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Monday, 3 March 2014
Page: 1358

Mr McCORMACK (RiverinaParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance) (16:52): 'The Murrumbidgee's winding waters light the lives of Wagga's sturdy breed. Like hope eternal its waters bright flow on as our undying creed.' There is a message for all of us in the opening lines to the school song of St Michael's Regional High School at Wagga Wagga. The school served the Catholic and wider community well from 1873 until its closure in 2003. It was a boys school, and it was my school, from 1977 to 1980. I loved almost every minute of it. Whether or not you attended what was a Christian Brothers institution, there is some resonance of St Michael's song to those who live along the mighty Murrumbidgee or who rely on its life-giving water. Riverina people are a sturdy breed. They have had to be in the past; they will certainly have to be in the future.

Murrumbidgee, from the language of the original custodians of the land, the Wiradjuri people, means 'big water'. The intrepid explorer, Captain Charles Sturt, after whom the Wagga Wagga campus of that remarkable university takes its name, went on his epic journey of discovery along the Murrumbidgee in 1830. Sturt and his party were often forced to carry their whaleboat on their shoulders rather than the easier and preferable option of rowing it down the river. That is because the river back then sometimes did not run—and sometimes it flooded. The greenies and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists will probably dispute that, but it is true.

Whilst it is important that South Australia's water supply is secure and that the river environment is given due consideration, it is also imperative that the farmers and irrigation communities of the Riverina be allowed to continue what they have done on behalf of the nation for more than 100 years. The original Murray-Darling Basin Plan was stopped in its tracks in late 2010 by the loud and united voice of those marvellous people of Griffith and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. They rallied in their thousands. They burnt copies of the daft draft. They forced the government to change course. People power won the day. Common sense won over rank stupidity.

On Thursday last week the New South Wales government, having held out for a better and fairer deal, finally signed the agreement with the Commonwealth. The plan is not perfect. No agreement on water would ever receive wholehearted endorsement by all stakeholders. Mark Twain is attributed as saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over, and he was right of course.

I will always defend the rights of family farmers to have access to water to grow the fibre and food to clothe and feed our people and many others besides. When I came to this place in my first term I said my motto is that I shall not be silent when I ought to speak. Throughout my first term in this place that principle was tested many times, but I am proud to say that I stuck with it. I am proud of what I was able to achieve for the Wagga Wagga and Griffith base hospitals.

Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, which was first opened in 1963, has long been waiting for an upgrade. Successive New South Wales governments promised funding would come, but it was not until the New South Wales coalition came to government that the New South Wales state government started taking the project seriously. I am proud that the 2011-12 federal budget found $55.1 million for Wagga Wagga Base Hospital and the project is not only well underway but ahead of schedule.

Had it not been for a chance run-in at the Brisbane airport with Nicola Roxon, the former health minister, within weeks of the May 2011 budget, Wagga Wagga might well have missed out again. The minister was until that time mistakenly of the view that the project had been fully funded by the state government. Minister Roxon was willing to listen to my lobbying and found the Wagga Wagga Base Hospital the necessary funds. I am pleased to say that construction of the hospital is well underway. She also listened to my plea to give Ungarie flood assistance after Humbug Creek almost swept the village away on 4 March 2012.

I am also proud of the health funding boosts to the communities of Griffith and Hillston in the west and north-west of my Riverina electorate. The $11.3 million in funding in the 2012-13 budget for the Griffith community hospital was described by one of its chief proponents, John Casella, as 'good health, good for education and a real boost for our area', which has been hard hit in recent years. It was a delight of mine to inform the then Mayor of Griffith City Council, Mike Neville, of the project's success. He told me the news was 'just fantastic'. My good friend Adrian Piccoli, the member for Murrumbidgee in New South Wales and education minister, said it was 'the best political news he had ever heard'. This funding was complemented by the announcement that the multipurpose service at Hillston was also funded to the tune of $6 million.

The productive farming areas of Griffith and Hillston were both placed under considerable pressure as a result of uncertainty with future water availability at the time and the health announcements in those two areas were greeted with delight and surprise. As I have stressed in this place before, it is incumbent upon all of us never to forget the people who send us here and to stand up for them in this place always. For me, standing up for the people and being a voice for those who do not have one is why I ran for parliament in the first place and it is what drives me to come into this place again and again determined to represent the Riverina, a Federation seat, to the very best of my ability.

There is no denying that the 43rd Parliament was a roller-coaster ride for all in this place. It was the first minority government since that of John Curtin in 1941. It was a government that brought with it some of the worst debt, some of the biggest broken promises and a carbon tax that the Prime Minister promised would never be part of a government she led. Amongst this the Murray-Darling Basin Plan discussions were raging. Throughout the purpose-built irrigation areas in my electorate, which are rich with many cultures and have an abundance of produce upon which this nation relies, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan caused much angst. I will never forget the day I went to Griffith to attend the largest public rally. It was Thursday, 15 December 2011. At the Yoogali Club on Mackay Avenue in Griffith there were 14,000 passionate people there to fight for their water rights and their future.

It was a bad plan and the irrigators, the growers, the producers and the small business people all knew it. They knew what a devastating impact a bad plan such as that would have had on the purpose-built irrigation communities throughout the basin. There with me was my good friend and Nationals colleague Senator Fiona Nash, who is now the Assistant Minister for Health, and the opposition leader and now Prime Minister. They were there to listen, to care and to stand up for what was right. The then water minister, Tony Burke, the member for Watson, was there too. While we will never agree on the Basin Plan or on water rights, I do acknowledge that it took guts for him to turn up and, in the mist of all that passion and angst, stand and tell the then government's story.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was a threat to the people of my electorate and the basin. When I ran for parliament in 2010 I made it clear that I would be their voice in parliament, and I followed through on that, moving a motion to disallow the passage of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan through parliament. It was important to me and to the people of my electorate that I kept my word. Whatever the disallowance motion may have meant in this place—and my motion to disallow was defeated 95 to five—it meant a lot to the irrigators and producers of the Riverina to have a local member stand up for them, cross the floor and do what was right. Moving the disallowance motion has also meant that I as the local member can walk along Banna Avenue, Griffith's main street, and the main streets of many irrigation areas in my electorate and look farmers and people in the eye and tell them I did my best and I helped bring about a promise to cap buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres. The confirmation of this from my colleague Senator Simon Birmingham means that certainty has come to the irrigators of my electorate and they can plan their harvest with renewed confidence.

I am proud to be serving the government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance, Senator Mathias Cormann. I am relishing the challenge of my portfolio responsibilities. I thank Rachel Thompson, Brett Chant, Julianne Hyland and Carl Fitzpatrick for their work in my office in this role.

In the context of everything that government does, it is not surprising that from time to time the design or administration of Commonwealth regulation results in inequitable, unintentional or anomalous outcomes. That is why we have discretionary compensation mechanisms—act of grace payments and the scope to waive debts owed to the Commonwealth—for which I have responsibility. It is my hope that with fewer and better-designed regulations and a risk based approach to their administration we will see better outcomes for citizens and less need to resort to discretionary measures such as act of grace payments.

The Productivity Commission noted last year that those regulators with the best relationship with small businesses were those that took a risk based approach to regulation. The Commonwealth has come a long way in improving its approach to risk management since Comcover was established in 1998, but there is still much more to be done. One of my priorities is to promote a more mature approach to risk management within the Commonwealth, an approach that encourages officials to place risk management at the heart of everything that they do. This will apply as much to my own responsibilities in managing the administration of non-defence property portfolio as to anywhere else.

The reforms of the Hawke-Keating era were a response to a fundamental problem: the world had changed but government processes had not. Decades on, we face the same challenge. International trade and commerce, advances in technology, medical breakthroughs—all of these and more are changing the way Australians do business and the way we live. When faced with this challenge, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government committed the fiscal equivalent of mortgaging the house to buy ice cream, as someone put it to me last week. The pleasure of short-term consumption has melted away, leaving us with a bucket load of debt. It is a big bucket, too.

Unlike those who preceded us, we are up to this challenge. The Commission of Audit is a crucial step in the process of considering the role of government. What is the government doing that people could reasonably be expected to do for themselves? Are the things we are spending money on worth the taxes needed to pay for them? Where is the government getting in the way of innovation and enterprise? What we need are reforms that will lift productivity and living standards into the future. Crucial to this process will be bipartisan support, the kind of bipartisan support that Hawke and Keating were able to rely on in pushing through their reform agenda. My invitation to those opposite is to work with us or risk being on the wrong side of history.

The incidence of mental illness and the high rate of suicide in regional Australia remains one of the least understood health crises facing our nation. Although the reasons why suicide is higher in rural and remote areas are not fully understood, we do know that suicide is roughly 30 per cent higher in regional and remote Australia. That is a huge challenge for our times. Indigenous Australians, young men under 24 years of age, men aged over 60 and farmers are particular population sub-groups considered to be at risk when it comes to suicide. Mental illness and suicide are felt especially severely in rural areas, where people are overrepresented in the statistics. There is nobody living in a country town today who has not been personally touched by suicide. How sad is that? It is the silent epidemic of our time. Minister Nash has done an outstanding job for rural health since she was appointed Assistant Minister for Health, and I commend her ongoing stewardship of this important portfolio.

As most would appreciate, life in the Australian bush can be harsh. It can mean hard work in often difficult environments. Farming and related industries can often be at the mercy of unpredictable weather. We are a land of flooding rains and long droughts. An entire year of production could be wiped out in the blink of an eye. External market forces and unfavourable currency can also put additional pressures on farming communities and families.

Even in the face of those adversities, it is difficult to reconcile higher rates of suicide in rural communities when these same communities consistently report higher levels of social cohesion than in major cities. People in rural areas are close-knit. They are friends; they are mates. People feel safer, there is more volunteerism and the social connections are greater in the bush. Wagga Wagga, my hometown, was recently judged the most family friendly city in Australia. These are the enduring strengths of our regions and these are also the very protective factors that can help fight the effects of depression and mental illness; yet the actual experience in the bush could not be more different.

Although the evidence from the millennium drought indicates that there was no increase in farmer suicides between 2001 and 2007 due to the drought, we know that there was a concerted effort by all governments to provide counselling and mental health services targeted towards various at-risk groups in drought prone areas during this difficult period. People from the bush are made of tough stuff, and when things start to become difficult they often try to tough it out, to not seek help, to fix their own problems. The fear of failure is a particularly strong motivator in the bush. It is this attitude, particularly among men, which makes it harder to identify when someone might be under more stress than normal, suffering from depression or perhaps even contemplating taking their own life. Despite widespread public awareness and education campaigns over many years, the stigma and shame associated with mental illness still exist to this day.

A lack of adequate services in rural and remote areas might account for some of the rural-specific suicide rate, and I know that all sides of this chamber have a commitment to providing services wherever they are needed. Indeed, I remain hopeful that this government will be able to deliver a headspace youth mental health centre in the Murrumbidgee, as I know many in my community would like to see. But dealing with mental illness is not just purely a health or psychological condition that requires medical help. While services do exist, we recognise that not every person suffering from mental illness will access them. Every community, therefore, has a responsibility to ensure that we are looking out for each other, that as resilient as we are no person can carry their burdens alone for too long. We do need to build resilience and to promote positivity.

The time has come for us as a community to shine a light on this unyielding tragedy that unfolds every week in households, farms and towns across our nation. We need to be able to discuss suicide and depression without the shame and stigma. Families need to be frank and honest with each other about the welfare of a family member, if they are concerned. Friends need to be extra vigilant about what their peers are going through. My message to rural communities is that there is no shame in raising mental health issues, there is no shame in being concerned for one another and there is certainly no shame in seeking help if and when we need it. Every person lost to suicide is an unnecessary and avoidable loss, and everyone has a role to play when it comes to suicide prevention.

I am humbled to have been returned as the federal member for Riverina and to have the opportunity to continue working for the people of the Riverina in the new Abbott-Truss government. I am thankful to the people of the Riverina for placing their faith and trust in me to be their voice again. My 2013 campaign director, Wes Fang of Wagga Wagga, is a loyal friend and confidant. Wes—the father of two young boys and he is expecting the arrival of another child in the coming weeks—worked tirelessly, day and night, for the campaign. There was nothing which was too much work for Wes. He spent hours stuffing envelopes, putting up corflutes, coordinating with the campaign committee and organising campaign events, all with a young family at home. Wes did all this in the midst of starting a small business, caring for his terminally ill father, Tom—may he rest in peace—and building a new home. I am very grateful to Wes for his hard work and dedication. I would like to publicly thank Wes and wish him and his wife, Nat Snyman, and their boys, Caspar and Atticus, all the best for the new arrival on the way.

My campaign committee was full of hardworking local volunteers—decent, compassionate and determined country people who did what was needed to get the job done. For many on my campaign committee elections are a familiar get-together of friends doing what the campaign needs, often late at night, packing booth boxes and distributing corflutes around the 61,435 square kilometres of the Riverina electorate. They did their job, because on election day we won every one of the more than 100 polling booths in the Riverina. Despite the cold and late nights, these volunteers got stuck in and did the job—as country people always do.

I thank Richard and Gretchen Sleeman of San Isidore whose constant help and support saw every booth across an electorate the size of Tasmania manned, with corflutes distributed, minutes taken at meetings and campaign coordination assured. There was no stopping Gretchen Sleeman—she is such a spirited community-minded person who worked day and night to make sure The Nationals had someone at every booth. Richard, amongst his commitments with many other organisations, made sure corflutes were ready, booth boxes were packed and people were informed. I thank them both immensely.

My indefatigable campaign committee had many people from many communities who would meet weekly to work through what the campaign needed. In addition to the people mentioned, there were the Hon. Rick Bull of Holbrook, Anna and John Dennis of Collingullie, Councillor Pam Halliburton and Margaret Hill of Junee, Barney Hyams of Batlow, Dominic Hopkinson, my wife Catherine, Zac Lederhose, Joanne McLennan, Barbara Parnell, Ange Smit, Robert and Lesley Vennell, and Anabel Williams—all of Wagga Wagga. They are all hard workers, they are all friends and I thank them very much.

I wish to also thank my wonderful predecessor Kay Hull for her ongoing and unwavering support, Ben Franklin for all that he has done and continues to do on behalf of the NSW Nationals, and Temora mayor Councillor Rick Firman for his counsel, his friendship and, at times, his humour.

I thank my staff in Wagga Wagga and Griffith who work hard every day to serve the people of the Riverina—not just those who vote Nationals but all the people of the Riverina. In Wagga Wagga Anabel Williams, Melissa Irvine, Anna Duggan, Dom Hopkinson, Kerrianne Malone, Ange Smit, Marney Johnstone, Helena Adamcewicz, Georgie Hutchinson and Jess Glynn have all worked for me at some point during my first term and I thank them for their efforts.

In Griffith, I thank Doris Bertollo, a stalwart of the Riverina electorate office who has worked in that role in Griffith for more than 25 years. After having worked for both Noel Hicks and Kay Hull before me, there is nothing Doris does not know about the Riverina or the immigration portfolio. Jess, Ange, Kerrianne and Anabel have all had a baby within the past 18 months or are due within the coming weeks—I am not quite sure what that says about my electorate office. I wish them and their families all the best with their new arrivals.

I am blessed with a loving and supportive family. My wife, Catherine, and I have spent 27 years together—she has put up with a lot—building a life for ourselves and our three lovely children. To see Georgina, Alexander and Nicholas grow into strong, intelligent, purposeful adults has been one of the great joys of our life together. So I am especially keen to ensure that government does what it can to help support families. If we have strong families we have stronger and more resilient communities. We should recognise the role of the family unit in providing people with a sense of belonging and as the foundation for people within communities to be socially connected with each other.

In closing, I restate my full commitment to serving the people of the Riverina. It is a wonderful electorate that stretches from the eastern side of Mount Kosciuszko—as Simon Crean described it, the high point of Australian politics—right through to many kilometres past Roto, which is past Hillston, the last big community. I do not take my responsibilities lightly and I will always fight for the interests of the people of the Riverina. I am extremely pleased that I am part of the Abbott-Truss government—not only do we have to fix the budget issues but also we are setting about putting Australia onto a sound economic footing so that we can meet the challenges of the future. There will be many challenges—challenges with water, challenges with border security and challenges for the economy—but we are up to the task. The Australian people gave us the mandate to carry out our reform agenda and we will do that with purpose, dedication and maturity.