Chester seeks to represent diverse views of Gippsland

Chester seeks to represent diverse views of Gippsland

Darren Chester, the Nationals member for Gippsland, has endorsed a waste-to-energy plant as crucial to the transition away from traditional energy sources in the region, and towards net zero emissions.  

Chester has been the federal member for the Nationals’ stronghold of Gippsland for nearly 14 years, since the 2008 by-election. Gippsland has been held by the National Party, and its predecessor the Country Party, since 1922 and is considered one of the safest electorates in Australia. 

Due to the Nationals’ history in the region and his popularity, Chester is expected to win the seat in the upcoming federal election. 

Chester is considered a moderate within the National Party, particularly for his relatively liberal social views, and vocal support for action on climate change. 

Chester recently announced $48.2 million in federal funding for construction of the plant at Opal Australian Paper’s Maryvale Mill, in the Latrobe Valley. The plant would convert waste to energy through a process of controlled combustion and would provide power to the paper mill. 

“Progressive” on renewables 

Liam Durkin, journalist at the Latrobe Valley Express and Gippsland Times, said Chester has been “fairly progressive in his thinking”, and had been quite open to discussions around renewable energy.  

Others have been critical of the large amount of federal funding allocated to a private project, compared to renewable energy sources in the region. 

Pat Simons, the renewable energy spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, highlighted the disparity between this announcement and funding for renewables. “That’s more than they’re giving to renewable energy projects that are operating in the region,” he said.  

Originally from the Gippsland city of Sale, Chester worked as a journalist in the region before unsuccessfully running as the Nationals candidate for Gippsland East in the 2002 Victorian state election, and eventually being elected as the federal member for Gippsland in the 2008 by-election. 

Chester has expressed his support for “a technology-based approach to reducing emissions”, rather than ecological or economic strategies, such as a carbon tax.  

Projects to build renewable energy sources in Gippsland, such as the Gippsland Renewable Energy Park, which has received $8.5 million in federal funding, and the Star of the South offshore wind farm, are examples of that technology-based approach. Chester has said that creating and maintaining jobs is of prime importance.  

In a media release, Chester described the Renewable Energy Park as “an important step in keeping the energy sector in our region”.  

The upcoming closure of the Yallourn Power station, planned for 2028, is threatening positions in the energy sector, and has increased demand for the creation of jobs in Gippsland. 

Though Chester has been more vocal about environmental issues than other Nationals, Simons said that “there’s a big shortfall between the rhetoric and the reality”.  

Simons emphasised that Chester’s support of offshore wind legislation and renewable energy has been a good start, but that “any future federal government will need to go further to plan for the closure of coal fired power stations while acting on climate change and creating jobs”.  

Not just for farmers 

Since the beginning of his parliamentary career Chester has sought to represent diverse viewpoints from Gippsland, and to combat the perception that his electorate is solely made up of farmers.  

Last June, in the Nationals leadership spill, Chester supported then-party leader Michael McCormack, who was defeated by Barnaby Joyce. As a result, Chester was removed from the positions of minister for Veterans’Affairs and Defence Personnel.  

Veterans groups endorsed Chester in the aftermath of the spill, praising the stability and continuity he brought to the ministerial positions. Kel Ryan, national president of the Defence Force Welfare Association, said that Chester “represented the best stability in the portfolio for over 10 years”.  

Last September, Chester took a break from the Nationals party room, citing frustration with leadership and what he described as the “very hard right-wing agenda” pushed by some National Party MPs as reasons for his departure.  

He has been a vocal critic of outgoing Nationals member George Christensen’s anti-vaccine views and support for anti-lockdown protests, and senator Matt Canavan’s criticisms of the government’s net zero carbon emissions commitment.  

In 2015 he was the first Nationals member to publicly support same-sex marriage, and in 2021 he was among the few Nationals to initially back Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.   

Not a “robotic” National 

Durkin said that Chester’s break from the Nationals party room reinforced his standing in Gippsland, because “It showed that he wasn’t just … robotic to whatever the Nats wanted”.  

Tom Parry, a journalist at the Gippsland Times, praised Chester’s support for the community. He recently advocated for the several bushfire recovery projects deemed ineligible for recovery grants due to an ABN technicality.  

Despite previous disagreements, Chester and Joyce worked together earlier this year to intervene and secure funding for these recovery projects.  

In Chester’s first speech to parliament, in 2008, he said that Australia’s wealth meant it can afford to aid the disadvantaged, and that “we must do more to help those less fortunate”.  

Chester urged better treatment of the socially and economically disadvantaged people of Gippsland, particularly older and Aboriginal Australians.  

“Gippsland performs poorly on a range of socioeconomic indicators,” he told parliament. “I want to spend my time in office … fighting for a fair go for all Gippslanders.”