Speech – Address-in-Reply
Mr PITT: It’s been a minute since the last election, but I do want to take this opportunity to pass out a few thankyous while I can. As everyone in this place knows, elections are not won by individuals alone; they are won by teams, by volunteers, by supporters and by individuals out there doing hard work for what they believe in, regardless of which side of the parliament you are on.
At the election last year, I have to say they were the most atrocious conditions I have ever witnessed. In my patch, it was freezing cold, blowing 20 to 30 knots and raining. To the day I die, I will never forget Warren Truss, the former deputy prime minister, in a high-vis fluorescent rain coat standing in the rain without an umbrella trying to hand out how-to-vote cards at a school in Hervey Bay. He was in his absolute element. When I went over and said, ‘Warren, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, it has to be done, and this is what I have done for many years.’ I think Lyn Truss would have been quite happy to stay in bed that morning. That’s what she told me! But it is those types of contributions that make the difference locally for elections.
I, of course, want to thank my family and my wife, Allison, for their ongoing tolerance and forbearance, because they get involved in this too, as every member’s family does. To my office staff—to Anne, Stacey, Liz, Paula and Judy—I thank you for what you do every day. They are the forward-facing individuals that see most of the constituents—the 117,000 I have now. I thank my former ministerial staff, Gerard McManus, Kylie Barron and Candice Stower, the former chiefs of staff through the COVID pandemic, which I have to say was a punishing period of work. It is punishing to work in this place as it is, but in the midst of a one in 100 year pandemic, it was quite extraordinary, and their contribution made a real difference to our country and the response and the position we find ourselves in now. I want to thank all of them. I thank Debbie Leis, who had been with me for almost10 years. I lost her after the last election. She has gone on to do other things. What a magnificent contribution she made to my office and across the board. To all of the members and volunteers, I thank them for their support.
To those on the other side who might be getting excited that this is a valedictory, it is not a valedictory. I am very clearly continuing, and I will continue to come to this place as long as my constituents send me. As long as the people of Hinkler send me to this place, I will come. As long as I have the support of the Liberal National Party and the local members, I will be here fighting for them and fighting for the things that matter.
One of those things is Paradise Dam. What an incredible story: a dam that was built to a price, not to a standard, by the Queensland Labor government. It was an extraordinary failure. It is the biggest public infrastructure failure in this country’s history. It is extraordinary: the fact it was built to the standard it was built and the decisions that were made by the state. This is now a project which will cost $1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money to repair—to make it the same capacity it was when it started.
The impact has been significant on my local region, because, without reliable water supply, you cannot grow tree crops. You can not have high-value horticulture, because you simply cannot make the decisions necessary in the long term knowing that you can keep those products alive. If you can’t water your trees, they die and they are lost. Sugarcane is a very different proposition. You can have a disastrous season and you can recover with the support of banks and others. But tree cropping is very different, as is horticulture.
I want to name some constituents who were involved heavily in the fight for Paradise Dam. Jamie Hansen had been incredibly frustrated. He’s a good grower, and we’re about the same age. We actually went to high school together—sometimes I wonder whether far too many people might have my mobile number! I know Jamie’s frustration over the long period of time that it took to get this right. Our local community waited 868 days for the Queensland state Labor government to actually commit to rebuilding the dam. It’s really not that difficult. Can you imagine the frustration for people who owe money, who owe their banks, who have mortgages they are committed to, who have planted tree crops looking for a future in the long term for them and their families? The hardship they have been through around this issue is quite extraordinary. It has an impact on property prices. We lost investors. We have very significant farm changeovers. It has been an incredibly difficult period.
To Wayne Baldry; to Bree Grima, head of the Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers; to Dean Akers, a former sweet potato grower now growing other things—these are people who know what hard work means, and they know what happens to their businesses and the people they employ if they cannot rely on their governments to deliver the infrastructure they need. This dam was built to a price, not to a standard, and it failed. I think all governments should recognise and acknowledge what that’s meant for my local community and what has now needed to be done to make it reliable, to strengthen it and to use it into the future.
We continue to see challenges with the Paradise Dam. There are all sorts of experts, as you would imagine. We have seen significant problems locally in simply getting answers. It’s not that much, if you’re a local grower, to ask your government to make a commitment, knowing you have to pay the bank for the next 15, 20 or 30 years based on what you can produce from your hard work and the land that you own. It is not that difficult.
A short history: on 24 September 2019, the Labor state government announced what you would think would be a great thing—free water for everybody. They released 100,000 megalitres of water in the middle of a drought to drop the dam’s capacity to 42 per cent so they could do repairs. If you can imagine, that water simply runs down the river. If you can’t utilise it, it’s no good to you; it’s gone, it goes out to sea. It runs straight past my house. A short video of that water running through the weir had over 100,000 views. There was nothing to it; it was just freshwater that should have been stored for use into the future running out to sea.
The state Labor government spent $100 million to lower the height of the dam wall by 5.8 metres, to knock it down. In July 2021, medium priority water allocations were just 22 per cent. Imagine trying to run your household on a 22 per cent allocation of what you expect in terms of water into your home. Thankfully, there was significant rainfall in November 2021. It led to about 20,000 megalitres a day flowing into the sea because it couldn’t be stored, because the wall had been knocked down. In February 2022, state Labor finally announced how much it would cost to restore the dam: $1.2 billion. That was a knock-’em-down, drag-’em-out fight to secure $600 million in federal funding. I want to thank Michael McCormack, Barnaby Joyce and the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for recognising how important it was that we deliver that infrastructure for the people I represent. They grow hundreds of millions of dollars worth of agriculture. Without reliable water they simply can’t do that job. They are helping to feed the nation. It’s an important role and one that should always be recognised.
As a former minister for resources and water, I will make a few very brief comments. I want to thank the sector. I want to thank every single individual that works in the resources sector. They were extraordinary over the period of the pandemic. Their response was simply magnificent and we see the results now, in that their contribution to the economy has grown from under $250 billion to a forecast $450 billion this financial year. That’s how you pay for roads and schools and hospitals, and it is all thanks to those hardworking men and women out there doing what they had to do and making some very tough decisions, including staying away from their families for months on end. I want to acknowledge them and the contribution they’ve made. I’m very proud of them. I’m not ashamed of the sector; I think it’s a great part of Australia. They certainly help in regional Australia constantly.
The Hinkler Regional Deal, just to give the House and my constituents an update, was first announced in November 2018, and we made a commitment of $172 million on behalf of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the Queensland state Labor government refused to sign on. They simply wouldn’t sign the agreement. We had the two councils sign on to the regional deal. But fortunately state Labor has actually contributed and delivered most of the projects that were there and inside their bailiwick. So, regardless of the fact that they didn’t sign on to the piece of paper, those projects have been delivered or are underway.
But there are delays, particularly at the Port of Bundaberg, on a piece of infrastructure known as a multipurpose conveyor. Picture a river port which was designed for the sugar sector. It was designed for sugar sheds, with one delivery point to deliver sugar for an industry which now is nowhere near as big. When I was working in sugar, it was considerable. It was the industry in the local region; it is not that anymore, unfortunately. There is equipment and facilities that can be utilised for other products, but they can’t do it unless they can load and unload. To do that, they need a multipurpose conveyor. The years of delays for approval by Queensland state Labor resulted in an estimated almost $8 million blowout in cost, which we then had to secure federally, and we did. I hope that project starts soon, but I’m told that there are even more political problems for it on the horizon. It is just a conveyor. Just build it. It will mean more work. It will mean more opportunities at the local port. It will mean more businesses that take up that opportunity.
The $7 million Fraser Coast Hospice is delivered and operational. While it’s a terrible part of life, it is a part of life. I personally know a number of people who have utilised those services for their own end of life, and I congratulate the Fraser Coast Hospice, their board and all of the volunteers for being so committed and so strong to actually get that delivered with a $7 million package from the Commonwealth. The $5 million Hinkler agtech precinct is underway and utilised. The Hervey Bay Airport upgrade of $9 million is complete and being utilised.
In terms of roads, the Boundary Road extension in Hervey Bay that we contributed almost $8 million to is almost complete. It is the missing link in Hervey Bay. It is another cross-city link that will allow, particularly, access to hospitals for ambulances and other emergency services much quicker than other areas. The common user conveyor that I spoke about has ended up at a price of almost $18 million. It should have been $10 million, it should have been built and it should have been complete. The Torbanlea Pialba Road floodproofing, with $24 million from the Commonwealth, is well underway and is almost complete. I drove through that region in the last week. It will make a difference because it provides a floodproof link for the people of Hervey Bay to the Bruce Highway. For those of us that live in Queensland, the Bruce Highway is the lifeblood of the regions. If it is cut, we are isolated; it’s that simple. This is a significant contribution and build.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service Aviation Training Facility, with $15 million from the regional deal, has started construction. I’m very pleased to say this has started construction. Can you imagine that we are ready to go for a training facility for the RFDS for their aircraft, COVID strikes and, of course, there is no travel? There is hardly any aircraft movement apart from the Royal Flying Doctor Service. There were some delays, but that is underway. I’m advised that it will contribute to the local economy, with some 1,200-plus bed nights for visitors to utilise at this facility. The simulator will be the only one of its type in Australia for the new aircraft the RFDS is moving into.
The biggest issue for my constituents locally continues to be cost of living. Many of them are not wealthy. They cannot afford increases in power prices, food prices and fuel prices. Many of them are on the age pension. Many of them do rely on social services and parenting payments. All of them are hurting because of the current state of the economy, and the cost of food and electricity in particular. We know that those opposite have an ideological bent towards a particular solution in terms of energy. I’ll be up-front: I don’t. It’s my technical background. I support things that work. The reason that I fight against those proposals is that they simply won’t work. You cannot have the entire Australian economy reliant on the weather—because it’s reliant on the weather! As someone who has come off the land, I know exactly what it’s like to look for rain into the future to try and determine what you do if you get too much rain, too little rain or no rain. The concept that we’d have the entire Australian economy reliant on the weather for its electricity supply is fraught with danger. It is a foolish proposition and it certainly shouldn’t go ahead.
The people of my electorate have high expectations, as you would expect, and they expect us to fight for them. No-one sends me to Canberra to sit around nodding my head in furious agreement, and unfortunately there are times where that might upset some colleagues. I remember a former colleague, Mr Laundy, always told me I was outspoken and opinionated, and while he loved it, nobody else did. Unfortunately I think I will continue to do that, because it just tends to be in my nature.
However, there is more to do. If you look at the commitments the coalition made at the last election, the most important in my patch was a commitment of up to $60 million for an evacuation route for the people of Bundaberg North. We’ve just had the 10-year anniversary of the 2013 flood. Most of the people I speak to, including me, would like to forget that and never see it again. It was a terrible and devastating natural event. It meant the people of North Bundaberg lost access to emergency services. They lost access to the hospital, police and ambulance in a reasonable time. They could get there, but it’s a very, very long way around to go back out through Gin Gin to the Bruce Highway, back through Wallaville to come all the way back around. One single investment will give them access, and that is an evacuation route aligned with the existing bridge from Bundaberg North to the Bundaberg CBD, and it is a project that should be delivered.
There will continue to be debate about whether you’re better to build a flood levee. In my mind, that is an incredibly difficult engineering technical problem because the banks of the Burnett River are renowned for requiring extensive piering. They are soft, they sink—it’s incredibly difficult. I spent a lot of time working for organisations along the riverbank, and they would put in pier after pier after pier trying to find a foundation. The idea that you’d have a pile of dirt nine metres wide and five or eight or nine metres high and not have it sink into the river could be quite challenging. So it’s a very, very difficult proposition, and I think it will be incredibly expensive. My view has always been the same: work out what the price is, explain the technical feasibility and get support from the local community, because it will split the city of Bundaberg down the middle. I know that those people in Bundaberg North are much more focused on the ability to save their lives, to evacuate quickly and to have that evacuation route put in place. We will continue to fight for it because it’s an important piece of infrastructure.
I would say to the state government: yes, we all know you’ve got an election coming up. We all know that the state seat of Bundaberg is a very marginal seat. But there are over 10,000 people on the north side who are relying on all of us to deliver for them the opportunity for them to be safer into the future. Whether it’s this generation or the next, that is something that simply needs to be built.
For the Port of Bundaberg, I was surprised but quite pleased to see an announcement down at the Bundaberg port. We committed some $6 million five or six years ago for a new port project which will allow for tug access, hard stand and delivery of significant infrastructure to the Bundaberg port. That is another string and another piece of the economy. I was very surprised to see it announced by the local state Labor member, who had absolutely nothing to do with it. They didn’t deliver any money and weren’t even there when it was first announced. These are the things that happen when there is a change of government, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am sure you know. We will continue to deliver on the things that matter locally: roads, economic development, new jobs, new opportunities.
I am still incredibly disappointed that we lost a tough but necessary policy in the cashless debit card. It was overwhelmingly supported by the people who live there. More than 60 per cent—in some research, as much as 70 per cent—support it. There are very few policies that come from this place that have that level of support across the entire constituency. They supported it and they knew it was difficult, but it worked. The amount of people who would stop me on the street to thank me because it made a difference for their grandkids, for their kids, for their cousins, for their aunties, for their uncles—it had extensive support, it made a real difference and, unfortunately, that has been lost. We will continue to put forward policy positions like that because they make a difference. What else are we here for if not to make improvements for the people that we represent?
When I came to this place, almost 10 years ago—10 years in September—my sole focus, and it remains, was to build our local economy so that we can lift people out of poverty; so we can give them an opportunity for a job, an opportunity to be trained, an opportunity for them to make their own decisions and an opportunity for them to live their lives in the way that they choose, and to pay their own way. To do that, they have to be employed in well-paid jobs that are in the region. And I’ll continue to fight for that, because it matters. The unemployment rate has come down significantly—significantly—but it is still not at the national average. It is still above the national average, including for youth unemployment. So that is what I will continue to deliver on for the people who I represent.
As I said at the commencement: while they continue to send me, I’ll keep coming here and I’ll continue to fight for them.