First Speech: Cathy McGowan AO, MP

Member for Indi, Victoria

2 December 2013

 Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (16:50): Madam Speaker, parliamentary colleagues, special friends, family and David. Madam Speaker, warm congratulations to you on your election. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and my colleagues in this place for their warm welcome. I proudly begin my first speech by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of this land both past and present.

Today I am going to share a story, a story about myself, my electorate of Indi and the power of community to re-invent itself. I will introduce you to the Voice for Indi, the rural community movement and the philosophy that has brought me to this place.

I am honoured to be the representative of the people of Indi and I am grateful to my family, 700-plus supporters and volunteers, almost 1,000 donors and, of course, the voters who brought me to this House. Many of you have made an extraordinary effort to be here today and I can only imagine what you must have done—getting up early to have families organised, children, animals, lunches done, kids on buses, farms cared for, picnics packed, car pools organised and that terrific trip of six hours up the Hume Highway on buses.

To the volunteers, all of you who staffed the booths and ran the offices at Alexandra, Wangaratta, Wodonga and Benalla, the door knockers, those who made the cups of coffee and tea and arranged food, the people who ran classes and shared their skills, the scrutineers, the organisers of local meetings, the young people, the lawyers, the designers, the marketers, the diary keepers, the bookkeepers, the reporters, the journalists and, most important, the makers of all things orange—I recognise all of you for your courage, your belief and your conviction that we could do it. Thank you.

In the 1800s, some five generations ago, my family left Europe in harsh times to make a better life for themselves and their children's children's children. Their courage and persistence is my foundation, like it is for so many Australians and so many of the people who are gathered here. On my father's side, Elizabeth Anne Brown arrived from County Cork, Ireland in 1860. She was 20 and alone. She died at the grand age of 87 and is buried in the Tallangatta cemetery, her occupation, proudly, farmer. Arriving in the Chiltern goldfields of north-east Victoria, she quickly met and married a wise bloke, John Terrill, a miner from Cornwall, England.

In 1875 they selected land in the Mitta Valley just below the township of Tallangatta. Barely a year later, John Terrill was killed in a mining accident at El Dorado, leaving Elizabeth Anne to raise six children and two nephews. My family is rich with the stories of clearing the land, dealing with floods, fires and drought, and the desperate struggle to meet the conditions to purchase that land. In 1890, Elizabeth Anne, 30 years after her arrival in Australia, made the final payment on the land and, in her own right, won free title. Her fourth child, Albert, was my great grandfather. Her legacy to me was courage, persistence, dogged determination and deep roots into farming and the rural community of north-east Victoria. She was a woman in agriculture well before that term was even thought of.

On the other side of my family, my great great grandfather worked in the post office at Wodonga. His job was to travel overnight on the train, sorting the mail so it would arrive in Melbourne ready to be delivered by 10 am. My grandmother, Rose Roberta Chapman, was born in Wodonga in November 1888. She married Gladston Robert McGowan, son of Tasmanian pub owners, in 1920 and went on to become a teacher, a mother of six children and a grand matriarch. She is buried in the Yackandandah cemetery next to my father, my mother, two sisters and a dearly loved brother, and where I too plan to be buried. Grannie's legacy to me was: be a teacher; be a lover of stories and history; have a deep sense of social justice and community service and never forget to laugh.

It is not known whether these two families knew each other, but what is known is that it was a dangerous time to live in rural Australia. In Grannie's words:

We lived in Wodonga and during that time the Kelly bushrangers were active. My father who worked for the PMG (before it became Australia Post) used to be accompanied by an armed policeman as they feared the train might be ambushed.

My parents were Paul McGowan and Marie Terrill, who met and married when he was a young agricultural scientist working at the Rutherglen Research Station. They lived, farmed and ran a business in the Indigo Valley, 20 kilometres south of Wodonga, all their lives. I am proud to say I live in that valley, on my own small farm, where I conducted a rural consultancy business—or I did until 7 September!

In the early days of my business, the jobs were many and varied. I lobbied for the establishment of a school for the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. I lobbied for home and community care in Wodonga, Tallangatta, Corryong, Beechworth, Chiltern, Rutherglen and Yackandandah. I lobbied for palliative care in the Ovens, King and Kiewa valleys, and for mobile child care for farming and rural families. Through this work, I built extensive networks and gained firsthand knowledge of the challenges of delivering services in rural areas, particularly in our valleys and towns. I learnt that one size does not fit all and, most importantly, it is a constant struggle to have our rural voices heard. A highlight of these years was working with the Victorian government department of agriculture as a rural affairs advisor and also travelling to Canada on a Churchill Fellowship to study rural women's networks and their role in improving communication with governments.

When I was 40, my mother died. She was dearly loved and a really important part of my life. It was a turning point for me—a second turning point was being elected to parliament.

But, going back to the first point, I recall thinking when mum died that soon my life, too, will be over, and what will I have to show for it? So I returned to study. I completed my master's degree in applied science at the University of Western Sydney, at Hawkesbury, and I learnt how to work with communities for change. The Australian Rural Leadership Program helped me grow in the art of leadership, to understand the role of a shared vision and the power of networks in transforming rural communities.

I decided to take a more active role in agricultural politics. I was an inaugural member of Australian Women in Agriculture, rising to become national president. I participated at National Farmers' Federation meetings and was elected to the Victorian Farmers Federation policy body. I learnt many skills: working with difference, building partnerships, how to chair meetings, how to build teams and how to embrace diversity. I became involved in international agricultural politics, trade, and became committed to Australia's role in feeding the world.

I restructured my business and became a consultant to rural communities, with specialist skills in development, empowerment and transformation. Working in Australia, and more recently in Ireland, India and Papua New Guinea, my clients were the national rural research and development corporations—dairy, wool, sugar, and horticulture—state and local governments and non-government organisations.

Teaching leadership became a passion. Together with friends and colleagues, many of whom are here today, we taught community leadership skills and we set up the Alpine Valleys Community Leadership Program. We ran leadership conferences. We talked about visions. We built networks. We wrote submissions. We grew our businesses. We all grew in skill, wisdom and confidence. We became a force. We began to find our voices—our community voices. With this brief introduction, you will see that I have deep roots and connections into the communities of north-east Victoria. I have an absolute commitment to the future of Indi.

Let me take a few minutes to talk about Indi. Indi is a foundation federation seat. Our first representative, in 1901, was Sir Isaac Isaacs, who was educated in Yackandandah and Beechworth, my local towns. Isaacs went on to become our first Australian-born Governor-General. More recent Indi representatives include the Country Party's Mack Holten—as Minister for Repatriation, he was Indi's first minister—Ewen Cameron, Lou Lieberman and Sophie Mirabella. I pay tribute to them for their public service, dedication and commitment.

In particular I acknowledge Mr Ewen Cameron for the role he played as my mentor. I worked for him as an electorate researcher in the old parliament house during the years of Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. They were heady days. I am delighted to reacquaint myself with friends from that time, including some of the long-serving library staff.

Indi is a local name for the Murray River. It is a well named electorate, because the rivers and how we use them are critical to the future of north-east Victoria. Indi is blessed with seven major watersheds: the Goulburn, Broken, King, Ovens, Kiewa, Mitta/Dart and Murray rivers, which contribute an estimated 50 per cent of the water to the Murray-Darling Basin. Our major industries include manufacturing, retail, tourism and agriculture. Our food and wine is exported all over the world. Our ski fields, rail trails and festivals provide entertainment to many.

One of the outstanding features of Indi is our small rural communities, where people take things into their hands. Small communities like Yackandandah, where residents started a community business, the Yackandandah Community Development Company. We bought the petrol station, we run a rural produce store and we give profits back to the community. Communities like Stanley, where volunteers set up and run their post office.

But not all is well in Indi. I believe that Indi has not yet, as my mother would say, reached its potential. In parts of Indi only 57 per cent of 20- to 24-year-olds finish year 12, compared with 78 per cent in Melbourne; only 19 per cent of those between 20 and 39 hold a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 31 per cent across Australia; 63 per cent of people in Indi are in the bottom half of the Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage; and many of our young people move away from home for work and study. Other critical issues are infrastructure, access to transport and jobs. I will come to those in a minute.

I would like to talk to you about the part of my story where it changes. In May 2012, a group of young people decided enough was enough and put out a call for action. The Indi Expats, as they became known, were young people from communities across north-east Victoria. They had moved to the city for work, study and a better life. The federal election was coming up. How could their views be heard? They had big issues. Their questions were: what sense would we make of this and what would the adults do? As a result of this some of my friends came to the state of feeling big guilt. We asked ourselves what our legacy would be. If we could not be for our young people, what was the point? This question resulted in the birth of a community group named Voice for Indi. It is an incorporated body committed to building an active 21st century democracy based on engagement, respect and ideas, for Indi and beyond. Voice for Indi conducted 53 kitchen table conversations with over 425 people from all parts of the electorate. We discussed what would make for a stronger relationship between people and our elected representatives. They talked about what it means to live in the community of Indi, what our issues are and what makes for a strong community. In summary, the answers were: community matters; politics matters; representation matters; infrastructure matters; and services matter.

Like other places in Australia, the people of Indi wanted a representative in parliament who would put the electorate first, and they wanted their vote to count. They wanted to do things differently. The people of Indi had a vision for a community where people feel they belong and have a sense of purpose, where people pull together and help each other, where diversity, acceptance and tolerance are valued; a community that has quality services, infrastructure, education, jobs and health and opportunities for the next generation.

With this feedback, the Voice for Indi report became the foundation for a community-based, grassroots election campaign that totally changed our community. What did we do? Let me tell you about our not-so-secret ingredients. Start with the involvement and enthusiasm of young people, and their extensive use of social media. Add in volunteer training, support and permission to act in local communities. Negotiate shared values—be respectful, being our best selves, acknowledging difference and taking responsibility for our own actions. Understand that democracy is important to us—we want to participate and we want it to work for us. A good dose of courage, sense of duty, community service and trust helps. Finally, a vision for how the future can be better.

As our campaign gained momentum we were all surprised by the groundswell of support and creativity. Jenny put her sheep in orange T-shirts and drove them around Wangaratta, Corowa and Yea saleyards. Courageous indeed. Rex organised a campaign choir bus. Year 12 students made videos. Sophie covered shops in Chiltern with balloons and streamers. We kidnapped a Wangaratta Chronicle photographer on the train journey between Wodonga and Benalla. Nick trained the door knockers, Leah developed policy, Cam managed media, Lauren took over communications, Anne fed people, Denis managed logistics and Barb organised—and lots and lots more. Four of our people produced a video where they rapped: 'Our trains and buses fail to go, our internet's down, the phone is out; to get heard in Indi you have to shout.' Up there, many of these people are here today and I encourage you to ask them for their stories.

Madam Speaker, with this strong history and the support for our Indi community, I am so proud to be the first Independent member for Indi. So, what now? The Voice for Indi report guides me. I will listen: I will listen to the older people who have lost touch with their grandchildren, the teenagers who suffer with mental-health issues, the people who know what it is like to feel hardship and adversity and get on top of it. I will turn up to the pubs—in Mitta, Dederang, Whitfield, Chiltern and Alexandra—to hear people's concerns. I will visit community-education centres, such as in King Lake, shopping centres in Wodonga, Wangaratta and Benalla, and the schools of Marysville, Walwa, Myrtleford and Yea as well as the festivals in Beechworth, Bright, Swanpool, Mansfield and King Valley—and all the wonderful places in between.

To the young people of Indi, I make a formal commitment to involve you in decision making. I will focus especially on those who live in the more isolated rural areas, who are disadvantaged because of poor public transport, very patchy mobile-phone coverage, terrible internet connections, and fewer employment and educational opportunities. I will work with communities who have suffered terrible losses of family and friends through devastating bushfires and floods and continue our rebuilding process. To the Aboriginal people of Indi, I have committed to form an advisory group comprised of Aboriginal people, from Indi's communities, to advise me on issues such as health, education and employment. Today I also commit to making a public statement to recognise and acknowledge past mistreatments of the stolen generations, their families and communities as a result of the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound sorrow on our fellow Australians.

I will build partnerships to improve public transport infrastructure, access to telecommunications and health services, particularly rural mental health, and work to reduce the red tape that hinders the growth of small businesses in our rural communities. I will bring the voices and the community of Indi to Canberra. I will work for a vision of a prosperous and caring community, where businesses grow, agriculture flourishes and everyone can reach their potential.

Madam Speaker, as the 44th Parliament begins its journey, I support the Prime Minister and Leader of the House in their desire for a more respectful parliament. The story of my election and the role of respect has resonance for all of us. In closing, I would like to quote from a piece of wisdom found on a toilet door at Mittagundi, an outdoor-education centre for young people in the King Valley: 'The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating; the paths to it are not found, but made, and the making of these pathways changes both the maker and the destination.' The people of Indi had to shout to be heard. To all Australians, particularly those who feel they are not being heard here in this place, I defer to Margaret Mead: 'Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.'

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