It is a great honour that I stand before you in the 60th Parliament of Victoria as the second member for Euroa, and it is with great pride that I also stand before you as the mother of Arthur and Quinn, the wife of David and the representative of the incredible community in which I work and live. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands we meet on, as well as those I represent in the electorate of Euroa: the Wurundjeri, Taungurung and Yorta Yorta people. I pay my respects to elders past and present and acknowledge that the wisdom they have known and shared for thousands of years still has value for our modern world. May we all find ways to walk gently and compassionately on these ancient lands.
The land of the Euroa electorate spans more than 11,500 square kilometres of rivers and ranges that a community of 55,000 regional Victorians call home. Our electorate is a place of ancient and modern significance, from Aboriginal rock art, scar trees and cutting stones to colonial and goldmining histories of the towns of Kilmore, Murchison and Rushworth and from the military training camp of Puckapunyal to the creative art haven of Benalla. It is also home to agriculture, family-run enterprises and global industry innovators, from croppers in Colbinabbin to fruit and dairy farmers in the Goulburn Valley to livestock and thoroughbred breeders throughout our entire electorate.
I am standing here today because I love our region, our community and the people who call it home. These people are my people. My children are fourth-generation Seymourians. Their great-grandparents, Muriel and Robert Beale, migrated to Australia as self-described ten-pound Poms, with little more than a suitcase in their hands and the hope for a better life in their hearts. They settled in Seymour with their only child, my dad, in 1952. They found jobs at Woolcord knitting mill and on the railways, where they would spend most of their working lives, and thanks to the rent-to-buy Housing Commission scheme in place at the time, they were eventually able to buy their home on the hill. The Seymour community gave my grandparents safety, support and an opportunity to provide their son with a good life and education. I stand here with the hope that I can repay that debt and give back to a community that has given my family so much.
On my mother’s side you will find more proud country folk. Mum’s dad, John Jack McConachie, was a grazier on the iconic merino station Ben Avon in outback New South Wales. Grandad’s presence and character, his value for hard work and his deep roots in farming and agriculture loomed large in our family, and his legacy has left an enduring mark on my life. My parents, Ian and Michele Beale, raised my three sisters and me, working their hearts out every day to provide every possible opportunity they could to us.
Dad has always been a somewhat unconventional mentor in my life. He said not to be a journalist, so it was only natural that I should go on to study media and communications at Deakin University, majoring in journalism. I began my career at Fairfax Media as a regional reporter for Stock & Land, the masthead known as the Bible of the bush because of its reputation as a balanced and trusted voice for regional Victoria. I was eventually promoted to national agricultural reporter at Fairfax Media and then editor of Stock & Land. My career has always been and will continue to be as a storyteller for regional Victorians. As a journalist I shared the unique experiences of country Australians with the rest of the nation. I reported on the front line of major issues like the Indonesian live export ban, animal activist trespass laws, biosecurity threats and more recently the attacks on our CFA. I witnessed some of the most devastating stories in regional communities come about as a result of decisions made by a government that was out of touch with the people and families living in those communities – decisions that prioritised politics and what looked good on paper over people and that prioritised votes over lives and livelihoods that were on the line. My career has been driven by integrity, compassion and a strong set of ethics, and I worked without fear or favour. I intend to hold tightly onto these same values as I step into public life.
My dad also said not to be a farmer, so it was only natural that while pursuing a career in journalism my husband David and I independently bought a farm in the southern Strathbogie region of Tarcombe. We are proud farmers who are focused on ethical and sustainable production, but we ultimately chose this life in the hope that we could give our children the same country upbringing we both enjoyed in Mansfield. We are so grateful to have the opportunity to raise our kids in this community, but we have also experienced firsthand that living regionally comes with a cost.
Right across country Victoria our communities are living with inferior health care, lower than average educational outcomes and deteriorating infrastructure, and the unprecedented pressure on our resources is being exacerbated by a population shift out of Melbourne and into the regions. There is an unspoken toll that you pay to live outside of Melbourne, and that toll is a clear disparity in the resources and support provided by the government to regional Victorians compared to our city counterparts. Living close to Seymour, it is heartbreaking to see the same social issues playing out today that my dad experienced there when he was a child. According to the Dropping off the Edge report, which looks at social data from the last 15 years, the Euroa electorate is home to some of the most locationally disadvantaged communities in Victoria, with Seymour and Benalla consistently reported as having some of the highest rates of domestic violence, child abuse and poverty in the state.
Despite the social issues, our community is full of incredible, supportive and resourceful people. In Benalla a dedicated group of locals have founded the Tomorrow Today Foundation, where they work tirelessly to develop new and innovative programs to break generational disadvantage. After the recent floods it was the Seymour Football Netball Club who rallied and inspired hundreds of volunteers to clean local homes and businesses. They wielded mops, hoses and scrubbing brushes for weeks, and they lifted sandbags, mouldy carpets and soggy couches from living rooms to nature strips until the job was done. It is not for nothing that country Victorians have a reputation for being resilient – a word that gets thrown around more than I would like. Everywhere you look you can find examples of regional communities banding together and supporting each other – not just in times of crisis, but every day. For too long these communities have relied on their famous resilience to navigate locational disadvantage and multilayered social issues because they have no other option. But we must not leave them to face these complex challenges alone, no matter how hard they are to solve.
As a state, we have work to do. We must expand the investment in our regional road network beyond simply repairing flood damage. We need ongoing funding to ensure roads right across regional Victoria are maintained at a safe standard. We know the current state of roads is causing serious and fatal road accidents, so we must see priority given to road projects like the Kilmore bypass, which is desperately needed simply to keep the town functioning and prevent the crumbling of one of Victoria’s most historically significant towns.
We must address the lack of educational opportunities in regions. In Euroa our schools are bursting at the seams, in Broadford our students are packed into old and outdated facilities and the rebuild of Seymour secondary college remains unfinished and unfunded. Like many communities, we are also experiencing year-long waitlists for childcare that leave regional families who rely on two incomes to survive – which is most of them – with no options.
As an urgent priority we must improve regional health care. Our hospitals are underfunded, ambulance response times are appalling and the barriers to accessing mental health services are extreme. These barriers, the high costs and long waitlists are disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable in our communities. Our community-owned hospital, Euroa Health, has begged the government for support and been ignored by minister after minister. Their closure would leave a gaping hole in local health care.
And regional maternity care – this one is personal for me. Three years ago my local hospital lacked the resources to provide a safe birth for me and my first child Arthur. I was forced to endure the indignity of labouring in an examination room with no door, fully open for passers-by to see, because no bed was available to me, and after hours of labouring with no privacy I was left with no choice but to have a caesarean to deliver my son. I had no option but to undergo major surgery – not because my baby or I needed it but because a lack of critical resources at the hospital meant there was no guarantee of a safe birth by any other means. After this experience I resolved to fight for better. I became a community adviser working to improve health and safety outcomes for patients at a local hospital under pressure from extreme population growth and negligent government support because, unfortunately, my birth story is not unusual. I have had countless conversations with women just like me, women like Ellen from Nagambie and Meg from Heathcote. Meg had the first baby born at her local hospital in 30 years. She initially presented at a larger regional hospital in labour but was turned away because they were too busy. Meg and her baby almost died at her local hospital because they simply did not have the equipment needed to appropriately care for them. The critical lack of resources in our regional communities is very genuinely putting lives at risk. It took me six months to look at the physical scar I was left with thanks to an underfunded regional health system that was pushed to failure. I stand here today still bearing that scar, and I stand here today more resolved than ever to fight for more and better.
Every aspect of regional Victoria’s health system is deteriorating. Every week I hear worrying stories about the demand on our health workers, with staff shortages and endemic burnout – clear signs of a health sector under immense stress. And while COVID has certainly exacerbated the health crisis, the pandemic merely exposed the vulnerabilities that already existed. While I am here I will be relentless in my pursuit of a government that prioritises people over politics and lives over votes, because I believe that if the cost of living regionally is the lives of Victorians, then the cost is too high. I want the record to show that every day I am in this place I will fight to address the entrenched disadvantage that deprives regional communities of the basic resources and opportunities that underpin social and economic wellbeing. I will fight to leave a better legacy for the young people and future generations of our electorate so that my children and yours can choose to live in our regional communities without disadvantage.
Regional Victorians make up a quarter of the state’s population. They produce the food and fibre that fuels our agricultural economy and feeds our families, and they do it all while bearing the worst impacts of our country’s inevitable natural disasters. Our great state cannot function without thriving regional communities, and yet we know that we are receiving an inadequate cut of government funding. I proudly stand today with my Nationals colleagues, representing everyday country Victorians, people who need radical common sense and radically pragmatic solutions for the challenges they face. I am here not for the left or for the right but for what is best for our people.
No first speech is complete without a few acknowledgements and thankyous, and so here are mine. To my peers across the aisle, I look forward to our robust debate – respectfully, intelligently and with dignity. I genuinely believe that we are all here with the hope of improving the lives of Victorians, and I look forward to working together with you to do just that. To the campaign workers, selfless friends, volunteers and party members who supported me on this journey and made this a possibility, thank you for being by my side and for shouldering so much of the work that has led me here. To my predecessor, mentor and friend Steph Ryan, your gardening, cooking, parenting and political advice is unparalleled. Many young women are in this chamber because of you. Thank you for showing us that a powerful, empathetic voice that puts people ahead of politics is what Victorians want, need and deserve.
To my team, Mitch Itter, Hannah Price, Guy Barbour and Adam Scott, thank you for your professional and personal support and for the platform you have given me. Thank you also to my yellow and gold family, Bill Sykes, Frank Deane, John Gribben, Max Perry, Sandra and Gerard O’Sullivan, James Brook and the late Bruce Nicholls, for proving that grassroots advocacy with community running through your veins is what politics is truly about. And to my in-laws, Jenny and Ross, thank you for your care for our family and your support for our ventures, no matter how outlandish and ill advised. To my Uncle Mark and Aunty Clare, your patience, love and generosity in sharing your farm in Nyngan with us every school holidays has had a defining impact on my career. You taught me how food was grown and what it takes to get it to our plates. You instilled in me a great reverence and respect for the act of producing something for the benefit of others. My love of farming and everything that has come about because of that love started with you.
To my three sisters – Alex, our role model in work, life and love; Prudence, our strong one, the most courageous person I know; and Clementine, our fearless one, determined in everything you take on – thank you for your friendship and wisdom and for instilling in me a sense of healthy competition. I am thrilled that from this day forward the official record of Hansard will reflect that I am indeed the favourite daughter.
Mum, you are the glue to our family glitter. Your eternal optimism and zest for life are contagious. You are the original, the corporate powerhouse, the earthmother and the captain of all of life’s adventures. Thank you for teaching us how to love deeply and live richly.
Dad, your final piece of advice was that politics is a dirty game and not to do it. Thank you for your support even as I did all the things you said not to. Your rebellious streak is in my blood. Your stubbornness, positivity and tireless work ethic are also in my blood. I know they will serve me well.
To my children Arthur and Quinn, you are and will always be my greatest achievements. Thank you for giving me daily motivation, inspiration and the very best reason to fight for a better future.
And to my husband David, my calm in the storm, my steady hand, thank you for stepping up for our family and thank you for the sacrifices you have made so that I can stand here today for our community. We are a team in every sense of the word, and I am here because of you.
Finally, to the people of the Euroa electorate and to my community, thank you for your trust in me and your support. It is an honour to work to protect, defend and celebrate you and the place we all call home. To you I pledge my hands to help those in need and to strengthen what is already strong, I pledge my ears to listen with compassion, I pledge my eyes to look forward with hope, I pledge my heart to share in your joys and challenges and I pledge my voice so that you may always be heard with power and determination in this place of influence.