House debates

Monday, 24 June 2013

Parliamentary Representation


4:05 pm

Photo of John ForrestJohn Forrest (Mallee, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity for this my final contribution. There are a few homilies to leave for my successor, whoever that might be. I wish to reflect on some of my successes from my 20 years of contribution in this place. I wish to thank all those people, as other members have, who have made things happen here. John Forrest was not some superhuman sent to Canberra in 1993. It happened because people were prepared to put the hard work in and make it happen. I commence with a reflection on the very start of my federal political journey here when first presenting for preselection to the Nationals. Preselectors said to me that they were unsure of whether to give their support. 'You don't fit the mould,' they said. 'You're too much of a gentleman and you haven't got enough mongrel in you.' I am delighted to be honoured with the presence of my predecessor, Peter Fisher, in the gallery today. He has come down here. He will remember all of that back in 1992. How do you respond to that? I was to say, 'Well, that may be true but send me and you will have a genuine hard-working member who will always put the electorate first.' And, by the way, maybe there is something wrong with the mould.

I came to this place after a 20-year career as a civil engineer. It seems that it is a two-decade cycle in a changing of engagement. My plan was to play a constructive role in the development of Mallee as well as this great country, to see investment in important infrastructure—roads, rail, ports, bridges—and improved water supply. That is what civil engineers do; they build things. Problem solving—that is what engineers do. They are not antagonists and that has meant, apparently, that my approach to this place has been somewhat unusual. Solving problems for constituents and tackling the great challenges of the nation have been more of a priority for me, which has meant a lesser focus on the antagonism of this chamber and a greater focus on the work of committees for it is in committees that persuasive contribution can actually influence the outcome. You can sway colleagues to a point of view and influence an outcome. Rightly or wrongly, no matter what has been written about the member for Mallee, I have absolutely no regrets about adopting this approach.

On the challenges, I have achieved a reasonable amount of success and there have been some satisfying outcomes which I will detail briefly later. But there has been one initiative that I put to the nation and that is a notion that this nation needs to address its infrastructure challenges. I promoted this. You see, the parliament has a Chief Scientist, a Chief Medical Officer, a Chief Nurse, a Chief Veterinary Officer, a Chief Consul-General, a Solicitor-General, a soon-to-be-appointed Chief Allied Health Officer, the Chief of Defence Force as well as the chiefs of Navy, Army and Air Force. We have chief justices of the Federal Court, the Family Court and the High Court. Yet there is no chief engineer to guide the nation on infrastructure investment priorities.

For the nation to maximise its potential, then, efficient infrastructure is the key. To maximise productivity, it is vital that the goods produced here, particularly those from regional Australia, are efficiently and economically transported. To achieve this, efficient roads, rail and ports are vital. For example, it is a nonsense for a modern 21st century economy to have to rely on a colonially based rail system of different gauges in every state—and how many times have we heard that said? That is just one example. Another is our 100-year-old water infrastructure. When we ask our food and fibre producers to compete with countries with much more modern supply arrangements, and also because water is such a precious commodity in this dry arid continent, we cannot continue to waste it. 'Less water, more often' is an adage that I was taught at university.

We desperately need bold thinking, I believe, in the tradition of the Romans. If we are to think seriously about a population of 40 million by 2040, water will be the limiting criterion. So it is my contention that a chief engineer will help drive this imperative in the national interest rather than relying on the competitive interests of the states. I want to leave this place continuing to hope that such a notion will be seriously considered in the future. It will not cost much. The Australian Institute of Engineers will probably do it for us.

Now, I will focus on my electorate. Following the member for Durack, I am a little embarrassed by my figures, but when first selected in 1993, Mallee was 67,000 square kilometres—not measured in millions. After four electoral redistributions it now stands at 74,000 square kilometres, which is probably a little bit more closely settled than Durack and presents the same challenges in terms of giving it the representation it deserves.

Those redistributions highlight the challenge confronting regional Australia with relative population decline. This needs to be reversed by focusing on regional Australia's strengths. For example, there is a strong sense of community throughout Mallee, which is the hallmark of country people. Such valuable projects as aged care, nursing homes, education centres, and community centres would not occur without the sacrificial contribution of so many community members. Time and time again I have witnessed that during my 20 years and it has spurred me on in my desire to give them the best representation they deserve.

Mallee also offers the advantage that what is produced there is lean, clean and green, free from the contaminants suffered by our international competitors. We need to continue to develop the export marketing edge this provides for our food and fibre. And, colleagues, we must work harder to ensure that Australian-owned commodity handling and marketing entities manage the sale of what we produce, and I am anxious that this is not happening.

As I said earlier, being elected to this place did not happen because John Forrest was some superhero but instead because so many loyal people out there made it happen. So I express my deep appreciation to the membership of the Nationals for providing me with the honour that I have enjoyed in representing such a great grassroots based and regionally focused political party. A huge amount of work goes into the electorate office behind the scenes and to those many thousands of constituents out there who have received assistance from my office, I express my appreciation for continuing to send me back here with ever-increasing majorities.

None of this is possible without a dedicated team. My thanks go to my current staff including JulieTripodi, who has been with me the whole time. Of course, she started with my predecessor. To Tracey Mooney, Alison Bradley, Jenny Blackman, Peter Lamb, Melissa Adamson, Christine Cracknell and Faye Taylor, and to the other 17 staff who remarkably, in various ways, have made contributions to the office over the years and who have now moved on to other things: to each of them I offer my deep appreciation for their loyalty and dedicated service. Often when walking down the street people will approach me and thank me for some service that you have delivered. You have been my shopfront and to you belongs most of the credit for the electoral success Mallee has achieved over those seven elections. Also the work of so many voluntary community groups, local government, health and welfare, commodity and industry groups is to be acknowledged. Working cooperatively with so many organisations over such a vast spread-out area of Victoria has made my job so much easier.

It seems remarkable to me to be advised by the library that over the 20 years of my contribution here there have been 335 members and senators who have left the federal parliament in that time, who have retired, resigned, passed away or been defeated. That just seems incredible to me. That is 17 per year. I think it confirms the relatively high turnover of people in this place. I wished I had known all of them. Many of them I have known, like the 22 of my own political family, the Nationals. In referring to the National Party, I have witnessed four leadership changes in my time here. I am proud to say that three of these occurred when I was the Nationals' Chief Whip and they occurred seamlessly as a result of good whip's work in getting agreement and consensus. I am proud of that contribution.

To my current team of Nationals I say how much I have enjoyed our camaraderie, 'our family 'as the member for Hinkler made reference to this morning, and our team approach to tackling challenges. Warren Truss provides a safe and thorough pair of hands as a leader. I am going to miss you all but I offer you my best wishes for electoral success at the forthcoming election.

There is no doubt my greatest infrastructure achievement was carrying the argument forward to procure significant funding for the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline. This is a project, now valued at close to $1 billion, entirely contained within Mallee. It has assured confidence of water supply to agriculture and the small towns throughout the Wimmera and Mallee. This effort earned me the title of 'Mr Pipeline', but it is not a title I sought. There have just been many hundreds of people have worked on its promotion throughout the electorate as well as my predecessor Peter Fisher. I remember saying at my first election, in 1993, 'Send me. I will get it piped in my term'. It gives a great deal of satisfaction now to see that pledge delivered. This was a 100-year-old unlined, open channel system, the largest stock and domestic supply system in the world, but so efficient in its use of water. Piping it was the engineers' solution. The election commentator Antony Green described my political successes as 'modest' before the 2004 election. That is probably because he uses a different yardstick for measurement than I do. I suggest that for a real measure of success he consult with the people of the farms and in the regional towns of Mallee who now rely on this pipeline for their livelihoods and lifestyle in an environment of serious climate change.

There have been hundreds of other projects but time only permits me to share a few. The Calder Highway was classified as a road of national importance—duplicated now from Melbourne to Bendigo with the shoulder sealed from Bendigo to Mildura. It is a significant highway for my Sunraysia constituents and the produce that is produced up there. I pushed hard for upgrades to the Western Highway including the Sunshine Freeway and the Ararat to South Australia fatigue zone project. Millions of dollars, multi-billions of them—this highway is so important to Wimmera constituents.

I was delighted to play a role in the introduction of Roads to Recovery funding direct to local government. I continue to be concerned about the constitutional validity of this funding and, whilst I am not confident that the proposed constitutional referendum on local government will succeed despite my intention to support it, whatever the outcome of the referendum I encourage the parliament to find a way to resolve this constitutional challenge. It is very much an essential source of road funding for the nine local government municipalities of Mallee, as it is for many of the other rural constituencies throughout the country.

Rail funding of $20 million was achieved for the Mildura line. Originally intended for standardisation, it was eventually used as an upgrade in readiness for standardisation. It was disappointing that an opportunity to advance the cause of standardisation for Victoria by the then Labor government was not seized. So that remains an ongoing work in progress for Victoria.

In my first election, Mildura only had two television channels. Most of the rest of the nation had full aggregation, as did most of Victoria. But Mildura only had two. Since then, with a lot of hard work and representation, we have seen full aggregation including SBS. In more recent times the Mildura television licence was chosen as the guinea pig for conversion of analogue to digital. Working cooperatively with the Labor government ensured a smooth switchover and ensured that residents at Ouyen, Robinvale, Underbool, Warracknabeal and Murrayville were not disadvantaged. I am quite proud of that outcome given the noise that was made in my first election in 1993. The member for Mayo, as you may remember, was a young student in those days in Mildura.

Then I get to water. I thought I was making genuine, real progress on water reform when the member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, announced the National Water Initiative in January 2007. I shall remain ever grateful to him and the Howard government for recognising my call for this initiative. This was a bold 10-point plan to see national investment in irrigation infrastructure, to assemble good science to deal with water overallocation, to establish a new set of governance arrangements to do so both for surface and groundwater, and to encourage the Bureau of Meteorology to collect good science to better address the challenges of climate change.

This was not just in reference to the Murray-Darling Basin but also to set out to explore future water development in northern Australia and address the restoration of the Great Artesian Basin—big nation notions, thinking like the Romans. I thought that we were there and the cornerstones of this plan was to allocate $6 billion to modernise irrigation infrastructure and a fix-the-plumbing approach, so it has always been a disappointment to lose government in 2007 and to witness the way in which the present government have used this initiative. However sincere they think they have been—and I acknowledge they believe they have been sincere in tackling the challenges of the Murray-Darling—they have changed the emphasis for which I urged.

Instead of an infrastructure emphasis, a fix-the-plumbing approach in the Roman tradition, they have followed a water-purchase focus to tackle the challenges of the Murray-Darling. This has done so much damage to the confidence of my Murray River communities. I truly hope that a change in government will redirect this emphasis and use it as an initiative for which I always intended it to be—that is, a greater focus on modernising irrigation supply throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. As I have always said, there are no quick solutions to the challenges of the river system; there are only expensive ones.

Whilst I am on the issue of water, can I say how disappointed I have been as to some of the nonsense that has been written in regard to my position on climate change. It is this very issue that has driven much of what I have tried to achieve in my time here. As a resident of my part of the world for most of my life, I have witnessed a steady decline in precipitation across the Wimmera Mallee over the past 60 years. In fact, in the mid-nineties I was raising the issues of precipitation decline in this parliament and I remember being ridiculed by now members of the government for arguing so. I set about trying to develop ameliorative measures to tackle the issue. Precipitation enhancement is mainstream science in the rest of the world—the USA, China, Israel and South Africa all invest heavily in this science, and ironically they use Australian equipment and technology developed through the seventies and eighties before Australia dropped the ball on science.

I encouraged Snowy Hydro to develop snow enhancement in the Snowy Mountains and was instrumental in convening an international symposium on precipitation enhancement in May 2007. It is very pleasing to see now, after years of trial, that project in the Snowy has progressed to being fully operational, delivering an estimated extra 190 gigalitres of water per year to the Murray system. The cooperation from Snowy Hydro to get to this point is much appreciated, and many thanks go to CEO Terry Charlton.

The funding of the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre at Mildura was similarly successful. This facility is tasked with researching the impacts of climate change and recommending responses to the subsequent issues for the river. All I have ever said on this subject is that imposing a massive cost penalty on businesses already struggling to be competitive with the rest of the world was not the best policy response to the issue. Others can waste energy arguing about whether climate change is anthropogenic in its cause. I would much rather get on with addressing it with practical measures.

Most challenges confronted by this lonely planet are due to the humans that occupy it. It is obvious that we need alternatives to our unsustainable and avid dependence on fossil fuels. That is why I offered Mallee with its latitude, because it offers maximum opportunity for solar power generation. After securing $70 million in federal funding for a solar power investment before the 2007 election, I boasted my vision to make Mallee the solar power generation capital of the world, only to lose government again and be disappointed. But it is still pleasing to see that after a struggle that project has proceeded to a 1.5-megawatt installation at Carwarp near Mildura, intending to expand to 100 megawatt in the near future.

Many of the issues of neighbouring regional electorates are common, and there has been a positive working relationship on committees and with coalition solidarity in finding common causes. Neighbours have included the members for Murray and Farrer. Indeed, federal funding was obtained for a new Murray River bridge at Robinvale, and it was a great day to walk that bridge at its opening with the member for Farrer.

Mallee's southern neighbour has been the member for Wannon. Previously it was David Hawker for many years, and we shared the common interests of the wellbeing of the Glenelg river boundary. The water saved by piping to Wimmera Mallee has done much to enhance the wellbeing of that river. Of more recent times it has been young Dan Tehan, to whom I offer my best wishes for a successful parliamentary career.

Whilst referring to younger members, I have already mentioned the member for Mayo. It was on a visit to St Joseph's College in Mildura in my first term that I met a young Jamie Briggs as a college student. Perhaps it was a result of that visit that has inspired him to a political career. I wish him well for the future. I wanted to mention him because I know his parents who are my constituents in Mildura and that they are very proud of him. On Mallee's western boundary my neighbour has been the member for Barker, Pat Secker. He has my ongoing best wishes as we now leave the parliament together. We share common interests in the wheat and horticulture associated with the Riverland and Sunraysia and when it was going to rain next, so I wish Pat all the best.

Being the federal member for this part of the world has been just one of the greatest honours of my life. To my successor awaits the privilege and responsibility of continuing to ensure that those dreams, hopes and aspirations of the folks of north-west Victoria are fully realised. The Nationals have preselected young Andrew Broad, who shares the same life values system that I do, and I will be very pleased to promote him to the constituency as a worthy successor. There will be a three-cornered contest so may the best candidate win.

As a homily to whoever that might be, may I offer the following advice. There will always be critics of a parliamentarian's performance, but if one looks after the electorate—something that I have tried to do and do well—and fight hard for a fair deal for constituents, word gets around and the efforts of critics have little impact. The people who have been helped will be one's staunchest voluntary defenders; I can guarantee it.

There are just so many people to offer appreciation and thanks to. I wonder if you might pass on to the Speaker my encouragement to continue to enforce standing order 65(a), that members address their remarks through the Chair. I have raised this point of order to many Speakers over the years, believing that it would do much to enhance the demeanour of this House if members would stick to it. To her credit, she has been trying to do something about it. The use of that word 'you' often delivered with an accusing finger over the dispatch box is so unparliamentary it leads to rancour in the House. I remember the member for Scullin, Harry Jenkins, not taking me all that seriously once by saying that I was accusing the member for Rankin of being rancorous. Whilst I have always enjoyed Harry's quick wit and friendship, I was rather hoping to be taken more seriously.

Other Speakers have mentioned the behaviour of the parliament, and I affirm that. It causes me great distress. Frankly, I am tired of trying to defend it to my many schools who visit. I leave colleagues with this message, a comment that often reminds me of my late father. He used to say, 'Son, if you are ever involved in a debate and, if all the other side have is scorn and derision, then you can sit down considering that you have won the debate.' Other Speakers commented on this. I think that it is something that the parliament needs to make a determined effort to address to return statesmanship to the chamber. I ask colleagues to reflect on my late father's comment there.

To the Clerk, Bernard Wright, following a long line of capable clerks over 20 years of my time, and his whole team, my appreciation is due. Your courtesy, good humour and advice are much valued. Thank you, and special thanks to all of your team. I will not name them, but they will know who they are and they are much appreciated.

To the attendants around the building, to Comcar drivers for their long-suffering when waiting in the night, to Greg Zakharoff and his team in the transport office for their early-morning good humour when ordering a vehicle. To Peter Rose, the parliamentary chaplain, in addition to the member for Hinkler's remarks I offer my gratitude for what always seemed his timely visits to my office when I was confronted with some crisis back at home. I wonder how he actually did that, but it always seemed to coincide. For his efforts to support the activities of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, thank you, Peter, for helping me stick with the conviction that it is He who is the centre of the Christian expression of faith who is the best example and inspiration to follow in public life.

I should mention the member for Macmillan who providence enabled me to have located opposite my office in the corridor. For good-natured exchanges and convivial conversation in the late nights in this place, thank you to Russell Broadbent and his staff, Jenny and Prue, for their many courtesies.

To the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, I offer my sincerest best wishes for the coming election. May I express my heart of hearts that Warren Truss and Tony Abbott in strong coalition will succeed in their efforts to secure the confidence of the Australian people. The nation is due a government of strong fiscal discipline—currently lacking. That is evident, and I am sure that Australians are starting to be very concerned. It is not scaremongering; it is about addressing a very serious issue of fiscal responsibility.

I leave the ace till last, but certainly not least, to thank. Colleagues, the most precious resource you can have in this role is a life partner to share your highs and lows, someone to keep the castle well-resourced for you to retreat to when it all gets a bit too tough. I have been blessed to have such a person in my wife, Pam, and confess my awe as to her achievements. I could not have done it without you, precious, thank you. To our two daughters, Tanya and Anik, now getting on with their lives despite the legacy of a too-often absent father, to Pam belongs all the credit for that, thank you.

To so many I offer my appreciation and thanks. I conclude my remarks where I started with this valedictory—that is, to suggest thay however naive it might be to suggest that perhaps I may have made some small contribution to the notion that the expected so-called 'mould' of members of parliament needs some very serious reconsideration, there is room for the authority of humility and the power of the quiet achiever. Colleagues, God bless you all.


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