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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 114

Senator NASH (5:01 PM) —Thank you, Mr President. I am incredibly humbled and honoured to take up my position as a Nationals senator for New South Wales. The role of a senator is one of great responsibility. To serve the people of this great country is a privilege, and I am determined to fulfil the role to the best of my ability. We are incredibly fortunate to live in Australia—a land of peace; a land of democracy; a land of beauty; a land of opportunity; and a land where hope, determination and hard work mean that we can shape our future and build the paths on which we want to walk, both as individuals and as a people.

Australia is a nation that recognises its place in the world. As Australians, we recognise our responsibility to contribute to improving circumstances in the world. We do not shrink from that responsibility. It often takes great courage to stand up as individuals, as it takes great courage for us to stand up as a nation for the things in which we believe—democracy; the freedom of the individual; the right to free speech; the right to live without fear; the opportunity to pursue those ideals in which we believe without fear or favour; and the right to live together in happiness, harmony and safety. We should never forget how fortunate we are to live in this wonderful country of ours and how fortunate we are that we call ourselves Australians.

Australia is a nation of great economic strength and stability. I applaud the coalition government for delivering a strong and dynamic economy for all Australians. But for this nation to reach its full potential, I believe we must ensure we are a nation that encourages intellectual growth and rigour. We applaud economic success in this nation, but we also need to mature in our capacity to applaud intellectual achievement. Without intellectual contribution and respect for that contribution, I do not believe we can reach our real potential. Economic prosperity is the core of Australia’s growth. Ensuring intellectual prosperity will allow our country to grow and develop even further.

Australia is a young nation. In many ways we are a blank page on which we can write our own future. When creating that future, let us all be optimistic, ambitious and prepared to take risks. I believe we must ensure that those who have vision for this nation are allowed to prosper and grow. We do not have the philosophical history of many other nations—nations that were home to the likes of Aristotle, Plato and Descartes. Australia is a place that has the excitement and opportunity that being a young and fledgling society brings. A young society, I believe, should encourage the development of ideas, philosophy and vision from everyone in the community.

My role as a senator for The Nationals is as a champion of the bush. While I represent the people of New South Wales, my focus will be on those who live outside our major cities—those people in our rural and regional communities, whose set of circumstances and lifestyle are often markedly different from those who live in our urban areas. My role is to be an advocate for them and to ensure that we bridge the divide that we so often see between city and country. Make no mistake: I am not one who sees the negatives in our rural and regional communities. I focus on the positives—the many great and abiding things that combine to make those communities such wonderful places to live. But we need to recognise the potential social dislocation that may occur if we allow the divide between city and country to become a chasm.

We are fortunate to be blessed with a nation of stability. Our society is multicultural in nature. Although that sometimes brings complex challenges, I believe that we are a people who in the main are imbued with the essence of what it is to be Australian. We must appreciate the stability of this country as we compare ourselves with those countries around the world that are less fortunate. We cannot allow the peace and stability of our nation to be eroded by the tearing of the fabric of our society.

In 1999 the former Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, talked about the possibility of Australia becoming two nations. He said:

The sense of alienation, of being left behind, of no longer being recognised and respected for the contribution to the nation being made, is deep and palpable in much of rural and regional Australia today.

While there are areas and industries that are doing very well, there are many that are not.

This issue must be addressed by all of us who collectively make up Australia, if we are to be a whole nation, because we can and must do everything we can to draw alongside those facing great challenge.

Although those comments were made six years ago, they still hold true today. As a wife, mother and farmer from a rural area and as a senator for The Nationals, I am concerned about the divide between city and country.

Over the past decades, rural Australia has been affected by a revolution in technology, in much the same way, it must be said, that the Industrial Revolution affected British society. The shift we have seen away from dependence on manual labour, with advances in technology, has resulted in a significant demographic change in our regions. The population drift away from our smaller towns has impacted greatly on our rural communities, while our coastal communities feel the pressure of booming populations. That population decline has changed the balance in our rural communities, and the critical mass needed for the sustainable delivery of services and infrastructure has ceased to exist in many areas. I believe the challenge for our communities and government is to work together and find opportunity in change.

Mr President, we should never underestimate the importance of rural society to the stability of Australia. Primary production creates real wealth for this nation. We feed the nation. We clothe the nation. And we export about $25½ billion a year worth of farm products that contribute significantly to our strong economic growth. The farm sector itself accounts for 3.2 per cent of Australia’s GDP but its true importance becomes clear when you include the industries that support agriculture and the industries that depend on it. The farm sector supports 1.6 million jobs, or 17 per cent of the labour force. And, Mr President, 781,000 of those jobs are in our major cities. Many of the men and women who work in cafes and restaurants, the truckies and the waterside workers and the hospitality workers in the bars, clubs and pubs across Australia owe their jobs to the agricultural sector—a sector that produces many of the things that people in the city take for granted.

John Anderson was right to raise his concerns about the divide between city and country. We need to ensure that the imbalance is recognised and addressed, and government has a role to play in ensuring that that happens. This is not to advocate a handout mentality for rural and regional communities—far from it. I am advocating policies that ensure that there is fair and equitable opportunity for all Australians regardless of where we live. As legislators, we must always be aware of the consequences of our actions, of how the decisions we make affect the 20 million people who live in this nation. As Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird:

If you can learn a simple trick Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

We must be able to ‘put ourselves in another man’s skin’ to ensure we make decisions in the best interests of those we represent.

The constituency that The Nationals represents has changed dramatically over the years. We represent those seven million people outside our capital cities: people from the coast, regional towns, and rural and remote parts of this great nation—small business people, workers, battlers and achievers who are all under the wing of The Nationals because we deliver them a strong voice in this building. We are the only party in the federal parliament that exists solely to champion the cause of rural and regional people.

It is important to note that it is The Nationals who represent the poorest electorates in the country. It is often those communities who need the greatest support, and The Nationals make no apology for fighting as hard as we possibly can for them and making decisions accordingly. I will never be distracted by city interests, and I will be completely focused on having the best interests of our rural and regional communities at heart.

Mr President, there are many issues that affect the lives of those in our rural and regional communities. As a wife and mother in a regional community who has spent time in the work force, I am keenly aware of how difficult it can be to strike a balance when you are a working family. We see, in many instances these days, families where both parents are working and trying to juggle the competing demands of work and family. That juggle can be particularly difficult in the regions, where families are often affected by the tyranny of distance and a lack of services. We need to address issues like child care availability, in-home care for children, the provision of adequate medical services and education facilities, flexible workplaces and a recognition of the changing nature of society—all of which will contribute to getting the balance right between work and family.

I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the increasing role that grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren, and certainly I would have found my role in politics much more difficult if I did not have the wonderful support of my children’s grandparents, Joy Morton and Rob and Dorothy Nash.

Mr President, there is no doubt that the issue of health is a priority for people in our rural and regional communities, indeed for people right across Australia. Ensuring we have enough health professionals in our regions is an ongoing challenge and one we must continue to address. Encouraging rural students to attend university to study not only medicine but also other health vocations is something we must continue to do. And it is important that we recognise that general practitioners in rural areas are actually performing a specialised form of medicine in itself, and we need to make policy reflecting that.

I would like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of Indigenous health and the health related problems that we see in those communities. The life expectancy for Indigenous people is reported as 56 years for males and 63 years for females, compared to 76 years and 82 years for Australian males and females generally. To say that another way, an Aboriginal boy born today has only a 45 per cent chance of living to age 65 and an Aboriginal girl a 54 per cent chance. Despite the enormous gains in medical expertise of the last 20 years, their health remains at an unacceptable level. Regardless of our background, we are all entitled in this nation to the best health outcomes possible.

Mr President, I am acutely aware of the lack of support services provided for those who suffer mental illness and also the difficulties faced by their families and carers. There is not enough support in country areas for people suffering from social and economic stresses, and this can in turn lead to mental health illness and problems. There are fewer mental health services being provided in the regions as compared to the cities, and we need to address this. There needs to be greater acknowledgement of the problems being faced in this area and the effects on people and families and indeed whole communities. The high level of unresolved mental health issues is unacceptable and we need to accept that there are significant problems and look to find some solutions.

As a champion of the bush I will always seek to find ways to improve the viability of our rural communities. One such way is the development of a sustainable domestic biofuels industry. For many years I have been, and I will continue to be, a passionate advocate for a domestic ethanol industry. There is no doubt that the development of an ethanol industry would create jobs and opportunities in our regions. I will do all I can to support industries that will deliver real benefits to rural and regional Australia. An ethanol industry would provide significant environmental and health benefits and would reduce our reliance on fossil fuel. It would give grain and sugar farmers another market, and it would develop business opportunities in our regions.

The government currently has in place a policy target of 350 million litres of biofuel production by 2010. The effect of vehicle emissions, particularly in our cities, cannot be ignored. Given that the introduction of ethanol into our fuel mix would lower vehicle emission pollutants, it stands to reason that it is simply commonsense that, for the improved health of Australians, we as legislators support the development of an ethanol industry in this nation. Indeed, the AMA recently put forward their view to the Prime Minister’s Biofuels Taskforce that they strongly support the use of ethanol in our fuel mix as part of the solution to improving the health outcomes of Australians.

Many countries around the world pursue the use of ethanol—indeed, they not only use it but actively embrace it. In the United States alone, last year 13 billion litres of ethanol was used. The list of countries using ethanol is ever growing, including the US, Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, India, China, Japan, Colombia and the EU. Governments in all of those nations have recognised the importance of this industry. Australia is lagging behind, and it is not good enough.

I would like to acknowledge the support that The Nationals leader, Mark Vaile, has shown for this innovative industry for many years and congratulate him for his vision with regard to the development of the biofuel industry. To date, the four major oil companies have done very little to embrace the use of ethanol, to the detriment of this nation. I believe the time has come, for the benefit of all Australians, for a mandatory target to be put in place to ensure that the 2010 biofuels target is met.

There is no doubt that the issue of telecommunications is a vital one not only for our rural and regional communities but for all Australians. Earlier this year I chaired The Nationals Page Research Centre’s inquiry into regional telecommunications. I would like to acknowledge Troy Whitford, the centre’s executive director, for the comprehensive work he did in preparing the report. I believe the telecommunications package put forward yesterday by the government addresses those issues of competition, service delivery and infrastructure funding that the Page Research Centre identified earlier this year. One of the most important aspects of the package is the requirement for operational separation of Telstra, which will allow greater transparency and competition and will ultimately deliver better services to the bush.

In spite of what some might say, just saying, ‘Don’t sell Telstra,’ or ‘Do sell Telstra,’ will not fix services in the bush. What will fix services is ensuring competition, ensuring that business can invest in telecommunications in the regions and ensuring that there is ongoing government funding to assist in the event of market failure. We need to ensure that a solid platform is in place to deliver the technology that will take us into the future. The Copper Age was 5,300 years ago, and that is where copper belongs. We need to embrace optic fibre, wireless and satellite so that we have the right mix of infrastructure to take us into the future.

The Nationals led the debate on the need for comparable levels of telecommunications services, pricing and infrastructure to be provided across the country. Through the hard work of The Nationals, especially Mark Vaile, and John Anderson before him, we have again delivered for rural and regional communities through the $3.1 billion regional telecommunications plan announced yesterday.

There are so many people I would like to thank, but there just is not time to thank them all. They know who they are, those people who are so special and who have helped me so much on my political journey. There are a few people, though, I would especially like to thank. Kay Martin, Kel Harpley, Ian McColl and Owen Parker, I thank you all so much for your belief in me and your unwavering support. Ian Armstrong, thank you for your wise and very honest advice and your friendship for many years now. I cannot let the moment pass without acknowledging the role you are playing in making the road over the Blue Mountains in New South Wales a reality. You have my total support for that. To two people I would not be here without, Michael Priebe and Kris Henderson: what a road we have travelled. Thank you both so much. I would also like to thank my mother, Joy, who is an inspiration, my sisters, Sara and Trudy, and my boys, Will and Henry, who are not just wonderful children; they are my great mates. Finally, to my husband, David, whose unfailing support and belief in me has made it possible for me to walk the path of political life: thank you so very, very much.

Australia’s economic strength not only enables us to take our place on the world stage as a strong and viable nation; it is what enables government to deliver for those who need support. Without a strong productive sector in this nation, there is no capacity for government to deliver the necessary health, education and social requirements of our society. It is quite a moment to stand here and deliver my first speech. I am incredibly proud to be in this place, and I am committed to doing all I can in my role as a senator to ensure a strong and prosperous future for our rural and regional communities—indeed, a strong and prosperous future for all Australians.