Tuesday 2 September 2014

Hansard of the Legislative Council



Noting of Budget Papers

Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, it is pleasing to see that the Tasmanian Liberal Government has learnt something from the budgetary failures of its federal counterpart. It does not seem quite as obsessed with a quick return to surplus.

I would argue that Tasmanians are more interested in jobs and services than a budget surplus. The most powerful economy in the world, the United States, has never had a budget surplus since independence. Like economists who know much more about money than I do, I am not enamoured with likening government economies to household budgets. I will not get into arguments but it is obvious that household budgets are generally tied to human life spans. Government budgets go on virtually forever.

That aside, the problem with big government budgetary deficits is that they can affect a government's credit rating and increase the interest a government pays on its borrowings. It does not take great accounting skill to walk the line between a reasonable deficit to build infrastructure and create jobs, and one that might affect a government's credit rating. I do not think Tasmania's AA+ rating is under any threat. I congratulate the state Government for not rushing to create a surplus but taking its time. I do not think that Tasmanians have attaining a budget surplus in the forefront of their minds but of course there are longer-term problems. A deficit of $398.7 million is no big deal. However, Tasmania's unfunded superannuation liability is - it must be tackled over time, as the member for Murchison alluded to.

Let us look at the Budget in the short term. It is a genuine attempt to deal with the Government's election promises, and can probably be seen as a reasonable attempt at tackling a difficult state economy. I would be the last to mention the term 'first budget for 16 years', but I want to point out a few pluses. There is $33 million over three years towards a badly needed international shipping link, and also funds to encourage more schools to bring students to year 11.

However, I have some reservations about some other measures. There is $33 million over four years to increase police numbers. Does Tasmania really need more police, or does it need to restructure how our police service works, along the lines of the debate raging in Victoria in light of new concepts of dealing with and preventing crime? It is an interesting debate and is something we might take note of. There is $28.5 million over four years for fuel reduction burns, which some fire prevention experts say may have no benefit at all. The $16 million for elective surgery beds in our hospitals is a good idea which tries to address a big problem in our health services. What use are more elective surgery beds if nursing jobs are to be cut and nurses' salaries frozen? You cannot put an elective surgery patient into a hospital bed in a ward without nurses. The Tasmanian branch of the AMA has expressed strong reservations about this.

It would not be a budget reply speech without our own Tasmanian-grown economist Saul Eslake. 'Reasonably bold' is the phrase that sticks out. Mr Eslake points to this year's budget savings of $635 million over four years, compared to the 2012 budget savings of $455 million. As he points out however, the bulk of the savings depend on the pay freeze for public employees, including nurses and police officers, the shedding of 700 public sector jobs, and higher dividends wrung out of GBEs. Probably Mr Eslake's view of this Budget is summed up in one sentence quoted in The Examiner newspaper:

They've delivered on their promises, they haven't slashed and burned at a rate that would damage the recovery, nor however, have they finished the job.

He adds to other warnings, however, that a change to the distribution of GST funds could wipe out what the Government is trying to do. Tasmania has already taken a big hit from moves by the Liberal Government's friends in Canberra. Scrapping the carbon tax has hit Hydro Tasmania severely and has made it unsaleable in the medium term. Moves to scrap the renewable energy target could also have a detrimental effect. According to its outgoing Chair, Dr David Crean, Hydro Tasmania is facing a perfect storm. He has told business representatives in Launceston that Hydro's total returns to the government in the past five years were more than $700 million. He warned that it would be the last year of record profits for some time.

While we are looking at employment opportunities, or the lack of them, I would like to touch on Tasmania's declining forestry industry. I maintain that scrapping the Tasmanian Forest Agreement has made jobs in the forestry industry less likely. Attempts to make Tasmanian forest products acceptable in international markets through FSC certification are facing a harder task than before the latest forest bill. The chance of a recovery through the TFA has now disappeared. We were told the Tasmanian taxpayers would no longer have to 'prop up' Forestry Tasmania. Yet, last week, the GBE was given a so-called letter of comfort, in other words, a guarantee by Tasmanian taxpayers on its borrowings. This week we have heard there is to be yet another review of Forestry Tasmania. The new forestry bill gives Parks and Wildlife additional responsibilities and costs in managing the 400 000 hectares of TFA reserves. I am assuming this is reflected in the additional reserves expected to be covered by management plans in the budget papers. The figure for management plans jumped from 59 in 2013-14 to 82 in 2014-15. The service has been allocated $3.5 million in this year's Budget to manage reserves and crown land. However, we do not know at this stage how the money will be spent. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust fears money will go to preparing the former reserves for logging rather than preserving conservation values.

The extent of Tasmania's youth unemployment problem has been revealed in the past few weeks. At 17.9 per cent it is above the national average of about 15 per cent, which in itself is very high. In some Tasmanian regions, particularly in the north-west, it is well above that 17.9 per cent - I have seen figures of more than 21 per cent.

Mrs Hiscutt - That would be in Burnie.

Mr FINCH - Yes. It is a tragedy, yet there is little in this Budget to address the problem. The Australian newspaper has been looking at Tasmania's economy and youth unemployment. I quote a few general passages from The Australian online on 16 August:

The Apple Isle has the highest unemployment rate in the country - 7.4 per cent - and the rates of youth unemployment in pockets of the northwest are three times as high. Those who do work, work less. The average worker will spend a month less on the job in Tasmania than their mainland equivalent. The population is stagnant, old and unskilled.

The fastest-growing industry, if you could call it that, in 2012-13 was healthcare and social assistance. Agriculture, mining, manufacturing and construction shrank. The value of gross state product is in decline - down 0.6 per cent in 201213 - compared with growth of 5.1 per cent in 2005-06.

Young people are leaving, productivity is low and Year 12 apparent retention rates are a stunning 67 per cent, behind the national average in the mid-1970s.

If you take the Tasmanian Government's preferred measure of 'direct retention rates', the numbers are even more astonishing. By those scores, barely 58 per cent of students stay until Year 12, although the number is trending up.

Residents receive more in social welfare than they pay in income tax.

Another article in The Australian Weekend Magazine on the same day looks at unemployment of young people in the north-west, taking a specific example, Josh Smith aged 21 who lives in Upper Burnie. The Australian says that Josh Smith has had a few casual jobs like potato harvesting, has applied for numerous jobs but has never had a job interview. I don't think it is far-fetched to say that Josh Smith, and hundreds like him, illustrate the failure of successive Tasmanian governments to address the problem of youth unemployment, the problem of a lack of education and a lack of skills.

The Senate is expected to vote on the part of the Federal Budget on Thursday which will force young jobseekers to wait six months before receiving unemployment Newstart benefits. I would hope that Josh Smith has been hoarding food somewhere, ready for that time.

Ms Forrest - And all the others like him in my electorate.

Mr FINCH - Absolutely. This is just an example of what it is like. It is well-known that Tasmania has the lowest year 11 and 12 retention rates in Australia. It is encouraging that this Budget does something to address this but it is only a very small beginning. We have to reorganise the whole education system, which is failing young Tasmanian males particularly.

It is obvious that shaping young Tasmanians to survive and prosper as adults starts very early. It comes as no surprise that a child's first two years are crucial in shaping its future life. That is why the Tasmanian Early Years Foundation was established by the state government in 2005, with a board appointed in 2007. The two part-time CEOs were seconded from the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The foundation has made a tremendous difference in Tasmania, particularly with its involvement in establishing the highly successful Child and Family Centres, including the first one at Beaconsfield, in my electorate.

The proposal to develop Child and Family Centres originated from the Tasmanian Early Years Foundation. In 2008 the Chair presented a paper to the board outlining the rationale for integrated children's centres and proposing that the foundation support their development in Tasmania. This was then discussed with the government which embraced the idea and announced funding for up to 30 Child and Family Centres. The one at Beaconsfield which I have talked about now anchors our community, and its benefits have been well demonstrated. Others have also been very beneficial. I know there is a very popular centre in Ravenswood, on the eastern edge of Launceston, the member for Windermere's electorate, which is working very well.

The foundation has had an annual grant of between $300 000 and $400 000, including help for the Child and Family Centres. Other grants have gone to a range of early childhood projects and initiatives, including promoting research on early childhood wellbeing, development and learning. The foundation started with a Tasmanian government contribution of $1 477 000, with $750 000 in the next two years, then $500 000 for the past three financial years.

The provision in this Budget for this vital organisation is zilch, not a cent. The Government has sacked the board of the Tasmanian Early Years Foundation and it is winding it up. It has given no explanation for the move. Talk about throwing out the babies, even without the bathwater. The scrapping of the Tasmanian Early Years Foundation is a glaring mistake in an otherwise well-intentioned Budget in difficult times, and we will be able to explore that.

Ms Forrest - As is pathway planning.

Mr FINCH - As is pathway planning. I had an email as you were speaking about pathway planning. Someone else expressing their grave concerns about that situation. I was thinking as you were speaking, member for Murchison, about the Beacon Foundation and the work that this does in support of pathway planning.

Ms Forrest - We had a lot of discussion about that.


Mr FINCH - That work has long been recognised, with the Beacon Foundation starting at Brooks High School in the member for Windermere's electorate. How successful that has been, with its thrust of keeping kids off the dole. A success of 100 per cent. It started at Brooks and has expanded throughout Australia. The work with pathways planning and the work of the Beacon Foundation is vital for our education system supporting those kids who are looking to move into the workforce.

A few things from my electorate: I have highlighted before and particularly after my election campaign, when I letter-dropped on the Frankford Highway - or Frankford Road as the Government prefers to call it in case they might need to upgrade it to highway condition, although it carries the sort of traffic that a highway carries. It is very narrow, very dangerous, and I was delivering those pamphlets whilst trying to park off the side of the road, with trucks that are using it as a transport route and cars travelling well beyond the speed limit.

I had a meeting with residents at the Blue Barn Café and they are very concerned about the situation. I spoke with those people, those I was able to if I was game enough to cross the road. The school bus picks up and drops off kids on the Frankford Road. I have raised this with the Minister for Infrastructure, and I intend to progress this, particularly with our new head of the Road Safety Advisory Council, because the Frankford Highway, with the new forestry bill being approved, will be carrying more log trucks. So they will be on the Frankford Road, increasing the traffic that is on it. That will be a return to the times when it was quite dangerous because of the amount of traffic, and it is still dangerous. The West Tamar Highway Safety Committee did some great work in our community. They developed a feasibility study which I think has gone by the bye; that needs to be resurrected and looked at again. Hopefully I can encourage the new Government to do that. We have had some terrific support over the years from the state government for our West Tamar Highway and the Supply River area, the area closer to Riverside, and in recent times Brady's Lookout - which was a travesty of justice for the people of the West Tamar - correct, a lot of money has been expended there but we do have other issues. When you compare it with the East Tamar Highway, I am just looking over there and saying, gee, I wish we had that up this side but I do not want to appear envious so I will not labour that point.

We do have next on the agenda a very dangerous situation at Lanena, which goes straight into the too-hard basket every time we talk about the West Tamar Highway. It is a ridiculous little piece of highway between the new upgraded Brady's Lookout area and Exeter. It has huge ditches on either side of the road, it is a very narrow road, it has a footpath that –

Ms Rattray - It sounds like The Sideling.

Mr FINCH - Yes, this one has a footpath, and new parents wanting to take their child for a walk with a pram are only a metre from a truck or bus that might be travelling on the highway. With the footpath situation the danger for pedestrians is imminent and I will bring it up with the Government that Lanena needs to be looked at very closely.

I am sure every member here would know about the disadvantaged areas in their municipalities that local governments just cannot address because of their own financial situations and the priorities they need to set. They need to make sure the services are provided where their populated areas are. But those people who are not in those more populated areas and in disadvantaged areas are always behind the eight ball. They are not as supported. Perhaps when the councils cannot quite stretch their budgets to cover such areas, maybe that is something that needs to be considered by the Government, so they can do work in municipalities and with local government to support those disadvantaged areas where conditions are substandard. This needs to be a start of the process, an investigation into where the Government might be able to work with local government to give some extra assistance for those pockets within municipalities.

I mentioned Exeter, talked about Lanena and the entrance in - that is part of a development in the Exeter part of my electorate, where we have the Exeter Improvement Committee. They have been having fantastic meetings and delivering good outcomes for the community and working in close cooperation with the council, but the plan needs attention and help. This might be an area for the Government to look at and give some assistance. We have three members in the state Government there and I will be talking to them about the support that will be needed and could be needed and would pay great dividends in the township of Exeter.

The West Tamar Council has a good relationship with Parks and Wildlife. I am hoping that with the new forestry agreement, with the new allocation of funds to come to Parks and Wildlife, the relationship with the West Tamar Council can be strengthened and grow with some initiatives that might benefit not only that municipality and my area, but also Tasmania. I am thinking along the lines of - and I have banged on often enough about this - pathways, walkways, hiking trails and bike paths. We have the most fantastic area of Narawntapu, which I mentioned recently here, in the special interest speech. It is just a fantastic undiscovered area of Tasmania. Harry Butler came to Narawntapu - the Asbestos Range National Park as it was known then - with his program, In the Wild, and said, 'I have never seen such prolific wildlife'. He was talking particularly about the wombats, wallabies and kangaroos. We have a path that runs from Greens Beach to Badger Head, around to the main Parks and Wildlife office and over to the Rubicon River. It is all on the coast. Imagine tourists from Australia and internationally mountain bike riding or hiking on a fantastic walkway, hopefully developed by Parks and the state Government. Maybe the West Tamar Council can get involved. They are the sorts of initiatives I will be exploring with the Government, Parks and Wildlife and the council over the next six years.

Mrs Taylor - Why can't they do that now if the path is already there?

Mr FINCH - Walkways and pathways are not as simple as that - they are very costly to set up and maintain to a good standard. Have a look at the cost of the Three Capes Track. Ours could also extend to include luxury hiking accommodation and that sort of thing. But I am getting carried away.

Mr FINCH - We will talk more about that bridge across the Rubicon River, and continuing the pathway through to Ulverstone. I will concentrate on my area and the member for Mersey might take up that challenge.

Mr PRESIDENT - Or the member for Montgomery.

Mr FINCH - We will all take a hand in it. I will be looking forward to working with the state Government and one of my two councils, the West Tamar Council. I have 9 000 voters in the Launceston area, who are always at the front of my mind. I look forward to the budget Estimates process, when I can start to explore areas that offer some fillips for my community. I also want to explore things like the Early Years Foundation, which is a glaring mistake in the Budget.