IT was disconcerting to read of former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett stepping in to rally the Geelong troops last week as the region faced the decimation of its car manufacturing base with the foreshadowed closure of Ford.
As part of an open letter in the Geelong Advertiser he referred to a region which, in the 1990s, was hit hard and saw “families financially hurt, jobs lost, businesses closed and morale as low as a snake’s belly”.
Ironically, he wasn’t referring to the Latrobe Valley – I’m not sure he’s ever publicly acknowledged that happened here – he was talking about Geelong, following the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria and the Pyramid Building Society, neither of which occurred under his government’s watch.
It wasn’t Kennett Government policy that pummelled Geelong in the 1990s but as Mr Kennett goes on to boldly claim, it nevertheless “rebuilt Geelong to the exciting and vibrant city it is today”.
He lists major developments his government spearheaded in Geelong including revitalisation of its waterfront amenity, boosting its university, instigating new innovation centres and investing ‘heavily’ in its arts assets.
Mr Kennett, the former self-appointed ‘Minister for Geelong’, irreversibly changed the landscape of the Valley too – but not the way he did it in Geelong.
Copious amounts of data links his government’s actions to the erosion of a thriving social and economic base in our region.
His former campaign to save Geelong and makes an interesting contrast to his efforts to offset the loss of 6220 jobs from the Valley up until 2001 (ABS).
Here we saw no transition plan, no job security fund, no revitalisation of the Valley’s amenity, no boost to its university, no new innovation centres, no ‘heavy’ investments in arts assets.
Mr Kennett commends Geelong on its ability to adapt – but it hardly went it alone.
The Kennett Government sold off the Valley’s lifeline to private interests then walked away.
Mr Kennett argued a debt crisis in the state, left by the former Labor Government, necessitated privatisation.
This is not an argument for or against the policy but recognition that, no matter what the rationale, the Valley was left in a world of pain.
Former Latrobe Valley journalist Jason Shields, now a senior Geelong Advertiser staffer, was compelled to respond to Mr Kennett’s letter in his publication on Saturday.
He said the knock-on effects of thousands of displaced workers was immeasurable.
“The Latrobe Valley is not what is used to be and though it continues to fight, it suffers from that government negligence,” Mr Shields wrote.
“Jeff Kennett came out yesterday full of huff and puff on behalf of the Geelong community, telling us to push forward, thump our chest and put our thinking caps on so we can carve out a brighter future.
“Forgive an old Latrobe Valley boy for seeing those words as being a bit hollow, Jeff.”
These days Mr Kennett, admirably, chairs Beyond Blue – in part aimed at reducing depression.
Probably best he not dwell on the long list of challenges the Valley still combats daily.
We have the highest rates of children in state care, adolescents self-harming and adolescent pregnancies in the state.
Among regional areas we have the most male adults at risk of alcohol harm, highest per-capita levels of ambulance call-outs for drug-related self-harm , lowest university entrance rates, biggest per capita spenders on pokies, high numbers of vulnerable primary schoolers and some of Victoria’s highest unemployment rates.
Frankly, it’s a depressing read.
Perhaps we should take heart though… I hear Geelong prospered.