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Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6545

Mrs HULL (12:03 PM) —Who would have ever imagined that an insignificant girl from Guyra could be one of those fewer than 1,000 people to have been elected to the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia in over 100 years? On this historic day I am more acutely aware of the significance and the privilege of being an elected member of this House. On this day, 24 June 2010, I am here in this place to witness the entrance of the first female Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. I guess the question now has to be asked: is it the gender of the Prime Minister that is important or is it the quality of the person who is at the helm? Let us not forget that the woman who is now Prime Minister of Australia has been at the table and has exerted extreme influence in support of every decision that has been responsible for the demise of Kevin Rudd. Julia Gillard has supported and championed every single bad decision that has put this country into significant debt. She has strongly supported the introduction of a mining tax and is directly responsible for the $1.7 billion blow-out of the BER; for a wasted $5 billion simply through mismanagement; for a $1.2 billion blow-out of the computers in schools program, still only 300,000 of the 970,000 laptops having been delivered; for promising the 260 childcare centres, delivering only 38 centres and then abolishing the program; and for removing the opportunity for thousands of our regional kids to get access to a tertiary education by changing the rules on youth allowance. So today is indeed a significant day.

I came to this place with a determination to use my voice to ensure that the voice of regional people was heard, particularly those in the electorate of Riverina. It was my choice to not take a seat on the frontbench when it was offered. However, I did feel honoured and I appreciated the fact that I was approached, but I have never regretted my decision. I place on record my appreciation to the voters of the Riverina who have given me the honour and the privilege to have served in this parliament. I am deeply moved to have had such amazing support over the years.

I have been fortunate to have been able to deliver some really good outcomes for the Riverina. I feel that I can justifiably take full credit for the fact that RAAF Base Wagga with 1,000 jobs is now secured and that, rather than close as it was scheduled to do, we were able to expand it. Now all the Defence recruit training commences in Wagga Wagga. I feel very proud of this outcome and I will never forget the day that Prime Minister Howard rang me to tell me that I had been successful in presenting my case and that the base would stay open. I was also successful in securing millions of dollars in health program grant funding for two linacs in the Riverina Cancer Care Centre, which was built entirely through communities raising over $4 million from across the Riverina and has delivered some equity in treatment for cancer sufferers. I am so aware of the significance of having this facility in a regional community, having lost my brother, my father and my mother to this disease.

Charles Sturt University now offer veterinary science, and their remarkable new dental school will see dentists once again returning to practise in regional Australia. I am honoured that the veterinary science and animal hospital has been dedicated with my name.

It is exciting to get hundreds of millions of dollars for projects we have worked hard for, but it is equally exciting to deliver small projects that build and sustain our communities, such as walk-in walk-out medical centres, rural transaction centres and regional communications centres. Our Regional Partnerships program was something to be proud of in the way it delivered local answers to our local communities in the Riverina. Every dollar spent was truly accounted for and never ever questionable.

There have been many issues that have taken an exhaustive commitment. Thus was my five-year, three Assistant Treasurers battle trying to change legislation that would see hundreds of millions of dollars spent on water infrastructure replacement projects rather than going back to the Treasury as income tax for Murrumbidgee Irrigation after the privatisation of water companies in 1999. Winning the Coleambally Irrigation mutuality issue took a little longer still. But, again, we never gave up, and I really do need to thank former Assistant Treasurer Helen Coonan for not just accepting the advice that it could not be done and for listening to us. The Coleambally community are very special to me and I am very proud of my ‘Kay Hull’ bridge on the Sturt Highway over the main canal.

This takes me to our Pratt Water project in the Murrumbidgee. Richard Pratt was a man with vision before his time. Had we listened to and acted on Richard Pratt’s advice on water, then we would not be in the position that we are today—fighting to maintain food security to feed our nation and securing access to water for productive use.

During the years that I spent as part of the coalition government we faced a deluge of challenges. This government may think it has done it tough with the GFC. Well, let me say we on this side of the House know what tough really is! There was a new tax system in the GST, and the Labor Party did all that they could to instil fear into the hearts and minds of all Australians. We had the job of trying to overcome that extreme mischief, and we did it. We had to bear the collapse of HIH that impacted on industry and businesses right across our nation. Then UMP collapsed, leaving all of our medical practitioners without insurance, and our obstetricians left the workforce en masse because of the difficulty getting indemnity. Tony Abbott rose to the challenge at this time and underwrote those medical services when he was the health minister. Labor throughout the entire process were scathing of our government for doing that.

We then had the collapse of Ansett. Minister John Anderson made the courageous decision—with a fair bit of persuasion, might I add—to stake a regional carrier, and from that we have seen Rex emerge and win many awards, including one for the best regional carrier internationally. I am very proud of this significant success and of my dedicated Saab VHTRX in recognition of my fight for Rex. I also need to praise the efforts of QantasLink at that time for the sensational way that they supported regional areas through those difficult times.

We governed through the worst drought in 100 years. That required huge investments in EC and interest rate subsidies over 10 long years. We had to stand by the decision to send our troops to war in Iraq, which was terribly unpopular, and each and every member of the government at that time felt that pain personally. These are just a few of the big issues that one dealt with as a backbencher in government, and it was not easy. However, one of the hardest things I had to bear was the decision by the Howard government, and then later supported by the Labor Party, to sell the remainder of Telstra.

I argued my case strongly that we should structurally separate Telstra and sell off the retail arm, keep the wholesale section and build a state-of-the-art network and then rent it off to all of our competitive carriers. That sounds a bit familiar! It was a significant and disturbing time for me, and I must say that I had to endure quite a lot of hostility. I certainly was not popular in my electorate because my local daily paper had beat up a story that said I had missed a critical party meeting where the decision was made to sell Telstra. This was categorically untrue. I was at a meeting advocating for those with a disability. There was absolutely no notice on the party room agenda that Helen Coonan was going to come to the party room and declare that she was preparing a scope for the sale of Telstra. I was assured afterwards by the attendees at that party meeting that when Senator Coonan announced this in the joint party room there was no debate on it, there were no questions asked on what and when she was doing it and there was no vote on whether or not we should agree to sell Telstra. There was no discussion at all. But that did not stop my local press from running what I believe to have been the most offensive article that I have ever had to endure. If I was ever maligned unfairly and unjustly in my career it was by this one article. In fact, the issue and the legislation did not come back to the party room for discussion for some nine months.

Then came the day of the vote. I will never forget that day of despair. In the sitting weeks leading up to the vote I had to case the parameter of the chamber, as I knew that my crossing the floor would not be simple on that day. I knew that there would be pious amendments thrown in from the Labor Party that were not serious to them, or acceptable to the coalition, and that there could be many divisions. So I had to find a place where I could follow the proceedings but still make it into the House in a one-minute division. So there I was, stepping out the House and timing myself to the chamber and in through the door—and it just simply wasn’t working from anywhere! It was always taking longer than one minute. I bought a stopwatch and I kept walking and clicking the routes. I could not be in my office because it was in R.1.76 and it took much longer than a minute from there. I finally found a solution. I waited in the downstairs library, I watched what was happening in the chamber on the TV, and then I made my dash. Having timed myself over and over, I was willing my legs to carry me even though they felt like jelly. It was a one-minute division and I was coming down that walkway, the guard was holding the door open and mouthing, ‘Hurry, hurry,’ and I was praying, ‘Please don’t shut the door.’ And then I was inside, taking my seat on the opposite side to the party members that I loved and respected. I was in despair, but I knew my actions were right. When I look at what is happening today, I know I am vindicated.

The pain I felt that day has only been surpassed once since, and that was when I sat in this chamber and watched the Rudd Labor government dismantle the single desk on wheat. I watched this House take action that would damage people who were salt-of-the-earth Australians who had done absolutely nothing wrong but been faithful to a company that had been imposed upon them by a former government. They were Australians who faced the most gigantic challenges known to man at times and they overcame them, yet they were sold out here in this House. I could not help but cry tears of despair for them on that day here in this chamber. These battling farmers told us that the Iraqi AWB wheat sales were nothing to do with the single desk on wheat, and they were correct.

I have been given many opportunities in this place. I have had the privilege of meeting the Queen of England; the US President George Bush; the British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and the most spiritual of all men, the Dalai Lama. I have been encouraged to pursue my advocacy on behalf of those I believe to be the most marginalised people in Australia and across the world, and they are people who are living with HIV. I have been supported by this parliament in my four-year appointment to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Advisory Group on HIV-AIDS. Working with people living with HIV is not everyone’s ambition; however, I have found within me a skill that I would like to continue to cultivate. I have been confronted with some of the most shocking experiences and I know that I can make a small difference to the lives of some people living with HIV.

I believe that the work that I have done on committees has assisted people across Australia. The committee that I chaired—the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs—along with my very good friend and very capable deputy chair, Julia Irwin, handed down two very good reports. The report entitled Road to recovery was on substance abuse, andthe members of the committee were faced with overwhelming and confronting issues that were affecting the everyday lives of so many, and I thought I would never have to do anything more difficult. Sadly, that was not the case. We then went on to do the child custody inquiry and handed down the report entitled Every picture tells a story. This report has been mentioned in valedictories in the last few days. It set the standard in committee reports and is widely recognised as one of the best reports to have been delivered in this place. It was an inquiry that left many on the committee feeling that they might never be the same again. We saw the grief, the pain and the trauma of partner separation and the effect that it had on the children of those relationships. Every picture tells a story had 28 recommendations; the Howard government implemented all but one of those recommendations.

I chose to stand down as chair of the family and community affairs committee in order that I could join every committee that would deal with the recommendations, from 2004 to 2007. I did this and guided the legislation through the legal and constitutional affairs committee and then the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. We then introduced the legislation, and it was enacted in late 2006 and early 2007. It is extremely disappointing to see that the current Attorney-General is now looking to unwind that very good work that was recommended in a bipartisan report. He is committing an assault on the Federal Magistrates Court by moving the family law cases back into the Family Court. I have a strong commitment from the coalition that, if they are elected, they will immediately stop this action and leave family law where it is best managed—that is, within the Federal Magistrates Court.

Thank you to all of those fabulous, hardworking committee secretariats over the years; to the attendants who have become such good friends; to the Comcar drivers and the security staff; and, of course, to the valuable clerks, who have always been there to give advice and comfort. I thanked Ian Harris before he left the Clerk position, but I would like to give particular thanks to Bernard Wright. Thank you, Bernard; you have been such a wonderful confidant for me, and what I said upon Ian’s departure is exactly true—that they searched all over the world for a replacement for Ian only to find you, the best man for the job, right here in Australia, in Parliament House. Mr Speaker, you have been an accomplished and splendid Speaker of this House. In addition, you have given me significant encouragement in my endeavours on HIV, and I truly thank you for your genuine interest.

I appreciate all of the friendships that I have made in the House and I would like to correct the misconception that government and opposition members are always at war. I have the deepest and most abiding respect for many Labor members of parliament. In fact, I would consider the member for Throsby, Jennie George, to be one of the finest people I know; and again, in the last parliament, I valued my friendship with the member for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, among many others. Thank you to Jill Hall, the Government Whip, for the great working relationship we have had when counting on the floor of this chamber. Working with you, Alex Somlyay, whip to whip, has been so special. Also, to Nola, Patrick and the fabulous staff: you have all been a warm and most refreshing experience.

I have enjoyed my relationships with Liberal members, including the member for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire. I have been privileged to have known you all and to have worked so closely with such committed members of parliament. Members like Judi Moylan, such a good friend, have my absolute respect and admiration for their integrity and their commitment to their beliefs.

I would like to acknowledge an amazing woman here today. Emily Gardner has shared her home with me for almost 10 years. Thank you, Em; you are so very, very special. Your true spirit has shone in your battle with lung cancer. You are an inspiration of positive thought power, and this has been such a lesson in life for me, Em. Thank you so much.

The Nationals celebrate 90 proud years this year, and I have enjoyed every moment of my association with them. I have been honoured to have worked with National leaders Tim Fischer, John Anderson and Mark Vaile as deputy prime ministers and now with the outstanding and loyal Warren Truss as the Leader of the Nationals in opposition. I would like to say to my fellow Nationals members and senators how deeply I respect each of them for the energy, drive and determination they all display in representing the people of regional Australia. It is very tough being the small party that we are, but it is not the size of the dog in the fight; it is the size of the fight in the dog—and I am very proud of the size of the fight in each and every one of you. Regional Australia needs us, and I wish you all a resounding re-election, with even more Nationals joining you in our friendly party room.

The Nationals branch members have been such tireless supporters and have never once let me down. My campaign team over four elections have proven that they certainly have what it takes to get the Nationals elected. Thanks to all of those energetic and committed polling booth workers who have manned over 90 booths all these years. I know that we will also be successful in getting the Nationals candidate Michael McCormack seated in this House after the next election.

My dedicated staff members, both past and present, have served the Riverina electorate with distinction on every occasion. I have had the most amazing staff and I have sincerely appreciated each and every one of you for your loyalty and dedication not only to me but to the entire Riverina electorate, regardless of politics. In particular, I need to thank you for the way in which you have all treated those who suffer from mental health disorders; you have given them the respect and dignity that they deserve, and your patience and empathy have been uniquely compassionate.

Today I have in the gallery Angela, Donna, Tina, Lucy, Joe, and Gerrie, who was the Nationals whips clerk for over 30 years. Doris, who has been with me the entire time I have been a member, unfortunately could not be here today. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I could never have done it without your team work, expertise and attention to detail. You are all so precious to me and I am so proud of you.

I need to give thanks for the job that gave me the most amazing addition to my family. In 2000 I met a humble little Ethiopian man who had been forced apart from his wife and two little girls, aged four and two, by war atrocities in his country. He lived only for the day that he could be reunited with his family. Then he found that his young wife had lost her life and his children had no parents to guide them. This gentle man filled me with a need to make his dream come true. He had suffered so much but he had never lost hope. He continued to search for his children, even in the most dangerous of circumstances, and he needed help. The most incredible and long journey began—of finding a son who was not known of; of commencing the immigration process for three children and a fourth born in Addis Ababa; of reuniting the children with their father after 14 years and introducing him to his little grandson; of finding out a secret, that he had one more child, who had been born in the village; and of then reuniting him with the mother he had never known. Watching them learn about each other gave me the most amazing satisfaction. The story of this heart-warming journey is a book to some day be written.

Seated in this chamber with my husband, Graeme, who has always supported this special journey, is Feseha Takele. Together, we are the father and mother to Freweni, Tsega, Walta Aman, Aduny and now Abi, who came from Ethiopia last year and was welcomed into our family when he and Freweni married in August last year. Walta could not be here today as he has just returned from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan as an Australian soldier. Thank you for giving us a greater understanding and appreciation of the gift of life.

To my sister, Pam, and her husband, Harley, who are sitting here on the floor today: Pam, you are not just my dearly-loved only sister; you are my deepest and most cherished best friend. Thank you for taking such wonderful care of our mother during her battle with cancer whilst I was so busy doing this job. I will always be indebted to you. There is only one regret in my life here in this House and that is that I did not take leave and spend more time with mum as she fought the hardest battle of all and lost it.

Finally, I offer my gratitude and my deepest love and respect to my husband, Graeme, the long-suffering man who has kept everything afloat whist I have been committed to this role. Thank you for always being my rock and my greatest supporter. We have been a team for 35 years. We have had our children, started our business and worked through some tough times. You have spent many years now without companionship, and I look forward to re-establishing a normal life together, but just for the record: I will not be walking the greyhounds!

To my much-loved sons, Darren, Danny and Brett; their partners, my lovely and beautiful daughters-in-law, Tonie, Anne and Chloe; and my most cherished grandchildren, Nicholas, Joshua, Aaron, Emily and baby Ashton: there is nothing that compares with my pride in and the love I have for you all. Thank you for the unconditional love and support you have all given me over the years. Without your sacrifices and understanding, I could not have managed to commit myself so entirely to my work. I am eternally grateful for your devotion. I thank you for being here with me today and for never, ever leaving me to walk alone in the troubled times.

This chapter in the life of a girl from Guyra is now concluded. Thank you.

The SPEAKER —May the member for Riverina, as a true champion of social justice, fulfil all the visions that she has for her life beyond this place.