Inaugural Speech

14 September 2016

I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples and I thank them and acknowledge their elders past and present. I would also like to acknowledge the Dharawal people of my own electorate and the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation and thank them for their support and encouragement throughout the election campaign. I would also like to acknowledge our Aboriginal colleagues; Senator Pat Dodson, Senator Jacqui Lambie, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Mr Ken Wyatt and the Hon Linda Burney. It is an historic time that we welcome so many indigenous members of parliament and we can all tackle the large discrepancies in indigenous health, incarceration rates, child removal and workforce participation which have been a national shame for too long.

 When it was suggested I stand for pre-selection for the Labor party for Macarthur I was greatly honoured. Subsequently to win the election by such a significant margin was very humbling but I do feel a great weight of expectation upon my shoulders and will do my best to fulfil those expectations. I would like to thank the previous member Russell Matheson for his efforts and his good wishes after the election. He is a decent man and I wish him and his family well for the future. It is with great pride that I hold the seat previously held by the Hon John Kerin during the time of the Whitlam Labor Government and later as member for Werriwa and a Minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. I would also like to acknowledge previous Labor members Colin Hollis, Stephen Martin and Chris Haviland.

The seat of Macarthur is one of the most rapidly growing in Australia, It was originally a farming area, the original “Cowpastures” now named after John and Elizabeth Macarthur the founders of the Australian Merino wool industry, their descendants still live in the area. Macarthur has rapidly become urbanised and its population of 150,000 is increasing every day. Macarthur embraces many suburbs including old areas of Campbelltown, Ingleburn and Minto and new areas of Harrington Park, Oran Park, Gregory Hills and Currans Hill. There is great diversity in Macarthur. There are large areas of public housing but significant areas with house prices well over 1 million dollars. Whilst the demographics are changing, the area is predominantly one of young families looking to the future with optimism. It has been my great privilege to care for the children of Macarthur for over 30 years as a paediatrician.

The story of Macarthur is the story of its people and the enormous resource they are.

Macarthur has many areas of disadvantage but also areas of great affluence. It has many people prominent in the arts, music and academia. It has prominent business people as well as many high profile sports people. It has a strong, well-educated workforce with a significant manufacturing base even now.

I intend to make sure we foster local jobs so that people can work locally. I have promised to try and improve our local infrastructure to make the quality of life better for residents. This means making sure that all three levels of government and business work together to provide improvements in public transport, schools, roads, hospitals, industry and social policy so that everyone can feel included. I know that with cooperation at all levels we can make a big difference to how people feel about and look to the future. We can make substantial differences to people’s lives. We are all in this together and inclusion is the only approach that works, everyone should be supported.  As best as we can manage, it’s about taking luck out of the equation.

I am a very lucky man. I have had a privileged life. I am the eldest of four children, my father Selwyn was a dentist and President of the west harbour rugby union club for many years. My mother Ruth was a preschool teacher. My extended family is mostly professional and one of the oldest Jewish families in Australia. My siblings Greg, Andrew and Lynn have been very supportive and I thank them for their support and encouragement. I’m proud that my great great grandfather Abraham Rheuben came here as a convict age 16 and helped build the first permanent synagogue in Australia that still stands today in Hobart. He became an Alderman and successful businessman. It was said of him that he always reached out into the darkness to help those less fortunate than himself. He believed in paying his employees a wage sufficient for them to support their families. He also supported his employees when they became unwell and the families whose bread winner had died. My great grandmother Jenny Scott Griffiths was a mother of 10, a prominent ALP leader, feminist, pacifist and editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly during the First World War. She was sacked from her role as editor for her anti-conscription views. She was quoted as saying “the world would be a better place if men stayed in the kitchen doing the cooking and cleaning and women ran the businesses” which is probably still true today.

My paternal grandfather came to Australia as a cabin boy on a ship at age 13, jumped ship in Sydney, hid from the authorities and later educated himself. He became a successful businessman and Mayor of Katoomba: like the first settlers, yet another boat person who made good.. His wife my grandmother Ruby Greenburg died at the birth of my father Selwyn and my father who I loved dearly was forever regretful that he had never met or known his mother.

My outlook on life has been shaped by my history and by luck, while I have lived a fortunate life others have not.

I trained as a paediatrician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children Camperdown, Sydney. I am the first paediatrician to be elected to federal parliament. I have had wonderful mentors, early in my career Dr John Davis, always known as Tubby Davis encouraged me to be a paediatrician and supported my training. Dr Arnold Tink mentored me at the children’s hospital and supported me in some very stressful times during my fellowship. Sadly both men are no longer with us but they were both wonderful role models and I owe much of my achievements to their guidance. In my paediatric career in Macarthur I could not have had better colleagues than Prof John Whitehall, Prof Matt Edwards, Dr Rick Dunstan, Dr Geoff Bent, Dr Caroline Cottier, Dr Katherine Allgood, DR Sethi Ung, Dr Raymond Chin, Dr Kim Leung, Dr Bijenda Gautam and Sister Amanda Ramsay. Especially I would like to thank my very good friends Drs Andrew and Jenny McDonald who have been constant supports and very wise councils over many years.

I have always been encouraged by my patients and their families. I have seen children with many problems, serious illness and death. I have witnessed the illnesses and heartbreaking sorrow that they have faced with bravery, candour and strength, and I marvel at the ability of children and their parents and extended families to deal with situations that would test us all.

I know the joy that can come from what to most of us are little victories; the autistic boy who at age 12 says I love you mum for the first time, the intellectually handicapped girl who is finally toilet trained at age 10 after many years of trying, the 4 year old boy with cerebral Palsy who is able to swallow solids for the first time. Seeing those victories means so much to me. I am part of their journey and it has been and continues to be a great privilege. I have cherished every child I have seen and it was a great pleasure to knock on doors during the election campaign and see some of the people I have cared for, now grown up with families of their own.

Increasingly it has become apparent to me there are large inequalities in healthcare though not necessarily at first sight related to health issues. Sir Michael Marmot, in Australia to deliver the Boyer lectures, talks about the social determinants of health and demonstrates that health inequalities arise from inequalities in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. They’re related to inequities in power, money and resources. It was Martin Luther King who said that the most severe type of discrimination is discrimination in health care. These issues have become increasingly apparent to me over the 36 years I have spent caring for children and families. These are issues I call access issues; access to healthcare, access to work, access to housing and access to education. I’m old enough to have seen the tremendous burden healthcare costs caused families before the implementation of a universal health care system.  Medibank - as it was first called - only became a reality after a double dissolution election forced on the Whitlam Government and the subsequent Parliamentary Joint Sitting. Even then, the Fraser Government sought to emasculate the core principle of universality only for it to be restored by the Hawke Labor Government in 1984. Medicare was the Australian Labor Party’s great gift to the Australian people and it is a gift that we intend to see keeps on giving. . It has been under siege many times in the last 40 years by reactionary forces and vested interests. Labor has constantly fought to protect it, especially bulk billing. We do need to adapt and refine Medicare as our world changes, but we must maintain a universal healthcare system and make sure that all Australians have access to the best healthcare. There have been remarkable advances in healthcare in the last few years, and we will continue to advance. Such things as whole genome sequencing, looking at the genetic basis of disease, pharmacogenetics looking at individual pharmacological treatments, robotic surgery and endoscopic surgery have caused dramatic improvements in care and we must make sure that we maintain equality of access to these evolving technologies.

I have always tried to do my best to support the children and the families I have seen both emotionally and socially as well as medically. I have tried to get them through what are sometimes traumatic and stressful periods. I have always made myself available to them, however for some time I have been concerned about access difficulties for my patients, particularly those with disabilities. Recently I saw a family of five children who I have known for many years, one of the younger children was born with multiple congenital abnormalities and is quite disabled. We had just managed to get some school support in place for her at her local school, when the family came to see me on an urgent basis, because unfortunately the house they were living which they were renting had been sold and they were going to be forced to move. They did not feel they would be able to rent affordably in the local area and they felt they will never be able to afford to buy a house. They will have to move to another area and we would have to start the process of organising school support again, as well as medical supports. This was going to make things very difficult for them.

This was an area that related to the non-medical difficulties such as housing affordability and having access to stable housing that makes ongoing care very difficult. A permanent place of residence is very important, particularly if your child has a disability requiring physical supports, educational supports and health supports. I have also seen an increasing number of children recently, whose families feel they have been excluded from specialist healthcare such as Ear, Nose and Throat surgery, eye surgery, paediatric surgery and mental health support. Some families feel the gap cost is so much that they cannot afford to access this specialty care as very few specialists bulk bill. This is not the Australia that I want. The WHO tells us that our healthcare costs are not unaffordable. We spend about 9 ½ - 10% of our GDP on healthcare.  In some developed countries such as the United States, health care costs can be up to 17 percent of GDP and often their care is more problematic than available in Australia

According to the latest accurate census data there are significant and increasing wealth discrepancies in Australia. For example, the wealthiest 20% of Australian households controlled 60% of total household net worth in 2013/14, while the bottom 20% controlled only 1% of household net worth. 

The proportion of Australian households owning or paying off a house is steadily decreasing, and I believe it is only the Labor Party with its policies of social justice including equality in healthcare, equality in education and social policy that can provide a framework of equity and equality for all Australian families.

That is why I am here today. Labor’s economic policies such as the reform of negative gearing and capital gains tax, as well as changes to the superannuation system, are necessary if we are to have a fairer country and restore the capacity of the Commonwealth to provide new programs and initiatives. My overwhelming belief is that we are all in this together and we should judge a society by how it treats its most disadvantaged and most powerless. Supporting these people is something that is a responsibility of us all, for example a proper roll out of the NDIS will make an enormous difference to these children and to these families and I am determined to see the NDIS be rolled-out as soon as possible and as effectively as possible. It is extremely gratifying to know that the NDIS has bi-partisan support, but the roll-out has been slow and some severely handicapped people are struggling to access care.

There are some issues that we also need to address that are long overdue. I am a 63 year old conservative middle class doctor, society has changed a lot in my time. I was born and I grew up in a different era, however there are some issues that we must act on now; my position on Australia’s refugee policy is well known. We must also act on marriage equality, this is a human rights issue and as elected representatives we must vote for marriage equality. The plebiscite is a divisive, non-binding and expensive side show. I have been very happily married for 36 years and would not deny that right to anyone. I also want the children of same sex couples that I see to have the same un-contestable rights as my children and grandchildren. We also must have constitutional recognition of our indigenous people, it’s long overdue and will partially redress some of the wrongs of the past. Many people in our nation remain ignorant of the entrenched disparities and mistreatment of  indigenous Australians. I can recall as a teenager, thinking it both wrong and simply downright odd that Aboriginal people had only just been given full voting rights and that as late as 1967 the Federal Parliament was still prohibited from making laws to advance their welfare and protect their interests. Fifty years from now, my own grandchildren may well look back and wonder how it could possibly be that for close to 120 years, the Australian Constitution – our national compact – did not fully recognise our country’s first inhabitants. History is tough judge – particularly of those who oppose change for no good reason or, worse still, out of ignorance, fear or prejudice. We must not ignore this part of our past and present any longer. We must act for the future and recognise the original owners of this country.  I also believe in order to move forward we must become a Republic.

I have come some distance over time and I have many people to thank, my parents are no longer with us but I loved them dearly and I think they would be proud of me, although I think my father would have probably been prouder if I had played for the Wallabies. I thank my State colleagues, Greg Warren the Member for Campbelltown, Anoulack Chanthivong the Member for Macquarie Fields and my federal colleagues Chris Hayes and the now retired Laurie Ferguson who have tirelessly encouraged, supported and pushed me all the way. I thank Kaila Murnain the General Secretary of the NSW ALP for the support and encouragement she gave me, I also thank, and acknowledge the support of, the affiliated unions of Unions NSW, especially Gerrard Hayes from the HSU and the TWU and I would like to thank the Campbelltown Councillors who supported me and in particularly Meg Oates and Rudi Kolkman who supported me so diligently. I also thank my branch members from the Camden, Campbelltown and Ingleburn branches and Pauline and Ray James from the veteran’s community. I am grateful too to  my campaign crew Jennifer Light, Jess Malnersic, Jason Cranson, Raymond Pham, Amy Mulcahy, Mitch Wright, Kathryn Miller, Karen Hunt, Emily Baldwin, George Brticevic , Darcy Lound and my cousin Scott Whitmont and all the wonderful young Labor volunteers. They all gave me great support and put up with me over a long campaign, I couldn’t have done it without them. Thanks to my secretary Cheryl Roberts who has provided continual support in my practice for over 30 years and puts up with my eccentricities.  I want to acknowledge also my newly elected NSW colleagues Emma Hussar, Emma McBride, Susan Templeman, Anne Stanley, Linda Burney and Meryl Swanson. They have been a wonderful support for me as the only newly elected male Labor member from NSW, they prove that two x chromosomes are better than one.  I particularly thank Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek and the Labor Party front bench, Chris Bowen, Ed Husic, Tony Burke, Stephen Jones, Jason Clare, Joel Fitzgibbon, Deb O’Neil, Andrew Leigh, Sharon Bird and all their colleagues  who have been tremendously supportive and encouraging of me. I am also grateful to the people of Macarthur and I am conscious of the expectations they have of me and I promise to do my best to fulfil them.

 I have of course left the best till last, to my children William, Edward, Eliza, Amelia, Rheuben and Rosetta; you cannot know how much I love you and how proud I am of you, I’m so grateful for your support, I know I’m not a perfect parent but no one could love you more. I love my grandchildren Julian, Verity, Hamish, Archie and Jarvis and my daughter in law Laura and son in law Greg you are wonderful supports to me and I love you dearly. To my wife Sharon, you are my muse, marrying you is the best thing I have ever done, you are more beautiful every day, more perceptive and more wise,  I cannot imagine this journey without you. I don’t know how you cope with me, our 6 kids and managing all of our household crises minor and major, almost as a single parent. I love you more than ever. We have many more exciting adventures to come.

So Mr Speaker I am here today for no other reason than to try and make life better for the children I have cared for over a long period of time. I want them all to do well. I love seeing them still and I will always be available to them. I look forward to working constructively as the 45th parliament gets to work, there are some urgent things that we need to do, and some important changes that need to happen and, as always, I look forward to the future with optimism.

I thank you Mr Speaker, and I thank the House.