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Wednesday, 8 August 2007
Page: 125

Senator FISHER (4:58 PM) —Thank you, Mr President. I have arrived here as the fourth female Liberal senator for South Australia since Federation. I will not dwell on that, but I will do much with it. I am honoured to have known and indeed worked with two of those three predecessors. It was the late former senator Jeannie Ferris who cemented in my mind the idea that I could aspire to this place. If I can even part repay that debt by emulating some of the great work that Jeannie did, particularly her voice for rural and regional Australia, then I will be particularly proud. Of course, I fill the vacancy created by the retirement of former minister and senator Amanda Vanstone, whose joie de vivre was equalled by her record as Australia’s longest-serving female cabinet minister. That alone is testimony to her ability and impact.

All of us come to this place hoping to build better lives for the people and our communities. I am no exception. My history, both family and professional, is steeped with community interaction in many of its guises. These communities are continually changing. Their composition, the people who comprise them, changes. The external factors—public perception, market forces, political will, cultural issues, regulatory environments, the natural environment and technology—constantly flux. This creates challenges for community members and for anyone who seeks to represent them. For a federal government, that is protecting and advancing the interests of the nation.

Our family and heritage makes a rich tapestry of each one of us. My family includes a string of community leaders, from my great grandfather, the Hon. GW Miles MLC, who for 34 years, to 1950, served as an Independent member in the Western Australian parliament for the North Province, as it then was—as was everything north of the 26th Parallel. My female ancestry carries a legacy of service to the WA branch of that bastion of country community, the Country Women’s Association, from branch president to state president. I am proud that my mum, the eldest of five daughters, left school early to rejoin the farming community to work the family farm with Pa. Mum, Dad, my brother Rob and his family are all here today. They still work that family wheat and sheep farm in Western Australia’s wheat belt.

I am proud too, that our family farm, Redlands, was the childhood home of two of Australia’s female senators—just a decade or so and a political policy or two apart. As for me, a farm girl, country and city educated, I realised whilst studying law at the University of Western Australia in the mid-eighties that I had a deep desire and ability to make a community difference. A catalyst for that realisation was my aunt Jo Vallentine, my mum’s sister. In 1985, the year I graduated in law, my aunt Jo Vallentine began her time in this place as an Independent senator for Western Australia. I share my Auntie Jo’s passion for community causes, and I am fiercely proud of her lifelong commitment to those causes before, during and after politics. It is a small matter that our solutions for those causes can be rather far apart on the political spectrum! It was those people and many others who built those communities and set the values which I and most Australians hold dear.

Aside from the communities of politics, many of those communities so championed by my family and by me in my career thus far are fighting to survive and prosper. Community takes a ranges of forms. There are communities of ideas, interest, association, occupation, communications and geography. This range in form results in a range of community faces, from those at book clubs to those at churches, industry organisations, farmers federations, workers unions, metropolitan shires and rural and regional communities. Since Federation, both the form and face of community have been evolving. Community organisations and interest groups, be they volunteer based or membership and subscription based, face the same paradigms and challenges. For many, it is a continual juggle between free services and services for sale. Many are essentially not-for-profit yet must find a way to survive to support, foster or represent their members’ interests because, without those organisations, those members’ interests become subservient to others.

Of global necessity, the workplace community is continually changing. Liberal values have given workplace stakeholders—worker and boss—much needed choice about their workplace destiny. Like other communities of today, they juggle the work-life balls. But there is an unsubtle and constant refrain from certain quarters, saying, ‘We work too long and we work too hard, to the detriment of our family and leisure life.’ Critics of Liberal policies claim that the debate about finding the best fit between these demands has given flexibility to the workplace at the expense of the home. Unfortunately, much debate overlooks that today’s workplaces give to workers’ lives in so many subtle ways. At the very least, many workplaces are the unsung heroes of helping workers deal with the everyday issues of family life. Let this debate simply acknowledge that the work-life flow is not one way and formulate policies for the future on that basis.

Still on the changing workplace community, perhaps the union movement’s bid to reverse the slump in unionism comes on the back of unions’ failure to stay abreast of workers’ changing aspirations. United they stand; divided they fall. Maybe today’s unions have mistakenly equated ‘divided they fall’ with ‘individually they fall’. The union movement is in charge of its own destiny. Just as there is a role for organisations to service the business community, there remains an ongoing role for organisations to service workers.

Perhaps the most momentous changes to come are in Indigenous communities. Their public cry for help—urgent and unflinching help—is different from those of the past. Like many country people, my early school years were spent alongside Aboriginal children. Many were our friends. Of course, they were different—every one of them could play sport, and they always won. Those were the days when I did high jump—scissor kick it was, given that the landing pad was a sand pit. I was not bad at it, but whilst I reached a terminal height with scissor kick, the Aboriginal playmates did not seem to. Rather, they reached an age when they seemed to lose interest and stop being about. As kids, we accepted it as the way things were. In hindsight, those were the beginnings of the situation we have today. Of course, some of those then kids are now solid members of the local community. But others come to our attention from time to time and in other than a positive way.

The Australian community passed through a period when it was not politically correct to identify and pursue problems where potential solutions were deemed paternalistic. In this we failed our fellow Australians. It is refreshing that the Howard government in cooperation with many Indigenous stakeholders is tackling these issues publicly and transparently. As progress is made with the Howard government initiatives, there will be business leaders who want to reflect upon experiences like mine and who will want to help. But the time for just words has passed. I am keen to work with business and others who are offering their expertise to come up with actions to deliver. We must stabilise this national emergency and extinguish this blight on our standing as a First World nation and allow all Australians to aspire to an improved life.

No community survives for long without water, and water is a communal asset. As an irrigator on our farming operations, I am acutely aware of its value and the fierceness of the debate about its future. For the first time in our history, we are using almost all of the easily tapped and cheap forms of water. We do have the water to support increased population provided we manage our collection, storage and use efficiently. We are on the way to doing this. Securing supplies for our cities and regional centres goes hand in hand with securing adequate supplies for efficient and responsible irrigation use. With continued application of mind and effort we will substantially improve water use efficiency by redirecting it to higher valued uses and implementing sophisticated recycling and reuse solutions. What we must not do is confuse low water use with efficient water use.

Turning to the community of the marketplace: like many I observe the might of conglomerates, their interaction with smaller players and how this impacts our communities. This issue is broader than supermarkets, grocers, butchers and bakers but it is illustrative. Doing away with the deli on the corner sees further corrosion of community. The conglomerate exertion of power risks distorting the normal negotiating position between retail giants and their suppliers. Neither smaller retailers nor smaller suppliers can hope to compete in this environment. We should not be telling supermarkets and retail chains what prices they must pay or offer, but I am keen to see this government continue to identify and reduce opportunities for unfair competition.

Multinationals spearhead debate about plant and seed rights for any genetically modified seeds. Australia, a relatively small market in almost all vegetables and fruits and many broadacre crops, needs to remain internationally competitive and be careful to maintain access to the best genetics available. Perhaps we need to be more circumspect about how we deal with research leading to licensing or registration of various genetic lines. The cost alone of doing research, particularly that already done overseas, can be prohibitive and counterproductive. We could be more accepting of research from others which meets internationally accepted standards.

The power of big over small: it is the job of government to provide policy frameworks that protect against might becoming right.

Now to the changing face of farming: a distinction between country and city is an inevitable and identifiable part of community. In the country, you do not really choose whether to be part of the community, you just are. The only way you can choose not to be is to leave. I am reminded of Lucindale Lore in the south-east of South Australia, where my sister and brother-in-law manage our farm and run their farm, as well as play a key part in the running of the south-east field days in South Australia. Lucindale community is just that—community. These are days of low unemployment, thanks largely to the policies of the Howard government, but Lucindale has zero unemployment. Although, colleagues, a while back, Lucindale had one unemployed chap. He fronted at the local hotel with his benefits cheque for cashing but the hotelier refused to cash the cheque and offered him a job instead. It was back to zero unemployment the next day when the chap fled town.

So, how are country communities changing? They have always ebbed and flowed with the prosperity of the local farmers and businesses but, more than that, regional communities are changing as the face of farming is changing. Right now, farmers face issues like a high Aussie dollar, high land and input costs, capitalisation issues, labour costs, and the lure of other industries. Farmers both young and ‘old’ are being beckoned by the mining dollar—the luckier are managing to juggle farm work with mining work. Other traditional family farmers are getting bigger, as they buy out their neighbours. But traditional family farms need to do more than get bigger as an alternative to getting out, to do more than earn an off-farm income; they need to run what has traditionally been their home as a business. They are seeing their way to doing this—as one South Australian Eyre Peninsula farming mother put it recently, she created a farm uniform so that her family looked professional.

Traditional family farms are increasingly giving way to new breeds of farmers. Mum and dad have expanded our farm over the years, but brother Rob, sister-in-law Fiona and family may be the last to farm it in the traditional way. Neighbouring farmland, about 120 kilometres from Perth, is being acquired by hobby farmers. The family needs to contemplate that prospect; farming organisations need to predict and plan for it; and governments need to encourage early debate about it.

New breeds of farmers are motivated differently from traditional farmers—corporate farmers can be driven by shareholders, and hobby farmers by non-commercial aspirations. This can lead to competing interests, and a need for the traditional farming community to ensure that the ears of the world realise that whilst all can lay claim to the farmer title, farmers today are more diverse than even a decade ago. Farmers themselves need to realise that their farming community is not as homogenous as it once used to be. And this government has recognised that over time its processes and policies need to interact differently with farmers and rural communities.

Liberal values are wholly consistent with the notion of the importance of family and community—encouraging the thoughts, words and deeds of individuals to build family and community. Liberals stand for a framework which allows individuals, families and communities to live and prosper. It is about government by leading rather than interfering or dictating. I believe in and will fight for a policy environment that will support progressive community organisations. Bereft of that belief and commitment, I could not have so loved my work spanning more than a decade for membership organisations—the Western Australia Farmers Federation, the New South Wales Farmers Association and Business SA. But I will also challenge those organisations and others like them to help themselves and I will work from this place to help create an environment in which they can do so.

As a servant in this chamber, I will do what I can to preserve the good and progressive aspects of current community initiatives, keeping abreast of the changing external environment. I want to be part of a parliament that builds our community’s future and to ensure that our parliament fosters government which shows the way, not gets in the way. Rather than politicians with words and policies that sound good, Australians deserve politicians with policies that do good. That is what I will strive to deliver.

Today sees more than 10 years since a South Australian Liberal woman rose to give her first speech in this chamber. Thank you to my Senate colleagues, my party, my family, my friends and supporters, my husband, John—my rock—and to the South Australian community who I represent in this place.