Latrobe Valley definitions debated

INACCURATE ‘Latrobe Valley’ boundary definitions and jobless figures used by a key local advisory group distort the “truth” of the region, sources have claimed.

The Latrobe Valley Transition Committee’s directions document, expected to guide this region’s growth and inform the state and federal governments about how they should assist, defines the Latrobe Valley as “the combined area of the Latrobe City, Baw Baw and Wellington shires”.

It also quotes a ‘Latrobe Valley’ unemployment rate of five per cent, sourced from the Federal Government’s small area labour market data from December 2011.

On the government’s own Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations website, however, the small labour market area data until December 2011 shows an unemployment rate for the Valley (which it classifies as Baw Baw, Moe, Morwell and Traralgon) of 6.4 per cent – including an 8.4 per cent rate in Morwell and 7.3 per cent rate in Moe.

The LVTC definitions have provoked protest from several Latrobe City councillors, Democratic Labor Party Senator John Madigan and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, with the latter group claiming the “wider emphasis” would distort “statistics relating to unemployment and social disadvantage suffered in the traditional Latrobe Valley towns of Moe, Morwell and Traralgon”.

In a recent senate estimates hearing Senator Madigan questioned LVTC co-chair Dan O’Brien, from the Federal Department of Regional Australia, about the “aggregate” definition used by the committee.

Senator Madigan said the redefinition “had the result of doubling the size of the population while halving the unemployment rate” of the Valley and reduced the “number of residents living on a disability pension by 20 per cent”.

He said “any problems arising from power station closures are going to be fixed by public relations (and) marketing…” and asked Mr O’Brien whether the federal department thought “people living in the Latrobe Valley… would forget where they live, what is happening in their community and (what) the threats of closure by local power stations would mean for them?”

Mr O’Brien defended the definition of the Valley as three municipal areas, saying it was about a “catchment for economic activity”, agreed on through a memorandum of understanding between the state and federal governments.

Mr O’Brien said the definition reflected the LVTC’s function of “looking broader in terms of the economic potential of the region”.

Senator Madigan said other reports, including a KPMG report on Valley industry growth projections and a Victoria University study on the Valley’s ‘adjustment’ – both used by the LVTC – did not agree with the committee’s chosen definitions.

While Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester said he understood the LVTC applying a “broader definition”, accounting for the ripple effect on neighbouring municipalities of policies including the Federal Government’s ‘contract for closure’ program in the Valley, he said official unemployment rates for the region were unreliable.

Mr Chester questioned any figures which gave “a false impression of the overall unemployment rate”.

Latrobe City Councillor Bruce Lougheed told The Express redefined boundaries used by the LVTC allowed for “skewing of the figures” and “in my view allows them to paint a picture of the Latrobe Valley which does not reflect what it truthfully is”.

His views have been supported by Councillor Graeme Middlemiss.

Senator Madigan quoted from a CFMEU letter to the LVTC secretariat which said the union was “puzzled by” the redefinition.

Mr O’Brien told the Senate committee the definition of the Latrobe Valley had “not changed” but “if you are truly looking at diversification, you cannot just look at small area; you have to see how it interrelates to other areas around it”.

A Federal Department of Regional Australia spokesperson agreed the definition was not about geography but “areas of interest and growth opportunities in a region that the current workforce can access”.

She also said the LVTC was “aware of (unemployment) statistics at the small area” and used this information to “understand differences across the region” but relied on the aggregated figure “for the purposes of a summary of the evidence base”.

Federal Regional Australia Minister Simon Crean also weighed into the debate, saying Senator Madigan’s use of the Senate committee’s Hansard transcript was “ill-informed and mischievous”.

“Our commitment to the Latrobe Valley is strong and long held…we have been working with the community and the Victorian government to create jobs and build skills in the region…,” he said