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Victorian state budget 2022–23

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
9 June 2022

I rise to speak on the 2022–23 Victorian state budget. We are coming to the end of a parliamentary term that has seen Victorians, the government and this Parliament face extraordinary challenges. The COVID pandemic tested all of us and is still a feature of our lives. The shadow of the last two years continues to impact all of us, and now we are facing more uncertain economic times. In the midst of a global pandemic the Victorian government acted on public health advice to protect the Victorian community and sought to ameliorate the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the community through various additional support payments and services. My Greens colleagues and I supported the government public health response and advocated for the increased spending on payments and services for those who needed them. Rapid responses were needed to expand our healthcare workforce, administer tests and vaccines, assist those who fell ill with COVID as well as support individuals and businesses with the impacts of the massive disruptions caused by the pandemic.

So here we are with a budget in deficit. The government spent what it needed to support Victorians through a very difficult time. In fact the argument is really about if more could have been spent, not less. I know of businesses that could have done with more support. Many artists and others involved in the arts sector, devastated by COVID, really struggled, and renters faced a difficult time once the ban on evictions and rent increases was lifted prior to the last lockdown. You will hear no critique from us that the budget is in deficit in this context. Good governments spend to protect and support communities when they need to. Indeed with the health system still under so much pressure after years of underinvestment, massively increasing spending has become unavoidable. The additional billions of funding going into the health system in this budget, including into mental health, are necessary, and I commend the government on this important investment.

What this budget does show, however, is that the structural issue at the heart of the budget is not spending but revenue. Obviously, being an election year, it may have been too much to hope the government would bite the bullet on new revenue measures. Instead we continue with a budget propped up by relying on housing becoming more and more expensive and unaffordable and Victorians continuing to lose billions to the gambling industry. This is despite the fact that the government had a great idea that it unfortunately backed away from: its social housing levy. A levy on developments to raise money to build more housing was an idea worth fighting for, but the property developers said no and the government backed down. It certainly gives Victorians an insight into who really runs things in this state.

But it is also a lost opportunity. With the public housing waiting list growing by 55 per cent in the last four years, with now almost 120 000 people waiting for public housing, the government has no plans for more housing to reduce the waiting list apart from the 9000 primarily community housing dwellings committed to in the last budget. It is just simply not enough.

Victoria needs a 10-year housing plan to build at least 100 000 new public housing homes. With such an investment we can end homelessness and make housing affordable. It is a cliché to say budgets are about choices, but it is also true. And in this budget the government is spending seven times more money on building two unnecessary and polluting toll roads than it is on building homes for Victorians in the midst of a housing crisis. How many quality homes could be built for $20 billion? Tens of thousands. In fact less than 1.8 per cent of the accumulated debt over the forward estimates will have been spent on building homes to address the housing affordability crisis in Victoria. But the property developers said no, so now there is no 10-year housing plan and hundreds of thousands of Victorians will continue to struggle in the private rental market knowing owning their own home is increasingly becoming an even more distant dream.

Unaffordable housing, including rentals, is a major factor in cost-of-living pressures facing Victorians, but there is nothing in this budget to address this crisis. Not only did the government drop its housing levy idea, but it also had plans to cut the very successful program helping people experiencing homelessness into housing. The response to COVID showed us that governments with the right priorities can find the resources to help people out of homelessness, but even that program was to be cut. Indeed it was only after an outcry that the government found some extra money to keep this program going, although only for one more year. This piecemeal approach to homelessness is quite frankly unacceptable. Indeed the response to this year’s budget from across the community sector was less than enthusiastic. Victorian Council of Social Service CEO Emma King summed it up well, and I quote:

Lean, lean, lean.

The government also ignored the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service requests for additional funding but found an extra $300 million for more police and PSOs. As VALS said at the time, this choice will mean:

… more of our children will be removed from their families, more of our people will be incarcerated, and more of our people will die in custody.

As I said, budgets are about choices. Another area I was hoping to see more attention in this budget for was family violence services, particularly for multicultural communities. While Victoria has made great strides in both its recognition of the scourge of family violence and its response post the landmark Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, there are gaps emerging in the types of support reaching communities experiencing family violence. Victoria’s multicultural communities, as the royal commission found, experience high levels of family violence, yet culturally specific family violence response services report that they are not getting the funding they need to meet the demand for their services. Victoria still does not even have one culturally specific women’s refuge, a model that has been incredibly effective in New Zealand and has begun in both New South Wales and Queensland. Culturally specific services are more than just having an interpreter available; they are about having bicultural staff, understanding the issues specific to communities and having tailored, specialised support available and so much more. I am urging the government to rethink its approach to culturally specific services in Victoria, and this goes for both family violence and mental health services, which communities report they need much more support with. It begins by listening to communities and directly funding grassroots organisations, including culturally specific family violence refuges.

It is clear that our community sector needs much more investment, not less. But without additional revenue, not only are necessary investments in the community not being made but we are seeing significant budget cuts. Public sector workers are taking the heat. The government has persisted with its 1.5 per cent wage cap on public sector workers. With inflation going up, this translates as a wage cut for many workers. More than that, state wage caps are acting as a brake on wages growth across the economy. In the current environment of rising inflation, increasing interest rates and stagnating wages, Victorians are in difficult economic times. In a recent report for Unions NSW, Professor David Peetz found that under the New South Wales wages cap—which is 2.5 per cent; a whole 1 per cent higher than Victoria’s current policy—public sector workers look set to lose thousands in wages.

He goes on to say in the report that:

The most important factor shaping wage norms that state governments can influence is public sector pay policy.

This is a position also held by the Reserve Bank governor. We have a wages problem in Australia, and state governments, Liberal and Labor, are making it worse with these wage caps. The Treasurer is on the record as saying the cap on the public sector wages may be reviewed. I sincerely hope this is the case.

Another disastrous budget cut is the almost $1 billion being slashed from the environment department. That is right—a billion dollars being gutted from the state’s environmental programs at a time when Victoria’s ecosystems are facing their biggest extinction threats. This is particularly disappointing given the biggest parliamentary inquiry ever held into our precious ecosystems made clear recommendations recently about how we need to invest more to better protect and restore our natural environment that gives us life. There are now 2000 species threatened with extinction in Victoria. This is a huge increase from 2014 when the number was just under 700. This is after we have already lost forever 81 different plants, mammals, birds and reptiles. We know that ecosystems are beginning to collapse, including Victoria’s forests and rivers, which provide the essentials for our health and wellbeing, including freshwater and clean air. We also know that there is a path out. We can save our ecosystems and restore the natural environment. The parliamentary inquiry the Greens initiated found that a big funding boost can reverse the damage to our environment and restore it to health for all of us and future generations, but apparently not this budget. Hopefully we see some further commitments in the lead-up to the election. I sincerely hope so.

Finally, this is one more budget passing us without a plan to transition Victoria away from coal and gas. In fact we have the government opening up new gas projects and helping to keep our unreliable and expensive coal-fired power stations open longer than they otherwise would. The Latrobe Valley Authority continues to be funded on a year-on-year basis with no funding certainty—hardly a vote of confidence in the future of the region and the need for a comprehensive, community-driven transition plan. As the Environment and Planning Committee’s recent report into renewable energy demonstrates, Victoria can be going much further and faster towards 100 per cent renewable energy. The current gas price hike impacting many Victorians is another reason we need to increase our collective efforts to move away from fossil fuels. We need big grant programs to electrify homes and get them off gas. The government has taken some good actions to support low-income households to get off gas, but unfortunately yesterday we learned that Labor has shelved its gas substitution road map—a plan to get our state off gas—until after the election. This is a disappointing step from Labor and shows again why we need more Greens in Parliament to push the government further and faster on climate action.

Another important climate measure is protecting the carbon in our forests instead of logging them. Yet not only has the government pushed through laws to make illegal logging legal, thus allowing even more precious ecosystems to be destroyed, it is now proposing to crack down on the forest defenders who are putting their bodies on the line to protect these precious forests. The intent with which this government is logging our remaining forests puts their commitment to climate action in question.

In conclusion, the COVID pandemic continues to pose our state significant challenges. It has exposed the fault lines in our society and the places and people who have not had the support they needed for years. But it has also given us an opportunity—an opportunity to rethink how we govern and how we can govern differently. We have seen what happens in a time of crisis: governments can and did find the resources to keep people safe and housed. Let that not only be a solution for a time of health crisis but a solution that the government continues to invest in in order to end homelessness in Victoria. We have seen Victorians reassess how they want to work, but the solutions that we found during the pandemic need not stop there. We can have greater flexibility at work that not only increases productivity but means that people are healthier and well.

We have seen Victorians re-evaluate the importance of a public health system to keep us safe and well, so let us keep investing in our healthcare workers and system. Let us move away from scarcity becoming the norm and let us fund our health system properly so that there are enough staff at all times to treat people when they get sick instead of them waiting months and months for treatment, because this will also mean that we have the surge capacity of enough trained health professionals to call on in a future health emergency.

We have seen people demand much stronger action to address the climate crisis and save our ecosystems from destruction. Victorians have relied on and appreciated our open spaces and natural environment like they have never before over the last two years, so let us keep investing in our environment because our survival depends on it. We have seen throughout this difficult time that bold and brave solutions are possible and have the potential to solve the big challenges we face. Let us continue with courage.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
9 June 2022
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WHAT I'M FIGHTING FOR


In Parliament

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