Can I say right from the beginning that there is always more work that can be done to address the issues surrounding rural and regional social and economic disadvantage. That was the view the government members of the committee took into this inquiry. That is why we were particularly interested in making sure there was a cooperative approach to this inquiry. I will make some remarks later in my contribution today in respect of the way the committee functions, but at the outset I want to just put some pegs in the ground as to what our view from a government members’ perspective has been in relation to this report. There is a minority report attached at the back of the publication that has been tabled today. The government members have supported the vast majority of recommendations contained in the report.
I believe there are three recommendations that are not supported by the government members.
The chairman of the committee, Damian Drum, is quite correct: the committee did travel wide and far throughout regional Victoria in respect of this inquiry, as it was also dealing with the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline inquiry for part of that time as well. We heard many inspiring stories of initiatives developed and implemented by local communities that were bringing about real change and helping to break the cycle of disadvantage. There were many examples of partnerships at a local level where we saw the outcomes and the ongoing good work of programs such as Best Start, neighbourhood renewal, Transport Connections, and the list goes on. They are clearly making a difference in our rural and regional communities with respect to health, education and social outcomes.
Unfortunately the committee was not particularly interested in learning more about which programs were working, which ones needed more support and how successful initiatives could be adapted and used in other communities. The non-government members were more interested in teasing out more about what was wrong in communities and ultimately were really wanting to talk down rural and regional Victoria.
At the outset the committee was not interested in creating benchmarks to look at exactly what government programs were already in existence across a whole range of portfolios and then going out there and checking and testing. The evidence we heard in rural and regional Victoria was that they were not working and they needed to be improvised, amended or added to; the inquiry was not anything like that. In many ways it was an exercise where the non-government members were more interested in trawling for negative elements all the way around rural and regional Victoria, which was really unfortunate.
There was very little acceptance of fact. I think that can be picked up from the remarks made by the chairman today — he basically implied that somehow in the last 12 months all of these things that he listed as initiatives have had something to do with this inquiry when this report had not even been published.
The initiatives that he listed in terms of the positive promotions that have been happening in rural and regional Victoria are a net result of the two years of really hard work that this government has been putting in with non-government organisations and local government instrumentalities, councils and shires right across the state in its development of the blueprint for regional and rural Victoria. That is where the hard work has been done; it has not necessarily been done through the work of this particular inquiry.
It is of note that in the past decade there have been over 120 000 new jobs created in rural and regional Victoria. We have seen the state government facilitate more than $11.7 billion in new investments and invest more than $1.6 billion in the past four years in regional health, education and job-creating infrastructure.
We heard from witnesses that they were concerned with the terms of reference.
A number of people, from the chief executive officer of Castlemaine Health, Graem Kelly, to a social planner from the East Gippsland Shire Council, Bruce Smith, and the chief executive officer of Hindmarsh Shire Council, Dean Miller, were concerned that there was negativity in the terms of reference which did not encourage people to highlight the good things they have been doing and the positive contributions made by their communities.
Other witnesses who appeared before the committee, such as Mary Pendergast, the principal of Warrnambool College, Tanya Rodinov, a GP from Donald, and police sergeant Brady from Corryong, were concerned that their comments be understood to have been made only in response to the terms of reference and that they did not want to talk down the many benefits there are in living and working in regional Victoria.
We had a number of examples of community-based initiatives, partnerships and models which are working really well in regional Victoria, ranging from the Wimmera Virtual School network, Seymour neighbourhood renewal resident action group, Students@Work at Orbost, Koori Strong and Proud program in Gippsland, the Upper Murray Health and Community Services at Corryong and the bike banks at Maryborough — and the list goes on in terms of communities who wanted to come to the hearings and outline the fantastic efforts they have been putting in to try to break the cycle and systemic nature of disadvantage in rural and regional Victoria.
We had difficulties at the committee level trying to make the non-government members understand that when this government came into office in 1999 it was incredibly concerned that the voices of the marginalised were not being heard and that it would put in a very systematic approach to tackling disadvantage.
We have seen that happen in a variety of ways, but the first was the A Fairer Victoria document. We also saw the challenges in addressing disadvantage and implemented Moving Forward, which was a $502 million blueprint for continued growth in regional Victoria, and Ready for Tomorrow — A Blueprint for Regional and Rural Victoria, with $631 million for strategic investment. Coupled with those programs is our Future Farming strategy, which details investment in research and development as well as support and services for farming businesses, rural communities and individual farmers.
Given that the terms of reference for this inquiry were developed well after the ministerial task force commenced its investigation, the inquiry duplicated much of the work that had been undertaken in formulating the blueprint. It is hard not to be cynical about the underlying political motives of the coalition members in conducting this inquiry in an election year.
As I said we are well aware that there is always much more that can be done to tackle disadvantage. However, we believe the government has a track record of not only identifying areas of disadvantage but also taking action to address them. On page 7 of our report we have described all the elements that are part of A Fairer Victoria, which was launched in 2005. They are the four key priorities of: helping all Victorian children to get the best start in life; improving education opportunities and helping people into work; improving health and wellbeing and reducing health inequities; and developing livable communities where Victorians want to live, work and raise families.
Each year the government announces an updated statement of objectives and priorities for A Fairer Victoria. At the launch of this year’s statement the Victorian Council of Social Service’s chief executive officer, Cath Smith, acknowledged the state government’s commitment to addressing disadvantage. I will read out some of her comments, because it is very important that people are aware that the major non-government social service organisation in this state endorses the approach taken by this government. Ms Smith said:
“Not many governments respect the right to advocate and really listen to what community organisations have to say. But this government does work incredibly hard and most of the time does get it right and keeps trying to get it right.
There are literally billions of dollars and thousands of programs supported by this government that if they were purely ‘driven by the dollar’ they wouldn’t have spent over the last five years of AFV.
VCOSS and its 462 members (mainly organisations) have robust relationships with people in government (at both political and bureaucratic levels) and we value our work together — both where we can assist those pushing great ideas from within government, as well as where we don’t agree — and we seek respectful dialogue and debate.”
A Fairer Victoria this year saw a further $1.35 billion of new investment aimed at providing opportunities for the most vulnerable Victorians. But unfortunately, as I pointed out earlier, the limitations of the inquiry’s terms of reference provided no opportunity to demonstrate, celebrate, learn and share the success of community-driven initiatives and partnerships. Instead people who made submissions found that they had to respond in such a way that they often felt they were being brought to account and had to justify themselves or the programs which their communities were working on.
The reality is that many of the communities we visited made it clear that they embraced the opportunity to drive projects and that with the support of all levels of government they are seeing real change and improvement as a result.
What we also saw was clear and positive feedback about the need for early intervention, particularly in the area of early childhood. On page 9 of our report we talk about a number of initiatives that have already taken place in this area. I should also say at this point that I understand the Minister for Children and Early Childhood Development, Maxine Morand, in a speech she gave as recently as last night, announced a number of funding initiatives, one of which was $4000 for each rural kindergarten — I think there are about 90 rural kindergartens on the list. Their counterparts in metropolitan Melbourne will receive $2300. But in recognition of the need for resources and of the travel costs associated with running small rural kindergartens, their funding amount will be $4000.
We have also documented a number of areas that this government has been involved in in rural health since 1999. In respect of that, we have invested $1.5 billion on almost 90 capital works, redevelopment projects, equipment and infrastructure upgrades across rural and regional Victoria.
An example of the investment we have put in place is in the West Wimmera Health Service, which has experienced a 106 per cent increase in recurrent funding, from $5.3 million to $11.1 million, since 1999. We have seen capital works that have included $2.6 million for the redevelopment of the Natimuk Nursing Home, $8.5 million for the Nhill Hospital redevelopment and $3.7 million for the Rainbow aged-care facility redevelopment. No-one can argue that even in that part of Victoria we are not concerned about rural health and in particular the areas of aged care and nursing as well as significant redevelopment of our hospitals.
It is important to note that at many of the hearings held during the inquiry we heard that most of the health initiatives the state Labor government has facilitated during the past decade have had wider social benefits for our communities. Not only has our investment in health-care delivery and infrastructure improved the health and wellbeing of residents in those communities but it has also provided valuable job opportunities locally, created strong leadership networks and attracted young professionals and families to regional areas, further boosting local populations and economies. I urge those who are particularly interested in rural health to look at the outline in the 2005 report entitled Rural Directions for a Better State of Health.
I want to mention also some of the fine examples of innovation that were brought to our attention during the inquiry, in particular the evidence that we heard in Mallacoota from the paramedic community support coordinator about how the work of that position is organised in remote rural communities. We heard also that the Rural Maternity Initiative has brought a number of partnerships together and has made sure that networking and local birthing services can operate more effectively and efficiently.
A number of other areas are mentioned in our report. Time does not allow me to go to all of those, but they include mental health, which is referred to on page 12 and part of page 13 of the minority report. Rural housing is referred to on page 13. Homelessness is referred to on page 14 and part of page 15.
Regional education is also referred to. If there was more time, I would have liked to have spent a substantial amount of time on this very important area, because it is a key priority.
I take this opportunity to draw to the attention of the house the Positive Pathways for Victoria’s Vulnerable Young People policy framework to support vulnerable youth, which was announced on 22 September. In particular I draw to the attention of the house the fact that demonstration projects will be established in the cities of Greater Geelong, Queenscliff, Surf Coast, Yarra Ranges, Swan Hill, Buloke, Mildura, Greater Bendigo, Central Goldfields, Mount Alexander, Campaspe, Macedon Ranges, Loddon, Ballarat, Hepburn, Moorabool, Pyrenees and Golden Plains areas, showing that the vast majority of the government’s strategy has been targeted at rural and regional Victoria.
Skills are referred to at the bottom of page 16 and on pages 17 and 18 of the report. The recently released initiative entitled Ready for Tomorrow — A Blueprint for Rural and Regional Victoria has $103.6 million for tertiary education opportunities. Of that, there is $75 million for a Tertiary Education Infrastructure Fund, $9 million for regional tertiary education partnerships, $7.1 million to improve transport from small rural communities to universities and TAFEs and $12.5 million for provincial cadetships for young professionals. This initiative is designed to ensure that there is greater access to post-school education and training for rural students, hopefully in or close to their communities. That is a significant priority, to say the least, for this government.
The minority report also highlights what the committee heard about regional transport. Fantastic things are happening in regional transport.
One of the things we know is that for people who live in rural and regional Victoria distance is a key factor in their being able to access a range of services and participate in the workforce and other activities. Everyone accepted that Transport Connections is an absolutely fantastic project. There are of course areas where we can extend and expand that. The committee also heard from people in other communities about a range of other things they would like to see in those areas, and we look forward to the government’s response to those matters.
Apart from the education and skills investment, the Ready for Tomorrow blueprint also highlights the need for support for jobs and industry. Therefore $99.4 million has been put to one side to create thousands of new jobs, boost regional industries and help small businesses.
Also $203.9 million has been set aside for building infrastructure and connecting communities, as well as $158.4 million for supporting the regional and rural way of life by providing funding for sports clubs, cultural activities and various other community programs.
The government also has the Planning Better Regions — A New Partnership initiative, which is backed by $58.9 million to support an approach to regional planning and development, including significant funding to support the planning and design of regional cities and towns and fast-tracking projects to help local communities.
In terms of agriculture and farming communities those of us who prepared the minority report were disappointed, to say the least, that the committee was not all that interested in spending more time than it did on this area.
In particular the committee was not willing to recognise the number of things that this government has been undertaking in the area.
In terms of drought relief, $400 million assistance has been provided since 2002-03. In respect of the four main initiatives under the Future Farming strategy, we have the Rural Futures, Sustainable Farm Families and case management for farmers initiatives and the new National Centre for Farmer Health, which was established by the state government and is based in Hamilton. A very serious amount of work has been done in not only policy but also practical support for our farming communities because we know those communities have been among the most stressed in this state in the past 10 or so years. Whether it be drought, bushfires or flooding — and now we have the locusts — those communities have been under an enormous amount of pressure, and it has been absolutely incumbent upon us to ensure that we have had a willingness and a practical area of response to tackle the myriad challenges facing our farming communities. We also talk about new industries that we have established and are facilitating, particularly in terms of alternative energy, which is discussed on pages 24 and 25 of our report.
I wish to turn briefly to the government’s views on the recommendations. As I said at the outset, there are three recommendations we do not support. There are comments we have made in relation to some of the others, but in terms of the rationale for not supporting those three, firstly, government members do support rural proofing. We support it in a very strong sense to the point where we have talked to our colleagues over a period of time, and there is general consensus on a number of levels, so much so that rural proofing is part of the Labor Party’s platform.
We agree with rural proofing, but we do not agree with the practical implementation of it that has been brought to this chamber in not just this committee’s report but the committee’s previous report, which was about the future of regional cities, and its key recommendation was about rural proofing. I will not go into the fact that we did not receive any evidence on it and a range of other things.
Leaving that to one side, the recommendation essentially wanted us to accept a brand-new bureaucracy sitting on top of everything else. It would have been incredibly unwieldy and would not have been effective or efficient. There was not any proper discussion, even at the committee level, about the types of models, so when it was put in front of us as a recommendation it really was plucked from somewhere, and there was no real willingness to have that debate.
Today we have another recommendation about the implementation of rural proofing.
It has gone from one extreme to the other and is about setting up an advisory committee on rural proofing. That is not our view. We do not agree with that narrow approach to rural proofing. We think it should be more encompassing. I believe it should be more systematic and ingrained in the way in which we do our business, not through an advisory committee.
As said in the minority report, the government thinks that coming up with a notion of an advisory committee, when we already have a number of other established committees established that deal with rural and regional initiatives, basically lets politicians off the hook. It is incumbent on all of us to be involved in rural proofing in the way we go about our business and not to handball or buck pass it to some advisory committee. The government wants to make sure that it is checked off in the way we go about our business and deal with issues at a local level as they come up and get checked off, even through to the cabinet level. On that basis we do not support recommendation 1.
Recommendation 3 deals with the social contract, and the government does not support that because it is bad practice. It is supporting a concept that essentially wants to be a one-size-fits-all concept. An artificial template will be put down over communities, and it will impose a number of obligations on those communities without having the proper and necessary dialogue. That dialogue is out there at the moment; it is being built upon; it is called partnerships — building partnerships within and across our communities — and the committee goes into some description on that matter.
The other recommendation we do not support is the one in relation to access to justice. For those who are particularly interested in this area, it is quite compelling to read pages 27 and 28 and half of page 29. As time is against me, all I will say is that no-one in this chamber can deny the fact that what has been occurring in the justice area in this state has been almost revolutionary.
Most of the legislation that has come before this Parliament has been in this area, so when the government was confronted with a recommendation that basically implied that it had done nothing — and almost implied that it had purposely been working against the interests of rural and regional people — government members were quite affronted. That is why we had to call in the people who administer the courts to find out the true facts.
Again I do not want to go into the ins and outs of the internal workings of the committee, but we were then faced with the situation where the committee had to rewrite its recommendation. We were given it at 10 o’clock and then had to make up our minds and get it approved by the next morning. Government members did not feel as if the recommendation acknowledged the true work that had been done and that it still implied that this government had hardly done anything in an area that has been significantly worked on. For example, we have expanded the Rural Dispute Settlement Centre.
Staff from the centre provide timely dispute advice and can organise mediations.
We also have Koori courts that operate in Shepparton, Mildura, Swan Hill, Warrnambool, the Latrobe Valley and Bairnsdale. We have the mental health court liaison service that provides local area mental health services in the Geelong, Shepparton, Bendigo, Ballarat and Latrobe Valley Magistrates courts. The youth justice court advice service is statewide.
We also have regional justice service centres. These are one-stop shops that have been established in each of the regions to help local residents access a range of justice services and information, including referrals to Consumer Affairs Victoria, funded advocacy service providers, consumer advice et cetera. We have consolidated and overhauled laws previously contained in four separate pieces of legislation and streamlined them into one regime which has resulted in a number of measures designed to reduce delay in the courts.
There has also been a major review of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in recent times. VCAT staff will now be located in Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Morwell, Mildura, Warrnambool and Wangaratta.
In relation to the so-called justice recommendation, government members found it impossible to support that recommendation.
Can I say in closing that when the terms of reference first came before this chamber in November last year I said that I was looking forward to a vigorous inquiry — one that was open and transparent. I was looking forward to working further with a committee that does not wait until its last meeting to put key recommendations in its final chapter. I was sadly disappointed again. This inquiry was important because we needed to have vigorous discussion and debate and to challenge and search for solutions all the way through the course of the inquiry. I reiterate that I very much looked forward to vigorous, open debate during the inquiry. Unfortunately we just did not get any of that in this committee.
From the outset it essentially became a situation where the coalition was trawling country Victoria wanting to hear only issues that its members thought they might be able to get some mileage from with respect to the forthcoming election.
This was an inquiry where the opportunity was absolutely missed. There is a lot of work that can and will be done in this area, but I was sadly disappointed as a reasonably newly elected member of this Parliament that this was again an inquiry that was politically motivated, one where people were just not interested.
In my final closing comment I would like to thank the staff of the secretariat. We had some very difficult moments, to say the least. I really appreciate the time and dedication and the thought we all gave to each other when things got tough. Thank you.