Mr COULTON (Parkes—Chief Nationals Whip) (12:58): It’s a great honour to stand in this place and speak in the address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s opening speech. In May, I was very proudly elected to this place for the sixth time. Last Thursday was the 15th anniversary of my election to the Australian parliament, and I recognise some of my fellow class of 2007 as they leave the chamber. It’s a position that I never take for granted. It’s a great honour and a great privilege to serve the people of the Parkes electorate in the Australian parliament. Before I go any further I’d like to acknowledge the people who have helped me get there and stay there. The Parkes Electorate Council and the members of the National Party in the Parkes electorate are one of the strongest political organisations in Australia. They’re not activists; they are just good, solid citizens who have an interest in the running of the country, and they step up when needed. Chairman of the Parkes federal electorate council Brendan Moylan has shown great leadership, as have all of the members of that committee. I’d like to pay special tribute to my friend Peter Bartley who ran my campaign—he’s run five of my six campaigns, and actually delayed his retirement to Newcastle so he could stay in Dubbo to do that. I’m very grateful to Peter for that.
At the last election, unfortunately, I think there were issues that ultimately got some of the people elected to this place that I took deep offence to. There’s a selection of new members here who claimed that the parliament was a corrupt place and that their election was going to actually fix that corruption and shine light on the Australian parliament. That is deeply offensive to everyone that’s ever stood in this parliament, from either side. I have great respect for my colleagues in this place. In my 15 years, I have to say, corruption that’s supposed to be endemic in this place is largely invisible—it’s not even there. There have been a couple of members in my time who have done the wrong thing and fallen foul of the legal system, and they have been treated appropriately by the legal system. To become a member of parliament and say that your reason for being here is that somehow you are superior in a moral way to the rest of us is offensive—and I want to put that on the record.
I also want to thank the people of the Parkes electorate for once again showing their support for me. I believe I might’ve been the only conservative member in New South Wales that actually got a swing to me in the last election, and I’m very grateful for that. At the moment, when there’s a lot of talk about the Voice to Parliament and the Indigenous community, I can proudly say that I won the booth at Wilcannia, so I beat the Indigenous-Aboriginal Party candidate in their home town. I got a 17 per cent swing to me in Brewarrina. I won the booths at Bourke, Walgett and Coonamble. I got a nine per cent swing to me in South Broken Hill—didn’t quite win a booth in Broken Hill, but I’m getting closer.
I think I can speak with some authority on the issues concerning Indigenous Australians as their representative for such a long time and as someone who has support from those people. That responsibility is an important thing for me because this job is not about what is easy. It’s not about being seen to express your superiority on morality or anything else. This job is about doing what you think is the right thing to do, and that’s not always what might seem to be the most popular thing. I take this debate very seriously and I’m considering issues very closely.
I’d also like to thank all the people right across my electorate who handed out and helped me during the election process. I want to make particular comments about my friends from the subcontinent. In Dubbo and other towns a lot of the people that handed out for me on election day were from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. They’re new settlers in the Parkes electorate who are making an enormous contribution. I’m very proud that 20 per cent of the population of Dubbo was born overseas. We are becoming a real multicultural community, but I think we have a bit more to do in that space. Speaking to Minister Giles about it, we will probably need more services for new migrants as more and more of them are choosing to come to regional Australia, rather than to the capital cities where a lot of those services are. There is a need for more migrant services, particularly for the partners. Quite often a couple will come and one of the partners will have a job. The other one can be a bit isolated because they’re in a strange country with a different culture. If there’s no a network of people to help them, it can be isolating. But I’m proud of the previous government, as someone who was part of it. I recognise my good friend and a former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack is in the chamber now. We did a lot of good things. A lot of those are evident in the Parkes electorate. As a former minister for infrastructure, we got the Inland Rail started. That’s the massive infrastructure project that’s going to link not only Brisbane and Melbourne; for the first time there’ll be a standard gauge railway line that links every capital city in Australia. It’ll be a more efficient transport service so that the primary producers and miners in my electorate can get their product to port in a more efficient and cheaper way.
Last Friday, the first grain train on the newly completed section from Moree to Narrabri carried grain along the Inland Rail down onto the Hunter line to the Port of Newcastle. In the recent flooding, despite the anxiety and criticism about Inland Rail and the talk of the impact of water, guess what? The only thing that was above water in the last flood between Moree to Narrabri was the Inland Rail. Its design did what it was supposed to do. The water flowed as it was supposed to. It did its job. So, when it’s completed, we’ll have a flood-free rail connection between Melbourne and Brisbane. The member for Riverina knows the issues we have on the Newell Highway with flooding in a wet season like this. This is going to have enormous benefits. I think a truck goes up the Newell Highway through Dubbo now about every 70 seconds, and that freight task is increasing. So the Inland Rail will help alleviate that.
The local communities are on board. I pay tribute to the New South Wales government. They have funded a special activation precinct in Moree, and we are starting to see real interest in investment that is going to have a long-term benefit for future generations in the north-west. Narrabri, with the work that the New South Wales government is doing, on top of what the previous government contributed, has developed an inland port with connection to gas from the Narrabri gas field, with all sorts of food manufacturing, fertiliser manufacturing and recycling of plastics. Narrabri already has a large recycling industry, but to have that access to rail will be good because one of the factors in recycling is the huge transport costs for the bulky recyclables. So to have the rail connected to an industrial park and connected to a gas field is really going to underpin the economy of that area.
The other thing is health. I was privileged to have the role of regional health minister for a period of time in the last government. Last week, the University of Sydney officially opened up the brand-new medical school in Dubbo. The first cohort of students have just about completed their first year, and I am told that they are performing absolutely at the top level. It’s not a reduced course. It’s not dumbed down for country people. It is exactly the same course that you would do if you were in Sydney. These students are performing above average. Five-hundred prospective students applied for the 24 positions at the medical school. These people include Emily from Quambone, a young chap from Coonabarabran and another person from Forbes. Local people doing medicine in their local area will be a huge benefit
Dubbo has now become a real health precinct. There was a contribution from the New South Wales government, but I’m particularly proud of my involvement, and the federal government’s involvement, in the Western Cancer Centre. This facility is state of the art—as good as the best cancer centres anywhere in Australia. Their three-year plan for where they would be was achieved in three months. We are saving lives close to home. Particularly with my western towns, particularly with some of the Aboriginal folk and others who have never left their hometowns, going to Sydney for cancer treatment is a bridge too far. Quite sadly, people were choosing death over having treatment. Now, we have treatment in Dubbo at that cancer centre, and the fact that technicians, specialists and doctors have come from all over Australia to work in this centre is simply amazing.
The Macquarie Home Stay is providing accommodation for people coming in to have the cancer treatment, or people like young mums coming in from the west. The members here might be surprised to know that, if you’re a young mum in Bourke, you live four hours from the birthing unit. They’re encouraged to come into Dubbo in time, so that they’re not having to give birth on the side of the Mitchell Highway. Macquarie Home Stay has provided a wonderful opportunity. But sadly, in September, they turned away 160 people, because they don’t have the accommodation.
I put in an application under the Building Better Regions Fund—it wasn’t a large amount: $2.8 million—to build a number of rooms. Sadly, that program was discontinued, and we’re back to scratch. The CEO of Macquarie Home Stay was in the building this morning, speaking to ministers and trying to get this now on the agenda of the new government, because it is an essential facility, providing services to people who are most in need. Incidentally, I was involved in a bike ride back in 2013 that raised the first $170,000 for that facility. We did 1,188 kilometres in six days. That garnered the support of the entire west of the state.
At the moment, as we speak, a large part of my electorate is impacted by floods. Pretty well everyone close to the river system is. The Parkes electorate is half of NSW. It’s 30 per cent of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is a bit frustrating at times to hear some of the strong opinions on what’s good for the residents and the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin from people who’ve actually never been there—or who’ve maybe flown over it on their way to their annual trip overseas. At the moment, Mother Nature is showing who’s in charge. In the drought, when it doesn’t rain, the system dries. It’s an ephemeral system. My part of the Murray-Darling Basin is an ephemeral system. So we’ve gone from rivers you could ride a pushbike down to that same river now being five kilometres wide.
I was in Condobolin last Friday, and that Lachlan system—as the member for Riverina well knows—has been in flood for a long time. The road between Condobolin and Forbes has been shut for six months. While the towns have largely managed, the rural sector has really been impacted. Moree Plains Shire Council alone estimates 120,000 hectares of winter crop washed away in this flood. That’s billions of dollars across my electorate of potential income right on the eve of harvest, which is really difficult to deal with. The farmers, following on from a couple of good years, will get through this. But the common theme, when I had Minister Watt with me in Moree a few weeks ago, is that we’ll manage this part of it, but what we need help with is the infrastructure. I’ve still got farmers in several places who have got last year’s crop on their farm because the roads have been that bad—some of them underwater, obviously—that they haven’t been able to get that grain to market. I’ve met with Minister Catherine King, and I think there’s an opportunity.
I’ve got to say, I think the system for the flood and disaster funding is working well. I’ll pay tribute to Minister Watt; I think he’s been very proactive in this space, working with the state governments and local mayors. That part of it I think is working as it should. But the constant wet weather has deteriorated the road network. In some cases they’re nearly impassable. So I think there’s a strong argument for funding on top of the regular funding that comes through with the FA grants or Roads to Recovery. My suggestion would be another round of funding through Roads to Recovery because the formula is there. The former minister, the member for Riverina, was able to use that mechanism during the drought to put more money into local areas. That mechanism could be used to put more money into those councils that are badly impacted by the wet weather for those roads that are becoming very, very difficult to use.
Apart from the vagaries of the weather, the Parkes electorate is in a very solid position. Prior to the pandemic, unemployment in Dubbo was about 2.1 per cent. Right across the Parkes electorate and in all of those western towns, unemployment is below the national average.
The single biggest issue that we have at the moment is lack of people. Obviously, for emotional reasons, there’s a lot of discussion now around the medical workforce—doctors, allied health workers, nurses and workers in aged care. We have a massive need there. This is an issue right through, from the legal profession to all the trades or any job that you want to undertake. There has been a lot of discussion. I heard Minister Clare yesterday speaking about the number of people needing to be encouraged to go into teaching. All of those things are manifesting themselves at the moment, and it’s a real challenge. We’ve also got housing shortages.
We’ve got huge potential in the west. In Broken Hill alone, there are cobalt and magnetite proposals. Magnetite is the raw material for making greener, cleaner steel, and cobalt is important for batteries and other electronics. We’ve got a lithium proposal for the village of Fifield, a massive rare earths proposal for Dubbo and huge gold reserves that have been uncovered between Tomingley and Peak Hill. These are mining proposals that the country is screaming out for as they look for a cleaner, greener future. Those raw materials are in the Parkes electorate. But we’re going to have to work very, very hard to make sure that we have not only the miners and technicians to come in there but the people to service them—the mechanics, hospitality workers and others right across the board. Western New South Wales and the Parkes electorate are looking at a very, very bright future if we can overcome some of those difficulties we’re facing at the moment.
Even regarding tourism, Broken Hill has now become such a destination, and you can add the film industry to that. Not many people look at the Parkes electorate and think of the film industry, but we had one of the Hemsworths doing his morning jogs around Broken Hill for a few weeks while they were filming the last Mad Max movie. Eight-hundred people came into town just for that alone. The Mundi Mundi Bash music festival saw 16,000 people out at Silverton.
So there is diversity in culture, from the arts and movie making to agriculture, mining and education. The potential is there. It’s a great privilege to represent such a dynamic part of Australia. Every day I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that. I thank the Governor-General for his opening speech, and I look forward to working in this place for the next term of government.