Maiden Speech – First Speech

Mr Sam Birrell MP, Member for Nicholls, Vic – YouTube

Mr BIRRELL (Nicholls) (12:21)


I’d like to begin this address by reading out the names of four people who grew up in regional Australia. They are four people who by virtue of when and where they were born had limited opportunities, but they used what opportunities there were to create a significant legacy for those who followed.

The regional Australians I want to mention are Richard and Eileen Birrell and Ray and Molly Dunham. They have passed. I’m sure they never would have thought that they’d be spoken about in this chamber, but their lives and their ethics tell us an important story. They were my grandparents.

They were born in regional Australia just after the end of the First World War and, as a result, their early teenage years coincided with the ravages of the Great Depression. They had little opportunity for formal education, as they had to leave school at a young age to support their families. Their work was tough, but work did at least exist, due to the developing agricultural and food-processing industries in the regions.

They then experienced the danger and deprivation of the Second World War and, after that, started families. They were determined to work as hard as they could to ensure that their children had a chance at educational opportunities that they never had. My parents, Brian and Sue, both from different parts of regional Victoria, met at Melbourne University, and after their studies came to the Goulburn Valley, as the prosperity of this region offered opportunities—my father in law and my mother as a teacher. I was, therefore, lucky enough to be born into this amazing part of regional Australia.

I spent my childhood growing up on the banks of the Goulburn River, or the Kaiela, as it’s called in Yorta Yorta language. I have three younger sisters: Emily, Sarah and Hannah. We remain close as adults. Our family life was always one where questions were encouraged, intellectual curiosity was ubiquitous and the overwhelming ethic was that people were to be cared for. After formative years at school in Shepparton and then as a boarder at Assumption College in Kilmore,

I was looking for opportunities, but, as a disorganised and unstructured young man, this took a little while. But in the regions the community has your back. I found work on a fruit and cattle farm in Ardmona, just near the city of Shepparton. I recall with great appreciation the support my mother, Sue, gave me at this time in my life. I love agriculture. I was proud of what I was doing, helping to grow healthy food for people. I wanted to do more in this industry, but I knew that I had to gain further education.

We know moving to the city, for young regional people, is tough and expensive, and often, to the detriment of regional communities, it also means they and their new-found skills are lost to the big smoke. But, to my great fortune, the University of Melbourne agricultural campus is in a place called Dookie, only 30 kilometres outside of Shepparton, and I was able to complete an agricultural science degree in my own region.

I worked in agriculture in the Goulburn Valley, as an agronomist, advising farmers on aspects of crop production, and I then worked for Israeli irrigation pioneers Netafim, helping farmers around Australia and New Zealand use technology to apply water more efficiently to farms. At this time, I had the opportunity to be involved in the vibrant sports and arts communities in Shepparton.

Music is the art form that sustains me, and my guitar will be a constant companion with me here in Canberra.

I had the opportunity to further my education again by studying a Master of Business Administration degree at the Shepparton campus of La Trobe University. The MBA offered invaluable insights into dealing with complex problems such as the relationship between people and the economy.

In my view, an economy is there to serve people, and people will contribute successfully to businesses and the economy if they are made to feel valued and if they are able to use their own creativity to improve the performance of those businesses and that economy.

I had these opportunities for tertiary education in my region because La Trobe and Melbourne universities are committed to operating there, not just in capital cities. I want governments to continue supporting institutions who do this, because doing that is not just saying your postcode should not define your access to education; it is actually doing something to ensure it, and the Nationals have lived up to that in my region in recent times.

For the past six years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve my community as the CEO of the Committee for Greater Shepparton, an advocacy group funded and driven by the business community. In that capacity, I was able to gain knowledge of the issues facing many parts of our community, and I come to this place with that knowledge, in a spirit of collaboration, to find solutions.

The electorate I represent covers some of the southernmost ranges of the Great Divide, in which are nestled the vibrant and burgeoning towns of Seymour and Broadford and the Puckapunyal Army base. This is Taungurung country. In the central part of the electorate are the alluvial flatlands that span either side of the Goulburn River as it flows through the towns of Nagambie, Murchison and Toolamba.

The Goulburn then junctions with the Broken River in Shepparton. Across the north of the electorate are the Murray River towns of Yarrawonga, Cobram and Echuca and the agricultural centres of Kyabram, Rochester, Nathalia and Numurkah.

The electorate is named after Sir Doug Nicholls, a Yorta Yorta man who grew up on the Cummeragunja mission, near Echuca. He was a sportsman, social worker, pastor, Governor of South Australia and respected elder in the community, and his is an inspirational example of service and leadership.

The region is many things: home to a vibrant, sophisticated and evolving Indigenous culture; a critical food bowl of Australia, enabled by the Murray and Goulburn rivers, which supply a network of irrigation channels gravityfeeding water to farmland with highly fertile soils; and a major producer of apples, pears and peaches.

It is a large producer of milk and a processor of this milk into high-quality dairy products that make their way around Australia and the world. If you are having a pizza somewhere in Australia or Asia, there is a good chance that the mozzarella cheese on it came from the Goulburn Valley.

In addition, the electorate of Nicholls is, I believe, one of the most successful examples of multiculturalism in the world. People from all over have made their way to this region, often coming with nothing, and they have made extraordinary lives.

My observation as a member of this community is that we seem to do better when we celebrate each other’s different cultural identity but moreover embrace each other’s humanity, the humanity being a stronger bond between us than any divisions that tend to be amplified by race, gender, sexual orientation or religious view.

As the Pink Floyd song ‘Echoes’ says:

Strangers passing in the street

By chance two separate glances meet

And I am you and what I see is me

You will have noted the keyword I’ve used in this address is ‘opportunity’.

It was afforded to my grandparents thanks to regional industries, although in difficult circumstances. It was afforded to my parents in their access to tertiary education, which was only made possible because of the hard work and financial sacrifices of their parents.

I am here because we need that opportunity to continue to be afforded to the people in regional Australia, the people of my electorate. How can we do this? Firstly, and most importantly, the opportunity to work in agriculture and food processing in my patch comes through reliable and affordable water for irrigation.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has taken a significant amount of that water away from productive use in my electorate. The water is now owned by the Commonwealth to be used for the environment.

I know it has caused a lot of pain. We understand the need to look after the river system, and strategic and efficient use of environmental water can help us do that. But we are at a tipping point and no more can be taken from communities that have already done much of the heavy lifting.

When water leaves an area, so does the economy that that water creates. If a farmer sells a water licence back to the government, the farmer may well be compensated, but the milk or fruit that the farmer once grew grows no longer.

The people in the supply chain that got the product to the consumer are no longer employed. The community, the region and, indeed, Australia are poorer in so many ways.

In 2012, there was a political add-on to the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan that said that 450 extra gigalitres on top of what was already taken could be taken away from productive use and sent downstream. But there is an important caveat in the legislation. It says it can only be taken if it would have a neutral or improved socioeconomic impact on basin communities.

If any of this water was to be removed from irrigation in our region, the impact on our communities would be overwhelmingly negative. That’s a no-brainer. In addition, any attempt  to push that much water downstream could erode the banks of our rivers and cause negative environmental impacts.

Some try to argue that socioeconomic neutrality relates to the farmer being significantly compensated, so they say, ‘We will just go and buy the 450 gigalitres back.’ But my father, who has spent his working life analysing the wording in legislation, has always taught me that words matter and that in legislation all words must do some work and carry some weight.

The meaning and weight of the term ‘socioeconomic’ is undeniable. ‘Socio’ means society. ‘Economic’ means economy. If the society and the economy in our basin communities would be negatively affected—and they would be—then the socioeconomic neutrality test fails.

So no part of this extra water, this 450 gigalitres, can be removed from productive irrigation. If we do not have productive industries, opportunity for future generations will evaporate.

Climate change is a complex challenge for our country. The overwhelming scientific opinion is that greenhouse gas emissions are causing a changing climate and that to prevent an average temperature rise that would lead to real challenges for humanity we as a planet need to reduce our emissions.

The need to act is not in question. How we do it, without causing huge economic damage to our nation and its people, is the question. It is the how, not the if. Done in a reckless manner, with unrealistic time lines out of step with our global competitors, we could face a situation where industry moves emissions overseas. Australia’s economic strength would be reduced but global emissions would not. It’s a reality we need to face. I’m sure that as a nation we are up to this challenge, and I look forward to working constructively towards a just transition and keeping our mind open to the range of technologies that can get us there.

In my mind, just transition means that the justice, human rights and dignity of those most affected by any change need to be protected, and often these are people in regional areas.

We need to safeguard their opportunity. I joined the National Party and asked the people of Nicholls to elect me as representative in this chamber because I believe in regional Australia and I want to see it thrive.

Some of the great steps forward that we have made have been thanks to my predecessor, Damian Drum, as a member of the Nationals in government. We’re on a better path than we once were. We have new cultural institutions, better transport, better tertiary education facilities and more opportunity for young people to have successful careers in our region, particularly in health care. That came from a real collaboration between Drummy and the community, along with the focus of the Nationals.

I want to continue to develop our region and regional Australia more broadly. I don’t want an Australia that’s dominated by a few ever-expanding megacities.

Let’s look at the example of Germany. Germany has a population of 80 million, but its largest city has three million. Its structure is a network of vibrant smaller regional cities with strong industries linked by high-speed rail. Australia needs to approach this population balance question in a strategic way.

I believe this happens by sustainably developing our regional cities, ensuring the towns that surround them are places that people want to move to, and creating the space and conditions for vibrant and profitable industries in the regions.

We can link these places to capitals with highspeed electrified rail, and all of this can be powered by new technology with lower emissions. The spirit of these communities will be centred on creating opportunity for all. I would like to thank the volunteers who supported my campaign, especially the campaign committee, chaired by Lyndsay Dann.

The only reason I’m in a position to do any of this work is because I married Lisa. Prior to meeting her, I was described as talented but wayward, a young man lacking in organisation, structure and direction. But thanks to Lisa’s love, support and influence, I’ve been able to attain a position I could never have imagined. A lesson here is that all of us deserve the opportunity for love and partnership.

My kids, Sophie and David, continue to provide inspiration, and I hope I can make them proud in this job, as we work towards ensuring that their generations, and the ones that follow, have better opportunities than we had. In closing: Richard and Eileen and Ray and Molly were born about 100 years ago in regional Australia.

What future are we setting up for those born in the regions now?

We owe it to them to invest, to innovate, to work hard and smart, to ensure opportunity is there for all, as we adapt to a changing future. So thank you all for the opportunity