Appropriation (2015-2016) Bill 2015 and Budget Papers 2015-16


Mr BARBER (Northern Metropolitan) — The government has done a very good job of going out and selling the bits of its budget it wants to sell. The main difference between the Labor and Liberal parties is that Labor knows it is very good at hawking its wares, whereas the Liberal Party knows it is not very good at doing that.

Since the budget was brought down, the role of the Greens has been to bring forward a bit more information about some of the bits of the budget the government was not willing to trumpet. The Greens team developed a series of questions on the budget, and our approach was to put these to ministers through the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee budget estimates process, where Ms Pennicuik represents us, and to sit back and wait for the non-answers from the ministers. It is those non-answers that I intend to canvass today as I talk about the response of the Greens to the budget.

We asked the Premier what was the rest of his plan to address climate change beyond the $12 million he had allocated in relation to climate change in this one year of his budget. The answer was that he does not have one. The lack of money in future years to address climate change reflects the lack of a plan to address climate change in future years. When asked about something as impending as the El Niño drought, which has seen parts of Australia receive record low rainfall, the Premier told us he was keeping a close eye on it. This is not the type of crisis you can simply keep a watching brief on.

The highest levels of governance institutions on this earth, including most recently the G7 and most of our international institutions, are all deeply engaged in the question of how to avert a climate catastrophe — how in fact to get us to zero emissions as quickly as possible — and every time a target for emissions reductions is discussed we see more and more ambition being put on the table. Admittedly we are not seeing a great deal of action being taken through international forums, but individual companies and individual countries are definitely implementing a range of actions that are starting to turn the ship around before it hits that incredible iceberg, threatening the survival on the planet of the human race and of every other living creature, which should be the central focus of every political leader. So much for that!

We asked a number of questions of the Treasurer. We asked about the sale of the port, the proceeds of which have already been budgeted for in the Treasurer's balance sheet. Beyond that there was not a lot of information about how the sale was to proceed and what sorts of considerations would be brought to bear. When Ms Pennicuik questioned the Treasurer about the rising level of concern from port users, the Treasurer said he did not want to go off on a tangent talking about the concerns from those groups, and he sidestepped the entire question of what the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission might make of the proposed sale of the port of Melbourne.

We have been asking for a bit more information than that. We have been asking that the original KPMG scoping study be presented to this Parliament, and we are making some small progress in that direction. In the meantime the Treasurer has gone and put a bill before this Parliament seeking our support to affect the sale. No deal! The Greens do not believe this is a good deal for Victoria, certainly not when the long term is considered, and there is no way the Parliament should be considering such a sale until we have the information we need to consider the various matters contained in the Treasurer's bill.

An important question put to the Treasurer related to the accounting trickery the previous government was using in relation to schools, which was highlighted by the Auditor-General. It is really quite a scandalous approach — that government would write down the value of schools it described as economically obsolescent, in some cases because enrolments were down in particular schools, and thereby reduce the asset base and thereby reduce necessity for future maintenance funding. It is good to see that this government has reversed that piece of accounting trickery, which had not been used by any other jurisdiction on earth that the Auditor-General was able to find.

The core problem, however, is still there — that is, that the model the Department of Education and Training uses to project demand for school places is the same model it uses to decide whether and how new schools should be built, whether that be on the outer fringes of Melbourne or even in inner-city areas such as the those covered by the seat of Prahran. That model is flawed. It is the same model the department used for its accounting treatment, it is the model the department is using to project future needs in the school system and there is no transparency around it. There is no transparency around the current state of our schools, despite a series of Auditor-General's reports talking about many of them being in disrepair. We still have no more transparency than we did when we started scrutinising this budget.

On TAFE, the Greens pursued the question with a number of ministers about the problems in the TAFE system and when market contestability, the core of the problem, is going to be addressed. The answer we got was, 'The government is doing more monitoring and compliance'. It does not comfort me at all to hear the Minister for Training and Skills come in here and talk about all the dodgy TAFE providers he has been deregistering, because for every case he has there are students, young people, trying to make a start in life, trying to avoid the scourge of youth unemployment. They have done their dough, been messed around, had their time wasted and in many cases been set back a year with no qualification to show for it at the end of all that time.

We look forward to the results of the Mackenzie review. The government has ticked that off. What the Mackenzie review will inevitably uncover is that market contestability is at the core of the problem. There has been no recognition of that from the Premier or the Minister for Training and Skills.

On education we asked, 'What about Gonski?', and what we got was a big question mark. We asked about the long-term underfunding of capital in schools, and we got a spiel with a list of schools that the minister was funding. The Minister for Education came in and argued effectively that night is day. He argued that the guaranteed funding for non-government schools, now first in the queue, is consistent with Gonski, when one of the Gonski architects himself has come out and told the minister that that is wrong. In fact what the minister said in the end was, 'There's an agreement and Dr Napthine and Mr Rudd signed it, therefore it's okay'.

The Minister for Education then talked about the review that he has asked former Premier Bracks to do. Waving around the name 'Steve Bracks' like a magical incantation is not going to reassure the community. Mr Bracks's achievements in this state are starting to disappear into the mists of history. I know that in the charisma-free zone of this government they would love to be able to bring back some of the Bracks magic, but simply appointing him to review schools is not going to do the job. The Greens and every other parent out there would like to know where their school sits on the priority list for funding, for capital and for services.

On the subject of orderly and long-term stable budgeting, we asked the minister, 'What's the score with rate capping?'. Again he said, 'There's a review underway'. We wanted to know specifically if the Essential Services Commission is going to review 79 different councils' rating outcomes in the short window between when they bring down their budget, perhaps in May, and when they have to sign off on it in June, what is going to be the cost of that? Is any amount allocated in the budget for the Essential Services Commission to commence that work, which it will be doing in this financial year? We got no answer. Will councils themselves be charged for the privilege of having the Essential Services Commission review their proposed rate increase? No answer.

All of this chaos and confusion, expense, bureaucracy and red tape is based on a feel-good Sunday Herald Sun campaign that says, 'Yes, we'd all like to pay less rates. We'd all like to see our rates capped at inflation'. This government is not capping its revenue from own sources at inflation, but it is now going to use local government as a whipping boy and make it do what the government itself cannot do.

On transport we heard the minister yet again claim that the government is addressing the 50 most dangerous level crossings. Will someone please unpack this statement? By every measure I have looked at, the government is not doing the 50 most dangerous level crossings in some kind of order. The government is doing something off the RACV wish list. It is not doing the crossings that have the most historical accidents. It is not even using the Australian level crossing assessment model list — that is, the level crossing risk assessment produced back in the days of Minister Kosky. The government has taken about 25 of the top 50 on that list and then started picking them off the map according to some local political needs.

It may be that removing level crossings in certain areas will have some beneficial effect on local traffic congestion, but until the government starts doing all the level crossings on a particular line it will not see the benefit of extra trains. There is no basis to the claim that the government is doing the 50 most dangerous level crossings, nor can it explain any other particular rationale or offer any kind of business case for why it is doing the 50 it is doing and what the benefits and costs will be for each of them or for the group.

As for extending tramlines: 'Don't know', the minister says. The government never made a promise on that, and it is doing its promises. It is not thinking forward. Melbourne Metro rail, the government's big signature project, depends on federal funding, and as we know we currently have a federal government that says it will not fund public transport. It thinks the federal government should stick to the knitting, in its words, and fund roads. Australia is one of the few jurisdictions in the world where the federal government is not involved in funding urban public transport. That promise depends on a change of government or certainly a change of heart at the federal level, and it is something the Greens have been campaigning on for many years.

We have learnt there will be no new South Yarra station. Metro rail has been sold to us as though we are getting the Paris Metro — that is, the benefit of this project is supposed to be accessibility across a large number of different destinations within a core area. However, that is not what the Melbourne Metro rail project is for. The purpose of Melbourne Metro rail is to add capacity to bring more suburban trains in and out of the city, so when we start asking questions about why South Yarra station is not part of the plan, the government says it will be too expensive. But what about the benefits of accessibility, rather than being able to access just a small number of stations in a small, concentrated CBD? If it is really about creating a Paris-style metro, then you want the maximum number of stations and the maximum coverage of what is now a broader activity centre, with much more employment around the CBD in addition to that which is in the CBD.

We will continue to pursue the rationale the government used to reject a new South Yarra station. The government tells us it will be acquiring properties there anyway, but there will not be the benefit of a new local station. Despite some efforts by various members, the information the government used to make that call has been kept hidden from the Parliament.

On signalling, which is a critical issue to get more trains running on our existing footprint of rail lines, we now learn it will take two years to complete the trial on the Sandringham line. At the same time as the government tells us 200 cities around the world are already introducing this technology, Victoria apparently has to dip a pinkie finger in the water and then see how it goes. The government has dumped a proposal for high-capacity signalling on the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines, where it is most critical. It is how we will get a major increase in capacity in the number of trains and the number of people on those trains being moved safely and quickly along the rail lines. At the moment our technology is basically 19th century — it is effectively traffic lights for trains — whereas with modern computing and communications technology we can give a major boost to our train system, but the government has deferred that for at least another two years.

On regional development we asked the minister what plans she had to address particular problems with unemployment and the nature of change occurring in certain areas and certain industries. We asked the minister whether any money in her funds would be available to assist the workers who will be retrenched at the Anglesea power plant. The minister said:

Specifically on the question of the community of Anglesea in response to the recent decision in relation to Alcoa, there is nothing on that list of election commitments that responds to that, obviously, because one happened before the other.

In other words, the closure was announced after the election, and the minister is only delivering on election promises she made prior to the election. The government never saw it coming. This Parliament came together and voted to extend the life of the Anglesea coalmine for another 100 years, yet — surprise, surprise! — within just a few short years the company announced the closure. Depending on which side of the ledger you sit, you can see that as a positive or a negative. We could call it much more of a positive if the government had a plan in place.

The Greens understood that the closure of this mine and other mines like it was inevitable, because a series of policies had been put in place over many years. Many of those policies involved the Greens and the Labor Party voting together, including the carbon price, the Victorian energy efficiency target and the renewable energy target.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — They were good initiatives. It was absolutely 100 per cent predictable that they would put more green power into the grid and that over time coal-fired power would be reduced, but the Minister for Regional Development says, 'We didn't see that coming'. When we asked what funds were available to assist the workers in this region, she said that they were funding the Geelong Performing Arts Centre. The Geelong Performing Arts Centre is staging Miss Saigon shortly, but I am 100 per cent sure that workers from the Anglesea coalmine do not really expect to get jobs as stagehands on Miss Saigon. That is why Ms Tierney, the local member, who I believe is sincerely dedicated to the welfare of workers in that area, had to come into this chamber last night and plead with her own government to come up with something for those workers. The workers knew it was coming, Alcoa knew it was coming, the Greens knew it was coming, but the government had no plan.

Those workers are covered by the Australian Workers Union. God help them! With Mr Melhem as their representative throughout the time we had the debate in this chamber about the future of the Anglesea power station, it is no wonder those workers have been left to their own devices.

We need to do better. There is going to be an accelerating rate of change in the energy industry, and workers who have developed skills working in and around energy generation and transmission can, with a bit of assistance, be retrained for work in those new industries. In fact it takes very little retraining to move as an electrical engineer from coal-fired power to wind-generated power. With a bit of training around working at heights, you could effectively leave a coal-fired power station one day and go to work on a wind farm the next.

We asked the Minister for Energy and Resources twice whether she had a greenhouse gas production goal target, and twice she refused to answer. She informed us that there is money for solar panels for Woodend and Newstead — and good on them for moving forward as renewable energy communities — but beyond that, there is no plan for energy market reform. We have been told there is ongoing consultation. When the government wants to deliver a promise like selling the port, it gets on with it in record time. When the government is not in any real hurry to deliver a promise, it consults the community. These wideranging consultations take a very long time and involve everybody, and in the meantime we get crumbs from the table.

[Speech was interrupted. Click here to view the full debate.]

Mr BARBER — It is a clear pattern, Mr Mulino. We all agree with consultation, but we are not getting any consultation about the sale of the port of Melbourne; we are getting fast-tracked. On renewable energy, this government came to the election with no other plan than the promise that it would develop a plan. Government members are quite happy to spend the next four years in workshops and talking to people about what they think.

When asked to rule out clean coal as part of the government's so-called New Energy Fund, the minister chose not to. She said that renewables would be the focus of the fund, but she never specifically took the opportunity to say that renewables would be the only form of new energy. As we know, there is already quite a bit of money being thrown at the dream of clean coal.

Some of my other Green colleagues will address their own portfolio areas and what this budget does or does not do for those areas. Unfortunately the government went to the election with a strictly limited set of promises. We know the government is a highly divided family, and having a small group of promises does not really require its members to have any of the big internal fights it needs to have for things like setting an actual greenhouse gas reduction goal; there is another review allocated to that. When you ask government members what is in the budget to address a whole range of pressing crises, you suddenly come to realise that all they have really done is cross their fingers. They are hoping those issues do not bear down on them too soon so that they can get on and deliver the bits of the budget that they promised and get out there and sell it. That is no way to proceed.

Across a whole range of areas that I have discussed, from education to transport to climate to land management itself, the problems keep mounting up. The public is living with those problems every day, and this government simply turns its head.