Abigail delivers Greens' Budget Response

Today Abigail called out the Coalition Government for what their 2022-23 Budget really is: all spin and no substance.

Abigail said:

I respond to the Appropriation Bill 2022 and the Appropriation (Parliament) Bill 2022 on behalf of The Greens. I thought I had seen some spin before, but this budget really does excel at being all hot air. It is marketing over substance, and words over action. It is telling us what we apparently want to hear, without giving us anything that we actually need. It is promises without concrete plans, targets without strategies, and lofty idealistic statements without any funding to make those ideals a reality. In short, it is the most dishonest budget that I have had the displeasure to read. It is no more a women's budget or a progressive budget or a "teal" budget than the ones that this Government has produced over the past 11 years. It is as old‑school conservative as they come, just marketed quite differently.

Tony Abbott told us in 2010 that he was doing good work for women by keeping their ironing bills down. Treasurer Matt Kean is telling us in this budget that he is doing good work for women by relieving them of their childcare responsibilities and helping them to reproduce. "Wait," I hear you say, "isn't this the women's budget?" Well, only if you listen to the Treasurer and, let us face it, most of the media have been. They have been lapping up the idea of Kean being the saviour of womankind. But saying the word "woman" over and over while failing to listen to a word women say and doing nothing to recognise them as autonomous human beings does not make him the expert when it comes to what women want.

It is not hard to work out what women want. You do not need to establish a special expert reference panel stacked with all of your women pals. You just have to listen. For example, you could listen to the domestic and family violence sector, which has been calling out for decades for significant funding for women's shelters, caseworkers, trauma recovery centres and safe rooms in every courtroom. It has been calling for better training for police and the judiciary and for any number of initiatives that would make a real and tangible difference to the experience of victim-survivors and to keeping women safe in their own homes. What do we get instead? A few million dollars for streetlights. Is it only women who like a well-lit street to walk down? How is that for women and not a necessary infrastructure spend?

Perhaps the Treasurer thinks that if he lights up more streets, his Government will not need to increase funding to sexual violence support hotlines. Instead of ensuring that the one in three calls that fail to be answered because of a lack of funding will be answered, he thinks lighting up streets will magically reduce the number of women being assaulted. Did the Treasurer miss the memo that it is actually in our own homes and not on the streets where we are most at risk of being abused and being killed? What else do women get? They get a few million dollars to ensure that The Greens amendment, passed a couple of years back, to ensure that perpetrators cannot cross-examine victim-survivors can be implemented across all of our courts. That is very late and it is the bare minimum.

What does that leave us with in this so called "women's budget"? Child care and money for fertility treatments because that is what we are, apparently—walking wombs. We are not autonomous individuals; we are the members of the family who are primarily responsible for bringing up children. This Government chooses to reinforce that notion by presenting an extra year of school as a boon for women instead of as a policy that is beneficial to children, which, of course, it is. Quality, universal, accessible child care is a much-needed policy for children, parents and grandparents. But the idea that women will somehow see it as a gift to them as women is very much misguided.

With the way the Treasurer was talking in his Budget Speech, anyone would think he had just woken up in the late twentieth century and discovered sexism. He tells us that women are scared for their physical safety. He tells us that women's ideas are not listened to or, worse, stolen by men. On the back of that twentieth‑century feminism, he tells us that he has all the answers. Women have been saying those things for decades and have said what they want in no uncertain terms through their budget submissions. The Treasurer not only did not listen, he decided he knew better. How ironic. Let us take a moment to reflect on the fact that two of the most feminised workforces in the State, teachers and nurses, are striking next week because they feel they have not been listened to by the Government. What do women want? Respect, with decent pay and conditions. What has the Treasurer given them? A bunch of words that will make no meaningful difference to their lives.

It appears that when it comes to women, this Government has learnt nothing from the Federal election result a month ago. Maybe it learnt something about the need to take significant steps to address climate change. Well, no. The budget has set aside $200 million in direct mining and fossil fuel subsidies. The Government wants to subsidise or pay outright the cost of exploration and geotechnical surveying of the pristine areas of our State to see if there are any exploitable fossil fuel or other mineral resources that can then be granted to a private mining company to harvest billions of dollars in profits, all while paying little to no tax.

New South Wales has taken in over $3.4 billion, around $1 billion more than expected, in additional coal royalties in the past year. But there is practically nothing to accelerate or ease our transition to a decarbonised future. There is no additional funding allocation to the Royalties for Rejuvenation fund to assist coal-dependent communities to embrace the incoming economic evolution. There is $8.5 million to advance the electricity infrastructure road map and $10 million towards clean manufacturing, including green hydrogen, cement, ammonia and steel. But there is $35 million towards carbon capture and storage.

This Government has served up a seven-year-old election promise to deliver a statewide climate change adaptation plan sometime next year. What tragedies and harmful impacts might have been avoided in the seven years since that was last promised, if we had a plan to deal with climate change impacts on the State's physical assets and services, like every other State and Territory in Australia has had for years? We could have been more prepared for bushfires and flooding. Our schools, hospitals, nursing homes and critical energy infrastructure, to name a few, could have been better equipped to deal with the realities of blistering heatwaves, devastating floods and other extreme weather events.

Instead, the budget is jammed full of business as usual, spin and further support for destructive fossil fuel projects that will only compound the already looming disasters. The Government continues to charge ahead with its full support of the destructive, dangerous and flawed Narrabri Gas Project, which will see the world locked into further deepening climate disaster by releasing immense amounts of carbon into the atmosphere or, in the best scenario, see itself become a stranded asset, one which has already caused irreparable environmental and cultural harm where it has sunk its destructive talons into our State's soil.

The cost of climate change impacts on our State's infrastructure are immense. We must urgently fully fund preventive and adaptive responses to upgrade and make resilient our State assets. But the Coalition Government has failed to learn the lessons from recent catastrophic energy price hikes, driven by private market profiteering, and is embarking on an even greater project of energy grid privatisation, with nearly every dollar dedicated towards climate change mitigation coming in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and low‑interest loans to big business hoping to capitalise on a new industry that is ripe for monopolisation. Energy is an essential public utility and should be in the hands of the State to ensure that we are being fairly and equitably served. There is practically no money in this budget to help reduce people's exposure to the flawed and exploitative energy market.

Where is the money to assist people to insulate their homes and electrify their households, and to support the development of micro-grids, community batteries and community solar or wind projects? Energy poverty and energy inequality is already an enormous issue and will only get worse without a proper transition plan. Those with the means to own their own homes that can be well insulated, and who can place solar panels on their roofs and high‑quality batteries on their properties, will see the benefits of reduced exposure to the market. Those with fewer means will find themselves prey to an increasingly predatory market that is seeing its profits shrinking and so is seeking to extract as much as possible for those who remain.

Where is the money to assist renters who cannot control how draughty and poorly insulated their homes are, who are paying exorbitant prices on electricity bills because of old water heater technology, and who have no access to solar panels and no means to upgrade to more energy-efficient appliances? A measly $100 million or so over eight years to chip in a small amount on a new washing machine is not going to cut it. In the short term, the brutality that is the Government's energy payment assistance scheme is recklessly inadequate and cruel. More people die of cold in winter here than they do in Sweden. Yet this Government is willing to sit by and let it happen.

There is enormous opportunity to lift our shared prosperity through a bold and fearless approach to tackling climate change by reducing our exposure to the energy market, electrifying everything and improving energy efficiency. Instead, the gulf of compounding inequality will continue to widen, as planning decisions encourage heat islands filled with people who will not be able to afford to run an air conditioner in summer or a heater in winter. One need only turn on the radio, flick through the television or glance at a newspaper front page to see that we are in a cost-of-living crisis.

Wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living for years, and that has only become worse in recent months. The insufficient and arbitrarily imposed public sector wage cap, energy price gouging, inflated petrol prices, exorbitant tolling regimes and exploding rental prices—to name a few—are causing real financial pain to the people of this State. We are one of the wealthiest States in one of the wealthiest nations in the world at the time of greatest global wealth, and yet the majority of people would not know it. For most, times are getting leaner, and they are struggling to keep afloat. But this Government has no desire to actually do its job, which is to ensure the shared prosperity of the people that it is supposed to represent.

This budget was supposed to be the "women's budget". Well, women make up half of the population. Women are feeling at least half of the economic pain, if not more, given the disproportionate representation of women in the lowest paid jobs. This budget does nothing to raise the standard of living for the working-class people of this State. It further grinds them into deprivation, austerity and financial precarity. We should be investing in building economic resilience and redistributing some of the immense wealth in the State more equitably. Of course, a fundamental pillar would come from raising wages. As the single largest employer in the country, the New South Wales Government has a wage setting normative effect on the wages of the private sector. Yet the Government has committed to locking in an arbitrary public sector wage cap well below the rate of inflation. The average public servant in New South Wales will be $2,410 worse off, in real terms, under the Government's current policy settings.

The Government has no desire to do what is actually necessary, to do what is being demanded of it by the working people of this State. If in order to stop the so-called debt and deficit or to boost or to somehow keep the economy running what this Government needs to do is push down the wages of some of the most vital workers in this State, and if it cannot give people a fair wage because otherwise it will somehow break the economy, it is doing the economy all wrong. That is not an excuse. The Government cannot say that it is sorry, but it wants to give a couple hundred million in fossil fuel subsidies to fossil fuel companies and a few hundred million to the racing industry. But when it comes to workers, it is going to make sure that it puts a cap on wages, because the workers can cope. That is showing that, to this Government, the workers do not matter.

That is what the Government is telling the people of New South Wales. It is telling them that it cannot manage this economy in such a way that it could pay a decent wage to public sector workers, who are holding this State up. That is an absolute disgrace. It shows me, The Greens and the people of New South Wales that this Government does not understand what economic management is. It is giving to the rich, the wealthy and the people at the big end of town, while absolutely screwing over the workers who keep this State running.

Members will know how passionate The Greens are about rights for people with a disability and how disappointed I have been, since coming to this place, by the Government's continual failure to provide for the disability community of this State. People with disability are not so much as an afterthought for the Liberal‑Nationals Government in this budget, and the disability community and sector are rightly disappointed. One in four people in this State have a disability, but there is not a single new initiative or line item that targets people with disability, and not even additional funding committed to the existing disability accessibility and inclusion targets that the Government is lagging behind on meeting.

Because the Liberal-Nationals Government has failed to adequately resource or prioritise its commitment to accessible public transport, it is going to fail to meet the national targets it signed up to in 2002 to have all train stations in the State accessible by the end of this calendar year. Because of the imposition it will supposedly put on the construction industry, this Government refuses to sign up to the National Construction Code minimum accessibility standards for new residences. With a commitment to universal accessibility for people with mobility issues, and the dedicated funding to accompany it, this Government could have joined Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory in ensuring we can keep up with the demand for accessible housing caused by an aging population and the increasing numbers of people with disability choosing to transition away from group housing and into social and private housing.

It is bitterly disappointing that the developer lobby has once again won out in this budget. Despite the Government considering the employment of people with disability in the public sector a Premier's Priority—a figure which has not increased from the 2.5 per cent of the total public sector workforce since it became a priority in 2019—there has been no funding commitment to address the clear failure to tackle this supposedly priority issue. If that was not insulting enough, the budget papers are forecasting a 30 per cent increase in the disabled workforce in the public sector for absolutely no reason. It is a joke.

As I have said many times in this place, budgets are about choices, and they show us very clearly what a government cares and does not care about. It is clear from this budget that, as we already knew, animals and animal welfare are not particularly high up on this Government's list. In fact, it is hard to find any mention at all of money going to enhance the welfare of animals in our State. What can be found, however, is a tidy $265 million in new funding for the racing industry. The Government has rightly chosen to amend the point of consumption tax to ensure that online gambling is more appropriately taxed, but then it is handing more than a third of the revenue that will raise to the cruel racing industry, without increasing funding to the welfare and integrity agencies that regulate them or to addiction support services. Peter V'landys is thrilled, but I doubt the thousands of horses and greyhounds that the racing industry tortures and kills every year are quite as excited. To put that $265 million in perspective, the Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission receives about $16 million a year, and the New South Wales Government has committed less than $10 million to companion animals in this budget. That includes a tidy $0 for community animal welfare organisations in the Northern Rivers, supporting the animals devastated by the floods while they themselves were decimated.

Having sat through education committee hearings in relation to the failures of this Government in providing school infrastructure, and being about to start another inquiry looking into teacher shortages, it seems extraordinary to me that this Government thinks it can successfully roll out an additional year of schooling for New South Wales children. This is a government that has presided over a shocking lack of facilities in our public schools, that has left schools to fend for themselves in maintaining the most basic facilities, such as toilet blocks, and that has left teachers so demoralised and undervalued that they have left the profession in droves. Yet it happily jumps on any large school infrastructure project that it can hang its "paid for by government" sign on, or partner with the private sector on—yet again putting an announceable ahead of more pressing needs. Don't get me wrong, the idea of an extra year of schooling is very welcome, but the idea that this Government is capable of delivering it is farcical.

Speaking of farcical, let us look at the Coalition Government's approach to housing. One of the most pressing cost-of-living stressors in New South Wales is the cost of housing. Again, housing affordability and homelessness are issues that experts and frontline workers have been offering up solutions to for decades. But, again, this Government has decided that it knows better. Firstly, the shared equity scheme. As my colleague the member for Newtown, Jenny Leong, said so well, it "won't even touch the sides of the affordability crisis in this State." It is yet another scheme where the eligibility criteria is so strict that it will barely begin to help those actually in need.

Instead of taking just an equity stake and propping up the private housing market and the balance sheets of the big banks, the Coalition Government should be making a massive investment in public housing. It is only with 100 per cent State ownership of more housing stock that we can begin to turn this crisis around, along with properly investing in crisis accommodation and wraparound services for people who are homeless, and bolstering renters' rights. Secondly, the long-awaited announcement to replace stamp duty with a property tax is thoroughly disappointing. We are punching in the dark a little here, given that we have not been given the opportunity to see the details of what is now being proposed. It is almost like the Government has not yet ironed out the wrinkles in its initial proposal, which was largely panned by the building industry and social services groups alike. But what we know about the scheme does not fill us with hope.

There is no doubt that stamp duty is an inefficient and unproductive tax, and it is long overdue to be replaced with something far more equitable that recognises that land is a finite resource that needs to be shared more fairly by the community as a whole. However, from the details we have seen so far of the Coalition Government's plan, it looks to have also done away with the concept of progressivity in property taxes, replacing what is currently a tiered stamp duty system, albeit imperfect, with a flat 3 per cent tax. Limiting the scheme, even if just initially, to first home buyers at a certain purchase price is also likely to distort the market and create some odd results when it comes to select individuals being able to, effectively, buy a property one day and sell it the next without paying any substantial transaction taxes at all.

I am bemused as to why the Coalition does not look to the example set by the Labor-Greens Government in the Australian Capital Territory and implement the scheme properly from the outset, with a sufficiently long transition period to enable both buyers and sellers in the market to have time to plan and adjust. There are many refinements that The Greens could suggest to that sort of scheme, and we are more than willing to work with the Government to get this major reform right, but the half-baked proposal it has put on the table in this budget looks like it is simply not workable.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it does appear that the home equity scheme and the proposed stamp duty reforms are first and foremost about lining the pockets of the Coalition's property developer mates. Those ideas come from a position of wanting to spend as little as possible on providing the funding and the services that the public expects a government to provide and instead pushing core government responsibilities onto the private sector and charitable groups to bear the burden. After decades of poor policy when it comes to housing and the finance sector, it will take a more bold and more progressive set of reforms to address the current housing crisis.

Much has been said in the past year by the Labor Opposition and The Greens about the pickle this Government got itself into on Transurban and our toll roads. Having chaired the transport and infrastructure portfolio committee's inquiry into road tolling in this State, it is crystal clear to me that the Coalition Government, through its continued obsession with privatisation, has created a scenario where it cannot offer toll relief to drivers without at the same time lining the pockets of Transurban. There is simply no scenario under the contractual terms by which our roads have been sold off, whereby Transurban can be asked to reduce its profits and lower its toll revenue, and so any effective reduction in the amount being paid by drivers in tolls is paid for straight by the State.

The Greens do not buy into the whole privatisation of major infrastructure thing but, if we did, I would hope that we would at least do it properly. My understanding of that sort of privatisation is that, in an effort to take the short-term burden off the Government's balance sheet, responsibility and profits are handed over to a private company. However, in New South Wales we now have the worst of both worlds: a government that has lost control of major public assets by selling them off to the likes of Transurban but which is still having to dip into its own pockets to relieve the average resident from eye‑watering toll bills.

Nobody has benefited from that arrangement except Transurban. We welcome any relief given to those who use our toll roads when they have very few practical alternatives due to extremely long commutes needed to get to suitable work or because the public transport alternatives are so poor after more than a decade of neglect of our broader public transport system under this Government. But we must not lose sight of the fact that it was this Government's poor economic management and obsession with privatisation that got us into this mess in the first place. While we are talking about public transport, there is still no resolution in this budget to the mess caused by the creation of the Transport Asset Holding Entity. I can only presume that has been put into the too‑hard basket, awaiting another difficult conversation with the Auditor General.

The final message that voters delivered at the recent Federal election that this Coalition Government appears to have overlooked is the desire for greater transparency, accountability and integrity of government processes. While any increase to ICAC's budget is welcome, we cannot escape the fact that for the ICAC to do its job fearlessly, that funding must be independent of the government of the day. The Greens will continue to fight for independent funding of the ICAC and other essential independent agencies. As we have become far too used to, the budget is significantly lacking in transparency. Again, it is very hard to compare it with previous budgets to know what specific line items have changed or to work out which projects have been funded. As in previous years, we will have to tease that vital information out of the Government through the budget estimates processes and calls for papers unders Standing Order 52. Clearly that is not good enough. By yet again shielding the Government from accountability, the presentation of this budget makes a mockery of our democracy.

We must work together to ensure that documents of this nature are meaningful and give an accurate picture of not only the vision of the government of the day for the future but also how well it has achieved its objectives of the previous year. The Greens' recent Fiscal Responsibility Amendment Bill 2022 to amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act would take us some way towards that goal, requiring the Government to report on the actual tangible impacts of its actions over the past year on the material cultural, environmental and social wellbeing of New South Wales. In the meantime, we must treat the budget with the contempt it deserves. It is a bunch of aspirational statements wrapped up in a big teal bow.

 

The full transcript can be found in Hansard, here.

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