Mr JOYCE (New England—Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Leader of The Nationals) (09:01): My first memory of New England was the laminated bench that acted as the dinner table in the kitchen at Danglemah. It was put in by my father and rested on two pieces of pipe drilled into the wall. My highchair sat against the wall, between my father on the black wooden chair and my mother on the white one, then in ascending order Patrick, Anna, Christopher and Michael, who at that point in time looked like an Egyptian mummy being covered in bandages after a severe fall from his Malvern star bike whilst attending CBC in Tamworth. My younger brother Timothy was born later.
As a young infant, I longed for the affirmation that was attained by going to work with dad and the boys: dad on the big grey gelding, Chris on the chestnut mare, Pat on the bay pony, whilst Mike was away at high school. Mum was in the house making cakes, looking after the house and looking after the finances, and Anna was helping and in her spare time playing with her dolls, as young girls do.
Sunday was a reluctant but compulsory hour journey to church—in, at times, clip-on bow ties, which were very becoming—and then waiting in the car for about another hour after mass as my parents used the opportunity to catch up with the Kings and the McCormicks. It was the seventies but it felt like the fifties.
My family ran sheep and some cattle. It was mustering, drafting, dipping, shearing, fencing and sowing winter crops. This was not a job; it was a way of life. We initially had labour of one form or another to help: Gordon Macdonald, Cecil Casey, Bruce Salmon and Stan Blanch to name but a few. Later, with labour costs, it whittled down to just mum, dad and the boys. Life was simple but happy. The work was hard at times because the hills meant a vast proportion was physical labour: fencing with a crow bar and a shovel to dig post holes on the stony ridges; splitting stringy bark posts with wedges; catching and lifting lambs at lamb marking time and pulling them through the window for dad to mark; and dealing with the riddle of the sphinx, which was mechanics with second-hand tools.
I grew up in New England and my great grandmother was born in the same hospital as I was but only 100 years prior. New England is at the root of Australia's Federation. The state seat that included Tenterfield was held by Sir Henry Parkes and played a vital part in the unification of our continent under one single flag. If you want to understand Australian politics then Tenterfield is the place to go. It was the home of New South Wales's first Premier, Stuart Donaldson, as well as the third Premier of Queensland, Robert Mackenzie. It was also the home of JF Thomas, who defended Breaker Morant, resolving from that point forward that no Australian soldier would be tried by a British military court.
There is a strong nexus between New South Wales and Queensland in New England and I am proud to carry that forward. Dr Earl Page and John Hynes started the NSW Country Party in 1918 in New England, a party that is still proudly bringing the views of the country to the decision-makers' table and representing them in politics. The story of politics should have a chapter on New England, having produced the likes of David Drummond, who served in the NSW parliament for a period of time before being elected as the Country Party member for New England from 1949 to 1963. He was instrumental in the foundation of the University of New England, the first regional university in Australia, and bringing tertiary education to people in regional areas as a form of advancement.
Add to him, Ian Sinclair, former speaker of the House, who served New England and the nation in a 35-year career that saw him lead the party he renamed the National Party from 1984 to 1987 and retire from politics in 1998; then Stuart St Claire, who I believe may be here today who delivered the Black Mountain upgrade of the New England highway; and of course the Member for New England that I follow, Tony Windsor, who, no matter what else you might say about his choices in supporting the minority government, showed great determination to deliver for his electorate. I intend to build on these people and not detract. I intend to add to what they have delivered to the electorate and not deride what they have done.
New England has a long and proud agricultural tradition, producing just about everything that helped build Australia: cattle, sheep, grain, forestry and dairy as well as other products such as tin, coal, gold and gas. It runs from the rainforest near Urbenville to the western downs at Yetman. It runs from Jennings, where the railway line terminated to change gauges for Queensland, to Willow Tree in the south and includes the Breeza Plains, some of the best agricultural land in Australia. At its geographic centre is the university city of Armidale and in the south is the vibrant and growing economic hub of Tamworth. And I would like to welcome the deputy mayor of Tamworth, Mr Russell Webb, who is here today.
But its cultural heart is the land and it is a good life that is led on the land; it is honest. Your endeavours feed and clothe people and it is based around the family. Growing up on the soil gives a strong attachment to the country and it is integral to what the nation is. Those who may be dismissive of this statement as prosaic could possibly not have had the seminal experience of a life lived outside.
Cicero—and Mrs Primrose will tell me that it is pronounced 'Kikero'!—said, about 100 years before Christ:
… of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man.
Our farm supported our family, and the war memorials in every nearby town to me said that our district supported our nation. At Woolbrook Public School good people in three generations turned up to see the Christmas school play—which will be on again soon. Some of those families had been in the district for over a hundred years. Some of those families had been in the district for over 10,000 years. So my agricultural belief was based on a real economic experience.
My social belief, like most individuals' social belief, was immensely affected by that same life experience. It was premised on the notion that people who work hard and live decent lives, producing a good that has real worth, should be fairly paid and fairly dealt with. A nation that does not defend these people has lost its more noble instincts. In China this week the ruling Communist Party announced greater property rights for farmers. So this belief is ubiquitous and current. The farming community has always had to live with the belief that we make sacrifices because things will get better, but the better never seems to happen.
Now our debt between government and private sectors is massive. Many major businesses in mining and agriculture are now foreign owned and gone. The family farm of the 1970s is generally unviable, and the deft hand of an external conscience has crystallised so that farm management practices have to conform to a view whose religion is a quasi-alternative environmentalism—of forms, of paperwork and of trees having attained an anthropomorphic character. We have evolved to the ridiculous extent where animal rights are interchangeable with human rights.
My initial introduction to the agriculture portfolio handed over by the previous Labor government replicated the industry. It has been usurped to a point where, in many instances, it is the mere ambassador for agriculture. Water and vegetation are with state and federal environment departments. Sale of many agricultural products and land is with Trade and Treasury. Even determination of the use of agricultural products is held by independent authorities within the agricultural portfolio, with no say by the minister. I commend the Prime Minister for his decision to put forward a white paper to investigate the ways our nation can better deliver an agricultural outcome. If we are solely reliant on mines, we will live in a boom-bust cycle. If our future is only in services then we must contend with lower wages—one click away on the internet—as anything that can be done on the computer can be done somewhere else by someone else at a cheaper rate. We need a strong, vibrant agricultural sector for the future of this nation.
The preparation for politics was at that same laminated bench in the kitchen and then extended, in a more formal setting, to Sunday lunch at the dining room table. Everything that was happening to us in our lives seemed to have a connection to politics. If the wharves were on strike and could not move the wool, that was a form of politics. If the road had not been graded, that was politics. If a chemical to treat flystrike in sheep was taken from the market, that was politics. If you were shut out of a market overseas, that too was politics. If interest rates went through the roof, that was economic policy linked to politics. If your vegetation rights had been taken from you, that was politics. If you had also taken from you the hydrocarbonaceous minerals that were assigned initially to the title and they had been transferred to the state, that was politics. And, if you cannot build Chaffey Dam because of the Booroolong frog and you cannot fix the road to Weabonga because of the same Booroolong frog 30 kilometres away, that is beyond politics—it is verging on barking mad.
So it was not such a quantum leap to go from a child growing up in Danglemah to wanting to go into politics. When I attended Woolbrook Public School in the late 1970s, they asked me what it was I wanted to do, and a fellow student, Nita Scott, who approached me at Wagga airport the other day, stated that I said, 'I wouldn't mind being the Prime Minister.' For this I ask some latitude for naivety. For what a 10-year-old was actually suggesting was a resolve to be part of a solution, not merely the venter of problems. But by year 12, when asked the same question for the year book—what did I want to do with my life?—I had tempered my ambitions and reported I wanted to be a 'grazier and politician'.
The clarity to these views was attended to when, Odysseus-like, I took part in a journey that took me and my family away from my home and now, 20 years later, has taken us back again. This journey brought into focus the dry arts of commerce as I trained as an accountant, ultimately owning and running my own accountancy practice. As part of this process, for five years I worked in the banking sector with the Queensland Industry Development Corporation. I worked with colleagues, such as Fergus Bell and Brett Prosser, at a grassroots level, as the organisation moved toward a merger to become known as SunCorp Metway. Concerns that were initially drilled into me by my family about debt were emphasised in the assessment of people's capacity to repay debt on their credit paper. Overall debt is very easy to get and extremely hard to pay back. As an accountant starting with Phil Maltby, who I think is in the audience here today, I saw this from both sides in both assisting a client and assessing a client.
I am deeply concerned to see the financial predicament that this country has been left in because of where we are and the trajectory of where we are off to, and this trajectory could have been anticipated, and I stated this anticipation back in 2009. To be a strong nation we must be financially in control. To be a moral nation it requires selflessness in what we do now, otherwise the circumstances we will leave for our children will be vastly diminished to that which was handed to us. We must develop our capacity to get more which is of worth to a venue that is willing to pay for it on terms and conditions that are to our greatest advantage and has us, as a nation, negotiating that advantage from a position of strength. We must get a better return back to the farm gate, and fighting to keep families on their own land must be the core of agricultural policy. We must acknowledge the lesson that history repeats itself and the human condition that underpins these motivations is consistent. No-one will tend the field of our future in the way the persons who will reap from it will. No other nation will look after us; in fact they will play to our weaknesses.
Rome was not interested in Egypt for the pyramids or Cleopatra or much that lay in the deserts beyond the Nile. It was interested in wheat to feed Rome. For hundreds of years Egypt was a major exporter of grain, with the government's main source of revenue derived from its control and trade. Rome was only a minor customer for much of this period, but by 30 BC Rome had conquered Egypt, in part to deny others access to the grain. Initially, more than 150,000 tons of Egyptian grain, which accounted for one-third of Rome's consumption totals, travelled this route. Ultimately, Rome imported up to two-thirds of its grain from Egypt. During the imperial era, the Roman navy patrolled the seas, not to conquer new enemies but to protect the merchant fleet from pirates. Romans understood that political stability came from a public that was fed. And, on a future stage, the British borrowed from this lesson, and China is living it in a vastly more sanitised and politically correct form today.
The basic rule remains the same: look after your own. My family history is a case in point. My forebear, Mary Troy, who came to this great country in 1847 and whose name is etched in a monument at Macquarie Barracks in Sydney, had parents who starved to death—found dead in a hedge. Mary could read and write when she arrived, so it was not ignorance that brought about her predicament. There is indisputable evidence that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England when people of Ireland were dying of starvation. Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847. At the same time, 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. According to the book Ireland Before and After the Famine, although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a money crop, not a food crop, and could not be interfered with. This is the deadly hand of bureaucracy as defined by politics beyond your domestic control, and the reality of where power truly lies, especially when it comes to food.
Now, in the perfect world, there will be the free movement of goods across borders, and deficiencies will be supplied by excesses from other areas, seamlessly, and with requisite funds always apparent to conclude these transactions. And we will know when this day has arrived because all the armies will be gone and all the borders will be removed. The protagonist, who is currently excitedly typing this up from a room somewhere on the fourth estate, will say that this speech implies that Australia is heading to the Irish famine scenario. Far from it. Responsible foreign investment is essential. I do not oppose that, and I never have. I understand enough about this space to know that one must note the advice of Kipling when he said that you must be able to hear the truth you have spoken 'twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools'. Further to this, I am, on policy, guided by my university motto from Tacitus, which states: ex sapientia modus—from wisdom comes moderation. And that means that absolutes and both extremes are perilous. But we must not leave tasks for our children that we cannot bear for ourselves.
Now comes a confluence of a life on the land, training in accountancy, supporting a family, and experience in politics. This experience in politics has been blessed by two chapters, one that has returned me today to the place where I grew up and one that gave me a great honour as a foreigner to represent the state of Queensland as a senator. My colleagues gave me the honour to lead my party in the Senate, to be part of so many tasks that had such a great effect on our nation. And one of the greatest ones—and I see Senator Boswell here today—was when a minor party from the opposition benches moved to blocked the ETS and was successful. If this chamber can indulge me one form of boasting, it is that I have lived the experience of winning back a Senate seat from apparently a hopeless position, when it was said that the Greens would win it or my Liberal Party colleagues would win it or the Labor Party would win it or a Democrat would win it, and we could not even see our name mentioned in the dispatches as a possibility. Later, I won a lower house seat, which was held with a massive margin.
But, dispensing from that, what I take from this experience is this: politics in Canberra can get entangled in philosophical zealotry that has little to no connection with a general concern held on the street or in the country. There is a craving for politicians to understand the public's concern about their lives rather than re-announce the politicians' conceits about the politicians' views. This building, evolved from the agricultural setting it was built in, has little connection to the struggles of small business and does not assist this process. It is great also to see Frank Zumbo here today, who has guided me so well on so many issues regarding small business.
From my observation, two things happen to you in this building: you gain weight, and you lose touch. The passion of the issues from the laminated kitchen bench from where you started become a memory and then an excuse. You get embroiled in the machismo of the debate in the chamber, which may collect the interest of your peers but not the respect of the public. It becomes a perverse form of mud wrestling in a suit—holding steadfastly to beliefs in the chamber that from a distance seem completely to lack logic and up closer bring no greater clarity as to where our nation's best interest lies and at the same time breeds contempt at the pub on a Friday night or on the street corner.
The National Party may collect sneering derision and muffled insults, but it is a vital component of the broader ventilation for those in the community who feel intimidated by the lack of breadth in the political machine. Politics has a highly centralised nature and impedes the capacity to move much beyond a single view—at most, two. Many Australians feel that the core concerns they hold are used only as a mechanism to insult them. This happens without delivering any real reason, and the life experience of the writer or the orator does not give any greater capacity as to why their views are more profound or emanate from a greater realm of wisdom.
However, far from being a dismal pursuit, politics is represented by good people on both sides of the chamber. Whether from a farming organisation, a rotary club or a trade union, there are always people who rise above the slings and arrows of ridicule or their own personal belief and do what is best for their nation. These people are not required to be saints. If you are looking for saints you are looking in the wrong building, because you will have little luck around here. Politicians are not here to save your soul; they are here to look after your country. The most important thing is to always stay in touch with those whose beliefs gave you the chance to represent them: Bill Taylor of Charleville, on a property between Charleville and Morven; Ruth Strang of Gunnedah; Lenore Johnson, who diligently always worked for the party but never asked for office; Rosemary Leitch, the former mayor of Armidale; Archie Cameron of Glen Innes; Peter and Jenny Bailey of Armidale; and the families who patiently deal with this peculiar enterprise—being a politician—that has taken you away from them.
The teachers, I also note, are so seminal in any person's experience. And in my Senate maiden speech I noted James Rogers, who taught me English; Mel Morrow, who showed me how to deliver it with passion; and Father Drake, who showed that brevity is the attribute of a well-remembered message—which I obviously forgot! For Philip Maltby, who trained me as an accountant, and to neighbours on adjoining properties who, when I was a child, delivered kindness and tutelage as I saw you progress through life: this was the experience and the attribute of a good nation.
I loved my time in the Senate, and I am truly humbled by being given this opportunity by my colleagues and my nation for further opportunities. I, with David Feeney and Matt Thistelthwaite, are political hermaphrodites, and we truly do know which chamber is best. I close with this, which is how I opened in my maiden speech in the Senate: I thank my parents, who brought me into this world; my wife, Natalie, and children, Bridgette, Julia, Caroline and Odette, who support me through this world; and my God who oversees all and who hopefully I will meet in the next. I commend the speech to the House.
Honourable members: Hear, hear!
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