Pop-Up Newsroom: Q & A with Sam Birrell

By Shepparton News

Committee for Greater Shepparton chief executive Sam Birrell called in to The News’ pop-up newsroom at The Butter Factory cafe in Shepparton yesterday. He spoke to News editor Cameron Whiteley about the achievements of the committee on the eve of its fifth birthday, advocacy for the region, and the priorities for Shepparton ahead of November’s Victorian election

CW: The Committee for Greater Shepparton will soon celebrate its fifth birthday. What do you think are some of the biggest achievements in that time?

SB: A really broad achievement is to unite the community leadership, to get people on the same page in terms of priorities and direction for the region. I think that was lacking in the past, and I think we weren’t getting much cut through in state or federal government because of the fact we were not united as a leadership team. I think that’s changed now. In terms of actual things that has led to, I remember at the start of 2016, the council and the Committee for Greater Shepparton hosted a business lunch where we had Treasurer Tim Pallas. There was a number of speeches all saying ‘‘treasurer, be under no misapprehension or have no doubt about what the No.1 priority is for Shepparton. It’s the redevelopment of GV Health. It is a critical gap in our regional city that needs to be addressed right now’’, and everyone gave that same message. Tim Pallas went away and we had a visit from the Premier three or four weeks later announcing stage one funding. I’m not saying [the funding announcement] was all because of that, but when everyone gets on the same page and is very clear about what they want to develop, then I think things can happen.

CW: What do you think about the advocacy of C4GS, combined with having an independent state member?

SB: There will be a lot of different views as to what effect the independent member has had. And coming from an apolitical stance, the committee has been able to work really well with a number of different representatives — Jeanette Powell, Suzanna Sheed, Damian Drum — I think they’re all good. I think it would be fair to say that the dynamic of having an independent member while we have a Labor government, and an independent member that’s developed some very good relationships with other ministers, I think that has worked in our favour for this term.

CW: There’s a lot to be positive about in Shepparton at the moment, isn’t there?

SB: Absolutely. I’m seeing a lot more construction, not only the big construction that we see like Shepparton Villages, Shepparton Art Museum, the court house, but also residential, all these vacant blocks that were sitting there, now you’re seeing the big units or two-storey houses go up on those blocks. That points to the fact that people want to invest here. Just the feeling among the businesses, the impression I get from talking to people is a really positive feeling. An anecdote I can tell you is there’s a project management business that’s working on a lot of different factories who’ve employed a guy who’s a project manager and who’s been working through Queensland in the mining area. He made a comment that there’s a pre-mining boom feel to Shepparton, which I was shocked and amazed about, but that’s what his observation was.

CW: There’s varying perceptions of Shepparton. What would you say to someone who was thinking about moving here?

SB: The fact that almost every young or middle-aged professional I talk to who has moved here, has had the experience of people telling them ‘are you sure you want to go to Shepparton?’, and when they get here the perception being ‘I can’t believe anyone saying there was going to be an issue here, this is amazing’. I was talking to a couple the other day who have both got jobs here, they’re both really enjoying their jobs and are invested in the community. There’s a sense of community they didn’t have in Melbourne, and they could afford to buy a beautiful bush block in Kialla, with a house and it’s a lifestyle that never would have been available to them in Melbourne. To anyone who is considering moving here, listen to the people that have actually done it, and generally the experiences of people I hear are good.

CW: What did you make of the recent visit to Canberra?

SB: It’s really important to be in front of decision-makers, to put Shepparton in their consciousness in terms of a positive visionary approach. The only time those people hear about Shepparton is if SPC is in trouble or something like that. We were there with leaders from the business community, the mayor and CEO, a leader from the indigenous community, CEO and chair of the Lighthouse Project, and we were there to say that we are addressing the issues and we’re starting to see some real success. We think if the Federal Government looks at the way Shepparton approaches problems, there’s some lessons there nationally, but no region can do it without some investment, so we were saying to the Federal Government that this is a really good place to invest. It’s a massive exporter in terms of agricultural produce, it’s a really productive area, and agricultural exports to Asia are going to grow as an important part of Australia’s future.

CW: There was a big announcement in the most recent state budget for Shepparton rail. The C4GS commissioned a report which spoke about the sheer amount of infrastructure spend in other regional areas relative to Shepparton which was quite damning. But in saying that, there’s $313million for Shepparton over the next three to four budgets, so that’s positive. We can finally see Shepparton is not being overlooked in terms of rail.

SB: I think it was important for us to get in the consciousness of decision-makers that there are five big regional centres in a semi-circle around the place, because what has always been regional Victoria has been Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong, and that’s it. Now, I reckon Shepparton and Latrobe Valley are more in the frame, and I think our advocacy has had something to do with that. It was a call to action for the government, to say ‘‘you haven’t invested enough in the Shepparton corridor’’. It’s disappointing that successive governments haven’t from an equality point of view, we’re 186km from the CBD, we have a thriving population, a big economic base, so why wouldn’t you include this as part of that population balance? That’s starting to be addressed now.

CW: What’s your viewpoint on where the Coalition and Labor sit on decentralisation in Victoria?

SB: The Coalition calls it decentralisation and are going to commit a ministry to it, which is really positive, and the (Labor) government’s approach has been to have a regional development minister and regional partnerships and forums, and I think that’s been good, too. People talk about decentralisation or population balance or whatever you want to call it, but you’ve got to follow through with connectivity infrastructure. I’m not against people putting government departments here, but it needs to be followed through with the right infrastructure.

CW: Do you think fast rail is part of the solution?

SB: Yes, I do. There’s a lot of technology out there, but even if our VLocity trains were given the opportunity to run to their full potential, that would be 160km/h, so that’s high speed rail. The fast rail discussion always gets framed for Melbourne to Sydney, but I think it’s more important between Melbourne and those five regional centres.

CW: We’re two-and-a-half months out from the state election, what do you think are the main priorities for Shepparton leading up to it?

SB: Without question, GV Health stage two is No.1 [priority]. It’s fantastic that this government has committed $170 million to stage one, but that hospital can’t be left unfinished, the Coalition and the (Labor) government can’t say ‘‘Okay, well you’ve had your run there’’. We’ve got some reports coming up to estimate what that might be, in terms of what stage two might cost. That has to be finished as a hospital. Bendigo Health has been finished, somewhere in excess of $600 million, the Ballarat hospital is finished. $300 million on rail is good, but we need some significant outcomes on that, we need eight to nine services per day at a certain speed and travel time. The GV Bypass, we need a further commitment from the State Government and Opposition so the Federal Government can come through. The Shepparton Education Plan is also important. And I’d throw one more in there, universities are critical to Shepparton, and La Trobe University has become a victim of its own success, in that 10 years after building their campus, they’re full. They need an expansion so I’d like to see the state and federal governments come to the party and help develop the university a bit more.