Regional Development Victoria Amendment (Jobs and Infrastructure) Bill 2015


Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) — In the first part of Mr Drum's presentation I was thinking he was going to devote himself solely to the mechanics of this particular bill and the governance arrangements that come with it and not canvass the entire universe of possibilities as to what might be the correct policies for Regional Development Victoria. I thought it was going to be a fairly tight contribution, and I was going to follow suit in the same format.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr BARBER — Let us just wait and see. The bill, as members would be aware, is to create a new version — perhaps a rebadged version — of a regional growth fund that the previous government had that was itself an evolution on the previous version created in about 2005 under the Bracks government, which was then titled the Provincial Victoria Growth Fund. Apparently we are not allowed to use the term 'provincial' anymore. We now have to refer to rural and regional Victoria. We have a new format for this fund, we have an allocation of funds to it, we have an already pretty long list of projects that have been promised from it and at the same time we have a review of the fund being undertaken by former Premier Brumby.

If I were to talk solely about the arrangements for the governance of the fund, I might go to the Auditor-General's review of the previous version that was the Provincial Victoria Growth Fund (PVGF). In about 2012 the Auditor-General reviewed the PVGF, which he noted operated from 2005 through to the end of the Brumby government. Here is what the Auditor-General said about it:

Regional Development Victoria (RDV) undertook a wide range of planning activities to develop and plan for implementing the Provincial Victoria Growth Fund (PVGF). However, some deficiencies meant that RDV could not demonstrate that the fund was soundly based. While there were criteria for prioritising initiatives to be funded, assessment decisions were not adequately documented and criteria were not applied consistently to all funding decisions. Also, there was no business case underpinning it.

That is why I find it a little bit ironic that John Brumby has been asked to come in to review the operation of a regional growth fund when its immediate predecessor was given a somewhat patchy report card by the Auditor-General.

As I noted, a long list of projects have already been pre-approved for funding from the fund. They include everything from the Ballarat railway station redevelopment, the Harcourt mountain bike trail, the Euroa saleyards, the Wangaratta saleyards, the Geelong Performing Arts Centre and the Gippsland logistics precinct, and I am only halfway down the first column. Many of these projects could themselves be meritorious. I am not necessarily speaking against any individual project here; in fact I spoke in favour of some of them during the election. My point is simply that since there is a long list of projects that have been pre-approved, one wonders how the paperwork and the assessment — let alone the evaluation or the business case — will be presented by the new fund with the new agency over time. If we are here a few years from now, it could be that many of these projects have received their funding but we are not necessarily any the wiser as to what the original business case was and therefore how the anticipated benefits of the project have been delivered.

I am 100 per cent sure that anybody in any rural or regional community will be very grateful to receive funds for the projects the government has foreshadowed. There is no doubt that they would rather have any of those projects funded for their communities than a kick in the teeth. However, the bill, the second-reading speech and the debate — at least the part we have had so far — have been about the governance, the processes and the rigour of getting maximum bang for your buck from the scarce amount of public dollars that are made available.

I do believe that some of the arrangements being put in place in this bill are an improvement. I am not suggesting for one minute that this fund is a slush fund; I would not go that far. I think, however, the little history lesson we had from Mr Drum would suggest that it is not always easy to keep track of what has been promised to whom, why and with what intended result.

As I said, I do not have any intention of giving a complete treatise on what I think the needs of regional Victoria are at this given time, unless by interjection members start inviting me to do so. The 34 initiatives put forward by Labor during the election will, we all hope, be delivered and delivered in a timely fashion. However, when you sum them all up they do not necessarily represent a plan or a vision for regional Victoria. There are a number of challenges in regional Victoria at the moment that need to be addressed, and they will be addressed by the government getting the basics right. We have a youth unemployment problem in regional Victoria. We need programs to keep those youths engaged, and we need to remove some of the barriers to them finding employment in their communities. The chainsawing of the TAFE system that commenced under the Brumby government and was continued under the last government is a major part of that problem that needs to be addressed.

We seem to be on the verge of another impending drought. These droughts are going to become more frequent and more severe.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — It was 100 per cent predictable: a member by interjection has invited me to address the issue of climate change. Let us just cover that off by saying that in regional Victoria there is currently a great opportunity to address climate change through the development of renewables. Just a few weeks back it was announced that the coalmine and power station at Anglesea is to close. Alcoa spent 14 months trying to unload it onto some other player in the electricity industry. It failed, and it recently announced that it was closing down the facility.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — Mr Ramsay is correct. The closure of Anglesea and other coal-fired power stations was absolutely 100 per cent predictable as a result of other policies that have been put in place in state and federal parliaments over many years. We have been working very hard to decarbonise our economy over that time. We had a renewable energy target which was to bring into the grid a certain amount of solar, wind and other renewables. We had a Victorian energy efficiency target that was to reduce millions of tons of CO2, in the process avoiding millions of megawatt hours of energy consumption. It was a predictable outcome of all those policies that we would end up with surplus power in the grid, but at the moment there is no clear plan to address the adjustment.

Everybody in this chamber understands that the automotive industry, as a result of certain policy decisions made 10 and more years ago, is on a path to shut itself down. We have programs in place to deal with that transition. There is still political blame-shifting about it, but everybody understands the transition that is occurring.

The members of this government appear to have been absolutely blindsided by the same transition that is occurring in coal-fired power, which is the inevitable result of those programs I mentioned and others that have been at play for a very long time. And so it was that during the budget estimates hearings when the Minister for Regional Development was asked what she would do about the workers who have lost their jobs and need assistance to move into another part of the energy industry, she did not have an answer in relation to her portfolio, the Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund or any other lever of policy. In fact her response to the committee was to talk about how the government is spending money at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre. I do not see the connection between someone who is working at a coal-fired power station and the operation of an expanded, upgraded and improved arts centre in central Geelong.

Surely the government has a plan for this transition. In fact I am wrong about that, because with regard to renewable energy Labor's promise whilst in opposition was to develop a plan for renewable energy. Its promise was, 'Elect us, and then we will develop a plan'. That is like saying, 'Elect us, and we'll develop a plan for hospitals. Elect us, and we'll develop a plan for education. Elect us, and we'll develop a plan for public transport'. Apparently the government thought it could get away with it in the area of renewables, so we have no plan in Victoria for renewables. We also have an unrelenting and unremittingly hostile attitude from the federal government towards renewables, so when that coal-fired power station closed down there was no transition plan, no funds were made available and there was no acceptance from the government that it should have been on the spot with a plan to move those people into the growth sector of renewables.

The skills of coal-fired power operators, being mechanical and electrical engineers, are highly adaptable to operating in the large-scale renewable sector. It is just that there is no pipeline of projects ready to go because the federal government has been doing everything it can to destroy the industry and the incoming Andrews government simply said, 'We'll get in there, and when we have ourselves in the big chairs and have our business cards then we'll turn our minds to the renewable energy industry and come up with a plan'.

There is very little to show with regard to public transport for rural and regional Victoria, as members know from scrutinising the budget papers. There is some purchase of rolling stock for the new Geelong rail link, which V/Line said five years ago would be standing room only on day one. There are continued problems on other lines, like Bairnsdale and to the north-east, and there is nothing to keep up with the level of patronage growth. V/Line coach services, which cost us only $32 million a year now, could easily have been expanded and upgraded to provide more connectivity to existing rail lines, but there is not a sausage there.

It is becoming harder and harder to access the opportunities of regional Victoria, whether it be employment, education or basic services. For that matter, if members have ever tried it, it is not too easy to travel as a tourist to spend some money in regional Victoria for a day, a weekend or a week. West of Apollo Bay there are three coaches a week along the Great Ocean Road. It is not particularly easy to tour through the Grampians, down to Port Fairy and along the coast from there, with an irregular and poorly publicised bus service. You can head off for the weekend for a great cycle tour, but bad luck if the train gets cancelled and is replaced by a bus, because you cannot take your bike on the bus. On something as core to our everyday lives as transport — getting from A to B — there is no vision.

The government will have its high-profile projects, ribbon cuttings and photo opportunities, but these projects and in many cases these communities will be let down by the lack of a basic vision for getting the basics right in regional Victoria. The Greens will support the bill and follow with interest the progress of the Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund and how projects funded from it deliver for regional Victoria.