The Victorian Labor government will put $200 million toward its Agriculture Infrastructure and Jobs Fund if the Port of Melbourne is leased, but the opposition has criticised the plan as a “poor substitute” for its own.
Labor has said the newly introduced fund would accelerate economic growth, create jobs and boost exports, benefitting farmers and regional communities in Gippsland and across the state.
According to Eastern Victoria Labor MP Harriet Shing, the $200 million fund will compliment investment in agricultural infrastructure and supply chains to improve productivity, lift exports and reduce costs so local farmers, businesses and industries can remain competitive.
“This new fund will invest in critical infrastructure, providing concrete benefits to the many thousands of hard-working farmers and primary producers in Gippsland,” Ms Shing said.
“It will be available for practical projects and programs that wholly benefit the agriculture sector including transport, irrigation, and energy projects, as well as skills development programs and market access campaigns.”
However, the establishment of the fund depends on the passage of Port of Melbourne lease legislation, which has been rejected by the opposition and Nationals.
In parliament last week, Narracan Liberal MP Gary Blackwood said the Agriculture Infrastructure and Jobs Fund was “a very inadequate replacement for regional Victoria to the Regional Growth Fund of $500 million.”
Mr Blackwood said the move would also not cover changes to the Roads and Bridges Fund, $160 million in funding for small local government areas and the Transport Solutions Fund.
He said that despite his initial support for leasing the Port of Melbourne, the Andrews government’s approach is a cause for concern.
“The Coalition maintains its support for the lease of the Port of Melbourne”, he said, “but not at the expense of the development of a second container port or conditions of lease that bind Victorian taxpayers to pay compensation from a second container port that could be constructed by a future government.”
“The Coalition had plans for the lease of the port to a private consortium with a lease of around 40 to 50 years, via an open and transparent process that would achieve a fair return for the Victorian taxpayer.”
According to Mr Blackwood, the Andrews government changed its plan after last year’s election.
“Labor went into the 2014 state election committing to the consutrction of a second port, which was known as the Bay West option”, Mr Blackwood said.
“Labor’s Bay West option would have required the blasting of the rocky Port Phillip Heads at the entry to the bay, causing damage to the many marine parks and worsening erosion of Victoria’s most popular beaches due to increased water volume and wave activity.”
“The Bay West option now appears to be off the table altogether, as well all know, and not through mindful reconsideration of the values I just outlined but rather because the purchasers of the Port of Melbourne will want a monopoly on our port to increase the potential earnings from the deal.”
Ms Shing refuted the claims and said Labor was sticking to its original plan.
“Before the election, we promised that a Labor government would lease the Port of Melbourne,” Ms Shing said.
“We are working to deliver on the promise and to ensure our local farming and regional communities in Gippsland get the support they need.”
Ms Shing suggested the Agriculture Infrastructure and Jobs Fund would ensure an investment in the necessary infrastructure to help local farmers and producers sell their goods on the market quicker and pursue intenrational export opportunities.
“Leasing the Port of Melbourne will make our port even better for farmers in Gippsland, increasing efficiencies and competitiveness, including a significant benefit from the Port’s decision to implement an export discount.”
Farms and farm businesses, industry, agribusiness organisations and asset owners, including water authorities and local government, would be considered eligible applicants.