Budget initiatives welcome, but lockdown re-think vital

June 10, 2021

In making a speech about (Victoria’s) Appropriations Bills, it would naturally be remiss of me not to observe that the state’s economic position has already deteriorated from the time of Budget day on 20 May. 

Yet another COVID lockdown is again significantly harming the State’s economy, businesses and workers – and no amount of compensation packages or programs can or do ever go close to repairing the full extent of this damage. 

I also want to thank the Treasurer and his staff for their regular engagement with Mr (Stuart) Grimley MP and me, and our staff, on this year’s Budget.

Those conversations were very open, very constructive and very much appreciated.  They also allowed us to identify a number of priorities on behalf of our constituents and other key stakeholders that we believed needed new or extra funding in the Budget. 

To that end, we are very grateful that a number of those priorities were taken up by the Treasurer, and I will talk about some of those in more detail shortly. 

Obviously, we do feel some nervousness when we see the introduction of the kind of new taxes and/or big increases in taxes that are part of this Budget. 

I am certainly already receiving considerable and very frustrated feedback about the various new or increased property based taxes – and the huge new mental health levy. 

I would implore the government to revisit some of the changes, including by having more detailed conversations with some of the many people seriously impacted by them.  Among those people, I obviously include the many industry associations (especially in the property sector) whose members are clearly extremely adversely affected.  

Within this year’s Budget, Mr Grimley and I would also have liked to have seen greater attention paid to infrastructure projects particularly in rural and regional Victoria. 

It is another serious, missed opportunity that the necessary funding has not been devoted to reviving the critical Murray Basin Rail Project and seeing it through to completion.  I have talked about that project many times inside and outside of this Parliament.  Its completion is vitally important to economic and social development for many communities not just in Northern Victoria but also well beyond. 

To its credit, the federal government clearly sees and understands the value of this project – but the state government is not exhibiting the same approach.  That continues to be so disappointing and frustrating, and I honestly do not understand the rationale for this.  Nor do a huge and growing number of people in my electorate.  

I had also kept my fingers crossed that an interrelated project (the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link; formerly the Ouyen Intermodal) might also have received at least some of the relatively small amount of funding that it still currently needs.  This is a great concept and project, with a clear capacity to significantly improve the transportation of many agricultural products and dramatically reduce Victorian carbon emissions in the process.   

On another front, I hope the government will also soon be able to provide more clarity about how a number of the items that do feature in the Budget will be funded.  In saying this, I refer especially to how, and by how much and when, my constituents in Northern Victoria might benefit from the extra $759 million allocated to ambulance services across the State. 

I also would like to note the Victorian Auditor General’s Office ‘Measuring and Reporting on Service Delivery’ report that was released shortly after the Budget.  It makes many salient points about the longstanding need for significant improvement in the performance reporting elements in Victoria’s Budget papers.  I understand that the Assistant Treasurer may currently be looking into these matters and VAGO’s recommendations, and so I hope he acts upon them as a priority.

However, and notwithstanding each of those various issues to which I have just referred, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party greatly welcomes and is really pleased by many of the elements of this Budget.  Indeed, we take considerable pride in the fact that a number of the items for which we advocated have been funded. 

In respect of my electorate of Northern Victoria, I particularly thank the Treasurer for hearing and acting upon my pleas to commit money to two really important projects in Benalla. 

The first of these was the urgent need for upgrades to the dilapidated and decrepit Benalla Police Station.  In Victoria Police’s own words, that station has been “bordering on inoperable” for many years now, and its current state has to be seen to be believed.  I understand that the $28.9 million of works now approved by the Treasurer should be completed in 2024 – and that day can not come soon enough. 

I’m equally delighted that Benalla’s Tomorrow Today Foundation has received a $1 million commitment to continue its phenomenal philanthropic work across a range of areas.  Its PEEP initiative, in particular, continues to secure remarkable outcomes in early childhood education and development. 

In both cases in Benalla, these are funding commitments for which I have personally been advocating to the government for a while now – including in Parliament from back in 2019 in each case.

I won’t delve into detail about each of them now, but there are a number of other forms of new funding across Northern Victoria by which I am heartened and of which I am appreciative.

More broadly, I thank the Government for agreeing to extend the Adolescent Violence Program into a statewide model.  That was a request that I made of the Treasurer, especially through an adjournment speech on 30 October 2020, and I am delighted that it has now been delivered. 

I want to also sincerely thank Minister (Gabrielle) Williams, as the Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, for our many one-on-one discussions on this issue and this program, and I commend her for all her hard work in advocating for and securing this Budget commitment, too. 

More widely, I am also delighted by the government’s notably increased emphasis on the importance of ‘early intervention’ across various programs and portfolios.  As anyone who follows me would know, the need for effective early intervention is a constant theme in my work – and it is critical to Victoria’s future in many different respects.   

I am obviously also gratified by the government’s decision to place the goal of overhauling Victoria’s mental health system at the centre of the Budget.  The new levy is clearly controversial and I would have preferred for the funding to have been found another way.  I am also very frustrated when I think about how much damage the COVID lockdowns are continuing to inflict on Victorians’ mental and physical wellbeing.

However, it is really important that the state revamp many of the current aspects of our current mental health arrangements – and, in the wake of the findings of the Royal Commission, I thank both the government and opposition for so strongly committing to fully funding this objective. 

In Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, we have advocated many times for drastic improvements in Victoria’s mental health structure.  Not least that is because Mr Grimley and I both represent rural and regional electorates, where mental health services are often in need of the most remediation.    

We are therefore particularly appreciative of the Budget funding that is being directed to new hubs and centres in our electorates. 

Among all of the Royal Commission recommendations that will now be taken up, we are also especially heartened by the finding that workforce incentives should be made available in order to try to recruit more mental health specialists to rural and regional Victoria.  That is something for which we have both been campaigning for a long time now, including through speeches here in the Council dating back to 2019. 

Above all, the one aspect of the announcements of 20 May by which we are most pleased is what we believe to be the unprecedented funding in a Victorian Budget to measures that directly support victims of crime. 

Helping and achieving greater recognition and fairness for crime victims is at the heart of the work Mr Grimley and I undertake in this Parliament, and to see such support reflected in the Budget is very gratifying. 

Among those measures, the one that gives us the most heart is the establishment of Victoria’s first-ever Victims’ Legal Service. 

Only a comparatively modest amount of money is going to this service initially.  As I understand it, the $7.3 million earmarked for it at this stage will only fund a relatively small amount of community lawyers, VOCAT assistance, and the pursuit of restitution and compensation orders.       

However, the mere fact that such a service is being established is a watershed moment in the history of legal assistance to victims of crime in Victoria and its significance should not be underestimated. 

I obviously also trust that this year’s Budget commitment will be the first of many investments in this scheme.

To come back to where I started this speech, I want to again express my disappointment that, since the Budget was delivered, Victorians have now been subjected to yet another COVID lockdown.  This is again inflicting enormous financial pain and damage on many individuals, many organisations and many businesses.  In short, it is causing further damage to lives and livelihoods, as well as to the State’s overall Budget position, and it is baffling and heartbreaking to have to go through all of this again. 

After more than 15 months, it is absolutely not good enough that such extraordinary harm is continuing to be done to our State – let alone in a form so disproportionate to the risk.  

For the tourism, hospitality, fitness, events and other retail industries, in particular, its impacts are again utterly catastrophic. 

As I have said so many times, a different approach simply has to be considered and implemented to ensure the entire state is not locked down when we have a small number of cases identified.   Inflicting this pain on an entire state when there are so few cases is ruthless and unreasonable.