I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Rural Assistance Schemes Bill 2016.
The bill represents one of the final stages of the winding up of the business entity, the Rural Finance Corporation of Victoria (RFCV), which was sold to Bendigo and Adelaide Bank in 2014.
The sale to Bendigo Bank resulted in the divestment of the loan book and most of the RFCV staff.
The government determined that the rural finance corporation be wound up and the remaining functions be transferred to a new body, the Rural Assistance Commissioner, and that is what this bill does.
A shell, in effect, is what is now left of what was once a great and independent organisation in regional Victoria. There has recently been a book published on the history of the rural finance corporation. It is called Just Like Family — A history of Victoria’s Rural Finance Corporation, and it was authored by Adam McNicol and Andrew Chapman. It is a very detailed history of how the rural finance corporation originally came into operation. You can go back a very long way to look at the steps that are part of our history.
Really it all comes back to the times of soldier settlement. As early as after the First World War governments decided that big tracts of land should be divided up and that soldiers should be given the opportunity to farm those lands. After the First World War they did not do it very well; they settled farmers in the Mallee in areas where the farmers would have great difficulty farming and being productive. They found that by the 1930s so many of these farmers were in debt that various rural farm debt adjustment bills had to be introduced into the Parliament. In a lot of ways many farmers had to be bailed out of what turned out to be very difficult situations.
By the end of the Second World War there was a lot of angst about whether such a scheme should be set up again, but again overwhelmingly communities thought that it was a fair and just thing to give soldiers returning from the war the opportunity to farm. This time they did it differently. They cut up areas of land and gave them bigger properties in areas where there was more potential. They also provided funding for fencing, improvements and infrastructure on farms and some capital to get started with, so it actually looked like things would be better. The history has been quite a rich one. It was the Soldier Settlement Commission that preceded what ultimately became the rural finance corporation.
The member for Malvern suggested that those who opposed the sale of the rural finance corporation could be regarded as Marxist. I can assure him that I do not put myself in that category, but I am very concerned that it is actions such as this that bleed regional communities of major organisations. I fear that this is what could be happening with the Country Fire Authority (CFA). Just before Christmas I was invited into the Shepparton CFA station to have some Christmas drinks, to be shown around the station and to have a look at the memorabilia in that station. I was amazed at the extent of the intergenerational history that had developed in that particular station. I think it is probably reflective of many other CFA organisations around the state.
Grandfathers, fathers, and these days sons and daughters, are involved in the CFA as volunteers, and they provide a very rich and worthwhile part of our community. It is easy to think that these are just people who go and fight fires. Volunteerism is about so much more than that. Volunteering gives people a sense of identity. It connects them with their community, and it gives them a great sense of self-value. It is essential in our country communities, which are being constantly depleted of organisations that provide them with that sort of value, that we are at least left with the capacity to do things for ourselves. We used to have large research institutes in country areas. We used to have people on our borders protecting us from fruit fly entering Victoria. We used to have people who came to our houses in towns and sprayed our fruit trees to kill fruit fly. All of that has gone. All of that means jobs are going as well, so our communities are being depleted. For instance, I understand that the regional director of education for the whole Hume region, which includes my electorate, is in Box Hill. Is that not an anomaly that ought to be addressed?
We have a major government building in Benalla, and when you go there, fortunately there is someone at the front desk, but there are long corridors with a lot of empty offices in them. Once they were full of people. Once government departments were located in regional areas. The rural finance corporation was one of those organisations that had a big presence in many country towns, and Shepparton was one of those. It will ultimately disappear and no doubt be absorbed by the Bendigo Bank branch that we have in our town. It has been occupying a major building and employing a considerable number of staff. It is an organisation I have dealt with many times as a lawyer, and so many farmers in my community have had loans through it. Throughout the period of drought they have had many assistance packages administered through that organisation, and I wonder now what will happen when we have one individual, a commissioner, sitting in a government department. That person may even be the secretary of the department and not an individual dedicated to the particular job. I wonder how those sorts of schemes will be rolled out and how well they will be administered in the future when we have no-one dedicated, no team of people who are part of our own community, administering those schemes in the same way that it happened through that corporation when it existed.
Just going back to the history of it, in my area huge tracts of land were acquired and cut up for soldier settlement farms. They were places like Invergordon, Katandra, Strathmerton and Katamatite, and a very rich dairy industry developed around those areas. They had a terrible time during the drought, and many of the farmers sold their water and ultimately their farms and left. We now have what is often called a patchwork of farms that have water and farms that do not, farms that are occupied and farms that are not, across our Goulburn-Murray irrigation district. That is presenting a real challenge for future viability for our irrigated agricultural industries.
The proceeds of the sale of the rural finance corporation were dedicated to be spent in regional areas, so some good has come out of the sale, perhaps. I understand that $220 million has been put aside for the Murray Basin railway freight project, and that is no doubt welcome, but there is still plenty of money available out of the proceeds. I draw attention to the state of our country roads, particularly in my electorate. Some of the worst roads are around the Shepparton district. We are also pleading for a bypass. There is a great opportunity for investment in my regional and rural electorate and for the expenditure of much of the funding that was left over from the sale of the rural finance corporation.
There have been concerns expressed about how Bendigo Bank might be able to remain involved in this. It was envisaged that it would take part in rolling out some of the assistance schemes into the future. I wonder now, with the funding for these packages for dairy farmers that we are looking at, what the mechanism will be. Will it be best rolled out through government departments in Melbourne, or is a bank like Bendigo Bank, which is at least located in rural areas, perhaps the vehicle for that? I support the bill.