Address in reply: Governor General's Speech

November 27, 2019

When re-elected in May, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride that I had been chosen again to represent my community. As a colleague said, 'Well, Mez, they've had a look at you once, they're happy and they've given you another go.' I'm very grateful for that second go. Soon after, though, I was hit by disappointment because I realised that the commitments I had made to my community would not come to fruition because a Labor government hadn't been elected.

Since that moment, I've thought a lot about that disappointment. The Liberal candidate who ran against me in May did not make one single election commitment—not one. That goes to show how serious the Liberal Party is about the seat of Paterson—not very serious. As the member who was re-elected—and my election commitments were welcomed and endorsed—not long after the election I wrote to each and every responsible minister for every commitment I'd made and asked them to match it. And I want to tell you about these commitments, because I feel that they are so important—and so does our community in Paterson.

Firstly, there are the local school commitments. We committed to $20,000 to upgrade smart boards at Bobs Farm Public School. Bobs Farm is a cracking little school. They've got a peacock as their emblem—I'm quite partial to peacocks actually. I own one. His name's Derek. Maybe I should donate it to Bobs Farm, because that might be all they're going to get out of this government. They need three smart boards at Bobs Farm. They need to be replaced. They're old. They no longer support the learning that we need the kids at Bobs Farm to receive. This is a very small and beautiful school—just 38 students—so it makes it incredibly tough for the P & C to try and raise $20,000.

We need $55,000 for a basketball court and shade cloth over the all-ability play area at Irrawang Public School, another terrific school. There are 320 students at Irrawang and another 33 students in supported classes. There's also a preschool onsite and a community centre that hosts playgroups, parenting classes, home-school groups and support groups, just to name a few. The existing basketball court at the school is cracked and faded. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was just an old concrete slab. The P & C told me they really wanted to get it fixed, but their priority had been covering the cost of the shade cloth, recently erected, over an all-ability outdoor play area. They'd been fundraising for four years. They could afford the shade cloth, but the basketball court was out of reach.

There was $50,000 committed to Tomaree High School for STEM equipment. In 2019 Tomaree High students established a new, dedicated space for students in STEM focused classes. STEM is the new black. Everyone is talking about STEM. The equipment and furniture required for students to learn new skills in coding, designing and producing the material for their experiments is expensive and Tomaree High had exhausted all available funds. Without the resources that the Labor Party committed to, this room will go underutilised, and it's the students who will pay the price for that. There are over 1,100 students at Tomaree High High, and every single year group would benefit from the use of this room—in classes like mandatory technology in years 7 and 8, engineering in years 9, 10, 11 and 12, and physics in years 11 and 12. Given that every single education and industry group is desperate for STEM qualifications, this must be a priority.

There were other commitments. There was a $1.4 million commitment to upgrade and extend the Little Beach boat ramp, to prevent the building up of sand that has left motorists bogged, drifting into the ocean or with burnt-out clutches and smoking tyres. A regular build-up of sand from nearby Shoal Bay has left the Port Stephens council to remove around 6,000 tonnes of sand off the boat ramp, each and every year, and truck it to Shoal Bay at a cost of around $50,000 a year. The Legacy boat ramp is the closest to the open water that's suitable for larger vessels, so it is a big tourist draw card in the bay. A lot of people like the Little Beach boat ramp. If you want to see how popular it is but you want to see how problematic it is, I suggest you go to 'I got bogged at Little Beach boat ramp' on Facebook and have a look at some of the footage. It is quite remarkable. There are 53,000 registered boat owners in the Hunter and 1.3 million tourists visit Port Stephens. That boat ramp needs to be upgraded—pronto.

Fifty full-time jobs for Centrelink across Paterson were also committed to by our government to cope with the demands of people trying to access vital services like Medicare and Centrelink and Veterans' Affairs. We all know how long you have to wait if you phone Centrelink. The jobs have been cut from Centrelink. We wanted to put them back, and I am urging this government to put some much-needed investment into a regional area and create regional jobs for people—good government jobs in places like Centrelink. We also wanted to give $5,000 to Medowie Tigers Playgroup—what a terrific tiger that is, that playgroup!—to improve and expand their resources for local families; $15,000 for an all-ability area for Woodberry Place of Friends playgroup, another sensational group in Woodberry; $16,000 for Maitland Neighbourhood Centre; and $16,000 for Tomaree Neighbourhood Centre. We committed $30,000 for Port Stephens Family and Neighbourhood Services to help these services provide for vulnerable people in our communities. These terrific services are being used constantly by those who sometimes just have nowhere else to turn.

Labor committed $200,000 for the Richmond Vale Rail Trail to add solar lighting, signage, toilets, a miners memorial and a paved track for walking—where you can push prams or you can ride—at the Kurri Kurri end of the trail. That's what the $200,000 would have done. Kurri Kurri lost an entire industry when the local aluminium smelter closed down in 2012. Jobs were lost, and our community is still recovering. The Richmond Vale Rail Trail is an important investment in our community. It will create good jobs in tourism and see small businesses open, but the trail also presents us with a really unique opportunity, and it is something that I'm urging the government to get behind.

We also committed $1 million to upgrade Cook Square Park, the home of Maitland Football Club, to put the Magpies at the expected standard of a national Premier League club and also cater for females and facilitate the participation of players with a disability. The project would have included a new building with amenities, a clubroom, change sheds, a referees room, an equipment room and a canteen, along with a suspended roof to provide a raised viewing platform for those fantastic Magpies games. In July this year, the mighty Maitland Magpies were fortunate enough to host the Central Coast Mariners at Cook Square Park, a game that was televised by Foxtel and attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors to Maitland. The existing lighting at the ground, however, wasn't sufficient to televise the game, which left the relatively small club having to move venues and fork out $15,000 for temporary lighting. At the time, my office approached the government to ask for assistance in covering this cost, but, unfortunately, that didn't come to fruition. This is a great opportunity, and I implore the government to match this funding commitment.

This is a costly one: a commitment of $1.6 billion to extend the Pacific Highway—the M1, as it's affectionately known—from Black Hill to Raymond Terrace. This is a big-ticket item, but it is the last stand. It is the last choke point on the eastern seaboard for anyone who is trying to move between Sydney and Brisbane. Every major motoring authority or peak body in New South Wales, Queensland and even Victoria have said this is the last choke point for the Pacific Highway on the eastern seaboard. We need to fix it. I implore the Prime Minister—in fact, I know the Prime Minister travels this route. I know he's been stuck on the M1, on the Hexham Bridge. I know he thinks this needs to be done and he should do it. It is very important not just for the convenience of motorists who are escaping the congestion that is Sydney to try and get north for a bit of Christmas holiday respite but for all of those people who regularly use that stretch of road and for every truckie who has gone up and down through the gears, grinding it out, just trying to get their load north or south. The productivity loss is phenomenal. Get the M1 done; get the Raymond Terrace extension done. We know that this is a vital cog, and, at a time when our economy is subdued, we know that we need some big-ticket items. We know we need some important infrastructure. I congratulate the government in a limited way for their investment in important infrastructure, but I say to them: how can you not fund the M1 when Infrastructure Australia itself has said that it's a high priority?

We must get that done. It is a major, major productivity bump at the moment for New South Wales and Queensland, in some of the fastest-growing areas in our country.

The Pacific Highway, incidentally, is one of the most-used roads in New South Wales. More than 21,000 vehicles use just this little patch of the M1 in the afternoon peak, and this number is expected to increase by over 35 per cent by 2031, or at least 7,500 vehicles. In holiday peak time, as I was referring to there, the speed on the road is sometimes reduced to as low as 20 kilometres an hour. I have to talk to whoever gave me that figure, because I know you just spend most of the time camped. It can take up to two hours going through that patch. You're lucky to get out of first. The Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities classifies the upgrade of the M1 as a near-term priority, but over the last six years the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government have not invested a cent to progress this project. This project will create hundreds of construction jobs in the Hunter and Port Stephens. It will boost productivity by reducing traffic congestion affecting local residents, tourist businesses and truckies.

One of the other commitments we made was $2½ million for a commuter car park and a very important roundabout in the beautiful little hamlet of Heddon Greta—which I know well; I grew up there—at the entrance to the Hunter Expressway. The Hunter Expressway was a fantastic shovel-ready Labor initiative. We had it ready to go when the GFC hit. The road was ready, and we built it. There's a tip for you: get on and build it. Since the opening of the Hunter Expressway, there have been community concerns, however, about the feeder roads. They've been placed under a lot of additional pressure given that we've had this major arterial built. The government have expressed their grave concerns about safety in the area too, with a previous report stating that there is at least one accident or near miss every day at the intersection where the roundabout is going to be helping out. A roundabout would help eliminate some of that risk, and it's the first step to be taken in road safety for Heddon Greta. It's not the only thing that needs happen. We know that there is more.

Turning onto Main Road, Heddon Greta, has become a battle. I've heard from young families, professionals and elderly people who are just trying to get out onto Main Road to go to Maitland or Cessnock, and they have to allow a lot of extra time in the morning to compensate for how long it takes to get out onto the road. Confident drivers now doubt themselves as they put the pedal to the metal because they've waited for a break in the traffic that just doesn't come. With the approval of new housing developments in the area, this problem only seems to get worse. We need to look at practical solutions to this problem and we need to do it immediately. In fact, residents have taken to putting their garbage bins in their driveways to stop people doing illegal U-turns that are incredibly dangerous. When the local community have to resort to putting their Sulo bins out to contribute to road safety—hello? You know you've got a problem.

We also committed to a very serious project in my electorate. I've left this one to last because it does have a very special place in the consciousness of everyone, not only in my electorate but right across the Hunter region. We committed to $20 million to start remediating PFAS in the drains around RAAF Base Williamtown, which are still a major source of contamination. The community have been calling for this, but the government has not come to the table. Further to the local commitment to remediate the drains in Williamtown, Labor also announced a national PFAS policy. Unsurprisingly, the government did not. Instead, people of Williamtown, Salt Ash and Fullerton Cove have been left to sue their own government, out of sheer desperation. What is that? When you have to cobble together your own class action to sue your own government for something that you had absolutely no hand in, absolutely no fault, and the government stumps up $55 million to fight you, you've got to ask: what is going on in this country under this government?

The people elected this government, and now the government is not even helping them out in their time of dire need. It is completely unacceptable that the Prime Minister has not come to Williamtown to face the people who have been affected by PFAS. So last week I sought to take another step towards redress: after pleading, asking nicely, getting angry, making many speeches and writing letters, I started a petition. Please, Prime Minister, come to Williamtown. Look these people in the eye and hear what they've got to say, because it's so interesting.

I've spoken to potentially thousands of people about this issue since I was elected in 2016. It's interesting: people empathise, they hear you, they say, 'Yes, it's a terrible problem and it needs to be fixed,' but it's not until they get on the ground in Williamtown and sit down and look into the eyes of these people who feel completely destroyed by this situation that they understand. Think about it, Deputy Speaker. You wake up one morning and thumb through the local paper—in fact, you don't even have to thumb through it. You pick it up, and right there on the front page is one of those massive skull and crossbones with, 'Do not enter: contaminated,' in red. That's what it said on the front page of the paper in 2015.

Since that time, people have truly been destroyed by this, and it wasn't their fault. They did nothing wrong. It wasn't as if someone said, 'Don't do this,' and they did it. They did nothing. They bought their homes, they raised their children, they paid off their mortgages, they went to work, they contributed to our beautiful community and they have been left to wallow in PFAS contamination. It is a national disgrace. Prime Minister, please come and sit with the people of Williamtown. They are good people who pay their taxes and who just want what is right and fair for them. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them and I will continue to fight. I know people might be sick of hearing about PFAS, but I will continue to fight and talk about it, because it must be resolved in Williamtown and its surrounds.

If the Liberal government were serious about health care, it would assure my community in Kurri Kurri that the emergency department of our terrific hospital will remain open. Instead, nervous workers and community members are reaching out to me and the state member for Cessnock, Clayton Barr, who's done a terrific job in trying to assuage some of the genuine fear in our community and tell people their jobs are safe. But people are very sceptical about this. If the government were serious about health care, it would provide assurance that Kurri Kurri Hospital's emergency department will stay open to service the people of Kurri Kurri.

If the Liberal government were serious about infrastructure, it would fund the long-awaited extension of the M1 at Raymond Terrace, instead of committing just four per cent in funding over the next five years, with construction being way off in the never-never. If the Liberal government were serious about regional development, it would fund upgrades to the Newcastle Airport runway. Instead, the airport tell me they're anxious that this once-in-a-generation maintenance upgrade opportunity will come and go, and a truly well-upgraded runway will not happen. We must fund this. The proposed upgrades of the airport will allow Newcastle to become a year-round international airport, reaching into the Asia-Pacific. It will cost around $50 million, which is a small price to pay for an international airport that will absolutely inject many, many times more in benefits. In fact, the cost-benefit analysis figure comes out at a compelling 2.8. In terms of benefit to cost, that's pretty good.

If the Liberal government were serious about education, it would fund and restore every dollar cut to every school in Paterson. If the Liberal government were serious about helping our elderly, it would introduce a policy to dramatically reduce the number of older Australians waiting for aged-care packages. I had a 91-year-old woman come to see me the other day. She's looking after her disabled son and she still can't get a home care package. What's going on in our country when a 91-year-old woman caring for her disabled son can't get help! Come on, Liberal government, let's get serious. Let's do some of these well-deserved projects.