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Legislative Assembly

06 February 2019
Kat Theophanous  (ALP)


Ms THEOPHANOUS (Northcote) (10:15:48): It is with acute awareness of the honour and responsibility bestowed on me by the people of Northcote that I address this house. The seat of Northcote is cradled by three waterways: the Darebin Creek, the Merri Creek and the Yarra River. Each breathes life into our suburbs, keeping us connected to those pure eternal moments that bind us. Warm afternoons spent sharing a picnic in the Darebin Parklands, rowing out under the gums from the Fairfield boathouse, speeding down the inclines of the Yarra bike trail: these are all memories I have of growing up in this electorate, Northcote, where I was born and raised, where family and community shaped who I am today. To those who nurtured this land long before this Parliament existed, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, I pay my respects and give my gratitude. To those who arrived here from distant shores to make this land your home, some in fear, some in hope, all with a willingness to create and contribute, I thank you. Your histories are woven into our area, enriching it with diversity and complexity. The suburbs of Northcote, Thornbury, Fairfield, Alphington, Westgarth and Preston are a vibrant mix of creativity, culture and community activism. We are built on the many struggles of Aboriginal, migrant and working-class communities who fought for basic rights like accessible education, health care and decent jobs. We are also proudly progressive, with a willingness to push the boundaries and question the status quo. I expect nothing less from the people of Northcote than to be challenged by the perspectives and proposals they will invariably throw up to me as their member. I am an Australian of Greek-Cypriot descent. The migrant experience is embedded in my family history, with all its attenuating sense of dislocation and powerlessness mixed in with courage, determination and hope. Mum and Dad both arrived by ship from Cyprus when they were children in the 1950s and 60s. Neither knew any English. My mother still remembers how seasick she was on that month-long voyage and how she cried for home and for food that actually tasted like food. The village life their families left behind was hugely different to what they found here. They traded farming for factories, warm Mediterranean waters for the chill bite of the bay, familiar faces and easy conversation for looks of confusion, often suspicion. It is hard to imagine that transition and to think how much has changed in just one generation. But my grandparents took that brave step because they knew Australia could offer their children opportunities they could not get back home. In that respect they are not so different from the refugees of today seeking security and a future for their families. To these people I believe as a nation we owe more than what we are giving—more respect, more protection, more humanity. But prosperity did not come easily for my parents’ generation. It was not until the Whitlam years that working-class families like theirs received the educational opportunities that changed our trajectory forever. Mum became a pharmacist, Dad was elected to Parliament. Aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins became everything from architects to psychologists, lawyers and business owners, childcare workers and teachers. All of them made Victoria their home—my home. Nowadays our community faces different challenges. In Northcote we must balance an increase in population with the need for affordable housing, access to services and upgrading crucial infrastructure like schools and roads. There is no doubt that property prices, rentals and cost-of-living pressures in the inner north are putting a strain on many families, on young people and on our retirees. In an era where modernity is supposedly expanding markets, innovating work and creating more opportunities, we are nevertheless seeing fewer secure career paths, more income stress and a seemingly never-ending struggle to balance work and family life. Job flexibility, ostensibly a liberating model of work, too often equates with job insecurity, and new technologies, with so much potential to streamline systems and free up our time, often mean that we never truly switch off and we blur the line between public and private. It is not surprising that a mental health crisis has arisen hand in hand with the economic challenges and technological innovations of our time. Our modern, hyperconnected world is changing how we see ourselves and interact, how we give meaning to our lives and how we think. For young people these challenges can be particularly devastating and too often tragic. I am hopeful that the Royal Commission into Mental Health committed to by this government will help us navigate a path through this difficult reality. At university I studied philosophy. I wrote my thesis on the self-doubt brought about by the anguish of our own freedom. In a world of disorienting choice, where values, beliefs and facts themselves are presented as relative, it is no wonder that simple solutions are gaining salience. I am concerned with the rise of minor parties on the right and the left that peddle this kind of politics. On the right we see it manifest in divisive rhetoric that targets otherness as the source of our problems. On the left it expresses itself in feel-good slogans with little regard to their achievability. As members know, I come from a political family. My father, Theo Theophanous, represented the Jika Jika Province, later the Northern Metropolitan Region, in the other place for 22 years. He served as a minister under the Kirner, Bracks and Brumby governments. Dad’s career instilled in me something of a love-hate relationship with politics. I have lived through its brutality, but I have also seen how difficult, how important and how rewarding it is when genuine reform is achieved. So it is disappointing to see divisive politics take the place of the harder path to achieving mutual understanding. It is disingenuous when political correctness usurps the role of true self-reflection and an honest analysis of our values, and it is disturbing that there are political groups that would rather weaponise disadvantage than dismantle it. In this climate it is easy to become cynical about politics. But I am not cynical, because I am part of a party that has always fought to make things fairer, not with symbolism but with real reform. In Victoria the Labor Party is at the cutting edge of the push to increase wages, protect jobs, make renting fairer and ease cost-of-living pressures. We are building an education system that looks at every stage of life, with universal three-year-old kinder and free TAFE giving thousands of families opportunities they never had before. We have made unprecedented investments into roads and transport, renewable energy, hospitals, schools and housing, in the process creating thousands of jobs and making Victoria’s economy the strongest in the nation. We are also at the forefront of social policy because we know that we want to live in a community based fundamentally on fairness and equality. In Australia, heartbreakingly, infuriatingly, one in three women have experienced physical violence and one woman a week is murdered. And for every name that we know there are many, many more that we do not, because the truth is that the majority of this violence does not happen on the street but in our homes at the hands of those closest to us. I spent three years working on family violence and gender equality reform under Minister Fiona Richardson, also a former member for Northcote. These years contributed to who I am today. Fiona’s resolve to reform the family violence sector has forever altered the responsibility that governments have to respond to these challenges. With equal parts ferocity and compassion she showed what can be accomplished when we are willing to confront this issue and make it our own, because violence against women does not happen in a vacuum. We know it is perpetuated by a culture of misogyny, and each of us has a responsibility to be part of the solution. Of course changing a culture of disrespect, changing attitudes and behaviours, must include tangible, structural equality. That means equal pay for equal work. It means equal representation in leadership positions. In this I commend the Premier for his leadership in delivering Victoria’s first gender-equal cabinet. It also means supporting women to get back to work after having children. It is certainly not lost on me that I stand here today in this Parliament giving this inaugural speech just weeks before I am due to give birth. I am proud to be part of a party that takes equality seriously, whether that be gender, religion, culture, sexuality, age or ability. But equality, like freedom, is not something gained and forgotten. So for my young daughter who is in the gallery today and my second daughter in here with me I pledge to keep fighting for you to grow up without fear, without doubt, in safety and equality. I am part of a generation who are deeply troubled by our environmental challenges. There is no doubt in my mind that we are facing a climate emergency and that the decisions we make today will shape the future we leave for our children and grandchildren. Just a few months ago school students around the country gathered en masse to urge our leaders to take action to protect our climate. We should heed their call. Labor’s renewable energy target is ambitious and realistic. Our investments into wind and solar are already working to transition us to a clean economy. But there is much more do to. Our forests and reserves, our unique plant and animal life, our waterways and our green spaces are assets that we cannot and should not take for granted. We have a moral responsibility to future generations to ensure not just that these are protected but that they thrive. Labor recognises that the interests of the environment and our working communities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably linked. We recognise that with the right policy mix we can put sustainability at the very heart of thriving economies. I believe that getting this balance right is absolutely crucial to the future of this state and that only Labor can prevent the pendulum swinging between corporate greed and heavy-handed idealism. Speaker, the journey into this chamber is never one trod alone. I have been blessed with wise mentors and faithful supporters whose encouragement, conviction and comedy continue to steady my course and reinforce my resolve. My eternal gratitude goes to the many tireless Labor believers in Northcote, to my trusted campaign committee and to all those who contributed to a hard-fought campaign because they believe in the future we are building together. Enduring admiration goes to my loyal and steadfast team: Jett Fogarty, Stavroula Collivas and Chris Owner. You are family to me now. For your fearless and unwavering vision, I thank you, Premier. For friendship, support and wise counsel, I thank Peter Khalil, the federal member for Wills, and Ged Kearney, the federal member for Cooper. To these I add many friends and now colleagues: the Treasurer, the Assistant Treasurer, Philip Dalidakis, the member for Yan Yean, Nazih Elasmar and Jenny Mikakos. I also acknowledge the work of my predecessor, Lidia Thorpe, in representing the Northcote community. There is of course little that can be achieved without the love and understanding of one’s family. My family is my rock. To my grandparents, thank you for being brave enough to dive into the unknown. To my extended family, thank you for your support, encouragement and love. To my brothers, Harry, Kyri and Matt, thank you for teaching me to be tough and for always being there when I need you. To Mum, thank you for being my moral compass and my inner strength. To Dad, you have always been my toughest challenger and my fiercest advocate. Thank you for showing me my possibilities but always insisting that I choose my own path. To my husband, Julian, every day I am blessed to have you by my side, Thank you for inspiring me to go beyond what I ever think is possible. To my daughter Ariana, you fill me with awe, happiness and gratitude every single day. I love you with all my heart. To your little sister, already so strong to be here sharing this moment with me, I cannot wait to meet you in a few weeks. Speaker, as I join this house, I do so with pride that I will be working with a Premier and a government that genuinely reflects my values. Only a brave, imaginative and compassionate government could have achieved what has been achieved over the last four years. Only a focused, determined and innovative one can lead us through the next four and beyond. I know we are that government. To all the people of Northcote and of our great state, Victoria, I pledge with a full heart and a clear mind to represent you with honesty, compassion and resolve. Thank you. Members applauded.