Mr NORTHE (Morwell) — I rise today to grieve for the workers and businesses within the Latrobe Valley and the lack of effort from this government to save and retain jobs in our community. Next door right now we have an exhibition that I am hosting called the Love Latrobe exhibition, and I encourage all members to go in there and talk to the stallholders and experience some of the great opportunities that we have in the Latrobe Valley. The reason I am doing that is that while we are going through some very difficult and challenging times in our region, I am very cognisant that at the same time we have to promote what we have in our own backyard, and we do have some amazing businesses and organisations — very diverse and skilled — who are not only great contributors to the Latrobe Valley but also throughout Victoria and Australia and internationally as well.
When you have a look next door, you will find organisations such as Gippsland Trade Printers, who do a wonderful job not only in terms of employing a number of people but also in their community contributions. We have the SES in there, and the Morwell SES is just one of a number of volunteer organisations who contribute so much to our community but also across other communities in the state of Victoria. In the corner over there we have got Australian Paper, the largest manufacturer of white paper in Australia, and something that all of us, including government departments and agencies, should be supporting through our procurement practices. There are a number of challenges of course within the timber industry at the moment. We have Narkoojee Winery — get in there and have a taste of some of those beautiful award-winning wines. We also have the Latrobe Visitor Information Centre to showcase what we have in our community. We have Mahindra Aerospace, Australia’s only manufacturer of aircraft, in Queen’s Hall today, and The View From Here, a local organisation producing a local newspaper.
The reason I raise all of those is it does demonstrate what wonderful business organisations we have in our community, but at the same time we have to face up to reality and the facts, and the facts are that we have seen a significant loss of employment within the region. We have seen a number of businesses close, and despite all that positivity in what I have just mentioned we need government support at all levels to make sure that our community and our business community are being appropriately supported. It appears to me that whenever the Premier has been questioned about the Latrobe Valley, he has wanted to talk positively. That is fine, but that does not mean that in reality that positivity is there. We have to face up to the facts. I know the Minister for Industry and Employment is sitting at the table today, and I do want to mention the minister for employment. I actually can sincerely say that I think he is trying to do his absolute best. I know we have had a number of conversations about Latrobe Valley, and I think he is genuine. However, there are a number of state government policies and budget settings that were made prior to the minister being appointed to his position, and he has now been left to carry the bag in many respects and pick up the pieces.
These are the facts. When there was a change of government in 2014 one of the first things that the current government did was abolish the Latrobe Valley Industry and Infrastructure Fund. There was no reason at all for that fund to be abolished. Fifteen million dollars was allocated to local businesses, more than 40, in their capacity to grow, expand and create new employment within the Latrobe Valley. In total there were around 1100 new positions created through that fund. So to come to government and then abolish that in the blink of an eye was a massive kick in the guts to our community.
One of the other programs that was very successful locally was the Putting Locals First program, and whilst it was primarily put in place to support community facilities and development — and I might say the City of Latrobe was very successful in a number of their applications — further to that it enabled a number of local businesses and organisations to do some of that construction work, some of it ongoing employment work, and it was a very important program. But again as soon as there was a change of government that program was abolished.
As we move forward the policy to close Hazelwood and do it gradually is a massive kick in the guts for our community. I acknowledge that the company, Engie, had made a decision; however, one should never forget the fact, dating back to 2010, that Labor wanted to close Hazelwood, and they wanted to do it gradually.
Mr Noonan interjected.
Mr NORTHE — I said the Labor Party. The Labor Party wanted to close Hazelwood and do it gradually. They got their first wish, but even the second wish could not be accommodated. I do not call five months a gradual closure. We know the fallout from that, and there are many people still hurting in our community. That is the reality. They are the facts. Indeed just over the weekend I had two phone calls from ex-Hazelwood workers who are still not employed. They had not been at Hazelwood for a long period of time, but the fact is they are now actively looking interstate for work to suit their skills because there is simply not the employment in our local community for them. I know the government, the union and others talk about the worker transfer scheme, and there may have legitimately been a couple of people form part of that program, but — —
Mr Noonan — You supported it.
Mr NORTHE — I should not take up interjections, but the minister is saying I support it. I do support a worker transfer scheme, but it does appear when you talk to workers and contractors that the goalposts have moved — the criteria has changed — from what was initially announced. The reality is people cannot wait months and months to be part of that program because they have this uncertainty at the moment about whether they might have employment locally or not. That fallout is still being felt. I can be absolutely categorical about that.
Of course in recent times we have seen Carter Holt Harvey announce the closure or possible closure of their sawmill in Morwell. We have got 160 employees who will be directly impacted. Many of the people who work there do not have a vast array of skills. They are production workers, and you cannot simply transfer these people into other jobs locally because the jobs are not there at the moment. It is as simple as that. I know of a situation in which four members of the one family work at Carter Holt Harvey Morwell. What the hell are they going to do? If there are no job opportunities locally, they will have to look elsewhere — to places they do not want to go or relocate to. They simply cannot afford to relocate. We need jobs for these people, and we need them now.
One of the other things that the state government did last year still defies logic and belief: to tax our generators an extra $252 million through coal royalties absolutely defies belief and logic in a period when the Latrobe Valley, which is well known to all in this chamber, is going through an already difficult time with rising unemployment. What happened with that budget decision last year is just insane.
On top of that unfortunately we have seen a number of other businesses and organisations close. Johnson Health Tech Australia is now in the middle of relocating their premises to the south-east of Melbourne. This was known for some time. I personally approached a number of people within government departments and agencies to say, ‘Hey, you guys need to go and talk to these people. We can’t afford to let them go’. But my understanding is that very little or nothing was done to try to persuade that company to stay in Morwell.
We are seeing one of the local pubs, the Latrobe Valley Hotel Morwell, which is right across from the Morwell railway station, close its doors. We are seeing Alternate Dwellings and BOC Gas in Morwell close their doors. I am not saying all of that is due to the government, but the point I am making is that the state government should be doing all it can to retain existing businesses and jobs in the Latrobe Valley.
I am sorry, but I simply do not see that happening. I know there is a focus on trying to attract new investment and jobs to the valley. I appreciate that, I accept that, I agree with that. However, we just cannot afford to let major companies leave our region, and we cannot afford to allow smaller businesses to close their doors either. Some might say — —
Mr Noonan interjected.
Mr NORTHE — Yes, it is Latrobe Valley Enterprises. They are next door as well today. They are a major employer of local people with disability. They have been supported by successive governments. Of course they have.
I go now to the facts — the unemployment rate for Latrobe City. These are not my figures, these are Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources figures. In December 2010 the unemployment rate for Latrobe City was 7.6 per cent. In December 2014 it had reduced to 7.3 per cent. That is absolutely still too high, but the point is that under the coalition government the unemployment rate reduced in Latrobe City. In December 2016 that rate had risen from 7.3 per cent to the current 11.2 per cent — a 50 per cent increase in two years. That is completely unacceptable, and we have to be mindful of the fact that those figures are before Hazelwood power station closed and before Carter Holt Harvey closes its doors.
I wish to reinforce the point that we all talk about statistics, and I just raised some then. These are real people with real families, and we cannot forget that. Each of those people is a real person, in many cases with a family — with children — and they need that support. Jobs are absolutely critical. One wonders why we have seen the state government intervene and talk about the importance of jobs at Alcoa, Portland, and say, ‘We’re going to buy Australian Sustainable Hardwood timber mill at Heyfield’. Well, good! Of course they are important — absolutely, I could not agree more.
But people in our community are saying, ‘Why is there not the same intervention for some of our major companies such as Hazelwood and Carter Holt Harvey?’. You cannot simply throw your hands in the air and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s too bad’.
I have raised in this place before a number of quotes from the Premier and the Treasurer. I quote the Premier:
The Labor government will get our state back to work, because every job is worth fighting for.
I agree. The Premier again:
I can sum up our jobs and industry policy in six words: make Victorian, buy Victorian, hire Victorian.
I agree again. In his budget speech the Treasurer said this:
This government is creating jobs, but we’re also focused on protecting jobs.
I am sorry, but they are nothing but hollow words to many of the workers within our community. An ABC news article on 16 May under the heading ‘Morwell timber mill jobs to go just weeks after Hazelwood power station closes’ states:
It is another blow to the Latrobe Valley, which is already dealing with the loss of about 700 local jobs after the Hazelwood power station shut down last month.
The article contains quotes from some of the workers, and they are quite compelling:
Chris Jackson, who has worked at the mill for two years, said he would look for work in Gippsland, even though it would be hard to find so soon after Hazelwood’s closure.
‘Everyone’s got bills they’ve got to pay, houses to pay off,’ he said.
‘I’ll do anything really, but I don’t think there’s any work around here. You’ve got to face the facts.’
What Chris Jackson has said is the point I make to the government. The government has to face up to the fact that we have a jobs crisis — an unemployment crisis — in the Latrobe Valley. The government has allowed major employers such as Hazelwood power station to close. Having that as your policy is outrageous. To allow Carter Holt Harvey to simply close its doors without any intervention from the state government, despite it intervening for other businesses, is outrageous. The government said it would look at opportunities to see how it might be able to help Carter Holt Harvey. Since that initial announcement there has been absolutely nothing — silence — from the Premier and his government about what he might do with Carter Holt Harvey and its workers.
I grieve on behalf of the workers and businesses in the Latrobe Valley today.