Monday, 3 June 2013
Regional Development Australia Fund
It is a pleasure this evening to be able to speak about some good news for one of the towns in my electorate which is to be the beneficiary of funds from the Regional Development Australia Fund. Back in 1976 residents in my electorate of La Trobe constructed a kindergarten in McBride Street in Cockatoo. It was built on council land with money raised by a co-op set up by Cockatoo residents. The co-op raised money to build the kindergarten and then to construct both lawn bowls and tennis facilities for local residents. It was a fairly impressive effort for what was then and indeed still is now a relatively small community, but certainly a determined community. The kindergarten was an unusual building in its design and it has proved be an unusual building in its subsequent use and now in its preservation.
The building is circular and a false facade around the roof line was intended to make it resemble a carousel with model horses around. It is significant in the life of the town and in the Dandenong Ranges because on Ash Wednesday, 16 February 1983, bushfires struck the Cockatoo township and around 300 residents—including children, the elderly and those with disabilities—took shelter in the building, along with many of their pets. That was around one-tenth of the town's population and they were supported by the Red Cross. Several residents climbed up onto the roof and certainly did their best to clear burning embers from the building to stop it from igniting. The fires took a severe toll on the town. Seven residents perished and many buildings were destroyed. Happily, all of those who took refuge at the kindergarten survived the ordeal.
The kindergarten continued to be in operation until 2005, but it then fell into considerable disrepair and became unable to operate, which was a shame considering the significance that its construction had in bringing the town together and its subsequent significance as a fire refuge for so many locals during one of the most terrible natural disasters in that region's history. So it is a marvellous thing that, through the third round of the federal government's Regional Development Australia Fund, funding has been allocated to build a new memorial at the former kindergarten site. It will allow local residents, others throughout the Dandenong Ranges and those who visit the region to pay tribute to those who have been so badly affected by the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires. It will restore the site for use by local residents. Indeed, the kindergarten will form the basis of a new visitor information centre and will commemorate the losses suffered through bushfires while at the same time promoting bushfire awareness and prevention within the region. Though the building is really just a roof and a frame now, after a significant local campaign it has achieved heritage listing; indeed, it was the first site in Victoria to gain heritage listing on the basis of its significance as a bushfire refuge. This is once again a reflection of the strength and perseverance of the local community.
Cardinia Shire Council will receive $500,000 for the restoration of the site. The funding will also deliver employment benefits to the region, as it is expected to create up to seven new jobs during the project's construction and in the first five years of its operation. The memorial is expected to be completed by mid-2014 and it is a very welcome development in the region. I commend all of those who had the foresight and the dedication to bring the project to the attention of the RDA and all of those local residents who have fought to preserve the memory of the events of February 1983 and of those who perished. The history of this area is one of resilience, one of perseverance and determination, and this is simply a marvellous result for a small community and for the region as a whole.