Constituency question – My question is for the Minister for Water. What measures is the Victorian government taking to examine the validity of Professor Peter Gell’s claims that the South Australian lower lakes were not fresh water but estuarine prior to human intervention in the 20th century? Professor Gell’s peer-reviewed scientific evidence was published in the CSIRO’s Journal of Pacific Conservation Biology, and was discussed by numerous media outlets last month. Should Professor Gell’s work be accurate, many assumptions underpinning the Murray-Darling Basin plan and the delivery of fresh water from the Murray to South Australia need to be re-examined. Last week the fresh water flow to the sea from the lower lakes saw 38 barrages open. It is concerning that this precious water commodity is potentially being wasted if Professor Gell’s research is correct.
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Report on the Appointment of a Person to Conduct the Financial Audit of the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office
I am pleased to rise and speak on this Report on the Appointment of a Person to Conduct the Financial Audit of the Victorian Auditor‑General’s Office. The history of the Victorian Auditor‑General’s Office is deeply entwined with the history of Victoria. Both officially came into existence in 1851. Previously a part of New South Wales, the creation of Victoria began in 1840 with Henry Gisborne’s petition to separate the colonies. It would be 21 years before the idea of a Victoria independent from New South Wales would be realised. Coinciding with the 1851 foundation of the colony of Victoria and the appointment of Charles Ebden as the first Auditor‑General was the discovery of gold near Ballarat. Within a decade the small colony of some 70 000 people would swell to half a million, propelled by this gold economic boom. The history of Victoria could not have been successful without the appreciation and the application of prudent economic principles such as transparency and accountability—principles championed then by the Auditor‑General.
Initially the Victorian Auditor‑General was tasked with looking at the then independent colony’s finances, but this was later broadened to examine the public service, and later the entire public sector, and its use of public funds and resources. Today the Auditor‑General has an incredibly wide remit, covering some 550 public sector organisations, including this Parliament. These organisations include but are not limited to all major government departments; 170 companies, trusts and joint ventures; 99 public bodies; half a dozen public cemeteries; a dozen independent budget sector agencies; almost 90 public hospitals and ambulance services; 28 universities and educational institutions; 11 waste and resource recovery groups; 11 regional libraries; 30 water authorities and catchment management authorities; and no less than 79 municipal councils. This is a massive task requiring the application of very stringent rules and regulations. The financial health and integrity of Victoria’s entire public sector depends on this one organisation, which is why the effective auditing of the Auditor‑General’s Office is so critical.
Now I would like to refer to a couple of recent discussions out there in our community around—and I want to get this right—who watches the watchers of the watcher. So this relates to a lot of discussion that has been going on in our community for some time about the big four: KPMG, PwC, EY and Deloitte. These four major companies hold the reins on just about all audit and consulting activities across the world for multinational companies. These are the companies that are generally tasked with the role of auditing most of the big multinational companies. It is interesting to read how those companies have overseen some of the biggest audit failures in history.
Just recently in the Financial Times of London, Britain’s largest accounting firms, it has been suggested, should be broken up to avoid a string of serious audit failures like those that have taken place in the past and to restore some public confidence. What we have seen over a long period of time is that these companies have what they call ‘Chinese walls’ within them. So on the one hand they are watching and auditing and fulfilling those tasks, but on the other hand, and within the same offices, there are a whole lot of people working for government, working for these companies, producing consultancy reports and giving detailed advice around a whole range of issues—financial issues, taxation issues—all of these things. I think the question is now being very seriously asked about whether that is an appropriate task and appropriate business model for those big companies when they are so critical in really determining good practice and good behaviour within companies. So we as a Parliament need to have every faith in the Victorian Auditor‑General’s Office and every faith in those tasked with holding VAGO to account. While this may be one of the driest issues to come before this Parliament, it is very important.
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Adjournment – My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Education, and the action I seek is that he broaden the Shepparton education plan to provide a technical school in Shepparton for the benefit of all schools in our region. The Shepparton education plan is being implemented. The planning is well advanced for the transition phase that will take place over the next two years. The plan commences in 2020 with a new curriculum, greater professional training for teachers and greater opportunities for secondary public school students.
It has been obvious to many in our community that we needed to take drastic steps to improve the educational outcomes of children in the Greater Shepparton region. This is not just about providing a bigger and better building for our students, but it is about improving the curriculum, the standard of teaching and access to alternative and extended educational opportunities for those who need and want them. We know that many young people in regional areas do not have the opportunities and therefore the aspirations that those in metropolitan regions have. It is essential to change this so that our young people know that they can study and dare to achieve and to gain the goals and careers that they want.
During the period of 2015–18 some 10 technical schools were announced and delivered across Victoria. We saw such a school built on the campus of La Trobe University at Bendigo. I visited the Yarra Ranges Tech School at Lilydale, and there is no doubt this is a very high-tech institution that provides expanded educational opportunities beyond what we have previously seen in the secondary school setting. These technical schools are not the traditional trade schools for those students who aspire to trades and the like. They are high-tech schools offering subjects like robotics, 3D printing and computer sciences. One of the outstanding benefits of having a tech school is that once established it will be available to all schools in the region, whether they be primary, secondary, state, Catholic or grammar schools. Students in all schools receive the option to be exposed to these high-tech educational opportunities. In our region La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne and GOTAFE are ideally placed to partner with such a tech school.
The 10 tech schools that have already been opened include locations in Ballarat, Geelong, Gippsland and, as mentioned, Bendigo. Greater Shepparton is the obvious next region to receive such a school, and I believe such an investment in our community will provide great opportunities for future generations of students. Our local industries are forging ahead and are crying out for workers skilled in developing high-tech industries, including the fields of agricultural automation, food and fibre production, engineering and information technology. Minister, I ask that you deliver a high-tech school and an education hub in Greater Shepparton as an important part of the Shepparton education plan.
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Members Statement – Many in this place will have heard me advocate for better educational outcomes for young people in regional areas and in particular for those living within the Greater Shepparton region. There is an abundance of evidence showing that students in regional areas have poorer outcomes than those in metropolitan areas. I was shocked to learn after being elected that four of our secondary colleges in Greater Shepparton had outcomes well below the Victorian state average and are continuing to decline. In addition to this, three of our four secondary colleges had experienced seriously declining enrolments over many years. This trend had been clearly evident for a long time. But what advocacy was there from any government over those years or indeed from our own local Liberal and National Party representatives to raise this matter? Where was the advocacy on behalf of our young people to help them achieve and obtain access to the very best educational opportunities? There was no such advocacy.
My goal at all times had been to seek that all children and young people have a positive future and that our families, schools and community will help them get there through learning and caring. Never before have we had the prospect of such a significant investment in the future of education provision for our young people. It will not be easy. There will be some pain with such transformative change, but I believe the Shepparton education plan is a project that will ensure our children’s future. We all want our young people to have the chance to get the very best education possible, and I ask all our families and our community to continue to support achieving this outcome.
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I rise to make a contribution on this important piece of legislation. We are all aware of this issue. I think it has been on our agendas for a very long time, in particular out in our communities and clearly at a government level. I believe there is a strong desire in the broader community to deal with the issue of plastic bags in our environment.
This bill will prohibit the provision of certain plastic bags by retailers and false and misleading information relating to plastic bags, and it will also make a range of other consequential amendments to the main act. It is worth noting the definition of ‘banned plastic bag’, as set out in clause 4 of the bill. This term means a bag, other than an exempt plastic bag, with handles, and that comprises, either wholly or in part, plastic, whether or not that plastic is biodegradable, degradable or compostable and has a thickness of 35 micrometres or less at any part of the bag. The definition includes biodegradable, degradable and compostable bags, but the inclusion of these bags is not to limit the scope but rather to avoid the sort of confusion that is likely to occur otherwise. The definition allows for specific types of bags to be prescribed as banned plastic bags where a need for certainty might arise in the future. Plastic has become an indispensable part of our modern-day life. We rely on it in so many ways.
Obviously shopping is one of those very obvious activities where we have been provided with plastic bags for our own convenience for so many years. We have heard many accounts of how people have gradually changed their behaviour. The kitchen is just another place where the use of plastic is so prevalent, whether it be our garbage bags, our compost bags or our Glad wrap to cover and help preserve food or to wrap lunches. It is interesting to reflect on how humans can change their behaviour. We have seen how effective campaigns can be to change people’s behaviour. That has been extraordinarily evident with the Quit campaign. The banning of plastic bags has been something discussed for many years and has been a long time coming to Victoria. This is particularly so when one considers that they banned plastic bags in Bangladesh some 25 years ago. Other states and territories are also on board.
So how are people coping with the gradual removal? And how will they cope with the sudden removal when this legislation is enacted? One of the things that I have noticed over the years is that people are certainly bringing their own bags in large numbers to the supermarket. When you walk through a supermarket car park and look in the back seats of people’s cars, or indeed just about anywhere, there are supermarket bags tucked on the back seat or behind the front seats. I think people are becoming very aware of the need to be ready for that quick stop or the big supermarket shop. Community groups in my electorate for several years have been selling Boomerang Bags. I have to say that I thought they were peculiar to my electorate, but they are everywhere, very clearly, and for good reason. Community groups have been engaged in making them for a long time. They are free to pick up at a lot of independent supermarkets. The very name of them suggests that you are meant to take them back, but they are readily available to you.
Just last week in our local newspaper there was an article about a young woman who has opened the first zero waste shop in Shepparton. Ms Kelly Dreyer has been passionate for a long time about the issue of dealing with waste. She has three young children, and she was noticing just how much plastic was being used in her home. Having just recently opened the store she said she was delighted to see the number of people who are coming into the shop with their own jars, their own containers, to purchase food in bulk—food such as flowers, grains, nuts, seeds, teas, herbs spices and even breakfast cereals. People actually want better ways to do things, to manage the environmental challenges, and businesses such as these are really grasping the opportunity to tune into what people are looking for and to help them find a more environmentally friendly way of doing business.
We are told that this bill represents just one in a suite of proposals that the government is working on to reduce plastic pollution and move towards a more circular economy to deal with waste and encourage re‑use and recovery of product. I think we have all seen some great stories, including the one I saw on television the other day where they are making railway sleepers in Mildura from plastic by-products. Those sorts of initiatives are out there, and it is great to see people wanting to adopt them.
We had a large farm area covered in tyres at Numurkah over the course of the last few years, and it is only this year that all those tyres have been removed. Of course they present an opportunity for significant recycling in the making of other products. We have been very slow, I think, in Australia to face the challenges of recycling. I recently felt quite ashamed when I was looking on television and saw an Indonesian village worker burning plastic, drawing it from a bale of disgusting rubbish that we in Australia had exported to that country. So we have not dealt with our own problem. We have been exporting it for years, and we have not even been doing that well. I think China has brought home to us very clearly recently, by stopping the import of our rubbish, the fact that we could not even be bothered to separate it satisfactorily. We could not be bothered to make sure that our rubbish was not contaminated with product that would prevent it being recycled. So we have really been blindsided by this issue, and we are now having to face a situation that is really critical out there in our communities. We are finding ourselves truly and literally in a mess.
In Shepparton at our home properties we have three garbage bins. This enables us to separate recyclables, green waste and rubbish. It has been an interesting journey. Greater Shepparton City Council introduced this several years ago to encourage that separation of waste product, and it was very successful. Of course they, like everyone, are faced with the issues around what we are going to do with our waste product at the moment, but that has led to people becoming much more aware. I know that people have become very engaged in separating their recyclables into the blue and their others into the green. Many now have very little rubbish in their actual rubbish bin, so I think that is a very pleasing outcome.
Waste and plastics in our waterways, we all know—and I have heard many of the other members speak about this—is a shocking problem. Out in my electorate it is similarly one, because we have two major rivers and various creeks. Of course people who are very dedicated to looking after them are constantly raising issues with me about the rubbish and waste that they find in our rivers. We know that causes a lot of damage to wildlife in our river systems and ultimately in the sea. Several years ago I took a trip up to northern Queensland, a camping trip, and had a camp set up near Chilli Beach. This is a magnificent stretch of beach in northern Queensland, and when I walked out onto it I was horrified to see the amount of rubbish that had been deposited there all up and down the beach by passing boats and ships which were just disposing of their rubbish by throwing it overboard. A pristine, beautiful beach in northern Queensland was effectively a rubbish dump, and people were going back down with bags wanting to clean it up because they were truly horrified to see that such a thing could happen in such a remote place.
We need to address the issue of refunds on bottles and cans. I was listening to ABC radio in Albury just the other day, and apparently it is an offence for people in Victoria to take their cans and bottles over the border and collect refunds there, which sounds like a pretty extraordinary situation. It is best that there is a national approach to it, and the sooner the better. I think we are now acutely aware that our environment is delicate and it is precious and that we have got to stop trashing it. We have been doing it for years, and it really must stop. I believe there is great support for a change of behaviour and for innovation in this area. I note that from the consultations that were undertaken in relation to this bill the government says that so many widely supported it, whether it be industry groups, environmental groups, consumers, local government or others. The appetite is certainly there. This is a start, but there is so much more to be done. I am pleased to support the bill before the house.