Nervous funding wait

Stakeholders in multiple Latrobe Valley projects face a nervous wait on funding news from the new Federal Coalition Government, with the possibility some will not go ahead.

Before the Federal election Nationals leader Warren Truss confirmed if a Coalition Government was elected it was not bound to honour projects approved by the then Labor Government if signed contracts were not already in place.

This raised fears for more than $800,000 allocated to regional projects in Traralgon and surrounds as part of the Regional Australia Development Fund, but also concern that two multi-million dollar announcements under a Latrobe Valley Diversification Fund might not be delivered on.

The certainty of $7.5 million for the Moe Rail Revitalisation Project and a proposed $4 million Latrobe Community Health Service training clinic and dental lab was thrown into further doubt after Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced last week the Department of Regional Australia – within which funds for those projects had been allocated – was being abolished.

Attempts by The Express to seek clarification on whether there was still a budget for the LVDF failed to extract any real answers.

While Acting Shadow Minister for Regional Australia Catherine King – who announced the projects in July, but did not ensure funding contracts were signed-off on prior to the government entering pre-election caretaker mode – condemned the new government for axing DRA and warned regions now needed to steel themselves “for a battle” to secure support and funding.

In a letter to The Express Ms King also said it appeared clear the Coalition would not honour funding for 103 projects across regional Australia with a combined project value of more than $1 billion “which I signed off as a minister, but for which contracts were not concluded before the election”.

It is understood Ms King was referring to RDAF projects, including the Traralgon to Glengarry section of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail and a number of local sporting club pavilions and upgrades.

When asked specifically on Friday whether she now also believed Valley ‘diversification’ funds were in doubt, Ms King replied – through a spokesperson – “if it is not contracted, yes, it is in doubt”.

Prior to the election it was believed not enough time had been available between the minister signing off on the allocation and funding contracts being signed by the department.

When Ms King initially announced funding for the LCHS and Moe projects she said the diversification fund’s total of $15 million had been “brought forward” and allocated in full, as it also included an earlier amount of more than $3 million to a Warragul Railway Station Precinct.

The 2012/2013 Federal Budget earmarked just $1.4 million to the fund, followed by $1.3 million in 2014-2015 with sums set to rise marginally in the following two years.

Despite being asked several times how the full $15 million was ‘brought forward’ in the budget, Ms King’s office did not clarify this.

Local federal MPs Darren Chester and Russell Broadbent were critical of the former Labor Government’s apparent failure to ensure contracts were locked in to fund the ‘diversification’ projects but both vowed to fight for the funding, if elected, regardless.

On Friday Mr Chester said he had already “made representations on behalf of the Latrobe Valley community seeking further advice on the funding arrangements of local projects by the previous Labor Government”.

In a statement to The Express he said the Coalition’s regional commitments were “fully funded and accounted for in the budget and our $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund is real money for regional communities”.

Later, he said “Labor’s phantom funding promises were based on a mining tax that, as we know, raised virtually no revenue”.

Mr Chester defended the axing of DRA, which has been moved to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

He said the functions of Regional Australia were “contained and remain intact within the Regional Development arm of the portfolio”, adding “the name has simply changed”.

Mr Broadbent was approached by The Express for comment but did not respond.