Tuesday, 20 September 2022


Member for Narre Warren North

Member for Narre Warren North

Valedictory statement

Mr DONNELLAN (Narre Warren North) (16:20): I guess the final speech is very much as hard as the first speech. I will explain that a little bit later. These are very much the reflections and a little bit of self-analysis of someone who does not really like writing but is not a bad talker, someone who mangles the English language and can be quite colourful sometimes, which very much reflects my passion. I have got a record, but I am not going to talk and give people a long list of things I have been involved with. I have always seen myself as a member of a team, whether it be at the electorate office, the ministerial office, cabinet or the department. Stakeholders in the electorate and others will make individual assessments about whether we did a good or bad job. I have never been comfortable with self-praise. I have never liked trumpet blowers, to be blunt. I never really wanted to be an MP, to be honest. I really wanted to be the state secretary sitting in the shadows. I had enough of a fear of talking in front of people—or more than a few. I was manically driven to avoid that. I would have happily gone from Kelvin Thomson’s office or Tony Robinson’s, straight from the electorate office, into the state office. That would have suited me perfectly. I can say one of the happiest days of my life was my first day of employment for a Labor member, when I was driving the blue VG Valiant. I loved that car—that car loved petrol, I might add—and it was the car that I took Charlotte out in for our first date.

Part of the reason I did not like public speaking was that I had a mad nun called Sister Bernadette in Camberwell at St Dominic’s who used to kick and punch and humiliate me in front of people because I could not read or write properly because I spoke Italian. That certainly did not help. It took me a while to work out that I was just as capable as everybody else, because I just had this utter fear of talking in front of people. That confidence has come over time, obviously. In many ways I am a contrary bastard, because I ended up loving being a member for 20 years. I never thought I would. No role could have ever captured my desire to strive for social justice better. I have truly loved sharing what is and will be the majority of my working life with the people of Narre Warren North, and I will be terribly sad to leave. I have had 20 years of thorough enjoyment, consistently challenged and always delighted by my engagement with the community at mobiles or when doorknocking. Ninety per cent of the time we never talked about politics. I loved sharing their stories and I loved giving stories back. The joys and struggles of your people—my people—I was their hustler; I was responsible for part of their wellbeing every day and I felt very comfortable with that. For someone who hated speaking in front of people, God, I learned to love it. I love the argy-bargy of this place. I think it is a very rational way of dealing with serious public issues.

My first experience speaking in front of people was at 38 years of age. It was the worst experience I had ever had. It was in this house. Bloody Bracksy came in and sat down in front of me. I had Cry Me a River playing under my arms at that stage. I could have sweated for Australia. God, I was happy when that was over. I could not race enough to get to the end of it. But I did improve over time, and I got more comfortable talking in this house.

What is so special about being an MP? Well, for me, I do not think there is any role which allows you to effect change in the community like that of a member of Parliament—maybe a dictator. Judges, police, nurses, doctors—all those people sit at the end of the line after we make the rules or we fund the program. For example, Home Stretch—when I introduced that, it was the proudest day of my life as a minister in the Andrews government, and I said it and I meant it—introduced new service models for children 18 to 21 years of age who have experienced trauma and are in out-of-home care. What drove me to do that? It was the logic, the evidence of terrible social outcomes, guilt—Catholic guilt, heavy dosages of Catholic guilt with a Jesuit education with a focus on social justice and a focus on the wellbeing of others—never spending your time glorifying yourself, the importance of humility and treating all people with dignity. Also it was the campaign of the sector which I guess made me do it. Paul McDonald and others from Anglicare very much pushed it. But I guess what really made me do it in the end was my first announcement as Minister for Child Protection. I went down to the convent in Collingwood and had to sit in front of people like Rusty who had experienced out-of-home care and had to tell them to get excited because we were going to cover 10 per cent of them for this Home Stretch program. Well, that did not make me feel good. That was my first announcement as the Minister for Child Protection, and I was determined that we were going to cover 100 per cent—and we did. That is why that experience highlights to me what you can do as a member of Parliament.

Why did I become a member of Parliament? Well, my family made me do it, I guess they would say. When my father took me off to Xavier College he said, ‘Middle- and upper-class people shouldn’t be drawing on the public purse. There shouldn’t be subsidies for their lifestyle’. He always taught me about the needs of others, not ‘yours’. He hated the culture of the individual. The community always came first. He taught me to love a verbal fight, like his father who would fight with him and tell him he was wrong. Even though my father had gone to university and my grandfather had not, he would tell him the book was wrong. They loved to fight.

As my mother said, ‘Darling, bullshit baffles brains’, to put it crudely, and that is how she went about things in child protection. It was with passion and with confidence, and that is something that took me a while to work out; probably at about 40 years of age I finally had the confidence to understand what that meant. My mother is terribly passionate about social justice. She gets terribly angry when animals appear more important than the homeless in our society. She does have an animal, I might add. She sent me to department of housing playgroups in school holidays so I could understand the trials and tribulations of others. She taught me you need to be confident to get your message across and not to be afraid of a fight.

Regrets: I have got a few regrets. I guess not finishing the work on the early intervention program called Putting Families First, a program that I, along with the member for Sydenham, the member for Preston and the marvellously great public servants in the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, the Department of Justice and Community Safety, the Department of Treasury and Finance and the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions worked on. Argiri and Beth and people like that put a marvellous program together. And why did we do it? Because we were sick of seeing people incarcerated, sick of watching poverty go from generation to generation and sick of the solution of using a spray gun to spray bullets around the problem when the precision of a rifle would do the job properly. The future of the welfare state depends on a focus on early, evidence-based interventions with long-term tracking and methodologies to measure the longer term and social benefits. Far too often we retreat to Kumbaya, feel-good interventions that are often not evidence-based and that often do not have the impact we are desirous of.

Freight is another area where the ministerial office and the stakeholders and so forth did marvellous work. But there is so much work to do because the freight task is expected to double over the coming years.

My saddest moment was the fall of Kabul and our federal government’s response. Why couldn’t we have been more on the front foot? Why couldn’t we have dealt with that a lot better? Listening to the trauma of my community was very difficult.

Funniest moments: John Brumby coming back from retirement to play for the Premiers cricket team against the Crusaders and hitting a six—he is still dining out on that at the Brunswick Street oval—or it could be the Kokoda mankini that Earl Setches paraded in Papua New Guinea in 2008. What a delight that was. I think we also had Ian Silk at the time, and we teased him about barracking for Hawthorn and all the blond boys he was associated with at Hawthorn. Well, he is now a director there—and a very good one at that.

The electorate is my greatest achievement. I need to explain that. I was truly privileged to work for and with the community for 20 years—people who I draw so much enjoyment and pleasure from. I worked with everybody irrespective of their politics. I have always thought everybody pays my wages, not just the Labor voters. For those who are conservative leaning, I guess my only test was: are they working for others? And if they were, well, then I would work with them.

When preselections were over, Cameron Lucadou-Wells, a journalist, pressed me a few times to enunciate my greatest achievements. The journalist wanted buildings, ovals, roads or something physical, but my thoughts went to things like the Andrews Centre, Carlos, community houses, Joe at Berwick City Soccer Club, Eric at the Narre bowls club, Sean at Narre Foxes, Rex and Fran at Endeavour Hills footy club, Gula, Selba, Phong, Be Ha Kevin, Loi and many people who are leaders in their community. I very much saw my role as helping others to help others—assisting people not making monuments to yourself. I have always found it quite bizarre when we as politicians sometimes claim credit individually for things which are very much a team effort. The volunteers and the groups put the work together, support the clubs and so forth and then put them in a position to be worthy of the ground, so that is why I thought always my greatest achievement was serving others who nourish the community of Narre Warren North. I very much saw myself as a team player for Narre Warren North, who had to occasionally play in a key position.

I felt likewise in the ministerial office. I worked with marvellous people in my office but also from VicRoads, child protection, aged care and many more. I was very much the team member who did a song and dance at the end of the exercise. That is the way I saw my role.

I loved doorknocking as a member, but my knees did not. You build a marvellous rapport with the community. I still know the doors where the grumpy Liberals live—I have got one of those visual memories. In 2008 they told me they did not like Brumby, which I thought was most unreasonable as I was doorknocking. What I guess it taught me was that I needed to do something about it. I could either collapse, fall on the spot, argue with them about whether Brumby was a good or bad person, or I could get on a phone over 18 months and do 11 000 phone calls to talk to the people directly—not to campaign at them, not to tell them that, say, John Brumby was a good leader, but to actually engage in their lives. It taught you over time by doing that to innately understand the psyche of the community, because you were listening. You felt the broader economic highs and lows, the rhythms and patterns of life.

And if you listen carefully enough, you sort of learn to understand why most of the community really has no interest in the day-to-day political minutiae that rocks our socks off in here. They have their lives to live, their struggles and so forth. They very much live in the present. Most wish for you to listen and over time develop interventions to assist them in their daily lives. That is why I think the community very much want face-to-face engagement, always available, not digital statements of individual success. The community does not distinguish between levels of government, and we have never sent anybody in our electorate office off elsewhere to deal with another level of government, because I just do not think the community sees it that way. Politics is very much about fulsome, proper, human engagement over extended periods with long discussions, but—I will put it bluntly—never at election time. It is the worst time to be trying to do that. For me, I always tried to be the most available member so when you went to the fridge I was a bit like Coca-Cola—you always picked that person because they were always doing their mobile offices and always available to you as their local member.

The difficult decisions—well, for me, I always thought, ‘How did I sleep?’, ‘How did I want to be seen in the longer run?’. Would I be seen as a self-serving spiv or someone who actually gave a stuff? Would my kids or their offspring in 50 years time be horrified by decisions of mine? Being brutally honest with yourself, measuring your behaviour every night at sleep, is what I did every night. A good dose of Catholic guilt each night—or a good glass of Catholic guilt each night—certainly helped.

Now, this is probably the hardest bit, the thankyous. The easiest bit is the family. First and foremost to my marvellous, beautiful, caring and loving wife, Charlotte. A true believer, nearly communist in her support, I could not ask for more; no person could expect more. Charlotte has been mum and dad far too often, and that is just a simple fact. I am a difficult bugger who has been overindulged in love, support and care, and for that I am truly blessed. I love you, wonderful Charlotte. It is as simple as that. Ben—well, Ben always gets things done without a fuss, but like his grandpa, he is very bright, very kind, sweet and loving and has an innate sense of social justice. He is frequently disturbed by the attitudes of some of his old-school colleagues, as am I. My son, Sebastian, old grumpy pants, the most political and Prince Charming of the family—big mouth, loud fella, loves a fight, whether they be big or small on the footy field, verbally combative but always loving. My mother—well, she is the full-frontal assault. There is no halfway house. In for a penny, in for a pound, as she would say. You put it on the nose—and she was the Herald racing girl many years ago, so that comes from racing parlance. You put it on the nose when it comes to the family and you do it with bravado, even if you do not feel it. My sister is always in my corner. She is the silent type, more like her father, who would happily jab someone but would not want to be seen doing it. Verbally brutal in support and always happy to share dastardly thoughts about actions which would lead to misery for our enemies.

Now, this is the really hard bit: the staff. I have had so many marvellous staff. Robyn Hale—honourable mention. I reckon it has been about 20 years. She is a bit like my extra mum but far too young of course. She feels each insult thrown my way personally. I could not have got a more skilled, hardworking, terribly kind and considerate individual. She managed my office like her own for seven years while I performed a ministerial role and for 13 years when I hung around like a bad smell. All my staff—I have been truly blessed, with so many special people to work with, and I have always felt I have been a member of a great team. So many special qualities; they shared my mania and my passions. And actually many of the ministerial staff are here today, even those from the ministerial wall of shame, which is the shame of when you retire—we put you up on the wall. Even those who introduced the ministerial swear jar, which I was not a great fan of, are here today.

Members interjecting.

Mr DONNELLAN: Yes, a great contributor.

In the electorate office, to be blunt, it often felt like a field battle in the early days with the City of Casey: dig the trenches and wait for another mad intervention from the councillors and the CEO. It was not easy going. Thank you for your mighty efforts.

There are the volunteers. Foxy and Beef, the friend whisperers. My Liberal-voting friends used to beat the Liberals every time to the polling booths and get there earlier than everybody else, so I am eternally grateful for that. I cannot say your hearts and spirits were all fully with me, but thank you for your endeavours. There are Trish and Keith and many others who doorknocked for many hours. There are the phone-callers like Doug. I think Doug is 80 and he is still making phone calls. There are so many beautiful people in the community who helped who are not members and who have very much become friends. From so many ALP members and colleagues there was marvellous support on so many tough campaigns—people like Loy, who madly put out signs. I could never work out how they got there in the first place, but I am eternally grateful. There are the people who financially supported me like George, Nick, Fib, Peter Anderson, Peng and many others. To the Premier and my colleagues, thank you very much for allowing me to patiently push my causes in cabinet and occasionally carry on like a pork chop, which was frequently.

The ministerial youth advisory group is a group of young people in out-of-home care who were happy to share with me their experiences—unfiltered experiences—of what the care system was like, which certainly assisted us in our endeavours to try and make improvements. I very much want to thank them for their generosity and their bravery.

I thank Bill Shorten for sending me off to the Carlton branch for 12 months as a volunteer on Kelvin Thomson’s campaign to get him back into Wills; that was a great lesson. There are the constituents and the community leaders: Bert, Marco, Michael, Susan and so many others. Apologies especially to those I have missed. I have no doubt I have missed some; actually I was just about to miss the parliamentary staff. I have greatly enjoyed the company of so many of the parliamentary staff; it has been marvellous. A real apology to those I have missed. I will not sleep easy tonight because I know when you start listing people you always miss out some bugger along the way. Thank you.

Members applauded.