SOUTHWICK (Caulfield) — I rise to speak on the Regional Development Victoria Amendment (Jobs and Infrastructure) Bill 2015. At the outset I say that the opposition will not be opposing the bill because it firmly believes it is absolutely important that we support the regions and rural communities in Victoria — the hub that continues to provide jobs, opportunities and growth into the various regions throughout Victoria.
However, this is nothing more than a Mickey Mouse change in terms of what this particular growth fund was intended to do. The previous government’s $1 billion Regional Growth Fund provided some 23 000 jobs in the region through some great projects, which other members on this side have spoken about. This change is, ironically, taking the word ‘growth’ out of the title.
You would suggest that this was done deliberately, because from what we have already seen this fund is no longer about supporting both rural communities and regional communities. This fund in headline talks about supporting the regions, but if you dig down, you will see it is an opportunity for the government to siphon money out of the regions and funnel it into other portfolios. We have seen this already with the $600 000 sponsorship of the Stawell Gift — traditionally that money comes from the sport portfolio, but it is now coming out of this regional development fund. Similarly, $19 million to build a Grampians trail was to come out of the environment portfolio, $1 million for the denture laboratory in the Latrobe Valley was to come out of the health portfolio and the $30 million sporting precinct in Ballarat was to be funded by the sport portfolio, but all of that money has now been earmarked to come out of this fund. What we are seeing under this government is hundreds of great local projects — projects that are supporting the regions and their communities by creating jobs — being used to siphon money into some of the portfolios that have been shafted by the budget.
As the shadow Minister for Energy and Resources I will direct the focus of my contribution on the Energy for the Regions program, which was a program set up by the former government. It is an important project, and we were very proud to provide $100 million for Energy for the Regions during our term of government. For the many small towns for which a lack of access to energy meant local industries could not survive or thrive, this program provided the opportunity to keep their communities competitive by giving them access to gas. This was particularly important for communities that neighboured towns that did have a gas supply, because they faced the very real issue of people and industries moving away and switching off the lights on those townships without those resources. There are number of examples of this fund working for the regions, including $4.5 million for Huntley, $8.3 million for Avoca, $5.2 million for Koo Wee Rup, $7.8 million for Warburton and $10.1 million for Mildura for the capacity upgrade, amongst others. There have been some great projects to get Energy for the Regions up and running, and we worked alongside industry to ensure that the program delivered.
You would think that if the government were serious about supporting this, it would continue to roll it out without any changes whatsoever, but in a statement reported by the Weekly Times of 5 March the Minister for Regional Development, Jaala Pulford, described this particular fund as a white elephant, which suggests it is not something Labor supports because it is not something it thinks that rural and regional areas need. The government has since said it will continue with this program, and I hope that it does so. This is a very important project, and the government must honour the commitments made by the coalition to ensure that any towns that do not have the option to use gas are provided with the opportunity to be connected to energy and remain competitive. However, the fact that one of the government’s ministers is already calling something a white elephant shows it is not serious about supporting jobs in the regions, because this program is a very important element in doing that. It is not just important for regional industries, it is also important for regional hospitals. Hospitals are in desperate need of gas connections to keep the cost of energy low, which is really important. If the government were serious about supporting the regions, it would support the sorts of projects we committed to when we were in government. If it were serious, it would ensure that projects like Energy for the Regions are maintained and developed to ensure that there is a level playing field when it comes to activity and growth in the regions.
We have heard a lot of talk from the government about jobs, but we have heard nothing about when we will see these sorts of projects commence. Actions speak louder than words, and we set up and rolled out projects like the $100 million Energy for the Regions program when we were in government. To see the current government question these projects, about-turn and then remain undecided about what it is going to do is a real slap to the face for those regions that are reliant on having natural gas in their communities. This change to the legislation is of real concern. We are not opposing the bill, because we support any investment activity for the regions and because we support rural communities, which are paramount to the success of Victoria. We know that this government is all about supporting the cities rather than looking after regional and rural Victoria. We have seen the former government’s commitments to the regions, and we now look forward to seeing what the current government does in the coming months and years to support regional and rural Victoria.