My Maiden Speech to Parliament

By Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah MP

01 August 2022

In 2022 the Australian people showed us the way. Self-interest is out and the national interest is in, but it's planetary and interspecies interests that are trending. Our First Nations people have known this for eons. I am looking forward to enshrining their voice in our constitution and embedding their wisdom into our ways. I am honoured to stand on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I am the unlikeliest of politicians: no political experience in the conventional sense, no history with the Labor Party and no political pedigree. People ask: 'How did this happen? How did you make history? How did lifelong conservatives vote Labor?' In no other country nor electorate would my story even be possible.

It was the pandemic that led to my political awakening. In the first half of 2020 I stopped sleeping as I watched healthcare workers in Italy die. Hospitals resembled war zones. Patients lined corridors. Death was everywhere. At my hospital, colleagues in hushed tones disclosed to me concerns about their safety at work. They felt powerless against a medical establishment that steadfastly held that COVID was spread by droplets and surgical masks were fine. At that time vaccines were a pipedream and we were going into battle with sticks rather than lightsabres.

I had to act. I tried corridor diplomacy, but hit brick walls. Aerosol scientists were shouting from the rooftops that COVID was airborne, floating in the air like smoke, slipping through the gaps in our masks and around the perspex screens that had sprung up like weeds. At the time, I would have been safer cracking rocks underground than working on a hospital ward. Miners had access to the best respiratory equipment, like machines that kept deadly particles out of their lungs, and they had the licence of their CEO and board, who were liable if things went wrong. It's a credit to our mining industry and unions that they have these standards.

Meanwhile, nurses and doctors were having the right masks ripped out of their hands due to PPE shortages. Staff infections spread to the community, triggering an extension of lockdowns while we waited for the vaccines to arrive. And we waited—while people got sick or got sick of lockdowns. It was cold comfort to my doctor husband and me that we had sorted out our wills. At least my children would be fine if their parents died. As it transpired, the cure for my insomnia was activism. Speaking truth to power brought a psychic peace. It was my political awakening that helped me sleep.

With like-minded colleagues, I co-founded Health Care Workers Australia and advocated for better: for masks that fitted your face; for transparent reporting of healthcare worker infections, because you can't improve what you can't measure; for recognition that COVID is spread through the air; and for better national guidelines, because they determine our safety in hospitals, aged care, schools and businesses. I urged the then government to broaden our limited vaccine repertoire, because I could see variants coming.

One of my proudest works was the first Australian study documenting the experiences of healthcare workers. 'Hearing the voices of Australian healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic' says it all. Their stories were the reason for the season.

What I've learnt, I now bring to parliament—that is, the need to listen to the front line. Whether it's health care, business or the environment, those at the coalface know the problems and will proffer solutions before they become crises. That is the wisdom of the edge. National leadership that prioritises work health and safety is essential. Healthy, happy workers make the economy hum, especially in mission-critical industries like health care, aged care, education or business. This much we owe to our nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, paramedics, support staff and educators, whose deep wells of altruism are nearly dry. A future CDC must prioritise the welfare of our first responders, because there is no pandemic response without them. Today I pay tribute to my friend Millie, a nurse, and my friends Marco and Sarah, doctors, who are in the gallery.

Watch out for the tail. It has a sting. For COVID, it will be chronic disease and mass illness disrupting lives and constraining our productivity for years to come. This is not inevitable but depends on what we do next. Cleaning the air is one important but neglected lever that will help apply downward pressure. National guidelines on ventilation will empower our people and businesses to stay safe and live more freely. It will spawn a new industry in air safety, making us more resilient against respiratory viruses and a future disease X.

Diversity is the antidote to groupthink, so welcome those contrarian voices. The discomfort leaders like us feel when hearing what we don't like from people with skin in the game is usually a good thing. They are often the truth-tellers.

Finally, be aware that the four most dangerous words in science are, 'there is no evidence'. These four words have shut the gate on life- and economy-saving measures. When there is no evidence, then default to common sense and err on the side of caution until daylight emerges.

After experiencing the powerlessness of not being listened to, I understand the profound power of being heard. It's a lesson I carried with me to the streets and the homes of Higgins. I had thousands of conversations, walking up and down our electorate in my gold runners. It was a real grassroots campaign, powered by the greatest force for good—people.

Higgins is 39 square kilometres—a little bit smaller than Lingiari—and encompasses South Yarra with its famous Chapel Street, the iconic Prahran market, the stately homes of Toorak, the leafy streets of Malvern and Armadale with their vibrant small businesses, south to the multicultural foodie hub of Koornang Road, Carnegie, bordered by the wide, quiet streets of Murumbeena, Glen Iris and Ashburton. Dog walkers abound, parents grab coffees between pick-ups, young people jog the streets, schoolkids jumble into trams. Since its inception in 1949, Higgins has been a Liberal stronghold, until now. It has produced two prime ministers, Gorton and Holt, or four if you include Menzies and Fraser, who lived there. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the former member for Higgins Dr Katie Allen for her contribution to public life.

Higgins is a high-performance electorate where people are self-made or well on the way but disadvantage hides in plain sight. I observed too many young adults in full-time work still tethered to their parents, unable to buy a home. I met a young mum unable to return to full-time work because she could not afford $200 a day on child care. Marion, an educator who had been on a casual contract for over a decade, was now facing the prospect of losing her home because her hours had been cut. A small-business owner cried every night because she is exhausted by the pressures of the past two years. And I lost count of the number of male retirees, and they were always men, who demanded I tax them more because they were appalled at the level of inequality in our society and didn't need the 'welfare'—their words, not mine.

People from every background and belief were inspired to make a change at that election because they understood what it meant for our nation. It is an electorate beating with a lion heart. Dr Ennis, an endocrinologist and Higgins resident of 50 years, sums it up. As a child he asked his father who he should vote for. His father replied: 'Families like ours always do well when the Liberal Party are in government but sometimes you have to do what is best for everyone and what is best for the community. That's why I always vote Labor.' Three days after Dr Ennis died, Higgins returned its first Labor member. Dr Ennis did his bit; now I will do mine.

The people of Higgins will judge us by the force of our actions rather than the froth of our words, as Churchill said. But listening to locals, hearing their stories on front steps and on the end of the phone became for me the reason for the season.

To the people of Higgins: I carry with me your wishes and your worries into government. It is a humbling and heavy responsibility, and I thank you for it.

I could not have climbed this mountain without the support of my incredible volunteer army, the Labor branches who came and gave; my friend the member for Macnamara, who reached out and mentored me; my campaign team, Michael, Josh and Jet; and my Labor colleagues, all here, including the frontbench, pretty much the whole frontbench; and the Prime Minister. I thank them for their generous support. Prime Minister, your calm, considered approach imbued with wisdom and kindness is just the medicine our country needs. To my husband: you are a tower of strength. To my teenagers Annika and Ash: you are far more accomplished than I was at your age. Look outwards always and make a positive contribution to this world.

Today is bittersweet because not everyone could make it. My sister is caring for a child with COVID and my brilliant colleague Nada is laid low with long COVID after two bouts of illness, but she is watching. Such is the pandemic's long-reaching shadow. But we can and must push back against this shadow because our party, after all, is the light on this hill.

Nothing is built without a foundation, and mine was laid by my parents, Robert and Vimala. My father came from a village in northern Sri Lanka, the middle of seven children to a single mother, having lost his own father when he was 12. That he rose to become an accountant and small-business owner raising three professional children is nothing short of a miracle. My mother juggled full-time work and running a home, turning out delicious meals to the strains of Elvis and ABBA. As Tamils, my parents left Sri Lanka in the 1960s due to ethnic tensions. I was born in the UK then moved to Zambia, where I lived for 12 years before coming to Australia on the skilled migration program in 1984 when I was 11. In Zambia, I went on safari in the way my kids go to the beach: gripping on for dear life in the back of a Land Rover, awestruck as a little kid in front of Victoria Falls—a torrent of water known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, 'the smoke that thunders'.

But it was Australia that made me an infectious diseases and general medicine physician, an academic, an activist and now a parliamentarian. What a country! My story is one of intergenerational upward mobility, where education and hard work bent the arc of our lives. But that wasn't all. A person like me, who has experienced more headwinds than tailwinds, benefited from the Hawke and Keating economic legacy, a Catholic education and a cohesive society that welcomed a stranger.

We have a lexicon for economic progress, ranging from GDP to unemployment figures, but we lack the language for social cohesion. And yet it is like money in the bank: social capital put away in good times to be drawn down in bad. As a migrant, I have watched with alarm as words used in this chamber ricochet around the country, tearing at our social fabric. Spillover effects are acts of hate on our streets against Asians, Jews, Muslims, people of colour, the gender diverse. And the gun gets fired here. We have a choice. We can accept the politics of division or devalue that currency to junk. I am proud that the Australian people and the people of Higgins did just that. 'Do better,' they cried. The triumph of modern Australia—a diverse multicultural nation—is worth celebrating every single day. Social capital is our true sovereign wealth fund that, if managed well, will pay a dividend to us, its shareholders, forever.

Standing in this chamber, I still feel the pull of medicine: a rewarding career of service and advocacy that will be extended here. I saw, for 25 years, the sins of society wash up in our public hospital system: homelessness, poor education, childhood trauma, social isolation, poverty, racism, unemployment and climate change. According to the WHO, these so-called social determinants of health can account for over half of all health outcomes, where one problem reinforces another. Health is all about context. For example, diabetes clusters with poor nutrition and poverty. The Lancet describes syndemics, the synergistic interaction of social, economic and environmental factors. It's a framework relevant to our future CDC but just as pertinent to this place too. I prescribed pills for problems rooted in disadvantage. But these are problems that need a parliament, not a prescription pad.

As a doctor, I saw things as they were. Now, as a parliamentarian, I see things as they could be. The venerated fair go, much like our safety at work, does not happen by luck. Barriers must be identified and dismantled, like inequality and unconscious bias so that, as Kennedy said, man has the freedom to grow to his full stature. Structural reforms must be introduced and embedded until they become part of the furniture, like Labor's Medicare. For women, the motherhood penalty clips our wings just as we unfurl them after years of slog and study. In the blur of home and work, years slip by, and ambition is dimmed until it snuffs out altogether. That double shift nearly broke me, which is why I am delighted that child care has been elevated in the economic agenda. With mountains of work to do, who can afford to leave the talent of women on the table? It makes me proud that the Labor caucus is now 52 per cent women—and they are fierce. And 50 per cent of our new Labor members are from culturally diverse backgrounds, including First Nations. It makes me even prouder that Higgins had something to do with this high watermark.

Within the seams of the bedrock of our ancient land, like precious ores, lie new ways of thinking. The One Health model encompassing human, animal and environmental health immediately elevates stewardship. Our First Nations have known this all along. We cannot privilege one above the other, because we are nourished both physically and spiritually by the natural world.

Climate change is the threat multiplier, adding pressure to every system and every sector in society, but its effects will be unequally felt, so ironing out inequality now is a matter of urgency. Obama said: 'We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.'

Our journey to a low-emission future will be contingent on taking our coal and gas communities along. We owe them much, and we are, after all, the party of the Hunter and Higgins—a broad church indeed! A land crisscrossed by zero emission high-speed rail will bring our regions closer to us and us to them, triggering a regional boom. On intergenerational justice, the cries are only getting louder. An affordable home backed by secure work is like the warmth of a million suns. It should be the norm, not the exception.

Innovation will be key to solving many of these challenges. For that, we must again embrace the power of listening. As a nation we produce excellent research but need to do better at commercialising it. Our PhDs want to be CEOs of their own start-ups. I was a Research Australia finalist last year for my work on artificial intelligence but had been underfunded for years. It shouldn't be this hard. Unless things change, and fast, we will continue to lose our best young minds in The Hunger Games of funding. In Higgins I met John, a postdoc who was taking up a biomedical fellowship in the US because he felt like Australia had given up on him.

To get great research into the market requires the science of implementation, but implementation science withers on the vine if we devalue the humanities, our creatives and social sciences. There is a big difference between inventing vaccines in the lab and getting them into arms—one is a science, the other an art. Different but complementary skills are needed, so let's usher in a flourishing of enterprise, embracing the diversity that makes us stronger than the sum of our parts.

It is said that the people perish when there is no vision. Mine is for an inclusive, sustainable and competitive Australia. As a nation, we have an embarrassment of riches, hearts bursting with aspirations, bodies alive with animal spirits and brains fizzing with ideas. Our task as leaders is to listen to our front line and knock down their barriers, rejecting short-termism in favour of generational investment—raising, not dimming, ambition so that our people take flight and soar. Because only by unifying, empowering and electrifying our people can we reach that cleaner, greener, fairer future. I thank the House.