Bill: Appropriation Bill 2016 (2nd Reading)


Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 12:11 ): The Appropriation Bill is the bill we are debating and the opposition will support the appropriation of money. This is the bill that enables our public servants to continue to be paid once the money appropriated in the Supply Bill, which we debated in May and June, runs out. The money from the Appropriation Bill will flow for the rest of the year and, of course, we will support it. 

The job of the opposition in such a debate is therefore to critique the government's bill, which is what the Leader of the Opposition did earlier, as did the member for Finniss. One presumes that the role of a minister in such a debate, if they choose to speak, is to talk about the good things they claim to be doing in the area, and so inform the house and the people of South Australia. I will not go on about it, but I note that the minister who spoke earlier completely failed to do that and, instead, spent 20 minutes criticising other members of parliament—an extraordinarily strange set of behaviours. 

I will talk at great length in response to the estimates process about matters within my portfolio responsibilities of education, multicultural affairs, the arts and higher education, science and the information economy. I will give a more general speech in the time allocated today in response to the broad situation with the budget, but I will just touch on a couple of matters in those portfolios, Of course, my constituents are concerned about a number of the ways in which the government's approach impacts upon their lives and on a day-to-day basis. 

I will therefore talk about four key things. I wish to talk today about unemployment, the fiscal state of the budget (and, indeed, this claimed surplus, which technically, by the most generous of accounting terms might actually be a surplus but, on any reading, amounts to a structural deficit), some of the government's reckless fiscal management and, of course, the impact that all of this has on the cost of living for all South Australians and for some South Australians in particular who, as a consequence of this budget and the consequences of this government's mismanagement, will suffer increases in the cost of living and will face greater difficulties. 

Unemployment in South Australia is our key problem. The Leader of the Opposition earlier identified an increase in excess of 40,000 net migration out of South Australia interstate. That is 4,900 more South Australians leaving South Australia to go to another state than coming in, which is over 40,000 over the life of this government. 

Five thousand is a very high number for a net migration figure. I remember being appalled when I read that it was over 3,000 some 10 years ago and thinking that the government was not doing its job. I could see the impact, because it was my friends—people I went to school with, people I went to university with, young professionals and young tradies. These were people with a bit of get up and go who wanted to make a good life for themselves and their families and were finding the opportunities in South Australia so limiting that they were choosing to go interstate instead. That is writ large. 

Where South Australia is, where the masses of migration have been consistently coming from over the life of this government, and when even Tasmania is now at nearly net zero interstate migration because people in Tasmania are now seeing a future for themselves and their families there, is a highlight and a beacon that this government is failing at employment. If that was not enough, let us look at the ABS figures, which show that South Australia has once again, which has been for more than a year and half, the highest unemployment in the nation at 7 per cent. 

Jobs growth in this, the second of the Treasurer's so-called jobs budgets, is once again at less than half of the national projections for jobs growth. How can the Treasurer, as he did last year, call it a 'jobs budget' when his own officials are predicting that, with the measures he is taking in his so-called jobs budget, jobs will grow at 0.75 per cent while jobs across Australia will be growing at in excess of 1.75 per cent? 

Unemployment is a concern. Unemployment is going to get better if you put in place the settings which will provide an environment conducive to businesses having the confidence to invest, as the Liberal Party has done in its reformist government in Tasmania and in other states. This government has manifestly failed to do that over and over again. I think one of the things that triggers that failure in confidence is that the business community, as indeed the whole community, does not and cannot have confidence in this government to put those settings in place when it claims its jobs budget and surplus based on these incredibly false presumptions. 

Let us talk about the surplus in brief. We are pleased that the government seems to understand a surplus is in itself a good idea, but I think that the Treasurer clearly thinks it looks good on a press release, so having a technical surplus is enough. What he fails to grasp is that, ideally, we would have an actual surplus—a structural surplus; a surplus that suggests that we have managed to live within our means and to grow the pie so that we have a growing economy—so that more people are in jobs, so that more people are paying taxes, so that more businesses are paying taxes, and so fewer people are requiring support from government. 

Instead, we have a surplus that is built on increased revenues from the federal government. I note that, despite the state government's claims of reduced federal funding, South Australia will receive an extra $528 million in GST funding in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. The commonwealth is contributing an extra $187 million towards health funding over three years. So, this is built on significant increases in funding coming from the federal government and, of course, $400 million coming from the Motor Accident Commission this year. 

I think that in accounting terms, it is unusual for, as the Treasurer has claimed, a privatisation of the MAC. Usually, one would not put that in the profit and loss statement but, because of the structure of what the government is doing, they do. So, they claim this surplus that is built on a tissue of convenience. The reckless fiscal management that has led us to this situation is reliant on the government. When confronted with a problem, rather than, 'How can I fix this and how can we make a long-term change?' they say, 'Okay, let's sign the cheque and worry about the rest later.' Consequently, we have had budget overspend in almost every year of the government's tenure. 

As the Leader of the Opposition identified in his speech, there have been extraordinary blowouts across the health department, the education department (where there has been an overspend of some $80 million), the transport department and others. When departments and governments consistently overspend their budgets that is a sign that you need to either have a look at how those budgets are set in the first place or look at what has happened in the intervening years. Occasionally, there are things that might come up that the government needs to base decisions on, but we see this every single year and it is a sign of a government that does not care about meeting its budgets, and that is another of its failures. 

My former portfolio was in the Corrections department and for a number of years the opposition was calling for investment in rehabilitation programs, investment in perpetrator programs and domestic violence, for example. In this year's budget they have now seen a little bit of funding go in and we have seen an increase in the number of prison beds. Here is the thing: it is cheaper to have somebody in a prison bed that has been budgeted for in advance than it is to have somebody who is forced to be in police custody; for example, in one of those police cells at Holden Hill which is used as an overflow for when the prisons are full. It is cheaper to have somebody in a properly budgeted for and prepared for prison environment. 

It is cheaper still, and it is a much better outcome for the community, if that person does not commit a crime in the first place. The best bang for your buck in reducing crimes is if you are able to change the behaviour of somebody who has previously behaved in a criminal way. If you are able to reach out to the person who has committed a criminal offence and is in Her Majesty's custody at Her Majesty's pleasure and change their behaviours—if they have cognitive behavioural problems then by dealing with that side—and if there are ways to get them into a skilled job where they can contribute to society, then that has to be the focus. 

There has been some minimal investment in this year's budget—and it is minimal investment. It is the sort of investment that has been needed for years and years, but we see it all too late. That department has had cost overruns every year because of the increases in numbers that have been over and above the ludicrous 3 per cent increases that were budgeted for. I hope the programs that have now been funded—and it is not a great deal of funding—will have a significant impact and I hope that they will change the behaviours of some of those perpetrators. Critically, and this is so much more important even than the incredible budget savings potentially there for the people of South Australia, I hope that that will mean that there will be reduced impacts on the victims of those crimes and that there will be increased community safety. 

The impacts of the budget are significant in terms of the cost of living of everyday South Australians, the people in our community and our constituents who come to express their concerns. They express their concerns about the cost of motor vehicles and running a car going up and the cost of public transport going up. However, there are some really significant impacts in this budget that are over and above that. 

The massive increase in the solid waste levy will cost South Australians an extra $64 million over four years. It is a politically clever, morally vacuous way to do it. The impact will be felt first and foremost by people when they are paying their council rates in the years ahead, because it is the councils that are going to be finding the money this year. Most of them, of course, have set their budgets well in advance of the state government identifying that they would have this increase. Most of them have set their budgets in the financial year before this financial year to which this budget applies. 

The government delayed its budget and, in doing so, has made the job even harder for local councils that are seeking to do this. Of course, the impact on rates may follow for those who are unable to find the hundreds of thousands or the millions of dollars in increased costs to their local government area. It is a state government tax and it will be felt by the local government area but it will be felt, in the long term, by all South Australian ratepayers. 

This budget has also found a novel way—novel in that it has not been done in South Australia before—to increase the cost of living for 457 visa holder immigrants working in those areas by, for the first time, introducing school fees of $5,000 or $6,000 for the children of 457 visas being educated in our public schools. This is another example of the way in which the government is increasing the cost of living for everyday South Australians. The things that really resonate—and the member for Finniss identified these in his comments—the things that people come into my electorate office about very regularly and are very concerned about are their utilities, their everyday cost of living, their electricity and water bills and charges. 

I recently had a fairly interesting discussion with somebody who pointed out an app that you can get on your iPhone. I assume those of you on Android and other devices can get this as well, and I encourage everyone to do so. It is called PocketNEM and it has a fairly nice graphic that identifies at any given moment the cost of electricity in the states on the grid. At this moment in time, for example, I can tell you that in Tasmania it is $29.27, in Victoria it is $32.01, in New South Wales it is $29.99, in Queensland it is $28.69, and in South Australia $39.22. 

Ms Redmond: Only 25 per cent more. 

Mr GARDNER: Yes, the member for Heysen has spotted it: only 25 per cent more than the rest of the country. When I say ‘only’, I mean ‘significantly’. I was looking at it this morning and it was over $300 at one point in South Australia, and it was high in one other state and the other states were lower. I have looked at it probably 30 times over the last week and there was one time when South Australia was below one of the other states and in all the other times we have been the highest in the country. 

The leader set out in great detail in his speech some of the things that go into that, but I want to talk a bit about the impact that has on everyday South Australians by using (and I will do this in the water area as well) an example of the impact on one person who has asked me to share their comments in the parliament. This is not an example of the only sorts of issues, but I think it is useful to cite real-life examples. My constituent writes: 

Hello John 

I think you might be interested in the notification I have just received from AGL which represents a 40 % increase in my fortnightly payments despite the fact that my usage has gone down by 46 %... 

He has provided attachments. He continues: 

This represents an additional $54 per four weeks (say $60 per month ) and is appalling. To say that I a m angry is to say the very least . 

We spent a bit of time talking with my constituent. He went on to write: 

I am sure I will not be the only one who writes —t ell me how many will be able to afford this . The lights will go out across SA as AGL forecloses on people . 

My constituent was able to have his fortnightly electricity reduced, through negotiation in the end, to $69 and the gas from $46 to $38. My constituent also wanted me to thank the person at AGL resolutions who was able to be helpful, but here is the critical thing: for so many vulnerable South Australians, it is not going to be the first thing they do—they will pay their bill and make cuts elsewhere. 

Those people who have the wherewithal or who have the support to do that negotiation, to find the best price and so on, will be better off, but the government, in its casual dismissal of the concerns about high electricity prices by saying, ‘Oh, you can negotiate,’ forget that often the most vulnerable are the ones least in the position to be able to do that negotiation, to do that checking, to do that shopping around. We are very concerned that many people in the community, pensioners and others, will just accept their bills and keep paying them, and when the government has the settings in place that lead us to having the highest electricity prices in the nation—double the prices in Victoria with the same privatised market—then that is a concern. 

I also want to bring to the attention of the house some correspondence I had with the Minister for Communities and Social Inclusion in relation to a constituent who had issues with their water bill. There are a number of constituents across South Australia whose water bill concessions were applied differently from last year. I have been helping one constituent in particular over a number of months since she came into the office in April concerned about her concessions, and she is a good example of what is a much greater problem for a much greater number of people. 

Last year, she changed from being on Newstart Allowance to being on a low-income healthcare card. Since the change, she has not received concessions on her SA Water bills but is still getting concessions on the AGL bills. She has tried to get this sorted out (from October to April) but was not able to get anywhere. She kept getting shunted between SA Water and the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion. 

My staff and I have been going back and forward with the minister's office, with SA Water and with the department since the beginning of April. Sometimes we got answers saying that she was eligible for the concession, was on the list, and sometimes she was not. I do not have time to go through the whole set of interactions, but there have been about 25. I finish with this letter I received from the minister that I want to read out for the illumination of the house and maybe others will have better insight into the use of the language therein: 

Dear John, Thank you for your email on behalf of [the constituent] — 

I will not name her. 

about [their] concern she was no longer receiving water and s ewerage concessions. The DCSI has advised on 1 May 2015 [ the constituent's ] water and sewerage concessions ceased as Centrelink records confirmed she no longer held a Pensioner Concession Card. The SA Water and Sewerage Concession Scheme 2013 requires that to be eligible for concessions an applicant must hold an eligible card or be in receipt of an eligible payment, as well as occupying the land as their principal place of residence. 

On 18 December 2015 [the constituent] reapplied for water and sewerage concessions as she now held a Low Income Health Care Card. As a result, she was eligible for concessions for the following SA Water billing periods: April to June 2015, July to September 2015 and October to December 2015. For each of these periods, [the constituent] was eligible for $46.25 water concession and $27.50 sewerage concession, totalling $221.25. 

DCSI has informed me that on 5 January 2016, backdated water and sewerage concessions of $221.25 were processed. The concessions were applied to [the constituent's] next SA Water bill, dated 9 March 2016. 

I understand that in addition to the March account, [the constituent] received two addi tional invoices from SA Water: one dated 23 December 2015 for $72.31 and a second revised invoice dated 6 January 2016 for $331.06. I also understand that it was not clear to [the constituent] that the concession had been applied to her March 2016 account. DCSI contacted SA Water to clarify these accounts. 

SA Water advised [the constituent] was reinvoiced for the three billing per iods from April to December. SA  Water stated for that period the amended amount billed totalled $990.27. Of that she had already paid $659.21 leaving a balance of $331.06. On 29 February [the constituent] paid the $72.31. 

The March bill incorporated the $221 concession. The bill totalled $653. I will continue my remarks in my next opportunity to speak.