Rebekha Sharkie (NXT-Mayo) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech by Rebekha Sharkie, member for the South Australian electorate of Mayo, representing the Nick Xenophon Team.

Sharkie

Sharkie was the only member of NXT to win a seat in the House of Representatives at the July 2 election. She defeated former Liberal minister Jamie Briggs.

Sharkie polled 34.86% of the primary vote in Mayo. After preferences, she secured 54.97% of the two-party-preferred vote. On a Labor-Liberal basis, the Liberal Party would still have won but there was a 7.16% swing to the ALP. Greens and ALP preferences pushed Sharkie ahead of Briggs.

Mayo is classed as a rural electorate. It includes the Adelaide Hills, Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island. Towns include Bridgewater, Hahndorf, Mount Barker, Strathalbyn and Victor Harbor. Created in 1984, it was first held by Alexander Downer (1984-2008).

Sharkie, a paralegal, once worked as an electorate officer the man she defeated, Jamie Briggs. Ironically, Briggs defeated Bob Day for the Liberal preselection in Mayo when Downer retired in 2008. Day left and joined Family First. Whilst Briggs fell victim to the Xenophon party, Day won a second term in the Senate.

  • Listen to Sharkie (19m – transcript below)
  • Watch Sharkie (19m)

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Rebekha Sharkie, NXT member for Mayo.

The SPEAKER: Before I call the honourable member for Mayo, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House to extend to her the usual courtesies.

Sharkie

Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (19:41): It is indeed a great privilege to give my first speech in this great place as the member for Mayo. Mayo stretches from Springton at the southern tip of Eden Valley along the length of the Adelaide Hills, down the Fleurieu to the mouth of the mighty Murray and across the south coast, including the southern vales and the jewel in the Mayo crown: Kangaroo Island. In total it covers over 9,300 square kilometres, encompassing more than 35 townships, seven wine regions, highly arable farmland and incredible wildlife.

I am the first woman in 115 years to represent my region that has been known as Mayo since 1984. It was previously part of the former seat of Angas. This is a great honour bestowed upon me by my community of Mayo and I will remember this opportunity each and every day that I am our member.

I am the first member of the Nick Xenophon Team to be elected to the House of Representatives. We represent the sensible middle ground where decisions are made through community engagement and the application of common sense, not partisan political ideology. As I stand here I am reminded of a speech given in this place by the Hon. Don Chipp in March 1977 after resigning from the Liberal Party. He said:

The parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder whether the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence the present political parties and yearn for the emergence of a third political force, representing middle of the road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group.

Although spoken nearly 40 years ago, I believe those words are more relevant today than they were back in 1977. I look forward to more diverse representation, a growing crossbench and a vision of this place returning to what the Fathers of Federation intended: a place that is the genuine contest of ideas on how best to safeguard the future prosperity of Australia for all Australians.

Sharkie

We must as representatives of our nation move away from short-term fixes to sensible, informed and evidence based planning. The long-term prosperity of our nation depends on it. We must as a nation move away from language that is divisive and hurtful. ‘Lifters’ and ‘leaners’, the ‘taxed’ and the ‘not taxed’—this language does not bring us together; it divides us. It is not helpful, true or necessary. I was a single mum for many years. Parenting is, I believe, the hardest job in the world, and single parenting is doubly so. I was so busy trying to make ends meet, picking up as many hours as I could to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. I would have been heartbroken at that time to think that my government did not see value in me and my family, that I was not earning enough to be a contributor to our country. We must remember that the greatest group of ‘not taxed’ in our nation is our senior citizens, who continue to ‘lift’ and contribute enormously to our nation. We must remember that our senior citizens have already paid their fair share of tax. They, like any other Australian who happens to be at home or at work, are completely undeserving of such a label. Each of us has capacity to contribute to the nation, and that contribution should not be valued or devalued based on how big the dollar figure is on our taxation return.

As a South Australian, I want to talk candidly about the challenges facing my state. We helped to build this nation, and the manufacturing industry helped to build our great state, providing a great livelihood for many hardworking South Australians. My beloved South Australia is at a precipice. I am an avid student of our history and I do not believe there has been a more challenging time for South Australia since the Great Depression. South Australia was once the industrial powerhouse of Australia. We made the steel, built the fridges, washing machines and even clotheslines for generations of Australians. We built the ships and the submarines, and we built many of the cars too: Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Holden. My dad worked at Mitsubishi’s Lonsdale factory until it closed. He was very proud of the cars he made and earned a wage that ensured that my sister and I had a good education and everything we needed.

Sadly, the era of being able to purchase an Australian car from the assembly line at Holden is coming to a close, and I believe it is an untimely close that was exacerbated by politics, particularly the politics of ‘free market, no matter the consequence’. Gone with the ability for Australians to build and purchase an Australian car is the financial stability and livelihoods of thousands of South Australians. The impending closure of Holden is premature in the sense that there has been little time or opportunity for South Australia to successfully transition to new industries. Should Arrium’s Whyalla Steelworks also close, it will be disastrous for South Australia and Australia. We must, as a nation, continue to manufacture steel; to not support this industry is risking our nation’s ability to build quality infrastructure into the future.

Sharkie

I would like to draw to the parliament’s attention the issues facing rural Australia and, in particular, rural South Australia. In recent times, the political narrative has emphasised the need for Australia to be more agile and to be innovative. I believe rural Australia and in particular primary producers have led the way in innovation and ingenuity. By way of example, Kangaroo Island in my electorate is a place where, despite the enormous challenges brought on by its remoteness and geographic isolation, the businesses and community have shown themselves to be entrepreneurial, through collaboration and through the pursuit of excellence. As a result, they are leaders in artisan food production. And so our regional farming communities must be supported to be part of the future investment in innovation; the ‘ideas boom’ must include a regional and rural focus. There is enormous potential for young people, in particular, to develop new business opportunities in farming and food production, and I would urge the government to ensure that investment in innovation is not solely concentrated in our eastern capital cities.

By the year 2050 our world population is predicted to be 10 billion. The continent of Asia, our nearest neighbour, is expected to be 5.2 billion of this global population, with a growing middle class. With a global population of10 billion, Australia’sability to continue to produce some of the best quality food in the world will be our greatest asset.For South Australia and, in particular, Mayo, the growing global population will provide enormous opportunity, particularly given our diverse agricultural, horticultural and viticultural industries, which include apples, pears, cherries, grapes, dairy, grains and beef cattle production to name just a few.

In South Australia our dairy industry has shrunk from more than 667 farms to just 250 farms since deregulation. Dairy farmers work seven days a week, even at sunrise and sunset. Previous governments advocated for dairy deregulation and we now have an industry that is suffering for a multitude of reasons. I believe it is incumbent upon government not just to offer loans to farmers, which encourages more debt, but to properly assist this industry to have a sustainable future.

Sharkie

In recent years the value of South Australia’s agricultural industry has been overshadowed by mining. However, it is worth noting that in 2015 only 12,700 people in South Australia were employed in the mining industry, compared to more than 40,000 people in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries. Challenges for our farmers will include increasing food supply, encroaching urban sprawl and competing demands for water. We need to ensure that the policies implemented support rural Australia and do not make it harder to remain on the land.

With a growing global population and the world looking to feed its own countries, we will face increasing pressure of foreign purchasing of our most arable farm land. Whilst the Foreign Investment Review Board threshold has recently been lowered, I believe that the threshold is still too high and fails to protect our sovereignty. I am not against foreign investment in Australia, but investment and ownership are two different things, and once we sell the farm it will be near impossible to buy it back.

The other major challenge facing our nation is our aging population. A decade ago Australia had a population where 14.5 million people were aged under 50 years. Only 1.6 per cent of the population were aged 85 years or older. By the year 2050, the percentage of Australians aged 85 years or older is expected to increase to nearly seven per cent As a result, we will be faced with the challenge of a declining total workforce participation rate. Also, a decade ago we as a nation had five working people for every person aged over 64 years, and this will shrink to just three people. For South Australia, the oldest mainland state, we will feel the effect of this even more, and, for my electorate of Mayo, we will feel it the most. Victor Harbor is the town with the biggest population of over-75-year-olds in South Australia. Goolwa and Mount Barker are also within the top 10 of South Australia’s most elderly populations.

Sharkie

Whilst I have talked extensively about the high-quality farmland and produce within Mayo and the value of farming to our nation more generally, it must be highlighted that the agricultural industry is also an aging industry. Australian farmers are considerably older than other workers. In 2011, the median age for farmers was 53 years of age, and just 13 per cent of farmers were aged 35 years or younger. We need to ensure, as an industry, that it is attractive for young people to enter primary production. We need to ensure there are entry points for young people to build primary production businesses, that they are rewarded for their work and that they have confidence in their ability to farm into the future. Most importantly, this includes certainty in being able to access water.

On that note, I would like to touch upon the future of young people in Australia. I am a firm believer that, if the first experience a young person has when leaving education is to end up on the unemployment queue, then we as a nation have failed them. South Australia has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and the highest youth unemployment in mainland Australia. In the Adelaide Hills our official youth unemployment rate is more than 17 per cent. However, this is really a hidden number because, once a young person is in work for just a couple of hours, they are no longer counted as unemployed.

Realistically, when you combine youth unemployment and underemployment, you are talking about one in three young people not working as much as they would like to or are able to. The tragedy for South Australia is that we are losing our best and brightest young people. And even when they do not want to go, they are being pulled interstate because that is where the jobs are, and few ever return. This is unacceptable. A sustainable community, a vibrant community, let alone a sustainable state, cannot haemorrhage so much of its youth interstate. To ensure that this issue is properly addressed, we need to have a dedicated minister for youth. To not have a dedicated minister for youth in this parliament is an opportunity lost.

Sharkie

The reality is: if we value older Australians being looked after well into their retirement, we need to ensure we have full youth employment, not youth unemployment at more than double the mainstream unemployment rate. It is simply future-proofing. Contributing significantly to our youth unemployment rate is the reality that every year fewer and fewer entry-level jobs exist. When I left school, if you wanted to get a job, you did not need experience or qualifications; you could be a filing clerk or a junior hand. All were a good start. All led to something if you worked hard. Those jobs do not exist anymore.

We are also setting up young people to fail. University was free for young people in the 1970s and for most of the eighties. Now young people face huge costs to attend university, and the threat of deregulation of the sector and expensive course fees hang over their heads. This parliament must tackle housing affordability and all those policies, including negative gearing, that are making home ownership an elusive dream for too many young people.

In this parliament we need to address the lack of opportunities for young people if we want to address the effect of our aging population. Even simply providing traineeship opportunities in each and every one of our electorate offices and Senate offices would provide more than 650 career starts for young people over the term of a parliament. To quote author Jennifer Rayner in her book Generation Less:

A country that makes no room for the young is a country that will forfeit a fair future. This must not become Australia.

Sharkie

Fewer than 1,200 people since Federation have had the privilege of standing in the House of Representatives on behalf of their community. No person gets to this position alone, and so I have many people to thank who tirelessly supported me since my announcement as a candidate back in December 2015. Firstly, I thank Senator Nick Xenophon, who is here today, who not only gave me opportunity to run as a candidate but has been and continues to be a great mentor and a good friend. I thank my husband, Nathan, my confidant and best friend. I would not be here if it were not for your love and support. To my three children, Edward, William and Evelyn, thank you for your patience and understanding and also for believing in me.

I thank my parents, Tina and George—they are here tonight—for their courage to immigrate as a young couple with a baby on their knee to this great country. With little money in their pockets, they left their families and all they knew in the hope that they could give that baby, me, a better life. Thank you for picking South Australia as our home—although I do smile when I think that my mum selected South Australia from a map of Australia and thought the salt lakes of South Australia’s outback, especially Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens, would be good places to picnic on Sundays because they reminded her of the Great Lakes surrounding Michigan and Ohio in her home country of the United States. No matter what your methodology for choosing, you made the best choice.

Sharkie

And I thank the many hundreds of volunteers who stood in the rain for me and a special group of campaign volunteers who met with me each week to strategise and share ideas. I am grateful for your tenacity, political knowledge and vision, and I know for many of you it was at great personal sacrifice after decades of allegiance to a different political party.

Finally, I thank the people of Mayo. Thank you for coming out to the community forums I held across the electorate, to the sausage sizzles in parks in summer and the community centres we filled during winter and every country show. Thank you for sharing what matters to you; what matters to us. This is the start of our conversation and I very much look forward to continuing this dialogue that will lead to action for our community. Thank you for taking a chance on me, for changing our political landscape. There is no greater honour than to represent you in our nation’s capital. I will do everything I can to keep democracy as close as possible to our communities so that your voice is heard. My focus, my energy, my heart will be dedicated to making Mayo matter.

Sharkie

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