VALEDICTORY SPEECH

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:18): I would like to first acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area, and the Dharawal people, who are the traditional custodians of the lands of my area. I pay my deep respects to their past elders as well as my respect and great appreciation to current and emerging leaders in my community with whom I have had the great privilege of working.

I rise today to deliver my valedictory with mixed emotions. I am very conscious of the fact that, in deciding to not contest the next election, like other colleagues who have done this, we get the opportunity to deliver a valedictory. This makes me very aware that there are also members who don't get this opportunity. So I do feel some ambivalence about delivering this speech.

I am aware that the challenges that face those who are returned or elected for the first time at the next election are extraordinarily significant for the future of their community and the nation. The challenges all our communities have experienced since early 2020 have profoundly revealed aspects of our society and economy that have not been operating in the most effective way for all Australians. The challenges of disconnection from community, from health services, from dignified and reliable work and from educational opportunities have been highlighted during this time. The more vulnerable in our communities were the hardest hit by the necessary shifts made to how we operate.

We saw this impact directly in my community too. People in casual and contract work and people in sectors not provided support from government were laid off. Frontline workers in often-underpaid sectors were stretched to their limits in stepping up to do their jobs to protect their community. Families were juggling work from home and homeschooling in partnership with our schools, often without good broadband connection. The challenges that were faced and met showed the great resilience of our community but also showed where we need to improve for the future. We must learn lessons from this period and deliver better policy legislation and programs to strengthen and improve, not just slip back into the same flawed structures.

These sorts of challenges for reform and growth of our economy and society have always been part of the great Australian Labor Party project and part of the purpose of the broader Labor movement. I wish all strength to our Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, to our talented and dedicated frontbench and to our whole Labor team. It's clear from already-announced policies across climate and environment, across infrastructure, industry and manufacturing, across workplace relations and job security, and across social supports and an inclusive society that they are already well advanced in offering to Australians at the next election the solutions we need to emerge stronger and more inclusive after this challenging time. I anticipate, with great joy, celebrating election night with our local team, cheering on an Albanese Labor government being elected.

It has been an enormous honour and a great joy to represent my local community in this parliament. I am acutely conscious that public debate has become more fractured and uncivil over recent years. But I have to say that local people have almost always approached me, on the multitude of traditional and new platforms available to them, with civility and respect. Even when they profoundly disagree with my view or position on an issue, they express that to me passionately but civilly. It's my sincere hope that we can all continue to debate the great and the small issues with passion and conviction in a robust debate that challenges our thinking but never sinks to aggressive or, indeed, violent expression. Thank you to each and every person across my community who has supported me, challenged me and disagreed with me but also trusted me to be their voice in this place. I will continue to do this job for you with all my heart and energy up until the election.

Now I begin my extensive thankyous; I promised the whip I'd keep to time! After nearly 18 years in this job this is an extensive list, because to be effective in this job requires working with so many others to achieve results. I actually first came to work in this place in 1995 as a staffer for former member for Throsby Colin Hollis. Can I just give a shout-out to all staffers, whose commitment and dedication to public service is such an important part of our work. It's not my view that this isn't a legitimate pathway, among many others, for someone who decides to put themselves forward to represent their community in public office.

When I returned to work in this place as the member for Cunningham after the 2004 election, it was with a profound sense of honour and responsibility. The nature of the job has certainly changed significantly over the following years. When I was first elected I had a MySpace account and a mobile phone that was not internet connected. I am ambivalent about the rapid pace of technological changes, as to whether they have helped or hindered in doing my job.

Over those years, I have experienced nearly all the variety of opportunities for participation. I've been in opposition and government—yes, government is better! I've been a backbench MP, a parliamentary secretary and then a minister, a shadow minister, a committee chair, a deputy chair, a committee member and a member of the Speaker's panel. I've been present at some of the most moving and powerful expressions of humanity and celebration in this chamber: Prime Minister Rudd's delivery of the apology to the stolen generations, the achievement of marriage equality, the delivery of legislation for a national disability insurance scheme and the first day of the first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, just to name a few that come to mind. There have been so many moments of humanity, humour and challenge, big and small, in speeches and special occasions. I will never forget being introduced to President Barack Obama by Prime Minister Julia Gillard or my brief moment speaking to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

We don't always cover ourselves in glory in this place, but the outpouring of support and appreciation by the Australian community when we reflect hope and optimism does show us how much they crave this from us all. Participating effectively and fully in all that goes on in this place relies on some wonderful professional people who support this work. I would like to acknowledge the impressive professional staff in this place who support the work of committees, those in the Parliamentary Library, all of the Clerk's team, the dedicated, quiet people around us every day, such as our attendants and cleaners, and the myriad of other staff who keep our show on the road.

One of the other aspects of the Canberra part of this job that I enjoy is catching up with colleagues from around the country, hearing how things are going in their local area, giving and receiving friendship and support and working together on important issues. Over nearly 18 years, of course, some of these have come from the other side, but I won't name them. I do appreciate the friendship in competition that has been extended by quite a few over the years. In my own party I've been blessed with a richness of friends and colleagues who have inspired me, supported me and challenged me to be better. Many are not here anymore, and I can't possibly name them all, but I do want to single out Prime Ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, who both expressed confidence in me by appointing me to ministerial roles and who it was a great honour to work with. I've been proud of the leadership of Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese. It has been an enormous honour to work with you as part of your teams over these years in opposition, which I am certain will end with a move to the other side of this place.

It won't surprise anyone that I would in my valedictory refer to my long-time policy passion for the education sector—our schools, our TAFEs and apprenticeship system and our university sector. I've been privileged to work with many colleagues on this policy area, and I certainly look forward to a stronger future for it under my inspiring colleagues future minister Tanya Plibersek and minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles.

I'd like to give a special thank you to my class of 2004 colleagues, whose friendship and support has been wonderful—you'll be glad we were a fairly small class—particularly to my best mate, Justine Elliot, who is hiding behind me here, who has listened to all my problems over the years and celebrated the good times with me. Justine did a Facebook post when I announced my decision. She said:
Sharon and I were elected together in 2004, and we've famously voted opposite ways in EVERY single Labor leadership ballot since then. Despite that, we've always remained great friends.

Absolutely, Justine, and we will remain great friends too!

Our class included other great friends: Kate Ellis and Peter Garrett, who are already out in the post-parliamentary world; my good friends Chris Hayes and Julie Owens, who are heading out with me; and the rest of the amigos who stay on to fight the good fight—Chris Bowen, Tony Burke and Steve Georganas.

I have been privileged to work with so many of you wonderful Labor people, including those who were here when I arrived like Anthony, Tanya, Joel, Cathy, Brendan, Anthony, Warren and Maria. Each of you, at different times and in different ways, has offered me support and friendship, and I thank you. So many amazing people have joined our team since I was first elected. I am inspired after each election at the quality, passion and dedication that new members bring to our caucus. I see all of you now contributing as shadow ministers, as policy thinkers, as community advocates and as colleagues, and you fill me with great confidence in the future.

Of course, the last 18 years have most importantly involved working in partnership with so many wonderful local people—peak organisations and community groups across the Cunningham electorate. Every aspect of my job has been strengthened by the advice, feedback and support they have provided in advancing the interests of our wonderful community. Thank you to each and every one of you.

There is Arthur Rorris and the South Coast Labour Council and all the affiliates. Arthur is one of the only local leaders to be in his role for longer than me, and I have valued his advice and support. And I give a shout out to my own unions over my working life who are affiliates, the NSW Teachers Federation and the Transport Workers Union.

There is Adam Zarth and the previous leaders of the Illawarra Business Chamber as well as smaller chambers such as Port Kembla and Northern Illawarra, and I give a special shout out to Paul Boultwood of Corrimal Chamber.

There is Deb Murphy and the team, past and present, at RDA Illawarra.

There is Nicky Sloan and the affiliates and team at the Community Industry Group.

There are all of our amazing local multicultural organisations and support groups, with a special thanks to some who have worked with me since I was elected: Ken Habak and Chris Lacey and the team at MCCI and SCARF Refugee Support, and Giovanna Cardamone and the team at ltSoWel.

There are our tremendous disability support employers and support organisations: Chris Christodolou and the whole team at Greenacres, Roy Rogers and the team at Flagstaff, and Margaret Bowen and the team at The Disability Trust. These leaders have also been serving their community for nearly all of my time, but there are so many more with other groups and organisations that I have been privileged to work and campaign with for a fairer future for people with a disability.

There are so many other church and charity groups doing really important work in our community, and they have really been called on during bushfires and COVID even more. The fact that there are too many to name individually shows how strong our communities are and how compassionate they are towards the needy and vulnerable.

We have a truly impressive group of surf clubs—Matt Thistlethwaite knows them well—with a long history of community service, and it's been a great privilege for me to help out you and your volunteers whenever I can. I know none of you would resent my singling out of the most amazing man, who we recently and unexpectedly lost, Keith 'Cocky' Caldwell. He never ceased informing, engaging and, of course, lobbying me on all surf club issues, not only for his beloved Bulli club but for the whole movement.
Our community is also extremely well supported by our local RSL clubs, not only through their holding of important services throughout the year but also through the welfare and support services they provide to our veterans. It's been an honour to work with all of you and, again, I'm sure you will be okay with me singling out today the extraordinary service of our beloved Peter Poulton, who we sadly lost recently. I missed your presence on Remembrance Day, Peter.

As a former teacher, I have loved working with all our local childcare and education providers, our local schools, our local TAFE and our world-famous university. There are so many impressive educational leaders adding greatly to our community. I would like to specifically acknowledge the leaders of our uni over my time, who have partnered with me in achieving significant investments in expanding the research and teaching facilities that have helped the economic diversification of our region—mainly achieved under federal Labor government investments, I will say. I offer thanks to Gerard Sutton, Paul Wellings and our new VC, Patricia Davidson. It is so wonderful to see the first woman, and a former nurse, heading our university.

I'm not sure if I am thanking the following organisations as 'partners' other than in the important work that we both do on Australian democracy, so thanks for that to ABC Illawarra, i98FM, WAVE FM, the Illawarra Mercury and WIN TV. As is fitting, our relationship has been robust, but I've valued the service to our community that you all seek to provide and your civil and professional engagement with me. All strength to local trusted news providers!

Now for another very special group of people who share the work of advocating and fighting for our local area with me. When I was first elected my neighbouring federal colleague was Jennie George. Jennie is a great advocate for Labor women, and she became a great friend and mentor to me. When she retired, she was succeeded by my very good friend and colleague Stephen Jones. Stephen, it has been an honour and a pleasure to work with you and your team over the years.

I've been blessed also with a wonderful team of state Labor colleagues: my longtime friend and supporter who's become a strong and well-regarded local leader in his own right, Paul Scully, the member for Wollongong; the energetic and well-respected Ryan Park, the member for Keira; and, whilst her seat doesn't overlap with mine, she's been a strong voice for us in regional campaigns, Anna Watson, the member for Shellharbour. There have also been many terrific Labor councillors I have worked with over the years, and I hope to see more of you elected at the soon to be held—of course, this Saturday; don't forget to vote everyone!—local government elections. I've not had the great joy of working with a Labor mayor, but I certainly hope to close my time in this job, for how ever many months that may be, working with the first female Lord Mayor of Wollongong, Labor's fabulous Tania Brown.

As many of you would know, both here in Canberra and in our electorates, every aspect of our work is sustained by the day in, day out work of our dedicated electorate staff. I've been truly blessed with the people who have worked with me over my time. I often boast that one of my most important successes in this role is being able to identify, recruit and keep incredible individuals who love our community as much as I do and who go above and beyond to help those who came to us in need. Thank you to my dearest friend and long-time colleague Alison Byrnes; my amazing current team, Dionne Garcia, Nathan Brown, Idalina Guerreiro, Donna Tetley and Frances Kerkham; and to my past staff.

Our Labor team in Wollongong across all levels relies on the strength and wisdom of the wonderful people who are our rank-and-file members. Their compassion and commitment to the cause of Labor, to the people we seek to speak up for and deliver better policies to, and their tireless efforts in policy discussions and campaigning are the work on which we all perform our roles. These party members selected me to represent them as their candidate to win back Cunningham in 2004, and they have supported me ever since. Thank you to each and every one of you. My efforts were strengthened and improved by your assistance to me.

Finally, my thank you to the group of people who've encouraged me, supported me, hugged me in hard times, fed me in busy times, pushed me to greater efforts if I get discouraged, loved me and given to me endlessly over the nearly eighteen years—the people I want to prioritise in my life now, as they have prioritised me for so long—my family. They mean the world to me, and I know they already know how much I thank them for all that they do for me, but I want to say thank you.

Thank you to Mum and Dad, Kev and Bev Reed. I hope Mum got the feed working okay on her iPad today! What you've given me over my lifetime and how you've taken pride and provided support to my public life cannot be contained in words.

Thank you to my amazing sons, whose values and character make me so proud and who have loved and supported me every step of this journey—Michael and Chris, and our much loved addition to our family, Chris's partner Youngchae.

I've been blessed to be the big sister of four wonderful brothers, who have also been happy to support and encourage me at all times, as have their children, my many fabulous nieces and nephews. Thank you all. Thank you, Kev and Sharon, Rod and Dana, Anthony and Brett and Radmilla.

Thank you, Gino—my partner and greatest supporter and rock of stability. Never during all the time I have walked this public life journey have you ever expressed frustration or shown doubt. You have unstintingly backed me 100 per cent. I love you deeply and am endlessly grateful to have you in my life.

The other blessing Gino brought to me was a beautiful step-daughter, Ellie, and my in-laws, Alex, who we don't have with us any longer, and my lovely mother-in-law, Enza. Now in my life I also have Ellie, her partner Nick and the absolute joy of my life, my grandchildren—Anton, who is nine and who is very upset at not being able to boast about who his nana is for much longer, and Sienna, who is four. Now, my little loves, you won't have to video call me and ask, 'When do you get back from Canberra, Nana?'

Being the member for Cunningham has been a privilege, an honour and a responsibility only made possible because of so many other wonderful people and my extraordinary electorate—thank you!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta): I thank the honourable member for Cunningham, and, as a member of the class of 2004, we wish her all the very best in the future.

 

Watch Sharon’s speech here.