I thank Mr Barton for introducing this motion – and I am pleased to be able to indicate that Mr Grimley and I will be supporting it should it even need to come to a division today.
I also thank Mr Barton for the briefing he organised for MLCs and their staff earlier in the week in which these issues were canvassed in considerable depth.
Additionally, I would also like to express my gratitude to the Minister for Education, Mr Merlino, and his staff, for giving me the opportunity to raise these and related issues with them on a number of occasions during my time as an MP.
Foremost among the reasons for all of that appreciation is that issues of transport disadvantage are of great relevance to my constituents in Northern Victoria – and we need to work earnestly together here to tackle them. I should add they are issues that are also of great interest to me at a personal
level – especially given my background as a youth worker in our part of the State.
As I assume most MLCs would know, the general lack of bus and other transport services has long been a very serious issue in many parts of rural and regional Victoria. They certainly affect a large number of cities and towns in Northern Victoria alone, with a disproportionate effect, typically, on many vulnerable people.
An ability for those who require travel beyond their own towns is not only pivotal in increasing social inclusiveness, but it provides a wider set of opportunities in many different forms to both young people and adults alike.
Generally speaking, the issue of transport disadvantage is at its most prevalent in small towns where services are limited and families may only have one vehicle of their own, at most. There, the lack of adequate public transport can substantially inhibit people from being able to access important appointments and services, including medical appointments and education and training.
In our part of the world, those educational and training providers, whether they be government, private (or, in particular, specialist) schools, often lose the opportunity to capture and support students from towns where there is no public transport available.
Similarly, although I think most people in Northern Victoria prefer to shop locally where possible, the lack of transport options to travel to other or more specialist retailers in other towns can also create an alternative for people to shop online instead.
Unfortunately, Northern Victorians are often affected both by inadequate infrastructure and by the relatively long distances over which we typically need to travel to reach our desired destinations.
In talking about that inadequate infrastructure, I should add that those resources that we do have at our disposal are generally not used to their full capacity, either. It would be of such benefit to our local communities if ways could be found to allow combined travel and to utilise bus services which are otherwise sitting idle throughout the day.
Likewise, cross co-ordination, with the various timetables for those services that do exist across different parts of our region, often isn’t what you’d describe as especially user-friendly.
To all of those ends, I happily support each of the points listed in Mr Barton’s motion, because I think they go to the heart of so many of the most important issues and questions around the provision of bus (and indeed other transport) services in rural and regional Victoria.
Having said that, and if I may be so bold as to suggest this to him, I would encourage Mr Barton to also ensure that the interests of special needs children and their families are also a part of the committee’s discussions.
I do so, in the first instance, on the basis of the circumstances of the wonderful Borinya school in Wangaratta, in my electorate – but theirs is by no means an isolated example.
In Borinya’s case, they’ve tried for many years to bring children from a range of other towns to Wangaratta to attend their school and to participate in the range of specialist forms of learning they make available.
Unfortunately, that’s been an almost impossible task for a multitude of reasons. Foremost among those have been the fact that the only transport option to get them there from further afield than Wangaratta has often been a train – and that it is very difficult to be sure that some children will disembark from a train when and where they are supposed to do.
Even if there were to be some more short-term trials of some different options and solutions, this would probably represent a considerable help. That might include, for instance, the establishment of some temporary interchanges in key towns. It might also mean, I hope, that the Department of Transport might be able to implement or broker some more creative and effectively-funded forms of public support.
It’s my understanding that many transport companies are still charging for students to travel to school each day – but I wonder if that revenue model and the contracts could be changed in such a way that all parties benefit more fulsomely.
The provision of better, and more regular, transport (and especially bus) services would also likely help to lower our levels of school absenteeism in Northern Victoria. There are quite a high number of students in our part of the State who don’t necessarily want to attend local schools. Naturally, however, in many of those cases, their parents aren’t necessarily easily able to afford their attendance, especially at private or special schools, elsewhere.
The absence of better or alternative options for public transport and/or extra school buses is doing that young person and their family a disservice in each case – one that could be rectified if those other options were available.
I do readily concede, though, that none of that is as easy (and certainly not as cost effective) as it possibly sounds.
Indeed, many of these and related issues are particularly complex – and I know, from talking to Minister Merlino and his staff, that there has been (and there continues to be) a lot of thought put into the resolution of them.
But I think it would also be wonderful if this committee could try to investigate solutions in this area, too.
More generally, and on behalf of my constituents, I am extremely keen to see solutions to any (let alone all) of the various issues that form part of Mr Barton’s motion. Certainly, I am sure Minister Merlino and his staff would vouch for that given the number of times I try to have discussions about them!
So, whilst I do acknowledge and recognise that there has been committee work undertaken on similar issues in the past, I fully endorse them being revisited. Especially given that so many of the problems in this area so stubbornly persist. We urgently need to find solutions to them.
So let me reiterate my support (and the support of Mr Grimley, too) for this motion. Furthermore, if it does pass, I think we would be very happy to volunteer our services to the committee in identifying a number of relevant witnesses from rural and regional Victoria with detailed practical knowledge and expertise in this field.