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Inaugural Speech to the Legislative Assembly

December 13, 2016

Madam Speaker, I am incredibly proud to stand here as a Member for Murrumbidgee.

I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and their enduring connection with the land on which we meet today and that of my electorate, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would like to thank the people of Woden Valley, Weston Creek, Kambah and Molonglo for putting their trust in me and the Labor Party in Government at the October 2016 election.

It is an honour to represent the area that I grew up in - in the most liveable city in the World.

I left the steel town of Newcastle during the late eighties following my dad, a science teacher moving around small towns in New South Wales, before we arrived in Queanbeyan and then moved quickly across the border to the suburb of Torrens here in Canberra.

I spent my childhood playing and running around Mount Taylor and I met my lifelong friends at the local playgroup, Torrens Preschool and Primary School and Melrose High School.

The Steels always discussed politics and policy at the dinner table and while no one was a party member, my parents were active union members and my grandfather was Assistant Secretary of the Federated Iron Workers Union, which is now known as the Australian Workers Union.

So it made sense to me to go on study politics at Narrabundah College and at the ANU where I studied politics and law. And in the year that John Howard introduced Work Choices, I joined the Labor Party to develop progressive policy for our city.

My parents instilled in me a sense of fairness and to value learning, education, knowledge and ideas.

These values have carried through my work in the union movement, in government and in the community sector.

And in this Assembly I will be progressive voice for the Southside.

CHANGE

Madam Speaker, as an almost lifelong Canberran I have seen our city change – and particularly in the past five years - change for the better.

Canberra has come into its own - with international flights, delivering cancer surgeries here and not in Sydney, making Canberra’s energy 100% renewable and the urban renewal starting to take place in our city streets.

That change hasn’t happened by accident – it’s because of the work of the ACT Labor Government with a vision for Canberra’s future.

And I fundamentally believe in the role of Government in building our city– in partnership with business, civil society and the community.

CHALLENGES

If Canberra is the most liveable city in the World, then the Southside is the most liveable part of the most liveable city in the World.

Whilst I have seen the significant improvements to our city over the past five years, I can also see how much improvement there is still to make, particularly on the Southside.

We face significant challenges, of an ageing population, ageing infrastructure in our established suburbs, and the challenges that come with population growth in our new suburbs.

I will be focusing on how we support people in Canberra to age successfully – through improvements to health care and transport.

And I will be supporting urban renewal in our existing suburbs and new infrastructure for our growing suburbs.

Madam Speaker, the overall theme from the election was that Canberra is growing.

All the major policy debates were about managing growth – the demands on our health and hospital system, the congestion on our roads, planning and land development.

In my electorate there are now around 4,000 people living in Coombs and Wright. The first residents move into Denman Prospect in January and there will be up to 50,000 people living there in the next two decades.

This growth brings significant challenges but also new opportunities for our city.

Madam Speaker – these challenges mean our city must continue to change.

We cannot look back.

The Prime Minister is a big fan of the quote by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa from the The Leopard:

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” 

And I say that if we want Canberra to remain liveable, then we have to change.

And governments have to step up to meet the challenge with long term reform.

LIGHT RAIL

Madam Speaker if we do not want to live in a city that is congested - then we need to deliver genuine public transport alternatives like light rail.

Governments are often criticised for not thinking beyond the next election, and not planning ahead and putting in place long term policies to address long term challenges.

There could not have been a greater symbol of this forward looking, progressive Government than our policy to deliver light rail.

It is vital infrastructure for our growing city.

And I am proud that Labor committed, during the campaign, to bring light rail from the City to Woden in my home electorate.

It is a crucial link to be able to develop future stages of Light Rail, including to Tuggeranong.

URBAN RENEWAL

Light rail will be the catalyst for urban renewal in Woden Town Centre.

The urban uplift and renewal benefits from light rail are proven.

This is an opportunity to see more people living in Woden Town Centre, close to public transport and services, providing demand for thriving businesses which benefit the whole community.

More people living in our existing town centres is an opportunity for quality design and development to take place, and to keep the open spaces in our suburbs that make Canberra such a great place to live.

KAMBAH

Madam Speaker, as resident of Kambah I know that it is the hidden secret of Canberra but it is in need of urban renewal

And I was proud that after the campaign that I ran during the election Labor will deliver $2.3 million to upgrade Kambah Village.

This project, combined with private upgrades to the supermarket building, will significantly enhance this important community space and deliver on the Kambah Village Master Plan.

I want to assure Kambah residents that getting Kambah Village upgraded is a priority for me.

EDUCATION

Madam Speaker I believe that Labor is best placed in managing our city’s challenges, harnessing the opportunities and ensuring that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged are included and not left behind by growth.

And I will be working in my new role to help drive Labor’s social policy agenda, including in education.

There couldn’t be a more important opportunity for Canberra’s future than education. We are a city that is built on the strength of our human capital, in our universities, our government departments, our businesses and community organisations.

Advancing our human capital agenda here takes preparation and planning.

And over the past decade I have worked as an advocate in the community sector and in government with a focus on improving access to a quality education for all children.

I am looking forward to contributing to improving our education system in the ACT to grow our human capital.

But for us as Labor members, education plays a far more important role than economics.

It is one of Piketty’s ‘decisive forces’ in building equality, giving people the opportunity to get ahead regardless of their background.

So we need to ensure that every child gets access to a quality education right thorough to university and TAFE.

And we know from research that the education gap – the visible emergence of inequality - actually starts to open at age three, before children even enter the classroom for the first time.

Research shows ‘children in disadvantaged families hear 30 million fewer words, on average, and have less than half the vocabulary of upper-income peers by age three’. It’s no wonder that these children reach school behind, and by then, it is much harder to catch up.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Now for this reason early intervention is so important across so many areas of Government, whether it is child protection, juvenile justice, disability and inclusion – and also in education.

Madam Speaker, there couldn’t be a more important task for any incoming Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly than ensuring more young children have access to quality early learning in the home and in early childhood services.

We now know that children who attend early childhood education have amplified cognitive skills – and vulnerable children benefit the most.

Studies from the UK show that children who access a quality early childhood program for 2-3 years have much higher results in literacy and numeracy at the end of high school.

Early childhood education is at least as decisive in shaping student’s results at the end of high school - as the whole of Primary School.

Yet in this country and in this Territory we only provide universal access to one year of preschool education – the exception of our fanstastic Koori Preschool  Program.

It is of great concern to me that not all children are involved in quality learning experiences younger than four years of age.

Vulnerable children benefit the most from accessing quality early childhood education - because they often don’t have exposure rich learning experiences.

And that’s why I will continue to advocate to ensure that we improve access to a quality preschool education from age three and earlier for vulnerable children in line with other developed countries.

Improving access to quality early learning for all children is most effective and efficient way for Government to improve educational outcomes in later schooling.

If we can improve access to quality early learning this will not only amplify children’s development, but boost economic growth and reduce investment in costly later interventions in the health and welfare systems in the long term – it’s critical for our future prosperity

Madam Speaker, if we are going to harness the benefits of education for Canberra’s future prosperity then we also need to ensure that every child gets the support they need when they transition to school.

Now Canberra schools, both - non-government and government - are great schools.

But in our changing world there is more to do to ensure our schools give students the best opportunities.

We have seen for some time in international education testing that Australia’s performance has been declining.

The number of low performing students is increasing and the number of high performing students is decreasing, in all states and territories including the ACT.

This continues to demonstrate the need for education reform.

A priority must be supporting teachers to improve their skills and performance.

We also need to provide physical resources and building quality learning environments and infrastructure at our public schools and ensure that we have the best education management systems.

But fundamentally we know that we cannot harness the benefits of our education system without addressing the funding system that drives it.

We know that because, the Chairman of the ASX Mr David Gonski recommended, in his review of school funding, that reform was required to ensure our schools were funded based on need.

This is a critical component of the work we need to do to move students from the low performance group, to the middle, and from the middle performance group to the high performance group.

And I will be an advocate to ensure that students and teachers get the support they need.

LGBTIQ+

Madam Speaker, it is an honour to serve amongst the existing Labor members in this place who for such a long time have been leading change in this country on so many issues.

It is a particular honour to serve with Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who has led reform both within my party and in the Assembly, enacting marriage equality.

Mr Barr was the first openly gay member of this place.

And I believe that I am the second only, openly gay Member of the Legislative Assembly.

The fact that this is such a mundane achievement is because of the path that has been hard won by Mr Barr. He has made it easier for those who come after him and their families - and for that I thank him.

Of course marriage equality will be an important milestone for inclusion in the ACT if it is achieved again through a vote of the Commonwealth Parliament.

But here in the ACT there is more work to do to tackle discrimination and foster inclusion in the community.

And I am keen to be a champion of inclusion in the ACT.

SIMON

I also want to mention former Deputy Chief Minister Simon Corbell who I have notionally replaced in this Chamber, on his retirement at the election.

Simon for so many years has been a giant of this place.

As a new Member in the Assembly I feel the absolute responsibility of carrying on his leadership and legacy in relation to the climate change the environment.

We must take responsible steps to manage climate change and the environment.

Labor has led the nation in our approach to delivering 100% renewable energy. andI look forward to continuing Simon’s work and Labor’s progressive approach on this profoundly important issue.

KURT

People here know that running for election is not an easy task – it is a long and tiring pursuit, and it cannot be done without the support of friends and family.

It is now over two years ago that I took a run around Lake Burley Griffin with my brother Kurt – the famous bridge to bridge run.

We slowed down as we reached the end at Federation Mall, talking about the upcoming preselection. I knew in this new seat of Murrumbidgee that there were potentially over 10 people running for preselection including Mr Corbell.

It looked like an impossible task.

I was sceptical of my chances.

In his matter of fact way – Kurt looked at me seriously and said – ‘no, you go for it and you’ll win.’

It was the last time I saw Kurt before he left for South America - never to come back.

But his determined advice was there throughout the next two years, at every hurdle, at every door.

It was perhaps the best gift of advice that I could have been given - and coming from Kurt you knew it had authority.

Today he is no doubt having a drink at the upstairs bar with my Grandfather, Ted, with some satisfaction.

CAMPAIGN TEAM

While Kurt was perhaps my first campaign manager, I could not have ever hoped to have had a better campaign team with me after him.

Almost every weekend since January my campaign team doorknocked and called – doorknocked and called.

They engaged the community with me - genuinely, thoughtfully and brought an enthusiasm that was unmatched by any campaign team.

I would like to thank my Campaign Manager James Koval, and my core team: Tom McKernan, Monique Blasiak, Ethan Moody, Daniel Langton, Josh Evans, Rosie McCrossin, Jacques Coia, Lorenzo McMiken, Desmond Ko, Aimee Kable, Jody Law, Bryce Logan, Daniel Hughes, my sister Yasmin Steel and my parents Jayne Steel and Philip Steel.

I would also like to thank Peter Wagner, Ben Maxfield, Vicky Darling, Tim Watts, Lois and Sandi Logan, Sean Hill, Jen Light, Gai Brodtmann MP, the Hon. Kate Ellis MP, Labor Secretary Matt Byrne, Megan Lane and all other campaign volunteers and Labor branch members.

My last but most heartfelt thanks goes to my partner Kurtis Oborne who did not choose this life but has been supportive throughout and has fed an army in the process.

Madam Speaker, I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate all new and returning members of this place, and particularly the Labor Caucus.

I am looking forward to getting to work with you on delivering Labor’s vision for our city.

Thank you.

END