7 February 2023, 15:55
Victorian Legislative Council, Melbourne

David ETTERSHANK (Western Metropolitan):

President, I congratulate you on your election. It is a role I know you will discharge with fairness, professionalism and good humour.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging, and I record that sovereignty has never been ceded.

I thank the voters of the Western Metropolitan Region, who have bestowed upon me the honour of representing them in this Legislative Council. I will strive daily to reward their faith in electing me. The Western Metropolitan Region is an area of great cultural diversity and richness and also extraordinary growth and challenges. I will return to this issue.

I wish to sincerely thank the many volunteers and candidates who worked so hard to secure the first two Legalise Cannabis members of this Parliament. My special thanks to Craig Ellis, our campaign director; our federal management committee; my colleague Rachel Payne, who worked so hard to pull the party and the campaign together; my running mate, the nuclear-powered Raffaela Menta; and the indomitable Tony Verde, who daily refuses to let his Parkinson’s define his life and inspires us all. I would also like to express my appreciation to Fiona Patten, who blazed a reformist trail over the past eight years and has been incredibly generous in sharing her time, passion and wisdom.

I am advised that it is customary to share something of our lives and history at this time to illustrate some of the experiences and values we bring to this chamber, so here goes. My life fits neatly into roughly three 20-year parts. I was born into a very comfortable white middle-class household living here in Melbourne and abroad. At the age of 14, circumstances, litigational bastardry and shortfalls in the family law system at that time saw our fortunes reversed, and my mother, sister and I were introduced to a world of social disadvantage as we took shelter with my paternal grandmother in south-east Queensland. From this I learned a lifelong lesson: that the law can be used as a cudgel. It is neither accessible nor equitable for all, and one must never confuse the law with justice or fairness.

At 15 I started working part time at Coles, and I have worked continuously for the last 48 years. I was blessed to have two formidable matriarchs as my grandmothers. These women were born in poor working-class situations in Britain, migrated to Australia to find a better life and pretty much lived the Australian postwar dream. My maternal grandfather was a master bricklayer and a shop steward and life member of the building workers union. He was also an aspiring communist, but his ambition was frustrated by my grandmother, who would simply say, ‘Don’t be silly, Charles. That will never happen.’ I still remember fondly my grandfather covertly passing me political texts as though they were copies of Playboy with the words, ‘For God’s sake don’t tell your grandmother I gave you this.’ Throughout my life I have been blessed to have strong and intelligent women shape my thinking and my practices, and I am a better person for that.

My political puberty was during the reign of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who led a profoundly corrupt and gerrymandered state government. In the late 1970s what started as a campaign opposing uranium mining evolved into the right-to-march struggle. Like many other activists at the time, I racked up a dozen arrests and a few thorough beatings at the hands of the Queensland police. Following in the wake of the Vietnam War movement and ongoing opposition to apartheid, these times forged a generation of activists. We learned firsthand about the coercive power of the state but more importantly about the power of people who organise and collaborate to resist and to achieve change. This shaped my next 20 years, with a decade in the Communist Party of Australia and two decades working in the trade union movement. The CPA introduced me to extraordinary people who had struggled to improve our society for decades, often against incredible odds but who fought on nonetheless. I will be forever grateful to those comrades who introduced me to the concepts of race, gender and class. They challenged me to think critically and strategically and to organise and to fight.

In the union movement, as either an industrial or an education officer, it was my privilege to work with members, reps and officials to preserve and advance the interests of working people across Queensland, the Northern Territory and here in Victoria. My life in the union movement generated both great highs and great challenges. In my heart of hearts I believe that the union movement remains an essential element of the democratic fabric of our society, and it is a part of my DNA.

For the last 20-something years I have been a partner in a small consulting firm, working primarily with not-for-profit aged care providers across Melbourne and regional Victoria and interstate. I would like to express my thanks to the many organisations with which we have partnered. I would also like to acknowledge all the aged and community care providers and peak bodies working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities and special needs groups. It has been an honour and, for me, an education to work and to collaborate with you.

These not-for-profit aged care and community service organisations are a critical part of our civil and our humane society. They tend to have a few things in common: voluntary boards with little or no support from the government who share their time and experience and often their own resources to ensure services are delivered to their communities. They have incredibly hardworking staff and management teams who day after day turn up and deliver great care and services. Across regional Victoria they are often among the largest employers and the economic and social backbone of their regional communities. This sector is under-resourced, under-recognised, underpaid and under enormous pressure. Huge demographic changes are underway that are reshaping our health, aged and community services sector. If we wish to retain our voluntary, religious and not-for-profit providers, we must address at both a state and a federal level critical resourcing and workforce issues or witness their collapse. I sincerely hope that over the next four years I can work with you to improve the situation in these sectors to improve the lives of service providers, carers and recipients.

I would like to thank my business partner of 20 years, Ken Ridgwell, and his wife Barb. Ken is a man of great intellect, integrity and humour. We have faced many challenges and confronting assignments, and it has been a privilege to work with him. Ken’s friendship and counsel will always be treasured. I would also like to express my thanks to long-time collaborators Kerri Rivett, Anna Aristotle and Michelle Penson.

Over the last 25 years I have also participated in multiple community organisations, most notably the Kensington Association, and many campaigns in the inner west. Most of these campaigns, some successful, others not so much, have been against inappropriate development or to enhance or protect local amenity and services. This included opposition to the development of the flood wall at the Flemington Racecourse and a constant rearguard action against excessive and poorly planned high-rise development. Other highlights have included the fight against the east–west tunnel, seven years on the community reference group for the redevelopment of the Kensington housing estate and a couple of years on the local police community consultative committee. I extend my appreciation to my many friends in the Kensington, Flemington and North Melbourne residents associations, and I also thank the councillors and officers of the cities of Melbourne and Moonee Valley with whom I have had the pleasure to work.

My experiences in community campaigning have taught me a lot about the need for considered and appropriate approaches to planning and development. I mentioned previously that the Western Metropolitan Region is rapidly expanding, with multiple growth corridors as well as major infill redevelopments. The rate of expansion across the west is startling. It has been put to me that if you stand still for too long in the Wyndham or Melton growth corridors, the tradies will just build over or around you. We all know that there is and has been for some time a critical shortage of affordable housing, but what is being developed on Melbourne’s fringes is often far short of what is necessary to create vibrant, sustainable and well-serviced communities.

Time and again developers and land bankers have made fools of governments from both sides. Time and again governments have capitulated to these developers under relentless pressure to deliver housing. Time and again we look back and lament opportunities forgone because of poor decisions and the prohibitive cost of correcting shortfalls that should have been addressed at the get-go. Further, much of the burden of compensating for poor planning and execution falls upon under-resourced and overworked local councils and community service providers.

I understand the government will say they are striving to address these shortfalls, and they are, but we keep on replicating the same problems in new developments. There must be a better way, and I am keen to work with you, my colleagues, to develop a better approach to planning and development, sustainable communities and increased housing. As the population of Melbourne continues to burgeon, I know the people of Western Metropolitan Region expect and deserve nothing less.

I would like to move to a few other issues that are close to my heart and which I hope I may have the opportunity to address over the term of the Parliament. Consistent with the traditions of the inaugural speech, I do not raise these issues to score points, and in making the following comments I would like to respectfully recognise the good work that has been already undertaken by this and previous governments and many members in both houses.

As parents we aspire to create a world and a set of circumstances for our children where they are happier, healthier, wealthier and safer and have greater opportunities than we ourselves experienced. For many Australians living in this country of extraordinary richness that ambition has been both an aspiration and a reality. But for many Australians the dream of ever greater abundance has been just that: a dream, and a dream disconnected from their lived reality.

For our First Nations people, colonisation, dispossession and racism have been that reality. Too often closing the gap has been no more than closing our eyes, our ears and our minds. In the Uluru Statement from the Heart First Nations people have offered the country a gift with clarity and generosity. It is incumbent upon us all to graciously accept and give life to the offer of voice, truth and treaty. These three elements will not miraculously rectify centuries of destruction, but embraced nationally they are potentially a fresh start for us all. In the immediate term that opportunity presents itself in the Voice to Parliament. It is incumbent upon us all to put aside partisanship and to seek meaningful reconciliation and restitution. I commend the Andrews government for its work to date to advance reconciliation. I look forward to contributing to this process in the future.

Our future aspirations are also clouded by the ever-increasing reality of climate change. Across this beautiful state Victorians know that climate change is a reality and that it is profoundly changing our environment and our lives. We need to move decisively to both radically reduce our production of greenhouse gases and protect and nurture our precious natural heritage. We must also commence the daunting process of adapting to the environmental changes that we have now irrevocably locked in for ourselves and for generations to come.

Victoria is the most socially progressive state in Australia. As such it is incumbent upon us to continually strive to improve the situation of those less fortunate. Many Victorians struggle with a disability, or poverty, or chronic illness, or homelessness, or systemic discrimination. For many happenstance can be unexpectedly cruel. One need only look at the growth of homelessness amongst women over the age of 55 to see not only a desperate need but also a confluence of gender discrimination with the failures of our social safety net. We must identify any and every opportunity, however modest or however bold, and hopefully we can – we should and we must – do better.

One of the lessons of the pandemic, and I think of the last election, is that most Victorians are socially progressive people. There is a pride in our state; there is a spirit of communitarianism that is in stark contrast to the angry individualism that pervades, for example, US politics. That community spirit was reflected in the response to COVID. We drew on good science, we had good leadership and as a community we recognised that we work together or we die apart.

Working in aged care, I saw firsthand that too many did die and continue to die. A large and rapidly growing cohort of people continue to struggle with long COVID. It is of great concern to me that the concept of ‘living with COVID’ is code for ‘Let’s pretend it’s over’. To the degree that there is some level of breathing space associated with the current less severe mutations, we are squandering the time and the opportunities to build community vaccination and to bolster our critical health system and our exhausted health workforce.

The pandemic also reinforced in the minds of the Victorian people the importance of good government and a robust and competent public service. Like many Victorians, I have watched with dismay successive governments of both persuasions continually slash our public services. Worse, we have watched functions of government, including the provision of fearless and forthright advice, privatised and contracted to large multinational consulting firms at exorbitant rates, often using ex-public servants who would have previously provided that advice at a fraction of the cost. Let us rebuild our public services to the benefit of our community, and if that involves resurrecting the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, let us debate that too.

On another matter, I would like to draw to the attention of the chamber the passing of a great Australian, Professor David Penington AC, on 6 January this year. Professor Penington was one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals and health experts. His legacy includes making Australia a world leader in HIV/AIDS public health strategy and changing community attitudes to alcohol and illicit drugs. A part of Professor Penington’s legacy is the Penington Institute, which aims to support cost-effective approaches that maximise community health and safety in relation to drugs. The institute’s patrons represent the cream of our health and legal leaders, and its board is chaired by Kathryn Greiner.

The Penington Institute has produced a two-volume report entitled Cannabis in Australia. It is a cracker of a read, and I commend it to the chamber. Yes, you were wondering when I was going to get to cannabis, weren’t you? Well, here we go, although I will endeavour to keep it relatively brief. The Penington report identifies that cannabis is currently consumed every year by up to 4 million people in Australia. This includes around 1 million Victorians annually. The current cannabis prohibition makes criminals of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens, particularly the most marginalised and vulnerable.

Breaking from the report for a minute, I wish to record that because of these laws I am a criminal and I have been committing criminal acts for over 40 years. Further, because of these antiquated laws, I regularly commit crimes, along with hundreds of thousands of other Victorians, and I intend to continue doing so until I pass away, I am incarcerated or these prohibition laws are reformed.

To return to the Penington report, they find that the prohibition model is both ineffective and inefficient. It fails to control supply, it creates an illicit market that is largely in the hands of organised criminals, who profit to the tune of around $8 billion per year, and it costs over $1.5 billion every year for largely ineffective law enforcement. Penington also noted that prohibition has prevented research into the potential benefits of cannabis and has distorted research into the negative consequences of its use. I will not keep reading from the Penington report; it only gets more critical of the current situation.

The cannabis prohibition has been in place in Victoria since 1928. That is a 95-year trial, and that is 95 years of demonstrable failure. As Einstein observed, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We need to demonstrate sanity and common sense, and we need action. We do not need a semantic debate about decriminalisation versus legalisation. We need a debate about an appropriate regulatory framework for the cannabis market. Like any market regulation, it needs to address both supply and demand. As the Penington Institute identifies, we also need to address questions of good public health policy, community education and harm minimisation.

And let us keep this in some perspective. When we look at the really difficult challenges that confront our society, some of which I have mentioned previously, cannabis reform is not one of them. While cannabis reform is a critically important issue to many, many people, it is a relatively simple exercise. We need to find common ground on how a staged process of reform, regulation and change can be implemented to the benefit of all Victorians. I commend the government for starting this change process by addressing medicinal cannabis and look forward to working with both the government and across the chamber to achieve reform. I will leave the cannabis issue there for the moment.

I would like to express my thanks to the many members from both chambers and from both sides of the house who have reached out and indicated their desire for change. We will be taking every opportunity to advance this issue in the future, and we will do whatever is required to achieve responsible change.

Finally, in closing, I would like to thank my family. My sister Kathy continues the familial tradition of strong women as embodied in our late and much-loved mother Daphne. To my son Charlie, I love you, and I am incredibly proud of your many achievements. And to my wife and companion of 38 years Dr Kate Kennedy, you are my inspiration. You mean everything to me, and I love you more now than ever.

President, I thank you for the opportunity to speak today, and I look forward to working constructively with you over the term of this 60th Parliament. Thank you.

[Members applauded]


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