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Estimates Reply – Minister Ferguson

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Tags: Pokies, Gambling Industry

Ms O'CONNOR - In response to minister Ferguson's Estimates of Finance, State Growth, Science and Technology, and Infrastructure and Transport, I have a few things to say.

The day started out with a conversation from the Greens' point of view about when the legislation to embed poker machines in pubs and clubs until the year 2043 will arrive in the parliament. Our understanding pre COVID-19 was that it would be being debated at around this time in the parliamentary cycle. Now we understand from the Premier's answer on the Monday, we will see amendments to the Gaming Control Act in the first part of next year. There was some talk of consultation from both the Premier and the Minister for Finance. However, it was not clear to me that that consultation would involve the community sector organisations and social welfare advocates who recognise that this policy to individually license pubs and clubs until the year 2043 will cause homelessness, poverty, child abuse, neglect, mental illness, addiction and family violence. That will be the consequence of the changes to the Gaming Control Act once they pass through the Tasmanian parliament. And because of Labor's perfidy and backflipping on a principled position that they took to the 2018 state election, it is almost certain that that extraordinarily socially damaging legislation will pass the Tasmanian parliament.

What we understand from our conversation at the Estimates table with both the Premier and the minister is that there are currently negotiations taking place between Mr Gutwein, Mr Ferguson and representatives for the Farrell family as they discuss what tax rate will be applied to casinos and keno, as I understand it, once the monopoly deal is effectively broken up but arguably a much more harmful policy is put into place.

It was déjà vu all over again with the Farrell family calling the shots. The Greens certainly hope that this is not the case, but we never did get an explanation out of either minister as to why the Liberals changed their original policy for a market based mechanism and went to an individual licensing model against the advice of the Gaming Commissioner and indeed, as I understand it, against the advice of Treasury and Finance. There is also the fact that they have decided this will be a 20 year agreement when the advice from the Gaming Commissioner and the Department of Treasury and Finance is that perhaps the agreement should extend for the life of the machines, which would be between five and seven years. But the profits of the gambling industry took primacy over good advice and the social and economic wellbeing of the Tasmanian people.

We were very disappointed to see a major report on options for activating the northern suburbs rail corridor dumped on the Estimates table late in the day. When you had a look through the report it became pretty clear why it was dumped in Estimates. It makes a reasonably strong case for light rail over more regular bus services or trackless trams as a catalytic infrastructure project that would transform the City of Hobart. It is clear that that would come at a higher cost than the other two alternatives, but if we are serious about state-building as opposed to nation-building then we need to get on with Hobart light rail because, as the report makes clear, that would activate urban and business growth along the transit corridor.

The fact that we were reassured by the minister that sometime within the next 10 years there may be some activation of the rail corridor was not particularly reassuring because the City Deal was signed some two years ago, from memory. So if it is to be activated within a 10 year time frame we are assuming that means sometime within the next eight years. For the people of Hobart who endure congestion daily and rising transport costs, light rail cannot come soon enough. It is well past time that we had a government that was serious about it and in the context of COVID 19 recovery this is a strong investment that would transform our beautiful city. It would connect in some way or another with the Tasman Bridge.

The minister and I had an interesting conversation about the design elements for the Tasman Bridge upgrade, which is an excellent infrastructure allocation and a very important part of extending the life of the bridge, making it safer on multiple levels, and making sure that the bridge is fit for purpose for pedestrian and cycling activities so that we can start activating clean transport options for people travelling from the eastern shore into the city. We had some very thoughtful correspondence from a member of the public about the need to make sure there is wind tunnel testing on the bridge so that whatever construction ends up on the wings of the bridge in order to support cycling and pedestrian infrastructure is the best and the safest it can be, underpinned by the strongest possible engineering knowledge and advice. We are very supportive of the Tasman Bridge upgrades.

I also spoke to the minister about a very significant Aboriginal cultural heritage site at the site of roadworks at Eaglehawk Neck around the road that goes to the Blowhole. Our understanding is that that is a site of very great significance to Tasmanian Aboriginal people. They have called for those roadworks not to proceed on the basis of the deep cultural heritage on that site. We strongly encourage the minister to reconsider those roadworks.

As I said at the time that I am a regular resident of the Tasman Peninsula and you do not get traffic jams on the Neck, you do not have traffic problems. It seems like it is a make-work scheme as part of scattering road funding around the state. Perhaps this is one make-work scheme for roads that could be abandoned. We do not want another kutalina here. At some point the Tasmanian Government is going to have to demonstrate to the palawa/pakana people that they take their heritage seriously enough not only to protect it but every now and again to adjust their plans in order to prioritise the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage. We will be watching that very closely because the days where governments could just get away with smashing and trashing Aboriginal heritage have to end.

I also want to spend a bit of time talking about the State Growth portfolio that covers the expressions of interest process for development inside public protected areas. We have had the minister and a number of Government members misrepresent the Auditor General's report into the expressions of interest process and cherrypick some words from it when the actual report is much more damning of the EOI process. We now know that there have been 64 developments put forward through the EOI process, that stage 2 of the process is entirely secret, and that there is a gag clause on developers who put up projects to rent-seek in public protected lands. The Auditor General's report notes the absence of environmental conservation experts and members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community contributing to issues with projects receiving a social licence. The report also notes the decision not to replace the independent member of the assessment panel after their resignation and that it was explained.

A further note by the Auditor-General in their report is that the EOI process was meant to have a communications and engagement group to work with stakeholders. That group was never convened. The report notes that the EOI process probity advisers should not have had any other involvement in the process, yet most of the external review reports commissioned in relation to proposals went to the same organisation that provided a probity officer. No safeguards were put in place to prevent a conflict of interest.

The Auditor General quite rightly pointed out that Tasmania is the only state that allows for proposals that are inconsistent with management plans. The Auditor-General asked the question about why the independent member of the assessment was not reappointed and again what we were given from the minister and the Coordinator-General was obfuscation and more opacity. The Auditor-General found that the scoring process for projects was problematic, with scores often being allocated before vital information was received, potentially prejudicing final scoring because of an averaging of assessment criteria scores, and projects that failed one or more criteria could still be recommended for approval. Shameful. Shame on that EOI process. It is another mark of the secrecy of the Gutwein Government.