6 August 2013
Wayne Jansson interviews Robyn Walsh – farmer, businesswoman and ALP candidate for Sophie Mirabella’s seat of Indi.
Q- What were you doing before becoming involved in politics?
A- I’m a farmer. I’ve been living at Yarck for 15 years and I run a beef business. We’ve got 60 Angus breeders and have a bed and breakfast cottage as well, and a berry patch. Prior to that I was a teacher. I taught adult migrants English as a second language.
Q- Why are you running in the seat of Indi, and what do you think is the most important issue facing its residents?
A- I’m running because I believe I’ve got all the qualities that are required of a candidate. I’ve got the farming background, I’ve got the community background and I believe I can do a very good job. I’d be a full time representative, not a part-time representative of the people of Indi. I would be very good at listening and working with the community, working with the community to represent them properly and actively.
I come from Yarck in the south of Indi, which used to be in (the seat of) McEwen, and there was a redistribution this year. I was alarmed when we were redistributed into Indi. I’m not happy that Sophie Mirabella would represent me because there is no way known that she could possibly represent me.
Q- Do you believe the hung parliament after the last election was a success and why?
A- Many years ago when I was in the United States I was at a post-election party for Ronald Reagan. My husband and I lived in a very rich, retired Republican part of Washington in Arlington DC. I was talking to a lawyer who was a republican lobbyist, and I said to him that he must be pleased about Reagan being elected, because it was the second time that Reagan had been elected in a landslide. He said it was travesty actually, because Reagan had won with such a majority he could just do what he wanted to do. I believe the same conditions apply here in Indi. It’s a rural seat filled by a lawyer from the city who has no understanding of life in the country. I believe this seat has been taken for granted for the last 20, more probably, 50 years. Unless the people of Indi make it a marginal seat, we’ll be ignored like we’ve been ignored for the last 50 years. A hung parliament can be a good thing because it forces all the politicians to actually engage and negotiate and compromise.
I think the quality of Abbott as a leader was demonstrated by his unwillingness to actually engage in any negotiation. I don’t think the legislation and reforms that have been put through by the Gillard government would have been achieved if Abbott had been in power. I greatly admire the work that Julia Gillard has done. The worst thing about the hung parliament is the negativity. I’m so angry about this, the way that the office of prime minister was treated by the opposition and how Julia Gillard’s position was undermined. I think it’s reprehensible and I’m not very happy with the local member’s part in all of that.
Q- A problem faced by most of regional Australia is attracting medical professionals and retaining them. What measures do you think would help attract and retain health professionals in Indi?
A- I think there’s been a couple of excellent moves to develop some centres of excellence in Wodonga, so we’ve got the Head Space program going ahead and that’s to do with mental health and youth health as well. I think that’s an excellent program. I also think the moves to develop a cancer centre is good, but one of my desires is to actually take medical services out to the outer reaches of Indi. Up into the valleys, so to speak, and along the rivers to centres of excellence like the community health centres in Corryong and Myrtleford and places like that. Also develop outreach programs and other hospitals in smaller places like Mansfield, Alexandra and Walwa and places like that. So that we have as well as the large centres of excellence, we’ve also got smaller centres that can treat the people closer to their home. I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine I used to work with in the past two years has developed cancer. That fellow has to go down to Melbourne ten days in a row out of every month. That fellow has got a child with cerebral palsy in her twenties, and also his wife – he has to leave them for ten days out of the month to go down and have his intravenous chemotherapy. He also has to find his own accommodation while he’s down there because he becomes too exhausted following the treatment to actually drive home. I think that we actually take the medical centres closer to the people so they can have their treatment and stay in their own homes. I also think there’s a great need for respite care for these people that may be getting older or have sick relatives who are caring for them, who need care themselves. I think with the new National Disability Insurance Scheme we have a great opportunity to actually develop both these outreach programs and respite care centres. Again I would like to see those not in the main centres down the Hume Highway, but inland up the valleys, up the rivers, and locate them where they’re needed.
Q- There is a perception in rural communities that many government services are hard to access. How can this best be addressed?
A- It varies from what I was saying before, again our centres of excellence in Wodonga. I think we also have to have outreach centres, the multi-functional community health centres like Myrtleford and Corryong. We have to develop and extend programs in other hospitals. So I would envisage support services like drug and alcohol rehabilitation, trauma counselling, family counselling, many of those sort of programs to help families cope with the pressures of modern life. They should be served out in the community so they’re accessible closer to where the people work.
I’ll give you an example: I worked as a bushfire case manager and I came to understand the needs of a lot of people who are socially and economically disadvantaged, but it was very hard to get the support services they needed from the main centres along the Hume Highway or Melbourne. So in Alexandra we had to wait on services coming from Seymour. There’s plenty of work for those services to do in Seymour, so they were reluctant to leave Seymour to come up and work in our area. The need is there and the need would be better met if we had regular services, say once a week, and local people knew when they were coming and knew that they were able to access them. I think keeping the support services in the larger towns is very comfortable for those services but they’re not assisting people in remote and rural areas to live better in the bush. If I were elected I would definitely make sure that there were a lot more outreach programs and they were clearly defined and clearly enunciated.
Q- Indi is an electorate with many pockets of small isolated communities. Many of these have high levels of unemployment and limited social opportunities. What role do you think the federal government can play in solving these issues?
A- I actually disagree with the limited social opportunities. I believe somebody living in a small community in many regards can actually be looked after by that community. In my own community we have people of social and economic disadvantage who may be not the full dollar, who we love, look after and watch out for. Unemployment is a problem in the remote areas. An example I know of in my own area where people have to come down from Alexandra to Seymour quite regularly to sign into Centrelink. There are limited employment opportunities particularly with businesses like the local timber mill in our area closing down. I really believe that with the NDIS and also the Better Schools program, these are opportunities in the near future where we will be able to employ more people. The financial support is there in both of those programs to increase the carer-to-patient ratio, or the teacher-to-student ratio. I think this will provide a lot of employment opportunities in these towns, as long as we have the outreach centres that I’m talking about and not all the money goes towards the larger centres along the Hume Highway.
Q- What should the federal government do to help improve access to new communications technologies and improve the productivity and effectiveness of online marketing activities for rural businesses in remote locations?
A- I’m in exactly this position myself. We have a ridge between our place and the Telstra tower, so we can’t directly access the Telstra 3G. We have to go via satellite. We’ve had our satellite for five years, increasingly it’s getting overloaded and the download times are getting slower and slower or they drop out. I think the solution to this is the NBN (national broadband network) that is planned. That is something that is going to take time, but I think it’s worth waiting for. The good thing about this is that we will pay the same price as people in the city. Under the Liberal Party scheme they will pay for the fibre to go to the node and the consumer will either have to retain the copper or pay for fibre to the house.
I live on a dirt road and half a dozen families down my road are all at least two to four kilometres away from the node. We don’t have an inkling of the cost of connection for that. But it is a cost the user will have to pay or retain the old slow copper network, and retain the old slow speeds we’re experiencing now. I believe the NBN is an absolute necessity and will become more so in the future. It’s absolutely necessary not only for business, but it’s very important for business such as farming. In my case our live stock records, tax records, even our fertiliser records and all those multitudes of records that farm businesses have are more and more dependent on the internet. We’re going to be severely disadvantaged unless we can get improved internet speeds.
It’s the same with services. More and more, into the future health services are going to depend on fast internet speeds. Training requirements can be met if we have a proper national broadband network. Data can be sent so medical records like X-rays and real-time health records can be exchanged. Also people have been talking about one nurse being able to monitor people in their homes remotely. So there’s lots of applications that are possible and probably a lot we haven’t even thought about. It’s an infrastructure that is as important to this generation as the Snowy Hydro Scheme was to our country in the 1940s and 50s, more so because it’s not just Australia we’re talking about but our interaction with the rest of the world. Education will also depend heavily on the internet, more and more we’ll be able to have distance education, so we’ll be able to keep our children in the country and keep them educated. But I’m sure there’s lots of other applications that we can think of for the internet that we just need to seize and take the opportunity to embrace.
Q- How can the federal government best support education in the Indi electorate, especially the smaller remote schools?
A- Naturally I’m a great supporter of the Better Schools program… These kids, especially for the ones in the remote areas like where I live, like in Eildon, like up at Walwa, up in a lot of those little country schools way up in the valleys, those kids are going to be properly financed and properly resourced. There’s a loading for their isolation as well as loadings for various other things like economic disadvantage or non-English speaking background. There are additional loadings that are geared towards much better income for the kids in our schools, they’re also indexed so the money will continue to grow and grow faster than is currently provided. At the moment governments can increase and reduce funding at a whim, with the indexation that is on offer this is not going to happen.
Q- Are you happy with the level of assistance provided to rural kids when they must move away from home to attend university?
A- I really have never thought about that. I suppose my kids are not involved in that. They both went to university and they both lived independently when they did. They seemed to cope all right and it seems to be a rite of passage for them. I really don’t understand the question so much. I think kids just love to live independently of their parents. They might be poor for a while, but if they’re going to university, hopefully they’ll make a lot of money afterwards. I haven’t really thought about it. Victoria’s not a great big state like Western Australia, it seems to me easy enough for those kids going to university to be able to come home and they do get concession cards to travel.
Q- Do you accept the accuracy of the science supporting anthropogenic global warming and why?
A- I do believe in global warming and I do believe it is man-made and I do believe we need to do something about it. I think putting a price on carbon is a very firm step towards improving the situation.
Q- If you become the member for Indi, what climate change policy will you be supporting or advocating for?
A- I will be following my party’s policy. I’m also a great believer in as much recycling as we can do and solar power and other alternative forms of energies. I will be guided by my party’s policy on that.
Q- An increasing number of farmers who were once climate-change sceptics are becoming increasingly concerned as they experience problems caused by what they now believe is due to climate change. What is your message to these people?
A- Well, I’m a farmer myself. It’s one of the reasons I believe climate change is happening. You’re living with the land and your animals, you’re experiencing drought and trying to keep your animals alive. I think for farmers it’s a study, a yearly study in risk management. What we’ve done with the Murray Darling Basin Scheme has been a fantastic way of managing our risk with water. Each farmer who’s running his business is also trying to manage the risk year to year. The Labor government has provided farm investment deposits, so in good years farmers can actually put away funds to carry them through the bad years. Farming is a business and it’s like any other business – you’ve got to manage your risk. I think the government is providing farmers with the tools to do that.
Q- Did you agree with the commonwealth government intervening to stop alpine cattle grazing and why?
A- Yes, I did. I believe there are other ways to manage the fire hazards. I believe the CSIRO is an organisation that needs to be embraced and endorsed and used to develop more in terms of fire management and fire controls. I don’t believe that putting cattle up in the alpine regions is a solution. It’s a solution that benefits a small number of grazing families. I believe we will earn a lot more money out of the tourism that is provided in such a pristine environment than wrecking it with a bunch of cattle going up there.
Can the federal government do more to establish industriesin the Indi electorate that would provide greater employment opportunities for locals?
A- There’s always more that we can do. I believe that, for example, in the farming side of things we should be exploring more markets. Not just with beef and cattle, but we’re close to some of the biggest markets in the world. China, for example, is increasingly growing its middle class, the middle class will be able to afford refrigeration, so it’s only a mater of time before we’ll be able to sell more and more of our beef and other products into China. It’s a mater of being prepared and looking for alternative markets, not just depending on say Indonesia or Britain like we used to do in the old days. We’ve got to be proactive and develop these broader markets. I suppose in terms of marketing the government could be doing a lot more. I also think in terms of technical support we could be doing a lot more and that’s where the national broadband infrastructure would come in. Also with technical support for example, the CSIRO have a real role to play and there’s lots of other areas where the commonwealth government could be used to support employment and growth in our area
Q- Where will you be directing your preferences and why?
A- We’re still talking about preferences at the moment. I think this is a very, very important and significant thing for the people of Indi. I believe the people of Indi have an obligation to think very, very carefully about who they vote for and they need to think very carefully about the allocation of their preferences. There’s such a plethora of parties out there, the voter is going to have to work very, very hard to sort out what their policies are and what they’re actually standing for. I think they have to sort out the racists and the fascists and any other “ists” that are out there, and make sure they select the people that can do the job for them. So whether it’s me or anybody else, the main thing is to turn this seat into a marginal seat so the people of Indi can no longer be taken for granted, as they’ve been taken for granted for the past twelve years or even longer, the past 50 years.
Q- Why should the people of Indi vote for you?
A- I belong to the Labor Party and I’m very very proud of what the Labor Party has achieved in the last five years. What they’ve achieved with such personal attacks on our prime minister, such attacks on the office of prime minister and such negativity. People in Australia are sick of all this negativity and we want a positive approach to government. I think that Kevin Rudd has cut through all the rubbish that’s been going on with this minority government, he’s finally making it possible for people to look at the policies. I believe the Labor Party has got some excellent policies. I think the Liberal Party are running scared because they’ve spent so much time being negative about the Labor Party they haven’t had any time to develop policies. Please, if you’re a voter, make sure you question in detail the policies of all the candidates. So if you don’t vote for me, please select candidates you feel assured will represent you properly.