Saturday, 22 June 2013

Opposition Leader John Robertson Budget Reply Speech

The Leader of the Opposition and Labor Party Leader The Hon. John Robertson last Thursday delivered his impressive "Budget Reply Speech" which I publish below.




Second Reading

Debate resumed from 18 June 2013.

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON (Blacktown—Leader of the Opposition) [11.07 a.m.], in reply: I will address the budget on behalf of the Opposition. This is the Government's third budget and that is significant. In the life of any government it marks a turning point. In a first budget governments can claim they are just assessing the lay of the land. They might even adopt the old chestnut of expressing shock and dismay about what they have inherited. Even in a second budget a government can refer backwards, still able to claim that it is sorting it out. I say this because there has been a question of form here, given the phantom black hold of Baird Budget 1 and the billion dollar bungle of Baird Budget 2, identified by the Auditor-General. But by a third budget there is no looking back. It is now time for the O'Farrell Government to throw away the rear-view mirror. The Treasurer now owns the budget, the Government owns it; the people know it. So what is it that this Government owns? What has it really delivered? And not just on paper, but what has it delivered in reality on our streets, trains—

The SPEAKER: Order! I remind members that there is a fairly clear convention in this place that a Budget Speech and a budget-in-reply speech are heard in silence. I will remove members from the Chamber if there are further interjections.

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON: I have just become used to it.

The SPEAKER: Order! The Leader of the Opposition does not have to become used to it.

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON: But in reality what have they delivered on our streets, our trains, our roads and in our waiting rooms? There is often a disparity between this Government on paper and this Government in the real world; that disparity is writ large in this budget. It is a budget of great varnish and spin, but scratch the surface and what is underneath is a government that is allergic to transparency and addicted to tax. Let us start with the allergy. There is no Standard and Poor's metric recorded in the New South Wales budget papers to show the strength of our State's credit rating. That sounds ordinary, but it is extraordinary. This is the first time in recent memory that the State's credit rating has not been reported in the State Budget. 

Based on our calculations the New South Wales economy has breached the trigger point for a credit rating review so the allergy to transparency flares up. The transparency allergy is also evident in the Government's attempt to spin its tax addiction. The Treasurer claims once again that the failure to deliver the intergovernmental tax cuts promised to our businesses is simply deferment. Treasurer, it is an indefinite deferment. These taxes will stay in New South Wales with no end date proposed. They cost New South Wales businesses $300 million every year. Despite being removed in every other State and Territory, New South Wales businesses are still stuck with them years after they were supposed to end. Out in the real world there is a word for promises that are indefinitely deferred: they are broken. 

In the same spin the Treasurer says this $300 million slug to business is "needed for Gonski", yet only $26 million is allocated to education reform in the next year. Where is the other $274 million headed? It is headed into the coffers of a government addicted to tax. But the Treasurer says, "Never mind that. Look over here at our shiny, new small business tax cut." Once again it sounds good, but scratch the surface and we have a tax incentive that will benefit less than one in every 500 businesses. Meanwhile, every business continues to suffer an unfair tax penalty by being slugged with $300 million worth of taxes that have been abolished in every other State. Making New South Wales number one again? Making it number one in taxes, that is for sure. What a contrast this is to the Barry O'Farrell of February 2009. The Barry O'Farrell who announced a Coalition policy to deliver a one-off 15 per cent cut to payroll tax. The Barry O'Farrell who said:
      … unless we cut taxes … the State's economic interests won't be served. This policy … is about protecting families and the jobs they rely on … 
If the Premier was serious about making New South Wales businesses number one again he would honour that promise. He would lower the payroll tax rate for New South Wales businesses. Forget about rebates for one in 500, honour the promise and cut the tax. The Premier's words have proved quite prophetic.

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Kiama will come to order.

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON: This Government has failed to create a fair playing field for New South Wales businesses and this is hitting families through increased unemployment. Unemployment has risen to 5.6 per cent, up from 5.1 per cent two years ago. That means there are now 22,860 more unemployed people in this State than there were in March 2011. In a State that is meant to be number one, with a Government that says it is fixing the problems, unemployment, perhaps the most critical measure of both economic confidence and family security, is steadily heading in the wrong direction. Either no-one has told the Treasurer this—

The SPEAKER: Order! The Premier will come to order.

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON: —or maybe he does not understand what the figure means and while unemployment consistently climbs the Treasurer consistently trumpets his achievements in jobs growth. Take this media release of 3 June that declares, and I quote:

      Treasurer Mike Baird today said NSW's strong jobs growth is encouraging New South Wales households to spend!
I would like those opposite briefed on the fact that the unemployment rate defines the rate of unemployment. If it is going up, that is bad—bad for families, bad for retail and bad for business. No pie chart, spin or media release can change that. Increasing unemployment in this State is a serious and concerning trend, and reversing it should be number one priority. Instead, the Government continues to cut jobs, services and infrastructure spending while once again displaying a mastery of spin. Let us take the pea and thimble trick of budget versus actual spends. The rules are simple: Announce a record investment in services; do not invest it all; announce a record increase in investment, which is easy because you did not spend enough last year; and keep repeating it each budget, while services decline in every direction. 

The hypocrisy of this approach is nowhere more evident than in the Health portfolio. Last year the Treasurer celebrated a record Health budget. The Government promised to spend $17.3 billion on health services. Remarkably it underspent it, even during a time of closed beds, shut wards and cancelled surgeries. Even the brand-new operating theatres at Royal North Shore Hospital were being used as storage rooms. This year the same fanfare of "record health spending" is splashed across media releases. Let us take the much-trumpeted 10 per cent increase in health capital expenditure which ran in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. We had all the usual hallmarks. The Treasurer talked of his phantom revenue challenge and tough decisions. He moaned about 16 years of Labor. Treasurer, you have to stop looking in the rear-view mirror; you are driving now. 

The Treasurer did all this before announcing a business-as-usual capital commitment that does nothing to address the backlog of patients. Because that is a question of recurrent funding and, as the Australian Medical Association has pointed out, this needs a 7 per cent increase per annum or it is going backwards. That means this budget's funding increase of 3.4 per cent is a real funding cut. Meanwhile, New South Wales emergency departments are already failing to meet Federal waiting time benchmarks and New South Wales has the longest wait for elective surgery in mainland Australia. But in order to invest in hospitals we also need to invest in nurses, porters and cleaners to keep them going. That is what matters at 2.00 a.m. when a child has a fever. Promising new hospital infrastructure in the distant future, when there is no staff today, is the tail wagging the dog. It is giving with one hand while taking away with both. 

The Government takes the same approach to Newcastle, offering a much-trumpeted light rail line, but only after the heart of Newcastle has been sold off from under them. The Government is removing the world's largest coal port and a key employer in the Hunter from public hands to fund a light rail line it should have promised to build anyway. We have no costings and no detail. We only have confirmation that the port is being sold off and legislation that has been rammed through the Parliament. This is an appalling strategy to effectively force Novocastrians to accept the sale of their port and loss of local jobs. Let us not forget that most of the port sale money is actually bound for Sydney. It speaks volumes about the respect the O'Farrell Government really has for the region. How can Hunter communities trust this Government to deliver on promised infrastructure when its track record on delivering any infrastructure is abysmal? Three budgets in and not a single new major project is started—that is a fact.

The SPEAKER: Order! I warn the member for Kiama that if he continues to interject he will be removed from the Chamber. 

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON: Yet once again the spin is running way ahead of reality. On Tuesday in this Chamber the Treasurer said:
      The Government has embraced Infrastructure NSW's key recommendation, the 33 kilometre WestConnex project. The recent ports transaction has secured the funding.

To read that, you would think WestConnex is a done deal, locked and loaded. But it is not. The funding is not secured; 1 per cent of it is. There is only $111 million allocated to WestConnex next financial year. And meanwhile there is no route, no business case, no start date and no end date. On Tuesday the Premier told the Ben Fordham radio program that he had a date on his hard drive. Well, that is all we have to show for three budgets: a date on a hard drive the Government will not tell the public about and a blurry line on a map. Meanwhile, the people of western Sydney continue to stew in ever-increasing congestion.

No wonder the Treasurer is trying to hide the lack of achievements by inventing phantom "revenue shortfalls". The fact is that there is plenty of good news for the Government on the revenue front. Although you would not think so to hear the Treasurer, GST revenue is up. The budget papers clearly showed GST revenues are up—and growing at 4 per cent per annum, well beyond inflation. New South Wales will receive $942 million in extra Commonwealth funding in 2013-14. In fact there is $735 million more Commonwealth revenue than was forecast in the Treasurer's own 2012-13 half yearly review; so his talk of "GST write downs" is utter nonsense. That allergy to transparency is flaring up yet again. And let us not also forget the $1 million per day that this Government is raking in through overdue fines.

All in all, it is a pretty rosy picture for a Treasurer. So why hide it? Well, the answer to that is plain to any New South Wales citizen who is stuck in traffic, or waiting for a train or for surgery, or trying to get their child ahead through better schooling. The answer is that, for all the promises of an "infrastructure revolution", for all the times that the Premier's index finger went up in the air to signal that New South Wales would be number one again, for all the promises to fix the problems, there is nothing to show. The truth is that three budgets in, in a time of growth and with a record mandate for change, this is a Government that has fixed nothing.

As I have said many times, the people of New South Wales never get it wrong. In 2011 they clearly voted for change. But where is it? Those opposite promised to "fix New South Wales" to make it number one again. What have they delivered? First, an economy that is slowing and stagnating. The Treasurer's budget cuts, higher fees, uncertainty around business tax commitments, and lack of stimulus are slowing the New South Wales economy. Job growth has failed to keep up with population growth in New South Wales and unemployment is now 5.6 per cent. No wonder first home buying is at a 20-year low, with new home buyers abandoning the market due to massive cuts to the First Home Buyers Scheme. How is that making New South Wales number one?

Meanwhile, the Government is making it harder for families to make ends meet, with massive increases in electricity bills, water bills and public transport fares. Train fares are up by $208 a year, bus fares up by $83 a year, green slips up 15 per cent, and electricity bills up 42 per cent. And there is more—higher electricity dividends, higher speeding fines and more speed cameras, a new fire services charge imposed on households is on the cards, and for the first time public preschool fees will be levied. You might ask: For all this largess, have services improved? The answer is: No, they have not. They have diminished.

Before the election this Premier dismissed Labor's talk of slashed services as an unfounded "scare campaign". He said there would be more public sector workers, not fewer, under a Coalition Government. Yet the Premier will continue cutting jobs—and will not even come clean on how many public sector workers will lose their jobs next year, hiding instead behind the euphemism of an "efficiency dividend". Families should make no mistake; this means further cuts to jobs and services. The Government has cut $3 billion from our health system, causing hospital waiting lists to blow out, slowing emergency treatment times, and delaying ambulance response times. Budget cuts are also leading to fire station closures and critical police shortages on our streets. It is no wonder gun crime is such a concern for families in south-west and western Sydney.

Incredibly, during this period of razor gangs, Government debt has skyrocketed. Government sector net debt more than doubled from $6.2 billion in March 2011 to $13 billion. Net debt continues to increase despite asset sales and massive cuts. No wonder Standard and Poor's has placed New South Wales on negative outlook, and no wonder the Treasurer wants to wipe it from his budget papers. But the biggest concern is that, for all the revenue, for all the pain New South Wales families have borne, for all the additional debt, there is still nothing to show for it. And even when this Government claims to be delivering, there is always a catch. Three budgets in, and it is still all about the varnish. Three budgets in, and both businesses and families alike are asking: Where are the results? Where is the change?

Three budgets in, and this Premier would still rather talk than do, still rather consult than decide, still keener on plans than on delivery. In some cases, he is even taking funded plans and putting them back on the shelf. Just look at the disgrace of the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link—a vital project to link west and south-west Sydney with the employment and education centres of Macquarie Park. The Federal Government offered $2.1 billion, 80 per cent of the funding. That was a very generous offer, recognising the critical nature of this link in Sydney's rail network. But this Premier knocked it back. Let the people of western Sydney, who voted in droves on the promise by Barry O'Farrell of a better transport deal for them, never forget that. They had a heavy rail line planned, shovel ready, and all but paid for by Canberra; and Barry O'Farrell's first order of business was to kill it.

So what does Western Sydney get now? Very little. Meanwhile their one signature project, the North West Rail Link, has already become a shadow of its promise—not a train to the city, but a train to Chatswood, where you can join the crush in an attempt to get a train to the city. I think it is time we called it what it is—a privatised north west shuttle. And though not a piece of earth has moved for this shuttle, the cost is already blowing out, with tenders for legal, financial and geotechnical services ballooning from $33 million to $68 million.

The SPEAKER: Order! Members will cease interjecting.

Mr JOHN ROBERTSON: There is a train heading out there all right—a gravy train. Word of the Transport Minister's well-known obsession with the North West Shuttle has reached the consultant community with a clear message: quote what you like; money is no object. And why would they think otherwise, when this Government has this year already spent $83 million on consultants? Why would they think otherwise, when the New South Wales Government has now become so bereft of technical expertise that it is regarded as an "uninformed buyer"? This, of course, has an impact on future project costs as the Government loses technical experience. Engineering consultants know they can charge massive rates, and in some cases government agencies will receive advice from the same people who were previously employed by the Government.

We need builders, not consultants. We need construction, not reports. We need more skilled trades and experts, not more management gurus.

This, after all, is one of the reasons why New South Wales has the third-highest infrastructure cost in the world. We need more skilled engineering and construction workers in New South Wales and, without action from this Government, glossy plans for these projects will suffer from delays and cost blowouts, and all the while nothing gets built and nothing gets fixed for New South Wales families. The answer to this is obvious. The true reform needed is clear. To build the State, you need to skill the State.

Building New South Wales infrastructure over the next 20 years means rapidly investing in skills and expertise today. Without the right experience in government, without the right jobs and skills in our State, the consequences will be delays, massive cost blowouts and more ill-conceived plans that go nowhere. It should be obvious that if a lack of construction skills and expertise is the reason for our infrastructure costs being so high, then addressing this deficit will be the solution. Incredibly, the O'Farrell Government is deskilling the State: Apprenticeship numbers have fallen by 12.5 per cent; 800 jobs have been cut from TAFE; the rising cost of TAFE courses has put qualifications out of the reach of many; funding for the Joint Group Training Scheme, which supported over 8,000 apprentices and trainees, has been abandoned; and this Government has increased fees for apprentices by nearly 10 per cent this year—four times the rate of inflation. 

To be serious about building the economic foundations to promote future sustainable growth, a responsible New South Wales Government must invest in people and communities. That is exactly what Labor wants to do. That is why I have announced that we will hold a Skills Summit to address the skills issues constricting our economic future and hear from the experts and stakeholders to inform the development of policies we take to the next election. As part of our consultation with communities, the Skills Summit will allow experts to put forward solutions to raise the skills level for workers in New South Wales, increase the number of people in New South Wales with post-school qualifications, increase employment participation, improve hours of work for those who are underemployed, ensure we continue to have a high quality public provider of vocational training that can respond to our economic and social priorities and, in particular, how New South Wales addresses the demand for infrastructure delivery and the shortage of engineering and related skills. 

I do not expect those opposite will show any interest. They seem more interested in booking flights to their next interstate sporting event. But if the Government does not want to help deliver real solutions, the least it can do is stop making the problem worse. That is why today I call on the Government to reverse its funding cuts to TAFE and vocational education, to increase the use of apprentices in New South Wales Government building and civil works, to commit to increasing the number of students studying engineering degrees, to recruit experienced engineers at senior levels in permanent positions to avoid the massive blowout in consultant costs this Government is already overseeing, to stop massive fee increases for apprentices to undertake training, and to restore the Joint Group Training Scheme, which I can today announce Labor will commit $1.7 million each year towards to fund and support. Supporting programs like the Joint Group Training Scheme, which assists more than 8,000 apprentices with training and employment, is vital if we are to build the skills our State needs. That is why Labor would reinvest the funding that has been ripped out of this program and skills training for apprentices. 

We need long-term reform and investment in our people and communities that can truly rebuild New South Wales. We need to grow the economy to give people who want to work the opportunity to get a job. We need the kind of reform that New South Wales communities are looking for, the kind for which they gave this Government a mandate. We accept the people's verdict from 2011—the question is: Has the Coalition? Coalition members are continually looking in the rear view mirror, still talking about what they are going to do when by now they should be doing it, and still too busy criticising a government that is no longer there. That is not what the people of New South Wales voted for. They voted for improved services. They voted for less talk and more delivery. They voted for a Government that said it would fix the problems. To date, they have not got what they ordered.

The Premier may wish to look longingly back at his halcyon days of opposition when he promised anything and was accountable for nothing, but the people of New South Wales voted otherwise. The real questions are: Where is the transparency they voted for? It is certainly not in this budget. Where are the improved front-line services in everything from our hospitals to our public transport system? They are not in this budget. Where is the promise of less talk and more delivery? It is missing as well. The people of New South Wales have handed this Government the levers, and it has had them for three budgets, but there is still no sign in this third budget of any of these problems ever being fixed.

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