Madam Speaker, I rise to reply to the 2021-22 ACT Budget, tabled by the Treasurer and Chief Minister on Wednesday.
Often in this chamber I speak as a minister in the ACT Government. In today’s context I’m also called upon to speak as the leader of one of the two parties that form the ACT Government.
As a party of Government, we Greens believe there is much to be proud of in this budget. The budget partially or fully delivers around 90 of our election commitments, with the effect of making the ACT a more caring, sustainable, and equal place to live.
Budgets are not just about the economy - because economies are about societies. The decisions we make affect people and the planet; in other words, our overall wellbeing.
The Greens didn't get everything we wanted in this budget. In a multi-party government, no party ever does. Were this solely a Greens government, or a Greens-led two-party government, this budget would look different than it does today. Nevertheless, I also know that the budget looks the way it does today because Greens are part of Government. Both parties of government have much to be proud of in this budget, most of all the consistent way it prioritises community wellbeing – not just in the short term, but with action to mitigate growing threats to our wellbeing, like climate change.
The Greens are grateful to the Canberra community for electing us into a position where we can shape and shift the ACT Government to be more sustainable, more caring and more just. We are grateful to our partners in government – operating through the Parliamentary and Governing Agreement – for working together to deliver our shared agenda, and the individual agendas of ACT Labor and the ACT Greens. We are making significant headway across all areas.
We have been delivering our agreed program of work and providing stable, progressive government that looks after people today, and invests in actions that will support our wellbeing decades into the future. You do not see the short-term-ism here that is so destructive to all Australians at the federal level.
With Greens making up a third of Cabinet, and another three MLAs in the Legislative Assembly, this is the Greenest government in Australian history. And Greens values are written all over this budget. They shine through in the budget’s investments in our environment, in our invaluable community organisations, and in ensuring we make a just transition to a zero-emissions society.
Our ideas don't need to be routinely fought out through the media, or by holding our Labor colleagues to ransom behind closed doors, because after 13 years of collaborative government, our parties understand and work to our shared values, and in doing so, we are a government that truly represents our community.
‘A home for all’ might initially sound like an impossible proposal. But it’s one the Greens took to the last election, because access to shelter is a fundamental human right. Every person should have a place to call home, and I expect most Canberrans agree with that proposition.
Climate action - once thought of as a ‘Greens fringe issue’ is now the name of a portfolio held by this Chief Minister. Climate change is increasingly at the forefront of economic thinking, healthcare planning, property and financial markets, and certainly it was pulled to the forefront of all our minds, when we suffocated through weeks of smoke and when a third of the land in this territory was burnt, most of it supposedly "protected" national park. We know now, whether it's Namadgi, Tasmanian rainforests or the Great Barrier Reef, you can't draw a line around a place and say it's protected.
No place on earth is protected from climate change and I'm proud that with Greens in government, the ACT has been taking climate action for over a decade. As a party we called for emissions reduction targets 25 years ago in this Assembly. After gaining the balance of power in 2008 we renewed our call for legislated targets. They were passed into law in 2010. Since then, in every budget including this one, the government has allocated the resources to meet those targets and protect our community's wellbeing.
Madam Speaker, here we are for the second time this year putting forward a budget that responds to the times we live in, which are most unusual times. We are confronting the expected challenges of climate change and the
unexpected crisis of a pandemic. Both of these challenges call for a strong but clear-headed response from the government that not only takes decisive action but works to keep the fabric of our community intact.
It won’t surprise anyone here when I say that taking action to respond to climate change is a key motivator for all six Greens in this Assembly, but alongside that sits our deep commitment to reducing inequality. This is the vision for a Better Normal that we took to the election, and which we have worked so hard to achieve over the past year with our Labor colleagues, through the Parliamentary and Government Agreement, both as Ministers and on our crossbench.
The Greens believe that any response to major change requires us to work with the whole community and do our best to ensure a just transition from past ways to a new future. During times of crisis, such as the current pandemic, the gap between rich and poor grows wider and those with the least are the most impacted.
As Greens we base our policies on the evidence – what will work – and we take advice from the experts on how to achieve our vision. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that in Australia we do have what is required to respond quickly when the need arises, and in this case, we made choices to roll out new vaccines and provide new life saving treatments. For a while, we chose to make childcare free, to unequivocally support flexible working, to stop demonising people who rely on government support, and to lift those people above the poverty line.
This response, nationally and locally, proves that while the future might have challenges, if we make the right choices, we can rise up to meet them. This gives me hope that we can continue to build on our efforts to manage this health crisis, respond to climate change, protect our precious environment in this territory and do what it takes to stamp out inequality so that ‘wellbeing’ isn’t reserved for some, at the expense of others.
Madam Speaker, this pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on those who have low incomes, making the inequality gap even bigger. It is vital that we bear this in mind as we progress through the rest of this year and the immediate years to come. What we do now will make all the difference in the years ahead in terms of ensuring that people do not get left behind.
The Work, Income and Healthy Equity report released by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) just 6 weeks ago shows clear links between the lack of wealth and poor health outcomes. It shows that those in the highest income groups are more than twice as likely to be in good health, compared to people in the lowest income group. Many people on low incomes live in insecure, over-crowded housing or work in roles that can’t be carried out from home. As Professor De Leeuw says in that report: “Health inequities are not a given; they are a consequence of how our societies work”. This budget demonstrates how a Greens influence can affect how our local society works, with many initiatives funded by Greens and other Ministers to reduce inequality and address the underlying causes of poverty and disadvantage.
I’d like to thank the whole community for their commitment to keeping us safe during the current lockdown. I applaud the high vaccination rates of our population, because the evidence is clear that this is the best chance we have of keeping our good health. Alongside that I am very proud of Canberrans, who have understood how important it has been to abide by the necessary restrictions the government has applied.
I would like to applaud the hard work of my colleagues in this Labor-Greens Government during this pandemic, in particular, Minister Stephen-Smith and Chief Minister Barr for their daily grit and leadership.
I would also like to thank the many frontline staff, nurses, health workers, police, doctors, social workers, public servants and non-government organisations who have worked long hours to assist with the management of this pandemic. It’s been so heartening to see the number of volunteers involved in food deliveries, packing hampers and checking in on each other. It reflects the connectedness of our community and reminds me why Canberra is one of the best places to live in the world.
Federal Government failures
Nevertheless, this pandemic has shown us that there are many people in Canberra who need assistance to move out of poverty. Many of these people are trying to survive during this pandemic on the inadequate income support meted out in a miserly fashion by our Federal Government. The same Federal Government who, during this second spike in the pandemic crisis has refused to use its resources, both financial and administrative, to assist those living
below the poverty line. In fact, even during this most significant health crisis, the Federal Government is trying to undermine our gradual easing of COVID restrictions by turning off the supports too soon.
The Canberra Liberals like to say that the government is letting people down. But this budget shows how we are lifting people up. It is the Liberals at the Federal level who have cut homelessness funding, left critical funding gaps in community legal centres, gaps in the provision of services and supports to people with disability, underfunded domestic and family violence services, and who refuse to invest in affordable housing, refuse to change the tax settings that treat housing as a cash cow instead of a human right, driving the affordability crisis Canberrans experience every day.
ACTCOSS in its Cost of Living report in August this year had this to say:
“Unemployment and household reliance on income support payments are the major drivers of income poverty in Australia.”
ACTCOSS notes in its report that during the first outbreaks of COVID-19, during the period from April to September last year, the Australian Government effectively doubled the rate of JobSeeker by introducing the Coronavirus Supplement of $550 per fortnight. This saw the ACT’s poverty rate drop from a pre-COVID 8.6% to 5.2%. This experience, of brief respite for many of those on income support, underscores the possibilities if our Federal Government chooses to assist. Now that JobSeeker has sunk well below the poverty level again we are faced with not only worsening inequality but worsening health outcomes in the midst of a pandemic.
It is the Liberals who keep Australians in poverty with a poverty payment instead of a welfare payment, and it is the Liberals who refuse to take any meaningful action on climate change, who ignore renewables and pour government funds into propping up fossil fuels. It is also the ACT Liberals who keep pre-selecting Zed Seselja to represent them in the Senate – who uses his position to block restoring our territory rights, to fail to even turn up to the marriage equality vote and to stand in the way of action on climate change. I call on the Liberal Opposition to get its own house in order and demand that its representatives deliver for the ACT before it criticizes the work of this government to make up for those federal failures and look after people.
What we are doing
We understand that when we fund services to lift people out of poverty it is an investment in our whole community. So, for the first time in nine years this budget lifts base funding for the specialist homelessness sector, and we’ve lifted it by 12.7 per cent. That’s a better normal for these invaluable organisations and the Canberrans who rely on their services, and its thanks to our first Greens Minister for Homelessness, Rebecca Vassarotti.
In addition to investing in homelessness supports, this budget’s investment in affordable and social housing is the most significant in the history of self-government in the ACT. We took a bold vision to the election in our Home for All package, calling for 400 new social housing and 600 new affordable rentals and this budget sees us well on the way to achieving these goals. However, we acknowledge that this is still a work in progress and delivering this ambitious commitment will require both innovation and insights from our community partners to resolve the wicked problem of homelessness. Housing is a fundamental human right and Greens proposals like build-to-rent, which are funded in this budget, will provide more affordable, long-term, stable rentals. The massive $80 million investment in public housing maintenance will also ensure the ACT Government is a responsible landlord, offering homes that are fit for all.
For years local environment groups have been calling for long-term, secure funding, instead of having to negotiate annual funding arrangements with the government. In our first year of having a Greens Environment Minister we’ve switched to four-year funding agreements, and we’ve increased the value of the ACT’s environment grants for the first time in 15 years to more than $300,000 per year.
The Greens Minister for Mental Health, who is also the Minister for Community Recovery and Emergency Relief, Emma Davidson, has ensured that Canberrans doing it tough have additional supports during these tough times. She has overseen an increase of nine per cent in the total mental health budget. This means that there will be more than $50 million over four years for a range of critical mental health services including funding to support the newly established 10 additional acute mental health inpatient beds at Canberra Hospital. This important boost to mental health services is in addition to the recently announced COVID mental health response package to support the wellbeing of Canberrans during this pandemic.
Minister Davidson has fully delivered the Greens’ commitment of more than $2 million for culturally appropriate mental health, suicide prevention, after care and postvention program for First Nations people. This initiative responds to the very real need to support this community through the difficult issues that arise with the prevalence of suicide.
A dedicated coroner’s court – promised by the Greens, included in the Parliamentary and Governing Agreement and funded in this budget – will deliver a better normal in coronial proceedings, to reduce the suffering that drawn-out coronial processes have caused in the past. This is part of the ACT Greens’ commitment to putting people first, and I am proud to have delivered it as Australia’s first Greens Attorney-General.
I’m delighted to mention that this budget includes funding of $795,000 to develop and consult on raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility. We will be leading the nation in introducing this critically important legislative change to divert children away from a life of engagement with the criminal justice system. I hope we will set an example for my colleagues in other jurisdictions.
As Emissions Reduction Minister I’m proud this budget delivers the nation’s best incentives to make emissions-free vehicles the new normal, with two-years free registration on electric vehicles and interest free loans of up to $15,000 coming soon. Only the Greens took a policy for electric vehicles to the election and it is wonderful to have such enthusiastic support from our partners in government. That’s just one of an ever-improving suite of climate change policies, even now stretching into the detailed decision making of government, with the introduction this year of a ‘social cost of carbon’.
The Greens crossbench has been hard at work this year too, representing their constituents and helping to deliver some of the achievements in this budget. Johnathan Davis, Greens Member for Brindabella, supported this Assembly’s efforts to deliver $2 million for improvements to the Lake Tuggeranong Foreshore, including a new playground and more tree canopy cover. Andrew Braddock, Greens member for Yerrabi pushed for an investment into the Gungahlin community and in this budget we see $300,000 being allocated to explore with the community the feasibility of a Gungahlin Community Centre. And Jo Clay, Greens member for Ginninderra, pursued her passions for funding for artists, protecting vulnerable road users and active travel which is reflected in increased funding in arts and road safety in this budget.
Some of the other Greens election commitments progressed by this budget include:
· Planting more trees to work towards a 30% urban tree canopy by 2045, bring biodiversity to the suburbs, bring down local temperatures in summer, to ensure that our city is more resilient to climate change.
· Advancing the ACT’s circular economy and reducing potent methane emissions from landfill with a trial of food and organic waste recycling known as FOGO, and scoping for permanent processing facilities.
· Making it affordable for everyone to switch from polluting fossil fuel gas to efficient electric appliances for their heating, cooking and hot water. Interest-free loans are now available through the Sustainable Household Scheme, and support for low-income renters and owners will be offered through the Vulnerable Household Energy Support Scheme, because we know it’s lower-income households who can benefit most from energy efficiency.
· Investing in education through this budget to support the growing demand on ACT schools, ensuring schools are an appropriate temperature for students and staff with thermal comfort funding, delivering $14 million to remove hazardous materials, employing more teacher-librarians, offering innovative curriculum options to meet the varied need of ACT students, mental health promotion and prevention (via youth and social workers), and continuing the rollout of universal early education.
Overall, the budget delivers or progresses around 90 commitments the ACT Greens took to the last election, with real climate action, more and better housing, and support for community sector and volunteer organisations that do an incredible job looking after local people and our local environment.
This is only year one of an ambitious Greens agenda that we intend to roll out during this Assembly and I am grateful for the hard work of both my Greens and Labor colleagues during these unusual times.
Of course we have much more work to do to build climate resilience, support our community, provide a home for all and to work alongside our First Nations communities to address past wrongs, but this Budget is without doubt a downpayment on meeting those goals.