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Monday, 18 February 2002
Page: 354

Ms PANOPOULOS (4:45 PM) —In congratulating you on your election, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I say what a great honour and special privilege it is for me to stand here today representing the people of Indi. I have been humbled by the support and affection shown to me by the people of the North-East. I am particularly mindful that they were subjected to a vigorous campaign in the recent federal election and ultimately decided to entrust me with the responsibility of being their voice in this House. The people of Indi and their concerns will always be my principal priority. It is my task to repay their trust in the years ahead, and it will be by my deeds not my words that I will be judged.

I would like to speak today about the people of the North-East and about the principle which I hold dearest in political life and which I stridently believe should be the guiding light of any Australian government. The principle is the creation, protection and encouragement of individual opportunity. I am a Liberal because I believe in the innate right of the individual to work, strive and succeed without the burden of unnecessary government regulation or intimidation by special interests. I am a Liberal because I believe in the confidence and the ambition of Australians to take care of themselves and those who depend upon them. And I am a Liberal because the function of government is to help create and maintain an environment that allows people to grow and flourish, not drain people's potential by consigning them to dependence on welfare.

I learnt early on how important it is to speak out against those who would take away people's freedoms, who challenge the role of the family, and who would make people reliant on government and not on themselves. My greatest inspiration in my life has been my family. My parents left a harsh life on the land in Greece to come to this country and build a family and home of their own, a small business and a secure future. They worked in factories for over 20 years and I can still remember, as a special treat during school holidays, driving with my father to the Vegemite factory to collect my mother at the end of her evening shift. It was hard work and many personal sacrifices which eventually allowed them to open a business of their own while raising their three children. Working next to my parents in the family milk bar when I was young showed me first-hand how hard you need to strive to achieve your goals and often how hard you need to fight to keep what is yours. I am grateful that my parents came to this country and harnessed the opportunities it offered them.

Just as my parents were attracted to Australia by the prospect of a secure family life, so it has been for the people of the North-East over generations and why so many people from across Australia continue to resettle in Indi. The opportunities offered by the North-East are why they have stayed— young families starting out, those attracted to new businesses and new jobs, others on farms, and older Australians looking for a comfortable retirement. What can be said about the people of the North-East is their unfailing determination, their initiative, their belief in the power of community and their ideal of helping one another. It is the truest form, it is the essence, of the Australian character. It is the defining quality which reflects the very best values of the Australian people. I will stand up for Indi because I share these values. I will be there for the people of my electorate. I will represent those who feel alienated from politics, the political parties and politicians—people who want little from politics and government except to be acknowledged, understood and given a fair go.

Indi is a Federation seat and representation began with the distinguished Sir Isaac Isaacs, who later became the first Australian-born Governor-General. Indi was also represented by a Prime Minister in the colourful figure of Black Jack McEwen. Since Federation, Indi has returned only two Labor members for a combined total of nine years in more than a century. The second of these was Paul Jones, who was catapulted unexpectedly to Canberra in the election of 1928 unopposed when the Country Party member Robert Cook mistook the closing hour of nominations. The Border Morning Mail of 20 October 1928 noted:

Those who were present at the close of nominations were astonished and amazed to learn that the seat had been lost by a simple omission.

I do not intend to follow Mr Cook's lead. Nor will I ever regard any future election result as a foregone conclusion. Indi has now had continuous Liberal representation since 1977, and I am grateful to Ewen Cameron, who began our current period of representation. Ewen was much valued and loved not only as a local member but also by his parliamentary colleagues, many of whom are still serving in this House. Ewen was the first member for Indi to voluntarily retire from the seat, and Lou Lieberman followed his example. I hope that I will be the third.

I am fortunate to have the most stunning electorate in Australia. It is bound by Euroa and the Victorian Alps in the south, and the Murray River in the north, stretching from Corryong to Yarrawonga. In Indi we are the custodians of great Australian legends. You can walk Ned Kelly's last steps at Glenrowan, follow his trail across the North-East, pay homage to the Weary Dunlop memorial in the Benalla Rose Gardens, or visit Jack Riley's resting place at Corryong. For those in the House who are unaware, Riley was the inspiration for Banjo Paterson's Man From Snowy River. Nobody embodies the sentiment of service to others like Weary Dunlop, born in Wangaratta and raised in Benalla. It was not only in the hellish conditions of war that he seized the opportunity to care and look after others. He also made compassion and welfare for ex-prisoners of war his lifelong calling. Like Weary, the people of Indi have recognised the importance of using initiative and creating opportunities. Through their determination, they have made the region economically successful and diverse. Whether you are looking for Whiskas cat food, Australian-made ammunition, army camouflage, Brown Brothers Pinot Grigio, or Milawa cheese, you can be sure it comes from Indi.

We also contribute our share of timber, tobacco, thoroughbred horses and fruit. For those with a taste for the arts and the good life, you can join 35,000 other Australians on Melbourne Cup weekend and enjoy Australia's foremost and internationally recognised jazz festival in Wangaratta, and follow up with a visit to one of our many award winning wineries and gourmet eateries.

The people of the North-East are known for their personal enterprise. In the real world, it is not government which is driving the economy and job growth, or increasing the living standards of Australian families. Good government can create the conditions which allow this to occur, but it is the guts and determination of individuals in small and medium sized businesses who capitalise on the opportunities presented to them. A recent and stunning example of personal enterprise at its best is in the family business, Rice Graphic Images, based in Wodonga. Among many other commercial successes, they took on a job that no-one in Melbourne could do, and that was to paint the three-dimensional Channel 7 logo that now sits at the front of Colonial Stadium in Melbourne. They have also tendered for and won major contracts with Patrick Stevedores and Origin Energy.

For me, and many other Australians, there is no such thing as government enterprise or private enterprise. There is only individual enterprise. Living proof can be found in Bernie Smith, watchmaker extraordinaire from Tallangatta. Together with a mathematician friend, he took on a project which had been shelved by the CSIRO—and developed a turbulent flow measurement probe that is now used for research in universities around Australia, as well as at NASA.

From the beginning, the people of the North-East have had to be innovative. They have found opportunity in adversity, and have shown leadership in the creation of local solutions to nationwide challenges. The development of the first Australian breed of cattle, the Murray Grey, arose from the drought of 1902, which forced the Sutherland family of Tholongolong in the Upper Murray to introduce new stock, amongst which there was an almost white cow. Breeding with an Angus bull produced mulberry calves. The Sutherlands and later the Gadds further promoted what became known as the Murray Grey. This breed is, among other things, valued for its marbled meat quality, making it a highly successful export into Asian markets.

I wish to take this opportunity to present a number of goals I wish to help the people of Indi achieve. There are a number of key issues upon which my constituents are entitled to expect action from me and the government. Most importantly, they deserve national and economic security for themselves and their children. Equally, they deserve a basic level of services on par with those in capital cities. The need is particularly felt in the smaller towns and hamlets of Indi. These communities will only survive if governments make a conscious decision to ensure that they do. I do not speak of protecting and preserving a critical part of Australian life for sentimental reasons. Nor is it a call for social welfare and government funded survival. Rather, I am talking about consistency and equality of opportunity. The spirit and character which pervades these towns and hamlets is what has built Australia.

It is so easy for bureaucrats to uncaringly pull the plug on services and amenities which are critical to the region's survival, simply in the name of efficiency. The people of Indi, whether they live in towns or in isolated communities, do not want special attention; they simply want the same basic facilities that are taken for granted in metropolitan Australia. Today, this means straightforward services like a phone that works—and I think we are all aware of the tragedy which occurred recently in my electorate. The requirements of the people of Indi also include a real teller across the counter, decent schools, safe roads and reliable country medical services. In this House, we also need to be focused on tomorrow's challenges, such as broadband information services to schools and homes, regardless of location.

Of great importance, particularly to my South Australian colleagues, is the great environmental contribution that the North-East makes, not only by providing 38 per cent of the total water supply to the Murray Darling Basin but also by having the highest readings of nutrients and turbidity, making it vital to the health of the Murray River. What we need is a focus on the sources of water degradation rather than solely on its treatment. I call on members of this House to look beyond their local and state interests and beyond the short term, to support genuine national solutions which protect the opportunities of future generations. If we look to common interests, then this House can genuinely represent the Australian people—and I will personally give my commitment here today to that aim.

I am excited to be living through a period of significant change in the political landscape—a landscape that has given a voice to mainstream Australia. For too long, many politicians had been unduly influenced by so-called opinion leaders in our society, who consider they know best about Australia's future, and for whom the election process is merely an appendix. That attitude, I am happy to say, seems to be declining everywhere. New and powerful tides of opinion have emerged all over the country. Parties old and new have sought to respond to them. The national electorate has found a new confidence and willingness to speak out. Long may their voice be heard.

The extent of this change is enormous, and would not have been possible without the leadership of the Prime Minister, who has made good the trust the Australian people have placed in him. I am proud to stand in this House as a member of the Howard government, which has as its core belief the value of standing up for individuals and individual opportunity rather than bowing to sectional interests. John Howard's success, and that of the Liberal Party in recent years, is a vindication of belief in everyday, working Australian people, not cosy deals to appease groups who dwell on the fringes.

In contributing to the legislative process in this House, it is my responsibility and promise to be guided by the people of Indi and not seek acclaim from self-appointed arbiters of the public interest, who invariably reside within a chauffeur driven ride of the Sydney or Melbourne CBD. I will endeavour to ensure that the sovereignty of the Australian people is strengthened and not eroded. We should make our own decisions about our own country and judge carefully those who offer the nonsensical proposition that Australia is anything other than a fundamentally decent, open and generous nation.

Like many of the people I talk to in Indi, I am concerned about the extent to which we Australians allow our thoughts to be channelled to negativity and self-criticism regarding our nation. Although I have been active in politics all my adult life, I would not have taken the decision to run for parliament, and dedicate a significant part of my life to serving the constituents of Indi and Australia, had I not believed it was possible to succeed in the fight for the things in which I believe.

One of those fights, which for me began in my time at Melbourne University, is the fight for freedom of and freedom from association. Whether they be student unions or trade unions, they must earn the subscription of each and every member and not arrogantly disregard the need to prove their worth. The issue here is not the merits or otherwise of the organisation but whether a person's freedom of choice is a right or an optional extra. I look forward to continuing the pursuit of individual freedom as a member of this House.

In a democracy it is not possible, of course, to win 100 per cent of the time. What is important is to never ever give up fighting for your beliefs, no matter what attacks may come your way. Up until 6 November 1999, it had been my fervent hope that the muted voice of the majority of Australians could impact government policy and the structure of our institutions. With the result of the last constitutional referendum, my hope was realised in the most striking way. My solemn promise to the people of Indi is that I will stand up for them and their way of life, just as I have stood up for these other issues over the years.

This being my maiden speech, there are a number of people whose inspiration and support I would like to acknowledge here today. I have noticed in my brief experience of public life that intellectual honesty and independent thought can be a rare commodity. Sir Harry Gibbs, Dr Colin Howard and Sir David Smith are men whose intellectual ability and integrity have not only inspired me but have proven that not all public figures succumb to petty vanities driven by deprivation of the spotlight. As a relatively young Australian, I am grateful for the hope that they have given me.

I thank my family for their unconditional love, support and wisdom. To my mother, I particularly thank you for living your life according to your Christian beliefs. Your strength of character has been an example to me and an inspiration to look beyond the hollowness of material possessions and to focus on what is right rather than what is easy or fashionable. I thank my father for his rugged individualism and for teaching me to disregard the urgings of the mob and to think and act according to my conscience.

I am pleased to have in the gallery my former boss, Senator Rod Kemp, and many friends from across Australia. For over 15 years you have given me wise advice, assistance beyond the call of friendship and, in difficult times, the ongoing encouragement and loyalty that is so uncommon in politics. I particularly want to thank four people who have been there from the very beginning: Susan Bruce, Gerry Wheeler, Les Timar and Alastair Furnival. To my local Liberal Party branch members and supporters, some of whom are also in the gallery today, I thank you for choosing me as your standard-bearer and for slogging away with limited resources for over a year on a very difficult campaign. I miss the camaraderie of that struggle, but the next campaign is less than three short years away.

Without people like you, bound together in the belief that the Liberal Party represents the values and hopes of mainstream Australians, our party would lack vibrancy and soul. I will not forget that the Liberal Party belongs not to the officials and to the elected representatives but to each and every member who makes a sacrifice for the cause. And finally I want to reiterate my gratitude to the people of Indi. I will not squander the opportunity you have afforded me. I promise to be your strong voice in Canberra.