Address to Sydney Institute Annual Dinner: 'Owning the Future'
It is an honour to be here and a special honour to be introduced by our greatest living Prime Minister.
Mr Howard has taught many of us many things.
I received my first important lesson in 1996 when as the newly elected President of the NSW Young Liberals, I had the audacity to write to the then newly elected PM suggesting he should meet with me to hear what young people thought about the future of our nation.
Not only did he agree to meet, but he genuinely cared about what I was saying.
It was an important lesson for me in political humility and the need to listen. A principle I have tried to adhere to during my own time in public life.
Thank you again Mr Howard for continuing to be a source of inspiration to so many Australians.
When Gerard first invited me to give this address, I was taken aback given the calibre of past dinner guests.
And then, I confess, I also thought – great!
What a perfect opportunity to tell you all about how because of the efforts of our Government, NSW is the economic and infrastructure powerhouse of the nation – and outline my plans and vision for taking our state to the next level!
That was until Gerard made clear that was a terrible idea – I think his exact words might have been “no one is interested”.
Gerard instead suggested that I share some of my personal story, not something that comes easily to me.
In public life, part of my M.O. has been to not stray from core business – after all, I have been elected to do a job, and to do it well.
I have always adopted the genuine view that it’s not about me – it’s about the people that make up this great state.
But I accept that all of us are shaped by our upbringing, background, and experiences.
I accept that as the daughter of a welder and a nurse who migrated here from different parts of the Middle East, and as someone who didn’t speak English when I started school – I may have some insights to share about leadership and our society more broadly.
My experiences have given me the perspective that hard work and respect are the greatest indicators of future success, not your background or your postcode.
This perspective is fundamental to how I seek to answer the questions that, as Premier, obsess me every day: What will give NSW the edge in 10 and 20 years from now?
What decisions should I be taking today to provide the best opportunities for our citizens in the future?
The fact is, NSW cannot afford to stand still.
We are a state of only millions in a region of billions.
The digital age means our external environment is changing more rapidly than at any other time in human history.
In the future, we will rely more heavily than ever before on the ingenuity of our people.
We must give people the confidence that if they work hard and take chances, they can have a great life in NSW.
That hard work and innovation will, in turn, support our economic growth and strengthen our communities
But of course, reward for effort only works when Governments provide equality of opportunity.
That is, enabling the job creation, providing skills, education and access to vital services which give people the choices they need to lead their best lives possible.
We cannot take for granted the values and systems that make NSW and Australia the great places they are.
Here, every citizen has freedoms and opportunities that very few other places in the world offer.
Where universal healthcare, high standards of education and support for the most vulnerable are a given.
The sense we should be grateful for this is absolutely ingrained in me.
So too is the responsibility to give back.
We are seeing massive social dislocation and disruption around the world, in places that lack the opportunities we benefit from here in NSW.
So we must be ever more vigilant in protecting what makes us uniquely placed to tackle the future head on.
As with so many other Australians, our nation’s generosity provided a safe haven for my family after generations of persecution.
I try to demonstrate my gratitude every day by dedicating myself to making NSW the best it can be.
As some of you may know, my family were victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
My grandparents were orphaned and witnessed untold atrocities.
More than 40 of my relatives were among the 1.5 million Armenians massacred in what became the first genocide of the 20th century.
Those who survived, including my grandparents, were forced to leave their homeland, were displaced across the region and eventually settled in the Middle East.
My father was born in Aleppo, Syria, where we still have family, and my mother was born in Jerusalem.
Suffice to say the safe haven offered by the Middle East was short-lived.
My parents migrated separately to Sydney in the late 1960s and were married in the Armenian Orthodox Church in Chatswood.
They spoke Armenian at home not only because it was their first language – but also because they felt a responsibility to preserve their heritage given the atrocities committed against our family and the Armenian people.
They were determined to make sure my sisters and I were bi-lingual and proud of our heritage.
But they were equally adamant that we became good citizens and gave back to the nation that welcomed them.
As their first-born, my first language was Armenian.
I remember getting ready for my first day of school and my mother encouraging me not to worry if I didn’t understand everything, but just to make sure I raised my hand and had a go every time the teacher asked a question.
I don’t actually remember learning English – it just happened.
I remember in that same year coming back to school after a short stay in hospital to have my tonsils out.
The teacher asked me to talk about my experience in hospital and that was my first recollection of speaking my version of fluent English.
We grew up in a very family oriented community in North Ryde, where we became friends with the neighbours’ kids.
They were of great assistance in becoming accustomed to the Australian way of life – including the lingo.
The Aggett family across the road had an above ground swimming pool which was something of a novelty.
One hot summer’s day when I was about 8 or 9 years old, Mrs Aggett was talking to my mother and said I could come over for a swim “after tea”.
I chimed in and suggested my mother hurry up and put the kettle on so I could rush over to use their pool.
Clearly, my Aussie lingo still had a way to go!
Within this close-knit family unit, my parents never for a minute allowed my two sisters and I to forget the incredible opportunities we had in modern Australia – opportunities they never had.
Despite being very intelligent and well-read, my parents hadn’t had the chance to finish high school themselves.
They worked hard and expected us to do the same.
As a trained nurse my mother always went above and beyond – even helping neighbours with their medical needs.
We were also incredibly proud that as a boiler maker/welder, dad had worked on the second highest sail of the Sydney Opera House.
I loved school. At primary school I was great at maths but I owe a huge debt to the school librarian, who borrowed books from other schools once I had read the entire biography collection at North Ryde Public.
Looking back, that love of reading really saved me.
It helped me develop my skills in English and opened my eyes to the ways of the world.
While we attended North Ryde Public during weekdays, we attended Armenian school in Willoughby on Saturdays, where we became fluent in reading and writing.
My dad also thought it was wise to send us to girls’ club at the local Anglican church on Monday nights.
He figured it would aid our religious instruction and help us become loyal citizens.
As I approached high school there were conversations about wanting to send me to private school – but it didn’t work out, so I ended up at North Ryde High.
Back in the mid 80s North Ryde High undeservedly had a bad reputation.
My parents worried because none of the kids we knew who went there, went on to uni.
My parents were obsessed with me going to uni.
I was obsessed with that too.
Not to fulfil my parents’ ambition, but mine.
I knew I wanted to make a difference and make my family’s sacrifices worthwhile.
I was extremely competitive and wanted good marks but from the talk of the kids I hung out with in our neighbourhood, I was doomed.
Based on what the local kids told me, every kid who went to North Ryde High got bashed up and was forced to take drugs.
This petrified me.
I didn’t even know what drugs were but I was pretty sure they were bad.
I just wanted to do well.
Needless to say, these fears were unjustified.
These formative years toughened me up, taking me outside my comfort zone and the protection of a very tight knit family life.
I learned to be self-disciplined and self-motivated and to work hard.
I was inspired by some amazing teachers who went over and above to encourage and support me, and ultimately launch me on a path to university, to the private sector and eventually into public life.
My childhood experience is by no means unique.
It has defined so many Australians of migrant backgrounds who are determined to work hard, to give back, and to contribute in their way to the betterment of our state and nation.
In an ever-changing world with increasing challenges, the debate about the nature and scale of immigration is a constant one.
In Australia I believe our current level of migration is about right – but we cannot ignore the reality that communities are feeling growing pressures on local services and infrastructure.
At the same time, if we want to continue to prosper as a state and as a nation, we cannot underestimate the benefits that successive waves of immigration have brought to our nation.
Work ethic, skills, talent and energy from all over the world.
This is a critical part of what will give NSW its edge in the future.
I make no apologies for stressing that the right to be a citizen in this country brings with it responsibilities.
Whether our families have been here for thousands of years, many generations, or even just one generation such as mine, we must ensure all of us share a desire to be responsible citizens and to give back to the community where we can.
We need to support those willing to work hard, take risks and put NSW on the global map.
The aspiration for a better life is what motivates our people to work hard and do amazing things – the kinds of things that propel our state forward.
But we can only unlock that aspiration if we prepare rigorously for the decades ahead.
Within our Federation, it is states that are on the front line of delivering the infrastructure and services that our communities and our economies need.
I am therefore proposing that an entire meeting of COAG next year should be dedicated solely to the issue of immigration and planning.
And this should not just be a once-off discussion – but revisited every few years.
We need to be focused and disciplined when planning for the future.
I keep coming back to the question about what will give NSW the edge?
It is a question that fills me with a sense of urgency and determination.
Industries and jobs are changing faster than ever before.
It is hard to predict where technology will go 5 years from now, let alone 10 or 20.
And we must never forget we are in a global competition for skills, talent and ideas.
As Thomas Friedman wrote in ‘The World is Flat’, “more people in more places can now compete, connect and collaborate with equal power and equal tools than ever before.”
Politically and economically, these changes mean that old ideological distinctions are being broken down.
People increasingly refuse to be bound by outdated concepts or preconceptions about how they fit into society, or where they sit in the pecking order of the economy.
Socio-economic mobility is the new normal.
When tradies can earn more than lawyers, millennials change career every few years, and with women taking on more than 60% of all new jobs in NSW, we are seeing a realignment of the challenges and opportunities available to every person in every community across our state.
This new normal makes the role of a good government firmly that of the enabler – the creator of opportunity and choice.
Not the manipulative entrencher of political division as our political opponents consistently prove themselves to be.
Every day I meet people from the widest possible range of backgrounds, occupations and postcodes, their views shaped by the most diverse experiences, but all driven by the same aspiration to build a better life for themselves and their community.
I am inspired by people like Paul Breen, a construction executive who has launched a training program called ‘Productivity Bootcamp’ in Penrith.
His program identifies young people who are slipping through the employment cracks, trains them so they graduate with a trade, and most importantly, gives them the confidence, discipline and motivation to go on to great careers.
With his drive to contribute to our economy and society, Paul Breen epitomises the power of individual aspiration.
He and the millions of Australians like him are why I reject the political dogma that tries to define people by their occupation, postcode or background – a false class warfare that in 2018 is well and truly passé.
As far as I’m concerned, the Liberal Party will always be the true party of the worker – not just some workers, but all workers.
My Government is here to support anyone who wants to work hard, to strive for a good life for themselves and their families.
We believe that aspiration and work ethic cannot and should not be defined by class, but by attitude – and we see that in action in NSW every day.
The challenges we confront in securing our future are real.
But if we face them, own them, and respond to them with focus and determination, we can take NSW to the next level.
NSW is a state that tackles the difficult things – whether it is finding innovative solutions to repairing our budget and creating the strongest economy in the nation, delivering the largest infrastructure pipeline in Australia’s history, or adopting a citizen-centric approach in how we deliver services.
We recognise that our economic dynamism rests on government providing the confidence and certainty for business to grow and individual talent to flourish.
This spirit of collaboration has made NSW Australia’s first $500 billion economy, an economy bigger than Hong Kong and Singapore, growing faster than 27 OECD nations, and driving more than half of all economic growth in Australia.
Over the past three years alone, NSW has created almost 300,000 jobs – and recorded the nation’s lowest unemployment for 34 consecutive months.
NSW is leading the nation because we are a magnet for talent and ambition.
It is our greatest asset – one we should never take for granted.
We have to ask ourselves – where is the next wave of skills and ideas coming from?
We must make sure that government, business and our educational institutions are working hand in hand to unlock the extraordinary talent in our workforces, our schools and our tertiary institutions.
NSW is at its best when we prepare for the long term, like Macquarie in the 19th century and Bradfield in the 20th.
And more than ever today, we know that our economic edge must be built on sustainable growth and good planning.
Securing a strong future requires accepting the challenges of growth, planning for them and dealing with them – not hiding from them or, worse, using them as an excuse to do nothing.
If we are going to give the next generation of young people in NSW the same opportunities as the generations before them, we need to act now to build the infrastructure that will support them, the jobs that will sustain them, and the choices that will enable them to live their best possible life.
Sorry, Gerard, I know have digressed back to form but I need to get a few things off my chest…
And what are some of the ways we are delivering for the future?
We are re-shaping Greater Sydney into a metropolis of three cities.
We are ensuring that the industries and jobs of the future are spread evenly across the Eastern CBD, Parramatta, and the new Western City around Badgerys Creek – supported by the tens of thousands of jobs in defence, advanced manufacturing, robotics and logistics which will be created by the second airport precinct.
We will invest like never before in the great enablers of education, transport and healthcare, but we will also make sure that our government fulfils its responsibility as the custodian of our environment, our heritage, our open spaces and the local character of our communities.
But while I know I’m here at the Sydney Institute, it’s not just about Sydney.
We need to leave behind the stereotype of the divide between our cities and our regions, and embark on the next generation of nation-building regional projects – which I firmly believe have to include fast rail.
Let’s be honest, as a nation we’ve talked about it for long enough – we need to get on with planning it now.
Improving the connectivity between our cities and major regional centres will enable the next wave of economic opportunity to be spread across this state.
And it will be the catalyst for even greater investment in the social infrastructure our regional communities need.
As a responsible government, we will focus relentlessly on unlocking that next wave of infrastructure, investment and jobs.
But we will also use the dividends of a strong economy to give a helping hand to those hit hardest by the cost of living, and to offer opportunity to those who would otherwise be denied it.
We will work every day to ensure that everyone in NSW has the choice and opportunity to live the best life they can – to secure the true equality of opportunity that will strengthen our state and our nation for the challenges ahead.
This is what will give us the edge.
As Premier, I want a strong, confident NSW, moving decisively forward, staking its place, owning the future and leading Australia and the world.
We are on the cusp of this today.
And I will always keep working my guts out to make sure that NSW is the place where every person has greater opportunities than their parents and grandparents.
Where everyone has the chance to reach their potential, realise their ambitions, and live their most fulfilling lives possible.
After all, that is my story.