Second Reading: State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill 2020

I make this contribution to these bills during what is certainly a challenging and uncertain time for all Victorians.

In my own electorate, people who had jobs weeks ago are now without work. Businesses that remain open are dealing with a significant downturn in trade as the community is doing the right thing and staying at home to help stop the spread of this virus.

These bills, put simply, allow the government to keep functioning and make sure our nurses, paramedics and police and every other emergency service personnel continue to get paid while they are on the front line keeping us safe. They also put in place various taxation supports for communities impacted by the summer’s horrific bushfires.

Making sure our frontline workers are paid and ensuring our bushfire-impacted communities are looked after is not something I would ever stand in the way of—and neither would my colleagues, so that is why we are supporting these bills. These are extraordinary times, and in times like this we need to take extraordinary actions.

But that does not mean there should not be scrutiny. This bill is proposing to borrow $24 billion, tripling state debt, and will mean that for generations to come—long after we all leave this place—Victorians will be burdened with the consequences of this decision.

I agree that there needs to be some reasonable spending to deal with this crisis and to help kickstart the economy on the other side, but this is $24 billion, and there is absolutely no detail on how this money is going to be spent—none whatsoever. I am not sure that that is entirely plausible given the current environment we are in.

Victorians expect us to be responsible; they expect us to manage this state wisely and with care. They rightly want an explanation of what this money is going to be spent on—not just an arbitrary claim that it will be drawn upon to spend on what the government see fit.

The cynic in me immediately sees that the amount is almost identical to the cost blowouts on infrastructure programs in the city.

The fact is the economy of this state will be deeply damaged because of this virus, and it will need to be kickstarted again in some way to get people back in work and out of Centrelink offices.

We are facing huge levels of unemployment, and for many, the work will not be there when this is all over and the restrictions are lifted. Businesses will be looking to tighten their belts for their recovery and ongoing viability.

The community deserves an explanation as to what programs the government is going to invest this money in. Will it create jobs that those who find themselves without work will be able to fill? Will it be spent on projects not only in the city but in the rural and regional areas too—beyond Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo?

And it needs to be a genuine commitment. The $10 million promised for regional infrastructure projects following the lease of the port of Melbourne was spent on the regular maintenance of the rail fleet. My region is the biggest agricultural production area in the state and helped create the price achieved for the lease. We deserve a bit more than stock standard maintenance of trains, which actually need to be replaced because they have been in operation since the 1980s. Maybe some of this money could be used to finally replace this rolling stock, which is continually breaking down.

South West Healthcare, where the staff have been doing an amazing job under the leadership of CEO Craig Fraser, is still waiting for funding for the Warrnambool Base Hospital to complete the much-needed stage 2 redevelopment, which will expand the emergency department and operating theatres.

It has now been three years since money was allocated to do further planning for that redevelopment. Those plans are done; it is ready to go. But the government has been silent since. Meanwhile, the doctors and nurses are in cramped and outdated facilities, dealing with huge increases in patient numbers and admissions.

Perhaps some of this massive amount of borrowing could be used to get on and build that project and create constructions jobs in my electorate while working to improve healthcare facilities, because we now know more than ever just how valuable those facilities are.

I am sure Portland District Health would appreciate some funding as well to upgrade that facility, perhaps even an upgrade of its urgent care centre so it has emergency department status, something CEO Christine Giles is passionate about, because at the moment people in that community are being disadvantaged because of this bureaucratic decision.

In many instances the fact that the hospital has an urgent care centre and not an emergency department has forced patients to make a choice about receiving the appropriate care for their condition. One recent example is a stroke patient who had to be flown to Melbourne and now faces a huge ambulance bill.

It is all well and good to say they should have appropriate memberships to cover those costs, which is true, but the fact is that a lot of people do not have that cover and do not know the intricate details of hospital funding arrangements. They have presented to the hospital in good faith and are faced with one of the most appalling decisions. That hospital services a huge area that could be considered remote. Its classification and funding model must be addressed for the benefit of the whole community.

Putting my hat on as Shadow Minister for Rural Roads, this money could be used to fund a massive program of reconstruction and rehabilitation of rural and regional roads—a concerted effort, with crews working right across the state to deal with one of the major issues for rural and regional communities.

I continually hear from every corner of the state that the roads are rubbish and that a significant investment is needed to not just patch them up but to rebuild them properly—to modern standards, so they can deal with the increasing levels of traffic. This is also a recommendation of Infrastructure Victoria’s 30-year strategy, with a particular focus on regional highways and roads of importance.

Perhaps the money could be used to match the federal government’s commitments to the Princes Highway at both ends of the state, east and west—in the east to finish the job of duplication and in the west to start it and to make significant improvements—not only creating jobs but helping business move freight efficiently and in a more cost-effective manner.

Investment of this nature would also improve road safety. The government can argue until it is blue in the face that the condition of road surfaces is having no impact on the road toll, but it is part of the problem, along with drugs, alcohol and fatigue.

People are sick and tired of seeing wire rope barriers installed ahead of widening roads, repairing surfaces and strengthening shoulders. They are part of the solution, but they are not the only solution, and they have to work in conjunction with other measures.

Maybe some of this can be used to finally complete the Murray Basin rail project which, as we know, is in a complete mess and was the subject of a scathing Auditor-General’s report earlier this year.

That project must be completed and completed properly. Not only would it create construction jobs, it would open up Victoria’s agriculture sector and help drive an increase in productivity, which in turn would create jobs for that sector.

So while I support the passage of these bills, I do question borrowing $25 billion, without any clear indication of what that money is going to be spent on and no guarantee that it will benefit all Victorians, not just those who live in Melbourne.

We have seen this government short-change rural and regional Victoria continually. I do not want that to happen again, and my constituents see no benefits but will hold the huge burden this debt will create for generations to come.

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