Kim O’KEEFFE (Shepparton) (18:16): I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, this wonderful land where we meet today, the peoples of the Kulin nations. I would also like to pay my respects to the people from my land, the traditional owners, the Yorta Yorta peoples, and pay my respect to their elders present and emerging.
It is an honour and a privilege to stand here today, and following Jess, the member for Kew, just shows the opportunities for all. We come from very different backgrounds. My mum was born in Shepparton, and I am the fifth generation from the Doherty line. My parents moved away from Shepparton, firstly to Melbourne, then on to Sydney, where I was born. My dad was a talented musician who played piano. He was lured by the bright lights of Sydney and the dream of working with a big professional show band. After a period of time and with a growing family of five young children they decided this was not a life for a young family, so they decided to move up to Queensland, where they were told there was plenty of work in the mines and good money to be made.
My mum became homesick and wanted to return to her home town of Shepparton to be with family. I was four years of age when we travelled down from Queensland in a station wagon with five children, my dad’s keyboard on the roof and minimal belongings. After staying with family initially, we moved into a small farmhouse, followed by a few months at the Shepparton lake caravan park. Apparently my parents were told if you moved into a caravan with five children it would increase your chances of securing a house. It worked. We moved into public housing in a neighbourhood filled with hardworking people raising their young families. My family grew, and I have four wonderful brothers and two sisters. I have such fond memories of the fun times growing up in this neighbourhood, and I have remained friends with many of them today. It is interesting when you look back at the housing model back then that gave young families the opportunity to purchase a home at an affordable price – opportunities that do not seem to exist today. Unfortunately my parents did not purchase their home, but many did.
My dad was a hardworking man, usually working two jobs to make ends meet. He worked in a number of jobs over the years, including the local abattoirs, factory work, retail and cleaning, as well as his musical gigs on the weekends. From around five years of age I started singing with my dad at the local pubs. A highlight was when we secured a big gig at a Lions Club convention. I was an excited eight-year-old dressed in red sequins, and we performed in front of over 600 people. These are my most precious and favourite memories with my dad. My mum attended to home duties and raising seven children. We had some family challenges, with my dad suffering from mental health issues and alcohol dependency. This led to family breakdown and to most of my brothers and sisters leaving the family home at very young ages.
I left school at 15, not by choice but by circumstances. I had moved out of home and begun working full time in a local retail gift store. My bosses, Olive and Brian Grey, were so kind and supportive, as were many others during that time. I moved in and out of a range of accommodation arrangements. Some arrangements were much better than others. At 18 years of age I took on the care of my 15-year-old sister. We both were working full time. I recall our first accommodation was a one-bedroom flat with bunks. We paid our bills and rent, and we did what we needed to do. My sister Keely is here today. I am incredibly proud of all of my brothers and sisters, who have supported each other and who have had successful lives. We were estranged from our parents for a period of time but rebuilt our relationship. Sadly, we lost my dad 30 years ago. He succumbed to his mental illness, and my mum died just a few years ago. She was enormously proud of her children. She was known for carrying my mayoral business cards in her wallet, proudly showing them when the opportunity arose.
After six years working with Olive and Brian I changed jobs, moving into the beauty industry. This was a great career that would span almost 30 years. I worker in pharmacy, which also included a role at a local television station as a make-up artist on the morning breakfast show with Jen Dean. I was contemplating a career move to Melbourne after being approached by a national cosmetics company, but destiny had other ideas. I met my husband Brendan, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. We married in 1986, and not long after I secured a traineeship at a local salon. As a trainee the position was lower paid than my other job and also included having to travel to Melbourne and being away from home. We had a mortgage and I wanted to contribute. Brendan did not hesitate to encourage me to take that position; we would manage. We went on to have two wonderful daughters Emma and Olivia who are my greatest joy in life. One of my greatest wishes was to give my daughters the educational opportunities that I never had and a stable family. Brendan owned a small retail menswear business with his father Matt and a business friend for over 64 years, in which Brendan worked for 43 years and has recently retired – well earned, I say.
The region has a history of long-term generational, hardworking family businesses, both large and small, who have contributed so much to our region, people like Pat and Tina’s much-loved local BP station now run by their son Joe and his wife Angela. They will soon celebrate 50 years in business. The thing I love about living in a small community is that we are so connected and we cheer each other on. I opened my own business in 1988 and not long after opened a training school. You could not train locally in the beauty industry, and in fact I was the first to offer this training in Shepparton. I went on to broaden my business nationally, securing work with other companies and brands as well as expanding into online learning in line with the changing times. It was an incredibly rewarding career and a reminder that you can have great success and opportunities in regional areas. It was a busy time in our lives, running two businesses and raising a family.
Brendan and I have invested our lives in a region that we believe in and love. I had a wonderful career, and I wanted the same for others into the future. I wanted to contribute to the success and progress of our region and for future generations. So in 2016 my next life experience and journey began when I was elected to local government. My six years in local government included almost four years as mayor. It was a steep learning but also an exciting realisation of the impact and the difference that I could make. The community saw my passion and determination, how hard I worked and my determination to make a difference – that same passion I bring here with me today.
I live in a very unique and culturally diverse community made up from those from many nations around the world. We have a very strong, long history of successful migration and the success and contribution of the many families making Australia and the Goulburn Valley their home. We have a deep connection to the land and the Indigenous people, and in fact we have one of the largest Indigenous populations outside of Melbourne. My very special friend Aunty Faye is from the stolen generation, and she continues to cheer me on, support, encourage and inspire me. If I need a friend or someone to lean on, she is there. I also acknowledge my childhood friend who grew up in my same neighbourhood and was recently elected to council, Cr Greg James, the very first Indigenous councillor elected to the Greater Shepparton region.
Our Albanian community shared their story through a documentary attracting worldwide acclaim and winning awards. They shared the story of their long history and connection to the region as well as their struggles, success and the opportunity they were afforded in this great place. Australia’s first Albanian mosque was built in Shepparton back in 1960, and I acknowledge the recent retirement of Imam Eljam Bardi and acknowledge his amazing 41 years of service at the Albanian mosque and to our community, a very close friend of mine and supporter during my mayoral terms. Their story is similar to the many who came to the land of opportunity but who contributed so greatly to the future and the success of the region.
We are a bold, resilient and progressive region. One of my greatest aspirations has been to showcase the region as a great place of success and opportunity. We are a progressive and productive region that is growing, and with that comes the need for greater support and investment to reach our full potential. I love to share our story with others, and in 2019 we took over Federation Square in Melbourne for two weeks when Fed Square became Shep Square. We shared the many wonderful things about the region and living in regional Victoria. We took with us many local businesses and community members. It was a true celebration of who we are. We had cultural performances, and the many and varied industries came along. There was such a strong sense of pride that continued long after that event.
We also hosted an international beach volleyball tournament. We do not have a beach, so we trucked in tonnes of sand and made our own – of course we did. Both of these examples attracted investment and opportunity by putting ourselves out there. We must not put up roadblocks to success; we have to find a way to achieve the things we need, and that is what I intend to do right here in Parliament Cannatrek, a multimillion dollar investment in our region, came about through the international volleyball live stream where CEO Tommy Huppert saw me telling the reasons why business should invest and come to the region. It was a 42-degree day, I had no shoes on and was on the sand. I have a very loud voice, and I will continue to use that voice to help attract further opportunities.
The regional Commonwealth Games idea came from Shepparton, and it was Shepparton who progressed the business case, supported by a few other councils. Never say never, I say. We are proud to think that this idea will bring billions of dollars into regional Victoria, although we are disappointed we did not get a sports village. Perhaps the baton should leave the stadium and Shepparton be its next stop.
We are a successful region with many industries, including agriculture, horticulture, manufacturing, processing, transport and businesses both large and small. We are known as the food bowl for good reason – for example, 54 per cent of the state’s apples, 78 per cent of pears, 57 per cent of apricots and 25 per cent of all Australia’s milk, accounting for 2.3 billion litres of milk per annum. The recent floods have impacted on our farmers and their produce dramatically. It is critical that the farmers get ongoing support – as well as the many industries that have been affected – to get back on their feet. We also must protect our industries with water security and no buybacks. We have many wonderful, successful long-time companies and industries, such as SPC – recently celebrating over 100 years – Pental, Unilever, Campbell’s soup, Tatura Milk, Bega Cheese, Freedom Foods, J Furphy & Sons and many more, who contribute to the history and the success of our region. You will see many well-known products on the supermarket shelves not only nationally but also internationally. We are very proud of our companies and industries and the contributions that they make. Many do not realise the enormous amount of products and produce that come out of my region. We might be a small region, but we are doing very big things.
Whilst we are on figures, 25 per cent of the state’s trucks are registered in the Shepparton region, so as you can imagine, along with other large transport vehicles driving through the middle of Shepparton and Mooroopna, this equates to a great deal of traffic, with numbers constantly increasing. Can you imagine shopping or trying to park in the main street with a constant convoy of trucks and heavy vehicles belting past you? This is putting lives at risk and slowing down the efficient movement of transport. On pre-poll we witnessed a truck and car sideswipe each other right in front of the polling booth.
We saw the impact of having only one river crossing during the floods when the Peter Ross-Edwards Causeway was flooded and completely shut down, causing complete chaos at an already stressful time. We had the Australian Defence Force picking up hospital staff and healthcare workers to transport them through the floods and across the bridge to get them to work. We are the only major regional city without a bypass. The Nationals, under federal member Damian Drum, committed $208 million to the Shepparton bypass, and the state government has invested over $10 million into the business case. I am pleased that the Premier has announced he is committed to this project, and I look forward to seeing the next steps to make that happen.
I am proud of the community in which I live. We are a united community creating a sense of belonging and connection. During the pandemic, when we had 20,000 people in isolation, our community was incredible, the way we cared for and supported each other. The city of Shepparton basically shut down. I acknowledge my friend Azem and his wife Jeihan, who provided over 14,000 meals over three weeks with a convoy of wonderful volunteers. But it is not only in times of crisis that Azem supports our people. He supports the homeless and those in need every day, as well as the CFA during the bushfires and floods or wherever he is needed. I also would like to acknowledge our frontline workers, healthcare workers and the many amazing volunteers and organisations that have supported our community – and still are – during the pandemic and now during the floods.
We must address the cost of living, the housing crisis and homelessness. Affordable housing, rental affordability and housing availability – we are so far behind, and the problem will continue to grow without immediate action. Everyone deserves a place to call home and a roof over their head. Every day I see people struggling to make ends meet. I am shocked at the state of our crumbling and unsafe roads, and I urge for an increase in funding to address this. We are facing challenging times, with my region heavily impacted, as I said, by the recent floods and storms. As a matter of urgency, we need to do all we can to get people back into their homes and businesses supported and open. There is confusion and inconsistency, and almost every day I have people coming to my office asking for help. They know that my door is open.
We must address the health crisis, the elective surgery waiting list and the 000 responses. We have GP shortages and teacher shortages. We need more mental health support, and we have a burnt-out health workforce. We must ensure that regional Victoria is also considered, and please, we must consider looking at other ways and different ways to attract and increase the workforce. Let us look at some incentives. I urge investment into our region, including the final stage in the completion of the Goulburn Valley Health redevelopment, and it was pleasing to hear today that the Labor government are very supportive of doing that and, again, the Shepparton bypass.
We also have redundant school sites after merging four of our high schools. The future of these buildings and sites must be determined – and the return of choice in our secondary public school system. We need investment in the many ageing sporting and recreational facilities. I will continue to fight for the many needs of all of our towns and the future progress of our region. There is so much work to be done. The Premier has also said that he will govern and support all the people of Victoria – that must happen, and that regional Victoria receive our fair share of investment and support.
I want to thank the many people who supported me during my campaign. My committee headed by Lindsay Dan, Peter Ryan, Ian Powell, Don and Cheryl Kilgour and former National Party member Jeanette Powell, who encouraged me to stand. Jeanette was the first women elected to the National Party and is a very close friend and mentor. It is wonderful now to have six women and five men in the Nationals.
A member interjected.
Kim O’KEEFFE: It is something we are very proud of.
I would also like to thank head office, the members and particularly the Nationals team – everyone has been incredibly welcoming and supportive as I take on this new learning but also share the same passion; my passionate volunteers and supporters, Azem, Jeihan, Cammy, Preet and Peter Le Sueur, who all worked hard in their communities to help ensure that people were aware of my commitment and passion; my amazing friends and volunteers who are here today – Sev, Robi, Alison, Cheryl, Sarah, Jodi, Carman and Mel, Barry, Anna, Helen and Gracie; and the many hundreds of volunteers – you know who you are. I would not be here without your incredible support, and I am so very grateful.
For those that donated and displayed my corflutes on their fence or in their businesses, thank you. Also thank you to everyone who put their faith in me. It is such a privilege and an honour to represent you in this Parliament.
Thank you to my two beautiful daughters, who have encouraged me and cheered me on. To my husband, Brendan – your commitment, positivity, love and support has never changed during the past 36 years. You are my biggest fan, cheering me along with pride, love and devotion.
Finally, I look back at my 15-year-old self. I am proud of what I have achieved. As I stand here in Parliament, yes, I pinch myself, but I know this is where I need to be. I will work hard every single day. Thank you.