21 Feb 2023, 16:00
Victorian Legislative Council, Melbourne

Rachel PAYNE (South-Eastern Metropolitan):

President, I send my sincerest congratulations to you on a well-deserved reappointment. Today I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation as traditional custodians on the land where we gather today and the land which encompasses the south-east. I acknowledge this land was never ceded. I pay my deepest respects to elders past, present and emerging and any First Nations people here today. Reflecting on truth telling and reconciliation, Indigenous Australian voices must be elevated and respected. We all have a responsibility to be open to truth telling to better understand Indigenous histories, initiate discourse and ultimately bring about healing.

I am delighted to be standing here before you today as a newly elected representative for the South Eastern Metropolitan Region. Here we are fortunate to have a kaleidoscope of cultures and languages. It has become an area in which people can live peacefully, learn extensively, find meaningful employment and create memories together. As the most multicultural area of metropolitan Melbourne, it is truly special.

As an independent crossbencher I am free to focus on issues that are important to our community without restriction of party politics. It is a role that I strive to fulfil with dedication and commitment by promoting my constituents’ causes to the best of my ability. It is such a privilege to be elected, and I am grateful to all who voted for me and supported cannabis law reform. Thank you.

When I was 17 I discovered Ani DiFranco’s music. It certainly lit a fire in my belly politically. Ani is a woman speaking her mind about important issues, like inequality, social justice and women’s rights – many of the conversations we still have today. In Ani’s words:

“My mother was a feminist,
She taught me to see that
The road to ruin is paved with patriarchy.
So, let the way of the women guide democracy.
From plunder and pollution,
Let mother earth be free.

Feminism ain’t about women,
No, that’s not who it is for.
It’s about a shifting consciousness,
That’ll bring an end to war.”

My path into politics was quite different to most. However, as another member of Parliament to have emerged from the adult industry, I dare say we may see more of us venturing from this path. I will speak more about my career journey in a moment. For now I would like to talk about who I am and what shaped me into the person you see today.

I was born in Newcastle in the summer of 1982, the youngest of five children. My father was a gyprock plasterer, and my mother worked caregiving and administration jobs. My brothers Darren, Christopher and Shaun were all teenagers when I was born. My oldest sister Jennifer had tragically passed away in a car accident at the age of five. I was born to help heal my family. My mum would tell me as a child that I was meant to be here, which always confused me. It was not until I was much older that I realised what she meant by this statement. I later learned that my parents had difficulty conceiving me and explored alternatives, deciding to use a donor. When you are a teenager forming opinions of yourself and developing your identity, finding out news like this can be devastating. Everything I knew about myself I questioned. By the time I was 16 my parents had become foster carers, and the dynamics of our household changed. Home became unstable and unsafe for me, so I decided to stand on my own two feet. Being independent from such a young age instilled in me courage and strength. This was the path that led me here today.

To my mum Julie, I thank you for raising me to be resilient and strong willed, to know my worth and to use my voice.

To my dad Bernie, I thank you for always reminding me that I am your baby girl. You taught me humility, acceptance and to know what I deserve. In my dad’s words, ‘Everyone’s shit stinks, Rachel. They’re no better than you.’

I must take a moment to pay tribute to my grandmother Doll, whose legacy will always be cherished. She demonstrated immense strength as the matriarch of our family, even though her married life was one of violence. As my aunt Sally described, ‘Doll was a quiet achiever, she was a dressmaker, she was a rock to her girls and she encouraged us to have a work ethic.’ Doll’s husband, my grandfather, was a police officer, an alcoholic and a brutally violent man. It was not easy for Doll to escape the violence, but she eventually did with the help of her mother’s inheritance. Doll was creative in finding ways to be financially independent. She rented out rooms to migrants who were building the railway line. She worked at the local fruit shop, cleaned houses – whatever it took to escape the violence. I relay these stories in this place because I want it to be noted that not all family dynamics are positive or without pain, discomfort and vulnerability. Indeed, many of the dynamics of my family are that of trauma, loss, grief, survival and resilience. This has shaped me into who I am today and is why I stand here today.

As I mentioned earlier, I was drawn to politics from a young age. I have always considered myself someone who attracts opportunities, but opportunities more often than not are something we create for ourselves. My mission is to be in places where decisions are made and to champion voices like mine that deserve to be heard. I am thrilled to stand here today as a member of the 60th Parliament with a 55 per cent majority of women in the chamber. This majority is a first. It is not unusual for me to be surrounded by strong, capable, intelligent and creative women, many of whom are in the chamber today. May we continue to elevate each other. I was the first woman in my family to complete tertiary education, including postgraduate studies. I studied sociology, politics and public policy. Unsurprisingly, it was the women in my family who encouraged me to study.

At the beginning of my career I worked at Centrelink and the Family Court of Australia. I encountered individuals who were going through difficult times. Although it was not easy work by any means, it taught me invaluable lessons that remain with me to this day. I learned not to make assumptions about people and to always be kind. Working in the courts gave me insight into our family justice system and its imperfections. One of my greatest takeaways from this time was that often when people talk about their rights they neglect to recognise the responsibilities that come along with them.

It was around the same time that I developed a new-found passion for dancing and performance, taking on the persona Freckles Blue. Burlesque has historically been utilised by women as a tool to own their sensuality and power and make political statements through satire. I performed in burlesque clubs across Melbourne, eventually moving to Paris, bumping, grinding and tassel twirling my way across stages in Europe, and I loved it. Fast forward a few years, I had my first experience working in Parliament as an intern with Fiona Patten, the first member of Parliament to emerge from the adult industry. Fiona has paved the way for many women like us to have an influential role in creating meaningful change. I am deeply honoured to call Fiona a friend and a member of my chosen family. Now it is my turn to enter the political scene, and I am thankful for the invaluable mentoring provided by Fiona throughout this process. I would also like to thank Robbie Swan for seeing my potential and providing solid guidance, including regular astrology birth chart readings.

These connections led me to become the general manager of Eros Association, the national peak body that advocates on behalf of the adult industry. This was a unique opportunity, and I pay special thanks to the Eros board for elevating me into leadership. I was involved in many impactful changes, including decriminalisation of sex work, updating discrimination laws and providing small businesses support during the pandemic. I am immensely proud to have advocated for increased recognition for small businesses who are trailblazers operating in a taboo industry. My time at Eros afforded me a unique skill set that will complement working on cannabis law reform. I have worked with many different stakeholders in all jurisdictions. A big part of my job was reviewing and interpreting legislation, as well as pushing for change. I am well versed in working within a sector that is heavily regulated, stigmatised and often discriminated against, much like cannabis.

So why cannabis? Although I may not fit the stereotype, I have used cannabis my whole adult life. It is my chosen medication for anxiety and allows me to relax and calm my mind, and I am not alone in this choice. In fact around 1 million Victorians consume cannabis annually. It is no surprise then that Legalise Cannabis received the fourth highest vote in the election outside of the major parties. This surely screams volumes to the government of what Victorians want.

Calls for law reform in this space are not new. In fact the Australian movement was founded in Nimbin with the establishment of the Hemp Embassy, which is about to celebrate 30 years of activism and education. I pay special thanks to these activists, including Michael Balderstone and Gail Hester, for believing in me and supporting me through this campaign. I would like to take a moment to recognise party secretary Craig Ellis for all of his hard work in getting the party officially registered. His efforts negotiating preferences with like-minded parties delivered an upper house that is undeniably progressive.

I give special mention to my Legalise Cannabis volunteers, especially Jeff, Jenni and Tony. They not only championed the cause but shared their time and personal stories. Jeff found relief using cannabis through his cancer treatment. During the campaign his car, covered in cannabis leaves, could be seen turning heads in Frankston. Jenni is a wheelchair user who campaigned daily at the Berwick early voting centre – rain, hail or shine. Cannabis has vastly improved her quality of life, allowing her to move away from addictive opioid-based pain medications. Jenni has a vehicle that has been converted for her accessibility, but unfortunately she cannot drive due to the current driving laws.

I would also like to thank my friend Tony Verde, who messages me most days with encouragement, telling me I am a rock star. Tony is humble, intelligent and cheeky. I respect that you do not let Parkinson’s define you, Tones. I extend my congratulations to David Ettershank, my crossbench colleague. We managed to campaign together, and I am still in disbelief that we are in this chamber today. I would like to express my appreciation for all our candidates who spoke out on behalf of cannabis users and opened up meaningful conversations about its use.

As we enter the 60th Parliament of Victoria, I stand here ready, as one of the first elected representatives of Legalise Cannabis Victoria. I am here to advocate for much-needed reform in our cannabis laws. My colleagues, it is time for us to take action and make sure Victoria is leading the way on this issue. We need to look at how we can better regulate the access to and use of cannabis, both medicinally and socially, while also prioritising public health with effective education programs and early intervention initiatives.

We must not forget those affected by prohibition who have been unfairly criminalised due to outdated policies and laws. I stand here today to start a dialogue around what meaningful change could look like, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those living in our communities. As the 2022 Penington Institute report Cannabis in Australia identifies, when it comes to cannabis laws Australia is long overdue for reform. The data show our current prohibition approach is not just failing, it is causing real harm. The cost of prohibition is also enormous in Australia: $1.7 billion is spent on cannabis-related law enforcement and $1.1 billion is spent on imprisonment alone. In Victoria there are roughly 10,000 cannabis-related arrests each year – 92 per cent are consumers charged with possession, and of those, one in 10 end up in prison. We know that this figure disproportionately represents young people; Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women; and folk from culturally diverse backgrounds. Victoria outlawed cannabis in 1928. That is nearly 100 years of a failed war on drugs policy. Let us not have future generations look back at us and think, ‘Why didn’t they do something?’

We should not forget those who are suffering from illnesses that can be eased with medicinal cannabis or the important economic opportunities that could be unlocked for Victoria through policy reform in this area. Let us open a meaningful discussion about how we can regulate cannabis to improve the lives of all Victorians. By having an educated dialogue we will gain tremendous insight into what feasible steps need to be taken to bring an end to prohibition. We could see this progressive state establish world-class cannabis laws while creating opportunities for economic growth and stability and quashing profits of organised crime. I look forward to working with each of you to make these important changes a reality.

Finally, I would like to thank my darling Renee, who has supported, loved and encouraged me every step of the way. A living legend and an incredible community advocate in her own right, Renee played a key role in the marriage equality Yes campaign and continues to contribute her time and energy to the wider LGBTIQ community, both personally and professionally. I am so grateful for the beautiful life we have created together, along with our two cats Minnie Riperton and Chiquitita. We love you. I would like to say a huge thankyou to all of my family, friends and chosen family who have put up with me banging on about politics for so long. I thank you for the ongoing support.

In closing I would like to acknowledge my colleagues in this chamber. We may have differences of opinion, beliefs, experiences and backgrounds; however, we share a common goal, and that is that we all want what is best for our community. That is the beauty of democracy. My style is to be collaborative, open minded and open hearted in my conduct which I bring to this place. Victoria is a progressive state, and it is time we got on with this.

*Members applauded*