Maiden Speech

In the early hours of 3 July 1995, I was overcome with the emotion of what I believed was a miracle, the birth of our first child—a son, Sam.

Exactly 21 years later in the early hours of 3July 2016, Sam’s 21st birthday and the day after the federal election, I awoke suddenly and emotionally from a restless sleep and my thoughts and dreams went to my late father, Sofoulis Phillip Lolatgis. I imagined dad would be doing a Greek dance with those robust, jubilant and warm Mediterranean characteristics, which I used to find embarrassing as a child. Dad would have thought the miracle was that his baby girl, as he used to call me well into adulthood, was elected to be a member of the parliament of Australia.

Dad would have believed in a miracle not because he did not have immeasurable faith in me, rather because of how far and inconceivable this moment was from when he first landed in Australia in 1949 as a 15-year-old migrant boy from Greece who could not speak a word of English and who fled post-war poverty without his parents.

My mother, Helen Lolatgis nee Malios, who is in the gallery today and of Greek migrant heritage, was born in Australia. My mother was denied an education for different reasons than that of my father. Mum could not realise her aspiration to become a nurse not just because of her cultural upbringing but also because of her gender. Mum’s two brothers, one older and one younger than her, had become doctors.

My father arrived here in 1949, the same year the division of Chisholm, located in Melbourne’s east, was created and contested. It is particularly fitting that the electorate of Chisholm, which I now proudly serve as a member of this House, was named after Caroline Chisholm, who was a strong advocate for migration and helped women as a social worker.

My parents and ancestors, like many of the people of Chisholm, had come, in the words of our national anthem, ‘across the seas’ and ‘toiled with hearts and hands’. They came from the United Kingdom, China, India, Greece, Italy, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Korea to name a few, and have combined to make Chisholm the third most culturally diverse electorate in Australia.

They brought with them different languages, food, music and dance—all key elements which define a different culture.

In Chisholm, which covers 65 square kilometres, one can enjoy in any one weekend the community life of Aussie Rules football, netball and other sporting pursuits; the great Aussie barbecue; the vibrancy and richness of the Chinese festivals; the smells and delights of so many different Asian cuisines; the colour, vibrancy and warmth of the Indian community; and the life, movement and love of family events of Greek and Italian culture. The people of Chisholm contribute every single day, probably unwittingly so, by embracing different languages, food and culture to create this diverse Australian life and the most successful multicultural nation on this earth.

Chisholm is the home of many fine learning institutions and schools such as Deakin University and Australia’s largest university, Monash University in Clayton, where my brother studied medicine and I studied arts law. Chisholm is a place of so many sporting communities such as the Waverley Gymnastics Centre, the home of female Olympians, and the Waverley District Netball Association, both of which I remain committed to support. Chisholm is a place where the liberal values of individual enterprise are at work every day for thousands of small business owners or where the innovative and caring hearts and expert minds are at work–of health professionals, including the doctors and nurses from the Box Hill and Monash hospitals. Chisholm is filled with good, honest, hardworking Australians who pursue life and the dignity of work, and provide wonderful community services and events, and help those who need assistance—from the Box Hill RSL, Rotary clubs, Crossway LifeCare, many elderly citizens clubs, various neighbourhood houses and community and health services to the many volunteers, including school and kinder, parents and friends who all give of themselves.

Amidst all these activities in Chisholm, so many different languages are spoken and English is the second language for many—language, the key source of quality connection with people. Growing up, we always spoke. English at home, though I learnt to speak Greek and French.

To honour the people of Chisholm of any migrant heritage who have come to this vast island across the seas, I say this in the language of my immigrant heritage, albeit that this is my second language with an Australian accent:

‘Tha eimai panta perifani na eime I foni ya tous Anthropos tou Chisholm. Ke panta tha statho ya agapi ke sevasmo, ikogennia ke I axioprepreia tis ergasisias, ke isi efkairies.’

To all, in Australian English the translation is:

‘I will always be proud to be the voice for the people of Chisholm.My commitment is to always stand for love and respect, the dignity of work and equal opportunity.’

In my early years, prejudice and discrimination shattered my childhood world. Despite what I would describe as my very Aussie upbringing and seeing myself as an Australian girl who occasionally also enjoyed the joys of Greek food and functions, I did not know what a boy at primary school meant when he said to me, ‘Wog, go back to your home country.’ ‘Home?’ I asked myself. I was born and raised and knew and loved no other country than Australia as my home. I did not know the meaning of the word ‘wog’ and the first thing I did when I got home from school that day was to look up the word in my brother’s dictionary. Incredulously, I read the definition over and over: ‘Someone of dark skin who is foreign to the land on which he lives.’ I was hurt more by the tone of the word and less by its definition. I felt ugly, scared and very alone.

I am a passionate believer in free speech, the hallmark of liberalism and our democracy. I have a deep-seated respect for the Australian people and for their ability to have their say respectfully in this our great democracy. ‘Hate speech’ is simply not part of Australia’s moral code, regardless of our views. However, whilst this was just a primary school playground experience, it sowed the seeds for my belief that public figures, and those who have a big share of voice in the media and other forums, have a higher duty of care and responsibility to think before they write and speak. This is not ‘political correctness gone mad’; rather, that those who have this voice should apply the test of respect and responsibility, and ask themselves: how would that Australian child who is watching or reading this feel? I suspect the same way I felt that day at primary school.

Fast-forward many years to the period during the election campaign. My opponents referred to me in a spiteful and negative tone as a ‘corporate high-flying lawyer’—like it was a bad thing—and impliedly an ‘absent, neglectful mother’. I was someone who was ‘out of touch’, they declared, whose objective in running for parliament was merely a ‘grab for power’. To work and to have career success does not mean that one does not love or care— be they a man or a woman.

I also believe children do not need what is known as the traditional family unit of a stay-at-home mum and working dad to thrive in this country. Rather, children only need two things in life: love and stability. This has been proven to me by my parents, my relatives, my friends and my work colleagues throughout my life.

My husband, Mike, and I raised our two children on the same basis. My son and daughter: the only two people in the world who have enabled me to feel the feeling of unconditional love. At the same time, I make no apologies for engaging and pursuing my life aligned to the values of hard, roll-up-your-sleeves work, the dignity of work, creating businesses small or large, employing people and the fundamental liberal value of individual enterprise.

My pursuit for individual enterprise is no different to the thousands of people in Chisholm who get up every day to go to work in their offices, schools, hospitals, community centres or at one of the 15,000 small businesses—the backbone of our country. My desire to run for parliament was not a grab for power; rather, it came from  the heart. I believe the phrase ‘work-life balance’ should be replaced with ‘work-love balance’. Entwined in my day job in the business world I love being an advocate, a supporter and a mentor for many, in particular for women and for people of different cultural heritage. To be that advocate on a broader platform is underpinned by my genuine heartfelt belief that my life and work experience would enable me to fulfil this role to be thevoice for people like me.

A great joy for me during what was effectively a year-long campaign since my preselection in August 2015 was talking and connecting with thousands of people across Chisholm. One of my most poignant moments was after a conversation with a woman I had just met at a shopping centre, during which I had shared the two-minute version of my life journey. She became quite emotional and teary and said, ‘I see the story of your journey in mine.’ Experience defines our story and experience is something we can acquire throughout our life journey in love and in work.

The story of my journey is that I am an ordinary person and not someone who hails from the political rich or privileged elite. I am someone who has never worked within the iron fist of the trade unionist movement and who is not a career politician. I am a daughter of parents who were denied an education but who worked hard with optimism and faith in this country at two, and sometimes three, jobs so they could hope to provide their children with schools of their choice.

I am the daughter whose mother, with tears in her eyes during financial struggles and woes, urged her to work hard at an education and never, ever to be financially dependent on anyone.  The child who enjoyed simple pleasures in a loving environment learnt early in life that a barbeque was a claimed Australian ritual, that moussaka is an equally nice meal, and that Chinese food and fish and chips are two great Australian Friday night treats.

I am the young student who when she graduated had no connections and struggled for a job, and after 100 applications was knocked back because she was female and the employer wanted ‘a male, not a young Greek girl’. But this was countered by being grateful for the many inspiring teachers and university lecturers during my student days, and the adventure and excitement of the various job opportunities that came my way—learning from the good jobs and the challenging ones.

I am the young woman who has experienced sexist comments throughout her working life, but that was counterbalanced by many good bosses and leaders and wonderful mentors, who saw in me that I just wanted to do the best job I could for my employer—from the start of my work journey and my student days selling Easter eggs in Eaton Mall in Oakleigh through to my becoming a young professional lawyer, a senior business executive, company director, board member and chief general counsel.

I am the woman who, in her late 20s, when applying for a home mortgage with her husband, was told by the bank manager that they would only take her husband’s income into account, as she was of child-bearing age.

I am the junior company lawyer who calmly walked past unionist wolf whistles on a picket line to attend a management meeting, but who shook with fear because, by the time the meeting had finished, the unionists had found out her Greek heritage and that she worked for the employer. As I tried to drive away from the factory, they threw themselves on the bonnet of my car, rocked it backwards and forwards and slammed their faces against the windows as they called me a wog—that word again—as well as other obscenities that went to my gender.

I am the woman who, at the age of 29, became one of the one-in-two Australians who have cancer enter their lives. I endured surgery and treatment and was completely cured. In only the unique way cancer can be a teacher, it taught me resilience and courage and to always count my blessings for my loved ones and friends, who supported me in my darkest hours. Consequently, my empathy and support for those who have experienced the same comes readily and intuitively.

I am the young mother who experienced the pure joy of motherhood, including the feeling of excitement to have been reunited with my kids at the end of each working day or business trip. I am the young mother who spent until 4 am with a very sick baby son with croup in a steaming bathroom just wanting the coughing and the crying to stop, whilst knowing I would be torn away in a few hours to go to an important work meeting.

I am the mother who cried all the way driving to work, or to the airport, with the sounds of my child crying in my ears. My tears stopped as I knew in my heart that ultimately I was a better mother as a working mother, and travel was a mandatory part of my role and my career.

I am the woman who equally loves, cherishes and enjoys the counsel and company of those older than me and those younger than me, the woman who has treasured time with her friends—male and female—who are always there for me. I always do my best to be there for them during the highs and lows of their personal relationships, births, marriages, miscarriages, the perils of IVF and adoption barriers, career successes and job promotions, and the loss of loved ones and the joys of life.

I am the person who has travelled far and wide for her job but who always tears up when the flight attendant says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Melbourne; and if Melbourne is your home, welcome home.’

My journey in life and work continues, and that is why for the people of Chisholm I will be the person who will listen more than I talk and who genuinely feels the honour of working for such good people.

The first time I heard our national anthem was before it was our national anthem. It was a moving performance of the song at my older brother’s school speech night. Over 600 boys bellowed out the song, and whilst I so enjoyed the performance I wondered why the lyrics were ‘Australia’s sons let us rejoice’. I was quietly delighted and thought it wonderful when I found out that these lyrics were later changed to become ‘Australians all let us rejoice’.

Women represent roughly 50 per cent of the people of Chisholm, as they do the Australian population. However, women are not equally represented in leadership positions in business, politics or our communities.

During the election campaign, at a public forum, one of my opponents argued that policies and positions were not feasible because the Australian parliament is full of white, grey-haired men.’ It is ironic that an ageist and sexist comment is reversed directed.

I have worked in the world of business for over 25 years in large matrix organisations alongside CEOs and heads of business. Most of them have been white, grey-haired men, and many of them great leaders. One of our greatest prime ministers was a great, white-haired man and a great leader, as is indeed is our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

I believe men—young, middle-aged and, indeed, white, grey-haired men—care as passionately about gender equality as to women. Many of them have daughters, granddaughters and great grand-daughters, and they would want an equal world for them. I do not believe that the other side of the House owns the cause for women or that the cause for women is progressed by demonising or labelling men any more than I think it is right to denigrate someone’s views, work or life due to their older age.

True gender equality will only evolve in Australia if men and women work on it together, no matter their gender, age, race, sexuality or ethnicity.

Australia does not have the seriousness of gender inequality that is faced in other parts of the world where there is sharia law or experiences like that of Malala, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for arguing that young girls deserve the right to education. Nonetheless, gender equality is necessary for the future prosperity of our country, our economy and our future.

We have laws for equal opportunity, however we still are not represented in equal measure. The most serious, insidious and powerful barrier to gender equality is hidden, entrenched and unconscious. In business it has been proven that like recruits like, and unconscious bias and discrimination will always intervene. This makes the concept of meritocracy flawed. To say that women are not up to it or cannot get there simply because of their biological function is blinkered. Put simply, an equal number of women to men have merit in this country.

Those on the other side crow about their comparative numbers of women, but this is not just a numbers game. Notwithstanding their quota system, factional power plays and unconscious bias still take hold. Reportedly, this country’s first and only female Prime Minister was preselected thanks to Labor’s quota system but, nevertheless, overlooked two Labor women and endorsed at a preselection one of the so-called faceless men who had previously supported her in her leadership grab for the top job. Women alone cannot resolve this debate and often are their worst enemy. Equally, it is never right to say never.

It is true to say that women have borne the brunt of the caring responsibilities, but it is not right to say that we will never achieve a fifty-fifty ratio simply because that has been the case historically. This is the modern world. Increasingly, men and women share the responsibilities of domestic life and child care.

I believe authentic feminism practised by men and women alike and underpinned by structural mechanisms will pave the way to address the complex and multidimensional issue of gender equality, where men support men and women and where women support men and women—that is, the cause for gender equality comes   the hearts and minds of men and women.

Financial independence for women is key to our country’s success, from an economic and social perspective. From a productivity and intergenerational perspective and given our ageing population, there must be increased participation of women in the workforce and, indeed, increased representation of women in leadership. A stay-at-home parent needs to ensure themselves that financial independence is always readily within reach. Absence from the workplace due to child bearing, child care or caring for the elderly demands an increasing need for flexible workplaces, and our policies are specifically designed to help those who want to work to work more and those on the lowest incomes. The employer needs to embrace flexible and part-time work as the norm rather than a curious favour for both men and women, but this agile, flexible workplace cannot be achieved by women alone.

Unconscious bias is here to stay. We all have it. We need to implement measures which ensure a diversity of unconscious bias. The business world, across industries, has always made the business case and understands that diversity deliver success. However, this happens only when real, substantive, measurable mechanisms are implemented to increase representation of women in leadership positions—measurable, achievable targets for which leaders demonstrate their accountability. In the recruitment phase, all employers, as many currently do, should request an equal number of male and female shortlists. In politics, preselection candidate pools should be equally balanced by gender and, indeed, preselectors should be equally balanced in terms of gender and age. That is, the level playing field will only be created by having and insisting on the quality of numbers which will ensure diversity of bias.

The impact of male and female models who reverse traditional roles should not be underestimated. The pursuit of gender equality is intrinsically linked to love and respect and the dignity of work. Our economy and our future do not have the luxury for those who, as a woman disparagingly said to my mother in the seventies that, unlike my mother, ‘she didn’t need to work.’

As has been said before, those who can work should and those who cannot should be helped and supported. Embracing the dignity of work in all its forms is our future and should be shared. The glass ceiling has been discussed ad nauseam, but it cannot simply be broken by women alone. Rather, it can only be lifted out, removed and taken away by men and women together so that our businesses, our parliaments and our communities are representative of the diversity of our great people.

I am a proud member of this Liberal family, as the values of love and family as a priority, individual enterprise and equal opportunity are in our DNA. There are so many in the Liberal family to thank for my journey thus far, including those in the gallery and in this House and others at home watching and listening, but by naming them I risk not mentioning some who are equally deserving of mention. My journey continues, and albeit I am a new member, I am sure that many of my new future friends in the Liberal Party—and my current ones—will remain as enduring friendships for my life’s journey. I thank you all.

My life’s journey would not have been as joyous without my late father—rest assured, Dad, your baby girl knows you are watching and Greek dancing; in fact, if you were here now, you would probably be dancing in the gallery, embarrassing me again—my brother Anthony, my uncle John, their families, my relatives and friends, and particularly my group of women friends; and my beautiful mum, Helen, my greatest role model, who planted the seeds of my passion for gender equality. As a child and through life, nothing took place for me until I told my mum. To my great life love, my husband Mike, to whom I said over 25 years ago, ‘I do not want to imagine life without you.’ I mean that more with each day we are together.

Some 18 months after the birth of our son, Sam, our daughter Emma came into the world. Emma and I had our first mother-daughter connection when she was only a few hours old. We were alone together, and I held her in my arms. I whispered to her cherubic, peaceful face that I would do everything in my life to make the world a better place for her and a place where she has opportunities equal to those of her brother. I did not say this to baby Sam when he was a newborn, but I say it to Sam equally now as I did to Emma then. Only as men and women together will we create true gender equality. Just as I say to my children, I say to all young men and women who are experiencing the story of their journey: know that our greatest strength comes from what unites us rather than what divides us; embrace your future journey with love, respect and a vast diversity of friends, and love them regardless of their gender, age, sexuality or ethnicity; navigate the roadblocks, the stops and the detours from the experience and wisdom of those before you, but have the courage, the confidence, the drive and the creative imagination to navigate many of those future roadblocks yourself; and live your life with love, respect and the dignity of work, for what we all have in common is that this is our home where we as Australians can all rejoice.

I thank you, Mr Speaker.

Julia Banks September 15th 2016

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