Small Business Regional and Rural Development Infrastructure Local Issues

Regional and Rural Infrastructure Funding

24 June 2015

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I rise to make a contribution on the matter of public importance proposed in my name. It is disappointing that The Nationals have to raise this matter of public importance. Leading up to the last election the Premier, then the Leader of the Opposition, constantly talked about the fact that if he were given the privilege to govern Victoria, he would govern for all Victorians. As we have seen over the last six months, that is not the case, particularly as evidenced in the budget. With 25 per cent of the population living outside metropolitan Melbourne, it is remarkable that only 2.9 per cent of the government’s infrastructure spend will occur outside Melbourne. This indicates that there is no focus on the regions in the budget or, from what we hear, by any of the ministers. They are good at going out and visiting country Victoria — I will give them credit for that — but I am yet to hear them make announcements about funding in country Victoria.

I note that the Minister for Education is at the table. The shadow Minister for Education was recently in the electorate of Murray Plains, commenting that there has been no education funding provided for schools north of Wallan. Schools desperately need funding in country Victoria, just as they do in city Victoria, and being in government is about the responsibility of governing for everyone, not just for metropolitan Melbourne.

Mr Merlino — It is the biggest infrastructure spend in history.

Mr WALSH — Yes, but it is not being spent outside Melbourne. There is no school capital funding north of Wallan, west of Beaufort or, as far as I am aware, east of Sale. There is a lot of eastern Victoria east of Sale. As I said in my budget contribution earlier this year, if one looks at the map of Victoria printed in the budget’s regional statement, one sees that East Gippsland is covered by the index. There are no announcements for that part of the state and the index actually covers the area on the map. The government wants to hide the electorate of the member for Gippsland East with the index. Government members should hang their heads in shame because there is no funding for that particular part of the state.

We could do a National Geographic tour right around Victoria on the infrastructure spend that is needed in regional and rural Victoria. We would find that it is just not happening. To its credit, the line item for the Echuca bridge — something that is very dear to my heart as the local member — is still in the budget, but it has ‘TBC’ beside it as to when that money will be spent. In government, we committed that money to the pre‑election budget update for future spend. The money is still in the government’s budget — I will give it credit for that — but when it is going to be spent will be a separate debate to be had another time.

In the 2014–15 budget we allocated the money for the Murray Basin rail project — a great project for north‑west Victoria and one that is essential for Victoria. It had been talked about for decades, but no‑one had done anything about it. The then Independent member for Mildura, Russell Savage, constantly wanted something done about it, but under Premier Steve Bracks and Premier John Brumby the community was led along for years without anything happening. They also led along the Independent member for Mildura who hoped that something might happen. Eventually the people of Mildura saw that the Independent member would never get anything done up there. To the credit of the current member for Mildura, $220 million was committed to that project in the 2014–15 budget. The business case was to be finished late last year or early this year, but at this stage there is no message from the government as to when that project will proceed and no message from the government as to which lines will be standardised or upgraded.

This is a vital project. The constant theme on the Food to Asia strategy coming from all the industry working groups was the need for the freight infrastructure to get product to port. That project for north‑west Victoria is top of the pile. It was funded by the coalition, but there does not seem to be anything being done at the moment by the Labor government. A lot of people tell me that it is the Melbourne Labor government; it is not the Victorian Labor government. Everyone I talk to in country Victoria says it is the Melbourne Labor government because there is no focus to spend outside Melbourne.

One of the things that The Nationals committed to in the lead‑up to the election was a major investment in regional public transport. Some great initiatives were advanced for a number of our regional cities, one of which involved the Greater Shepparton City Council, whose residents would have benefited by having additional train services travelling to and from Shepparton.

Unfortunately, as we admit, we are on this side of the house now and we could not implement that project. But what has this government done? It is not going to put on extra services; it is going to have a review. If we look at the six months since this Melbourne Labor government was elected, every three days on average it has announced a review. This is a government of mirrors: ‘We’re going to have a look into it’. From memory, about 79 reviews have been announced. Labor was supposedly elected to do something — to govern for all of Victoria — but what it has implemented is review after review after review.

Mr T. Bull interjected.

Mr WALSH — I am reliably informed that not 79 reviews but 80 reviews have been implemented over that time. The reason we put forward this matter of public importance is that we want this Melbourne Labor government to focus on sharing some of the largesse of government with country Victoria. We want to see investment in country schools and hospitals, and we particularly want to see investment in transport infrastructure. Labor promised that an extra billion dollars would be invested in regional roads. What did we see in the budget? We saw a 10 per cent reduction in the budget for VicRoads. Despite the promise Labor made in opposition, in government it has reduced the budget for VicRoads.

Our country members talk to local governments. They are currently finalising their budgets and they have red ink everywhere because they are having to cut projects out of their budgets. There is no country roads and bridges program, no Local Government Infrastructure Fund and no Putting Locals First program. Those three programs put real money into local government budgets and delivered real outcomes for country communities. From a roads point of view, rural councils received $1 million each year for four years to help them with their infrastructure gaps. That was probably the most popular program with local government. The number of roads updated, and particularly the bridges upgraded through that program, made a real impact. Those infrastructure gaps were starting to close and now they are going to widen again.

The Putting Locals First program and the Local Government Infrastructure Fund meant that a lot of country halls and community facilities for football and netball clubs got upgrades. But that is all gone now. There is no focus on country Victoria. The country football netball program was a great program that came out of a parliamentary inquiry in the 2002–06 Parliament.

Mr Eren — Started by Labor.

Mr WALSH — Yes, to its credit it was funded by Labor out of the recommendations of that committee, and I will declare an interest because I was a member of that committee. The program was funded by Labor and we continued it, delivering some great outcomes for sporting facilities right across Victoria. There was bipartisan support for that program over a number of years. As I understand it, that program has changed substantially and it is going to be a lot more difficult for country clubs to get money.

Mr Eren interjected.

Mr WALSH — If the Minister for Sport would shut up for a minute and listen, I could make my point. He should talk to the Minister for Roads and Road Safety.

The SPEAKER — Order! The Leader of The Nationals knows full well the standards of the house.

Mr WALSH — If the Minister for Sport would like to listen, he would understand that the sporting programs, complemented by the Local Government Infrastructure Fund and the Putting Locals First program, meant smaller shires and smaller sporting bodies could use some of those programs to ratchet up their contributions so they could have dollar‑for‑dollar matching. The Minister for Sport does not understand how the grants work in his programs. From his interjections it is clear that he does not understand the reality of smaller country councils and smaller sporting bodies and how they find the matching money to get these grants. They were able to do that out of the Local Government Infrastructure Fund, but now Labor is pulling it and the Putting Locals First program. I come back to my point that this MPI has been raised to focus on this Melbourne Labor government and its neglect of country Victoria.

I will finish up on the agriculture issue. The food and fibre produced in this state are among the key drivers of our economy, yet there does not seem to be any focus on agriculture anymore. There is no longer a department of agriculture. The agriculture issue is losing attention because the former department has been rolled into and swallowed up by a bigger department. There is no longer a drive around agriculture and its economic benefits to our state. We all know the great story about the export dollars produced by the agriculture industry here in Victoria. The fact is that about a third of the nation’s food exports come out of this state and are a key driver for the economy. Agriculture creates regional jobs and there is demand for our product coming from the wider world, particularly from the Asian and Middle East markets.

I saw in the press that the Premier has now given a commitment to go to China each year during this term of government. I welcome that; it is an important part of continuing that program. What I find interesting — and the government obviously needs to think it owns the idea — is that when we were in government we went to China every year and we took a lot of businesses with us. Labor is continuing a great program that was started and personally driven by former Premier Ted Baillieu. He made sure there was $50 million in our first budget to drive this program. There is not as much money to drive this program into the future and it is not as focused as it was in the past.

We put forward this MPI to hold the government to account, to push this Melbourne‑centric Labor government to govern and make decisions for all of Victoria. It should not just focus on Melbourne and the needs of suburban communities but focus on the needs of all communities.

Twenty‑five per cent of Victoria’s population lives outside Melbourne. Those people need to have some of the largesse of government spread around their communities, rather than the government just focusing on suburban electorates. It is very sad that six months into a government led by a Premier who said that he would govern for all Victorians, we have to have this matter of public importance before the house just to get the issues back on the agenda.

One thing I would like to finish on is the fact that from a country Victorian point of view, one of our icon organisations is the Country Fire Authority. Members on the other side of the chamber do not give sufficient recognition to the 60 000 volunteers who every year give up time, give up work and put their lives at risk to go out and fight fires. I have not had one minister or one other member on the other side of the house give any credit to Country Fire Authority volunteers; they only ever talk about the paid firefighters.


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