21 October 2010
'I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of rugged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains.' Dorothea Mackellar's famous lines best describe our wonderful and unique Australia. Her words could also specifically apply to the Riverina region of southern New South Wales, the area I now proudly represent in this parliament. It is a region like no other in this wide, brown land for it stretches from the magnificent Snowy Mountains across to the red, dusty plains around Hillston and beyond.
This starkly differing landscape has resulted in amazing diversity within the Riverina, which encompasses an area of almost 61½-thousand square kilometres. Yet the people of the Riverina, as different as they may be, are bound by a common thread. The thing which binds them is a country spirit-a ‘can-do' attitude-which is embedded in their hearts and minds as they seek to build a better region, a better Australia, a brighter future. The people of the Riverina have contributed mightily to this nation and will continue to do so. All they need is a fair go. It is all they have ever sought. Just some recognition for their worth to this great nation.
When Mackellar wrote of a sunburnt land, she was echoing the sentiments expressed in a journal entry by the first European to visit the district now occupied by the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. ‘The whole country,' explorer John Oxley despaired in 1817, ‘seems burnt up with a long continued drought ... a country which for bareness and desolation has no equal. I am the first white man to see it and I think I will undoubtedly be the last.' Oxley did not, however, count on the resilience of those early settlers whose push westward during the 19th century was unceasing and whose pioneering spirit could not be broken.
In 1906 the Barren Jack and Murrumbidgee Canals Construction Act was introduced by New South Wales Secretary for Public Works Charles Lee, after whom Leeton is named. On tiny blocks of stiff clay soil, far removed from markets, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area Scheme was launched. The official opening, the turning on of the water by State Minister for Public Works Arthur Griffith, whose name lives on through the vibrant Riverina city bearing his name, took place at Yanco in 1912. By 1916 it was deemed that the MIA was a place fit for heroes-and more than a thousand of our bravest from the Great War took up soldier settlement blocks. This historical background to the establishment of the MIA is important because it is one of the greatest success stories of Australia and therefore the Riverina. May it continue to be so.
The next grand engineering feat, in fact the most outstanding in Australia's history, also took place within the boundaries of what is now the Riverina electorate. The Snowy Mountains Scheme, constructed between 1949 and 1974, generates electricity and enhances irrigation flows for the dry west. It was built by people from 32 countries, many of whom had been at war with each other only a few years earlier, and it had a significant effect on the cultural mix of Australia.
Griffith was Australia's major early experiment in cultural integration and this inter-racial melting pot has stood the test of time, which says a lot about the people and their acceptance of each other for the greater good-that ‘can-do' mentality. The Riverina is, therefore, the cradle of Australian multiculturalism. It is a region which has defied an inhospitable landscape, a less than always favourable climate and a racial mix which has worked in few other places. It has progressed in spite of itself. It has advanced because people of many and varied ethnic backgrounds cast aside their differences, rolled up their sleeves and, under a hot Australian sun, got on with the essential and back-breaking task of tilling the soil in order to produce the food to feed the nation. Our nation. Our people.
Against all odds and often in the most trying of times, the MIA has lasted generation after generation thanks to the hardy resolve of its people. What those determined and resourceful people of the MIA do not need and will not survive against now is poor policy from this place-this place which is supposed to protect and support Australian industry; this place which is here to stick up for the Aussie battler; this parliament which now, more than ever before, says it is focusing on the needs and the rights of rural and regional Australia.
Well, here is the real test. Here is the challenge facing this parliament, this nation. Never mind whatever else you may have heard previously stated in this chamber, let it be known this is the greatest moral dilemma of our time. Do we, as a nation, turn our backs on our fellow Australians who have done everything asked of them by government-turning a barren and desolate land, according to Oxley, into the country's food bowl?
Do we, as a nation, now repay the farmers who have still managed to put food on our tables despite a dozen years of the worst ever drought by taking the precious resource with which they need to grow their produce? Can we, in all conscience, allow a situation whereby the very people who feed us and sustain us are coerced, encouraged or forced-call it what you like-into selling their right to use water? Buybacks lead to waterless properties and the loss of jobs and food production as well as the confidence in and the viability of regional communities. None of us in this House should want that, nor can we afford that. Food production is serious business in the MIA, contributing more than $2.5 billion annually to the Australian economy. The Australian Farm Institute says that every Griffith farmer feeds 150 Australians and 450 foreigners each year. Those same farmers and many more besides are now faced with the very real and grim prospect that they will be unable to continue the irreplaceable role they play and that their parents and grandparents before them played in the service of this country-feeding the nation.
I am the son of a dryland farmer, and his father and grandfather also ploughed their Riverina paddocks, planted crops and hoped Mother Nature would be kind. Sometimes she was and times were good. Other years were not so generous, but that is the cycle of farming-an industry reliant on the right amount of rain falling at the right time. When it does not rain for years on end, it does not mean it will not rain again. It does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly. My father was a big believer in weather cycles-drought followed by flood-just like we have at present. It is just as Dorothea Mackellar described: weather doing what it has always done in this unforgiving land. We just have to make the best of what we get. Flo Grant, an Aboriginal elder with the Wiradjuri people in Wagga Wagga, summed up the water issue so eloquently and succinctly just last week. ‘We all like to eat,' she said. ‘Farmers have to come first and foremost. They need the water to grow the food. The environment will always take care of itself as it has been doing for tens of thousands of years.' Her comment rings far truer than the nonsense we hear so often spoken by so many who base their views on mere assumptions of what might or might not happen. And here is another truism. Our irrigators, our farmers, are the best in the world. They are the best environmentalists because their livelihoods and their futures depend on it. They are world leaders in maximising production using the least amount of water. Australian food quality is second to none. That is why it needs protection-fair trade rather than free trade.
There is a worryingly growing chasm between our overcrowded cities and the bush, and it is incumbent upon all of us and particularly those of us in this House to do more to bridge the gap. If we do not then people in cities will forget where their food comes from; they will take it for granted, accept more imports and then wonder why their food prices have gone up and there are food safety scares. We all want a better environment, but who is actually prepared to do something, to go without or to put their hand in their pocket to achieve it? If this is a difficult prospect for most people then think about this before far-reaching decisions are made in the name of the environment-and remember we cannot make a decision in the name of the environment without knowing what the supposed environmental benefits will be, without embracing people and without considering the human cost.
When our farmers talk about biosecurity threats we, in this parliament, need to listen and act. Our wheat growers' best interests were not looked after when the single desk was dismantled in 2008. Our apple growers were blighted, pun intended, in July this year when final approval was given for China to begin exporting apples to Australia. This move has the potential to ruin Batlow, a town in my electorate. It is bad enough that Riverina's wheat and apple growers are now confronted by so much uncertainty due to poor policy, but we should not, cannot and must not allow our family farms to now be left high and dry. Everyone wants a healthy river system, none more so than the good folk of Coleambally, Griffith and Leeton and other towns, villages and farms in the Murrumbidgee Valley. We can have good environmental flows and family farms.
Some reports put the number as high as 7,000 who attended a Murray-Darling Basin Authority community information session at Griffith last Thursday. Those who turned up were upset. They were united. And people power won the day. The ashes from the ceremonial, some would say justifiable, burning of a heap of copies of the guide were still smouldering-no-one doused the flames because they do not waste water in Griffith-when the government announced an overdue parliamentary inquiry into the socio-economic effects of any proposed water cutbacks. Let us hope some good comes of this. Let us hope sanity prevails for the good of our irrigation communities, for the good of those who wish to eat home-grown food in the future and for the good of Australia.
We need to better store, better harvest and better use water-our most valuable asset. We are not doing it at the moment. Our country has some of the most inventive minds, finest engineers, smartest entrepreneurs, willing workers and people prepared to have a go, to try things. But do we have the conviction and courage to stand up for what is best for Australia? Do we have the political will to do what is necessary and build dams where there is an abundance of water and pipe it to areas most in need? We have enough water in this country; we are just not using it wisely. Let us have a vision, show some courage and start planning now for projects of the scale of the MIA and the Snowy scheme to again show the world what a mighty nation of thinkers and builders we are. What a fine legacy that would be for generations to follow! It all comes down to common sense. What a shame there is not a federal portfolio for it.
The Mayor of Tumbarumba, Ian Chaffey, at a Nationals' election campaign fundraising luncheon hosted by my good friend, Labor Party life member George Martin-such is the spirit of cooperation in the Riverina-declared that there ought to be a ‘ministry for getting things done'. That could work too! One project of vital importance to the entire Riverina is a new Wagga Wagga Base Hospital. It was first promised in 1980 but the people are still waiting. They are good people in the Riverina. They are tolerant. They are generous. They helped to fund their own cancer care centre. But while their spirit of giving will never wane, their patience is certainly wearing thin. They too rallied in their thousands recently to demand action for a new regional referral hospital. Wagga Base is terribly run-down. Local physician-cardiologist, Doctor Gerard Carroll, describes it as ‘dangerous'. Whilst the building is dilapidated, staff members at the hospital continue to be caring, conscientious and consummate professionals in the most trying of conditions. They are to be admired for the extraordinary feats they perform in the less than ordinary working environment they are forced to endure. The current Wagga Wagga Base Hospital was first promised in 1958 and officially opened just over four years later-four short years. It has now been 30 long years since the first pledge was made to rebuild. Both sides of state politics, it must be said, have reneged on promises made. But, you know, for a mother with a sick child lying limp in her arms or an age pensioner waiting in pain for surgery, they neither know nor care about political sides or whether it is federal or state funding-they just desire and deserve to be treated in a facility similar in standard to those many metropolitan people take for granted.
There is an opportunity in this parliament to end the wait for the long-suffering Riverina residents and medical fraternity who ought to be given-and who need-a facility offering the very best in modern health. I commit myself to doing what I can to help this process. Health is so important. It is for most people the No. 1 priority. That is understandable. Without good health, you have nothing. During the election campaign I doorknocked thousands of Riverina homes. Health and water were by far top-of-the-mind issues. People were also concerned about increasing costs of living, how we would repay the debt and protecting small business and the vital transport industry.
I encountered very few people who rated national broadband as something they could not live without-maybe a dozen, probably less, out of the many thousands of residents of all ages who spoke to me at their doorstep, in the street and at various events in the lead-up to the election. The $43 billion that Labor claims the National Broadband Network will cost-in truth, probably twice that amount-would fund more than a hundred new base hospitals of the size the Riverina requires. Think of the public health system our regions could have. What a crying shame! What a wasted opportunity! More doctors, nurses, allied and mental health professionals and aged-care services are desperately needed in rural and regional areas. Nationally, we need to do more for Aboriginal health to increase the life expectancy and standard of living of our first nation people.
The Riverina is so very fortunate to have a facility such as Kurrajong Waratah which provides opportunities, support and training to more than 700 babies, children and adults with an intellectual disability or developmental delay and their families and carers on a daily basis. Wagga Wagga, or more specifically the Army Recruit Training Centre at Blamey Barracks, Kapooka, is the home of the Australian soldier. My hometown is a tri-service city boasting Air Force and Navy bases as well. It also has a progressive campus of Charles Sturt University, a leader in tertiary education.
Education is fundamental to a successful society. We must have a strong public school system. Equally, funding of non-government schools is essential to ensuring that parents continue to have a choice as to where their children will be educated. The fact that 704,000 young Australians-or one in five students-receives a Catholic education should be evidence enough to this parliament that every cent of support is needed and well spent and that future funding should be at the very least maintained and properly indexed, not frozen at its current level or, worse, scrapped. That any government would even contemplate withdrawing money from Catholic schools is an insult at a time when we are rightly celebrating the woman who was the first to introduce a national curriculum, our own Mary MacKillop, St Mary of the Cross.
Catholic schools are very accountable and always spend government funding wisely. For proof, one needs only to look at the Building the Education Revolution projects costed and managed by Catholic school dioceses. These have given the government-and, therefore, the taxpayers of this nation-good value for money. Schools have received worthwhile facilities generally on budget and on time. Compare this with the disgraceful rip-off which occurred in the public system where schools had no say in who did the work, how much it would cost or what sort of building would be thrown up. The BER, in principle, was a good idea and a way to stimulate the economy. Similarly, the Home Insulation Program was also, in theory, worth while, but it is in the execution where this Labor government mucks everything up. It is why practical people such as Councillor Chaffey want a ‘ministry for getting things done'.
Country people are sensible people. They are fair dinkum. They expect when someone says they will do something that they will follow through, deliver, get it done. This is why so many regional Australians feel let down at the moment. They feel that, despite all they do for this great nation of ours, their worth is not recognised or appreciated, not by this government in its previous term, not by a government which now expects regional Australia to produce more and more with less and less-less water, less money for health and roads. It cannot continue to happen. Prices at the farm gate in no way reflect those being demanded by the duopoly which controls the Australian grocery and retail market. Petrol prices in Wagga Wagga are uniformly high-in fact, consistently and unfairly the highest in the state. The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission needs to show it has real teeth and do something about this-soon. When regional Australia is strong, so too is our nation. It is time a few more in this place took heed of that and started to give our regions, our future, a decent go. That is why I joined The Nationals.
This year our party celebrates 90 years. The foundation leader of the then Country Party in 1920 was William McWilliams, with whom I feel a sense of connection for prior to entering politics he was engaged in that noble profession of editing a newspaper. While the nay-sayers have long predicted our demise, the Nationals refuse to go away. Indeed, since Federation in 1901, no party has spent as much time on the government benches as the Country Party and Nationals. We have a solid record of achievement, purpose and stability and will continue to stand up for country people, real Australia. We are a party of toilers and doers, the only party the sole interest of which is looking after and speaking up for rural and regional Australians, the only party which cares about regional Australia the most. That is our only focus.
I am the 14th member privileged to serve Riverina, a foundation seat in the parliament of Australia. It is a duty and an honour which means so much to me. The inaugural member for Riverina, John Chanter, was the first member of the House of Representatives to have been defeated three times in the same seat. He kept coming back for more, which must say something for the fighting qualities of this pioneering politician. The man who defeated him by just five votes at the 1903 election, Robert Blackwood, was born in Australia but had the distinction of being runner-up in the amateur lightweight boxing championship in England-again, those fighting qualities.
My predecessor, Kay Hull, was also a fighter. She punched way above her weight. What a fighter! What a lady! I have Kay to thank for my being here today. Short in stature but big in heart, Kay delivered genuine and lasting outcomes for the Riverina. She was friendly but feisty, compassionate yet controversial. Her commitment to her electorate was absolutely unconditional. The Riverina always came first. She was a shining example of what it means to be a good local member.
I also pay tribute to another dynamic woman-the Nationals state chairman, Christine Ferguson. The party I represent is passionate about being a grassroots organisation and no-one has championed this better than Christine. I am delighted that the Nationals' highly talented state director, Ben Franklin, and his devoted energetic and excellent team of Greg Dezman, Douglas Martin, Nathan Quigley and Felicity Walker are in the public gallery today. Their amazing support helped enormously in what we all achieved together on 21 August. It was a truly team effort. Federal Nationals director, Brad Henderson, and his campaign officer, Erin Adams, were people to whom I often looked for advice and were always patient, measured and, most importantly, correct.
No political party has a more dependable leader than the Nationals' Warren Truss. Reliability is a hallmark of the Nationals. One of our party's great strengths is its stability. In our 90 years we have only had 12 federal leaders and Warren, who visited the Riverina three times during the lead-up to the election, exemplifies the traits of honesty, integrity and solidarity that this parliament has come to expect of our party. I was also delighted Senators Barnaby Joyce and Nigel Scullion took the time to help the campaign. However, no National came to the Riverina more than the irrepressible Senator Fiona Nash, for whom nothing was too much trouble and whose bubbly appearance and wealth of knowledge proved invaluable wherever and whenever she bobbed up, whether it was at a street stall or an evening meeting with interested constituents. The state members for Murrumbidgee, Adrian Piccoli, and Burrinjuck, Katrina Hodgkinson, also trumpeted the Nationals message loudly and proudly in the Riverina. I look forward to 26 March next year when they will help the Barry O'Farrell-Andrew Stoner New South Wales coalition jettison the most inept Labor government in this country to the oblivion where it belongs.
The management of my campaign committee was in the safest pair of hands. The indefatigable Joe Dennis splendidly coordinated advertising, booths, mail-outs, media, signage, strategy and anything and anyone else needing his expertise. It was a terrific performance from a terrific person. Joe's parents, Anna and John, as well as Tina Bingham, Isabelle Britt, the Hon. Rick Bull, Wes Fang, Pam Halliburton, Margaret Hill, Dominic Hopkinson, Georgie Hutchinson, Joanne McLennan, Donna Neville-Ross, Gretchen and Richard Sleeman, Angela Smit, Lucy Spora, Robert and Lesley Vennell, and my wife Catherine, were as dedicated a campaign team as could be. Thank you, one and all.
The sort of teamwork the Nationals exude is underlined by the fact that four others who stood for preselection-Wes Fang, Mark Hoskinson, William Maslin, and John Minogue-all pitched in and did not just what they could to help but went above and beyond to make sure the party retained the seat. I am delighted Rick Firman, the Deputy Mayor of the marvellous town of Temora and someone whose counsel and friendship I value, is here today. To all those loyal Nationals branch members and volunteers who handed out in the cold at any one of the more than 100 booths or helped out in some other way, thank you. I am eternally grateful to the Riverina electors for their trust and vow to always do my best on their behalf.
I was brought up in a time when life was much simpler. My late father, Lance, was very busy with the farm but found time to build me a billycart, a cricket net and football goalposts. It was an era when, if the sun was up, children played outdoors. We were encouraged to climb trees and to swim in the river. Skinning your knee and getting a little dirty were part of everyday adventures. The local council did not get sued if someone fell off a swing. People generally took responsibility for their own actions. My dad instilled in me a hard-work ethic. By his actions he demonstrated that anything was possible, anything worth doing was worth doing well and his word was his bond. They are examples I follow. My mother, Eileen, made a happy home and she and dad raised five children-Denise, Robyn, Julieanne and Mark being the others.
There is one person here today to whom I am indebted more than any other-my beautiful wife, Catherine. As well as being the devoted mother of our three lovely children, Georgina, Alexander and Nicholas, who are all now teenagers, she has always been my guiding strength, my keenest ally and my fiercest critic. She has sacrificed much in order that I can pursue my dreams. Her parents, Beverley and the late Bernard Shaw, have also had a profound and positive influence on my life.
Politics is not about power; it is about people-representing those people and speaking up for them loudly, often and passionately. I have lived my life by this motto: I promise not to be silent when I ought to speak. That is my commitment to the people of the Riverina and to this parliament. Thank you for your indulgence, Mr Speaker.