This is the transcript of my first speech as a federal politician, delivered on September 14, 2016.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Coulton, and congratulations on your ascension to that position. It is certainly an incredible honour to be able to stand in this place as a representative of the people of the electorate of Murray. There is a huge sense of humility that engulfs a member when they are elected to the House of Representatives—well, there is with this member anyway. We all know that the 100,000-plus people who make up the electorate are relying on us to be their voice in Canberra. This responsibility can never be taken lightly.
The electorate of Murray can be largely described as the greater Goulburn Valley in north central Victoria as well as the large area in the west of the electorate, mainly comprising the Loddon shire. It is the electorate that I grew up in and it is the electorate that I am so proud to represent. I understand very clearly that the people who have put me in this place, just like the people who put everyone else in this place, expect us to do whatever we can to make their lives better.
I have certainly taken a circuitous route to this House and I understand very clearly that the role of an MP is not about us; it is about the people we represent. There is little doubt that I am somewhat an accidental politician. I was raised on a dairy farm in Congupna, about 10 kilometres north of Shepparton. I reckon I was lucky from day one to be born into a loving family. I am the youngest of seven children, with five brothers and one beautiful sister, Kerry. I give a shout out to Kerry’s husband, Francis, who had an operation just yesterday. I am sure he is doing well.
My father’s father was an alcoholic who drank away the family farm in the New South Wales Riverina region, so in the 1950’s my dad and his two brothers made their way to the Goulburn Valley to start a new life. I was able to witness firsthand that hard work and smarts were not optional extras in one’s life plans but were integral elements of any future vision. My mother was an amazing woman. I still have no idea how she was able to raise seven kids, do all the chores on the farm that she did, cook three meals a day for the old man and be Shepparton Citizen of the Year in 1978.
I went to school in Shepparton. I had a couple of years at a boarding school in the mid 1970s and then returned to Congupna to finish my schooling and complete a building apprenticeship. I left the Goulburn Valley to play footy for Geelong when I was 20. When I was 26 I bought a steel fabrication and construction business in Werribee. That business was very tough going, especially when the demands of the football industry were ever increasing. I remember having last month’s bills in one hand and this month’s bills turning up in the other hand, and not having the money to pay either.
It was at a time also where I too had to wear a Prime Minister who liked to brag about his Italian suits and expected us to thank him for ‘the recession we had to have’ and the 23 per cent interest rates that nearly forced us to the wall. It certainly strengthened my views about the Labor Party and business. But, by further investment in the manufacturing side of that business, over time we were able to turn things around. It is with considerable pride that I look back on that chapter, with memories of hard work, long hours and possibly more good decisions than bad ones.
At the end of 1993, I went to the amazing city of Sydney to work with the great Ron Barassi and spent the next five years working with the Sydney Swans, with both Ron Barassi and Rodney Eade. Barass had a favourite saying: ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’ I was very lucky to have spent my first years as an assistant coach with this living legend and I learned to revel in his brutal honesty when it came to any debate. He also had another saying, which was, ‘That’s just your opinion. You’re not necessarily right and you’re not necessarily wrong; it’s just your opinion.’
One of Ron’s and the Swan’s greatest fans is none other than the minister for transport, Darren Chester. Darren expressed a similar view in his maiden speech, which I will quote. He said:
“What we believe in as political party members are our opinions. Our job is to attend parliament and to argue those opinions with all the passion and enthusiasm we have, but they are still just opinions. To think that either side has a mortgage on what is right or what is wrong is absolute folly. What both sides have a mortgage on is a responsibility to respect each other’s opinions.”
The reason why Darren’s quote and Ron Barassi’s sayings are so similar is that, when Darren made that maiden speech in 2008, he was actually quoting my maiden speech that I made in the Victorian parliament in 2002, and I was actually quoting Ron Barassi and the speeches that he gave all of his life. So this might be the first maiden speech where someone actually gets to quote someone else’s maiden speech where that person’s maiden speech was quoting their own maiden speech from another parliament. Anyway, whoever is quoting whom, it is still true that opinions are just opinions.
In 1998, I went to Fremantle as their second senior coach, and they had been in the AFL for four years. It was an amazing opportunity and the people of Fremantle were very welcoming, as were the members of the Fremantle Golf Club, where I met many lifelong friends. I had three wonderful years in Western Australia and, whilst the success of the venture west did not flow over to the on-field component, it was a life experience that very few get to realise, and once again I acknowledge how fortunate I was to be given that role.
It is sort of poignant having seen Matthew Pavlich being hoisted onto his teammate’s shoulders two weeks ago as he left the field for his final game after 17 seasons, because he has come a long way from the 17-year-old from West Torrens who said to me, ‘If you draft me to Fremantle, it will be my worst nightmare come true.’ Well, we did draft him and he has just finished what many would consider to be a fairytale career.
I was unceremoniously relieved of my AFL coaching duties in 2001. It was a bit like reality TV before its time, where I was informed that I had been sacked by the media, live on Channel 7. In 2002 I moved to Bendigo to coach the VFL team, the Bendigo Diggers, and at the end of that year, following a couple of phone calls from persistent politicians, I decided to run for the Upper House position in the November state election, for the Nationals.
My previous life as a builder and a footy coach has given me a healthy understanding of what the average Australian thinks of politicians. I remember very clearly the day that I announced I was going to run for the Victorian state Upper House seat of North West Province and the conversation I had with the then leader of the state National Party, Peter Ryan. He said to me, ‘I want you to clearly remember what it is you think of politicians right now.’ I said, ‘Okay. Yeah, I’ve got that, but what’s the point? The thoughts aren’t that positive.’ His answer was one I will not forget. He said, ‘If you get in, you’re going to meet a heap of politicians and many of them are going to be ripping people who work incredibly hard for their communities. So you’re going to go in there and you’re going to like them and you’re going to change your mind. But the people that you represent will not get the opportunity to meet the people in the way you will, so they’ll always have the opinion of politicians that you do now. So never forget it, because that’s who you’re actually representing.’
Fourteen years in state parliament teaches you many things—namely, it is very difficult to deliver for your people, for your electorate, when you are in opposition. It teaches you to take advantage of every day that you are in government, because you do not know how long you are going to have that opportunity.
There are other lessons, like it costs more to deliver services in rural and regional Australia than it does to deliver those same services in Melbourne and Sydney. We should always be cognisant of the cost of travel in the areas of delivery in health, policing and education. If we refuse to acknowledge the true cost of distance, then we run the risk of further embedding the imbalance between services and amenities enjoyed by our major cities as compared to those available in rural and regional Australia.
I have always considered myself incredibly lucky to have been a part of the Nationals team. Having other members actively going out of their way to assist in your development, never having to look over your shoulder, never having to worry about your side of the team and what they are doing is a tremendous advantage. I find that we are able to concentrate solely on the job of serving our people, serving our electorate, and leaving the internal politics to others.
The National Party members in the Victorian state government have built a very strong reputation for being incredibly hard workers and extremely connected to their communities. And, in good National Party tradition, they also lead the parliament in practical jokes. I have seen cars in the car park literally disappear and turn up hundreds of meters away, with no explanation as to how that happened. I have found a disused forklift wheel in the backseat of my car, again with no explanation as to where that came from. I have learnt never to leave my iPhone or iPad sitting around when my colleagues know the security code, because those phone calls you get from the opposition the next day wanting you to explain that obscure message that you sent them late last night can sometimes be very difficult to explain, when you obviously have no recall as to what was in it. I have even seen it happen with a colleague. They were staying up late one night and when some stubbies of beer were being handed out, in amongst the beer was a bottle of balsamic vinegar and the unsuspecting member took a swig from what he thought was a stubby of beer. Everybody burst out laughing. The screwed up look on the face of that member of parliament will remain with me till the day I die. I know that the team in Melbourne, in Spring Street, are watching that big TV with the nasty scratch on the corner, and I do want to send a big shout-out to big Jeff Fenech: ‘I love youse all! I love my time with you.’
From watching and observing leaders and, in my case, great leaders in Peter Ryan and Peter Walsh in the Legislative Assembly and Peter Hall in the Legislative Council, I have realised the importance of being able to listen—to listen to your constituents, to listen to your colleagues and to listen to your opponents. I am staggered as to how many people feel as though they have to have a say on each and every issue, even though most of them add nothing to the general conversation. Real leaders are people of few words, but, when they speak, people listen.
There is something very satisfying about being part of a group that is trustworthy and tight. It takes years to build the culture of a team that is in this place to serve others. I desperately want the Nationals in government, under the leadership of Barnaby Joyce, with its coalition partners, to be the team that truly connects with and relates to their people. I also want to acknowledge Matthew Guy and his Liberal team and thank him for his friendship. We are both truly ‘coalitionists’ and realise that each other’s party makes our own party better.
When I look at the electorate of Murray and cast a vision as to how I would like to see this region in the future, I am immediately reminded of the current dairy crisis, where for many the farmgate price of milk and milk products is currently below the cost of production. Whilst this is a worldwide problem, it is hitting incredibly hard in the Goulburn Valley, and although many farming businesses will be working incredible hours they will still lose serious amounts of money just so that they can keep their herds together for a time when the demand pushes the price of milk past the cost of production. Hopefully, it will move into a space where a profit may be made and some of these businesses in the dairy industry can enjoy some well-deserved success.
The Goulburn Valley in the Murray electorate, which I proudly represent, is a great part of Australia—possibly the greatest. The river that gives the electorate its name is amazing in itself, and the communities that are built on it from Yarrawonga to Echuca are huge tourist towns, with amazing experiences waiting for people to explore. There is amazing potential within the business sector, be it in agriculture, the professional services sector, engineering or manufacturing.
Water is possibly the most critical component of the Murray electorate. It is the vital lifeblood of our region from the West Loddon pipeline, which had $20 million committed to it in the election campaign, thanks to Barnaby Joyce, to the reset of the connections project; it has cost nearly $2 billion to modernise water and irrigation practices. The state government has now pushed that project out to 2020. It is clear that we must have governments that keep supporting agriculture now and into the future to ensure that we have the water to grow the produce that our businesses are set up to grow. Private enterprise has invested heavily in on-farm infrastructure. As you can see when you drive around there right now, with solid rains, the grain crops, sheep and cattle are all looking at record yields.
Transport infrastructure is also a big issue in Murray, and while improvements to the region were announced recently, like the Echuca-Moama Bridge, thanks to Darren Chester, there is a never-ending list of projects still to be completed. The Goulburn Valley is also home to a series of processor and packaging industries, which are directly related to the primary producers, and at the heart of their prosperity is access to water. It would be fair to say that over recent years, and certainly with the introduction of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, that the environment has been given priority over agriculture. This is another challenge facing all of us in this place as we try to reach a better balance between looking after our environmental assets and giving our businesses the opportunity to produce the food and fibre that they are capable of producing. It is our job in this place to help and assist our people, to make their lives easier, to reduce red tape, to build infrastructure, to create fair and flexible work environments for both our employers and our employees.
I also want to thank all of the Nationals team that helped out during the campaign. It was long, it was cold and it was really long and it was really cold. You all know who you are, and I thank each and every one of you sincerely.
One of my real concerns about my electorate and one that I share with all of my Nationals’ colleagues—it has been mentioned today—is education. In regional Australia, certainly in regional Victoria, our educational outcomes when measured by year 12 completion rates and transitioning through to university are really struggling to compare with students in our metropolitan cities, where their measures are improving year on year. This gap in educational attainment is a real worry, because there is a very clear correlation between education and wealth. The LGAs in Victoria with the highest or best educational attainment levels are also the local government areas that produce the highest weekly incomes in the state. Those areas which have the poorest levels of education generate the lowest weekly incomes—the correlation is stark. If we want to have prosperous regions, cities, towns and people to represent then we need to improve educational outcomes in rural and regional Australia.
There is also a stark correlation between wealth and health. When you compare those local government areas, those with low weekly incomes are exactly the same areas as those with poor health outcomes. Those areas, in terms of oral health, diabetes, cancer survival rates, obesity and life expectancy, all suffer poorer ratings than those areas with high weekly incomes. So the message is simple: education equals wealth, and wealth equals health. Again, if we want to represent prosperous and healthy communities then we need to improve our educational attainment levels.
During my time in the state parliament, I had the opportunity to assist the former leader, Peter Ryan, as his Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development. I am incredibly proud of the hundreds and hundreds of projects we were able to bring to fruition by using the Regional Growth Fund to invest in rural and regional Victoria. And I am very proud of the $22 million we were able to find to invest in SPC to secure 500 jobs in Shepparton.
For the last nine months of the Napthine government, I was Minister for Sport and Recreation and Minister for Veterans Affairs. Sport in Victoria, like every other state and territory, creates interest and passion unlike any other pursuit. I do love all sports, and I have enormous respect for the role that sporting clubs play in the whole dynamic of Australian communities. Sports clubs, in particular team sports clubs, keep our children out of the justice system. They tutor and mentor our sons and daughters, giving these kids life lessons, without them realising they are receiving them. Involvement in sport enables us to be more active and healthier than we would otherwise be. We need to look at investment in community sporting facilities as an investment in the health of our communities and as a smart and proactive way to spend our health budget.
That is why, as Minister for Sport and Recreation in Victoria, I insisted that we change the rules to ensure that if a community club was struggling to find the money it needed for its contribution to a specific project, then their in-kind contribution in the form of labour and/or donated materials could be used as their share of the co-investment in these projects. This philosophy was all about helping those clubs and those communities that were prepared to help themselves.
As every other member in this House has acknowledged, it is very true that for every member of parliament there is an incredible support network that carries so much of the load, and that is their family.
I have five children aged from 19 to 34. I am incredibly lucky to have loving relationships with all of them. Their support for my foray into federal politics was paramount to me actually making that decision. I couldn’t have made this commitment without their support. So to Corey, Gabrielle—I have to shout out to Gabrielle because she is in Canada—Alyce and Luke: thank you. Also, to Josh, Sally, Willow, Olive and Sonny: I want to thank you all for how good you make me feel. I have admiration for how you are all living your lives. I love you unconditionally.
As I said earlier, I am the youngest of seven children. I have a couple of my brothers in the gallery today. To Chris and Des: thank you very much for your unconditional love and support. Again, I fully realise how lucky I am to have been born into a strong family of community volunteers. My family has been volunteering since the word ‘volunteer’ became fashionable. Quite simply, when I grew up if a role needed to be filled it was filled. It was filled without expectation of thanks or kudos. These roles were always completed, the work was done and the community got on and it prospered.
I must also acknowledge my fantastic partner, Ros. I met Ros almost 10 years ago. Again, I was incredibly lucky to find someone so gorgeous, so smart and with such a kind and generous heart. I would also like to thank Ros for the way her family has accepted me into their lives so readily. I would like to thank Ron and Di, Leela and Harry, Lousie and Louis, and Reena and Keith. You have all been incredibly welcoming and accepting, as have Ros’s two wonderful sons, Sam and James. Ros has somewhat had her life turned upside down by my decision to move to Murray, but I am incredibly appreciative of her unflinching love and support in the knowledge that it is totally reciprocated.
I would like to finish with a quote from a speech that the former Premier of Victoria Denis Napthine gave when he was a minister in the Ted Baillieu government in 2011. He took the floor at a coalition conference and he said to all of the state MPs, ‘The positions you hold in the community are really, really important. The role you play and the work you do is incredibly important. People in your community think that you are a very important person and your perception is that you are very important. What you have to understand is that you, all of you, are very important people. And if you believe this, you’re in real trouble!’ I think there might be a few people in this building in real trouble!