Standing up for Canberra

Address-in-Reply - Governor-General's Speech

I am absolutely delighted tonight to be able to speak on the address-in-reply and to use this opportunity to spend some time talking about my much-loved electorate of Canberra. It has often occurred to me that I might be the only member of parliament who can guarantee that every other member of parliament has visited their electorate. Of course, I am not just talking about a flying visit; Canberra is your home for around 20 weeks a year. If your parliamentary career is long, that might be 20 weeks a year for as many as 20 years.

One might assume therefore that Canberra is everyone's home away from home; that you all have strong connections with my electorate and know it well. Unfortunately, I do not think this is the case. I think that, for most MPs and senators, almost all of the time spent here in Canberra is spent within the confines of this very building. Understandably, you want to get home to your electorates as soon as possible; however, I believe that as a result you are missing out on a great opportunity to get to know this wonderful city.

In my first speech in this place I said that I hope that in my time here I might convince more Australians to be proud of our national capital. I stand by this statement. However, I would also like to add that, in particular, I would like to improve the relationship between our federal parliamentarians and Canberra. Today I would like to issue an open invitation to all members of parliament on all sides to spend some time outside of this building while you are here—and not just driving to and from your apartment and a few restaurants around the inner south. If you did, what you would find is an incredibly diverse city—something far from the dull, boring, monotonous, concrete jungle which is so often depicted.

You can visit the very south of my electorate—suburbs like Gordon, Banks and Condor—and you could come with me to the Lanyon Youth Centre, where the YWCA runs a wonderful range of services for the youth of the south of Tuggeranong. While Canberra has a reputation for being full of highly paid, highly educated public servants, there is enormous social isolation in the very south of Canberra. The Lanyon Youth Centre regularly takes teenagers on trips into Civic. For many of these teenagers—and I know this is an extraordinary story —this trip is the first time they have ever seen Lake Burley Griffin.

You could travel a little further up the electorate to the Tuggeranong Town Centre, where my electorate office is based. Like so many Canberra town centres, Tuggeranong is perched on a beautiful lake. I have often heard it called the 'Venice of the south'. Tuggeranong is home to several government agencies, including the Department of Human Services and the department formerly known as FaCHSIA, now the Department of Social Services. The small businesses of Tuggeranong, predominantly in the hospitality, retail and automotive sectors, rely on the patronage of these public servants to support their business. Every time public service jobs are lost from Tuggeranong, these businesses suffer. Right now there are reports that IT jobs at the Department of Human Services will be moved out of Canberra, and Tuggeranong businesses are bracing themselves for this.

Like Tuggeranong, Woden is a town centre that is home to Commonwealth public service agencies. The Department of Health, among others, is based here. The staff of the Department of Health work hard in vital areas such as preventative health, mental health reform, vaccinations and immunisations. However, Prime Minister Abbott has questioned the value of these staff because they do not—according to him —'run a single hospital or nursing home, dispense a single prescription or provide a single medical service'. But I know that those Australians who have benefitted from programs such as national mental health reform value these staff immensely.

To the west of my electorate is the beautiful Weston Creek, one of the original districts of the ACT. Many suburbs in Weston Creek were devastated by the bushfires in 2003. All four lives that were lost on that terrible day were from this area. Today, the suburbs of Weston Creek have been rebuilt and they are thriving. New suburbs, too, are being built just north of Weston Creek, in the Molonglo Valley. These new suburbs are at the foot of Mount Stromlo, on top of which is perched the beautiful Mount Stromlo Observatory. Also devastated by the 2003 fires, the observatory has been rebuilt and is now, once again, a thriving and world-leading hub of space and spatial innovation.

To the east of my electorate you will find the industrial suburbs of Hume and Fyshwick—both of which are home to a range of small businesses and local industries and defence industries as well. These are the suburbs where the innovation that is required to diversify the ACT's economy is occurring.

The suburbs that surround this building, the inner south, are probably more familiar to my colleagues. This is where many of you live for 20 weeks a year. Some of your neighbours here in the inner south include the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service—an Aboriginal community run primary healthcare facility that services not just the ACT but also much of New South Wales. Just down the road is the Narrabundah Ball Park—home to the Canberra Cavalry, the Canberra baseball team made up of part-timers and amateurs that recently beat the multimillion dollar teams of Japan and Korea to be crowned Asian Baseball Champions.

The diversity of Canberra—geographic, economic and social—was a part of Canberra's design. For the most part we have Sir Robert Menzies to thank for that. Menzies did not like Canberra very much at first, and who can blame him? At the time he moved here Canberra was referred to as 'a cemetery with lights', 'the ruin of a good sheep station' and 'six suburbs in search of a city'. Menzies said:

I cannot honestly say that I liked Canberra very much; it was to me a place of exile; but I soon began to realise that the decision had been taken, that Canberra was and would continue to be the capital of the nation, and that it was therefore imperative to make it a worthy capital; something that the Australian people would come to admire and respect; something that would be a focal point for national pride and sentiment. Once I had converted myself to this faith, I became an apostle.

And an apostle he was, as Prime Minister Menzies put his government to the task of creating a capital worthy of the nation and a city that was truly the seat of government. Menzies declared his intention to 'build up Canberra as a capital in the eyes and minds of the Australian people'.

The establishment by Menzies of the National Capital Development Commission in 1958 was key to this vision. The National Capital Development Commission identified four principal tasks in its first annual report. These were to: complete the establishment of Canberra as the seat of government; to further its development as the administrative centre by providing facilities to permit further transfer of public servants from Melbourne—and those final public servants were not transferred from Melbourne to Canberra until 1990; to give Canberra an atmosphere and individuality worthy of the national capital; and to further the growth of the city as a place in which to live in comfort and dignity.

The commission adopted what was known a 'Y-plan' for decentralised development, or what we now call the satellite city concept, and built four new towns called Woden-Weston Creek, Belconnen, Tuggeranong and Gungahlin. Each of these parts of Canberra is as important as the next. Each of these town centres must prosper in order for Canberra as a whole to prosper. They must be properly supported through investment, through infrastructure, through population and—most importantly—through jobs.

Over the last year, most times that I have stood in this chamber to speak about my electorate, I have spoken about my fears for Canberra, my concern about Canberra's future. Today is no exception. The prosperity of Canberra, the ACT and the capital region is inextricably linked with the Commonwealth Public Service. While the proportion of Canberrans directly employed by the Commonwealth Public Service has decreased over time, it is still our largest employer. We must also remember that many Canberra small businesses, sole traders, micro-businesses, and even large businesses, rely on the federal government as a major client. So, when a government comes to power with a promise to substantially cut the Public Service, as the Abbott government has done, it must be aware that it is jeopardising the economy of the entire ACT and surrounding New South Wales.

Here we can learn an important lesson from our past. In 1996 John Howard was elected promising to cut 2½ thousand Public Service jobs. That ended up being over 30,000 Public Service jobs nationally and more than 15,000 here in Canberra. The impact on the Canberra economy was devastating. Fifteen thousand people out of work meant 15,000 people no longer patronising Canberra's small businesses, buying their products and using their services. Business bankruptcies in Canberra increased by 38.4 per cent in the 1996-97 financial year. Non-business bankruptcies also jumped sharply in 1995-96, by 38 per cent, and again in 1996-97, by 17 per cent.

The flow-on effects for Canberra's housing market were equally devastating. Between March 1995 and March 1998 the median house price in Australian capital cities grew by $22,950, or 17 per cent, and the median across the whole of Australia by $19,240, or 15 per cent. However, in Canberra the median house price fell by $5,750, or four per cent. In terms of the price index for established homes, over the same period Canberra's index fell by 3.7 points, in comparison to an increase of 11 points in the weighted average of Australian capital cities. Effectively $25,000 was slashed from the average Canberra house price. On 31 May last year the member for North Sydney made a joke on morning TV. He said, 'There is a golden rule for real estate in Canberra: you buy Liberal and you sell Labor.' He then proceeded to laugh wholeheartedly. I for one do not think the financial hardship of Canberrans is a laughing matter.

The reason I remember the coalition government job cuts of 1996 so clearly is that I was one of the 30,000 public servants to lose my job. In 1996 I was working at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. Three months into a three-year posting I was called in to the high commissioner's office. The then high commissioner, Darren Gribble, is a friend and a man who always gets straight to the point. 'You've been sacked,' he said. I was shattered, and I was not the only one. It was a message that was being delivered around the world that day to 50 of my colleagues, as the entire public affairs division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was given its marching orders.

At the turn of 1997 I returned to a city that was devastated. In 1996 Canberrans learnt what can happen to this city when there is a government with no regard for our national capital, no understanding of the relationship between the Commonwealth Public Service and the economy of the ACT and region, and no appreciation for what public servants do. These are servants of democracy. They perform incredibly important jobs for the benefit of the nation. Every single public servant I have ever met is incredibly altruistic. They joined because they wanted to serve their country, and this government has little or no regard for that service and the job of a public servant.

The Abbott government was elected promising to cut at least 14,000 Commonwealth Public Service jobs 'as a starting point', to quote the Treasurer. It also promised to move thousands more Public Service jobs out of Canberra. At various points in the leadup to the election, the then opposition promised to move government agencies out of Canberra to places including Tasmania, Geelong, the Central Coast and various northern Australian cities, like Karratha, Darwin and Cairns.

As I have already stated, it was the vision of none other than Sir Robert Menzies to 'build up Canberra as a capital in the eyes and minds of the Australian people'—and so he did. Menzies created a capital worthy of this nation, and now the party he led is seeking to destroy that vision. The truth is that over 60 per cent of the Commonwealth Public Service is already located outside of Canberra, and moving more Public Service jobs out of this town will only destroy it. Canberrans young and old are now waiting with bated breath and a large degree of fear. We are waiting for the Commission of Audit to report. We are waiting for the May budget. We are waiting to see how our city will fare.

There is so much to value about this city. I wish those opposite could see that. Last year, as you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, Canberra celebrated its centenary—100 years since Lady Denman, wife of the then Governor-General, Lord Denman, announced that the name of the new Australian capital would be Canberra. And what a celebration it was. The centenary celebrations highlighted the diversity and creativity of the people and industries in Canberra and the region as well as the significant and ongoing contribution that Canberra makes to the nation. Last year we saw Canberra at its best, from the Canberra Day celebrations in March, which included a symphony and a ballet commissioned especially for Canberra, and the world's longest champagne bar, to the international sporting events that were held in Canberra for the very first time.

Through the celebrations, we learnt more about the communities we are connected with in the MurrayDarling Basin, through the One River project; we saw the best theatre Australia has to offer, through the Canberra Theatre's special centenary season; we recognised the importance of the ACT's unique villages, through Unmade Edges; and we opened previously inaccessible parts of the ACT, with the Centenary Trail. We learnt more about our history, and we thought more about our future. The program of centenary celebrations was outstanding, and if I were to detail my own highlights we would be here for hours. The centenary has enabled Canberrans to celebrate what they love about this city. I hope that it has also enabled Australians outside of Canberra —including those opposite—to think of their national capital in a new light, to think of Canberra not just as the home of parliament but as a thriving, diverse and special place.

I would like to take this opportunity formally to acknowledge the work of the Centenary of Canberra unit, especially of Creative Director Robyn Archer, and the ACT government for their vision and their tireless work and dedication in making last year's celebrations truly wonderful. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the Canberra area, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. While we celebrate 100 years of Canberra as the national capital, it is important to remember that their connection with this land is measured not in hundreds of years but in tens of thousands of years, and that their role as owners and custodians of this land is as important today as it was thousands of years ago and will be in the future.

The most important thing I want to do today is to thank the people of Canberra for re-electing me to serve as their representative in this place for a second term. It is a truly great honour to stand here representing the wonderful people of Canberra—the public servants, military and civilian defence personnel, the small business people, the teachers, the students, the scientists, the carers, the community workers and the tradies.

This morning a group of students from Canberra Grammar School visited Parliament House and one student asked me what I thought I could do or wanted to achieve in opposition. My answer was simple: to hold the government to account and to protect Canberra. This is my promise to Canberrans. If I can do only one thing in this term, it will be to do everything in my power to protect our beloved city, to protect our schools, to protect our health care, to protect our jobs and to protect our community. You know, Canberra, I will advocate for you, you know I will promote you and protect you, and seek to protect you, and you know I will fight for you.

Finally—because this speech is formally a reply to the words of Her Excellency the Governor-General in opening the 44th Parliament—I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the GovernorGeneral, Her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Bryce, AC, CVO. I had the great honour yesterday to attend a farewell lunch for the Governor-General at Government House. I also had the honour to attend the presentation of the posthumous VC to the parents of the late Corporal Baird on Wednesday. It was a very moving service. So in the course of one week I have attended two extraordinary events, both held with great dignity by the Governor-General. Yesterday was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what an excellent role model the Governor-General has been, not only as Governor-General but throughout her life. She has spent a lifetime breaking glass ceilings, she has been a pioneer for women and an eternal advocate for those less fortunate.

I know the Governor-General is much loved by the Canberra community. I have seen her at a number of events, including when she opened the new Canberra Rape Crisis Centre in Weston. At that event, she recounted the stories of when she was setting up women's refuges and rape crisis centres in the 1970s and how she managed to perform miracles on the smell of an oily rag. Her commitment to women's rights, women's health and women's wellbeing was particularly prevalent in the speech she made that day. The Governor-General is also very active in providing housing for less fortunate women.

On behalf of Canberrans, I want to say that it has been our absolute honour to have her as a resident of this city for the last five years. I think she has enjoyed her time here. Yesterday, she spoke about Canberrans in very fond terms—about the gardens at Government House, about the animals at Government House and about the infamous noisy cockatoos. She will be very much missed by Canberra. We look forward to seeing her and to welcoming her back to this city. She will forever be an honorary Canberran.

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