August 26, 2008
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.34 pm) — Mr Speaker, it is a great nation where the son of a Sale plumber finds himself in such magnificent surrounds and with such an important job to do on behalf of his community. We all, I know, arrive at this place through different life experiences which have shaped our views, but I count myself blessed to have been born in Gippsland, a place that I regard as the greatest region in Australia. I am also blessed to have grown up in a loving family home in Sale, with the support of a large extended family and of friends. As one of five kids, I had a very rich family life. My parents, Jim and Lois, taught me the value of respecting others, of hard work, of honesty and of taking responsibility for my own actions. My father, who passed away last year, also demonstrated the importance of making a contribution to the community, always being one of the first to volunteer for school councils and local organisations.
Finally, I count myself blessed to be here today in the company of my beautiful wife, Julie, and my four wonderful children Morgan, Jamieson, Clancy and Lachlan. I believe that government policies which help families stay together, which strengthen the family unit, will help build stronger communities in the future. But I am here, first and foremost, to represent the people of Gippsland. For me, it is an enormous honour and privilege, and it is something that I will never take for granted. I make that point at the outset because I anticipate that there will be many challenges facing the Gippsland region in the near future, and I make no apologies for my parochialism in standing up for the Gippsland community. As I am about to highlight, the Gippsland region is blessed with outstanding natural resources, and it makes an enormous contribution to the wealth of our nation. But we are exposed to government policy directions on a range of issues which have the potential to shape my electorate in the future.
The most basic test that I will be applying to my deliberations in this place will always be to ask myself: what is in the best interests of the people of Gippsland? In applying this test, I will continue to seek the counsel of many Gippslanders whom I respect for their wisdom, their common sense and their personal integrity.
I join the House today as the eighth person to represent Gippsland since Federation. I am deeply humbled by the vote of confidence that I achieved in the recent by-election. As we have all experienced in by-elections and elections themselves, they are testing times for candidates, their families and their supporters. The Nationals, I believe, passed this latest test with flying colours. I take the opportunity now to thank party members, our supporters and my family and friends again, who did so much to assist my campaign team; and I thank so many of you for joining me here today. It was such an outstanding team effort, and it is great that you could be here for this special occasion. I believe that the Nationals and the Country Party have held Gippsland for 86 years for some very good reasons. I think it is an endorsement of our style of grassroots representation.
Having worked closely with state leader Peter Ryan—who is also here today— and the state team for several years, I have come to appreciate that the Nationals are at their very best when they are standing up for people who choose to live outside our capital cities. Our record of success in Gippsland is proof that we must be doing something right.
For me, that something right was directly linked to the service of our previous members, in particular Peter McGauran and Peter Nixon. I have had the privilege of working with both men over a period of time. Their contribution—over a combined total of 47 years—is impossible to measure in just the length of roads sealed, the buildings constructed or in simple years of service. To me, their legacy to Gippsland is contained in the leadership that they displayed and their willingness to serve our community and our country at the very highest level, often at significant personal cost.
In my involvement in community groups and in politics at a local, state and now a federal level, I have formed the view that we must do more to encourage our young leaders of the future to get involved in community affairs and the formation of public policy. We need to stimulate the interest of younger people in the importance of making a contribution to their community, whether it be through organised politics or through serving local organisations. As I look around Gippsland, I see that there are too few younger people taking up the challenge of community service, and their involvement in public life is suffering as a result. Rather than accuse them of a lack of interest, I believe that we are at least part of the problem. Participation in structured parties is by no means the only way to make a contribution to public life, but I fear that people are switching off politics because they do not like what they see here.
If we want young people to serve our community as elected representatives, we must become better role models ourselves in the future. We must demonstrate through our words and through our deeds that serving the community through an elected office is something which is worth while and an important way to make a meaningful contribution to our nation. I think we owe it to the Australian public to conduct ourselves in a manner which reflects very highly upon the offices we hold and demonstrates our respect for the democracy that we have inherited.
Who can blame people for disengaging with Australian political life when their most direct experiences are the nightly news broadcasts of question time or student groups who witness the spectacle sometimes from the public gallery? I believe there will always be room for robust debate, but it does not need to descend into theatre and farce. I agree with the Speaker’s comments earlier today that it would improve the standard of ques tion time if there was less baiting and sledging.
I am reminded of a contribution to the state parliament of Victoria made by a good friend of mine, the Hon. Damian Drum, and I quote:
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.
As I said at the outset, it is an extraordinary honour and a privilege to serve our nation in this parliament, and I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to respect this parliament, to respect all who serve their communities and to fulfil my role to the best of my ability. I believe my main role in this place is to stand up for the people of Gippsland and give them a voice. Gippslanders are telling me that they want results, not petty political games from their elected representative.
In the short time since I was elected, many Gippslanders have contacted my office or spoken to me personally. They are concerned about the future of our region. There are many issues and challenges we face as a nation and as the community of Gippsland: government policies in relation to climate change; the increased cost of living and the impact it is having on families, pensioners, carers and low-income earners; the need for ongoing investment in better education, child care, aged care, health services and sporting facilities; our desire for safer roads and improved access to public transport; the impact the drought and the economic downturn are having on local workers, farmers and small business owners; and the need for infrastructure investment in transport and water security that will help Gippsland prosper in the future. In fairness, the community of Gippsland does not expect a new government to solve all those issues in just 12 months. But, equally, Gippslanders do not expect a new government to keep looking backwards and blaming the previous administration.
Our treatment of people who are socially or economically disadvantaged will be one of my main focuses during my term in office. Despite our incredible natural resources and significant wealth, Gippsland performs poorly on a range of socioeconomic indicators. I want to spend my time in office fighting for a fair share of resources and fighting for a fair go for all Gippslanders. We live in a wealthy nation—so wealthy in fact that we can afford to have a conscience.
As individuals, many of us listen to our consciences— we volunteer our services and we support charities, because it is our way of making a difference and our household budgets can afford the time and the expense. As a nation, we must also have a conscience, and our federal budget can afford the expense. We must do more to help those less fortunate—people like our older Australians, living on a single pension rate of $273 per week or just $39 per day. I believe we must do better than that— and our pensioners cannot afford to wait.
This is as much a health issue in Gippsland as it is an economic concern. Older Gippslanders have told me that they are going without food because they cannot afford to eat healthily, or they are forgoing involvement in community and sporting activities because they cannot afford the transport costs. Further isolation caused by financial distress will have an impact on the physical and the mental health of older Gippslanders. It is a similar story for carers of family members with a disability—whose selfless dedication saves our nation a king’s ransom, but who often live the lives of paupers.
In addition to improving the level of financial support, we need better access to health services in regional areas, particularly for children with disabilities. We all know that early intervention will allow children with autism and other special needs to achieve better outcomes. But the lack of availability of allied health services is frustrating the efforts of parents to support their own children. The need to attract and retain skilled health professionals in regional areas is an issue which state and federal governments must continue to address.
Then we have our Indigenous community— children born into a wealthy nation but with a 17-year life expectancy gap when compared to white Australians. Our conscience demands sustained action. I do not seek an argument about the merits of past policies or whether or not they were well intentioned, but there must be an acknowledgement that, whatever we have done in the past, it has not delivered the right outcomes for our Indigenous community. In Gippsland, we do not have the same problems of extreme remoteness that hamper other regions, but our Indigenous people still perform poorly on a wide range of measures. The Victorian government’s Indigenous affairs report for 2006-07 revealed that there are many symptoms of an ailing culture, and we must work smarter and work harder to find a cure.
It must be noted that the level of disadvantage experienced by young Indigenous Australians is not confined to communities living in the remote parts of Australia. The urban Indigenous experience in regions like Gippsland requires its own intervention and strategies to break the cycle of welfare dependency. Passive welfare and handouts are not the answer. The road to reducing the gap in life expectancy begins with better health and education services and it must have the basic aim of securing a job. I believe the decency of a job is central to individual success for our Indigenous communities in the future. To our credit, the work has already started in Gippsland, and I believe that we have an obligation to the people who elected us to spend our time in this place working in good faith to address such major problems in the future.
Naturally I accept that representing the views of Gippsland is an enormous challenge in itself. Gippsland is one of the most diverse regions in Australia and our community is dispersed across 33,000 square kilometres. There are many larger electorates, but few can lay claim to the rich diversity and strategic importance of Gippsland to our nation’s future prosperity. Gippslanders from all walks of life make an enormous contribution to our nation as they go about their daily lives involved in the power industry, oil and gas sector, defence and a range of agricultural activities. We have a thriving small business sector, which I am continually promoting through measures such as urging local families to support local traders. There are more than 11,000 small businesses in my electorate. These are the people who take the risks and have the confidence to invest in Gippsland’s future. I will champion their cause at every opportunity because they are helping to build a better future for our young people.
Gippsland boasts incredible extremes in both natural and man-made features. Wehave the world-renowned Gippsland Lakes and a network of rivers and streams which feed some magnificent estuarine systems, perhaps none more famous than the Snowy River, which meets the sea at Marlo, near Orbost. Many of our waterways have been heavily impacted by activities in the catchments, and there are significant environmental issues for the future. As a community volunteer, and now as a member of parliament, I will continue to work to improve the local environment. I have already called on state and federal governments to increase their investment in practical environmental projects to improve water quality and the health of the Gippsland Lakes catchment.
I also support increased investment in natural resource education and world-class research within the Gippsland region, because poor public land management over several decades has contributed to the environmental problems we face today. The work has already begun, but I believe there must be a greater commitment to actively manage our forest reserves, to minimise the impact of wildfires and to control the pest plants and animals which are having a devastating impact on native species and agricultural production.
Tourism is also a very important industry to my region and, without wishing to sound too boastful, Gippsland does have it all. Just to name a few attractions: we have snow skiing in the high country; the goldfields heritage of the historic township of Omeo; beautiful coastal villages like my home town now of Lakes Entrance, and Mallacoota, Paynesville, Metung, Loch Sport and Seaspray; world-renowned limestone caves in Buchan; welcoming rural centres like Bairnsdale, Yarram, Maffra and Heyfield; the vast expanses of the Ninety Mile Beach—which, incidentally, is 90 miles long; the maritime history of Port Albert; and a network of national parks and reserves, including the lush rainforests of Tarra-Bulga, which are the envy of many other regions.
I believe that state and federal governments must work together and work harder to promote regional tourism and small business opportunities. There is too much focus on marketing and major events in capital cities alone, which have very limited flow-on benefit to country and coastal areas. I think regional areas need a fairer share of the tourism budget in the future.
Perhaps in contrast to Gippsland’s outstanding natural beauty, the electorate also features the industrial heartland of the Latrobe Valley and its major towns of Traralgon, Morwell and Churchill. I know it may be hard for others to appreciate, but there is a rugged beauty in the industrial landscapes of the power stations and open-cut mines which have underpinned economic growth for decades in Victoria.
Recognising that brown coal is an extraordinary natural resource and accepting the challenge to use it in the most environmentally efficient manner will help to protect jobs in my region in the future. We still depend on brown coal for baseload energy security. We need the Latrobe Valley power generators to remain commercially viable so that they can invest in the research and the technology required for a cleaner coal future.
Naturally I do see a future for renewable energy forms, particularly with the development of larger scale solar facilities, but I offer a word of caution regarding our treatment of coal-fired power stations in the development of environmental policies such as the proposed emissions trading scheme. We must not make the mistake of imposing enormous economic pain on Gippsland for very little environmental gain. Given that our nation’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is less than two per cent, any policy which sacrifices jobs in my region will be met with strong resistance.
We need a mature and well-considered debate where people are not typecast as ‘true believers’ or ‘climate change sceptics’. If we are prepared to give the planet the benefit of the doubt and we accept that climate change is real, then we are going to need a strong and sustainable economy to deal with the challenges that it will present. In my region alone, there are forecasts of storm surges and sea level rises. If those scenarios are accurate, it will cost us billions of dollars to relocate public infrastructure or to undertake risk mitigation works in low-lying coastal townships. We need to be tackling those challenges from a position of economic strength.
On perhaps a brighter note: the Gippsland area is a world-class producer. Our region features some of the most productive agricultural land in the nation, with a prosperous dairy industry, lamb and wool production, beef cattle, horticulture in its various forms, a large commercial fishing industry, and timber harvesting from plantations and sustainably managed native forests.
Ensuring long-term water security needs across Gippsland will give our agricultural sector the confidence to invest and encourage young people to seek their future on the land. Parts of my region are still facing extremely dry conditions. We were disappointed to learn that exceptional circumstances funding will not be extended after 30 September this year, but I will have more to say about that in the weeks ahead. Gippsland’s natural resources also extend offshore, where we have the Bass Strait oil and gas fields, which have delivered wealth to our nation for more than 40 years. Using that resource in an efficient manner while managing any environmental impacts in the Gippsland Basin will require constant vigilance in the future.
Speaking of vigilance, the East Sale RAAF base is an outstanding defence facility which performs a vital role in Gippsland and beyond. My electorate has a very proud history with the defence forces and I will be working hard to see that base extended if possible in the future.
It is timely for me to mention the men and women of the defence forces and a practical local problem which demands a national solution. Each time a defence family moves interstate, the logistical task becomes enormous—from the most mundane tasks of transferring vehicle registrations and applying for drivers licenses, to the most significant issues of inconsistencies in the education curriculum.
I think it is time for a debate about the future structure of government in our nation. The blame game and the cost-shifting between different levels of government, along with wasteful duplication of resources and the wide range of border anomalies we encounter, make me at least open to considering a better way of governing Australia.
We must consider moving toward a two-tiered system, perhaps a regional and a federal government, in the interests of a more cohesive and united Australia. In any case, we need to fully explore the opportunity to take advantage of improved communications technology, decentralisation of government services and private industry where possible.
The unending urban sprawl and the grab for resources such as productive farmland and water which typified Melbourne’s growth will be unsustainable in the future. Rather than the state government piping more water to Melbourne, we should be encouraging industries to relocate to regional areas where water is located.
From a public policy viewpoint, I believe that better decisions would also flow from having more staff based in regional communities. Gippslanders have spoken to me regularly about their frustration with decisions made by city based politicians and bureaucrats with little understanding of the impact of their policies on the ground. I think a deliberate policy of decentralisation would provide direct benefits to our regional communities and allow more of our young people to pursue careers closer to their families and friends.
Gippsland already exports many products to the world; we need to stop exporting so many of our young people. Helping our young people to reach their full potential is an aim we all aspire to in our electorates, but there are many, many barriers to achievement in rural and regional areas. The economic barriers to participating in higher education are a fundamental obstacle that must be addressed. Country students are often forced away from home to study and the additional accommodation costs and living expenses are an underlying factor in the decision to defer or abandon studies completely.
Governments have the capacity to intervene to reduce the cost barriers for students from rural and regional areas attending university. That is not to diminish in any way the need for continued investment in trade and technical skills and the promotion of careers in small business or on the land. But in Gippsland our year-12 retention and university and further education participation rates are well behind those in the metropolitan area. I believe we must do better.
The long-term skills shortages we face can best be addressed by investing in the towns of our own young people in regional areas, because Gippsland’s greatest natural resource will always be its people. Throughout our history Gippslanders have demonstrated a remarkable community spirit, resilience and determination. I have witnessed several natural disasters and seen my community pull together to tackle bushfires, floods and droughts. There is no doubt that we will need to do that again and we will need governments that work in partnership with us to overcome the hard times.
We need governments that recognise the value of rural and regional communities and everything that country people contribute to our nation. We need governments that are prepared to invest in education and our children’s future and to help support us with the infrastructure that will sustain our communities and encourage private enterprise to prosper. We need governments which listen to the common sense of locals and support the practical and sustainable management of natural resources in all their forms. In short, we need governments which will give us a fair go.