By Cam Lucadou-Wells
City of Casey’s controversial mission to China has possibly landed a large-scale lantern festival staged next to Bunjil Place next year.
The lantern festival is hoped to open for up to five weeks in autumn or spring 2018 on the site of the to-be demolished Casey Civic Centre in Magid Way.
If it goes ahead, the event would be a tourist and jobs attraction, Casey mayor Sam Aziz said.
During the 4-10 April trip, the Casey delegation met with Zigong Lantern Festival and Trade Company, which stages 300 such annual festivals in China.
The company stages large shows internationally such as Lights of the World, Phoenix, in USA and Canada.
Deputy mayor Wayne Smith, who was also part of the delegation, said the light installations including animals and iconic buildings would be on a similar scale to Frankston’s annual Sand Sculpting Australia event.
Casey was keen to facilitate the multi-million-dollar show in partnership with other businesses, he said.
“We need someone to take it on as an event, with Casey providing in-kind support,” Cr Smith said.
“It’s such a big event that it’s not something the council could contemplate on its own.”
Cr Aziz said the visit opened up doors to the “highest levels” of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We got a huge bang for our buck,” said Cr Aziz – who estimated that buck to be $16,000.
He emphasised there was little time for sight-seeing.
“We had a strong idea of what we wanted to do.
“There was surprise at the speed at which we achieved and how hungry China was for global friendship and partnership.”
During the trip, a swiftly agreed letter-of-intent for establishing an economic partnership agreement between Casey and Dujiangyan City was created.
There was interest from an Australian powdered-milk outlet in China in setting up a factory in Melbourne’s south-east, Cr Aziz said.
The trip has meanwhile been condemned by Casey Residents and Ratepayers Association (CRRA) as an “expensive and time-consuming endeavour”.
CRRA president Arvo Talvik said the “wasteful” trip had unclear objectives and no accountability.
Mr Talvik said the council was advised by an internal report in August 2015 that pursuit of a Chinese economic partnership would require “significant investment” and could take up to 10-20 years for real benefits to materialise.
“It’s crazy that this wastefulness is happening, when the council keeps saying it is short of money and will need to put rates up in the future.
“To date, council has paid consultants Bastion S&GO $15,000 to help plan the trip.
“We don’t know what other costs have been incurred, but if we included council officers’ wages for time spent working on this China partnership it would quite possibly be $100,000 or more.”
Mr Talvik said if the trip led to more Chinese investment in an “already overheated” local housing market, it would be “doing more harm than good”.
Cr Aziz said the mission’s delegation had achieved what normally took several visits by being hosted by the most senior tiers of Foreign Affairs.
According to the letter-of-intent with Dujiangyan, the agreement was based on “mutual equality and benefit” across “a number of sectors and industries”.
Cr Aziz said on the technology front, however, China would “give us far more than what we can give them”.
Dujiangyan is a manufacturing “powerhouse, with a population of 652,000 and prospering from a 12.5 per cent GDP rise, he said.
Its leaders were open to the city’s students being educated at Casey’s private schools as well as Chisholm Institute and Federation University’s nursing and aged-care courses.
“There is remarkable wealth in the emerging affluent class of China who are looking to travel and looking for opportunities abroad.”
The delegation also visited Australian Milk Bar, a business selling Australian dairy products and wine which had opened 70 outlets in China in the past year.
Its owner had expressed interest in setting up a factory to make powdered milk for the Chinese market in Casey on the doorstep of Gippsland’s dairy region, Cr Aziz said.
Other stops included the Huawei Corporation’s research and development centre in Shanghai and Chengdu province’s science park which hosts technological start-ups.
“We were blown away by this place,” Cr Aziz said of the latter stop.
“It reflected exactly our vision for creating Australia’s own Silicon Valley right in our backyard at Minta Farm in the City of Casey.”
Cr Aziz said he and Cr Smith had put their entire $5000 councillor allowances for training-and-development towards funding the mission.