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First Speech: Sussan Ley (Liberal, Farrer-NSW)

This is the first speech to the House of Representatives by Sussan Ley.

Ley was elected in 2001 as the Liberal member for Farrer in New South Wales.

First speech by Sussan Ley, Liberal member for Farrer.

Sussan LeyMr Speaker, I move:

That the address be agreed to.

I am honoured to have been able to move the motion for the address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s speech, on behalf of the parliament and of the government. I thank my colleagues who are present in the chamber today. I thank the electors of Farrer for sending me here as their fourth representative in the federal parliament. For me, this is a moment in time to capture and to treasure, and I am conscious of the great responsibility I have to represent here all of the people of Farrer.

I carry forward a fine Liberal tradition in this seat. The first member for Farrer, Sir David Fairbairn, was elected in 1949 and served in this chamber until 1975, nine of those years as a minister. Sir David saw active service during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. During the nine days wait for the seat of Farrer to be decided, I was delighted to receive a letter from Sir David’s grandson, Daniel Goonan, saying that the family was sure that their forebear was smiling down upon me, looking forward to Farrer returning to Liberal hands.

Sir David was a farmer and aviator. He became Minister for Air. I feel a particular affinity with him as I too am a farmer and a pilot. I am told that, shortly after gaining his seat and flying up for the opening of parliament, David decided to dive-bomb Old Parliament House. The Speaker remonstrated with him, and a lively debate broke out as to how far into the airspace above Parliament House the Speaker’s jurisdiction actually extended. Mr Speaker, should I decide to fly over the House, I hope you will regard it as an expression of high spirits and a celebration of continuity in Farrer between aviators.

I pay sincere tribute to the second member for Farrer, the Hon. Wal Fife, who served his country with distinction both in the New South Wales parliament for 18 years and in the federal parliament as the member for Farrer from 1975 until the seat’s redistribution in 1984. Wal Fife too was a minister of the Crown and a fearless protector of his rural constituency.

It is important for me to acknowledge the part played in the ‘new look’ Farrer by my immediate predecessor, ‘the man with the hat’, the Hon. Tim Fischer. Mr Fischer served in Vietnam and became the member for Sturt in the New South Wales parliament. He was elected to federal parliament in 1984. He became Leader of the National Party, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade. None can doubt the contribution he made locally and on the world stage. As I travel the dusty back roads of my electorate, especially around Boree Creek, he comes into my mind as the local member who was always on the go. It is imperative for us to continue his commitment to developing markets for Australian producers. That is what will allow rural communities to survive.

At the most recent election, the Farrer electorate boundaries were altered again to include the shire of Tumut, which has been so capably represented by my valued colleague Alby Schultz. Our styles may be a little different but I hope I can be as effective an advocate. I warmly welcome each and every person in Tumut, Talbingo, Adelong, Batlow and Brungle into the electorate of Farrer. They bring to the electorate some of the history of the Snowy Mountains scheme, as well as rapidly expanding forest products industries.

Before I go on, I note that the Governor-General on behalf of the government acknowledged the 50th jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. I was born a British citizen and I am now proudly a citizen of Australia, and the Queen is Queen of Australia. The jubilee is a personal celebration which we celebrate because the Queen in her person has led an exemplary life of public duty and is a model for all who seek to serve the public. It is well to congratulate her at a time of discussion about the manner of parliamentary debate and when politicians are asked to consider the duties as well as the rewards of public life. I take this opportunity to add the congratulations of the citizens of Farrer to those of the Governor-General and the government.

The area I represent is magnificently diverse. It covers some 96,000 square kilometres and stretches from Tumut to Wentworth, from Mount Kosciuszko to the South Australian border, from snow, tall timbers and orchards to wide western plains. The Murray River is our southern boundary and we include the shires of Albury, Hume, Culcairn, Holbrook, Tumbarumba, Tumut, Lockhart, Urana, Berrigan, Jerilderie, Deniliquin, Murray, Conargo, Wakool, Balranald and Wentworth.

I am delighted that friends and supporters from Deniliquin have joined us here today, in the gallery, and I am grateful for the support this town gave me during the campaign. I must also express my heartfelt appreciation to my campaign manager, Angus Macneil, who has worked selflessly for the Liberal Party and who believed in me and without whom I would not be standing here today.

One thinks of Farrer, and its residents imagine it, as a rural electorate. Our farms are our living, whether they are apple orchards on the frost covered hillsides of Batlow, or western lands division grazing leases growing wool in the saltbush and mulga country. In between we grow table grapes, wine grapes, blueberries, wheat, barley, canola, olives, wool, dairy, lambs, beef, trout, rice, citrus, almonds, vegetables and timber. In hotels and bed and breakfasts, art galleries and museums, in our historic churches and in our homes, Farrer dwellers welcome tourists from other states, from the cities and from overseas.

In this rural electorate lies the important regional city of Albury. When I graduated from the regional La Trobe University with a degree in economics, I went to work in the Taxation Office in Albury. I lived as a farmer well out of town and would drop the children at school on my way to work and study. Working in Albury gave me a chance to experience the daily life of such a city. I had the opportunity to see in practice what my economics training taught me. I saw how all our lives interact through the market, whether it be for wool, food, education or transport, how dependent we are on each other, how a town of a certain size provides employment for all types of people—shop assistants, receptionists, accountants and lawyers. The strategic location of, for example, the University of New South Wales School of Rural Health in Albury shows how such a scheme can boost the economy of a town. Our ‘capital city’ of Albury is strong and vibrant and needs to continue to grow. Too often we see regional centres acting like a sponge, soaking up services, shopping and industry from the towns around them. Albury is in a position to integrate primary production, value-adding, research, training and innovation—the full circle of regional development.

Mr Speaker, I hope you will indulge a tax person in some statistics that I will put in historical context, and I ask that the parliament and the people of Australia reflect on their human implications. Fifty years ago rural Australia contained 50 per cent of the population, producing enough to feed all Australians. Now, just three per cent of us are farmers, feeding the other 97 per cent as well as exporting 80 per cent of all we produce. These are vivid statistics, but they represent a change in the understanding about the continent which goes unmentioned.

When the population was divided more or less equally between city and country, you could be pretty sure that at least half of those in the city were fairly closely related to those on the land. On annual holidays— in those days taken in, rather than away from, Australia—city kids went with mum and dad to relatives in the country and helped with—or hindered—milking and collecting eggs. Without being conscious of it, they learned the implications of, for example, having no shop around the corner. They understood the importance of planning and neighbourly interdependence, and sparse local transport. The reverse learning process took place when the family from the country took the train to the big smoke. The kids saw factories and offices where their uncles worked; they felt the exhilarating pace of city life, the extended choice of movies, transport, food and clothes, and how easy it was to get an icy pole from the local milk bar.

Understanding the implications of drought, fire, flood and distance was part of the heritage that Australia celebrated by the early national poets. Then, we all somehow shared in Paterson’s ‘vision splendid’ of the bush. Understanding came subliminally because it came as part of growing up, part of experience. Now, the divide is not only in distance but also in experience.

I was born in Nigeria. I migrated to Australia, with my British parents, from a childhood in the Middle East. I have come to live in the bush, in an area that has welcomed migrants through the Snowy Mountains scheme and through the Bonegilla camp. My family came to Canberra. After leaving high school I trained as a pilot. In those days there were very few jobs for female commercial pilots, and I worked as an air traffic controller in Sydney. Although I was disappointed at the time not to get a job with a major airline, I can look back now and say how lucky I was. I found work—aerial stock mustering—for a shearing contractor, and it was then that I began to learn about rural Australia.

I met my husband John, who was working as a shearer, saving to buy and improve his family farm. John brought me down to earth, literally. To stay with him and get to know country life, I became a shearer’s cook. When we took over the farm we milked cows for a time, and as Paul, Georgina and Isabel came along we found ourselves coping with the rural recession. We have been in the wool industry for 15 years and it has not been easy. Times were hard, but we set our goals and we stuck to them.

We in the bush have come such a long way. We do what we do better than anyone else in the world. This government has made a commitment to improving further profitability and competition in rural industries. But in our success lies our biggest problem—our lack of critical mass. Some of our best and brightest are leaving. They are moving to the cities as young people, for education, for career, for social reasons, for fun—and, having met friends and partners away from home, they are reluctant to return. As it was put to me recently: ‘We can’t get 18 to 35-year-olds for the cricket team—there just aren’t enough around.’ We need to: we must find ways to bring people back to the land, to make our communities flourish again.

The government will continue to develop strategies that take into account the ageing of the Australian population. Rural communities will be seen to be affected first by this. Many country towns through local fundraising have built retirement villages and hostels and nursing homes to care for the frail and ageing, but these cannot stand alone; they need for everyone’s sake to be part of a younger community.

All Australians are dealing with change: technological, cultural, social. The bush has taken change on the chin: the produce of the Farrer electorate alone shows ways in which we have diversified to seek new markets. We embraced computer technology. We use computer programs to manage breeding cycles, to check market fluctuations and to communicate with each other and the wider world. This government will maintain initiatives in telecommunications, in improving transport systems and in providing services for regional Australia, and the voters of Farrer will welcome such initiatives. But at times, despite coming to terms with our place in the regional and global economy, despite federal and state initiatives and support, some rural dwellers feel sidelined and overwhelmed.

Our country is having a vigorous discussion about water and about the environment: about environmental flows in our river system, about the amount of land to be kept for passive recreation or wilderness, about water entitlements—in a sense about the very right to farm. This argument is taking place in boardrooms, in the halls of the bureaucracies, in scientific conferences, in newspaper columns and on television. Debate in these places raises the awareness of the whole population about the fragility of this land. But I want to see the communities that feel they are poised on a knife edge, farmers losing the security of access to water and townspeople who have lived on the river all their lives take part in the decision making process, because right now they believe it is being taken away from them. The government has promised an investment in the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, and farmers and local communities in Farrer will be pleased to see how it supports action already being taken by regional communities and local land-holders.

There is a growing communication gap between city and country. It cuts both ways. I hope that, as representatives in this parliament of people from all over Australia, we can support an exchange between the two. We rural citizens need to show more of our city fellows what it is like out here. We can explain the critical importance of irrigated agriculture to the nation’s economy. On the ground, with time, we can overcome the power of the sound bite and the momentary TV grab. For example, we can demonstrate that an irrigation company allocates its resources not only to distributing water but to satisfying valid environmental safeguards, starting with complex land and water management plans.

If they visit to learn, if they can spare a while, non-farming people will leave with a far better understanding of the challenges we face. They will see the difference between environmental sustainability—a goal we all share—and environmental restoration. We understand that, for historic continuity, for research, for the air we breathe, we must try in some areas of the continent an approach that requires that whatever is proposed has nil impact on any component of the environment. But some see this quite simply as removing a farmer’s ability to employ his land for the uses that he bought it. This approach will not work unless the farmer is involved in the debate.

We as a community are moving towards an increased priority for the environment, but we as a community must pay. At the moment, current generation land-holders and the small towns which depend on them are bearing an unfair cost to achieve a public benefit for the entire community, for present and future generations. At the sharp end, this means your bank manager reviewing your balance sheet and deciding that equity in your business has eroded, risk has increased and so must loan repayments. For a young family starting out with a debt load, the hours are getting longer and the hurdles are getting higher. No wonder the young are choosing a different life-style.

I want to promote rural and regional Australia as a place to live, work and raise a family, recognising its value to the identity and wellbeing of our nation. Enterprise and ingenuity will always prevail over adversity. Communities have to examine their competitive advantages and look for new ones. Rural centres need to build new relationships between farms, visitors and regional towns. The future is in supporting secondary industry based on the primary products already grown or able to be grown in the area.

There is huge value adding potential and no shortage of ideas, but there are failings in the market for venture capital in this country. I have heard of several viable proposals that struggle to get backing. Banks are not interested; investors are not easily found. Communities are not able to raise the funds themselves, and help is needed. We in Farrer note the government’s intention to encourage venture capital and overseas development capital into Australia. We are hoping that some initiatives can be taken to encourage this investment to regional Australia, perhaps through the creation of a new regional development bank which will back businesses making real product for local consumption and export.

I must conclude with a reflection on my family. As a candidate, I dragged a brashly painted caravan through the length and breadth of the electorate, staying in council caravan parks, learning the needs of the people, doorknocking the shops and talking. During the more solitary moments—and there were a few—I was profoundly glad of one thing, which was that after all the impossible miles and impossible hours there would be a home and a family to return to. My thanks to my husband, John, for always bringing me back to reality, and to my three wonderful children, Paul, Georgina and Isabel, who are the greatest gift of all.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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