Budget reaction mixed

Liz Bell

MONDAY’S much-anticipated state budget has brought little joy to the Wellington Shire, with glaring funding gaps and missed opportunities.

While some of the budget’s redeeming features include tax help for regional businesses, a stronger focus on farm biosecurity and more funding for agricultural training, there is no new money for drought-stricken regional communities, no affordable housing initiatives, and no new infrastructure funding for the shire’s regional towns.

The city-centric budget has drawn much criticism from within the shire, with some groups claiming the safe Nationals’ territory has largely been ignored.

While few of the state budget’s commitments to projects within Wellington Shire are new funding announcements, there is some good news, including a new announcement of $1,360,000 to Boisdale Consolidated School and $3,025,000 for Heyfield Primary School for asbestos removal and new modular buildings, and upgrades to sections of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail.

Gippsland South MLA and Sale resident Danny O’Brien said the state government had “again failed the people of Gippsland, delivering a budget with a massive cut to regional spending and nothing for key projects in his electorate [which covers much of Wellington Shire]”.

Mr O’Brien said the budget delivered “nothing” for drought-affected farmers in Gippsland, while Labor’s axing of the $1 billion Regional Growth Fund would hurt local jobs and the community.

“This is no way to help develop our regional areas and decentralise the state,” he said.

The surprise omission of funding for the Princes Highway duplication between Traralgon and Sale has angered opposition politicians and business groups, particularly as the budget lists the project as “completed”, despite two stages remaining.

“I went into Monday’s budget with low expectations, and they were met,” Mr O’Brien said.

Across the shire, Mr O’Brien said missed funding opportunities included the fire station at Yarram and municipal rates relief.

Speaking during a visit to RAAF Base, East Sale, on Monday, Gippsland MHR Darren Chester said it was “bitterly disappointing” the state government hadn’t funded the final stages of the Princes Highway duplication.

The recently-re-elected federal MP went as far as to say Labor’s policies, particularly in relation to regional development, were “the very reason they are not in power today”.

Mr Chester said the budget showed the state government had “sold out their blue collar values to get Green votes in the city”.

“It’s extraordinary that the state government can’t find $33 million to finish the [highway duplication] job,” he said.

Eastern Victoria MLC, Labor’s Jane Garrett, refused to be drawn on when the final two stages of the highway duplication might be funded or completed.

“Now the federal election is over we will work with the Morrison government to ensure Victorians get the best deal on a range of road and rail projects,” she said.

“Given the latest stage of the [Princes Highway duplication] project is now complete, the Labor government will consider the proposal for next stages.”

Gippsland East Nationals MP Tim Bull said he was disappointed the budget had no new infrastructure funding announcements for growing regional towns such as Maffra, Stratford or Heyfield.

“In fact there is nothing new of any significance for the region, which is replicated across most of rural Victoria in a budget that contains many tax increases to pay for metro projects,” he said.

“The biggest kick in the guts is the complete axing of the $1 billion Regional Growth Fund which was set up by The Nationals in 2011.”

Mr Bull said there were a lot of country members disappointed in the parliament on Monday, after the announcement of “devastating cuts” to the budgets for regional development, Parks Victoria, veterans, agriculture, and tourism and major events, as well as local government “at a time when ratepayers are suffering from cost of living pressures and drought-affected farmers are facing ruin”.

The Victorian Farmers Federation was not as scathing, welcoming some initiatives in the Victorian Budget 2019-20, but noted the government had missed an opportunity to fund dedicated agriculture liaison officers in Victoria Police in the wake of rising farm crime.

In addition, president David Jochinke said the VFF could not find any mention of the rural and regional energy network, or “desperately needed rates relief while we wait for the rates review to unfold”.

“Premier Andrews noted that this budget delivers ‘wealth, momentum and opportunity’; we would like to see this apply to all communities and industries across Victoria,” he said.

Despite the budget failing to deliver any substantial projects east of Traralgon or west of Bairnsdale, the Committee for Gippsland praised the state government’s “commitment to building ongoing healthy operating surpluses while delivering a budget designed for prosperity and growth”.

Committee chair Toni Wakefield welcomed the government’s announcement it would bring forward the timeline of last year’s tax cuts, and reduce payroll tax by 25 per cent for regional businesses to help ease the burden on regional small businesses, while encouraging expansion and job creation.

“The further reduction in regional payroll tax rate, lifting the payroll tax-free threshold and relaxing eligibility for the regional rate is something we have been advocating strongly for on behalf of our members,” Ms Wakefield said.

Regional payroll tax will be further reduced to 1.2125 per cent, phased in over three years, while the ‘business location test’ eligibility criteria will be removed, effective from July 1, 2019.

The government will also phase in the expansion of the payroll tax exemption on all parental leave.

Ms Wakefield said the land transfer concession for commercial and industrial properties, in addition to a 10 per cent land transfer duty concession that will apply to contracts signed from July 1, 2019, would encourage businesses to relocate regionally.

Other major initiatives for Gippsland included $60 million for the Macalister Irrigation District Phase 1B, which is a key project in the committee’s strategy, as well as state-wide projects such as $136 million to deliver 500,000 additional medical specialist appointments across regional Victoria annually.

In other areas, to help the Gippsland region cope with burgeoning drug use and its associated social problems, funding will be provided for the Hope Restart facility in east Gippsland, providing 30 additional residential rehabilitation beds, and supporting up to 90 Victorians each year to address their substance abuse.

An additional withdrawal bed will be funded in the Gippsland region to support stronger pathways into the new facility.

Wellington Shire welfare agencies hoping to see funding for affordable housing have been let down again, with none of the approximately 1000 new public housing properties to be built across the state at a cost of $209 million expected to be in the Wellington Shire.

While few of the state budget’s commitments to projects within Wellington Shire are new funding announcements, there is some good news, including: