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Better understanding needed following Budget
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Better understanding needed following Budget

Last sitting week I delivered my speech in response to the State Budget. It was directed at informing a number of metropolitan MP’s on the importance of rural Victoria to the state and supporting our regional areas. It was based on what I – and other country MP’s – believe was poor Budget for rural Victoria and I believe many city based MP’s should have a better understanding of country Victoria. Following is an excerpt from my speech:

Country people are on the whole an optimistic lot. This comes from regularly dealing with a range of challenges including fire and flood to geographical and service delivery issues, but unfortunately rural communities are lamenting what has been a bad news budget and I will explain to the house why this is the case.

The agricultural budget has been cut by 12%, the regional development budget has been cut by 24% and the road asset management budget has been cut by 11%. This is all easily read in the Budget papers and covers three key areas for country communities.

Rural Councils are lamenting the abolition of the Country Roads and Bridges program that provided $1m each year to rural councils, including Wellington and East Gippsland. Also gone is the Local Government Infrastructure Fund that also delivered so much to our area.

This massive cut in relation to council funding comes at a time when the State Government is capping council rates. This should not be considered unless funding is increased to compensate, or it will result in reduced services as many councils are warning. Of critical importance to my region and the Benambra and Ovens Valley electorates, is the scrapping of the wild dog bounty and cuts to aerial baiting, which I know is a problem many metro MP’s don’t understand by the looks I get every time I raise it in here.

These are the people who put food on your inner city dining tables and they do not need assistance reduced in this area. They are rightly not happy.

There is an $8.8m cut for country Landcare facilitators, no new police for rural Victori, only urban areas - and all rural home owners, businesses and farmers will face large increases in their property based Fire Services Levy (FSL).

There is a huge 7.2 per cent increase in FSL which is impossible to justify given the inflation rate over the past 12 months was only 1.8 per cent.

It appears certain this massive FSL increase is to cater for pay rises for the metro fire fighter union, whose members handed out how to vote cards in marginal seats on election day. Country people should not have to pay for this.

Overall, we have seen the just 2.9 per cent of the new government’s infrastructure spend being in regional areas and this figure includes big projects in Geelong, which in my eyes can hardly be considered rural.

There was one piece of good Budget news and that was the allocation of $2.5 million to the Gippsland Lakes Environment fund for 12 more months of operation.

I do thank the Government for its extension and hope we get news of a further extension well before the next Budget. We need a four year commitment like the Coalition provided to give some certainty to all working in the programs - but it’s a start and I thank the Minister.

Unfortunately we saw no funds for the Bairnsdale Secondary College. The Coalition committed the $12.5m to complete the school after funding the first $10m and most disappointingly, despite a formal invitation, the Minister will not visit the school this year.

The funds to continue the Macalister Irrigation District upgrade were not in the Budget and again we can’t get the Minister to commit to a visit.

There was no money for the Maffra Hospital Master Plan, Swift’s Creek netball courts upgrade, East Gippsland Adventure Festival, synthetic hockey pitch or Apex Park upgrade at Lakes Entrance – all Coalition commitments.

To put things into perspective we should compare the situation to what was delivered into rural Victoria in the previous term - and I will look at my electorate only.

Multi-million dollar projects that attracted state funding included the Bairnsdale Library upgrade, Bairnsdale Mall upgrade, All Abilities Playground and reticulated gas that will be delivered to Orbost and Lakes Entrance. The grant streams that delivered these are gone.

We had major upgrades to the Maffra, Heyfield, Bairnsdale, Omeo, Lindenow and Orbost Football Netball Clubs and this grant stream is also not in the Budget papers. The government says it may continue the Country Football Netball Program. I hope this is right but even if it is – the figure mentioned is one quarter of what the fund was previously.

These are clubs that are the often the backbone of rural townships and assist in keeping our kids on the straight and narrow through involvement in sport.

We had two new schools in Bairnsdale SC Stage One and Toorloo Arm PS built and the Macalister Irrigation District upgrade had $16m allocated with a further $10m promised. With no funds from this government, it will now stagnate.

We also had many millions spent on the Gippsland rail line and new transport services to Melbourne delivered – but also commitments for more services and upgrades as part of a $178m V/Line package. Now we have nothing committed to the Gippsland line and all the 21 new carriages being spruiked are for the Geelong line.

There was also a large amount of road works completed and more now underway on roads like the Princes Highway, Great Alpine Road and Omeo Highway, but now have funding cut in that area when there remains much more to do.

The grant streams need to be restored (that are now cut) that delivered a host of medium range projects like the Boisdale Stables upgrade ($42,000), Heyfield Apex Park ($150,000), Coongulla Recreation Reserve upgrade ($80,000), Heyfield Tennis Courts upgrade ($75,000), Lakes Entrance Croquet Club upgrade ($100,000) and Orbost pool solar heating ($100,000).

We had the delivery of many millions to upgrade kinders at Paynesville, Orbost, Stratford, Maffra, Swan Reach, Swift’s Creek and Bairnsdale – another funding stream that has gone.

Some members of the Government have said in here this Budget was well received. I suggest they get the lights of Melbourne in the rear view mirrors and they will find a different opinion.

All MP’s know that if the regions are doing well, Victoria is doing well and as I said at the start, country folk are a resilient bunch. They don’t ask for a lot, but don’t like being ignored.

This government needs to review its cuts to agriculture, roads funding, rural infrastructure, the wild dog program and the reinstate the grant streams that benefited our rural groups and community organisations.

I also encourage the new Ministers to take up some of the invitations extended by country MP’s to visit the regions and understand the issues, but to date I have issued three invitations for what I would call friendly bipartisan visits – with all refused.

I would much rather work with this government to deliver what this region needs. I am aware not everything can be delivered tomorrow, but give us something – even if it is your time initially, that costs nothing.

June 3, 2016