November 23, 2011
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:29): I fear that the Latrobe Valley is about to pay a very heavy price for the Labor Party’s deal with the Greens to deliver a carbon tax that will not change the temperature of the planet but will cost jobs and drive up the cost of living, particularly in regional communities. I have spoken many times in this place about the issues confronting the Latrobe Valley, which I believe to be one of the adversely affected parts of the nation, particularly with its dependence on jobs in the power generation industry along with manufacturing, small business in many forms, and the agricultural sector. I have highlighted my concerns in this place, and until recently my concerns appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Finally, some senior ministers are engaging with my community.
We have had the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government; the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency; and the Minister for Resources and Energy visiting the Latrobe Valley in recent weeks. I am heartened by their interest but we are still waiting for some concrete results. In reading their comments in the media and looking through the transcripts of speeches that they have made, it is apparent to me that this government does not have a firm plan for the future of the Latrobe Valley or for the management of the risks associated with the introduction of a carbon tax. The people of the Latrobe Valley deserve more than rhetoric and motherhood statements. It is this government’s policy, which is being driven by the Greens, which will undermine the regional economy of Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley. This government has a responsibility to invest in my region to minimise the impacts of its carbon tax. Quite frankly, as it stands today, the government is all over the place in terms of its response to the Latrobe Valley and the public comments that have been made by ministers. Just last week Minister Ferguson either backed away from the government’s plans to shut down 2,000 megawatts of coal-fired power or he simply tried to talk down the asking price. This is what he told the Latrobe Valley Express newspaper:
There is no open cheque-book or bottomless pit. We have a bundle of money that is known to me, my department and the government and if people think they are going to push us over the edge financially, then it’s not on. The we are not handing out like lollies.
He claimed the much-touted government commitment to remove 2,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation by 2020 was not an ironclad guarantee but was instead an ambition to reach up to. That will be news to the Australian Greens, who have pushed this government into this position where it wants to retire these power generating assets.
In any case, it is simply illogical to shut down a viable power station asset like Hazelwood when Victoria needs the base load supply which will not come from wind energy or household solar panels. We are going to be faced with the situation where taxpayers are going to be hit three times under this government’s scheme: they will pay for the power station to close; they will pay for the increased cost of electricity; and they will pay with their jobs in the Latrobe Valley. There are 580 direct jobs in the Hazelwood power station at risk. You may be able to compensate the power station owners for their assets, but no compensation will be adequate for a Latrobe Valley worker who is forced out of work and may be forced to leave our region to get another job.
Time is against me when it comes to running through all the other inconsistencies in this government’s approach to Latrobe Valley, but the bottom line is that this government does not have a plan and is talking a lot without committing any funding to the region. In terms of the promised $200 million structural adjustment package, which is to be spread right throughout regional Australia, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Latrobe Valley will receive a major portion of these funds. All we have been told so far is to make submissions and you can compete with the other regions.
You will have to excuse my cynicism, but we did not have any success whatsoever with that process under the first round of the RDA program. On the one hand we have Minister Ferguson and others saying we need to diversify into other areas such as the growing aeronautic industry in the Latrobe Valley, but on the other hand the federal government refused to provide a single cent to help upgrade the Latrobe Valley aerodrome, which is home to GippsAero, Australia’s only manufacturer of commercial aircraft. This is a project that has enjoyed bipartisan support in the sense that the local Labor Party hierarchy is backing it. The Latrobe City Council has committed funding to it and so has the Victorian state coalition.
As I have said right throughout this debate in relation to the carbon tax, the Latrobe Valley is at the pointy end of this issue. For my community it is about jobs; it is about our children’s futures; and it is about the key industries, like power generation and manufacturing and small business and the agricultural sector. This government has failed to deliver a plan to assist the Latrobe Valley and it has failed to even undertake the most basic modelling to measure the social and economic impacts of the policy. We have already seen a drop in confidence in the community as a result of the government uncertainty and the pressure being placed on it by the Australian Greens. Right now it is even harder for the small business sector and Apprenticeships Group Australia to find placements for young apprentices seeking training opportunities in my region.
I would like to end on a more positive note. Minister Crean has given the best indication that he understands that there is going to need to be a whole-of-government approach and to take in a whole range of issues in terms of health needs, education needs, transport and other issues. I do encourage the minister to take that holistic approach to the issues facing the Latrobe Valley. I understand he is working with his state counterpart, Minister Peter Ryan, and I am optimistic that between the two of them they will be able to come up with a plan that benefits our region. It is incumbent upon this government to recognise that it is its policies which are causing the damage in the Latrobe Valley and it has a responsibility to deliver on the ground.