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Tasmanian Economy

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Tags: Economy

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I am quite happy to get up and speak on Mr Street's private member's time motion, although most of what he talked about, to be fair, had not much to do with the substance of the motion. He could not resist, as have numerous members and ministers on the Government side, having a whack at Labor over their internal problems. I know it is irresistible but the Greens are going to try to resist.

The one thing I did notice in Mr Street's contribution was a belated acknowledgement that we are not in a golden age and that there is much more work for Government to do. What we hear during question time, when it is Dorothy Dix self-indulgence time, is from every Government minister very little acknowledgement of the huge social and economic inequality in Tasmania and a lot of talk about how terrific they are.

As Mr Winter has pointed out, who perhaps has more experience in this area than any person in this place, there has not been any significant economic structural reform under this Government in seven years. It reminds me of what a then very senior public servant said to me when we were in government. I was apologising, if you like, for riding the department pretty hard and this very senior public servant said, 'Don't worry about that. We live for reformist ministers and progressive government is a reformist government in my experience, while conservative governments are administrators'. It was just a simple truth that you get real change when you have a government that is more progressive. You get a bit more courage and you get much more of a lens applied to social inequality. Of course, if you have Greens in that mix you also get a much stronger emphasis on looking after nature and taking real climate action.

The reason we have not seen any significant structural reform is because it is not in the DNA of this conservative Government to rock the boat too much, so much of what we saw during the election campaign, to the frustration of many thinking Tasmanians, was announcements about cash splashes. Each day the Government rolled out that there would be some new allocation of money for a policy area, but there was no talk of structural change. I read somewhere, I think it was in the Mercury, that this Gutwein Government is the first government in Tasmania's electoral history that went to an election promising to spend money that it had not spent in the previous term but had promised to spend.

There is no imagination or vision from this Government and that is really regrettable considering the enormous challenges we have as an island community. They are challenges that range across the quadruple bottom line of society, economy, environment and democracy. It is well past time that we saw out of this Government, given that we are now early in a four-year term, some commitment to making those structural changes that we so sorely need, some honest discussion about the fiscal sustainability report and what we are going to do about declining revenues in the years ahead, some targeted policy that deals with lifting 120 000 Tasmanians out of poverty.

We do not have an environmental policy from this Government. We do not a meaningful climate plan from this Government. They talk about our greenhouse accounts and pretend that is has nothing to do with the forests that were set aside most recently by the Labor-Greens government under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement of 570 000 hectares. That is why, as I reminded this House last week, we have the emissions profile that we do where Tasmanians are the lowest per capital emitters of any Australian state or territory. That is because of our forests and that was written in the greenhouse accounts; it made it really clear that our emissions profile is what it is because of our forests.

It would be terrific to hear any member other than a Greens member acknowledge that in this place. It is just about being honest. I will bet that of those postcards Mr Gutwein got and is making his way through, plenty of those kids said stop logging the forests and stop destroying habitat for native animals, because when I talk to young people they are really worried about those things.

What we know is that over the past seven years on every key social metric Tasmania has gone backwards. Our elective surgery waiting list is blowing out and people are dying on it. We have a housing waiting list which is now at more 4000 people. Our prisons are bursting at the seams and the human rights of detainees are being breached every single day. Our child protection system is in serious strife. After seven years it is arguably less well-resourced and less able to respond to the increasing needs of at-risk children and families in stress.

A little less talk about this narrow band of policy areas and a little more talk about what is really happening in Tasmania would be a constructive debate for this House to have. I have not heard a government member talk about the fact that 120 000 Tasmanians live in poverty. I have not heard from government a single coherent solution to the housing crisis. It is so glib to say, 'We will just build more homes, that will deal with it'. It is not dealing with, for example, the pensioner who got in touch with us last week who had been told their rent is going up by 75 per cent. It is not dealing with soaring rents or homelessness. You need immediate responses to alleviate housing stress, and I am not going to pre-empt an order of the day other than to say I urge members in this place to have a look at our residential tenancy amendment bill. It draws on good policy from the ACT and Victoria and it resets the balance, so it is a bit more balanced towards tenants.

We also need to regulate short stay accommodation as plenty of other jurisdictions have done. This Government has dragged its heels on that one too, ensuring that there are still houses that are taken out of the private rental market for the short stay market.

It is all been quite laissez faire over there in relation to the housing crisis. The houses are not coming out of the ground, to put it in the Premier's language, at the rate they are needed, which is why if you have a look online at the real estate website, people are paying more than $400 000 and $500 000 for small pokey homes far, far from the Hobart CBD, the centre of employment in the south, arguably.

Mr Street - Do you concede that Hobart City Council knocking back some residential developments has exacerbated the problem, Ms O'Connor?

Ms O'CONNOR - I have not heard of the Hobart City Council knocking back a realistic residential development. I have heard of the Hobart City Council knocking back, for example, a development like the one up Enterprise Road, which was up a narrow road at the back of Sandy Bay, which was argued against by the planners and damned by councillors themselves.

Mr Street - I am talking about 175 apartments in the last fortnight that have been knocked back by that council that would have added to the inner-city residential supply.

Ms O'CONNOR - Just before you pull us into line, Mr Speaker, I do know that the Hobart City Council has approved plenty of residential developments. On their record, I would say they have done that on the advice of the planners in council for good reason. I do not know the details of that one, but you cannot just say yes to every development because it is going to provide a roof over people’s heads. We still need to make sure that we are approving developments that are fit for purpose, comply with the planning scheme and provide quality, affordable housing for people.

In his motion Mr Street talks about dwelling approvals. In point 7 of the motion 'dwelling approvals are at 3952 over the 12 months to April 2021'. The problem, which is not acknowledged by Mr Street, is that dwelling approvals may be going up but actual starts on houses and completions have stagnated. The construction workforce limitations are a significant gridlock in resolving the housing crisis. The construction workforce in Tasmania steadily increased between 2013 and 2017, but it has been in decline since 2017. That data comes from Tasmania Employment by Industry report.

In 2013 there were 9.3 construction jobs per dwelling approval compared to 6.5 in 2019. Construction apprenticeships and traineeships commencements have kept pace with dwelling approval increases. Actual completions have declined since 2013 and cancellations have tripled, outpacing the increase in commencements.

Workforce limitations are apparent in the construction data as well. Since 2015 dwelling approvals have increased by 13 per cent and commencements have only increased by 11 per cent. More worryingly, completions have declined by 2 per cent and dwellings not yet commenced have increased by 64 per cent.

The National Centre for Vocational Education Research has done a number of studies over decades on non-completion of apprenticeships and traineeships. It has consistently found employment-related factors rather than personal ones to be the main cause. This is why during the election, we took a policy to the people in response to the housing crisis to establish a department of public works to deliver well-planned public housing, lowering the cost of increasing housing supply to taxpayers and driving down private sector costs through competition. Our proposed department of public works would provide secure work with appropriately paid stable working conditions for apprentices and trainees, improving completion rates for trades training.

If you want a good example of how well a government construction workforce undertook its work in the days when government had a department of public works and constructed quality social housing - this is not a new idea - you need look no further than Queens Walk. The former Stainforth Court is built like the proverbial brick outhouse. It is so solid and so well-constructed that the refurbishment we undertook when we were in government really was cosmetic. It made sure that we turned what had degenerated into a place of high social distress, a place people did not want to live, into a place that is now a real community where people are lining up to find a place to live at Queens Walk.

The reason we could do that and not do what the previous housing minister said which was to knock down Stainforth Court is because of the quality of the construction. It is a magnificently strong, albeit reasonably ugly, set of buildings. We need to get back to a situation, we would argue, where you have got a government construction workforce that can allow the private sector workforce - which is clearly under strain - to do the other work while you have got government building homes for people and investing in skilled apprentices and traineeships.

We would very much like to see a bit more honesty from government. Instead of just narrowly looking at one set of data, the data around housing approvals, look at the data around commencements and completions and ask yourself why is there this problem and what can government do to alleviate the problem?

Mr Speaker, I am not going to go to the other bits and pieces in the motion in too much detail other than to remind the member for Franklin, Mr Street, that while our unemployment rate is sitting at a bit under 6 per cent, our underemployment rate is very high. We still have not heard from government a plan to tackle underemployment, the desire of an increasing number of Tasmanians to have more work and have that dignity of work. We certainly have not heard anything from government on a plan to tackle poverty in a substantive and meaningful way.

Successive governments in Tasmania have kind of thrown their hands up about tackling poverty. It feels sometimes like it is a bit like unemployment more broadly where government accepts that there will be a pool of unemployed people contributing to social and economic inequality. Successive governments, including this one, seem to have relegated Tasmanians living in poverty to the too-hard basket. We can do so much better by our fellow Tasmanians. That is just under a quarter of the Tasmanian population living in poverty, living on a few hundred dollars a week. We can do better. We are a small and closely connected island community. We have government agencies that probably communicate with each other more than they do in other states and territories although there are still silos in place. We have a creative and potentially highly skilled workforce but we need to invest in their skills and their training. We need to make it easier to skill-up.

We should be offering free TasTAFE courses. It is affordable. We should be offering free Metro bus services. That, too, is affordable. We should be working with our private transport providers to make sure that we are genuinely reaching into rural and regional communities and providing affordable, quality public transport options, for want of a better term.

Mr Speaker, there is plenty more work to do and we would like to see the Government be a bit more honest about the social and economic circumstances that this state finds itself in and come forward with some genuine reform proposals to lift Tasmanians out of poverty and make sure that the wealth that is being enjoyed by some Tasmanians is more equitably shared.