I am very pleased to make a contribution to the debate on the Regional Growth Fund Bill 2011. In November last year the coalition parties went to the election in respect of this fund and mentioned that $1 billion would be provided over eight years. At the time of the election I am sure a number of people looked carefully at that promise, and I am sure they were swayed by that significant amount of money. But when you investigate the amount and the way it is structured, when you get to actually peel back the layers, you realise that the $1 billion over eight years simply is not the case.
To take up Mr Ramsay’s point, the opposition has not said that the money has been spent; the opposition is saying that 70 per cent of the moneys have already been allocated, leaving only $150 million for regional Victoria over the next four years.
The second concern I have is the scope of the fund. It has been broadened, and what we will see is that regional communities will be pitted against interface communities vying for the same pool of funding, and I do not think that is appropriate. The opposition supports a separate dedicated pool of money for interface communities, but it does not see it working for either interface communities or regional communities attempting to secure moneys out of this same pool.
The third concern I have is the type of projects that will be eligible for funding.
We have heard much in this debate about whether there will be core service funding in regional Victoria taken from the Regional Growth Fund. The fact is that there has been absolute confusion on this point. A lot of it has been the result of mixed messages and conflicting comments by the Minister for Regional and Rural Development, Mr Ryan, over a period of time, and all I say is let us just stop the confusion. We want to know what is in and what is out in relation to which projects can be funded from this fund.
We are particularly concerned about the government already flagging that it will have substantial departmental budget cuts in the forthcoming May budget, and we are concerned that this fund might be used to offset core departmental service cuts instead of being expended on projects that are specificallydesigned to develop regional Victoria and not just services that are available regardless of where you live. We believe this would seriously dilute regional Victoria funding.
Fourthly we believe there is no mechanism to ensure that there is a fair allocation of funds between different regions and within regional areas — between regional cities, regional centres and small towns. As we all know, when there are no or few funding streams within a fund there is serious potential for the fund to be used in an overtly political way, and Mr Barber alluded to this. In the case of this fund, if it is used in an overtly political way, it will absolutely undermine the development of regional Victoria.
My fifth concern is that there has been a reduced focus on employment and investment in regional Victoria with the changes that this government has brought about.
This is also reflected in the machinery of government changes brought in by this government — an exercise undertaken by shifting large sections of Regional Development Victoria (RDV) into the Department of Planning and Community Development. If this is the case, we all lose. If we reduce employment opportunities, it means we cannot retain people in regional Victoria, and it also means that we suffocate growth in regional Victoria. While I am on the subject of Regional Development Victoria. I take this opportunity to voice my support for the old structure and programs of RDV.
When I was a member of the Rural and Regional Committee in the last Parliament we undertook a number of inquiries, and not one program, individual or even the whole sections of fund streaming was criticised at any public hearing or in any submission provided to that committee. It is interesting, to say the least, that the government in one of its very first actions tinkered and tampered with regional Victoria.
I have other concerns about this bill, but I hope there will be further clarification as the house goes through the committee process.
In a nutshell this bill establishes a new fund that has very little unallocated moneys for regional Victoria. It has little clarity about what is in and what is out. We have two important sectors of Victoria — that is, regional and interface communities — but they now have to compete over one pot of money. We do not have a dedicated regional fund and we need a separate dedicated fund for the interface community. We have a situation where regional funding will be diluted; the fund will become a general contingency fund. It will be less transparent and potentially open to what is commonly termed pork-barrelling.
It will be a fund that has lost its way from the original intent put in place by the previous government — that is, employment and investment for regional Victoria.
I do not see those considerations as the first two priorities of this fund. The $1 billion spent on establishing the Regional Growth Fund was a false capture-the-imagination hook, and despite the spruiking and government fanfare I do not believe this is a better or a superior way of driving growth and community in regional Victoria.