I congratulate you, Speaker, on your appointment as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and I am pleased to participate in the address-in-reply debate.
I regard it as a great honour to be here in the Victorian Parliament on behalf of the electorate of Shepparton, and I sincerely thank the people of my electorate for the confidence that they have placed in me. I declare that I will make every effort to consult widely and actively with the electorate during the forthcoming years in Parliament. There are many people I have to thank for their hard work throughout our short election campaign, in particular my husband, Peter Eastaugh; my children; my extended family; my colleagues at SMR Legal; and the many other members of our local community who continue to support the campaign for change. To the incredibly hardworking team around me, I acknowledge the contribution and dedication of you all, from the core campaign team to the much larger group of supporters and volunteers who kept appearing and adding to the ranks. My thanks to you all; I could not and I would not have done it without you.
I would like to acknowledge the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang people, the traditional owners of the lands in which the Shepparton district is located. I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present. The Shepparton district has the largest Indigenous population in Victoria outside Melbourne. That community has been characterised by strong leadership attributes, and I am sure all members here would have heard of the success of the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club, the Rumbalara Aboriginal Cooperative, Gallery Kaiela and the associated services provided to the local community.
I acknowledge my predecessor, Mrs Jeanette Powell, for her dedication and commitment to the electorate and for her service to the state of Victoria. I also acknowledge the hard work of the other candidates, and I acknowledge that the competition of ideas is a vital part of our democracy.
At this point it is perhaps appropriate to give a little background about myself, about my family and about my career. My father was born to a mining family at Cobar in western New South Wales and my mother to a farming family at Griffith. They commenced farming together following their marriage. I was one of five children raised on a mixed wheat, sheep and rice irrigation farm at Jerilderie. Because of the tyranny of distance I commenced my education by correspondence, but following our move to Jerilderie I attended the local primary school. My parents were determined that all their children should receive a good education and have options off the farm, that they should have good careers, and so through good years and bad years on the farm they made sure that we all got a good education. At the age of 11 I was sent to boarding school in Melbourne. I studied law at Melbourne University, and following a variety of experiences in my early years of legal practice I settled in Shepparton and have been a practising lawyer there for 35 years.
But this inaugural speech is not about me; it is about my electorate. The Shepparton district sits within what is known more widely as the Goulburn Valley. Shepparton itself is a major regional centre and sits on the banks of the Goulburn and Broken rivers, with the township of Mooroopna just a short distance over the Goulburn River. Many smaller towns and communities fall within the electorate, with the Murray River forming the northern boundary. The region has seen enormous development and population growth. This has been brought about by the access we have to water through irrigation, our fertile land and the climate needed to enable agriculture, horticulture and other industries to flourish. However, this development has not been without its challenges. Many of them have been in our very recent history, including floods, bushfires and the worst drought of our time during the first decade of this century.
Our electorate has come to represent the Australia of the past and the Australia of the future. We have become one of Victoria's and Australia's most diverse communities. We speak over 30 languages in our homes by virtue of our very diverse, multicultural population, who have settled here from many parts of the world. We have social challenges in our community. We want to address disadvantage and inequality, and we demand from our governments an equitable share of the resources for regional communities such as ours. I am proud of our community. In a world that seems to be full of conflict, we live side by side with families, men, women and children from across the world.
We are a creative, industrious and self-starting community. The region is at the forefront of global food production, and many industries based in the region supply world-class produce for international export markets and domestic consumption. This food production generates significant export income for Australia and Victoria. The region has one of the highest concentrations of food processing firms in rural Australia, being home to major companies such as Simplot, Fonterra, Nestlé, Unilever, Murray Goulburn, Bega and of course our own SPC, to highlight but a few.
It is worth noting the significance of the annual production and why it is one of the most productive and intensely farmed areas in Australia. Often referred to as the food bowl of Australia, the region produces close to 25 per cent of the total value of Victoria's agricultural production. We produce the vast majority of the nation's fruit production categories, including 86 per cent of all Australian pears, 28 per cent of the nation's apple harvest and 70 per cent of the national peach crop. The Murray dairy region is Australia's largest milk producer, supplying over 2.2 billion litres of milk, and Goulburn Valley is its largest contributor with over 1.4 billion litres of milk produced per annum.
Irrigation is critical to the region's agricultural production and manufacturing. The irrigation modernisation scheme, which some may have seen as controversial initially, is beginning to reap the long-awaited rewards of secure and efficient access to water. It is a work in progress with many issues still to be addressed, but if well-managed, it should secure our future as a modern irrigation area.
The region is also known for the significant presence of transport, warehousing and packing firms, including Visy Logistics, Patrick Asciano, Visy Packaging, Amcor, Keating transport, Kreskas Brothers and numerous others. So while our region sits on the cusp of great opportunity, we are nevertheless faced with great challenges.
In preparing this inaugural speech I looked at a number of similar speeches delivered by my Independent predecessors in this Parliament. When Craig Ingram gave his inaugural speech on 9 November 1999 he spoke of a feeling that swept regional Victoria at that time, which resulted in a change of government and three rural Independents being elected to Parliament. He spoke of the shockwave at the polling booths in that year and characterised what had occurred by saying:
It began when rural communities lost their trains, their schools, their banks and their access to local government and it strengthened as health services shrank and suicide statistics shot up. Country people watched in horror as everything being said at the local level was left silent in statewide debates.
I raise Mr Ingram's inaugural speech now not so much for the parallels but because of the fundamental shift I believe has occurred in regional Victoria. There has been a change of government and I have been elected as an Independent member for the district of Shepparton. Some suggested that this was an almost impossible feat.
However, there has been perhaps an even more significant shift. Fifteen years later the feeling that has emerged in rural Victoria is different. People now recognise the inequity in the per capita spent on residents in rural and regional areas compared to metropolitan areas. They also see the stark difference in the attention that some regional areas have enjoyed as compared to others. The voters in my electorate have observed the investment and the attention that their neighbouring electorates have received because they are marginal.
In the Shepparton electorate the voters recognised that perhaps their loyalty was no longer serving them and that to be put on the map they needed to demand equity. When budget figures were analysed showing massive discrepancies between the levels of per capita infrastructure spend on residents of, for instance, Ballarat and Bendigo as compared to Shepparton, the reaction was inevitable. The slogan 'Stand up Shepparton — it's our turn' resonated strongly.
While the voters of my electorate did not begrudge the investment in those marginal electorates, they were prepared to stand up and demand their fair share. If changing the way they voted was what was required for them to be heard in their demands for critical investment in infrastructure and services such as neighbouring regions were receiving, then they were prepared to do that.
So what is it that the people of Shepparton want? They want to know why we have the highest youth unemployment rate in Victoria and yet at the same time the local dairy industry faces chronic skills gaps which are holding back that industry. They want workable local solutions. There is a need to increase funding for university and TAFE courses in the region to fill the skills gap between industry needs and work-ready school leavers. They want a technical college focusing on providing the education that local industries are seeking. At the present time so many positions are filled by overseas workers on 457 visas. Our young people languish in towns without sufficient educational opportunities to enable them to take advantage of the opportunities for a productive working life. There has been much talk about education during and post the election. We need to be part of that conversation.
They want quality health services. Once upon a time Goulburn Valley Health was a leading provider of health care in regional Victoria. It serviced not only the Shepparton district but a much wider catchment of around 100 000 people. Now the infrastructure is struggling to support the growing population of the catchment, and it is being left behind. The master plan has been in development for 15 years. It seems that only when things reach a crisis point are promises made to provide funding for limited strategic works. While the shovel is in the ground commencing a new $630 million hospital in Bendigo, Goulburn Valley Health has failed to receive a commitment that will be sufficient to meet its needs.
There are no cardiac services in Shepparton. You must travel to Bendigo or Melbourne to access them. If you have cancer and require radiation therapy, you have to go to Bendigo or Melbourne. If you require eye surgery, you must travel to Benalla or Melbourne to receive treatment. Smaller centres such as Echuca are benefiting from better emergency departments than Shepparton, which currently has 11 emergency cubicles. It needs 30. To roll out the master plan and provide the sorts of services the region requires would mean a commitment to an ongoing yearly budget over five years totalling up to $400 million to $500 million.
The people of the Shepparton district want investment in transport infrastructure. Convenient and cost-effective passenger rail services are critical to the social wellbeing and health of rural and regional communities. Currently Shepparton has four passenger rail services to and from Melbourne each weekday, while Bendigo has 20. Our train services are grossly inadequate.
Shepparton remains the only major regional centre that lacks the infrastructure to connect to high-speed rail. The technology is available to connect Shepparton to Melbourne in under 2 hours, just as our neighbours in marginal seats are connected. A regular, reliable and rapid train service connecting Shepparton to Southern Cross station in Melbourne would benefit access to education, employment and health services.
The lack of passenger rail services and timetabling issues also prevent the Shepparton district from relieving the increasing population density issues in metropolitan Melbourne. If our area is to attract people to relocate to our region in order to relieve the pressure on metropolitan infrastructure, then more regular passenger rail services to and from Melbourne are essential.
The investment that is needed is substantial, but the projected outcomes will greatly enhance the development of the area, and this has been proven with the delivery of high-quality rail services to Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Traralgon.
The people of the Shepparton district are a unique community. We have our own set of challenges, and we need to work with government agencies and the private sector to develop solutions that address the needs of our community. They are well aware that the social indicators for our region are falling. Drug and alcohol dependency, including the ice epidemic in regional Victoria, have been identified as serious issues.
There is a strong desire in the people of the Shepparton electorate to be able to meet the challenges and the opportunities of the future but at the same time address the significant social needs caused by disadvantage in our community. I share this strong desire.
Some have said: what can an Independent do? I will advocate for my community — it is what I do. I will work to persuade the government that we deserve equity. The electorate of Shepparton has shown confidence in me. I will work hard to achieve the outcomes that they are seeking.
You can also find the transcript here: