First Speech

Thank you, Mr President. Can I thank you and all the members of this chamber for the wonderfully warm welcome that you have extended to me since I have been here. It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to serve the people of this nation and of my home state of South Australia. I would like to thank the people of South Australia for the trust that they have placed in me as their representative.


But before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the person whose place I am taking in this chamber. Mary Jo Fisher was a fierce advocate for rural and regional Australia, fighting for a better deal for our farmers and our rural communities. As a girl from the country, I consider it my duty to ensure there is a continued strong voice for people from the bush.

As senators, it is important that we remember our origins—where we come from and why we are here. I was born and raised in the country and this has shaped my values and my outlook. It is in the country where you feel most that strong all-important sense of community in Australia—of a close-knit extended family that in many ways forms the very identity of country people. There is a strong emphasis on independence in the country, on honest hard work and the rewards that it brings, on personal responsibility for your decisions and your actions and on a practical approach to life, family and work.

But, sadly, we live in a time when individuals are abrogating their responsibilities for themselves to someone else, and that someone else is the government and the bureaucracy it spawns. Back in 1942, Sir Robert Menzies touched on this issue when he said:

The great vice of democracy is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if somewhere there was somebody else's effort on which we could thrive.

I wonder what he would say today. As legislators we need to stop accepting this responsibility and demand that people take responsibility for themselves and their actions. In the words of Ronald Reagan:

Government exists to protect people from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.

The role of government is not to provide for every need and every want; neither is it the role of government to compete with the private sector. The role of government is to do what the private sector cannot, will not and should not do.
I am here as a representative for all South Australians, and particularly those who live and work in the country, who raise families there and build those strong and unique communities. While I have been involved in politics for much of my adult life, I remain very much a country girl at heart. My first job in politics was in the country, working for the local member of state parliament, Peter Arnold. Like so many relationships forged in the country, my friendship with Peter continues today and I acknowledge his presence in the gallery here tonight.


Since then, I have experienced much of what work in the public and private sectors has to offer, in the country and in the city. I have been lucky to raise my own family in Renmark, the town where I was raised. With my husband I have also owned and managed my own business. Running a business has its rewards, its responsibilities and its challenges. Every small business owner can identify with this experience. In short, I am one of the people I am here to represent.

That is how a democracy like Australia works. In Australia we are so fortunate to enjoy democracy. I and my fellow senators, and our colleagues in the House of Representatives, in state governments and in local government, are not a privileged elite governing by birthright or class or wealth. Australian society is the epitome of egalitarianism and this is reflected in how we have established one of the oldest and most successful democracies in the world. It is reflected in the identity of those people in this building who represent the people: we are the people we represent; we are the people who have elected us to govern. It is just so important we remember that.

That connection with the electorate is vital. The best way to ensure this connection is by strengthening the integrity of the parliament, the parliamentary process and government. And we, as the states' representatives, need to encourage pride and respect in the office by our actions. We in this house are entrusted with an awesome responsibility: to empower Australians as individuals, as communities, and as a united nation to prosper, to live freely and peacefully, and to govern ourselves with honesty and integrity.

Most Australians live in cities. However, regional Australia remains the one crucial foundation of this nation culturally, socially and economically. It is where we grow our food. It is where we produce our fibre to make our clothes. It is where we dig for much of the mineral resource with which we supply ourselves and nations across the globe. It is from where much of our culture and our sense of identity has been derived. Historically, agriculture and mining transformed this land and played a central role in making it the great nation that we are today. The future of Australia is tied to the fortunes of regional Australia and especially to those of our agricultural industries and our farmers. I am unashamedly an advocate for rural Australia, for its tremendous contribution to the nation as a whole and for its vast untapped potential. Our farmers are among the best in the world. They are innovative, they are resilient—they need to be.

I remember the comment of a farmer colleague who was questioned from the floor during his preselection as to what skills he as a farmer could bring to political life. His response: patience and optimism. The challenges of being a farmer are enormous. Much of our farmers' productivity, profitability and sustainability depends on factors that are completely outside of their control. Weather and market forces work against farmers as often as they work for them.

It is not always a level playing field when our farmers compete in overseas markets. Despite Australia being a champion of free trade, other nations do not always reciprocate. However, there are factors which farmers can control or influence and, more importantly, for us here in Canberra there are factors that we can control and influence.

Our farmers deserve everything we can do to ensure they have an environment in which the great potential of Australian agriculture can be realised and thereby help secure the future for rural Australia and the nation as a whole. We must ensure farmers have the tools and the knowledge that they need to innovate, to improve their productivity and profitability and to enhance their economic and environmental sustainability. We must remove the burden of unnecessary overregulation. As the people who make those regulations, we need to be reminded of the words of Dwight Eisenhower:

Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.

Australia has enjoyed an enviable position and reputation for agricultural research and development which has been supported by both public and industry investment. This must be continued and it must be strengthened. Australia's edge in competition with overseas food and fibre producers lies in premium quality produce, best practice agriculture and our land's relative freedom from pests and diseases. We must vigorously protect this clean, green image. It gives us an edge in world markets, where many consumers are confronted with food that is often subject to questionable production processes. To do this we must protect our shores from pests and diseases that have the potential to destroy our crops and our animals.

Free trade is too often used as a reason to relax import restrictions that exist only to prevent potential destruction of our valuable clean, green image. Our geographical location, while sometimes a curse when it comes to getting our export goods to the customers around the world, is also our greatest asset in providing a natural pest and disease barrier. Our investment in agricultural research and development should enhance these advantages. These will only become more important and more valuable with the growing affluence of the world's most populous continent, Asia, on our very doorstep.

We must ensure that we do whatever we can to level the playing field for Australian farmers in their competition with overseas producers in international and domestic markets. We must ensure Australian farmers and agricultural industries have the infrastructure they need for cost-effective supply chains and access to efficient export paths. We must ensure the regional and rural communities where farmers operate have the infrastructure and services that they deserve—roads, hospitals and schools, transport, quality health and education, and fast and efficient communication networks. And Australian farmers must develop and protect their market intelligence. In the globalised world in which we now live, information is gold.

Globalisation means the world is now transferable. Over the coming years we will see increased mobility not just in goods and services but in capital and in people. We cannot stop this, and nor should we try, but we can prepare by ensuring our society is educated in a way that allows us to meet these challenges and benefit from them. In every industry sector, we will not necessarily succeed because we are cheaper; we will only succeed because we are better—better educated, better informed, better resourced and better prepared.

As a resource-rich country, physically advantaged by our proximity to the world's growth markets in Asia, we have a huge opportunity to add value to our primary industries. But we must resist the short-term, simple solutions offered by protectionism which inevitably end up in failure, and instead invest in the creation of a highly educated and skilled workforce. If we do this, we will build a resilient economy that will repay our investment with a contribution that will sustain our nation and increase our prosperity into the future. All Australians deserve this.

My home town of Renmark, on the River Murray, was founded as an irrigation settlement in 1887 and is one of the oldest and most efficient irrigation areas in Australia. In fact, both my grandfathers were soldier settlers who took up the opportunity to be horticulturalists after the First World War—although my maternal grandfather stubbornly refused to accept his land for free, his argument being that he was not going to be beholden to any government for anything. The land settled by my paternal grandfather, Cuthbert Ruston, is the same land on which my husband and I now operate Australia's largest commercial rose garden.

For well over a century, the Murray has watered an abundance of crops in the district, from citrus to vineyards, almonds to vegetables and, yes, even roses. The fortunes of Renmark and the Riverland region are tied to the river, as is the case with communities across the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin. River communities and irrigators like me know all too well this river system must be operated at a sustainable level of natural environmental health. Our future depends on it, but our future also depends on maintaining a balance between the needs of the river system and of the communities and industries that rely upon it. It is vital that we recognise this need for balance and make sustainability a priority in all senses of the word—environmental, social and economic.

My vision is for a Murray-Darling river system which not only has achieved this balance but serves as the best example of river management in the world, as a natural wonder to be enjoyed by future generations and as a natural resource that sustains productive agricultural industries and a vibrant regional community. I say this as an irrigator, as a member of a river community and as someone with a vested interest in ensuring our river's survival. My comments are not based on best available science; they are based on real life experience.

I am also a small business owner, and small business is another passion of mine which I intend to have as a primary focus while I am here in the Senate. Small business is the foundation of the Australian economy. Almost without exception, every large company operating in Australia today began as a small business. Small business employs around half the Australian workforce. The diversity of small business underpins the resilience of our economy and it is often the economic backbone of regional communities.

As a small business operator I can tell you that running a small business is not easy. It is about hard work and long hours. It is about taking risks. It is about trying to manage factors that are often outside your control. It is about accepting responsibility and consequences. It is about having a vision and seeing it through. It is about taking not only your future in your hands but the future of your family and the future of those people that you employ. We should never take small business for granted in Australia.

In this place we need to consider the impact on small business of the decisions and the laws that we make. In this place we need to understand that a seemingly minor regulation or a small change in tax can have a devastating consequence on small business. I know because I have experienced the impact of government regulation and taxation on my own business. All too often it means more work and higher costs.

Small business in Australia finds itself restricted and stymied by regulation—regulation which is often developed by people with no real understanding of how small business works. Australian small business needs an environment in which it can thrive. They need an environment that enables operators to spend more time doing what they do best: making money, creating jobs and driving the economy. They need an environment in which the hard work and all those long hours actually bring reward; an environment where their innovation can be realised by success and where that success is not penalised by excessive regulation or tax. Small business also needs the flexibility to employ people on terms that are fair to everyone. We are not here to make things more complicated and difficult for small business, but this is often the outcome that results from decisions taken by legislators and bureaucrats. I love the quote from former US Senator John E. Sununu, who said:

Politicians also have a love affair with the 'small business exemption'. Too much paperwork? Too heavy a burden? Not enough time? Just exempt small businesses from the rule. It sounds so pro-growth. Instead it's an admission that the costs of a regulation just can't be justified.

The simple fact is that it makes plain sense to make things simpler for small business. By doing so we empower small business to invest in its future and in doing so we invest in the future of Australia.

Before I conclude I would like to acknowledge those who have invested in me: the people who elected me to this place, the people who supported my campaign to be a senator and the people who support me unconditionally, my family—my husband, Richard, who has provided and, I hope, will continue to provide, the tough and sometimes confronting advice that only a partner can get away with; and our son, Tom, who is my rock of reality. I'm here because I want the best possible future for you.

Australia is a great nation and we have entrusted in us the responsibility to protect Australia and its assets for future generations. It is a huge, huge honour to be able to represent the people of South Australia in this place. I pledge to work diligently and honestly to add value to the debates and decisions that will help form this country's future.

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