Take note: Budget papers 2016-17

It has been a long time coming, but finally I rise to take note of the 2016–17 budget papers, and what a missed opportunity this budget was. It simply shows that this current Andrews Labor government is focused on Melbourne while regional areas are left to languish. This government’s budget completely misses the mark and disregards the opportunities available in rural and regional areas. It lacks vision and does nothing to facilitate business growth outside the city. This is just another example of the Premier we have being the Premier of Melbourne and not the Premier of the state of Victoria. It provides absolutely no incentive to grow population in regional areas. New figures derived from the national accounts this week showed just how city centric this government is. While Melbourne’s economy rockets ahead, the regions are left to languish.

You can see that every single day around my electorate, as infrastructure crumbles away, with no sign of it being fixed by Labor. There was not one line in the budget for specific road projects in my electorate of South-West Coast to repair a road network decaying under ever-increasing, economy-boosting freight volumes. According to VicRoads’s own data, now backed up by the RACV, we have the worst roads in the state, yet once again they have been completely ignored. The roads are appalling. We need a summer blitz of works to get them fixed, and we need it now.

The port of Portland, which is setting records in tonnage of products exported, is being stifled in expansion plans because of the poor state of the roads into the port. It is the largest blue gum woodchip port in the world, with an annual throughput of about 6 million tons, delivering about $2.5 billion into the region and nation annually. A 700 per cent increase in timber harvest volumes is expected in the next five to seven years, equating to around $15 billion in exports through the port. The Great South Coast Group calculates that about 200 kilometres of road leading to the port has been impacted by the booming freight volumes, particularly timber. Those opposite would say the previous coalition government had their chance and did nothing, but it is impossible to fix 12 years of neglect from the previous Bracks-Brumby Labor governments in four years.

Recent announcements that funds pledged by the commonwealth will be matched by the state are a great start, but that money will cover just the tip of the iceberg — there is so much more that needs to be done. Much, much more is needed if we are to bring our roads back to an acceptable standard. The Minister for Roads and Road Safety must surely know how the people of my electorate feel about this issue by now. I have sent countless letters to his office, giving specific examples of product damage, truck damage and accident damage, and relaying the concerns of the people I represent.

The government’s focus on road safety is misplaced. I agree it is imperative that people get to where they need to be safely, especially as we approach the festive holiday season. That is not something I would ever dispute. But the way Labor plans to go about it is wrong. It is simply wrong! Sticking up signs to slow people down will do nothing more than slow people down — it will not keep them safer when the roads are damaged — and it will slow productivity. That is what we cannot afford if we want to improve this great state.

The best way to improve road safety is to fix the potholes and the warped and distressed surfaces. We need a summer blitz and we need it now so that we can put an effort into making our roads safe again and so that the problem does not get worse when winter rolls around again. It should be no surprise — we will have a winter! But it is summer now, so we need to get on with it right now. We know there is money available for this. The coalition secured around $700 million from the lease of the port for rural and regional infrastructure, but to date there has been absolutely zero mention of how or where that money will be spent. The budget included a fourth train service added to the Warrnambool line. This is not before time; my community has been crying out for this for a decade. I remind the house that it was the previous coalition government that facilitated this by building a $10 million passing loop at Warncoort, replacing the passing loops that the previous Labor government ripped out.

Following the lead from roads, it seems the Labor solution to safety concerns in the country is to slow things down. Warrnambool line trains are currently travelling on speed restrictions because of safety concerns at level crossings. Rather than fix the safety concerns, the government just slows trains down. Services are being delayed every day, sometimes for up to 30 minutes. This is another example of this government’s city-centric nature: ‘Just let it keep going badly and don’t fix it’.

The Minister for Public Transport started the year with V/Line in chaos, and she is ending it the same way. Commuters on the Warrnambool line deserve better. It was disappointing to see that there are no plans to upgrade long-haul rolling stock, with all the new trains on order — no surprises here — not able to be used on the Warrnambool line; they are all for the cities. My community is left with carriages from the 1980s that are well beyond their use-by date. They are cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The toilets often do not work and the locomotives often break down, meaning the long trip to Melbourne or return to Warrnambool and Portland is often made via a cramped bus with nowhere to buy a drink, get something to eat or to go to the toilet for up to, and sometimes longer than, 4½ hours. When the train is running, many times the buffet car is closed because of a shortage of staff. Again, in this day and age we really do deserve a better service.

I must take some time to commend the V/Line staff, who provide exceptional service under trying conditions. They just do not have the resources to do the job they can and want to do. This is certainly not a criticism of the staff. Their efforts do not go unnoticed, and I sincerely thank them for their work. I have been at the station to catch the train to Melbourne on my way to Parliament when magically the train has turned into a bus. I have seen the anger of the commuters directed at the staff, so I again commend them.

In the previous Labor budget, regional projects accounted for only 3 per cent of the total infrastructure spend, and this year it seems nothing much has changed. This is a high-taxing, high-spending, metro-centric government. It seems that the further you live from Melbourne, the less you get from this government, despite that promise to govern for all of Victoria.

There are a raft of opportunities in regional areas. They just need some investment. Devondale Murray Goulburn has plans to expand its Koroit manufacturing plant, right in the heart of dairy country, but they do not have adequate electricity supply, adequate access to gas or the necessary wastewater facilities. They estimate it will cost $50 million to upgrade those essential services and are now considering building that new plant in the west of Melbourne to save money, adding to congestion in the city and putting more trucks on the roads. This is a perfect opportunity for the government to upgrade such vital infrastructure, not just for Devondale Murray Goulburn but to allow other new industries to leverage off the infrastructure and set up in the region. The answer to easing congestion in the city is regional investment. It is a shame that this government cannot see beyond the tram tracks.

Exceptional healthcare and educational facilities are another way to bring people into regional areas and lessen the congestion in the city of Melbourne. Latest health statistics show the demand for services at Warrnambool Base Hospital is growing, and the magnificent and hardworking staff are doing the best they can with what they have got. But unfortunately the vital second stage of Warrnambool Base Hospital’s redevelopment was again ignored in the budget. We need the final touches to the epicentre of the hospital to be built, and that is the accident and emergency department and the theatre. The accident and emergency department is cramped and cannot cope with a large event such as a motor car accident with several vehicles involved. The staff do an exceptionally good job in these trying circumstances, but there is no room. I have worked in this environment; I have been in that accident and emergency department, and it has not grown in many, many years.

There are three theatres at Warrnambool Base Hospital. When I nursed in those theatres in 1986 there were also three for a population of 20 000 in Warrnambool itself. In this current day and age we have still got three theatres, yet the population in Warrnambool alone has grown to 35 000 people. This does not take into consideration the catchment areas. It is not just not adequate. I hope that now the Minister for Health has visited the hospital and seen for herself the areas earmarked for renewal there will be money for the upgrade in the next budget. At the very least she can use some of the money in the regional and rural health fund to get the master plan underway so that by the next budget, in May next year, we can get on with the job.

It was also a shame to see not one dollar for the Warrnambool Special Development School in the budget. They need the next stage committed to as a priority. All they have at the moment is an empty block of land.

This current government gave them half what we gave them, and that was not enough to build the school. I hope the next budget contains the money that will allow them to build the desperately needed new school, and I hope it will allow them to build what they need. The current one was built in 1999 in a very steep environment that is not suitable for wheelchairs for 30 students, and there are now 126 students. It is totally inadequate. We need modern facilities with undercover sporting areas so these children, who are often more susceptible to illness, can have somewhere to play in the cold and wet south-west winters.

This government says it is putting people first, but in reality it is doing completely the opposite. It is driving up the cost of living, it is driving up the cost of doing business and it is hurting employers and hurting employees as a natural consequence. Increasing the royalties on brown coal is hurting the back pockets of hardworking Victorians. This new tax has forced the closure of Hazelwood, driving up the cost of power for every Victorian. Adding $250 million in costs to companies like Engie simply drives up the cost of doing business, destroying profit margins, leaving them no incentive to continue to seek profits and driving them out of business. It was the government introducing a new tax that put the final nail in the coffin of Hazelwood — let us be clear — and the government needs to be accountable for that and should not blame anyone but themselves.

Victoria’s ability to produce cheap electricity for our state and the national grid is one of our advantages, and this government seems determined to destroy that advantage. This new tax also hurts other energy-intensive operations like dairy farms. I have a constituent who owns a dairy in my electorate. He received a quote that he shared with me just two weeks ago for his energy supply after the Hazelwood closure announcement, and it was 37 per cent higher than his previous agreement. The offer was withdrawn 22 hours later because the market is in chaos. The operator of an exporting seafood business tells me the same story. These businesses are exporters, and they cannot be successful — they cannot compete against other businesses in other parts of the world — if we tax ourselves to such a point that we make ourselves uncompetitive on the world scene.

This government is hampering our ability to produce food cheaply and responsibly in our own backyard. That is what we actually do well — another natural advantage — and our government is destroying our ability to do this. We should be looking for opportunities to facilitate increasing food production by embracing the opportunities, not hampering and harnessing them.

Other energy-intensive industries will be forced out of Victoria if energy prices continue to rise. Portland Aluminium uses about 10 per cent of the energy produced in Victoria, but it is not the environmental vandal members of the Greens want to paint it as. It produces a product that is growing in demand. As technologies advance, aluminium is used readily in new devices, and it is not a dying industry. The Portland smelter is set amongst 500 hectares of wetlands and parklands. It is known as the ‘smelter in the park’ around the world in the Alcoa group and locally, and it is something the management and the staff are justifiably proud of.

If that smelter is closed, not only would it be devastating for the Portland community in terms of jobs and economic impact but the operations would simply move to another country where there are not the strict rules — because aluminium is in demand — and where there are not the regulations on environmental impacts that we have here in Australia. This would simply shift the problem elsewhere, resulting in less positive environmental benefits that we can offer in Victoria. I hope, though, that the members of the government recognise the importance of Portland Aluminium to the people of my electorate and Victoria. I hope they do everything possible to ensure that the smelter remains open and an active part of south-west community and that jobs are retained.

Given the smelter’s latest issue, brought about by lost energy, I cannot stress to the government enough that no stone be left unturned so that we can find out what happened and assure the staff and management and the company that it will not happen again. We need to provide certainty.

It all arcs back to the valuable role our regional areas can play in the future of this great state and the opportunities that are here in abundance. It is just a shame this budget did absolutely nothing to make the most of those opportunities. This Labor government is spending without thought for a sound financial future. It ignores regional Victorians, particularly in the far west, where opportunities are in abundance for a government to increase revenue from industries ready to grow but needing a partnership approach to facilitate their expansion. This budget is a missed opportunity, not only for my electorate but for the entire state of Victoria.