Tuesday 17th June 2008
Hansard of the Legislative Council
CONSOLIDATED FUND APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 1) 2008 (No. 32)
CONSOLIDATED FUND APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 2) 2008 (No. 33)
Re-election and Noting of Budget Papers
Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Madam President, firstly, I congratulate you on your elevation, as this is the first opportunity I have had to offer you my congratulations. Of course, you have proved yourself over the years to be eminently qualified for the position. I would like to thank you especially, Madam President, for that very firm control you have had over our Budget Estimates Committee B and the government businesses enterprise hearings in the past.
Mr Wilkinson - Some might call it gagging.
Mr FINCH - No, we have really appreciated your chairmanship and I am sure that you will have strong support and the cooperation of all members of this House in your new position. You follow, of course, the particularly eminent former President, the member for Launceston. I know he must certainly appreciate that reference to our city in the title that he holds. Of course the member for Hobart as well, I am sure, is pleased with that title.
Mrs Rattray-Wagner - And? Western Tiers.
Mr FINCH - And Western Tiers to your eyes.
The member for Launceston, when he was in the President's chair, certainly made my first six years in this House a much more pleasant experience than it might have been.
Mr Wilkinson - Who was the worst?
Mr FINCH - The member for Rowallan could have been the Chair. We all would have been in strife.
I would also like to thank the member for Launceston for his consideration, integrity, advice and, probably most of all, his hospitality. I am sure other members would agree. I am sure I speak for everybody who appreciates his presidency. I am sure we will be saying the same about our incumbent at a later stage.
I would also like to congratulate the member for Huon on being returned to this House in recent times for the third time. Like me, the member for Huon had the benefits of incumbency but also the disadvantages which I am going to touch on because political commentator, Richard Herr, suggests that incumbency is a significant factor in being re-elected in this House. He points out that in the past decade 21 sitting MLC’s have stood for re-election and only four have been defeated.
Mrs Rattray-Wagner - Two by Labor Party people.
Mr FINCH - Very good. There is an opportunity here for everybody. He suggests a number of reasons for this, including our staggered electoral cycle which might lead to less awareness by the public. Our lower voter turnout compared to the House of Assembly seems to support this. I know that in my electorate, I had 5000 people who did not vote. I am just curious, member for Huon, did you know how many in your electorate did not vote?
Mr Harriss - I had an 83 per cent return. You're quicker at numbers than me.
Mr FINCH - Okay, 3 421. And a half.
Mr Wilkinson - It was the same the year before.
Mr Aird - Did you go looking for them?
Mr Harriss - The member for Lyons tracks them down personally.
Mr FINCH - I must say that figure of 5 000 who did not vote did surprise me because of the work carried out by the Electoral Commission. I was very impressed with the way they endeavoured to let the public know fully of their obligations in respect of compulsory voting and also where the electorate was and whether they were part of that electorate. It was interesting that 5 000 people chose not to use their democratic vote. I was just reflecting on my inaugural speech six years ago when I talked about my ability and that of other candidates to move throughout the electorate to campaign and discuss politics without fear of recriminations or violence against us, that we could approach and talk to people and that it felt so good to live in our free democracy in Tasmania.
At the same time, I was thinking about those people in East Timor and in African countries. Take Zimbabwe, for instance, where people give their lives to seek the opportunity to have a democratic vote.
Mr Wing - And in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and so many other countries.
Mr FINCH - And here we are in Tasmania, 5 000 people in my electorate chose not to vote.
Ms Forrest - A percentage of them could have just forgotten.
Mr FINCH - That is a pretty high number, though.
Mr Wilkinson - They were scared what you might do with them if they voted.
Ms Forrest - They just couldn't bring themselves to vote for you, that was perhaps the problem, or anybody else.
Mr FINCH - They were family actually.
Mr FINCH - Back to Richard Herr. He mentioned the cap on spending by candidates which, in my opinion, is a good thing. This year our cap was at $11 250.
Mr Harriss - I thought it was $15 -
Mr FINCH - I checked and double-checked. We do not want to see a United States situation where it seems that only millionaires get elected and here in the Legislative Council it is not about buying a seat in Parliament.
Richard Herr mentions constituency work by members which, to me, seems to be the biggest factor for re-election to this House. If you have neglected your constituents they are not going to vote for you again. I think it is as simple as that, Madam President. I remember the expression that I heard here often enough as we drew closer to May was 'You don't fatten the calf at sale time', and I think that is right. I think if you have not done the work over the six years then you pay a price.
Mr Wing - You have eaten consistently over six years.
Mr FINCH - There are some advantages in incumbency but there is also a considerable handicap in the election campaign itself, as I am sure the member for Huon will agree. The disadvantage is the relatively short period from the close of nominations to polling day. Not only is there not a lot of time but of course sitting members are often engaged in parliamentary sittings and also in their other work, particularly committee work -
Mr Hall - Why didn't you start in January?
Mr FINCH - I did start in January, the January of 2003. That means that the time for getting out into the electorate is limited. In the case of this last poll, both these factors limited both my and the member for Huon's ability to campaign. I think it was the first time in his living memory and perhaps for others that we sat for three weeks during April, which is the lead-up time. We sat for three weeks and then I also, in chairing the Community Development Committee, had a half a week taken with sittings there as well. There were, of course, no restrictions on our opponents.
Mrs Rattray-Wagner - That was poorly organised by you as chair.
Mr FINCH - I think I am inclined to agree with you. It will not happen again in six years' time anyway.
Mr Harriss - And yet you still got 72 per cent.
Mr FINCH - It was tighter than I expected. A sitting member usually has no idea whether there will be an opponent until the deadline for nominations. I was walking across the street to go into the Electoral Commission, still with an open mind, still not getting ahead of myself but still not having heard of any opponent being there for me and still having this spectre of the skinner hanging over me.
Mr Wilkinson - You put this fellow up to it so you didn't have to shout, didn't you? That is what it was all about.
Mr FINCH - As I made my way across the street, really trying not get ahead of myself or I might have been run over, I could see some activity in the Electoral Commission door and then I could see the little barrel that is used for deciding the first on the ballot and, of course, sure enough, when I walked in the door that was the first indication I had, right on 12 noon at the closing of nomination, that somebody had in fact decided to stand against me. But I suppose most of you have experienced the feelings that I have just mentioned, being here in your second and third and fourth and some in their fifth terms. Of course you half hope that you will be re-elected unopposed. The good old skinner; it has a nice ring to it. It certainly has a nice feeling in the wallet if you do not have to go through the election process but you realise too that it might be a little bit anticlimactic as well.
Mr Parkinson - Particularly in an off year.
Mr FINCH - That is right. And you save the alcohol, that is right, you save on the money, the posters, advertising and certainly anxiety. But, on the other hand, it is easy to rationalise being challenged as well. It gives you an opportunity to justify your performance in front of the electorate and I suppose in my case too, to re-establish myself in front of the electorate. I will say that my phone was not so busy and the issues from the community were not as strong throughout my first six years as they have been since I have been re-elected. So I think it has re-established in people's mind that I am their representative and that I am available to them and they have sought to come to me.
Ultimately, as the member for Huon will know, there is some satisfaction in being challenged and going on to win, even if favoured by incumbency and handicapped by parliamentary duties, as we are. But it is nice to be re-endorsed by your constituents, to feel your work over the past six years has been recognised and appreciated. If one were to choose, you would want a viable but not too viable opponent.
Mr FINCH - The member for Huon and I were favoured in this regard, for re-elected we both were and I am sure we both have ambitions for our next term for our electorates. For my part I will continue to do what I am already doing, listening to my electorate, doing the best that I can for them, alerting the Government to the issues of my electorate and scrutinising proposed legislation with probably a little bit more experience and maybe a modicum more of expertise.
But above all, with the previous six years' experience, of course it is our job to hold the Government to account. That is what this House is about and politics is a flawed thing. There is no such thing as a perfect government, which might surprise some here - or anywhere near perfect.
Ms Ritchie - There is no such thing as a perfect anything is there?
Mr FINCH - No, that is right. But all governments need to be carefully monitored in the public interest.
Down to the business of the Budget. Madam President, if you were to ask my constituents or indeed in any others in Tasmania, what their budget priorities are or were before the Budget, they would be likely to answer, health and education, with probably infrastructure being a close third. So this Budget really is spot on. The $622 million for capital expenditure will be an economic and employment stimulus to Tasmania, as will the recurrent expenditure initiatives, including $80 million for health and $56 million for education. So it is a bountiful budget made possible by Tasmania's better-than-expected, very strong financial position.
It is estimated that over the next three years the Government will benefit from almost $900 million more revenue than it predicted in the last Budget. So we are in a good position, Madam President, but there is no room for complacency. There are numerous dangers on the horizon, including a potential loss of GST revenue if consumers panic and significantly cut their spending. The Treasurer has stressed how much the Government is dependent on State taxes and that those amount to about 35 per cent of the Budget. It would seem there is little chance of any substantial future cuts in State taxes. However, businesses might receive some relief from future recommendations of the Business Regulation and Taxation Reform Reference group. There is no doubt that State taxes do need to be looked at.
Other States are doing this but the hands of reform are tied by the way that the Commonwealth's grants system undermines the States' ability to reform their own taxes. There was an article in the Australian Financial Review last Friday that was really quite revealing. It points out that some States are, and I quote, 'racing to cut broad-based taxes such as payroll tax rather than eliminating inefficient transaction taxes such as stamp duty on property sales'.
The Treasurer, I am sure, will understand better than I do how State GST funding is discounted based on States' ability to raise revenue under a process called horizontal fiscal equalisation. I got the thumbs up on that. I am sure that the Treasurer can explain that little one better than I can.
Mr Aird - We can do vertical fiscal imbalance at the same time, if you like.
Mr FINCH - No, I am only quoting from the Australian Financial Review.
Mr Wilkinson - Are you saying there should be a set figure for stamp duty as opposed to that increasing figure that arises � the more expensive the property, the more expensive the stamp duty? Are you saying that it should be set?
Mr FINCH - You are directing the question to the wrong person. That is for question time tomorrow.
Mr Wilkinson - But that is what you are saying, is it not?
Mr FINCH - Yes, however -
Mr FINCH - I am will continue with the article in the Financial Review. Leave me alone.
Mr FINCH - It went on to explain that horizontal fiscal equalisation encourages States to reduce their reliance on efficient and highly lucrative taxes in order to receive more Commonwealth Grants Commission money. This is something the Treasurer might not agree with, but it is obviously something that needs to be pursued at a Federal level. A solution may well emerge from a review of National Tax Reform by the Federal Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry.
In his usual Tasmanian State Budget analysis, the ANZ Bank's chief economist, Saul Eslake, notes Tasmania's very strong financial position. As always, Mr former President -
Mr FINCH - member for Launceston, it is always worth quoting Mr Eslake. He says:
'Tasmania will be the only jurisdiction (other than the Commonwealth) running fiscal surpluses over the next four years. Indeed every other State with the exception of Western Australia expects to incur a fiscal deficit in each of the next four years. Tasmania and the two Territories are alone in projecting cash surpluses in each of the next four years; NSW, Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia are all expected to incur cash deficits in each of the years 2008-09 through to 2011-12.
As a result, in a rather amazing turnaround from the position of a decade ago, by 30 June 2012 Tasmania will have the strongest 'general government' net debt position of any State or Territory.'
Mrs Rattray-Wagner - Did you read that somewhere?
Mr FINCH - I read that. Saul Eslake wrote that.
Mr Harriss - Who is he?
Mr FINCH - He is ANZ's chief economist. I am sure the Treasurer has already taken that in.
Mr Harriss - He is going to be the new head of Treasury, you know?
Mr Aird - You better talk to the present one before you say something like that. I think he has other ideas.
Mr FINCH - It is worth noting in other parts of our future head of Treasury's report - no, I am only joking - Mr Eslake's report, he praises what he refers to as further improvements in the quality of the State's budget papers and continues:
' Tasmania is only marginally behind Western Australia (and significantly ahead of the Commonwealth and Victoria) in terms of the comprehensiveness and transparency of the information provided about the government's financial position and prospects.'
And I am sure Treasury would be proud of that commendation.
Mr Harriss - That's because Mr Eslake bashed them up a couple of years ago and made suggestions, and they took on the suggestions.
Mr FINCH - There you go, no wonder he gave a glowing report.
Mr Harriss - Ahead of his time.
Mr FINCH - It is hard, Madam President, to whinge about this Budget although some have managed to do so, but I am not a whinger. In fact, I asked the Mayor of the West Tamar Council about the budget measures and it is obvious that Barry Easther is not a whinger either. His wish list was short and he mainly stressed road standards and road safety, including the importance of a high standard in the sealing work next summer to finish off the improvements to the West Tamar Highway. I have highlighted that before with my questions here in the House, and people were concerned that the job that had been done with the lines being painted over was the finished job. It was very disconcerting for my community when people thought that this was going to be the finished product, but next summer we will see the final sealing work and I know that my community will be watching very closely that that is done to a very high standard.
Mr Easther also highlighted the importance of getting the Riverside highway review right. As members are no doubt aware, there has been a lot of argument over the speed of traffic that goes past the schools in Riverside. We have four schools in a very close cluster there -
Ms Forrest - We need to amalgamate a few of them, then.
Mr FINCH - and the traffic moves through at quite a speed getting to work in the morning and it is very heavy traffic. I put a suggestion forward that maybe we can have a special road that runs around the back of the schools. I think DIER have looked at that in the past and are perhaps doing so again. That would alleviate the issue of children getting out of cars on a very busy highway and cars pulling in and then pulling out to rejoin the traffic. We will see what happens there. Mr Easther makes the point that slowing down the traffic in the area might not be the best option. He wants to take a very close look at the future of the highway through Riverside in the long term, in view of its vital importance for those in my electorate who use it to get to work in Launceston.
Without whingeing, Madam President, I diffidently bring up the case of the Frankford Main Road. Its problems are well known and I would like it to be of a standard to become the Frankford highway as soon as possible, as some refer to it already and they use it as if it is in that condition already. Frankford became part of my electorate with the recent redistribution of the Legislative Council electoral boundaries, and I do welcome those 164 residents of Frankford. It was the only part of the West Tamar Municipality that was not in my electorate, so it made sense that that should be included in my electorate at the expense of the member for Western Tiers. They were broken-hearted that they had to cut you free but I had a community meeting with the people of Frankford and they welcomed the opportunity to have me as their representative, because a lot of my work does take me along the Frankford Highway through Glengarry and almost to Frankford. In fact, I have been, with the member for Western Tiers' permission, I might add, supporting a young weight-lifter from the Frankford area, Jenna Myers, for some three or four years now and encouraging her with her endeavours. She is from a family of eight children and they live at Frankford. She has made her way as a wonderful young athlete in the field of weight-lifting. I will probably talk more about this at a future opportunity -
Mrs Rattray-Wagner - A special interest.
Mr FINCH - Ah - what is that? She certainly had a major setback in her sporting career and has fought back. In fact, the weekend before last in Melbourne she was vying for the final women's position to go to Beijing. Although she competed very well, she was not taken in the team. She is not going to Beijing but in the true spirit that she has always shown she said that 2012 is going to be her next target. I am really happy that Jenna Myers has been able to regroup and come back in a very demanding sport, and she will go on.
Allocation of spending on infrastructure always leads to some parochial rivalry in Tasmania. While it is natural to want the spending in your own area we must not lose sight of the overall good for the State. The Brighton bypass, of course, is an urgent need, Madam President, and will benefit all Tasmanians and so will the new Royal Hobart Hospital. As far as this Budget's priorities are concerned, it is obvious that while the Treasurer's bucket of money is looking good, it is not unlimited.
The honourable member for Windermere touched on the Northern Support School and I thought I would make a contribution in that respect. I had some notes that I have not had a chance to review but I highlighted to the member for Windermere the fact that the parents were so pleased that their children had the chance to go to the Northern Support School and they wrote very glowing reports.
There is a boy in grade 10 at Riverside High who attends the Northern Support School for two days a week, one term a year, and the remainder of the time he spends at Riverside. He catches the free bus to and from the support school at Ravenswood. The support school provides more real-life and practical skills than academic, and it gave him the confidence to work on his own. He actually likes the support school as he mixes with children at the same level, which makes him happy and boosts his confidence.
The teacher cannot speak highly enough of the skilled teachers who are trained for students with special needs. This is his last year at the school and the parent would like to see this school continue as she knows the system works. She considers if the high school takes over the role, the skill level of these teachers will be lost as funding will not cover enough teachers of the same calibre.
I will not go on but, suffice to say, I was very surprised that the Department of Education - given the evidence that came forward from the community about the retention of the Northern Support School - did not see fit to continue running that institution. It caused a lot of angst and turmoil amongst the parents from my community who had used it in the past, who are using it now, and I feel greatly for those people who might have accessed that opportunity in the future. It seems to be one of the success stories of the work of education in our community. How often are parents just befuddled at how to solve the issue of a child who is having trouble at school - they have difficulties with communication, difficulties with guiding that person and here is the opportunity where professionals take those children on and invariably produce success stories in the way those children then are reintroduced back to their schools. They come back changed children.
Mr Wing - Unfortunately the decision was made solely on cost and not on the best interests of those types of children.
Mr FINCH - Yes, and not a good situation on cost when in fact as we are talking here we do have some largesse, a modicum there, that could have covered that situation.
Mr Wing - It will be more costly in the future if some of those children finish up in prison.
Mr FINCH - Yes, if they stay off the rails, if they are not corrected, if they are not helped and supported. That was my view of what was going on at the Northern Support School. However, we will see and I will have an opportunity during the budget Estimates to highlight that situation even more. Just suffice to say now that it was of grave concern to the parents in my community. I felt very much for the staff who had worked diligently to develop a quality to their work and they were results based. They look to support their community with their skills but I am fearful that their skills will be not so much lost as dissolved, and it will not be as effective a situation as we have had.
I think as far as the budget priorities are concerned, the Treasurer has done a good job. I endorse the Treasurer's priorities.