Governors Speech Response – Eastern Victoria Region

MELINA BATH (Eastern Victoria) (16:17): Deputy President, I am pleased to see you back in the chair, as well as the President, in this 60th Parliament. I rise to make my contribution on the response to the Governor’s speech last December, and in doing so I would also like to put on record my thanks for the service that the Honourable Linda Dessau, Her Excellency, provides this state. I have not met her on many occasions, and sometimes, as when we were sworn in last month, it is very perfunctory. But one experience was four years ago on the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday fires in Central Gippsland when she came down and toured the region. I remember going to Kernot Hall and meeting with her and having a conversation, and I was very impressed by her grace and humbleness in response to the people and the lives that were so devastatingly affected by the multiple bushfires that created havoc in our region. So I thank her for the service and the elegance and dignity she provides in the role.

Indeed when I first came in and read the Governor’s speech a couple of times ago, I went, ‘Who wrote this?’ And then of course I realised it is the government’s agenda and indeed the Premier or one of his multiple media gurus had written this down for us to look at. Looking at it, it is a big shout-out to the Andrews government, and one would expect that. It casts the net to share with the public what they believe they are going to achieve, and I am interested – very interested – in the topics that are covered. Indeed under ‘Energy’ the first line is ‘Bringing back the SEC’. When that little bombshell happened sometime in early November prior to the election, I of course was in the Latrobe Valley and handing out how-to-vote cards in and around Gippsland, and it was viewed with great scepticism by many of the people I spoke with on pre-poll. For those hard and fast in the Labor camp, yes, of course it was all fabulous, but many in central Gippsland basically felt that it was going to be a joke.

It was an election commitment announced in the CBD or surrounds of Melbourne and then later on flogged at the Yallourn power station. The energy situation in Victoria is incredibly serious; there is no doubt about that. Since coming in and seeing the closure of Hazelwood and the effect that has had on the Latrobe Valley we have seen the Andrews government’s closure statement on the native timber industry and the strangulation of that and the effect that that is having on our regions. Not only the Latrobe Valley but the broader Gippsland region is really in dire straits, and there are ramifications of that in a wider context. We are going to move toward renewables, and that is the path that we are on, but there is a great danger of falling off the cliff too soon. We need dispatchable power. We need reliable power. Batteries are coming, but with the requirements of batteries there is a danger that they absolutely will not be able to fill that short gap when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing or it is blowing too hard.

The government needs to be very mindful over the next four years about supporting the valley. We have had the Latrobe Valley Authority, and that is coming to wither on the vine. It had $7.5 million in the last budget and half of that was on wages, with the little bit left on projects. What is going to happen? We see the Latrobe Valley is going to be home to the new hub of the SEC. We had the GovHub, but during the course of COVID everyone went home, and many, many of those people have not come back – whether they actually worked in the valley at the same time is a contentious issue. We are seeing the loss of livelihoods and jobs in our central Gippsland area, and it is an absolute concern. You see other areas growing as ours is contracting. The government needs to be most sensitive to this so it is not just lip service.

The cost of living is going up. We know that. We know that the cost of electricity, the cost of gas, the cost of services is incredibly heartbreaking for many families. We know that education is an incredibly important aspect, and it is one that I feel that this house should inquire into and investigate, along with my good colleague Dr Bach, and look at some of the positives that are happening in our schools on a daily basis but look at where the stress points are, look at what is happening in terms of our teachers, our teacher training, our teacher retention – and regional Victoria, we often see, is disproportionally disadvantaged in terms of student outcomes. This has been the case for many a year, but it is time we reflected on that with new eyes, fresh eyes, and asked how government policy can support our regions and retain our teachers in regional areas.

I have time and again heard the concern that school councils have around electing or approving principals and the feeling that they are being separated and left out of those very important conversations, and they seem to often be held in the regional space rather than letting parents and the school community have proper input. And the curriculum – I believe it is important that we now have a look at the curriculum as a whole and with fresh eyes. If you go and talk to many teachers, as I still do, often there is a burden of requirement. And we have to also look at how our standard is going. If it is working, our standard should be going up. We should be matching it on the world stage, but we have seen in terms of the Programme for International Student Assessment report and assessments that Australia-wide we are slipping back. Just because it is Australia-wide we should not just put our cue on the rack and go, ‘Well, nothing we can do.’ It is really important to address those sorts of issues.

Recently we saw the Grattan Institute. We have heard the government talk about its build in terms infrastructure, and the Grattan Institute often are very considered with the reports that they put out. They are saying that flexible learning spaces are not serving children. Anybody who has taught in a classroom and had a large classroom area –

Matthew Bach: Put the walls back in.

Melina BATH: That is what they are saying. It can very much disadvantage certain students. They are saying that as part of this Big Build there should be a retrofit to shrink those classrooms back to a manageable size. I actually know this from a very personal context, because my youngest son had a learning difficulty and he absolutely could not cope in a large classroom setting. He has made good ends and is doing well in life, but he really struggled in those noisy and large classroom settings.

Post-COVID disadvantage and disengagement – we hear, very concerningly, on the ground parents talking about their children having lost contact over COVID and having been removed from the classroom and having had to be at home during those long, long months and the lack of engagement that they have now. And the concern we see now is about truancy – young people are just not engaging as they did. These are concerns that we need to address, and window-dressing in a speech from the government certainly is not sufficient. These are some of the things that I think we need to be looking at.

The Governor spoke about health, and there were a number of initiatives in there. IVF was one of them, and I remember during the course of the COVID pandemic, when the government actually shut down the private services for people going off and getting their IVF treatment, it was very traumatic. We saw recently the AMA and indeed the Victorian president of the AMA Dr McRae, and I am quoting from a recent report, say:

Victoria’s public hospitals are in crisis.

He said over several years we have not been making:

… increased investment in staffing and infrastructure. Factors including an ageing population, an increase in chronic and complex health conditions, and escalating presentations to emergency departments … for mental health conditions …

These are all very significant problems. What we are seeing in a local context, and again the AMA have spoken to this, is that rather than there being 80,000 – or 85,000, which is the government figure, and that is some months old now – on the elective surgery waitlist, they are talking about a figure that they have done independently of 135,000 Victorians on the elective surgery waitlist. And we know that these are not elective; these are must-have surgeries. These are surgeries for which the more the wait is prolonged, the more debility and pain there is, and the recovery rates certainly can be compromised. I spoke with a number of people in the last couple of years about that delayed service and delayed elective surgery, and in the end there was one of them in particular – it was elective; it was a hip replacement for a gentleman in South Gippsland – whose doctor said, ‘It’s no longer elective. You’ve lost that much weight; your stomach’s been ripped apart by analgesics and painkillers to keep you going, and it’s now life-threatening surgery.’ We do not want this to continue.

The concerning thing that we see in some of our regional hospitals – and our regional hospitals do an amazing role; every single person in there, all of those staff in the medical professions and all the behind-the-scenes staff that back them up, are working in very stressful and pressurised situations – is their elective surgery waitlists. I will quote two hospitals – their elective surgery waitlists have ballooned. In the 2020–21 financial year Latrobe Regional had just under 1000 people on that elective surgery waitlist. In the next and most recent report of 2021–22 we have got 1600 people waiting on elective surgery. We see an increase, but not quite to the same degree, in the West Gippsland health service. We know that when we had the election the Liberals and Nationals made a commitment, as they had the previous election, on the West Gippsland hospital and finally, finally the Andrews government were dragged kicking and screaming to announce that they would also commit to the West Gippsland hospital. It is much needed and the most significant priority for the seat of Narracan, the council of Baw Baw and all of those very good people that live there. We thank the Warragul hospital CEO and staff for all of the work that they have done over a period of time working in very cramped conditions in an exceedingly old hospital that is not fit for purpose.

Another thing I would like to cover off on is transport. There is a section here on transport, and what we know is that the lifeblood of our rural communities is our roads and rail. And what we also know living in regional Victoria is that our roads are crumbling. Potholes are the order of the day, and when they are fixed they just deteriorate at a great rate of knots and create frustration and indeed compromise driver safety. Twenty-five per cent of the population live outside the largest city, the metropolitan area as it is classified, but 25 per cent of the population receive – from the Parliamentary Budget Office, these figures – 13 per cent of the infrastructure build for transport, and people are feeling it.

Certainly we look at jobs, and I go back again to the Latrobe Valley. We see other regions growing by the thousands in terms of their job numbers. I love it when the Labor Party quotes regional unemployment as being at an all-time low et cetera – I think the previous federal government also had something to do with that. However, when you look at the regional areas and you look at Latrobe as a small region, a municipality, our unemployment figures are absolutely scary, and again this needs be addressed in a serious way.

I would like to thank the people of Eastern Victoria Region for re-electing me. I look forward to working hard every day to serve the population of Eastern Victorian Region.