Tuesday, 20 September 2022
Member for Morwell
Member for Morwell
Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (15:34): It is a thrill to rise this afternoon to give my valedictory speech in this special chamber and in this special place. It is approaching 16 years since I was first elected as the member for Morwell, and subsequently the privilege and honour that I have had to represent my community right here in the Parliament of Victoria have been profound. I actually recently took the opportunity to go back and read my inaugural speech—a very good one at that, it was. Upon reflection, there have certainly been some changes in some spaces yet probably little change in other spaces, and I will address that in my contribution. Of course today brings with it a tinge of sadness, but it allows us to show gratitude and give thanks to those who support us in our roles as members of Parliament.
It is simply impossible to individualise, but I do want to thank and acknowledge the people who work in this place and across the road, who provide just outstanding and incredible support to us as MPs: the clerks, the clerks office, the Serjeant-at-Arms office, the procedures office, the tour and customer service unit, our attendants, the buildings and grounds people, catering, property services, security, people operations, work health and safety, the Hansard team, the IT team, the library team—I am told that I am their best customer and have been consistently over the years, those who are part of the parliamentary internship program I must congratulate as well, the election coordination team, finance and risk, payroll and, as a number of members have referred to, parliamentary committees, where as members of Parliament we get the great opportunity to mingle and do really productive work and come up with fantastic recommendations and solutions across the political spectrum. I have been privileged and thrilled to be part of some of those committees, where we have seen changes in legislation that have made a real difference to people’s lives. My gratitude and thanks to all people in this place and across the road for their support.
My thanks to fellow MPs right across the political spectrum, to the National Party and their members for preselecting me to contest the seat of Morwell back in 2006 and all the MPs that I have got to know right across the field, being part of the coalition—so Liberal Party colleagues, Labor Party colleagues and now my independent friends and even the Greens, who sometimes are good friends of mine when I need them to be. I must say I have great admiration also for premiers past and present, and thank you, Premier, for being in here today. I think that is really special. It is not to say we always agree with what our Premiers do or what our ministers do, but from me to all of you who have been and are ministers and shadow ministers, I have great respect. It is not an easy job. It is a tough job, but I admire and respect what you do. To your ministerial staff as well—I should not forget them, particularly the last couple of years have been very tough for ministerial staff—I appreciate the work and effort you do in what is sometimes a thankless job.
I will never forget some of the MPs who unfortunately left us in tragic circumstances. Jane Garrett and Fiona Richardson were just beautiful people—beautiful hearts and beautiful ladies. They will never be forgotten, from my perspective. From a local perspective, comrade Gary—where has he gone? Is he with his family? No, he is there. Geez, I have got a big crowd, haven’t I, compared to you. To Gary: you are just fabulous to work with. Harriet is here and Melina is here. Danny and the MPs before him in Gippsland South and Bully in Gippsland East, it has been a pleasure to work with you guys in our community. Even though, again, we might have differences every now and again on certain things, there is a level of respect that I really cherish.
This place is a serious place but, by gee, there have been some humorous things over the years—and probably not as humorous as they used to be, given that the 10.00 pm adjournment is no longer with us. Thanks, Jacinta, for getting that back to 7.00 pm. But I do have to recount a couple of stories. For my sins I was forced to share an office with the member for Gippsland East. He is a very good—the best—practical joker I have ever seen. At this particular time you could never leave your computer open in front of Mr Bull. On a couple of occasions it is fair to say that my Facebook page said that I had a colonoscopy I did not even know I had. On another occasion apparently I liked nothing more than to stand nude in front of the mirror singing into the hairbrush and dancing to Jagger. I did not even know that either. So those things do happen.
They were fun times. We had great times up in the High Country, as we described it then, with the then member for Rodney, Paul Weller, who was a character as we all know, and the member for Ovens Valley and a few of the other guys—Billy Sykes. They were good days and good times. Going back to that 2006 speech, there were a number of different programs and initiatives that I was campaigning for, and it is great to see some of those have been delivered, such as the Gippsland Performing Arts Centre and the Gippsland Regional Aquatic Centre. We have had multiple redevelopments of Latrobe Regional Hospital and a number of local school upgrades, including one that is under construction at the moment, Latrobe Special Developmental School, which is dear to my heart. I know Melina and Harriet have fought hard for that as well. There have been some great outcomes and achievements with respect to that.
In my inaugural speech I also spoke about the importance of Australian Paper, and 16 years later I re-emphasise the fact of how important that particular employer is to my community. I even referenced Monash University Churchill, which is now Federation University, so things do change, particularly in the tertiary education and university space. I talked about the importance of the energy industry in my community, and the Greens would have been mortified reading my speech back then because I dared suggest that we not only provide a retrofit for the Hazelwood power station but also build a brand new coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley. Whilst I understand and concede that that is a fantasy in the current environment, some of the issues around energy security and supply are still real today. I spoke about unemployment being a burden in the Latrobe Valley, and in many respects it still is today, but hopefully we can overcome those particular things.
In my inaugural speech I was already lauding the efforts of emergency services responders in fire events because two or three weeks after I was first elected the Toongabbie-Cowwarr area saw 11 homes lost in a fire and immediately I was able to see the special capabilities of our CFA volunteers. The Toongabbie and Cowwarr CFAs in that particular regard were brilliant and saved so many homes. It was really just the catalyst for more to come unfortunately because, as the member for Narracan said, we had the Black Saturday bushfires, which decimated a lot of my community. We had the January 2009 fires in Boolarra and Yinnar, which affected that community. We had the mine fire in 2014, we have had storms and floods and a whole range of other emergency events. My hope in leaving this place is that whoever takes over will have a much better run in terms of emergency events. But I do want to shout out to the CFA, SES, Victoria Police, FRV, Ambulance Victoria and all those who respond to emergencies. They have been absolutely brilliant, and we should not forget those who engage in the services after the traumatic events, whether it is the Red Cross, the local council, the department of health and human services or the community groups who get involved.
One of the things I must say that, on becoming a member of Parliament, I really found surprising was the level of volunteerism in your community. You really get to see firsthand just how much volunteerism exists in your community. Again, without naming names, the service clubs—Lions, Rotary, Apex—the men’s sheds, the Country Women’s Association, the sport and recreation clubs, the Guides and the Scouts, the U3A, the art groups, the performing arts groups, the car clubs, neighbourhood houses, community associations, friends of nature environmental groups, RSLs, veterans and Legacy groups—the list goes on and on and on. Where would we be without the efforts of those volunteers? One of the things that I will take away from this are the friendships and relationships that I have established over those times with those sorts of organisations and people. I will certainly cherish those forever.
One of the hardest things about not standing as a candidate is saying goodbye to those particular groups. I was doing a radio interview on Saturday and I was asked what I would miss and what I would not miss. I said, ‘The answer to both is people’—if that makes sense—because it is fair to say I probably will not miss some people, but definitely the thing I will miss the most is purely and simply the good people who give so much of themselves to others and to their community.
Of course I will miss my staff, Kirstie and Jo, who have been with me for five years now, and I have been blessed to have some incredibly intelligent, empathetic, supportive and loyal people work in my electorate office. That commenced right back in 2006 with Katherine and Nicole. I have had Julia and Taylor—who has unfortunately passed away due to breast cancer, which is just awful—and Trish, Kirstie, Jo, Helen, Grada, Bridget and Michelle. Katherine and Nicole were present when we endured those horrific fires. You are dealing with people who are emotional and distressed—they are in grief—and there is an expectation that their MP and their staff can assist, so you need a special type of person to be working in those environments.
The same can be said for Kirstie and Jo. We have had to deal with, along with all our other electorate office staff, the prolonged COVID pandemic, where MPs’ officers really became the sources of information, assistance and answers for people dealing with a different type of trauma, but nonetheless it is trauma. I cannot speak highly enough of both these ladies, and their professionalism and empathy shine through. I do hope whoever my successor is will give regard to their qualities, capabilities and political independence when they consider the employment of their own electorate officers because Kirstie and Jo are simply two incredibly passionate, community-minded employees who are highly regarded by not only our constituents but the government departments and agencies that we work with, other electorate officers and our internal and external stakeholders.
Quickly going back to my inaugural speech of 16 years ago, I was actually applauding the government at the time for establishing for the first time a minister for mental health. I was talking about some of the local challenges. I will not quote what I was going to quote, but I talked about some of those local services needing to be enhanced. I would say that mental health is one of those things where I would argue in some respects there has been little, if any, improvement on the ground. I am very conscious of the fact that there has been a royal commission held on that and that implementation is occurring at the moment, which is good, but we still need a lot of investment into that to the point where, as the former Deputy Premier said, local people can access local mental health services and care in their local community when they need it. I think that is fabulous. It is a great aspiration to have, and that is where we should be, but we have still got a way to go to achieve that outcome.
From my own perspective, I guess, little did I know 16 years ago that mental ill health might also beset me. Unfortunately I did live for a long time with an undiagnosed mental health condition, during which time I unintentionally hurt many people. That is a big cross to bear, but it is important those people close to me know how dearly sorry I am for any pain that I caused. But when you are living with a person with poor mental health or undiagnosed mental ill health and they are displaying out-of-character and uncharacteristic behaviours, it is damn hard to understand, let alone deal with it. That is what my family network went through and many other families go through as well. Your family, like any other MP’s family, rides the bumps of political life—the good, the bad and everything else in between. Jenny, Tim, Matt and Tom, I thank you for still being there for me, because there was a block of time within those 16 years where I was incredibly unwell and vacant, and that was very challenging, extraordinarily tough, on all of you, to say the least. My son Matt and his wife, Emily, have blessed us with a gorgeous granddaughter, Ella, and she is currently the apple of Poppy Angry’s eye.
Since my diagnosis and treatment I have been able to slowly gain some self-esteem and confidence, and I know my next chapter has to and will involve, at least in part, working in the suicide prevention, mental health and gambling policy reform space. There are just too many gaps in the system where individuals, families and communities are being exposed to harm, and in fact people are dying. This is a travesty, and I want to help drive positive change. Just like in 2006, when I applauded the government for, for the first time, appointing a minister for mental health, I want to be able to applaud the next elected state government for having the first minister for gambling safety or for establishing an independent office or commission for gambling safety. We cannot have the situation where the issues around gambling harm sit with the minister for gaming—there is too much conflict. If you want to, then let gaming sit in the gaming portfolio, but let us start to focus on specific gambling harm reforms and the plethora of recommendations that have been suggested by a number of advocacy groups, including the Alliance for Gambling Reform, Suicide Prevention Australia and Financial Counselling Australia, that could realistically be adopted and implemented immediately if there was a will.
At the very least let us pull all this apart by way of an immediate and comprehensive parliamentary inquiry as soon as the new government is elected. Unfortunately I know firsthand the harm associated with alcohol and gambling harm when you are also contending with a mental illness, in my case an undiagnosed mental illness. Gambling harm supplemented by poor mental health must be treated as a public health issue; at the moment it is not from a prevention perspective, nor is it from a support perspective and it is certainly not from a justice or social justice perspective, where people are simply treated in a punitive manner, not in a therapeutic way, and this needs to change.
In the vestibule of this beautiful building there is a quote laid out on the floor, via the King James Bible, Proverbs 11:14, that says:
Where no counsel is the people fall but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.
Those are powerful words. My interpretation is that society will fail unless we have governance and governments in place, and I firmly believe that to be true. But when applied to the gambling sector and particularly online gambling and gambling harm there is simply little or no counsel, and therefore people are falling. This includes the vulnerable and the unwell, and they are falling in large numbers and often with dire consequences. Billions and billions of dollars are being lost every year, and if you think that is not hurting people, then you are living under a rock. I will not rest until we see positive change in this space, until we see a reduction in the enormous harm and hurt that many individuals and families are experiencing, so hopefully I will continue to see many of you post the election as I continue on this advocacy journey.
In closing, I really just want to say thank you to all those people who helped me along the way and through this journey, people who helped at my four election campaigns and particularly those who stood at prepoll and on polling booths for hours on end. I cannot thank you enough for the time, effort and faith you gave me during those times. It means a lot. There is a cross-section of my network here today: Wes; Michelle; my son Tom; Gary Blackwood, who has just been—I do not know how to describe him—a god to me; my friend Gus, who has stuck with me for a number of years, which means so much also. All of these are dear friends and family who truly know who I am, and their collective support has been incredible and so important to me. I wish my successor well. You will have the opportunity to meet some extraordinary people, and if you look after them, they will look after you. Do the absolute best you can and you will earn the respect of the good people in our community. I wish all candidates the very best for the 2022 election, and thank you for the opportunity to say a few words today after being able to stand in this place and represent my community over the past 16 years.