Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (11:02): I am pleased to belatedly get the opportunity to speak on the budget and the budget take-note motion, although unlike most in the chamber, I have had plenty of opportunity through the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC), like your good self, Acting Speaker Hamer, to interrogate the details of this particular budget – and what a bad, bad budget it is for Victoria. There are plenty of members opposite who will get up and say what wonderful things have happened in their electorates. We can all pluck a few things out from the budget papers that are being funded, particularly in the first year after an election campaign when governments are looking to fund issues in their electorates, and I might come to that in a moment. But for Victorians more broadly, and particularly for regional Victorians and even more particularly for Gippslanders, this is a debacle of a budget: $171 billion, we are heading for, as state debt. To put that in context: $22 million a day in interest repayments, we are heading for at the end of this four-year period. That is going to impact on Victorians in both the services they are delivered and the facilities that they receive in terms of infrastructure.
I will go to a few of the things in my local Gippsland South electorate. Sale College is across two campuses. Both of those campuses are getting old and out of date and are in need of upgrade. The school community has been calling, for about six years now, for an upgrade and for consolidation onto one site. To his credit the former Minister for Education, Minister Merlino, actually provided $3 million funding for some minor upgrades but more particularly for master plan funding for the school. That had got so far that the Victorian School Building Authority was negotiating with Wellington Shire Council about the roads and the area around the proposed new school on the site in Cobains Road. But I did say to them, ‘I don’t know why the shire would be doing that, because it is highly unlikely, in my view, that the state government will fund it.’ Unfortunately, I was correct, because in this budget there is nothing for Sale College to get the facilities that it needs. I put it in the context of the debt and deficit that we are facing with this government – $22 million a day we are heading for in debt. That would build the new school in three days. In three days we could build a new Sale College for the amount of money that we are paying to our debtors in this state for interest repayments. With interest repayments of $22 million a day we could have done Sale College in three days. That is just the example that highlights how debt is an issue. I know the government members do not seem to think it is, because it is someone else’s debt and it is productive debt and that sort of thing. Well, a lot of it is not, because it is paying for budget blowouts where the government has mismanaged projects in particular, but most particularly it is because it comes with a cost. It comes with a cost in interest repayments, a recurrent outlay that means that other things cannot be funded.
Right through Gippsland South there are other things that were not done. I have been campaigning for seven years now for fire stations at Foster, Mirboo North and Yarram. Finally, Yarram was confirmed in the budget papers. I do not quite understand how, given that the CFA has already said that they would fund it from their capital upgrade in last year’s CFA budget, but somehow the government has come in and said ‘Well, we’ll claim that’, and it has now put it in the budget papers. That is certainly welcome. I still do not think it has actually had anything to do with the Labor government, because the CFA was doing it anyway. On the other end of the scale, because of the government clawing back funds from the CFA, the proposed funding for Foster and Mirboo North stations has in fact now been cut, I have been advised. I have raised this now with the minister because Foster has land identified. They are ready to go with building something, and now the funds that were set aside by the CFA in their capital budget have been removed, apparently because there is funding being clawed back by the government from the CFA, which is no surprise.
We have seen multiple other issues ignored. We certainly have not seen any addressing of ‘kamikaze corner’, as it is known, in Leongatha – the intersection of South Gippsland Highway and the main streets in Leongatha. There are five or six streets meeting in one spot. That is something that needs to be addressed. The South Gippsland Highway, the Hyland Highway and the Strzelecki Highway all have major issues. They are not being addressed because, once again, the government has cut the roads maintenance budget, and I want to spend a little bit of time on that.
We see in the budget this year the roads maintenance budget going down from over $700 million last year, revised to $441 million. Look at the budget papers. It is literally a 25 per cent cut there in black and white. If you compare it to the peak of roads maintenance spending in 2020, it is now a 45 per cent reduction in the roads maintenance budget. That is an indictment of the government at a time when our roads, I would say, have never been worse. Everywhere I go, whether I am the Shadow Minister for Roads and Road Safety or not, just as a local member, people tell me how bad their local roads are. People are constantly saying ‘I’ve just come back from South Australia’ or ‘I’ve just come back from Queensland, and I drove through New South Wales, and as soon as you cross the border you notice our roads are bad’. The potholes, the ruts, the broken-up shoulders – all of these things are happening because the government has turned its back on roads, particularly rural and regional roads, at a time when we are spending multibillions of dollars on megaprojects in the city and seeing major cost overruns on those projects. There is $30 billion in cost overruns on the big projects.
Already the government is spending $54 billion on just four projects in the city: level crossing removals, the Metro Tunnel, North East Link and the West Gate Tunnel, all of which are over budget. Then you throw on top of that the $54 billion of the Suburban Rail Loop, which is a hastily arranged, back-of-the-envelope project that was announced in 2018. The best we can say is that it is between $30 billion and $35 billion for the first stage. That is what the government says, let alone the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who says it is more like $125 billion for the entire length of it. Not surprisingly, the Parliamentary Budget Officer got the lemonade and sars from the government over that and many others that he had actually produced when he actually told some truths. But there you have multibillions of dollars being spent on these megaprojects in the city, and yet in the country we cannot get a new fire station and our roads are like goat tracks – and it continues to get worse. In the last couple of days I have literally had three different responses from the government on road issues, where when I have complained about a particular issue the government has said, ‘Oh, well, we’ve made that stretch of road subject to a management overlay’. What does that mean? ‘We’ve put up a new speed sign, and we’ve put some warning signs up’ – we do not fix the road, we just put up some signs, and that is a disgrace.
I want to turn to a couple of the other issues now that highlight just how far this Labor Party of today has gone from its blue-collar roots. The decision to axe the timber industry in particular is the most disgraceful public policy decision that I have seen in my time here in Parliament by a long shot – and there have been some terrible ones. When the government gave the industry until 2030 and said that there would be a phase-out, as much as we disagreed with that, as much as the industry disagreed with that, there were plans in place for mills, for harvest and haul contractors and for all the ancillary industries around it to plan for that over the next seven or eight years – or 11 years from the announcement in 2019. For the government to then come in on budget day and say, ‘Bang, sorry, all bets are off – 1 January next year you’re out’ is just absolutely disgraceful and a betrayal of the people that this government used to represent – blue-collar workers in the bush, workers in timber mills, workers hauling logs, workers with trucks and gear, multimillion-dollar investments in those businesses – and has left them absolutely hanging.
At the public accounts and estimates hearings I challenged the Premier on this and asked why the government did not actually legislate to give the industry some protection from the litigation that had been shutting down coupes around the state, and the Premier said, ‘Well, we’ve got legal advice that says we can’t do that’. What is the obvious next question? ‘Okay, Premier, please provide us with that legal advice.’ ‘Well, no, I can’t possibly do that, Mr O’Brien.’ So it is a ‘trust us’ from the government: ‘We’ve got legal advice that we can’t fix the industry.’ That is just ridiculous. If there was litigation against the government’s plans to remove level crossings or to build the Metro Tunnel, the government would legislate if it needed to to overturn that court action. It refuses to do it for the timber industry because it is more worried about those four people that sit up the back there, the members of the Greens and those others who are under threat from the Greens – and yes, I am looking at you, member for Northcote; we know you are next in line, and we know the member for Footscray is coming soon after that – than the blue-collar workers that it actually used to represent. You do not have to take it from me; take it from a good Labor person like Michael O’Connor from the CFMEU, who has highlighted that this Labor Party has just turned its back on blue-collar workers and traditional industries.
If you want any further evidence of that, have a look at the report tabled today by the committee looking into native bird hunting arrangements. This is a government that once upon a time represented blokes and blue-collar workers who like to go out and do some outdoor pursuits. If this government bans duck hunting now, it will just show that it has absolutely left traditional industries, people who like to get out in the bush and in the wetlands and undertake their traditional industries with their families. It has become completely craven to the Greens, the Animal Justice Party and all the other crazies who do not think we should be doing anything with animals, and frankly with the government’s attitude to this it needs to be warned, because do not think it will stop at ducks. Then it will be deer, then it will be killing any animals, then it will be fishing.
Sonya Kilkenny interjected.
Danny O’BRIEN: The minister at the table is not too sure. I mean, the minister at the table at PAEC would not even say whether she supports duck hunting. She would not even say whether she supports fishing, and she is the Minister for Outdoor Recreation. I mean, this government has just turned its back on those traditional supporters, and it is not a surprise that we are seeing the people in country Victoria in particular turn away from them, in places like Morwell, which relies on the timber industry and which relies on the coal industry, and that we have a Nationals member for Morwell sitting here in a seat that the Labor Party once had for nearly four decades. It is because this government has turned its back on it.
We saw other fallacies presented in the budget papers, and if you were actually sitting there listening to the hearings, you would have heard about the SEC fallacy, the greatest sham that we have seen in this term of Parliament, that we are going to bring back the SEC and drive everyone’s prices down. What we heard from PAEC is that – despite the Premier saying repeatedly that the government is interested in offshore wind, not offshore profits – well, in fact the SEC is quite open to investing with offshore companies, and the government does not have any particular level set as to what sort of investment profile it would have with some of these companies. It is 12 months down the track, and we still do not have any investment from the SEC in any project. In any event, what we also heard at PAEC is that the government says it will invest in projects that are close to fruition or things that might not otherwise have gone ahead. Well, what is the point of putting taxpayers money into something that is about to go ahead or was not commercial in the first place? This will be a disaster for Victorians. I think the government actually knows it, but it thinks it is on a political winner, so it is going to persist with this, risking $1 billion of our money, $600 million supposedly, in this year of the budget. Mark my words, just like the federal Labor Party’s commitment to reduce power bills by $270 – we all know how that has gone – this will be a failure for the Andrews Labor government.
Then we spent quite a few hours at the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee discussing how well the Commonwealth Games were going and the preparations for that. We had the minister saying they were going ahead, they were going to be great, there were going to be all of these legacy benefits, there would be thousands of tourists coming to the state, and just a few short weeks later the government came out and canned the whole thing. What a joke, what an embarrassment. How the government could have got its figures so grossly wrong is beyond me. It is just an unbelievable situation.
On top of all of those issues, I have mentioned all the debt, and when you have got that much debt, you have to try and deal with it. Unbelievably, this government has a debt reduction plan that actually sees debt go up. I have never heard of a reduction plan that actually increases something, so debt will continue to increase under the government’s debt reduction plan. As a result, we get a rent tax, we get a schools tax, we get a jobs tax, and now we are hearing that through the back door, via a little deal through the State Revenue Office, we are getting a doctors tax as well.
Juliana Addison: What rubbish!
Danny O’BRIEN: Well, if it is rubbish, tell us why the doctors are getting these new bills. That is the simple question for the government, if it is rubbish. This is a government that has sent the state broke, that has saddled our children and our children’s children with further debt, and it stands condemned for that.