Statement on Budget 2015-16
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the 2015–16 budget.
I was elected to this Parliament as an Independent member.
I stood on the slogan ‘Stand up Shepparton, it’s our turn’.
This statement struck a chord with members of a community who had traditionally voted for the coalition for over 45 years.
For them to turn around and vote for an Independent required a significant change of feeling within the community.
Voters, I think, felt they had shown loyalty to the coalition for a long time but were not getting the infrastructure that they wanted to see in the region.
During the last four years the coalition government committed to building a new courthouse in Shepparton. That is a major development that will service the whole of our region. The roof of the courthouse has been falling in for years. It has had white ants; it has had water coming in through the roof. It has been so overcrowded that the federal circuit courts have had to travel to Cobram just for accommodation. This is something that people had long waited and lobbied for and was finally happening.
There are many other major infrastructure projects that the region needs, and in my campaign there were four that I particularly called for. The first is the redevelopment of Goulburn Valley Health. We watched in amazement as Bendigo received a $630 million new hospital. A last-minute pledge of some funding during the election campaign was not enough to convince the people of Shepparton that they should vote for a coalition government in their electorate.
We called for better rail services. For years Shepparton watched as Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and the Latrobe Valley were favoured with major investments in rail to those regions. They enjoy something like 20 trains a day in and out of their regions, while we have 4 trains to Melbourne each day, with 3 returning on weekdays and even fewer on weekends.
The regional rail link has been developed, which is a major investment again for the Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong regions. They now have access straight into the city on a dedicated regional line; they do not have to compete with metropolitan train timetables, as we in the north do. Coming from Seymour, we have to go through Craigieburn, where we join the metropolitan timetable. That means limited trains coming in, so there are major problems with getting extra trains from Shepparton directly into Melbourne. We can only coordinate with the Seymour line and hope that we can get more services delivered to our region in that way. All of these things require investment, and they require allocations in the budget.
The third issue is the Shepparton bypass, which is particularly important because we desperately need a second river crossing at Shepparton. We only have the Peter Ross-Edwards Causeway. It is the only crossing in case of emergencies anywhere within the vicinity of the town, and it is much needed. It is also a major part of the bigger program of duplicating the Goulburn Valley Highway from Seymour through to the New South Wales border. It is a major piece of infrastructure that will ultimately help with the viability of the port of Melbourne. For instance, grain crops from the Riverina and northern New South Wales are trucked down to the port each day. Many people do not realise that the New South Wales cotton crop is stored in warehouses in Shepparton, fed down to the port as necessary and sent overseas. That sort of infrastructure development is of major importance.
The fourth point I campaigned on was the issue of unemployment, and in particular youth unemployment, in our region. Clearly that is a major issue everywhere, and I hear all the members of this house talking about it, but we have one of the highest rates in the state. One of the things that has become very apparent in recent years is that there are jobs being developed in the region as a result of growth in dairying, horticulture and agriculture, but we are not training young people coming out of schools to go into those jobs, so there is a mismatch between education and the future jobs that will be available. I am pleased that one of the current budget initiatives is the Back to Work Fund, which has recently given some money to our TAFE college specifically to do some training in the dairy area, hopefully to train young people to go into some of those jobs throughout our region.
The Victorian Auditor-General’s report of April 2014 entitled Access to Education for Rural Studentsmakes a series of observations about comparative participation and the engagement of young people in the regions. I will quote from that report. A particular comment it makes is that:
… young people who have not completed a secondary education are almost four times more likely to report poor health, have mortality rates up to nine times higher than the general population and are more likely to require welfare support and government-subsidised services.
I quote further:
Students from rural schools generally achieve poorer outcomes than those from metropolitan schools. Academic performance is poorer and students are less engaged with their education. This has led to lower rates of school completion and to fewer students going on to higher level study or training.
This is a terrible indictment of the long-term neglect of both educational opportunities and the need to address unemployment in the region.
The Victorian Labor Party made no promises for the Shepparton district during the last election campaign. It is clear to me that the 2015–16 budget has focused on delivering on election promises. However, the notion that the Shepparton district should not expect much has changed and there is a demand that there be equity in spending, such that the Shepparton district will benefit from significant infrastructure expenditure in the years ahead.
In 2011 the Grattan Institute released a paper entitled Investing in Regions — Making a Difference. This report investigated the regions, examining what has been described as a ‘patchwork economy’ where some parts of the country seem to boom and grow while others lag behind. It notes that cities closer to metropolitan areas, which in the case of Victoria is Melbourne, and coastal areas are growing considerably and doing much better, and that smaller, slightly more remote and further away towns are lagging behind.
The thesis of this report is that from an economic point of view it is wise to invest in these growing areas: they need the infrastructure and they need the support. But the report’s other finding is that slower growing areas should not be left out. On the grounds of equity and social justice they should have investments in their schools, hospitals, transport and other community facilities. My electorate has missed out in this regard.
The report notes that such funding should be regarded as a subsidy on equity and social grounds rather than necessarily generating economic growth. So often in government we are asked to justify ourselves on the grounds of economic benefit. That should not be the only requirement. There are social and equity reasons investment should happen in regional areas. We are needed, and should be serviced in the same way. We should have equal opportunities to education, health and all those other things that people in metropolitan areas enjoy.
One of the report’s recommendations is that it is not viable to have universities in regional areas. I was at a lecture in Shepparton several years ago that was sponsored by the Fairley Foundation, and the guest speaker was Alan Myers, QC. On behalf of the Grattan Institute he was speaking about this notion. I was outraged to think that would get up as a proposition when so many people in regional areas have no opportunity of going to Melbourne or to a major centre to study.
So many people required a second income during the drought. Farmers would go into towns to La Trobe University campuses at Bendigo, Ballarat, Wodonga and places like this to do nursing training or teacher training because they were desperate for a second income on their farm. Those people have no opportunity to move to Melbourne or travel to Melbourne to do those courses. They have farms, homes, husbands and children. They are simply not in a situation to do it.
They are a significant part of the population who seek education in a regional setting.
In addition, those of us who have sent our children to Melbourne to study at universities know the cost of that. Putting aside the higher education contribution scheme fees, just think about the living costs. They are at least $25 000 a year now. If you want to send your child to a college in Melbourne, that is about the rate you will pay to support them. They can live in shared accommodation, they can get part-time work and they can live in poverty, but it is not good enough. The proposition that we just have to pay a bit more to support them in Melbourne simply will not work.
In Melbourne young people get to live at home. For God’s sake, a lot of them get to live at home until they are 30, and they are supported by their families. If people in the country want an education, they have to leave home — they have to go away unless they can access those sorts of educational opportunities within their regions. There will always be many who have to go away because you simply cannot do some of the courses that young people want to do in the country anyway. But the presence of a regional university is incredibly important.
Why are some areas succeeding and others not? Areas like Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong have long attracted and continue to attract incredibly generous investments in infrastructure spending. Perhaps it is because of the notion that they are closer to Melbourne and were growing a bit that this was happening.
I have sat here and listened to many speeches given by members from both sides — from government members lauding the outcomes of the budget for their electorates and saying how pleased they have been with what they have received, and from the other side of the house members saying how their electorates have been ignored and how they have not received what they wanted.
As with all budgets, health is one of the major areas that soaks up funding. We know that. There is always a demand for more. In the recent budget Goulburn Valley Health was allocated $1 million to go through a planning phase. I can only take that as being a really positive sign, because if there is going to be $1 million spent on planning, that surely means that something else is going to follow. I am pleased the government has appointed me to chair a community advisory group to take into account, as we go through that redevelopment planning stage, what the needs of the community are. That small outlay by the government has at least given us hope that maybe in the next budget we will actually stand to get an allocation to start redeveloping that health facility.
In the Shepparton community we have a higher percentage of people with heart disease, with obesity, with low birth weight babies and with poor diets. The demand for Goulburn Valley Health services continues to rise due to the growing population and the ageing community. To meet the rising demands we need investment in a hospital that has cardiac services; we do not have them. If you have a heart attack, you get flown somewhere. We need cancer treatment. We do not have any radiation bunkers; we need them. We need increased emergency department capacity. We have 11 cubicles; we need 30. We need more specialised services for surgery, but we do not have enough operating theatres to attract people to our region.
The successful work and learning centre has helped social housing tenants into training and work and has been re-funded by this government. Indigenous Victorians will benefit from $30 million to improve their standard of living, create jobs and help them maintain their identity. I hope the Shepparton Indigenous community will receive a benefit from this funding source.
Food, fibre and transport are job growth areas that are to be targeted by the government in the current budget through the $200 million Future Industries Fund. Again I hope that the Goulburn Valley, the food bowl of Australia, will benefit from a share of that fund.
The $160 million for roads and bridges has gone but there is $1 billion over eight years that Labor has allocated for improvements in this area. We do not yet know how that is going to be divided up, but we certainly hope that we get a share of that.
The Premier has said that he was elected to represent all Victorians. He has said, ‘Families shouldn’t have to leave their home town just to find work, and kids shouldn’t have to move to the city just to study’ and, ‘Supporting businesses, workers and students here in regional Victoria is the key to our prosperity as a state’. I am pleased the Premier has made these strong statements. He has indicated a commitment, and we will hold him to it.
Shepparton is now facing an exciting future with huge potential for growing opportunities, but it needs the infrastructure and the support to make that happen. I urge the Labor government to be brave and innovative in supporting emerging opportunities in the Shepparton district by committing to providing the infrastructure that we need to unlock the wealth of that region. The irrigation modernisation is progressing. The town of Shepparton is the fifth largest regional city. It is time we had a fair go.