Lauren's Inaugural Speech

08 February 2023

Lauren KATHAGE (Yan Yean) (10:34):

I rise to contribute to the address-in-reply to the Governor, and in so doing I wish to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of much of the land of the district of Yan Yean. I also acknowledge the Taungurung people as traditional owners of the northern edge of the district. Where the lands of these two peoples meet you will find Mount Disappointment. That is exactly what Hume and Hovell did in 1824. They climbed the mountain hoping for a view of Port Phillip Bay, but their view was obstructed by dense tree growth. I am assuming they were already having a bad day; they named it Mount Disappointment. We still do not have bay views in Yan Yean, but if you were to climb Mount Disappointment today and look over Yan Yean, you could take a picture-perfect snapshot of modern Victoria: from the rural pastures and hamlets in the foothills of Mount Disappointment, punctuated by Whittlesea township, through the green wedge and the growing suburbs of Mernda, Donnybrook and Doreen, and down into the more established areas of Plenty and Yarrambat.

There is no label that can neatly define or describe my electorate – a patchwork of evergreen acreage, and yet simultaneously suburban, some suburbs the fastest growing in the state. Pockets of affluence sit alongside those struggling to scrape by. We are both young and old, established and emerging, Australian by birth and Australian by choice. It is home to people like Josh, a plasterer who has turned his hand to running a local coffee shop to support his family; Gary, who spends many hours each week volunteering at the Whittlesea SES and drove ambulances during the pandemic; Harpreet, an accountant who commutes more than an hour to work each day; Heather, the first-ever female apprentice in this house; and Maggie, who has sweeping plans to build an arboretum in the green wedge on her property.

Many of us have watched the paddocks in our area progressively turn into housing estates – the yellow canola giving way to Colorbond. Where once crops grew, now community grows – community because for all our differences we are connected by a common thread. People are determined to build a life for themselves and their families. If you ask people why they are working so hard, the answer is always the same: ‘For my children’. Yan Yean is defined by people that work hard and give so much of themselves to their jobs, their families, their sporting clubs, the local fire brigade. The developers can build an estate, but only we can build community. I would like to thank the people of Yan Yean for putting their faith in me to join them in that effort.

The families here are much like the family I grew up in. Mum and Dad ran a newsagency for 20-odd years. Dad would go to bed early each night before rising in the dark to steal around the streets in an old Suzuki soft-top, throwing papers into the yards of the sleeping. Sun-up, sundown, seven days a week they sold papers and scratchies, magazines and envelopes. Sometimes they were the only ones that an elderly person spoke to that day – and they took that honour seriously.

In a small filing cabinet behind the counter, Dad had photocopies of a hand-drawn map he would give to lost motorists. You see, the newsagency was the first place where it was easy to stop if you had taken the wrong exit off an earlier highway. People who had lost their way would pull over and ask for directions. It happened often enough that Dad was ready with a map and some encouragement to get them back on their right path. I thank my parents for the times they have helped me back onto my own narrow path, for showing me the dignity of labour and that it is a privilege to perform an act of service, no matter how simple or humble.

Growing up in a family running a small business, where Mum and Dad would sit up in bed at night talking about how they would manage the bills, being humble was unavoidable some days – like Fridays, sports days, the days I tried in various cross-legged poses or by lagging behind to hide my shoes. From Kmart for $20 they might be considered ironically cool now, but at the time they were just canvas and rubber and clown like. I would glance at the other kids’ brandname shoes and rearrange my legs on the bus heading to netball, pushing my feet further underneath the seat in front. In grade 6 there could be nothing worse – so I threw them away. I slipped them off and flung them into the bushes of a house on the short walk home from school. It took me a couple of days to tell Mum about my missing shoes. I probably did not pick the best time: Monday afternoon when Mum had returned home tired from her six-day-work, seven-day-worry job at the newsagency. I told Mum, and she went to Kmart and bought me the exact same pair of shoes. I know a lot of kids had it hard growing up, some with no shoes at all, but I share this story as a tribute to my mum, who worked hard to give me the best – not the best shoes but the best values. Mum and Dad in their retirement still serve the community, volunteering with Meals on Wheels, at the local hospice and in their church congregation. I thank my parents for teaching me the meaning of the good life and that it cannot be bought.

Their example had a lot to do with the choice I made when I was 18 or so to live a life of service. Over the last 20 and a bit years that choice has taken me to homelessness and family violence shelters, supporting women to get back on their feet; to Kakadu, running a homelessness prevention program; to Myanmar, where I negotiated with a man in an army uniform to allow us access to build a village school in rebel militia territory; to its Rohingya displaced persons camps, where my chief goal was to check that people with disability could get the same outcomes from our programs as other community members; to Papua New Guinea, where I journeyed with people over mountains and through food shortages and their tired resignation at the services they received and where I saw their joyous celebration when, with their own hands, they built a better life for their families and communities through better schools, more adults who can now read and write, bigger and better crops and a stronger voice to government; to Indonesia, where we formed an organisation to support families, build up their small businesses and push government to support the priorities identified by communities themselves; and most exotic of all, to the Victorian public service, where I crunched the numbers for the team working on treaty, truth and justice. Although all of these experiences are each so different, there is a common theme: building community but also ensuring them a voice, a genuine say on what their future could and should look like. I carry that same determination with me as the representative for the people of the Yan Yean district. There are many issues on which their voices deserve to be heard.

On planning, our Labor government has made important reforms: ensuring air and light in apartments and accessibility standards in new builds and giving renters the right to make their house a home. But we need to do more, ensuring not just livable homes but livable communities. Kinder returned last week. I met a mum whose child has started kinder in a neighbouring estate, but to get there there is no footpath and no bus. Instead, every morning and every afternoon she bundles her little one in and out of Ubers. Kinder is free, but getting there is not always easy. It is why we need stronger community-centred development, making sure that developers, councils and state government are doing their best for communities, listening to communities and ensuring their voices reach the nexus of decision-making. Make no mistake: increasing supply is critical to making sure more Victorians have the security of a home, but it cannot be at the expense of access to services.

As a labour movement, we fought hard for the 8-hour day, but for too many families in Yan Yean the promise of the 8-hour day is being compromised by long commutes. Mums and dads who work long days only to spend even longer in the car or the train do it because they want the best for their kids, but it means they miss out on seeing them. This impels us to continue this government’s proud record of infrastructure investment, building the roads and rail our growing communities need. But it also means building local economies too, ensuring opportunity extends beyond the boundary of the CBD and that communities like mine are centres of thriving activity, not just outposts for commuting workers to occasionally get a rest. We must find new ways to invigorate local businesses and local jobs, and because we are a Labor government, they need to be decent, secure and well-paid jobs, jobs that enable people to do more than merely pay the bills – to build a better life for their families.

There are many reasons I am Labor, but without doubt one of the biggest is my big brother, Mark. Mum and Dad raised six of us – five girls, one boy. My sisters and I flew the coop at the usual time, with my sisters going on to do incredible things. They are all at this exact moment in classrooms nurturing young minds, and I am so proud to come from a family of educators. But until recently Mark was living at home, and like all of us, Mum and Dad are getting older, and they just were not able to keep caring for Mark in the way that he needed. It was time, at 50 years of age, for him to fly the coop too. For every family that loves someone with a significant disability, the difficulty of this situation and the slow march to the inevitable decision can be filled with dread. But it was made so much harder for my family by the agency that was meant to help. Like many, Mum and Dad were forced to fight the former Liberal government’s NDIS and wait in increasingly desperate circumstances for the agency that broke their own guidelines for responsiveness, fighting to make sure my brother had access to supported accommodation. Eventually my brother and parents won, but they should never have been made to fight.

Last July, a few months after the federal election which saw Labor returned to office, Mum was chatting with me and my sisters about Mark and about how well he was doing in his new home. I will be honest with you: Mum is not traditionally a Labor voter. She will tell you that herself. But in that conversation and in an offhand comment, she defined for me Labor’s difference. ‘With the new government,’ she said, ‘it feels like we don’t have to beg anymore.’ I am proud of this government’s efforts in this space, proud of the record investment in special schools, doubly proud that students with disabilities and their families shaped our policy priorities. But I will be working hard for young adults with disability and their families in Yan Yean because I know we can do more. We can do more for the young person I know who wants to work, who has so much to give but just needs the opportunity. We can do more for the mum I spoke to at the Whittlesea market who told me that she wants her son to have the chance to make friends, and we can do more for families like my own, who can feel that each day is a battle. The real measure of this government should not be whether or not we ask people to beg. It should be whether we give them what they need. People with disability and their families deserve so much better. They deserve our collective commitment and our political courage, and every day in this place I will be fighting for it.

There are many people to thank: Garreth, my husband, my friend and my greatest champion, and my daughters Greta and April, whose very existence is a light that forces out all darkness. Mike and Monica Jones, who keep everything running smoothly and whose cheerful encouragement is a balm. I thank Rob Mitchell for his support and guidance and the example he has set of keeping your feet on the ground while having aspirations for your community that reach the clouds. Kobe Hay, who is steadfast and true; James McDonald, who always has a plan; Dan Welsh, whose resilience made each day fresh; Danielle Green, who understands the importance of community and worked hard to deliver for Yan Yean. I would also like to thank the mighty team behind me of Avtar Singh, Spiro and Kerryn Patras, Jaswinder Singh, Tony Comley, Peter, Jordan, Jarrod, Deb, Lynne, Mitchel, Elizabeth, John, Geoff, Andrew, Gopal, Leo, Ravneet, George, Raymond, Maryam, Brooke, Debra, Ged, Mike, Hemraj, Leanne, Arshdeep, Hailey, Mary, Samuel, Diogo, Kasey, Cath, Sacha, Pauline, Raghu, Tom Joseph, Mandeep, Gurdarshan, Simarjeet, Mandeep Kaur, Jordan, Dave, Pauline, Jeni and John.

My thanks to my caucus colleagues for so warmly welcoming me in this place. My thanks to the Premier, who for the past eight years has led a government defined by delivery, a government that gets things done. As the member for Yan Yean, it is an example I intend to emulate. I choose every day to ensure my community has the infrastructure and investments it deserves: great schools, quality health care, reliable road and rail. Perhaps most important is the business of community building – not achieved with bricks or cement alone but reliant on seeing our area’s diversity as an asset, our connections a strength and our voices important. There can be no disappointment in that. The people of Yan Yean are working hard for their future. They have a representative working hard for it too.

Members applauded.