It’s time to act now

THE events of last week in the Latrobe Valley typified the roller coaster the region is on right now.

From big vision proclamations that the Valley could be Australia’s next big mining export region, and visits by more senior government ministers talking up potential for a prosperous future, to the lived reality of major projects put on hold, contracts lost, power industry redundancies on offer and an ambitious power station buy-out plan stalled.

Sometimes The Express cops criticism for reporting on the social and economic battles facing the Valley.

We are told ‘negative’ reporting undermines business confidence and morale.

It is a precarious balance we strive to maintain – we are a news service, not a promotional brochure for the region, and we have an obligation to tell it how it is.

At the same time we have our own vested interests in seeing the Valley thrive – we live and work here too. The truth is not always pretty or palatable but we have to report it. The good news stories are our favourites but the reality is there are not enough of them – if we ignored the tougher subjects the government might well ignore them too.

Right now, the region is doing battle on every front.

Our rates of gambling losses, family violence, child abuse and unemployment are among the highest in the state, while our educational outcomes and health profile are among the lowest.

Frontline social and health workers and teachers know the data is symptomatic of entrenched pockets of genuine poverty.

Numerous studies link that to the impact of government policy, in particular the knock-on effect of the electricity industry privatisation.

Some parts of the region have bounced back, but many have not. It is in no-one’s interest to ignore that. The State Government warns the Federal Government’s incoming carbon tax and ‘contracts for closure’ scheme will see further job and investment losses in the Valley. The Federal Government claims the region was devastated by the State Government’s 1990s privatisation agenda. At least both sides recognise government policy has triggered the decline.

The Valley was struggling long before the global financial crisis or high Aussie dollar were factors. With that established, it would seem unjust to leave too much of the fight for survival to ‘market forces’. Having to compete for assistance implies there is an even playing field – but there’s not.

When successive governments introduce policy that sacrifices the economic base of a region to further its ideological agenda and top up budgets, that region has a case for preferential treatment.

There has never been a greater demand for intense and immediate government investment in the Valley.

The clean coal vision being spruiked may or may not evolve but, at best, it’s years away and calls for massive investment in technologies and infrastructure.

The Federal Government says that is largely up to the market. Gippsland Aeronautics says it can promise serious job opportunities in the immediate future if funds are secured for airport upgrades.

The Federal Government says that is in the hands of a competitive process. It seems policy can be imposed but support to diversify must be earned.

I have covered news in the Valley, and worked for both sides of its politics, for the best part of 20 years.

I have seen, and sometimes worked on, more reports, taskforces and strategies than you can poke a stick at. After a while, they all start to look the same. It is encouraging then, that the current work of the Latrobe Valley Transition Committee, underpinned by two long serving and experienced ministers from opposing parties, has secured such unqualified bipartisan support.

It is commendable that ministers Simon Crean and Peter Ryan, who share an obvious mutual respect, have been so present in the Valley over past months.

Unless there is an election looming it is rare to see senior federal ministers here at all.

If nothing else, after years of relative neglect, the Valley is finally on the map.

The ministers assure us their joint taskforce will deliver more than just rhetoric – only sustained, targeted and significant assistance will prevent that.

Government support needs to extend well beyond temporary compensation measures for the power industry.

If, as anticipated, we face imminent power station closures, it is not enough for the Federal Government to assure us the process will be ‘managed’.

The loss of hundreds of secure and well-paid jobs in a depressed region will be hard to ‘manage’.

The promise of job-seeking assistance to retrenched workers for jobs that do not exist will not cut it.

Work on a long-term vision is necessary, no doubt, but the Valley has numerous urgent proposals and requests already in the system – if governments are serious about seeing the Valley survive, they will act on them now.