First Speech - Stephen Bates
Thank you Mr Speaker.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we gather - the Ngunnawal people, and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land of my home electorate - the Jaggara and Turrbal people. We stand on unceded land and I hope that this Parliament will take powerful steps toward First Nations justice, recognition, and sovereignty.
There are often pivotal moments in our lives that drive us into politics.
That awaken us.
That make us stand up and fight to say enough is enough.
My journey to this place has not been a conventional one.
I do not come from a wealthy or a political family.
I have spent my life up until this point working in front line retail and hospitality and I have been proud to have been a member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union during my time in retail.
There have been two pivotal moments for me that have shaped who I am and my politics;
My experiences of working poverty-wage jobs, and my coming out as gay.
Both impacted me deeply and forever changed how I saw the world.
But who we are as people is often a product of our family and community. I hope you will indulge me as I tell you about my family and myself.
I was born and raised in South London. My Dad is a musician and UK native who taught me the importance of compassion,and provided a safe space for me to be myself.
My Mum moved from Rockhampton to London when she was 16 to pursue a career in ballet. She gifted me the grit, determination, and ambition that has led me to be standing before you all today.
This upbringing also taught me the value of the Arts to the community and to our country.
For without the arts and culture, what have we to defend?
I am exceptionally lucky to represent a part of this nation that enjoys a vibrant community of artists.
From the Powerhouse in New Farm, to the festivals of Fortitude Valley, and beyond, we are so lucky to have a passionate and inclusive Arts scene that I will support with every fibre of my being to make even bigger.
The arts are an invaluable service to our community and our economy.
I saw first how many people’s lives were impacted through my parent’s own work, and the work of their colleagues.
My family moved to the Central Queensland town of Yeppoon in 2009.
This was an immense change from South London.
We experienced new and abundant wildlife, forests, sun, and the pineapples Yeppoon is so famous for.
But the small-town life was not to be forever and in 2012 I moved to Brisbane to study at the University of Queensland.
Half way through my studies, I was offered a job in the United States with one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world.
The job was to work in a frontline customer service role at a globally renowned theme park.
The pay was very low and the hours would be long but it was an offer I did not want to refuse.
I had no idea just how much my life was going to change.
I worked over forty hours a week for $7.56 an hour - the federal minimum wage.
But it was not just the overseas workers on these poverty wages, it was the locals as well.
Once we had paid bills, rent, and health insurance, we were left with nothing and sometimes even less than that.
The immense power imbalance between us as workers and this giant company was staggering. I was a disposable pawn, and that was made very clear to me.
My experience came to a head one day when I walked into the stockroom and found one of my colleagues crying on the floor.
I asked her what had happened, what was wrong?
She was having to make the decision between whether she paid her rent or bought her insulin for the month.
That was a choice.
Life saving medicine, or a roof over your head.
It all hit me at once, this is not a society that puts people first. It values profit above all else.
I could not allow that to happen back home.
I returned to Australia in 2014 with my eyes wide open.
I saw the creep of Americanisation and neoliberalism across every aspect of our society and we have seen this come to a head over the last decade.
We have been told to accept a belief system that puts people last.
That tells us we are measured solely in our ability to make profits for others.
We have been told to shrink ourselves. To expect nothing from the Government.
That somehow the wealth will “trickle down.”
We have been waiting decades for it to trickle down.
It. Is. Not. Coming.
Wages have stagnated.
Childcare costs are out of control.
State schools are not funded properly.
The higher education sector has been gutted.
Our health system is in crisis as people wait months for access to services they need to survive.
Climate change has been all but ignored for the existential threat that it is.
Housing stress across the country is at an all time high.
In my electorate of Brisbane, over 50% of the community are renters, myself included.
We have seen rents increase astronomically and families be pushed into homelessness as a result.
With the combining stresses of housing, healthcare costs, education costs, and an increasing number of people living paycheck to paycheck, we have to stop and say enough is enough.
People are not asking for much. Brisbane is not asking for much.
People are simply asking for a government that has their back.
That is on their side.
That does not sell them and their futures out to the biggest corporate political donation.
I am on your side.
As I stand in this chamber today, I acknowledge that I am just one voice.
That I have a responsibility to the community of Brisbane who sent me here,
To young people across the country who expect much of me,
To the queer comunity I am proud to be a part of.
I spent much of my teenage years knowing I was gay and doing everything I could to hide it.
I told myself I would force myself to get married to a woman, have kids, and live in the suburbs.
Because that is what I had to do.
I was lucky enough to have a very supportive family to come out to but I spent years hiding myself because I could not see anyone in my world that was openly gay.
I made a promise to myself once I came out.
That if I ever found myself in a public role that I would be open and proud of who I am - hence the rainbow gear.
That I would BE that person that I never saw growing up because if I can even help one person out there then this life will have all been worth it.
I was lucky enough during the campaign to have received an email from a mother who told me that after receiving a letter from me in her mailbox - that just happened to mention my partner Scott’s name - her fourteen year old son wanted to donate some of his pocket money to our campaign.
When she asked him why, he said he had read the letter and wanted me to win.
If you cannot see it, you cannot be it.
It is not enough to wave a rainbow flag when it is politically convenient, our community deserves tangible legislation that protects us from discrimination, and empowers us to be who we are.
I also have a responsibility to those in the Brisbane community who have lost their voices, and can never be heard.
We are in a mental health crisis.
The fallout from the ongoing pandemic, cuts to our health system, faltering economy, and lack of substantive investment in mental health support has created a crisis that can be difficult to talk about.
A couple of weeks ago, I met with Jason.
He came to me during an incredibly difficult time in his, and his family’s life, to talk about his daughter Maya.
I asked to share his story in this speech and I am honoured at receiving his permission to do so.
Maya Birch was a young woman, 24 years old, when she tragically took her life in May this year.
Maya had been struggling with some anxiety and mild depression for approximately two years prior to contracting COVID-19 in January 2022 however, the decline in her mental health following this was rapid and extreme as she suffered with brain fog, lack of energy and motivation about life in general.
Maya had difficulty getting appointments with a regular doctor resorting to telehealth appointments that could not provide continuity of care at a time when she needed it.
Her first appointment with a psychologist was conducted on the footpath outside of the clinic, due to confusion and poor communication around isolation rules, leaving feeling demoralised and in tears.
It felt like there was no coordinated structure to navigate a path to recovery. Maya so often was only getting appointments through cancellation lists.
Around the beginning of April, the family hoped Maya had turned a corner.
She was showing signs of improvement, albeit small,
Engaging once again with some friends and contributing to the household responsibilities with the family pets.
Maya wanted to continue to pursue work in the field she had studied and applied for various positions in local veterinary practices ultimately taking a position close to home for 30 hours per week beginning immediately after Easter.
From her first day at her new job her anxiety level was high;
Feelings of inadequacies, concerns about underperforming or in Maya’s terms “being an imposter” returned.
The family encouraged Maya to continue believing if she could simply “get through” the first couple of months she would be ok.
On Monday 2 May, the Labour Day public holiday in Queensland, Maya announced in tears that she could not do her job.
Worried about her mental wellbeing, her father Jason wanted to get her out of the house.
They decided to see a movie together, then planned to visit a relative for afternoon tea before joining Jason’s partner and her brother for dinner.
But Maya decided she wanted to visit her niece and later go to her Mum’s for dinner.
Following the movie, Jason let Maya know that they could work though her concerns about work,
That he would support her in her decision if she felt she could not return.
Always worried, Jason asked if Maya was considering hurting herself; she confirmed that she was not contemplating it. They parted with each one saying, “I love you”.
This was the last time Jason saw his daughter alive.
Maya is just one name in a long list of people who have had their lives cut short because of government inaction.
Be it cuts to aged care, healthcare, income support,
The decisions we make in this place directly impact people’s ability to survive.
It is my job now to make sure that Maya’s death was not in vain.
It is my duty as the Member for Brisbane to fight for my community and make sure that NO ONE is left behind.
I’m so proud to have been elected by a diverse and vibrant community to be their representative in parliament. In our year-long campaign to win the seat, we knocked on tens of thousands of doors, made thousands of phone calls, and spoke to countless people in the community at market stalls, protests and rallies.
These thousands of conversations told a story about the people of Brisbane.
A story about the needs of the community.
We heard about the need to address the climate crisis that we are all facing.
The struggles that our communities are going through, difficulties putting food on the table, failing to seek the medical attention they need, finding themselves despondent at the accessibility of the education they wanted to receive.
We heard from residents impacted by bad development decisions, and unsustainable flight noise from Brisbane airport.
We heard from young people who didn’t see themselves represented in our Parliament.
We heard from queer people who were desperately upset to see politicians wave a rainbow flag at one moment, and use their lives as a political football at another.
Eventually, we saw our community’s tenacity as they struggled to rebuild their lives after catastrophic flooding destroyed huge swathes of the neighbourhood that they called home.
But, when our hundreds of volunteers spoke to the people of Brisbane, we also saw them light up with hope.
We saw the passion our volunteers all carried inspire our community to ask for more.
We spoke to people whose hope was almost lost, and we asked them to send a young, gay retail worker to Canberra to fight for them.
We showed them the possibility of a world where the vast wealth of our country could be used for the betterment of all of us, not just those at the top.
Our message resonated with our community, and I was elected to be their representative.
I want to make it clear - I would not be here today if not for the passion of the volunteers who gave up countless weekends and weeknights to get me here.
I would not be here without the people who have been putting in the work for years to build a grassroots movement dedicated to making this world a better place.
And I cannot give enough thanks to Nathan, my campaign manager. You worked countless hours with me, kept me hopeful, kept me going, and created a campaign culture of positivity and where everyone felt heard and appreciated.
I will never be able to repay you.
I’ve heard many times that I’m too young for politics.
That I don’t “seem” like a politician.
But, it is these traits that got me here today.
This election shows that the people of this country are done with the status quo.
Our parliament is becoming more and more representative of the people who vote to send us here, and I hope that my election can inspire those who are told they shouldn’t be in parliament, especially young people, to get involved and run for office.
Our communities are in crisis NOW.
They cannot wait for small targets and incremental change.
This Parliament needs to be brave.
We need to be bold.
We need to put people at the centre of policy.
We need to live up to the Australia that exists in the minds of so many people in this chamber, but has ceased to exist for millions of Australians.
Because we CAN tackle inequality and poverty. We KNOW what the solutions are. We have seen them here at home in years gone by, and see them in successful policies across the world.
Expanding Medicare to cover dental and mental health CAN be done.
Building enough public housing to clear housing waitlists CAN be done.
Making childcare free and universal CAN be done.
Restoring free uni and wiping student debt CAN be done.
The only thing standing in the way of this future, is the political will of this Parliament to take us there.