GOVERNOR-GENERAL’S SPEECH – ADDRESS-IN-REPLY
October 21, 2010
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (1.07 pm) — I would like to begin by congratulating all of the 150 members who were elected to this place in what was a historic election. It was a great honour and a privilege for me personally to be elected here the first time, and then to be returned as well is something that I personally would never take for granted. I am sure the other members of this place would agree with me on that point. It was a historic election on many fronts—most obviously the closeness of the result but also the fact that we have had our youngest ever member of parliament, our first Muslim MP, our first Aboriginal MP and also the first Greens MP elected to the House of Representatives. So I congratulate them all in particular for those historic milestones but also all other new members. We have just heard the inaugural speeches of two of the new members, and I particularly want to mention the member for Riverina. The new member for Riverina physically has some very small shoes to fill but metaphorically he has the boots of a giant to fill in the absence of the former member, Kay Hull. Kay may have been small in stature but she is fondly remembered by all in this place, particularly in the National Party, for the enormous impression she made as a member of parliament and simply by being a good local member. I do not think there is any greater praise we could give to a member at the end of their career than to say that she was a good local member and she served this place with distinction.
To those of us who were re-elected, I congratulate them. I congratulate you all on winning the support and the trust of your communities. To have your contract renewed for the next three years I think is a credit to all who have put in so much time and effort, both in the campaign phase and also in the years leading up to the election. It is a very different parliament from the one we have just finished and I welcome the package of reforms that have been negotiated, which I believe will provide more opportunities for private members’ business and allow local members to raise more local issues. I recall that in my own maiden speech I commented on the need for greater respect to be demonstrated in this place and I believe the Australian people are demanding that from us. They are watching us and they are demanding it from us in this new parliament. I believe that neither side is the font of all knowledge and it is incumbent on both sides to listen to the debates and to consider the ideas and the merits of poli ies that are put forward and not simply oppose for opposition’s sake. I believe at the same time that the government has a responsibility to listen to the ideas put forward by the opposition, to take them on board and to amend policy to reflect the feedback they receive from the other side.
We can have robust debate, but when it descends into name-calling and heckling I do not think we do ourselves any great credit in this place. So from my perspective I will certainly be doing everything I can to hold this government to account, but I will work with ministers where appropriate to achieve good outcomes for my electorate—not just for the good of Gippsland but for all regional Australians. I will be, as I said, urging the ministers to listen more to opposition MPs. I do not believe that in the first term the government actually lacked ideas; they simply lacked the ability to deliver the projects on the ground. Their record of delivery has been appalling and there are many occasions where they have been quite incompetent when it comes to issues such as the Home Insulation Program and certain aspects of the Building the Education Revolution program. In both those programs there were opportunities for the government to listen to the advice provided by others—sometimes from this side of the House, sometimes from departments—but those opportunities to listen were ignored.
Like other MPs, I come to this place with an enormous amount of support from a team of volunteers that helped us to get elected in the first place, and it would be remiss of me not to use this occasion to thank so many people for their support during the election. It was a great result for us in Gippsland. Against a swing that was heading towards the government in Victoria, we were able to record a swing of more than five per cent to the National Party. That is the first time since 1996 that the seat of Gippsland has been won on primaries. So I was delighted with the result but fully cognisant of the fact that the result was a team effort. Nothing could have been achieved without the strength of a team behind me. The National’s performance at a federal level, with Warren Truss as our leader, is one that we can be very proud of. To win additional seats and to see all my colleagues in the Nationals returned, plus some new faces in our party room, gives me great hope for the future of our party. It is something that media commentators may want to take a closer look at. Although they are still writing stories about the death of the Nationals, the facts do not fit their story. We have had three additional members of the House of Representatives elected and also an additional senator elected in Victoria. I thank my colleagues in the Nationals for the support they have shown me over the past 2½ years. It really is, in comparison to the other parties, I believe, more of a family style party in the sense that we do get along very well, we work closely with each other and we are quite a small unit. We enjoy each other’s company enormously, and I think that is the strength of our party looking to the future.
I would also like to thank our federal director, Brad Henderson, for his support and encouragement over the years and certainly during the election campaign. Brad and his team do a terrific job. He has only a small team but they do a terrific job in supporting the MPs, particularly in the lead-up to the election. At a local level, nothing is possible for a member of parliament without the support of good staff. I think we are all able to do our jobs because we have staff who are willing to share the load with us. I am very fortunate in my seat of Gippsland to have excellent staff and I would like to thank them all individually: Ruth Lucas, Nicole Conway, Kirsten Collins, Jenny Graham, Jenny Hammett, Jo Crawford, Heather Buntine, Di Lilburne and Chris Daffey. I assure the House that I do not actually have nine staff working full time for me—just a mixture of part-time and maternity leave positions which makes it sound like more than usual. But my staff have been an enormous support to me over the past 2½ years and they continue to offer their professional skills, their dedication and their loyalty to help us in the role that we fulfil and to help me personally in the role I play in the Gippsland electorate.
The role of volunteers in election campaigns is critical to us all and I had great support right throughout the electorate. But in particular I would like to thank four individuals. At the risk of offending all the others who did a great deal of work, I would like to congratulate and thank Barry Buntine, Fred Crook and Ann and Laurie Hiscock, because they took on the majority of the burden of the pre-poll. For those who live in Victoria, the pre-poll in winter is an arduous occasion. I must say, if there is any electoral reform that I feel very passionately about today it would be a ban on winter elections.
Ms King — I’ll back it!
Mr CHESTER — The member for Ballarat and other members endorse that. My volunteers certainly risked hypothermia to hand out how-to-vote cards at the height of the winter chill in Victoria. I would also like to congratulate my opponents in the seat of Gippsland. It was a campaign conducted in good spirit. It was fiercely contested but it was fair, it was honest and it was a good contest. So I congratulate my opponents in that regard.
My campaign gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time getting out to a lot of the smaller towns in the electorate of Gippsland. You get to drive around a lot when you represent a seat of about 30,000-plus square kilometres. We conducted what we called a ‘Talk to me tour’, in which we encouraged people to come out and meet with us at shopping centres and community markets. I am a big believer in listening to local knowledge— listening to people with practical experiences on the ground and listening to the ideas of country people, who have a lot of commonsense to offer members of parliament. A lot of issues were discussed during that time and it gave me a good sense of where the people of Gippsland would like me to go over the next three years.
I believe that the key to the future of the Gippsland and Latrobe Valley communities is to make sure that our young people have access to a quality education and also to support economic growth opportunities by promoting local businesses as much as possible. I believe that if more of the young people growing up in our region have the chance to learn new skills and secure employment in our region, without being forced to move away, we will have a more vibrant and prosperous region in the future. For those young people who do need to move away to further education, whether to take up a trade or to go to university, we must fix the system of student income support to help them and their families with the high cost of accommodation and other expenses.
The election in Gippsland was very much decided on local issues. The biggest issue was the threat posed by the Labor Party and the Greens to jobs in our traditional industries, such as power generation, paper manufacturing, mining, timber harvesting, tourism and fishing. I reject the proposition that is regularly put in the media that the Greens are the only party that cares about the environment. I believe every person in this place and every political party cares about the environment. Some of the more extreme policies of the Greens—now in partnership with the Labor Party—are a direct threat to jobs.
Gippslanders have sent a strong message to Canberra that they are tired of city based MPs telling them how to live their lives. As a person who has been a member of Landcare for several years and a strong advocate for the future of Gippsland Lakes, I want to see more funding allocated for practical environmental work and projects to build better facilities on public land and our waterways for everyone to enjoy the magnificent environment of Gippsland. The so-called environmental policies which would ban fishing or lock people out of parks are a recipe for disaster. We must fight against the extreme views of people who do not even live in our community.
It is an interesting electoral fact that the further you move away from regional Australia the more likely you are to vote Greens. Around Melbourne the Greens might have a primary vote of 30 per cent, but by the time you get to Gippsland the Greens’ primary vote drops to six per cent. The people who actually live, work and engage with the environment on a daily basis do not vote Greens, because they realise that the Greens’ extreme policies are a threat to jobs in our traditional industries. The electoral map will show that to you anywhere you go in Australia. In the city and urban areas you will find people voting for the Greens. Out in the country, where people have commonsense and work with the environment daily, they reject the Greens’ policies.
A huge challenge before us, which is not directly related to my electorate, is the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The prospect of a government legislated drought is something I am very concerned about. As a Gippslander, I talk to my colleagues in the Murray- Darling Basin. I am adamant that I will not be part of any policy that seeks to shut down country towns. In our deliberations in this place on the plan, when it is finally released, the people must come first. Economic, social and environmental needs are not mutually exclusive. We can find a balance.
I was heartened yesterday when the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities spoke in this place in what I regard as probably the best MPI since I was elected. The minister spoke about balance. I appeal to him to as soon as possible rule out some of the more extreme aspects of the guide. The heartache and anxiety that have been caused throughout the Murray-Darling Basin by the more extreme claims in the guide are adding to the suffering of people. I believe it is within the minister’s capacity to take steps to relieve some of the stress by ruling out some of the more extreme aspects of the guide as it stands. I congratulate also the member for Parkes for his presentation yesterday on the MPI. I believe it was very well balanced and displayed a huge amount of commonsense, which is what I have come to expect from my good friend and colleague the member for Parkes.
As the local member, I believe it is my role to come into this place and fight for a fair share on behalf of the people of Gippsland. That is the contract I have signed with the people of Gippsland for the next three years. I believe that it starts with jobs, which I have just talked about—fighting for local jobs in our traditional industries like farming, fishing, timber production and the Latrobe Valley power industry.
Throughout the campaign, many claims were made, particularly in the metropolitan media, about the coalfired power-generating sector. I say ‘particularly in the metropolitan media’ because none of the ministers concerned had the courage to come to Gippsland to make the claims. The vilification of the coal-fired power-generating sector and of the power generators’ workers must stop. I have appealed to the Prime Minister and her ministers to stop vilifying these people, who have done only what has been asked of them by their nation. All they have done is provide the cheap and reliable baseload energy supply that Victoria and Australia has demanded for job growth and the economic prosperity of our nation. I am frankly disgusted by some of the claims which are made, almost on a daily basis, in the metropolitan media about the brown coal power sector. There is a myth that surrounds the Hazelwood power station in particular that somehow we can shut down Hazelwood power station, which generates 25 per cent of Victoria’s power supply, and there will be no cost. That is fanciful thinking that will result in massive job losses. Quite simply, in any case, there is no baseload supply of energy available in Victoria to replace Hazelwood. So I do appeal to other members to think a little bit more before they open their mouths and make claims about the brown coal power sector.
I also refer briefly to the other great myth which is spread around our community in relation to coal more generally. I understand that in 2008-09 Australia exported 270 million tonnes of coal to India, Korea, Japan and China. As far as I am aware, those four nations have not accumulated a massive pile of coal just to look at. They have burnt that coal in their power stations to provide their economic prosperity and wealth. It is absolute folly for us to say that we are going to shut down coal-fired power generators in this country but be quite happy to export coal to other places. I will not be part of anything that shuts down the Latrobe Valley power sector, risks jobs in our traditional industries, seeks to vilify the hardworking families of the Latrobe Valley and causes them unnecessary grief and strain, all for the political outcome of achieving Green preferences in the city for the Labor Party.
I believe that another key area that the people of Gippsland would like me to focus on over the next three years is making sure that we have access to good health services. I give credit to the Minister for Health and Ageing in relation to a couple of announcements which were made in the months leading up to the election. I supported them at the time and support them again today. One announcement was the provision of more than $20 million for the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre and another was the decision to provide $1.5 million for Rotary Centenary House.
I have spoken in the chamber before about Rotary Centenary House. Without doubt one of the greatest achievements by my community over the last five years is to have built a facility which provides accommodation for people while they are receiving cancer treatment. It is a sad fact that the demand on the facility has got to the stage where an additional nine units are required. The government has come on board with $1.5 million and the community is going to raise in the vicinity of $1 million. I support the community’s efforts and I congratulate the government for its willingness to support that particular project.
The real challenge for us in Gippsland, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott—and I assume it would be a challenge faced by your own community of Maranoa—is in attracting and retaining skilled health professionals in regional areas. It is our health workforce which provides us with our greatest difficulty. We need to be doing more on a long-term basis to train more country kids in the first place. That is why I am so passionate about student income support, the independent youth allowance and the other forms of youth allowance. We need to make sure that young people in regional communities have the chance to achieve their full potential. Achieving full potential for many of them may mean going to university several hours away from home, and we need to make sure that we do as much as we possibly can to reduce that economic barrier. I think that one of the key issues to make sure that we have access to skilled health professionals in regional areas is by training young people who have had experience of country life and who are more likely to return to regional Australia in the future. I also believe that we could do a lot more. The Rural Doctors Association of Australia is, I think, on the right track. We can do a lot more in terms of targeted funding for recruitment to help improve access to GPs, specialists and allied health professionals in our regional communities.
On the other side of the health debate on the concept of prevention and keeping people healthy, I congratulate the government for some of its initiatives in investing in sporting and recreation facilities. I encourage it to go further in the future in partnership with local and state governments. The more facilities we can provide for young people to get engaged in their communities, to be active and be part of community recreational clubs, the more likely they are to live long and fulfilling lives and healthy lives in regional areas.
I focus quite considerably in my electorate on helping young people to achieve their full potential. If there is one thing after I leave this place that I would like to be remembered for, it is that I have always worked hard to help young Gippslanders achieve their best. I spend a lot of time in the schools in my community and one of the things I talk about is aspiration. I see the school students here in the gallery today and I wish them well in their studies. It is so important for us in regional communities to encourage our young people to achieve their absolute best. If they are the only person in their family to ever reach year 12, that is fantastic, then they should aim to be the only person in their family to go onto university. I am not saying that university is the only way to measure your life by, but it is so important that if young people have the ability then we should help and nurture them in that ambition. Our role in this place is to reduce some of the economic barriers which are stopping so many of those young people from going on to achieve their absolute best.
A message I give to the young people when I meet with them is to get involved and to be someone who is prepared to take action in the community, to be someone who joins community or sporting groups and to actually participate in everything that our communities have to offer. Decisions are made, as we all know, by the people who turn up. So I am encouraging young people in my community to make sure that they are the ones who turn up and to take action by getting involved in community life.
My other great passion is the environment of Gippsland, in particular the Gippsland Lakes. I have spoken before in this place on the need for additional funding for research, for monitoring and for practical environmental work which is so critical for the future of our environment. I am at a loss to understand why the state government has cut funding for the Gippsland Lakes task force. Also the federal government has made no recurrent budget commitments beyond the $3 million, which is about to run out.
I am also at a loss to understand why the current government has cut $11 million from the forward estimates for the Landcare movement. If we can afford to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising propaganda campaigns about climate change or advertising propaganda campaigns about the mining tax, we can afford to find a few million dollars to help 100,000 Landcare volunteers in Australia who are doing the practical and hard work required to sustain the environment through regional Australia.
As I said at the outset it is a great honour and privilege to come to this place. I congratulate again all members who have been given that honour and I wish them well over the next three years in their deliberations.