Eddie Blewett and his community point to ‘The Power of One’

Eddie Blewett and his mums, Neroli Dickson and Claire Blewett. Photo: Ian Campbell
Eddie Blewett and his mums, Neroli Dickson and Claire Blewett. Photo: Ian Campbell

This time last week I was witness to the most amazing thing.

A fourteen year old boy went to Canberra and caught the ear of national media and the alternative government.

Last Tuesday’s ‘event’ on the lawn in front of Parliament House was born from Eddie Blewett’s experience 12 months prior.

Eddie and his two mums traveled from their home in Tathra to Canberra in September 2016 with other Rainbow Families lobbying against a plebiscite on same-sex marriage.

On that occasion the presence of Eddie and his mums Claire Blewett and Neroli Dickson shaped Question Time. Reporting for Fairfax, Matthew Knot wrote that, ‘Eddie stole Question Time”.

On his return last week, the issue hadn’t changed much and Eddie was keen to address that.

Six weeks ago, Eddie wrote to Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull hoping to help the PM campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the postal survey that has replaced the failed plebiscite.

The same correspondence was sent to Labor Leader, Bill Shorten, Deputy Labor Leader, Tanya Plibersek, and Eddie’s local MP, Mike Kelly – all pointing to September 12 as a possible meeting day.

Remembering the impact of Eddie’s visit almost 1 year before to the day, there was real warmth and a genuine interest from Ms Plibersek especially, who seemed equally hopeful that Eddie might meet with the PM.

Eddie’s friends (including my family) had agreed to meet at 10am on the grass in front of the big flag pole.

We were a diverse mix of country people, kids and adults, including a Vietnam vet, a school teacher, retired police officer, a Canberra Raiders fan, two Registered Nurses, a retired steel worker, and an arts administrator, to name a few.

All there to say, this issue is important to people beyond just ‘the gays in the village’.

The 'Yes' campaign kicks a goal at Parliament House. Photo: Ian Campbell
The ‘Yes’ campaign kicks a goal at Parliament House. Photo: Ian Campbell

The plan was to set – a picnic and a game of soccer, like any family might and see what happened.

The convoy that travelled with Eddie that day numbered around 20, not large in number but our aim was to help those with an ability to pull a crowd get a message out – vote YES.

Using the group’s Bega Valley soccer connections, a bundle of spring loaded corner posts and witches hats were borrowed to mark out a field.

A rainbow flag was gaffer taped to one of the fences attracting the interest of patrolling members of the Australian Federal Police, who made sure we knew it was a no-no but turned a blind eye with a wink of support.

Our soccer field looked great, as did the picnic rugs and assortment of nibbles and baked goods. Mind you no one was hungry – nerves suppressed any craving for one of the Anzac biscuits on offer.

Somethings about to happen, the crowd is building. Photo: Ian Campbell
Something’s about to happen, the crowd is building. Photo: Ian Campbell

Eleven o’clock arrived quickly. We had high hopes and a sense something great was about to happen, but we didn’t know what was going to happen at the same time.

Mr Shorten and Ms Plibersek had agreed to meet and we hoped the media might tag along – as overwhelming as that felt.

All involved were keen to protect Eddie from potential ugliness, the Canberra press pack comes with a reputation and Eddie had a taste of that last time round.

He was nervous but kept pushing though. Having a ball to kick with his mates was key and he knew he had something valuable and important to say.

We’d worked with Eddie on a statement to read to the media if they showed up, rather than being bamboozled by questions left and right.

The first sign of what was to come started to emerged from between the marble columns of Parliament House.

A cameraman from Fairfax was the first, a scout to make sure everything was ready for his media comrades.

A lectern was positioned with Parliament House and our soccer field in the background, and as if they appeared from the Aladdin’s lamp, the Opposition Leader and his Deputy were mingling at the edges of our picnic rugs.

Anzac biscuits were offered as the number of MP’s streaming down the path increased, cameramen and journalists manoeuvring around our morning tea.

Watch the Anzacs! Photo: Ian Campbell
Watch the Anzacs! Photo: Ian Campbell

It was hard to say and no one counted but our group ballooned to 50, 60 or 70 people.

Ms Plibersek spoke first, “We know that households across Australia will be receiving their survey papers in the coming days,” she said.

“And we are here to urge people to fill their papers in straight away.”

Bill Shorten was next, “Australia’s modern families come in all shapes and sizes, I think it’s long overdue for the law to catch up with the way in which millions of Australians are already constructing their lives,” he said.

“Today the survey goes out, about 600,000 of the 16 million surveys will be posted today.

“Tick the ‘Yes’ box and we can get this done before Christmas.”

Showtime! Bill Shorten introducing Eddie to the media. Photo: Ian Campbell
Showtime! Bill Shorten introducing Eddie to the media. Photo: Ian Campbell

Mr Shorten then introduced Eddie to the media pack.

Eddie had continued to tweak his statement over breakfast that morning, the nicely typed one pager replaced by his own hand written thoughts.

With many of those assembled blubbering quietly (Ms Plibersek included) – Eddie nailed it.

“People who know my family, know that there is nothing wrong with us.

“We play soccer in the winter and volunteer for the surf club in the summer,” he said.

“I have two parents, they love me and they love each other, all couples and all families deserve the same respect and value.”

#Tathra's Eddie Blewett talks to the media pack at Parliament House, Canberra with Bill Shorten MP Mike Kelly MP, and Tanya Plibersek, asking #Australia to get this done and say YES for Rainbow Families.Ian

Posted by About Regional on Monday, 11 September 2017

 

More mingling and private discussion followed (the soccer game resumed) as well as one on one media interviews and photo requests.

Eddie, Neroli, and Claire handled it all with grace. The support of local media at home the day before helped with that – Fairfax, ABC South East, Power FM and 2EC, all recognised Eddie’s courage early and helped build confidence and momentum.

At about 12:30 we got our patch of grass back, mind you, we’d been sharing it from the very start with a large group of people wearing yellow and practicing Tai Chi. There must have been at least 50 of them highlighting the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China (note to self, find out more one day).

At 1:30 Ms Plibersek said she would take Eddie’s message to the floor of parliament in a session that runs before Question Time known as ‘Ninety Second Member Statements’.

Buggered and hungry for shade (we’d come prepared for Canberra cold not sunshine) we moved inside for coffee ready for 1:30.

Having half undressed to pass through security we took our green seats in the public gallery of the House of Representatives just as Ms Plibersek rose to her feet…

Earlier today, the Leader of the Opposition and I met with three very special people. Eddie Blewett, and his mums Claire and Neroli – from Tathra, NSW.

I had hoped that since they were last here, about a year ago now, that the Parliament would have done its job and legislated for marriage equality.

Sadly, the Prime Minister has delivered a ridiculous $122 million postal survey instead.

None of us wanted it, but we’re determined to win it.

We’ve already seen the vitriol that Malcolm Turnbull’s postal survey is inflicting on LGBTI Australians, their families, and friends.

I know that the next few weeks are going to be tough for young people like Eddie, and for his mums.

But today we say, we stand with you. We’ve got your back.

Ballot papers will be arriving in people’s letterboxes over the coming days.

I urge people to fill out their ballots, and post them back as soon as possible.

I urge people to vote yes.

I’m voting yes, for families like Eddie, Claire, Neroli’s.

I’m voting yes for the person I’ve never met – a young person in a country town who might be struggling with their sexuality.

I’m voting yes because I want to live in country that supports equal rights for all its citizens.

I asked Eddie this morning if he had anything he’d like me say for him in the Parliament.

He said:

“Voting ‘yes’ takes nothing away from anyone, but voting ‘no’ will take something away from me and my mums.”

Thank you so much for coming to Parliament today.

Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

By that stage, media coverage was starting to appear – News Corp, SBS, the Huffington Post, the Canberra Times. 

On the way home, we heard about our day on ABC Radio’s PM program, and some of the group were home in time to flick between the various TV news bulletins between 6 and 7:30pm, most featuring Eddie.

Eddie chatting to SBS News with Neroli and Claire. Photo: Ian Campbell
Eddie chatting to SBS News with Neroli and Claire. Photo: Ian Campbell

A week on I am left appreciating the power people have when they speak up and share genuine experience. I think we all knew that to be the case as we travelled up the Brown that morning but it was terrific and reassuring to see it at work.

Eddie, Claire, and Neroli made this on going discussion real. Real for politicians who will ultimately decided the future of same-sex marriage, real for the media who are no doubt bored of covering this issue, and real for the 16 million ordinary Australian’s who are casting judgement.

What I also love is that country voices carried weight in the city that day, and perhaps our ‘countryness’ was part of our appeal – we represented a group of people who hadn’t been heard.

Most of all I love that my kids stood shoulder to shoulder with their friend Eddie. They saw the power of thoughtful, respectful debate.

“Dad if people can just see Eddie’s face when they fill in their ballot paper, then it’s been a successful day,” one of my boys said.

As an aside, there has been no acknowledgment from the PM to date, Eddie’s invitation to meet with him stands, this isn’t political for Eddie and his family – this is life.

Daniel Champagne goes back to school ahead of his tour of South East NSW and the ACT

Class five at Mumbulla School in Bega played host to a star from their alumni today (June 14, 2017) ahead of a big gig at the school on Saturday night.

Over the next week, Daniel Champagne will also play in Braidwood, Jindabyne, Nowra, Canberra, and Sydney, check his website for ticket info.

Thanks for tuning in, the craft of video editing is new, baby steps! Stay tuned for part two, the kids get to ask the questions!

You might also be interested in catching up on the last time About Regional chatted with Daniel.

Cheers
Ian

South East NSW makes its pitch for jobs from Canberra

Barnaby Joyce, pic from Sportsbet
Barnaby Joyce, pic from Sportsbet

South East NSW is pitching itself as a new home for a range of Federal Government departments.

Following the political and media stink around the relocation of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) from Canberra to Armidale, a Senate inquiry was established to investigate elements of the decision by Agriculture Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and local member for Armidale, the National’s Barnaby Joyce.

However, the work of the committee has been seen as bigger than just the issue of the APVMA as regional leaders look to fertilise a deeper discussion around moving public service jobs out of Canberra, all looking for a greater share of the $16.7 billion annual wages bill for their local economies.

Headed by Labor Senator Jenny McAllister, the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration held hearings in Townsville last week. Bega Valley Mayor Kristy McBain was one of five local government officials from around New South Wales invited to phone in and take part in the discussion.

The invitation to speak came after the committee had considered written submissions.

Apart from Bega Valley Shire Council, Snowy Monaro and Eurobodalla councils also provided written advice to the committee, along with the Canberra Region Joint Organisation.

All of the local submissions declared the region as an ideal location for Commonwealth investment and backed the idea of decentralisation.

Kristy McBain, pic from Bega Valley Shire Council
Kristy McBain, pic from Bega Valley Shire Council

In his submission, Snowy Monaro Administrator Dean Lynch spoke of the boost such a move would be for the local economy and pointed to an available workforce.

Andrew Greenway, from Eurobodalla Shire, highlighted lifestyle advantages and the benefits that had for staff retention.

Bega Valley Mayor, Kristy McBain pointed to the region’s proximity to Canberra, Sydney, and Melbourne and the private investment that would follow.

Senator McAllister says the terms of reference of her committee are narrow and focused on the APVMA decision, none the less local government and regional business organisations from around the country have seized on the opportunity to put a stake in the ground.

Among the 200 written submissions were councils from the Mallee, Longreach, Manning Valley, Colac, and the Spencer Gulf along with groups like Australian Wool Growers, NSW Business Chamber, the Winemakers Federation and the Country Women’s Association.

Listening to the live stream on Friday morning as Cr McBain spoke, Senator McAllister and fellow committee member Senator Bridget McKenzie seemed to encourage that wider discussion, moving beyond the APVMA.

All those on the call were asked if their region had been considered along with Armidale as a new base from the APVMA, all answered, “Not as far as I know” and the conversation quickly moved on.

Both senators went on to point to the separate but related process underway within the Turnbull Cabinet, where the Minster for Regional Development, Senator Fiona Nash is developing the Government’s broader decentralisation policy which will be released later this year.

Speaking at the National Press Club in April, Senator Nash said regional Australians deserved the jobs and opportunities that come with government agencies.

“When government invests in community it breeds confidence,” Senator Nash said.

Fiona Nash, pic from ABC
Fiona Nash, pic from ABC

She went on to explain the process all Federal ministers are currently involved in, which asks them to detail the departments, entities or functions that might be suitable for relocation to a regional area.

“We are not going to leave any stone unturned in looking for those agencies that could be relocated to the regions for the benefit of the regions,” Senator Nash told the Press Club.

Danielle Mulholland, President of the Northern Rivers Regional Organisation of Councils and Mayor of Kyogle, told Senator McAllister that she is keen for the government to better definition ‘the regions’.

At the moment a regional community is seen as being one that lives at least 150km from a capital city.

“That’s a really loose definition,” Cr Mulholland said.

She fears authentic regional communities might miss out with a 150km starting line.

It’s a point echoed in the written submission from Snowy Monaro Regional Council and the Canberra Region Joint Organisation in regards to Cooma, which is just 116km from Canberra.

Dean Lynch from Snowy Monaro, in fact contends that regional areas around the ACT should be “initial priorities” and that Cooma’s proximity would “facilitate an easier transition from existing to new workplaces” for Commonwealth staff.

Cooma to Canberra, 116km.
Cooma to Canberra, 116km.

As the phone panel’s assessment of decentralisation evolved on Friday, Bega Valley Mayor, Kristy McBain said there also needed to be a synergy between the agency being relocated and the new host town for the process to be a win-win.

“From our point of view, it would have to be an agency or a department that had a natural fit with our area,” Cr McBain told the Senate committee.

From a Eurobodalla perspective, Business Development boss, Andrew Greenway believes that includes agencies responsible for regional communications, marine services, sciences and safety, regional development, regional transport, aged care, tourism, and education.

Both Snowy Monaro and Bega Valley also point to agriculture and environmental management services.

“We are going to have a big conversation around this over the next six months,” Senator McKenzie said.

All those on the call encouraged the two Senators in their suggestion that there should be a parliamentary committee formed with broader terms of reference than their own to fully develop a transparent and fair criteria and assessment process around decentralisation – the suggestion being, to avoid the allegation of political pork barrelling that has been leveled at Barnaby Joyce in the APVMA decision.

The findings of Senator McAllister’s committee will be delivered in June, it’s understood Turnbull Cabinet ministers have until August to complete their departmental reviews and report back to Senator Nash.

With 83% of Commonwealth employment located in Canberra or the five largest Australian cities, the potential of shifting some of that into regional areas is huge, hence the level of interest. In the Bega Valley’s submission, Cr McBain points to NSW Government data that estimates for each public sector job in a regional area, two jobs are created in the private sector.

However, “Government can’t fix everything,” warned Senator Nash at the Press Club, signaling that the Turnbull Government would be looking to partnerships with local government and the community more broadly as decentralisation rolls out.

It would appear that regional Australia is interested to know more and ready to play its part.

Disclaimer: Author is part time media officer for Bega Valley Shire Council