Rebecca Vassarotti – Inaugural Speech to ACT Legislative Assembly

Australian Greens

As I begin my first speech in the tenth ACT Legislative Assembly, I would like to acknowledge that we meet on Aboriginal land. I thank and pay respects to elders past, present and emerging. As someone whose family story has intersected with local First Nations people for over a century I recognise that sovereignty was never ceded, and this was, is and always will be, Aboriginal land. I pledge to do what I can through this Assembly to engage with truth, work towards treaty and support the voice of First Nations people.

Madam Speaker, it is a tremendously humbling experience to stand here as an elected member of the 10th Assembly. I thank the voters of Kurrajong who have put faith in me and the ACT Greens, to vote a second Greens representative in the electorate for the very first time. I congratulate every other Member in the Assembly on their election and I sincerely look forward to the opportunity to work with all of you as we work together to represent the people of Canberra.

I take this opportunity to share with you a little bit about myself and what has brought me to this moment. I am not someone who harboured a long term ambition for public office, and have had a range of life experiences prior to taking on this role.

I am part of a rare breed of people born and bred in Canberra. And while I was part of the generation of children born to parents who moved here as the public service and Canberra was expanded in the 1970s, I have deep roots to this place, with my Great grandfather part of the Keefe and Cullan families – some of the original colonial families in the region. While my Italian great grandparents were falling in love on board a ship from Northern Italy to Australia, my Irish great grandparents were meeting on the steps of Sacred Heart in Holy Rosary Church in what is now Calwell.

My childhood in Canberra was pretty standard as part of a fairly conventional family. It was loud – as one of six children there was always something happening. Throughout this time while things were far from lavish (six kids, one income and high interest rates put pay to that), we were never in any doubt that we were privileged and we needed to think about how we could contribute to our community. It is the lasting legacy of my parents who have always been incredible role models – modelling hard work, community contribution, standing up for what is right and not shying away from leadership roles when needed. In me they fostered a sense of social justice, and passion to get involved to make things better – for individuals and communities as a whole. It is a wonderful moment to have my Dad here to share this moment with me, and a great sadness that my Mother is no longer here to share this moment she would have loved – particularly with her passion for women’s leadership. Our family will be always grateful that Members in this Assembly paused for a moment eight years ago to recognise her contributions to this community.

It is a bit of a confession to make that growing up, I wasn’t sure that Canberra was where it was all happening – growing up I was often known to declare that as soon as I was able, I would be off to be part of a much bigger and exciting world.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised that I was part of a generation who was growing up not just in Canberra but with Canberra – our experiences mirrored that of the city as it grew and developed. As I made decisions about study and professional life, despite my early declarations, it was always this city that offered the most enriching and meaningful opportunities. And so, I went to one of our world leading Universities and then embarked my career as a young graduate in the ACT public service. This was a choice I made because I knew that I was passionate about local communities and making a tangible difference to the lives of people in our local community. And what amazing experiences I had during this time – from being part of a team to set up a new environmental agency, leading work to improve the accessibility of government agencies to being part of the bushfire recovery process following the devastating 2003 bushfires.

During my time as a public servant, a special opportunity came along to get involved as the project lead in the first ACT Poverty Inquiry – a joint project between ACT Government and ACT Council of Social Service. While I had always known that there were people in our community struggling, this was a transformational experience for me as I got the opportunity to sit with people as they shared their experiences of being poor in a city that did not acknowledge there was much disadvantage at all. It also included working with service providers who were fighting to access resources to support these people and working with researchers who were developing methods to quantify the extent of a problem that until this point we had never named or acknowledged. I am immensely grateful that I was able to contribute to a project that changed the face of our city’s understanding of poverty and disadvantage and whose legacy I believe can still be seen today. It made me realise how the actions of a small group of people with a clear purpose, a commitment to evidence, and the ability to ethically walk with people who are marginalised to support them to share their experiences, could make a real difference.

It was in large part due to this experience that I made the decision (seen as very unusual at the time) to pursue different opportunities outside the public service. My life was changed when a group of women running an organisation whose vision was women reaching their potential lived that value and appointed me to the role of Executive Director of YWCA Canberra. This was the entry point to an incredible journey of almost two decades of working with the local, national and international community sector.

Through working with the YWCA but also with other organisations such as the Council of Social Service movement, homelessness and community housing organisations, and health based organisations, I have had the chance to work with the most talented, passionate and compassionate people you could meet, working to support people and fix the systems and structures that lead to disadvantage and marginalisation. Through this time, I have become passionate about many issues – homelessness, social exclusion, marginalisation due to health status and sexual identity. I have worked to support people going through the most challenging of times through work on guardianship, mental health and energy hardship tribunals. Worked to support people who have been cut off health care because of issues such as drug use and worked to shine a light on the impacts of gambling harm that go far beyond individual responsibility and impact.

I have had many people speculate about who has motivated my interest in these issues and they are often surprised that it is not because of a personal experience but because of a deep belief that we all need to take responsibility and if we can bring our skills, expertise or influence to solve a problem that is hurting people we must. As the saying goes – we accept the standard we walk past, and I passionately believe we should never walk past our neighbour or friend when we can support them.

While I have worked for many years to advocate for change, I decided a few years ago that it was time to get off the sidelines and get involved in political life. This came from a history of encouraging others, particularly women to get involved in political decision making and realising that this was the time for me to get involved. It came from a deep conviction that people in public life needed to be deeply connected to the communities they serve and the need for political representatives to have a strong understanding of the diversity of people’s experiences – beyond the small circles that we usually travel in.

Madam Speaker, after providing some perspective on what has brought me to this point today, it is important that we look towards the future and what we need to do in this critical time in our city’s future.

The challenges we have faced in 2020 have been like no other, and we will continue to face huge social and economic challenges in this term. We will need to bring creativity, collaboration and an ability to do things differently if we are to rise to the challenges we face. And while the challenges are significant, I am positive, optimistic and excited about the opportunities ahead.

We must build on the strong legacy of constructive partnership between political parties and our demonstrated commitment to doing things differently. In the most challenging of years, this local election has been for many a moment of reflection on the past and hope for the future. Regardless of which party we represent, we as Members all gather here because of our passion for our community.

This term of the Assembly sees more ACT Greens than ever before. As a grassroots party, we come here without the support of vested interests or corporate donations but due to community efforts and with an ambitious plan for our community. We are here because of the collective efforts of hundreds of volunteers who believe in our plan and who contributed their time, talents and passion. I thank everyone who was part of a positive and constructive election campaign.

The ACT Greens are here in this place to tackle the big issues and to do politics differently, and to build on the strong legacy of our previous colleagues I want to particularly acknowledge the ACT Greens party leader Shane Rattenbury who has provided such ethical leadership through a number of terms of the Assembly. He is guiding and supporting the newest ACT Greens Members with generosity, grace and genuine care. Getting involved in politics was a little scary for me, and I would like to personally thank Shane for his friendship and leadership in setting a culture where we support each other, raise each other up and demonstrate that we are stronger together than apart.

Colleagues, this term of the Assembly presents a remarkable opportunity for all of us, not just the ACT Greens. I know many of you share my desire for the local community to feel more connected and part of its political life. I am sure that I am not alone in wanting our local community to feel included in decision making, and be confident their political representatives are working with, for and in their best interests. We have an opportunity in this Assembly to build and enhance trust and faith in the political process.

This starts with how we do things. The make-up of this Assembly will necessitate collaboration and working in partnership. This is yet another opportunity for us to show leadership and demonstrate to other jurisdictions what constructive, collaborative politics can look like. There are many ways we can make our decision-making more accessible and engage this clever, educated and engaged community to work with us on solutions for the challenges we face.

It also clearly includes what we do. Collectively across all our parties, we have made significant commitments to the community. This has included continuing the leadership on tackling climate change, and ensuring our city remains liveable in a changing climate. This has included tackling our growing inequality crisis – addressing homelessness and disadvantage. This will require action from all of us – we cannot rely on individual Ministers or MLAs to work in silos on these issues but must collectively work to achieve change. We will need to work together to ensure that community’s needs are put ahead of vested interests.

My focus over the next four years is to work tirelessly to do everything we can to make this city a more connected, caring, sustainable place. While we are very new into our term, my optimism is founded on a strong basis, and I am proud of the work we have already done in developing a strong framework for action through the Parliamentary and Governing Agreement.

I have deep gratitude for the opportunities I have been afforded to specifically shape some portfolio areas through Ministerial responsibility, and particularly want to acknowledge and thank the Chief Minister for providing this opportunity. I commit to giving everything to ensuring that these portfolios thrive.

This includes ensuring we act decisively to respond to the ecological crisis we face and ensure our biodiversity and ecosystems are protected. This includes championing and promoting building sustainability, accessibility and quality – rebuilding community confidence that the buildings we are designing and constructing are of high quality, will be liveable even if our circumstances and abilities change, are comfortable and climate resilient. This includes ensuring everyone has a decent home to live in and that our social housing system is responsive to the wide range of people it caters for. It means protecting and celebrating our history and heritage and understanding how our history and our future needs can be complementary.

As I reflect on my journey and prepare for the future ahead, it’s important to recognise the people who have supported me and will continue to do so. I stand on the shoulders of the giants that have had faith and belief in me, of those who have mentored and nurtured me. I look towards the gallery and see a small representation of the people who have loved me, supported me, and chosen to be part of this rather winding journey. Friends, mentors and teachers who without their wisdom and advice I could not have navigated the tough times and who have celebrated the good times with me.

I wish to take this moment to thank my extraordinary family. Brendon, thank you for being my life partner in every sense of the word. It was more than half our lifetimes ago we came together – it’s certainly true that you didn’t realise what you were signing up for but it’s been interesting. You are my solid, steady partner who has always believed in me, enabled me to follow my dreams, take risks and dedicate all I have into my professional and volunteer life. I would also like to thank and acknowledge the three extraordinary young people who join him, Matilda, Reuben and Solomon. You are my joy, my greatest pride, and in all the craziness of life you are what is most important to me and your Dad.

Madam Speaker, in concluding this speech I would just like to reiterate my deep gratitude for this opportunity to serve the voters of Kurrajong and Canberra. I thank every person who has been part of my story to date and look forward in us working together collectively over the next four years to make Canberra an even more caring, connected and liveable community.

(E&OE)

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