Lucy Gichuhi's first Senate speech

‘As a servant of this nation, one of my most important roles is to motivate and inspire people to be all they can be.’

Lucy Gichuhi is the new independent Senator from South Australia, who replaced Family First’s Bob Day in May. She gave her maiden speech in Australian Parliament yesterday and below is an edited transcript.

Today, I, Lucy Muringo Gichuhi, humbly stand before you as the first black African-born Senator in the history of Australia. I am deeply honoured to be given the privilege of serving the people of Australia, as a Senator. To all Australians, I say thank you! It is with this sentiment that I honour those who came before me, faithfully leading Australia to build the outstanding nation we see today.

At this point I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area. I pay respect to the elders, past and present. I also acknowledge the Kaurna people in my home City of Adelaide.

Thank you to my father Justus Weru and my late mother Agnes Njeri and all my siblings. I am who I am because of you. Thank you!

To my husband William, our daughters Peris, Agnes and Joy Gichuhi, all I can say is: Thank you!

I was born and raised in Kenya. I have worked locally and overseas … There are some key things that I hope to focus on in my term in office as Senator. These are:

  1. Education in a broad sense
  2. Family Finances and Welfare
  3. Seniors Affairs and Aged Care
  4. Freedom of thought, conscience and belief

First impressions of Australia

On a warm summer day in 1999, I arrived in Australia for the first time. My initial impression was how different Australia was compared to the home I had left behind. In Kenya, the majority of the people are black Africans. But here, landing in Perth, seemingly all of the world’s races were represented in just one city! Right in that airport, I encountered Australians, Europeans, Asians and Africans from all over the world living and working together harmoniously.

I learned how beautiful it is when differences bring us together. Whoever we are, whatever we call ourselves, wherever we come from, it is this great asset of diversity that made me fall in love with Australia. The diversity of colour, race, cultural backgrounds and religion go towards making up what we believe it is to be Australian. We are all Australians.

As a leader and a Senator, my role is to take my responsibilities seriously…

We do not have to conform to any one mould or image. We are whole through our many differences. Nineteen years later, as a lawyer, I know that to migrate to a country and get Citizenship in that host country is NOT a Right. It is a Privilege.

I am proud to be a black African-Australian. As a leader and a Senator, my role is to take my responsibilities seriously, showing respect and kindness to my fellow Australians.

I believe that, as a servant of this nation, one of my most important roles is to motivate and inspire people to be all they can be. To do this, many factors must be taken into consideration. Of importance is freedom of choice, conscience, thought and belief. Every person has fundamental needs; whether spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial, relational, social or even political – they are all valid needs. Australia is what it is because we have the ability to have freedom of choice as individuals – a concept which was entrenched in the Constitution by our founding fathers. It is this vision of our founding fathers that I wish to help preserve.

Kenyan life

I remember growing up on the beautiful slopes of Mt Kenya. Sometimes I would take my father’s cows to graze in pastures near the Hiriga plains. My young mind was free to wander. As I matured and became more self-aware, I found I had freedom to choose and think about anything I wanted. I even remember dreaming of the ‘Australian Merino sheep’, after a geography lesson in Class 4.

Senator Lucy Gichuhi's father Justus Weru on the left, his sister Tata Anna and his twin brother James Magma

Senator Lucy Gichuhi’s father Justus Weru on the left, his sister Tata Anna and his twin brother James Mugumo Senator Lucy Gichuhi's father Justus Weru on the left, his sister Tata Anna and his twin brother Jjames Mugumo

My father taught us to aim for the sun so we may land on the moon. Even though I was young, my mind allowed me to stretch and roam the possibilities that the world offered. I may not have owned a pair of shoes yet but, while dreaming of my future potential, I discovered that poverty came in many different forms, shapes and sizes. Wearing shoes could mean that walking to school would be more comfortable but I soon realised that true poverty was when a person is unable to freely choose their own destiny. It is when a person does not have options. This could be the result of spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial, social or even political inhibitors. These inhibitors are often the root cause of true and absolute poverty.

My role as a Senator is to ensure in any way I can, great or small, that Australia does not slip into the latter form of poverty. Most importantly, Australian civil institutions – such as the legal, political, electoral and socio-economic institutions – must remain transparent and accountable to every Australian.

One of the roles of the Senate is to continuously review and renew our legislation and other institutions as entrenched in our Constitution in 1901.

I am touched that the Preamble to the Constitution says in part, and I quote, “… humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth.”

The themes of humility, blessing, divine-reliance, agreement, unity and permanence are dear and close to my heart.

Security for all

There was a sense of rescue after landing in Australia. The first few weeks and months were characterised by wonder and excitement. On arrival in Adelaide there existed, a “Meet and Greet” program which supported my husband, our three young daughters and I, providing us with subsidised housing and other types of supports. I saw good roads, free schools and education. The availability of and ability to use simple household appliances!

… The generosity of Australians fulfilled the vision I had as a young girl.  I had faith in the ability of a person to nurture and support a fellow human being – just because they are human. I realised what a good system of governance could do for its people. President Abraham Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address came to my mind, “A government of the people by the people for the people.”

I desire for every Australian to experience the things I felt when I first landed.

Far away from home I felt safe, secure and free. Despite having no locks or high fences around our house, which is what I was used to in Nairobi, I felt physically safe.

I had only a few dollars in my bank account. But I knew I could raise our young family. I knew I was able to pursue my long held dreams. I knew I would get a job. I would provide food and housing and, above all, give quality education to our children. That was a time I will never forget.

As a Senator, this is what I want to preserve. I desire for every Australian to experience the things I felt when I first landed. I believe every government should do whatever it takes to guarantee its citizens security – physical and otherwise.

Balancing work and home

Every rescue mission involves one difficult phase – the empowerment phase, or, the pursuit of dreams – this is where the rubber meets the road. Having migrated to Australia as professionals, with a Permanent Residents Visa, it took my husband and I less than six months to find full-time employment. The first challenge we encountered was when we realised that the school day starts at 8:45am and ends at 3:15pm, while work started at 9:00am and finished at 5:00pm. Clearly, one of us would have to give up full time work to look after our three children. It was the first time in my life that I considered giving up my career, then as an auditor with the Auditor General’s Department.

We chose to dedicate a significant part of my salary into securing day and after school hour’s care for our daughters, so that both of us could work full time. I wonder how many parents have given up work as a result of this mismatch between school and working hours?

I am particularly saddened that families with special needs children suffer

… One of my primary concerns is how to balance work and home life while raising young children. I think of the difficulties that parents face – especially single parents. I think of those who attempt to return to work after putting their children through school. I think of parents who do not have adequate superannuation in their accounts simply because they chose the well-being of their children over employment. I think of those who can’t afford to buy a basic house for their family. I think of students fearing an enormous HECS debt. I am particularly saddened that families with special needs children suffer, given that their parents have little freedom of choice when it comes to their education.

Life lessons
This phase was one of the steepest learning curves I would encounter in my life. Managing the family’s finances was one of them. It was at this point in time I became keenly aware that what is lacking in most school curriculums is the teaching of financial intelligence, legal awareness and personal leadership skills.

Despite having a bachelor’s degree in accounting, William and I were no exception. Even with two incomes, we were not able to resist the offers of multiple loans – a home loan, personal loans, car loans and credit cards. Soon we were stuck in the trap of paying huge amounts just to cope with these loans and the ever increasing household bills.

After several visits to financial counsellors, banks and other financial advisors we were better equipped to understand this very complicated financial landscape.

I had to put an end to this tedious ‘welfare-work dance.’

By continuously seeking expert help from financial and legal professionals, we were able to avoid the welfare trap. I feel for the many people who have fallen in and have lost hope of ever getting out. I remember the first time we found welfare money in our bank account, shortly after our arrival in Australia. We were terrified because we were not used to receiving money from strangers for nothing. All I knew is that the only time you get money is when you work for it. I said to my husband, “We will have to return it.”

When we visited the bank manager to enquire about it, we discovered the fact that we were eligible for welfare money because we had three children and no current employment. However, what we did not know was that if you had a job, this money would cease because it is ‘means tested.’ The message was quite clear – I could choose to be a victim and receive a handout for a long time; or, I could choose the more challenging but empowering road, find a job and learn how to balance work and family life. I did not have long to decide because by the end of that Financial year, I already had a big welfare debt.

It could have been very easy for me to depend on welfare to see me through the daily activities of life, rather than actively get or update my qualifications, skills and seek employment.

I quickly learned a new term – ‘Means Testing.’ I had to put an end to this tedious ‘welfare-work dance.’ I chose to work even if that meant going back to school and changing my career path to suit my circumstances.

Every day I wonder just how many people are caught in this same trap because they do not have the option or freedom to choose a different path.

I would like to see that welfare does not disadvantage even one person who decides to work.

For many people who are able and willing to work, the trap is between balancing their welfare receipts and any income they may get by engaging in employment. This trap creates stress on those who soon discover they are unable to find a way out. Welfare now becomes their only choice. This creates a welfare dependency syndrome that could be inter-generational.

… In South Australia, companies such as Holden, Mitsubishi and others have closed their manufacturing plants while others like Coca-Cola have moved location because the government could not provide corporate incentives to help them remain profitable. Where is the sustainable business model? As an accountant, I believe the corporate welfare mentality should be traded for a “Sustainable Business Model” mentality. Instead of just giving away money, rather, the government should be giving industry a sustainable approach, including better pricing of essential services, in order to retain existing companies and attract new ones.

I have learnt that spending money you have not worked for, fundamentally changes who you are and inhibits your capacity and ability to become all you could be.

As a Senator, I know we have one of the best welfare systems in the world. I believe it could be better and more sustainable. But, I would like to see that welfare does not disadvantage even one person who decides to work. Our Prime Minister, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull, has said that a job is the best form of welfare – I agree! There should be checks and balances to help a person wean themselves off of welfare effectively.

Character and work ethic

I come from humble beginnings. From my childhood, my parents and teachers nurtured and guided me to accept and value a disciplined way of life. I will never forget my late mother’s advice. She said: “Always remember, as a woman you are the backbone of your family and hence the community. As a woman the spiritual, emotional, mental and financial destiny of your family depends on your womanly wisdom.”

Rest in Peace Mum, I miss you so much.

It gave me a strong sense of sacrifice, respect, sharing and the value of hard work.

Every day after school, as one of ten children I had to share in the daily tasks. These involved milking cows, going to the garden to pick vegetables, picking coffee berries and sometimes baby sit my younger siblings. We would help each other learn how to read and write while preparing ourselves for competitive school exams. We would sit around a stone fire place on the dirt floor of our house and cook dinner whilst reading.  With no electricity, we relied on the light of a paraffin lantern to do our homework.

From this, I learnt character and a strong work ethic which would serve me well as a working mum of three young girls. It gave me a strong sense of sacrifice, respect, sharing and the value of hard work. These values gave me the courage to accept and deal with the challenges we encountered as new migrants. My husband and I faced these challenges as does every other working family irrespective of their country of origin, colour or religious background. Without these values, my self-esteem would have suffered and I would have taken the easy road of quitting.

Dignity, respect and freedom for seniors

Growing up, I had a great relationship with my grandmother. In a small two roomed hut in a village called “Gathû- înî” in Nyeri County, Kenya, my grandmother instilled in me all the wisdom a grandmother could through sheer love and storytelling.

My grandmother lived alone, with her adult children and grandchildren occasionally coming to visit. I was one of the grandchildren who took turns in keeping her company during school holidays. I had a special bond with Grandma. She taught me to cook, she told me stories. In that small hut, Grandma and I shared her bed as the other room was where her goats and chicken slept. Occasionally when my cousins came by, we would all sleep on the floor next to the goats by the fireplace.

She emphasised what it meant to be a woman, the role of a mother and a wife. The day my grandma died aged over 100 years, I felt like a carpet had been ripped from under my feet.

The need to value and look after our seniors is central to any civil and noble society.

In Australia, I encountered aged care when I worked as an International Student Liaison in a college that trained carers and nurses.

When I look into the eyes of aging Australians – having witnessed the dignity Grandma had growing old –I wonder if they feel the same dignity, respect and freedom that I saw in Grandma. The need to value and look after our seniors is central to any civil and noble society. Their need for dignity, respect and freedom has to be maintained and preserved.

Issues such as a lack of Federally regulated staff-to-resident ratios for aged care homes in Australia, could be one of the main root causes of the many problems and sad stories that have been reported in the media lately. As a society we can never forget that our older Australians are the people on whose shoulders we stand; they worked and paid taxes so we could have the life we have today.

I wonder, ‘Why can’t we tap in to the human resources of our seniors?’ Our seniors could tell the young ones stories.

I would like to be a voice for our Seniors.

My daughters lost the ability to have an active relationship with their grandparents when we migrated to Australia. Any social interaction that can link youth and seniors could help bridge the ever widening generation gap.

Worldwide, a number of different models have been tried to better integrate aged care residents with the community. One example in Europe, retirement and nursing homes have been co-located with facilities such as schools, colleges, shops and community rooms to encourage this interaction.

As a Senator, I hope to be involved in any manner in reviewing the Aged Care Act of 1997.  This would put into place a system of continual review and renewal of the legislation to effectively take care of our seniors. I note that around 25 per cent of our population falls into the Baby Boomer generation. Is our aged care system ready to provide for more than five million Australians who will soon need it?

I would like to be a voice for our Seniors.

Making our differences work

Australians, let’s transcend culture to make a difference, like my inspiration, Queen Adelaide, who in 1818 migrated to England from Germany and made a difference by restoring honour to the English Court and insisting on educating the young.

Culture is much more than just the colour of a person. We have spiritual practices and traditions that no longer serve us in 2017.

We must take a strong look at the emotional and mental habits that prevent us from being the person we could be – in positively contributing to our society. This includes the renewal of physical and relational ways that divide us.

We need to encourage social and political interaction that goes beyond individualism.

I am talking about introducing financial and economic systems that will give us an abundance mentality.

We need to encourage social and political interaction that goes beyond individualism. For this is what will renew and preserve Australia as a great nation in the world.

Being the only black African-Australian Senator is my point of difference. I don’t know what your difference is. What we do with our differences – our unique gifts – is our choice. Let us choose wisely.

Finally, ‘let’s talk culture!’ I was born in the Kikuyu Tribe of Kenya. One of the Kikuyu culture’s traditions is with regards to ‘marriage’. When a man takes a girl for marriage, he pays dowry to the girl’s family, because the girl will now contribute to the prosperity of the man’s family. Her new family prospers from the girl’s hard work and contribution.

Australia, you have taken a girl from Kenya, you may probably need to consider paying dowry!

God Bless Australia.

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Parliament of Australia

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