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Cognate debate on COVID-19 financial bills

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Tags: COVID-19, Legislation, Treasury, State Budget

Cognate debate on COVID-19 financial bills: Cassy O'Connor, 24 March 2020


Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, on the way to work this morning we drove past the Centrelink offices in Hobart and as it is with Centrelink offices right around the country, the queue was stretching all the way down Barrack Street. It was deeply confronting. These are Tasmanians who were employed a week ago, who maybe a month ago thought their jobs were secure and were making plans for the future. We are talking about tens of thousands of our fellow Tasmanians.

It reinforces the vital need for us all to work together and that we are all in this together. It is my hope that in some ways this pandemic is bringing people closer together from a safe physical distance. I am seeing all sorts of random acts of kindness. When you walk down the street people hold your eyes and look at you and there is that sense of human connection, because we cannot touch each other any more for a little while. It is so shocking. I think that is where we all are. It happened so fast, so ruthlessly, and here we are.

Of course the Greens will be supporting these four bills that have been tabled urgently today for debate. I will just make a few comments on each of them as a whole and ask a few questions of the minister on the way through.

Mr O'Byrne is absolutely right. What this situation brings home to us is the vital importance of government in keeping people safe and protecting their health and wellbeing. After decades of rampant conservatism and neoliberalism, undermining funding in our public services and public institutions and telling us that the market will take care of everything, here we are, turning to governments of all political stripes, in some cases desperately turning to them, for a sense of security and hope for the future. It is a bit like socialism has sashayed back into the room because now we are in a situation where government is having to invest in keeping people safe and doing what it can to look after businesses, to keep businesses in hibernation, until we get through this.

I do not believe parliament has ever before dealt with so many uncertainties. At every layer, of every aspect of our economy and society and our democracy, we are dealing with profound uncertainty. It requires of us all to work closely together, to respect each other, to engage in those random acts of kindness and to keep that social connection going.

I have read things about landlords cutting their rents by 20 per cent. I have heard many stories of people paying it forward to their favourite small business. I was talking to the owner of the Lansdowne Café the other day. One of his regular customers, who is a climate scientist, rang him up and said, 'I can't come in for a while but I love your breakfasts. Could you please give me your bank account so I can deposit the cost of my breakfast every morning with your café?'. I think it was Mr Shelton in this place the other day who said this pandemic is making good people better and bad people worse.

As a parliament, I sense that we are all determined not to leave any Tasmanian behind in the weeks and unknown months ahead. I believe that the social contract between government and the people nationally and here is being rewritten. There will be a need for much more openness and transparency as we go forward. We will need to remove political acrimony and point-scoring from everything we do. We will need to be constantly reminding ourselves of the critical value of our public servants. I know that across agencies many people are working from home, which presents its own challenges. It will impact on productivity. Constantly throughout the day I, and I am sure many Tasmanians, think about the people working in our health system. They are a high risk group of people and we owe them the most enormous debt of gratitude.

Madam Deputy Speaker, before I go into the detail of the bill I cannot, in all conscience stand here and not raise the issue of the differences in the way some employers have treated their loyal staff. For 40 years, the Farrell family has done very well from Tasmania. It has made billions and billions of dollars out of this island. It has taken money out of the pockets of some of our poorest people and it has corrupted our democracy.

The image I cannot get out of my mind after yesterday is the picture of Greg Farrell before the last state election with Federal Group employees standing behind him while he was seeking to coerce people, including his own staff, to vote a particular way and saying that their jobs were threatened by the policies of the Labor Party and the Greens. Yesterday, at midday, what did they do? Bang on the knock when the restrictions came in, Federal Group sacked 1500 Tasmanians.

This is a family that, according to the BRW Rich List, is worth around $745 million. They sacked those people who stood by them before the last election, straight away - 12 o'clock on the knocker, 1500 jobs gone. There is only one word for that: 'betrayal'; absolute betrayal of those employees and of this island and its people. To be honest, I wish the Farrells would just bugger off back to Sydney.

We are dealing with four pieces of legislation today and I also thank the Treasury and Finance officials for our briefing yesterday. It was a very concise briefing, very straight-talking. This is our understanding of bills that we only saw this morning, which as responsible legislators in here makes us a bit uneasy. But these are times when everyone is feeling terribly uneasy.

The first of the Treasury and Finance bills that we are taking through today is the supplementary appropriation bill which gives the capacity for the Government to maintain expenditure and extra expenditure until June. It covers the state-of-the-state announcements of $1.4 billion; it provides the funding for the first economic stimulus announcement and that is funding in hard money, if you like, of $18.5 million out of a total stimulus package of $420 million. It makes clear that a large part of the first stimulus is no interest, low interest loans. Businesses are going to need a lot more than that in order to come out of hibernation with any chance of restarting.

We look forward to the second set of stimulus measures. I encourage the Premier and the minister to remember that we are going to be dealing with people who are at risk of homelessness. We are going to be dealing with people who are elderly and living alone in the community who may be extremely isolated. We need to respond to people living with disability independently in the community who are heavily dependent on a carer workforce.

We already know there are impacts as a consequence of COVID-19 transmission prevention measures on our care workers and some of the restrictions that have been put in place in order to protect their health and wellbeing. There will need to be a suite of socially protective measures in the second stimulus package.

In passing, I will say the Commonwealth Government, the Morrison Government, missed a real opportunity yesterday in not providing for a living wage. That is why there are queues outside Centrelink, for heaven's sake. We are now in a situation where we are treating everyone in this country as a job seeker when really they are job waiters. They are waiting for things to return to some semblance of normality. Of course, we do not know when that will be. If ever there was an argument for a living wage, for a universal basic income, it is here and it is now. We have had an acknowledgement from the Commonwealth that Newstart is unliveable but we do need to have a conversation about a living wage for people.

This first bill makes an extra allocation to Finance General of $180 million, is that correct?

Mr Ferguson - Yes.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. We acknowledge that our own state revenues will be impacted, that there will be declines and, in some cases, massive declines of revenue for conveyancing and stamp duty. There may need to be provisions made by Government for the relief of some of those other duties and fees. We have seen the Western Australian Government move to put a freeze on payments such as rates, electricity, registration costs. These are measures that will have to be adopted down here.

We acknowledge that the Treasurer's Reserve will decline unless it is topped up. It is my understanding that the state's cash position is pretty good now but it will decline in the months and years ahead because these financial impacts will be cumulative.

I acknowledge that the extra provision in this legislation of $150 million to Finance General will help the Government to respond to unforeseen costs that come about as a result of this pandemic and the Government's need to respond to keep people safe.

The second bill is the Supply Bill (No. 1). I have a few questions for the minister relating to the appropriations. This is the bill that makes sure that services can continue to operate between 1 July and the end of this year because we will not have a state budget in June as originally projected. This has appropriations to agencies, and I am sure there is a very straightforward explanation for this, minister. We did have the time this morning to have a look at the forward Estimates for the agencies for 2021 as they were in the last budget and the appropriation in this supply bill.

There are some agencies where you can see that the appropriation for the next six months of operation is not 50 per cent of their forward Estimates allocation. There are some really concerning ones in here. Family violence, for example, in the Department of Communities Tasmania. The original allocation across the forward Estimates was $8.87 million and I hope the minister will explain why only 26 per cent of the forward Estimates allocation for family violence is being covered in this supply bill.

We are seeing some figures that work the other way. For example, in housing, disability and community development there is 81 per cent of the allocation provided for in the second half of this year, that veterans, for example, have been allocated only 16 per cent of their full year's provision, and an extra 72 per cent for obvious reasons for Finance-General. The Health budget sits right on 50 per cent and it is very clear to us all that the Health budget will continue to grow over the course of the next year at least.

I wonder why of all the agencies within government and the divisions within agencies, the Department of Resources in State Growth is receiving 93 per cent of its allocation in the second half of this year, the first half of the next financial year. The original allocation for Resources was $20 303 000 and they have been provided with $18 804 000 under this supply bill. That seems an extraordinarily generous provision in a time of pandemic when we need to be sure we do not leave anyone behind. We are sure to have a freeze on evictions in place and a rent freeze so people are not facing spikes in their rental costs, yet this supply bill gives Resources in the Tasmanian Government 93 per cent of its full-year allocation. We have Racing being given 91 per cent of its full-year allocation, which might be easily explainable by the way the grant money rolls out the door. That is fine. Is that the same explanation for Resources? I look forward to your response.

The Heritage unit in DPIPWE is receiving 135 per cent of its full-year allocation across the forward Estimates and we need to understand why Heritage is receiving the best part of another $2 million in the first half of this year. I see that there is an understanding there will be impacts on Education and Training in State Growth with 58 per cent of its full-year forward Estimates allocation provided for in this supply bill. Minister, as you are aware, we are in here working cooperatively and taking much on trust, as we have to, but it is a bit hard to fathom why the supply bill has some of the allocations it does.

The second supply bill provides for the operation of the House of Assembly, the Integrity Commission, Legislative Council, Legislature-General, Office of the DPP and Office of the Governor so that we can keep those vital institutions of government and democracy functioning.

The final bill is the legislation that extends the First Home Owner Grant for two years, provides payroll tax relief to the hospitality and seafood sectors, and a payroll tax rebate. This bill gives power to the Commissioner of State Revenue to do whatever is necessary to implement an audit by the minister, so again we are seeing all sorts of shifts of responsibility and power in this very difficult period.

Our questions relate primarily to Supply Bill (No. 1) and why the decisions have been made in the way they have.

I close by making an observation about what are 'essential services'. We can glean from the Premier's response to questions this morning that Tasmania is likely to face more severe measures and some of those will be much stronger 'stay at home' messaging for the broader population. We have already seen the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants and other hospitality ventures. Interstate and overseas in jurisdictions where they have gone into general lockdown, businesses that are regarded as essential services include pharmacies and supermarkets. Obviously there is a level of risk associated with going into a supermarket during a time of pandemic and I trust that the supermarket companies will manage those risks in order to keep people safe and well.

I know this is going to sound a bit hippy, but nurseries are really important. We are going into a period of social dislocation and disconnection. Many people will be spending a lot more time at home and for mental health and wellbeing, the capacity to spend time in your own garden and potentially grow your own food will be really important. I just received a text from my best girlfriend in the world. She is a great gardener and was out this morning at one of the big chains and said all the seedlings are nearly gone. What is happening is that people are worried about food security so they are thinking about planting gardens. They are also starting to become aware that perhaps in modern life we are bit too dependent on food that is imported or brought in or arrives with an Uber driver, so we are seeing people in Tasmania going to nurseries and I am sure many nurseries will report this. I was at the nursery on the weekend and they said they were doing a roaring trade. We are likely to see there will be a real need for businesses like nurseries to stay open to some extent so that they can be part of that social resilience and mental health and wellbeing protections we put in place as a society.

I ask that in those conversations about 'what is an essential service' that we think outside the box a little bit. We are about to go into winter here in Tasmania and people will be spending a lot more time indoors and, as we know, that comes with potential risk for people such as women in violent relationships or children in dysfunctional homes. We need to have all sorts of protective measures in place for those Tasmanians. We need to think about connecting with each other somehow or another over the dark winter months, because this is going to be the darkest winter in Tasmania's history.

In closing, I thank the minister for doing his best under really difficult circumstances to get a pretty comprehensive package of appropriation, supply and taxation amendments legislation together and to working with us in good faith on this and simply to encourage the Government and the Premier, given that there is uncertainty about when and how parliament will sit in the immediate future, there is much more scope here for openness and trust.

It is a bit like Mr O'Byrne said, 'Isn't this unprecedented times we are talking about trusting each other'. And who would have thought yesterday I would have looked into the Premier's eyes for solace and comfort, but here we are.

I encourage the Government to be more inclusive here. If there are big decisions that are being made and you want political backing, if you want to send that message to the community that we are all working together, please give us a call. That would be really important because there is not going to be much of an accountability mechanism in place through this place and a decent government will not exploit that. I do not think in these circumstances that this Government will exploit that. However, it would be good to have some structures in place to ensure we keep talking to each other in the best interests of the Tasmanian people who elected us to serve them, to look after them when they need to be looked after, and to work in their best interests, which I am certain every member of this place is absolutely unreservedly determined to do.