Govenor's Speech

08 February 2023

It is an honour to speak for the first time in this chamber as the member for Bellarine. I would like to acknowledge the First Nations people of this state and pay my respects to elders past and present while also acknowledging the Wadawurrung people, the traditional owners of the Bellarine region. The Bellarine Peninsula is known as Bella Wiyn in Wadawurrung language, which means ‘recline on the elbow by a fire’, a resting place. And what a magnificent resting place it is. It is a deep privilege to stand in this place and make my commitment to support our First Nations people in their self-determined journey to treaty in this state.

The Bellarine is a magical place, a landscape of rolling agricultural hills, beaches and unique townships, each having their own character and charm. In her valedictory speech, the former member for Bellarine Lisa Neville highlighted this:

Bellarine has a diverse group of communities … with very different needs and voices. They all required investment in different services and infrastructure …

Lisa was an incredible member for 20 years and leaves a lasting legacy across the Bellarine and Victoria. I thank Lisa for her service and her support, and I wish her all the best of life after politics. As I penned this speech, I reflected on Lisa’s significant contributions and my own journey to this place. Lisa’s service and success were underpinned by something that I know is integral to this job and something that is also imperative to me: that community is at the heart of any decision-making. I believe that understanding the community comes from being involved in the community, and whilst I have always been one to put my hand up to help, there was a time I did not fully appreciate the power of change that comes when a community works together, nor did I fully appreciate the worth of my own contributions. However, I now know, after 42 years and some key moments in my life, I will be a strong representative for the Bellarine.

The Bellarine has changed a lot over time. I was born and grew up in the small rural town of Leopold, now with a population of around 14,000 residents. I remember riding my bike to school through empty paddocks and walking with my sister to the milk bar for a 20-cent bag of lollies. My world was simple and friendly, where everyone would look out for each other. I know that this small-town upbringing and my parents’ commitment to community are the reasons why I feel so deeply about giving back. My mum, a former prep teacher, now follows her passion for local history and genealogy and has volunteered at the Geelong Heritage Centre for now over 40 years. My dad worked in manufacturing and construction, where he specialised in planning. With a passion for the environment, he spent much of his time planting thousands of Indigenous plants with the Friends of the Bellarine Rail Trail. Volunteers are an integral part of our community, and volunteering was fundamentally a part of my own upbringing.

After secondary school I studied teaching and became a primary school teacher, and with the help of wonderful, supportive teachers around me, I found my joy of teaching. At the start of my career I was not sure if it was for me – it is a tough job – but never underestimate the power of a wonderful school community. On that note, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our dedicated teachers working across the state. I understand and appreciate the impact you have on our young people, and I will do everything I can in this place to continue to support the work you do. But I would like to also acknowledge the work of teachers and support staff for those students who just need that little bit of extra help.

With permission from my son Noah, I would also like to share some of the teacher/mum guilt that is with me right now. I wish I had picked up on my son’s dyslexia earlier. I have learned so much in the past year, mainly from parents and experts from the Dyslexia Victoria Support group. I am deeply committed to learning more and doing what I can in this place to support students, parents and teachers that may lie awake at night wondering what else could be done differently. I have cried with my son as his schoolwork becomes challenging, and I continue to have that nagging feeling that as a teacher I should have known, but I did not. We must continue to review teacher training and professional development to ensure our schools are resourced to manage complex learning difficulties such as dyslexia. I do commend the recent Labor policy that will require every grade 1 student to have their early literacy skills, including phonics, assessed, but this should just be the starting point to tackling a damning trend that tens of thousands of Australian kids are failing to meet literacy and numeracy standards. We must never give up on our future and strive for better outcomes.

It did not surprise me when my husband also became an educator. His calm and nurturing disposition is a perfect fit for the TAFE classroom. He is a proud product of TAFE, having studied and now teaching at TAFE. Naturally I am super proud of him, but I also want him to know this: Damien, you are changing lives. I listen to you as you speak passionately about your job, and I have witnessed the joy you have when your students pass their exams. You guide young people not only to a career, but you gently steer them in life. I know you care deeply about what TAFE offers, and you are a perfect example of the power of a TAFE education – and thanks to the investment of this Labor government, TAFE education is back. It offers pathways to rewarding jobs and life-changing opportunities.

After teaching and travelling around Australia, Damien and I thought we would start our own family. Today here I have my wonderful children Noah and Natalie. They are the most kind, funny and creative kids. Our family is like a jigsaw; it just fits together, but we are missing a piece. Our first child Georgia was born sleeping. Going into early labour she was too small to stay with us. It was a shock and a loss of what would be. Time heals the rawness of it all, but I do call this moment in my life ‘the before and after Alison’. The before Alison lived with rose-coloured glasses on. The after Alison discovered a community she did not know existed and an organisation in Geelong called Hope Bereavement Care. They support families that have lost a baby or child. I learned from other bereaved parents that sharing the pain with others that get it can and does help. The after Alison was probably always there, but it was Georgia who showed me my inner strength. Hope Bereavement Care is supported through generous community foundations, an important and vital community service I am really proud to support.

My own childhood was filled with a large extended family, and visiting my grandparents’ farm was a highlight – memories of busy shearing sheds, moving cattle and hay carting in the scorching heat. Being the sixth-generation farmer now, agriculture is in my blood, and it is actually the catalyst for why I am here today.

I would like to take you back to 2012. In small country towns across Victoria communities were learning about the very real risk of fracking, a dangerous process of drilling that fractures the ground to release gas. It carries risks to our water, productive agricultural land and overall community health. Environmentalists, First Nations peoples and farmers worried about the land and the towns being fractured and ultimately destroyed. There is no doubt that fracking would undo our proud Victorian clean and green agricultural sector. The stakes were high, but when you are faced with a challenge, you organise. With support from Friends of the Earth and the national Lock the Gate organisation I was proud to help build a grassroots movement like no other, and 75 Victorian towns declared themselves gas field free. We even had 2000 sheep move into formation in a paddock near Hamilton to spell out the words ‘Ban gas’ – they were very clever sheep. But as drone footage will show, unfortunately some of the viewers thought we were spelling ‘Bangas’, which unfortunately they might end up as. It was there that I found my passion for politics, and I learned from two amazing souls that I will forever remember as putting me on the path to community activism, namely Cam Walker and Chloe Aldenhoven. Thank you both for your guidance and the work you do.

After many years of fighting I am so proud to stand with a government that listened and put people first, leading the nation and legislating a ban on fracking. It was a community win, and to all that were involved, I know it was long and stressful. I know the fear you felt, but your advocacy and your resolve never wavered. The gas companies may have wanted to fracture our ground, but they were not able to fracture our united voice.

Having fought as a community advocate, I have had the privilege now of really witnessing the positive change that can be generated when community and government work together, and in this place as the member for Bellarine this is what I stand for: community at the heart of decision-making. Protecting what we love is also part of the Bellarine electorate’s DNA. We care deeply about the environment, and many volunteer their time and energy to community service. People are what make the Bellarine a special place to live, work and raise a family.

But the secret is out. In a survey titled ‘Leading Places: The 100 Most Loved Destinations around the World for 2021’ the Bellarine placed 25th in the world. It beat Bordeaux in France and Queenstown in New Zealand. It is hardly surprising when you consider the beauty of the Bellarine Peninsula. But as much as we love to showcase it to the world, those who live here know that the Bellarine was at risk of being loved to death by overdevelopment. Protection was needed. The former member for Bellarine Lisa Neville worked hard alongside the community to protect what we hold dear about the Bellarine and established the Bellarine Peninsula distinctive area and landscape. This 50-year policy for the Bellarine is important not only for our environment but to protect our unique historic townships. There are many reasons why we love the Bellarine, and it should be protected and enhanced, not degraded over time.

Arriving at this place does not happen without a village of support. I would like to thank some people who believed in me and put me onto this journey. To the Geelong Labor team – member for Geelong Christine Couzens, member for Lara Ella George, member for South Barwon Darren Cheeseman, member for Western Victoria Gayle Tierney, member for Corangamite Libby Coker – thank you for your support. And to former members Lisa Neville and John Eren: thank you. I would like to thank the Deputy Prime Minister, the Honourable Richard Marles, for his counsel and mentorship.

I would like to thank the unstoppable ALP Bellarine members. To my campaign committee, Tiffany McIntosh, Christian Bayfield, Annie Proctor, John Greenwood, Margaret and Taras Mikulin, Judith Brooks and Lena De Rosso; to Derek Costello and Alan G for their assistance with logistics; to the amazing doorknockers, phone bankers and those who volunteered at pre-poll and on election day, in particular Peter Deering, Athol Johnson, Ged Thompson, Drew English, Grant Marr, Ken Dodemaide, Jim and Phyllis Edmonstone, Lyn Mason, Yasmeen Zohdy, John Scott, Rieny Nieuwenhof, Ian Parsons, Grace Clissold and Michael Tracey; and to the effervescent Rachel Hynds, who led our volunteers with passion and determination, working incredibly hard to tell our Labor story, a massive thankyou. And to all the Labor family and volunteers, who know the importance of Labor governments, thank you for your work across the Bellarine.

To my family, my mum and dad and Damien’s parents, thank you for your unwavering support. To the Bellarine community, thank you for the privilege of representing you. I make it my commitment to work hard every day and deliver the representation you deserve. It is an honour to be the member for Bellarine, and I know my role comes with great responsibility. I hope I can shape solutions and do what is right for the people of the Bellarine based on the values of fairness, equality and compassion. My work will be guided by my commitment to making a positive difference in people’s lives and to seeing the Bellarine continue to thrive.

At the start of this speech I said there was a time when I did not fully appreciate the power of community or know the worth of my place in it. Well, I now know I have found it. I found it in community activism, I found it in the farmers that never give up, I found it in the families that have lost a baby, I found it in the teaching staffroom, I found it across the Bellarine, I found it in Stuart when he told me he needed public transport to get to his medical appointments, I found it in Claire when she worried about her child starting kinder and I found it when young Rose and I spoke about climate action. They will all continue to have a voice in this place, because community will always be at the heart of my decision-making.