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Pat Conaghan (Nats-Cowper) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Pat Conaghan, the Nationals member for Cowper.

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Hansard transcript of maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Pan Conaghan, Nationals member for Cowper.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Andrews): Before I call the honourable member for Cowper, may I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first address and that the usual courtesies should be extended to him.

Mr CONAGHAN (Cowper) (11:54): On the foreshore of Port Macquarie town green, adjacent to Lady Nelson Wharf, sits an oversized bronze statue of Australia’s first Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton. The figure sits staring out over the Hasting River with a backdrop of the Banda Banda mountain range. Observers might be forgiven for thinking that the statue was contemplating what might have been but for the selfless actions of one man, Francis Clark.

Frank Clark, who had a surname synonymous with Kempsey, was a surveyor, draftsman and explorer of our great region. He was also the member for Hastings and Macleay between 29 May 1893 and 7 September 1898, when he chose to put his nation before himself. Very few know that, in the July of 1898, Edmund Barton was defeated in the election for the seat of King, putting the progress and formation of the Federation in danger. Recognising that Barton was essential to forward the cause, Clark, on 7 September 1898, resigned his safe seat as member of Hastings and Macleay and took up the campaign for Barton and the Federation. So, on 23 September 1898, Edmund Barton was declared the newly elected member for Hastings and Macleay, and the rest, as they say, is history. On Christmas Day 1900, Barton was appointed Australia’s first Prime Minister and, on 1 January 1901, people celebrated the Federation of Australian states.

In a speech by Edmund Barton at a meeting at the Theatre Royal in Kempsey he said there was ‘not in the whole of the records of this country a more chivalrous act of self-sacrifice than that which Mr Clark performed in the name of Australia’. He later described Mr Clark’s actions as, ‘noble self-sacrifice’. Following Federation, in March of that year Clark was elected as the first member for the new federal seat of Cowper, and today I recognise him, not only for being the first federal member of Cowper but more so for his selfless act for a nation. Today I am honoured to give my maiden speech as Cowper’s 9th member, but its first Kempsey-born member—something I’m extremely proud of.

There is no doubt that the electorate of Cowper is the jewel in the crown of the Australian eastern border. Stretching from Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour, adjoined by the many magnificent beaches, where I had a misspent youth, the chain of all three picturesque valleys of the Macleay, Bellinger and Nambucca are all watched over by the beautiful Dorrigo plateau. These are the traditional lands of the Birpai, Djangadi and Gumbaynggirr people, whose connection goes back for tens of thousands of years. Today I pay my respects to all their people, past and present.

Three things have forged my character that I can stand here today confident that I am able to represent all of the constituents of Cowper. The first was my father, John Conaghan. My father was born in Balmain in the early years of the Great Depression and, like all other Australians during that time, struggled significantly. His father passed away when he was only 16 years old, leaving him and his three siblings to work together to provide for the family. He was fortunate that he was blessed with intelligence, which he embraced, putting himself through medical school while working to make ends meet. The harshness of his formative years never left him. He always remembered where he had come from. He was an old-school doctor with a bedside manner no longer seen, a gentle man with empathy, compassion and a social conscience. He worked six days a week and, on Sundays after mass, he would go to the hospital to do his rounds, quite often with five children in tow. The only time that was sacrosanct was when his beloved Tigers were being televised.

My father was deeply but privately religious. He despaired at times at man’s inhumanity to man, particularly the aged, who he believed should be treated with dignity in their final years, not discarded as a burden on society. In this regard, he was right. Almost 30 years since his passing, the aged-care system is bowing under the weight of demand, and residents are all too often treated as a number on a ledger to be measured in profit and loss. The need for a royal commission only validates his decades-old fear. I am pleased, however, that this government has taken steps in recent times to address aged care with record funding. However, more needs to be done. With 27 per cent of residents over 65 in Port Macquarie alone, with similar figures throughout Cowper, we must prepare now for their future.

My father worked as a doctor for almost 30 years in Kempsey. He was a general practitioner, obstetrician, surgeon, gynaecologist and paediatrician, just to name a few. During my campaign, I was complimented in a most peculiar way when a constituent told me, ‘I don’t normally vote for your side. But considering your father delivered all of my six kids, I suppose I better.’ Those types of comments were very familiar during the campaign: ‘Your father delivered me,’ ‘He saved my life after I came off my bike,’ or, ‘He was good to us when mum died.’ He left three messages: have integrity and always be humble, work hard to get ahead and remember that there are those less fortunate than you.

Humility and integrity are the cornerstones of leadership. For far too long in this country, politics has been infused with celebrity, self-interest and ego, achieving only division throughout parties, government and the nation. I do not discriminate with this comment, and it’s one of the reasons I stand here today. Having said that, I believe that that time has now come to a deserved end and the interests of this nation are once again in the forefront of the minds of those who lead it.

The second principle—work hard to get ahead—is an age-old motto in Australia. It’s the ethos of those who lived here for many generations and of the people who migrated here pre and post the great wars. People like my father-in-law, Joseph Kovach, who came here after World War II and was sent to a Cowra migrant camp. Not deterred, he did as so many others did and worked hard to build a life and make Australia and its diversity what it is today. I had my first job at 13, cleaning the grounds and facilities of Kempsey swimming pool. My second job was pushing trolleys at Woolies at the age of 15. Australia is still a land of great opportunity for those who want to get ahead, regardless of class, race or region. The advancement of technology, science and industry enables our talented younger generation to continue the way, domestically and internationally, through innovative ideas and the ability to think outside of the box. Those Australians who wish to work hard and get ahead must also know that they will be supported by a strong government to achieve their goals and initiatives, a strong government who enables first-class education, facilities and programs through funding and support. This, of course, can only be done with a strong economy and a fiscally responsible government.

My father’s third message was to remind myself that there are those who are less fortunate than us. My father’s social conscience, no doubt enhanced by his Hippocratic oath, was strong. As a doctor in regional Australia, he knew the disadvantages that country people faced. He was also acutely aware of the disparity in health for our Indigenous people, something that I am sad to admit remains. Never did he turn away a person at our front door, a parent with a sick child, a trauma victim or an elderly person. He was often paid in kind or in produce, which was the country way. I often recall my mother lamenting, ‘John, we can’t pay the bills in chokos.’ My point is that we, as a government, have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than us and to show compassion to those who genuinely need help. But when I speak to the constituents of Cowper, the vast majority do not want a handout; they want a hand up. I recognise that the best form of welfare is a job, and I acknowledge that over 1.3 million jobs have been created since the coalition has been in government.

However, this does not account for the 20.3 per cent youth unemployment in Coffs Harbour—the second highest in the country and almost double that of Port Macquarie, only 153 kilometres away. I have, since my election, formed a committee to develop a platform for a youth summit in months to come. However, I call on this government to increase the recent announcement of 10 youth employment hubs across the nation to include a further one in Coffs Harbour to address this ongoing issue immediately for the youth of Coffs Harbour and the benefit of the community.

The second influencing factor is my 12 years in the New South Wales Police Force. I unashamedly say they were the most difficult, confronting and emotionally exhausting years of my life. They were also the best. Nothing could prepare me for the experiences faced by police on a daily basis. The same could said about all emergency services personnel around Australia. Death was far too familiar. In my three years in Kempsey, I saw countless fatalities on the Pacific Highway and country roads, and tragic accidents on farms and private property. When I see projects such as the Coffs Harbour bypass, I see more than the convenience of missing 14 sets of lights; I see a safer journey for the millions of Australians and tourists who will drive it each year. I commend this government for its continued commitment to funding this vital piece of infrastructure. I also saw: the willingness of one human to murder or inflict pain upon another for no reason at all; the proliferation of child sexual assault and exploitation material; domestic violence and its ugliness; and, probably saddest of all, mental health and suicide, particularly youth suicide. In this regard, I’m again sad to say that, in my electorate, youth suicide far exceeds the national average, if any average were ever acceptable.

Following my time in Kempsey, I was transferred, as a detective, to serve as an undercover operative in the Drug Enforcement Agency—a unit of only six operatives at any one time throughout the state of New South Wales. Sporting a new persona, long hair, three earrings and a look that morphed between grunge surfy and eastern suburbs sect, depending on the job, I spent two years away from my family infiltrating criminal organisations. In conjunction with states, territories and Federal Police, I gathered information, purchased large quantities of illicit drugs and prepared briefs of evidence to secure the arrests and successful prosecution of criminals and organisations. In hindsight, the significance of the work was lost on me as a 25-year-old, as too was the intensity and the danger. The tenure of two years was fixed for this very reason. Many failed to reach tenure. Many left, having spent two years living in or on the periphery of the criminal underworld, to re-enter mainstream policing with a confused caution towards police in what could only be described as a pseudo-Stockholm syndrome. I certainly fell into this category. However, through the support of good mates, I found my centre and continued in an investigative capacity at the same time as studying law. I later transferred to the prosecuting branch, where I remained for four years before resigning to pursue a career in law.

I am not raising my policing career for dramatic effect. I do so for two reasons. Firstly, we cannot wane on our war on drugs, nor can we accede to a minority to consider legalisation through legislation. Our communities are awash with the catastrophic effects of this poison: families torn apart and displaced; unemployment; violence; robberies; and break-and-enters. The enormous and obvious consequence on the health and mental health systems is palpable, not to mention the effect on those who work within those systems. Our rural and regional communities should not be afraid to leave their homes or, worse, be afraid to remain in them in the knowledge that users don’t think twice to break in. We must continue not only to protect our borders but to embark on a strategic national approach of education and prevention for our youngest generation.

Secondly, I spoke of the difficulties of the job. I’m lucky that I came out relatively unscarred. This is not the case for so many emergency personnel. Year after year, I have seen my former colleagues fall by the wayside with post-traumatic stress disorder, simply to be forgotten or discarded—made to fight the system to receive the care they require, not to move on but simply to survive. Many do not. As much as 20 per cent of emergency workers are impacted by PTSD. Between 2001 and today, 68 serving police officers across the country have died by suicide. This does not take into account those who have left the force; nor does it take into account any other emergency service organisation, past or present. These are the people who serve and protect us. We as a government must do much more to serve and protect them. This cannot be passed off as a state issue. We must work collaboratively as a government to do all we can for those who put themselves in harm’s way for us. But, as I have said, those days were the greatest days of my working life. Only working under such conditions can great camaraderie come. I have forged lifelong friendships through my time in the police, two of whom—my closest mates, Craig Murray and Dave Newham—are in the House today.

The last of my experiences that hold me in good stead to stand in this House is my 18 years in law, not for the fact that I’ve practised law and have appeared as an advocate most days in court, although I recognise that this has and will continue to serve me well, but more so because I ran a practice, a small business, for over 16 years. I know what it is to employ people, to pay wages, to pay tax, and I understand how hard small business can be. Small and medium businesses are the backbone of regional and rural Australia. Around 4.8 million people currently work for small business. Without small business, there would be no regional Australia. Whether it is in trade, agriculture, retail or professional services, these are the people that provide the jobs—businesses like Faircloth Reynolds in Coffs Harbour; Expressway Spares in Port Macquarie; or the iconic Kempsey cafe, Lou’s Cafe. These are the people and businesses that I will ensure I support because I understand how difficult it can be and how vital they are for the survival of our towns. I understand the significance of the small business tax rate being its lowest since the 1940s. I understand that it can mean putting on another employee or expanding, or perhaps rewarding yourself for the hard work and countless hours.

There are many I need to thank—firstly, my wife, Ilona, who I met under an assumed name—she was one of the good guys!—with my mullet, earrings and goatee. She has been able to overlook my deficiencies in looks and character, and has been by my side by over two decades. Opposites do attract. My wife has the personality and warmth that at times I may lack, often being referred to as ‘Captain Grumpy’ by my friends and colleagues. You have provided me with loving, quiet counsel when needed, whilst at the same time raising our two sons, rarely without a smile and never with a bad word about someone else. I cannot thank you enough. So, in front of this whole chamber, I say this to you: you can now have that new kitchen! And I love you.

To my boys, Hugh and Hamish, you’re never too old to give your dad a hug. Be humble, work hard and you will get ahead. And remember, there are always those who are less fortunate than you. I love you and I’m proud of you both. I thank my mum and my siblings—Paul, Theresa, Margaret, Louise and Matthew; yes, we were a Catholic family—as well as my brother-in-law, Tony, for your support not just during the campaign but over the years, and Grant Brady SC for your wise counsel over the past 18 years.

Finally, I would not be here but for the enormous efforts of the National Party members and volunteers, my campaign team, booth captains, corflute kings and all those who stood on pre-poll and election day—all too many to name; however, all deserving of recognition in their own right. I have a list of their names, 611 in total, and I seek leave to table the same in gratitude for their efforts.

Leave granted.

Mr CONAGHAN: I thank my predecessor, Luke Hartsuyker, for his 18 years of diligent service to this country, and I wish him well for his future. Similarly, I thank the former member of Coffs Harbour Andrew Fraser for his faith in me and his efforts during my campaign. Thank you to the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, for your numerous visits throughout the electorate of Cowper. Your support and advice only strengthened my resolve to be here today. In that regard, I also recognise the vast assistance of Damian Callachor from your office, who took many late night and early morning calls. Similarly, I thank the Nationals Deputy Leader, Bridget McKenzie. You are not only fitter than me but you are also a better shot. I also thank Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his visit to Cowper. It showed my constituents that he is a Prime Minister for all Australian people.

Thank you to the member for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, and her chief of staff, Terry Sara; my campaign manager, Joshua Hodges; Noel Atkin FEC; state and deputy directors, Ross Cadell and Tom Aubert; and also the recently retired Bede Burke and John ‘Wacka’ Williams for imparting straightforward, no-nonsense advice. I thank my co-campaign manager, long-time friend and now chief of staff, Matt Field. A difficult campaign was made somewhat easier knowing that you had my back all the way. Starting kindergarten together has its advantages. And, lastly, I thank all constituents of Cowper who have put their faith in me to represent their best interests. I will endeavour to repay your trust to the best of my ability.

Mr Speaker, some seek to define us by our maiden speech. I want to be defined no more by this than I am by one arrest, one prosecution or one case. I hope that I will be defined, in time, by the totality of what I have achieved for the people of Cowper, and I thank you for your indulgence.

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