I congratulate you, President, on your election to the role. I also congratulate the Deputy President on her elevation. I wish you both well in undertaking your important duties.

On one of the last days of the most extraordinary and challenging year of my life it gives me great pleasure to rise to give my first speech as a member for Southern Metropolitan Region. Southern Metropolitan Region is a large, diverse and vibrant electorate. I have lived within what are now its boundaries for around 20 years. It includes some of Melbourne’s most established suburbs, as well as areas with all the benefits and challenges of the inner city. It is ethnically diverse and home to some of Melbourne’s major employers, as well as thousands of small businesses. It boasts some of Melbourne’s most loved places, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Shrine of Remembrance, the arts precinct at Southbank and the beaches of our bayside suburbs, including Sandringham, which is where I live with my family. It is an honour to represent my local community, and I pledge to be an active and diligent representative.

I come to this place not to be an observer but to be a contributor, a builder and an advocate. I owe nothing less to the people I am now privileged to represent. This aim also reflects the values and beliefs I have held through my life and which have driven me through my involvement in politics; my employment, including the years spent as an adviser to the Howard government early on in my career; my writing; and the contribution I have made to the not-for-profit sector.

I believe that individual freedoms are paramount — freedom of choice, freedom of association, freedom to worship and freedom of speech. These values are woven into the fabric of our nation, and their great success in practice is what has drawn thousands of migrants to our shores, including my father and his parents.

My grandparents lived through the blitz in London. My grandmother, who was then a young mother, spent her nights as an air-raid warden. My grandfather gave up pharmacy to become a health inspector as part of the war effort. When the war was over and Britain was cautiously starting to rebuild they left for a new life in Australia, where their sons, and eventually their granddaughters, would have the kind of opportunities to study, to work and to achieve that they judged would be beyond reach in post-war Britain. I will always be thankful they made this choice.

I also believe in small government. The sheer number of bills passed by a government is no reason to boast, although some governments do, and it is certainly no measure of success. A better measure of success is this: when a government does act, is it doing so to maximise choice and opportunity? I believe that individuals are best able to make decisions about their own lives and futures, and it is better for society as a whole when individuals, families and businesses have the freedom and opportunity to determine and build their own futures.

I have seen this principle in action in the community organisations that I know well. Let me give just one example. For nine years I volunteered as a director of the Sandybeach Centre, not far from where I live. I also chaired the board for several years. Sandybeach has survived and thrived for more than 30 years because it understands and responds to the needs of local residents. It provides much-needed respite care for the frail elderly, it runs education and training for adults with intellectual disabilities, it creates courses and volunteering opportunities that help unemployed people get jobs and it provides affordable child care for local parents. Sandybeach also works closely with residents in local public housing estates to identify the kinds of services and training they want and need. Ultimately, some of these services support people to find employment. Others are about developing better financial management or parenting skills. All of this is a great example of a non-government organisation providing choice and opportunity by responding to local needs in a personalised way that is largely beyond the capacity of government.

So what is the role of government? One of the most important roles is to support a strong economy and through it an environment where business can flourish, and to ensure that any services that are provided by government are appropriately funded. Government should provide what Robert Menzies called ‘civilised capitalism’ — ensuring that individuals and enterprises can reach their full potential while providing a safety net for those who cannot easily provide for themselves.

As a Liberal, I believe in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. And I speak out when it is clear that lip-service is being given to notions of equality. That is one reason why I am a feminist, and as such, I am part of a liberal tradition that stretches back to John Stuart Mill. When I was an undergraduate at Monash University, Mill’s feminist writings, and in particular his essay The Subjection of Women, left a lasting impression on me. Mill’s belief in equality extended to women — a rare argument by a man in the 1860s. He held that equality for women was good for women and good for society. He made the case for marriage laws that were more favourable for women. He argued that women should be able to own property, work outside the home and have financial independence, and he argued that women should have the right to vote and run for office.

Some years later, when I was researching my first book, I was fascinated by the links Mill sought and made with the colonies of South Australia and Victoria. As the colonies grappled with suffrage, Mill urged them to ensure that women were able to vote. Mill was instrumental in swinging South Australia to his view, and through the debates of the Federation Conventions, this in turn led to Australian women getting the right to vote in commonwealth elections as one of the first acts of the new federal government — an act passed, of course, in this magnificent building.

Liberal women had many causes around the time of federation and into the 20th century. They built outstanding campaign machines and effectively operated as political parties. Many women continued to campaign for causes consistent with Mill’s philosophy, such as equal divorce laws for men and women and the right for women to seek election to state parliaments.

Today there are still many issues of gender that are unfinished business. Here are just a few: the gender pay gap, discrimination in employment, domestic violence and other forms of assaults on women. It is nothing short of shameful that almost every week an Australian woman dies at the hands of a partner or former partner. Other issues are how we respond to the social and health issues that accompany female genital mutilation and the practice of forcing under-age girls — children — into marriage. These are issues that matter, and that is why I have spent most of my adult life speaking up on gender issues, researching them and writing about them, and it is why I have been involved with a range of women’s organisations.

It is perhaps unsurprising that I have done so given the family that produced and raised me. Earlier I referred to my grandfather, Tom Fitzherbert. He spent the Second World War in London, but that is not where he was born. As with previous generations of his British family, he was born and lived in India. But as a young child, around the time of the First World War, he was sent home from India with his brother and sister to be raised by his maternal aunt, Florence Cunningham, in Portsmouth. His mother remained in India while his father, a soldier and engineer, was on active service in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Florence was a suffragette, and she took the opportunity to raise her sister’s three children in as equal a way as she could. It is clear from the letters that remain that the children’s father strongly supported this unusual approach, and as adults the children were grateful for it and believed it had a lasting effect on each of them.

Both sides of my family — the Fitzherberts and the Knights — share the belief that where they are able, people should contribute to their local communities. That means helping someone when you can, volunteering and getting involved with community groups. My grandparents, parents and stepmother have all done this, and I have made an effort to follow their example.

Until last week I held what was for me a dream position as chair of the board of the Royal Women’s Hospital, which drew together two of my great policy interests. I come to this chamber with a strong interest in health and the health sector. I have worked as an industrial advocate in the public health sector, representing a range of health providers, from major hospitals to community health centres. I have worked on award restructuring and disputes in public health. I have defended public health sector employers against unfair dismissal claims by employees, and in doing so I have developed a strong understanding of workplace practices in the public health sector and a working knowledge of the industrial awards that direct them. I have been part of the governance wing of several not-for-profit organisations that provide health and community services.

My personal knowledge of the health system, as a mother and as a direct consumer, adds another layer to my understanding. While it is critical to have an effective private health system and private health insurance — not least because frankly those who can pay, should — we need a strong, responsive and well-funded public health system. Our rapidly growing population adds to the challenge. I give credit to the performance of the previous government in relation to public health, and in particular for its unprecedented investment in capital infrastructure here in Melbourne and in rural and regional areas.

We who serve here do so only because we stand on the shoulders of others. Especially during this last year I have been very fortunate to have had remarkable support from my family as well as from many friends and colleagues, and there are a number who I wish to acknowledge today.

First and foremost, my family: my mother for her limitless love, ever-practical support and the example of her powerful work ethic, and my father, whose greatest gift to his two daughters was his firm belief, from when we were very young, that we could handle any situation that life threw at us. His belief made it possible.

I thank my stepmother, who for more than 30 years has loved two children who were not born hers, and whose love now extends to my own children. My sister Penne, as always, somehow found many ways to help me and look after me from her home in London.

I thank my husband for his persistence, his love and his great patience, and also for being totally unflappable in any situation, the latter being a special skill of his that I have tested on many occasions.

I thank the Williams family, who from the start embraced me as one of their own. They now have the misfortune to have in-laws who are members of the Tasmanian and Victorian parliaments, as well as a cousin who is a member of the West Australian Parliament. They must be wondering what they have done to deserve this.

Today of course I also think of those who are not here, and in particular my late mother-in-law, Celia. I adored Celia. She loved a celebration and would have enjoyed today immensely.

My children, Zara, Tom and Victoria, are the great joy of my life. They are also a constant reminder to me of the importance of the decisions that we make in this place.

No-one is elected to Parliament without a lot of help from a lot of people. I thank Tony Snell, Damien Mantach and their team for the campaign that made my election possible. I value the very practical support I have had from two of my former employers, the Honourable David Kemp and the Honourable Judi Moylan. I thank the member for Brighton in the other place and the Honourable Judith Troeth for many years of friendship and support, and for their thoughtful and often blunt advice.

I acknowledge the new member for Hawthorn in the other place, as well as Matthew and Karina O’Meara, Helen Shardey, John Roskam, Peter McWilliam, Senator Michael Ronaldson, Dr Peter Poggioli, Michael Kroger, Ramon Frederico, Jane Hume, Judy Snodgrass, Jeannette Rawlinson and Chantalle Abou-Haila.

I single out the member for Ripon in the other place and Jason Aldworth for particular thanks. In their own very different and inimitable ways they have helped me immeasurably. Both have given me steadfast friendship.

I am very grateful to David Davis, Andrea Coote and Georgie Crozier for their unrelenting work during the lower house campaigns in Southern Metropolitan Region and for their personal support.

I want to pay tribute to Andrea Coote’s contribution as a member of the Legislative Council. She held leadership roles in this place and established a well-deserved reputation as a great campaigner. Andrea has boundless energy and contagious enthusiasm. She did not back away from unpopular or controversial causes, and I can personally attest that people from community organisations throughout Southern Metropolitan Region speak of her with respect and obvious affection.

Finally, I owe a very special debt to Professor Sandy Heriot and Dr Ross Jennens and their teams.

At the age of five my younger daughter does not fully understand the significance of her mother and godmother both being elected to this Parliament on 29 November. But when Victoria is old enough to do so, I hope she will be proud of what the member for Ripon and I achieve and contribute through this place. I am an optimist at heart, and I like to believe that everybody who comes here does so with at least some commitment to the idea that public service through the Parliament is a way to protect what is good, make our communities better and improve the lives of individuals. I share this sense of purpose.

I am reminded of the words attributed to John Wesley; some doubt he said them, but regardless of who did, the sentiment makes sense to me:

Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.

I know that in this place we will often disagree about what is good, but I hope we will do so with respect and goodwill, mindful of our respective values and the people who elected us. That is my intention.

I thank the house for its indulgence.