Maiden Speech – House of Representatives
I am very honoured to address the people’s house today as Wide Bay’s choice to represent them. I thank the electors of Wide Bay and recognise the trust they have placed in me. I understand my responsibility to repay that trust with hard work, honesty and fearless advocacy on their behalf.
Wide Bay is a stunning part of the world. The beauty and diversity of its geography is only matched by that of its people and culture. Its pristine beaches stretch from Peregian on the Sunshine Coast, some 200 kilometres to Sandy Cape at the northern tip of Fraser Island, the largest sand island on earth. This magnificent stretch of coast is home to a vibrant and growing tourist industry that boasts destinations such as Sunshine Beach, Noosa, Tin Can Bay, Rainbow Beach, Kingfisher Bay and many more.
Wide Bay’s communities of Gympie, Maryborough, the South Burnett, the Mary Valley, and the Fraser and Cooloola coasts offer the best of regional living and are amazingly affordable. Wide Bay is a great place to raise a family, which is what my wife, Sharon, and I have done for the past 20 years. The region proudly celebrates its people and attributes each year with events and festivals such as the Gympie Music Muster, the Gold Rush Festival, the Goomeri Pumpkin Festival, the Kilkivan Great Horse Ride, the Noosa Food and Wine Festival, Maryborough’s World’s Greatest Pub Fest, the Reconciliation Fun Run from Murgon to Cherbourg—and the list goes on. Our early settlers knew the communities of Wide Bay for its port and goldmining towns. Later these communities were transformed into agricultural centres producing grain, beef, sugar, dairy and other crops. Wide Bay also has a proud history of sustainably drawing on its natural assets, with its timber and seafood industries being strong contributors to the economy.
Whilst the Wide Bay is already a great place to live, it has the potential to be so much more. Being located close to the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane makes it perfectly positioned to take advantage of the growing south-east corner. But we need all levels of government to work cooperatively to leverage the opportunities of the future.
I stood for election not because our world or our country is perfect. I came here to work, to advance the interests of my electorate, to make Wide Bay a better place.
An issue that burdens Wide Bay is unemployment. Much of the Wide Bay division has historically seen high levels of unemployment, and unfortunately this is still the case. It is incumbent upon all levels of government to see this as unacceptable and to act on it.
The coalition government has a comprehensive range of employment initiatives to help people into work. In addition to those, I announced with Minister Fiona Nash that the coalition government will deliver a $20 million jobs package that will be available exclusively to the Wide Bay Burnett region, enabling local businesses to expand to create local jobs, grow skills in the local workforce, pursue export opportunities and strengthen the economy. The Wide Bay Burnett Jobs Package will attract matching funding from participating businesses to deliver $40 million in new investment in the region. This specific, targeted and tailored investment pool will assist existing local businesses to grow and create new, sustainable jobs. Grants from the package will enable businesses to diversify their operations, support infrastructure projects, and invest in skills development and training programs. Local communities will be involved in developing local investment plans, assessing our region’s economic opportunities and competitive advantages to create a community-driven investment partnership between the coalition government, business and local communities.
While the jobs package is a good example of how government can assist business, we also need to ensure that government gets out of the way. The growth and sustainability of the rural areas of Wide Bay are very much tied to the success of its agricultural industry. This sector must not be burdened by extreme, ideologically driven, environmental policies that serve to do nothing more than hurt future generations. An example of this was the recently defeated extreme vegetation management bill brought forward by the Queensland state Labor government.
Agriculture is a $1.1 billion industry in Wide Bay. The most sustainably managed enterprises I know are the agricultural small businesses in my area. Many of them have been operating successfully for generations. The high-quality produce of our nation’s agricultural sector is a key driver of our economy that will help to sustain the fortunes of Australia through uncertain times ahead. We need to help our agricultural enterprises, not hinder them. When it comes to agriculture big business needs to play fair. The Coles and Woolies milk price war has had a devastating effect on farmers who deserve to receive a fair price for their product.
As the ninth member for Wide Bay since Federation, I follow some very prominent figures. Indeed, the first member for Wide Bay, Andrew Fisher, served as Prime Minister on three separate occasions. But there is no doubt for me that the most influential figure in my political life was my immediate predecessor in Wide Bay, my political mentor and friend Warren Truss. I acknowledge him and his wife, Lyn, in the gallery as I make this speech.
Warren is a man who has given a great deal of service to our country. From humble beginnings Warren, in his uniquely Australian way, quietly but surely worked hard, delivered for his regional community and subsequently rose to become the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and one of the great National Party leaders. I thank Warren and Lyn for their encouragement and support of both Sharon and me over the years.
In his maiden speech in 1990 Warren spoke of the need for greater funding for road construction. Even though during his 26 years in this place there proved to be no more enthusiastic or successful road builder than Warren, in 2016 roads remain a priority for me as the member for Wide Bay.
Since 1990 Queensland’s population has grown with Wide Bay growing faster than the national average. But more significantly, since 1990 the number of vehicles registered in Queensland has more than doubled to about 4.5 million. Whilst rail, air and sea are important forms of transport, the future economic growth of our country relies on a safer national highway with greater capacity. Where in 1990 Warren’s statements were made due to a lack of road funding from the former Labor government, in 2016 I am proud to say that my call is for the great momentum created by the coalition government to be continued.
My priority is to see Wide Bay continue to get its share of the $8.5 billion allocated by the coalition government to the Bruce Highway over the next 10 years. This includes securing funding for the 26-kilometre section D of the Cooroy to Curra Bruce Highway upgrade, as well as further upgrades north and south. I will also work with my classmates of 2016—friends and colleagues the member for Fairfax, Ted O’Brien, and the member for Fisher, Andrew Wallace—to ensure that the Bruce Highway south to Brisbane is upgraded, so that all our communities can enjoy the benefits of a faster, safer highway.
I believe that this generation of members in this place will be judged on how well we manage the Australian economy in the face of massive amounts of debt, shrinking revenues and increasing expenses, all while operating in a very uncertain international economic environment. We have the challenge of repairing our budget so we don’t leave to our kids an Australia that is burdened by debt, while properly funding aged care to address the needs of our ageing population. Over the coming decades, as the baby boomer generation requires care, we will enter uncharted territory in the aged-care sector. Already the greater emphasis on home care is seeing those people requiring much higher levels of acute care when they come to enter residential care. In Wide Bay, which has an ageing demographic, the way we fund aged care now and into the future is a very real concern to me and my electorate.
My values and beliefs fit clearly within the very broad church of the Liberal-National Party of Queensland. I believe that all families are precious and represent the cornerstone of society. I have a strong belief in personal responsibility, that initiative and hard work should be rewarded and that laws and regulations should only exist where there is a real need. I am proud to be Australian and I love the Australia that I grew up in. Our country is strengthened by its freedoms of religion, speech and association, and a degree of multiculturalism. In saying this, we also need to acknowledge that there is a significant proportion of Australians who have real concerns about the protection of our borders and the threat of terrorism. I share these concerns and want to make sure that our nation is safe and secure for all Australians.
I wonder if any member has a typical journey leading to this House. I doubt it. My journey to this place has not been a high profile one, it has been one of a regular man whose family is the most important thing in his life and who also loves his community. My high school education ended shortly after completing year 9. At that time my mother was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of motor neurone disease. Mum was given a year to live. She wanted to stay at home as long as she could, so at 15 I left school and took on a role as a full-time carer
My mum, Yvonne, was a softly spoken gentle lady who loved life. She loved community. She saw the good things in life and she took time to make sure that I saw them too. Over the course of mum’s final year she taught me many lessons. She taught me about courage, selflessness and honesty. Whilst the illness relentlessly broke down every physical power she had, it could not dent her love of life and people and her desire for me to understand it. While she was dying, my mum taught me the most valuable lessons on how to live and treat people. Those are the lessons that I bring to this place. I was 16 when Mum passed away at home, and life was not easy.
When I was 17, I met the love of my life, Sharon, and things took a dramatic turn for the better as we went about planning our future together. For me, my late teens and early 20s were about putting a feed on the table while the country went through Labor’s recession we had to have. I did everything I could to find a job. I worked on farms, in factories and anywhere else I could earn a wage. I understand what it feels like to be desperate for the most basic job and unable to find one. I also understand the power of employment, and the dignity that comes along with it.
After Sharon and I were married we set about starting a family. Sharon supported me while I gained the qualifications that would enable me to take on a stable career that would support our family. Like my mum I have always been a community-minded person, and helping people is something I enjoy. With this in mind, Sharon and I decided that I would join the Queensland Police Service, which is what I did. Policing turned out to be a good fit for me. I did help many people, and I was able to be a positive role model for my own kids, which is something very important to me.
Policing also gave me the opportunity to see and experience many things that shaped my view of the world and motivated me to serve in a different capacity. As a bloke whose life has been enriched and guided by the powerful women in it, responding to incidents of violence, particularly incidents of violence against women and their children, made my blood boil. We as a society must do more to prevent all domestic and family violence. Seeing the effects of drug addiction and homelessness also made me contemplate how we can do things better.
Early in my career, I became qualified as a traffic accident investigator and I found myself responding to some of the most serious accidents on the Bruce Highway between Cooroy and Curra, which at the time was known as one of the most deadly stretches of the Bruce Highway. The nature of country policing and the role I had sometimes meant that I was the first emergency service person at the scene and then the last to leave. It was a job where you’d be hit by the confronting sights, sounds and smells of absolute tragedy and trauma. As time sped by, you would furiously do what you could as a first responder: the injured would be taken care of and helicoptered out, the dead taken away, the wreckage removed and the debris swept off the road. Then I would be there with a tape measure and a clipboard, watching the traffic flow past at 100. Those drivers, going on with their lives, had no idea about what had just occurred. Yet I did, and I knew it would happen again and again and again. It is those experiences that made me contemplate how I could serve in a different way, to make the community safer.
Much of that deadly stretch of the Bruce Highway has now been rerouted or will soon be bypassed, and it is in no small part due to the funding secured by Warren Truss after the 2013 federal election. That I played a supporting role by managing Warren’s campaign in 2013 was very meaningful to me. In Wide Bay, both Warren and I know that so many lives will be saved by these upgrades.
The 2015-16 Health needs assessment summary: Central Queensland, Wide Bay, Sunshine Coast PHN identified that rates of mental illness in the Primary Health Network area were higher than those observed elsewhere in Queensland and Australia. Across the three measures, psychological distress was highest on the Fraser Coast, and suicide rates were highest in my home area of Gympie. The leading cause of death of Australians between the age of 15 and 44 is suicide. Approximately 2,500 people die by suicide each year— double our national road toll. Whilst we are doing such great work reducing our road toll, our national suicide rate is not going the same way, and it is hitting rural and regional areas worse than anywhere else. Each year good Australians are choosing to take their own lives. These people are mums and dads, sons and daughters. This is a problem for all of us, not just the families of those who have taken their own life or those who are at risk of taking their own life. Again, we need to do better.
For many years now, both as a police officer and in my personal life, I have done my best to help people experiencing mental illness. I would not be the man I like to think I am if I did not take this opportunity to speak about a cause I believe is very important. It is addressing the stigma associated with mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety. Mental illness does not discriminate. It can take effect at any time. And it affects millions of Australians every day. This stigma stops people from taking the vital steps needed to get treatment and commence their recovery. The fear of being labelled weak or facing discrimination stops people from addressing this serious problem.
Over a decade ago, in my policing career and as a traffic accident investigator, I went through a very intense phase which saw me struck down by depression and anxiety. This soon led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was absolutely floored. But my story of recovery is a successful one. With a supportive employer in the Queensland Police Service, and my amazing wife, it took more than a year to get me back to the job I loved, which at times I thought I would never return to. I will more than likely need to manage my PTSD for the rest of my life. But with an understanding of my condition, and my great support network, including my good friend and Queensland Police Service human services officer Dale Donoghue, who has helped so many police, I stand here happier, more resilient and more capable than I have ever been in my life.
We can all benefit greatly by ending the stigma associated with mental illness so people feel comfortable about talking about their symptoms, getting the early help they need and commencing their recovery so they can live a fulfilling and happy life. I tell my story to reduce the stigma and hopefully make it easier for others in Wide Bay and the broader community.
There are many people I need to acknowledge who share my values and who have helped me in life and on my journey to this place. I am deeply committed to the values of our LNP Party. I joined the National Party and I was a member when the Liberal and National Parties in Queensland united to form the Liberal National Party. I was honoured to serve in a number of roles in Wide Bay before being elected as the party’s vice president.
I particularly valued the opportunity to work with my friend and LNP President Gary Spence, who with his wife Sabrina has given so much to the party.
I especially acknowledge the support of my parliamentary colleagues Barnaby Joyce, Fiona Nash, Tony Abbott, Darren Chester, Michael McCormack, Keith Pitt, Senators Nigel Scullion, Barry O’Sullivan, James McGrath, Ian Macdonald and Matt Canavan, who helped through the campaign.
I also thank former president Bruce McIver —who is in the gallery today—Bernard Ponting, Michael and Kythe O’Dwyer, and Greg and Joyce Newton, who have each encouraged me and provided sound advice to me along my political journey.
I give very special thanks to my campaign team, led by Ben Ellingsen, my FDC Chairman and good mate. Ben did a wonderful job rallying the troops over the long campaign.
To Wayne Plant, Dr Richard Pearson—who is also here in the gallery—Lloyd and Anne Maddern, Mel and Linda Harris, Guy Burnett, Ted Barnes, Ray Zerner, and David and Robyn Kemp: thank you for all your work.
And thank you to all the helpers and workers who contributed so much throughout the very long campaign.
I pay tribute to a bloke I call my adopted dad, Retired Assistant Commissioner Laurie Pointing. He has been a great source of wise advice during my policing career, and I am proud to count him as one of my closest friends and confidants.
To an amazing little family from Cave Street, Kilkivan, Amy, Riley and Jacinta Olsen—we have all been through much over the past year and we know we can count on each other.
To my great mate, Simon Kelly, now chief of staff, and to his partner, Kieren: thank you for your friendship, loyalty and very honest advice over the past 10 years.
I also thank my electorate staff, Rae Hurley, Barbara Morris, and Rebecca Kuhn for their support and service to our electorate.
I would not be where I am today without the support of my mother in law, Lyn, known as Granny—I so wanted to have that put in Hansard! Lyn has always: been there for Sharon and me through our journey, looked after the kids, and helped us tremendously.
Finally, to the people I treasure most in this world, my wife, Sharon, and my children Rees, William and Yve: I would not be here without your love and support. I know that you now have to share me with 103,328 electors in Wide Bay, but it is through the strength of our family that I am able to give my best to my electorate as the federal Member for Wide Bay.