Harriet’s Inaugural Speech to Parliament – Governors Speech Address in Reply

Tuesday 10 February, 2015

Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) — Firstly, I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and to pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

It is a profound honour, a privilege and, if I am honest, a rather humbling thing to rise to speak for the first time in this place as a representative of Eastern Victoria Region. I am honoured to stand here and grateful for the opportunity to be heard at least once in silence — honoured and committed to making the very best contribution that I can. In this sense, perspective is everything. These nerves of mine are dwarfed by the vast and wonderful region that I am proud to represent. With its islands, mountains, rolling valleys and farmland that is almost impossibly green for much of the year, it is productive; it is responsible for a significant and unique contribution to Victoria’s economy and prosperity across a range of industries; and it is intensely creative, proud and self-sufficient.

Through public service I hope to honour the strength, stamina, colour and history of communities in this region that deserve proper access to their elected members of Parliament. They deserve the pragmatic ear of their politicians and to have their views diligently and articulately represented. They deserve to have their resilience recognised, and they deserve government that strikes the right balance between empowerment and support.

I have known and loved the region for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the foothills of Mount Dandenong in a house surrounded by dense bushland. I was the middle child of five and the first daughter of a GP and a social worker. With a dictionary the size of a toolbox permanently stationed in the centre of the table, dinnertime was more often than not a calamitous and opinionated affair. Surliness, non sequiturs or the absence of logic in making a point were all seized upon as signs of weakness. It was a rough and bruising way to sharpen the brain, but I survived the years of verbal slings and arrows from my siblings and managed to dispatch a few of my own.

At school I read everything I could get my hands on, and I daydreamed about music, languages, science, art and the world at large. A succession of school librarians indulged me by removing the borrowing limit and encouraged me to believe that what I did not know about the world I could almost always find out if I persisted, asked questions and kept reading. A few rare teachers gently channelled my voiceless curiosity into considered ways of thinking. They were generous and patient with their time, and to this day I remain intensely grateful to the invaluable role models and educators I had, such as Sue and Brian Taylor, for helping me to find and keep my voice.

At about the age of 16 it was a local performance of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman at a tiny theatre tucked away in The Basin that changed everything. I remember my breath catching when the fading, jaded salesman protagonist, Willy, is asked by his son, Ben, ‘What are you building? Lay your hand on it. Where is it?’ Two small questions in a play about the great American dream, and just like that I understood how important it was for me to know what I wanted to build over the course of my life, to take responsibility for it and to come back to it again and again, to find it amidst the diversions and white noise of the day-to-day. Those two small questions have stayed with me since, and even now I cannot imagine a day when they do not come to mind as I continue to learn and grow.

To that end, my education was the greatest gift that my parents could have given me. The sacrifices involved for them in providing the best possible opportunities for me to learn were enormous. My life has been incredibly influenced by what they gave and by what they gave up. However, I am also extremely lucky. I was born in a demographic with a golden ticket, a comparatively healthy body and mind, a good education, two parents with jobs, the ability to find and retain secure employment of my own and the opportunity to speak my mind.

I went on to study at Monash University, to practise as a lawyer and to work as an associate at the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, as it was then known. I worked in private practice in the Victorian public sector, and I was prompted to learn new things every day, to test my skills and to challenge my embedded ways of thinking. For many years I volunteered at the community legal service, and I also mentored a young woman who taught me just as much about myself as I taught her about how to stick up for herself. I felt myself contributing and it occurred to me that I was building something.

Along with thousands of others, I railed against the slick strategies of WorkChoices and its insidious, shiny and simplistic yellow booklets, and I worked on cases to challenge the worst aspects of a system that dismantled minimum conditions and encouraged the wholesale abandonment of dignity in employment. I poured my dismay at such fundamental inequity into using the law to protect the terms and conditions that were under threat and challenging the dismissals that had somehow managed to become fair simply by the stroke of a coalition pen. I learnt from some of the finest legal minds in Australia, and I was grateful for every opportunity that came my way to be better and to do better by those who often did not have the voice, the tools or the means to understand and enforce their legal rights.

In the midst of such an energetic endeavour a sense of obligation rested in me as resolutely as the dictionary in the centre of my childhood dinner table, a sense of obligation to build something that I can be proud to lay my hand on, to come back to again and again, to ground me.

What am I building? I am determined to add my own little spark to the light on the hill; to work towards achieving educational outcomes that do not require a golden ticket or the luck that I happened upon. I am determined to respect and honour the progressive work of the many innovative Labor thinkers who have made their marks and contributions before me. In turn, I hope to pave the way for future generations to represent eastern Victoria and the state more broadly as part of a system that has benefited from my own efforts.

I am determined to do my bit to help workers in regional Victoria to find and keep jobs they value and that in turn are valued, jobs that enable as many people as possible to participate and positively contribute to their communities and to the economic and social productivity of Victoria. I am determined to play an assertive part in identifying inequity, naming unfairness and calling out the increasingly common practice of dumbing down public language and resorting to generalisations and lowest common denominators at the expense of accuracy.

I am determined to do the right thing by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community — my community — and to contribute to removing discriminatory laws from Victoria’s statute book, laws which have affected me personally and which, until they are improved, make the lives of LGBTI Victorians unnecessarily and unjustifiably hard. I am proud to be a Labor parliamentarian who supports marriage equality and who supports and will fight for a legal and regulatory system in Victoria that protects, includes and recognises families and partnerships of all kinds.

In laying my hands upon what I am building, I know and am proud of how I have contributed in my own small way to the lives of others. To that end I do not accept that the words ‘unionist’ and ‘thug’ are interchangeable. I am proud to be one of the many who have worked for and alongside unions that operate tirelessly, compassionately and with integrity in advocating for fair pay, terms and conditions, local jobs, increased compulsory contributions to superannuation, workplace safety standards, pay equity and the best possible combinations of productivity and dignity in work.

I am also determined to keep pushing back against the idea that it is fair or reasonable that women should expect less in our opportunities to be educated, in the balance of our retirement incomes, in our job security or in our access to the most senior positions in our boardrooms, job sites and offices. I do not accept that disadvantage simply comes with the territory of my gender, that a minister for women should ever be a man or that abuse of women in any form whatsoever is excusable. In this regard I hope to do my late grandmother Mary Whyte proud. She was a woman of incredible integrity and resourcefulness, and she was one of the best and strongest people I have ever known.

I am proud to be a member of the Andrews Labor government, to be part of such a progressive, compassionate, considered and ambitious government that is already achieving significant public good and that encapsulates the best, the very best, of those essential Labor values that I love.

In my journey to this point there are many people who deserve my thanks and have my gratitude. My dad, David Shing, has loved, encouraged and supported me unconditionally and with brilliant wit and humility, and my brothers, Patrick, Tim and Christopher, and my sister, Genevieve, have all inspired me in their own ways. Terry and Sarah Sanders are a source of enormous love and humour and remain firmly wedged into a corner of my heart. Emily Sanders has shown me wisdom, love and kindness in spades. My patient, generous and wise friends and mentors include Jennie McKenzie, Jim Betts, Stephen Moynihan, Brian and Louise Parkinson, Bruce Hartnett, Ken Ives, Johan Scheffer, Wendy Phillips, Lisa Darmanin, Tim, Matt, Andrea, Anne, Bernadette, Betty and Reuben. The last two are my dogs. And last but most definitely not least, Labor candidates, members and supporters throughout Eastern Victoria Region and most particularly in Gippsland have included me, welcomed me and inspired me to do the very best I can.

I am here to make something good and enduring that I can find and lay my hands on now and in all the years to come and know it to have been created and strengthened with all of the care, commitment, authenticity and integrity that I have. I know what I am building.