I am pleased to rise to speak on the budget reply motion. It seems like a long time ago that the budget was announced here in Parliament, and yet it is not that long. The fact that we had two budgets last year also disorients us a bit I think in terms of what is happening and how our communities are getting along.
I would like to start by focusing more on my electorate and how it has fared through budgets and of course through the current pandemic. I think the context of this last budget has been quite different. During 2020 there was certainly a very significant push to keep the economy on track, to fund major projects and to fund many other projects that were shovel-ready, with a view to keeping the economy going, keeping people in employment and dealing with what was really the great unknown. This budget, the 2021–22 budget, is really a more modest budget. It seems to me that there are not as many blue-sky projects but it is really a case of government holding the fort. Even though there is very considerable expenditure in it, it is more about providing somewhat of a backbone to keep our communities together. Many of our communities have felt very isolated during the last 16 or 18 months since the pandemic started, and I think those lockdown periods, when we see deserted streets, deserted communities, have a real impact certainly on people’s mental health but also on their sense of wellbeing, on their capacity to really understand how they might cope going forward, whether it be financially or in their businesses and the like.
It has been very pleasing coming from a rural community to see that in 2020 we had good rains after several years of very dry weather and really worrying drought, and so that rain last year and again this year has seen excellent cropping and it has seen the dairy industry doing really well. That has been an incredible boost for our agricultural and horticultural communities, and in particular in my district. So amongst what has been a very stressful time there are businesses that have really thrived and done well and others that are always at the mercy of the elements that have also done well.
My electorate has been the welcome recipient of a number of budget spends, with close to $1 billion being spent over the last seven years since I have been representing the Shepparton district. It has been an investment that we never saw before, and it has been an investment that was really needed. The investment has been spent on essential infrastructure—things like rail, health, education and agricultural aspects as well. In relation to rail we have had something like $356 million invested by the Victorian state government, and that was for stages 1 and 2. And then we saw a deal struck with the federal government whereby another $320 million was invested that will see nine V/Locity trains a day travelling between Melbourne and Shepparton—something that many of us would never have imagined when we came to Melbourne on an old rickety train at 6 o’clock in the morning, many in our pyjamas, to demonstrate on the steps of Parliament just to show how much we wanted something done about rail in our region. It has been a great boost to have increased services already—to know that these better, faster services are well on their way and that the works are underway now.
In health we have also seen stage 2 of Goulburn Valley Health built, a five-storey tower at the north end of the city which is really quite astounding. It is providing services now that were rehoused from really just a patchwork of other buildings and other departments around what was becoming quite a shabby hospital. A new emergency department, a new special care nursery, a new paediatric ward, new theatres, new wards for patients—these things all make the city of Shepparton in itself a much better place to live and to work.
One of the recently funded projects was the Arcadia fish hatchery. Now, this is a project whereby the government has decided to spend $7 million to house a fish hatchery on 170 acres of a property just south of Shepparton. It will be a huge fish hatchery that will breed Murray cod and silver perch—all those species that are so important to our iconic Goulburn River and of course the Murray River. Stocking our rivers on a regular basis is something we have to do, and it is great news for the Shepparton district that that has been located so close to Shepparton—and not only that, there is funding now for tourism aspects to go with it. I think we might one day see a huge Murray cod at the front gate of the fish hatchery. Who knows?
There is an opportunity as you head into Shepparton to visit something like the fish hatchery or the new Shepparton Art Museum, which is just astounding but has not yet been formally opened; it will be later in the year. We have got the new fire station in Shepparton that the fire services have recently moved into, and you then see the vista of the new hospital building. So Shepparton in recent years has really come ahead. Of course it is not just about Shepparton; it is about the servicing that we do in a regional city like Shepparton to the whole broader region: up to the Murray and further south towards Nagambie. All these towns and communities benefit from the regional city that they are closest to, where most of their services are provided.
The fish hatchery also has set up a training course in conjunction with TAFE to ensure that we have a large Indigenous group of young people employed at the fish hatchery. It was great to see in this year’s budget $10.7 million go to GOTAFE for their Goulburn Murray Trades Skills Centre redevelopment. More apprentices and students will go on to fill skilled roles in our own community. I think we all know and have heard constantly how difficult it is to recruit skilled people to come to country and regional areas, so educating them as our own homegrown students is really something that is needed and that we aim to do. A lot of the processes are now in place as a result of the Shepparton Education Plan: TAFE, La Trobe University and the Melbourne University rural medical school. All these things are part of the story that will see us be able to provide a lot of that depth of educated people that any community needs. It was excellent to just see La Trobe’s recent graduation of their nursing course. Fifty per cent of those student nurses were employed by Goulburn Valley Health in Shepparton—a great strike rate on any view of it, I would have thought.
Along with the budget we also received a $6.4 million announcement for Queensland fruit fly control in the Goulburn Valley, Sunraysia and the Yarra Valley. Fruit fly is a scourge that you may not all know about, but when you cut open a piece of fruit and see what is inside when it has been infected by fruit fly it is really horrible. It has a very significant economic impact on our orchards around Shepparton. We produce the pears, the peaches and the apples for most of Australia, and the impact of fruit fly on horticulture in our region has been severe.
Interestingly, most of the fruit fly is found in our urban areas, so a lot of this program is about getting people in the urban areas to address the fact that their tomato bushes in the veggie garden, their lemon trees, their pomegranate trees—whatever they have got—are actually seeding fruit fly. A lot of it is about teaching the urban communities about what is going on, because the farmers know about it and they are doing their own work because it is such a huge financial investment for them.
The Verney Road special school received $1 million by way of funding to start looking at its future. It is the main school in Shepparton for children with special needs, children with autism. It is incredibly crowded, and a refurbishment or a full redevelopment is overdue. Work is now well underway following that announcement being made to look at what the future will hold. With the Shepparton Education Plan underway there is real opportunity to start thinking about what we can do for young people in our region who are in mainstream schools but who are not being educated because the education system does not cater to their needs. Very often that is young people with autism. It is a spectrum, as we know, and there is such a huge range of young people who are not being catered to but who sit there not knowing what is going on sometimes.
I am very keen to see this study of special needs in our region look at not just those who are already identified as having special needs but those who are already in mainstream schools and not being catered for. The inquiry conducted by the Family and Community Development Committee of this Parliament when they did a study into autism recommended that there should be an autism school in a regional area, and I say Shepparton is the place that that should be, because we are presently rolling out the Shepparton Education Plan with the full support of the government, which has invested over $140 million in education in Shepparton. There is a real opportunity to do a wraparound of all the needs of all young people, to see that everyone is included in the opportunity to get an education, with that view to actually having a pathway, whatever that might be, when they leave school.
There were many other budget announcements that our community will benefit from although not directed directly to projects in the region. The $200 million School Mental Health Fund will be very welcome. We have projects in our region such as the neighbourhood schools project that will be looking for funding under this stream of funding that has been made available for multidisciplinary teams that can work and identify with children who have suffered significant trauma and provide early therapeutic intervention so that those children have a chance of moving forward.
We will receive a share of the $148 million for the regional Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership. Shepparton has been identified as one of the six sites for that, and already applications are being taken for the first round of students. I am very hopeful that teachers in our region will look to upskilling and taking on new qualifications through that process.
There is $23 million over the next four years for continuing court programs. We have a drug treatment court that will come to Shepparton gradually, and that has proved successful in other places. We want to see reoffending reduced in our communities. There is support for vulnerable families. There is money for improved bus services, and of all the things that Shepparton needs at the moment one is a review of bus services. Our town has expanded, and there are many areas now to the north and south of Shepparton that are not being serviced by buses in the way we would like them to be.
It has been a good budget for Shepparton in a sense, but over the longer term we have seen a real investment that will provide returns to our community in a way that it has been calling out for for so long. It had been neglected for a long time, and we have seen investment in those major areas that really impact people’s lives. Health, education, public transport—all these things really matter.
We are a community that is very dependent on water and irrigation, and we are now at a time when we are seeing opportunity for huge investment in energy. We have over 60 solar farm applications proposed, underway or being considered across the Goulburn Valley region, which is really astounding, and I think we have not thought through as a community—as a government even—a strategy as to where these projects would be, where they would be best utilised and the competition between irrigation, land and energy. There are some really big issues that do need to be looked at as we go forward. I commend the budget.