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Sheena Watt's Inaugural Speech

Sheena Watt MP

I begin today with deepest respects, acknowledgement and gratitude to the ancestors, elders and knowledge keepers of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong peoples. I acknowledge your connections to this place before it was as we see it now and as it has always been—a place of meeting, sharing and exchange, a place where ideas were born and dreams were created for all people who make a home on your country.

Thank you, Aunty Di Kerr, for bestowing on me the blessings of the Wurundjeri as I embark on this brave new journey. Our shared ambition for justice, respect and truth telling will guide me always, and in the spirit of truth telling I will share my truth of what brings me to this place, what experiences have shaped my values and the people with whom I share a deep and profound thanks, starting with my mother, who joins me today. Hi, Murra! You see, my mum is my guide. Annette Gail Watt has a story worth sharing, an injustice worth redress and a lifetime of quiet determination worth celebrating. So today, Mum, I celebrate you. Mum guided me on the dignity of work. Mum was a taxidriver, an aged-care worker, a fruit packer, a meat worker and a food processing factory hand, and I saw every day what hard work looked like. Mum shared with me the raw honesty of the hardships of that working life with my sister and me. She had no choice, but because of this we understood what a life of exclusion, insecurity and vulnerability looked like, and we were guided by her determination to fight against it. Mum guided me on celebrating and honouring my Aboriginal culture and heritage—that decisions made on her behalf before she could even speak her name, before she was even considered a citizen in this country, do not define our story.

Despite the hurdles, Mum did her best to connect to culture and community in a way that worked for us. I remember like it was yesterday walking into the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service as a little girl for the very first time, and how hard you worked to make sure that we had Koori Santa photos for Christmas. You see, those first brave steps that you took mean the world, so that I could continue to feel safe and secure in connecting with our culture. You are a warrior, Mum, and a special feature in my life.

My late father, John Sidney Watt, inspired me to overcome the challenges of the day and look for innovative solutions to the bumps in our road. I never quite knew where the ideas came from. Maybe it was the years of watching Star Trek, or the wisdom of his mates at the local bowling club, but dad just seemed to work it out. When dad had his first stroke, it was like the system was not set up for his determination. He would not resign himself to a life of disability and hardship and nor would we. Dad made me question a system that had failed us and made me wonder if we were alone in that frustration. Dad inspired me for a life of advocacy and fighting for change, for there is no greater story than the one told by those with lived experience, to look beyond your personal circumstances and see a system and all its parts. For my life in advocacy and social change I say thanks, Dad. For the earliest lessons learned and to keep on fighting when everyone else has given up I say thanks, Dad. Now, I thought to quote some Klingon for you, Dad, but I am not quite sure I would do it justice, and I wonder perhaps if that is the first ever reference to Klingon in Hansard, but there you go

That brings me to my nan, Mona Elsie Watt, who loved lawn bowls, the Lions and the Labor Party. My nan was a remarkable woman who led a quiet life, a life of quiet achievement and pride in the things that she loved. Few things humble me in my life more than to think of the bravery of my nanna. During the war she sang to the troops, and she stood up for herself and her family when it just was not the done thing. She instilled in me values that anchor me to this day, that provide comfort during the trying times and give me strength to fight on. Her ideals, ideas and vision for our community burned into me a love of politics and its ability to change the world. She spoke to me often about the Labor Party and why there was an alignment with our family’s story. Nan, you see, was a lifetime member of the Labor Party.

It was not too many years ago that my mum walked around the streets of her Brunswick West home with a big belly and bigger ambitions for her life and the life of her unborn girl. It was the northern suburbs that welcomed us as a family for the first time—a northern suburbs that looks a lot different to what it looks like today. Today, as I am honoured to be standing in this place as a new member for the Northern Metropolitan Region, what has not changed is the welcoming spirit of the northern suburbs, a place that has continued to welcome families and create long-lasting, connected communities.

Melbourne’s north is made up of more than 1 million people who come from all different walks of life and is a region rich in multiculturalism and ambition for a brighter future. It is a region where I live and is home to my family, friends, favourite restaurants, cafes and live music venues that I cannot wait to get back to and of course home to my beloved Carlton Football Club.

I am endlessly inspired by the stories of resilience, hope and strength from the communities in the north. Never have those qualities been more evident than during the global pandemic we are all enduring. Like many in the north, I understand the economic and social disruption we have collectively experienced, and there has been a significant burden on our carers, separation from our families and the tragic loss of our loved ones in aged care. Around the globe this pandemic has starkly amplified the disproportionate health and economic impacts on the most vulnerable and the risks to us all when the needs of our most marginalised in our community are not met.

I have spent this year as an elected community representative on the boards of some of the most important community organisations in Victoria. Together we have been part of the many groups working tirelessly to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable Victorians. As we move into a new phase of recovery, we simply cannot build back the same structures which were there before. I know in my life that they did not work for my dad, they did not work for me as a child who was a carer and they do not work now. One of the greatest privileges of being in this place is to represent the communities of Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and I will use my voice here to continue the advocacy for those vulnerable Victorians.

I know that I have a powerful predecessor in that work in Jenny Mikakos’s commitment to the most vulnerable and her unwavering principles as a champion for diversity. She worked tirelessly to improve the lives of people in the Northern Metropolitan Region, and I am entirely honoured to have the responsibility to carry on that work.

In our lives we have moments of great significance—those moments that you know exactly where you were and who you were with. One such moment for me was the national apology to the stolen generations in 2008. The single most transformative moment of my life happened on that day. With tears streaming down my face for my family and for all families stolen by a system of injustice, neglect and uncompromising cruelty, I committed myself to a life serving my community

It was on this day when my personal story and my political purpose came together. I had the extraordinary opportunity to be sitting in the gallery of the Australian House of Representatives that day and to experience one of the most profoundly important acts of a Parliament in the history of our democracy, because Anthony Albanese gave his ticket to me. I sat in the gallery that day next to a great hero of mine, Linda Burney, and committed myself to being part of a fight to ensure our history is recognised and that we build a fair and truly democratic future for First Nations people in this country.

Sadly, until far too recently, to see other Aboriginal faces in our Parliament I had to look beyond our fine state. I looked to Carol Martin, the late Jack Ah Kit, Dr Chris Bourke and my tidda girl always Malarndirri McCarthy to show me that the path is possible. With their example I have worked hard within the Victorian Labor Party to bring self-determination into our structures, and I have brought more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices into our party, into our policymaking and into our decision-making. I so wish that they could be here today, because representation matters.

To begin with what felt like a very lonely journey, I have been extraordinarily grateful to Senator Malarndirri McCarthy for her support and sisterhood. You are too deadly, sister, and I can say that I would not be in this place today without your encouragement and strength behind me. You see, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples allyship with our struggles takes many forms, and none is more powerful than those actions taken with intention and conscious efforts to advance inclusion and representation of First Peoples. So to all the comrades who walked beside me and lifted me up, I thank you for living your values. You absolutely know who you are.

I found these allies across the Victorian Labor movement, from the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Policy Committee Brunswick branch and the mighty union movement. I say thank you. To the United Workers Union, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and, later my union, the union for social and community sector workers, the Australian Services Union, I say thank you. Thank you for equipping me with the skills, experiences and comradely actions to progress the big issues in our community like closing the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes and like changing our constitution to reflect our current values as a nation and to address the inequalities in employment, especially for our young people.

In this place I intend to live my values and represent the values of those I represent. I enter this Parliament at a time when it is our moral duty to lift the most vulnerable in our community up as we recover from this pandemic. We must ensure that inclusion is front and centre of our recovery efforts, and I know that this Labor government will do just that. I am looking forward to being part of the Andrews Labor government led by a Premier who has shown unequalled leadership across this country. The Premier has shown leadership not only in responding to the coronavirus pandemic but as the Labor leader of this state in stepping up for First Nations Victorians by believing in the ambition of a treaty and putting it into action; in committing to self-determination in principles, practice and policy; and most recently in calling on our great party to live true to its values.

I stand here today as Labor’s first female Aboriginal MP in the Victorian Parliament and the first Aboriginal member of the Legislative Council. This moment will not soon be lost on me, and I look forward to working closely with all members of this place to serve the people of the Northern Metropolitan Region and all of Victoria. I feel entirely humbled and grateful for the overwhelming messages of support I have received from so many members of this Parliament, both past and present. I would like to conclude with a sentiment shared with me by Gavin Jennings: when you open doors, others will follow. I truly hope they do. Ngoon godgin. Thank you.

Sheena Watt is the Labor Member for the Northern Metro Region in the Victorian Legislative Council. Facebook Twitter


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