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Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Page: 963

Senator O'SULLIVAN (Queensland) (13:18): I stand today to speak not just for myself but for my colleagues: Senator McGrath, who sends an apology for not being in the chamber; Senator Macdonald; the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator Canavan; and, from the other place, Deputy Prime Minister Joyce, Mr Entsch and Mr Christensen.

Senator Gallacher: Are you leaving us?

Senator O'SULLIVAN: No such luck. I am here to speak about a remarkable woman who left an indelible mark on the fortunes of all North Queenslanders. Noeline Ikin was a member of our political party in my home state of Queensland, but she meant much more than that to the people who knew her, to her family and to her communities of interest.

Perhaps one of the most tragic things about the features of these opportunities to speak is that we all too often only speak highly of people when they have passed. I am disappointed to say that this speech is no different: Noeline tragically passed away on Saturday, following a 13-month battle with brain cancer. She faced every step of her health challenge with a smile on her face and an ongoing concern for how her plight impacted on her loved ones. Noeline was well known for her concern about the welfare of those around her. In fact, it was this feature of her character that drove her to enter politics in a very active way. She was a candidate who truly had the blinkers on for what would serve her home electorate of Kennedy. Noeline was one of the most passionate advocates for the future potential of northern Australia and the people of her home electorate of Kennedy that anyone could cross paths with. She was a frequent visitor to these halls of our parliament, where she unashamedly and determinedly fought for the interests of her region in Queensland, notwithstanding that she was not a member of the parliament. Noeline was only a little over five feet tall, a fact that she often made fun of herself about, yet she had the tenacity and the courage that would be the envy of any politician in this parliament.

In fact, Noeline very nearly entered our parliament and, on the way, she became renowned as an unlikely political giant killer. She was the woman who nearly toppled Bob Katter in the 2013 federal election. During the election, there was a debate in the media over whether to call her the 'Katter killer' or the 'little battler'. Noeline, being the person she was—a person who valued kindness over raw strength—said she always preferred being called the 'little battler.' Indeed, recent events in her health struggle have proven that to be true. With her strong community spirit and old-fashioned hard work, she very nearly did the impossible. Through real grit and determination, she achieved a massive 17 per cent swing against the incumbent Bob Katter in the 2013 federal election. It was the biggest swing in that seat since Federation. In fact, she won the primary vote by more than 15,000 votes. It was only preferences from the Labor Party that allowed Bob Katter to return to parliament. Some believed that taking on Mr Katter in the sprawling rural seat he had held since 1993 was an impossible political assignment. Many higher profile candidates had tried and failed to do so over the preceding two decades. And that is what made Noeline's achievement so remarkable.

The electorate of Kennedy is a sprawling and almost intimidating electorate to a political novice. But Noeline accept the challenge with gusto. It became a case of honest, grassroots campaigning, in an electorate that really values this attitude among its elected leaders. Noeline spent months in the run-up to the election campaign sleeping by the side of the road in her swag, meeting with constituents and community groups and advocating for real change in her home electorate. It was a message that voters responded to. Noeline came closer than any person in more than two decades to toppling the incumbent member. On election night, Noeline sat in the Mareeba Memorial Bowls Club and watched the results as they came in. On that day in September 2013, many thought she had taken the electorate. It is fair to say there are many in the Kennedy electorate who still wish she had taken control of the seat.

I think it is reasonable to say that her achievement and her tragic decline will mean she will be remembered as one of the great 'what-ifs' of Australian politics. But it was Noeline lkin's ability to connect, especially to the people of the bush, which will be remembered most by those who knew her best. No matter where she went, there was no doubt the diminutive, softly-spoken but determined woman made her mark on the hearts and minds of North Queenslanders. She will forever hold a special place in the hearts of North Queenslanders for her unashamed willingness to fight for their interests, and she will be remembered as a very courageous, active member of our political movement in that state.

Noeline was an especially passionate advocate for the people of the Gulf of Carpentaria. She based herself in Georgetown, which is one of those proud outback towns that battle drought and floods with equal determination. As CEO of the Northern Gulf Resource Management Group, Noeline blazed a trail for the NRM movement when many in the cattle industry were sceptical of broad changes to the way Landcare and other projects were funded by government. Whether it was fighting for exceptional circumstances funding for flood impacts on graziers or battling to protect wetlands on gulf stations or supporting and underpinning the live cattle trade, Noeline had a clear idea of what was best for her community and was never afraid to push for change.

Following the 2013 election, she became an unabashed fighter for the issue of rural debt loads among gulf landholders. She was frequently in Canberra, often at her own expense, meeting with ministers, senators and members, discussing the issues that mattered to the people of Kennedy. Her tenacity saw Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, and now Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, launch investigations into the level of debt being carried amongst northern farmers.

But, speaking more broadly, it was her bright and positive attitude that made her a much-loved figure among our LNP members across the state of Queensland, particularly in the north. At any meeting of the LNP, especially in North Queensland, her health plight was a frequent point of discussion in these past 12 months. People worried about her. People cared about her. And I think it is very safe to say that my LNP people really loved her.

As many of the people in this chamber will understand, it is no mean feat for any politician, let alone a prospective politician, to generate such strong feelings of devotion amongst party members. Yet Noeline achieved this, and she was never far from the thoughts and prayers of the people in my party as she faced her challenge. One of the frequent comments about her cancer battle was how she handled it with genuine courage and good humour. Perhaps there is no higher tribute we can pay to Noeline than to say that she put the welfare of others first, even in the closing months of her life.

Noeline has left behind her partner, Trevor, and her daughters, Gabriella, Kiralee and Tabitha. And our thoughts and prayers are with them during this difficult time. Many tributes to Noeline have already been delivered since her passing at the weekend. Some have called her an angel of the bush. Others have said she was one of North Queensland's favourite daughters. But all that has been said has been in reverence to her real spirit of community—her care and devotion for others, and her true grit during times of adversity. These are all attributes every person might hope would be said about their short time on this earth. And, in tribute to Noeline, no kinder words could be said.