WELL HELLO… HELLO Indi!
It’s literally incredible to be in the same tent as all of you. It is incredible to be here in Wodonga at this amazing Wodonga hub.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands across my large electorate of Indi—the lands of the Wavereoo, the Wiradjuri, the Dhudhuroa, the Bpangerang and the Taungurung people. I honour the resilience, wisdom, dignity, scientific knowledge, the stories and art of the world’s longest continuous culture.
I acknowledge Aunty Leanne who is here with us today and I acknowledge Aunty Valda and the Murray family who couldn’t be here, and I carry with me the message stick that the Murray family gave me in this town almost three years ago exactly, and I carry that message stick with me when I am in Canberra.
I am so grateful for the words from our previous member for Indi, Cathy McGowan AM, and it is a great honour to follow such a great woman.
I acknowledge every single person who made today possible. It takes many, many hands. The organising committee for this launch has done significant work in preparing everything you see here today. I acknowledge and thank Dale and Lisa for the generosity of this land, and the generosity of John Walker, our fantastic MC today.
To the Indi Makers, to the movers and shakers, to the man who literally put his body on the line and slept here last night, I say thank you.
And I also say thank you to our speakers and performers today; Judy Brewer, Elise Anderson, Dale Paddle and Sal Kimber, to hear your stories through word and song and I am so grateful for your generosity and support.
And of course, I’d like to acknowledge each and every one of you for your commitment, your countless hours of work to get us to this point, and for everything you are going to do to get us to the next point. To my incredible staff I thank you, you support me in everything I do and, as Cathy says, it takes a team.
Sometimes people mistakenly think being an ‘independent’ politician means being alone. But here in Indi we know it means the exact opposite. It means working together, listening, and using your voice – not to drown out the voices of others but to hear the voices of others and to find our common ground. When I stood to give my first speech, when I used my voice for the first time in the House of Representatives, you were there with me. I will never forget.
The story of Indi, our story is one where each and everyone of you is a central character and it is a story that right now, today all over Australia other people are trying to write for themselves too.
The story of me
As many of you know, my life began in a tiny place in South-West Victoria, in Eurack, with my parents Jack and Marion and my four brothers.
Growing up on a dairy farm, going to a small one-teacher school with about 12 students, I learnt early that if you wanted something done there was every chance you and your mates might need to do it yourselves. In our case one year, we wanted a running track to train for the school sports. Our teacher, confident in the ability of farm kids to operate dangerous machinery pointed us to the garden shed where we started up the Deutcher slasher and turned grass into lawn. We kept that track beautifully maintained for weeks leading into the Western Plains sports and we came home with a good haul of ribbons that year… and we came home with the pride that only a little guy knows when they overcome the odds. We won the overall trophy and thrashed the bigger school in the neighbouring town. I have never forgotten how good that felt.
I learnt early too that there was much satisfaction in the service of others. I grew up with a community that fought fires, helped with harvests, shearing, calving, baking and working bees. Consistent effort, little fanfare but the wonderful reward of doing things for a cause a little bigger than our self and doing it alongside other people.
I heard of service too, from neighbours who had been to war, who lived through a depression, from my great aunts who were nurses and the sacrifices they made. And as you know I decided to follow the instruction of those quite formidable women and become a nurse myself.
It was while I was nursing and studying midwifery in Melbourne that I met Phil Haines, who in 1986 pointed my life toward the North East of Victoria, to this the electorate of Indi. As I have often been heard to say I thought I would stay about two years. Three kids, a small farm and a series of events over the ensuing 36 years proved otherwise.
Indi has a way of reeling you in.
It’s here in Indi as a 26-year-old I had the opportunity to serve as Matron at the Chiltern Bush Nursing Hospital. I learnt so much.
It’s here in Indi that I had the opportunity to set up and serve as a foundation member in what is now the longest-running rural midwifery practice in Australia at Northeast Health in Wangaratta. I learnt so much.
It’s here in Indi that I saw the factors that contribute to our health and wellbeing are so much more than what’s inside our bodies – it’s our access to education, to a good job, a house to live in, to sport, to art, to healthy food, to feeling included whoever we are. To access to services and so much more that set us up not just to survive but to thrive.
It is here in Indi that I have seen, to use the great poet Les Murray’s words, ‘people die a country death’- they lived too far away from services.
It’s here in Indi that I continue to learn, that I could take my knowledge as a nurse and midwife and further my education, and put it towards rural health research in a bid to improve the way our health system responds to and prevents illness. I loved that work but I knew that much of what stood in the way of good health was bad policy.
I spent much of my life thinking I wasn’t political. Working, raising a family and all that entails. But in 2013, I realised, like many of us here today, that what I saw from our representation was not what I would or could accept any longer. I couldn’t stand by any longer and if I wanted something to improve, I had to be part of the change I wanted to see.
Fifty years after starting that mower I knew that if you wanted to win a race you need to mow your own grass. It was here in Indi for the very first time I got involved in my democracy and volunteered to support the election of Cathy McGowan. When we won Indi in 2013, like so many of you in this tent today I got hooked. Indi has a way of reeling you in.
And so, it followed here in Indi that in 2019 you invited me to be of service to others as an Independent Member of Parliament.
To keep Indi Orange.
To do what no other electorate in the history of our federation had ever done – back up an Independent with a new independent. And we did it! And we will never forget what that felt like.
As an MP in the 46th Parliament
It may surprise you to know that I am only the second nurse to be elected to the Federal Parliament, and the first midwife. Yet every day as the Member for Indi, I draw on the experiences and lessons I learned as I cared for others at their first breath and at their last. Little did I know that my many decades in healthcare was exactly the knowledge I would need as an MP in the 46th Parliament.
Before becoming the Member for Indi, I knew the job would involve standing up for the people of Indi. But no one could have predicted just what the last three years would throw at us.
I barely had my feet under the desk when our community experienced the worst bushfire season on record. The flames burnt through large swathes of land in the Upper Murray destroying homes, fencing, farms and livestock, leaving communities isolated without power for weeks. Tens of thousands of people left our tourist meccas in one weekend. Small hospitals were evacuated. Our major towns became refuge centres for weeks. The army came.
Smoke lingered menacingly over our magnificent grape crops. I committed to working with our bushfire affected communities to make sure the recovery was community led, was fair and effective. The people of Murrindindi shire who ten years earlier had suffered horrendous fires were generous in their recovery advice. They said, “Helen you will need to stick with it, it takes a long time.”
By working with our communities, with government ministers, with the Bushfire Recovery Agencies, with local government, with everyday people, we worked to make sure small businesses in Wangaratta, Mansfield and Indigo Shire were eligible for $10,000 business grants after these shires were initially left out by the government.
Being independent gave me the freedom to call out the gaps. Because of that, 1300 small businesses received the grants bringing in $1.3 million to our communities. Months later I walked into a shop in Beechworth and the owner gave me an incredible hug. She said that she had been ready to walk away from her beloved shop and that grant gave her the capacity to keep going. Primary producers in those additional shires were included and we succeeded in being funded for smoke taint research which will set us up for the inevitable fires to come.
In the days after the fires the Federal Government promised funding for mental health support in the Upper Murray. But months later the funding still hadn’t materialised. It took persistent meetings with the Health Minister, following up with his office, calls, text messages, to ensure that funding did actually arrive. And I then worked with him to get recurrent funding because mental health is a long, long journey, and short term drops of money do not solve the problem.
To date $120 million in bushfire recovery money has flowed to Indi.
Working with government irrespective of who is in the Lodge is key to good outcomes for Indi. Persistent effort. Repeated effort.
After the fires, just when we had a moment to catch our breath, the pandemic arrived in Australia and our lives changed in ways we could never have imagined.
It’s hard to imagine it even now. It feels like a bad hallucination. The border closed between Victoria and NSW. The single community here along the Murray chopped in two. Checkpoints along the streets of our towns, our loved ones, our work, on the other side.
Decisions were being made in Sydney and Melbourne with no sense of the reality of life in a regional border community where people lived in Yack and worked in Albury. Where a grandmother lived in Thurgoona and her grandchildren were in Wodonga. Where a farmer needing to feed stock on the other side of the river woke up to face a blocked bridge. Corowa families who worked or went to school in Rutherglen could not cross the bridge to Wahgunyah. Mt Beauty in the bubble, Tawonga out. Where newly settled refugees from war torn countries missed medical appointments because they could not face the army at the checkpoints.
My office was flooded with calls for help and my incredible staff steadfastly rose to meet the need. Countless applications for exemptions, letters, phone calls, advocacy.
We worked to allow 125 doctors and nurses to cross the border to work at Northeast Health Wangaratta. We fought to get midwives and maternal and child health nurses across the border to work in Aboriginal Health. As an independent MP, I could stand up to push governments on all sides, across States and the Federation, to come good for the people.
There were 87 meetings with the border commissioners to create the border bubble, for arrangements that accurately reflected how we live our lives and the lower risk we faced here in the community away from the bigger cities. At times, it felt like we would never get our residents stuck in other states back to their homes in Indi. But eventually we did.
Time and time again, being able to listen to what people were experiencing, to understand what they needed from me and to speak up and campaign for change.
But standing up for Indi isn’t just about being loud, it’s about listening, it’s about understanding – deep in my bones – what matters to our community and what we need.
Every time I rise in Parliament when the speaker says ‘the Member for Indi has the call’ I feel that responsibility tingle through my spine. Because of what those words mean, all the history that is held in the seat of Indi, and then to stand up for and with our community is an honour and a privilege. And I know I do not stand alone, that all of you are standing there with me and it is with our collective voice that I speak in that place for our community.
The story of us
It’s almost ten years now since we, the people of Indi, decided we didn’t want to be taken for granted anymore. We didn’t want to be talked over or spoken for, we wanted to be heard, to have a seat at the table. We realised Indi was our seat to give, it wasn’t for anyone to take.
We said we wanted a better standard of politics, with respect, integrity and trust. We said we wanted a federal integrity commission with teeth to hold politicians and government to account. We said we wanted action on climate change that would bring prosperity and opportunity to regional Australia.
We wanted a place where our young people could achieve their dreams. We wanted better and more reliable rail services; phone and internet coverage we could rely on and to be able to get the health and mental health care we need. Close to home.
We still want all of those things – but gee have we made progress! The most successful Victorian electorate in the mobile black spot program, a better train but more to do. When the ARTC come to Indi they know they will be held to account. We have come so far, made so much progress. And there is still more to do.
And what of Integrity in politics?
It’s what unites us all here today. When we the people of Indi barnstormed Canberra it was with the clear message that we wanted a better standard of politics. And when I arrived in Canberra, I came with that message ringing loudly in my ears: Helen, never let the government off the hook on their promise of a federal integrity commission!
Together we developed a set of principles, the Beechworth Principles, for a robust federal integrity commission. It is together that we delivered our petition to the parliament, together we pushed those principles into the national agenda, drafting a piece of legislation that reflects the deliberations and discussions we held here in Indi, combined with advice from the best legal minds in the country.
It is together that we kept the issue on the front pages of every major news outlet in the nation, for three years, pressuring the Government when they failed to deliver on their own election promise.
And it is together that we pushed the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill, the Indi Bill, further than any other proposal for an integrity body at a federal level. It is together that we won the vote on the floor that day in November and it was Indi that created the space for one brave government MP to cross the floor in the name of integrity.
And what of action on climate?
When I ran for Indi in 2019 some told me I would never be elected as an MP in regional Australia by talking about climate change. They were wrong. Some said that regional Australia will resist a transition to a low emissions economy. They are wrong.
Here in Indi, we can see the effects of climate change right before our eyes. The hotter summers, the drier winters and shorter autumns and springs. The bushfires, the wild weather. We know that so much of what we cherish, our rainfed agriculture, our magnificent Alpine areas, our biodiversity, the water that flows from our catchments into the Murray Darling system is in peril.
But we can also see potential and opportunity. Not just to take action to protect the planet, but to take action to bring our communities together, to take control over our energy origins, security and usage and to start new economies and new ways of doing things.
We can safely say Indi is the home of community renewable energy in Australia. When I came to parliament in 2019, there were 11 community energy groups in Indi. Now there are 17.
Powered on by all of you, by our communities who are taking control of their energy futures, I have championed community energy in parliament. We worked together, first developing the Local Power Plan, laying out how we could achieve communities powered by renewable energy, owned locally, keeping profits and opportunity in regional Australia.
Together with me, many of you were in parliament for the legislation, Indi legislation, that we introduced. So many of you participated in the enquiry into that legislation.
Together, we secured more than $7 million for local renewable energy projects and I am sure there is more to come.
Around all of Australia, people are looking to us in Indi to see the future for renewables in Australia. For action on climate change that isn’t about sacrifice and deprivation, but about opportunity and creating a better tomorrow for those who come after us. This is what we are about – positive solutions led by us, for us.
The story of now
In a few short days the Prime Minister will call the election. Our community and our nation must decide again what kind of future we want, and what kind of representation we deserve. And I believe the importance of having an Independent voice in Parliament has never been stronger. At a time of global uncertainty, we need sensible and calm voices of reason in the Parliament more than we ever have before.
Now is not the time for reckless politicisation of our national security. It has never been more important to speak the truth above party politics.
So much has happened in these past three years and many are weary. This election some people will turn their back and disengage, some will turn to minor parties, some will be led and frightened into believing the old way is the safe way. Some, because of us will be inspired for a better way.
Friends, I have never believed more strongly in the importance and power of our community thinking and speaking for ourselves, the importance, of an independent Indi.
And that’s why this year, we, the people of Indi, are being called to reaffirm that no party owns us, no party can speak for us. Because we will speak for ourselves.
In 2013, Indi took back our voice by electing Cathy McGowan. In 2016, we showed the nation that independents can deliver by re-electing Cathy for a second term. In 2019, this community made history when you put your trust in me, and we elected back-to-back independents for the first time in this country.
Around the nation so many now look to Indi as a lighthouse electorate showing a new way of doing politics. Strangers tell me that Indi gives them hope. Well we know that hope won’t win you an election but hard work will.
This year, we have a chance to show the nation again that our light shines bright, that we are prepared to keep doing the work. We keep showing up. That being independent, speaking for ourselves, is who we are here in the North East.
This year, our community has the chance to send a very, very comprehensive and clear message to Canberra.
We do not accept a broken promise on restoring integrity to our Federal Parliament. We do not accept the politicisation of climate action and the lost opportunity to be a world leader in renewables.
We do not accept using tax-payer dollars for party political gain ahead of community need. We do not accept cruel treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
We do not accept the politicisation of pandemics, of fires, of floods and global uncertainty. And we want to see our first nations people take their rightful place in our constitution.
A positive vision
Here in Indi we don’t vote against something or someone – we vote for something. We are excited by it.
This election yet again we demand better of our government. And here in Indi we know that by voting independent we can get a better Australia.
Because we know the potential of this region. Of our nation.
This is the most beautiful part of Australia, with incredible people, and a strong community. And we who live here, know what needs to be done to unlock our potential.
We know that with the right transformational investments, the challenges we face can be overcome, and the community can look forward to a future as a thriving regional community.
The type of community where you can catch the train to Melbourne to see family, or to the next town to go to work, or go to the doctor, and know that it will get you there on time.
We want a community where you can run a thriving business from home, or run a farm, because you’ve got decent internet.
A community where you can call your mum as you drive home from work, and the reception won’t cut out. Where you are not afraid of having no phone in a case of emergency.
A community where, when you get old, you know you can get care at home, and if you need it, you can find a place in residential aged care, close to home, and you know you’ll be cared for well there.
A community where we invest in education, local training and local manufacturing, so our kids can get the skills they need to find good jobs, close to home.
A community where people who have lived here all their lives, and people moving here for the first time, can afford to own a house.
A community where instead of sending millions of dollars to companies in the cities and companies overseas through our power bills and petrol bills, we instead generate our own low-cost, renewable electricity, that slashes our power bills, and keeps more of our money in our communities.
A community where you can find a GP or a psychologist when you need one, where our doctors and nurses have everything they need to care for us quickly and compassionately.
A community where, when we get hit by floods or fires or drought, the government actually steps up with us and the systems work.
And a thriving regional economy that builds on the best agriculture, the best forestry, the best local manufacturing, the most vibrant arts, and the best tourism industry that this nation has to offer.
This is the vision we have for our community. This is the vision I will fight for.
This is the moment to achieve the vision
And it is a vision that we will only achieve together.
We know that our nation is at a critical moment in its history.
The tumultuous events of the last few years have shown that there is a real opportunity for rural Australia to chart a new course.
If we don’t work for better NBN, after two years of home schooling and working from home, when will we?
If we don’t work for investment in our aged care system after the Royal Commission found widespread neglect of older people, and after the catastrophe of COVID in aged care, when will we?
If we don’t work for a new hospital for Albury-Wodonga after the pandemic has pushed it into a permanent state of crisis, when will we?
If we don’t work for better mental health support, especially for our young people, after the traumas of the last two years, when will we?
This is the moment to say to the nation that we have a vision for our communities, we have solutions and opportunities, and we need fair, equitable and transformational investment free from partisan politics and we will vote for representation from one of us, with us, for us.
We in Indi know that everything we have built in our communities, we have worked hard for.
We know that we have shaped our own local political reality. Cathy McGowan did not win in 2013 or 2016 by luck. I was not elected in 2019 by luck.
We achieved these things together, through hard, hard work, through courageous conversations, through being brave enough to ask people to chip in and to ask for a vote. Through encouraging each other and including new people growing our teams, by combining our efforts, through our talents, our insights, our enthusiasm and our inspiration to work together and win.
This is one of the most marginal seats in the country
And if we want to keep Indi Independent, then over the next six weeks, we know we have to continue to work really hard. We need to crank up the Deutscher and mow our own running track.
We need to be polite, professional and positive. To be our best selves. We need to keep showing up. Six weeks to go!
Every week from now until election day we will see attack ads designed to frighten rather than inspire. To mislead rather than to lead. But we will never campaign in the negative. Our story is our truth.
I know that every one of us here today wants to be decked out in orange on election night and cheer as our results are phoned in from our scrutineers at polling booths, big, small and tiny across the 29,000 square kilometres that is Indi. We want to be in the room to hear Antony Green say those magic words – Indi holds independent!
That is why what we have to do over the next six weeks matters so much, because it feels so good to get it right. Its why I know we will find the energy deep within us to get out there and keep at it.
That is why, for the sake of an independent Indi, for the sake of our community, for the sake of a better politics in this country, what every one of us does from now until election day really, really matters.
That is why, over the next six weeks, we need to knock on every door, ring on every bell and maybe tap on the window too. We need to call every phone. We need to raise those funds. We need to be at every community market and out the front of every supermarket. We need volunteers at every pre-poll.
Because every vote will count.
There have been quite a few times in the past three years that I have felt real fear, where I have had to call on all my resources, to find the place, to find that place where only fear can take you where you store your deepest courage, because I know what you expect of me and I want to be the representative you ask me to be. And I am ready to do it again and I know you are too. Because we are courageous people who write our own story.
This election I am asking the people of Indi to vote for integrity over scandal, to vote for climate action over climate denial, to vote for fixing our broken healthcare, over yet more neglect, to vote for our daughters and sons, grandchildren, grandparents, our neighbours, for our first nations Australians, for those that seek refuge on our shores, for our precious wildlife and our beautiful natural resources.
We have to vote for opportunity, for justice, for grace and for what is good and what is right. To vote for a kind of politics that shows the best of who we are.
I put myself forward to you to serve again as your representative and I am asking you respectfully to give me your vote, to be your Independent Member for Indi yet again, and together we will speak up for what matters.
We will fight for a better deal for our region and our nation.
And together we will show that there is nothing more powerful, nor more truly wonderful, than a community that has found its voice.