Frustrations a dormant volcano in new electorate

words and pictures by Keryn Reynolds

September 15, 2014

The dormant volcano of Mount Buninyong looms over the sleepy historical town that gives this electorate its name. Buninyong was Victoria’s first inland town, proclaimed in 1842. It seems fitting that it has given its name to the redrawn former electorate of East Ballarat.

Buninyong is a pretty little town, like so many in this large new electorate. But the wide streets, historical buildings and well-kept gardens belie the tensions and anger beneath the surface of this region of Victoria. It is unlikely the community will remain dormant over the coming months.

On a recent tour of the electorate UniPollWatch found voters apparently uninterested in the coming political contest, and ignorant of the recent electoral boundary changes.

Carole, 50, lives in Meredith and works at the general store. She summed up the general sentiment. ‘Seriously, what difference does it make anyway?’ she said. Linton cafe owner, Victoria, 38, agreed. ‘You can’t trust any politician.  I’ve switched off,’ and Jillian, 69, of Parwon said, ‘Constant empty promises, the election’s just a joke.’

But beneath the cynicism and disinterest there are simmering frustrations about jobs, poor roads, public transport, health worries and the shenanigans on a troubled Ballarat local council.  Drug use and wind farms crop up in most conversations.

Unemployment is higher than the state average. Twenty three per cent of the working age population is on the dole, compared to 17 per cent state wide. Half of sole parent families are jobless, and disability pensioners make up eight per cent of those on government payments, compared to the national average of five per cent.

Ballarat’s manufacturing industries provide many jobs, but local media reports suggest manufacturing jobs have halved across the region in the last three years. Job growth areas include health care and social assistance, retail, and construction.

Wayne, a Smythesdale CFA volunteer, said the region was facing many problems including youth unemployment, increased drug use and problems with teachers and nurses being continually placed on short-term employment contracts. ‘Makes it hard to think long term if you’re not sure you’ll have a job next month,’ he said.

Tahila, 20, of Myrniong works part-time at a local restaurant.  After completing event management studies in Melbourne three months ago she applied for 108 jobs online and was interviewed for one. ‘Employers want experience, but how do we get experience if we can’t get a job?’ she told UniPollWatch.

Meanwhile Michaela, 48, of Myrniong, said her 18 year-old-son couldn’t even get a job at McDonalds. ‘Apparently he’s too old,” she said. ‘He can’t get work experience, so he can’t get a job.’

Ms Sonia Smith will contest the election for the National Party, sitting member  Mr Geoff Howard for Labor, Mr Ben Taylor for the Liberals and Mr Tony Goodfellow for the Greens.

Although Ballarat East was a traditional Labor seat in the 2010 state election the Liberal candidate gained a 5.1% swing and more first preference votes than the Labor candidate.

All the candidates promise to talk about jobs and unlocking the potential of the region, but so far the campaigning is low key.

The Liberal Party has said it will move VicRoads’ headquarters to Ballarat, generating 400 jobs and more than $40 million in extra economic benefits for the region.

The Labor party has pledged $31.5 million in a major sporting upgrade for Ballarat, including $15 million to build a 5000-6000-seat grandstand at Eureka Stadium, to make the city a ‘national sporting capital’.

Greens candidate Mr Tony Goodfellow recently tweeted that the Moorabool wind-farm project alone would create 100 construction jobs and up to 30 ongoing jobs. Mr Goodfellow also claimed the Ballarat region was losing $1.8 billion from stalled wind projects, including Moorabool wind farm, which has ground to a halt after threats by the federal government to cut renewable energy targets.

Recent media coverage has highlighted a shortage of ambulance services in the region. Concerns have been raised in state parliament about increased waiting times for emergency treatment at the hospital.

Dereel resident and retired teacher, Leanne, 66, said health and respite care for the elderly was a problem in the region.  ‘I can’t get a bed for my mother, not even for respite care,’ she said.

Last month the Government said the Ballarat hospital would receive $50,000 for a security upgrade for the safety of women in mental healthcare while Labor announced a $10 million initiative to expand cardiovascular services.

Buninyong Police Sergeant Peter Anderson told UniPollWatch that ‘Ice’ use was widespread across all socioeconomic classes. In June media reports said children as young as 10 years old were using Ice in Ballarat with desperate users travelling to Geelong or Melbourne to seek help as no residential withdrawal beds were available.

Ballarat’s Federation University Australia researcher Professor Erica Smith attributes the rise in youth unemployment to cuts in government funded traineeships in retail and hospitality.

The region has also suffered from state government funding cuts to TAFE.  Over the past two years the University has closed 70 courses and cut staff numbers.

Agriculture is the main industry in the electorate. Tourism is important with draw cards such as Sovereign Hill and Kryal Castle. However visitors have declined over the last year.

More people are commuting to Melbourne, which means public transport is a key concern. There has been a 37 per cent growth in the number of people using the Ballarat – Melbourne rail line over the past five years with commuter times increasing.

Dr Ron Southern, 59, commutes 260 kilometers each day from Creswick to Ballan train station and then on to Melbourne.  He has travelled this route for the past 20 years. He takes his fold out chair because every few weeks there are not enough seats. But he says services have nevertheless considerably improved over time.

The main problem for his daily commute is poor roads. ‘With so many large trucks, including double B-semi’s using secondary roads not built for this purpose, the roads are ruined in short periods of time.  The councils just can’t keep up with repairs,’ he said. Myrniong resident Michaela, agrees. ‘Local roads are atrocious… they are patched up but never repaired properly.’

Road repairs are underway across the electorate, but residents told UniPollWatch they are frustrated by how long they are taking. Government budget papers show that only $2.5 million of the $4.5 million promised in 2010 to upgrade Main Road through Mt Clear and Mt Helen had been spent by the end of the 2014 financial year.

Ewen Nevett, a VicRoads spokesman, recently told Ballarat’s The Courier newspaper increasing traffic had added to travel times and safety concerns on the Geelong Road.

Last August the RACV said the Ballarat region needed more than $700 million in transport funding over the next 10 years to handle rapid population growth. The RACV also recommended improvements to the Ballarat train line, $25 million funding for the Ballarat railway station and an improved bus network in the central business district.

Internal politics and disunity within the Ballarat Council are continuing to frustrate many residents. Ballarat’s third mayor in a year recently stepped down to run as the Liberal candidate for the upper house seat of Western Victoria.

A new mayor, Mr John Philips, will be voted in unopposed on 20 September.

Preferences will again play a key role in this electorate at the election, however the seat is likely to be retained by Labor given recent polls suggesting voters are generally dissatisfied with the performance of state government.

The region however does have a history of doing the unusual. In 1883, Henry Joseph Desoza, a wealthy philanthropist was crowned the ‘Gold King of Buninyong’.

Given the feeling in the electorate, a charismatic independent, should one nominate, might well throw up some surprises. On 29 November 2014, Buninyong may again assert its independence by voting for a new local hero or heroine. ( @kerynbuninyong)