Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS — Thank you Mr President. It is with great pride and honour that I rise this evening to make my maiden speech. My presence here today follows the retirement of Senator John Tierney on 14 April. On behalf of the people of New South Wales I pay tribute to him for his service to the Liberal Party and the Senate. I wish John and Pam all the very best for the future. I would like to thank the Clerk of the Senate and his staff and other senators for their kind assistance and guidance in acquainting me with this place and its procedures. I especially thank Andrea Griffiths-Ianson, Black Rod, for her friendship and guidance over many years. I was proud to be welcomed by her to this place on 9 May.
My family’s journey began on 14 February 1953, when a young man of 24 years of age arrived alone on the docks at Sydney. He had travelled from Italy. He had left everything he knew and loved, including his fiancée. He spoke no English. His old suitcase carried the dreams and aspirations that had motivated his migration to so far away a land. That man was my dad. He first lived in single quarters near the old steelworks at Port Kembla. Later he travelled to North Queensland to cut sugar cane. He saved enough money for a deposit on a home. He returned to Port Kembla and bought a small cottage. My mother joined him in 1959. They had been engaged for 13 years. They married. I was born a year later and my brother five years later. Pops, could you ever have imagined when you arrived that one day you would be sitting here watching your daughter in the Australian Senate?
Mr President, with hard work, determination, dedication and the will to succeed you can do anything, you can be anyone and you can go anywhere. My parents and millions of other migrants who came here were guided by this ideal. This is what makes Australia such a wonderful place. Today I could be the daughter of any migrant to Australia. The philosophy of individual effort for just reward is embodied in the stories of millions just like my parents who have helped shape the destiny of this great nation. It is also the philosophy behind the great party I am privileged to represent. Today I would like to share with you the values and beliefs that have helped shape my life and which will underpin my service to the people of New South Wales as their senator.
I grew up in Port Kembla, the industrial heart of the Illawarra. My father worked at the steelworks. My mother stayed at home. I am grateful for the many sacrifices that my parents made to ensure that our family had the best that hard work could give. Today, many who come to this country are assisted by generous settlement services. When my parents arrived there were no such services. Self-sufficiency and employment became the cornerstones on the road to building a better life for yourself and for your children. Family and family life have always been very important to me. I believe in the traditional family as the bedrock institution of our society. I will support policies which strengthen and enhance the value and importance of the family.
My education in the Catholic school system began with kindergarten at St Francis of Assisi, overlooking the steelworks. Seventy-five kids started school with me. Only a few spoke English, and I was not one of them. My primary schooling at St Patrick’s was under the shadow of the chimney stack at Port Kembla. I completed my secondary education at St Mary’s College in Wollongong. From these early days I have followed the Christian faith. I believe in the values and virtues that it teaches. They have guided me and will continue to do so in the years ahead.
During this period I also learnt the importance of choice. When my father worked at the steelworks, the union movement was very strong. I remember vividly when the unions would call a strike. My father was the sole breadwinner, so working every day was very important to him. When the unions called a strike, I saw the inner turmoil in my father. He needed to go to work but, like many other workers, could not afford to break ranks. Regardless of the merits of the issue, they could not go against the power of the unions. They did what they were told. I respect the right of the individual to choose to be part of a collective bargaining regime but there should be no compulsion. I say to the elements of the union movement that are gearing up for a fight against the Howard government on industrial relations: use argument and reason, not threats and compulsion—remember who you are representing. Mr President, I will be supporting changes to industrial relations laws that encourage flexibility, fairness and freedom; a system that increases job growth, productivity and innovation—that will give Australians true choice.
After completing my secondary schooling, I attended the Australian National University in Canberra where I studied political science, languages and law. In 1984, I commenced my 20-year career as a lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor and I pay tribute to my former colleagues, some of whom are here today. Having had the opportunity to represent many government departments and statutory authorities over the years, I bring to this place a broad and practical knowledge of the workings of government. Having defended both good and bad decisions of government, I have taken a keen interest in good public administration. Acting for the Australian Taxation Office, I wound up companies that did not pay their tax. I retain a particular concern about corporate responsibility and corporate morality, especially in dealings with workers entitlements.
I also have an interest in simplifying the tax system. When I first started practising law, the tax legislation was in one volume; it is now in four. An even, balanced or alternatively flat tax regime could be an option in simplifying the system. The Howard government has made significant reforms in this area for the benefit of the average taxpayer and small business. More can and should be done.
During my career, I particularly valued the work I did for the Department of Defence. This coupled with my husband’s service in the Royal Australian Navy has fostered a keen interest in defence matters, which I would like to pursue in this place. I would like to thank our many friends from the armed services who are here today. I especially value the importance of tradition and service to one’s country. I believe in the spirit of Anzac and what it means to the soul of Australia.
My work in politics started as a policy adviser with the Hon. Jim Carlton. Jim’s guidance and support over many years has prepared me well for my new role and I thank him very much. I then became senior private secretary to the Hon. John Fahey, then Premier of New South Wales. It was a great privilege and a fantastic opportunity to work for him in the engine room of a coalition government. I would also like to thank Alan McArthur, who gave me my start in law and most recently employed me as a consultant with Minter Ellison Lawyers in Sydney.
Community service has been an important feature of my life since I was young. As the daughter of migrants I was frequently called upon to help my parents and others in the community, translating and assisting people with simple tasks to help them in their daily lives. Over the years, I have been privileged to work for many different groups and associations as a volunteer. I am honoured that many of the people I worked with are here today to share this special day with me.
I am a proud member of the Australian-Italian community and have been honoured to serve them as a national and international representative. I would like to acknowledge the presence today of representatives from Italian government bodies: the embassy, the consulate, the Italian Institute of Culture and the trade commission. I would especially like to acknowledge my dear friends Nick and Silvana Papallo and Irvin and Lottie Vidor. Thank you for your total faith in me. It is a source of great pride to come to this place as the first Australian woman of Italian origin. I believe I am also the first Australian of Italian origin to the Senate from New South Wales. I will continue to strengthen relationships with Italy in particular and more broadly with Europe.
Over the years, I have also supported a number of important causes. I support our current constitutional arrangements. Through my work with Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, I have worked for its retention. I also uphold our flag as an unchanging and timeless symbol of the values and virtues that unify our society. Over the years, I have been involved in many charitable activities, but none has impacted more on me than my work with Father Chris Riley’s Youth off the Streets. I am honoured that Father Chris is here today, together with some board members and staff. Father, you taught me that there is no such thing as a bad child, just bad circumstances. I have come to understand the resilience of our youth against terrible adversity. A child is abused every 13 minutes across Australia. Perpetrators of crimes against children and those who protect them deserve the severest of punishment. We must confront and end child abuse and the exploitation of youth once and for all. My work with Youth off the Streets has also reaffirmed my view of the importance of family support to young people, of zero tolerance on drugs and my opposition to heroin injecting rooms and lowering the age of consent. In contrast, programs such as Tough on Drugs and Values in Schools have been very successful. As a senator, I will be advocating their continued support and expansion.
Throughout my community service, I have come to value highly the contribution of volunteers in Australia, whether this be in the family, amongst the sick, the disabled, the young or the aged. This is the social glue that binds our society together and gives us a sense of belonging in our communities. The complex social challenges facing our society will never be solved by governments working alone, but in partnership with civil society. As a senator, I shall work to foster community participation and volunteerism so that individuals, welfare organisations, business and government can unite and together generate true social capital.
Australia today is a country forged from different cultures and tied by a set of common beliefs and values—a belief in a free and competitive market system; in freedom of choice; of respect for human life; of the rule of law and a fair go for all. The promotion of these values and beliefs across the diversity of our contemporary Australian society is vital to our continued social cohesion.
I have lived my life across the diversity that is Australia. Whilst cultural diversity has brought us many advantages, there are also challenges. When my parents first came to this country, they, like many others, experienced prejudice. It was a fact of life. They got on with it. They assimilated, they shared their culture, traditions, values and beliefs—they accepted and became accepted. Through this, they and many others helped forge the unique Australian way of life we have today.
While some seek to gloss over divisions in our society by affirming a desire for harmonious coexistence and religious tolerance, divisions do exist. We need to address them before the rifts become so deep that our society’s very existence is threatened. Australia is a tolerant and compassionate society founded on understanding and respecting social and religious differences. Our success as a culturally diverse society comes from putting our commitment to Australia first.
Values and beliefs are important in the mainstream of Australian political life. However, there are those in our society who find talk about values abhorrent—the so-called ‘chattering classes’, the elites whose view of life is distorted by their inane fixation with the politics of the lowest common denominator, an outdated socialist ideology that rejects a belief in the power of the individual. The success of the Howard government has been to reject this ideology.
My journey began under the shadow of the chimney stack at Port Kembla. It now takes me back to where I started. I return to my roots. My office will be in Wollongong and I look forward to giving the people of the Illawarra an alternative and effective voice in government. The Illawarra is yet to realise its full potential. I want to see more exports leave Port Kembla, to see more industry developed and more jobs created. I want to ensure that, when my nephews grow up and look for a job in Wollongong, they will not be forced to move away to find work, as I was. Future growth for the Illawarra will require all sectors of the community working together with all levels of government. I look forward to the challenge.
Here tonight there are many friends who have helped me to make my journey. I cannot mention you all by name. You know who you are and I thank you wholeheartedly. I thank the Liberal Party and the New South Wales Division. Over the years, I have had extensive involvement at many levels of the party and I am honoured to represent the Liberal Party as a senator. I would especially like to mention some of my parliamentary colleagues—Bronwyn Bishop, Helen Coonan, Teresa Gambaro, Bill Heffernan, Jackie Kelly, Nick Minchin, Brendan Nelson, Alby Schultz and Santo Santoro—and state colleagues—David Clarke, Charlie Lynn and Anthony Roberts. Thank you for your guidance and support over many years.
There are many in the Liberal Party I would also like to thank. I would especially like to acknowledge and thank Nick Campbell, Michael Cooke, Alex Hawke, Natasha Maclaren and the Young Liberal Movement, Italo Mazzola and the New South Wales Italian Special Branch, Hollie Nolan, Peter Phelps, Marlene Scott and the Illawarra Liberals, Rhondda Vanzella, Helen Wayland and my many friends and supporters in the Women’s Council, Robyn and Harry Young, Mervyn and Ann Youl, and the late Judith Barton. I would also like to thank my staff and the many volunteers who have helped make this my very special day.
Thank you to my family: Mammina and Pops for your love and selfless sacrifices; Canio, the best brother a girl could ever have; Karen and my beautiful nephews, Beppi and Luca; my stepchildren, Alasdair and Amelia; my aunt and uncle, cousins and their families; my mother-in-law, Frances, sisters-in-law and their families; and my husband, John, my biggest fan, for your patience, understanding, love and support.
I have tried to lead the past 25 years of my life in service to the community and to the public. People often ask me why I want to serve in public life. For me, the answer is simple. My parents came to this country to build a better life for themselves and for their children. Their journey is but a snapshot of millions of similar journeys. They are not published anywhere except written deep in the hearts and memories of those who took the journey and those, like me, who follow them. This country gave my parents so much—I have always wanted to give something back. And so, as I stand here today, I honour the journeys of those before me and I look forward with dedication and resolve to my journey ahead.