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Saturday, April 17, 2021

From the community sector to politics: Rebecca Vassarotti’s first speech

This is the first in a series of articles on the eight new MLAs to join the ranks of the 10th ACT Legislative Assembly.

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA, the new Greens Member for Kurrajong, wants to make Canberra “an even more caring, connected and liveable community,” she explained in her inaugural speech on Tuesday morning, 1 December.

Ms Vassarotti has been appointed Minister for Environment; Heritage; Homelessness and Housing Services; Sustainable Building and Construction. She comes to politics from the community sector; she has been executive director of YWCA Canberra, deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, and executive director of the International Network on Hepatitis and Substance Use.

Ms Vassarotti said she was not someone who harboured long-term ambitions for public office, but was inspired to enter politics by Joe Hockey’s much criticised federal budget of 2014, which proposed sweeping cuts to welfare support and pensions.

That budget, Ms Vassarotti said, “would have seen devastating impacts on some of the most marginalised people in the community”.

“In working with the political representatives who were proposing these ideas, I realised that they were not bad people, but were totally disconnected from the reality of most people’s lives. I realised we needed people in public life who were connected to the communities they serve and have been exposed to the diversity of people’s experiences – beyond the small circles that we usually travel in.”

Rebecca Vassarotti is Canberra-born and bred, with Irish and Italian forebears. After studying anthropology and political science at ANU, she entered the ACT Public Service, where she was involved in setting up a new environmental agency, improved accessibility of government agencies, and was part of the recovery process after the 2003 bushfires.

Working on the first ACT Poverty Inquiry was a “transformational experience”, Ms Vassarotti said.

“I got the opportunity to sit with people as they shared their experiences of being poor in a city that did not acknowledge there was much disadvantage at all.

“It also included working with service providers who were fighting to access resources to support these people and working with researchers who were developing methods to quantify the extent of a problem that until this point we had never named or acknowledged.

“I am immensely grateful that I was able to contribute to a project that changed the face of our city’s understanding of poverty and disadvantage and whose legacy I believe can still be seen today. It made me realise how the actions of a small group of people with a clear purpose, a commitment to evidence, and the ability to ethically walk with people who are marginalised to support them to share their experiences, could make a real difference.”

From there, she took the helm of YWCA Canberra, and worked with the social service movement, homelessness and community housing organisations, and health-based organisations to try to fix disadvantage and marginalisation – driven by her belief that we must all take responsibility to solve problems hurting people.

“Through this time, I have become passionate about many issues – homelessness, social exclusion, marginalisation due to health status and sexual identity,” Ms Vassarotti said.

“I have worked to support people going through the most challenging of times through work on guardianship, mental health and energy hardship tribunals; worked to support people who have been cut off health care because of issues such as drug use; and worked to shine a light on the impacts of gambling harm that go far beyond individual responsibility and impact.”

As a Greens MLA, Rebecca Vassarotti said she looked forward to working with other parties to tackle climate change, and ensure Canberra remained liveable; protect the environment; and address homelessness and disadvantage.

“To address these crises, we all need to act. We cannot rely on individual Ministers or MLAs to work in silos on these issues but must collectively work to achieve change. We will need to work together to ensure that community’s needs are put ahead of vested interests.”

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