Wednesday, 14 September 2016
I was born in the country, I was raised in the country, I am of the country and I believe in the future of country Australia. That is the reason I stand before you today. For the past five years, country communities of central-western New South Wales have put their faith and trust in me as their representative in our state parliament, and I am deeply honoured that those communities, and more still, have put their faith and trust in me to represent them in this place, our national parliament. When we are young, we all have dreams and goals, but I never once thought that I would be standing here today in this House delivering this address. It is a responsibility as heavy as it is humbling.
In my time in state politics, I saw constituents in their worst hours of need and I was privileged to be there with them in their moments of triumph. In the same way, I saw politicians soaring to their best, and I have also seen some at their worst. After five years of serving the communities of the west and being entrusted as their representative, there is one thing about politics that I know to be true: life is short, and we are all here just in a blink of history's eye—and political careers are even shorter than that. So, while we are occupying these positions, we need to get things done. Politics is not about the offices we hold or the titles we have; it is about delivering lasting benefits that make life better for the people that we represent. That is the very essence of politics.
There is also something I know to be true about country politics: country people want and expect their representatives to stand up and fight for them. They do not mind if you do not always carry the day or if you get knocked down trying, but they expect you to fight the fight, to stand up and fight for them. Country Australia certainly needs its champions.
The seat of Calare lies in central western New South Wales. It is one of the most vibrant places in Australia. It is a wine region, an education hub, a mining electorate, a tourist destination and the food basket of the nation. The gateway to the Golden West is the city of Lithgow, and a warmer welcome to the country you will not find anywhere. Then there is the beautiful high-country town of Oberon, famous for its trout fishing and the nearby Jenolan Caves. At the heart of the electorate are two bustling regional centres. There is Bathurst, the spiritual home of motor racing in Australia, and also Orange, which, like Mudgee, is famed for its wineries and restaurants. To the west of Mudgee is Gulgong, the keeper of the memory and spirit of Henry Lawson, a town with a big heart. Then come the beautiful Wellington Valley and historic Wellington itself. In between Lithgow, Bathurst, Orange and Mudgee are many towns and villages, such as Portland, Wallerawang, Blayney, Cargo, Canowindra, Cudal, Cumnock, Manildra, Molong, Geurie, Mumbil—home of the famous 'ChuckAkubra' championship—Sofala, Stuart Town and Hill End. Some are full of history; others are full of industry. But each is unique in its own way.
Our electorate is blessed with natural beauty, from its rugged high country to its fertile fields of plenty that help feed our state and our nation. The lamb and beef on your dinner table, or the wine that you enjoy with it, may well have come from the Calare electorate. The apples, cherries, flour or canola oil that you buy in the supermarket were probably also grown or made in the central west. We aim to please in the central west, and if it is Tic Tacs or Nutella that you enjoy—and I have to confess I am partial to both—they were definitely made in Lithgow. Or, if Australia's iconic Chiko roll is more to your liking—I know that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Deputy Prime Minister and, dare I say it, the Prime Minister himself, would all be fans of the Chiko roll—it is made in Bathurst. The produce and products of our region find their way all over the world.
Our electorate is as big as it is diverse. It is the heartland of Australia, and those of us who live there could not be prouder to call it home. All of it—every city, every town, every village and place in between—is Wiradjuri country, part of the great Wiradjuri nation, with its rich and vibrant culture and a bond with Calare and the wider region which spans tens of thousands of years, and it is as old as it is resilient.
Our electorate lies on the western side of the Great Dividing Range—the 'sandstone curtain', as we call it. It is not only a physical divide between the city and the country but, for many in the regions, it represents a divide of opportunity, of representation, of development and of population between those east of it and those west of it. Nowhere is that divide greater than in education. Our country kids have fallen behind their city cousins on almost every measure. This imbalance, this unfairness, this inequity of opportunity, cannot be allowed to continue. I believe that a funding model specifically targeted at country schools in Australia needs to be part of any future discussion about raising education standards.
The great divide exists in relation to access to medical services. People in the country have shorter lives than those in the cities. We have worse outcomes for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental health and obesity. We die younger, and that is the cold hard truth. The divide exists, all right. People in the cities take going to the doctor for granted, but in some of our country communities it can still take weeks just to see a general practitioner. One way we can bridge that particular divide is by training more doctors for the country, in the country, and the university that wants to do just that is the regionally based Charles Sturt University, through the Murray Darling Medical School to be based at Orange, Wagga and Bendigo. The dream of a country medical school hosted by a country university has been years in the making, and I am here to tell you that the dream is still alive. I will be doing everything I can to make that happen.
The great divide exists in social disadvantage. The central west and Calare are dynamic and prosperous, but the reality is that country electorates host some of the most socially disadvantaged communities in Australia. Many in those places feel forgotten and overlooked by their wider communities and many have continually put their faith and trust in not only me but the National Party to have their voices heard. Over the past five years, I like to think I worked hard to make sure those people and those communities did have a voice and that their voices were heard, and I recommit to that today. They will not be forgotten on my watch.
There is no better way to literally bridge the great divide than to build a new expressway over the top of it or, indeed, tunnel underneath it—or both. A Bells Line of Road expressway from Sydney's north-west into Lithgow would open up the communities of the west. Let us not dither for another generation. If the money for an expressway cannot be found at present, the federal government needs to follow the lead of the New South Wales government in putting some serious funding down to help upgrade that road now. It is not impossible. We have had some success in recent times in finding scarce funding for projects the doomsayers and naysayers said would never happen. And I will also be aiming for funding for another Holy Grail of unfinished road projects in the central west: the famed crossing at Dixons Long Point between Orange and Mudgee, a project 80 years in the making. If the great divide is truly to be bridged, policies of decentralisation need to be actively pursued. The National Party has blazed the trail for decentralisation.
One policy both state and federal governments should consider is zonal taxation—meaning income tax, company tax and payroll tax concessions to encourage people to move to the country. The National Party was born of the vision that we should right the imbalances between the city and the country, that we should be bridging that great divide. That is why I joined the Nationals. All Nationals are trustees of that vision and of that hope.
Our electorate is no stranger to adversity. Our farmers and orchardists have battled crippling drought, scorching fires, crop destroying rains, exchange rates, fruit bats and, yes, even meddling bureaucrats. In recent times, our vignerons have been battling dwindling returns for their fruit. We have had mining job losses and manufacturing job losses. But through it all our communities carry on, because the one characteristic of the people of the central west that shines more brightly than any other is their generosity of spirit. Whether it be passing a hat around or rolling up their sleeves for their neighbours, our communities care for each other and we look after each other. While we have taken our fair share of knocks, our communities have never let misfortune or adversity define us. Instead, we look to the future with optimism, with energy and with initiative.
The economy of Australia is changing. The economy of the world is changing and we have to change with it. Innovation is important. The services sector is important. But the reality is we are not all going to be providing financial services to our northern neighbours or serving skinny mochaccinos and flaming mojitos to city folk and tourists—certainly not where I come from! Call me old fashioned, but I believe in production and the idea that the wealth of this nation is built on what we make, on what we grow and on what we sell. Certainly, the wealth of Australia can never be built on the back of real estate booms.
On a per capita basis, no area has been hit harder by manufacturing job losses than ours. Orange recently lost Australia's last fridge making plant, Electrolux, which departed to Thailand. Bathurst recently lost rail engineering firm Downer EDI. However, I am not one of those who believe we should give up on manufacturing. What we, as a country, need to do is identify what we are good at and then hone our efforts and our taxation regime accordingly. We need a targeted, national manufacturing strategy. Other countries with high labour costs have been able to do it and we can too.
In central western New South Wales one thing we do lead the world in is primary production. We are the food basket of the nation, yet the vast majority of agricultural commodities produced in the central west leave the region without any value adding. Food processing is one potential growth area for both Australia and Calare.
In Calare we look to the future of primary production and agriculture in our region, which we need to build and support. These days it is fashionable to talk about food security and the ability of our country to feed itself, but words about the importance of food security need to be backed up by deeds. Our region once boasted hundreds of orchards. In Orange we are down to just 30, and some of those were sold to foreign interests recently.
One thing we could be doing right now, to show our farmers a future, is negotiate better export protocols to get our products into the vast Asian markets. We have seen many trade agreements struck in recent years that promised to benefit our nation. Trade agreements are all well and good but they mean nothing to our farmers unless export protocols can be negotiated that actually allow access to foreign markets for their products. First, we have the backpacker tax to deal with. Then, for me and our local orchardists, export protocols are the next frontier.
One of the biggest impediments to future growth in the west is a lack of water security. We are going to need some federal help to get some of our ambitious water security projects out of the feasibility stage and into the building phase. We also look to a future of continuing development of our local infrastructure—Wellington's new streetscape; Lithgow needs more aged-care beds, plus support for its CBD revitalisation project; Bathurst needs its second race track, a bike park and a rail museum; Mudgee needs its sporting complex expanded; and every community needs help to battle the scourge of ice.
There are also some items of unfinished business that I am keen to pursue in my new capacity. They are a Wiradjuri cultural centre for Wellington—we got close a couple of years ago and we are not giving up—and a purpose built domestic violence refuge for Orange. In such a prosperous city, in such a prosperous state, such a refuge should not be too much to ask.
The futures of our country communities depend on an energetic and engaged federal government. We need governments that actively work with country communities but do not intrude into every aspect of our lives or engage in the wholesale banning of things. That is not the country way. We need governments that support our small business people. Out in Calare it is they who personify a word which is richly laden with overtones of hard work, initiative and optimism. That word is 'enterprise'—a word that the people of my electorate know very well.
Governments play a very important role in setting the environment for businesses and enterprises to thrive. Once that environment has been created, they can support business by getting out of the way rather than strangling it with ever increasing red and, more recently, green tape. While I am talking about the future, there is a lesson from our state colleagues that, I think, would benefit the future of this nation, and that is fixed four-year terms.