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Rod’s Maiden Speech – Unfinished Business

Feb 12, 2019 | Parliament

Rod Barton MP – Maiden Speech – 5 Feb 2019

“The devastation that has been wrecked onto the industry, and the duty to correct it, is a weight I carry into this place.”

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (17:34): President, congratulations on your new position in this chamber. It is an honour and a privilege to address this house as a member of the Legislative Council for Eastern Metropolitan Region. I am a lucky man, but I believe strongly that luck can be manufactured. I am here today representing an industry that has seen major changes over the past few years.

We have unfinished business in this place and our industry needs some luck, and we need some help.

Nearly 30 years ago I started driving professionally. I drove cabs. My dad drove cabs. My uncle is a London black cab driver. It is in my DNA. In 1999, after driving taxis and stretch limos, I started working in the hire car industry and began my own small business here in Victoria. It has been a great job. Many clients have been with me for more than 20 years. I have made many friends and connections, heard and shared many tales and travelled over 2 million kilometres on the roads of our great state.

I grew to know Melbourne as it grew. I saw the changes, the economic rises and falls and the ever-expanding boundaries of our city. Thirty years ago Melbourne’s population was about 3 million. Our city now covers almost 10 000 square kilometres, and I reckon I have driven most of them. It certainly feels that way. We have almost 5 million residents, and more than 10 per cent of them live in inner-city Melbourne. We can also boast, proudly or not, that we are the most densely populated city in Australia, with 485 people per square kilometre. Inner-city Melbourne has a population density of over 4000 people per square kilometre. Now we face issues of high-density living, urban sprawl and the challenges of providing transport, services and infrastructure to growing and ageing communities. These are issues that were not on the radar of a fresh, young business owner 30 years ago.

For generations, my family lived in council flats in London’s east docklands area of Bermondsey. These were the true working people of London. The family home was destroyed in the London blitz, so when my father came home from the war there was nothing left but dramatic social and economic change. So he and my mother became ten-pound Poms, travelled by ship to Australia to make a new life and arrived at Station Pier in Port Melbourne in 1951.

My parents worked hard, starting life in Australia in a government hostel and working their way to a comfortable lifestyle. They taught me to work hard and to make my own luck, and from them I inherited a strong sense of right and wrong. The bride is normally right and I am normally wrong—yes. I was born in 1958 in Footscray, in what was then known as the Western General Hospital. That hospital was only five or six years old then, so I am very happy to see a new hospital getting done. At the time, the family was living in Tottenham in a railway home. Dad worked as a train driver and we moved many times throughout my childhood.

I went to many primary schools before the family settled, finally, in Glen Waverley. When we initially moved to that home, we lived on a dirt road. Glen Waverley was on the outskirts of Melbourne. My father was a hard worker—sometimes a difficult man. He was a hard man, but he was a good man. He educated himself and built a successful career in real estate. I left school at age 15. In my family, a university education was never even considered. We were working people. I am not embarrassed by my lack of formal education. Life brings great experience, and I received my education as a hardworking member of my community.

My parents had it tough; the trauma of war touched my family and had lifelong consequences. It is only on the reflection born from years and on becoming a father and a grandfather myself that I understand the true gifts that my parents gave me: a passion for hard work, resilience, a willingness to learn from everyone and, perhaps above all, an understanding that we must be grateful for what we have. Like many of my generation, my parents did not teach me to ask for help. They were a generation that was too proud. But today society faces new traumas, as rapid change consumes many industries. We see it in our hard-working farmers, who despite their consistent hard work find themselves victims of change, from climate to legislation to technology. In my industry, the consequences of deregulation have caused devastation for many. All of us have been touched.

The bride and I owned a small farm at Stanhope. This was going to be our retirement home—the chickens, the ducks, the veggie patch and the grandkids. The bride and I worked for 40 years to achieve this. We have spent years renovating that old farmhouse and a 40-acre farm. It was the Australian dream. It was what my parents came to this country for.

Uber’s illegal entry slashed my income. We were unable to hang on to the farm, and we were forced to sell. The banks wanted loans paid out on my business debt. The equity left in the house paid some of the business debt off, but not all, so I find myself now paying $1646.62 a month on a loan for licences that were revoked.

This is just my story, but I consider myself lucky because there are many thousands of families in a far worse position than I. I did not apply to the Fairness Fund, because I did not have any confidence in the process—none. For many, accessing that fund seemed a pipe dream. Our views were vindicated when the Ombudsman’s report was released on the rollout of that fund. This was hardly a level playing field.

My being here today, in this place, is a sign of hope for many in my industry who have felt their voices were not heard.

President, I am 60 years of age. There will be no chance of me ever having my own home again. My heart goes out to those families who have lost everything, including their loved ones. My being here today, in this place, is a sign of hope for many in my industry who have felt their voices were not heard. Mental health services and support for disrupted industries will be one of my priorities, because I know that getting back on the horse is not easy.

In December 2016, my luck almost ran out. On the way to a job near Melbourne Airport, an oncoming vehicle crossed the double white lines and hit me in what is known as a high-speed offset head-on collision. The other driver was distracted, and we are led to believe he was texting. The impact was terrible. My car was written off. I am very grateful to a couple of tradies who stopped and pulled me out of my wreck. In hospital I learned how lucky I truly was. I was sore from my toenails to my eyelashes; however, I only had minor cuts to my forearm and my knee and a very minor fracture of the lower back—kicking the footy with the grandkids was out that Christmas.

I am lucky to live in a country that has mandated sensible safety regulations for vehicles. These regulations I have no doubt saved my life. My car was an Australian-built 5-star safety rated vehicle that had front and side airbags. The car was designed to protect occupants with a safety cell. And as always, my cars are always well maintained and always roadworthy.

I have first-hand experience of the remarkable work done by our ambulance, police and hospital staff. As Victorians, we should be very, very proud of the exceptional standard of care they deliver. And beyond that was the support from the Transport Accident Commission. They helped me get back, as they say, on the road and on with life. The driver of the other vehicle was charged with careless driving.

Though I was lucky, the same cannot be said for some others. Since I became a professional driver, 12 343 people have been killed on Victoria’s roads and many, many more injured. I congratulate the Andrews government on their work to reduce lives lost on our roads. In 2018 lives lost reached a low of 214, down 17 per cent on the previous year. I fully support the excellent Towards Zero program.

For those who work on our roads, accidents are a daily reality. And just as it appears the message to stop drunk-driving is taking hold, we now face new challenges—drug driving and increasingly distracted drivers. The use of screens in vehicles poses an enormous risk to road users. Cycling on our roads has become an extreme sport. Just 4 seconds of inattention can lead to tragedy. A recent Monash University study showed drivers were distracted on average every 96 seconds. They are doing everything from checking their phones and changing settings on their car navigation to eating and drinking and even applying make-up and brushing their hair. They are not looking at the road.

In my time in this place I hope to be a voice for all road users. I want to bring attention to the state of our roads, our decaying regional networks and the growing need to expand our public transport infrastructure and make it more accessible and desirable. What can a government offer to entice people onto public transport? That is the challenge. I believe I have a great deal to contribute on this front.

In truth, I am as surprised as anyone to find myself here. My family and I have not been what you would call ‘political’ outside of our armchairs and the comfortable banter of our cabs and hire cars. To my knowledge, none of my ancestors have been members of a political party, much less stood for office. For most of my life, politics took a very, very distant back seat to the more important matters: the bride, the children, my business and of course the Collingwood Football Club. For us ‘politician’ was a dirty word, and until 2013 I do not think I had ever been in the office of an MP. I had not been in Parliament, except perhaps as a small child. I am not a career politician. At 60 years I am here because I have a job to do. And it bothers me that politics is such an elephant in the room. We love to talk about it in our cabs and hire cars, but in general only the outraged speak about politics. Everyone has a drunk uncle who rages about the stupidness of government, and in the media we see politicians regularly criticised and ridiculed—often for good reason. It is no wonder that people cry ignorance when we ask for opinion on politics. At election time the public are hesitant to declare sides publicly or even with their families. So we send each generation to the ballot box confused and enraged and forced to choose.

I think there needs to be a new type of conversation about politics in our community—and I hope to be part of that conversation.

I do not know how we improve, but I think there needs to be a new type of conversation about politics in our community—and I hope to be part of that conversation. I think we need to teach people that members of Parliament are there to help them through the red tape of government departments, to bring attention to their needs when they do not fit the system and to take their voice into this place. I intend to engage with my community and listen closely to the needs of the Eastern Metropolitan Region. I am also one of many new MPs who sit on the crossbench, representing a community issue. My issue is transport.

My journey into politics has been swift. In July 2014 I was asked to join the board of the Victorian Hire Car Association. Soon after, I took the role of president. I was confronted on a daily basis by the struggles of thousands of drivers, owners and other members of the Victorian transport economy. With the government’s surprise announcement of its intention to deregulate the industry, I found myself thrust forward to advocate on behalf of an increasingly forgotten group. In the excitement of new technology, we forgot the years of hard work, sweat and tears to build the regulations which were brought in because they were needed to bring Victoria’s taxi industry to a safe and reliable standard. It was not perfect, but it was and is improving—until it all got scrapped and now it is a free-for-all.

The devastation that has been wreaked onto an industry and the duty to correct it is a weight I carry into this place.

Like many before me, I felt and shared the frustrations of good families, migrants and those who lacked the English skills to fully participate in our democratic process. I feel the pain of thousands who face the loss of their life savings and their homes. They are trapped. And for many, too many, there seems no way out. The devastation that has been wreaked onto an industry and the duty to correct it is a weight I carry into this place.

From these ashes a new political party has arisen: Transport Matters. With the support of members of all backgrounds, speaking dozens of languages and a population as diverse as Victoria itself, we have won this seat and a voice in Parliament. Mine is a voice for a hardworking industry made up of many immigrant families who, like mine, have sought a new start and a better life in Australia. Until now, their voices have been largely unheard. I would like to congratulate them all for their hard work and dedication. We did it!

I pay tribute to André Baruch. Without doubt, without him we would never have got off the ground in the first place. I also want to thank Linda De Melis and Toni Peters, two of the hardest working people I have ever had the privilege of working with—absolutely amazing people. I would also like to thank Dr Ali Khan and his team out in the south-eastern district. Ali came within a whisper of joining me in this place. It is my fervent hope that my voice will carry forward the words of many.

I hope to bring a unique vantage point to this place. I am proud to be the fourth taxidriver to grace this place and only the second to be elected to the Legislative Council. Former taxi driver and proprietor Herbert Thomas represented Melbourne West in this place from 1970 to 1982.

As a lifelong Collingwood supporter, I know two things. One is tragedy—the agony of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. The other is the importance of the fourth quarter. I come to this place in what may be the fourth quarter of my life. I am, therefore, not a political lifer. I am here to do a job and to do it fearlessly, fairly and faithfully. That job is to scrutinise legislation, to advocate for the interests of all Victorians and to bring focus to matters of transport and fairness.

Transport is essential to our economy, our quality of life and our freedoms of choice.

My aim is not to be a political purist but to embrace the mandate given to a party elected because transport matters. Victorians expect us to be advocates for good ideas, wherever they come from. I hope, however, to bring a specific, unrelenting and unflinching attention to the issues of transport within Victoria. Transport is essential to our economy, our quality of life and our freedoms of choice. The tyranny of distance in the bush has crept into our cities through rising congestion, leading to social isolation, loss of economic opportunity in the outer suburbs and much less time for families together.

I am a firm believer in removing politics from infrastructure funding and in ensuring that we succeed in making the wonders of our state and cities genuinely accessible. I come with an understanding that we make some of our own luck, but not all of it. It is our responsibility in this place to make the conditions in which everyone has the opportunity to flourish and where progress does not leave anyone behind.

I am grateful to the bride of 40 years, Annie. Our road has not always been smooth. It has been a challenge. However, we have got our two beautiful daughters, Emma and Kate—who have married two good men, David and Andrew—and our wonderful grandchildren, Ally, Ayden, Ethan and little Chelsea Rose. We are also fortunate enough to have another one on the way, which Chelsea Rose has named Marshmallow.

To my colleagues I say that I will always have an open door—I will drive—and that I will judge bills on their merits and will always aspire to meet the expectations of ordinary Victorians.

Thank you.


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