11 February 2021
Madam Speaker, the Greens have in the past made the point that every budget, now, needs to be a climate budget. We know that declaring a climate emergency wasn’t theoretical but is driving us to further urgent action.
This budget has climate action as its headline, and delivers climate responses – not just in the obvious ways, either, but in the broadest interpretation. This is a significant and positive change. The Greens took the platform of a Building a Better Normal to the election, and as you can see with six MLAs here today, many people in Canberra chose that Better Normal. This budget is one of the first clear steps towards that.
The many people from Labor, the Greens, and the various directorates who have worked on this budget should be proud that the ACT is once again modelling the way forward – evidence-driven spending, with budget decisions based as much as possible in facts and science, as well as an ambition for equality, social justice and strong community.
As partners in this joint Labor-Greens government, and as a party with our own distinct identity, there’s always a decision the Greens have to make about whether we’re going to be glass-half-full or glass-half-empty about something as important as the Territory budget. After the year we had in 2020, I’m choosing today to take the former approach.
I believe things are looking up, not just in Canberra but across the globe.
There’s a COVID-19 vaccine roll-out on the horizon.
And the horizon is visible, and blue, instead of the brown smudge it was just over a year ago for so many Australians, at the end of our longest, hottest, most dangerous summer to date.
There’s now a more sane, responsible government in the United States – one, incidentally, that with its “Build Back Better” slogan has framed the COVID recovery process in a very similar way to how the Greens envisage it, with our “Building a Better Normal.”
In fact, many responsible, people-focused governments seem to be thinking along the same lines:
• Let’s not go back to the way things were before.
• Let’s use this unique opportunity to make something better than we’ve ever had, something that will equip us to deal with the challenges of rising temperatures and rising inequality that lie ahead.
• Let’s recognise that when we spend our money well, we can achieve multiple benefits with the same dollars, including starting to tackle wicked problems.
• “Let’s keep moving”, the re-elected New Zealand government suggests, and that sounds about right, too.
This is the fourth consecutive term of the ACT Assembly to be governed by a written Parliamentary Agreement between Labor and the Greens, and I’m more convinced than ever about its power and success as a mechanism for both parties to articulate - and deliver on - a clear vision for the future of our Territory. It provides both:
• a compass to guide our direction and
• a cudgel of accountability which either party can use to prod the other into line.
It even offers the Canberra Liberals and the public in general a useful way to get in on the accountability action, and if at the end of four years they’re able to truthfully say, “Here’s what you promised, and you didn’t deliver,” that would be a valid point.
But I don’t think that will happen. With this budget, we’ve already hit the ground running. There are many items in this budget that are solely there due to the Greens improved representation in the Assembly, and it’s translation in to the Labor-Greens Parliamentary and Governing Agreement.
Of course, as the Treasurer has spoken about, this is a very unusual budget in a number of ways: for a start – this is the budget that is usually presented in June, coming 8 months later due to COVID and the federal budget being delayed until last October. This means that we’ll be having 2 full ACT budgets this year – also extremely unusual.
This budget is thus also a highly retrospective budget, and being more than 7 months into the financial year already, much of the financial reporting and direction in it is not surprising. This is a budget update since the August 2020 update which presented the majority of the COVID support, recovery and stimulus commitments, and now this budget enables the next stage of support and stimulus for our
community as well as enabling many key Parliamentary and Governing Agreement items to get underway.
Let’s talk a bit more about COVID first, and the role of this COVID recovery budget.
The fact is that, just as the pandemic has hit different countries in extremely different ways, ranging from Australia and New Zealand almost eliminating it, to the United States and United Kingdom buckling beneath rampant, uncontrolled community transmission, COVID has also had a very uneven impact on individuals, families, communities and businesses here in Canberra.
Some people have done very well, riding things out largely unaffected, or even profiting handsomely. Others are seriously struggling. This budget tries hard to iron out some of this disparity, because in many cases the COVID toll has taken pre-existing inequalities and only made them worse.
Accordingly, this budget offers:
• residential tenancy relief for landlords to reduce rents for those who have lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced, full rent relief on government properties for affected community organisations, and commercial rates relief for landlords who give discounted rental to their tenants,
• waivers on outdoor dining and liquor license fees, in recognition of the toll Covid has taken on cafes, restaurants and pubs
• additional mental health support, including specifically to young people who have been amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic
• a $3.5 million dollar Covid-safe tourism marketing program to market Canberra as a COVID-safe destination for domestic travellers, and provide matched funding to tourism businesses who undertake new investments that will result in a positive return to the Territory, and
• a range of new, local jobs to help boost the career prospects of our citizens, as well as benefiting our wider economy.
While these items are specifically COVID-related, in many ways one of the strengths of this budget – and something that is certainly part of the Greens governing philosophy - is that it can’t be compartmentalised so neatly.
We know that investment in local jobs will help our COVID recovery. The Greens election commitments to Build a Better Normal alone created 4500 jobs. Jobs that helped our climate, helped our environment and our wildlife, but also importantly – helped our community recover from the economic impacts of COVID.
Our action on climate makes Canberra a healthier and better place to live – our schools cooler and more comfortable, our streetscapes greener and shadier, our transport systems more efficient.
This budget will ensure that there will be winners across the board, not just in this term of the Assembly and not just related to climate action or COVID, but stretching much further into the future and offering side benefits that may not be clearly evident yet.
In fact, we can already look back and see how this process has worked before.
For example, it’s now some years since the Greens first ran on a platform of creating healthier waterways with the conversion of the Sullivan’s Creek catchment’s concrete-bound stream-beds into the Lyneham, Dickson and O’Connor wetlands.
At the time, we didn’t fully envisage the extent to which those wetlands would one day be used as selling points in real estate advertising, and that the residents of Gungahlin and Woden would be clamouring for wetlands in their own creek catchments. This budget responds to that clamouring with further investment in healthy waterways.
Similarly with Light Rail – which is one of the most obvious and proud examples of Greens policies becoming reality - this has gone from being something the Canberra Liberals vowed to expensively scuttle at Stage 1, to a vastly popular feature of Canberra, our modern city. Stage 2 is already part of the positive advertising strategy for the new W2 apartments in Woden. And in this new term we are working towards Stage 2 extending as far as Mawson, and Stage 3 stretching beyond Belconnen to Kippax.
The climate change initiatives in this budget - and hopefully in future budgets - build on the solid decade of climate action championed by Greens in the balance of power. They will be seen the same way as the light rail and the wetlands in years from now, by everyone from the kids whose futures we’re trying to protect, to the small businesses who’ve carved out an innovative niche in the circular economy, to the low-income families enjoying their more energy efficient homes, to the real estate agents selling proximity to Light Rail Stage 4 in Tuggeranong.
Wins all around, some of them unexpected.
Last year showed Canberrans not only that we had to pull together as a community, to deal with COVID and the fires, but that when it came to the crunch, we actually could. Going forward, we must take this lesson to heart, because we’re going to need it again. The climate emergency is not going away.
The budget allocation of $150 million for the Sustainable Household Scheme, $5 million for Building Energy Efficiency Upgrade Fund and $50 million for a Vulnerable Household Energy Support initiative will not only lower the Territory’s energy use but will mean many more Canberrans will be living in dwellings that stay at a comfortable temperature all year round without generating massive energy bills. This vulnerable household scheme is significant and reflects another Greens priority – to ensure that the transition to a green, zero-emissions city is fair and just.
The funding that supports the transition to Zero Emission vehicles and the progress towards Light Rail Stage 2 will not only contribute to lowering emissions but will also help Canberra’s air to stay cleaner, our busiest streets quieter and commuters more productive and less stressed. This investment in zero emission vehicles is another key commitment of the Greens. We have a vision for an EV revolution over the next decade, one that will help tackle our problem area of transport emissions, but also one that will help mitigate people’s growing transport costs.
Budget support of $100 million over five years for a Canberra Big Battery will deliver at least 250MW of new “large-scale” battery storage. This will help store renewable electricity, assist with stabilising the electricity grid.
Those are some of the headline Climate Action items, but the detail is exciting, too.
This budget starts the process of phasing out fossil fuel gas use in the ACT, with an initial $855,000 to continue work on our sustainable energy policy actions and develop legislation to prevent new gas mains network connections to future stages of greenfield residential development in the ACT. Gas is a fossil fuel and we must phase it out, in line with our climate change imperatives.
Another key priority of the Greens in last year’s election was a Home for All. This budget delivers real action to reduce homelessness and increase Canberra’s stock of affordable housing.
Federal Government cuts to ACT Shelter are being reversed by the ACT Government in this budget, with $700,000 over four years to support systemic housing advocacy work. $1.2 million will continue funding the Mackillop House and Winter Lodge services established as an emergency response to COVID, as well as the Axial Housing service. This is another example of a COVID silver lining – in many instances the pandemic has shown us what’s possible – that we can do better than we think we can. The expansion of the Early Morning Centre and increased emergency support and accommodation funding to OneLink were also key Greens election commitments and Agreement items.
As my colleague and Minister for Housing and Homelessness Services, Rebecca Vassarotti has pointed out, “unemployment, financial pressure and homelessness can strike suddenly,” and we have to fund the right support so that it’s there when it’s needed without delay. The Greens know that it’s far better – for a person’s health and wellbeing, and for the budget bottom line - to provide fundamentals like food, showers, healthcare and clothing and of course keeping people from sleeping rough in the first place rather than trying to bring those people back to housing and health after a damaging period on the streets.
It’s medically expensive to be without a home, or to live in severely crowded dwellings. Chronic ear infections, respiratory infections, gastroenteritis, family violence and mental health issues are all more prevalent in overcrowded living situations. Homelessness or the risk of homelessness is also a potential risk factor for mental health issues, trauma, substance abuse and child maltreatment, amongst other things.
How much better is it, not just for the individuals who are struggling but for our community as a whole, and for our overall budget bottom line, if those individuals can have continuity in shelter and support, rather than having to recover and regroup after going without. I’m reminded of the old saying “A stitch in time saves nine.” It’s true of climate action, health and education, housing and homelessness and more.
Repairing the Land was a key election priority area for the Greens in last year’s election, and we’re pleased to see good progress in this year’s budget on both environment and heritage.
As well as increased and reliable funding for the National Trust and for the overdue upgrade to the Heritage Council website, there is a funding allocation of $4.5 million for invasive species management, for initiatives to maintain clean catchments and clean waterways, and to employ permanent Ngunnawal rangers and incorporate cultural land and water management practices.
There is a range of funding programs to support our community and improve social inclusion measures:
• This budget delivers on the Greens commitment to reduce gambling harm and help clubs move away from heavy reliance on gaming revenue by creating
alternative income streams. It provides for a review of water costs for clubs, creates a ministerial advisory council on gaming and imposing bet limits and load-up limits.
• There is significant investment in health, justice and education services specifically for indigenous people.
• There is funding of almost $2 million to establish a Building Energy Efficiency Upgrade fund for community club buildings, to deliver grants and no-interest loans for energy and water efficiency upgrades, rooftop solar and batteries.
• There is $100,000 of additional support for refugees and asylum seekers with an extension of the RASH - Refugee, Asylum Seeker and Humanitarian program to the end of 2020-2021. This will meet the increased need for support resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
• There is more support of $159,000 for frontline CV and rape crisis services, including support for new parents experiencing domestic and family violence via a continuation of the Health Justice Partnerships program.
• There is also $1.4 million for a technology upgrade for the community sector, to provide them with information technology, equipment and services to help in their provision of services for people on low incomes.
• And importantly, we are investing $825,000 to develop and implement the concessional loans framework, including for the Sustainable Household Scheme, which will guide all government concessional loan schemes.
This is a budget that recognises, as do the Greens, that an investment in the physical and mental wellbeing of individual Canberrans is an investment in the success of our city as a whole. Additional funds have been allocated to mental health services, specifically $14 million to continue and expand the successful PACER program, $2.3 million to extend our COVID mental health support package, and over $3 million to continue the vital Adolescent Mobile Outreach Service.
In fulfillment of a Greens Election commitment and the PAGA, there is funding for a Palliative Care ACT Respite Hub pilot program.
In terms of small items with big impacts, there is a $145,000 investment in Health to establish a taskforce to look at how to insource work that is currently outsourced. This was also a Greens election commitment, and has been an ongoing concern from a number of angles for too long. We are glad too see that this taskforce will be established, and we look forward to hearing and seeing the outcomes next financial year.
My Greens colleagues and I remain ambitious and determined to contribute to this Government; every day, and in every budget, we will steer it, and impel it, towards improved action on climate change, on social justice, on the natural environment.
We are making good progress. This Government is doing far more than most to reduce emissions in our jurisdiction – and doing so in ways that have tangible broader benefits across the whole community. We are also leading in a way that sets a path for others to follow. We must keep upping our efforts at both mitigation and adaptation, especially in the face of the inaction and active sabotage across the lake. The Federal Government’s plan for a “gas-led recovery” is a sick joke which the country won’t be laughing about for very long if it isn’t stopped soon.
In fact, Australia is fast becoming a pariah on the world stage with its pitiful 2030 target of 26% emissions reduction and its likelihood of not even achieving that. Current estimates put the actual figure at 22%.
Here in the ACT, in contrast, we’ll keep doing our part. This budget is a good step in showing we are serious, with $307 million committed to direct emissions reduction strategies, and I confidently predict that every Canberran will see the benefits, while regions that cling to the technologies, energy sources, jobs and false assumptions of the past will get left behind.
Theirs, sadly, will be the old normal.
Ours will be better.
We look forward to further investments that continue our journey to a Better Normal in future budgets, but given our fiscal position in this global context, we can be proud to be moving in this direction here, today.
On a different note, this will be the last budget that is not guided by the Wellbeing Framework, so we look forward to playing a role in ensuring that the next budget shapes up to deliver in so many areas that haven’t had enough attention in previous years.
Madam Speaker, the Greens will be supporting this budget, and we look forward to the different estimates committees process being run this year for the first time, and the detail stage of debate next month.