Water Accountability Bill Passes NSW Lower House

Steph Cooke MP Member for Cootamundra smiles wearing a lemon yellow dress (headshot)
Steph Cooke MP Member for Cootamundra

The Member for Cootamundra has thrown her support behind a Bill to make water asset ownership more transparent.

The NSW Government’s Water Accountability and Transparency Bill has passed in the Legislative Assembly to allow public oversight of all declarations of water ownership in the NSW Parliament.

Steph Cooke MP said it was vital this important information be made public.

“Water is one of our most basic human needs, and the NSW Government has invested billions into improving water security and quality in our regions,” Ms Cooke said.

“But it is also vital we improve transparency in who owns water, particularly amongst our representatives, and we need to rebuild community confidence in water management.”

The Member for Cootamundra gave a speech supporting this Bill in Parliament last night which can be found here.

The Constitution Amendment (Water Accountability and Transparency) Bill 2020 will amend the Constitution (Disclosures by Members)Regulation 1983 to make it clear that Members of Parliament must disclose interests in water assets as a pecuniary interest. It will also begin the process of reforming the public register, whilst protecting the privacy of farmers.   

Condolence Motion – NSW Bushfires

Steph Cooke unloads gear from a NSW RFS Fire Truck.
Steph Cooke on an RFS truck in Tumut.

Mr Speaker,

I’d like to join my colleagues from both sides of the house in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the 25 victims of the bushfires which continue to burn around the State, and thank the Premier for moving this Condolence Motion.

It is entirely appropriate that we mark these tragic bushfires with condolences; in homes in Australia and overseas, families and friends mourn the loss of loved ones who gave everything defending our communities.

We have lost also homes, properties, livestock, fruit trees, beloved horses, pets, and gardens.

To everyone who has experienced loss from these fires my deepest sympathies go out to you all.

As the Member for Cootamundra I speak in support of all who served and volunteered in the Dunns Road Fire which started by lightning strike on the 28th of December 2019, just to the south of Gundagai in my electorate.

This blaze impacted some of our most famous alpine towns and mountain villages, destroying homes, pasture, assets and wilderness areas in Talbingo, Tumbarumba, Green Hills, Wondalga, Willigobung, Courabyra, Tumut, Gilmore Valley, Yarrangobilly, Laurel Hill, Yaven Creek, Batlow, Oberne Creek, Tumblong, Mount Adrah, Taradale, Mannus, Tooma and many others.

These communities have all been deeply impacted.

The fire ripped through 113,000 hectares of private land, 125,000 hectares of national park, and around 92,000 hectares of State forest.

Fire crews are still on site as they mop up the remnants of the massive combined fire front.

Regional New South Wales is more connected than we sometimes appreciate.

The rapid spread of news on the old Bush Telegraph, social media, or the close ties on a family tree keeps us in touch with others.

Tragedy in one part of the State is felt by loved ones all over.

Whilst hundreds of volunteers and supporters were working on the Dunns Road Fire on New Years Eve, another fire near Wandella took the lives of two incredible and much loved family men.

I want to acknowledge Renee Salway.

A creative soul, Renee worked for me in another life when we were both florists in my business Native Botanical.

Renee loved flowers, but she loved Patrick, horses and farm life more.

This beautiful woman left her job with me in Young to marry Patrick Salway and create a wonderful life and family of their own.

Patrick and his father Robert were killed on the family farm near Wandella.

Patrick was just 29 and Renee is pregnant with their second child. 

I want to express my deepest sympathies to her, and all of Robert and Patrick’s loved ones. 

I also pay tribute to David Harrison of Goulburn, who aged just 47, lost his life defending the property of a friend in Batlow.

His tragic loss during one of the terrifying nights of the Dunns Road Fire is a testament to his character, and I offer his loved ones, family and friends my deepest condolences.

There were many others who risked everything to defend properties and the livelihoods.

The people of Batlow were told their town was ‘undefendable’ and to expect the worst.

I was at several community meetings, including when this news was delivered.

Even with this information brave locals and Rural Fire Service volunteers, many from my electorate, stayed on to fight the terrifying blaze that tore through the pine plantations and apple orchards that are the livelihood of so many in the region.

In the town of Batlow itself tens of properties were destroyed. It is testament to the incredible work of the RFS and emergency services that the losses were not greater.

I commend Captain Daryl Watkins of Batlow and everyone who defended the town for their remarkable efforts.

The Dunns Road Fire continues to burn on the southern edge of my electorate and was only officially contained on Sunday afternoon.

It has turned some of our pristine wilderness in to funeral pyres of our unique flora and fauna.

It has taken an enormous effort to contain this beast.

The leadership of RFS Superintendent Roger Orr from Narrandera in the west of my electorate, in the face of this unprecedented challenge was nothing short of extraordinary.

I feel privileged to have met so many volunteers and emergency service workers who showed incredible courage in the face of unprecedented fire conditions. They were joined by colleagues in other organisations including Fire and Rescue NSW, the Forestry Corporation, National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Emergency and Fire Services of the ACT, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, the United States and Canada.

I thank you for supporting our local RFS brigades and others from across NSW, many of whom I will mention shortly.

I got to see firsthand the amazing response of those on the front line of firefighting and in supporting roles.

We owe these volunteers and staff an enormous debt of gratitude.

I still marvel at the number of farmers and property owners who left their own homes undefended on severe and catastrophic fire condition days and came together to defend many properties and communities such as Tumblong at the tip of the Cootamundra Electorate.

These crews included brigades from:

  • Tumblong
  • Mundarlo
  • Boorowa
  • Gundagai
  • Berremangra
  • Maimuru
  • Wombat
  • Murringo
  • Thuddungra
  • Rugby
  • Boorowa North
  • Boara
  • McMahons
  • Kingsvale
  • Adjungbilly
  • Began Began
  • Stockinbingal
  • Cootamundra
  • Wallendbeen
  • Frampton
  • Cooneys Creek
  • Brawlin
  • Mt Horeb
  • Coolac
  • Wambanumba
  • Boothenba
  • Rye Park
  • Quambone

And let’s not forget the ‘Mosquito squad’ – scores of farmers and their ‘slip ons’ across the fire ground who worked alongside the RFS and played such a vital part in saving properties.

Apologies if I have missed any of you.

It was a privilege to catch up with so many of you, to make you snack packs, to chat about your brigades and to see you in action.

At its core the RFS is a ‘for the community, by the community’ organisation, and it must always remain so.

It brings together people from all walks of life, and it’s not uncommon to see several generations of the same family on the one tanker.

Fathers, daughters, sons, cousins, siblings, even grandparents and grandchildren.

I witnessed many of these relationships in the crews fighting the Dunns Road Fire, and worked alongside people like Di Lippaitt in the Tumut Fire Control Centre who not only silently carried the worries of the ever changing fire front, but how it would affect her husband and daughter out on tanker crews on the Tarcutta end of the fire, mostly in the Ellerslie Range and Westbrook Road.

Her daughter Courtney also spent time in Fire Comms in Tumut.

Also in Fire Comms were Wilma Cunningham from Griffith and Di Droscher from Batlow, who worked the day we thought Batlow would be lost, and then couldn’t return home for several days after.

The fire comms team worked around the clock relaying messages between the Fire Control Centre and brigades on the fire ground, relaying critical information on what the fires were doing, the areas under threat and most importantly where all the firefighting personnel were on the ground.

The welfare checks were a highlight of our work during this uncertain time.

I want to thank them for helping me learn new skills like scribing, and logistics officers Geoff Frowd and Michael Borg for allowing me to be an active part of their team.

These are just some of the people who rarely make the news, but who are an integral part of the firefighting effort.

Seeing the incredible work of this close-knit organisation first hand was a privilege, RFS Superintendent Roger Orr, Inspector Jon Gregory and the teams under their command dealt with difficult terrain, in many places only accessible on foot or by aircraft, conditions permitting, fighting a bushfire that joined with the East Ournie Creek and Green Valley fires to become one of the largest on record.

The success of the RFS fire crews and those that joined them would not have been possible without the help of the Forestry Corporation and the team headed up by regional manager for the Snowy Mountains Dean Anderson.

The Corporation’s employees joined firefighting crews, created fire breaks and helped save more than 120,000 hectares of pine trees which are so crucial to the region’s economy and the state’s timber industry.

The Forestry Corporation, Hume Forests, Hyne Timber, AKD, Visy and others are working together more closely than ever, to process the more than 50,000 hectares of burnt pine trees from the immediate supply area.

I want to note the efforts of the VRA and Search and Rescue in Batlow, Tumut and surrounding regions.

The members of these teams worked tirelessly to help others, and I know at least one member lost his own home while he was saving others.

My thoughts are with you and your family Mick.

To the volunteers of the SES, particularly those from Grenfell, my home town of Temora and my own unit at Junee, I thank you for your supporting efforts.

I want to particularly mention RFS volunteers Donna Martin and her husband Graham, who is the Tumut Group Captain.

They not only worked around the clock like so many others, they found room in their home to put me and my dear friend school teacher Nicole Sanderson, up for day, after day after day.

I will never forget your kindness and hospitality.

Our firefighters, Fire Control Centre and Emergency Operations Centres were fed by an army of volunteers.

Just down the road, the town famous for its dog and tuckerbox saw thousands of volunteers, led by Sue Houstein, making countless meals and snacks for more than a fortnight, feeding firefighters in places like Tumblong and Adelong, and making care packs for those who had lost everything.  

This energy was seen everywhere. In Tumut a team of volunteers responded to a call out for help to make meals at 9pm.

Within a few hours we had made 500 sandwiches.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Robert Donges and Wendy Silk of Donges IGA in Young.

Like so many businesses and individuals, they went above and beyond to do their bit, holding a Bushfire Appeal.

Donges IGA appealed for donations of non-perishable food, water, toiletries, baby needs, pet supplies and money for the communities of the South Coast and Snowy Valleys.

To date Donges IGA has distributed $5,000 to the Snowy Valleys recovery centre, $12,000 to the South Coast, $1,700 to Cobargo $4,000 to Eden and $2,000 to Tumblong in IGA gift cards.

They have also donated much needed water, food and toiletries valued at $20,000 to Tumut and Cobargo.

I was there to meet and unpack the trucks, what an incredible effort.

The town of Young is a small community, and this is not its only fundraising effort.

The Temora Rotary Club also gathered donations from Temora and surrounds.  

They managed to collect more than four trailer loads of donations which they took to the Tumut Boys Club.

That was a particularly special day because two of the cars were driven by my parents, Marie and Stephen.

In Junee Tearnna Mitchell, Madison Quinn and Jodie Coote, with the assistance of the Locomotive Hotel, organised a fantastic family day and fundraising event.

In Cootamundra, Justyn Smith put out a call for donations of non-perishable food and supplies to take to the evacuation centre at Bermagui.

When they ran out of bags to pack donations in and asked for more, around 2,000 were delivered by the community.

When they realised they didn’t have enough bottles to go with baby formula, another 200 were donated.

Less than 7,000 people call Cootamundra home.

Further down the road in Wagga, people came from far and wide to drop off goods, sort donations and help displaced people find a change of clothes, and food for their families.

The volunteers ranged from locals lending a hand, to Yazidi refugees who know first-hand what it is like to have to flee their homes.  

The people coming in to these centres were understandably shocked and shaken, but I was told a great story about one who hadn’t lost his sense of humour.

After being overcome with emotion at the amount of donations on offer, a man who had evacuated from Batlow stopped crying, smiled and said ‘imagine, all this help for us hillbillies’.

We have heard about the mental and emotional toll these fires have caused.

And we must ensure we have adequate mental health support moving forward.

People who would have normally had time to relax and recharge over January have instead given up their holidays to do what they could to help.

There are thousands, including in this chamber, who have come back to work after spending their summer dealing with this crisis.

I want to commend the EOC, FCC and Snowy Valleys Council who kept the residents of towns like Batlow, Tumbarumba and Tumut informed before, during and after the fires came through, and continue to deal with challenges of boil water notices, fallen and dangerous trees and helping property owners keen to get back on site.

Mayor James Hayes, Deputy Mayor John Larter, who is a paramedic himself, and General Manager Matthew Hyde are still working hard for their shire and have an enormous recovery ahead of them.

I also want to note the efforts of the Cootamundra-Gundagai Council, for their work in refilling water bombers, helping to create fire breaks and supporting their colleagues in the Snowy Valleys Council.

My commendations go to Superintendent Bob Noble, Inspectors Steve Radford (who very nearly lost his own home), Peter McClay, Adrian Telfer, John Achinger, Maggie Deal and others for their leadership in the EOC, evacuation centres and all the police who calmly did their jobs in and around fire grounds including Police Officers Mick Jones from Tumbarumba, Amy Zwickl from Batlow and Aaron Kilmurray, also from Batlow, who lost everything in the fire and still caught a looter who had stolen a car.

Their professionalism and courage is something we can all admire.

The efforts of the Murrumbidgee Local Health District are also noteworthy, the MLDH successfully relocated patients and residents of the Batlow Hospital and Aged Care facility to safety in Junee, and the residents from Tumbarumba MPS to facilities in West Wyalong, Temora and Narrandera, all wonderful health facilities in the Cootamundra Electorate.

The staff at these centres rose to the challenge of additional patients and went above and beyond to care for them.

The MLHD successfully returned all these evacuated patients home again.

That mammoth task was done with precision and care, and all staff should be praised for their skill in alleviating what must have been a distressing experience for those frail and vulnerable people.

Now we must head fearlessly in to the recovery phase.

Our National Parks rangers have worked as hard as many of the emergency services, with people like Matt White and Jake Shoard playing a huge role in the Tumut Fire Control Centre.

The task ahead of National Parks to help restore and rejuvenate our wilderness areas is enormous.

I acknowledge all of their efforts so far.

The outstanding work of BlazeAid is now well and truly underway, putting back thousands of kilometres of fencing and helping farmers get back to being the world-beating primary producers they are.

It would be impossible to name every person and every organisation that has gone above and beyond during this crisis.

The long efforts of recovery won’t always be front page news.

But those efforts will dictate the future of many communities.

We often say ‘regional communities are resilient’.

In the case of these fires, the term fits neatly.

These communities are already looking to the future.

Batlow is determined to hold CiderFest in 2020, thanks to community leader Ray Billings, despite extensive damage to the region’s orchards and apple production.

Cider makers like Ralph Wilson want people to remember the best of the region, not the worst.

I hope many of you join me for this fantastic event and in sampling the region’s delicious craft cider.  

There are months of hard work ahead, I urge you to help in any way you can.

Buy a ticket to Tumbafest, make sure your apples are from Batlow, and stop in at Gundagai on your way there! 

There are already people like James Zimmerman leading the Regrow Batlow movement working hard to get their towns back on their feet, and sharing stories about recovery.

Finally I want to thank the Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro, I can think of no better person to coordinate the state’s recovery and rebuilding.

I also want to thank the Minister for Emergency Services David Elliot, and the entire Cabinet for their strength in leadership.

Your leadership has helped us all serve our communities better.

I want to acknowledge the work of the Member for Bega Andrew Constance, the Member for South Coast Shelly Hancock, the Member for Wagga Wagga Dr Joe McGirr, MLC Bronnie Taylor, who has been personally touched by this disaster with her property at Yaven Creek being one of the first burnt, and all members who have been so deeply and personally impacted.

I want to thank the Premier for announcing an Inquiry in to these fires, and look forward to us all working together to adopt its recommendations.

We must do everything in our power to protect the lives of our people, our communities and our unique flora and fauna from these sorts of disasters.

This summer was frightening, the fact so many of us are sharing our condolences is a tiny glimpse of the impact on our state and the nation.

May we do everything to ensure it does not happen again.

Small Business

Ms STEPH COOKE ( Cootamundra ) ( 14:38 ): My question is addressed to the Deputy Premier. What is the New South Wales Government doing to promote economic growth and business confidence in communities across the State?

The SPEAKER: Order! Members will come to order. The level of noise in the Chamber is atrocious. I call the Deputy Premier.

Mr JOHN BARILARO ( Monaro—Deputy Premier, Minister for Regional New South Wales, Minister for Skills, and Minister for Small Business) (14:39): I thank the member for Cootamundra for her fantastic question. It is a question that comes directly from someone who has lived in regional New South Wales, created jobs in regional New South Wales and of course has run a small business in regional New South Wales. The member for Cootamundra brings that life experience to this House as a member of the Government. As the Minister for Small Business, I can say it is a fantastic day to have a member of the Government who has walked in my shoes and who supports the Government’s promotion of small businesses. Anyone who wants to read one of the best inaugural speeches should go to the inaugural speech that Steph Cooke made yesterday. It was a fantastic speech that referred to how important regional areas are to the State and, more importantly, how important small businesses are to the State’s economy as well as to local economies in creating jobs and prosperity in regional centres. I reiterate my thanks to her for her fantastic question.

Why would people not start a business or a small business in New South Wales? It is clear from recent data that New South Wales continues to be the number one State when it comes to business confidence and the place in which to start a business. We are seeing a plethora of new businesses and existing businesses absolutely thrive. It is fantastic to note that, on the back of the Government’s investment not just in infrastructure but also in placing small business front and centre in this year’s budget, the NSW Business Chamber’s chief executive officer, Stephen Cartwright, has been prompted to say that businesses “know there’s no better place in Australia to run or establish a business.” According to the latest Sensis Business Index, small and medium-sized businesses in New South Wales are more confident about the growing State economy now than at any point in the past four years. That confidence has been indicated by some of the strongest business growth in the past 10 years, with more than 20,000 businesses commenced last year alone in New South Wales.

The statistics clearly reflect that New South Wales has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, at 4.6 per cent. As members have heard me say repeatedly, the Government does not create jobs. The Government creates an environment conducive to successful investment by small and medium enterprises—the mums and dads and individuals who show courage by investing in their business and risk their home by taking out a business loan to be part of the small business community. Only Government members who either have run small businesses or accept how important small businesses are to our economy understand how important it is for a government to create an environment that is conducive to business success. This Government creates such an environment through the provision of a number of resources and programs across the State. When it comes to start-up companies, the Government’s Boost program is the result of this Government partnering with the university sector and TAFE NSW and providing $18 million in additional program funding to build a network of accelerators and incubators for small businesses. Small businesses will benefit from the university sector, which is great for research and data. The Government’s initiative is bringing small business and the university sector together to make sure that we build the small businesses of the future.

An example of one such business is SmartShepherd from Armidale, which uses the latest technology to improve livestock breeding, efficiency and welfare. Chief executive officer Dave Rubie said, “We’re very grateful for the UNE SMART Region Incubator and the support from the State Government to get our business off the ground. Using the incubator space means that our business is now within an hour’s drive of our market, which is invaluable for getting feedback and conducting trials.” Through the Government’s Boost program, which is worth $18 million, the Government is ensuring that we have the small businesses and other businesses of the future in this State. But of course one issue that is always raised with the Government is cutting red tape. The Government has addressed this by implementing the Small Business Friendly Council program and the Easy to do Business program and by providing $15 million to cut through red tape, especially for small bars, cafes and restaurants. They will no longer have to deal with 13 agencies, 75 regulations and 48 forms to start a business.

This Government has provided one online site at which to enter the data once. By doing so, the Government has been able to reduce business commencement approval time from almost 18 months to 90 days. I cite as a fantastic example of that the great Grounded Space cafe at Parramatta, where I had the opportunity to meet Peter, who said, “The Easy to do Business program was very helpful and they made all the steps very simple to do online. When you are trying to juggle a million things it makes it so much easier when you have a guided process—and it can all be done online.” The Government knows how time poor owners are when they are running their businesses. This Government wants to get on with creating jobs and investing in businesses. This Government wants to be part of the great small business economy and wants to make it simple to do business in this State. [Extension of time]

Similar examples of the Government’s streamlined business start-ups exist in regional areas of New South Wales. Recently I was in Dubbo announcing the Easy to do Business program and it was great to see small bars, cafes and restaurants coming through the system. The best thing this Government can do is ensure that small business owners have the resources and support they need to traverse the very complex small business sector. The Government recognises that in today’s world we no longer have a domestic business market but a global market. The Government wants to make sure that small business owners have the resources to develop their businesses and become successful. To assist them, the Government has implemented a $30 million Business Connect program and has provided at grassroots level a range of advisers with expertise in specialty areas to advise and support small business owners. The Government announced $30 million for the program in this year’s budget to facilitate small business owners acquiring skills in digital and financial literacy that will take them beyond the next 10 years of operation.

The SPEAKER: Order! Opposition members will come to order. There is too much audible conversation in the Chamber. Members may leave the Chamber if they do not wish to stay for question time. It is not compulsory for members to attend question time.

Mr JOHN BARILARO: In speaking about the future, I want to create an environment for the next generation of entrepreneurs. The Government invested $25 million in the Sydney School of Entrepreneurship because it wants the best entrepreneurs to start their businesses in Sydney and in other areas of New South Wales. That is an exciting investment by the New South Wales Government. The Government also wants to back those great new businesses of the future. Recently the Government announced the $150 million GO NSW Equity Fund, which will be funded jointly between the Government and First State Super and which will result in the Government and First State Super taking an equity stakeholding in the businesses of the future. This Government wants to back the next eBay, the next Facebook or the next Google. The New South Wales Government has such confidence in the private sector’s small and medium enterprises as well as businesses in general that it is prepared to become a business partner to ensure that this State is the home of great innovative businesses of the future. To be able to do all that I have outlined, this Government has to run a tight budget and maintain budget surpluses. Opposition members have no idea about running budget surpluses and they have no idea how small businesses prosper in New South Wales.

The SPEAKER: Order! When members come to order, I will call the member for Granville. There is too much audible conversation in the Chamber. I remind members that it is not compulsory to attend question time. Those members who wish to have non-stop private conversations will do so outside the Chamber.

Street Machine of the Year Award Recipient Gary Myers

Ms STEPH COOKE ( Cootamundra ) ( 17:05 ): I acknowledge one of the many great achievers in my electorate, Gary Myers, for winning the Street Machine of the Year award an unprecedented third time. Gary is a Narrandera local and built his XA Falcon AGROXA from scratch. He has not only pulled off the hat-trick, but also achieved it with three completely different cars, winning with two different Mustangs in 2001 and 2005. Gary’s passion, enthusiasm and dedication has brought pride to his community, and I think Gary should be immensely proud of what he has achieved.

Temora Probus Club Anniversary

Ms STEPH COOKE ( Cootamundra ) ( 16:29 ):Congratulations to the Temora Probus Club on achieving a magnificent milestone last month celebrating its twentieth anniversary. More than 100 past and present members celebrated the many years of friendship and fellowship at a luncheon where they were joined by guests from Junee, Grenfell and Cootamundra. A number of the original 20 men and women who established the club are still financial members and attended the function. Unfortunately, the club’s oldest member, Ron McGuirk, aged 99, was unable to attend due to illness. Members of the Temora Probus Club have participated in a wide range of activities in the community and I commend the members, both past and present, for their drive, enthusiasm, and for their contribution to the Temora community.

Inaugural Speech

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Thomas George ): Before I call the member for Cootamundra, I extend a very warm welcome to the family, friends and supporters of the member for Cootamundra, in particular her husband, Keith, her father, Stephen, her mother, Marie, and her brother, Andrew.

Ms STEPH COOKE ( Cootamundra ) ( 16:36 ): I stand here today very proud to have been elected to this position by the good people of the Cootamundra electorate. I do so noting that we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people. I acknowledge them as custodians and traditional owners of this land and I extend my respect to their elders past and present. I further acknowledge the Wiradjuri people, who are the traditional custodians of the land where my electorate is situated and I pay my respect to their people, both past and present.

The Wiradjuri people are originally from the land that is bordered by the Lachlan, Macquarie and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The name Wiradjuri means people of three rivers and traditionally these rivers were the primary food source for the Wiradjuri people. The Cootamundra electorate is bordered by two of those rivers—the Lachlan to the north and the Murrumbidgee to the south, near beautiful Gundagai. It is little wonder that Wiradjuri were so mighty a nation, the largest in New South Wales, because the land in between, from the green undulating hills to the east, floating gently down to the lush fertile plains of the west, cradles a soil that spawns an abundance of produce that would leave this table before me heaving.

A few weeks ago I was a florist; a successful small business owner with three stores in Young, Temora and Cootamundra. Today I stand here in the oldest legislative chamber in Australia and on my shoulders is the expectation and belief of 70,000 people residing in the Cootamundra electorate. There can be no greater honour than to be entrusted to represent your community and no greater responsibility than advocating for their needs. This is my starting block. The step I take today, and from this moment on, is for them. Growing up in Temora, home of sporting champions like Paleface Adios and Mark Kerry, instilled in me the belief that anything was possible. I had this drive to be the top of every chosen endeavour. Aged nine, I taught myself to swim. By 12, I was competing at national championships and in 1992 qualified for the Barcelona Olympic trials.

I can proudly report that I have swum in nearly every pool in the Cootamundra electorate. The long journey that is representative swimming, the thousands of kilometres of training up and down our town pools before dawn and into the night in all types of weather, required focus, fortitude and heart. It also required broad shoulders that do not shirk loads. At 18, the pool gave way to the biggest stage of university and the corporate world. At 21, as the first female and youngest-ever Executive Director of the Baking Association of Australia New South Wales, I found myself before the Industrial Relations Commission fighting to clear the names of honest, decent, hardworking small business owners whom I represented against unfair dismissal claims. I quickly developed the ability to fight for a good cause, no matter what the perceived odds nor the strength of my opponent.

To the people of the Cootamundra electorate I say to you: I am a proven fighter and I will fight the good fight; stand with me and see what we can achieve. To my esteemed colleagues here today I say to you: I may be here in the centre of the city right now but my shoes will always carry the dust of New South Wales. Hear my voice and always know that in this place I am the voice of many. Today I stand proudly with the hardworking members of The Nationals who have their genesis among the rural dwellers of early Australia. Progressive we began and progressive we still are. The Nationals are an eclectic mix. We spring from all walks of life, be that a paddock, a woolshed, a store, a firm, a hospital, a workshop, a kitchen—or indulge me—the back of a florist shop. Individually we may differ, but we have one thing in common: Nearly 100 years on, what still unites us is the determination to be a strong voice in this place for the extraordinary people who are geographically located outside our major cities.

None of us is going to let you city dwellers forget what our people west of the divide do for you. Right now in my electorate there are farmers working around the clock windrowing their canola. The other day I saw one farmer at Thuddungra turning around the paddock as it bucketed down rain. If you know farming, you know that is bold. One day that canola will reach your table with a touch of vinegar, and perhaps a dash of mustard, offering a delightful gloss to your salad. It will likely be accompanied by a cheese and fruit platter and a good drop of wine—we are known for that too. There is undoubtedly a wool suit or two in this room today that began life as a merino lamb that fortunately survived the bitter winter of the south-west slopes to finally deck the halls of Parliament with great aplomb.

It is not all fine food and flourish though. These communities, large and small, have stood the test of time. Tiny villages whose residents still travel 50 miles to do business, visit the doctor, socialise and shop. I know one or two of them have another 10 kilometres of dirt track and a couple of gates to tackle on the way home. You may have heard this before, but rural people generally take what life throws at them in their stride with little to no complaint. Seasons come and seasons go, and these people spend their lives adapting to and overcoming what life throws at them. Enjoy the fruit of our labours and know that men and women work hard, with hands that bear callouses and scars, to ensure you live a better, more comfortable life.

The electorate of Cootamundra spans 34,711 square kilometres, making it the fourth-largest electorate in this State. Crisscrossing that patchwork of farming communities and towns are 1,356 kilometres of State roads and 984 kilometres of regional roads. There are 385 bridges and bridge-size culverts on these State roads. Me and my little white van—the Bobby Dazzler—are very familiar with many of those roads, bridges and crossings. So too are my constituents. These roads are the lifeblood of our region. They connect our communities and our families, businesses and corporations. They connect producers to ports. For our regions to flourish, for this State to work to its strengths, our focus must remain on roads and rail.

The amount of freight movement to and from and also interstate through the electorate of Cootamundra is astonishing. I will advocate passionately to see a comprehensive freight plan implemented that fuses seamlessly with the neighbouring electorates of Barwon, Murray, Albury, Wagga Wagga, Orange, Bathurst and Goulburn. I look forward to contributing to the Draft Future Transport Strategy 2056. Special attention must shine on the now infamous Bells Line of Road and improving the Lachlan Valley Way—to name but two of our critical routes. The Coalition Government has spent more than $500 million on roads in the electorate of Cootamundra since 2011 and the Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight, the Hon. Melinda Pavey, has seen a lot of the electorate this year. The future is exciting and I look forward to the journey with you, Minister.

My husband, Keith, is a maths teacher and the principal of Young High School—and one of the most passionate advocates of public education I know. My favourite teachers from St Anne’s Central School in Temora, Mr Barry Flakelar and Mrs Jan Sutton, are in the gallery today—and I thank you both for helping me and hundreds of other students reach their full potential in life. I am proud of the investment that the Coalition Government has made in public education in the electorate of Cootamundra through Gonski schools funding, the recently completed investment in the Young TAFE campus and, looking forward, to connected learning centres in Grenfell and Narrandera, and linkages and pathways to rural‑based universities. Minister Adam Marshall and I have lots of work ahead of us.

However, for the thousands of educators in rural and regional New South Wales, the mental health and wellbeing of our students is as important as physical learning spaces and quality curriculum. Too often we hear of our young people—our future—engaging in self-harm and even taking their own lives. For those of us who had the most simple and delightful upbringing in our idyllic towns, these tragedies are as distressingly perplexing as they are heartbreaking. Just recently the Hon. Bronnie Taylor, MLC, announced a State-first School Health Pilot Program designed to improve the mental health and wellbeing of primary and high school students in Young through the engagement of a nurse in school. That commencement date cannot come soon enough. Minister Hazzard, you must really subscribe to Winston Churchill’s fine words:

H ealthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.

I owe a debt of thanks to you for your agile response to the needs of the Temora community and the resulting $2 million operating theatre upgrade at our district hospital, which is due for completion in 2018. I look forward to your return to the region to discuss the prospect of a redeveloped hospital for the people of Cowra. My drive to Sydney yesterday involved a tour of the marvellous new ambulance station in Harden‑Murrumburrah. With similar stations in Ardlethan, Coolamon and Grenfell, we are thankful to my predecessor, the Hon. Katrina Hodgkinson, who put in the hard yards for the people of our communities on this and innumerable other issues. What greater gift to be bestowed with than the blessing and legacy of Katrina Hodgkinson, who served the electorates of both Cootamundra and Burrinjuck so well over 18½ years. So much was achieved on her watch thanks to her tireless agitating.

I would not be standing here today if not for the unwavering support of the Leader of The Nationals and Deputy Premier, the Hon. John Barilaro. He was a stalwart during the campaign from start to finish, visiting the electorate on countless occasions—including a whistlestop tour of many township booths on election day to meet locals and thank our members, supporters and volunteers. John Barilaro is a fellow tradie—a chippie—who has also spent thousands of hours building and growing a small business. We both understand that small business is the heart and friendly face of regional economies. Small businesses are the backbone of small communities like Ariah Park, Ardlethan, Jugiong and Ganmain and, of course, our larger towns. As roads are the lifeblood to connecting people physically, small businesses are the key to economic growth, viability and liveability in our region. Their long-term sustainability is vital.

There are many small businesses operating from farms and settlements. For instance, the Quandialla Candle Company relies on good telecommunications and freight services. Over and again, I hear that poor telecommunications are standing in the way of progress. The additional $50 million announced through the Connecting Country Communities Fund will go some way to filling the blackspots, and I applaud that. Having toiled through the 10,000-hour mark in owning and operating a small business, I will always be a strong and passionate advocate for the needs of this critical sector across my electorate. Small businesses provide goods and services, drive innovation, creativity, industry and growth, contribute to local charities and causes, and employ people. We all know that jobs change lives.

Being here today, representing the people of the Cootamundra electorate, would not be possible without the help and support of so many around me. I acknowledge and thank The Nationals State Chairman, Mr Bede Burke; State Director, Nathan Quigley; Deputy State Director, Tom Aubert; and The Nationals head office team and the campaign team on the ground: Gill Burke, Mitch Coveney, Josie Coles, Alexandra Hall, Isabelle Gillespie and Jack Piggott. Many of them are in the gallery today. I make special mention of Cootamundra State Electorate Council Chair Mo Simpson, John Hetherington and Peter Toole for being there every step of the way, and the members of the Young branch, of which I have had the pleasure of being president these past few years.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Pam Halliburton, Margaret Hill, Beth Firman, and all the workers, supporters, volunteers and branch members who helped during the Cootamundra campaign. Determined to see the seat retained by The Nationals, they braved all types of weather over the two weeks of pre-polling. On polling day they arrived as one united army, decked out in those fabulous canary yellow T-shirts. I assure them that I will work as hard for them. I thank my campaign manager, Ross Cadell, whom I have known for more than two decades. He kept my perfectionism at bay. Thank goodness for that, or we would still be arguing largely inconsequential semantics ahead of my very first local media interviews.

I cannot forget to mention the Hon. Ben Franklin, who introduced me into this world of politics some 20-plus years ago. I also thank Niall Blair, Adam Marshall, the Hon. Wes Fang, Paul Toole, Rick Colless, Kevin Anderson, Ray Williams, David Elliott and all my colleagues from The Nationals and the Liberal Party who made the huge effort to travel to the electorate many times to support me. Niall, the people of Narrandera are tremendously thankful for your visit and announcement of $1.1 million in funding for the fisheries research centre. It is a vital investment in that region’s future. I thank also the effervescent Bronnie Taylor, who all but lived in the electorate for almost two months, going above and beyond to ensure that the constituents were not adversely impacted during the by-election campaign. She did a magnificent job. I acknowledge also Federal members Michael McCormack and Craig Laundy, and friend and Mayor of Temora Rick Firman, OAM, for his sound advice and support before, during and since the by-election. I thank also Fiona Nash for her unwavering belief in me while she was facing great difficulty.

The Coalition is an incredibly strong team, committed to delivering for the people of this great State. Joining it at this time is very humbling indeed. I have many long-time friends in the House today, and am very blessed to have been so warmly welcomed and supported as I navigate this new territory. I acknowledge my very dear friends Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her remarkable chief of staff, Sarah Cruickshank, to whom I owe—or blame—my decision to stand for preselection. I have known them both for so long and to see the strong women they have become has been inspiring. Being here together today is due in no small part to them both.

To the people of Temora, who I wish could all be here, I am so proud to have grown up in this town and among people whom I love and cherish. I thank my team—my friends—at Native Botanical. Together we have created one of the most beautiful, successful, award-winning businesses in New South Wales. They are the reason I am able to step out of customer service and into public community service without hesitation. My very good friends Natalie Baini, Sharon Richens, Tiffany Olssen, Holly Bradford and Nicole Sanderson have travelled vast distances to be here today. I could not have made it through the rigours of those weeks, and in particular election day, if it were not for their support. My husband, Keith, is in the gallery today. He stood outside the Young polling booth for days on end. I am not sure that when we married he knew he was signing up for all of this. But thank you, sweetie, for your love and support throughout.

I acknowledge and give my heartfelt thanks to my parents, Stephen and Marie Cooke, who are also in the gallery. We are, after all, a product of our parents. Mine, hailing from Tallimba and West Wyalong, instilled the traditional values of honesty and decency, and that nothing comes without hard work. My brother, Andrew Cooke, who is also in the gallery, and I are testament to that. However, the most important lesson they imparted is that service is the most important thing a person can offer in life: service to those in need, service to your family, to your friends and to your community. They have proudly displayed and lived by this virtue. As a result, I, too, serve my community and give back to the town and region that has given me such an amazing life. It offers the riches of country life and all that it entails to future generations and ensures that we remain a viable alternative to a city-centric existence.

Finally, I acknowledge the people of the Cootamundra electorate. Our electorate is my home, and it has been the home of my family for generations. I made a vow on election night—one that is incredibly important to me and one that I intend to keep. I am here to fight for you and alongside you. While we might not always win everything we want, everyone will know that we fought until there was no fight left. I will earn your trust, I will earn your belief, and I will be your voice. I have never been more humbled nor more determined in my life. Thank you and God bless.

Members stood in their places and applauded.