House debates

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Governor-General's Speech


11:38 am

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you. It has been almost 20 years to the day since I stood in this place to make my maiden speech. When I reread that first speech, I can see much has been achieved, but the key challenges remain. I do leave unfinished business, but I guess there will never be a time when it is possible to say the job is done. What I can say, however, is that, over all the years, on every day I have striven to make a difference and to create more opportunities and more choices for the people I love—the people of Murray. I now pass the baton to Duncan McGauchie, who, like me, was born in the west of the electorate, on the sweeping plains. I hope he will grace this chamber in the next parliament.

My first official duty as the member for Murray was to deliver on a promise to open the new Corop toilets. Corop is a great little town of about 100 people, and they offered to vote for me if I officially opened their new public conveniences. So it was a deal. I am not sure if that constitutes bribery and corruption, but we all had a great day. Some people say it was all downhill from there, but it was a great day.

The key challenge remaining in Murray is the securing of the water supply for northern Victoria—the Goulburn, Murray and Loddon valleys. In 1996, I talked about the rivers of milk and cream and the cornucopia of fruits, grains and vegetables that followed from the establishment of the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District—the biggest irrigation system in Australia, bigger than Tasmania. In 1996, water was also the key issue, and I said in my first speech:

We agree with the COAG principles for the future management of water resources, but cross-basin strategies need dedicated resources and public and private sector coordination.

Sadly, those responsible for implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the last government lost sight of the triple-bottom-line imperative of balancing community, economy and environmental outcomes. Now agribusiness across the southern basin struggles to access enough water to sustain its farms—as my friend and neighbour across the Murray, the member for Farrer, knows only too well.

Communities are reeling through population loss. Families and individuals are in great distress, with some taking their lives. Some of my hardest moments to bear have been trying to comfort those wives and children bereaved. What is also tragic is the fact that we are jeopardising Australian's capacity to take advantage of the superb new food trade opportunities that our brilliant trade minister has created with China, Korea and Japan.

Irrigators must have access to affordable and sufficient water to survive. It is their hard work, innovation and investment on farm which supplies the more than 23 food factories that underpin our regional economy. Our employment, our transport sector, our social services and our very population sizes in hundreds of small communities are a consequence of that hard work on farm and at those 23 food factories. They also, of course, contribute to Australia's export performance and our transition to the dining boom.

The threat to water security was triggered by an astonishing state government decision, in the middle of the millennium drought, to pipe the irrigators' water to Melbourne to ease their restrictions. At the time, irrigators and dozens of country towns were also on tight restrictions, but a handful of locals proposed the North-South Pipeline—without consultation and without the community knowing—offering the irrigators' water in return for more state government spending on its own irrigation infrastructure. Mr Ross McPherson, a local newspaper proprietor and an instigator of this debacle, must now bitterly regret its legacy. I fronted a massive community effort driving to shut down this pipeline. We succeeded in 2009, but, by then, the idea of raiding a highly secure Goulburn-Murray system's water had well and truly taken hold. It seemed easy prey. We were in the middle of the worst drought on record and farmers were being forced to sell their water to placate the banks.

I thank all of those individuals for their tireless efforts—arrests and legal action did not deter them—as we fought to shut down that pipeline. Jan Beer deserves a medal. She and so many others now dedicate their efforts to challenging the constraints strategy, designed to create man-made floods every 2½ years in the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee systems. This strategy would damage the environment and the economy. It is another battle we have to win and another Murray-Darling Basin Plan effort that has to be fixed.

Every day for the last three years, I have worked with our irrigators to save the system and, hence, the local economy. The shutdown program, referred to euphemistically as its 'modernisation', was described, just a few months ago, in the official mid-term review, as based on 'false assumptions' and having no social or economic impact assessments built into the officially secret business plan. I thank this government for now taking a close interest in this disaster, given it is the Commonwealth's $1 billion, committed by the Gillard government, that is paying for stage 2 of this project. I know our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is deeply interested in getting this right, and I thank him for that. I want to acknowledge some of the water warriors of the region—Alison Coulson, Wade Northausen, Rob and Marilyn Danielli, and the most expert and dedicated Chris Harrison, and there are so many more.

I won the seat of Murray in uncommon circumstances. It was the Nationals' safest, most iconic seat. In 1996 in Murray there were no Liberal branches and virtually no members—there were about five. There were no campaign committees and no campaign funds raised and more than 100 booths to staff over 20,000 square kilometres. And I had nine weeks to do it! The Liberal Party gave me $7,000 for how-to-vote cards and warned me not to ask for more, because this was a three-cornered contest and we had to win the Labor seats to take government. I totally agreed with this. Despite Labor preferencing the Nationals, the people of Murray put their trust in me as the first woman and the first Liberal to hold the seat. I committed to take up our challenges and to always put the survival of my constituents first. I could not have known in 1996 how often I would need to stand alone with my communities to fight for our future. But every day it has been an honour, a privilege and a joy to represent Murray.

Within weeks of the 1996 election, we were faced with the tragedy of the Port Arthur massacre and my hunting, shooting, farming men of Murray wondered what on earth they had done! They had just elected a Liberal and a woman, so how could she possibly be interested in defending their rights as law-abiding gun owners? I went home and I took off the wall a photo of my then 12-year-old son Kirk, rifle in hand, kneeling behind two wild pigs, a fox and a little line of shot rabbits. I put this photo near the front door of my office, and it was smooth sailing after that. We were all on common ground.

Then we had to deal with what still looks like one of the first acts of phytoterrorism in Australia. I had been battling to keep New Zealand fresh apples out of Australia because of the risk of the terrible bacterial disease apple-pear fire blight. The Goulburn and Murray valleys grow most of the country's apples and pears. In 1997, a New Zealand scientist flew into Australia for a one-day visit, took himself to Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, plucked a bent twig of a cotoneaster hanging over a path, pocketed it and flew back to New Zealand. He did not contact the Victorian agricultural department or anyone else, that we know of. At a New Zealand press conference, he then declared to the world that we, Australia, had this disease and he had the proof in his pocket. Immediately, all of Victoria's apple and pear orchards were shut down, strict quarantine was imposed, hundreds of thousands of trees were inspected, a season's income was lost, millions of dollars were spent—all with not a sign of fire blight, of course! So we cranked up the battle to keep fresh apples from our shores. We rallied and we burnt boxes. Our communities were at the barricades and we begged Coles and Woolworths to behave in the country's interest. The great news is that we still do not have this disease in Australia and you are very hard pressed to find an apple from a fire blighted country for sale in Australia.

There are other triumphs from that time. People said that the federal Goulburn Valley Highway would never be duplicated. It snaked through one of the safest coalition states in the country. But there were deaths from accidents nearly every year as our great B-doubles and huge transports tail-to-tailed each other through the fog. I still have John Howard's March 1998 press announcement of the Goulburn Valley Highway duplication, and now we have the safest finest freeway between any region and the ports in the country. Only a bypass around Shepparton is left to go.

When I became a member, we had some of the worst bulk-billing rates in the country, our doctors were ageing, it was hard to find replacements and 70 per cent were recruited from overseas. Then John Howard's health minister, Michael Wooldridge, delivered a brilliant new strategy. He would establish rural clinical schools, at least one in every state, partnering with a medical facility. The expectation for Victoria was that this would go to Ballarat, Bendigo or Geelong. I argued that if you overlooked Shepparton you were ignoring a region where a trip to Melbourne was not easy, where we had per capita the most refugees, Indigenous peoples, communities without doctors or bulk-billing, accident prone farm and manufacturing sectors, and an ageing veterans community. So the right decision was made. The University of Melbourne Rural Clinical School dental training and medical clinic in Shepparton has changed the face of medicine and allied health in the electorate. We now have some of the highest bulk-billing rates in Australia, and I am sure the Minister for Health, who is at the table, is interested in that. Students from the Parkville campus compete to spend training time in the Goulburn and Murray valleys, and its graduates are now returning as dentists, GPs and specialists in our towns and hospitals. This has been a real triumph. Obtaining federal funding for a new local La Trobe university campus has also made a great difference to local access to tertiary studies, especially for our mature aged women and our ethnic minorities who cannot go to Melbourne alone to study.

We have received millions in federal funding for new trade training facilities and schools in Numurkah, Nathalia, Yarrawonga and Echuca, as well as one in Shepparton to start soon. We have gone from a place where people queued for a long time for aged care beds to an electorate that is now well served. We have had federal funding to rebuild or upgrade hospitals, bush nursing centres or aged care facilities in Shepparton, Mooroopna, Murchison, Euroa, Numurkah, Boort, Tongala, Tatura, Yarrawonga, Cobram, Nathalia, Pyramid Hill, Echuca, Violet Town, Dingee and Rochester. Federal funds built one of the country's best Indigenous aged care facilities in Shepparton, which is managed and run by our Rumbalara community.

In other proud achievements, I am pleased to say our mobile phone black spots are almost gone, and most of our old wooden bridges and gravel roads have been upgraded or have been replaced. The Roads to Recovery and road black spot funding—again continued in last night's budget—have been a lifesaver for my five local councils. Those direct payments from the Commonwealth to local councils have been a godsend.

Virtually every war memorial in every one of my communities has been refurbished or newly built to honour the sacrifice of the volunteers and national servicemen who left from Murray to fight for our country. We have seven Victoria Cross recipients from Murray. We will shortly have fitting memorials for each of these VCs in their home towns. In one small town, Euroa, they have three Victoria Cross awardees. I want to pay my respects to our veterans and their families, who in older age are often experiencing serious health problems. Our volunteer legatees who care for veteran families do a marvellous job. I am proud to be the patron of the Goulburn Valley Vietnam Veterans Association, the Darwin Defenders and the Goulburn Valley National Servicemen's Association.

I was angered at the media response when our Howard government did what was right in 2003, using the best information at hand at the time, when we joined the coalition of the willing to help end the Saddam Hussein regime. No decision to commit Australian troops to war is ever easy or universally popular, but a journalist thundered that this had been a decision, as per usual, made by politicians with no skin in the game. None of our sons or daughters would be marching off to war, he said. Well, my son, an officer in the Australian infantry, was one to serve in Iraq. This place has many ex-service men and women serving as senators and members, and it has many with more than one Defence Force son or daughter. The cynicism and limited inquiry of Australia's media is often a great disappointment.

It is also disappointing that the media invariably fails to report on the bipartisanship which is a feature of our committee work and official international and other friendship groups in this place. So much is achieved here through those bipartisan cooperations between like-minded members and senators. But the public is usually only familiar with the cut and thrust of question time. That is all they are fed. They think that all we do all day is throw rocks at one another. This is not engendering a healthy regard or respect for our nation's parliament—one of the best managed in one of the most stable democracies on earth. The deep-rooted cynicism of the public about their parliament and the motivations of their elected representatives, I think, is deeply concerning. Ultimately, it could even put our democracy at risk.

On the other hand, I am hugely grateful for some print, television, radio and online journalists who have done their very best to bring the issues of rural Australia and the southern Murray-Darling Basin to the notice of the nation. Mike O'Loughlin, or 'Locco', of 3SR, those at Star FM and One FM, Warwick Long and Jan Deane of ABC Goulburn Murray, Rob Harris of News Limited, Natalie Kotsios of The Weekly Times, the Riverine Herald, Kyabram Free Press, Numurkah Leader, The Euroa Gazette, The Loddon Times, Cobram and Yarrawonga papers, and, of course, the team at Shepparton's Win TV—I thank them all. All have been crucial in getting the message across. I thank them for their professional efforts and their friendships.

It was the national and local media support which helped galvanise the public's action in response to the threatened closure of SPC, Shepparton Preserving Co. This entailed the potential loss of 800 jobs from the factory floor and thousands of local jobs directly linked to the last fruit preserver and manufacturer in Australia. I will never forget the sound and sight of lines of bulldozers pushing over the orchards, row after row of prime full-bearing trees—you could just make them out through the dust. Without SPC, their manufacturing varieties had no markets. Hundreds of hectares were cleared. The future seemed hopeless. I knew that saving the jobs and this icon industry had to come before every other consideration. The public joined our fight and said 'no'. They did not want to see SPC fail. They wanted to buy wholesome Australian food, and they would even pay a little more. In March 2014, when the balloon went up, the public doubled their SPC buys in a couple of weeks. It was a huge and sustained response. With the help of the Denis Napthine state government, the decision to put an innovation grant on the table, matched with more from the owner, Coca-Cola Amatil, SPC was able to buy new equipment and to introduce new products. We are now celebrating not only the survival of SPC but their transition into the manufacturing of great, new, high-value lines. We are now ready to meet the greater opportunities presented by our three new free trade agreements and a domestic market ever more hungry for authentic Australian-grown, healthy, clean, green food. So we have won.

The calibre of the leadership of SPC and its workers' commitment in 2014 must also be properly acknowledged in their achieving the changes to the Anti-Dumping Commission's culture. They had not always worked in our national interest. SPC's case against all of the Italian canned tomatoes being dumped by exporters was originally rejected. The ADC had refused to consider the EU subsidies poured into the Italian industry, which also depended on exploited refugee labour living and working in slave-like conditions. SPC requested and paid for a review. The new ADC reconsidered the case. Now, appropriate anti-dumping duties have been imposed on all of those Italian exporters. These changes have also delivered a better deal for Australian manufacturers across the board—for example, our steelmakers. I am proud that SPC, particularly then CEO Peter Kelly, doggedly persisted in challenging the wrong decisions. I am proud to have been a part of these efforts.

I want to acknowledge the richness of the cultural diversity of the Murray electorate. We have welcomed wave upon wave of migrants, including many refugees, since the 1920s. I am so pleased to have facilitated the arrival of the first Congolese, having convinced Philip Ruddock, then Minister for Immigration, that we should settle some of our new arrivals in the regions and rural Australia rather than keep loading them into the suburbs. For months we planned and organised housing, jobs, schools and medical services for 10 families of Congolese, each with about 10 children. These families have thrived and have had other refugees from Africa join them.

I want to tell you about one family headed by a single father. It is an incredible story of endurance, survival and family loyalty amongst the very young. It is about the story of the Maulidi family. In 2000, when their Congolese village was attacked by rebels, the Maulidi family, in the confusion, was separated, with the mother and one of the twins, Neema, heading in one direction and the father and the other five children, including twin Fitina, escaping in the other. The father and the children eventually arrived in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Six years later, they were accepted as refugees to be settled in Shepparton. Sadly, the mother had been killed in the raid. This was not known to the remaining family when they arrived in Shepparton. Fortunately, the 14-year-old uncle of the children, the father's younger brother, Macinda, had fled from the village attack with his three-year-old niece—one of the twins. For five years he kept the little Neema alive, travelling through five countries on foot, avoiding the wars, scavenging for food and finding shelter and clothing as they searched for the family. Macinda then heard that they were in Kenya, so he made his way there with the little girl, but in Nairobi he heard that the Maulidi family had just left for Australia.

Soon after their arrival in Shepparton, the dad asked the principal of his children's new school—Julie Cobbledick of St Brendan's—to see if she could help him find his lost wife and little girl, Neema. Via the excellent work of the Red Cross and DFAT Macinda and Neema were soon located in a refugee camp in Kenya. Sadly, of course, their mother had been killed years before. So Neema, by then a tiny eight-year-old, was soon reunited with her family and her twin sister, Fitina, in Shepparton. Macinda, the young uncle, was then also accepted as a refugee and was reunited with his older brother—the family household head—and his nephews and nieces in Shepparton. This year, Fitina was one of the winners of the ABC's Heywire competition. She aspires to study medicine. Her twin sister, Neema, has almost caught up in size with her sister and is planning her future, and older brother Mongo is studying international affairs at ANU. He has been chosen to represent Australia in different leadership roles. He is doing very well. Like the rest of the family, he is an exceptional musician. Macinda, the heroic young man, is studying.

I find this to be an amazing story of human courage, endurance and ultimate survival. And it is just one of the happy refugee stories from Shepparton. We embrace our diversity, including of course our first Australians. I want to acknowledge the charity and hard work of our Sikh community and our various Muslim communities, some of whom, like our Turks and Albanians, have been settled in the Goulburn Valley for over 80 years.

I also want to pay tribute to Adnan al-Ghazal, a dear friend and Iraqi refugee, who had been tortured by the Saddam Hussein regime, so he was in very poor health. He was almost continually in pain, but he took upon himself the role of easing the new Arabic-speaking families into our community. In particular, he was the liaison between the Iraqi refugees and the schools, hospitals, police and other services. He was always available for translations. He helped so many of my Arabic speakers bring their constituent issues to my office. Tragically, Adnan died while on his way to Mecca. He was only in his 40s. We will miss him greatly, and I acknowledge his great contribution and kindness.

It has not always been easy trying to defend the rights of rural women, in particular, in relation to their sexual and reproductive health. For example, rural women have never had equitable access to a surgical termination when they have had to make the difficult decision to end the pregnancy. But then the health minister of the day proposed that Australian women's access to a pregnancy termination pill be subjected to ministerial veto. This would have meant that rural women's option of accessing RU486 at a lower cost and in their own supportive community was likely to be blocked. I persuaded John Howard to allow a conscience vote in this chamber, and with the support of the Senate, and some magnificent women there, we won the day. I want to thank the great Dr Mal Washer, then the member for Moore, for his tireless work on this issue.

I also want to acknowledge the courage and outstanding leadership of the NGO Marie Stopes International, which took up the task of the distribution of this drug and ensured GPs were registered for its use. They have persisted in this work and evolved even better access over the last 11 years. Its CEO, Maria Deveson Crabbe, has been an outstanding champion of women's reproductive health rights, and I wish her well in her new career directions.

I have had responsibility for numerous portfolios over the years, starting from 1998 when I was so pleased to become the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage. I thank Prime Minister John Howard for this early opportunity. Following from there I became the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration; the Minister for Workforce Participation; the shadow minister for the environment, heritage, the arts and Indigenous affairs; then the shadow minister for immigration and citizenship; and finally the shadow minister for early childhood education and child care and the shadow minister for the status of women. Each of these portfolios taught me so much. For example, one of my first responsibilities was for the Antarctic Division. I hope that more Australians one day will realise how Australia has led the saving of this last great wilderness. Lord Casey was the architect of the Antarctic Treaty, still a marvel, that has helped guide the treaties governing celestial bodies. We have so much to be proud of for such a young nation.

I want especially to thank the public servants, the backbone of any effective government, for their diligence and commitment to the nation's good in the various departments. In particular, I want to thank my chief of staff when I was the workforce participation minister, Karen Massier, who, I have no doubt, one day will be one of our great new members in this chamber.

I have also had the privilege of chairing a number of standing committees which have brought down some significant reports. These include national inquiries into Indigenous incarceration, Indigenous education, high-risk drinking, and language retention. Our foreign affairs and aid inquiries have included the role of the private sector and nutritional issues in the Indo-Pacific.

When I was a member of the Social and Legal Standing Committee we undertook the first national inquiry into fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.


No comments