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Dr Anne Webster (Nats-Mallee) – Maiden Speech

This is the maiden speech to the House of Representatives by Dr Anne Webster, the Nationals member for Mallee, Victoria.

Webster succeeded Andrew Broad, who held the seat from 2013 to 2019.

Listen to Webster (23m):

Watch Webster (26m):

Hansard transcript of maiden speech by Dr Anne Webster, Nationals member for Mallee.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Rob Mitchell): Before I call the honourable member for Mallee, I remind the House that this is the honourable member’s first speech. I ask the House and the galleries to extend to her the usual courtesies.

Dr WEBSTER (Mallee) (12:31): Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people on whose land we meet on today and the 11 traditional owner groups across Mallee. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

Sometimes a place chooses you rather than you choosing it. Going back more than 40 years, a complex array of circumstances relating to my honeymoon, a computer glitch, the tardy invention of mobile phones and a visit by the CIB conspired to bring me to Mallee. Two weeks after our wedding, my husband and I found ourselves driving from Melbourne for many hours up the Calder Highway, flanked by red dirt, Mallee scrub and saltbush. I remember asking him, ‘Are you sure you know where you’re going?’ Just out of Red Cliffs, we caught sight of undulating hectares of vineyards, heavily laden with beautiful ripe grapes. It was an oasis in the desert. I can tell you that the sight of the Mildura township brought relief to this young bride. That was the beginning of a one-year internship for my husband at the local hospital. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Sunraysia district remains an oasis in the desert, due to the irrigation system developed by two entrepreneurial Canadian brothers, the Chaffeys. The challenge was the desert; the solution was the river; the innovation was irrigation pumps and systems to manage water. These brothers dreamt of dry, dusty plains becoming lush, productive industry and livable settlements. The settlers who moved to the Sunraysia region, including our soldier settlers, shared that dream. They developed sustainable farming practices, which have modernised over the years.

Throughout Mallee today, innovation is alive and well. Water drip systems have replaced flood irrigation and overhead sprays, and pipes have replaced open channels. Agricultural practices use less water and produce more, due to developments such as no-till farming and large-scale sowing and fertilising systems—creative solutions born out of necessity. I saw evidence of this on the farms of Allen Harmer and Ron Hards. I thank them for showing me around their properties, and I’m deeply grateful that Allen and his wife, Rhonda, have made the long journey here today from the Millewa. Allen has lived through the worst drought years of 1943 to 1946, and he tells me that the current drought is worse. Australia has faced many challenges as the driest inhabited continent on the planet, but these challenges have been met by people such as Allen, who are innovative and resilient.

I have the great privilege of representing the people and communities of Mallee, from Maryborough in the south, Cohuna to the east, Edenhope to the west and Mildura to the north. The electorate is just shy of 82,000 square kilometres, over a third of the state of Victoria, and boasts prime agricultural and horticultural land that grows stone fruit, grapes, vegetables, wheat, legumes, olives, almonds, dairy, sheep and beef, to name a few. The people of the Mallee contribute an estimated $4.2 billion in agricultural GDP alone, with the total value of crops being 47.6 per cent of Victoria’s gross value and 14.2 per cent of Victoria’s livestock gross value, not to mention the other key industries that play a vital role in our economy, such as minerals and energy.

The people and communities of Mallee are particularly resilient and thrive on challenge. Hundreds of farms across this sweeping electorate have responded overwhelmingly to the advent of the Wimmera Mallee pipeline. Towns at risk of demise have risen like a phoenix through determination and enterprise. Just consider Luv-a-Duck in Nhill, True Foods in Maryborough, Kooka’s in Donald, Southern Mallee Diesel and Mechanical Services in Hopetoun, the Woomelang cooperative general store, and the small towns hosting the Silo Art Trail—if you haven’t been through that, I encourage you to do so. Community based enterprises are a key component in connecting people to keep towns alive and services operating.

Another example of resilience in Mallee is the extraordinary development and uptake of digital agriculture to access global markets. The Victorian Farmers Federation tell me that young people are coming back to the farm precisely because farming has become high tech. They can reach global markets on their digital devices while driving their auto steered harvesters.

But opportunity does not exist for all. I have had phone conversations, many times, with people who must stand on a chair, climb a hill, or hang off a silo in order to have any signal. Community is built on communication. If you don’t have it, the result is entrenched isolation. Nobody thrives in isolation. While mobile coverage has improved significantly under the coalition government in Mallee, with 41 base stations funded under the Mobile Black Spot Program, there is more to be done. I will be advocating for ongoing funding to improve connectivity for all in Mallee.

We face many challenges, socially and economically, but the people of Mallee work together to address problems and create solutions. They bring enterprise and endeavour to create and sustain wealth. I am pleased to say this Morrison-McCormack government takes our responsibility seriously to foster productivity and opportunity and to remove the barriers that impede social and economic growth. I will strive to assist the hardworking and deserving people of Mallee in every way possible.

One of the most significant challenges we face every day in Australia, and magnified in Mallee, is that our relatively small population is spread over large distances. Roads, rail and bridges are essential for productivity and community life. Locals and tourists alike need safe passage to travel throughout this vast electorate. Our farmers and industry need efficient transport mechanisms and systems to access domestic and export markets. Millions of tonnes of product are transported on road and rail each year, but both are in dire need of significant infrastructure expenditure.

Due to the hard work of the National Party, there will be more upgrades to the Calder and Western highways in the next 12 months, and while the Mildura rail line has been upgraded to standard gauge through to the Port of Melbourne, the Murray Basin Rail Project lies in disarray. My farming friends in Murrayville cannot justify moving their product to market on rail at the current speeds of 15 kilometres per hour. The Victorian state Labor government has failed the people of Mallee. They must complete this project in a timely manner.

As someone who travelled 30,000 kilometres on Mallee roads during the campaign, I can tell you that an efficient regional rail system would bring many social, safety and productivity benefits for everyone. More trains mean fewer B-doubles and B-quads on the road.

One of the key issues in my electorate during my campaign was water—surprisingly! Our most precious national resource, it must be measured and managed responsibly and in the interest of all if our regions are to thrive. Water cannot be a political football. Ongoing bipartisan support that commits to balance social, economic and environmental sustainability must remain our focus.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is critical to the Mallee electorate. The people of this electorate rely on us getting this right. I look forward to continuing to work with the minister for water resources, the member for Maranoa, to improve the management of the plan, protect farmers and ensure greater regulation, accountability and transparency. These complexities must be managed in a way that considers the continent, not parochial corners of it, as Edmund Barton would say.

Our continent also requires dedication to a cleaner future. I am committed to emissions reductions, lowering energy prices while ensuring sustainability and reliability. Mallee is perfectly positioned for renewables, but the capacity of our existing grid infrastructure is making some promising options unviable. I look forward to working further to improve connectivity to the grid in Mallee.

I will also strive to assist all businesses in Mallee, including the 19,997 small and medium businesses—many family-owned—who are struggling to attract workforce. The media has recently highlighted this as it relates to horticulture, but it’s not just an issue found in the agricultural industry. It is evidenced among both our unskilled and skilled workforces, from mechanics to veterinary practices and health care. I commend this government on its current focus on population issues, and look forward to working towards implementation of policy to better support our businesses to grow and flourish in regional settings.

As for all Australians, access to quality health care impacts every person in Mallee. Our regional cities are growing, and with many retirees, while smaller towns are declining. We need responsive and sustainable health care, aged care and palliative care. We need to focus on the unique rural and regional settings in which services are delivered. Funding models currently do not reflect this. One size does not fit all.

Isolation is a key contributor to poor health outcomes and risks. While isolation might be mitigated by telecommunications and a network of first responders, distance and the lack of workforce are key concerns for Mallee communities. We need more doctors, nurses, and allied health and mental health workers. We have reached crisis point.

Our government is implementing some great initiatives to overcome some of the barriers to adequate health care that are specific to regional and rural areas. But more work is needed, and I will be a strong voice in this space. An integrated healthcare network model would ameliorate the current negative health outcomes many experience in Mallee. The model incorporates a multidisciplinary health team, including nurse practitioners and allied health professionals, with oversight by a doctor. Pharmacies need to be part of the conversation to improve health outcomes across the electorate. The role of nurse practitioner could be expanded to service aged care and palliative care, and to increase reach into remote communities. I am advocating for additional funding in our tertiary education system to support more local nurses to upskill to practitioner level for this reason. However, structural change is also needed, including broadening Medicare activity funding to increase nurse and allied health services to manage chronic disease. Our regional towns are in desperate need of these changes, and the changes must be holistic.

Perhaps my passion and focus on health care is in part motivated by my own experiences. In the decades I have lived in Mildura, I have needed to rely on emergency services and specialist health care on many occasions. A five-year period of infertility meant many road trips to Melbourne to seek IVF assistance. The birth of my son at 27 weeks required a lifesaving flight with Air Ambulance to the Royal Women’s Hospital, and then four months of neonatal intensive care in Melbourne for my son while my husband continued working in Mildura. He would drive six hours after work to see our son in the early hours of the morning in intensive care. We would have a precious day and a half together, and then he would drive back for work on Sunday night. Our third child was born following a four-month period of bed rest for me in Melbourne under specialist care, with a toddler and preschooler in tow. Supportive family in Melbourne helped us through these events. But what about those who have no family in Melbourne?

More recently, our first granddaughter Emmeline was the recipient of a liver transplant at the tender age of 14 months. I am proud to say she is here today. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne was her home for months, and the care she received was exceptional. We are so grateful to her donor and their family for their gift of life. It is for this reason that I am establishing the Parliamentary Friends of Organ Donation, co-chaired by my colleague Dr Michael Freelander. I am thrilled to announce this during the national DonateLife Week campaign. I want to thank those members from both sides of the chamber that I have spoken to for supporting this initiative.

I also wish to talk about my family’s current experience with cancer and what it means in a regional setting such as Mallee. My father has courageously battled cancer over the last two years. All of his surgery has been in Melbourne. Again, we are grateful for the expert care he has received. But there are additional challenges when you have to travel to Melbourne for surgery, check-ups, tests and treatment. My sister Deb, who is here today, and my brother Guy supported my parents while in Melbourne. But, again, what about those who have no family or support in Melbourne? This is the greatest tyranny of distance. My father has been told this week there is no more that can be done. He is about to embark on palliative care. As always, we will walk this journey together. Love you, Dad.

Our geographical and social isolation requires us to develop solutions such as fly-in fly-out specialist care, retrieval services, such as the air ambulance, and telehealth, which connects specialist services with local health providers. I am pleased that the Morrison-McCormack government is focused on improving access to health through innovative measures and I will be active to advance the wellbeing of all in Mallee. A person’s postcode should not determine health status, but, for many in Mallee, it currently does.

I have always been passionate about injustice and understand the need for holistic approaches to the barriers faced by regional and rural communities. Becoming a sociologist and social worker has helped me understand the cultural, political, social and economic factors that impact individuals and their ability to thrive. It led me to one of my proudest career achievements to date, working with a small team in the creation of a not-for-profit organisation called Zoe Support. Zoe Support offers holistic, wraparound and place based support to meet the needs of teen mothers and assist them to re-engage in education. Zoe Support has had extraordinary outcomes, impacting two generations and sometimes even three. Homelessness, mental health issues, drug and alcohol use and family violence have been significantly reduced through this essential service.

In seven years, Zoe Support has helped more than 200 young women in Mildura. Our current statistics show that 32 per cent of these long-term clients are now employed, and 62 per cent of our current clients are engaged in education. The mission of Zoe Support is ‘connecting, inspiring and learning’. As I have stated, nobody thrives in isolation. At Zoe Support, young mothers connect and inspire one another. The staff and volunteers live by the value of unconditional positive regard. When people are accepted and not judged, it is surprising how they can thrive. The learnings of this model, I believe, can be replicated across many diverse and specific disadvantaged groups.

Over the years I became particularly interested in vulnerability. I saw it in the mums at Zoe and it provided great insight into our service approaches. I recently completed a PhD that looks at the vulnerability of women who make the choice to adopt-out in Australia today. I understand that the vulnerable are all around us and are us: young mothers, Indigenous Australians, refugees, farmers in drought, the unemployed, the aged, the chronically ill, those who live with a disability and returned soldiers, among others. The factors of vulnerability are irreversibility, dependency and unpredictability. While these factors are present every day in all of our lives to some extent or other, for the vulnerable they can be overwhelming and paralysing.

But we can act to mitigate vulnerability through responsibility, interdependency and hope. The unexpected result of this election has been to revive hope, evidenced by the stock market and the collective sigh of relief I’m sure I heard across Australia on 18 May. Responsibility, interdependency and hope can strengthen our ability to move forward, and enable the vulnerable to reach their potential. It can also guide policy and develop resilience and hope, not just for Mallee but across Australia. The experiences I have had and the knowledge I’ve gained through my involvement with Zoe Support and my studies have inspired my keen interest in social policy.

My upbringing has provided the foundation for my worldview as a Christian. My parents, Paul and Diana Smithers, are here today and I want to honour them for their faith and constant love. They have modelled, and continue to model, servanthood and commitment. They have spent their lives working hard, paying their taxes and volunteering in their local church and community.

Today I also wish to also honour my parents-in-law, David and Doreen Webster, my husband Philip’s parents, who both lived their lives faithful to their local church and family. Though both have passed on now, I want to pay tribute to them for raising my husband to be the man of integrity he is.

Philip, you are simply the love of my life. You inspire me every day with your selflessness, your compassion for all, your acceptance of life’s most confronting issues, your rational open-mindedness and your dedication to your family and the health and wellbeing of not only your patients but all those you know.

I am so pleased that our three adult children are present today. You are each a miracle and a joy to us. I am so grateful for you, Hannah, and your husband, Raef; Isaac and your fiancee, Narissa; and Bethany and your husband, Nicholas. Thank you for our six beautiful grandchildren—Emmeline, Indigo, Charlotte, Ruby, Tommy and Henry—who are beyond delight. You know that!

I thank my church family for their love and support and I acknowledge Pastor Bruce and Margaret, who are here today. I also pay tribute to the staff, volunteers and young mothers at Zoe Support, who continue this work without me though I remain their patron. Thank you to those friends and family who have travelled from far and wide to come today. I appreciate and value your support. I particularly want to note my Judys—my aunt and my sister-in-law. You have long been my supporters. Thank you.

People have asked me what has brought me to this point of wanting to be a politician. I’m not sure I wanted to be a politician. What I want is to make the world a better place. Politics right now needs strong representative leadership, with the skills and life experience to advocate for a diverse range of people and complex challenges. I commit to consulting with my electorate and will strive to deliver for my electorate. My aim is to provide reason for the people of Mallee to respect and trust politics and politicians again.

People have also asked me: why the National Party? And I tell them the choice is simple: my values align with the National Party. I value private enterprise, coupled with compassion for those who are less fortunate. I value regional wellbeing and prosperity. I want to fight for the rights of those in my electorate to access the same quality of resources, health care, education, transport, infrastructure and job opportunities as their counterparts in the city.

I wish to close today by thanking those who have supported me in my campaign. I thank Victorian state director Matt Harris and his team of Jake, Brooke, Xavier, Sarah, Lachy and Bec. I thank my colleagues, particularly Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, Senator Bridget McKenzie, Minister David Littleproud and Minister Darren Chester, who have gone above and beyond to assist me. I want to acknowledge the support of the former members for Mallee: Peter Fisher, John Forrest and Andrew Broad. I acknowledge Victorian Nationals Leader Peter Walsh, state members Emma Kealya and Melina Bath and former member for Mildura Peter Crisp. I want to thank the many mentors in my life, including former Member for Macquarie, my uncle Alasdair Webster, and Jim Wallace.

I thank the Nationals in Victoria, particularly those in my own electorate who generously supported me financially and also gave their time, knowledge and energy. There are far too many to name, but I’ll take the risk: Allan and Gwen Malcolm, former member for Lowan Hugh Delahunty, Bill Ower, John Keating, Robyn Ferrier, John Watson, Toby Hiel, Daniel Linklater, Jon Armstrong, Mel Webb, Daniel Cadmore, Anita Rank—and there are many, many more. I also want to thank my family for their amazing effort during the campaign and for generally being incredible. I am so thankful for all of you. I also want to pay tribute to my staff, who have been long-term servers for the people of Mallee—I have ‘workers’ in my notes, but they are servers—Tracey Mooney and Di Whitelaw. Thank you, ladies.

I am deeply humbled to be given this opportunity to represent the people of Mallee in this House, and to contribute to the prosperity and wellbeing of all Australians. Thank you.

Debate adjourned.

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