What motivates an extremely intelligent, thoughtful and vivacious woman, who possess a science degree, who has years of teaching and small business experience, to enter the sometimes-brutal fray we call ‘state politics’?
Gippsland’s own Melina Bath has done exactly that.
Melina is an upper house (Legislative Council) member for Eastern Victoria, a huge electorate that extends from near the eastern shores of Port Phillip Bay all the way across Gippsland to the NSW border, encompassing the High Country – a single electorate of 41,556 km².
The Gippslander had an opportunity to sit down and chat with Melina for over an hour; a rare occasion in this modern age when politicians are effectively on call 24/7 and constantly on the move. It soon becomes obvious what motivated this well-educated and experienced woman to offer herself as a representative of the people of Gippsland in the state parliament. Melina is proudly Gippsland; she has the blood of pioneering Gippsland farming stock coursing through her veins which seems to have infused in her a highly developed level of empathy for the people of her region.
“This job is never about you; it’s all about the people”, says Melina, giving an insight into a humble demeanour and a slight tendency to be self-effacing; that’s in stark contrast to the bluster and braggadocio we witness from too many politicians trying to win fame through media exposure. Even the ancient Greeks recognised that humility empties the person of self-centredness and puffed up pride; it has been lauded for millennia and forms part of our cultural heritage. How refreshing to find it in one of our elected representatives. Melina is given, during conversation, to thoughtful pauses, as she seriously ponders points of discussion. She is a patient listener; her responses are insightful, measured.
Melina grew up on a dairy farm at Fish Creek and fondly remembers family dining experiences where politics and rural issues were robustly discussed. While growing up as a typical farm girl who enjoyed the mysteries and adventures to be had on a working farm, she became very aware of some of the giants of Gippsland politics at the time; people such as former federal agriculture minister Peter McGauran, Peter Ryan and Peter Hall, former state ministers. She described them as ‘men of integrity’, who were passionate about rural people. Melina says that when the opportunity came to represent Gippsland people in the Victoria parliament, she decided to back herself, because she had the same enduring passion for Gippsland that she saw in those that went before her.
‘Those who went before her’ includes Melina’s great, great, great grandfather, Richard Richardson, who was elected to the Victorian colonial parliament in 1874. The culmination of his political career was his appointment as Minister of Lands and Agriculture in 1880, during the premiership of Sir Graham Berry. Ironically, and amusingly, it was Sir Graham Berry who vigorously tried to abolish Victoria’s upper parliamentary chamber as a tactic to choke the hold of the squatting class on Victorian politics. Sir Graham Berry’s failure is why the great, great, great granddaughter of one of his ministers can today take her place in Victoria’s upper house of review.
While growing up on the family dairy farm, getting her hands dirty and being stimulated by the wonders the natural world and mother nature often throws into the faces of farm kids, Melina attended Foster Secondary College. Later it was Melbourne University, graduating with a Science Degree with majors in chemistry, botany and zoology and quickly followed by a Diploma of Education. In Melbourne, Melina joined the Young Nationals, whom she described as like-minded young country people and then, gradually, progressed into National Party deliberations
After travelling overseas, to England, the United States and Europe, Melina returned to Leongatha, there she raised two boys who were keen soccer devotees. Melina became secretary of the Leongatha Soccer Club; a position she held for 10 years – that’s taking the stereotypical Soccer Mum to a whole new level of commitment!
Melina also nursed her terminally ill father through his final years. She says she and her father were very close and it is not difficult to imagine the depth of feeling and commitment required during that time. The effect shows, as Melina is quite passionate about good health services and wants to see further development of the Latrobe Regional Hospital as a deliverer of top quality services and as a provider of employment for local people. She also wants local industry to form closer ties with schools to show career pathways to students. That makes a lot of sense when you consider that the relevance of Pythagoras’ theorem to the real world seems awfully vague when you are 15 or 16 and school days are dragging interminably. Melina also understands, from her own experiences, the great difficulties associated with attending university in a capital city, far from home. It is expensive. She sees wonderful opportunities for Gippslanders with the presence of Federation University and the possibilities associated with closer ties between schools and businesses.
Melina also found time to run a major health foods business in Leongatha for 10 years, then returned to her chosen occupation, teaching. Melina was head of mathematics at Mirboo North Secondary College, where she taught maths and science for 9 years; one can but imagine the levels of patience required teaching mathematics to numerically challenged students. Melina’s demeanour signals patience in abundance. How refreshing to meet a politician driven more by her real-world experiences and natural empathy towards people; too many of today’s politicians are described as ‘conviction politicians’, but seem to be driven by an ideological agenda.
First impressions of Melina Bath’s office are how expansive, uncluttered, unostentatiously tasteful and functional it is, without being utilitarian. It is neat and nothing is out of place. Her desk is uncluttered and that perhaps mirrors her thinking, for Melina’s mind attacks issues in a similarly uncomplicated manner; no histrionics; no impatience; no grandiloquence; no magniloquence; a teacher’s approach; a mathematical and scientific mind at work. A very large map of the Gippsland region adorns the wall and Melina points to it with obvious enthusiasm over the varied landscapes, towns and villages and the plethora of people she must necessarily visit with.
Her mind focuses on the Latrobe Valley. Some argue it is the heart and soul of Gippsland, with its huge power stations and open-cut coal mines which combine to provide Victorians and indeed the national electricity grid with relatively cheap electricity. Even the regions famous dairy farms, heavy users of electricity, now coming to terms with global market oversupply and lower returns, are given competitive advantages because of the generation capabilities the people of ‘The Valley’ have specialised in for generations.
All is not well.
As Melina points to the Latrobe Valley on her regional map, she shows a very obvious and deep concern for the industry’s workers, the people and the businesses, that will be affected by the announced closure of the huge Hazelwood Power Station. Her concentration narrows and she can visualize the chaos and panic this announcement will have upon her constituents.
“There will be serious flow-on effects from this closure”, she points out. “Mums stop taking their kids to Tai-Kwando when jobs fail; people shop less; businesses close”.
“The government deserves a whack for this; they’ve known for years this was coming”.
Her incisive mind gives rise to a controlled anger as Melina focuses on and gives voice to the injustice that is being wrought on the Latrobe Valley and across Gippsland.
“The closure of Hazelwood should have been staged. Governments propped up the car industry for years, knowing that closure was inevitable, so why can’t government prop up the Hazelwood Power Station long enough for workers to transition into other industries?”
”Coal is a valuable resource that we have in abundance and it should continue as part of the energy mix and as a source of Gippsland jobs and prosperity”, she said.
Melina pointed out that unemployment in the Valley is already greater than 10% and in Morwell it is an outrageous 19%. Her temper rises when she gives the example of a Warragul engineering business that has already downsized from 7 to 2 employees as it is obvious contracts will not continue. Worse, that same company has invested millions in specialist equipment that is used specifically to service the power stations.
“This is a travesty”, she says.
It’s not hard to agree.
Melina Bath MLC is angry that people from outside the region are making decisions that are hurting Gippslanders.
Melina Bath, the soccer mum, scientist, school teacher, business woman, feels for the people she says she is honoured to represent.
She is hurting for them.