Tonight I had planned to talk about the downturn in the mining industry and about the thousands of job that are disappearing from the Cessnock electorate. However, in a moment of serendipity I decided to talk about education. I have not spoken to my sister for several weeks but today she spoke to me about Cate Blanchett’s contribution at the memorial service for the late and great Gough Whitlam. My sister reminded me that we both benefited from a free education and said that she was touched by the news of the death of the late Gough Whitlam. She also told me about Cate Blanchett’s contribution and her story about free university education, which is also my story.

My father was a coalminer. I know people think coalminers earn enormous amounts of money and that they are grossly overpaid but I assure members that as the son of a coalminer I saw no excess of money. My parents had difficulty finding the $200 that was required each term to send me to the Catholic high school I attended and going to university in a pre-Whitlam era would have been beyond question. My sister’s phone call and the earlier valedictory speech of the member for Toongabbie reminded me of the value of education and of the educational status of the people of Cessnock. I have spoken in the past in this Chamber about how students in Cessnock have the highest level of completion of year 10 and under, the lowest level of completion of year 12 and the lowest level of university matriculation in New South Wales.

I am reminded also of the work of Gough Whitlam. Education is an enabler. We need to do all we can to ensure it is not a barrier. Today in the Federal Parliament reference was made to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme [HECS] debt that will be incurred by students seeking a new trajectory—a university education. I am reminded that at the moment a university education carries a HECS debt of roughly 25 per cent, which is reasonable and affordable. I took on a HECS debt that was closer to 5 per cent, which was certainly reasonable and affordable.

In my moment of serendipity I remembered that the member for Toongabbie, in his term as Premier, provided young people with apprenticeships, cadetships, traineeships and scholarships. Even though people in the Cessnock electorate have access to the University of Newcastle, one of the world’s best universities, they do not take advantage of that opportunity for a number of reasons that are too complicated to explain in the time I have available to me. We must do all we can to educate our young people and remove existing barriers to education. We must do all we can to ensure that our young people, or the elderly, obtain the education that they desire.

The educational journey of the member for Toongabbie was quite colourful. He left school, completed an apprenticeship and then worked as a garbage collector so he could afford to put himself through university and obtain a double degree in literature. My first tweet after the death of Gough Whitlam was, “I wonder whether we will ever have the courage to offer the leadership role to someone with a mind as bright and as sharp as Gough Whitlam.” Look what politics and the Labor Party did to the member for Toongabbie, who has one of the brightest and sharpest minds in this Chamber. I am reminded of the value and importance of education and of the courage and bravery required of politicians to ensure the educational opportunities of our young people. We must have the courage to give the educational opportunities to those who need them most.