in obtaining that role. I had the privilege of representing workers in local government from a range of backgrounds—both blue and white collar in that industry. As the years went by, I eventually undertook other duties, including the women’s officer role, industrial officer and finally I was the first woman to hold the role of metropolitan manager, which was the equivalent of a branch secretary role under the new structure which was introduced at that time. And it was here that I became acquainted with the Labor Party. Now, it was a long time ago and the introduction to the party that I received back then would most likely not pass muster these days. The treasurer of that union said to me, quite simply, 'Well, love, if you want to work here, you’d better join the Labor Party’. And so I joined in my early twenties. At the end of 1997 I had graduated from university with a bachelor of laws degree. A few years later I began working for the New South Wales Working Women’s Centre, a not-for-profit community legal centre that was government funded to provide industrial advice and representation to women from a non-English-speaking background. Here I was able to provide legal advice and industrial advice to women who worked in a variety of industries, including textile, hospitality and clerical and workers from the sex industry. I also provided pro bono representation for women in unfair dismissal claims, underpayment of entitlement claims and in the human rights jurisdiction on harassment and discrimination claims, to name but a few. In around the year 2000, I was then successful in gaining a role as a senior industrial officer for the New South Wales branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU)—the first woman to lead the New South Wales industrial office within the history of that branch. Here I had the privilege of representing workers in the manufacturing industry—but it was also here that I met my husband, Barry. After a few years, both myself and my husband relocated to Melbourne and I was not in the paid workforce for a while. As my children became older, I was able to combine my work and family responsibilities a little better and was able to undertake a variety of part-time or contract roles. For a short time I worked for the AMWU in both the state and national offices, working on education and training, award modernisation and finally in 2014, the casuals’ test case as part of the 2014 modern award review. I would like to acknowledge Paul Bastian and Andrew Dettmer for their comradeship during these years and also their preparedness to be confronted with strongly held feminist views on the odd occasion. To their credit, a 'Fair cop, governor’ response was more often than not proffered. During these years that I attended to my young children, I also had the opportunity to become involved in my local community. I took up various posts, including volunteering as president of the local kindergarten, and began advocating for local issues in my community. It was during this time, when my children were young, that I undertook further studies and obtained a masters in law and conflict resolution from La Trobe University. At the conclusion of my studies it was a very proud moment to have both my young children attend with me and walk down the aisle at the graduation ceremony. However, whilst my children were young it became apparent to me that access to kinder was difficult. Waiting lists were long and placements were in short supply. Local public schools were also experiencing extreme enrolment pressures, so in later years I began working with my local community to campaign for improvements to local public school provisioning, and I commenced working on the Reopen Our Schools campaign. We gathered a mountain of local support from the community to advocate for local needs, but it was an even more pleasant surprise to learn that there was—and still is—a whole network of parents, each in their own respective local communities, campaigning for similar outcomes right here in Victoria. Hence I have met and teamed up with some of the most amazing parents, who are incredibly passionate and dedicated and who are effective community campaigners, many of whom are women. My other career achievements also included working as a commonwealth public servant and later running my own small legal practice from home, along with another short stint at the National Tertiary Education Union, Victorian Branch. Finally, before coming to this place, I worked at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Victorian Branch, as an industrial officer, managing a small team of organisers. The ANMF, Victorian branch, is a formidable union, now the largest union in Australia, boasting some 85 000 members in Victoria alone. I will miss my former colleagues at the nurses union. It was an absolute privilege and a pleasure to work with you. Now I turn the page and a new chapter begins in my story: coming to this place, the Victorian Parliament. I hope that what I have laid out today demonstrates the power of education. Access to education is of fundamental importance. It is the great enabler. It can lift people up out of poverty, and it allows them to aspire to a better life. The ability to participate in democratic processes and to make a contribution to society depends on being able to be informed and to make choices. Without knowledge, making informed decisions is almost impossible, resulting in an individual’s ability to participate in democratic processes being restricted or impaired. A strong public education system is the jewel in the crown of any democratic society. More than just a curriculum, public education includes other purposes such as bringing people together, reinforcing our communities and helping us to connect across race and class and to include people who might otherwise be marginalised. Central to this are key principles such as acceptance, inclusion, diversity and respect. This demonstrates why our public education system must retain the hallmarks of being secular and free, as it also has an equally important role in maintaining social cohesion. Underinvestment in our public education system will only serve to widen the inequality gap and result in a more socially stratified society, and consequently access to public education must be equitable and be available to all local communities on the basis of need. So now I stand here in this chamber as a proud member of the Andrews Labor government, which has demonstrated its strong support for public education, and also as the first woman from the Labor Party to be preselected and subsequently elected to Eastern Metropolitan Region since the 2006 reforms, which goes some way towards improving gender equality in the Legislative Council in this Parliament. Having now set out some of my achievements, however, it is patently obvious that no-one gets to advance in their political career without the help of others, and of course the last leg of my journey to this place was not the easiest either. Consequently I need to thank and acknowledge a range of people, and this does make me somewhat nervous as I do not want to leave anyone out. But if I do, it is inadvertent and I apologise in advance. But to all of you who helped me, you know who you are, and you know how much your contribution has meant to me. To my friends, most of whom are not interested in politics at all: you keep me grounded. You will no doubt remind me that most people are generally not as concerned with politics as the politicians who reside inside the political bubble, and I will be grateful for that as I will need to stay connected with reality from here on in. Sadly, both my parents are no longer with me now. My mum, Patricia, passed away in April last year with her sisters, my children and me by her side. But I do know that both my mum and dad would be immensely proud of where I have ended up today. To my husband, Barry: your unwavering support of my career choices and aspirations has been unquestioning and immeasurable. To my two children, Daniel and Jessica, I know you are proud of your mum, even though you both really do not want to admit it. I love you all. As commented on earlier, to my former colleagues who contributed to my ongoing political education in the early years of my work in the union movement—Warwick McDonald, Janet Cadet and Alison Peters and many others—thank you, and I look forward to our next catch-up in Sydney soon so we can continue our long and rambling discussions about politics and world affairs. To Kimberley Johnston, Cindy O’Connor, Darren Dwyer, Gillian Strong and Steve Dargavel: your hard work and persistence in getting me to this place and your wise words of counsel were immeasurable—thank you. To Kimberley, Cindy and Gillian—sisters—your support and words of encouragement to just keep going were simple, yet oh so effective. To the crew at the Australian Services Union—there are so many of you—but to Ingrid Stitt, who now sits here with me in this place as a representative for Western Metropolitan Region, to Matt Norrey and all others at the ASU: I say thank you for your support. To local ALP branch members and other supporters in Eastern Metropolitan Region who came out on pre-poll day and election day: thank you for your support and for giving up countless hours of time, away from family and friends. The result means that for all of us in the east the tide did indeed come in, and we are now left with a sea of red. Your efforts contributed to such a great result. I promise to work hard every day to make sure that the tide does not run out. To public school campaigners everywhere: to Cate Hall, Nina Kelly, Lea Campbell and all at the extended Our Children Our Schools campaign alliance, your advocacy for equity of access to local quality public education for our children is invaluable. Keep up the fight; you are unstoppable. To the newly expanded team in eastern metro region—Dustin Halse in Ringwood, Matt Fregon in Mount Waverley, Paul Hamer in Box Hill, Jackson Taylor in Bayswater, Anthony Carbines in Ivanhoe, Vicki Ward in Eltham and of course the inimitable Shaun Leane, who now presides over this place: I look forward to working with all of you over the next four years and beyond. Now I would like to conclude this speech by borrowing from and paraphrasing some very wise words of wisdom by Eva Cox, feminist activist, writer, lecturer and tireless fighter for equality. I echo her words as I say this to women who may be contemplating a journey into politics or to embark upon a campaign for change. Eva said: … if you want to make changes, belonging is probably one of the things that doesn’t really fit with it, because people who belong often accept the status quo. Eva then says: If there’s things in the world that make you angry because they are unfair, because they don’t work, because they discriminate against people, because they exclude people, if you are part of a world that you don’t feel comfortable with and you think you can improve it—go for it. … We need the stirrers, we need the outsiders, we need the people who change things. And it can be painful: people bully you, people reject you, people exclude you. Yes, it’s nice to belong and be part of the warm and fuzzies, but if that’s not you, then you lose something by that process … As Eva then says, she has never really been prepared to lose that. And neither am I. Lastly, the wisest of words by Eva are when she says: Don’t worry about being called difficult. It shows you are making a difference. Finally, I say this to the many other sisters in the union movement and beyond who are striving to improve things, to the many mums in their communities who are embarking on a campaign for change, whatever it may be—a fight to protect those services you want to access for your kids, to protect that local pool that is under threat, a campaign for your local school, to protect your local park or bushland environment or for better road safety or a local bus route or better footpaths—and to those women who have made that decision to enter into politics, I say to you: just keep going, and keep going, until. Members applauded.