I am pleased to be able to rise to speak on the Puffing Billy Railway Bill 2022. At the outset can I say that I will not address Mr Davis’s amendments. They will be acquitted by others during the course of the debate and I am sure will also be addressed by the minister at the appropriate time.
If you do not know about Puffing Billy here in Victoria, I am not quite sure where you have been, because for over 120 years it has been an iconic tourism attraction here in Victoria and one of the most popular and iconic tourist attractions in this state’s history, I would venture to say. The bill before us will repeal and replace the Emerald Tourist Railway Act 1977 with the Puffing Billy Railway Act 2022. The bill itself provides a modern framework to futureproof the operations and governance of the attraction so it can operate more effectively and continue to draw visitors to the Dandenong Ranges for years to come. I too, like I am sure many speakers to come in this debate, have enjoyed a ride on Puffing Billy, although I must confess that I have not done it for many a long year. But just talking about the bill does—
Ms Maxwell: How many years, Mr Gepp?
Mr GEPP: Well, only probably three or four, Ms Maxwell. I cannot remember exactly when—
Ms Maxwell: Not since you were a child.
Mr GEPP: Well, I can remember how many years it has been since I was a child, I can tell you. It has been far too many, but I cannot remember exactly the last time I sat my bottom on the seats of Puffing Billy. But I do remember it fondly. Just talking about the bill, bringing back those wonderful memories, inspires me to perhaps want to do it again and port myself back in the time capsule to when I was that child.
The bill changes the name of the Emerald Tourist Railway Board to the Puffing Billy Railway Board, and this will prevent confusion and reflect the more commonly known name of the railway. I do not think there would be too many in this place who would not argue that name recognition is pretty important. The term ‘Puffing Billy’ has been well understood and well known throughout Victoria for many, many years.
The bill itself will also modernise provisions relating to good governance practices and the operation of the railway, including requiring the board, importantly, to develop strategic plans and empowering the minister to make directions and request information. It will also provide a new legislative framework for the Puffing Billy Railway that supports its future growth and sustainability as a state-significant tourism attraction. I know that it is very important to Minister Pakula, who has brought this bill before the Parliament, for us to ensure that Puffing Billy does remain an icon of the state and that it does continue to operate as a significant tourist attraction not just for the domestic market but also as a marketing opportunity and as a tourism attraction for those interstate and international visitors as well.
The bill provides a range of objectives for the Puffing Billy Railway Board, and I think, importantly, it is key that we put some of these things on the record, Acting President Melhem. I am sure that in your time in this wonderful state of Victoria you have availed yourself and your family of a trip on Puffing Billy. If you have not, then I would certainly encourage you to do so, but I am pretty certain you have. The objectives include ensuring the economic sustainability and viability of the railway. We do not just want it for the current generation; we have enjoyed it for over 120 years—I think 121 years, and we want it around for another 121 years at least. We want to maintain the heritage significance of the railway and to manage and promote the safe operation of the railway. I know Mr Davis talked about dangling legs et cetera. I do not know precisely what—
Mr Finn: That’s what kids do on Puffing Billy.
Mr GEPP: I understand what it means, Mr Finn, thank you. I understand the concept of the children dangling their legs outside of the carriage. I do recall it, and I think I may have done it myself back in the day. But if those things change, then that is a matter for the people who are operating the facility, and I am sure it would be done with health and safety in mind. We also of course want to promote the tourism offering and to enhance the visitor experience provided by the railway and the surrounding region. It is not just—when people come to the Dandenong Ranges—to enjoy Puffing Billy; there are many, many other attractions that they can go on to enjoy. The visitor economy is very, very important to that region and to the state overall.
Mr Davis made a point about and referenced volunteers and their participation in the railway. I am particularly pleased to say that one of the objectives of this bill is to ensure that we do recognise the important role of volunteers in the operation of the railway, not just now but for many, many years to come. They play such an important role, and we are very, very supportive of our volunteer community right across the board. Whether it is in emergency services, whether it is in health care or whether it is in education or tourism, we understand the role that volunteers play, and none more so than of the volunteers that roll up their sleeves and participate in the operation of Puffing Billy.
We also want to promote an understanding and education relating to our rail heritage, a very important heritage in this state. This bill will ensure that the board has an objective of promoting the understanding and the education relating to that heritage. We also want to, importantly, develop and maintain partnerships with community organisations and businesses. As I say, it is one thing to get people down to the ranges to enjoy their trip on Puffing Billy, but it is also equally important as part of the visitor economy that we ensure that the local community and local businesses are also connected to those people visiting the attraction so that we can grow and enhance that local economy. Equally importantly, we want the board to ensure that they have an objective in front of them to maintain harmonious relationships with the local community. Of course we want the board to ensure that they provide a safe, inclusive and diverse working environment for employees and volunteers in operating Puffing Billy.
Importantly, the bill also responds to the Victorian Ombudsman’s report released in June 2018 Investigation into Child Sex Offender Robert Whitehead’s Involvement with Puffing Billy and Other Railway Bodies. The bill goes some way to addressing that report. We all recall—and I do not want to spend too much time on that particular matter—it was a shameful time, and I think everybody was distressed when that news broke. I am sure that there is no-one in this place that would be upset with this bill addressing those key recommendations from the Ombudsman’s report. The Ombudsman of course provided a suite of recommendations which the government accepted in full, one of which was to review the current structure and the composition of the existing board. So the bill addresses those findings and recommendations from that particular investigation and related reviews into the Emerald Tourist Railway Board’s operations, which found the existing act contained outdated and redundant provisions that required updating in the contemporary tourism environment. We understand here in this chamber, I think across the board again, the importance of having those contemporary provisions match the present environment.
As I said a few moments ago, the bill will support the growth and sustainability of the Puffing Billy Railway Board, while also recognising the heritage significance of the railway, the significance of its volunteers and its importance to local communities. I see Ms Maxwell in the chamber, and we share the electorate of Northern Victoria, the biggest electorate in the state—over 100 000 square kilometres. We understand when a community have a particular point of difference, where they have something that is iconic to their local community—you immediately think of a place like Swan Hill or Echuca and those magnificent paddle steamers—what it means to the local community in terms of both visitors coming to the town, so that visitor economy, and the jobs it provides for the locals but also, importantly, the pride they have in that point of difference and what it means to the local community. Many local people who have grown up in places like Echuca and Swan Hill and have been there since they first entered this world talk so proudly and so passionately about the river. So we understand the connection with these iconic tourism attractions not just for the people who are visiting but for the people in the local community and what it means to them to ensure that those iconic attractions are maintained.
Many of the people down at the Dandenong Ranges of course are the volunteers. They are the people that go along and help everybody who is participating to enjoy Puffing Billy with their experience. Our volunteers make a vital contribution to the operation of the railway. Whether they drive the locomotive or whether they are preserving the trains and tracks, whatever it might be, they play an exceptional role. We dip our lids to them, and we say thank you. This bill is designed to continue to enhance the sustainability of Puffing Billy. We understand and acknowledge your contribution to the operation of Puffing Billy, and we hope that you continue to play that vital role. This bill will support, I think, over 300 volunteers, many from the Puffing Billy Preservation Society, who have at their core the preservation of this magnificent, iconic attraction in the Dandenong Ranges, and we too, like them, have a commitment to the ongoing operation of Puffing Billy. We have had it for 120 years. It has made so many families, so many generations, lifelong memories and has become a much-loved attraction, and we want to continue that.
Just finally, I have talked about the visitor economy, and prepandemic—everything is prepandemic these days, and I see from news reports on the pandemic that there are further outbreaks around the world and particularly in some of those countries that have just come through winter, so the challenges that we confront with this pandemic are not over—Puffing Billy Railway attracted over 500 000 visitors each year. We certainly hope to get those numbers back to those levels as quickly as we possibly can. In the meantime the passage of this bill is so important to ensure that we have got the framework and structures in place to ensure that Puffing Billy remains a great iconic attraction to the Dandenong Ranges and to the state of Victoria. I wish its passage a speedy resolution.