Minns' Modest Budget — What's in it for people and planet?

On Tuesday the Minns Government handed down their first budget in 12 years. Today Abigail delivered the Greens' budget reply in Parliament. 

Abigail said:

As The Greens NSW Treasury spokesperson, I contribute to debate on the Appropriation Bill 2023, the Appropriation (Parliament) Bill 2023 and the Revenue Legislation Amendment Bill 2023—the cognate budget bills. After 12 long years in the wilderness, the Labor Party has returned to government in New South Wales, serving up its first budget not with a bang but with a muted thud. Sure, it is the thud of hard decisions made to restore the State's finances into a comprehensible and stable shape after 12 years of conservative contortions and obfuscations. But it is also the thud of deflated expectations, of services for the most vulnerable in our society remaining largely underfunded—a thud followed by the echoing silence of a lack of ambition on the most pressing issues facing our society.

The Minns small‑target strategy relies solely on being better than the Liberals. Like that is hard; it simply requires not being a complete ghoul. After 12 years of disrespect and denigration at the hands of the former Government, the public sector has finally broken free of the cruel and counterproductive public sector wage cap, which was arbitrary, mean‑spirited and guided by ideology rather than by any sort of sound fiscal strategy. The removal of this arbitrary cap has been something that The Greens have been campaigning on ever since it was first introduced, and the people of New South Wales are well shot of it. Beyond delivering vital cost‑of‑living relief via an upwards movement in wages for over 400,000 workers in the New South Wales public sector—although the improvement still falls short of the rate of inflation—the removal of the wage cap sends an important message to the workers of the public service that their work is valued and important.

The message that was sent by the previous Government was "to hell with the public service". This has resulted in a much‑degraded public sector, with plummeting job satisfaction and reduced capacity, causing an increasing reliance on external workers. The use of external workers, consultants and contractors soared under the previous Government. The use of contingent workers increased in 2022, recording an average of 8,877 contingent workers active in the New South Wales public sector at any given time, which was a 27 per cent increase on 2021. I look forward to hearing the most recent results when they are released in coming months. Make no mistake, the combination of the public sector wage cap, efficiency dividends and labour expense cap marked an anti‑worker, anti‑unionisation agenda that delivered nothing but bad outcomes for this State. Under these policy measures, employee movements increased dramatically, with public sector employee tenure dropping to its lowest in a decade, coinciding with just over a decade of conservative rule.

And where did these workers go? Understandably, they left to join a contracting or consulting firm in the private sector and to then sell their services back to the public sector at an inflated rate, often fulfilling the exact same function as when they were directly employed as a public servant. I make no criticism of workers who sought a better deal under the compassionless yoke of the Liberal Party and The Nationals. My criticism is reserved solely for the mean‑spirited and fiscally reckless policies of the former Coalition Government—a government that has as its legacy of 12 years of rule a New South Wales public sector riven with critical vacancies across its workforce. That is why The Greens welcome the $3.6 billion Essential Services Fund announced in this budget. This fund coincides with the Government's foreshadowed new interest‑based bargaining reform. This reform process is being led through the Industrial Relations Taskforce, steered by former Deputy President of the Fair Work Commission, Anna Booth, and former President of the Industrial Relations Commission, Roger Boland.

The Government has foreshadowed a linking of productivity improvements with wage rises for public servants. Exactly how they seek to do that remains to be seen. As it stands, it is hard to imagine what supposed productivity improvements can be extracted from teachers, nurses, midwives and paramedics, and other already overstretched and under‑resourced frontline workers. I am looking forward to participating in the development of this new regime to ensure that whatever new system is developed foregrounds the inherent value and skill of our public sector and does not lapse into the same neoliberal mindset of the previous Government. Work in the public service should be desirable. The New South Wales Government should be the employer of choice, with wages and conditions that reflect the economic and social benefit of the important work of government and an independent public service in guiding decision‑making for the benefit of society.

For decades we have been painfully, excruciatingly aware of the harm caused to global climatic conditions as a result of the uninhibited release of carbon and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. The simple and unassailable reality is that the climate crisis is being driven by corporate greed. Very few people desire to see the world slip past the looming tipping points or to condemn future generations to increases in global temperatures north of two, three, or even five degrees. Yet that is the trajectory we find ourselves on. An overwhelming majority of people in New South Wales, in Australia and around the world are concerned by the impacts of climate change and want more done by governments to arrest its advance.

Of course, workers and their unions are profoundly concerned about the implications of that change. Without a strong, interventionist government, charting a robust and well-resourced transition plan, those workers will be prey to the brutality of the private market. Workers deserve certainty and respect. Workers in communities that have historically been economically reliant on coal appear to have been sold out by this budget.

Before the election, Labor promised a Hunter clean energy transition authority to help the region adjust to the coming social and economic changes of a decarbonising economy. That promise followed persistent community advocacy, strongly led by the Hunter Jobs Alliance, and was meant to be modelled on experiences such as the Latrobe Valley Authority, established by the Victorian Government in 2016 to transition workers, their families and the community following the closure of Hazelwood Power Station. The commitment was unfunded by Labor prior to the election, but the Hunter Jobs Alliance estimates that about $65 million a year would need to be invested over the next decade.

The Latrobe Valley Authority was established with an initial $266 million investment to kickstart that authority's work. So imagine the betrayal felt by communities in the Hunter Valley when they saw the announcement in this budget of the establishment of future jobs and investment authorities funded with a measly $5.2 million investment. That is not an investment; that is an outrage. The Minns Labor Government would rather spend untold millions keeping Eraring open than invest in local communities, empowering them to chart their own accelerated decarbonising future. Compare that with a $90 million mining subsidy increasing mining and exploration and we are starting to see the rot that continues to bedevil the Labor Party when it comes to climate. It is corporate capture that keeps the New South Wales Labor Party so meek. It is the soft touch approach to corporations and big business that prevents the people of New South Wales from get what they deserve.

The New South Wales Labor Government needs to be far bolder in raising revenue from those industries raking in profits at the expense of the health and prosperity of people across New South Wales. Although we are certainly pleased that the coal royalty rate is being increased, finally, long after what are probably the peak coal prices but long before we see an end to the mega profits enjoyed by coal companies exploiting our natural resources, now was the opportunity to be far bolder. Adding an extra 2.6 per cent to the 7.2 per cent for thermal coal and 8.2 per cent for metallurgical royalty rates, bringing us to 9.8 per cent and 10.8 per cent respectively, raising an additional $2.7 billion over four years, is something. Yet if we were just following Queensland's modest escalation rates, we could be raking in twice that amount. No wonder the Minerals Council and friends were relieved at such a low increase, laughing all the way to the bank as they continue to make record profits.

Why stop there? Why not tax the other industries continuing to make obscene profits while people across New South Wales suffer in a cost-of-living crisis? Why do we allow the big banks, long responsible for the over‑financialisation of our housing market, among a host of other socially undesirable impacts on other markets, to continue to rake in billions after billions in surplus cash and not take some of that back for the people of New South Wales? The Greens have long campaigned for New South Wales to introduce a State supplementary banking levy to capture some of the windfall profits that the big banks make out of mortgagees in our State. Even a modest supplementary banking levy could raise $500 million every year. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia made a 5 per cent increase on its profits last financial year—a whopping $10.6 billion. If Labor had some courage, we would capture some of that unearned mega profit.

Then we get to the other capitalist leeches of our society—the consultants. As I suggested in an amendment in this place just last month, making the big four accounting firms pay payroll tax like everyone else could raise at least $250 million over four years. Partners in those firms dress up their salaries as profit distributions and get favourable tax treatment as a result. They cannot have the best of both worlds, and it is time we made them pay their fair share. The list goes on. What about the gambling industry? A pokies super-tax could rake in around $700 million in additional revenue every year. We could make billions of dollars in years to come from appropriately taxing developer landowners when they make millions on a rezoning revaluation.

Times are tough, and this new Labor Government will need to get much tougher in making those who can afford to pay contribute more to the ongoing costs of running, and living in, this State. It is in light of that failure to raise more revenue, and Labor's choice to work within a smaller revenue base, that I express The Greens' profound disappointment in relation to all of the vital services that have not received adequate funding in this budget. My Greens colleagues will each contribute to debate, particularly in relation to their portfolio responsibility areas, but I will touch on a few other specific areas in this contribution.

The Treasurer talks a big game in the budget documents about wellbeing. I am genuinely pleased to see the beginnings of a framework in New South Wales for wellbeing indices and a wellbeing budget. I could be snarky and ask why the Government's response to my wellbeing budget bill was so dismissive, given its own plans and the Federal Labor Government's plans for a wellbeing budget, but at the end of the day the campaign for a wellbeing budget is about providing improvements to the quality of people's lives across New South Wales and not about political pointscoring. However, it is one thing to talk about wellbeing; it is a completely different thing to deliver a budget that provides for it. The failure of this budget to focus on wellbeing, and the corresponding failure of this Government to prioritise the wellbeing of people and planet, is most clear when it comes to housing, domestic and family violence, disability, the environment and the creative industries.

The former Coalition Government was well known for its propensity to spin nothingness into somethingness. With great fanfare, it would announce items in the budget as extra funding when they were actually lower amounts of funding than previous years. It would hide cuts, bury subsidies, massage accounting treatment—as we well know—and you name it. Whatever it could do to make the budget look better and more attractive than it was, it would do it. I expected far better from this new Labor Government, and there are many aspects of this budget that are, indeed, a refreshing change. However, the level of spin put on the housing aspects of the budget would give Shane Warne a run for his money.

Touted as a budget to "confront the housing crisis", there is no significant increase in funding for social housing. Instead, the Minns Labor Government is simply relying on funding from the Federal Government—funding that my Federal Greens colleagues secured, I might add. We have heard announcement after announcement about new spending, and that somehow this is a budget with $2.2 billion for housing, but when we look at the details, the level of spend is genuinely insulting. There is $300 million in Landcom dividends reinvested to build 1,409 affordable homes over—wait for it—16 years. Yes, that is fewer than 100 affordable homes each year.

The Federal Government's funding for housing in New South Wales was never intended to let New South Wales off the hook. It was about all levels of government pulling their weight, as that is what is needed to make a dent on the housing crisis. Do not even get me started on the lack of accessible housing in this State. I spoke at angry length about that in this House yesterday, when both major parties forgot that people with mobility issues need to live in a house, just like everyone else.

I am astounded at how little there is in this budget for people with disability. The Labor Government, just like the Coalition Government before it, which Labor swore it would be nothing like, has put people with disability on the backburner. It did not even bother to offer a glimmer of hope in this budget by committing additional funding toward meeting New South Wales' existing disability accessibility and inclusion targets that we are already lagging so far behind on. People with disability are, time and again, an afterthought in a system built upon ableist foundations that actively disables people every day from living full and dignified lives. The organisation People with Disability Australia called Labor's budget a missed opportunity to look after people with disability, who are disproportionately impacted by the compounding crises we are faced with. I daresay it is far more than a missed opportunity. Labor has utterly failed the at least one in four people with disability in this State.

In the midst of a housing crisis that disproportionately impacts people with disability, Labor has given scraps to deliver social and affordable housing, with no mention of targeted accessible housing solutions for people with disability. The Ageing and Disability Commission, which is bleeding out from a consistent lack of funding over many years, has been given nothing to help it meet the current and projected demand for services. The State Electoral Commission also received next to nothing in this budget to make our democracy accessible for people with disability and to adequately resource voting options.

The Park'nPay app during its short time in action was downloaded 2.66 million times and has made a palpable difference in the everyday lives of countless for people with disability living in a world where they are forced to plan every step of their journey from the minute they leave the house to the minute they return. Despite this, Labor has made the deliberate decision to cut funding for this app, blaming it on the inherited budget blackhole while at the same time allocating $5.6 million for an artificial intelligence pilot to manage the planning system, $700,000 to upgrade tactical telecommunications devices for the NSW Police Force, and a whopping $31.3 million to build Live NSW. Labor's priorities could not be clearer.

Despite the fact that the completion target of the Transport Access Program [TAP] was already pushed back four years in 2022, Labor has not only failed to provide additional funding to see this target is met but also lazily merged the TAP with the Commuter Car Park Program. This is quite literally the opposite of what the sector and the community need and want. During the State election Labor boasted about its commitment to finally push New South Wales to meet the Premier's priority of having 5.6 per cent of public sector jobs filled by people with disability by 2025. It feels like deja vu to stand here and say that this budget before us makes no funding commitments to address the clear failure to meet this target yet again. This comes on the back of the Treasurer categorising this budget as propping up the public sector, but apparently that does not include people with disability.

For the past 12 years, the domestic and family violence sector has been forced to pick together just a few asks each budget for menial sums of money to address a crisis that kills dozens of women and children every year. Under this new Government, we expected differently. The entire sector expected this issue to finally be taken seriously, to be prioritised as the emergency that it is. But once again, it has been directly demonstrated that the lives of those who have been killed or who are suffering from gendered violence are simply expendable. Once again, the peak body, Domestic Violence NSW [DVNSW], has not even been provided with enough funding to meet minimum service demands. This is made worse by the fact that New South Wales has some of the lowest per capita funding to end gendered and sexual violence in the country. As DVNSW stated:

Comparatively the NSW government invested only $262.7 million in 2022-2023, less than half of the $613 million that the Victorian Government invested: We didn't even ask for half of what is required to close the funding gaps between NSW and Victoria in terms of domestic violence spending per capita. We only asked for a $176.35 million increase - which is a small price to pay for a woman and child's right to safety.

In their pre-budget submission, DVNSW also advocated for a total of $20.45 million in additional funding to invest in specialist Aboriginal controlled domestic and family violence [DFV] services and to support further investment in Aboriginal legal services, including child protection work. This also was ignored. There was nothing new in this budget for the sector, apart from prior pre-election commitments, which were still a huge underspend on what was asked and needed. The housing budget for victim-survivors is just as shocking. The $8.4 million sought for Staying Home Leaving Violence was ignored. Only $5.2 million was provided to support specialist homelessness services when it was indicated that the sector would need 10 times that amount to support women's refuges alone. Women's refuges need $52 million, and instead the gendered violence sector is being forced to share a tiny funding increase to specialist homelessness services.

Although the Shared Equity Home Buyer Helper pilot will be expanded to include DFV victim-survivors at a cost of $13 million, this will support only a small subset of victim-survivors who are able to purchase a home and have gone through the process of making sure that they can claim they are a domestic and family violence victim-survivor for that purpose. It was not a priority of, or a request from, those in the sector who have been telling governments for years what is actually required to turn the domestic violence epidemic around. So much for a Gender Equality Budget Statement when it is clear that the New South Wales Government has decided that an issue affecting over one in three women in this State will not be funded to meet the demands of those who need it.

Animals and their advocates have also been told to wait and to not even bother making a submission for this budget by the new Government. We will be waiting on the next budget when the Government has promised advocates that there will be progress. Without a funding commitment next year, organisations such as Greyhound Rescue Inc. and the RSPCA that are responsible for caring for thousands of animals across the State will be left completely in the lurch, despite expanding service needs.

Finally, but not lastly, I note the disappointing cuts to the arts and creative industries. This is miserly cost‑cutting at its worst and does not bode well for a society in which we want people to thrive and not just survive. This budget was touted as a budget of hard choices, but it seems to me, from where The Greens are standing, that at every turn the Labor party made the easy choice: the choice to pit the public service against the rest of the State; the choice to cut programs rather than redistribute wealth from those most able to pay; and the choice to artificially constrain themselves rather than lay out an ambitious vision for our State. Sadly, following 12 years of destructive conservative rule, this budget shows a Labor Party not yet brave enough to do what must be done.

 

Read the full transcript in Hansard here.

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