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Inaugural Speech – Address in Reply

Wednesdsay 11 February 2015

Mr DIMOPOULOS (Oakleigh) — It is a great honour to be here today to deliver my inaugural speech in the address-in-reply debate. Congratulations on your election, Speaker. I listened with much warmth to your speech and the extraordinary path you have travelled, and I wish you well in the coming years.

Firstly, I thank the people of the Oakleigh electorate for their faith in me and Labor. They have sent me here, and it is to them that I owe my primary duty. I intend to repay that incredible trust.

We all have mentors, whether we call them that or not. We all have people who have created paths for us in our chosen fields. For me in politics that person is Ann Barker. Labor would not have been successful in Oakleigh without Ann Barker winning and holding the seat for four terms. Ann is real; there is no pretence. You are never left wondering how Ann feels about anything. She is fiercely loyal, and if you are in the fight of your life, you want Ann and Jim by your side. Many of us here are well aware of Ann’s contribution to public life in Victoria and Oakleigh, much of which is on the public record, but a lot more is done quietly without any of the recognition it so deserves. The Barkers have been at the core of my Labor family for 20 years and there are few words to express my gratitude and love for them.

Like many of us in this place, our electorates are not only a political story but a personal one. Perhaps I do not look it, but I was born on the first day of the Whitlam government. I grew up in a working class suburb, was raised by a Marxist father, went to public schools, joined the union at 15, worked in the public service and, to top it off, served on Monash City Council, so I was destined to be a Labor man.

The Oakleigh electorate is an articulate, strong, close-knit and culturally diverse community. It has unique retail and business centres, it is home to Australia’s largest university and it is a key part of Melbourne’s biggest employment cluster. Oakleigh is well known as the epicentre of Hellenic Australia. In fact when Greek prime ministers and dignitaries plan trips to Australia, Oakleigh is specifically written into their itineraries. I am eternally proud of and grateful for two things: that I was born in Australia and that I can lay some small claim to a 5000-year Hellenic heritage, extraordinary in its scope and depth. I am proud to be the first member of Parliament of Greek heritage to represent the seat of Oakleigh in its 87 years.

It is a privilege to run for public office because it affords you the opportunity to get into people’s lives in a real and personal way and hear their aspirations, their hopes and their fears, like those of the young man in his 30s who cannot find a job despite his obvious talents and education; like the working parents who are forced to make a decision about which school their children go to solely based on which side of the level crossing they live; or like the amazing young girl with Dravet Syndrome whose quality of life could be immeasurably improved if she was only able to access medical cannabis.

Stories from people like these made me proud to be a candidate for the Labor Party. A party and now a government that has offered them a vision. It is a vision of jobs and a more engaged industry policy; an unprecedented investment in public schools; a palpable resolve to end the ambulance crisis and invest in health care; and to finally address the madness that is the twice-daily endless waiting for trains at level crossings, particularly in the Oakleigh electorate where there are at least four. I congratulate the Premier for his bold, purposeful and coherent leadership, and I recognise that absolutely not a day was wasted in getting on with the job.

Over many years I have passed the Victorian Parliament and wondered how it works on the inside. It has since occurred to me that how it works on the inside is entirely up to us. It is the plurality of our voices, our aspirations and our ideas, shepherded into as coherent a policy framework as democracy can hope to achieve. As one of those voices I want to spend my time here building a future based on foundations of equality and social justice, for and on behalf of the people who put me here.

I take this moment to recognise the ground upon which we stand, that of the Kulin nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. It is important to pay this recognition, but words are really not enough. Australia’s prosperity has come at a great cost. Our collective past failures as a nation mean that Indigenous Australians have been denied the equality and social justice that we take for granted. The very first inhabitants of this land are the most disadvantaged in our society. That is really a shame on us. In a modern Australia with a strong economy this is entirely unacceptable. As former Prime Minister Paul Keating said in his landmark Redfern speech:

This is a fundamental test of our social goals and our national will: our ability to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy, that we are what we should be — truly the land of the fair go and the better chance.

Here in this very Parliament we can set directions to close the gap.

We all come here with causes close to our hearts. I have many — as we all do — but there are two I would like briefly to speak about. Mental health is a big issue in the electorate of Oakleigh, it is a big issue for Australia and I suspect it is an issue that has touched the lives of many of us in this room. My cousin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and has spent the last 20 years in and out of mental health facilities. I remember endless visits and meetings with psychiatrists and carers in the long, cold corridors of psych wards and the late-night, desperate and often incomprehensible phone calls from a man tormented by the voices in his head. I have friends, too, who suffer mental illness, and I have glimpsed the impact, sometimes the devastation, on them and their families.

In Australia suicide rates remain too high. We often hear that men are four times more likely to die of suicide than women. As unacceptable as this is, women are much more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm. This is therefore not a gender issue. Whilst suicide has the most obvious impact, this is also not just about suicide. From depression, anxiety, the effects of substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar and many more, millions of Australians experience a mental health issue each year, and many more millions live a lifetime with the condition, often hidden from public view.

It is estimated that 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. This means we all know someone who has or will have a mental health issue. Indeed — and I do not say this lightly — based on those statistics, it is likely to include some of us in this place. Governments spend over $7 billion each year on treatment, and the economy pays a much higher price in lost productivity. It is not, however, just about the economic cost; it is about the cost to the many lives and to the dignity and humanity of those lives. Every year in Australia there are over 20 million individual mental health encounters with a GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, and every year a staggering 31 million prescriptions are issued to treat a mental health condition. Those facts alone are extraordinary.

I believe mental health requires a more intense focus. This issue impacts on us all. I am proud that this government’s proposed 10-year mental health plan will establish a clear and continuing commitment to this really important issue. As part of this we need to do better in understanding the symptoms and then managing the treatment for those suffering mental illness. We need to encourage people to seek help, and we need to make sure that help is available when it is sought. Families in desperate need should not wait even a moment longer for help. Help must be locally based and accessible, with qualified staff to support people and their families. We must remove the stigma, and we must understand how pervasive this illnesses has become. These people are our family and friends. Every life, every ambition, every hope and every dream is important. Our resolve should be strongest for those who need us the most. If this is not the role of government, I do not know what is.

Entrepreneurial success, business leadership and innovation — these are key elements of our economic prosperity. But are we making the most of the human capital that is obviously available in all Victorian communities? How affirming would it be if the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders had as much chance of coming from Broadmeadows, Dandenong or Clayton as they do from Toorak or Brighton? It is harder to take a chance and much harder to succeed when you do not have the family, social background or business connections. New business owners, like employees, are hardworking people making sacrifices for a better life. There are the countless hours, the impact on family life, the feeling of isolation while working late into the night and, critically, the lack of someone to turn to for expert advice.

Entrepreneurial or business success has a lot to do with access to capital — financial capital, obviously, but also, importantly, social and human capital. And while all success should be applauded, access to capital is in reality limited in many of our communities. International research indicates that the social position one is born into strongly influences the opportunities one has to develop human and social capital in the family, at school and later on in the workplace. The commonwealth Department of Treasury concluded that experience-based human capital is a more prevalent factor in business success than education-based human capital. So while education is of course important, it is not enough; it is only the beginning when it comes to business or entrepreneurial success.

Speaker, government’s helping hand should extend to those who want to take another path in life — those who want to establish a small business, commercialise an innovative idea or bring to fruition a start-up. With mentoring, business networks, on-the-job business training and financial expertise they will be given every chance to succeed. Having established and run a small business, I believe business is a great vehicle for empowerment. I would like to offer my personal experiences to further develop policies in this area. The more we empower people from all walks of life, regardless of their background, their postcode and who their parents are, the greater our economic prosperity will be. These are the values Labor was built on, and these are the values I am proud to represent in this place.

While there is a healthy dose of confidence amongst us all, we cannot get here on our own. In the best traditions of the Labor movement I have been fortunate to have an army of support and an abundance of friendship throughout the campaign and for many years before it, both in the party and outside it. I am pleased that many of these same people are here with me today in the gallery. These are the people who, day after day, month after month, with enthusiasm, goodwill and good humour, joined me from first light to dusk — and with others too; it takes a lot to run a campaign. Their efforts and support amplified our message collectively, and I thank them most sincerely. Labor’s success in Oakleigh is their success.

To my campaign and fundraising team, who did an outstanding job, thank you.

I would also like to thank Simon Crean and George Lekakis, both former employers and mentors, but more than that, friends. They are two people whose wisdom and counsel set me on a path which led to my standing in this chamber today.

I hold dear the values of local democracy and thank the Monash City Council family for 11 extraordinary years.

To my former colleagues at the Department of Justice and the Victorian courts, thank you for the opportunities you gave me to play a leadership role.

Thank you also to my good friends the members for Bentleigh, Narre Warren South and Pascoe Vale, and Philip Dalidakis, a member for Southern Metropolitan Region in the other place, who joined me from the beginning of this journey.

I would also like to thank and acknowledge the support of the Treasurer, the Attorney-General, the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Families and Children in the other place.

To Anna Burke, Clare O’Neil, John Pandazopoulos and Maria Vamvakinou, thank you for your confidence.

Without Steve Staikos and Amy Duncan I would not be here today. They both know what we have shared and the journey we have been on together.

I am a proud union member — yes, a former small business owner but also a proud union member — and I support the ideals of the Australian union movement. I would specifically like to thank the leadership of the National Union of Workers, a truly modern and progressive organisation.

To my sister, Mary, my brother-in-law, Warren, and my beautiful nephews, Troy, Zane and Niko, thank you. Family is the most important thing in my life. I want to thank my partner, Yianni, whose love, support and independent mind challenge me to be a better person every day.

Speaker, I am a migrant son. I am a tradie’s son. I am a factory worker’s son. In her youth, my mum, Helen, was a regional champion in five different athletics events. In another time she could have competed for her country. My dad, Nick, is an original thinker, a philosopher and a poet. In another time he would have been the head of the school of philosophy at the University of Athens. They both left school too early because their family needed their labour, and they left the shores of Greece in search of a better life for their children.

My sister and I grew up with an enormous amount of love and an open home which was consistently filled with family, friends and neighbours. Mum taught me diplomacy and tact, and Dad taught me to question everything, especially politics and religion. Their sacrifices prevented my sister and me from living similar struggles. I want them to know that our achievements in life are their achievements. Mum and Dad, you make us very proud.

Every day that we are in public office we have a chance to make things that little bit better for our communities. That is my goal, and I look forward to taking every opportunity to make it a reality. I thank the house.