In Parliament

Bill Debate - Appropriation (2020-2021) Bill 2020

BILL DEBATE.

‘APPROPRIATION (2020–2021) BILL 2020’.

Thursday, 4 February 2021.

Mr NEWBURY (Brighton) (15:38):

That this House takes note of the 2020–21 Budget Papers.

This Budget is a road to nowhere. It has cut community confidence off at the knees. The Government is claiming this Budget is putting people first. What a con. Labor has left Victorians behind.

A Budget should set out a Government’s economic policies and priorities, but this Budget band-aids over the cracks and ignores many of the real challenges. It is a Budget whose bare-boned economic strategy at best undermines confidence and at worst is fundamentally dangerous. And to my community of Brighton, Brighton East, Elwood and Hampton: Labor has forgotten you.

This is a typically cynical Labor Budget, a Budget that is economically irresponsible and undermines the confidence in this State.

Victorians and indeed Australians know that Labor cannot manage money. Labor Governments always lean towards economic vandalism. This Budget is no exception. We know this because Labor has refused to release details on the total cost of projects or the time frame for their completion. On top of that, this Budget racks up debt like never before. Labor is loading $23,100 of debt onto the shoulders of every Victorian man, woman and child and has forecast debt peaking at $155 billion, which will eventually cost $4 billion in interest repayments.

In terms of deficit the projections tower against the combined deficits of all other Australian States, and on growth the Government has sided with the public sector and the male-dominated construction industry instead of fostering private enterprise. Confidence has been sapped. People are voting with their feet.

Thousands have migrated from Victoria in a way we have not seen for 25 years. The international experts have also cast their judgement. As soon as the Budget was handed down the international credit rating agencies circled on the carcass of economic responsibility in Victoria, swooped in and downgraded our rating sharply. It was downgraded from AAA to AA. Labor’s Budget legacy will be the trashing of economic responsibility.

Credit ratings are not simply something to boast about. The rating gauges a state’s ability to repay its debt. Instead of acknowledging that Victorians will pay more for Labor’s debt through a higher cost of borrowing, the Treasurer responded in his typically contemptuous way. He casually sneered that the downgrade was ‘not unexpected’. But what was worse was that the Treasurer acknowledged that he had no plan, no economic plan, for Budget repair. His lack of plan was not lost on the rating agencies either. Moody’s described the budget as ‘silent on debt stabilisation and reduction strategies’ and said that the budget position had ‘weakened its capacity to pursue timely fiscal repair’. Standard & Poor’s went further, ringing dire alarm bells by saying our budget ‘could take generations to recover’. These verdicts have sent a very strong signal. They have undermined the business community’s already shaken confidence.

Labor despises the private sector. Business knows this Government rewards tax spenders, not taxpayers. Labor has delivered a Budget that backs in the public sector at the expense of the private sector. Just look at the Government’s public sector wage bill, set to jump by 10 per cent over the next two years, from $30 billion to $33 billion. Incredibly, the wage bill for top public servants has tripled.

Mum-and-dad businesses of Main Street should know that Labor has turned its back on them. These businesses are the backbone of our economy, and I say to the private sector: you must never forget that when the pandemic hit, every State Government jumped to support business and protect workers—every State Government except the Victorian Labor Government. Businesses should also not forget the Treasurer’s rationale for not providing support—because he was ‘monitoring’.

When this Government’s wholly misguided support came, it totally missed the mark. Labor has left small businesses behind, and businesses know it. The Sensis Business Index reports that business believes the Victorian Government is the equal worst Government in the country in its support of small business and one
in four believes the Victorian Government’s policies are actively working against them. What a sad record for this state to hold, having small business decide that their Government is actively working against them. But can you blame them? Late last year Bill Lang, the Executive Director of Small Business Australia, estimated that more than a third of Victoria’s small businesses had either closed permanently or were ‘on the verge’ of closing.

Despite that dire State, newly released figures expose how deeply small business has been ignored by Government. Of the 640,000 small businesses in Victoria, only one in five received any support from Labor during the pandemic. The Premier forcibly shut business down and left 80 per cent to drown, and sole traders, many of whom are women, were hit even harder. Labor did not just let them drown; this Government held their heads underwater. You drowned them. We know that only 33,000 of Victoria’s 412,000 sole traders were eligible for Government support. Over 90 per cent of the State’s sole traders were ineligible. We also know that for the 10 per cent of sole traders that were eligible only $15 million of the $100 million sole trader package was actually spent. The private sector should know that Labor has sat on the support fund instead of paying it out.

This Budget has offered our private sector a road to nowhere. What Labor has never respected is that mum-and-dad businesses are the backbone of our communities. Small businesses are the local employers, where our children get their first job. We can see the impact now on unemployment.

Since the start of the pandemic over one in 10 jobs has been lost in Victorian businesses employing fewer than 20 people. When our small businesses suffer, our children suffer disproportionately, as do women.

In many ways young Victorians are doing it tougher than most, in terms of both the impact of the pandemic on their way of life and on their outlook for the future. Their education has changed, and their social engagement has been cut off. As Youth Affairs Council Victoria puts it, there is:

… an economic and employment crisis for young people in Victoria.

For young Victorians the prospect of generational inequality is real. This explains why young people have suffered mentally in a disproportionate way. Saving minds is just as important as saving lives.

Last year’s report from Beyond Blue that one in five children between 11 and 17 years old were experiencing high or very high levels of psychological stress was deeply alarming. One proposal to address this, as set out by the Victorian Student Representative Council in their Congress 2020 report, is to incorporate a consistent mental health curriculum to identify specific mental health conditions throughout the lower secondary years.

Despite the relaxation of restrictions in the community, the pandemic will have a profound and ongoing effect on young Victorians. We can see that in the employment market. There are 57,300 less Victorians in work compared to at the start of the pandemic, and three out of five of those dislocated are women. And alarmingly, one in six young people are unemployed—15 per cent roughly— almost three times the state average of 6.5 per cent. With state underemployment averaging 9 per cent and a higher youth underemployment rate, there is little doubt a further one in six young people are underemployed.

It should be a sobering fact for this Parliament that roughly one in every three young people in this state is either unemployed or underemployed. These figures are grim. As Youth Affairs Council Victoria recently put in their report A COVID-19 Recovery Plan for Young People:

The pandemic will result in economic scarring that will affect this generation of young people for their entire lives…Economic scarring will negatively impact young people’s health and wellbeing until their retirement.

The challenges our young people face not only deserve to be voiced but also deserve a detailed policy response. Instead young people have a shallow Budget wrapped in branding aimed at giving the appearance of helping them, when in reality the Budget has left them behind. Like most Labor policy, the Jobs for Victoria initiative has been scant on detail and results. We are told that the money will go towards wage-subsidised jobs. Considering the Government’s track record, young Victorians should not be holding their breath.

The Youth Affairs Council has called on the State Government to develop and release a recovery plan for young people. The Council is right. Young people deserve a concrete plan, a plan of hope. They deserve more than a hollow Budget offering young Victorians a road to nowhere.

Leaving people behind and shutting the door has been a hallmark of this Government. We saw that with the immoral and illegal public housing lockdown, and our community felt the Premier’s heavy hand again in January when Victorians were locked out of their own State, when our neighbours were refused the right to return home. Victorians were made stateless, and now the Premier is asking to extend the State of Emergency powers for a full year. What madness. This Parliament cannot allow the State to be run by dangerous, unaccountable decree.

The City of Melbourne is the heart of our State, a heart that is now on life support, where over one in four businesses are either closed or vacant. The decimation of our great City centre is not just economically dire; it is having a profound effect on the psyche of Victorians and it undermines business confidence. During the week before Christmas, the City of Melbourne pedestrian traffic report showed a 36 per cent reduction in shoppers in the Bourke Street Mall from the year before. Similarly, the city’s nightlife has been crushed.

The nightlife which supported 31,000 jobs pre-pandemic was down by two-thirds on the year prior. At its most vibrant the city delivered a quarter of the State’s economic turnover—$104 billion last year—and almost 1 million people worked in, lived in or visited it each weekday. The City will not return to its vibrancy on its own. We need to fix our State’s centre. We will not fix it if the disjointed, conflicted announcements continue on when workers can return to office work. We know that if one in five City office workers keeps working from home it will come at a $540 million cost. The Premier might have the power to march around the public service, but he has no power to direct the private sector, which he treats like second-class citizens. The disjointed City decrees have had one effect— undermining confidence. Business will weigh up their business models and reconsider future investment, and you can feel it. Labor had a moral obligation to do something for our City. The Budget should have been an opportunity for a broader emergency response, but again the Budget failed and left our city centre behind.

It is not only the City centre but other economic cornerstones that have been ignored in this Budget. International education is a cornerstone of Victoria’s future economic prosperity. For over 10 years it has been our largest services export industry, delivering $13.7 billion in revenue and supporting almost 79,000 jobs. In fact, Victoria represents one-third of Australia’s onshore enrolments. The sector has been decimated, and although there are overarching Federal issues, each State must be on the front foot. We need to be planning.

Instead of offering hope the Premier has simply said that developing a plan is frankly not possible. Well, it was possible in the Northern Territory. In November, under strict quarantine conditions, 63 international students from five countries arrived in Australia to study at Charles Darwin University. All proactive plans deserve consideration, because you cannot kick the leg out from a chair and not dive in to rescue it from falling over. With that in mind the International Education Association of Australia has proposed a purpose-built quarantine arrangement for students, paid for by international students and the education providers. Not only do we need a plan to recommence onsite international learning, but the Government should be using the Budget to encourage the export of Victorian education online into international markets.

This Budget is a con. It is a Budget that offers a road to nowhere, a Budget that is economically irresponsible and undermines confidence in the State, and in turn it has cut community confidence off at the knees. Labor has left Victorians behind, and I say again to my community: Labor has forgotten you.

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