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Politics

Labour supply, Black Saturday lessons to the fore of Casey campaign

The marginal seat of Casey is best known for the delights of the Yarra Valley and the Yarra Ranges: stunning mountain views, picturesque vineyards, rustic cottages among lush lavender fields, and bustling farmers markets.

 
Wandin North’s annual Herb and Chilli Festival adds a little extra spice to multicultural Casey. PIC: Malarvili Meganathan

Wandin North’s annual Herb and Chilli Festival adds a little extra spice to multicultural Casey. PIC: Malarvili Meganathan

The area, about 60 kilometres east of Melbourne, is known as the city’s food bowl and has developed a reputation as one of the world’s leading cold climate wine growing regions.

About Casey

► A liberal stronghold, Casey covers 2337 square kilometres on the eastern edge of the Melbourne metropolitan area. 

► Incumbent Tony Smith was elected 30th Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2015. 

► Economic growth (with a focus on small businesses), youth employment, public transportation and tourism are cited as key issues.

Tourism is paramount. In 2013-14, the industry contributed an estimated $1.1 billion to the local economy and employed more than 10,000 people.

But behind the blend of old-world charm, exquisite wine and artisan cheese, industry players are struggling to meet the growing demands. The chairman of Agribusiness Yarra Valley, Clive Larkman, says lack of labour is a huge problem.

“Just talk to any farm owners, they will tell you the issue is hurting the industry,” he said. According to the 2011 Census, the unemployment rate in Casey was just 3.9 per cent.

Seasonal labour is critical for the viability of many farms, which would be at risk if a reliable supply of labour could not be maintained. The industry relies heavily on working holiday-makers for picking and sorting fruit and vegetables, pruning and weeding. A 2011 study by Agribusiness Yarra Valley of the seasonal workforce found that up to 5000 workers were needed daily for five months of the year.

In the 2015 Budget, the Coalition announced a plan to scrap the tax-free threshold for backpackers and to tax them at 32.5 per cent from their first dollar earned from July 1. But early in the election campaign the government announced the plan would be suspended for six months.

Mr Larkman says if the so-called ‘back-packer’ tax proceeds, it will be regressive for the agribusiness and tourism industry in Casey because backpackers will think twice about choosing Australia as a place for a working holiday.

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The chief executive of the Yarra Valley Wine Growers Association, Richard Howden, says the industry is also struggling to hire and retain skilled labour. “There is a major lack of skills, from vineyards to the wineries, down through to the cellar door and the hospitality side of it,” he said.

The association believes education is key to resolving the issue. Mr Howden describes the re-opening of a campus of the Box Hill Institute in the Casey area — the only tertiary education campus in the outer east — as a major step to providing young, skilled labour to fill the electorate’s needs.

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After the Swinburne University of Technology’s Lilydale campus was forced to close in 2013 due to state government funding cuts, there had been an unmet demand in the area for TAFE services. The new campus of the Box Hill Institute, a $10 million election promise by the current Victorian government, is expected to fill that void. Local community advocates campaigned hard against the closure of the Lilydale campus and it was a significant issue in the 2014 Victorian election.

Yarra Ranges Mayor Jason Callahan describes Casey as a unique electorate with a diverse range of needs. He says more than seven years after the Black Saturday bushfires, the issue of mobile reception remains close to voters’ hearts. For locals living in and around Warburton, among the most fire-prone areas of Australia, it is a potentially life-threatening issue.

In 2014, local residents, together with the Yarra Ranges Council, put together a submission for funding to fix the problem. The Coalition Government announced last year that mobile reception towers would be built in East Warburton and Steels Creek as part of the $100 million mobile black spot program.

Steels Creek is expected to have a tower in time for the next fire season, but East Warburton has been forced to play a waiting game. A spokesman for the East Warburton Mobile Action Group, John Harry, says “we are desperate to avoid another fire season without mobile coverage, but for now we are left in limbo.”

Mr Harry says that in some areas the network coverage is either “completely absent” or “erratic”. According to Mr Harry, the FireReady mobile app, which gives timely and tailored warnings on bushfires throughout the state, is also “completely useless” in times of fire when mobile communication is down.

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But despite obvious frustrations, he adds that local Liberal MP Tony Smith has been an “excellent” representative in Canberra and doing an “outstanding” job in listening to the needs of the community.

The Liberal Party has managed to hold onto the seat since 1984, with Mr Smith the incumbent since 2001. With more than 15 years’ experience under his belt, he currently holds the high-profile position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, having replaced Bronwyn Bishop, who stood down following an expenses scandal.

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