A letter to Ross Vasta, MP for Bonner

From: Michael Barnett
Date: 15 July 2015 at 03:37
Subject: An urgent message about the mental health of youth in Bonner
To: “Ross Vasta (MP for Bonner)” <ross.vasta.mp@aph.gov.au>

Dear Mr Vasta,

I’ve been reflecting on the first speech you gave in Parliament, some 11 years ago on November 18, 2004.  You made some excellent points.  Please allow me to journey through them with you.

Opening, you paid significant tribute to the namesake of your electorate, the late Liberal Senator, Neville Bonner:

It is with humility that I stand here before you today as the first member for the newly created seat of Bonner. This seat was named after a great Queenslander who also happened to be a great Liberal, Senator Neville Bonner. Senator Bonner was the first Aboriginal Australian elected to the federal parliament. During his 12 years in the Senate he was a conscientious parliamentarian, respected by both sides of politics. In his 16 years after leaving the Senate he was a much esteemed elder statesman of Australian public life. It is only fitting that his life and contribution to this country has now been so formally recognised and his name given to Queensland’s newest federal seat.

Interestingly, Neville Bonner was far from the conformist, as is noted:

“He crossed the floor 23 times,” says Libby Stewart, a senior historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy. “He always said that he was a bit of rebel,” she adds, “that he didn’t toe the party line, that he was a proud member of the party, but not a blind member.”

You recalled the efforts and achievements of your family:

Always in that time they have worked hard, they have prayed hard and they have dreamed hard.

and how they were instrumental in making Australia the great country it is, one that so many aspire to live in:

… they also helped to build this country and make it the prosperous, decent, open and tolerant society it is today… a beacon of hope and an example showing that people of all races, creeds and colours can live and work together and create a peaceful and successful future for their children.

You spoke of opportunities:

My grandfathers and their families believed passionately in Australia, in the opportunities that Australia offered and the rewards she bestowed on those prepared to work hard, play fair and live right.

and dreams:

They believed in the dream shared by all Australians—a better life and a better future for their children—and they lived that dream.

Understanding that society is about and for people, you said:

… people matter and that with goodwill and people’s support things can be achieved for the greater good.

With wisdom, you declared:

I do believe that governments must govern for all Australians …

Poignantly you said:

I will work to ensure that my constituents do not become forgotten people, and my actions as the member for Bonner will be guided by my beliefs as a Liberal. I believe that the role of government is to remove obstacles so that people can be free to pursue their dreams and realise their potential.

You spoke of supporting families, the foundation of community:

I believe that strong families make for strong communities and we must do everything possible to support them.

As you drew to the end of your speech you reflected on a person of significance, someone you deeply admired:

I would also like to pay special tribute to the late Arthur Scurr MBE, a much respected local community leader in Brisbane’s south side. He was a true gentleman, and his open-mindedness to new ideas, his commitment to the community and his tireless work will be missed by us all.

You gave thanks to your electorate and promised to not disappoint them:

Most importantly, I thank the people of Bonner for placing their trust in me and electing me as the first member for this new seat. My commitment to you is strong and simple: I will work with diligence, commitment and enthusiasm to justify your trust in me.

In closing, you spoke of putting in the effort to improve society:

As I embark on this new journey I hope that—just as my ancestors have, through their hard work, contributed to building this great nation—I too will be able to help to make the electorate of Bonner and Australia an even better place to live.

I admire these values you stand for Mr Vasta, but please allow me to take you further on this journey.

Just over three years ago, in March 2012, you addressed Parliament and spoke of how mental health is a significant issue facing the people, and in particular the youth, of Bonner and Australia:

Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise this evening to bring to houses attention a very important issue in the electorate of Bonner and indeed the wider Australian community – that is the issue of mental health.

The time to tackle mental illness is when it first occurs. The prevalence of mental health problems declines with age. It is our younger Australians – those between 16 and 24 – who bear the brunt of mental illness. Evidence shows that with early and targeted treatment many young people can overcome their problems and lead socially and economically productive lives with lower incidence of progression or relapse.

I can relate to this as I experienced significant mental health issues through my teens and early twenties.  I was still forming my identity in life and was struggling to accept my sexual orientation, for I was entirely without support in this regard for the best part of 16 years.

The inescapable reality is that a percentage of youth in Bonner will be same-sex attracted and/or gender-diverse.  There is an understood link between poor mental health outcomes for these people and any discrimination they face:

Same-sex attracted Australians are more likely to experience below-average health outcomes including higher levels of depression, due to this prejudice and discrimination. The statistics are particularly alarming for younger and newly-identifying LGBTI people who have consistently higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, early school leaving, conflict with peers and parents and suicide ideation, all directly related to the discrimination and prejudice they experience.[v]

http://www.glhv.org.au/files/writing_themselves_in_again.pdf

Only a few weeks ago you indicated you weren’t prepared to state how you would vote if you were offered a conscience vote on marriage equality:

LNP Federal Member for Bonner Ross Vasta said did not want to comment on how he would vote on marriage equality if a conscious vote was called.

“What I’m really focused on is getting on with telling the electorate the good news about the (Federal) budget,” he said.

I urge you to think deeply about your position on marriage equality, on what it actually means, how it aligns with your stated values and how it can make Bonner a better place for its citizens.

You told us of the dreams of your forebears.  Please think about the dreams of the young people of Bonner and also those of their families and friends.  I speak of the dreams that a young kid has to marry the person of their choice, irrespective of their gender, and if they choose, and in whatever way they can, raise a family with their spouse.

Would you want to deny that child that dream, to have their special day amongst their family and friends?  Would you want to deny a child the opportunity to see their same-sex parents get married, whilst their peers can attend the weddings of their opposite-sex parents, should such circumstances arise?

How sad the day when we deny someone the opportunity to celebrate their love in a time-honoured tradition such as marriage.  I trust that you understand marriage is not a prerequisite for child-birth, but that marriage does afford families stability.

You said Australia is a tolerant society, yet your actions disagree with your words, given your strong resistance to tolerating the right for two people to marry, irrespective of gender.  Unlike Neville Bonner, you have yet to cross the floor even once to stand up for your values, your party’s values.  Did you forget that the role of government is to remove obstacles so that people can be free to pursue their dreams and realise their potential?

You spoke of not letting your constituents become forgotten people, yet in not calling for reform in marriage you are forgetting those people who you have said do not deserve marriage.  You are leaving them without, like the one kid that misses out on getting a lolly at a party or the child who gets a broken toy for Christmas.  Would you want your children to be the one who is forgotten or who gets second best?

Reflect on your praise for Arthur Scurr’s open-mindedness to new ideas, a quality you valued in him.  Walk in his footsteps a little.  His shoes sounded big.  Yes, marriage equality is a fairly new idea.  But it brings happiness to families.  It reduces those risk factors that contribute to mental health issues.  It makes families stronger and in doing so, helps build community.  That is your dream.

The people of Bonner placed their trust in you.  They didn’t vote for you to allow their 16-24-year-olds to have poor mental health outcomes or fill the graves in the cemetery.  They voted for you because they knew you could achieve better for them, that you could improve Bonner and make it that better place.

You owe it to them to support whatever it takes to improve the community, and if that is an unpopular decision, if it means crossing the floor at least once, if it means supporting your party’s forgotten values, then that’s what you must do.  For if you don’t, you will have failed the people of Bonner, you will have failed your community, you will have failed Australia, and most sadly, you will have failed yourself and your family.

You have the power to make Bonner a better place.  You have the power to help people achieve dreams.  If you govern for all the people of Bonner, as is your desire, you can make this happen.

Sincerely,

Michael Barnett.
Ashwood, VIC.

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