Meryl Swanson MP: First Speech

Today I hold this miner’s lamp as a symbol of my heritage, my beliefs and my aspirations in this place.

The miner’s lamp was invented in 1815 by Cornish chemist Sir Humphry Davy, who refused a patented, saying his sole objective was to serve the cause of humanity. The Davy lamp lit the way for underground miners, making their incredibly dangerous work at least some small degree safer. 

This particular lamp was given to me in 1985 by British Alcan Lynemouth Limited at the end of a six-week stay in north-east England that changed my life. As a 14-year-old girl from Heddon Greta I was awarded a scholarship by Cessnock City Council and Alcan, which ran the local Kurri Kurri aluminium smelter, to travel across the world to Longhirst, where I experienced firsthand the history and culture of northern England.

I attended school there and made friends, but times were tough. Margaret Thatcher had been at war with the miners and there was great hardship for families, whose struggle was real and at times bloody. That time cemented in me a sense of justice and loyalty for working people who would not be taken for granted.

The Geordies reminded me so much of my family. I am the product of two of the most decent and generous people I know. Arthur Stephen Partridge and Doris Joy Partridge, nee Beavis, known as Ben and Joy, have been married for 65 years. It is their hard work, love and guidance that has spirited me to this place.

I am the daughter of a coalminer and a woman who, despite towering intellect, stayed at home to raise her three daughters: Adele, Lynne and me. My parents were babies of the Great Depression—mum, the eldest of six; dad, the second of five. Times were tough and my grandmother's health meant that dad, at the tender age of 10, was sent to live with his grandparents, who were sharefarmers at Wallalong. It was there, on horseback, that my dad met my mother. Her parents worked a dairy farm.

My maternal grandfather, Allan Beavis, had won a bursary as a young man, but the family could not afford the luxury of allowing him to go off and study, so he went to work as a delivery boy. Like so many men of his generation, he was later forced to leave the farm and take up work at BHP, when the hearths were open and the work was hard and hot. When the family moved to the Newcastle suburb of Lambton they took a Jersey house cow with them so that they would never be without milk. It was this grandfather, who died when I was just 10, who first ignited the political fire in my belly. I would sit with him and listen intently to parliament on the radio—or the wireless, as he liked to call it. He believed that to be a parliamentarian was an honourable thing but that it was beholden on all politicians to make intelligent decisions. He had a fair dash of cynicism too, but it was his sense of equity and justice, his respect for the political process, that I remember most.

I am from a political family, not so much as members of a party or elected representatives but as people whose lived experiences instilled in them strong beliefs and shaped strong opinions. These opinions were—and still are, frankly—shared willingly and loudly around the dinner table and pepper nearly every Christmas.

At the University of Newcastle I studied communications and was lucky enough to get a start in local TV and radio before going to work as a staffer for Joel Fitzgibbon, then a relative newcomer to parliament. But he too was of sound political stock. This time was exciting, educational and inspirational. It crystallised in me a desire to enter politics, but I recognised the value of broad work and life experience and left Joel's office to pursue it. Both Joel and I believed I would be back, and I am incredibly honoured to be back here in the position as member for Paterson. Joel is still my mentor. I have taken up politics, and he has taken up my lifelong sport of golf. In fact, golf and politics have much in common: etiquette, rules, practice, patients, skill, knowing when to take a risk and when to play the percentages, but most importantly persistence. We both knew the other would eventually see the light. I am delighted that our seats sit side by side in the magnificent, hardworking Hunter region.

My electorate of Paterson in the NSW Lower Hunter Valley is rich in resources and rich in history. Our first peoples are the Worimi on the coast, the Wonnarua further inland and the Awabakal to the south. Indeed, I was delighted to have Worimi man Justin Ridgeway perform the welcome to country and smoking ceremony to officially open my electorate office in Raymond Terrace. I appreciated Justin's welcome to his traditional lands and his efforts, in his words, to 'ward off the evil spirits'. As the smoke wafted over me I was truly moved by the symbolism and steeled by the gaping need for us to embrace our Indigenous culture. Here in this place we have an obligation to all people, including our first, and I recognise the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples. The cleansing was deeply symbolic, flushing out the old and giving way to the new. It is a new beginning and full of hope—for me personally but more broadly for the people of our electorate.

Paterson people are decent and hardworking. They look after each other. The electorate stretches from Neath to Nelson Bay, taking in the centres of Kurri Kurri, Maitland, Raymond Terrace and Port Stephens. The old mining town of Kurri Kurri is my place of birth. Its name comes from the Awabakal word meaning 'the very first', as it was the first planned town in Australia and is now home to some incredible murals. Take a trip if you have ever got the time. The city of Maitland is an agricultural heartland. The old-timers used to say that the rich, black soil of Maitland would grow babies, and it seems it does: Maitland is now one of the fasted growing residential areas in the state. The historic town of Raymond Terrace, the geographical centre of my electorate, is where my office is located and where the mighty Hunter River meets the Williams. There are the fishing and leisure spots and retirement havens of Nelson Bay and the Tilligerry and Tomaree peninsulas. Every single time I drive to the bay I get that excited feeling I first had as a small girl going there on holiday and, like many, I dream of a retirement there—but not before the work is done.

We are blessed with beautiful natural resources, close proximity to the bigger centres of Newcastle and Sydney, and an expanding airport, with excellent health, education and sporting facilities and a working RAAF base that will soon be the home of the Joint Strike Fighters. While coal is still a vital source of employment, we are a region in transition. Just as nearby Newcastle has blossomed beyond steel, the Hunter will transition from coal to newer, cleaner industrial bases. Already on the horizon are renewable energies coming from the work of the CSIRO; automated vehicles, robotics and leading environmental ideas from the University of Newcastle; and the world-renowned health and research breakthroughs through the work of the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

But it is not all rosy. A much less enviable feature of the region is our high youth unemployment. In July, youth unemployment in my region was running at 15.3 per cent, but it has been as high as 21 per cent. That is double what it was three years ago. What has happened to our youth workforce? What has happened to the opportunities for our young people? Well, there has been a downturn in mining and in manufacturing, and we have lost thousands of apprenticeships. The Abbott-Turnbull government has cut off vocational education and training and partnership programs that helped young people into work. Our young people are missing out. Every young person deserves the right to get out of bed with a purpose: to fulfil their potential. This is not just an idealised romantic notion. We need people, especially our young, to be participating, to be working and to be continuing and growing our skill base. This requires excellence in education, skills based training, real experience and the genuine opportunity to work. I will work with young people in my electorate, with employers, with education and service providers and here with you all in this place to ensure we make the most of every single opportunity for every single young person that we have.

Alongside our tangible transition from mining is our less tangible transition to the digital age. Good internet access is no longer a luxury but a necessity of modern living—for work, education, government services, health, business, family and, dare I say it, even to find love. But, sadly, the Hunter's internet access leaves a lot to be desired. Love has gone lacking, I am sure. We are on the wrong side of what has been dubbed the 'digital divide'. While cities enjoy good internet and affordability, rural and regional areas rate very poorly in terms of digital inclusion. This is a national index that measures the quality and affordability of internet access and the ability to participate in the digital world. This year, aside from the remote Aboriginal communities that were not surveyed, the Hunter scored the lowest digital inclusion index in the country. I still cannot get over that. We have the triple whammy: low incomes, high unemployment and an ageing population. All of these affect our digital ability.

However, the buck stops with the NBN. Malcolm Turnbull's second-rate National Broadband Network infrastructure, and rollout, have been nothing short of disastrous. For many it's the digital Dark Age.

My electorate office, like so many in regional and rural areas, is inundated with complaints—from businesses and residents who cannot connect to the internet in a useful way, or who cannot connect at all.

There is no real acknowledgement of the problems, and, importantly, of the cost. It is appalling that where you live affects the quality of your digital experience and your life. The internet is now the workplace, the market place, the railway line, and the Friday night dance. It is vital to our lives. This is a message that has to get through and I will keep banging the drum—talk about relying on old technology.

Of course, I do not do my job alone. Like everyone in this place, there are a legion of people who made it possible for me to be elected, and a solid team who support me each and every day.

First, I acknowledge and thank the secretaries and branch members of the Labor Party in the Paterson electorate. And I particularly thank those who could make it down to Canberra today, and especially Robert Aitchison for organising the trip and driving the bus. I really do appreciate your support.

I thank my campaign team Darren Rodrigo, Ned Barsi, Emily Baldwin, Alex Smith, Mick Curley, Brent Nolan, Loretta Baker, Gena Parker, Jim and Lois Morrison, John Leao, Barbara Heaton, Ian Hunt, Bill Kerridge, and Alan, Glenys and Darrin Grey.

I thank the hardworking and committed unions: the CFMEU; the AWU; the SDA; the MUA and their indomitable Vets; the RTBU; the HSU; the Meatworkers Union; the Maitland Community Unions; and the Hunter Workers and Trades Hall. Without their contribution, their commitment, their doggedness and their drive, Labor would not solidly hold the seat of Paterson.

I thank, especially, our Leader Bill Shorten, who shared an eventful day with me during the campaign on the roadside at Testers Hollow, offered constant words of wisdom and support throughout the campaign, encouraged me during my first contribution in caucus, and generously travelled to Raymond Terrace to officially open my electorate office. We've shared a lot in the short time we have known each other.

Bill, I'm proud and honoured to be part of your team and pleased to take my place with such a talented group of people in the 45th Parliament, among my new friends here in Sector 12, especially with my new mate Milton Dick, the Member for Oxley.

I thank our Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, for her warm welcome to Parliament and for making me feel at home.

I thank my Party colleagues, in particular Stephen Conroy, Ed Husic, Gai Brodtmann, Sharon Bird, Anthony Albanese and Stephen Jones, for their support during the campaign and their ongoing visits and friendship. I thank Chris Bowen—who hosted my very first fundraising dinner. I discovered that night that Chris doesn't eat sweets and that he enjoys running—two behaviours I should probably emulate. Chris will potentially shape me, and I hope to shape some of his thinking too!

I thank the assistant general secretary of New South Wales Labor, Pat Garcia, for his excellent campaigning and organisational ability. I thank my Hunter colleagues Sharon Claydon, Pat Conroy, Kate Washington, Jenny Aitchison, Tim Crakanthorp, Clayton Barr, Sonia Hornery, Jodie Harrison and Yasmin Catley and, of course, my friend and mentor, the member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon.

I thank also for their support the former member for Port Stephens, Bob Martin, and, of course, the former member for Paterson, Bob Horne, who was my high school science teacher way back when, and remains a friend and a fellow gardening enthusiast. And I acknowledge the former member for Paterson, Bob Baldwin, for his work for our community over many years.

I thank my electorate staff—David Ewings, Josephine Hillard, Giacomo Arnott, Alysson Watson, who helped craft this speech, and Kim Pagan, who watches over all of us.

I consider that my first great achievement in office was to pull together such a 'crack' team, who do their utmost to support my work and help our constituents.

My friend Belinda Blain is here today with her husband Michael; we have known each other since we were in Year 3. They both helped me on the campaign. Election day was their 24th wedding anniversary and today is Michael's 46th birthday. Talk about true friendship and commitment! Belinda is a talented teacher. In her first appointment at Narrabri, she talked about a girl who was outspoken, passionate and political, and who reminded her of me at the same age.

After my preselection, Belinda said, 'Have you met Kaila Murnain?' That outspoken, passionate and political girl was taught by my girlfriend and she is now the General Secretary of New South Wales Labor. I had not just met Kaila, but had been guided by her during my entry into politics. Kaila, that I can now be compared to you, a generous and intelligent woman who puts the cause before her own ambition, is truly an honour.

I also thank from the bottom of my heart, the loves of my life: my incredibly supportive, selfless and generous husband Nick, with whom I have laughed at life and had the occasional tear over the last 20 years. We have created our beautiful daughters Lara and Adelaide, who are here today and who are also growing into outspoken, passionate and political young women.

My fellow members, you may think your lives are very busy, but I have to say no-one is as busy as a 12¾ year old with a mare about to foal and several other horses needing to be fed, watered and ridden every day—and through the winter it is freezing—and a 17 year old who tomorrow will be inducted as a prefect at her school. She will start year 12 and brand new P plates, too! Well done, Lara. Thanks for squeezing me into your busy lives, my darlings, and keeping your father on track while I'm in Canberra.

Finally, I come back to where I started. I thank my mum and dad, Ben and Joy, for simply being who you are. My sister Adele is here today with her husband Kevin; their love and support is second to none. Even though there is 18 years between us, we could not be closer. My other sister Lynne cannot be here but I thank her husband Kevin for making the trip. Thanks, too, to my dear friend Sue O'Brien, who has known and cared for me for my entire life. She is here.

Mum is now a rock to us all. Dad is bravely facing the late and ravaging stages of mesothelioma and being cared for by my sister Lynne. He was an underground miner, and exposure to asbestos has all but destroyed his lungs. Having witnessed his rapid decline in the past six months makes me steadfast in my belief in good regulation and good governance. We thought asbestos was safe. We did not know the whole story. Where we can, we should always attempt to right the wrong.

It is with dad's failing health in the forefront of my mind that I raised the issue of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFOS, PFOA and, more recently, PFAS. Arising as a legacy of firefighting foam, PFAS is found to have contaminated land and water on and around defence bases and other sites in Australia and at sites throughout the world. PFAS is described as an emerging contaminant, the fuller impact of which is really yet to be known. The United Nations Stockholm Convention Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee has just recently recognised its toxicity to humans. In Australia we now have regulations against its use, but in Williamtown in my electorate, in Oakey in Queensland and potentially at another 16 sites across Australia the damage is already done. In Williamtown the contamination of land and water on and surrounding the base has been there since the 1970s. PFAS has been found in soil, in groundwater, in seafood, in cattle, in cow's milk, in backyards, in chickens and their eggs, in home-grown vegetables and fruit, and in the blood of people who have been exposed to it over years while living their semirural and what they thought were idyllic lifestyles on small acreages around the Williamtown base.

Fishers were forced to stop fishing. Banks decided to stop lending. Valuers will not set foot on contaminated land. Property values have plummeted. People are worried sick and they are stuck. Although PFAS is no longer in use, it is still leaching off the base. The pollution has not even been stopped. The speed of Defence's response in our community has been glacial, to say the best.

This government must stand by the Williamtown community, who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in an impossible situation. Their properties are no longer fit for purpose—they are devalued and potentially worthless. Their soil and water is contaminated, their health potentially compromised, their lives destroyed, their anxieties heightened, and their trust and faith in all of us low. The PFAS contamination must be stopped, land and soil remediated, and people who want out must be able to go. Governments cannot be allowed to poison our environment and our people. Governments cannot be allowed to walk away. It is time for this government to put things right.

I am fighting for justice and proper recompense for my community. This issue is fresh and real in my mind and my heart. We have made mistakes with tobacco, asbestos and coal dust in the past. We sat idly by thinking everything would be okay. We cannot afford to do that with PFAS. My father's illness is a stark reminder that illness and death and government inaction affect real people who live and love and die. They have families who live with them, who love them, who watch and care for them as they die, as my family is doing with my father now. I will not sit idly by.

Talkback radio taught me a lot of things: to be a good talker and a good listener, and to go in to bat for people in need. It gave me a chance to talk to many and varied people, from the elderly man who had not spoken to anyone all week; to the young boy who hoped one day to be Prime Minister; to the great mind that is Barry Jones. What do you ask a Pick a Box champion and great Labor man? I asked him, 'What is the meaning of life?' He was stumped. He said, 'Well, Meryl, the meaning of life, apart from reproducing, is to make a contribution—to help us evolve through education and experience, to make the world a better place for those coming after us.'

In my mind, politics is one way of doing that. At this time we are called to make difficult decisions, akin to the reformist decisions made by the former great Labor prime ministers Hawke and Keating, just to mention two. That era was truly transformative, particularly to this young woman studying economics.

We need to lead now as we led then. I am pleased to belong to a party that wants to lead the way but, more importantly, to take people with it. It is my firm belief that Australians are essentially decent and fair people. They are not stupid and they do not like being taken for granted. When you present a challenging idea people will come around if your case is good enough and you explain it well enough. And so is the case with our budget and economy.

Government is not business. The Turnbull government talks a lot about debt and deficit, and while I do believe we need fiscal rigour, we also need investment. I agree wholeheartedly with the comment by Reserve Bank governor, Dr Philip Lowe, who, in his first appearance before the House Standing Committee on Economics, said that another option for government is to use low interest rates to increase spending. He said: “My own view is that many of our cities could do with better transportation infrastructure. Sydney is amongst those.I would go further and say that our regions need it as much as anywhere and that good infrastructure is needed between our cities and our regions. We must all be connected by infrastructure that is both tangible and intangible—trains and terabytes.

Leadership is not always about agreement, and sometimes I think that as politicians we are too worried about saying the things we think the public want to hear rather than saying the things that need to be said. From time to time we have to grasp the nettle. We can take people on a journey if we show leadership, if we support research and development and champion the ideas that will take us forward, contribute to our betterment and help us evolve. This is what we are here to do. This is good government.

And so in closing I return to my lamp. I hope to light the way for others so that their journey in the dark is a little safer and perhaps even a little less lonely. I hope to be a practical and useful member of this place and to shed light on the issues that I believe need illumination. And I hope that the light that shines within me will contribute to the eternal light on the hill, that collective ideal that together we are stronger. We are part of a great place and, together, with courage, insight and intelligence, with hard work and decency, we can serve the cause of humanity.

Thank you.

ENDS

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.