Appropriation Bill

02 July 2014

Mr SPEIRS ( Bright ) ( 17:29 ): I feel somewhat unworthy following the member for Goyder’s contribution, in that he gives a very considered analysis of the figures, which I might not be able to do quite such a good job. But, I hope to be able to still give some of my thoughts on the Appropriation Bill which is before us tonight.

I think we are coming to the end of quite a lot of speeches on this bill, and we have heard a lot of the analysis around the specific figures over and over again. It does not make a great story to tell. I do not want to delve into them in too much detail but, by way of introduction, just a few of those figures: the skyrocketing deficit which we are facing in this state and the substantial debt that we are carrying as well; and then, of course, the forward projections—the estimates of what those figures will be into the future.

It is very hard, I suppose, for me in my first budget speech in this place to know accurately how things are going to go in the future. These are always just estimates, but if we look back on what the government’s efforts have been historically at making predictions of what is going to come in the future we cannot really rely on those figures. I believe in 2012-13 there was a forecast that we would reach a surplus of $304 million. It was something that was obviously never attained, and we have been in deficit ever since, and rising deficit.

When we look at those forward estimates and see that in just a few months we are going to be back into a half a billion dollar surplus in 2015-16, it is difficult, given past evidence—and all we have to go on is the past evidence of what this government has served up for us—to believe that we could reach that position of $512 million in surplus in 2015-16.

However, ever the optimist, we will keep talking up the sort of state that South Australia is and hope that we can get there, because while, in opposition, we do want to hold the government to account over what we see is a woeful economic record, we still do want this state to be in a good economic position in the future, because that means better lives for all of us, but, particularly, better lives for the most vulnerable in society.

That is what I believe the government is here for: to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in society and to get out of the way of others’ daily business and let them get on with their lives. A solid economic performance enables us to provide that very thing: a solid safety net for the most vulnerable in South Australia.

I want to go through some of the things in the budget which I think particularly impact the electorate of Bright and the communities that make up that electorate down in Adelaide’s south-west coast. Firstly, I wanted to discuss another topic on which much debate and much discussion has been had during the Appropriation Bill, and that is the emergency services levy and the government’s decision to substantially increase that levy.

It has been said time and time again—and I agree with this—that this is tantamount to a land tax being placed on the principal place of residence, and it is designed wholly and solely to fill the black hole created by the state government’s historic financial ineptitude. While it is admirable to hear that the additional money gathered through the emergency services levy will be directed towards plugging the black hole in the health budget—and that is where we do want money to be spent—I believe the reason we are in this place in the first place is not because of a reduction in future increases in federal government funding but is actually because of economic mismanagement over the long term by the state Labor government.

As I said, I believe this is a land tax on every single household in South Australia; over 650,000 households will be affected. The member for Dunstan spoke this morning of the impact of this new tax on people who are asset rich but often cash poor. People in regional communities who have land holdings, small businesses that own their premises will be particularly affected, and also many people from my own electorate.

There are many people who are asset-rich in the electorate of Bright, having properties on the face of it in affluent coastal communities but many of these people have purchased houses in these communities quite some time ago and, over the last 15 years or so, have seen rapid increases in the value of those properties and have not necessarily seen that passed on in terms of their own discretionary income.

I think the emergency services levy increase will hit many people who are not rich simply because they own a house in a suburb which results in it being of relatively high value. I think of people in the suburb of North Brighton. North Brighton is a suburb with a very homogenous community because many people have bought into that community to get their children into the zone for the excellent Brighton Secondary School. Many people there have above median house price values and are really doing it tough to be able to get into that school zone, and those are the sort of people who will be particularly hit with the substantial increase in the emergency services levy.

I also want to touch briefly on the loss of concessions on council rates. The electorate of Bright is one of the most elderly in the state in terms of its demographic. Some of the suburbs in Bright have more than a third of their population who are seniors, the suburb of Hove being one of them. The suburb of Brighton has a quarter of its population as seniors, and this is a series of communities which will be very hard hit with the loss of concessions on council rates. I will speak more on council rates later. Some of my concerns come from being someone who has spent time in local government prior to being elected to this place. I may spend some time in a grieve later this evening musing on the state of local government in South Australia and some of the challenges that local government faces.

What we have seen in recent years is that councils year on year increase their council rates by an average of 5 per cent or more, and 5 per cent, 5 per cent, 5 per cent—it is well above inflation—and that is one of the reasons why I was so supportive of the Liberal Party's somewhat controversial policy leading into the state election to put a cap on council rates. I think that is a discussion we need to continue to have because I think council rates are something that really do eat into people's discretionary spending.

When you are eating into people's discretionary spending again and again, you are taking away the dollars they might have to spend on the luxuries which keep our economy going—the holidays they take, the visits they make to the local coffee shop, those extras that they buy, the things that are above the day in day out expenditure on groceries and things like that. When you eat into the discretionary spending, you discourage people from going to the movies, you discourage them from going out for dinner, you discourage them from having a weekend away in the Barossa or the Fleurieu, and those are the very industries, the hospitality and tourism industries and the small businesses, that really suffer when the discretionary dollar is eaten away by ongoing government fees, charges and taxes.

Another issue which I have spoken on in this place and I do not want to bore members with, but it does obviously amuse some people the way it occurred, was the issue of Brighton Rugby Union Football Club. I have talked about the betrayal my community feels with the government's cynical decision to withdraw $1 million funding promised for that rugby club despite former minister Fox, a minister of the crown, promising in writing—and I keep that letter in my drawer here just to remind me to be good to my local residents and to treat them with the respect that they deserve.

They were promised in writing the day before the election that they would receive funding should a Labor government be elected, and unfortunately, from my point of view, a Labor government was elected—a good thing from the point of view of the Brighton Rugby Union Football Club, or so they thought. But, no, the budget does not honour that $1 million commitment made in writing just prior to the election.

This is a prime example of why people are so sick and cynical of politics and politicians in this state: the idea that a politician or candidate will say anything to get elected and will pluck a dollar figure from thin air and create a false promise in the hope of being re-elected. I was down at the rugby club last Thursday night where they presented me with a rugby club polo shirt. I think it was the only small polo shirt they had; actually, they might have had it specially manufactured for me.

The Hon. T.R. Kenyon interjecting:

Mr SPEIRS: Very friendly—and no interjections. So I was down at the rugby club enjoying my chicken schnitty and chips with the club president, Roger Lassen, and the club treasurer, Ken Daly, and I had an opportunity to speak to club members and let them know that I would continue to fight for that broken promise.

I have written to the Minister for Recreation and Sport inviting him to come down and visit the club. Perhaps they will present him with a polo shirt as well; they probably will not need to get a small one manufactured. Perhaps he can enjoy a chicken schnitty down at the Brighton rugby club as well and explain to those members why the government chose not to honour that promise and perhaps in a spirit of bipartisanship work with me during this term to try—

Mr Gardner: Share a schnitty.

Mr SPEIRS: Yes, over a schnitty. We can work towards getting that club the funding it needs. I would love the minister to accept that invitation (which I made in writing) to come down so that he can understand what the club’s priorities are.

Another issue I would like to discuss is the extent of the cuts to the environment department. This is something that I have a real personal interest in and it is one of the reasons that I stood for local government: to look at the protection of coastal environments along the Hallett Cove and Marino part of my electorate, which fell into the council area that I represented for three years. I have a long-term interest in environmental protection and have been very disconcerted with the savage cuts which are unfolding and have unfolded over several years in the environment department.

Just yesterday, listeners of 891 radio would have heard the Department of Environment chief executive, Mr Allan Holmes, musing the impending fate of his department. It was quite an unusual interview in many ways. We get these unusual interviews from time to time when a jaded chief executive is heard on radio often doing what you would expect the minister to be doing: half defending and half grieving the huge environmental department cuts that that department is facing and the fate of that department.

You almost had the idea that the chief executive of that department was just soul searching and working out what he was there for. You had almost a feeling that he was giving up the fight because the staff reductions in that agency, from 2,236 FTEs in the 2008-09 financial year to 1,709 FTEs in the current financial year, and projections to drop even further in the coming financial years, are a huge cut. We understand that there are difficulties in the budget, but particularly the loss of front-line and environmental officers, people working out in the field, is very hard to swallow in a state where we acknowledge that we have a fragile environment. We know that there are a lot of environmental challenges here and to lose so many outdoor staff from the environment department is truly a tragedy.

One figure that really puts this into perspective is the loss of rangers working in South Australia's parks. They have, I think, borne the real brunt of cuts with the number of rangers falling from 300 in 2002 to only 88 today. We do not have any fewer parks now: in fact we have more, and those 88 rangers are responsible for taking care of 29 per cent of the state's land mass. I think that is the figure. To have those levels of cuts is quite dramatic and, really, they know it; I have spoken to rangers who have admitted that they cannot do their jobs the way they should.

You have rangers who are looking after parks in Tea Tree Gully and also on the Fleurieu Peninsula and trying to form connections with the communities and the various friends groups that are supporting and looking after those parks and it really does not work when you drop from 300 to 88 over 12 years. The situation with rangers in South Australia is facing crisis point and I don't think there is any point sugar-coating that. What has happened here is a travesty. We had David Paton, a very well-regarded ecologist and administrator at Adelaide University on the radio yesterday—I think that was also on 891—lamenting this. He said:

It is quite clear governments are losing interest, both state and federal in the environment and we do have a duty of care to look after our native species—the government's…just investing in those things which they can see, both things which they believe that people actually want but ultimately we have a duty of care to pass on the environment to the next generation which is as good as it is for us, if not better.

He went on to share that you can judge that the government is losing interest simply by the reduced quantity of money for the environment department and those cuts to front-line staff as well.

Combined with the cuts to front-line staff and the environment department is the loss of support to volunteers in terms of grants to support volunteers in the environmental space. The NRM and its boards and committees have come up for a fair bit of criticism from this side of politics over the years, but there is no doubt that the NRM grant programs have been able to build capacity within some communities and inspire communities to come together and often do the work that rangers would have been doing.

The irony is that the loss of grants and seed funding for community groups to get involved in environmental action is even more of a tragedy because, if you were to keep that sort of seed funding in place—pardon the pun—you could actually perhaps justify over the longer term some of the cuts to front-line on-the-ground staff in the environment department, but with the loss of both the seed funding and support to volunteers and at the same time massive cuts to on-the-ground staff, you really do think that the environment department is losing its raison d'être and is not going to be able to fulfil its core business—if, in fact, it knows what its core business is—into the future.

In the electorate of Bright, I have two conservation parks—Hallett Cove Conservation Park and Marino Conservation Park. They are both really unique examples of coastal environments which have been protected, preserved and revitalised in recent years and in recent decades. A huge amount of effort has gone into supporting environmental groups to get off the ground and get grants and get those environments restored. I think it is a real shame that not only will they lose the opportunity for grants but they also lose the support of rangers as those services are cut back, and that is something that I might dwell on some more when I discuss other things in this house.

Extracted from Hansard