Greens Budget Reply Speech

Shane Rattenbury, MLA

"Madam Speaker, the Greens welcome this budget!

From the Greens perspective, this Budget takes another vital step towards making Canberra the most sustainable, fair and progressive place in Australia.

Although the Greens are currently few in number--only 2 MLAs among 25 Members in this place--our goal is to punch above our weight, to work diligently, to consult and fight for progressive issues and to speak for people and the environment who are sometimes neglected.

From the ACT Greens perspective, this is a milestone budget.

This is the tenth budget since the Greens negotiated a solid and constructive power sharing arrangement with Labor.

This Budget also marks a decade of stronger positive Greens influence in a wide range of the ACT Government’s functions. Over the past 10 years we have helped shape and enhance ACT Budgets, policies and initiatives across the policy spectrum.

If we reflect on that decade, we see excellent progress towards developing the ACT into the most green and progressive jurisdiction in Australia. When we decided to sign up to this power sharing arrangement, we committed to making the ACT green and progressive. We have put sustainability and fairness - especially for vulnerable people - first.

The ACT Greens have pushed tirelessly for progressive policies - protesting bad policies, putting big issues on the agenda, bringing the community’s voices to the Assembly, introducing legal reforms and securing better outcomes through our campaigns and through three successive Parliamentary Agreements.

This year’s budget continues to advance Canberra as a fairer and more sustainable city, recognising key Parliamentary Agreement commitments related key items like to sustainable transport, youth and mental health, our local environment and climate change.The Greens support for the Labor Government is contingent on delivery of these policy achievements.

The last decade has seen big and important, long term policy shifts in the ACT. Slowly, but surely, these shifts are shaping Canberra into a sustainable, more compassionate and prosperous city, in line with the Greens principle of the ‘triple bottom line’ approach to policy – valuing the environmental, social and economic dimensions of policies.

The Greens are proud of the direction Canberra is going in as a result of this work in the last decade:

We will reach 100% renewable electricity by 2020, an achievement that is showing Australia and the world how to lead in emissions reduction and renewable energy. We have reached this point because climate change has been front and centre in ACT Government policy - since the Greens ensured that the fundamental work was done to set a strong legislated emissions reduction target in the 2008 Parliamentary Agreement with the ALP a decade ago.

The first stage of a light rail system, running on 100% renewable electricity, is scheduled to start later this year. It will be the first stage of a broader network that will eventually service Canberrans right across the city. It’s an ambitious transport project, providing attractive public transport options and helping shape the city into a sustainable and highly liveable place as we grow through Canberra’s second century. ACT Liberals squawking aside, it’s already being widely lauded as a smart and forward looking project for our growing city. Canberra is now making the lists of the world’s most liveable cities (and incidentally, almost all of the top 10 cities have light rail systems). Again, this light rail project emerged from Greens campaigning over many years – with a long-term vision for improved public transport including light rail - and was finally secured through our 2012 Parliamentary Agreement.

This year’s budget provides funding to improve stage 1 – with a light rail stop at Mitchell, which will support businesses and workers, and help enliven the area.

The budget funds further planning and design work for stage 2 of light rail, from Civic to Woden, and funding for a range of overdue urban improvements around Woden – which the Greens are keen to see revitalised with thoughtfully targeted planning and investments. This demonstrates how light rail is not just a transport project, but will also facilitate a more sustainable city structure, with more compact development and improved active transport connections, reducing reliance on cars.

A decade ago, the Greens were the only politicians talking about active transport - now a major focus of this Government. A graph showing the history of funding for walking and cycling tells a clear story - it spikes noticeably for the years the Greens are in balance of power.

Without the influence of the Greens, without us making election commitments to build a light rail network for Canberra, without the Parliamentary Agreement, you could fairly surmise that the Government’s approach to sustainable transport, and a myriad of other issues, would be markedly different today.

Opponents of progressive policies such as the Liberal Opposition in the ACT - who lack any vision for our future themselves - invariably complain that these policies are economically unviable. Think for a moment about the four years of debate about stage one of light rail during the last Assembly. The Liberals claimed the sky would fall. It would be an economic catastrophe. Light rail would send us broke, it was unaffordable, the economy would collapse. And here we are with the project almost completed, a Budget projected to be in surplus for the next 4 years, and the ACT maintaining its AAA credit rating.

It’s been a long road for the ACT Government. When the Global Financial Crisis hit early in the 7th Assembly, the Greens committed to supporting the plan taking the ACT into budget deficit to get us through the tough times ahead.

Madam Speaker, this was indeed a challenging time. And of course some countries around the world have struggled to recover. But the Greens supported Labor Governments - federally, and here in the ACT - to invest in infrastructure and in our community to stimulate the economy, rather than plummet into recession, with a plan to return to surplus in this 9th Assembly. Furthermore we tackled the additional substantial financial challenge of addressing the Mr Fluffy housing contamination last Assembly.

We are pleased to now be climbing back to the other side of the red line. This government, with constant vigilance from the Greens, has achieved this while also keeping focused on sustainability and supporting vulnerable Canberrans.

The ACT is showing that it is perfectly capable of pursuing bold Greens policies, like major investment in sustainable public transport, and in renewable energy and climate change mitigation, whilst supporting the vulnerable people in our community, and still having a strong economy and a balanced budget. Our renewable energy leadership and subsequent considerable industry investment shows that these are in fact complementary.

 

Growth economic model

In relation to our strong economy today, the Chief Minister has made the point about how well the ACT is doing - which is due to growth - of Gross State Product, of consumption and thus GST revenue, of construction, and importantly, of significant and higher than expected population growth.

It is ironic that the Canberra Liberals are touting the line that the rates impacts are so terrible that people are flocking to leave Canberra and go interstate, when actually, the stats prove the opposite.

This unforecast population growth has contributed to our economic growth and the budget performance. But the Greens understand that sound economic management should not rely simply on population growth. There are downsides - higher consumption contributes to higher household debt - Australia has the second highest household debt in the world, and it is also increasing our environmental footprint.

While the ACT Government is working hard on sustainability initiatives, it must also manage the increased levels of waste, of water and energy use, of car use, of residential construction, and so on. Reducing climate emissions with our ever increasing population is a growing challenge for the ACT. As we shift towards 100% renewable electricity, we are directly addressing one of our key impacts - on climate and of our footprint. But there is so much more to do.

The ACT is now forecast to hit 500,000 people in the next decade. According to the ABS population clock, Australia currently has 24,958,797 people, and we are due to click over to 25 million people sometime in the next few weeks.

We know that the rate of population growth has created massive ecological issues for the mega-cities of the world. While population growth has brought about a positive outcome for our ACT budget this year, globally and locally, it’s really time to focus on planning for a more sustainable future.

While our human population grows, the number of critically endangered animals is increasing, the IUCN lists 86 critically endangered species for Australia, and sadly we are part of the top 7 of the world’s countries that have contributed to 50% of the world’s biodiversity loss in the past decade. But we need to take responsibility, and our privileged economic situation lends itself to these responsibilities.

The Chief Minister has pointed out many of the other impacts on the ACT - school enrolments are increasing, hospital presentations are increasing, and sadly we also know that inequity and its symptoms such as homelessness numbers are increasing. Meanwhile, Newstart - which many vulnerable people rely on is simply not increasing, and hasn’t increased for 2 decades.

Our economies cannot be reliant on infinite industrial growth driven by rapid population growth and high consumption - in fact, we believe that this is unsustainable and a recipe for disaster.

We all love Canberra, and we love sharing it with the other people, but we need to find a way to do this sustainably.

Now, while Canberra is growing and the economy is strong, we are in an opportune position to determine the kind of future we want for our city. The Greens are convinced that we can grow our city while maintaining the green spaces and trees that make us the ‘bush capital’, whilst also delivering housing and access to key services for all Canberrans.

Greens look at budgets differently

The Greens look at budgets differently. We don’t ask what the impact is on ourselves personally. We ask what the impact is on sustainability - what sort of place we’re leaving for future generations, and for fairness - on the vulnerable people in the ACT.

 

Sustainable Canberra

I have spoken already about the critical importance of taking action on climate change, and the many ways the ACT is doing this. But one point I want to especially emphasise, in the context of this budget, is the importance of ensuring climate change initiatives do not impact negatively and disproportionately on the most vulnerable in our community.

The Greens are determined to take action on climate change; we are also determined to protect the most vulnerable in our community. These two policy imperatives go hand in hand, and one shouldn't - and needn’t - come at the expense of the other.

Of course, if we don’t act on climate change, we will all suffer the repercussions - environmental, social and economic - and it is the most vulnerable people in our community who will be hit the hardest.

In this context I want to mention one particular climate initiative that I am especially pleased to see funded this year.

This Budget makes a much needed investment of $5.7 million to extend the successful Energy Efficient Improvement Scheme into ACT public housing. Over three years this program will support significant energy efficiency upgrades—including to space heating—in 2,200 public housing dwellings. Helping reduce climate emissions as well as heating and cooling bills for some of Canberra’s more vulnerable residents, saving on average, about $500 on their annual energy bills.

The Greens have also pushed for more sustainable housing to make our city more compact.  Our current housing rules are producing housing that is unaffordable and environmentally unsustainable, so I am pleased to see $775,000 for the Housing Choices review of planning rules and towards demonstration housing precincts.  The precincts are a result of a motion by Ms Le Couteur last year, and will showcase affordable, high-quality and environmentally-sustainable housing.

Transport is another key part of the Greens agenda for a more sustainable city.  We therefore welcome over $21 million in additional expenditure in active travel upgrades, including in Woden, Tuggeranong and Belconnen Town Centres, as well as investment in making suburbs more age-friendly.  This is substantial progress on the additional $30 million active travel commitment in the Agreement.

Canberra’s urban trees are critical to city sustainability by ameliorating urban temperatures in summer and reducing the heat island effect. This budget includes some funding for more trees, but the Greens would like to see serious investment in urban trees to ensure we continue to address climate change impacts and to maintain our feel as a bush capital.

And after many years of pestering - the Greens are extremely pleased to see a 4 year program to fund invasive plant and animal management to help manage our environment responsibly, as well as interim funding to support catchment groups while the federal government gets its act together.

 

Fairness - Supporting Vulnerable Canberrans

 

Housing and homelessness

The economy may be performing strongly, but that doesn’t mean that the benefits are being shared equally.  The Greens believe that the Government needs to do more to close the growing inequity, including addressing housing affordability.   Canberra is experiencing an ongoing housing affordability crisis, and people moving to the ACT need housing that is affordable and available. Housing is the single biggest expense for low and moderate income households, and it is non-discretionary.

Housing-related measures in this year’s budget provide cause for both optimism and concern.

The Government’s most welcome announcements regarding funding for additional frontline homelessness services and extending the operating hours of OneLink deliver important Parliamentary Agreement items. Insufficient funding for these organisations has been a key gap in the system that the Greens identified in the lead up to the last election and has been an ongoing concern.

We are especially pleased to see strengthening of specialist homelessness and housing support services, including innovation funding to increase the supply of affordable rental housing for people escaping domestic violence, further funding for accommodation for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and services for older women at risk of homelessness and specialist disability accommodation.

Thanks to the Greens, we now have published targets for the number of public, community, and affordable housing dwellings that will be built in greenfield and urban renewal sites.  While welcome in terms of transparency, the targets for 2017-18 were disappointing. The budget papers tell us there will be a slight increase in this year’s housing targets - up to 552 public, community, and affordable dwellings.  It is also pleasing to see that these targets will include housing in renewal areas, not just greenfields.

However, the amount of social housing has been going backwards as a proportion of our overall housing stock for 2 decades.

Yesterday we debated a motion noting 4000 new homes being added to our city annually. To simply maintain the current proportion of social housing, about 284 of these would need to be set aside for people on low incomes or with particular housing requirements, but we aren’t coming close to this.  This budget simply doesn’t adequately address the shortage of affordable housing.

It is clear that the incidence of homelessness is increasing in our city, a predictable problem that goes hand in hand with our population increase. The Greens know there are higher financial and social impacts from not providing accommodation for rough-sleepers - many of whom have high and complex needs.

The Greens are very supportive of the Common Ground model, and the first Common Ground was an item in the Parliamentary Agreement last Assembly. This budget funds design work for Common Ground at Dickson, but at the rate this city is growing, we are likely to require both the new Common Ground at Dickson AND an expansion of the one in Gungahlin.  Given that the Gungahlin Common Ground site is surrounded by vacant land already owned by the ACT Government we believe it would be more cost effective to expand there first.

When it comes to the provision of affordable rental housing, we are also going backwards, meaning that people are forced to go without other essentials, live in inadequate housing, or both.

However there is hope.  We look forward to seeing the Housing Strategy capturing many great ideas from last year’s Housing Summit being released later this year.  We hope it includes innovative measures to really increase the supply of affordable housing for people in rental stress. It will then need adequate funded to achieve what will no doubt be ambitious goals compared to the current status quo. We would do well to look at our New Zealand counterparts for examples of decisive action in this space.

And for people at the other end of the housing spectrum, we are very supportive of the stamp duty exemptions for first home buyers, in conjunction with removing the First Home Owners Grant.

 

Costs and concessions for vulnerable people

The ACT Government’s system of concessions and rates deferments are also very important for fairness.  The mid-year Budget Review increased the Utilities Concession available to many low-income households, this Budget includes further action on concessions and rates deferments.

The Greens, along with most economists and business groups, have supported the ACT’s tax reform program due to its economic benefits. However, the Greens are focused on fairness as well as economic efficiency.

This past year, we have heard strong voices from unit owners concerned about unfair tax reform.  So we are pleased the General Rates Aged Deferral Scheme is being expanded to cover many more ratepayers.  It was previously only available for older ratepayers whose home was one of the 20% most expensive by land value.  This was unfair for those with lower value properties, and few, if any, unit owners would have qualified. Now, people over 65 living in units they own will qualify.

The Greens will continue to closely monitor fairness of tax reform. And for the Deferral expansion to be considered successful, the take-up will need to rise substantially from its current very low level.

On other concessions, free off-peak public transport for concession card holders is an Agreement item, and we are pleased to see a 12 month extension of this trial which has been well received by low-income Canberrans.  

 

Disability

Another key Agreement item is support for the NDIS - as the transition to the full NDIS draws closer, we are pleased to see the additional $1.8 million for the Integrated Service Response Program. It is critical that the ACT can provide emergency funding where the first phase of the NDIS has shown up gaps, and can provide advocacy for those who need to ensure the scheme delivers on its intentions. One of the main benefits of the scheme - the ability to tailor funding to individual needs - can only work if participants are supported to fully advocate for their needs.

The expansion of the Disability Inclusion Grants Program extends opportunities for the wider community to back initiatives to shape our city to be accessible and inclusive for people with disability. And the funding to support the Office of the Human Services Registrar will help deliver better coordination and service provision for Canberrans accessing the NDIS and other programs.

 

Better protecting our children and young people

We welcome the Government’s actions in reviewing the disturbing overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people reported to and involved with Child and Youth Protection Services and measures such as family group conferencing for those families at risk of ongoing involvement with the child protection system. As I have seen in my own justice portfolio, we must never overlook options for diversion from statutory intervention to avoid the cycles of trauma and disadvantage that so often ensue.  

We also acknowledge the Government’s ongoing commitment to addressing domestic and family violence and sexual assault and abuse, with the rollout of the Family Safety Hub and much needed additional funding for frontline services like the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre and DVCS.

 

A progressive Canberra

The Greens are also incredibly proud of a decade’s work towards improved transparency and integrity, such as new FOI legislation, an Integrity Commission to start next year, and establishing Officers of the Assembly. The ACT has been a leader in this country on progressive issues like: hosting the country’s first pill-testing trial in April this year; investing in substantial urban wetland projects; and improving animal welfare standards - for domestic animals as well as hens and pigs.

Many of our Parliamentary Agreement items also reflect this progressive, forward-thinking:

 

Health

The Greens have long called for investment in our healthcare system to keep people healthy, instead of just treating them when they are sick. The Agreement reflects that investing in health is a priority for both Labor and the Greens and we were pleased to see many key items funded this year.

I particularly note the $34.5 million investment to expand the Hospital in the Home program, the $11.3 million to build a new health clinic for Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service and a further $2 million to continue work on a new nurse-led Walk in Centre for Weston Creek. All of these investments are about improving health services for people in the community, and will help reduce pressure on the acute system.

 

Mental Health

As a Green, and as Minister for Mental Health, I’m proud of the significant investment this Budget makes into mental health services - particularly supported accommodation for people across the continuum of care, as well as support for young people.

 

ICAC

Madam Speaker, this year’s Budget includes over $3 million to establish the ACT’s new Independent Integrity Commission. The Greens have long advocated for this, including at the last election and through the Agreement. I believe we will soon have two sets of legislation to consider on this matter and I look forward to us passing a model that can give the Canberra community full confidence in ACT Government processes and agencies.

 

Reducing Recidivism

As Justice and Corrections Minister, I have been very focused on the Parliamentary Agreement goal of reducing recidivism by 25% by 2025.

I cannot overemphasise the need for a broader suite of options for offenders, especially those that significantly reduce the likelihood of reoffending. This budget includes:

  • $6 million to continue the Intensive Corrections Order Scheme to keep some people out of full time imprisonment;
  • $1million to expand the High Density Housing Community Safety Program to Illawarra Court in Belconnen to prevent crime and address offending behaviour; and
  • establishing the Warrumbul Court in the Children's Court  - a circle sentencing court for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders. We have already seen much success with the Galambany adult circle sentencing court, which is showing not only a reduction in re-offending, but value for money.

This budget also funds necessary additional staff resources to support higher detainee numbers at the AMC and replacement of the mobile duress system.

However, I hope that future budgets will have significantly more funds injected into justice reinvestment. Significant work is underway in this area and greater investment is needed to ensure these programs result in not only reducing recidivism, but in reducing offending in the first place. Initiatives that keep people out of jail will be better for everyone in our community.

I welcome funding for the development of a disability justice strategy. We are keen to ensure that we do not treat people with disability unfairly - whether they are victims of crime or offenders. This is fundamental to the Greens values of treating all people with respect and value.

 

Next steps

Overall Madam Speaker, Greens supporters largely want to see a sustainable budget, a fair budget - that looks after vulnerable Canberrans, and a progressive budget - that trials innovative ways to improve things - and this budget takes firm steps towards all of those.

So while we congratulate the Government for our current ACT budget position, the Greens caution the need for ever increasing growth for growth’s sake. Instead we urge the Government to continue to support policies that facilitate growth in the sustainability industries - renewable energies, energy efficiency and recycling, towards a green and fair economy.

The Greens are very supportive of this year’s budget. But we do urge the Government to make further serious investments in housing initiatives to address affordability and sustainability, as well as in more action to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, both while assessing the impacts of these policies on our most vulnerable people.

I look forward to continuing work with Ms Le Couteur and my Labor colleagues over this Assembly, and thank them all for their efforts towards making the ACT more sustainable, fair and progressive.”