I rise to take note of the 2017–18 budget papers. It is a budget that puts in black and white the Premier’s broken election commitment that he would not increase taxes or charges for Victorians, a budget that will see Victorians pay more for new cars and more for the fire services property levy and see families slugged with stamp duty when they transfer property between spouses. We have seen land tax go up by 35 per cent — or $615 million — since the election. Stamp duty is up $1.7 billion, or 39.4 per cent. We have seen the fire services property levy go up by 11 per cent, the growth areas infrastructure contribution go up by 127 per cent and the duty on vehicle registrations and transfers go up by $210 million, or nearly 30 per cent, since the election.
This budget neglects to really take advantage of the opportunity regional Victoria presents not only to help ease population pressure but also to help bolster the state’s economy. The regions have the opportunity for growth in all sorts of areas. We have affordable housing, we have cheap industrial land for manufacturing and we have space and livability. What we do not have, though, is a government that is visionary and that backs the economic prosperity that is on our doorstep now that the demand for protein across the world is coming into its own and being realised. Instead we have a government that raises taxes and puts impediments in front of businesses like unaffordable and unreliable power. Before producers and manufacturers can even export product they are hamstrung by their own state government’s imposed costs, regulatory burdens, bureaucracy and inefficiencies, making them less competitive internationally.
One glaringly obvious opportunity missed by this government is agriculture. If this sector is embraced with good policy, not only will the regions benefit but the whole state will grow. All that is needed is a government with the vision to have rail, roads and power infrastructure optimised to ensure that all the other natural livability factors are attractive. That is where this government and this budget are deficient. With good infrastructure, jobs will grow and the regions will prosper, but this budget as a whole does little to recognise that. It fails to address infrastructure issues and introduces taxes rather than providing any real incentives. It fails to set up any real plan for population growth and fails to provide any real support to growing industries like agriculture. In 2015–16 the gross value of food and fibre production in Victoria was $11.9 billion, with over 25 per cent of the nation’s farms being here in Victoria. Revenue from the Victorian agricultural sector is two and a half times greater than the total revenue of the whole Tasmanian government. This is a huge industry that you would think deserves some major backing from government.
When the Port of Melbourne was leased we on this side of the house worked hard to ensure there was a decent amount of money put aside for regional projects — after all, agricultural products are one of the major exports from the port and increasing world demand for clean and green Australian produce helped drive up that lease price. For the past year, regional Victorians have sat and waited to see how the government planned to spend the nearly $1 billion that was set aside. We hoped the government would keep its promise and spend the money on creating efficient transport networks to get goods to market more quickly and programs to help the industries to grow and become more efficient and profitable. The possibilities were endless, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed by this budget. So when the budget was handed down, you can imagine my anger when it was revealed how this money was going to be spent. The majority of the cash will be spent on programs that will have little or no benefit for the regions, and very little of it will be spent in my electorate or indeed the western half of the state, arguably one of the state’s richest agricultural areas and certainly the biggest dairy-producing area in this whole country.
The dairy industry is the biggest exporter out of the Port of Melbourne. Victoria produces 6.4 billion litres of milk every year from 1.3 million cows. There are more dairy cows in Victoria than there are people in Adelaide. Victoria is Australia’s biggest dairy-producing state, accounting for almost two-thirds of all national dairy production. The dairy industry is worth almost $1.5 billion annually to the Victorian economy. Despite the enormous scale of this industry’s contribution, the majority being generated in the south-west, not a single dollar from the lease of the port will flow back to dairy. This government is ignorant to the opportunity and is taking the wrong view on the dairy industry. The industry might be going through a tough time, which every agricultural sector does, but the market is strong, the demand is high and the future possibilities are good if we get the policy signals right.
If we cannot produce food competitively as a nation, something is very wrong, and it is this government’s lack of policy and lack of understanding that is standing in the way of optimising the boom that food will become. The mining boom is over and the food rush is here. South-west Victoria is set up perfectly, along with the rest of Victoria, to be part of this scene. Sure, the port lease money will be used to build new trains and upgrade train lines, but not in my electorate. The most baffling line item, though, shows that the government plans to sink $288 million into periodic maintenance for the regional rail network and $12 million into sustaining the V/Line fleet — not a capital investment but maintenance.
Cash flow should be used for this, not new money, to cover the ongoing running costs of existing assets. They are programs that would have needed to be funded anyway. It is just bad business practice and a wasted opportunity to make a real difference to our state’s driving economic force.
The lease of the port of Melbourne was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to optimise Victoria’s agricultural sector, but this opportunity has been squandered. That money could have made a real difference, but instead it is being put into existing programs with the lion’s share being tipped into Melbourne. It is yet another example of this government not looking beyond the tram tracks and being able to see the enormous potential the regions have to offer.
Regional Victoria, particularly South-West Coast electorate, is the perfect place to do business. Industrial land is cheap, housing is affordable, and so attracting staff should be easy. We just need to market regional areas and show off what they have to offer. We need practical solutions. Companies like our abattoir, Midfield Meats, transport companies like Porthaul in Portland, and our vast agricultural sector are screaming out for staff to fill existing positions. This is where the government needs to work closely with the regions to find ways to support people to move to regional areas to live and work. The benefits are endless. We have good schools, quality tertiary education, good health care, a 5-minute commute, and the beach is a daily factor of life, not just a holiday treat. Why would you not want to be part of that?
Members opposite will be quick to point out their payroll tax concessions and first home owner grants for regional properties as policies supporting regional areas. But these policies alone, without the endgame in mind, will actually do very little, particularly given that the new charges and taxes outweigh the benefits. We have seen the fire services property levy increase by 11 per cent — and just watch what happens when the freeze is taken off in two years time, if that poorly constructed bill ever makes it to the Governor.
Do not get me started on the disgraceful way this government is beholden to the unions, with an uncosted enterprise bargaining agreement sitting on the table that is going to end up costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars. There is only one place that that can come from — that is, taxpayers pockets.
The amendment to the first home owner grant to increase the grant for new homes in regional Victoria could in principle provide incentives, but it is no silver bullet. Again it is not going to work unless it is part of a suite of policies aimed at developing the regions. If that policy sits in isolation, it will result in people moving from the city to the commuter belt, to areas like Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong. Are there enough jobs in these regions or will people have to commute into the city for work? Will the infrastructure cope or will we see more overcrowding on our public transport systems? Will the roads leading into the city be even more congested than they already are?
If we are serious about attracting people to live and work in regional areas, we need to make sure the infrastructure is in place to support them. There is no point doing one without the other. Are there enough schools and hospitals in these new growth areas to cater for the increasing demand? Would it not be smarter to attract people to South-West Coast where there is room in our schools and jobs available, rather than building five new schools and a new hospitals, which will have to be built in the western suburbs in the next five years?
Our roads are a real problem. They are falling apart. Even when they have been fixed the repair job only lasts a couple of weeks at best before they have to be done again. It is throwing good money after bad. Local councils are screaming out for assistance, highlighting roads that need to be fixed, but they are being largely ignored. The money allocated in the budget is mostly made up of federal funding and is for projects that have already been announced. Once again those on that side of the house are trying to hoodwink the people of South-West Coast into thinking that they are actually doing something.
I am pleased to see that the state government has finally stopped playing games and has submitted its plans for regional rail to the federal government. However, our train service is the slowest in the state. Ballarat passengers are complaining about punctuality being at 78 per cent. Warrnambool line punctuality has been as low at 12 per cent this year and is only now sitting at around 60 per cent — and that is with the goalpost being moved to include a new generous 11-minute safeguard. But even with that they still cannot run on time. It is now slower to take the train to Melbourne than it was in 1992. My husband was due to arrive at 4 o’clock today, but I have not heard from him yet. That is no surprise; it is probably 20 minutes late. That is normal. It is not before time that this government should listen to my concerns. I have been raising these concerns for some months in this place on behalf of the people of South-West Coast. Passengers on the Warrnambool line have had enough. They just want a comfortable and reliable train service that arrives on time.
It is disappointing there were no new details in the Premier’s media stunt during his first visit to Warrnambool in his role. The community could see straight through the stunt and were disgusted that he had no time to visit the special development school. But had an hour to have coffee by the beach, when the school only wanted 10 minutes of his time.
The lower payroll tax rates for regional areas could actually go some way to creating jobs, but that is just one step. As I mentioned earlier, these businesses need infrastructure to ensure that they can do business. They need good road and rail links to ensure they can get goods to market. They need a reliable and adequate power supply so they can operate their businesses efficiently. This is a major issue in my electorate now, where many farm businesses and other energy intensive industries do not have adequate power supply. These are existing businesses that are able to expand and employ more people, but they are being held back. I note there is a $90 million fund to modernise Victoria’s energy supply system in the budget, but there is no detail on what it will be spent on. This is especially important to the Portland community, but there is no detail and time is passing.
As I said before, money allocated to roads in my electorate in this budget is mostly for projects previously announced. They are partially funded by the commonwealth and they are not expected to be completed until June 2021. Prior to the 2014 election the Labor opposition promised to spend $1 billion to fix country roads, but we are still waiting and things are getting worse. This hurts productivity, with transport companies faced with increased repair costs for damage to axles, wheels and suspension. There are also losses associated with damaged stock being bounced around as trucks, vans and cars navigate the bumpy, cracked and warped road surfaces.
Bridges still have not been tested, meaning that trucks have to go miles out of their way. This government is reducing speeds instead of fixing roads, which will also decrease productivity — in fact it sends businesses broke by raising costs because it takes longer to get product to market. These costs then get pushed back to producers and manufacturers, making goods produced less internationally competitive.
It was disappointing to see no mention of the Warrnambool Special Developmental School in the budget. I fail to believe that this government can prioritise a school by buying land and then three years later not do what they promised — that is, build a school. They delivered the budget saying it was about people. How can they say that when they ignore a school for children with disabilities, a school which has areas that cannot be accessed by children in wheelchairs, and fundamental areas for education like the library. Since the budget was handed down the school has been told they did not receive funding because they are not shovel ready. What rubbish! How many projects in this state have been fully funded without being shovel ready? I can list many off the top of my head. It is a classic move from a government that did not want any noise being made, and a way to silence any criticism that hurts the message. The Minister for Education has had two meetings and said he would look at immediate steps to address the school’s key concerns around overcrowding and staff facilities. Last week the Warrnambool Standard reported that these measures will not be in place until the beginning of next year. That is hardly immediate.
It was also disappointing that the Premier could not find time to visit the school during his visit to Warrnambool last month. Rather than tackle the tough issues facing our region, he instead opted to talk about previously announced projects and opened a building that has been operational since February, a building that was funded by the previous Liberal government.
The people of Warrnambool and Port Fairy deserve better than to wait two and a half years for the Premier to just fly in, have his photo taken and fly home again. Our roads are our primary connection to the rest of the state. What a shame the Premier did not see fit to experience how bad they actually are for himself, which the community has been crying out for him to do.
The Great South Coast Food and Fibre Council’s work has paid off, with funding for the plan secured. Well done to Georgina Gubbins, Basil Ryan and the team for their exceptional work and advocacy. But there is a lack of information around this too. It is to be funded from a general pool of money for regional partnerships, but there is no further breakdown. I have asked the minister to clarify this, but her response gave zero indication of how much money would be forthcoming, or when. This budget is writing into law the Premier’s broken promises. ‘No new taxes and no new charges’ is what he told Victorians. These budget papers prove otherwise.
Those opposite are quick to talk up their support for rural and regional Victoria, but when you get beyond the tram tracks it soon becomes clear that it is all just smoke and mirrors, with only half the job being done and empty promises that have absolutely no funding behind them.