Thank you, Mr President, and I congratulate you on your election as President of this Senate. I am sure you will be a fair and just umpire. It is truly an honour and privilege for me to present my maiden speech to this parliament. I begin by saying that I am not an academic and I do not have letters after my surname but if I were to ever qualify for a degree then I would hope it would be from the university of real life experience.
I was born in Jamestown, South Australia. It is a magnificent country community where the people could be described as ‘salt of the earth'. It is a community where people were and still are willing to lend a helping hand to others. My primary schooling was at St James Convent, run by the Sisters of St Joseph, in Jamestown. It was here that I received a solid grounding in my primary education as well as my first involvement in sport by learning to play cricket, tennis and Aussie Rules football. I am a keen supporter of sport. I believe that all parents should encourage their children to be involved in sport as it is a great way not only to exercise but to keep our children off the streets and to teach them teamwork, mateship and leadership.
My secondary education was at Rostrevor College in Adelaide, run by the Christian Brothers. This is a magnificent education facility. Rostrevor was an excellent grounding in all aspects of life for me, especially in economics where I had a brilliant and strict teacher in the late Tom Kendall. We learnt and we were disciplined—which I am sure I needed—but above all we were taught respect and appreciation for what we had. I sincerely thank the Christian Brothers for what they did for me. At the completion of my secondary schooling I was fortunate to receive a Commonwealth scholarship to attend tertiary studies. I did this for just three months because the urge to return to rural Australia was far greater than the urge to complete a tertiary degree.
On returning to Jamestown I spent most of my years either shearing sheep, driving livestock and grain transport, bookmaking or working on the family farm with my brother, Peter, and my late father, Reg. They were great days, and the way I would describe them is that we worked hard and we played even harder. Because we had just two small properties in South Australia we decided to move to Inverell in northern New South Wales in late 1979, where we purchased some 7,000 acres of grazing land. I was most fortunate to move to another wonderful country town and community and a place that I am extremely proud of. As I sometimes say, ‘Home is not where you are born but where you are prepared to die.' That is why I call Inverell ‘home'.
We went through the normal experience of farming—droughts, floods and both high and low commodity prices. We built a piggery in 1988, only to find soon after that the then federal government allowed the importing of Canadian pig meat. Do I support the importing of food to Australia that has the effect of shutting down our domestic food producers? The answer is a simple no, as the world trade game is not played on a level playing field. There were six large piggeries in the Inverell area and now there are none. I realise that to export we must import, but governments should not take our food producers for granted simply because we have such a huge supply of good quality, well-priced food. We all know what happens if we do not eat.
The hardest of all these experiences on the land was when we decided to take a foreign currency loan in Swiss francs in 1985, after some great sales pitches from some in the Commonwealth Bank. I soon found out that I was in more trouble than the early settlers. This battle with the Commonwealth Bank continued for almost a decade and I can assure you that it was not an easy time—paying 25.25 per cent interest rate was no fun. After many years of fighting in the courts we did have a win in the appeals court, with all three judges ruling in our favour. As I said, this was an extremely tough time for my family and me. But I have always had the opinion that when a heavy load is placed on your shoulders one of two things happens: you either get weak at the knees and collapse, or you get stronger and are more capable of shouldering a heavy burden. I hope I am the latter.
One of the most fulfilling things I ever did was to join our local Apex club. I derive a lot of satisfaction from helping people and I look forward to my job as a servant for New South Wales over the forthcoming years. After retiring from Apex it was indeed an honour to be awarded life membership. I am now a current member of the Inverell East Rotary Club. It is my view that we should all contribute something to our community. Whether it be with a service club, sporting club, school P&C or whatever, we should all make a contribution in one way or another to build better communities.
In June 1998 I went to Thailand to establish an importing business. With the rug pulled out from underneath the wool industry and the pig industry now priced on the international market, it was time to look at doing something else. On this trip I was privileged to visit the Thai-Burma Railway and places like the bridge over the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass. I was in awe of learning what our allied prisoners of war, including thousands of Australian POWs, went through during that terrible 1942 to 1945 period. Many were from the north of New South Wales under the leadership of Brigadier Arthur Varley from Inverell—the brave and gallant 2nd/18th Battalion.
It was also a great experience to learn about Thai culture and speak a little of their language. They are certainly decent, gracious and polite people. Three out of the last four years has seen me take groups of around 30 people to Thailand for Anzac Day to remember our diggers who worked in all kinds of terrible conditions and suffered many things, including sickness, starvation and torrential monsoonal rain, along with the constant beatings from those in control. How could in excess of 100,000 prisoners of war and Asian labourers die in constructing a railway line 415 kilometres long? I often wonder. This was certainly a terrible chapter in our nation's history but a lesson to all of us today about how lucky we really are.
I am now addressing this chamber as one of the 76 senators who will make decisions on how to run our nation. I have always had the opinion that you should run the nation the same way as a farmer runs the family farm. For example, take the typical family farmer living on the land with his wife and children. The farmer looks after his retired parents, who live in a nearby town. So too do we have an obligation to look after our elderly in society, because it was they who handed us this wonderful country. I hope that in the very near future these people will get an increase in their pensions. They have earned it and they deserve it. To have many of our elderly living on or below the poverty line is totally unacceptable. We must also ensure that our aged-care facilities are properly funded, staffed and maintained.
The farmer educates his or her children in the best possible way available. We too must see that there is every opportunity for our young to receive the best education possible. This is vital in our modern world. The farmer must look after his or her land for future generations. We too must see that our environment is protected so that future Australians can inherit a fertile and productive land. I say ‘land' as it is the soil that is the vital resource to protect. I disagree with a lot that the New South Wales government has done over recent years. Bob Carr had a policy of creating new national parks, which are not managed properly. You cannot simply lock them up and leave them. If you do, fire will destroy them. This should be a stern warning to our present governments, both state and federal. Do not buy good, productive farming land and turn it into a national park. We need to continue producing food, not fires. The family farm must be protected from foreign invasion and takeover. We have an obligation to protect Australia and to see that it remains a free and democratic nation. I congratulate the former coalition government for a real increase in excess of 40 per cent on defence spending during their time in government.
It is here that I would like to mention my grandfather, the late Eric Williams, who was one of 300,000 Australians who volunteered for the Great War of 1914-18 and who fought on the battlefields of France. So too my late father, Reg Williams, who in my opinion foolishly volunteered to be a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War. I have the utmost respect for our diggers, past and present.
The farmer must be internationally competitive. This is difficult when we look at the subsidies of many countries and the low cost of labour in others. In 2005 I quoted on supplying 1,200 tonnes of flour per month to Thailand. I was keen to get the job. My quote was US$400 a tonne. My customer in Thailand sealed a deal with Japan for US$300 a tonne. I was not in the race. He told me that Japan was buying subsidised wheat from the United States and that the Japanese government was also subsidising the export of flour. This is what the international trade world is like. That is why I have always supported a single desk marketing system in Australia—at least until subsidies around the world are removed. In my opinion, it was a sad day for rural Australia when this was torn down. The government must work to keep costs and red tape to an absolute minimum so that as a nation we can compete to remain a force in world markets.
I wish that this message could get through to the New South Wales government, who are hell-bent on adding costs, charges and red tape to the business sector—the sector that drives our nation's wealth. Destroy the business sector and our nation goes broke. That is why I believe that we should only have two tiers of government in Australia, a federal government and regional governments.
The family farm cannot afford to pay wages when the person never shows up for work. So too with our nation. I believe that if you are in good health and are capable of working then you should work. I have seen many who are determined not to work. They are simply getting a free ride from the taxpayers of Australia. It is about time that they received a touch on the backside from a cattle prod to get them off their butts and doing some work.
I see workers at Inverell abattoirs who come from the Philippines, Korea and Brazil. All the employees in an abattoir work really hard. Yet just a few hours drive away I see areas on the coast where unemployment is up to eight per cent and nine per cent. In my opinion, if you are in good health and youth is on your side, you should not receive a dole cheque unless you contribute something to our nation. However, I believe that the genuine unemployed should have a safety net and should be helped through their tough times until they find employment.
The family farm cannot carry too much debt; otherwise, when the tough times strike, the farm will be in financial trouble. So too with our nation. If governments build debt, they are mortgaging our children's future away. It pleases me that the previous government paid off our huge debt. This is something that as a nation we can be proud of. It is surely the envy of many.
The family farm cannot overstock the paddocks. Look at what we are doing in Australia. We have cities like Sydney that are overcrowded. They have water restrictions and housing shortages and the government is spending ridiculous amounts of money to build more roads and rail services. One easy solution is for people to move to country areas, where we have ample room.
The last point of my analogy of running the family farm and our country is that the farmer does need services such as agronomists, transport, and stock and station agents. Our nation needs services such as health, infrastructure, defence, transport and many others. I do hope that many of the policies that were instigated by the Nationals in the previous government remain. If not, I guarantee that you will hear about it.
One such policy is the Rural Australian Medical Undergraduate Scholarship, which has seen an enormous number of country people now studying medicine. To qualify as a GP takes nine years and it is pleasing to see that at the end of this year our first batch of rural doctors will have completed not only their medical degree but the year as an intern and their three years as registrar. It is most important that country areas have doctors and this is one of the schemes that is working extremely well.
It is my hope that in the near future a scholarship scheme to promote rural dentists will be introduced. We have 55 dentists for every 100,000 people in the cities but an average of just 17 dentists per 100,000 people in country areas. The sooner we address this problem the better. It is vital that programs put in place by the previous government such as the Enhanced Primary Care Program, which is having a real effect on solving dental problems, remain.
I am a staunch campaigner for small business. This sector is still the largest employer in Australia. Governments at both state and federal level should realise the importance of small business and see that they are always given a fair go. Let's face it, the Australian way is always about a fair go. Having been a worker and running my own business, I believe that I have a good understanding of how the worker thinks and what goes on in the minds of businesspeople. We should never forget that if the business goes broke all employed lose their jobs.
There are many people whom I would like to thank. First of all, there are the members of the Central Council of the New South Wales Nationals. I am extremely grateful for their vote of confidence in me. I am proud of what the Nationals and, previously, the Country Party have achieved for rural and country regions for more than 80 years. When I see the infrastructure—the schools, hospitals, universities such as the University of New England in Armidale—virtually all were constructed because of the Nationals. Our job is surely to continue to fight for a fair deal for our state and especially for those country and coastal communities that we represent.
I thank the community of Inverell for their wishes. I am very proud to be part of this community and privileged to live not only in the best country in the world but one of the best towns in the world. I thank those who have travelled here today to be with me on this special occasion in my life, those from Cairns, South Australia and many parts of New South Wales. I thank Warren Truss and my Nationals colleagues for the warm welcome they have given me, also my Liberal colleagues for the same warm welcome and all those in the Senate. I would like to thank my Nationals senators for their valued assistance: Leader Senator Nigel Scullion and Senator Fiona Nash who, along with her staff, have been simply wonderful to me; my benchmate and father of this Senate, Senator Ron Boswell, for guiding me through this steep learning curve; and my good friend Senator Barnaby Joyce. Mr President, I sit in a unique position in this chamber. When we are seated I look at the head of Senator Joyce and try to work out what is going on in there. I am yet to work that out, so I am like the rest of the world and simply wait for the surprise. To my three children, David, Rebecca and Tom: Wendy and I are extremely proud of them. They are well-mannered, polite and prepared to help others. I thank my mother, Clare, who unfortunately cannot be with me today, and I am pleased that my Aunty Valda is here.
I thank my wonderful staff for their great help and assistance. Greg and Debbie Kachel have worked at radio 2NZ Inverell for a total of 63 years between them and I am so privileged to have them on board; Heather Morris, one of the former staffers of the Commonwealth Bank who was so good to me during that long fight I had with the CBA; Garry Lamrock, the comedian of the team; as well as part-timer Pat Dwyer. I would like to thank that special lady of the Senate, the Black Rod; Clerk Harry and all the Senate staff who have done a wonderful job guiding all of us new senators through our learning process. Finally, I thank Nancy Capel, a very special person in my life. Thank you, Mr President, for allowing me to speak.