Rural Press Club of Victoria Speech
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered.
I pay my respects to their elders both past and present.
In my inaugural speech to parliament I made it clear that my speech was not about me but the Shepparton District electorate.
Today I will talk more about me and what led me to run for State Parliament.
I will also talk about the 29 day campaign, how I see my role as the independent member for Shepparton District and what I regard as the most important needs for this electorate.
I have been elected to represent the needs of this community.
The people in this electorate voted for me based on the campaign Stand up Shepparton, It’s Our Turn.
I will not lose sight of the fact that we as an electorate have missed out in so many ways, from major investment in infrastructure to addressing the basic needs of disadvantaged members of our community.
We have watched for years as Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong have been invested in, developed and achieved significant social and economic benefits.
I believe they got what they needed because they were marginal seats.
The electorates of Shepparton and Mildura have had the same or greater needs for just as long but have missed out time and time again.
I was born in Barham New South Wales a town on the Murray River. My parents had taken up a farming property at Noorong and moved to Jerilderie when I was about six years old. So my childhood was spent about 1 ½ hour drive north of here, on a wheat, sheep and rice irrigation farm. My first couple of years education was by correspondence, as was my older siblings. When we moved to Jerilderie I commenced at the local Catholic primary School.
When I finished grade 6, I was sent to boarding school at Kilbreda College in Mentone.
I will still never forget the day I was dropped off by my parents on the steps of the school at 11 years of age knowing I would not see them again for a very long time. My five years spent at boarding school were characterised by a great deal of homesickness. I found it hard to understand why I needed to be sent away. By the end of year 11 I was determined not to return. I recall my mother taking me to St Vincent’s Hospital to enrol me in nursing which I saw as a great escape from boarding school. As I was still only 16 years old they would not accept me. My grandmother was living in Melbourne so she offered to let this troublesome child live with her and I did my year 12 at Canterbury Girls High School.
While my parents insisted I should still remain at an all-girls school I found the new environment exciting and with the support of some outstanding teachers I achieved high marks. I sometimes reflect on the difficulties I must’ve presented my parents with. At the end of year 12 a girlfriend and I took ourselves off to the Sunbury Rock Festival with very little by way of resources. When my parents found out I was there (having been told by neighbours that they had seen me on the television news) they were horrified and travelled to Melbourne to let me know their views on my behaviour.
I was accepted into law at Melbourne University in 1972 and completed the four-year course. I attended demonstrations and worked as a student volunteer in the basement at the Fitzroy town Hall as the legal service was being established. I volunteered at the Church of All Nations in Carlton in an after-school program for migrant children.
Not typical of my generation, I married a medical student at age 20, in my third year at university. When we both finished our university courses we went to Darwin for two years, my husband to do his internship and I to complete my articles. It was an exciting time for me. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act had not long been passed and the Northern Territory was moving to self-government. I worked for government in what was a very fast moving environment.
My first child Alex was born in 1986 in Shepparton. My daughter, Claire, was born in 1990 in Shepparton. My first husband and I had moved to Shepparton in the early 80s. We chose Shepparton for several reasons. Firstly it presented a halfway point between Melbourne and my family farm Jerilderie. But it was also a town going somewhere. There were many other young professionals moving to Shepparton-it was a city of opportunity.
When my first husband died my children were four and eight years of age. Being a single parent and working was a challenge. I decided to establish my own legal practice to give me the flexibility I needed to manage family life and to earn an income. I always made sure I had the support of home help so that I could manage the two roles. As my practice grew I found myself working full-time and employing more staff. But owning my own business meant I had a flexibility that I would not otherwise have had as an employee in most law firms. I remarried about six years later in 2000 and continued with my professional life as a practising lawyer in Shepparton.
I have always been engaged in community. My parents who were my primary role models were always going to meetings and taught me the importance of community involvement. My mother is a life member of the Country Women’s Association. She ran the local drama club in Jerilderie for many years providing an opportunity for people from all walks of life to strut the stage to the great enjoyment of the local community. Jerilderie was a lively place in those days. The big properties employed jackaroos and the town seemed to buzz. Every organisation and church seem to hold a ball, the Catholic ball, the Masonic ball, the Football Club ball, the Roundup ball, the Bachelor’s and Spinster’s ball, to name but a few.
My father, as well as visiting the sick at the local hospital with the St Vincent DePaul Society men, would be lobbying government on irrigation issues, travelling to Canberra with a deputation in relation for rice growing in the district and on other agricultural issues. He loved the land and loved farming despite the fact that he was born to a miner in a little mining town near Cobar in New South Wales.
So for me being involved was simply something I always did, from attending meetings of the women’s electoral lobby, to conferences on rape law reform in the 70s, the children’s protection Society, land and water management committees and leadership groups.
In 2000 I undertook the Williamson Community Leadership Program now known as Leadership Victoria. This was a wonderful opportunity and truly broadened my horizons particularly to the notion of the global economy and our place in the world. In 2003 I joined the RACV Board, I became a member of the Institute of Company Directors. I held various other board positions, always remained actively involved with our local Law Association and issues affecting the legal profession including lobbying for our new courthouse for many years.
Despite the community involvement most of my time was spent in day-to-day legal practice. I represented respondent parties in the Yorta Yorta case from 1994 until the final High Court decision in 2002. I have been a family law specialist since 1993.
This was my life until 29 October 2014.
People ask what made me leave my law firm and run for parliament.
I have lived in Shepparton for over 32 years now and have witnessed a great deal of change. I believe that our region did not grow and advance in comparison to other regional areas largely due to state and federal governments failing to invest in the region. Yes there have been many other factors impacting on our region, not the least of which was the worst drought in history during the last decade.
But for years now we have watched as the marginal seats of Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong enjoyed huge investment compared to us.
I have privately lamented the state of our public transport, roads, hospital, social services and education system for years. I was often a part of conversations along these lines.
I knew there was a deep discontent in the community, that people were disillusioned with the current parties. People felt that their loyalty of many years to the National party was not being repaid, that they were not getting the attention that the marginal electorates were getting.
The National Party had held the seat for 47 years, the sitting member Jeanette Powell was retiring and a long-term member of her staff, Greg Barr had been preselected to stand in her place. While there were some other candidates standing the general view was that they would not beat the National’s. Despite there being a retiring National party member the Liberal party were locked into a deal preventing them from standing a candidate in this electorate. I know this annoyed a lot of local Liberal party supporters.
By late October the election campaign had started. Promises of amazing proportions were being made in the marginal seats by both parties. Among the people I talked to at work, socially, elsewhere, there was a general feeling that nothing was going to change in this electorate. I felt frustrated. It seemed no one with a good chance of taking the seat from the Nationals was going to stand.
The idea planted itself in me and I thought about it for a few days. My children had left home and were living in Melbourne. My partners in my legal practice were supportive of the idea when I flagged it with them. My husband was not initially keen when I raised it with him. He was probably the first person who turned his mind to the fact that I might actually win the seat. In my view I had to have his support. But in addition to this he was better known in the community than I was. He had treated over 35,000 children during his time practising as a paediatrician in Shepparton and also been very involved in the local community always advocating on family and children’s issues.
At this point I talked with a few people within the community who I considered would instantly give me honest feedback on whether I had a chance of making the seat a marginal one if I stood. I also knew that if they felt positive about this they would help with the campaign. Within a few days we had a meeting of 30 people and a fundraising plan was drawn up. The question on everyone’s lips “Could we really win the safest seat in the state? With just 29 days to campaign?”
When the call went out for donations I was heartened– a grandfather walked in off the street and dropped $50 into the funding pool, volunteers bought T-shirts and community and business leaders donated generously.
Shortly before the election we had at least 150 volunteers and had raised sufficient funds to construct what the then-Nationals leader Peter Ryan described as a "well-orchestrated ambush".
We employed advertising, communications, volunteer and community engagement professionals.
I went from one end of the electorate to the other talking to farmers, bakers, business people, stay at home mums and students. We were given a bare empty shop in the middle of town as our campaign office. I telephoned Cathy McGowan for some ideas. I was much too late to adopt the strategies of Cathy’s campaign.
It was like we were all in the middle of a storm and we had to keep up the momentum and increase it at all cost up to Election Day. We had a remarkable campaign team. The group of women around me on a day-to-day basis in the car, walking the streets and in the campaign office were fabulous and the days and nights were long. Beyond this were the men and women helping with the advertising, putting up banners and posters, driving around with hoardings on trailers, preparing for election day, managing the finances and constantly doing the numbers. At one point someone told me that Tom Waterhouse was giving me 12 to 1. At that stage I didn’t think I was a safe bet but apparently some others did.
The Age described it as the “perfect storm”.
Exit polls suggest that the deeply unpopular Abbott government budget played a role.
Then there was federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s comment that struggling SPC Ardmona was not an issue for the Nationals.
And finally they referred to the "Indi effect", Independent Cathy McGowan’s successful campaign.
While there has been much discussion about how we pulled off this campaign I think it was much more about this electorate and where people were at, how they were feeling. People were ready for a change and the timing was right. The campaign slogan of “Stand-Up It’s Our Turn” resonated so strongly. It evoked a response in the electorate. They knew that we had been missing out compared to our neighbouring electorates that were marginal.
But it was still a shock to win, to cause what was described as “the upset of the state election”.
To take the safest seat in the state with a whopping 32.5 per cent swing.
I want to say something about my electorate. Some of you will know all of this and some of you may have heard me say some of it before….. But it is well worth talking about.
This region has seen enormous development and population growth it has been brought about by the access that we have to water through irrigation, fertile land and the climate needed to enable agriculture, horticulture and other industries to flourish. But this development has not been without its challenges. Many of them have been in our recent history including floods and bushfires and the worst drought of our time during the first decade of this century.
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 from many parts of the world who have settled here. I am very proud of this 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 have always been a creative industrious and self-starting community at the forefront of global food production. The region has one of the highest concentrations of food processing firms in rural Australia, being the home for major companies such as Simplot, Fonterra, Nestlé, Unilever, Murray Goulburn Bega and of course 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% of the total value of Victoria’s agricultural production. We produce the vast majority of the nation’s fruit production per category including 86% of all Australian pears, 28% of the nation’s apple harvest and 70% of the national peach crop. The Murray dairy region is Australia’s largest milk producer. Irrigation is critical to the region’s agricultural production and manufacturing and the irrigation modernisation scheme is beginning to reap rewards through secure efficient supply of water.
The region is also known for the significant presence of transport warehousing and packing firms including Visy Logistics, Amcor, Keating transport, Kreskas Bros and numerous others.
So where is Shepparton going now?
Shepparton has got the climate, the water and the people – it just needs the infrastructure, educational investment and support to harness and develop those advantages.
It needs an equitable share of government resources. People now recognise the inequity between the per capita spend on residents of rural and regional areas as compared to metropolitan areas. They also see the stark difference in attention that some regional areas have enjoyed as compared to others. The voters in this electorate have observed the investment and attention that their neighbouring electorates have received because they are marginal.
I believe that the voters recognise that 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 spend on the residents of Ballarat and Bendigo as compared to Shepparton, the reaction was inevitable. The Slogan Stand-Up Shepparton-It’s Our Turn had meaning. If changing their vote was what was required 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 and they did.
My campaign focused on four major issues:
• quality health services
• investment in transport infrastructure including passenger rail services and the Shepparton bypass
• demands for policies to provide solutions to the highest youth unemployment in the State of Victoria and closely associated with this an investment in educational opportunities and pathways at all levels.
My discussions with Ministers in the Andrews Labor Government have been frank and so far all indications are they want to work with me.
Six ministers have already visited the region, with the Minister for Agriculture visiting for the second time on Friday, and I look forward to welcoming all other Ministers soon.
No major commitments have been made yet but I hope by laying the groundwork now, by showing Ministers what we need and why, the region will once again be on the map in terms of funding infrastructure services.
My greatest fear is that I will be denied the time that I need to work on my major election commitments because of the huge number of other issues that arise on a daily and weekly basis within the electorate. The requests for assistance from constituents, the demand to take up issues on behalf of constituents and groups within the electorate, the time required to prepare for parliament and to be at Parliament, the meetings the letters the emails the phone calls-my fear is that all of this will distract from what I see as the main issues.
Because I am not a member of a party I need to make informed decisions on all legislation. When a Parliamentary vote is taken I am the 1st to be asked by the Speaker how I am voting. I have to make decisions all the time. I can see how driven other politicians are by the election cycle. While I can see that the longer that I am a Member of Parliament the more I am likely to achieve, I cannot allow myself to be driven by the agenda of trying to please everyone so that I get re-elected. I will run the campaigns that I promised I would run and do the best I can with the rest of it. My support base is the community, the electorate, the people I can draw on for advice.
I know that the next election will be a hardly fought campaign with all parties in the mix against me and each other. This was our goal to make it a marginal electorate. However I feel committed in the time that I am there to try and achieve as best I can, to the extent that I can, the goals I articulated during the campaign.
My hopes for the future?
I hope to deliver a more frequent and more convenient train service as a priority and to achieve significant investment over the longer term so that our rail will support velocity trains with services ultimately mirroring those to Bendigo.
I hope to persuade the government to provide the staged investment required by Goulburn Valley Health to carry out its master plan.
I hope to make a dent on youth unemployment figures though engaging industry and new education pathways.
I want to see a future for this electorate that is sustainable, that is healthy and in which people can live safely, raise their families and work.
I have been informed that there are people who have said that my election is the worst things that could have happened to Shepparton District. I disagree.
Shepparton district is no longer represented by a political party; it is represented by a community advocate.