Regional Development Victoria Amendment (Jobs and Infrastructure) Bill 2015

NATALIE HUTCHINS (Minister for Local Government) — I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Regional Development Victoria Amendment (Jobs and Infrastructure) Bill 2015. I am very proud to say that this legislation enables the establishment and management of our $500 million Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund, which Labor has promised to regional areas across Victoria.

In my first 100 days of being a minister, particularly in my role as Minister for Local Government, I had the pleasure of visiting a range of regional areas across Victoria and meeting with the councils in those areas, including Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, the Latrobe Valley, Wodonga, Benalla, Ararat and Shepparton. In every single one of those meetings the issue of jobs was no. 1 on the agenda. This included the issue of unemployment and how it was affecting the region.

I noticed the overwhelming passion with which councillors and mayors spoke about the effects of youth unemployment in their areas — in some areas it is as high as 28 per cent — and just how lacking they had been in receiving support and opportunities from the work of the previous state government in terms of genuine investment in their areas, particularly in the pathways that would lead their young people and their long-term unemployed to permanent jobs in their regions.

That was reflected in the severe cuts that were made in the TAFE sector. But have no doubt about it: back in January this year the no. 1 issue on all of those councils’ agendas was the issue of jobs. I know from my meetings with Rural Councils Victoria that that is still very much at the forefront of their minds. That is why I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to talk on this bill today.

The bill establishes the $500 million Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund, which is made up of three elements: a $250 million Regional Infrastructure Development Fund to invest in the projects that regional cities and towns need; a $200 million Regional Jobs Fund to help companies grow their workforce, expand their markets and create jobs of the future; and a $50 million stronger regional communities plan to strengthen regional communities and help our towns attract families and young people to live and work in regional Victoria. One of the ways we do or facilitate that through these funds is to have those pathways, to have those opportunities. As many of the mayors and councillors I met with over the January and February period said to me, it is important to have real long-term jobs in place and real career opportunities for people.

With this bill we are looking to introduce minimal legislative change to establish the funds and to renew the focus of regional investment, putting it on infrastructure, on jobs and on strengthening our communities. The bill also continues a sensible, time-tested model used by government when investing in regional Victoria that was developed by previous Labor governments. The model is based on a dedicated investment fund for Victoria and an advisory committee to give regional communities a voice on policy and also on the role of Regional Development Victoria.

The bill ensures rural and regional Victoria remains the key focus in the government’s economic agenda by retaining provisions which establish Regional Development Victoria as the lead agency for economic and community development in rural and regional Victoria and by incorporating enabling provisions for regional development funding that are in the Regional Growth Fund Act 2011. On top of that there is also to be a new advisory body to replace the Regional Policy Advisory Committee, and I will come back to that.

The bill simplifies existing regional development legislation. It deals with the Regional Development Victoria Act 2002, which sets out the functions and activities of Regional Development Victoria, and the Regional Growth Fund Act 2011, which established the previous government’s Regional Growth Fund. It simplifies the legislative framework for regional development by repealing the Regional Growth Fund Act and incorporating enabling provisions for regional development funding currently provided by that act into a single piece of legislation, which we are discussing and debating today.

One of the most vital elements of the policy that sits behind this act involves the government working to make sure that the money that comes with these programs is in place from day one of the new financial year — this year, 2015. We will also ensure that these funds will be awarded to the applications that best suit each region of Victoria. The bill sets out how future projects in regional Victoria will be considered for funding, ensuring that projects provide for better infrastructure, facilities and services; strengthen the economic, social and environmental bases of communities; and create jobs and improve career opportunities. As I said, that was put on the agenda pretty strongly with me by regional councils: support the planning and development of local projects and support economic and community development.

No two regions are the same, and these specific projects that will be looked at by the growth fund will provide the capacity for each region to prioritise its areas of economic growth and the pathways that are best for it in setting up planning for jobs growth in its region. The government expects local councils to continue to be key partners in the delivery of these sorts of programs and looks forward to working jointly with them. In particular, in its establishment the Regional Jobs Fund will look at being able to commence from day one with specific election commitments identified as local priorities. The bill allows for the new fund to be used in local areas to support local projects and further development, providing that opportunity for better infrastructure facilities and services which are so key in driving the plans that best deliver jobs growth in an area.

I have to touch on some of the comments made by members in their contributions in this debate about the Regional Growth Fund and how it operated under the previous government. This jobs fund will be quite different. It will not be a slush fund for our mates in the regions; it will be a genuine fund that will look at how to grow employment and the pathways between our TAFE system and employment opportunities offered out in the regions. The bill paves the way for the delivery of major projects, including upgrades to particular attractions in our regions that will draw more people from the cities. I think tourism is a fantastic focus for this fund.

The fund will also grow jobs by investing in some of our key local services. One in particular that has been committed to is investment in the Latrobe Valley health training centre and dental laboratory. I have met with the Latrobe City Council twice now, and its priority is definitely growing jobs in that area. I know it welcomes the commitments that have been made by the government to growing its local economy. It is about having opportunities for jobs and training in place to keep communities together, rather than having families split up because the kids have to follow job opportunities in the city. These opportunities are going to grow our regions and, most importantly, keep our families connected and prosperous. It really puts our regional cities back into the heart of Victoria’s community, and that is an extremely important agenda for this government.

I am very proud to say our $500 million Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund will really kickstart growth. I know it will assist many of those regional and rural councils that are struggling with unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, in their regions. It will help to give them vision and will give them the financial support that they need to help grow jobs.