As a tribute to the late Mr Val Jeffery, we decided to republish his inaugural speech to the Legislative Assembly (ACT) – 2nd August 2016.
MADAM SPEAKER: Before I call Mr Jeffery I will remind members that this is his inaugural speech, and it is tradition that he is heard in silence.
MR JEFFERY: Twenty-odd years ago we believed that the ACT was grown up and ready for self-government. I was one of those who held that belief and I voted for its introduction. I am afraid as I look back that we were kidding ourselves. Sadly, the circus of its introduction has basically extended over 20 years to this day as maturity has not become the mantra of central quality experience. I am just so disappointed as we expected so much and deserved better.
I was born in the Depression and spent my childhood in the shadow of the Second World War and steeped in reality. Although only five years old I remember vividly the declaration of war as I walked into the kitchen at the shop where I was raised and where my mother was ironing and listening to the Prime Minister on the radio when his sad words fell out that “Great Britain has declared war on Germany, and as a result we are at war.” The frightening, sad look on my mother’s face said it all; her shock and despair as much as to say, “Not again”. I can never forget that sadness in her eyes.
As a family and a small village, this little community worked its guts out to support the war effort, from the growing of more food, knitting more clothes, joining up, serving with the Tharwa volunteer defence corps et cetera. The war finished and we welcomed home our brave servicemen with a memorable old time dance in our village hall, a small community proud of its efforts.
The shining 50s followed the war. What stood out then was the excitement of revival and the urge to get up and on with it. We were a rural community in the fifties experiencing great seasons of pasture growth, wool prices of over a pound for a pound, farmers and graziers putting their returns into improving their land, an influx of great new Australians bursting to get at it, and a positive era took off.
On top of the rural positives, the move to the space age with the building of the tracking stations brought with it tourism and jobs, together with excitement, new friends and confidence. This happened with little, if any, detrimental impact on our community, but of course it was too good to last.
Unfortunately, Australia started moving from a population ingrained with get up and go after enduring a depression and two world wars to approach a generation of educated politicians and bureaucrats out of touch with the real world of those decades. Red tape and rules were inevitable and the ACT really started sliding downhill.
First came the mass ugly resumption of ACT freehold land, done by letter without even the courtesy of a discussion. Letters of resumption were served on the rural landholders by post on a Saturday morning. I vividly remember Peter Snow, the owner of Cuppacumbalong property, an ex-gunner in the war, coming up to me with the letter in his hands that informed him that he had “14 days to treat”; an ex-soldier, a friend and mentor with tears in his eyes.
It was the beginning of the end of respect for our rural community that bureaucrats saw themselves as more important than the community they needed to be part of. With only 30-day agistment leases for ACT rural land, there was no incentive for landholders to maintain and improve the integrity of their property. As a result, we have now inherited properties full of weeds and other ugly and expensive environmental problems.
However, we have also inherited a precious, beautiful and heritage village, the oldest town in the ACT that has not received one iota of respect since self-government. Tharwa community has a history of looking after itself. With a progress association in the early days that was respected when under federal governance we were able to get things done, like the sealing of the road to the Monaro Highway, the removal of gates on the main road, equipment to fight fires, the provision of our own water supply, the building of our own hall, the lobbying for electricity et cetera.
Sadly, self-government has brought the rural ACT insecurity and uncertainty, with bureaucratic over-dominance and lack of support. For instance, since self-government not one kilometre more of rural road has been sealed. Rural bridges were virtually crucified. The Tharwa Bridge essential maintenance was ignored until the vital bridge was shut for seven years with rebuilding costing over $25 million. The Smiths Road Bridge was set up to wash away. The Angle and Point Hut crossings were not raised by even one centimetre.
The Adaminaby Road was ignored for any improvement. Night-time protection under the Tharwa Bridge was not secured from drug dealers and hoons after the bridge restoration work. The community-installed Tharwa water supply, over 50 years old, was failing and ignored. There was the unwarranted Tharwa school closure insult, and it goes on.
A possibly greater threat to the ACT than even terrorism is the threat of bushfires. The 1939 major bushfire to the west of the ACT was a wakeup call. A little over four-years-old at the time, I remember it well with the locals fighting it with bushes and bags. From then to today I have fought many fires. I was actually chairman of the statutory ACT Bushfire Council for over 10 years in the days when the ACT Bushfire Council was a successful independent statutory authority. So I think that I know a bit about bushfires and their management.
Unfortunately, with the advent of self-government politicians and bureaucrats could not tolerate the successful independence of the Bushfire Council. So bushfire management was transferred to bureaucrats. No longer were those with most to lose responsible for operational management. Straight away red tape burgeoned and our original successful prime objective of early detection and rapid initial response went out the window, spawning backside-covering and missed opportunities.
The resulting disaster was the 2003 fires when the fires were allowed to claim five lives and 500 houses. Those lightning strikes should have been and could have been brought under control within 24 hours of their ignition. The cruellest part is that the management of bushfires in the ACT is now many times worse than it was in 2003. And you know what? People at the top do not care.
However, an active, vibrant rural community like Tharwa does not ask for much but expects a bit of respect, which has been completely lacking since self-government. Surely it is time for an ACT government to take a deep breath, open its eyes, look a bit outside the concrete bunker in Civic and recognise that there is an important rural part to the ACT.
I would like to finish by thanking all the great people of our community and particularly my wife Dorothy, who has supported me for over 50 years. I am thankful for all the support that our precious community has given us. Please keep safe.