Exactly 12 months to the day until the next state election, regional media outlets were invited to a phone interview with Premier Daniel Andrews about local issues with no questions off the table.
It was an opportunity to ask questions exclusively about Ballarat, instead of the larger state-wide issues that usually dominate the media.
The City of Ballarat has been unusually clear about its priorities for the state election next November, and the federal election, which will be held in the next six months - Ballarat is a rapidly-growing city, and road upgrades like stage two of the Ballarat Link Road, a new recycling facility, and smaller projects like a new animal shelter, will help some growing pains.
Looking backwards to the 2018 election, Mr Andrews said an "unprecedented" amount of money had been invested since - the massive hospital upgrade is under way, rail line upgrades are complete, and many other election promises have been funded.
However, he had no new announcements for Ballarat this week, but said voters will have a "clear choice" at the election.
"You'll see more activity with a real sense of urgency, never wasting a moment, always getting on and building to make the place better," he said about his government's plans for the next 12 months.
"Large and small, there's been some localised, some city-wide, and some state-wide initiatives, they make a massive difference.
"Some of the investments we've made, they're about changing Ballarat so it has a bright future that matches its proud past."
He described Ballarat's growing pains as a "good problem to have", but noted a "balance" needed to be struck to keep the city liveable, while also providing housing for families - council has pushed for more higher-density in-fill in the CBD, but a strong appetite remains for blocks of land in outer growth zones, and there are fears this could create endless sprawl without greater controls.
"We need to make good decisions in relation to planning, but we need to make them faster, we need to get utilities connected faster, we need to provide as many incentives as possible so that builders and others, with a local supply chain, can get the housing stock built," he said.
"At the same time, you have to get that balance right, which is why we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in regional schools, billions in regional health, and these transport links that are all about getting people to where they need to go safely.
"I want to see not just our outer suburbs grow, but our regional cities grow as well, that's all about strength, but we have to protect and safeguard the reasons why people want to live in a beautiful place like Ballarat - they don't want traffic or the challenges they want to get away from."
In response to a question about community fatigue with restrictions after Ballarat hit the 95 per cent-plus fully-vaccinated target, resulting in reports of people lashing out at front-line staff, he acknowledged "frustration" but urged patience.
"We haven't got any advice to remove those vaccinated economy rules at the moment," he said.
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"The feedback I'm getting from people right across the board is that they're pleased to know they're not getting served by somebody in a restaurant who hasn't been vaccinated, they're pleased to know they're not sitting next to someone or spending time with people who are not vaccinated.
"It is kindness and courage that's got our state through this, Victorians can be proud of that, but we don't want to see people abusing staff.
"They're just doing their job, they didn't create the virus, they didn't write the rules, and we just don't need to see that sort of behaviour."
The Courier will extend an invitation to the state opposition's media team for a similar Ballarat-focused interview with Opposition Leader Matthew Guy next week.
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW BELOW
Q - So what is the plan for next 12 months?
A - Obviously over these last seven years we've been honoured to receive very strong support from the Ballarat community, we've not wasted a day delivering on all the commitments that we've made - whether it's $150m of upgrades in schools, investing in the Ballarat Base Hospital in unprecedented terms, the GovHub, so many different investments about keeping Ballarat strong, with jobs and skills to make sure Ballarat's firing on all cylinders.
We know that a strong Ballarat, strong regional Victorian cities, means the state is very strong as well.
There's been a lot delivered, there's a lot ongoing, the real issue now is that we'll add to that considerable amount of work, that considerable agenda for Ballarat with many more announcements in the coming 12 months that will give everybody across Ballarat a very clear choice - keep building, keep investing, keep Ballarat strong, or go a different way.
There are statewide reform agendas, things like the mental health Royal Commission and fixing that broken system, that has a direct bearing that those with mental illness and their carers and loved ones face right across the state, or family violence, we know that violence against women is a challenge across the state, so we're rolling out a big reform agenda there as well.
In all those basics, the things that kind of define state politics and make a difference in people's lives, we're working very hard and we'll have an equally positive and optimistic agenda that will give Victorians, particularly in regional Victoria and big regional cities, a very clear choice to make next year.
Q - Are there any announcements today, anything I can prise out?
A - No, you can't prise one out today, but you can expect it is not just more of the same, you'll see more activity with a real sense of urgency, never wasting a moment, always getting on and building to make the place better.
Thinking about the station upgrade, the whole revitalisation of that precinct, I remember visiting the Goods Shed when it was all boarded up, and some of the investments we've made, they're about changing Ballarat so it has a bright future that matches its proud past.
Q - A lot of those big projects are coming to an end - Goods Shed is being fit out, GovHub's finished, and the hospital's about to get started...
A - ...and BWEZ has celebrated some additional tenants in the last week or so.
We did get to see some fantastic school upgrades when we were there recently.
So large and small, there's been some localised, some city-wide, and some state-wide initiatives, they make a massive difference.
For example three year old kinder, we're rolling that out, it's great for kids and their early development, the life opportunities they'll enjoy, but it also means we have to go and recruit thousands and thousands of kinder teachers, so all of these things have multiple benefits in the first instance, as part of better services, and often cost of living benefits, so there's better services that are cheaper and closer to home, but also the extra staff, these are good jobs and you need a good training system to be able to employ them.
That's why we've invested in TAFE in unprecedented terms.
There are many different projects - the Ballarat Line Upgrade, it was a point of pride to be able to add I think about 120 extra services per week, that work finished earlier this year, the Western Rail Plan has benefits for that whole Ballarat corridor.
It's a massive agenda, it's more than has probably ever been undertaken in such a short space of time, but we have to keep going, we can't be content with that.
We have to repay the trust that's been placed in us.
Q - Is there any update on the Foodbank commitment from the election campaign?
I do remember that, but I don't have an update, I'll get you an update.
(note - a representative from the state government stated after the interview "there will be more to say in coming weeks" on Foodbank Ballarat)
Q - I'd like to ask about youth crime - there are 14, 15, 16 year olds who we see in court all the time for serious matters, but we've noticed there are also grassroots initiatives, like in Creswick, which is partnering with police - it's coming from the bottom-up, and I'm wondering if there's anything in the agenda about this?
A - Often the best ideas do come from the ground up, because those people have the greatest sense of what's happening, they have the local knowledge and that's absolutely precious.
We've put additional police into Ballarat, and across the whole state, and we've never played politics with that, we put an end to some of the political games that have been played with that.
We fund, under the staffing allocation model, based both on the number of people who live in a local community, and the crime trends in the local community that determines - it's a well-defined model, and it gives you a clear sense of what's happening now and is predicted to happen in the future, and we fully fund those additional recruits.
There's been substantial boosts, something in the order of 60 or 70 extra officers who've gone to Ballarat.
I've had this raised with me in a number of different areas, people have a good understanding of it but no understanding is better than the local view.
It is about timing, it's not easy work, and just locking these kids up, sometimes that's what's needed, but the better investment almost always is to get them into training, get them into a job, get them into a much better future.
I can't give you anything specific today, but these matters are best led by the community in partnership with Victoria Police.
Q - We're a growing city, but there is a lot of catching up to do - council's been vocal about their priorities for state and federal elections, which are the duplication of Dyson Drive for the Ballarat Link Road stage two, a new materials recovery facility, and a new animal shelter, because as the mayor's said, if we're getting 1000 new residents per year, that's 1000 more pets, 1000 more cars, and they're all growing issues
A - It's a good problem to have, it's a sign that Ballarat is vibrant and strong, there's such a high-quality offering in Ballarat that people want to be part of that local community, but the key point is we have to safeguard all the reasons that people want to go there.
We don't want Ballarat swamped, where we have a situation where quality of life is negatively impacted by Ballarat changing.
It's not to say change is a bad thing, but you have to get that balance right.
It's why having great local members - Juliana (Addison, Wendouree MP), Michaela (Settle, Buninyong MP), and Jaala (Pulford, Western Region MP) as well - they're part of the community, they understand these issues, and they speak to me regularly and routinely to make sure Ballarat's getting a fair share, and every challenge Ballarat faces becomes an opportunity for the future.
I would point to the fact that over the journey we've worked closely with the local council, there are many different projects where they've come to us and said 'look, we can't do this on our own, but we've got some money and plans, can you partner with us?'.
That's not every single thing we've done in Ballarat, but there are many different examples of that, like GovHub was something talked about for a very long time.
Our door's always open and we're always listening.
With the Ballarat Link Road stage two, I'd point to BWEZ and stage one, there's a good track record of backing Ballarat jobs.
It's a smaller order issue but no less significant in terms of animal welfare and those issues, I'm happy to look at those and I'm sure the team is.
I'm sure there are many other issues that not just council but also other peak bodies and interested members of the Ballarat community will put to us.
We'll have a close look at all of those and have a very positive offering and a clear choice for Ballarat families at the end of next year.
Q - With growth, the objective seems to be that we want to make sure there's houses for people, we have to build more houses, but that means some planning controls become somewhat watered down, so there's a worry there'll be vast, dense suburbs with no trees, densely packed houses, that becomes sprawl, and in Ballarat we've already got developers saying they need more land - is this becoming an issue for regional cities?
A - It's always a balance that needs to be struck, there wouldn't be a regional community I visit where there's not someone who raises with me that they need more housing supply.
We need to make good decisions in relation to planning, but we need to make them faster, we need to get utilities connected faster, we need to provide as many incentives as possible so that builders and others, with a local supply chain, can get the housing stock built.
At the same time, you have to get that balance right, which is why we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in regional schools, billions in regional health, and these transport links that are all about getting people to where they need to go safely.
I want to see not just our outer suburbs grow, but our regional cities grow as well, that's all about strength, but we have to protect and safeguard the reasons why people want to live in a beautiful place like Ballarat - they don't want traffic or the challenges they want to get away from.
I get a clear message across regional Victoria - good decisions always, but they have to be made faster, and we have to do more to get more housing supply into the mix.
I think you can get both right, I think you can get volume at the same time as you get quality
Otherwise, very discerning customers won't buy that product, unless it is first rate.
I think regional communities support that.
Q - We have heritage controls in the CBD, but outside of that, there are houses built close to the fenceline with no trees, for example, we can see there are issues coming
A - I'd expect it wouldn't just be a state government issue, it'd be a local council as well, but at the end of the day, you have to provide a mix of housing.
Some people want to live with land, some people are happy to be in a much higher-density home, and you have to cater to different income levels, different family structures, different outlooks, and a mix of housing is always important.
You have to listen to communities and make sure you're meeting their needs, and all the enhancements we've done, all the projects we've built, all the investments we've made in Ballarat, is about setting Ballarat up for the future but protecting Ballarat's quality of life.
I don't want people to have to leave Ballarat to get the healthcare they need, I want as much healthcare provided locally by locals, and that's great for jobs and quality of life.
That's why we've got one of the biggest hospital redevelopments not just in Victoria, but in Australia, going on in the middle of Ballarat.
I think these are balance points, and I think you can strike that balance, you can have quality and volume, and you can have Ballarat growing, but it can be quality growth (that) enhances the diversity within the Ballarat economy, and doesn't do anything except strengthen Ballarat for the future.
We certainly can't be having situations where we undermine the very reason why people want to go and live there, its history is our state's history.
I've got a real sense of optimism about next year, coming out of the pandemic, and many years to come for Ballarat, I think it's going to be an even bigger and more important part of our state.
Q - We're hearing, admittedly anecdotally, but people are getting harassed by people who don't want to show their vaccination proof - there's a fatigue setting in, and we know that NSW has been changing its rules, so would there be any consideration now that we're hitting that 90 per cent mark about relaxing some of those rules?
A - We've pushed past 90 per cent statewide double dose, and we haven't got any advice to remove those vaccinated economy rules at the moment.
The feedback I'm getting from people right across the board is that they're pleased to know they're not getting served by somebody in a restaurant who hasn't been vaccinated, they're pleased to know they're not sitting next to someone or spending time with people who are not vaccinated.
People have done the right thing, and they rightly say, 'well why can't you go and do the right thing?'.
I know there's a sense of frustration, people are weary, in terms of the overall pandemic people just want it to be over, but I don't have the advice to make those changes.
Those rules won't be there forever, they'll be there as long as they play a part in keeping us safe
It's about a sense of certainty and confidence that you can book a table at a restaurant in Ballarat or wherever it might be, and you know the people running that restaurant are taking your safety seriously.
It is kindness and courage that's got our state through this, Victorians can be proud of that, but we don't want to see people abusing staff.
They're just doing their job, they didn't create the virus, they didn't write the rules, and we just don't need to see that sort of behaviour, that's not what got us through and it won't keep us safe or open, it's just not the Victorian way.
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