It is probably the furthest east the entire Victorian Government has ever been.
Nearly every Labor MP, from Premier Daniel Andrews down to the backbench, headed to Lakes Entrance for the party’s annual caucus getaway.
The “love-in”, as it’s known by some MPs, was held in East Gippsland in an effort to boost the local economy after it was savagely hit by the summer’s bushfires.
But the red carpet wasn’t exactly rolled out for the Government, with dozens of forestry workers peacefully picketing the conference over Mr Andrews’s decision to close their industry by 2030.
Many yelled at MPs, demanding answers about why the industry was closed.
Harvester Rob Brunt said timber workers just wanted to be listened to.
“I just want the Premier to talk to us, we want him to reverse his decision to end logging … we are a valuable industry, we shouldn’t just be thrown on the scrap heap,” he said.
Others are angry at the Government’s management of the state’s forests, urging more logging and hazard-reduction burns.
No time to meet protesters
During a visit to the fire-hit town of Buchan, Mr Andrews said he didn’t think he would have time to meet with the protesters.
“We’ve got an agenda to deal with. We’re here to deal with a whole range of different issues,” Mr Andrews said.
“But look, they understand where I’m coming from, and I understand they’re not happy with the position that we’ve taken.”
The Government is assessing the impact the bushfires have had on the timber industry.
But Mr Andrews said about half the coups earmarked for logging had been damaged to some extent.
He said it was too soon to say how the bushfires would affect the Government’s plans to phase out the native timber industry.
“That assessment does take some time, that isn’t finished yet,” Mr Andrews said.
“And then we’ll have a clear picture based on the facts of [whether we] can we make the timeline that we had laid out in the 10-year plan, or do we have to have a different timeline.”
Bustling tourist hub turns ‘ghost town’
In Buchan, Mr Andrews outlined a $8.5 million funding package to support a range of projects in fire-affected areas across East Gippsland and North East Victoria.
Lakes Entrance was one of the major towns evacuated over the summer period, normally the busiest time of year for traders.
Outdoor sports store owner Sarah Carlisle said Lakes Entrance “became a ghost town”.
“Everybody is banking on this [time] being really busy and relying on that to pay the rent and wages,” she said.
Like other small businesses, she hasn’t been able to employ casual staff this summer and is worried about the next 12 months after the busy period failed to deliver.
Other than tourists returning, she and others are hoping the Government can provide some relief payments for local businesses that were not physically damaged by fire, but impacted by the tourism drop.