Election commitments can shrink rural gaps

This budget I feel is pitched mainly around health—entirely appropriate, given the time, as never has good health been so important and perhaps so elusive as right now. I feel disheartened for the thousands of healthcare workers who continue to operate in very stressful conditions. The pandemic has certainly been a once-in-a-century challenge, but I hope it provides a strong lesson in knowing that we have to build and maintain systems that can endure strain. The economies of scale are harder to prosecute in regional areas, but our regions deserve a much stronger healthcare system than we have right now. This is not a reflection on the people that work within the system, for we know they give it their all and they do it with great compassion and care each and every day. But we do have shortages right across the board—and it is not a new story; however, it is one that is getting more pronounced—from GPs to allied and community health, ambulances, hospitals, mental health support and aged care. The future design of our system and recurring investment in it must include building a workforce as strong in numbers as it is in capability and care—one that can sustain challenges and pivot to avoid a crisis situation, as we currently see. If the budget is about health, I think the next one and the one after that will need to be as well, until our system is back on better footings with delivery of early intervention and increased home-care programs.

Our smaller regional areas need continued investment and services, and the process of master planning and approval for hospital upgrades needs to be clear and collaborative with communities. Not another hospital should endure what Swan Hill hospital has. For years their emergency department staff’s only available break area was a plastic chair outside next to the bins. There was little room to move equipment, and their waiting room was completely unsafe, yet it took four iterations of a master plan for them to get the starter funding towards a new hospital. It is hoped that only one master plan will be enough to secure a new hospital in Mildura. The same applies for Albury-Wodonga, where we seem to have a conflict between the local certainty that a master plan has been submitted and the government, which is adamant that it is not finalised. Both cannot be correct, but what is certain is that a new hospital is desperately needed, and a single site is what the community healthcare workers want.

I hope the change in federal government will allow the state to collaborate on a strategy to address the critical shortage of GPs in regional areas. Some towns in my electorate have no GP, and families moving into a new region are resorting to telehealth with their metropolitan doctor because they cannot get into the books of a local clinic. If someone rings nurse-on-call for their child, the likely advice they are given is that their child needs to see a doctor, but that is pointless when you cannot get in to one. Recruitment of healthcare workers is also diabolical, due to housing shortages. We all remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—that begins with housing, and we do not have anywhere near enough in regional areas.

To be honest, housing all of the workers that are in short supply across industries in regional areas is a big and ongoing challenge. Families escaping family violence are increasingly unable to source crisis accommodation. Only this week Wangaratta reported a 14.3 per cent increase in the number of households seeking assistance to find or sustain private rental housing. Half of them had never needed support before.

A lot will be riding on the big numbers that were released in this budget to support our healthcare system, including up to 7000 health workers, more paramedics, more Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority call takers, 40 000 extra surgeries to reduce the waitlists and $1.3 billion to deliver mental health reforms. Funding for 82 new mental health beds includes additional beds at Northeast Health Wangaratta and Goulburn Valley Health, and that is incredibly welcome news. I raised in March the need for an acute mental health service for the 12- to 15-year-old cohort, and I hope the rollout of the mental health reforms will address that critical need, particularly in our regional areas. I am hearing many stories of people needing to attend a mental health facility to be triaged only to be sent home with no health plan or alternative supports. They go home and then are taken again the next day by an ambulance or police vehicle to that same facility. It is a revolving door. People are feeling the impacts of COVID, and our young people are particularly susceptible to anxiety and depression in numbers not seen before.

Mildura has welcomed an investment of $36 million to deliver a 30-bed residential alcohol and other drug rehabilitation unit. I am concerned that the overall spend on AOD rehabilitation services seems to have been cut. When our courts are littered with accounts of crime linked to substance abuse, it makes a mockery of community correction orders that mandate drug treatment. If those services are not readily available, where do they go? More importantly, it does nothing to properly intervene and assist people to improve their lives and to improve their health.

We are now a couple of years into the reform of our fire services, and it is disappointing that the Country Fire Authority is being squeezed out of funding to upgrade and build stations. There are 1200 CFA stations to share only $49.6 million of funding in this budget, yet Fire Rescue Victoria has been allocated $120.6 million across 80 fire stations. This contrast is quite clear when you consider the brand new $12 million Derrimut FRV station compared to Rochester’s CFA station that was built in 1963. It has no change rooms and no shower. The brigade has to run their own fundraisers to buy all their training equipment, yet the income the state collects from the fire service levy continues to increase—$800 million in this budget. I recognise that the Treasurer has slightly reduced the rate for primary producers, and that is greatly appreciated, yet the offset reality for most farmers is that they will still pay more. I note that the Victorian Farmers Federation has called for a review into the fire services levy, and this is something we support and hope the government will give further consideration to.

While I am on the topic of parity, my colleague, Stuart Grimley, requested the Parliamentary Budget Office last year investigate the split of assets between regional and metropolitan areas. This revealed that regional Victorians were at least 11 per cent worse off than their metropolitan counterparts when it comes to asset investment. There can be quite a bit of smoke and mirrors in all politics. It is what some say the masters do well, but frankly it is what the public despises. There seems to be a bit of smoke and mirrors in this budget with some big figures touted, but the fine detail raises questions about what has already been expended or represents co-funding which has been listed in one area but cut from another. The opposition has indicated that this budget delivers half of the investment into regional areas compared to the investment per person for people residing in metropolitan Melbourne. I would like the government to respond directly to this claim. If the figure of $7142 for every person residing in regional Victoria is not correct, then what is the figure?

The budget papers each year provide a regional summary of announcements, but I think our communities would benefit from the government issuing a detailed regional impact statement, one which gives some real comparisons and quantifies the parity of spending proportionate to population for both assets and services, because there is no doubt that the nature of geography and topography often makes the claim for us needing more and not less.

With respect to funding related to the justice and child protection systems, which of course our party is always very interested in, we are pleased to see funding for more police and PSOs and the rollout of tasers to frontline police officers. I raised police resourcing in question time last sitting week, and while I finally received a response to that question earlier this week, I did not really get an answer on how many of the 500 police announced in the budget would be allocated to Northern Victoria. My colleague, Mr Grimley, also noted that we are pleased to see funding for cyber safety for children in school, which was a recommendation from the sex offender inquiry that Mr Grimley initiated.

Funding has been allocated to developing an alternate reporting option for sexual assault, which we obtained government support for last month. There is funding for new perpetrator interventions and the continuation of therapeutic court programs, including the Shepparton Drug Court and a specialist family violence court in Bendigo. This is something I believe would be of great benefit in Mildura, and I hope a drug court for the Mallee will be committed to before the next election. As Mr Grimley said during his contribution, we are concerned that funds to address the court backlog simply will not be enough, and we need to see a comprehensive plan.

In the portfolio of child protection, I am confused by the report from the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee that since 2014 an additional 1180 child protection practitioners have been funded and the minister says that the government has continued to deliver on its promise to protect Victorian children in the last 12 months, yet the commissioner for children and young people, while noting that there is considerable investment now, says the system is still not fit for purpose and the wraparound supports needed for complex care are simply not there. More than 2500 children in March were waiting to be allocated a caseworker, a 10 per cent increase on the previous year. The department spokesperson tried to justify this with a response that just because they are not allocated does not mean they are not being assessed, but a week later a former child protection worker revealed the reality that even if a child does have a caseworker, that does not mean they are being given much face-to-face time. These children cannot continue to be lost in our system as they have previously been.

I must say that personally I would prefer to see a hold on the Suburban Rail Loop and those funds go to addressing what the commissioner noted as probably decades of underfunding. Maybe we should hold that infrastructure for at least another term of government until our health and child protection systems are functioning properly. Ms Terpstra raved about taking 15 000 trucks off the roads and conveyed the safety and time savings for drivers. Perhaps the Murray Basin rail could be completed and there would be significant savings to be made from the reduction in the number of trucks carrying heavy loads on our rural roads. That would certainly address safety and reduce time frames for travel.

I could go on. However, in closing I would like to make a comment on the extension of the Navigator program and the new intended pilot program. Navigator is clearly not an early intervention program. The criteria to participate require a high rate of absenteeism and disengagement from school over many terms, so I ask: why is this being piloted for 10- to 11-year-olds? That is an age where early intervention must be provided to ensure continued school engagement, not grappling to catch them long after the horse has bolted, so to speak.