It was a honour to be asked to give the Occasional Address at this year’s La Trobe University Graduation in Shepparton.
I believe education is key to opportunity and freedom for our young people and it was a pleasure to share my thoughts on the privilege and responsibilities of further education and the many wonderful highlights of our strong and vibrant region.
Congratulations to the Class of 2017!
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered – the Yorta Yorta and Bangerang peoples – and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and to the elders of all Victoria’s Aboriginal communities who may be here today.
I would also like to acknowledge the Chancellor of La Trobe University Professor Richard Larkins AO; Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar; our esteemed and outgoing Shepparton Head of Campus Sue Nalder; City of Greater Shepparton Mayor Cr Kim O’Keefe; distinguished academics and guests; graduates, ladies and gentlemen.
I’m delighted to be here this afternoon to share in this important milestone.
To graduate in your chosen field is a wonderful accomplishment of which you should be very proud and I congratulate you – and today’s other award recipients who are continuing their studies – on your impressive achievements.
For many of you, today marks the culmination of what I’m sure has been a challenging but, I hope, rewarding experience.
For your families it will be a day of immense pride, particularly for those of you who are the first member of your family to complete tertiary education.
Today also marks the beginning of a new adventure and I very much believe you are embarking on the next stage of your life at an exciting time for our region and indeed for our world.
I have spoken a lot in the past few years about the challenges this region faces.
Most, if not all of you here today will be familiar with them. Although it’s not in my nature to dwell on negatives, to understand where we, as a community today, we must look at where we have come from.
It’s no secret that the Shepparton region has suffered from decades of underinvestment, leaving us well behind not only where we’d like to be, but also behind other regional cities such as Bendigo and Ballarat that have flourished with the support of government.
As a community built on agriculture, we have also faced significant issues arising from the Millennium Drought, fluctuating international markets and reduced water security under the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
We even had the dubious honour of being featured several years ago on SBS’s Insight program due to our high rate of youth unemployment which also highlighted the disconnect between education and the jobs actually available in our region.
So yes, this region has had its challenges, and we’ve experienced our share of criticism for it, but these challenges are not insurmountable and we have many people in our community working hard to overcome them.
These challenges also do not define us, and there are so many positive aspects of this region that we can look to.
We are the food bowl of Victoria. We have always been a creative, industrious and self-starting community at the forefront of global food production.
We are a centre for transport logistics and have one of the highest concentrations of food processing firms in rural Australia, being the home for major companies such as Simplot, Fonterra, Nestle, Unilever, Bega and of course SPC, to highlight but a few.
Our beautiful Goulburn and Murray rivers not only support our farmers to put food on the tables of people across the country, but also see thousands of tourists flock to the region over the summer months to camp, swim and boost our local economies.
Shepparton District has always had the climate, the water and, most importantly, the people to succeed – it has just needed the infrastructure, educational investment and support to harness and develop those advantages.
My decision to run for election to the Victorian Parliament in 2014 was based on the firm belief that we deserved better that what we were getting.
I wasn’t alone in this belief and it’s to the credit of this passionate community that we have come so far in such a short time.
It was the engaged and committed people of this region who had identified the serious shortcomings in our rail service, in our healthcare provision and in the education outcomes at our schools.
These areas are the fundamental foundations for success – both for the region as a whole, and for each of us as individuals.
I may have been the one who put up my hand for a new life as a parliamentarian, but it has been this community, fighting for many years, that has got us to where we are and our bucket list is now starting to be ticked off.
We’re now seeing investment in more and better rail services, we’re seeing investment in our children’s futures, in our hospital, and in our arts and culture.
We’re seeing real, material change that will improve our liveability, our connectivity to our capital city and the rest of Victoria’s wonderful regions, and create more opportunities for employment here at home.
With this change has come a marked shift in our sense of identity.
The tone of conversation is changing and I see an optimism in our community that has been missing for a long time.
Yes there is much more to be done, but we are now a region that is going somewhere and people are talking with excitement about what the future for Shepparton District holds.
So I guess the question today is, what does this mean for you?
Well, now is your opportunity to contribute and be part of that journey.
You are the next generation.
You are the ones who will reap the benefits of a vibrant, thriving region – the benefits of more jobs, of better healthcare for you and your families, of better educational opportunities for your children.
One of the major challenges for our region has been the recruitment of trained and professional staff and I have to say that the growing strength of regional universities such as La Trobe has assisted significantly in addressing this problem.
When I look at the wealth of talent sitting in front of me today, I am confident we have the capacity to grow and sustain a strong local workforce across a whole range of industries.
I understand a significant number of those graduating today are nurses and, dare I say it, there couldn’t be a better time to be entering the healthcare field in Shepparton.
I mentioned earlier the investment we’ve received for our hospital – $168.5 million for the first stage of redevelopment at Goulburn Valley Health.
I’ve been told they will need more than 600 new staff to support the expansion of services across the hospital and allied health areas.
That’s not just opportunities for nursing graduates either – large organisations like GV Health, and of course other large businesses across the region, also need accountants. They need business managers, and administrators, and HR specialists.
I’m sure the broader business community in Shepparton is looking with interest at those of you now entering the job market.
They’ll be looking forward to reaping the rewards of what students such as yourselves, who have been able to complete Bachelors of Business and Accounting and Arts can bring to the table, not to mention those who – thanks to technology – are now able to take on the Masters in Business Administration here in town.
I certainly hope many of you will want to take advantage of all that Shepparton and District has to offer, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t take opportunities to experience the world outside our region.
Although this part of your education journey may have come to an end, learning doesn’t stop when you get your degree and walk out of here today.
Learning must be an ongoing component that all of us value and adopt throughout our lives and there’s so much to be gained by experiencing new places, new people and new ideas if we are to contribute not only to our chosen professions and workplaces but also to our families and our wider communities.
I was asked today to offer a few pieces of advice to new graduates and this point brings me nicely to my number one…
Get involved, and give back to your community.
As university graduates, you have the skills and talent to make a difference.
More so, I believe it is incumbent on those of you who have had the privilege of being able to achieve such high educational standards, to follow through and take up leadership roles within our regional communities.
It is ethical, educated leadership that will ensure our communities continue to grow and develop and provide social justice to everyone who lives in our community.
There are many opportunities to get involved in communities such as ours – you could take on an office at your local football or netball club, join a community group, or even volunteer as a tutor to support someone else on their learning journey.
In doing all of this it is important to have goals, to be mindful of what you want to achieve and to understand yourself.
If you are looking for a pathway into more significant leadership roles I recommend to you the Fairley Leadership Program within our own Goulburn Murray region.
This leads me to my second piece of advice – network professionally.
Stay in touch with the people who you have met during your course whether they be your lecturers, tutors or fellow students.
Network within your professional associations, attend conferences and, of course, keep learning.
The support that people will give you when you ask for advice and assistance is wonderful.
People will generally want to help you and see you succeed, particularly if they see your motives as being worthwhile.
I can you tell you that not once have I picked up the phone to cold call a CEO or industry leader or indeed other community members, and been rebuffed.
When you’re navigating a new space and feeling vulnerable, it’s not always easy to use your networks and ask questions, but it’s also when you need to do it the most.
And there’s my third piece of advice – ask questions.
When I was elected to Parliament and walked into that beautiful, stately building for the first time it was like the first day of school.
I came from being the director of my own law firm, with 30 years’ experience under my belt and younger lawyers under my wing, to being the new kid trying to find my way around and understanding new processes.
As an independent member of Parliament I don’t have a party to tell me how to vote and must make these decisions based on information provided to me from government and industry briefings and by talking to people I know in my own community.
In a world where information overload is a fact of life it is sometimes hard to find clarity.
And it’s true what they say – you don’t know what you don’t know, and you’ll never know it unless you ask.
I have often found asking what may seem to be the simple question – even, dare I say, the stupid question – is met with a sigh of relief because other people were wondering exactly the same thing.
It takes many of us a great many years to develop the confidence and to exercise the skills we have, often because of a fear of asking or putting ourselves forward.
So don’t be afraid to ask. Know your topic, prepare well and you will find that your own confidence and self-esteem will grow.
You are all now educated leaders in our community and in your various fields of employment you will be looked to to share your knowledge and show leadership.
Be confident that you are well prepared for this challenge and that you have something valuable worth offering – and, wherever you end up, be a champion for the Shepparton region and a positive part of its story.
I wish you all the very best as you now head out on this next exciting stage in your life.
If you’re interested in education, take a look at what else has been happening in our schooling community here.