Jana Stewart's Maiden Speech

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Newly elected Labor MP Jana Stewart, a proud Mutthi Mutthi and Wamba Wamba woman and former VACCA employee, recently delivered her maiden speech to the Federal Senate. In it, she touched on women's rights, education, Treaty and the history of the Government's relationship with Indigenous Australians. 

Read the full speech below or watch it here

 

I remember sitting in a classroom when I was 15 or 16 years old and a teacher talking about the Closing the Gap statistics. I remember looking around the classroom as one of the only Koori kids in the class. I remember that, as they were relaying all the bad news on the health and life expectations of First Nations people, it felt like they were reading out my future as a First Nations person: I was less likely to finish year 12; I was less likely to go to university; I was more likely to be unemployed; I was very likely to get a chronic health condition; I was going to die 15 years younger than my peers sitting in the classroom with me; and, if I was in a home that had family violence, which I was, my odds of being in a violence relationship sat at 50 per cent. There was no malice in this teacher's lesson, but for me it felt personal.  

Hearing and seeing First Nations people being framed and talked about in deficit language is something I would learn is not unique to high school. Each of you sitting in this place will have a report or an agenda amongst your emails or on your desk that talks about us in just this way—never in neutral or positive language; we're always an issue. It's why I ask that everyone in this place and beyond consider carefully how you talk about First Nations matters, because a First Nations person will be listening. Words are powerful and words matter.  

Like many young people, when I completed high school I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, and in many respects I still don't. I'm grateful to my 18-year-old self for making the decision to complete year 12 and get straight into the workforce, because for me it was absolutely the right one. When I first moved to Melbourne I supported myself with a job in retail, then I found the role that put the fire in my belly. I called my Nan and told her that I'd got a job at the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, VACCA, and at the time she laughed. At 18 years old I was the third generation of my family to work there, and I'm sure I won't be the last. My time at VACCA played a significant part in my life, because where my Nan had found her purpose and her drive I found mine too. 

The kids I worked with at VACCA would call me Aunty Jana. It was a much nicer explanation of who I was to their schoolfriends when I would pick them up and take them to an appointment or spend some time with their mum, but 'aunty' wasn't just a good cover for their schoolfriends. It also speaks to my connection to them for life, because these aren't just the kids I once worked with; these are the kids that I see today. I see them at the NAIDOC march or at the footy, or I run into them at the Aboriginal health service. I get the privilege to watch them grow into young adults. To those young people, please know I carry you and your experiences with me into this place. 

While I was at VACCA I also managed to fit in a graduate certificate in family therapy at the Bouverie Centre. Bouverie took the university campus to the community. It supported the translation of theoretical family therapy frameworks into Aboriginal ways of working. It was empowering to have our ways acknowledged alongside often white clinical frameworks. From Bouverie I moved to the Victorian public service, where I had the privilege of working with traditional owner nations from across the state. The role was created to support traditional owner nations to negotiate boundaries between one another. When we think about boundaries both in terms of country and also more broadly we think about them as being a line or a point that divides us. I much prefer the description of a boundary from Dja Dja Wurrung man Rodney Carter as being a place that unites us and brings us together. 

It was also around this period that the state Labor government committed to treaty, piquing my interest in politics for the first time. Until Victoria's commitment to treaty I had never really seen the power or the purpose of politics. Treaty is why I became a Labor person. In my curiosity to find out more about the political world I got a job in the office of Victoria's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and then later for the Minister for Child Protection—a job that not many people would want or consider a privilege, because of how heartbreaking the content is, but for me I couldn't think of a more important role. I then went on to the department of justice, working on a legislative spent conviction scheme, the stolen generations redress scheme and the decriminalisation of public intoxication in Victoria, all incredibly important reforms and all well overdue. 

As I reflect on my career to date I see that there is a defining thread. With each role that I worked in I have increased my area of impact. At VACCA I was working with children. At Bouverie I was working with families. In the public service I was working with traditional owner nations. As an adviser I was working for our state. Now in the federal parliament I am here to help change the nation. None of this was planned, but my journey in life and work has prepared me well for this moment at this time and in this place. All that I've achieved and so much of what I want to achieve come down to a combination of hard work, perseverance, passion and never forgetting where I come from. Thanks, Nan. 

All of these experiences I carry with me today, some of the areas that I seek to change and the reasons that I seek to change them will make people in this place and outside feel uncomfortable, but I don't care about your discomfort, because it's uncomfortable to know and hear the lived experiences of women and children and be part of a system that is complicit in the harm and then do nothing about it. It's uncomfortable to read child death reports. It's uncomfortable to hear that one woman dies every nine days from family violence in this country. It's uncomfortable to hear that I, along with many other parents of colour, will have to teach our children the alphabet at the same time as how to deal with racism in primary school, in high school and in everyday life. So it may be uncomfortable for you, but it has been heartbreaking for me to have comforted families through their trauma, grief and loss and to have attempted to repair their trust in the system. These are not the easy things, but these are the things that matter—because people matter. 

It was early in my career when I learnt about the impact of trauma and secure attachments on healthy brain development. I learnt how fundamental it is to a child's success in life to have a healthy and happy first five years. There is a very real and visible difference in the development of children's brains where a child has not had the best start in life. I want you to think about that child who hasn't had the best start in life. I want you to think about that child starting prep. What do you think primary school is going to be like for them? And if we all agree that education is one of the fundamental keys to unlocking opportunities and success in life, what is the likelihood of this child, who has had a really crappy time at school, dropping out early? 

It should not be a lightbulb moment for anyone here to know that lower educational attainment leads to big differences—big differences in unemployment, underemployment, crime, health outcomes and your dependency on welfare. The cost to the taxpayer for a young person who remains disengaged from work for more than half their life is over $400,000. The full lifetime cost for the entire cohort is $18.8 billion. This should not only be seen as an economic cost but a cost to our decency as human beings.  

And if we know how important healthy relationships and attachments are for brain development in their early years, why do we devalue the critical role, particularly of women, in providing that care? In fact, we don't just devalue it, we punish women for it: with lower-paid jobs when they return to the workforce, a gender pay gap, less super when they retire and an increasing likelihood of homelessness for older women—which is all funny given how much our entire economy is built on and relies on women and our unpaid contributions.  

The burden of these failures also falls disproportionately on kids in contact with the justice system, particularly those with unassessed and untreated trauma. Each child that ends up in our juvenile justice system represents hundreds of missed opportunities, hundreds of missed opportunities to get in early and help. Instead, we stand eager and ready to blame them and their families for our system's failures. And not all children are treated equally. The resources, race and class of your family, all of which a child has no control over, shouldn't determine your trajectory into the justice system but it does.  

President, this moment would represent a missed opportunity if I did not use it to make my views clear. I support the position of the United Nations report on the rights of the child. The minimum age of criminal responsibility should be 14 years old. Evidence tells us that neither the broader community nor the child benefit from putting them behind bars. In fact, it's proven to be quite the kiss of death for any positive future potential for a child. Criminalising children, young, almost guarantees they will be back within one year or two, and, in most cases, it cements their pathway into the adult system. If our answer to a problem is putting a child who is only in grade 4 behind bars, a child who has not lost all their baby teeth, who would not be tall enough to get onto some of the rides at the Melbourne show, who could not swim unsupervised in the pool at the caravan park, then we're definitely asking the wrong questions.  

I'm not going to stand here and pretend that I have all the answers to all the issues that we face, but what I do know is we can't keep doing more of the same. We must start by seeing investment in families as fundamental to our economic future. In my experience, working with families, every parent wants their child to have a better life than what they did. Every parent wants to have a strong and healthy relationship with their child. And when a parent feels like they need a bit of extra support in being able to provide this for their family, they should be able to lean on us.  

There is also lots to say about the experiences of women in this country. I'm sure that you've heard it before too. But one of the things I'm always reminded of is that black women and women of colour are often left out of the national conversation. Our experiences are never captured in data nor articulated with the same level of importance to those of white women and their families.  

Even when doing my research for today, it was incredibly challenging to find the data to give visibility and voice to the problem. A silence that speaks volumes. One of the few statistics I could find is one that everybody in this place should be familiar with. Our country has a gender pay gap of 13.8 per cent. But what you don't hear is that the gap for First Nations women when compared to non-Aboriginal men is a huge 32.7 per cent. The pay gap between First Nations women and non-Aboriginal women is roughly 19 per cent. You will hear about how important access is to child care for women and their careers, but you don't hear about what a difference it would make for black women and women of colour. You will see and hear people celebrate diversity in their organisations or teams, and then post photos of mostly white, able-bodied women. 

The guilt or fear of stigmatising multicultural communities by talking about the experiences of women of colour must not outweigh our collective responsibility that we have to leave no woman behind. What I want to say is that we notice. What I want to say to black women and women of colour is, 'I see you, I hear you and I stand with you,' because unless our ambition for gender equality actively seeks to bring every woman with us, it is not actually equality. We must be true, deliberate and targeted in our solutions, and true in our words, when we talk about the experiences of Australian women, because only then will it truly reflect all of us. 

I know that talking about race and privilege makes people feel uncomfortable, but race and privilege are things that I will always talk about because they're things that we should all be talking about. Whether we like to admit it or not, this shapes everything we do and how we do it. It shapes how we experience the world around us. For example, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are highly vulnerable, particularly from an economic perspective. They're much more likely to experience insecure work and wage theft, with a limited awareness of workplace rights, restricted local networks or lower educational attainment. Whether it be across our gig economy, transport, retail, hospitality, cleaning, aged care or other low-paid industries, it is by and large our multicultural communities doing the hardest work for the lowest pay. 

It seems that Australia suffers from a 'racial empathy gap', a term coined and a concept confirmed by studies that show there is less empathy felt for people of colour. It's why whenever I hear someone say that they don't see colour, what I really hear them say is that they're uncomfortable with it because it would mean having to understand or acknowledge the experience of black people and people of colour in this country. It is an easy way out to say that you don't see colour. What a privilege it must be to be able to choose not to see colour! President, it would take a special kind of male arrogance for me to assume that I could give voice and visibility to all black women and women of colour in our country. It's going to take a team effort but the great news is that our Labor team is looking more powerful than it ever has, with the most culturally diverse and gender balanced caucus in the history of any government. It's a milestone I'm proud to be a part of. Now we need to move beyond just looking like the country we're here to represent and add some colour to our words and our actions. 

President, another matter close to my heart is ensuring that the people in country communities have the access and equity they deserve. As I've said, when I completed year 12 at Swan Hill College I didn't know what I wanted to do. But what I did know was that there were no career opportunities for me if I stayed, so I made the call to move to Melbourne. But a young person who lives in the country should be able to stay in their hometown if they choose to and be confident about the equality of jobs available to them. Individuals and families in these communities should be afforded the same mental health, family support and health care that's afforded to people who live in the cities. And older Australians in regional areas, people who have often built these communities with their own hands, should be able to remain in their communities if and when they need aged care. It's why I'm so proud of Labor's focus on regional equity: investments in infrastructure and services that will help bridge the divide between metro and country. In working with regional communities embedding a regional lens in all that we do is critical, because nobody knows the needs of a community better than the people who call it home. 

Our rural, remote and First Nations communities are also feeling the impacts of climate change, because even though it's the most marginalised communities and groups that contribute the least to this issue they're often the first to feel the brunt of it. Entire crops are being washed out due to floods, pushing the cost of fruit and vegetables up. Our kids are growing up in a world where more and more animals are added to the endangered or extinct list. And traditional owners who have cared for country for tens of thousands of years are seeing it charred, and sacred sites destroyed. We needed urgent action on climate change a decade ago, but today is better than tomorrow. 

We must ensure that individuals, families and communities who rely on the very industries that need to be phased out are prioritised as we bring in newer and cleaner ways to power our nation. This is only fair, given they have served as Australia's engine room for so long. Together we will reset our country as a renewable superpower. Traditional owners who have the responsibility for taking care of country must have a seat at the table because their interests are so personally and culturally aligned when we talk about our land, our animals, our waterways and our air. Our plan for climate action is squarely focused on protecting country and delivering for Australians, families and communities. Labor governments have a proud history of protecting the environment, and I am proud to be part of a team that will continue this legacy. 

Earlier, you heard me use the word 'genocide'. I am not using it to inflict feelings of guilt or to cause you to crawl back from my words. I use the word 'genocide' because it is a hard truth about the history of this country. For those who don't know what the definition of article II of the genocide convention is, it has five criteria: 

(a) Killing members of the group; 

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

I note that the definition suggests that committing any one of these acts with the intent to destroy a group would meet the definition of genocide. I note that Australia meets all five. 

I truly believe that one of the barriers to our success as a rich, multicultural nation is the weight of collective shame and guilt we carry because of our history. We carry this because we haven't been able to reconcile. We haven't been able to reconcile because we skipped a critical step as a nation: telling the truth. Anyone who has done any work in conflict resolution systems theories knows how fundamental honesty is for resolution and reconciliation. It is difficult to reconcile when there is no accurate, agreed or shared record of this country's history. It is why our nation is in desperate need for a national truth-telling process. We have seen some truth telling in our time with the apology to the stolen generations, the nation-leading Yoorrook Justice Commission in Victoria, the Bringing Them Home report and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We've also had royal commissions into aged care, banks and institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Royal commissions have a strong and proven history of being able to set the record straight. The only difference with the ones focused on First Nations people is that there is no collective outrage when the recommendations are not implemented.  

I am proud that in my home state of Victoria we are leading the nation with our work on treaty. That is in large part thanks to the relentless efficacy of the mob in Victoria and the work of the First Peoples' Assembly and helped by having a progressive government with the courage to do the right thing. A treaty will deliver genuine self-determination for our communities and for First Nations groups. Voice, treaty and truth is our ask. Meet us in the moment and walk with us. 

In conclusion, there are plenty of ways to change the world, whether it is holding a placard or holding someone's hand, but being in this place provides a unique opportunity and a profound responsibility. It speaks to that last piece of wisdom, the words of my mother, who told me: 'You're the oldest; it's your job to let all the sticks and stones hit you to create a clearer path for your brothers and sisters,' In many respects, her words apply to all of us in this place. It's our job to absorb the sticks and stones, to make sure there is something better and fairer for the next generation and the generation after that. 

I know there are days that won't be easy, but we are in the business of nation building. We are building a nation defined by opportunity whether you were born here, drawn here or whether you have called it home for tens of thousands of years. We are building a nation that protects and invests in its children and grandchildren; a nation that is grounded in truth, integrity, equality, fairness, compassion and action; a nation courageous enough to recognise its past and determined enough to change its future; a nation that we can all be proud of. Thank you. 

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material. To listen to our Acknowledgement of Country, click here.