With the Hon. Jaclyn Symes

There are many unique challenges facing regional Victoria in the COVID-19 recovery phase with the impact of summer bushfires followed by the global pandemic causing widespread devastation.

This week on our COVID-19 Business Webinar, we are joined by Victorian Minister for Regional Development, Agriculture and Resources, Jaclyn Symes, to focus our discussion on regional Victoria and how community businesses can bounce back strongly.

Joined by VCCI Chief Executive Paul Guerra, Minister Symes outlines her vision for regional Victoria, including development and support packages for tourism, whether regions can take advantage of an increase in Victorians working remotely and creating more jobs in Victoria’s agriculture sector.

This session was originally recorded on 3 June 2020.


This information was correct at the time of broadcast. This does not constitute formal legal advice. The Victorian Chamber accepts no liability for actions taken as a result of this broadcast.

Questions for Minister Symes

 

Q. Minister, thank you for your time and the presentation. There has been great progress made with the lifting of the onshore gas moratorium in Victoria, is there an opportunity to re-skill the public sector with competitive gas industry expertise to be well placed to facilitate more regional jobs through environmentally responsible gas developments and to enable us to compete with other states in this regard? 

A. Planning is underway for the orderly restart of the onshore conventional gas industry and this includes ensuring we have the necessary skills within government to ensure community confidence in the industry, strong regulatory oversight and maximum benefit for the state.

We will build on the expertise that has delivered three years of hard work through the Victorian Gas Program to facilitate the creation of new regional jobs through environmentally responsible gas developments.

I will also be looking to industry to ensure it not only has the necessary skills and talent to grow, but to ensure our communities are included in this journey. The restart of onshore conventional gas activities will create a variety of job opportunities in regional areas, aiding recovery from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and broadening the economic base.

Q. La Trobe University welcomes the Government’s recent support for the higher education sector with a $350mil commitment to encourage innovation between Victorian companies and research institutions.  La Trobe has a strong regional footprint and a focus (amongst other areas) in agriculture, food and environment, can you talk about how you see the Government supporting local companies to innovative with institutions especially in food and agriculture?

A. The Victorian Government is supporting research and innovation through its established key Agriculture Victoria research centres in regional Victoria that engage with industry, agribusiness and academia to deliver economic prosperity, regional investment and employment growth.

A key feature of our regional research centres are our SmartFarms, which allow for multi-disciplinary research and innovation for Victoria’s key agriculture industries – dairy, grains, horticulture and livestock and high rainfall cropping. These state-of-the-art SmartFarms allow our researchers to create, test and demonstrate innovative technology solutions for agriculture in partnership with industry.

Our Government is also working to support further digital agriculture initiatives.

The exciting $12 million On-Farm Internet of Things (IoT) Trial is supporting hundreds of farmers to become IoT-enabled across four industry types and regions: horticulture (Tatura), dairy (Maffra), sheep (Serpentine) and grains (Birchip). This program is helping to directly link farmers with the latest innovative apps and devices in the market, providing not just benefits on-farm, but for the broader industry.

We are also providing $2.546 million in funding to Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water to support the Demonstration of Agricultural Technology Applications (DATA) Farm project - a digitally-enabled, 1000 hectare farm at Longerenong Agricultural College that will showcase cutting-edge digital technology and support digital technology adoption in the grains sector.

On the regulatory side, we are supporting Dairy Food Safety Victoria to deliver Dairy RegTech 2022 - its flagship project to modernise food safety regulation in direct partnership with industry.

The Industrial Hemp Taskforce is another great industry/research collaboration. The Taskforce has facilitated an MoU between SuniTAFE and Australian Primary Hemp to conduct industrial hemp trials at Mildura’s SuniTafe’s SMART Farm for the purpose of producing food, fibre and building material products over the next two to three years. Hemp has huge potential in so many applications and the Government is keen to find out how it can support the industry to grow, creating jobs for regional Victorians.

These programs are just a few examples of how our Government is working closely with industry to ensure the latest research and innovation is at the forefront of what we do, to maintain the fantastic reputation of Victoria’s agriculture and food sectors

Q. With the shift towards remote working, does the Minister see an opportunity to lobby for the improvement of telecoms infrastructure and connectivity (NBN/4G/satellite etc) so regional/rural/remote biz and entrepreneurs can have fast and reliable internet access? This is essential for economic growth and to grease the wheels of decentralisation.

With a huge change to how workforces and SME's have had to adapt from remote working to implementing an online business presence, what part do you think technology will play for regional areas into the future? This includes areas like access, skills and costs.

A. The shift to remote working during the coronavirus pandemic has increased our reliance on digital connectivity. While this creates new opportunities for regional jobs and businesses, it can also amplify the issue of regional digital connectivity and the associated skills gap, known as the “digital divide”.

The Victorian Government has supported regional communities, through the nine Regional Partnerships (RPs) we created during the last term of Government. RPs provide us with advice on the individual needs and opportunities to grow regions and one of their first actions was to develop plans to improve digital connectivity. These plans have almost all been completed and prioritise the telecommunication needs and infrastructure of the regions for the government’s consideration.

The Victorian Government has committed $56 million to co-invest with the Federal Government and industry through multiple rounds of mobile black spots funding. This funding will deliver 230 new mobile towers across Victoria, and $177 million of infrastructure investment. To date 180 of these new mobile towers have been constructed and are improving mobile services to Victoria’s regional communities.

We are also working with industry to pilot enhanced broadband services to Horsham, Geelong and Morwell which will provide high speed, symmetrical business grade broadband, improving productivity and digital inclusion.

Communications is primarily a Commonwealth responsibility, and we would welcome significantly increased investment by the Federal Government in both better broadband and mobile black spot reduction across country Victoria.

During the bushfires when people couldn’t visit and more recently with coronavirus, we have seen businesses, especially hospitality ones, pivot to an online platform. Moving forward, regional tourism groups will consider their digital presence in not only marketing their region but also as to how consumers can get things from tourism operators. Our food producers have been able to offer online ‘masterclasses’ for people to learn how to cook and prepare their produce. This has created a new experience for people and a new distribution opportunity for producers. It will also be important as to how regions can build SME capability to take advantage of digital platforms.

Q. The Govt visitor economy recovery planning is underway now. As part of this, will the delayed regional tourism review direction be prioritised, enhanced and announced soon to provide guidance to Regional Tourism Boards which have been quick to prepare recovery plans, but need more support beyond just the extension of funding to December.

A. The Minister for Tourism will have more to say about the Regional Tourism Review in due course.

Q. Could the minister and government look to conduct more "meaty" meetings (as opposed to visits) in outer regional areas to open the government's eyes to the daily challenges and opportunities for communities in the far corners of the state? Victoria extends beyond Ballarat/Geelong/Bendigo and it would be good to see the government spend quality time in communities beyond the usual "regional" suspects.

A. Our Regional Partnerships do just this, running in each of our regions annually since 2016.

This year’s Roundtables have just wrapped up, with people from all corners of Victoria submitting their feedback on the challenges and opportunities in their towns – from Mallacoota to Mildura.

This feedback is critical to our role as a Government right now, as we look to how we rebuild our economy.

Q. With the critical nature of jobs lost in regional Victoria, (data indicates we are down 13% overall in the northwest) how can Regional Development Victoria best support recovery and job retention phases, once the Federal Governments Jobkeeper payments are scheduled to end, possibly as early as July?

A. It is essential that we work quickly to get people back to work as soon as possible. That’s why we announced the $2.7 billion Building Works package, which will green-light shovel-ready projects big and small to get thousands of people back to work.

The total package will create 3,700 direct jobs for construction workers, painters, plasterers, gardeners, engineers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, maintenance workers, administration staff and many others. Thousands more jobs will be created across our supply chains, including manufacturing, logistics, transportation, warehousing and retail whilst pumping extra dollars back into our economy.

Regional Development Victoria (RDV) has a strong role to play in the economic recovery process. During the declaration of the pandemic in mid-March, RDV worked closely with businesses impacted by the restrictions to triage solutions from across government department and agencies – it will continue this work. 

Q. Is it possible to see a list of what projects are going to be funded in the recovery tourism pipeline in regional Victoria? 

A. For a full list of tourism and community projects funded by our Building Works Program, visit rdv.vic.gov.au/building-big.

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