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Monday, 18 February 2008
Page: 555


Mr COULTON (5:22 PM) —Almost a week has passed since I took my seat in this House, and the learning curve has been steep. So far, the highlight has been the first speeches of my fellow members of the class of 2007. I feel very humble to be part of such a diverse and talented group of people. I am honoured to have been elected as one of Australia’s decision makers but regret that most Australian people are not encouraged to understand our Westminster system of parliament. I believe that the presidential style of today’s politics does this country no favours. There is often greater importance placed on fluffy symbolism and 30-second news grabs than on the hard work of the 150 men and women who sit in this House.

We are all a product of our upbringing, environment and experiences but, regardless of where we sit in this House, we have all come here with the best of intentions. Apart from the six enjoyable years I spent at the Farrer Agricultural High School in Tamworth, I have lived in the Warialda and Gravesend districts all my life. My family have been involved in farming for generations and, for as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a farmer. Indeed, I was 10 years old when I did my first full day of tractor driving. I was raised to appreciate the value of hard work and the benefits of helping each other not just within our family but within our community.

At this point, I would like to acknowledge my family. My father, Jack, has always been a dominant figure. His fierce determination has seen him succeed in life despite receiving only a few years of formal education. A man of great presence and strength, he is now 86 and battling the demons of old age and ill health. My mother, Nancy, was the most influential person in my early years. She believed that there was goodness in all people and a positive side to every situation. She passed away seven years ago, after an 18-month battle with cancer. It is my one regret that my parents are not here today. To my sisters, Viv and Joy, and my brothers, John and Bob, and their families, thank you for your support and friendship. I am so pleased that some of you, as well as some members of my extended family, could be here today to share in this occasion.

There have been two defining events in my life, and the New South Wales government has been responsible for both of them. The first was when they ignored the request of Robyn Redford, a very pretty young teacher from Western Sydney, to be sent to the South Coast of New South Wales and assigned her instead to the small primary school near my family’s farm at Gravesend. Robyn and I married 26½ years ago. Her intelligence, support, loyalty and tremendous capacity for hard work have been my inspiration. The high standard that she set for herself as a wife, mother, teacher and political campaigner is the main reason I am here today.

We have been blessed with three happy, healthy children. Claire is an English and History teacher, currently working at Newcastle High School. She has a kind and giving nature, is intensely loyal and has a great enthusiasm for life and a passion for teaching. Sally is in the final year of a degree in medicine at Newcastle University. She has shown a single-minded determination and sacrificed much to achieve her goal. Being both caring and practical, Sally will be a fine doctor and hopefully will become part of the solution to the shortage of doctors in rural Australia. Our son, Matthew, having just completed his Higher School Certificate, is working at an outdoor adventure camp in England for a year before commencing study at university. Robyn and I were very proud to attend Government House in Sydney twice in one week last November. On the first occasion, Matthew was awarded a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. On the second occasion, he was awarded an Order of Australia commendation and medal for community service. We know that he has much to give to society in the future.

The second defining moment that changed the course of my life was when the New South Wales government decided to structurally reform local government in 2003. The reform process led to the creation of the Gwydir Shire Council. This council covers nearly 10,000 square kilometres, has a population of 6,000 and includes three former local government areas. Despite having no former experience in local government, I found myself the inaugural Mayor of Gwydir Shire in September 2004. Up until this point in my life, I had believed my future lay in agriculture. My involvement with the Gwydir Shire Council took me in a new direction.

Contrary to the dire predictions of many, Gwydir Shire Council has been an amazing success. In its first year it was awarded the AR Bluett Memorial Award for excellence in local government. In the following year it received the New South Wales Training Initiative Award as a partner in the Gwydir Learning Region. In four years the value of real estate has risen from a very low base to being identified as one of the top performing regions for investment in New South Wales. I would like to recognise my friends from the Gwydir Shire, who are in the gallery today, and thank them for showing me what good government is all about.

In regional areas, local government is under increasing pressure. It has become the primary vehicle for the delivery of services. Councils across regional Australia have risen to the challenge to meet the needs of their communities and are not only providing the traditional services of roads, rates and rubbish but now involved in health, child care, social work, education and aged care. They are doing a magnificent job but are grossly underfunded. I firmly support a more equitable method for funding regional local government.

Although I had been involved with the Nationals for a number of years, my desire to seek election as a political representative intensified in 2006, when the Australian Electoral Commission proposed a redistribution which, if it had gone ahead, would have seen 47 per cent of New South Wales lumped into one electorate. That proposal was ultimately defeated as a result of the protests of people of all political persuasions for whom good representation was vitally important. The new electorate of Parkes was formed. It covers an area of 107,000 square kilometres and stretches from the central west of New South Wales to the Queensland border, moving from the bustling regional city of Dubbo, in the south, to the picturesque village of Toomelah, in the north, and from the unique Lightning Ridge, in the west, to places like Bylong and my home town of Warialda, in the east.

The seat is named after the father of Federation, Sir Henry Parkes, and largely replaces the abolished Federation seat of Gwydir. While it is very much like Gwydir, it also now contains Dubbo, which is both new to the rest of the electorate and also its largest centre. Following my preselection early in 2007, many people in Dubbo worked tirelessly to boost my profile, quite a challenge given that I lived at the opposite end of the electorate. I would like to express my gratitude to the Hon. John Cobb, the previous member for Parkes and now the member for Calare, for his insight and support. I would also not have been successful without the help of Pauline McAllister and Peter Bartley, among so many others.

In the north of the electorate, Peter Taylor from Moree and Hugh Coulton and many of my friends from Warialda must be recognised for their enthusiastic support and their leadership of others. I cannot thank Parkes Electorate Council Chairman Ruth Strang enough for her help, deep commitment and never-wavering dedication and loyalty. It would be impossible for me to acknowledge here the many campaign workers I was fortunate to have on side, but I cannot let this occasion pass without placing on record my appreciation to Angela, Sarah, Kellie, Felicity and Kerry. To my Nationals colleagues, particularly honourable members Mark Vaile, Kay Hull and Peter McGauran and senators Fiona Nash and Nigel Scullion, as well as the former Treasurer, the Hon. Peter Costello: thank you for the time, assistance and advice you gave me in my electorate during the campaign. It was invaluable.

I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, the former member for Gwydir, the Hon. John Anderson. John represented the people of Gwydir in this place for over 19 years, rising to be Leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister. John was a key player in the team that was arguably the most successful government that this country has ever seen. His contribution to his electorate, his country and this chamber is well known and is without parallel. John was inspirational to me, both during his many years as my local member and then recently as my campaign director. I would like to wish John well in his future endeavours. I am sure this country has not heard the last of the former member for Gwydir.

I am here today because I have a deep and unshakable belief in the future of inland Australia. In my electorate of Parkes there are strong and vibrant communities, both large and small. They are fiercely independent and are very proud of their heritage. Despite the effects of years of drought they are optimistic about their future.

Lack of infrastructure is a major impediment to our development. There are two projects that are essential to ensure continued progress in my electorate. They are the construction of an expressway over the Blue Mountains and the Melbourne-to-Brisbane rail line. It is a disgrace that in the 21st century the main connection between Sydney and western New South Wales was built nearly 200 years ago by convicts. A new expressway would not only be an advantage to the people west of the mountains but act as a relief valve for Western Sydney.

The Roads to Recovery program, instigated by my predecessor, the Hon. John Anderson, has been a real boon to regional roads in Australia. However, despite this unprecedented amount of investment, parts of my electorate remain severely hamstrung by a rural road network that has not improved since the days of horse and buggy. I firmly believe that the productivity of an area should be a major consideration when allocating road funding. I intend to drive this concept forward at every opportunity.

The development of rail in general and the construction of the Melbourne-to-Brisbane line in particular must happen. Road transport alone will not be able to cope with the predicted doubling of the freight task by 2020. One double-stacked container train would take 276 trucks off the road, save 100,000 litres of fuel and prevent thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere on a journey from Brisbane to Melbourne.

The proposed rail line would dissect the Parkes electorate and would place it at the transport crossroads of Australia. I was alarmed to hear last week that the government is intending to delay this worthwhile project. While it may well end up being funded and managed by private enterprise, it will not happen without the will of the government. I will use my position in this House to work tirelessly to advance this project.

The way society reacts to the issue of climate change will impact greatly on regional Australia. As our country grapples with the extent and effects of climate change, we must remember that agriculture is the cure, not the disease. Farmers have been adapting to the variables of the Australian climate for many years. The adoption of advanced farming techniques, such as zero-till methods of crop production, best-practice management in the irrigation industry and advanced pasture management techniques in the livestock industry, have allowed our farmers to maximise production while caring for the environment. This evolvement of agricultural practices has greatly increased the level of carbon sequestered in the farming process. Australian farmers are now producing more food and fibre with fewer inputs of fuel and water than ever before.

Ill-considered environmental policy can have a devastating effect on a region. The decision several years ago to lock up 350,000 hectares of forest in the South Brigalow bioregion has turned a vibrant living forest sustaining a population of flora and fauna into a wasteland. The cessation of the logging which had been operating sustainably in the forest for over 100 years decimated several towns in the area. To add insult to injury, the mismanagement of the forest allowed thousands of hectares to be destroyed by fire. So now we have no forest and no community, not to mention the thousands of tonnes of carbon that were spewed into the atmosphere during the fires. Government policy needs to be based on scientific assessment, not emotional or political doctrine.

As I campaigned throughout my electorate last year, the issue of health was—and remains—the major concern. In regional and rural areas the problems in health care are multiplied. I intend to lobby constantly for increased access to adequate health services for all residents, and I firmly believe that this cause will be advanced if we remain positive in the way that we portray and demonstrate the enormous benefits of living in rural Australia.

In order to fulfil its great potential, the electorate of Parkes will need to grow its population. We are desperately short of suitably trained workers, from doctors and nurses to skilled tradespeople. Country people can be notoriously bad at promoting the positives of their region. While it is the role of a local member to be aware of the issues that are of concern to the electorate and to work to overcome them, I also believe that it is the role of elected representatives of all levels of government to be champions for their constituents. The greatest gift a government can give its people is confidence: confidence that they have a future, confidence that the government will support them in their best endeavours and confidence that the government will look after them when times are tough. Fear is a weapon that is used too freely in this place.

The greatest tool of empowerment and builder of confidence is education. My experience as Chairman of the Gwydir Learning Region opened my eyes to how a community changes when it values education. The provision of educational opportunities that are relevant for individual communities must be a priority. Education is the common denominator in most of the issues that confront my electorate. Whether it is the shortage of health professionals, the lack of skilled tradespeople, the antisocial behaviour of our teenagers or poor nutrition in young children, education can provide a solution. Education should be the basis for restoring dignity within our Aboriginal communities and should be tailored to the needs of individuals. With the cooperation of all providers of education and local communities, real progress can be made to provide opportunities for those who need it most.

It is in the interest of this nation to focus on stimulating growth in regional Australia. The reasons people once had for congregating in cities are largely irrelevant in the 21st century. The improvement in telecommunications in recent years has removed one of the last barriers to doing business in the bush. The availability of land, the affordability of housing and the security of living in a caring community are all compelling reasons to relocate. The supply of abundant natural resources such as coal and natural gas, the emerging importance of alternative fuel supplies like ethanol and solar power and the bullish outlook for agricultural commodities will attract industry to our area and will underpin our region’s economy for years to come.

I come to this place as a proud member of the Nationals. My introduction to parliamentary life has been made much easier by the support and guidance given to me since the election by my leader, the Hon. Warren Truss, and my other Nationals colleagues. The Nationals have a strong history in the Australian parliament and I am determined to play my part in carrying that tradition into the future. I have arrived at this point in my life as a result of my personal beliefs, the influence of my family, my farming business background, my community involvement and my experience in local government. Even though the electorate of Parkes is considered a rural seat, more than 80 per cent of the people are not directly involved in agriculture. The majority of my constituents live in the many towns and villages spread across the electorate. These people have ignored the doomsayers who have predicted the demise of rural Australia and are fighting back. They, like me, believe our best years are ahead.

I would like to thank the people of the Parkes electorate for the confidence they have shown in me. I bring the hopes and dreams of these wonderful people into this House for inspiration and motivation as I commence my work in the Australian parliament.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—Order! Before I call the honourable member for Blaxland, I remind honourable members that this is his first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.