Maiden Speech To Parliament - 20/6/1996It is a great honour to stand here today before you and, I might add, a very humbling experience. While I have always had an intense interest in the affairs of this wonderful country and participated at a local level in working towards a better Australia for all Australians, I never expected to be blessed with the honour of representing my home electorate in the federal government.
My election to office most certainly highlights the positive aspects of our democracy. I am a member with very few academic qualifications. I left school at 14 and commenced my working life by following my father into the Queensland railway department. As a junior lad porter, one of my first tasks was to be chief toilet cleaner of the Mareeba railway station. Wanting to improve my opportunities, I was accepted into the RAAF, where I qualified as an aircraft engine fitter and served my country for 10 years.
On completing my term in the air force, I worked in a number of professions from maintenance fitter, truck driver and real estate salesman to nightclub manager and wildlife park manager. I was for a time a site convener for the Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union and among my more interesting occupations I spent considerable time as a wild bull catcher and crocodile trapper. These latter occupations, I am sure, will assist me greatly in dealing with the political process in Canberra. Most recently I had my own business interests in the pastoral industry in Cape York and a crocodile farm in the Northern Territory.
I make mention of my background to highlight to honourable members on both sides of the House the fallacy of community perceptions. The perception that the Liberal Party consists only of the privileged and silvertails of our society is just as inaccurate as the perception that the Labor Party represents the workers and less advantaged members of our society. I stand before you today as living proof of the inaccuracy of perceptions and stereotypes.
Leichhardt is certainly an electorate of diversity, stretching from just south of the sugar town of Babinda to the northern most islands of the Torres Straits, Saibai and Boigu. Leichhardt is approximately 151,000 square kilometres in area. The main industries are tourism, sugar, cattle, agriculture, fishing and mining. The population stands at about a quarter of a million and at last count we had 11,500 small businesses.
I have created history in the seat of Leichhardt in that I am the first Liberal member to hold the seat since its proclamation in 1949. In preparing this speech, I researched some of the previous members' maiden speeches. I discovered that in 1976 National Party member David Thomson read from a letter written by a member of his family in 1888. It talked of the great troubles in getting supplies in and out. He also mentioned the inadequacies of communications in his electorate.
I must say that in 1996 the concerns raised by my predecessor are still as relevant today. Over the years Leichhardt has been grossly neglected by governments which have been quite happy to take the wealth which our region yields, returning little in the way of infrastructure and basic services to the citizens of the area.
My arrival in Canberra after 2 March only serves to highlight to me the inadequacies of the services in Leichhardt. I stand in awe of the fantastic infrastructure and services available to the lucky citizens of Canberra. Coming from a regional electorate, Canberra seems like fairyland. The services provided here are almost beyond the imagination of my constituents. It is little wonder the bureaucrats and decision makers, insulated in the comforts of Canberra, lose touch with the harsh realities of regional Australia.
In Leichhardt in 1996, our Cape York cattlemen still cannot move their stock during the wet due to unsealed roads which are impassable for months. Even travelling to Cooktown, only 330 kilometres north of Cairns, there are 75 kilometres of very rough unsealed road, which has had a serious negative impact on the economy of the region.
I hear members complaining about inadequate digital phone services. In my electorate, with the exception of a small area around Cairns, there are no mobile phone services. There are huge areas that have no power. They receive no or limited television and radio reception. Many of those who do have access to the limited communications services are restricted to the ABC. While the ABC may well be an admirable service, unfortunately, it gives people a one-sided view. In 1996, I think it is imperative that all our citizens have access to a broad range of communications to give them the opportunity to formulate an informed and balanced view of current affairs.
Suburbs in Cairns have little or no access to television and mobile phone reception. I am talking of areas within a 15-kilometre radius of our major population centre, one of the largest provincial growth areas of Australia. This is a disgrace, and I am committed to pushing for more equitable access to communications in my electorate.
Given the size of my electorate, I will start at the top, an area absolutely vital to the future security, health and wellbeing of our nation. Be assured: threats to Australia's health and our agricultural and pastoral industries are real. Any breach of our stringent quarantine regulations would certainly come through the Torres Straits. Be under no illusion, Mr Deputy Speaker and fellow members: at low tide you can almost walk to Papua New Guinea. It is only about three kilometres from our northernmost island of Saibai — so close, in fact, that the deer from Papua New Guinea swim across to Saibai each wet, swimming back to Papua New Guinea as the surface water dries up.
Nasties such as screw worm, foot and mouth and rabies are right on our doorstep. Diseases such as Japanese encephalitis, which took two lives in the Torres Straits last year, should be a clear warning of the risks. Torres Straits has to be acknowledged as our front line and should be treated accordingly. Several weeks ago, a large outbreak of black sigatoka was discovered in banana trees in Weipa. This outbreak is believed to have originated through the Torres Straits. The recent papaya fruit fly infestation in Far North Queensland only serves to highlight the risks.
Smuggling is also prevalent throughout the Torres Straits, with fauna, flora, guns and drugs moving in and out of Australia. While organisations such as customs and the defence force do an admirable job, there has been a continual reduction of funding and a contraction of services which I believe ultimately put our entire nation at risk.
There are many needs in the Torres Strait. I would like particularly to address two today. Firstly, all members, I am sure, are aware of the vast amount of money that has been spent in recent times on reafforestation programs. This is very commendable and I support these programs. However, I am sure members are unaware that in the Torres Straits in the 1920s the beche-de-mer fishermen removed every single tree from islands such as Darnley to fuel their fires in order to dry the beche-de-mer.
To this day, not a single tree has been planted in the Torres Strait islands from any program to rectify this problem. I give a personal commitment to my friend Mr George Mye, the Chairman of Darnley Island, that I will work towards rectifying this anomaly to ensure that the Torres Straits get their equitable share of the tree planting programs so that we can bring these islands back to their former beauty.
I would also like to acknowledge another dear old friend, Mr Etti Pau. Etti is a proud Australian and a proud old soldier. He was a member of the volunteer Torres Straits Light Infantry Battalion that served in the Torres Straits region during the 1939-45 war. There has been little recognition of Etti and his comrades and, with only about 150 of those old soldiers left, out of an original 850, I am committed to affording them the recognition they deserve for their wonderful contribution to this nation.
Moving from the Torres Straits, Cape York Peninsula represents a huge part of my electorate. Cape York is an area rich in natural beauty, resources and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture, a place with which I am proud to have had a long association. In recent years, Cape York has been used as a political pawn in an attempt to buy votes in urban electorates whose populations have absolutely no concept of the real Cape York.
Much has been said with regard to land rights and reconciliation for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If you believe the rhetoric of Labor and the Democrats you would believe that they were the champions of the ATSI people with an exclusive mandate. Let me tell you that this is wrong. The majority of us on this side of the House — in fact, the majority of fair-minded Australians — fully support these goals.
I do not support ambit claims where the hopes and aspirations of grassroots Aboriginal people are raised to unachievable levels only to be told, `It was only an ambit claim', and you have to accept much less or, in many cases, nothing at all. Believe me, many of the grassroots Aboriginal people do not understand the meaning of the word `ambit' and they are left feeling devastated, cheated and angry. It sets Aboriginals against non-Aboriginals and Aboriginals against their own people — it is so divisive.
Their legal representatives and advisers make a fortune yet Aboriginal people are still dying in disproportionately large numbers from preventable diseases. Unemployment in some Aboriginal communities is as high as 95 per cent. This money could be better invested on health, nutrition and culturally appropriate employment opportunities in Cape York.
These ambit claims also have a devastating effect on the non-Aboriginal community of Cape York with so many people living day-to-day for close to seven years since the possibility of land claims was first mooted. Financial institutions recalled loans and refused to lend for expansion or upgrading. Mining, agriculture and other projects likely to offer an economic future to the area have been delayed and in some cases abandoned.
Many in the House may not be aware that there are pioneering families who have lived in Cape York Peninsula since the 1860s and over time have developed close friendships and, in many cases, family relationships with Aboriginal people. The Native Title Act, in its current form, is not working and has delivered nothing for the Aboriginal people.
Much has been said about the recent Cape York heads of agreement. It has been supported by graziers, Aboriginal people, Greens, both sides of the House of Representatives and, heaven forbid, the Democrats. What many may not know is that I prepared and moved the original motion in August 1994 which formed the basis of that heads of agreement. Therefore, I can assure the House that I am totally committed to working towards a long-term future for the Shepherds, the Quartermains, the Jacksons, the Callighans and the Cummings, people like Eddy Holyroyd, Wompi Kepple, Gordon Charlie and their families and all the other fine people in Cape York.
Cairns is the population centre of my electorate. The largest population is spread between Babinda to the south to Port Douglas, Mossman and Daintree to the north. The region was originally settled as a port and supply base for the early goldfields. Many of the early settlers diversified into agriculture, particularly sugarcane, which saw the region become one of the largest sugar producing regions in Australia. It was the prosperity and security of our sugar industry that formed the backbone of the region for many years.
In 1984, the Cairns international airport became a reality and its success can be gauged by the fact that last year there were 2.99 million passenger movements. Exports through the Cairns airport have grown by over 65 per cent per annum for the past five years and currently total some 6,000 tonnes. Fresh fruit, flowers, fish, crustaceans, for the growing Asian restaurant trade, are but a few of the quality Australian products exported out of Cairns on a daily basis. International flights out of Cairns have grown to a total of 67 per week. They go to 15 destinations on 10 international carriers. This community owned facility is Australia's fifth biggest international airport.
Tourism in Cairns is our economic lifeblood and it offers us a bright future. Unfortunately, it has not come without a price. With much of the focus on tourism, many of our industries have fallen further and further behind. I believe it is dangerous to put all our eggs in one basket and we need to look at continuing to develop other industries. We are well placed to continue to expand our export facilities out of Cairns and the expansion of the port of Weipa to facilitate live cattle exports and other freight exports is a real option.
We have a ship builder in the electorate, NQEA — it is a local company; 100 per cent Australian owned — that in 1983 directly employed 800 people and indirectly employed a further 100 subcontractors. Their ability to build fast catamarans is internationally renowned as is their ability to produce ships for our navy. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to the previous government, NQEA went for 13 years without being awarded a defence contract — this is in spite of their competitiveness and proven track record.
Over those years NQEA was forced to scale down its activities to a point where, at the change of government on 2 March, their total work force was less than 300. They were on the brink of ruin when one month after the election a defence contract was signed, awarding a $200 million contract for the construction of two hydrographic survey ships for the navy. This reprieve has meant that they are now re-employing. We as a government must ensure that there is a fair and equal distribution of contracts and do all in our power to ensure that this type of unfairness never happens again.
Recently, there have been suggestions of closures of the local tax office, CES offices and rumoured reductions in Commonwealth funding for the Cairns campus of the James Cook University, the family law court and the Customs Service. If these cuts are made I can promise that you will hear me screaming. What little we have has taken so long to get. What we need in regional Australia is an expansion of services not a contraction of services.
There are a number of social issues in my electorate that I would like to flag at this time — I appreciate that I am limited to 20 minutes. At a later stage, I will raise these issues in more detail. We have a chronic shortage of funding in the area of aged care and I am fully committed to addressing these shortfalls.
While raising the issue of aged care, I must bring to the attention of the House the plight of our profoundly disabled youth. At present, those requiring full-time care are bundled into aged care facilities and we have, in some cases, teenagers, with minds as sharp as tacks, sharing rooms with aged dementia patients. This is disgraceful. I will be working towards establishing a facility in Far North Queensland specifically to house these needy young Australians.
I have for many years had deep concerns about the deteriorating situation in the area of mental health. Social changes and a lack of funding have done little to improve the quality of life of those unfortunate enough to be afflicted by mental illness. The previous government's policy of putting more and more mentally ill on the streets without sufficient support puts both the patient and the general public at risk. A complete overhaul of our mental health system is long overdue. I will certainly be a driving force for this agenda.
Also of real concern is the present state of our family law system. Family law matters are one of the highest levels of constituent inquiries in my office. There is a large number of desperate people out there. Sadly, nearly every case involves children. Recent figures suggest that more than 10,000 people in my electorate are suffering under the current system. It would appear that the present system is very much biased against the non-custodial parent and there is an urgent need to bring back some balance.
To be able to stand here today in this chamber proudly representing the people of Leichhardt is an achievement shared with many people. While it would be impossible for me to name every one of them, there are some very special people whom I would like to acknowledge. First of all I acknowledge Hal and Faye Westaway, who worked tirelessly through my campaign giving me both moral and physical support. It was Hal and Faye who kept liberalism alive in Far North Queensland. Without their dedication and persistence, my win in Leichhardt could not have transpired.
I would also like to acknowledge Gladys Potter and her dedicated band in the women's council. Apart from their great support, they make wonderful cakes and are exceptional fund-raisers. Thank you, ladies. I also thank members of my campaign committee — Doug and Lyall Jones, Paul Beasley, Kel Ryan, Bob Norman, Peter Taylor, Graham Smith and Nicole Tobin-Donnelly — and Senator Ian Macdonald, who has kept the seat of Leichhardt warm. I would also like to acknowledge Sandy Mulley, through whose work the Liberal Party was able to win the booth at Weipa for the first time in its history.
I want to thank two very special people. Joy Palmer, after meeting me for the first time, had sufficient confidence in me to give me 100 per cent of her time, loyalty and support from before preselection and through the entire campaign. She is still with me today. Thanks, Joy.
Another special mention is to an aggressive dynamo from the Northern Territory. Ashley Manicaros joined my team just prior to the election. He had the monumental task of shaking some of the bush out of me and shining up my dull bits while improving my massive four per cent recognition factor. Ashley certainly had his work cut out for him. In spite of the fact that at times he had to drag me along kicking and screaming, this guy persevered and, with the help of his wonderful lady, Janice, achieved results which were not possible of a lesser man.
I have kept my final thanks to those very special people in my life, my family. First, I thank my wonderful wife, Helen, whose patience, support and preparedness to take a back seat allowed me to get out there and fight for my political goals, comfortable in the knowledge that I always had a warm home and a sympathetic ear to retreat to should I be on the receiving end of a political bashing. I guess you could call her my security blanket. Thanks, Helen. I would also like to mention my three wonderful sons — Steven, Jason and Jacob, my youngest. I can assure the House that with these three boys you are looking at a very proud dad.
Of course, I would not be here if it were not for my mum and dad, Mavis and George Entsch. My dad worked for 40 years in the Queensland railways, an ordinary working man but with extraordinary family values. What we lacked in monetary assets was more than made up for with an abundance of love, warmth and a sense of belonging. As a consequence, we wanted for nothing.
Like several other new members in this chamber, I too am the first in my family to become involved in politics. I know that my mum and dad are very proud of my achievements. Let me say for the record that it is their efforts in instilling in me a strong set of values through a happy and loving childhood that will have an immense and positive influence on my contribution to this fine House. Thanks, mum and dad.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge my father- and mother-in-law, Lou and Lorraine Tognolini. Apart from a beautiful daughter, who became my wife, they have given me a tremendous amount of support during the campaign as well as providing a willing baby-sitting service on demand.
It is obvious from my background that I could not be considered an academic. While I am the first to admit that I come into the House with very little political experience, I arrived here very apprehensive but I must say extremely confident and looking forward to contributing in a positive, practical way with grassroots, commonsense representation which will in time, I am confident, offer a long-term benefit to my electorate and its people.