Matters Of Public Importance - Budget 2020
"The budget has invested in not just creating jobs but also tackling our biggest challenges."
Dr READ (Brunswick): I am happy today to contribute on behalf of the Victorian Greens to the matter of public importance debate regarding the government’s strategy for the recovery of the economy in the wake of yesterday’s budget.
The Greens welcome most of the government’s announcements yesterday. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given most of the headline items—social housing, a Big Battery, energy efficiency upgrades, environmental restoration, jobs in the caring economy—are all policies that the times call for. In fact the Greens like these policies so much we took many of them to the 2018 election, and we have spent much time in the last nine months advocating for some of them as part of a Green New Deal. In fact it is not original; these are things that have been pushed around the world. The idea or the concept of this kind of budget has been promoted as a way of not just creating jobs but tackling some of the big problems that the world faces—rising inequality and climate change, just to pick two of the biggest examples.
These are important because right now unemployment levels are tipped to peak this quarter at above 8 per cent, but that obscures the impacts that certain industries and groups have based with this pandemic. The hospitality industry, arts and creative industries and service industries have been devastated, and while women, younger Victorians and part-time and insecure workers have disproportionately lost jobs, this budget addresses a good deal of this. But the budget and the road to recovery outlined also reflect the merit of borrowing to fund major infrastructure projects when needed. With interest rates this low the government is right to provide targeted stimulus to arrest joblessness. Up until now there has been no greater failure in social policy from this Labor government than in providing public housing for the most vulnerable, and now with more than 100 000 people, many of them children, on the public housing waiting list this investment could not have come at a better time.
The Greens have long called for a big public housing building program to end homelessness, to cut the public housing waiting list and to create jobs, and we are relieved that the government has finally prioritised this issue. We are concerned that the waiting list could grow faster than these new homes are built; however, the emphasis on rapidly building them is reassuring. But relying on the private sector to build so many of them is a risk, so this must be part of the start of a long-term commitment from the government to this issue, remembering that every dollar invested in public housing will repay itself several times over in the coming decades.
However, we have a long way to go. The University of Melbourne estimated a couple of years ago that Victoria had a shortfall of 164 000 houses in terms of social and affordable housing, so after this building program, that will bring Victoria up to about 3.5 per cent of all homes in public ownership compared to the national average of 4.2 per cent or the OECD average of 6 per cent. Again, we have got a long way to go. The other point that we are concerned about and that is important to raise is the government is moving away from public ownership and management of housing, particularly management, by having more community rather than public housing. However, we are very encouraged by the fact that a significant number of these houses will be reserved for the mentally ill. This is critically important because one of the key risk factors for readmission after discharge from psychiatric wards is in fact homelessness.
This budget has also revealed something even more amazing than the size of the deficit. Prisoner numbers have fallen significantly, by over 10 per cent, this year in the first time for many decades, and more incredible in fact is that imprisonment of women has fallen by 25 per cent in a single year. So we need to ask the question now: how can a quarter of women prisoners be free now compared to last year? Could it be that this government has up until now pursued law and order policies that lock people up for reasons relating to their disadvantage, their vulnerability and homelessness, characteristics that are often more strongly associated with women prisoners? Could it be that in providing temporary accommodation and support due to COVID, the government has effectively prevented crime and offending? And why then are we told that we need to continue to increase prison capacity to keep us safe? Have we experienced a wave of lawlessness when our prisons have effectively been empty?
While $5.3 billion in public housing may be an unprecedented spend, it actually represents less than the additional funding provided for running and expanding prisons over the period of this Labor government. So something amazing has happened, but we are not seeing any recognition yet, officially, from the government. Now the budget papers appear to be targeting a quick bounce in terms of refilling our prisons back to pre-COVID levels by next year, it would be a tragedy if we were to refill our prisons with vulnerable women. The budget showed for the first time in memory that we were able to operate our prisons with a small financial surplus in the last year, and if we are really going to continue to fund social housing, mental health and employment at unprecedented levels, the previously allocated billions of dollars for bigger prisons may no longer be needed.
Also important is the continuing investment in this budget in railways, and that makes sense given that traffic congestion has already returned in the last few days. Nevertheless, this still leaves many outer suburbs with little or no public transport, and as recently pointed out by the Minister for Public Transport and Minister for Roads and Road Safety, investment in buses gives you the best return for dollar invested of any public transport investment. There was very little in the budget for buses, and I want to single out in particular the 505 bus serving Parkville Gardens, which is an area that is unique, this former Commonwealth Games village, for being so close to the CBD and yet so poorly served by public transport. I want to make a particular plug here—while this blowfly has somehow managed to get into the Legislative Assembly—for the 505 bus because one bus an hour to this area, stuck in a traffic jam as it is, is insufficient.
However, there was some money set aside for buses, specifically for electric buses, and that is really encouraging because while Wellington has about 100 and China has about 500 000, so far Melbourne has one electric bus. It is good to see some investment in electric buses, which can be made in Victoria. However, things are not all great on electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are worth investing in, and indeed when someone switches from a petrol or diesel vehicle to an electric vehicle they actually save the government money in terms of reduced air pollution, reduced health expenditure and reduced emissions, so introducing a per-kilometre tax on electric vehicles may indeed cost us money depending on how much that discourages the uptake of electric vehicles. They are well below 1 per cent of new vehicle purchases at the moment in Australia, and we need to reverse that. Because the transport sector is the sector of the economy with the greatest increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the best way to address that is to move people on to public transport, move people on to active transport and move people who still need to use cars on to electric vehicles. Rather than penalising that, we should be encouraging it. When we know we are going to have cars for a long time, we cannot get rid of them all but we can get them onto electric. Soon it is going to happen, but penalising it right now is the wrong thing to do.
I do note with approval in the budget the almost $800 million to be spent on household energy efficiency. Household energy efficiency is kind of like a hidden power station in terms of the reduction in energy demand from the grid that it can yield. In addition to that, the government is going to be sourcing an additional 600 megawatts of renewable energy from wind and solar. It is investing in a 450-megawatt-hour battery to go somewhere near Geelong and a new transmission line to connect Victoria to New South Wales and bring down a lot of renewable energy from the New South Wales government’s big investment in renewables.
We are well on the way to more than 50 per cent renewables by 2030, and this highlights the real challenge now facing Victoria and indeed the rest of Australia, which is to take active steps to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. The investment in household energy efficiency will go some of the way to reducing household gas consumption, but the onus really now is on the government to start actively reducing the use of gas in Victoria, encouraging people to switch to electric heating rather than gas, and to heat pumps. Nevertheless, the budget has invested in not just creating jobs but also tackling our biggest challenges.
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