Mallee is kilometre upon kilometre of prime agricultural and horticultural land. If you haven’t been there, I invite you to come. REMPLAN estimates the region’s gross regional product at around $10 billion. The people of Mallee clothe and feed the nation and, indeed, the world. I rise to speak on an issue that has farmers and their communities worried about that being compromised. The issue is the Victoria to New South Wales Interconnector West project, or VNI West.
Originally, the proposal for this transmission-line project was understood to be an upgrade to the existing 220-kilovolt line from Ballarat to Kerang via Bendigo. However, in February the Victorian Labor government ordered the Australian Energy Market Operator, or AEMO, to accelerate their plans. In the process, AEMO’s preferred option was to change to a 500-kilovolt double-circuit overhead transmission line connecting the Western Renewables Link at Bulgana to EnergyConnect in the New South Wales Riverina via a new terminal station in northern Victoria—123 kilometres of 80-metre high towers with wires draped across farmlands.
Consultation on the project by AEMO Victoria planner, AVP, has been tokenistic at best. Farming communities have had technical language dumped on them by the AEMO consultants in order to tick a box. I have been repeatedly informed that a survey was conducted in the streets of local towns where bystanders were paid $20 to fill out a technical set of survey questions—another box ticked. Community meetings were called giving AEMO the opportunity to answer questions from locals and therefore display its accountability, but AEMO refused to attend. Apparently, the crowds were too large and intimidating. One was in St Arnaud, which I attended, where there were 300 justifiably concerned locals present. AEMO failed to attend a town meeting in Charlton when I brought down the Leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud, to meet with the community. The only meeting they turned up to was a small forum in the Loddon shire hosted by the Loddon Herald.
I point out that Mallee locals are the heroes here. A number of Mallee farmers have taken the bit between their teeth, so to speak, and the initiative to raise objections to the process and the project. It is so pleasing to see the younger generation of farmers standing up and fighting for their futures. Jason Barrett and Bill Baldwin are two who showed great leadership at the St Arnaud town meeting and clearly articulated the issues they have with the project. Why? Because the risks are real to their land, their productivity and their future. Glenden Watts is another young farmer who has actively galvanised the community.
I stand by these farmers and their neighbours, and I’m proud to help amplify their voices in this House. Labor must learn that regional communities are not their dumping ground. The Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, spoke recently on the importance of social licence. He called it the most important issue these transmission projects have to face. He said it was wrong to dismiss concerns as merely NIMBYism—not in my backyard. These comments sounded familiar. In fact, the minister made the very same comments in March 2022, just over a year ago. The transcript of these comments is still on the minister’s website. But here he is, 12 months later on message on a rinse-and-repeat mission, but meanwhile actually doing nothing about it.
The Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King, commented in 2021 on the Western Renewables Link, a similar project which feeds into the VNI West. The minister said the project had jeopardised the social licence for renewables in agricultural areas. Two years later, Labor are now panicking to achieve their ambitions, which according to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation are in serious jeopardy of not reaching 82 per cent renewables by 2030. With consultation operating under AEMO there is very little hope of changing that revised trajectory. It remains to be seen whether the extra $3 million recently approved by state and federal energy ministers will assist AEMO’s consultation track record. Energy market experts Professor Simon Bartlett and Professor Bruce Mountain have submitted a detailed critique of AEMO’s consultation report, calling it a monumental mistake. The Labor government needs to listen.