Greens Budget Response 2020

Today Abigail delivered the Greens NSW's budget reply speech for the 2020 NSW State Budget.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (15:37:27): I address the Appropriation Bill 2020 and cognate bills on behalf of The Greens, as our Treasury, finance and economy spokesperson. I place on record that we will go through the detail of the budget during budget estimates. This has been an extraordinarily difficult year. In 2020 we faced devastating bushfires: they decimated entire communities, 25 people across New South Wales lost their lives, almost 2,500 houses were destroyed, close to half a billion animals were killed, half of our forests were burnt and millions of people faced extraordinary respiratory stress. In addition, much of our State experienced disastrous flooding throughout the year.

Since March COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruption to our wellbeing, taking the lives of 53 people in New South Wales, costing 113,800 people their jobs and touching all of us as we have adjusted our daily lives. We have been separated from loved ones and suffered ill mental health as a result of isolation, lack of social connection and anxiety about what the future holds. In addition to the concrete impacts of COVID, for many this year has been dominated by a sense of limbo, with no definite end in sight to the disruption and devastation of COVID.

Considering this extraordinary year, The Greens are sympathetic to the unusual circumstances which led to the five-month delay on the Government bringing this budget. We understand that it is necessary for our State budget to follow the Commonwealth budget, which was handed down on 6 October. In many ways, this budget is a holding budget, designed to tide New South Wales over—throughout what will hopefully be the remainder of the COVID crisis—until the 2021-22 budget in six months' time. But it is also an incredibly important budget, as it seeks to chart our course through the current crisis and the recession it has triggered. It reveals to us the way in which this Government intends to respond to possibly the biggest challenges of our time—not just the COVID induced recession, but also the climate crisis, which of course refuses to ease up even during a pandemic and the crisis that is caused by the ever widening economic inequality in our State and this Government's continued failure to recognise it,, let alone address it.

The decisions that this Government makes in this budget has the potential to have an enormous impact on our lives and, in particular, on the lives of the 360,000 people forecast by the NSW Council of Social Services to be unemployed by June 2021, the 9,000 additional people expected to be homeless, the 88,000 additional people expected to experience housing stress by the middle of next year and the 36,000 additional young people experiencing mental distress. I state now that The Greens will be moving amendments to the Appropriation (Parliament) Bill 2020, the parliamentary budget. My colleague Mr David Shoebridge will speak further to those amendments.

We have enormous opportunities in this State. We have seen through this incredibly difficult year the calibre of the people in our communities, their initiative, their courage in the face of adversity, their caring for one another and their remarkable ability to quickly change fundamental aspects of their lives.

What they, I and The Greens expect is to see even just a modicum of that courage, care, agility and imagination from those in the Liberal‑Nationals Government. We can address the twin crises of economic inequality, exacerbated during COVID, and the climate crisis. We can do that with solutions that provide public sector jobs for all who want them and that put people to work in the vital task of repairing our environment, transitioning to renewables and bolstering our social services, so that everybody in this State has clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, clothes on their bodies, knowledge in their heads and hope in their hearts.

The Government has a responsibility to lift every single person in this State out of poverty—all 888,000 of them and counting. The Government has a responsibility to lead the renewables revolution with direct public investment and plans that do not leave whole communities that are currently reliant on fossil fuels high and dry. It would be lovely if the Federal Government stepped up or gave the States a fairer share of tax revenue to assist the New South Wales Government, and The Greens fully support efforts by the Treasurer to renegotiate New South Wales' share of taxation revenue. But until the Federal Government does that, it is this Government's responsibility to do what it can to lead Australia out of economic crisis and to make sure that Australia is a leader in taking real action to address the climate crisis.

Our reliance on stamp duty, mining royalties and gambling revenues is creating perverse incentives for the Government to encourage the very activities which are harming the wellbeing of the people of this State. That reliance ties the Government's hands when it comes to creating fair policies on housing, curbing rampant overdevelopment, transitioning communities into the jobs of the future and helping people to curb their addictions. We must diversify that revenue stream to create a more reliable income stream that does not cause that sort of deep conflict with good governance. The devil will be in the detail, but the announcement of what looks like the beginning of a staged move away from stamp duty towards a more broad‑based property levy sounds promising.

That move is long overdue, but it must be done in a way that does not create harsh outcomes for those with little or no income and relatively modest properties. In the midst of the ensuing debate about whether people should pay annually for the privilege of occupying a chosen property or piece of land, or whether, once bought, houses are a person's own personal dominion for all time, it is also worth reflecting that this land is, was and always will be Aboriginal land. It is well past time that First Nations people were compensated for the occupation of their land. The Greens look forward to seeing further details on the Government's stamp duty reform when they are released. That said, on the whole the Liberal‑Nationals Government continues to demonstrate an astounding lack of imagination—or a serious degree of ideological stubbornness—when it comes to diversifying its revenue sources.

For decades the fossil fuel industry and its financiers have profited from the destruction of our environment and the degradation of our climate. In Australia, successive governments have failed to make fossil fuel companies and banks pay for that privilege. It is well past time that they did. The Greens will continue to work to phase out coal and gas as quickly as possible, but we strongly believe that the companies that profit from emissions must be made to pay for the damage they continue to wreak on our climate and the devastating consequences that has for families, communities, the environment and the economy. That is why The Greens support a fossil fuel levy being charged via a royalty premium of $1 per tonne for coal and $1 per gigajoule for gas produced in New South Wales. Based on 2019 production figures, that would raise over $260 million per year.

We lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year through our failure to adequately make polluters pay for depleting our natural resources. Mining companies, power stations and heavy industry pay next to nothing while toxic chemicals are pumped into our air and water, damaging our environment and our health. Of course, collecting this money would not just boost revenue, it would remove what is effectively a government subsidy on those industries causing us the most long‑term harm. An easy example would be to impose a levy on the amount of coal ash that is dumped at coal-fired power stations instead of recycled into construction products.

The Greens have been calling for a supplementary State bank levy, which would also raise at least $450 million per year. It is a tiny amount in the hands of the banks compared to their annual mega profits, but a huge amount in the hands of the New South Wales Government. The big private banks have profited for years from direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry and other environmentally harmful sectors. They have also continued to make massive profits from mortgages while New South Wales has seen housing affordability plummet. Creating a new green economy will require substantial changes to be made to the way the big banks do business.

Due to a lack of competition in Australia's banking sector, Australians are at the mercy of the big banks when it comes to interest rates and fees. This has a real impact on our everyday quality of life, meaning we have less to spend on the essentials necessary for a good life. Greater competition from community‑owned and not‑for‑profit banks is needed to break the unhealthy oligopoly of the big Australian banks. The Federal Major Bank Levy represents only a modest step towards improving competition and is small by international standards given the systemic importance of the major banks to Australia's economy. Even if the State bank levy was to be replicated in every other State, it would still represent a tiny share of bank assets, gross revenue and before‑tax profits. New South Wales' share of the national economy is approximately 33 per cent. Imposing a State banking levy on the business that banks conduct in New South Wales at the same rate as imposed at the Federal level could raise more than $450 million per year.

There are so many other ways that we can raise revenue from taxing big polluters, property developers and the super wealthy. It is not that those participants in our State economy cannot stand to give up some of their wealth; it is that this Government has an ideological resistance to doing anything to curb the excessive wealth and ever-growing economic inequality in this State. As anyone who keeps up with the research on economic inequality would know, tackling wealth inequality in the State would not only create a fairer and more equitable society, but it would also create a more productive one.

As the Treasurer said in his speech introducing this budget, now is the time to borrow not just because interest rates are so low, but also because it is smart to save in the good times and borrow in the bad. However, The Greens have a different idea of when things are bad, as we have long held the view that facing the challenge of the climate crisis will require urgent and massive government spending. We say to the Government: Do not hold back. Now is the time to borrow even more. With record low interest rates and a booming market for green bonds and social investment bonds, we can borrow what we need to finance long-term environmental repair and social infrastructure projects, and in the process address both this current economic crisis as well as the ever‑present climate crisis.

There is no excuse for freezing public sector wages during a recession. It is an incredibly short-sighted move that will act to hold back economic recovery. Under anyone's version of a capitalist economy, people need money to spend money. The more money spent by public sector workers, which is the largest workforce in the country, will be more money spent to stimulate and rejuvenate our State economy. We must stop spending government money in an effort to encourage private sector job growth when we could be using that money to create jobs directly in public sector jobs. Jobs in education, health, community services and environmental rehabilitation are jobs that can be provided today, not reliant on the hope that the private sector will create them tomorrow.

That said, the Government absolutely needs to take a hard look at the pay of its most senior bureaucrats and set an example by paring back the salary of those who earn far more than any Minister—exactly who is working for whom here? No‑one should be earning 10 times the median wage, and the public should not be paying for salaries so far above what the vast majority of people earn. The Greens are appalled to see the continued focus of this Government, in line with that of the Federal Government, on so‑called "jobs for the blokes", with very sketchy plans for how exactly jobs are to be restored or created in the industries traditionally dominated by women. It is all well and good to offer return‑to‑work grants and make modest improvements to paid parental leave for public sector workers but what if there is no work to return to and no jobs to take leave from. There is nothing in this budget to improve the material circumstances of women, who have been much harder hit by the COVID recession than men.

Our current legislative parameters and expectations for how we set budgets are outdated and plainly wrong in that they do not focus on increasing the wellbeing of the people of New South Wales, let alone that of future generations. Where is the evidence to show that our triple‑A rating, in and of itself, contributes to the present and future wellbeing of New South Wales? It is a mistake to believe that the triple‑A rating reveals anything positive about the economic management of this State. It is purely about the ability of the State to repay debt. It does not consider levels of poverty—at how many people are doing it tougher than they ever have before. It is particularly irrelevant when interest rates are so incredibly low. The idea of embracing a wellbeing budget and wellbeing indicators is not new but is becoming increasingly popular, especially since it was adopted in New Zealand. It is time that we re‑examine the legislated principles on which we set our budgets and include a requirement to provide for the long‑term wellbeing of the people of our State. My team and I have been busy in that area of work this year, and members will see much more of it next year.

This year The Greens NSW began that discussion with the release of our Universal Wellbeing Payment initiative: a comprehensive plan for a universal basic income that would ensure that every person in New South Wales has what they need to live a good life. In 2020 the least people should expect in a State as wealthy as New South Wales is to have enough money to pay for their basic needs. They do not need a $25 voucher for a coffee and a piece of cake. They do not need another $25 voucher that pays for a fraction of the cost of a night out. What they need is money to spend on the things they actually need: to keep a roof over their heads, to make the school lunches, to keep the lights on at night. The Universal Wellbeing Payment would be a regular payment made to each of us to ensure our minimum standard of wellbeing. There would be no means testing, no costly and dehumanising bureaucracy and no strings attached. Along with wellbeing indicators and a budget designed around wellbeing, the Universal Wellbeing Payment would form the basis of a transformational Greens budget.

The New South Wales Coalition could choose to end homelessness and poverty and restore integrity to our democracy with a strong, independent and well‑funded ICAC. It could choose to protect our precious environment to support the wellbeing of our communities. It could choose to create secure and well‑paid public sector jobs. Put simply, budgets are all about choices. In this year's budget the New South Wales Coalition once again has chosen corporations, industry and the wealthy few over the people of New South Wales.

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