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First Speech

On Thursday 28 July 2022, I made my first speech in Federal Parliament. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: I'm Elizabeth Watson-Brown, a proud Greens MP. I come from Meanjin—Brisbane—the lands of the Yuggera and Turrbal peoples, and I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri owners of this land. I acknowledge the deep wounds to Australia's first peoples, their lands and their culture. I acknowledge that sovereignty of these lands was never ceded. I acknowledge the ancient truth of the ancestors and the shameful truth of our history with elders past, I sincerely undertake to seek treaty with elders present and I vow to listen respectfully to the voice of emerging elders.

My electorate of Ryan encompasses Brisbane's west side. It extends from the inner suburbs that line Maiwar, or the snaking Brisbane River—including Toowong, or bird call; Taringa, or place of stones; and Indooroopilly, or place of leeches—and fans out to the south-west, to the Pullen Pullen fighting grounds on the Moggill, or water dragon, peninsula. To the north-west, Ryan extends past Enoggera, or the corroboree, along the ancient walking tracks leading towards the Bora Grounds of Samford. At its heart is Mt Coot-tha, the honey mountain.

Today the electorate, I feel, is like a cross-section of contemporary Australia, from inner-urban apartment living, through suburbs and outer acreages, to farmland and major eucalypt forests. It has a mixed economy anchored by high-level research at the University of Queensland, CSIRO and the Wesley Hospital; bustling commerce at Indooroopilly and Toowong; and the presence of the Enoggera army base.

Ryan is diverse. Ryan has areas of real struggle—people the economy has left behind. Doorknocking, I met people, even with good secure jobs, who were facing eviction and homelessness because of the government's failure to seriously tackle skyrocketing house prices and rents.

As an ecology, Ryan provides a large, but increasingly precarious, habitat for native fauna. It's also becoming an increasingly vulnerable habitat for humans exposed to creek and riparian flooding, large areas of bushfire hazard and the rising risks of urban heat island impacts. On a good day, however, the view from the lookout on Mount Coot-tha—and you joined me there once, Adam—is spectacularly beautiful. And what I see when I see that view is like a map of my own life, holding key moments of my personal history and the places and people I love.

Growing up, my family was not overtly political but was centred on love of life, friends, each other. I'm so sad that mum and dad have not lived to share this day. It would have been another good excuse for a family party! Testament to mum and dad is the abiding closeness of we siblings, and my two loving sisters, Margie and Jane, and other family members that are here today, as they always are for me.

Also here, as always, is my husband of 44 years—patient, clever, kind, funny, supportive Peter. And sorry, Pete, for upending the retirement plans. We share a passion for architecture and for our sons, Bill and Alex, both wonderful men too, with partners and families that we love. So blessed. Thank you.

As parents in this room know, children bring an extra dimension that grounds and enriches life, and creates a deep, deep desire for a better future. It was the arrival of my beautiful and innocent grandchildren that spurred me to more direct political action. No longer content to yell at the news—because enough of the cruelty, right; enough of the venality, right?—I joined the Greens and took to the streets of Ryan. I knocked on many thousands of doors, talking with and listening to my community about how best to shape our shared future. I was supported, uplifted, inspired by a tremendous, tireless army of Greens volunteers and organisers, and mentored by my friend, Greens state member for Maiwar, Michael Berkman, and the remarkable Greens team. I just can't thank you enough. Thank you.

And to that remarkable team—some of whom are here today, and others watching together in Ryan—thank you all, because my presence here is not just the result of any one person, nor even just one election campaign. It's the result of years, of decades, of hard yakka—volunteers donating countless hours of work, building their community, talking to their neighbours about Greens ideas, working to make the change that we desperately need, showing how politics can be done differently.

My own politics was forged during my studies at the University of Queensland in Ryan—proudly—in the 1970s—that dates me! This was a really exciting time of political change and of cultural aspiration. Gough Whitlam's liberation of access to education and an expansive vision for Australia was contrasted by Joh Bjelke-Petersen's authoritarian state that set the police against we peaceful protesters for political, racial and environmental justice. We arrived at UQ in the month of the 1974 floods. Much of the campus had been underwater. Our first project as fledgling architects was to go and document the flood damage to houses. Of course, what we really saw was huge damage to people, to lives. That was heartbreaking, that was salutary and, since then, I have experienced two more unprecedented major Brisbane River floods in Ryan.

Our architectural education was at an exciting time. The bland international style was giving way to community architecture, social housing and heritage conservation. As a student and a graduate I was fortunate to work alongside talented architectural designers, but very few women. In 1981, I was one of the few women to establish her own architectural practice in Australia. So without any models or obvious mentors, I first had to design how to do it my way. I was shocked when my bank refused to let me open a business account without my husband's signature. My male colleagues have remembered the eighties as a time of corporate indulgence and long tax-deductible business lunches, while I was shocked to find that I could not deduct the childcaring costs that enabled my practice to exist. And I remain absolutely appalled that the cost of and access to child care remains a major impediment to equity of opportunity.

With determination and the support of my incredible staff and family I've had a long and successful career in architecture. My practice, Elizabeth Watson Brown Architects, grew over 21 years from one to 12 staff before merging with a national architecture practice when I was invited to be their design director. Throughout this whole time, whether in my own projects or on government advisory panels and juries, my design and life values have always been to prioritise the needs of people and their community and the specifics of the environment and the place.

As I've always said to my students and staff, what we're doing is really important. We're building the infrastructure of the lives we share. We'd better do it well; we'd better do it responsively and responsibly. I've worked across all scales, from the intimate to the urban scale, in design. But one early project of which I'm particularly proud was designing the first purpose-built refuge in Queensland for women and children escaping domestic violence. At its heart, of course, was a nurturing subtropical garden.

I say all this to try to explain where I'm coming from. I haven't followed a traditional path to politics. I didn't study politics. I haven't been a staffer for an MP. And obviously I've come to it later in life than most. In fact, my candidacy was the first time I'd ever done that, so it's been a bit of an adventure. But it's these values—prioritising the needs of the community and the sustainability and amenity of life, of our climate and environment—that I bring to represent my Ryan community in this chamber. These values are shared by the people on Brisbane's west side. Over the past few years I've met so many good Ryanites. I've personally knocked on at least 10,000 doors. The volunteers have done a lot, of course—more than that, in total. I've spent countless time at markets, at schools, with community groups. I truly love it. I'm a bit weird and a bit of a nerd about doorknocking—and I know Max shares that with me! And I intend to continue.

The key message that keeps coming from these conversations is that the people of Ryan want their politicians to put the needs of the community and the sustainability of our environment ahead of corporate interests and petty politicking. Despite what's often been said about the Greens in the media and in this very chamber, I reckon our ideas are really just common sense for most people. A planned phase-out of coal and gas in favour of renewables and green manufacturing: that's common sense for the people I've spoken to across Ryan. Bringing dental care into Medicare so no one has to skip the dentist because of cost: that's common sense for the people I've spoken to across Ryan. Making billionaires pay their fair share so we can afford the things that make sure everyone has the basics they need to live a good life: again, that's common sense for the majority in Ryan. Building enough public and affordable housing so everyone has a place to call home; neighbourhoods that are walkable and cyclable and not being trampled by the interests of big developers or airport corporations; public transport that's cheap or free and that is fully accessible and genuinely integrated—these are all logic; these are all commonsense values shared by the majority of people in Ryan and, I would suggest, across the country.

I think if everyone genuinely listened to their communities then perhaps they'd realise this, too. But, unfortunately, I believe that instead of listening to everyday people the major parties in this country over recent decades have increasingly listened to the interests of big corporations. Why is that? Is it to do with the millions of dollars in donations flowing from big corporations to both the major political parties, or the revolving door between major political parties, big corporations, lobby groups and indeed government boards? Or is it to do with the now decades-long bipartisan addiction to neoliberal economic thinking, which—despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe—holds that the private market is the best way to deliver everything, including essential services and infrastructure? What I heard from the people of Ryan was that they were heartily sick of that. They felt ignored and abandoned, and they clearly wanted change. I think the new complexion of this House reflects that.

As the Greens spokesperson for transport, cities and infrastructure in this parliament, I wanted to end by returning to the question of design and development, because in my career I've seen firsthand the problems caused by the belief that public infrastructure should be developed and owned by private corporations. This has a profoundly negative effect on our ability to deliver for everyday people and communities. My experience of public-private partnerships, or 'PPPs' in the lingo, is that the private 'P' bit is what undermines the benefit to the public, as do planning regulations favouring private developers and profits. I'm here to say that public infrastructure should be in public hands, and that we need a public led approach to the way we develop our cities.

This is particularly urgent in the context of the climate crisis and the inequality crisis—so closely interrelated. Australia's cities actually house about 85 per cent of our population and generate the majority of our carbon pollution. Without exception, Australian cities were established at places of great natural resources and beauty. Our reliance on private cars is rapidly obliterating these natural assets, with unsustainable outward sprawl, inward traffic congestion and concrete chaos. Our conditions in Australia should allow us all to harness the power of the sun and breezes to heat, cool, electrify and vegetate our cities, yet unthinking planning to this day treats energy as a throwaway resource. On a social level, the diverse humanity of our cities is lost when only the rich can afford a roof over their heads, and when those who have been dealt hardships in life are moved on, out of sight.

The climate crisis, caused by the greed of coal, oil and gas industries, now continually tosses up unheard-of temperatures, floods, fires, droughts and heatwaves. Our buildings and our cities should protect us from these attacks, but they only make them worse. Urban hardening multiplies flash flooding effects, while devegetation accelerates urban heat island effects that amplify deadly heatwaves. We must design our settlements to accommodate and nurture everyone, to resist natural hazards and to allow us to flee safely when the next catastrophe inevitably strikes. In our last unprecedented, devastating flood, whole suburbs in Ryan were trapped. People had nowhere to go, with no help when they needed it. We need to do better, and we need to do it fast.

These are exceptional times, and we Greens are committed to ensuring that this House faces up to these unprecedented challenges and has the collective will to enact climate action now. That includes climate-proofing our cities and infrastructure. We've got to confront these serious issues together in this, the 47th Parliament, and not delay action. Australia's leading scientists, environmentalists, planners, designers and the community are keen to help. We need to invite them to the table.

When asked if I'm ready for the rough-and-tumble of this House—and I witnessed some of it yesterday—I reply that I have worked more than 40 years in a male-dominated profession where heated disputes over money, timing and outcome are not uncommon. I spent a lot of time on building sites, too. My role in practice, however, has been one of collaboration, not conflict, helping lead design teams, clients and builders towards creative solutions that benefit and endure. My campaign T-shirt featured the motto 'designing our future together', and I'm really determined to carry the spirit of collaboration into this chamber to reflect and represent the interests, the needs and the smarts of the people of Ryan. Thank you, Ryan, my home, for the faith and hope you've placed in me. I'm going to work hard with my amazing colleagues to honour it for a future for all of us.

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