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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.

Prevention at heart of budget adolescent violence and mental help

Tania Maxwell MP says budget funding to tackle the jump in adolescent violence and support young people to access mental health counselling and advice in schools will be vital for rural and regional families and communities.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency reported a near-12 per cent increase in adolescent family violence incidents recorded by Victoria Police in the five years to February 2020.

“But what’s really alarming is the incidence of adolescent family violence in regional or rural Victoria, where it’s twice as high compared with major cities,” Ms Maxwell said.

“One of the most effective ways to lower this awful statistic is to support primary prevention and early intervention strategies in our schools.

“It is indeed ‘the smarter approach’ described by Treasurer Tim Pallas when he delivered the budget last week (May 20).

“The government’s $44.1 million commitment to help children affected by family violence and sexual assault, including adolescents who use violence at home, will be very welcome when this money hits the ground.

“Because if we don’t fund vital, available initiatives to support prevention we’ll continue to see young people entering the very last place they should be – the justice system.

“The Crime Statistics Agency’s research shows that 80pc of young people following their first aggressor incident go on to have some contact with the justice system, with 52pc shown to be an aggressor in a subsequent family violence incident.[1]

“I’ve worked with the Victorian government and especially with Family Violence Prevention Minister Gabrielle Williams, meeting her in October 2020, and liaised with her office to tackle this surge in adolescent family violence.

“I’ve also had productive discussions with the Australian National Research Office for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), and Caraniche and Berry Street – organisations that work to support vulnerable people and their families – about prevention and early intervention, and I’m looking forward to talking with the Minister again shortly.”

Ms Maxwell also welcomed government funding directed at alleviating homelessness, protecting children, supporting early childhood education, priority mental healthcare program roll-outs in rural areas, boosting the healthcare workforce and investing in emergency management.

“Many of these important initiatives are being funded in Northern Victoria,” she said.

Other key funding

North East

  • $65 million for Indigo North Health’s Rutherglen residential aged care redevelopment
  • $28.9m for Benalla’s new police station, scheduled for completion in 2024
  • $1m to support the early years care and education work of Benalla’s Tomorrow Today Foundation
  • Fast-tracked development of new, local walk-in mental health care service in Benalla
  • Wangaratta is among nine communities to share $17.4m for HOPE – Hospital Outreach and Post-suicidal Engagement – services to support mental health and well-being
  • Mount Beauty Primary School upgrade
  • Funding for new AOD (Alcohol and Other Drugs) residential and rehabilitation beds in Wangaratta

North Central

  • Echuca and Swan Hill are among nine communities to share $17m for new mental health care and outreach services
  • An additional $8.3m has been budgeted for a wellness centre in Echuca.
  • Shepparton teaching and leadership academy to be funded from a $148.2m allocation shared by seven regional centres
  • Shepparton GOTAFE upgrade
  • Cobram Primary School, Rushworth P-12 College and Kerang South Primary School upgrades
  • $6.4m Queensland Fruit Fly program strategy funding confirmed

North West

  • $2.1m for Mildura Base Public Hospital master-planning to prepare a business case for the hospital’s redevelopment
  • $48.7m to develop Swan Hill District Health hospital service
  • Mildura teaching and leadership academy to be funded from a $148.2m allocation shared by seven regional centres
  • Underbool Primary School upgrade
  • New Irymple Country Fire Authority station

Central Highlands, Goldfields

  • Bendigo teaching and leadership academy to be funded from a $148.2m allocation shared by seven regional centres
  • Bendigo Youth Prevention and Recovery Care Unit upgrade
  • Gisborne Secondary College upgrade
  • Woodend Black Forest Drive upgrade

South (Mitchell, Yan Yean and peri-urban)

  • Doreen Country Fire Authority facility refurbishment
  • New school site land purchase in Mitchell Shire
  • Mernda community hospital development

[1] https://www.crimestatistics.vic.gov.au/research-and-evaluation/publications/adolescent-family-violence-in-victoria

Image: ABC 2019 Law Report

Tan Maxwell welcomes Benalla police, education funding

Tania Maxwell MP has welcomed the state government’s $28.9 million budget commitment to build Benalla’s new Victoria Police station.

The Member for Northern Victoria said she had first called for funding to replace the “near-unworkable” existing station in August 2019 when she put a question in Parliament to Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville.

“The station was built in 1956 and described by Victoria Police in 2017 as ‘bordering on inoperable’,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Disrepair was obvious, with cracks in walls and ceilings and officers forced to work in portable buildings.

“What stood out for me particularly was the station’s lack of private rooms where victims could speak in confidence and safety.

“The new station will enhance policing capacity and capability in Benalla and the North East and support community safety.

“Like the police officers and staff who work there and people in the community who attend the station, I look forward to completion of the new building on schedule in 2024.

“The funding is a significant win for the Benalla community after 15 years of advocating for an effective policing centre.

“The next step is to scope out a new court complex as the current court house is no longer fit for purpose.”

Ms Maxwell also welcomed $1 million from the budget for Benalla’s Tomorrow Today Foundation.

“This organisation has done so much to build opportunities for families in Benalla and the Midlands through its Parents Early Education Partnership since 2002,” she said.

“Its approach to introduce young children to education and its advantages have been widely recognised, enhancing children’s school readiness with outstanding results.

“This latest funding will help its largely volunteer-led playgroup and early education programs to thrive across the next two years.”

Ms Maxwell in August 2019 invited Education Minister James Merlino, now Acting Premier, to visit Benalla and meet with Tomorrow Today Foundation and explore the potential to roll-out its education and care model in other communities.

Ms Maxwell said the budget also confirmed Benalla as one among 20 communities where a new, local service available to anyone seeking mental health care is to be fast-tracked.

Benalla was recommended because it had Victoria’s highest per capita level of suicide between 2011 and 2020, and one of the highest per capita levels of suicide attempts presenting to hospital emergency departments.

Justice Party wants budget primary prevention boost

Tania Maxwell MP has called on the state government to invest more in drug, alcohol and family violence primary prevention and early intervention through school and community safety programs in its May 20 budget.

The Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party Member for Northern Victoria said public funding for prevention and intervention was not significant enough to drive down the current costs of the state’s policing, courts and corrections systems.

“A month ahead of the scheduled release in June of national crime statistics for 2020, we know that 101 people in Victoria became victims of homicide and related offences in 2019 – an increase of 19 per cent,” Ms Maxwell said.

“While the number of victims of sexual assault dropped 2pc to 5829, 37pc of them (2149) were assaulted in family or domestic settings, and almost 40pc of all victims were children or young people under 19 years old.

“There were 3149 victims of robbery, up 29pc, and more than half of all perpetrators were armed[1].

“At the same time the number of criminal incidents classed as drug offences increased 7pc (to 16,775)[2].

“Early intervention is the key to reducing crime and these numbers tell me that we need to be directing much more into preventative programs and services to see positive change, and that’s what I’ve asked the government to do in productive meetings I’ve had with the Treasurer and other Ministers.

“I welcome progressive steps the government’s taken, especially its support for my call in June, last year, for a parliamentary inquiry into Victoria’s criminal justice system that’s now underway.

“This inquiry will enable us to examine the factors that have led to growing remand and prison populations and to recommend ways to reverse those trends.

“There is so much more to do in this area and I hope the inquiry will provide some thought-provoking recommendations for the government to consider.

“The government in the 2020 budget also directed $335 million, which I advocated, towards programs for young people, including out-of-home care support, life-skills development, keeping families together and helping those who’ve come apart to reunite.

“But we need to see this money delivered on the ground in the rural and regional communities that I represent, together with significant investment in affordable housing, including social housing, education, skills training, work and digital access, mental and other health services, and alcohol and other drug treatment programs.

“These are initiatives that can have a positive, collective impact and I look forward the government’s clear commitment to this approach in Thursday’s budget.”

Ms Maxwell said other Budget funding priorities identified with Justice Party leader Stuart Grimley MP included:

  • Funding to reduce the caseload backlog in Victoria’s court system (the government last week committed $210m to speed court and tribunal hearings held up because of COVID-19).
  • Up to $23.4m, plus operational funding, to develop Education First Youth Foyers at GOTAFE Wangaratta and Wodonga TAFE so young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness can access integrated accommodation, education and well-being support to become job-ready.
  • $15m to co-fund development of the Mernda Health and Wellbeing Hub to support services for a community projected have 65,000 residents within the next 17 years.
  • $9.4m to fund Sunraysia Mallee Port Link – a project to shift significant volumes of farm produce from road to rail in north west Victoria. (SMPL was formerly known as Ouyen Intermodel.)
  • Upgrades to Victoria Police stations at Benalla, Cobram, Euroa and Rochester to improve policing capabilities and safety in these communities.
  • Urgent, regionally-targeted action to ensure ambulance service effectiveness. Recent funding announcements are positive, but communities need to know bottlenecks, such as hospital ramping, will be fixed and preventative measures to reduce demand.
  • $1.9m over four years to model and establish a Defence Dogs Program in Victoria to support defence veterans living with post-traumatic stress injury.
  • $465,000 to replace Koondrook CFA’s 32-year-old – and only – fire truck as a first step to improve local fire-fighting capability and volunteer skills.

Image: University of Melbourne (Family Violence Prevention)

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics: 45100DO001_2019 Recorded Crime – Victims, Australia, 2019

[2] https://www.crimestatistics.vic.gov.au/crime-statistics/latest-victorian-crime-data/recorded-criminal-incidents-2