Last Thursday, 4 February, trade ministers from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam gathered in Auckland where the Trans-Pacific Partnership—otherwise known as the TPP agreement—was formally signed.
Australian trade minister, Andrew Robb, was among the 12 delegates who attended the signing ceremony. Before I go any further I would like to take this opportunity to wish the minister all the very best following the announcement of his retirement from this place. I am sure he will go on to bigger and better things. Certainly in my dealings with him while I have been up here as well, I have always found him to be very approachable and very courteous. His hard work and his drive in relation to securing free trade agreements will be legendary, I am sure. Despite the many valid and important concerns that were raised by both the opposition and other people and groups within the Australian community, I am certain that his principal driver and motivation was always to act in the national interest and to get the best deal possible for Australia.
The signing of the TPP deal in Auckland was the public relations exercise that kicks off the domestic ratification process. All 12 of the Asia-Pacific nations party to the TPP now have two years to ratify the agreement. The government this week tabled the TPP in the parliament and this begins our own ratification process, which will involve extensive public consultations where we will all get the opportunity to have a say on the merits or otherwise of the TPP.
The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties will hold public hearings and will receive submissions from the public over the course of the next few months giving agencies, interest groups and the general public an opportunity to make submissions and to attend public hearings. I also want to acknowledge my parliamentary colleague, the member for Wills, who has had a longstanding association with that committee and who is also retiring. He has been one of the best members I have ever met. Good on you, Kelvin, and thank you for the advice on the TPP.
It was a great pleasure for me to congratulate two of my constituents who both recently received awards for their contribution to their local communities during our local council's Australia Day Citizenship Ceremonies. Firstly, congratulations to Despina Havelas, who received Brimbank City Council's Citizen of the Year award for her amazing work and contribution to children with autism and their families. Despina has been a passionate and hardworking advocate in the Keilor community and beyond for the past decade. Despina was inspired to take action after her own life experience of being a full-time carer for her autistic son, Kon.
Despina founded a non-profit organization in 2008 called Autism Angels, with the aim of continuing her advocacy work and providing support and services to children with autism and their carers. Through her organisation, Despina has helped develop many Autism services in the city of Brimbank, including early intervention workshops, cyber safety workshops and public events to raise awareness for autism, including the Autism Angels Teddy Bears picnic and dinner dance.
In addition to raising awareness and funds, an important objective for Despina is to advocate for the parents and families of autistic children by 'chasing the politicians'. She said:
Up to now, the focus, when we were talking about policies, was on the person with the disability; it is important for parents and carers to be included.
For Despina, it is important that law makers realise that all family members are affected when there is a child with autism in the family and, as Despina says, 'Families are part of the equation.' For this reason, much of the work of Autism Angels has been to create a support network for families and to provide assistance, advice and service referrals to parents and carers. As a direct result of Despina's successful lobbying, Autism Angels provides its very own drop-in centre for autistic children, for those times, in particular, of heightened strain and stress.
I also rise today to join with my Labor colleagues in expressing my opposition to the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Budget Repair) Bill 2015 because the proposed budget repair measures contained in this bill target the most vulnerable people in our community by continuing this government's assault on the lives and wellbeing of the thousands of age pensioners and other welfare recipients who live in my electorate of Calwell. This bill reintroduces measures from the 2015 budget—changes to the proportional payment of pensions outside of Australia—and it also reintroduces measures in the 2014 budget, measures that the opposition will continue to oppose because they are unfair and heavy handed.
In my speech today I want to make some comments in relation to the 2015 budget measures that seek to reduce the payment of the age pension outside of Australia. This is a highly contentious issue and it has drawn widespread criticism and outrage from my constituents and from the broader migrant community, welfare agencies and non-English-speaking media for it unfairness and its implications. I want to join with the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Refugee Council of Australia and, more importantly, the many local pensioner groups and other welfare recipients in my electorate who have come out strongly in their opposition to this bill.
If this bill is passed, thousands of age pensioners in my electorate and across this country who have had fewer than 35 years living and working in Australia will have their benefits reduced if they travel overseas for more than six weeks in a year, according to the length of their Australian working life residence. Because these measures do not affect those who are born in Australia who have worked and lived in Australia for over 35 years this bill creates a discriminatory pension system that will disadvantage a very large number of Australian age pensioners for no substantive reason other than the estimated budget saving of $168.4 million over four years.
Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (11:22): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak today about the fantastic work of my local Hume City Council. Just in the past two weeks, Hume City Council has hosted two very successful and important events.
The first was the Freedom of Entry Parade into the City of Hume, which was conducted at the Broadmeadows Town Park on the weekend of 15 November. Freedom of entry is a medieval tradition whereby municipal authorities would grant military units entry into the city as a symbolic gesture of the trust and bond between the regiment and the community. The tradition is thought to have begun following Charles II's accession to the throne in 1660. It is said that the regiments believed that they were entitled to enter the City of London, whereas the Fathers of the City of London claimed that they had the right to forbid bodies of armed troops entering the city precincts. Thus, a process was formalised whereby the city would grant troops entry into the city in an official ceremony for regiments with peaceful intent. This tradition became known as Freedom of Entry. In the absence of a Freedom of Entry agreement, military forces were often turned away at city gates. Whilst this custom finds its roots in 17th century Britain, it continues to be celebrated in a number of Commonwealth countries to this day.
The new mayor of the Hume City Council, Councillor Helen Patsikatheodorou, had the honour of granting the Freedom of Entry right to the 4th Combat Service Support Battalion based at the Maygar Barracks in Broadmeadows. The 101-year-old Maygar Barracks site is named after Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Cecil Maygar, a Victoria Cross recipient, who established the base to train soldiers for World War I. The soldiers participating in the parade two weekends ago serve in those very same barracks, making this particular Freedom of Entry into the city very timely for us to honour and acknowledge our military, especially in the centenary year of the First World War.
Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (09:54): I rise to express my disappointment at the suspension of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre, otherwise known as MITA, located in my electorate in Broadmeadows. News of this was brought to our attention by Sister Brigid Arthur who was interviewed on ABC radio yesterday. We were subsequently contacted by others expressing their surprise, concern and disappointment. The Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project has been in existence for 15 years. For the past four years, a small number of volunteers have been able to take people, including children, out of detention in MITA at various times throughout the year for excursions. Past excursions have included visits to the Collingwood Children's Farm, the zoo and the various parks around our beautiful city. These outings have been very successfully run for four years without incident. They were put on hold, pending review, six months ago without warning or explanation, and to date there has been no conclusion to this review. The program provides an invaluable social and education interaction for the children detained in MITA who, otherwise, are missing out on the normality, the curiosities and the simulations vital to the healthy development of their childhood.
Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (11:01): I move:
That this House calls on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to support a parliamentary debate during the current sitting on the Australian Government's strategy in response to the crisis in Syria and Iraq.
In moving this motion, I want to first acknowledge that 29 November is UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. This day is important for Palestinian history in two additional ways: it also marks the anniversary of the 1947 UN vote to divide Palestine into Arab and Jewish states; and, in 2012, it was the date when the UN recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state.
Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, the UN established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA. There are 570,000 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria. These refugees are decedents of about 80,000 Palestinians who fled to Syria during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. It has been more than four years since civilian popular protest against President Assad drew a brutal and barbaric response from the Syrian authorities, the culmination and continuation of which we witness today. Those who have suffered the most are, as always, minorities: Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and, indeed, Palestinians who have become refugees for a second time.
There are a multitude of Syrian cities and towns that are war-torn and under siege, but, according to Amnesty International, the siege of Yarmouk Camp for the Palestinian refugees in Damascus has 'had the harshest impact, and has caused the largest number of deaths from starvation'. This intolerable humanitarian situation has precipitated at mass exodus of Palestinians from Yarmouk. However, their access to neighbouring countries is very difficult. Early in the conflict, Jordan and Turkey effectively closed their borders to Palestinian refugees from Syria, or PRS. Lebanon followed suit in May 2014. Thankfully, some 90,000 Palestinians did manage to leave Syria, and mostly ended up in Lebanon and Egypt. Unlike Syrian refugees, the PRS, who constitute less than three per cent of the ex-Syria refugee population, have been denied registration by the UNHCR. The reason offered is that the PRS are already registered to another UN agency, namely UNRWA.
Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (17:14): These are the words of one of my constituents, Dr Evangelia Axiarlis:
The Australian mainstream media portrays a skewed stereotypical and overly negative image of the Muslim community. The pervasive representation of Muslims as a monolithic, homogeneous entity is both inaccurate and harmful to our social cohesion. Australians of Muslim faith have much to contribute to the broader society and should be welcomed. Constantly referring to and identifying Muslims in terms of their religion is patronising and belittling.
Evangelia lives in Broadmeadows with her husband Ismail and their three young children. She and Ismail teach at our local Ilim College and she recently published a book on political Islam and the secular state in Turkey. Dr Axiarlis grew up in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs. She is the daughter of Greek and Greek Cypriot migrants, a dedicated teacher, who converted to Islam, and by all accounts is a typical Aussie of migrant extraction, just like me and lots of other people in this country, and indeed in this chamber.
This past week has been a very big week in my electorate. Of course 11 November, yesterday, marked the 40th anniversary of the sacking of the Whitlam government, and I got the opportunity to be reminded of the dramatic momentum of that tumultuous period when I attended the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Broadmeadows Sporting Club last Sunday afternoon. Sunset Boulevard Jacana is the site of the Broadmeadows Sporting Club. Set in the Jacana Valley and surrounded by sprawling wetlands, Broadmeadows Sporting Club is an iconic presence in our local community. The club is a non-profit organisation. It runs sporting and social events and sponsors local community groups, and its longstanding service and committee have seen the club successfully service the Jacana-Broadmeadows area and the surrounding suburbs for the last four decades. It also enjoys a very special footnote in Australian political history, for it was here on 10 November 1975 that the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, came to lay the foundation stone for the club. This event in Broadmeadows was to be the last official function conducted by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. He would later of course return to Canberra where, on 11 November 1975, he would be sacked by Governor-General John Kerr. This memorable piece of history has forever linked the club with Prime Minister Whitlam and the 1975 constitutional crisis of the dismissal.