Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (19:04): This is my first opportunity in parliament to thank the people of Whitlam, who have generously returned me to this parliament for a fourth term. It's a great honour. It's a tradition in the speech in reply to the Governor-General's address to say a few things about the campaign that was, to reflect upon the people who made a great contribution throughout the campaign, and to make some observations about the things that you'd like to do over the course of the next three years. I intend to follow that tradition.
I'd like to think the reason the great people of Whitlam have returned me to this place once again is that I stand up for the issues which are of concern to them. First and foremost are the day-to-day issues which affect the family home, their personal economy and their health and wellbeing. I know that people in my electorate are desperately concerned about the future of their children—their school education, their university education, the future of vocational education through technical and further education—and I want to assure them that I'll be fighting on these issues, that I'll be fighting for a quality education at every level. Whether it's early childhood or primary or secondary education and whether they decide to go to university, TAFE or neither, I'll fight for them to have access to a system of great lifelong learning, because we know that's going to be the thing that makes the difference between opportunity and lack of opportunity for people in my electorate and elsewhere.
I know the people in my electorate are desperately concerned about the future of health care. I was very happy through the course of the election to secure a commitment of $130 million for the redevelopment of a hospital in Shellharbour in my electorate. I was very pleased that Labor promised it and that the government matched that promise. I'd like to see that we ensure that that money is well invested. The existing hospital grounds and the existing hospital are not fit for purpose to meet the growing needs of one of the fastest-growing communities in New South Wales outside of the Sydney CBD. I argue that the money available from the Commonwealth put together with the money available and already committed from the state, together with monies that may be available from the sale of lands and existing assets, should be pooled together and used to build a purpose-built site that can grow and meet the needs of a growing community. I'll be urging the health minister to work with his state counterpart to do exactly that.
I know that the people of the Illawarra and Southern Highlands are desperately concerned about the region's infrastructure. The region's population is outpacing the infrastructure developing within the region, whether it's community infrastructure such as access to sporting grounds and bike paths, access to schools and education facilities or the stuff we normally think of, such as roads like the Princes Highway. The Princes Highway is the great lifeline that joins Sydney through the Illawarra and the South Coast to the Victorian border and on, and it is desperately in need of an upgrade south of the Illawarra. Money has been committed from both Labor, throughout the campaign, and the government. We call on the government to bring forward that investment to create the jobs and opportunities that are needed now, not, as the government plans to do, after the next election. Further north, road infrastructure such as the Picton Road and Appin Road is desperately in need of upgrading. Picton Road in particular is not in my electorate, but many people from my electorate travel the route on a daily basis going to and from work. It's a dangerous road, one of the more dangerous roads in New South Wales. It is in desperate need of upgrades such as dividing barriers between the eastbound and westbound flows of traffic, and there are a number of black-spot areas which are in need of upgrade. Appin Road is a critical piece of road infrastructure. It is the artery which joins the Illawarra to the growing western suburbs of Sydney and is in need of an upgrade. I'll be campaigning for that.
Rail is critically important in a regional centre, for both freight and passenger movement. We need to see more money invested in the passenger link between Sydney and the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands, and we need to see investment in the long promised but not yet delivered Maldon-Dombarton rail link. I wish that the government had matched Labor's commitment to invest in the Maldon-Dombarton rail link to get that project moving.
We're also deeply concerned throughout my electorate about cost-of-living issues, with pressures on family budgets, particularly through those lumpy expenses such as power bills—electricity and gas—and fuel bills, and, increasingly, insurance bills and school education expenses. We want to see measures in place which will put downward pressure on these bills. We had some propositions around health insurance. We think more can be done from a governmental level. The government obviously has some big levers to pull. They must sign off on every increase in private health insurance. They're subsidising about one-third of the cost of private health insurance. It's a big expense, galloping well ahead of inflation and certainly well ahead of wages. We're calling on the government to do more to address health inflation and, particularly, private health insurance increases.
We're concerned about the environment. Yes, it's true that I come from a coalmining district, but the people who work in the mines, who live on the verges of the mines and who live down on the coast and up in the highlands care about our environment. We want to see more done to protect our beautiful coastal regions, as well as the hinterland and the Southern Highlands—some of the best farming land in southern New South Wales. We want to see more done to protect the local environment but more action on climate change to ensure that future generations can enjoy the kind of climate and environment that I grew up in throughout the Illawarra.
Twenty-seven new members have been elected to this place. I want to congratulate each and every one of them—and I see Josh Burns here—for winning the faith of their electorate and having the great honour to represent their electorate in this place. When I was elected, I was given a number; it's No. 1,036. It's not as honourable as winning a place in the Australian cricket team where you get a number on your cap, but I hold that number dearly. It's a reminder to me of the great responsibility I have in this place. Only 1,036 people before me have held office as a member of parliament. It's a reminder each and every day of the deep responsibility I have to ensure we do not waste a day in delivering a service to our community and to our nation. I'll endeavour to use every day of my time here in this parliament to hold faith to that commitment.
It's a great honour to represent my fantastic region, and we talk about the region more broadly—Wollongong, the Illawarra, the South Coast and the Southern Highlands. I'm delighted that I and Sharon Bird, the member for Cunningham, have been joined by Fiona Phillips, the member for Gilmore, who is one of those 27 new members who have joined the parliament as representatives of the Australian Labor Party. We ran a fantastic campaign. We worked closely together as a team to ensure that, wherever the boundaries may exist on the map, they don't exist when it comes to providing a unified voice on what is needed throughout the region for the good of the economy, the environment and the people that we represent. That's why in the election campaign we did something very, very different—something we hadn't done before. We put together a plan for the entire region, with $1.2 billion worth of new investments in health, education, infrastructure and services, which would have made a material difference to the people we represent. It is true that, when you don't occupy the treasury bench, you don't have direct access to the Treasury and, therefore, putting in place those commitments is very, very difficult indeed, but it's not impossible. And we commit to our electorates that we will, to the greatest extent possible, deliver on those commitments where we can. And if we can't, there's another election to fight in 2022, and I'll have more to say about that in a moment.
I'd also like to acknowledge the great support that I have had from my volunteer army throughout the course of the campaign. In excess of 240 volunteers gave up their time to assist during the course of the campaign. Your electorate's a bit further north than mine is, Mr Deputy Speaker Hogan, so it wasn't quite a winter election for you, but I can tell you that on some of those cold mornings throughout the Southern Highlands of New South Wales it was a bit brisk and it did test the mettle of our volunteers. But 240 of them turned out to support the cause and to support me, and I am deeply honoured, touched and moved by their contribution to my campaign and to our campaign as Labor representatives.
I'd like to thank my staff. Some of them moved on after the election but they warrant a mention. Jane Mulligan has worked with me for many, many years, since I entered this place in 2010. Here's a shout-out to you, Jane. Thanks for all the work you did. Allyson Dutton, my office manager, has made a fantastic contribution to my office over many, many years—thank you! To Ben Mofardin, who does a fantastic job on a daily basis answering the constituent issues, the bread-and-butter work of an electorate office: thank you, Ben. Jarrod Dellapina joined my staff during the campaign and has now well and truly got his feet under the desk, but he has been a long-term volunteer while working as a long-term casual for Coles. It's great to have Jarrod on board. Simon Anderson, who was working as my media adviser for a number of months and throughout the campaign and has now gone off to work for government, was very loyal and did a fantastic job. Charlie Gonzalez, Linda Campbell, Maree Edwards and our volunteer corps: thank you so much for all the effort you put in throughout the campaign.
With lots of volunteers it's always dangerous when you select a few, but I think some went above and beyond the call of duty and loyalty. I'd like to give a shout-out to Warren Glase, Graham McLaughlin and his wife Linda, Phil Yeo and Mike Bowern from the Southern Highlands team for their efforts during the course of the campaign. They did an absolutely outstanding job, and not just for my campaign. We had about two weeks off, I think, between the New South Wales election campaign and the federal campaign, when you look at the prepoll—something I'll say more about in a moment.
Down in the Illawarra we had a great team. A big shout-out to Les Dawes, Robin Harvey, John Williamson, Tom Ward, Charlie Gibbs and Bob Turner for all of their efforts. They did a great job.
I'd like to thank my state colleagues Anna Watson and Paul Scully for their support throughout the campaign. A special thanks to our councillors. I've already mentioned Graham McLaughlin up in the Southern Highlands, but Ann Martin, Vicky King, Rob Petreski, Mayor Marianne Saliba, Moira Hamilton and John Murray provided a lot of support. They're great people to go and consult with when you're thinking about investing in community and local projects. Thank you for your ongoing support and during the campaign.
I want to give a shout-out to a very special bloke and a very special woman, Eli and Annie Harris. Eli turned 79 years of age during the campaign. A heart condition and several health challenges did not stop him from turning up—rain, hail or shine, day in, day out—every single day during prepolling on the Warilla prepoll booths. You're a very special man, Eli, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Annie, I don't know how you put up with the bugger, but God bless you, Annie. You're both champions in my eyes. Thank you so much for the loyalty and support that you gave me and all your hard work.
I mentioned prepolling and I want to say something more about it. Voting is one of the most important responsibilities of an Australian citizen and shouldn't be seen as something which is an inconvenience, a pain in the neck or something we just tick off and move on from, because democracy dies a little if that's our attitude to it. Voting is both a democratic right and a democratic responsibility. Throughout the campaign I would often pick up a paper and see countries across the globe—from Russia to Saudi Arabia and many other countries—where people are actually protesting and fighting for the right to vote or their democratic rights or the right to speak freely. It is a salient reminder for all of us who are involved in the democratic process that this is not something we should take lightly.
Prepoll voting has existed in Australian federal elections for as long as voting has been compulsory. Permitting early voting was an important trade-off for the introduction of compulsory voting to ensure that shift workers, particularly, or people who work on a weekend—those people who were unable to attend on a polling day—could cast a vote and ensure that they were enfranchised. Data from the Australian Electoral Commission shows that prepoll voting as a percentage of the total vote has quadrupled, from 8.22 per cent in 2007 to a staggering 32.41 per cent at this election.
While early voting has traditionally been associated with casting a postal ballot, these now account for only a small minority of the total early votes. The problem that I see with prepolling—and I think it's important—is that it's not in the idea, it's in the execution. I'd have to ask the question: when did we have a national debate in this country where we said, 'Instead of having one polling day, we are effectively going to have 15 polling days'? That is what has turned out to happen; effectively, we're having 15 polling days in this country. Close to a third of the population is voting on a day other than the designated polling day. I want us to think about that for a moment; it completely changes the way democracy occurs in this country.
Whether it's the way that people participate on polling day and around polling booths and the turnout for the community events—whether those are the school cake stall or the Lions Club sausage sizzle—I strongly believe that there are not many things which you have to do as a collective or a community these days. We don't have to come together to watch a movie and we don't have to come together to go shopping; there are so many things that can be done from your lounge room. In a participatory democracy, coming together as a community on polling day should matter. It should not be seen as an inconvenience, it should be seen as an expression of our citizenship.
So I think we need to have a debate on the incidence of prepoll. If one-third of the population is polling on a day other than the official polling day then we have completely reshaped the way election campaigns are conducted and completely reshaped the way that the election conversation occurs. And, if we're going to do that, it should be done through a public debate and discussion. It should not just happen by an administrative action or by accident.
I know that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is inquiring into the conduct of this election. I implore them to look at this issue. This should not just be confined to a debate within a committee. It's an issue that should be debated on the floor of the House. We have not had a national discussion about having 15 polling days, and we should. And if that's where we land, then that will be a decision of the Australian parliament and hopefully a reflection of the will of the Australian people. I, for one, don't agree with it. But if I'm wrong, it should be as the result of a proper parliamentary debate and not a slow slide into a transition of our polling practices.
There are so many other things that I have ambition to deal with. I've talked about some things that some people may say are less important, whether it's the administration of our voting or thanking our volunteers. I actually think those are fundamental. Over the course of the next three years I'll be committing to injecting myself into the critical economic debates which are at the core of everything that we need to do. They are the enablers of households and the enablers of communities, but they're also the enablers of what we aspire to do for this nation. I don't think we're on the right track, but these are debates for another day.