Tim Holding – 2012 Budget Reply

Posted on 03. May, 2012 in News

Mr Speaker, I never thought I would accuse the Treasurer of being a student of Marx.

And while I would never suggest that there are many followers of Karl Marx opposite, there are more than a few that do a pretty good impression of Groucho, who said:

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”.

This budget would make Groucho proud. And that’s on top of the uncanny resemblance to the ever-silent Harpo that has become the Treasurer’s stock in trade in the lead up to budgets.

Certainly the Treasurer is pretty good at looking for trouble. He’s now spent 17 months blaming everyone and everything for Victoria’s economic woes. If it’s not the former Government, the Federal Government, the carbon tax, the GFC, the Euro-debt crisis, Japan’s earthquake or the high Australian dollar – it’s the Reserve Bank that is playing the role of villain in the pantomime that has become Victoria’s fiscal strategy.

If imitation is flattery, Groucho would be touched to see how the Treasurer has gone about incorrectly diagnosing the State’s problems. Victorians are supposed to believe that the Treasurer was right last year when his budget denied there was a jobs crisis and contained no measures to stimulate economic growth and generate jobs. Victorians remember – his entire budget speech and the word ‘jobs’ was not uttered once. Victorians are now paying the price for that arrogant miscalculation.

And as for applying the wrong remedies, Victorians might have been better off with Harpo’s whistling and horn-blowing than the directionless drivel offered up in Tuesday’s budget.

The sad truth is that this Government was told last year that for our State to thrive we needed a plan to create jobs. But the Baillieu Government knew better – and instead invested its energy in trying to trash the economic legacy of the former Government.

Victorian families are now bearing the cost of that choice.

We’ve all heard the now notorious story of the Premier being asked at a boardroom lunch about his vision. He’s said to have got out of his chair, walked to the window, looked into the distance and declared “I can see my house from here”.

The Premier may hate being asked “the question” but Victorians don’t need stand-up, they need a statesman.

Our State needs a vision comparable with the journey that we’ve been on, and commensurate with the challenges we now face.

Victoria has led the nation for decades. We’ve come up with the big ideas for reform of our federation. We’ve driven the National Reform Agenda. We’ve run Australia’s best health system. We led the nation for jobs creation. We pioneered to create the world’s safest roads. We’ve staged the best sporting events. We’ve led culturally and creatively. Our regions thrived, even in the face of drought, floods and fire. And Melbourne became the world’s most liveable city. We’ve created a thriving and diverse community – the most multicultural in the world.

This legacy was not the creation of one government, or even one political party. We’ve had continuity with successive governments building on the strengths of those that came before. Victoria has set the benchmark for the rest of Australia. But setting the benchmark demands an ambitious government. A government that looks forward to make things better, rather than one that looks back to find something to blame.

Victorians have always had to peddle faster. Not blessed with abundant natural resources, Victorians can never afford to be complacent. But now our vital signs are showing the strain.

The Government’s own budget reveals that economic growth has fallen from a healthy 3 per cent to 1.5 per cent this year.

In 2009, in the middle of the global financial crisis, 92 per cent of the full time jobs created in Australia were generated right here in Victoria. Last year, the Treasurer promised us 55,000 jobs a year. Instead we are losing 900 a week. And the Government’s own budget reveals that employment growth is now forecast at 0.00 per cent. Yesterday, with only two months to go, the Treasurer wouldn’t even guarantee reaching that.

Unemployment is now at 5.8 per cent, higher than any state in mainland Australia. While the Government tells Victorians that they’ve got their backs on jobs, if you look at the budget, the Government actually expects to fail. Its ‘investments facilitated’ performance measure reveals its target – to facilitate only half the investment achieved during Labor’s last year in office. That’s right Mr Speaker, it’s not just that they’re expecting to fail, they’ve actually stopped trying.

The outlook for Victoria’s regions is sadly even worse. For all the Deputy Premier’s bleatings, the Government aims, that’s right it actually aspires, to facilitate fewer jobs in regional Victoria than in each of the last two years. As the Deputy Premier loves to boast Victorians “have never seen anything like it”.

In our last budget, Victoria’s population was growing at 2.2 per cent, the highest rate since at least 1971. Now, our population growth is slowing.

In the 11 years that Labor was in office an average of $581 million each year was invested in health building projects. This Government’s own budget reveals that it will spend $100 million less over 4 years than we spent on average each and every year.

While the Treasurer spruiks training as the key to productivity, this budget boasts the single largest cut to the TAFE sector in the State’s history. The Victorian TAFE Association estimates that $100 million will be lost to the system every year because of the choice this Government has made.

And today Victorians are confronted with the astonishing revelation that the Minister for Higher Education, the Honourable Peter Hall, appears to have contemplated resignation as a consequence of these changes. But now he expects us to believe that he thinks that these changes will make Victoria’s TAFE sector “the strongest in the country”. That’s right, he expects us to believe he contemplated giving it away, because he was making the system the strongest in the country. They must take Victorians for fools.

Peter Hall is actually the canary in the mine. His first letter speaks for itself. He had the courage to call it, but not the courage to stand his ground.

Instead of telling Victorians that our State can be even better and delivering a budget that is a pathway to take us there, this Government has driven expectations through the floor, they’ve cut and run and smashed our State’s confidence. This budget’s not an answer, it’s an alibi.

As Tim Colebatch observed yesterday in The Age: there was not “anything resembling a jobs plan, or anything aiming to get the economy to fire on all cylinders again. And there was nothing to answer the question Victorians are asking: ‘why does Ted Baillieu want to be Premier? Where does he want to take us?’ At some point, his Government is going to have to tell us what it stands for. The budget was a missed chance to do that.”

Mr Speaker, many Victorians are asking the same questions. This budget contains no vision for our State, just a litany of excuses about why things can’t be done. There are no plans for transport, infrastructure, health, education, or jobs, just a narrative about tough times.

Well Labor faced tough times too – our worst drought, our most tragic natural disaster on Black Saturday and the Global Financial Crisis, the worst economic downturn since the Depression. And these budget papers acknowledge that our GST write-downs during those times were as significant as the ones this Government now claims prevent it from taking action to tackle some of our State’s biggest challenges.

No state government can control the economic cycle or fix the dollar. But a strong state government can invest in infrastructure to improve productivity and generate jobs. A strong state government can use its significant spending power to source locally rather than offshore. A strong state government can prioritise its spending to boost the construction industry. A strong state government can invest in skills and training. And a strong state government can support Victorian companies seeking to become more innovative and globally competitive.

But this State Government refuses to accept that it has a responsibility to do any of these things.

The Government’s entire strategy is built on the premise that it is hostage to events rather than shaping them. Victorians are entitled to ask: ‘what did Ted Baillieu think he was running for when he offered himself to lead our State in November 2010?’

It’s bad when politicians promise to fix problems that they know they cannot fix. It’s even worse when politicians fail to fix the problems that they can.

When Labor faced the Global Financial Crisis we re-cast the First Home Owners Bonus to support the building industry by targeting our assistance to new housing construction starts, particularly in regional Victoria. This and other actions that we took proved a great success. Victoria’s property market defied expectations and stayed stronger than forecasters anticipated. This Government has scrapped this bonus. This decision makes new houses less attractive than existing housing stock. Make no mistake about it, this decision will cost Victorian jobs.

When Labor came to office, we established the Victorian Industry Participation Policy, to ensure that where possible government spending supported local jobs. This policy was a direct result of the rolling stock replacement program undertaken by the former Kennett Government in its last days in office, which saw hundreds of millions of dollars in new rolling stock destined to be sourced from overseas. Our policy gave Victorian companies seeking to supply goods and services to the Victorian Government a fighting chance.

From emergency service uniforms to new trains for our transport system, sending this work offshore is a sure fire way to kill local jobs. But this Government just doesn’t seem to get it. In review after review, commissioned by the Government, the Government’s hand-picked experts recommend applying the blowtorch to Labor’s Victorian Industry Participation Policy.

Even in tough times, our Government kept striving to maintain our State’s leadership. Instead of raiding Workcover’s strong balance sheet to prop up the budget as this Government has done, our Government used Worksafe’s strong capital position to establish Work Health –  a world-first workplace preventative health check to identify the risk factors for chronic health conditions amongst Victorian workers.

We established the Victorian Cancer Action Plan.

Two strategies to deal with the biggest health challenges facing the Victorian people.

This budget closes the door on Victoria’s Cancer Action Plan.

The Treasurer continues to peddle two myths about Labor’s economic record to justify the harsh measures that this Government has taken.

The first is the furphy that our state expenditures were on an unsustainable growth path. The Treasurer knows that this is not true. Once the federal stimulus funding is netted out, Victoria’s revenue and expenditure growth pretty much paralleled each other over Labor’s period in office. This can hardly be a revelation to the Treasurer – after all, it’s the very reason every one of Labor’s budgets over 11 years received an emphatic Triple-A credit rating from Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s.

In the same breath, the Treasurer advances the spurious claim that Labor’s budget was in structural deficit. If the Treasurer’s logic – oxymoronic though that phrase may be – is accepted, then his own budget, dependent on unsustainable cash grabs from public entities, can be critiqued in precisely the same way.

So every Victorian should know that the very foundations of the Treasurer’s budget are based on spurious claims justifying cruel cuts that will hurt Victorian families.

But this budget’s cruellest claim surely must be the Treasurer’s boast in his speech that “the Government’s spending priorities are focussed on ….. protecting the State’s most vulnerable citizens”.

Who are Victoria’s most vulnerable citizens that the Treasurer has pledged to protect? Are they not the thousands of Victorians whose concessions, by the Government’s own admission, are set to fall in real terms.

Think about it. CPI is forecast at 2.75 per cent. Government wages policy is 2.5 per cent. But our State Government will only give the poorest Victorians 2 per cent. If 2.5 per cent is right for nurses, for teachers, for police, for public servants, for politicians –  surely it’s not right that the poorest Victorians are funded for only 2 per cent.

Who are Victoria’s most vulnerable citizens that the Treasurer has pledged to protect? Are they not the 40,000 Victorian families who in 2013 would have been eligible for the Government’s means-tested School Start Bonus that has now been abolished? Abolished because according to the Premier, his family didn’t need it. Last time I checked, his family isn’t even eligible for it.

Who are Victoria’s most vulnerable citizens that the Treasurer has pledged to protect? Are they not the thousands of Victorian families who receive the Education Maintenance Allowance? The Government’s own Department of Education describes the EMA as “assistance to low income families for helping with the costs associated with the education of their children”. It would be difficult to have designed a more targeted attack on vulnerable Victorians than this Government’s decision to discontinue the schools component of the EMA.

Those of us on this side of the chamber know better than anybody that education is the great driver of opportunity. When I look into the eyes of the parents of young people who’ve come from so many different backgrounds and settled in my electorate, I see people who trust that education will be the thing that gives their kids a chance for a better life than they had hoped for for themselves. What were the members of the Government’s Budget and Expenditure Committee thinking when they decided to cut this funding? These Tories with their mantra of rugged individualism, of people dragging themselves up by their bootstraps, taking money away from the poorest Victorians trying to get the very education that would give them a fighting chance to achieve their dreams. How dare they?

Who are Victoria’s most vulnerable citizens that the Treasurer has pledged to protect? The TAFE sector has always had a responsibility to provide access for disadvantaged people. But now we learn that TAFE leaders have been told that community service obligations can be discarded as part of the cuts contained in this budget. As Homesglen Institute of TAFE chief Bruce Mackenzie said: “this is an attack on the most vulnerable people”.

When it comes to protecting Victoria’s most vulnerable citizens I’ll give the Treasurer credit for choosing his words carefully. Because when the Government decided to slash funding for refugee support, while they may be vulnerable, they’re not yet citizens.

Mr Speaker, Victoria is not like other states where rednecks question immigration every day. Immigration has been unambiguously good for Victoria. Celebrating our diversity and our multiculturalism crosses the political divide. Surely our most vulnerable migrants are our most recently arrived refugees. This Government should be ashamed that it has so significantly reduced support for their health, education and justice needs.

One group of vulnerable Victorians who found a voice in the Government’s budget priorities are the residents of New Street Brighton. There it is, ranked 223rd on the ALCAM list. That’s right, our rail safety experts tell us that there are 222 busier or more dangerous crossings throughout Victoria. When the budget priorities were being set, no-one can accuse the Member for Brighton of being caught napping. Make no mistake about it, $2 million has been allocated already but it will cost tens of millions to grade separate and we will hold every government member accountable for unfunded crossings higher on the ALCAM list in their electorates that they claim there are insufficient funds to fix.

The Government will wear this outrageous boondoggle like a crown of thorns.

The chasm between rhetoric and reality is no wider than in the Government’s claims about infrastructure. Like a bawdy burlesque dancer, the Government has taken to teasing Victorians. A hint of a road here, a glimpse of rail there, a peek of a port, a flash of a tunnel.

Take the $15 million for the so-called East-West Link. This is a ploy, not a plan. It’s a tactic, not a tunnel. Industry sources tell me that $15 million buys approximately 15 metres of this $5-$7 billion project. Mr Speaker, that’ll get you and me from your chair to the front door. Just. Trust me. I measured it this morning.

And this is typical. The then Opposition gave a shout out to all sorts of communities that a myriad of big-ticket projects stood a chance of being funded if this Government was elected.

The people of Geelong were wooed with the promise to relocate Melbourne’s car trade to the Port of Geelong. A thousand jobs and $200 million injected into the local economy. The Ports Minister even put on a shindig and issued the obligatory press release marked with the ‘policy implemented’ branding iron. And then yesterday, the admission, snuck out under the cover of the budget, that the Government has abandoned the idea. I think the branding iron will be waiting for him next time he visits Geelong. So no car trade, oh and by the way, still no Red Bull Air Race.

And in Doncaster and in Rowville we see the same choreography. The illusion of action. Corridors and consultations, workshops and working groups. But no cash and no jobs.

So while the Government brags of its ‘record infrastructure program’ the truth is that the Treasurer has turned off the tap on new capital works. Three quarters of the capital works underway in Victoria over the next year are the result of projects started by the former Labor Government.

So while the Treasurer wearies Victorians with his contradictory boast of ‘record infrastructure investment’ for which we’re supposed to be thankful, and unsustainable debt, for which Labor is supposed to be blamed, he would do well to remember that Labor’s projects represent the last vestige of a Victorian jobs plan.

Meanwhile Victorians wait for the second Geelong hospital. 30,000 kids are forced to wait even longer for the Monash Children’s Hospital. The people of Bendigo are still waiting for the additional $81 million for their hospital. The Eye and Ear Hospital has received a miniscule $2 million out of a promised $165 million.

All solemn promises, made by this Government in the lead up to the last election. None of them properly funded, none of them close to being delivered.

I’m sure the Premier now hopes that Victorians have forgotten the very first answer he gave in this place after being elected when he said: “the Coalition was elected by the Victorian people with a promise that it would deliver on all of its election commitments and indeed that is what we intend to do.” In his own words this was to be a demonstration of his integrity.

Mr Speaker, it was Shirley Mclaine who said: “never trust a man when he’s in love, drunk or running for office”. But when our Treasurer makes a promise, let’s be frank, he doesn’t mess around. Not for him caveats and qualifications.

Let me take us back to before the election. The scene is the parliamentary dining room. The cast: an intrepid reporter from the Australian Financial Review and our very own Treasurer before his admission to the witness protection program. And the promise: the now Treasurer said “we are happy to look at savings, but we will not include under any circumstance any reduction to the public service”. Mr Speaker, he went on; “so our commitment to the public service is rock solid. No ifs, no buts. No job losses in the public service. So we’re clear on that, aren’t we?” Mr Speaker, we’re crystal clear. But the sceptical interviewer pushed on and our Treasurer was not going to resort to lily-livered weasel words. He insisted “there will be no job losses in the public service”. “There will be no job losses in the public service,” he repeated. And just to be sure, in case the pesky interviewer had missed it, he finished with “thank you. I just want to make sure the point is clear”.

Mr Speaker this was not, “the cheques in the mail”, “my diet starts on Monday” or even “I’ll call you”. This is the now Treasurer of Victoria.

And there he was, 12 months later, handing down the Mid-Year Financial Update and announcing 3600 voluntary redundancies from the public service. Promise broken.  Fetch the branding iron!

You would think that having so comprehensively and emphatically broken this promise, he’d have exercised just a modicum of caution as he returned to the scene of the crime.

But, our Treasurer is nothing if not a slow learner. He promised first that the 3600 was it, finito, done, and secondly, that at least Victorians could take comfort from his promise that there’d be no forced redundancies.

So with two new promises to break, our Treasurer set feverishly to work.

Of course Tuesday’s budget contained another 600 job cuts. And the humiliating admission from the Treasurer that when voluntary packages are not enough, they will indeed resort to forced redundancies.

Three promises, emphatically made. Three promises, emphatically broken.

Mr Speaker, unlike the Member for Frankston, I’m not often given to quoting scripture, but wasn’t it Jesus who said to Peter that “before the rooster crows you will betray me three times”? Our Treasurer was so quick out of the blocks that the poor rooster hadn’t even cleared his throat, and he’d managed to break the one promise 3 different ways.

As John Ferguson noted in The Australian yesterday “Wells seems to be making a habit of telling big-time fibs”.

If Victorians were under any illusion as to the confusion that inhabits the mind of our State Treasurer they had only to listen to the nonsense that he proffered yesterday during question time. Where in the one answer he attacked Labor’s so-called ‘structural deficit’ but boasted of his own wafer thin surplus. Itself, on his own definition, a structural deficit.

Mr Speaker, if I can finish where I started, with the priceless words of Groucho Marx: “He might look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

This is a budget that fails Victorians. It fails Victorians desperate for a job. It fails our most vulnerable. It fails to keep promises solemnly made. It fails to provide leadership. It fails to live up to our State’s historic promise that each generation passes to the next a belief that our State can lead the nation.

No jobs. No heart. No vision. No hope.

 

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