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State budget continues clean energy transition, but risks forest conflict

Screen_Shot_2024-05-07_at_3.51.07_pm.pngFriends of the Earth (FoE) - response to Victorian state budget 2024/25

As expected, this was a state budget focused strongly on cost of living pressures, with emphasis on assisting families, and continued investment in public infrastructure including training, education and health.

As such, expectations in the realm of environment and energy had been very modest, and as expected there were no major new projects announced in this budget. The energy measures outlined in the budget are generally a ‘business as usual’ continuation of existing positive policy and previous commitments. We welcome the commitment to review the Victorian Energy Upgrades program and support VicGrid’s transmission planning reforms. Progress on the development of onshore and offshore renewable energy will continue, with funding to assist in mitigating the biodiversity impacts of these projects.

It is, however, deeply concerning to see the wind up of the Latrobe Valley Authority, which has played an important role in facilitating the process after the closure of the Hazelwood power station.  Friends of the Earth community organiser Wendy Farmer said “The last budget stressed how important the work of the Latrobe Valley Authority was and the need to continue their essential work, including the Ladder Step Up and Inclusive Employment Worker Transition programs. The state government in the 2023/24 budget said that this investment would support jobs and further the economic development of the Latrobe Valley. With three coal fired power stations yet to close, we must ask what happens to the Latrobe Valley and Gippsland Transition plan that the Victorian Government so proudly invested in. Does it become another report on a shelf?  What happens now to ensure affected workers and their communities are assisted through continued uncertainty? Latrobe Valley has for many years been ignored by governments, we thought we had an opportunity to change that through the LVA. Will the Latrobe Valley be forgotten again?” 

While there are funds for "regional economic transition funding” to support worker transition and youth employment pathways in the Latrobe Valley, the Latrobe Valley Authority is essential to guiding this process and its loss will have a negative impact on the Latrobe Valley.

We know that climate change is already impacting people, infrastructure and the environment, and this is acknowledged in the 2024/25 state budget. The treasurer recognised this in his budget speech, noting that ‘building a better future means preparing ourselves for a changing climate and for extreme weather events’.

There is a good focus on funding for a range of disaster relief and recovery measures. Specific commitments include assistance with temporary accommodation for impacted people, creating a ‘recovery hotline’, a council flood support fund and a ‘make safe’ program for schools. A range of measures aim to assist the state’s ecosystem and infrastructure to become more resilient in the face of sustained climate change.

Forecasts by the AEMO that Victoria is likely to face gas shortfalls during peak winter times by 2027 have unfortunately not translated into budget action at the state level. Victoria urgently needs to reduce gas demand, particularly for heating which is responsible for half the gas used in the state. “Switching from gas heating to electric is easy - the technology is already well developed and will halve gas demand in Victoria. It’s also cheaper so this would be an economic win as the community struggles with a cost of living crisis. We welcome any boost to the Victorian Energy Upgrades program and urge the government to commit to switching all state government owned buildings, particularly schools and hospitals, from gas to electric heating as a matter of urgency”, said Freja Leonard, No More Gas campaign coordinator.

“In the meantime we call on the government to fund a public information campaign to help Victorians reduce their energy use, using simple, affordable and practical measures”, Ms Leonard said.

There is also continued investment in firefighting capacity. We note that there is a plan to convert 54 short term Forest Fire Management Victoria positions into full time roles. We support the creation of additional full time jobs in fire prevention but this does raise fears about an increase in fuel reduction burning, without an assessment of the ecological value and impacts of existing fuel reduction programs.

The inquiry into ecosystem decline, which reported back in 2021, recommended a range of measures to restore habitats and populations of threatened and endangered species. Many of the recommendations are yet to be acted on. “We know the scale of the ecological crisis in the state, and the need for government to fund the recovery of threatened species and halt further ecosystem decline” said FoE campaigns co-ordinator Cam Walker. “While they are not up to the scale of the threats posed by ecosystem decline there are some welcome commitments in this budget, especially the Future Forest program, including restoration of forests post logging, collection of seed for species that have been impacted by logging and fire, and continued control of invasive species on public land”. There is also funding to facilitate planning for future management of the state forests previously available for logging and the wind up of VicForests.

While we welcome the continued investment in the transition away from native forest logging, the environment movement will be deeply concerned to see a commitment to establish a ‘timber by-products’ framework. As we move beyond decades of native forest logging, there are deep concerns about any further commercial exploitation of native forests. These ‘products’ – trees – will be sourced from bushfire and storm recovery activity. Any commercialisation will be strongly opposed by the environment movement.

The government has invested heavily in both sensible public transport infrastructure and projects that further lock the state into car dependency as part of its ‘big build’. We welcome the commitment of $233 m to ensure the completion of the Metro Tunnel project. We are disappointed that there are no fresh commitments to public transport in the outer western suburbs – a part of Melbourne which is experiencing rapid expansion and which has  a long history of being ignored in terms of its public transport needs.

The mining sector in Victoria has left a legacy of poorly rehabilitated projects. We welcome a commitment of $3.4m to reduce risks through the rehabilitation of former mines. This is, of course, money that should be coming from the companies that made profit off those projects, not the public purse, and reflects the poor historical management of mining projects in the state.

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