Matter of Public Important – Regional Media

I rise to speak on the matter of public importance. I am going to focus my contribution on point 1:

the important role that a local media presence has within regional communities.

Absolutely I endorse that statement. It is incredibly important that our local media has a focus on telling the stories of rural and regional communities. In fact, it is vitally important. I am incredibly lucky in my electorate to have a daily newspaper, the Standard; a biweekly newspaper, the Portland Observer; and local ACE Radio stations, which run daily local news services.

There is also a locally based ABC office in Warrnambool. We also have a number of online news outlets that have begun appearing. Stories of the south-west are being told to a very receptive audience, and I am very lucky to have such diversity in the electorate.

There are very obviously some changes that need to be made to ensure local media in regions outside mine are kept strong and compete on an even playing field. The world has certainly changed, and so has the media, and so we need to keep moving to keep up with these changes.

The issues impacting rural and regional Victoria will eventually impact on metro Melbourne, so our stories deserve to be told. Those stories also need to be highlighted. I think every rural and regional MP in this place certainly understands that and is supportive of the cause.

I will begin by talking about some examples we have in our region, where our local media have done an extraordinary job supporting the community to get projects supported. If I go back in time, I can talk about the chopper that was campaigned so hard for—the air chopper so that people can be airlifted to safety and to medical support. That campaign was very well supported by the local media.

Another one that springs to mind is the campaign to save Deakin University very much led by the local Warrnambool Standard, and so much so it won a Rural Press Club award for the work it did on that one.

From more recent times I can probably talk about the roads campaign that has been going on for some time. I am sure you do not actually have to live in South-West Coast to know that we do have dreadful roads, because I talk about them in this place all the time. But the paper really do do a great job of supporting the voice of the community and me to make sure that that situation remains highlighted and at the forefront and so that the pressure remains on the government, because the Labor government can only keep saying for so long that they have done a good job. When you look at our roads—and they have been in government for almost the last 20 years—there is no excuse.

Particularly with the budget coming up, hopefully next month—that is what we are led to believe; it certainly has not been confirmed, but it would be good if it was—there is ample opportunity post COVID to get local projects up in the region so that we can get our roads fixed. So I hope the message that the local newspaper and the community have worked hard to ensure that the government is hearing loudly about the problems we have with our roads has been heard and that the budget gives a significant amount of money to start that project of getting them fixed.

A journalist at the Portland Observer, Chalpat Sonti, has been in the regions reporting for many, many years. He has recently come to the Portland area, and he has embedded himself into the community and is doing a fantastic job of reporting on important issues like the Alcoa situation. There have been lots of challenges for Alcoa, but particularly the price of energy. The government has a massive role to play in making sure that energy is affordable so that manufacturing is not lost in Victoria.

Again, with the COVID situation, what the government has a massive responsibility for is making sure we maintain manufacturing capacity and capability. So hats off to the Portland Observer for the work they are doing there. I recently had the Shadow Minister for Energy and Renewables visit Portland and meet with Chalpat, so it gives an alternative view for the community to have an understanding.

Of course it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to talk about the rail situation. Our trains are so old and decrepit that it is beyond a joke. The Warrnambool Standard particularly does a very diligent job weekly, monthly, of reporting on the breaking down of trains and the poor punctuality report that continually comes out about the shocking state of the rail in South-West Coast.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that they have got an important role also in holding me to account. It is about reporting so that the community are really empowered to understand what is going on.

In our region we have got some fine examples of locals. Our local editor of the Warrnambool Standard, Greg Best, is an example of a person who is from the region, started as a junior and is now the editor. Every Sunday he provides me with an overarching summary of what has gone on in the region, which I particularly enjoy.

Another young lady, Rachael Houlihan, who is now the deputy editor, started off as a junior at the Standard. We have local radio identities such as Jeremy Lee, who gives us the breakfast show every day; Daniel Miles, someone who came from Melbourne and has embedded himself in the local community and does a terrific job of reporting local news and issues; and young—well, probably not so young anymore—Matt Neal, who is from a dairy farming family and really understands the local issues.

I think I can encapsulate the importance of regional news well when I tell you the story of the night of the St Patrick’s Day fires when we had been evacuated from the farm. I decided it was probably safe to go back, and we went back at about midnight. We had lost power and lost the ability to hear anything, because we had no power, we had no internet, we had no radio and we had no way of charging our phones, so it was really quite difficult.

But what I did do was pull the car up, turn the radio on and listen to the local radio station. Dave Drinkell and Lachie Rooke—the voices all night of those two guys—actually kept me able to know whether I was safe to stay or to leave. We could not obviously go to sleep and rest easy. It was a pretty intense experience. But I will never forget their voices all night, which gave me those updates. In the morning when I went in to the emergency centre, the incident control centre, where we put people who had evacuated and stayed up all night, it was because of what they were reporting that I was aware of what was happening and what to do.

There are many others that I could talk about, like Jon Vertigan and Kate Meade. The Weekly Times is another paper that has been part of my life, with a farming background, and young Alex Sinnott I actually used to know when he visited his grandmother next door to my mother’s place. Ed Gannon, who has been reporting for many years, I have had a long association with through my dairying days. There are so many programs and projects that the local papers—whether it be in Portland, whether it be in Warrnambool—and the radio do that support our community.

Earlier in the day, when I was doing my contribution on the Human Tissue Amendment Bill 2020, the member for Ivanhoe mentioned the Warrnambool hospital. I think he forgot that in that campaign it was the Liberal government that funded the cancer centre, and it was the local community, along with the local media, that actually pushed for that. The current Premier was the Minister for Health at the time, and he actually looked Vicki Jellie in the face, she tells me, and said ‘That’ll never happen’.

So there is a really good example of where local media empowered the community, together with some forceful and organised people who brought about something that the actual health minister said would never happen. But it was the federal Liberal government and the former Napthine government—the local member—who funded that project, which gives such hope and faith to people who are going through some challenging times at the moment. There are articles like this one, which talks about the wind towers that have not got the local content the government talks so much about being proud of. It is a missed opportunity when local wind towers are coming through the port—and they are not local, I am sorry, and jobs at Keppel Prince are being lost. Chalpat from the Portland Observer tells the story so well and informs the local community.

Before I finish, I will acknowledge that just today Jackson Graham at the Warrnambool Standard has been awarded, from the Walkley Foundation, a William Buckland fellowship, so he is going to be seconded to the Age. There is only one of those awarded every year, so I am very proud to have a local young man from the Warrnambool Standard receiving the award. Last year Rachael Houlihan, who is the deputy editor, was also a recipient of that award. So it just goes to show what stellar people we have got reporting.

I will finish with this quote. It was Thomas Jefferson who said:

No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will.

I think that quote applies in this instance because if we have strong media, particularly local media, we will be strong.