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Launch of Gippsland Development Incorporated

GIPPSLAND is a special place. It is one of the few parts of Australia that can claim a distinctive regional identity going back a hundred and fifty years. It is also one of the few that can claim such a diversity of resources - whether it is the state-of-the-art power generation facilities of the Latrobe Valley or the forests of East Gippsland.

Progress in Regional Development

Last year I had the pleasure of getting down here twice - once to meet regional leaders and inspect regional facilities, including Monash University's Gippsland campus, and once to launch the Latrobe Valley Development Agreement.

Both the agreement and the university will play critical role in Gippsland's development - the former as a model of intergovernmental and cross- sectional cooperation, and the latter as a world- class research and educational facility.

The Latrobe Valley Development Agreement is a direct response to the hardships of the Valley is currently facing. It provides a framework for attracting new industries to the Valley and helping local companies to expand into export markets.

Generally acknowledged as a landmark in Australian industrial reform, it was signed last September by the Commonwealth and State Governments, the Latrobe Regional Commission, local councils, and representatives from the education sector, industry and the unions.

Progress on the preparation of a development framework for the wider Gippsland region has had to wait on local government reform. New local government boundaries are now in place, and the structure that has emerged appears to make good sense.

The new municipal arrangements in Gippsland will themselves contribute to regional development, not least be strengthening links between country and city.

Now is the time to build on the foundation that has been laid both in the local government arena and in the Latrobe Valley Development Agreement by creating institutions and partnerships which embrace the whole region.

Regional Differences

While Gippsland is one of Australia s best known regions, it is not without its differences. However, it would be very unwise to let those differences - which are one of the region's strengths - stand in the way of its growth and future prosperity.

Gippsland boasts an unusual degree of cultural diversity by regional standards - postwar immigrants played a decisive part in building up the region's industrial base, and settlers from other countries have made significant contributions to agriculture and other activities.

Similarly, Gippsland s Koori community is one of the proudest in the State.

However, it isn't cultural differences that threaten the region s development. The real problem lies in the often destructive rivalries between different localities around the region.

For example, it is no secret that other parts of Gippsland have sometimes seen the Latrobe Valley as a rustbowl and a liability. This is a very short-sighted view.

The Valley has been the most important engine of the Gippsland economy for decades, and I for one believe that it will continue to have a critical role to play once it has come through the present painful process of structural adjustment.

Moreover, the Valley isn't the only area of Gippsland to suffer from changes in the energy industry. Esso's decision to transfer its head office functions from Sydney to Melbourne was good news for Victoria but bad news for Sale, where the company's Victorian operations had previously been based.

There will be further adjustments ahead as Bass Strait oil and gas reserves run down.

Similar pressure to evolve and adapt has been felt in East Gippsland, where the introduction of new technologies by timber companies has dramatically reduced employment in the timber industry over recent decades.

Meanwhile the areas around Warragul are increasingly being forced to balance residential development pressures against the need to maintain rural industries and keep prime agricultural land in production.

The point is that every part of Gippsland has its strengths and weaknesses. Every corner of the region has gone and will go through periods of growth and periods of structural adjustment.

However, the best chance Gippsland as a whole has of riding out these ups and downs is to reduce the dependence of any one area on any one industry.

This means taking a truly regional approach to development. It means networking across existing economic, geographic and administrative boundaries to create a coherent regional identity based on the sum of the region's strengths, which will inevitably be greater than the parts.

After all, in the international context, sub-regional nuances and differences don't count for a whole lot. What does Japan care if Moe thinks it's a cut above the rest of the Latrobe Valley or Sale looks down on Bairnsdale?

While competition between cities can be a great thing, it should never be allowed stand in the way of regional goals.

Global markets have trouble remembering the names of small towns in remote places, but they do remember the names of dynamic regions with a clear focus and a well-defined marketing profile.

This is not to say that each region s boundaries have to be fixed in concrete. In fact, one distinctive feature of the Commonwealth's regional development program is that it recognises the elasticity of regional frontiers.

In Gippsland's case, the boundaries are most permeable in the east - where there is significant interaction with New South Wales based on timber, transport and tourism links - and in the south and west - where towns like Drouin and Korumburra are increasingly being drawn into the orbit of metropolitan Melbourne.

Thus, the new Shire of South Gippsland has a foot in both the Gippsland region and the Western Port region. We would expect it to relate to the former for some purposes and to the latter for other purposes. There are no hard and fast rules.

It is social and economic relationships that define a region, not lines on a map, and the challenge for Gippsland is to project a core identity worthy of international recognition.

Funding

The new Gippsland regional development organisation we are launching today will have a critical part to play in meeting that challenge.

It is my pleasure to announce that the Commonwealth will be contributing $240,000 over the next three years to assist Gippsland Development Inc with secretariat costs.

I understand that the secretariat will be based at Churchill - an ideal location to take advantage of the resources of Monash University - while meetings will be held at different locations around Gippsland.

The Commonwealth regional development program aims to encourage whole-of-region responses to strategic issues.

It is with this in mind that I have also approved funding to accelerate the South East Australia Transport Study.

Work has already begun on this study, which is investigating transport options for the entire corridor from Dandenong through to Cooma. The aim is to integrate regional and national transport planning and link it to the wider objective of increasing Australia's competitiveness. The regional development program will be contributing $100,000 to further the study.

This is just one of many new initiatives coming out of the region. Others will no doubt take firmer shape as Gippsland Development Inc draws up a regional development strategy for the whole region.

One of the most exciting initiatives in the pipeline is the Centre for Engineering Excellence. The Centre - which is really a network - aims to build on Gippsland s engineering base and provide a platform from which regional firms can bid for work nationally and internationally.

The centre received support in 1993-94 under the Strengthening Local Economic Capacity initiative. With backing from Gippsland Development Inc, it would also qualify for project funding under the regional development program.

Having said that, I should also say that the regional development program isn't the sole or even the primary source of regional development funds.

Instead, the grants I am announcing today should be seen as seed money which can be used to attract other funds.

Alternative funding sources include other Commonwealth agencies, the State Government and local councils. Governments have a responsibility to invest in regional development, and it is time be faced up to that responsibility .

Quality signals from the regions will be met with quality responses from government.

For example, if Gippsland can come up with a focused, proactive, market-oriented development strategy, it would have a strong case for being included on the Department of Industry, Science and Technology's investment promotion itinerary - which would mean that prospective overseas investors would be steered towards Gippsland and given direct exposure to its attractions.

As for contributions from State and local government, I am particularly pleased that the Gippsland Development Inc is budgeting to receive $220,000 from the region's councils. This is a clear demonstration of local government s commitment to regional development.

Despite the importance of public investment, there is no question that Gippsland will ultimately stand or fall on its ability to attract investment from the private sector and secure a place for itself in world markets.

Perhaps the real challenge is to combine public and private resources by forging partnerships which bring together industry, commerce, the unions and all spheres of government.

Structural Change and Networking

While the creation of Gippsland Development Inc is cause for optimism, there is no denying that the region faces significant challenges.

Unemployment remains unacceptably high - up to 20 per cent in places - although the overall rate fell from 1 per cent to 10 per cent in the second half of 1994.

Structural change in the economy is inevitably having social effects. For example, the number of young adults in the region has contracted markedly since the early 1980s as the more mobile migrate to other areas in search of work.

People are very often reluctant to acknowledge that these changes are structural - they prefer to see the present transfiguration of the Gippsland economy as just another turn of the cyclical wheel. It isn't. What we are seeing is a fundamental reorientation.

When I lived here in the 1960s, the Hazelwood power station was hailed as the shape of things to come. Now its future is uncertain.

With fewer and fewer jobs in industries devoted to the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, Gippsland must now carve out an alternative future for itself.

Rebuilding communities which were badly squeezed as Australia reshaped itself in the 1980s will sometimes literally mean revitalising the urban fabric.

As Housing Minister, I am very conscious of the need to breathe new life into the public housing estates that were so much a part of postwar Australia s industrial infrastructure. This is one of the outcomes we hope will emerge from the reconsideration of housing policy we are currently engaged in with the States.

However, rebuilding communities will more often be a matter of establishing new networks. In fact, as smart technologies render physical distance irrelevant, communities will increasingly be defined by the networks that bind and sustain them.

Stronger networks will mean more choices and wider opportunities. Regional development is essentially a matter of reinforcing and extending networks so that the diverse opportunities available in a region like Gippsland can be appropriated in new and exciting ways.

Educational institutions like Monash and the region's TAFE colleges will play an important part in this process by harnessing advances in communication technology to improve access to information and learning.

The Shepparton model - in which three universities and a TAFE college have combined resources to address the growing demand for higher education in and around that city - could be extended to towns in Gippsland. This is a classic example of what networking and effective sub-regional collaboration can achieve.

Sustainable Development

However, there is no point establishing new networks if they are only going to deliver more of the same. What Gippsland needs is new forms of economic activity based on the principles of environmentally and socially sustainable development.

It is important to remember that increased economic opportunities will help to lay the foundation for greater social opportunities. Economy, society and environment are mutually dependent, and it is impossible to make progress in one area without giving appropriate consideration to the others.

The Building New Strengths report which arose from workshops held in April and July last year funded by the Commonwealth's Strategic Assistance for National Priority Regions program confirms that Gippsland's capacity to recover and grow largely depends on its abundant natural resources - prime agricultural land, water, coal, timber and areas of high scenic and environmental value.

The region's future lies in both protecting and adding value to these resources.

These issues must be tackled head on if Gippsland is to have any sort of future at all.

As the Prime Minister reminded us in his Australia Day address, sustainable development is all about establishing clean, profitable industries and making a concerted effort to conserve the natural environment.

Regional Australia has an essential role to play in both these processes. To quote Paul Keating,

"... we have to establish a regime of sustainable development across the country: the process has started and, what is most satisfying, the impetus is coming in large part from ... the regions."

I'm inclined to agree with the Prime Minister that this is one of the most significant contemporary developments in the life of Australia."

The region has my total support as it embarks on this important work.