Perin’s first speech

17 September 2019

After taking up this position on 1 July, and in this, my fifth week of parliamentary business, it is a pleasure to finally be able to say that this is my first speech. What a pleasure it is to stand here to speak as a senator for New South Wales and for the Nationals. I am proud to be a National and proud of who we are and what we represent—proud of our values of equality of opportunity, regardless of geography, gender, race or religion. The Nationals are first and foremost pragmatists, committed to delivering for our communities, united one and all in our shared belief that, when regional Australia is strong, so too is our nation.

It is all the more important for me to be standing here today when the New South Wales Nationals are on the verge of celebrating their 100th year and as we head into 2020, when the federal National Party celebrates its centenary, making ours the second oldest party in the parliament. This, despite many soothsayers predicting our demise as a party and declaring the end is nigh for the Nationals, particularly at the last election, when many took great pleasure in questioning the relevance of the Nationals and our capacity to adapt.

I contend that there has never been a time when our relevance has been so important. Now, at a time when, despite technology giving us instant connection, the physical connections and understanding between the city and the bush seem to be diminishing; now, when nearly 40 per cent of children think cotton grows on cows and yoghurt grows on trees and when people don’t realise that resource industries are about future technologies, that is when you need the Nationals. The Nationals are relevant at a time when our regional industries—agriculture, irrigation, mining and resources—are increasingly under attack. The Nationals achievements over time, including establishing entities we currently take for granted, such as Austrade and the CSIRO, and all of our achievements into the future, such as constructing the inland rail and future water infrastructure, show that, as a party, we have stood the test of time and we do adapt.

Originally stereotyped as a party of pastoralists, we also became the first party to ever have a female federal president, in the dynamic Shirley McKerrow OAM. We also had the first female director, in Cecile Ferguson, who I welcome here today. And where once for the Nationals these benches were full of stock agents and farmers, we are now a party represented by teachers, social workers, economists, vets, butchers, country editors and myself, a former student of the first high school in Canberra to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, saying, ‘Yes, we need to talk about nuclear power.’

My colleagues and I represent the wealth of opportunity and experience that the regions can offer, and that is our binding force. Our values are inherently tied to the regions, and our reason for being is to give those regions a voice. We are bound today by the same values that our party held a hundred years ago, but we have different faces and we proudly represent regions that now have new industries and new opportunities.

The Nationals have had many successes over the years. We have delivered billions of dollars to improve regional telecommunications, services, roads, drought aid, education and health services. Some call this funding pork-barrelling. I call it doing our job—doing what we are elected to do, and that is to stand up for regional Australia and make sure regional Australia has equitable access.

Some call it pandering to vested interests, and I say yes, we are, because a vested interest is defined as a personal reason for involvement, especially in expectation of a gain. So I say we all have vested interests, and I’m prepared to declare mine. I am a mother, and therefore I have a vested interest in making sure my children, and all of our children, have access to quality education regardless of where they live. I want them to have education pathways, be it through vocational training or tertiary education, and I want them to have the best opportunities at their fingertips so that they have career pathways and job prospects—in the regions, if they so wish, so they don’t feel obliged to move to the cities.

I’ve been an employee and an employer, so I have a vested interest in ensuring that businesses have access to adequate telecommunications and can operate without excessive red tape, and I have a vested interest in making sure our tax regime is fair. As a future retiree, I have a vested interest in protecting our superannuation. As a driver, I’ve got a vested interest in making sure regional roads are safe. As the wife of an irrigator and as someone who worked in the irrigation industry—although never as an irrigator myself, because I kill any plant I look at!—I have a vested interest in making sure we get stability back in our water policy so that irrigators and other water users, including industries, towns and the environment, understand the parameters under which they’re operating and we get the balance right.

As the wife of a farmer, I have a vested interest in making sure both corporate and private agriculture have a strong future so anyone who wants to work in the business, not just those lucky enough to inherit or lucky enough to own shares, has a career pathway. And as someone living on the land, I have a vested interest in our environment, because I love looking out my kitchen window and seeing my pelican return every year to Billabong Creek. I love taking my children camping on the river amongst the red gums, and I love the fact that we, as farmers, want to leave the land and the soil in a better condition so Australia can continue to be sustainably productive.

I have a vested interest in making sure we get the economic, environmental and social balance right when we make public policy. As John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen said of the Nationals in the sixties:

… we conceive our role as a dual one of being at all times the specialist party with a sharp fighting edge, the specialists for rural industries and rural communities. At the same time we are the party which has the total co-ordinated concept of what is necessary for the growth and safety of the whole Australian nation.

It is important to me that our regional industries are supported by infrastructure, services and good government policy that encourages investment, because without investment we can’t grow and we would fail to live up to the potential of our regions.

Importantly, our regional industries must not be demonised or vilified. Take agriculture—this $60 billion industry that employs over 300,000 people directly and more than 1.6 million people along the value chain, which has the potential to grow to a $100 billion industry by 2030 and supports hundreds of country towns and communities. It is increasingly having to defend itself against activism. We have livestock producers living in fear of having their properties stormed by activists, with sheds broken into and animals harassed and, in some cases, even stolen, all supposedly in the name of stopping animal cruelty. But we know the real agenda is actually to shut down these industries without concern or consideration about the impact on the farmers, on their families, on their communities and, most importantly, on our grocery bills.

Not all of the protesters are mischievous; some of them are just misinformed. But if you live in the regions and if you talk to these farmers you understand that mistreatment of animals is not good business sense, and Australia has strong animal welfare laws for that reason. In fact, Australia has a raft of rules that ensure our agricultural industries lead the world in best practice management.

In Australia, production of crops like cotton and rice is leading the world in terms of crop yield per megalitre of water used. Yet there are those in Australia, and indeed in this place, calling for us to stop producing these crops—these crops that are actually perfectly suited to the Australian variable environment, these crops that can be turned off and on, depending on water availability. Both of these commodity groups have long-term research and development programs in Australia, and now as a nation we are exporting our smarts as well as our products.

These commodity groups and others in our agricultural chain have farmgate value as well as value-add across the whole industry. In my area, for example, we have the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere and a company, SunRice, started by a cooperative of farmers that is now an international food conglomerate, still owned by Australian farmers. But, instead of championing these industries and the successes we as a nation have shown in developing high-quality, high-yielding crops using less water and less chemicals and leaving healthier soils than any other nation, we are demonising them to a point where our farmers are too scared to tell people what they grow. I am here to be a champion for them and for all of our agricultural industries, be it dairy, egg production, citrus—I support them all, and I support the businesses that rely on them.

We can’t stop growing these crops or producing these commodities because, if we do, who will feed the 40 million-plus people around the world every day who eat Australian rice, who will produce the fresh milk that we enjoy on our cereals and who will produce the natural fibres that we like to wear? A ban on production does not equal a fall in demand. Markets just turn to another supplier to source similar produce without the same standards. So to export the problem of producing food and fibre will abrogate our responsibility as a nation to ensure they are produced in an ethical and sustainable way. Regardless of the commodity, when you buy Australian produce you know that you are buying a product that has been produced to the highest standards, without child labour, without using banned chemicals and at the same time as our farmers are endeavouring to improve their land and be good environmental stewards. So those calling for us to export our industries don’t understand that doing so would just export a problem that Australia is well placed to be a solution for. And the same goes for our resource industries.

The debate about mining has people thinking only about coal, noting that Australia produces the cleanest-burning coal in the world and is supplying the continued international demand, but we as a nation can’t just focus on coal when we talk about resources. Mining in Australia is so much more than that—a $285 billion industry employing almost a quarter of a million people nationally. From the traditional metals and minerals found at my favourite place in New South Wales, where once a jackeroo stood on a hilltop and noticed a weird-looking rock in Broken Hill, to the gas fields of Camden and the mineral sands mines of the west, increasingly we are progressing rare-earth mineral extraction to feed the demand for technological components. Without mining, we wouldn’t have the lithium to power batteries for electric cars and we would not be able to make components for solar panels, iPhones or wind turbines. And, increasingly, rare-earth minerals are being used for new tech defence industries. The opportunities are endless, and we as a nation need to grasp them. And, of course, there’s my favourite mining of all: gold and silver and opals and gemstones of Inverell, where Wacka used to come from.

All of this mining in New South Wales alone contributes $11 billion a year. But, just as the Nationals have adapted over time, so too has mining, and today it is far more environmentally sustainable, and rightly so. Today we must ensure that mining does not compromise other commodities, particularly agriculture. We cannot risk our prime agricultural land and we cannot risk our vulnerable aquifers or our fragile ecological assets. But there is a balance that can be found, and we should strive to do so, to provide a strong and diverse economy.

So I will support policies that promote our regions and encourage growth because, by doing so, I hope to increase regional populations and therefore increase regional representation in this place. But, to do this, we need to focus on ensuring infrastructure and services are in place to make the regions an attractive place to live. By providing the basic infrastructure and then implementing policies that encourage regional migration that supports regional industries, we can start to reverse the trend of population drift to the coast. And perhaps the best way to do that is to lead by example, to show people how good it is to live in the regions and to show them that living in the regions is not an impediment to success—because, as I mentioned before, I have not always lived in the regions. I did most of my schooling here in Canberra, but I was attracted to the regions long before I met my farming husband.

My pathway here has been long and varied. It has provided me with life experiences that have given me an understanding of our differences in society but also our commonalities. My pathway has not been planned or designed with this end goal in mind; rather, it has been a path of opportunities: 15-odd years in the Army Reserve; three years working on safaris in Botswana; a stint as a regional reporter for a country newspaper; and time in Queensland driving a school bus, cooking for station hands and running the Comet River trivia championship. I also spent some time back here in Canberra, working for an international PR firm—and some of my colleagues are here today. Through all of that, I had no idea that this is where I would end up. Rather, I have done all of that because I look for opportunities and I accept the risks and rewards that they present, and I have arrived here because I took advantage of an opportunity that now I have a massive responsibility to ensure I don’t waste. I need to make the most of it so I don’t let down the people who believed in me and those who supported me, and now those regions that need me to be their representative.

So there are many I have to thank. Firstly, to the National Party and the New South Wales Nationals Central Council: I thank you for giving me the opportunity and for selecting me to represent you in this place. I also thank the hundreds of Nationals members and supporters across the state who came out and supported me, supported our party and ultimately supported this government at the May election. Thank you to former Nationals senators Ron Boswell, Fiona Nash and John ‘Wacka’ Williams, who have all been so forthcoming with their support and their advice, especially to Wacka, who did reach out to me and who made sure my transition into this role was a smooth one. His name here in this building is synonymous with decency, diligence and bipartisanship. Wacka forged a reputation as an honest broker, ready and willing to reach across, and work across, the aisle to deliver positive outcomes for rural and regional Australia, and I aim to do the same. I say to my Nationals colleagues here in the Senate—Susan, Sam, Bridget and Matt: I hope we have many good times ahead. To my staff: thank you for your support to date. I’m confident we’ll be a strong, successful and collegiate team, working together to deliver for New South Wales. To the staff in this place, the Clerk and the office of the Black Rod: I thank you in advance for the assistance I know you will provide to me, because I know I’ll be asking! To the security and cleaning staff: I thank you for all you do to make sure this place is safe and clean. And to my new colleagues on all benches: I look forward to working with you. While we may not sit on the same side, I believe that each and every one of us has put our hand up to be here because we believe in our democracy and we believe in representing the people who put us here, and that is to be respected.

And then there are my personal thanks. To all my friends who helped me during the campaign, who answered my pleas for help to get children ferried around when I was in Cobar, Broken Hill, Moree or Narrabri trying to win votes, including those who are taking my daughter home tomorrow so she can be in her sixth-grade production: they say it takes a village to raise children, and that is especially true when you take on a role such as this. To the mad, bad, crazy McGregor clan: you couldn’t have been a more vibrant rainbow of political views to grow up with. Our enthusiastic conversations around the Christmas dinner table have enabled me to debate the point, not the person, and to find respect and common ground across disparate views, and I’m sure that will stand me in good stead in this place. To my in-laws, Helen and Malcolm: Helen is a formidable role model who has shown me you don’t need to be tall or male to get ahead in politics; you just need to be right. And Malcolm, you are a picture of patience and calm, with a magical charm.

To my parents: you have both instilled in me a sound work ethic and practicality. I know I wasn’t easy, but your no-nonsense approach to parenting kept me in check. Mum, your independence and sense of adventure that saw you jumping on a plane to war-torn Vietnam just to see what it was like has defined me. You set a very high bar and you always encouraged me to have a go. You got me into everything, from school band and choir—and you even got me trying to play sport even when you knew full well I couldn’t catch! Maybe in hindsight it was probably just an attempt to distract me from going off track—and it worked. I thank you, for you never doubted me. And Dad, you came to our shores as an 18-year-old with nothing but an open mind. Determined to give it a go, you worked your way through the media to the staff of the primary industries minister, Peter Nixon, and then into the engine room of our party, and now, as the party’s resident historian as well as entertainer with your original songs and brilliant covers of Johnny Cash—at the time you put me right off both politics and country music! But now I thank you for the many lessons I’ve learnt from you just by being around.

And finally to my family: John, Kira and Matilda. John, when we met at Tamworth Country Music Festival—that’s after I got over my youthful distaste of the genre!—when I was living in Canberra and you were in Berrigan, I had no idea that one day I would again be doing the commute backwards and forwards to you. The journey in between has been fantastic. We’ve shared so much, and the pathway ahead is going to be just as fun. I know I’ve always had your support, even though you were hoping that you’d see more of me after May. Sorry about that! I know the sacrifices you are now making so that I can be here, and I thank you every day.

To Kira and Matilda: I want you both to know that you make me so proud. Watching the two of you in your endeavours, to see you have a go, be it your debating, your netball, your singing or your dancing, you remind me about the importance of being humble and gracious, of supporting your friends and of being a kind spirit. I hope I in turn make you proud.

So 100 years ago the Nationals as we now know them were formed with the understanding that the future of rural and regional Australia was critical to the future of our nation. So now, as a modern National, I stand before you committed to being a strong voice for regional New South Wales and regional Australia, to represent their interests, which are also my interests: to build stronger, more secure and sustainable regional communities through which our nation will prosper. Thank you.