Peta and I delivered our first speeches in this place on the same day in July 2019. At that time I didn’t know her very well. In fact, I think I’d introduced her to someone a couple of weeks earlier as Peta Dunkley. It was clear to me from that very first speech that she was fierce and super smart. She was actually a bit intimidating, but she was absolutely someone who I knew would be a valuable colleague. In the end, she was so much more than that—she was the closest of friends.

Peta came into this place with a clear sense of why she was here and what she wanted to achieve. A Labor girl who grew up in the era of Hawke and Keating, she was clear that our country was a better one when it was big enough to support us all. She never left you in any doubt about where she stood on an issue, and she would always come down on the side of making things fairer.

Peta’s years as a solicitor, barrister and public advocate meant that she knew how to argue her case. I don’t think there’s anyone who was in this chamber listening when she spoke out against those opposite’s plan to give women fleeing domestic and family violence access to their superannuation to support them leaving dangerous situations who is in any doubt that it was Peta’s speech that meant that that policy lasted less 24 hours.

She took her fierceness, her forthrightness and her smarts, and she advocated to support Australian women in the community and in the parliament. She led the committee work to recommend changes to curb the harms of online gambling, work she was rightly proud of, and I know so that many Australians, particularly parents who have watched their children learn more about odds than they know about footy stats, support. From her first speech till the end, she argued for a bill of rights, for improvements to our legal system, action on climate change and so much more. I was generally very happy to join her on her crusades, but I will now disclose that we had a brief falling-out when I floated a proposal for turning the parliamentary squash courts into a yoga space!

But Peta knew her role wasn’t just in this building. She loved the community of Dunkley and she fought hard for the privilege of representing it—losing the 2016 election but turning the Liberal seat Labor in 2019. For all of us elected in 2019, our first terms quickly included the reality of COVID and, for those of us in Victoria, lengthy COVID lockdowns. Peta and I spoke often during that time as we tried to navigate our way through being good representatives in a very challenging environment. I always knew that Peta would choose supporting her community over politics, and she did so with ongoing factual COVID updates and community advocacy. Once lockdowns were over, Peta was the most involved local member. Just looking at her Insta feed on the weekend used to make me feel exhausted. And I don’t think there’s a community or sporting group in Dunkley who didn’t know Peta and who didn’t love Peta. Her efforts were recognised with one of the key performance indicators we look to in this place: a substantial increase in her margin at the 2022 election.

Peta didn’t like talking about her cancer, and it’s not what she wanted to be known for, but she was also very conscious of the platform she had to argue for better outcomes for people with cancer, and particularly for women with metastatic breast cancer. One of her absolute highlights in this place was when we met Olivia Newton-John, a woman who had used her public platform to do just that. And, what Olivia was to Peta, Peta was to so many other women—a blazing example of how to get up every morning and lead the life you want, even with cancer. Peta greatly valued the work she did with the Breast Cancer Network of Australia and the support they gave her.

The reality is that Peta did a lot of her work while in pain. I lost count of the number of times I put what I thought were rational arguments about how someone undergoing chemotherapy did not need to sit through question time every single day it was on. I rarely won that argument with Peta, and she hated missing parliament. On the few occasions she did, I would joke with her that, as her unofficial parliamentary spokesperson, I had dutifully put out her lines of the day: she was fine and she just needed a bit more rest. And I would report back to her on all of the people who had asked after her. She appreciated every one of you.

In amongst all of this, Peta was a lot of fun. You could be sure that she would pour you the stiffest of G&Ts. One of the most important parts of our friendship was that we always knew we could blow off steam together. She and I were constantly in and out of each other’s offices in this place. I have truthfully told my husband there were many days when I talked with and messaged Peta far more times than I did him. Sometimes it was because we were doing important things; more times it was because we were talking about shoes and making each other feel okay about whatever was swirling about us. I do think part of our friendship was that we both deeply appreciated each other’s hot takes about parliamentary proceedings. So fair warning to my other friends here—there is a massive gap for witty hot takes in my life and I expect all of you to step up.

I’m sure it was Peta’s sense of fun which also meant she was such a special person to my two-year-old son. Peta called Gilbert her kindred spirit, and, if he knew those words, I’m sure that’s how he would have described her. I will forever cherish the memories I have of our time in our apartment here in Canberra together, of Gilbert convincing Peta to read every story in the place before he went to bed and pouncing on her as soon as she woke up for another round of the doctor game.

Like all of us, Peta was here because of the support of her family and her friends. It was a privilege for me to get to know you through her. Rod, for more than 20 years you were her person, her absolute rock, critic and champion, as she was for you. Bob and Jan, I loved hearing about Peta’s exploits growing up in Wagga and all you did to shape her into the wonderful person she was. Jodi, Penni and all her nieces and her nephew: she was so proud of you all. Our hearts ache for you today—also her beautiful but crazy dogs, Bert and Ernie, who brought her so much joy. To her staff, Lauren, Majella, Maddie, John, Kitty, Madeleine, Louis and others: you’ve been so important in helping Peta do her work—and our whip, Jo Ryan, and all the Labor team, who quietly arranged things to help her keep going for as long as she could.

Peta, I did think we would have longer, that there would be time for a few more conversations. But in the last few days I have also thought about how much you would have hated spending months at home, when you would have felt like you should have been here. I am glad that when the end came you were doing what you knew was important, right up to the end, and that you left us surrounded by your family and love.

My friend, on that day in July 2019, you reflected on what you would want to be known for at the end of your time in politics, and you said:

… above all else, I would like to be able to say that I left Australian politics—Australian democracy—in better shape than when I joined it, that I was part of a generation of Australian politicians who worked to recover the public’s faith in our democratic system and who strove to reharness politics as that vehicle for enlarging opportunities and enlarging our national imagination, and that we did so by rejecting politics based on fear and division, by refusing to see societal problems as weapons with which to wedge our political opponents and by choosing robust debates about ideas and solutions over personal attacks and petty judgements.

Rest in peace, knowing that is the example you set us all. It can’t ever be the same here without you, but I am so grateful that I was here for the part you were too.


Click here to watch this speech.

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