Second Reading Debate: Victorian Planning Authority Bill 2016

I rise to make a contribution to the Victorian Planning Authority Bill 2016, a bill which may seem procedural but which has important implications for the future of this state. The bill establishes the Victorian Planning Authority, which has grown out of the Growth Areas Authority, and sets out the authority’s functions and powers. It does feel a little, though, like we are creating another level of bureaucracy — another body to discuss the problems, another body to create master plans — but I hope that will not be the case.

I am, however, disappointed that the bill only makes one mention of regional Victoria, and that is in the brief overview of the functions of the authority, saying board members should have an understanding of land use in metropolitan or regional areas. Ideally a requirement that at least one board member must have a regional planning background should have been included. As the minister points out in his second-reading speech, we must plan for growth across all Victoria, not just metropolitan Melbourne. Land use in regional areas is quite different to land use in the city and brings a set of unique challenges. Not having a requirement that a member of the board must have relevant experience working in rural and regional planning means we run the risk of having a city-centric authority that is not equipped to deal with the challenges of regional areas.

As the minister rightly points out in his second-reading speech, Melbourne is going through an unprecedented growth phase and land use planning is needed so we can meet that challenge. This is where regional Victoria can step in, but not just Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong, Wodonga and the Latrobe Valley and the growth areas in between, which the minister highlights. Focusing all efforts on those areas will create commuter cities that will feed into the capital, where congestion will still be a problem, as will access to public transport, health care and education. There needs to be focus on population decentralisation, creating a state of cities rather than a city state.

My electorate of South-West Coast stands ready to play an even bigger role than it already does, but there needs to be a concentrated effort to help attract people beyond the metropolitan boundary. There are challenges that need to be addressed, but the opportunities in the south-west of the state are in abundance. There are such challenges as access to three-phase power, transport and efficient routes to market. But there are also huge opportunities in food production, manufacturing, forestry, health care and education, as well as the unquestionable lifestyle benefits. A 10-minute commute in my part of the world results in fishing, surfing and hiking just 10 minutes after work with clean air surrounding you.

Portland, for example, sits on one of the deepest seaports in the country. It is the largest exporter of woodchips in the world and is situated within easy reach of the largest plantation forestry area in Australia, where six globally significant plantation companies operate. When combined with the associated transport industry, more than 18 000 jobs are created, and the industries have a combined output exceeding $790 million each year. The port is also the leading exporter of mineral sands and grains, industries which are expected to grow significantly over the next 10 years. Then of course there is the aluminium smelter, which employs around 600 people directly, supports 2000 jobs in the region and is the state’s largest exporter.

But there are challenges, some of which we have recently seen with the smelter but they go beyond that. Roads leading into the port of Portland are failing, putting at risk millions of dollars in economic activity. The rail line into the port also needs upgrading to ensure a seamless route from the grain-growing regions in the north. The Murray Basin rail project will go some way to solving that. But the overarching problem remains attracting new business to the far south-west. If the smelter had closed, there would be no way the people who work there would have been able to stay. That is why we now need to be looking at workforce diversification and trying to attract new major employers to South-West Coast.

The Glenelg shire has done an amazing amount of work in this area over the past three years. Among that work is the industrial land strategy, which worked to rectify the planning failings of years gone by. Last week the council launched its industrial land prospectus. Despite what the member for Yan Yean said in her press release when she swept into town last week, that project was funded by the previous Liberal-Nationals government, not the current government as the member tried to fool and hoodwink the people into believing.

The Great South Coast Group has also been active in planning for the region’s future. Its food and fibre plan looks at all the issues hampering economic growth and what can be done to strengthen the region’s many positives. It sits waiting for government funding so this project can be sustainable. The group has also worked on fantastic programs, like Beyond the Bell, which aims to increase education attainment rates, and it has been active in lobbying for improvements to road and rail infrastructure. I sincerely hope this new authority will look at the work that has already been done and build on that, not just scrap it and start all over again.

South-West Coast and the neighbouring electorate of Polwarth form the state’s largest dairy production areas, but many farmers do not have access to three-phase power, meaning they are relying on unreliable power sources, creating inefficiencies in their businesses. In my electorate there are three dairy processors. One is on the cusp of expansion but because of insufficient power, gas and wastewater infrastructure, the costs associated with these infrastructure upgrades may mean that the project will not go ahead and instead will be built in the western suburbs, meaning more trucks on the road adding to an already congested area and taking jobs away from regional Victoria and further congesting Melbourne.

It is infrastructure upgrades like this that will lower the costs of businesses looking to expand or set up in the regional areas. At the moment it is just too easy to do it in the city, which worsens the problem this authority is trying to solve. If we are to encourage population decentralisation, jobs are the centrepiece, but people need to be encouraged to genuinely look at living in regional areas. Good public transport which lowers the travel time to Melbourne is a good starting point. Right now trains on the Warrnambool line often take well over 4 hours to get to Melbourne. It is easier to travel by car, if you can put up with the terrible state of the roads. If the city is brought closer to the regions through reduced travel times, then people do not feel isolated from everything Melbourne has to offer.

The Warrnambool Base Hospital is still waiting for its stage 2 upgrade. It needs a new emergency department and its operating theatre expanded, but there has been no commitment from the minister, who is busy announcing exactly what Warrnambool wants and needs in Ballarat.

The Warrnambool Special Development School is still waiting on money to complete its new school. Money was given to buy the land, but not enough to build on it. Meanwhile the students are left in cramped areas and in overcrowded classrooms with minimal outside space to play in.

These are simple projects which increase livability in regional areas such as the South-West Coast and help encourage industry expansion and create jobs while taking pressure off metropolitan Melbourne and looking beyond the commuter cities.

It is a commonsense approach and one that I doubt we need a specific authority for; we already have the planning department, regional partnerships and local government working in this field. I sincerely hope the authority takes the advice of the minister and plans for growth across all of Victoria because there is so much more to this great state than Melbourne and the metropolitan area, and the opportunities to help ease pressure on the city in the regions and rural areas are too good to let pass by.

Clearly, the role of government is to assist the regions, to put a framework around ideas that the regions have and to take those ideas and turn them into actions and outcomes. What we need is a department that looks at customer focus, outcomes and results, not just more bureaucracy.