Speech to the Legislative Assembly – Regional Development Victoria Amendment (Jobs and Infrastructure) Bill 2015

Ms SANDELL — The Greens support this bill to establish a new fund for regional Victoria. Rural and regional Victoria is in my blood. As many people would know, I grew up in Mildura, and my family still lives there. My mother’s family is from a dairy farming community in South Gippsland. There were significant advantages to growing up in the country, but I have also experienced firsthand a lot of the challenges faced by rural and regional communities. I remember how former Premier Jeff Kennett left regional Victoria behind and paid dearly for it. I have seen towns die due to lack of investment, and I do not want to see that continue. To encourage development in rural and regional Victoria there is much we need to do, and it needs to go beyond a marginal seat approach. Of course we need to improve access to services and transport, create jobs and protect livability and livelihoods, but we also need to deal with some of the really big issues that are coming down the line. 

Investments across these areas will enhance each other, and if the state government gets its basic responsibilities right, these regions will thrive. But we need more than a fund that changes every time we get a new government. We need long-term vision and long-term investment. We need certainty for these communities. The Greens have a vision for regional Victoria — it is based on the importance of community services, and it looks with optimism, energy and determination towards a bright future for regional communities. One of the biggest issues facing rural and regional Victoria, which we have not heard much about in this debate, is climate change. Communities are already seeing the consequences of more frequent and extreme bushfires, floods, heatwaves, droughts, storm surges and other climate change-related events.

Unfortunately due to the lack of leadership of successive governments of all colours, and their refusal to give climate change the investment and attention it so desperately needs — including in this week’s state budget — many of the impacts are already being felt and are already unavoidable. That is heartbreaking. But we can still avoid some of the worst impacts, and I hope a fund such as this would invest in projects to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and would fund adaptation measures. One of the most important things we must do is transform the energy sector, and we need to do it fast. The Latrobe Valley is a case in point. Everyone in this room should know — the local community knows, unions know and even the owners of power stations know — that coal-fired power stations like Hazelwood are going to close. It is inevitable.

 Hazelwood is the dirtiest power station in Australia and one of the dirtiest in the world. The health impacts are immense and the economic costs associated with that are astronomical. Other countries are moving away from coal — the USA has already shut down one-fifth of its coal-fired power stations. The government has a choice — it can leave the workers of the Latrobe Valley and their families stranded when the company leaves its unprofitable asset to rot, abandoning the community, as happened during privatisation, or it can lead the way now by replacing Hazelwood and proactively developing the community-led transition plan that the Greens and the community are calling for. Working with the community on projects like this should be the top priority for any regional development fund. However, this fund is conspicuously silent on the long-term future for workers at plants like Hazelwood. Governments could just shut their eyes and hope that climate change goes away and coal lasts forever. That is fine, but that is not the reality we are facing. That is not going to happen. Funds like this need to deal with the reality we are facing. A prosthetics factory and some health funding for the Latrobe Valley is a good start, but it is not a comprehensive plan for a community-led government-supported transition plan, which is what the Latrobe Valley needs. I seek an assurance from the government that in allocating money from this fund it will actively prioritise communities with an urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels towards a sustainable economy, with real jobs that people can rely on.

The priority must be shutting down our dirtiest power stations at Hazelwood and Anglesea, and supporting those communities through that transition. Sustainability and the development of sustainable industries should be key criteria in deciding where any money in regional Victoria goes. Putting money into so-called clean coal projects in a desperate attempt to appease companies which want to turn huge profits at the expense of the climate and the community will never be a way forward for these communities. They need a real transition away from coal, and there are so many opportunities to develop new industries. In fact there are existing industries in manufacturing, agriculture, services, health and education, which are real and have no need of brown coal. We know that there are challenges other than climate change and energy facing regional Victoria. The waiting periods for specialists can be months, even years. Hospital and medical services have often been amalgamated or closed. I know firsthand how hard it is to have to travel every month the 600 kilometres from Mildura to Melbourne for specialist cancer treatment when services do not exist at home.

We also know that TAFE is a vital service for rural and regional kids. I was lucky to get a scholarship to go to university in the city, but I had to move 600 kilometres away from home to do it. That is not possible nor is it desirable for everyone. It is important for our kids to get a real education that is accessible to them. Unfortunately in this budget Labor has put back less than a third of the TAFE funding that was cut by the Liberals. No government can be seen to be serious about regional Victoria if it abandons our TAFE sector. We also know that transport in regional Victoria is often neglected but is very much needed. I was not able to ride my bike the 600 kilometres to go to university each week, but I would like to see somebody try that. I was also not able to catch public transport, because there is no train to Mildura; it was cut by previous governments. Former Premier Bracks promised to put it back but that has not eventuated. Public transport is vital to any community, especially in regional Victoria, where towns are spread out. The Greens have a vision for better public transport in our regional communities. Boosting V/Line coach services by 50 per cent would be good idea, and big improvements in rail timetables to run more frequent services with better connections, even to small towns along way from Melbourne, would be a good idea. It would also make it easier for tourists to travel to regional Victoria independently, which in turn means more investment in these areas.

Currently if we look at somewhere like the Great Ocean Road, there are only three V/Line coach services per week from Apollo Bay to Warrnambool. Nobody lingers or travels along the road by public transport, hopping on and off like they do at other great destinations. Tourist coaches go in and come out again, and they do not invest. V/Line services to places like Geelong have been getting worse, with many being severely overcrowded and taking longer than they did five years ago. I recently read Steve Bracks’s biography in which he said that it was great that you can get from Melbourne to Geelong by train in only 45 minutes. I have been getting trains to Geelong for many years, and I do not think it has ever taken 45 minutes. We also need better bike infrastructure in regional Victoria for locals and for tourists. We know that investing in transport, health and education creates jobs. But if we had a real vision for sustainable energy in rural Victoria, we could make rural and regional Victoria a clean energy powerhouse. It is a wonderful vision to hold. One megawatt of wind equals $1.5 million of investment, and solar power already creates many regional jobs and saves communities on their power bills.

 In fact Sunraysia gets more sun each year than the Sunshine Coast. We should also be investing in new technologies such as biomass and geothermal energy, looking into things that will create jobs and clean energy across Victoria. Currently none of this is growing in the way it should be, because state and federal governments do not have the appropriate policies. Labor does not have the policies, and the Liberals and The Nationals are continuing their ideological crusade against climate action, renewable energy and environmental protection, which is to the detriment of people in rural and regional Victoria. The Greens know that targeted investment that focuses on renewable technology rather than coal and unconventional gas can also protect prime agricultural land from encroachment, including from urban sprawl and gas drilling. Food exports can sustain our export profile when the aluminium and motor vehicle industries are gone. And we know that unconventional gas is the wrong way to go. Rural and regional communities are already telling us this, and it is now time to support them.

Governments and parties that do not see that coal seam gas is the wrong way to go will pay dearly at the ballot box, just as they did in Ballina and Lismore in the recent New South Wales election. How can we forget the environment? Regional Victoria encompasses many of the magnificent natural wonders of our state, from our spectacular coastline to the extraordinarily biodiverse native forests and river systems, and our grasslands. It is a precious natural environment. But so many of our natural spaces, which are so important to rural and regional Victoria, are under threat. Deep cuts to funding for Parks Victoria under the coalition mean that people charged with managing our most precious natural areas are stretched impossibly thin. It is good to see some investment in Parks Victoria in this budget, and I commend the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water on that. But it is just the start of what we need to protect our natural assets.

 Historically governments have allowed themselves to be beholden to destructive industries that have no regard for the value of our environment and in the process actually cost taxpayers money. For example, the logging industry here in Victoria costs Victorians money and has sent our faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum, to near extinction. It also divides local communities. Instead we could have the Great Forest National Park, creating jobs, a sustainable tourism industry and saving taxpayers money. And we have allowed super-trawlers to come into our waters, damaging the local and recreational fishing industries and our precious environment. I hope that none of these types of projects will be supported in the regional development fund. It is not good enough that we have put the environment on the backburner. We must do better. If we do, it will have huge benefits for rural and regional Victoria. I reassert that the Greens support this fund. However, we need to move beyond a marginal seat, short-term approach to regional Victoria.

We need a longer term vision. It is one the Greens have put forward, and these are ideas that regional Australia wants and needs, as was evidenced by the rise in the Green vote across regional Victoria, mostly at the expense of The Nationals, who have been so tied to the mining industry, and the Liberal Party, which has that forgotten about its regional constituents. The evidence is the seats of Ballina and Lismore in New South Wales. The Greens is the new home of people who want a bright future for regional communities. I want to end by paying tribute to Senator Christine Milne, a dairy farmer’s daughter, who has stepped down today as the Greens leader. She has done an incredible job, particularly for regional Australia.

 I express my heartfelt thanks to her, especially for her work on climate action. Rural and regional Victoria is where I grew up. I know it intimately. It has been my family’s home for generations, and it is one of the best parts of the world. Let us give it the attention and vision it deserves for the long-term. 

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