It is an honour and a privilege to address this House today as the new member for Wentworth, and I thank the people of my electorate for the trust that they have placed in me to represent them. I want to speak today about the journey that brought me here and the truly special people that I want to acknowledge and thank, and to offer some reflections on the path ahead for our nation and the parliament's role in forging that future.
Wentworth is a diverse and harmonious community. We hear a lot about the harbourside mansions, but the reality is that many people in Wentworth live in apartments, often renting their homes. They come from myriad backgrounds from all over the world. Wentworth has one of the largest Jewish communities in Australia: many families fleeing here from Europe around the time of the Second World War; others coming from Russia or South Africa. There are the surfers, the yachties, the young families, the retirees, the business men and women and a large gay community. Wentworth is home to some of the wealthiest people in Australia, but there are also those who struggle to make ends meet and the marginalised and dispossessed who live on the fringes of society.
I've been a general practitioner in my electorate for almost 20 years. I have the privilege of seeing it from a profoundly human perspective. I've helped to deliver my constituents' babies. I've guided them through cancer diagnosis and treatment. I've grieved with them for the loss of loved ones. I've helped them wrestle with depression, and I've celebrated their happy news. A career in general practice grounds you in reality like no other profession possibly can. It is a career that deals with life and death and all that lies in between. It is a career where what really matters in the world is presented to you every single day. As a doctor, I was trained to examine evidence and to draw careful conclusions. Doctors are presented with symptoms. We arrange appropriate investigations. We diagnose the problem, devise a management plan and see that plan through to a resolution. And we know when to call on a specialist for expert advice. Every decision we make must address the fundamental question: what will this mean for this person's human experience? This is the template for the human-centric approach I bring to the job of parliamentarian and member for Wentworth.
Extraordinary events, personal and political, have coalesced to bring me here to take my seat amongst you in the House of Representatives at a unique time in Australian political history. I bring to this House a wealth of life experience as a doctor, a businesswoman, an author, a mother, a grandmother, a health advocate, and a marriage equality and social justice advocate. It is through this multifocal lens that I view the contribution I'm able to make in whatever time I might be granted in this role. I have a strong belief in the principle of secular government. That said, it is a great honour for me to know that I am the first woman of the Jewish faith to be elected to the Australian parliament. I am Jewish by choice, rather than by birth, having converted later in life, about 20 years ago. This was a very conscious decision, and I bring this spiritual framework to my personal and my professional life. It is also a great honour to know I am the first woman to be elected to represent Wentworth in its 117-year history.
While I stand here as an individual, I do not stand here alone. My journey to this place has come with the help of some amazing people. First, my family: my wife, Jackie Stricker-Phelps, as always, and quite literally, my other half—my partner in life, in love, in business, in parenting and in activism. To my children, Jaime, Carl and Gabi; my son-in-law, Rob; my grandson, Billy; the extended Stricker family; and our close friends, who have been there to give us strength and courage when we most needed backup: my love and gratitude. Of course, there's the army of volunteers who stepped up to help in my campaign for election. For almost every one of them, it was their first ever experience of an election campaign, and they brought a passion and a commitment and a belief that saw us make history. There were those who stood in the wind and the rain at pre-polls, or manned our pop-up campaign office, or even turned up to go doorknocking on crutches. It was the very essence of grassroots community politics. In particular, I thank our campaign chair, Wendy McCarthy, my longtime friend, who naturally adopted the role of den mother for our campaign team.
My own story began, as it does with all of us, with the prelude of my forebears. It is through the experiences and the stories of our parents and grandparents that we learn the lessons that inform our adult lives. My own family's history is a snapshot of the struggle of Australia's previous generations, who forged the path to create the opportunities for those who came after. It is also a reminder of the lasting legacy that we leave to our future generations. My grandparents were all born in Australia and made their homes in Sydney's western suburbs. My mother's mother was raised in an orphanage from the age of six, after her mother died in childbirth. She worked night shifts in a factory. My mother's father left school at the age of nine or 10, around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, and he headed north to ride boundary fences with his older brothers. My paternal grandfather, Thomas Phelps, was a carpenter. As a child, he told me, he would ride his bicycle into the city during the Depression to pick up rations to feed his family. Too old to enlist in the Second World War and unable to find work, he headed to the goldmines in the New Guinea Highlands, where he worked to earn money to send back to his family in Punchbowl, where my grandmother was caring for their four surviving children.
When the war in the Pacific broke out, my grandfather was stranded in New Guinea. He was believed to have been killed during the Japanese invasion, but he had managed to escape on foot with other civilians. Trudging through treacherous jungle and mountain terrain, followed by a dangerous sea journey by raft and canoe across the Torres Strait, he eventually arrived back in Australia. You could say that I come from resourceful and resilient stock.
My parents, George and Shirley Phelps, moved to the northern beaches of Sydney so that they could enjoy the Aussie beach lifestyle and so my father could be active in surf lifesaving. During my early years, my parents instilled in me the values of diligence, perseverance, integrity, hard work and financial prudence. Participation, the pursuit of excellence, a love of the outdoors, involvement in sport and lifelong learning also underpinned my childhood. I grew up in a culture of community engagement—of volunteering—and both of my parents were awarded an Order of Australia for contributions to their community.
Education was a strong theme in my childhood, fuelled by my own parents' lack of opportunity for advanced education. I attended our local state schools—Newport Primary School and Pittwater High School. Through high school, once I was old enough to work, I always held two or three jobs. That became my normal. I was the first in my family to go to university. In fact, I was the first in my family to finish high school. I decided on a career in medicine at a time when the Commonwealth funded university tuition fees.
During my final year of medical school I married my high school boyfriend, Michael, and in the following year, 1981, I graduated from the University of Sydney; I had just turned 23. That same year, during my internship, I had my first child, Jaime. My son, Carl, was born two years later when I was a senior resident. So I had a very early insight into the challenges of managing parenting and work. My daughter, Jaime, is now a dietician and Carl is passionate about his work in aged care. It's probably no coincidence that they both ended up in healthcare fields, and I'm so proud of the adults that they have become.
I bought my first medical practice when I was 27, and around that time I also started working in the media. At the time, health promotion was a completely unknown new field—making health information accessible and understandable through mainstream media. The established medical profession at the time didn't approve of doctors working in the media, but the aim of improving health outcomes through health literacy was worth fighting for. At one stage, I worked at the ABC on a television series called EveryBody. Those years reinforced my determination for the ABC to be fiercely protected as our independent news broadcaster, free of political interference, and our national storyteller, helping to articulate the Australian identity.
My first marriage ended in 1993. Four years later I met Jackie, and the following year we married in a religious ceremony in New York. On our return from the US, we were 'outed' by a Sunday tabloid newspaper. That word, 'outed', seems almost quaint and anachronistic now, but it was a feared and dangerous weapon back then. We could have chosen to hide, to wait for it to blow over, but that is not in either of our DNAs. Instead, we resolutely began our long battle for marriage equality. We sacrificed our personal privacy and Jackie her teaching career. We became accidental activists.
I was already involved in medical politics, and just a year later I was elected president of the Australian Medical Association, first at state level and then for the federal AMA—the first woman to hold this position. It was an enormous privilege to represent the medical profession and to advocate for our health system during those years, which took me not only to Canberra but to most parts of Australia, including our cities, country towns and remote Aboriginal communities, to gain an understanding of the seemingly insurmountable pressures they were facing.
I believed it was important to interweave public health and health promotion principles into the fabric of the AMA's core business, and for our policies to consider first and foremost the effects on our patients and their experience of the health system. We were facing an urgent threat in the medical indemnity crisis, with the future of several medical specialties, like obstetrics and neurosurgery, in doubt. We worked with members of the Howard government and state and territory governments to forge a complicated but, ultimately, successful solution.
During my presidency, the AMA developed its first position statements on complementary medicine; on sexuality and gender diversity; and on the medical response to bioterrorism. For the first time, the medical profession formally joined the dots between the human cause of climate change and its human cost. We investigated problems in aged care and mental health. We advocated strongly for refugee children to be removed from detention and for a solution to the problems of health disparity and disadvantage for Indigenous Australians. My philosophy was then, as it is now, that the human experience must be at the heart of political decisions being made about health policy and health economics. Fifteen years on, these remain hot-button issues for our health system and for our national agenda.
One issue that has arisen over the past decade—and there is no more important current issue for the future integrity of our public health system and the doctor-patient relationship than this—is of the security and privacy of personal health records. The people and the parliament must be confident beyond doubt that the rules and governance surrounding the centralised medical-records database are absolutely secure. It's better that we go slowly or not proceed at all rather than get it wrong and suffer the consequences.
I will explain what I mean about the human experience. Government policies impact on people's lives positively or adversely. Human-centred government policy starts with the question: how will this impact on the quality of life of the people this policy affects? It goes without saying that we need outcome measures like a balanced budget and productive capacity and economic growth. I've owned and operated businesses for over 30 years, so I get this. I understand the risks and pressures of start-ups; the struggle to survive economically in the early stages; and the decision-making algorithms that determine whether a business will expand or not, employ more people or not, invest in Australian enterprise or not. Government policies shift these decisions not based on the numbers but on sentiments like confidence in the future.
It's also important for governments to frame policies that address the concerns of young people wanting to buy a home, raise a family, make decisions about the education of their children and manage their household budgets. Older Australians worry about protecting their retirement incomes and how to face old age with the confidence that they'll be able to get the care they need. Human-centred outcomes require us to think how policies will affect real people living real lives with an additional set of outcome measures: wellbeing, happiness, child development, optimism, job satisfaction, community harmony, being able to afford to rent or buy a home, the right to privacy, freedom of choice, a sense of security, and feeling respected and valued for who you are.
Climate change has been described as the greatest moral, greatest political, greatest social and greatest public health challenge of our time. The time to take action is now. There can be no excuses for continuing climate change policy paralysis. Look at the symptoms, examine the evidence, turn to the experts. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns of the catastrophic consequences of continuing down the current path of global warming. This is not about the numbers; it is about the people. We have to think about the human experience that will result from failure to take action: the imminent disappearance of island nations like Kiribati or Tuvalu, altered food supplies, drought, floods and increases in water-borne and insect-borne diseases. The people most likely to be vulnerable to the effects of climate change will be children, the poor, the sick and the elderly. We have an abundance of raw materials for renewable energy: sun, wind and water. What we are running out of are excuses for failing to act. We have to make sure we have a carefully planned, orderly transition to the renewable energy economy.
What we do in this House, what we decide here, creates the world of our grandchildren. We all have a responsibility to them. It's not only our own children and grandchildren who matter and whose lives we have the power to impact. The stories of Jackie's parents, Alfred and Jutta, who escaped the Holocaust as children, as well as the stories of my patients and their families, who have escaped from areas of conflict all around the world, have impacted me deeply.
I cannot be an idle bystander to the reports of the shocking mental and physical state of children held on Nauru, helpless victims of Australia's offshore processing policy. Australia's treatment of asylum seekers is a source of shame and sorrow for me and for many thousands of my medical colleagues and other Australians. This cruel treatment of asylum seekers asking Australia for help—to return to my earlier theme—ignores the human experience at the heart of policies of offshore processing and indefinite confinement on Manus Island and Nauru. No longer can we tolerate our government holding the lives of these children and their families to ransom to make a point about maritime arrivals. Yes, we need strong border protection. But it is not, and must not be, a choice between deaths at sea and indefinite offshore confinement. There is a mismatch between what the people of Australia want and what the Australian government has been doing, and this must be resolved. We must find a compassionate compromise.
While the treatment of asylum seekers calls for urgent attention, we must also focus on Australians in vulnerable situations. This must begin with Indigenous Australians. How can it be that in this nation of opportunity being born Indigenous still means being born into disadvantage, and still means that our First Nations people are more likely to be sicker and poorer, to die younger, to suffer more mental health problems and to be incarcerated more than non-Indigenous Australians? What are we not learning, not seeing, not hearing? Together, surely, we can find a way to address the unforgivable and growing disparity between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous experience. The Closing the Gap strategy must be fundamentally reworked because it is not working. The logical next step is Indigenous recognition in the Constitution.
So, too, we must get our policy settings right on our response to family violence and to the murder, on average one each week, of a woman by her current or former partner. One woman every week! We must get the policy settings right on the tens of thousands of children living in out-of-home care, because their homes are not safe for them. I know that system well. Our youngest daughter, Gabi, who is now 19, came into our lives through the child protection system, initially as a foster placement, almost 10 years ago, when our lives took another unexpected turn. On her behalf, Jackie and I became advocates for children in foster care, leading us to contribute to the change in adoption laws in New South Wales to allow same-sex couples to adopt in advance of marriage equality.
At that time, and still today, adoption of Australian children is rare and the process is prohibitive. It took a bipartisan conscience vote in the New South Wales parliament to change the lives of many children and families. That security enabled Gabi to thrive, completing high school last year as head girl of her school and now studying commerce/law at the University of Sydney. She makes me proud of her every day. For children like her, I am pleased to see progress on a national approach to adoption reform. It is so important to those children to have the security that they so deserve.
The protracted battle for marriage equality in Australia had my constant attention for the better part of 20 years. As time went by, and for many years, I saw at close quarters the dysfunctionality of the two-party political system that was able to deny my wife and me and thousands of other Australians the right to equality under the law. The political was again very personal. Political decisions were deeply affecting our lives, our human experience.
Unlike the New South Wales adoption reform, federal parliamentarians were repeatedly denied a conscience vote. As advocates, Jackie and I were fortunate in that we had a voice. But there were also the frustrations of seeing this reform voted down time after time in the name of party politics. Politicians who I knew privately to be supporters of equality were forced by their parties to publicly speak out against their own conscience and beliefs, putting their party before the people or the principle, failing to understand or not caring about the human experience that would result from their politicking and deal-making. This was one of the most important influences on my determination to stand as an Independent.
Along the way we saw the removal of more than 85 discriminatory federal laws, but the vision of marriage equality remained elusive until 7 December last year when we sat upstairs here in the gallery to witness the history-making vote, which instantaneously transformed the lives of countless thousands of Australians. All parties finally granted a conscience vote on this issue. As the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians in this House finally voted for this life-changing human rights reform, we celebrated and we sang, 'I am, you are, we are Australian.' And for that brief and magnificent moment in time it really did feel that we were one as a nation. Why couldn't that be our new normal? Let me pay tribute to all the dedicated campaigners, their supporters and allies who fought for marriage equality for so long.
Then, on the heels of the traumatic and damaging postal survey campaign on marriage equality, we were plunged into yet another debate about our human rights—this time the rights of religious organisations to expel students or sack teachers because they are gay, lesbian or transgender. I believe that our federal parliament should be turning its attention to eliminating all forms of prejudice for all people, not turning its energies to finding new ways of entrenching discrimination and alienation.
And then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, my predecessor as member for Wentworth, was removed—still without explanation—triggering a by-election. He was a popular local member, and the shockwaves reverberated around the electorate and around the country. Enough was enough. No longer could I stand by as a commentator from the sidelines. This was my time to step up. I realised my chances of winning the by-election were slim. Some said it would take a miracle—indeed, a miracle it turned out to be, thanks to a massive grassroots movement of people with a shared vision. It was a historic vote in many ways that night, but mostly I believe it was a vote for a new way. There is an unmistakable mood in Australia that framed the Wentworth by-election result—a mood for change.
Trust in the political system has reached a low ebb. The establishment of a national integrity commission will go some way to restoring that trust, and I will work together with like-minded colleagues to make that happen. But there is more to it. The Australian people are saying that they have had enough of the way party politics is being practised. They've had enough of the interests of the party taking over the interests of the people. One thing I know about Australians is that we have well-tuned radars for chicanery and deception. The people of Australia want and deserve authenticity. We saw during the Wentworth by-election campaign that voters want not only straight talk but carefully thought-out policies supported by evidence. More than that, they want to see action on issues that are important to them, their families and their communities.
I said earlier that I take my place here at a unique moment in Australian political history; a time when the tectonic plates beneath the current two-party system seem to be shifting. Yes, it is a system that may have served us well in the past, but it is one that has evolved to turn inwards and primarily serve itself, at times silencing the voices of reason and compassion. People are saying they want politics done differently. If the major parties won't do that, Independents have already shown that they will happily fill that space.
It has become something of a motherhood statement for politicians to say that we want a strong economy and financial security for all. We do. Of course we do. And yet we see constant meddling with superannuation rules, unsettling people at vulnerable times in their lives, and the gender gap in superannuation seeing women retire with about half the superannuation of men.
The Australians I represent have said that they want more from their government. They want authentic voices. They want representatives who will focus on the future of our health system, for compassionate aged care and for lifelong education; representatives who will stand up for small business, who will fight for action on climate change, who will fight to ensure that women have equal political representation based on merit, who will fight for recognition of our First Nations people, who will fight for the humane treatment of asylum seekers and who will fight against discrimination, prejudice and bigotry in all of its manifestations.
Wentworth has shown that being positioned in what I call 'the sensible centre', meaning economically conservative and socially progressive, does have a home in the Australian political landscape. The people of Wentworth seemed largely unconcerned about the prospect of the crossbench having the so-called balance of power. I prefer to think of it as the power of balance. In a climate of politics moving uncomfortably to the right, the power of balance can be the insurance policy against extremes of political policymaking on the right or the left of the political spectrum. I want to see Australian politics move back to that sensible centre, and strong, local, independent voices can help to achieve that.
I say to the people of Wentworth: I am here to represent you. I will support policies that encourage not only a thriving economy but also a thriving community. I want our parliament to unite us as a nation in equality, justice and opportunity. To achieve that, I will focus on the human experience that is generated by political decisions; a vision for the future we will be leaving for our children and our grandchildren. Thank you.