Budget 22-23 reply speech. Ft. Shane Rattenbury

Australian Greens

On behalf of the ACT Greens, I rise to respond to the 2022-23 Budget.

With your indulgence I’d like to start this Budget reply with a brief but exciting tale about a Greens policy.

Once, many years ago, before the 2016 election, the ACT Greens proposed a policy to begin the phase out of fossil fuel gas in the ACT. “The perils of climate change demand that we start phasing out gas,” we said, “and we need to begin this phase out in an equitable way.”

Our Labor and Liberal colleagues did not support that policy. One of them, who I won’t name as they are still in the Assembly, said the idea was ‘ridiculous’.

Then, prior to the 2020 election the ACT Greens again put forward our policy to begin the phase out of fossil fuel gas. “It’s a bold but necessary policy,” we said,” and we need to go through this journey with the community”.

Our Labor and Liberal colleagues did not support that policy. A different colleague, who I again won’t name as they are also in the Assembly, dismissed the policy as ‘crazy’.

The most recent chapter in this dramatic tale is set right here, in the Assembly, today. In a jaw-dropping twist, this 2022-23 Budget contains significant funding to support the ACT’s phase out of fossil fuel gas, as we commit to replacing this expensive and polluting fuel with clean, renewable electricity.

Members will have seen today’s announcement about the electrification pathway the ACT Government is pursuing. It’s a policy to which this Government – made up of both Greens and Labor members – is now committed. Our Government partners have joined the project and we’re implementing this electrification pathway together.

I mention this story because, in many ways, it is the quintessential story of the Greens and our efforts in the ACT assembly. We are not afraid to campaign for these progressive, evidence-based, long term, necessary policies, with courage and conviction. Others will sometimes ignore, ridicule, or attempt to stymie these efforts.

But then, even if it’s years later, we see these policies are adopted. Sometimes they are adopted, sometimes they are co-opted. More often now we achieve

them through hard work as part of Government. But the important thing is that the policies are increasingly implemented.

The gas transition is one of several significant environmental and social policies that have, over the years, been ignored or scorned by various politicians, by vested interests, and, yes, sometimes even by our friendly colleagues in the Labor party.

But we continue to see them realised in Government policy, and in Government budgets, just like this year’s Budget.

That’s because the Greens are working hard, both as part of Government, and as an engaged crossbench, to see these policies realised. And it’s because the policies aren’t ridiculous or crazy at all. They are progressive, nation-leading policies that advance social justice and respond to climate change. When we implement them in a thoughtful, evidence based, and compassionate way, they are widely beneficial.

I say they are progressive and nation leading. But I shouldn’t have to label them as such. Because this is the work that Governments should be prioritising all around the nation.

It’s notable that the place we see this leadership is here in the ACT. It’s been this way for over a decade. Look at the long list of issues on which we’re breaking new ground: from 100% renewable electricity to leading drug harm minimisation policies like pill testing.

The ACT is leading the way on these issues because of the key fact that in the ACT we have Greens in Government, and Greens in the balance of power.

Crazy climate change policies

Gas

Let me return again to the gas transition, because it is a central part of this Budget’s response to climate change. As the Greens have said in the past: climate change can’t just be a token part of ACT budgets. Every ACT Budget must be a climate change budget. And this Assembly agrees – declared in a resolution from all three parties: we are in a climate change emergency.

So called natural gas is responsible for around a fifth of the ACT’s greenhouse gas emissions. The gas transition is one of many changes we need to make for our future, in response to the existential threat of climate change.

As with all our policies, climate change or otherwise, people must remain front and centre. This is a critical element of these initiatives: we will ensure that the transition is fair, just, and that we look after our most vulnerable as the transition unfolds.

Gas is expensive. Right now, living in an all-electric home can deliver residents significant financial savings.

I am pleased to say that this budget supports its big transition plans with range of supportive household energy support projects.

Like the $50 million Vulnerable Household Energy Support Scheme, covering both Public and private Housing. This is another key Greens election commitment, and it’s important to advance this in conjunction with the broader gas transition.

The Government too is committed to the transition in its own actions, reflected in the new project funding to ensure its own facilities transition to renewable electricity.

Zev

In a similar fashion, the ACT is transitioning away from polluting internal combustion engine vehicles, to clean zero emission vehicles. The same transition is happening in heavy vehicles, like buses and garbage trucks. Transport makes up around 60% of the ACT’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This transition will occur in the ACT over the next decade, supported by government targets and investment and bolstered by incentives for purchasers of these vehicles. Not only are EVs zero emissions, as they recharge using the ACT’s 100% renewable electricity, they are also significantly cheaper to own and operate compared to a petrol vehicle.

Just like the gas transition, this is a transition that we need to commence now, that will occur over decades, and that has, at its heart, care for the environment and concern for people and the community.

Different narrative

Let me reiterate this point. This Budget continues to invest in bold transitions that are forward thinking, put people and the environment at their centre, and that are key policy goals and election commitments of the Greens.

The Greens here in the Assembly are proud to be pushing our Government partners to be leaders on these significant issues.

Having said that, and as I have noted in previous years, this is not the exact Budget that the Greens would deliver if we were in a Greens-led government. We work in a power-sharing, collaborative government that involves debate and compromise. We can’t expect the budget to reflect everything the Greens want.

We respect and appreciate our Labor partners. But, also, we consistently strive to move and improve government policies and to reflect these in the ACT Budget.

We are making progress. Instead of the ship chugging relentlessly in the same direction, we Greens are pulling on the steering wheel, turning its course toward sustainability, community wellbeing, long term policy thinking, and bold climate change action. We are keeping the focus on critical challenges like climate change, the biodiversity and extinction crisis, the housing crisis, and the plight of our most vulnerable.

We have heard from the Chief Minister about the key features in this Budget, the lens through which he sees it, and the issues that he sees as key. This is a budget, he says, focused on housing, health, and infrastructure. It is budget designed to gradually erode the deficit and return to surplus.

The Greens agree these issues are important and we value them. We appreciate the Chief Minister’s perspective. However, I want to add some additional thoughts from the Greens’ perspective on these key themes.

Budgets are for people

The Greens believe that Budgets must be about supporting the community, supporting people, and investing in the future. But Budgets are frequently discussed in terms of deficits and surpluses, with surpluses supposedly being good, and deficits inherently bad.

But looking through this narrow fiscal lens distorts one’s priorities. The Canberra Liberals’ Assembly motion this week, insisting on returning the budget to surplus, took this approach. The budget is not just numbers in a ledger. It is also the repository of Government policies, of the community’s needs and values, and of our collective future.

Some might find this view controversial, but a budget deficit is not necessarily bad. A deficit can be a good thing, when it is supporting investment in the community, the environment, the future, and indeed in measures that will support economic productivity in the future.

And Governments can, if done prudently, reasonably afford to remain in debt.

I don’t make this point to encourage flagrant spending or debt, but merely to say that we shouldn’t blindly focus on deficits and surpluses when critical investment in the community is at stake. It is about making smart investments. When people need help and assistance, when we need to prepare for climate change, when we need to invest in the future wellbeing for the community, it can be bad policy to instead grasp at a meaningless number, just to try and achieve a surplus.

We support the long term investments this Budget makes in issues like housing and climate change – and in community infrastructure projects like light rail – for the future of Canberra.

Housing for people

If budgets are about people, nothing is more important that ensuring our community members have a decent home.

This is a critical issue for the Canberra community, who are facing an affordability and accommodation crisis.

The Greens have been clear that this is a crucial focus for us. We are committed to ensuring everyone has a decent home.

Again, we are proud to see longstanding Greens policies shaping this Budget. For example, the reform to establish minimum energy efficiency standards in rental properties is another chapter in Greens policy efforts that have taken over a decade of effort.

Now these standards have at last been developed as Government policy and will commence later this year. It’s a critical reform, to stop people freezing in Canberra winters, or boiling in Summers.

Houses that are too cold contribute to 6% of all deaths in Australia every year.

This is a shocking figure.

I was reminded of this fact, and the exposure of Canberrans that are renting, as yesterday the Liberal party aggressively questioned this reform in the Assembly.

The Greens will do everything we can to eliminate homelessness. Improving housing options is a major part of the Parliamentary Agreement, requiring 400 additional public housing dwellings by 2025, an expansion of specialist homelessness services, and an increase in affordable housing and build-to-rent opportunities.

While we know that housing affordability is a wicked problem – one that is complex and difficult to solve, and that we don’t have all the levers, there is more that we can and must do to ensure that everyone has a decent home.

This budget funds a range of initiatives to improve housing affordability, including to ensure that those who are struggling most can find a safe place to call home.

These include the following:

  • Release of the build to rent prospectus. This exciting initiative can be used as a way to build affordable rental stock. The community housing sector has a key role to play in growing affordable housing stock. We look forward to seeing innovative proposals that will create additional rental stock, and, importantly, affordable rental stock.
  • The Budget provides a further $30 million investment to support the Growing and Renewing Public Housing program, adding a further 140 new public housing dwellings: this will ensure the ACT Government delivers its commitment to grow our public housing stock by 400 properties. This will see hundreds more families with a safe and secure home
  • $57 million investment to increase repairs and maintenance for public housing. As our public housing stock ages and as the needs of our tenants change, the need to ensure that homes are fit for purpose, contemporary and climate wise is even more important.
  • The $2.21 million to further support our specialist homelessness services will enable more capacity to deliver emergency accommodation and crisis support. Importantly, there is also funding to better understand the needs of Canberrans facing homelessness and ensure our joint responses – as community and Government – best support them on their pathway to stable accommodation.
  • The Budget also includes a range of initiatives to increase overall housing supply in Canberra and improve affordability; these are good and important measures to help Canberrans who are looking for their own home and struggling in this heightened market.
  • Lastly I want to note the important raising of the household energy concession, to $800, a necessary increase to help people most struggling to pay their energy bills.

Health is also about people

There is also large investment in health in the budget.

As we continue in our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic and mental wellbeing impacts that result, we must remember that a community is about its people. Investing in infrastructure is important so that we have buildings and equipment for our healthcare workers to deliver the best quality care for the community. But the most important part of our health system is our people.

On a similar note, I mention that we welcome investment in the arts, particularly the 10% increase in arts spending, but are concerned that so much of this money is spent on buildings rather than people. We need to foster the careers of our artists and ensure they are viable and paid to produce excellent work if we are to achieve our Statement of Ambition for the Arts.

The point is: buildings can be great. But don’t forget about people.

Returning to health: our committed and caring health and community services workers provide care for people, not only in our hospitals, but in our community. Providing that care in wellbeing and prevention, and earlier intervention when a health issue emerges, means we can support people closer to home, and to recover sooner. It means reducing wait times for treatment, and making it easier for people to access quality, affordable healthcare.

The Budget funds important health initiatives, which I want to emphasise:

170 additional full time positions for healthcare this year and next.

$16.4 million to expand the allied health workforce and to support more services after-hours.

$3 million to expand the Nurse Practitioner workforce, including at walk in centres.

$7 million dollars to support the health workforce with psychosocial wellbeing, address occupational violence, and embed a positive safety culture across our health services.

$37.5 million dollars to expand mental health services that we know work well, provide services in locations closer to home, and introduce new services that will help fill gaps.

All important investments, investing in the people that are at the heart of our community.

The local environment is critical too

As the Greens always say: we are for people and for the planet. I have talked about the climate change emergency, the biggest threat facing our planet today. In the midst this emergency, it can be easy to overlook its twin challenge, the extinction crisis. The recent ACT State of the Environment report has sharpened our focus on the need to solve the twin climate and nature crises together, rather than in isolation.

This is why it’s so critical that this budget delivers $3 million over the next two years to protect, connect and restore nature in the city and maximise habitat connectivity and wildlife corridors. While some of this work will shape our city’s future development, it also includes the restoration of twenty sites across the city vital for habitat connectivity and climate cooling.

A strong and enduring theme for the ACT Greens has been supporting the contributions of our local environment volunteers and our citizen scientists, people who know and love their ‘patch’ of our bush capital like no one else. In this vein, the ‘Connecting nature, Connecting people’ initiative also enhances the Canberra Nature Map platform to better listen to and integrate citizen science contributions to identifying important species and habitat. This builds on our work last year, expanding the ACT Environment Grants and delivering long term funding to our hardworking environment groups.

Some people might overlook these investments or see them as insignificant in the grander schemer of the Budget. They are not. They are a critical response to the environmental challenges we face.

Other help for people

I want to draw attention to some specific elements of this Budget that people might not notice at first glance. But they are critical investments that signal the Government’s intent to help turn around disadvantage in a positive and collaborative way.

Justice

In the Justice space, our mantra is to ‘build communities not prisons’. The ACT Greens say we must approach justice in an evidence-based and people-centric way. More reliance on prison makes our communities less safe, and creates unnecessary suffering. We want to keep people out of incarceration, and help treat the problems that are seeing people enter the justice system in the first place.

It’s another ambitious and long term Greens policy that strives for a reimagined society.

And it is again reflected in this budget, in part through the $11.5million to help address the over-representation of indigenous people in the justice system.

The programs included in this package respond to calls from the community to help address structural issues that First Nations people in the ACT face. For example, we know and understand that we need to address the social determinants of crime, and that is why we are expanding funding to the Yarrabi Bamirr program, to help families stay together and develop good mutual support for each other. And we understand that sentencing and bail

decisions need an enhanced cultural lens so we are increasing funding for the Galambany circle sentencing court.

It’s a comprehensive suite of programs, which makes me optimistic about the ACT Government’s ambitious commitment to reach parity in incarceration rates by 2031.

Social recovery

I also want to single out the funding that is going to develop a Social Recovery Framework for Canberra. This is to ensure we have a plan for community recovery from COVID as well as the 2019/2020 bushfires. It will also help the community to be prepared for the increased storms, fires, droughts, and other impacts of climate change in our future.

This is investment that acknowledges the reality of our future. Support for resilience and recovery will need to be on going.

That is the paradigm we exist in, as our national leaders still fail to take the action on climate change that is necessary and where, as my Federal Greens colleagues have said, our Federal Labor Government is wedded to an insufficient 43% emissions reduction target that is, to quote their razor sharp analogy, akin to throwing a bucket of water at a house fire.

$40m for horse racing?

These investments, to help the vulnerable and struggling in our society, never seem enough. There is always more that we can do to help.

This leads me to a particular element of this budget that the Greens cannot support. I signal now that there is a spending proposal that the Greens will vote against.

This is the proposal in the Budget to provide an almost $40 million subsidy to the horse racing industry over the next five years. This $40 million is proposed despite the fact that the Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission recommended, 11 years ago, that the ACT Industry should be self-sufficient within in a decade.

And yet there does seem to be a majority in this place propose to continue paying the industry tens of millions of dollars, or even more if Mr Parton had his way at a time when that money could be spent so

My colleague Jo Clay has brought this issue to the public’s attention and has received a great deal of public support.

The Budget is supposed reflect what we value as a community, and the future we want to build together. I am confident the community would prefer this $40 million to go to public housing and homelessness, or mental health support, or climate change adaptation, or public transport, or a hundred other things. We should be using this money to invest in issues that will help Canberrans now and into the future.

It’s an important budget, advancing important greens policies

In conclusion, I reiterate that the Greens support this Budget. Even if there are some elements we would do differently, and even though we will explicitly vote against one element, we support its important investments.

We need budgets that courageously make long term investments that care for people, address inequalities and injustices, and respond to climate change. Policies like the transition to a society that uses clean and affordable renewable energy; the transition to clean electric vehicles; record investment in addressing homelessness and growing housing; expanded mental health services; a determined and thoughtful approach to justice that builds communities and reduces incarceration; and investment in our local environment.

This Budget does all those things, and the Greens are proud of our role in steering it to these outcomes.

In Government, and on the crossbench, we will keep striving to build a caring, compassionate, sustainable future for Canberrans.

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