Bridget McKenzie, Senator for Victoria
Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (17:27): It is an honour to stand here as a Victorian senator. I congratulate my fellow incoming senators for their insightful and inspiring words this past fortnight, and I am confident that given the strong bipartisan traditions of this place we will collectively be able to make a difference.
This week's news reminds us that we live in troubling times. The very real challenges to our economy and our way of life cannot be met with wistful thinking or glib press releases, looking at the unrest overseas over the past months. That we can all sit here today as democratically elected senators, arguing where the line is drawn between individual freedom and notions of equity, means we are truly, truly blessed.
For my first speech, I shall in true conservative fashion not outline an agenda to be pursued blindly; my role is to reflect and represent rather than revolutionise. I will outline my belief in regional Victoria and share with you the values and experiences which have led me to the Senate and hence the prism through which I shall pursue my work here. First and foremost, I am a very proud country Australian, the first generation born off the farm. The relationship between my sense of self and the land is strong—the way it is used and the natural environment have shaped who I am and how I think.
As a child, I learnt to ride through the creeks and paddocks of north-east Victoria, I swam in the dams and, yes, I listened to the birds. Many decades later when I was travelling through Canada on one of those soulless night trips that you do when you are a young person—I had been away from home for a long period of time—the sound of a magpie came over the airwaves. I smiled in surprised recognition at the impact that that sound had on me. The natural world really had an impact on me during my formative years. The memories run deep. Victoria is a beautiful and an industrious state. The coalmining areas of the Latrobe Valley, the snowfields of the Great Dividing Range, the wide plains of the west, the Murray River communities, our magnificent surf coasts and our vibrant regional cities attest to that fact. And, just for the record, Melbourne is absolutely the best city in Australia—and I am happy to take that one outside. It is only natural for me, then, to find political expression in the party which has represented regional Australians for more than 95 years: the Nationals.
My pledge tonight is to the people of Victoria. I commit to putting forward our case for a sustainable future and pursuing it with energy and passion. This pledge is underpinned by the concepts of authenticity, generosity, simplicity and hard work. For me, these characteristics epitomise regional Australians, and nowhere have we seen them on display more than in Victoria during the past two years. With perseverance and stoicism, country Victorians battled 10 years of drought and its crippling impact on the health of our families, our local economies and our environment. Similarly, the floods last year devastated much of the north and west of regional Victoria. The cleaning up was still going on when floods struck us again in Gippsland, a place very dear to me. We were visited by the worst loss of life, other than in war, in our nation's history when, tragically, 173 Victorians died in the horrific bushfires of 2009. The physical and social effects will be felt for generations. Throughout these natural disasters the empathy of all Australians was extraordinary. And the character of regional Victorians was clear as we pulled together to fight those fires, rescue our neighbours, sandbag the flood and then just get on with the recovery. That is leadership.
Such collective strength is all in a day's work for country Victorians. We live in communities where we understand and appreciate the necessity of interdependence. It has long been essential to our survival. Each individual's skill is appreciated and respected more than the income or property they own; thoughtfulness actually counts; and the concept of an honest day's pay for an honest day's work is still commonplace. It's the place to be.
Despite the impact of these natural disasters, we have a great story to tell in regional Victoria. We have exciting future prospects for growth, particularly in food production and processing, education provision, manufacturing, the development of energy resources and the arts. Whilst only one-third of Australians live outside our capital cities, more than a quarter of Victorians choose to live in the regions, where research shows that they are connected to their communities, participating in activities with strong social networks. I paint a rosy picture of regional Victoria obviously because I have chosen to make my home there, with all the benefits available to my family.
The Nationals come to Canberra with an understanding of the people they represent and a necessary appreciation of that interdependence. As a Nationals senator, my focus is completely and unashamedly on the needs and interests of regional Australia. When the Country Party was founded in Melbourne in 1922 it was because a group of parliamentarians recognised the need for unified regional representation. Dr Earle Page, leader of the Country Party for over three decades, stated:
It was now made plain beyond any doubt that the rural areas must attain a voice in the government of their own affairs.
From our earliest days, our initiatives and infrastructure projects have inspired: the formation of the national scientific agency, the CSIRO; the restructure of the Commonwealth Bank as a central bank. And, much later, we established the Reserve Bank. We introduced medical treatment for pensioners and free access to medicines for Australians.
We have delivered for the regions and the nation, but 95 years on there is still much to be done. Issues of low median income levels, skills shortages and high youth unemployment are consistent across the regions. Similarly, health outcomes are lower for regional Australians. In Victoria, educational attainment is another area of concern, with a significant disparity in year 12 completion rates and more than half of rural Victorian residents with no form of vocational or tertiary qualification. And although major regional centres such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong are growing rapidly, 11 of our regional local government areas are currently shrinking.
So, whilst recognising that improvements have been made, it is a desire to address the disparity that drives me and drives my party. A sustainable future for regional Australia is worth fighting for. It is a future that the other Victorian coalition senators—Senators Fifield, Ronaldson, Ryan and Kroger—will fight alongside me to deliver, but I also hope that Senators Madigan, Di Natale, Carr, Conroy, Collins and co. will work with me to promote policy that benefits all Victorians.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Victorian Nationals who have played a pivotal role in developing our state and our nation, in particular Jack McEwen and Peter Ryan. The first was Prime Minister, patriot, advocate for soldier settlers, promoter and protector of country Australia and our manufacturing industries. Black Jack was pragmatic, loyal and would only compromise for his constituents—values exemplified by the Nationals Senate team today. The Leader of the Nationals in Victoria and Deputy Premier, Peter Ryan, is also my local member. His advice is simple: if the policy is good for regional Victoria, support it; if it is not, don't. And that is advice that I plan to listen to.
The history of the Victorian National Party senators is actually one of diversity. There is no such thing as a stereotypical Nat pollie—it's true. I am the 11th Nationals senator for Victoria. Although I am the first woman, I am not the first teacher. Laurence Neal was a politics lecturer from La Trobe. Others have been from the armed services and—yes, even in Victoria, Barnaby—we have had our fair share of senators who were also accountants. We have also had a disproportionate number of Scotsmen.
Senator Cameron: Good on you!
Senator McKENZIE: Och yeah! I too am proud of my Scottish heritage and I hope those characteristics of stoicism, hard work, humour and thrift—
Senator Cameron: Thank you.
Senator McKENZIE: will be welcomed here in Canberra. So how does a very typical X gen maths and PE teacher end up here in a house of parliament which is the last remaining check on executive power, a true representation of the nation's political expression, the Senate?
I am here because of the investment over a long period of time by a lot of people. The strong rural traditions of small business, sport and agriculture feature heavily on both sides of my family. My maternal grandfather was a polocrosse-playing, high country cattleman—a great horseman and sportsman who was always willing to share with us his knowledge of horsemanship and his love of the land. His grandfather was carried over the Great Dividing Range in saddlebags as an infant. These Danish settlers and future relations of Brumby Jack worked hard to clear the country round Omeo and forge a family business in beef and sheep that continues today. My grandmother wanted her daughters educated, so the family moved from Omeo to Alexandra and my mother became a teacher and my aunt a nurse.
The importance of agriculture to our past and future prosperity is paramount and I am committed to being a strong advocate for agribusiness and related industries. My father's family set up and ran a successful bus line throughout regional Victoria—creatively named McKenzie's—the type of business which is the backbone of regional communities and sustains so many of our local economies. My father started his working life as a logger and has some great stories to tell about the bush, log truck driving and brakes—almost as many stories as he shares with my own sons about his glory-seeking days as the full forward for the Marysville Mustard Pots. He went on to be the local milkman in towns in north-east Victoria and his HR practices were instructive—any child reared in a small business family would understand. The $2-per-milk-round wage he paid for three hours of hard manual labour would not fly anywhere close to best-case industrial relations practice. However, what it did do was give me an opportunity to learn the business, to spend time with my dad, to learn the value of a dollar and the importance of hard work. Thanks, Dad.
Watching the impact that the deregulation of the industry and multinational milk processes had on local milk rounds and the families that ran them informs my approach to competition policy. I commit to fighting to ensure that small businesses—the hardware stores, newsagents, family farms, gift shops and cafes; the mum and dad businesses—have an environment where they can get on with doing business rather than worrying about burdensome regulatory environments and increased taxes.
The women in my family are strong, community minded, also local sporting heroes and all committed to education. My mother was a primary school teacher. Her commitment to social justice has flowed through to her children, none of whom can resist a good cause. A particularly longstanding campaign for mum has been with the sports sections of Victorian daily newspapers and the coverage given to female athletes and teams. Mum, I suggest we need to get you a silent number.
Valuing the importance of public education is fundamental to who I am. This is not to decrease my co-belief in choice of educational provision—and I am a direct beneficiary of my mother's hard work in paying for an excellent education—however, notions of equity require an accessible, high-quality, vibrant, independent public education system, especially in the regions. As a former lecturer, teacher and student advocate, I commit to improving education access and quality for Australians no matter where they live. I also commit to fighting to ensure that our universities are well funded and to ensure that our research is a balanced mix of world-class innovation and that which is locally valuable. I also commit to promoting the role of academia in wider society.
In addition to a preference for partially differentiated equations, a recurrent theme of my working life has been my involvement and encouragement of young people and their capacity. I am genuinely inspired by working with young people. My own preliminary research into physical activity and young women in rural areas saw the development of the GConnect program, promoting student led physical education with a focus on self-esteem and wellbeing. The data is collected; the thesis, however, has been packed away in the shed and I am fearful it will never actually get finished. Time will tell.
Young people are a precious asset for our future, and our nation needs individuals who are prepared to contribute, who are engaged and who can think critically. I commit to working to lessen the impact of geography on outcomes for young people, particularly around access to work and study.
My own family's involvement in local sporting clubs spans generations and sports. Participating in golf clubs, football, netball and surf-lifesaving is an integral part of what we do and what so many country families do, contributing to the physical and social health of their communities. It is an area that I look forward to supporting.
There are many challenges for the 21st century which require action now. These include the allocation of resources, especially water, what to do with all that prime agricultural land, dealing with the issues of population and sustainability, and managing the impact of technology on human relationships.
Taking communications as an example—my generation are the last to have spoken on landlines after school to friends we had spent all day at school with. We did not have smartphones, the internet or Facebook. We are the last of the internet non-natives. This cultural shift—because it is a cultural shift; we have changed the language—challenges parents, researchers and policymakers, as these developments fundamentally change how young people communicate.
I am confident in two things—my faith and science. They are not contradictory for me. Science will find the answers to the many of the challenges of the 21st century, as it has always done—we are a creative and curious species. Our challenge is to stand tall on the platforms provided by science, to reject the anti-intellectualism in equal measure with the elitism. Let us just use some common sense!
While we are on the subject, another challenge was aptly stated by Ian Chubb, Australia's Chief Scientist, when he asked:
Why does science, with its potential to cure diseases, struggle to make it onto the front page, yet a reality cooking show dominates headlines?
An excellent question—both as a commentary on the state of public debate and as a commentary on the state of science in Australia, both of which I hope to consciously assist in changing. After all, it was the Nationals' Earle Page who oversaw the establishment of the CSIRO, providing a foundation for future research and development. I come to this place as a conservative, a constitutional monarchist, a proponent of states' rights—all of those lovely things—appreciating the organic nature of society and the need for my representation to reflect that fact.
I will make decisions based on sound evidence and principles which have stood the test of time.
It may be unfashionable, and I acknowledge the inherent contradiction, but I am suspicious of government and its role in our lives. I am thankful to the framers of our Constitution for their efforts to enshrine states' rights, not only for the obvious benefits that decentralisation of both power and purpose brings, but also for the competition this brings to the field in the great battle of ideals.
Sociologists have tried to articulate what it is to possess a 'rural mindedness'. Characteristics that I hope will typify my work here have been articulated by thinkers such as Henry Thoreau and his appreciation of the simple things on writing of his time in Concord woods; the ferocious authenticity of Rousseau and the romantic mythology of 'Banjo' Paterson; proud country people whose writing articulates the simplicity, integrity and hard work of people who are reared in natural landscapes.
In describing my community, my party and myself in this way, please do not assume that the principles of reverse logic apply. Rather it is the conscious rejection of complexity, consumerism, laziness and selfishness that typify our way of life, not a lack of capacity.
Finally, I would like to put on the record my appreciation to the many people who have supported me over the years, materially, socially and politically.
To the Victorian coalition Senate team, it was a pleasure to campaign with you at the last election and I look forward to increasing our numbers, both here and in the other place, at the next federal election and beyond.
To my colleagues in The Nationals party who have smoothed the way with advice, encouragement and practical support to both myself and my staff, it's great to be part of the team. Thanks everyone!
Thank you to my fantastic staff: Leanne, Peter, Annie, Noel and Megan.
To the grassroots Nationals members in Victoria, I am a home-grown National and will always remember why I am here and where I come from. Thank you to the preselectors—grassroots members of my party who have placed such a great trust and responsibility in me. I would like to make special mention of John, Jenny, Peter, Anne and Meree—everyone down at South Gippy AEDC—as I would not be standing here without your encouragement, support and advice.
To my parents, for their belief in education, their example of hard work and community contribution, thank you.
To my many friends and family, it is great to see you! Thank you for your humour, advice and practical assistance which has made all the difference for one of us to be standing here today.
But mostly I would like to pay tribute to four young Australians whom it is my great privilege to parent: Rhett, Jake, Brydie and Rory. Thank you for your ongoing support, sacrifice and understanding. Everything I do and I think, despite what you read in the papers and see at question time, what everybody in this chamber does is for your future and the future of our country.
My sincere hope is to contribute to this nation in a thoughtful, constructive and positive manner and to always advocate for regional Victoria.
May their faith in me be well placed.
I shall work tirelessly to that end.