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Monday, 6 May 1996
Page: 319

Mrs STONE(12.32 p.m.) —Mr Speaker, I stand in this place so proud to speak for the first time as the member for Murray, representing communities in the Mallee, on the great northern plains and in the countryside and cities of the Goulburn-Murray Valley. For 32 years this was the seat of the great Country Party patriarch Sir John McEwen. His special contribution to the young Australian nation, and to rural people in particular, will always be remembered. At the last election Sir John's successor, Bruce Lloyd, retired after 25 years of faithful work for his party and the electorate. This retirement opened the door for the coalition contest.

We the Liberals had no branches or campaign funds in the contest and there was the challenge of manning more than 100 booths over 20,000 square kilometres. But all campaigns ultimately depend on the commitment and the resources of individuals. Over the course of the campaign the original 26 Liberals were joined by hundreds of individuals dedicated to supporting the candidate of their choice.

I could go on for 20 minutes just listing the names of those magnificent men and women who put aside their usual occupations to join me as I crossed and recrossed the electorate, talking in the dairies, under the fruit trees, in the shops and in and out of the towns. It was nine weeks of unrelenting effort and huge enjoyment. I will never forget the friendship, generosity and plain hard work of the campaign teams in Echuca, Cobram, Shepparton, Numurkah, Mooroopna, down south and out in the west of the electorate.

My partner in life played a key role and continues now in the demanding position as husband of the local member. I want to thank Douglas for our 26 years of happy marriage and I look forward to the years to come, working together in Murray.

I was born and bred in the heart of the electorate—I am a sixth generation northern Victorian—so I have the very good fortune to belong to a very large and loyal clan. The Bawdens, Manns, Chalmers and Bennetts rallied the towns and the districts on the Loddon plains. I am grateful to that extended family; my wise and dedicated parents; my brother, Grant; his wife, Sharon; and, in particular, Rhonda Bennett, whose energy and organisational skills were, and continue to be, pivotal. I thank them all for taking the long, hard journey with me from December to March and from Murray to Canberra.

The people of the Murray electorate are accustomed to long, hard roads and to overcoming what others would see as insurmountable odds. It all started in the winter of 1836. It would seem that that was a very good year. Major Sir Thomas Mitchell marched from Sydney to Port Phillip, crossing the Murray. He headed south and entered the country now in the centre of the Murray electorate. There he climbed Pyramid Hill and in the approved manner of the day, ignoring his own attendants and the Aboriginal owners, the Jajarawong, who were watching him closely, said:

A land so inviting and still without inhabitants!

. . . . . . . . .

As I stood, the first intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains . . . I felt conscious of being a harbinger of mighty changes there.

`Australia Felix' he called it—an Eden, and he the only Adam. But only two years later, and this time at the height of summer, Joseph Hawdon climbed that same hill to look over Mitchell's shining paradise and he wrote:

Altogether the scenery of an imposing character. The land, however, of the worst description; the plains have a sprinkling of small tufts of grass but are for the most part covered with the salsuginous plant vulgarly called pig's face.

But it was the major's vision—that first vision—that became the official line. And so the government's selection acts carved the area up into neat 360-acre blocks, supposedly sufficient for a family to farm and flourish. In the 1860s, land hungry diggers eagerly settled, among them my ancestors—the people of my mother's and father's families. We have their diaries describing the heartbreaking struggle to cart water to stock and to resist and overcome the droughts and the floods.

The great statesmen of the day, men like Alfred Deakin, searched for the key to unlock the potential of the wide, flat, fertile lands. They looked at Spain and the Americas. On 23 March 1886, more than 100 years ago, with due ceremony the Victorian government turned the first sod on the great northern plains to officially commence Australia's first public irrigation scheme.

A river of butter, eggs, meat, wheat, fruit and wool flowed south to the markets and people flowed north. The value of the land double and trebled. The towns grew in the Goulburn Valley. The Italians, Dutch, Greeks, Turks and Albanians arrived and they planted the orchards and the vines to form a vibrant, hardworking community. Multicultural Australia came of age in our part of the world.

The early Goulburn, Murray and Torrumbarry irrigation systems were a marvel of earthen channels, wood and concrete structures, but the need for off-farm drainage was not understood. It simply was not catered for. Water entitlements, water rights, and pricing policy encouraged farmers to use more and more water to generate the social and economic benefits to the nation and to justify the very building of those massive irrigation structures. So the water was both a blessing and a curse. Pressure in the saline ground water systems grew, and as early as the 1920s salt was seeping from the river banks and the low lying areas were dying.

I grew up at that time when some farmers were already second generation salt affected. We knew those farmers then as incompetent. There was a perception that such people had not only ruined their farms but destroyed their families' heritage. In time, parts of my own family's farm began to die. It is impossible to convey to you the sense of loss at that time. That experience has affected me profoundly, and I will always be dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of the environment. Today if you climb that hill you will see productive, sustainable agriculture and trees that were never there before. We have fought back the tide of salt in Murray through long-term commitment and cooperative public and private sector action.

No one person, one town, one government department can bring about basin or regional scale environmental protection. We have been very fortunate in that in the past there were governments which also were committed to cooperative action with the private sector. In the 1980s the Fraser government's ground water pumping incentive schemes gave the future back to the fruit and dairy sector. In the eighties and nineties, community-led planning, involving both the public and private sector, produced comprehensive complex catchment planning schemes.

We have the strategies to manage the saline water tables. We know how to avoid the blue-green algal blooms, how to sweeten acid soils and how to stop erosion and protect the catchments. We agree with the COAG principles for the future management of water resources, but cross-basin strategies need dedicated resources and public and private sector coordination. The coalition understands that and has responded in this new government to the environmental crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin.

On 2 March the Australian public demonstrated its overwhelming support for this government and its detailed policies, including the environmental package. That package, as promised by our coalition government and approved by the people through a democratic process, is the key to our sustainable future. It will rehabilitate the heritage of our indigenous people, our heritage and the foundation of the nation's food production.

Let me assure you that the future of agribusiness is worth fighting for. It contributes some 25 per cent of the nation's export earnings. Agribusiness in the Murray electorate leads Australia with the highest volume and value of production, processing and export of food and fibre. We grow the wheat, beef, fruit, vines and meats that are demanded in Asia. We are the home of Australia's dairy export industry. We manufacture the last few Australian owned icons on the supermarket shelves, like SPC, Ardmona, Rosella, Bega and Devondale. We are so good at what we do that the biggest and most technologically sophisticated food manufacturers—Snow Brand and Mitsubishi's Meiji—are now joint venturing with our own local dairy industries in the Goulburn Valley.

As you all know, we are poised close by the world's fastest developing economies. We have the technology, the land and water resources to produce the type of chemical free product demanded by these newly emerging Asian societies. But while the Keating government talked a lot about the food bowl of Asia, our market share in food has slipped away to less than 10 per cent. Our bilateral relations—so important in food trade because all food markets internationally are managed and corrupt—with some of our biggest potential markets fell to an all-time low in the time of Keating.

During the life of the Labor government farm debts accumulated to record levels, running at nearly $150,000 on the average broadacre enterprise in my electorate. Investment in farm plant and machinery dropped below the level needed to produce world competitive product. Our farmers' levels of education and training remained the poorest in the Western world. The people who make up our agribusiness sector are ageing. Too many are sick and tired and very angry.

While the Murray electorate is at the forefront of agribusiness innovation, its per capita income averages amongst the nation's poorest 20 per cent. The rural communities which generate 25 per cent of the national export income are becoming increasingly marginalised not only in terms of income but also in relation to access to the services essential to a reasonable quality of life.

Our rural youth, descendants of the pioneers who overcame the harshest conditions, now take their own lives at rates which are amongst the highest in the Western world. Our farmers are price takers. The processes squeeze the primary producer. They have to to compete.

A year of dedicated work growing wool, wheat, fruit, prime beef or lamb can cost as much as the market delivers. It is little wonder that growing up in my region is too often synonymous with leaving our region, leaving the family, leaving behind a community that struggles to staff the essential and voluntary services—the fire brigades, churches, sporting teams, the landcare groups, the industry organisations—that weld the people together and give them a forum where together they tackle those regional basin problems.

Asset rich and income poor, too many of our small business people and farming families cannot pay for the education and training needed to give their children a chance elsewhere. Each year, fewer enter the work force with any experience of life beyond the bayside cities. This is just one of the factors contributing to the crisis in health care in my electorate.

Medical practitioners and other health workers such as medical librarians and efficient medical administrators may be reaching a state of oversupply in the capitals, but their shortage in Murray sees us struggling to keep hospitals open and to maintain human services essential to the physical and mental wellbeing of our people. The elderly live in fear of the heart attack or the sudden fall. Parents with chronically sick children look to live elsewhere. We lack general practitioners as well as gynaecological, paediatric and psychiatric services.

While rural population rates of chronic illness and industrial accident are far higher than in the general population, we have had a decade of neglect and misallocated resources, and we have no sense that the prob lem can be easily solved. This government at least recognises this and has a strategy to help us overcome it. While Australian society pays lip-service to the credo `a fair go for all', it seems to the people from the country that most Australians have turned their backs on their fundamental needs. How can Australia capture the opportunities now represented before us in Asia?

In my electorate, the city of Shepparton, a major inland food processing centre is choked with heavy transport traffic. Air freight facilities for the high value fresh product are hours away. We have inadequate, non-existent waste water treatments. Our factories cannot get enough fresh water. Natural gas is not available. You can forget your mobile phones over most of the electorate. Goulburn Valley's multimillion dollar fruit industry relies on the arrival of international backpackers to pick the fruit. If there is a murder in the mountains or in the forests in the next state, those packers and pickers do not come.

While other nations use food trade as aid to enter and grow their markets or they use their quarantine services as a non-tariff barrier, our aid is often untargeted. Our primary producers and manufacturers have to beg to maintain bans on fruit imports from countries with diseases that would cripple us. Apple and pear fire blight is one example. How many other countries have such clumsy anti-dumping regulations and procedures that the complainant is often dead and buried before they can prove a case of damage to the satisfaction of the system? We will change that.

Our food labelling laws continue to confuse and discourage consumers trying to identify the country of origin. They want to buy our product, but they still often cannot work out just what it is that they are consuming. Of course, there are also inefficiencies on the waterfront. In many cases they simply rule our product right out of the export contest. Not enough of our overseas trade representatives are expert or adequately resourced.

Back home, Australians boast of the access to the cheapest and best food supply in the world, but this cheap food has come at a substantial cost to the environment. Those responsible cannot afford to manage the land and water resource as we know it should be managed, and it has come at a huge cost to the people and the rural communities, where the quality of life and life expectations are now far behind what you can expect to find in metropolitan Australia.

John Howard's government could not come too soon for Murray. In particular, decades of inadequate return for effort and thwarted ambition have left us with a generation of young people who can see no future. I want to assure the electorate of Murray that I fully understand what drove them to break with the past, and I willingly take up the challenge of helping to deliver to them the business environment, the regulatory environment, the infrastructure and the standards of human services that are essential if our region is ever to reach its full potential. I thank you for your indulgence.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! Before I call the honourable member for Dunkley, I remind the House that this is the honourable member's first speech and I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.