Ellen’s Speech in Reply to the 2015-2016 State Budget

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — I thank the people of Melbourne and Victoria because, by electing Greens to this house, for the very first time they have given us not only an opportunity to respond to Labor’s first budget but also an opportunity to outline an alternative vision for this state. When Labor took office last November I welcomed the change of government. For too long we had seen a wholesale attack on our climate, our environment, our public services and our health and education services by the Liberal and The Nationals coalition government. That absolutely needed to stop. But a change of government is only good if it also signals a change of course.

This government has the opportunity to rewrite the future of this state to make Victoria a better and fairer place for everyone. Labor has taken the reins from a government that set the bar very low on the environment, on public services and on caring for the community, but it is not good enough just to get the bar back to the previous level by undoing some of the damage that has been done. The Andrews Labor government must meet a higher standard. It must show real ambition and vision for our state, and it must make the bold decisions that we need to create the sustainable future we all need and want. The people of Victoria demand this of the government. 

They demand more. They have made their expectations clear by electing a record seven Greens to this Parliament. With five representatives in the other place and two in this place for the very first time, there is absolutely no doubt now that Victorians believe that the values and principles championed by the Greens have a strong place here. I commend the government for delivering on many of the promises it made during the election campaign. But making a small of amount of promises and then delivering on them is not the mark of a bold, visionary government.

We must set a higher standard for ourselves. I am disappointed that this budget does not reach for greater things. It paints no bold vision of the future. It takes no courageous steps towards addressing most of the really important challenges we face. In effect the government has made itself a small target. It has delivered small, easily achievable initiatives in order to keep promises without making any real move to address the systemic and long-term problems of our state or attempting to build a truly sustainable economy. Unfortunately even many of the bigger tickets items are mostly smoke and mirrors, with funding off in the never-never to come sometime far into the future. It is an injection of enthusiasm perhaps, which is welcome, but we need more than that; we need an injection of real support.

 We must hold governments to higher standards than this. It would be a pretty sad state of affairs if we measured the greatness of governments against a checklist of promises, no matter how minimal, rather than against the depth of their response to society’s greatest needs and their courage both in the face of opportunity and in the face of risk. We must measure them by the ambition of their plans to lead the community towards its absolute greatest potential. We must measure the greatness of governments against the actions they take to address the challenges we face now, but also the challenges that are coming down the line.

We must ask ourselves what our governments are doing to meet the needs of a growing city under pressure. What are they doing to ensure that every Victorian has access to the essential services they need? What are they doing to address the housing affordability crisis and the chronic shortage of public housing? And perhaps most importantly, what are they doing to address the fundamental and indeed existential threat of climate change? Most seriously and something very dear to my heart is that I feel that this government has failed its first test on climate change. It made virtually no promises before the election, so it has been able to live up to them. It is consistent with the government’s ongoing lack of leadership on this issue; it has delivered very little of substance. Yes, it may have delivered $12 million for our poorly defined package of disparate projects, which is not just disappointing but actually quite dangerously irresponsible. Yes, there is some money for new energy projects, but it is unclear what the money is for.

There is money for clean coal, there is money to pay the mining industry to better consult with the community and there is $30 million to clean up the mess of the Hazelwood mine fire, despite the fact that all of these costs should be borne by the mining and coal companies that created the problems in the first place, not by Victorian taxpayers. And once again there is no money to replace our dirtiest coal power stations — Hazelwood, Anglesea and the rest of them.

Climate change is indeed the single greatest moral, ethical and in fact practical challenge of this day and age. Any attempts our country was making towards meaningful action have been maliciously derailed by a calculated ideological crusade carried out by the current federal Abbott government, ably aided and abetted, I might say, by the Baillieu-Napthine governments. Australia has been internationally censured in the strongest term for its national failure to act on climate change. In the lead-up to the Paris negotiations, the global community is turning up the heat. We know that Victoria could be different. We could show that in this state at least we are taking climate change seriously and we are doing our fair share. Lack of leadership and an anti-environment agenda at the federal level make the case even more compelling for bold action at the state level.

We must lead the way on emissions reduction, on investment in renewable energy and on ending our horrible addiction to fossil fuels. It means replacing our dirtiest power stations and creating strong regulation that forces outdated degraded coal assets to close in the short term. It means ruling out once and for all the idea of exporting brown coal or expanding coalmines, which is something that the Labor Party has not yet committed to. It means a permanent ban on coal seam gas and unconventional gas, which is another thing the Labor Party refuses to do. We have never ever had a better time to act, and this is the opportunity. The national grid has a surplus of energy — it is oversupplied. Energy consumption is dropping while electricity and gas prices are set to rise, but renewable technology is rapidly developing and the costs are coming down, so we need immediate steps to phase out our dirtiest power stations. We must also come up with government-supported transitions for the communities affected by the closure of coal-fired power stations.

 There is a clear choice to be made: either the government can decide on having a proactive, well-planned, properly resourced transition to clean energy that will empower local communities, or take the other option, which is business as usual, where we shut our eyes, block our ears, hope climate change will go away and hope the coal industry will last forever, which will be followed by an inevitable point of crisis. When a multinational corporation decides to pull the plug on an unprofitable asset, the community will be left in limbo without any support. I am disappointed that there is no allocation in this budget specifically to support the development of a transition plan for the Latrobe Valley.

I ask the government to strongly consider allocating money from the Regional Jobs and Infrastructure Fund, to create this transition plan in partnership with the local community and to commit to closing Hazelwood power station, as it promised to do in 2010. In this budget the government has funded the recommendations of the Hazelwood mine fire inquiry and recognises the scale of the disaster that took place in 2014 and the failure of the government of the time to respond adequately.

 This funding provides the community with some relief after the horrible nature of the things its members have been through. However, the fact that this budget has to dedicate so much money to recommendations designed to avoid a repeat of this industrial catastrophe makes it clearer than ever that we must end our dependence on coal-fired power. Hazelwood must close. The transition to renewable energy must begin now. Mr Battin — Acting Speaker, I draw your attention to the state of the house. Quorum formed. Ms SANDELL — Before I was interrupted I was talking about the need to transition away from coal and towards renewable energy.

 The government’s prioritising of investment in coal is wrong, and we must do better. It is true that deep cuts to emissions will require a big effort on the part of the government, but I reckon we are up to the challenges. Big changes can bring big opportunities to many communities across Victoria. Make no mistake: the transition is not going to be easy, but it is necessary and can create incredible opportunities. It is accepted wisdom in the community and among experts that renewable energy is the way of the future. The government has the opportunity to catalyse immense growth in our renewable energy industry and position our state as a leader in the field. When national and global economies are powered by renewable energy, don’t we want to be out in front?

We want to be the ones with decades of experience in top-class manufacturing expertise in infrastructure and renewable energy right here in Victoria. I commend the government’s announcement in this budget of $20 million for the wind industry, for renewable energy projects at Newstead and Woodend and for a new jobs fund. Some of that money may be spent on renewables, but I am left to wonder why this is all I can applaud the government for on renewable energy in this budget when it is such a huge challenge? We must seriously transform our energy generation. It requires big investment and systematic reform, and unfortunately very little of this is forthcoming in this budget. Labor asks us to trust it and to expect more in future budgets.

That is fine, but I worry that tinkering around the edges will not protect us from the worst impacts of climate change. What does that say about Labor’s priorities that the Treasurer did not even mention climate change once in his speech. This is not a small niche issue that can wait for years and years for some action down the line. The science is clear; this is an emergency. I will move on from climate change to talk about our most important natural resource, our environment. We depend on a healthy environment for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, where we go to work and where we go to play, yet our natural environment has been treated by successive governments as worthless, sold for the lowest price and given away free to huge corporations to turn into private profit, pillaged in the name of short-term gain. The consequences for our health have been completely ignored.

Ignorance is no longer a credible excuse. For more than 40 years we have had a huge body of scientific expertise telling us the way we are living is simply not sustainable, yet the single biggest achievement of the previous Nationals-Liberal government — almost the only promise its members made and actually delivered — was to wind back years of hard-fought-for environmental protection in Victoria. In this budget I am pleased to see funding for improvement to riparian land, especially funding restored to help manage our national parks.

 Thankfully some of the destruction wreaked by the previous government is finally starting to be undone, but simply bringing our environmental protection back to just square one is not enough. If we do not do more, our natural environment will continue the downward spiral. A case in point is the Leadbeater’s possum, our state’s faunal emblem, which is now critically endangered. Species like the Leadbeater’s possum would be much more likely to survive if we created the Great Forest National Park. Logging our native forests currently costs Victorians taxpayers money, which has never made sense to me, so it is simply a no-brainer to create the Great Forest National Park to bring tourism dollars to the Central Highlands and protect our biggest and oldest trees and the Leadbeater’s possum.

 I want to see our country looking after our natural spaces, not selling them off for private profit. This brings me to transport. The Greens have always known that to keep our communities livable we need sustainable, active and public transport. Melburnians are sick of congestion and long commutes on gridlocked freeways, but what is more we know from expertise around the world that building more roads simply does not solve this problem, as much as we wish it would. More Melburnians than ever are using public transport to go home, to get to work, to get to school or just to get out and about. Our public transport network is part of the very fibre of Melbourne, and we are proud of it because it makes our city so livable. It is a wonderful asset, but the system has a pretty long way to go until we can confidently call it a world-class system.

 I congratulate the government on its decision to fund the Melbourne Metro rail project, as it first promised to do in 2008. The new train stations and rail tunnel will be great assets to the city and will help more people get where they need to go faster. I only wish it had been started when it was first promised and that it was not still three years away, without the money to back it up. The government’s investment in this budget for public transport has been lauded, but we really need to look at the numbers to get to the truth of it.

 The reality is that patronage of public transport is increasing at a greater rate than capacity, even with the funds committed in this budget. The unfortunate fact is that, although the government is investing some money in public transport, which is a big improvement on the last mob, it is not enough to keep up with growing demand. We cannot just applaud the government for investing something because we are coming from such a low base; that is not the mark of a good government. The mark is whether we are we investing enough to meet demand. Why just order 10 trams to be delivered in this parliamentary term when we know that many tram routes are already at 150 per cent of capacity? We need many more trams. I am glad that 24-hour public transport is coming to Melbourne, even if only for a trial on weekends.

 The new train carriages are a welcome addition, especially for our manufacturing sector, which Labor claims to care so much about. However, unfortunately they are the bare minimum of what is required to open the regional rail link. That is what the experts are saying — that is, that it will still be standing room on day one. Where is the bigger vision here? Where is the vision for Doncaster rail? Where is the vision for Rowville rail? Where is the vision for high-speed rail or airport rail? It is not enough just to add 10 trams and a few train carriages and hope that will mop up the excess capacity. Why do we not at least try to bring us up to the standard of European, Japanese and Canadian cities, which have high-speed rail and a proper public transport network? I also speak for many people in my electorate of Melbourne who have contacted me to express how disappointed they are that there is no substantial investment for bikes in this budget.

The government is simply missing a wonderful opportunity to make Melbourne a world-class cycling city and to keep Melbourne’s thousands of cyclists safe. With this budget, I am pleased to see that the public service can start to recover from the vicious cuts that were made under the coalition. What we need now is for this repair to actually turn into proper reform. We are in an affordable housing crisis. We consistently rank down the bottom of international housing affordability rankings. People on Newstart, which Labor so often talks about, are pretty much unable to afford rent anywhere in our great city.

Making sure that people have a safe place to live, somewhere to shelter, is one of the base principles that government should be required to cover. I want to share one success story from this budget with the house — something that I have been proud to be involved in. Earlier this year I was contacted by the Housing for the Aged Action Group. It provides services for older people who are at risk of homelessness or who are homeless. Its key program, Home at Last, is prevention; in fact it is early intervention so that people do not become homeless. After several audits and reviews it was found to be very good bang for the buck. It had been a very effective program, but it was about to lose all its funding earlier this year.

The Housing for the Aged Action Group was unable to even get a meeting with the Labor Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing. I was pleased to be able to support this group through raising the issue in the media, advocating to the minister, and helping with its public campaign. I was extremely pleased to see that this government has reinstated its funding, and I am proud of my part in that. Mr Nardella interjected. Ms SANDELL — The member for Melton should take a compliment. It is a great thing that these projects have been funded. The government has also funded similar programs in innovation action projects — projects which are about early intervention. This is the kind of thing we need — preventive measures.

They are often ignored or underresourced. Perhaps they are not as sexy as some other measures, but I think they are great things to fund. They are the most effective. But I hope this signals more investment in affordable housing for the future, because for now this budget does very little on public housing. In fact Victoria has the lowest investment per head of public housing of any state in the entire country, and that is not something to be proud of. Where is the big investment in public housing stock that we need to reduce that waiting list from 34 000 people down to something that is a lot more reasonable?

 Where are the bold funding decisions by government to strengthen support services, expand emergency housing, and make housing more affordable across the board? Our public housing system is broken, and I will be working tirelessly over the next three years to make sure this government does something to fix it. On education, this government is out there saying it wants to make Victoria the education state. That is great, but unfortunately the budget does not quite live up to the rhetoric. Mr Nardella — Doesn’t it? Ms SANDELL — I think everyone would agree that everyone should be able to send their kids to school, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. What does the member for Melton think? Does he agree? Everyone should be able to send their kids to school, whether they are rich or poor, but the Labor government has just made this harder and hoodwinked the public, and the Liberal-Nationals coalition is in cahoots with it.

 In the first few sitting weeks of this government Labor introduced and passed a bill that means every time we invest $100 in public education, by law, Victoria must invest $25 in private schools, regardless of whether they need the money or not. It is a disgrace. It completely flies in the face of the Gonski reforms, which were supposed to fund schools based on need, regardless of whether they were public, private or Catholic. Surely we can all agree as a base principle that we should fund schools based on need. That is a fundamental principle that I would have thought we would have all been able to agree to, but instead the government has caved in to the private school lobby and guaranteed it a high level of public funding, regardless of whether it needs it or not. This results in less funds available for our public education system.

 To add insult to injury, Labor has refused to promise funds for the final two years of the Gonski arrangements. To the Labor government, I say, you are backing away from Gonski; have the guts to stand up and just say it. It wants to be seen as the education government, but instead it is simply lying to the Victorian people. We will do everything we can to expose that and get our education budget back on track. Only the Greens were principled enough to stand up against this terrible policy. This so-called education budget even falls short of some of the specifics. I ask the government: why has it delivered a mere 10 per cent of the $10 million promised to the community during the election campaign to upgrade Carlton Primary School and build a Richmond high school?

It did not even take six months for Labor to abandon schools in the inner city. It is no wonder people are voting for the Greens. There is only $1 million over the forward estimates — it is a disgrace. This government also ran strongly in the election campaign on TAFE, which had $1.2 billion slashed from it by the Liberal-Nationals government. However, Labor only put back less than a third of that. If we want to be seen as being good on TAFE, we actually need to deliver. On social services, of course it is good news that the government is finally focusing on family violence, although services are still stretched and need more resources.

 On health we need to move away from a single focus on hospital beds and focus on prevention and community health to keep people healthy and out of hospital. My colleagues will cover these and other matters in further speeches, but I would say that unfortunately this budget does not stray away from the traditional Labor and Liberal policy of funding projects based on marginal electorates rather than need. We really need to move away from this practice. I note that the member for Bentleigh got up and said that Labor has delivered all the promises to people in his marginal seat of Bentleigh, but we are not all lucky enough to live in Bentleigh.

We should fund projects in health, education and recreation based on need rather than on whether you are lucky enough to live in a marginal seat. In conclusion I congratulate this government on delivering on some of its promises, but I ask it to dream bigger, think larger and have a stronger ambition for this state. We could be the state that has a world-class public transport system — one that you could actually rely on to get you to work in the morning and home at night. We could be like Hong Kong or Berlin. We could be the state with a connected network of bike paths that are safe to ride around our cities, just like in Copenhagen.

We could be the state that powers itself 100 per cent with renewable energy, like Hawaii or Vancouver. We could be the state that eliminates homelessness completely, like Utah, and invests in affordable housing. All of these aims are very possible. Other places have done them — — Mr Nardella — What would you cut? Ms SANDELL — I would cut the fossil fuel subsidies for a start. All of these aims are very possible. Other places have done them and we can too, but it will require a lot more vision and leadership than this budget provides. That is why the Greens are in here — to hold the government to a higher standard.

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