darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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February 15, 2012

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (18:14): I appreciate the opportunity to join this debate. I want to raise several issues which are of great importance to communities across the Gippsland electorate. I will start with the township of Yarram and two key projects that are critical to the future of the town and which deserve support by both state and federal governments.

Before I get to those projects, I would like to pay tribute to one of Yarram district’s finest ever citizens, who passed away during the parliamentary break: a gentleman by the name of Bernie Walpole. Bernie passed away on 23 December at the magnificent age of 94. As a friend of the family, I attended Bernie’s funeral service; it was a tremendous celebration of his life. We heard about Bernie’s remarkable service to the community in education, in local government and in sporting pursuits. Bernie was the kind of bloke you could always rely on. There is an old saying that if you want something done you get a busy man to do it. Bernie was always busy, but he always had time for a chat.

He was a man of many passions. He loved his community. He loved his farm. He loved his garden. He loved his family, especially his beloved wife, Merle, who died several years ago. I consider myself to have been very fortunate to have known Bernie for many years. His personal integrity and determination to make a difference in life made him a role model for anyone pursuing public office. As I indicated, Bernie served his community with great distinction as a local government councillor and a shire president and he will be fondly remembered not just by his family but by the entire community.

The two projects that I referred to earlier are the types of things that Bernie would have loved to have gotten his teeth into. One is the plan by Mirridong Services in Yarram to build Scammell Park, which will be a group of independent living units. Mirridong is the principle provider of services to adults with a disability within the Yarram district. It provides day services, accommodation and respite services. Mirridong has a very proud reputation from serving the Yarram district community over many years. It has some big plans for the future which I believe deserve support at a government level. Their plans for a $3 million facility are very well developed and they have applied for some federal government support to develop these independent living units.

This is a need that has been identified in the community, particularly for adults who are living with a disability and residing with elderly parents who may not be able to continue to care for their children in their later life. Scammell Park will provide an important option for those parents to remain with their child while they receive the specialised support and care that they need. At the same time, they will be able to help to develop the child’s independent living skills to enable them to continue to live independently and to be active in the community when the parent can no longer care for them.

I have been briefed over the last couple of years by the Mirridong board about this particular project. I can say that that Yarram district community is fully supportive of this application, which came about as the result of many years of community consultation and planning. It is an outstanding project and it is certainly worthy of federal government support. I commend the board and the staff of Mirridong Services for the work that they do with people with disabilities in our community. They provide a great service to the Yarram district and they help bond our community together.

There is another project in the Yarram district that I want to refer to and that is a plan to develop a community hub, which will include childcare facilities. To say that this proposal has had a chequered past is to state what is obvious to the local community. The lack of childcare services was identified as a major issue in the Yarram district more than five years ago. It was certainly subject to some election commitments in 2007, when my predecessor, Peter McGauran, made a $1 million commitment that a re-elected government would fund a childcare service in Yarram. That commitment was publicly matched by the Labor candidate at the time, which was reported in the local media. But unfortunately the funding for that program has not eventuated. Given this government’s track record in relation to broken promises, I should not be so surprised.

The federal government now has the opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of the Yarram district community. This is something that, as I said, had bipartisan support in the lead-up to the 2007 election. It was a commitment by the coalition at this time. As everyone is well and truly aware, the Labor Party won that election. But their candidate made a commitment to the same project, so I believe that it is something that the government should revisit.

I am pleased to say that there has been something of a breakthrough on this issue in recent times in the form of the commitment made by the Victorian state government to the community hub project. I want to pay tribute to the local state member and Deputy Premier, Mr Peter Ryan. He is a very good friend of mine. I used to work with Peter before I became a member of parliament. Peter has worked very hard with the community to develop this project and to continue to liaise with the Wellington Shire Council to get something together that could be taken to governments to seek funding support.

The Victorian state government has provided $900,000 under its local government infrastructure program, which is a very good step in the right direction. The Wellington Shire has completed a feasibility study to determine what services should actually be included in the community hub model, but it needs some additional funding before construction can begin. I understand that council is going to consider the recommendations of this feasibility study and determine which is the best way to progress but that either way child care is going to be included as a core service. It is likely that the community hub will include a public library, a kindergarten, child care and community meeting spaces in the shire service centre, so it meets a lot of this government’s commentary, if you like, about consolidating community services and providing that hub-type approach where small regional communities like Yarram can enjoy the support services that perhaps some of our major regional centres and certainly our metropolitan areas take for granted. I think it is a great project and I believe it is well worthy of government support.

The members of the Yarram district community have been very patient. They have been very patient with me as their federal member when over four years we have not been able to get funding from the federal government. They have been very patient with the state government as well in that regard. They have worked tirelessly to have the project developed to this stage and they deserve to be commended for their efforts. We still, though, have a long way to go. We will need more funding to be secured for the full scope of the project, and I am hopeful that the state and federal governments will be able to see their way clear to working with the Wellington Shire Council and working with those hardworking and deserving citizens of the Yarram district to finally deliver childcare services.

I must say that a couple of the mums who first contacted me and initiated the debate about childcare services in Yarram now have no need for childcare services; their children are at school and they are probably of an age now that it is not really for an issue for them. But they are continuing to work for it as they recognise what an important issue it is for our regional communities. It is actually impossible for us in some of our small regional towns to attract skilled workers unless we can offer some of the services that people expect—in particular, in the modern era, childcare services. If we are going to attract teachers, doctors and other skilled professionals to our small regional towns, we need to make sure we have that level of childcare service which is befitting our regional centres.

In the time I have remaining I want to reflect on an issue of importance to the future of the East Gippsland community, the other end of my electorate. That is the issue of funding for upgrades to the Princes Highway, particularly in the section of the highway east of Sale. I imagine, Mr Deputy Speaker Symon, that you have probably had the opportunity to travel that road on many occasions. The highway, in Gippsland, has been the subject of much community debate over many, many years. To its credit, the federal government made allocations to the duplication of the highway between Traralgon and Sale, and I can report that that project is progressing. I think that in all $175 million has gone to that 50-kilometre section of road between Sale and Traralgon. The full scope of that project is somewhere in the order of $500 million, so there is a lot of work still to be done in that particular area.

That section of the road between Traralgon and Sale is eligible under the national road network for Commonwealth funding, but the problem starts at Sale and goes all the way to the New South Wales border and then into the South Coast of New South Wales, where the Princes Highway is not eligible for Commonwealth funding under the national road network. It is an issue that I have raised with the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the past. To his credit, he has discussed it with me. It is also something I have raised with colleagues in my own party. The section of road from Sale to the New South Wales border is a section of road on which, quite frankly, too many people are dying and too many people are suffering horrific injuries. The road condition is a very significant part of the problem.

We obviously need to take into account that we are talking about a section of road which is 2½ to five hours from Melbourne. It is a stretch of road where people might be getting fatigued by the time they get there and we have not built safety into the road environment. There are too many sections of that road where there are no overtaking areas, where there are poor or non-existent shoulders and where there are run-off road hazards. There are a whole range of reasons why the road is a safety risk. It has one of the highest accident and fatality rates in the state of Victoria and there is no question that the road environment itself is a contributing factor to the road trauma we are experiencing.

I have worked very closely over recent times with my state counterpart, the member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, on this issue, and he supports my view that there is a lot more work that we need to do. I believe that one of the first things we need to do is fund a safety audit of the road and then develop a 10-year strategy to upgrade the highway east of Sale. If we do not have a plan to roll out the safety upgrade as funding becomes available, I think we are starting behind the eight ball to begin with. I will continue to lobby the federal government and I will be lobbying my colleagues in the coalition to make the highway east of Sale eligible for Commonwealth funding in the future. If we are going to be realistic about it, we should be talking about the highway all the way up the south coast of New South Wales and through Eden-Monaro. I have not spoken to the member for Eden-Monaro of late about that issue, but sections of his road are in pretty poor condition as well.

My concern is that there really is no long-term plan at the moment for the upgrade of even the most basic safety features that perhaps we take for granted on some of our other highways. Again, I am talking about things like shoulder-sealing, the need for more overtaking lanes, some realignment of some of the dangerous corners that exist and improvements to the road surface itself. In recent times we have seen an increase in the use of very heavy vehicles on the road. I am talking not just about the transport industry in terms of trucks but also about caravans and recreational vehicles, which are bigger now than they ever were before. That has added to the danger. In some of the narrow sections of road east of Orbost as you head towards Cann River on the New South Wales border it really is a nightmare watching two large vehicles pass each other. The mirrors almost touch as they come along that section of road. There is no margin for error on many sections of the highway. I estimated on one trip that there is probably about 40 kilometres of highway where there is actually no shoulder whatsoever. So one small slip, one small error could send a vehicle off into the gravel and into potential danger with the surrounding vegetation.

So, in my view, too much of the current debate about the highway funding east of Sale is based on anecdotal evidence, some of which I have just passed on to the House tonight. But I do believe there needs to be a complete safety audit, with a view to developing a 10-year strategy for upgrades of that section of road. To its credit the previous state government did that, and the current state government has been doing some upgrades of the road. It would be unfair to either of those governments to suggest that nothing is happening, but the pool of available funding is simply not adequate to get the major overhaul that is required. VicRoads is trialling some new ideas on that section of road between Sale and Bairnsdale at the moment, with some new line markings and some whiter line markings and encouraging drivers to use their headlights at all times, and there is some new and improved signage. But I do not think any of that really replaces the fact that we are going to need some major upgrades to the road and it is going to cost a lot of money.

There simply has not been a major funding commitment to invest in the safety upgrades that I have talked about. I understand that, in tight budgetary times, road funding is a highly competitive area of responsibility for governments and that there are many competing needs throughout our nation. But, when the No. 1 highway is a virtual goat track in parts of the section through East Gippsland, and lives are being lost and horrific injuries are being suffered, we have to find a way to invest in safety improvements not only for those very clear social reasons I have just pointed out but also for the enormous economic benefits it would bring to the East Gippsland region in increased productivity for our transport sector, better linking our communities and making us more available as a tourist destination.

This is something that I think we need to resolve to work harder at improving, both at a state and at a federal level. I sincerely believe that we need to find a way to get that Princes Highway east of Sale, right through the Gippsland electorate and the Eden-Monaro electorate, within the parameters of the national road network to ensure that additional funding can flow in the future.

In the brief time I have left I want to touch on one other issue which I suppose is a personal passion of mine—that is, the health of the environment of the Gippsland Lakes. This year we have experienced an algal bloom in the Gippsland Lakes, and that is not an unknown event. We have had algal blooms over many years at different times. There are a whole range of factors that play into what causes algal blooms but the simple fact is that, when they arrive, they do have an impact on our local tourism industry and on the amenity of the Gippsland Lakes area. It is an issue for us as a community to deal with.

For more than a decade, I have campaigned on the need to have ongoing commitments from state and federal governments to do practical environmental work in the catchment to look after the health of the Gippsland Lakes. My view is that the Gippsland Lakes are really the Great Barrier Reef of the south. It is the biggest inland waterway in the Southern Hemisphere. It is critical to our tourism industry and it is critical to our enjoyment of the Gippsland region. There are some very strong cultural links to the Gippsland Lakes amongst the Indigenous community and also amongst people who choose to live and work around the Gippsland Lakes system.

The state government has allocated $10 million over the next three years for environmental works around the Gippsland Lakes and catchment area. That is welcome news and I congratulate the state government for that. The previous state government made commitments as well at various times over the last decade. But my concern is that the current federal government funding has run out. About $3 million was allocated in 2007 but there has been no ongoing federal funding. It is a major concern that, at the Commonwealth level, we have a Ramsar listed wetland and we simply are not pulling our weight in looking after the environment of this national treasure.

So I would like to see a greater commitment at the Commonwealth level to the Gippsland Lakes in the future. I think there is enormous community support for such a funding commitment, if the relevant ministers could see their way through in subsequent budgets. I thank the House for the opportunity to raise those issues tonight on behalf the people of Gippsland.

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