NSW OPPOSITION LEADER, JOHN ROBERTSON
BUDGET REPLY SPEECH
JUNE 20, 2013
I rise to give the budget reply, on behalf of the opposition.
This is the Government’s third budget; and that is significant, Madam Speaker.
In the life of any Government, it marks a turning point.
In a first budget, Governments can claim they’re just assessing the lay of the land.
They might even adopt the old chestnut of expressing shock and dismay at what they’ve inherited.
Even in a second budget a Government can refer backwards, still able to claim they’re still sorting it out….
I say this because there has been a question of form here, given the phantom ‘black hole’ of Baird Budget 1 and the “Billion dollar bungle” of Baird Budget 2, identified by the Auditor General.
But by a third budget, there is no looking back.
It is now time for the O’Farrell Government to throw away the rear-view mirror.
Yes, throw away the rear view mirror.
The Treasurer now owns the budget. The government owns it. The people know it.
So what is it that this Government owns? What have they really delivered?
And not just on paper, but what they have delivered in reality in our streets, on our trains, in our waiting rooms, on our roads…
Because, Madam Speaker, there is often a disparity between this Government on paper, and in the real world.
And that disparity is writ large in this budget.
It’s a budget of great varnish and spin but scratch the surface and what’s underneath is a Government that is allergic to transparency and addicted to tax.
Let’s start with the allergy.
There is no Standard & Poor’s metric recorded in the NSW budget papers to show the strength of our State’s credit rating.
It sounds ordinary but it is extraordinary.
This is, I believe, the first time in recent memory that the State’s credit rating has not been reported in the State’s budget.
But, based on our calculations the NSW economy has breached the trigger point for a credit rating review so the allergy to transparency flares up.
The transparency allergy is also evident in their attempt to spin their tax addiction.
The Treasurer claims their failure, once again, to deliver the intergovernmental tax cuts promised to our businesses is simply a “deferment”.
Treasurer, it is an indefinite deferment. These taxes will stay in NSW with no end date proposed.
They cost NSW business $300 million every year.
Despite being removed in every other State and Territory, NSW businesses are still stuck with them years after they were supposed to end.
Out in the real world there’s a word for promises that are indefinitely deferred….they are broken.
In the same spin, the Treasurer says this $300M slug to business is “needed for Gonski”.
Yet only $26M is allocated to education reform in the next year.
Where is the other $274M headed? Into the coffers of a Government addicted to tax.
But the Treasurer says, “never mind that…look over here at our shiny new small business tax cut!”
Once again, it sounds good. But scratch the surface and we have a tax incentive that will benefit less than one in every five hundred businesses.
Meanwhile, every business continues to suffer an unfair tax penalty by being slugged with $300M worth of taxes that have been abolished in every other state.
Making NSW #1? Well, #1 in taxes, that’s for sure.
What a contrast this is to the Barry O’Farrell of February 2009. The Barry O’Farrell who announced a coalition policy to deliver a one off 15% per cent cut in payroll tax.
The Barry O’Farrell who said:“unless we cut taxes… the State’s economic interests won’t be served This policy…is about protecting families and the jobs they rely on….”
Well, if the Premier was serious about making NSW businesses #1 again he would honour his promise!
He would lower the payroll tax rate for NSW businesses.
Forget about rebates that affect 1 in 500. Honour the promise and cut the tax.
Because the Premier’s words have proved quite prophetic, Madam Speaker.
This Government has failed to create a fair playing field for NSW businesses and this is hitting families through increased unemployment.
Unemployment has risen to 5.6%, up from 5.1% two years ago. That means there are now 22 860 more unemployed people in this state than there were in March 2011.
In a State that’s meant to be #1 with a Government that says it’s fixing the problems, unemployment, perhaps the most critical measure of both economic confidence and family security and is steadily heading in the wrong direction.
Yet, either no one has told the Treasurer this, or maybe he doesn’t understand what the figures mean
Because while unemployment consistently climbs…he consistently trumpets his achievements in jobs growth.
Take this media release from June 3, which declares: “Treasurer Mike Baird today said NSW’s strong jobs growth is encouraging NSW households to spend!...”
Well, Madam Speaker, here’s a fact I’d like those opposite briefed on the unemployment rates defines the rate of UNemployment.
If it’s going up, that’s bad. Bad for families. Bad for retail. Bad for business.
No pie chart, spin or media release can change this.
The fact is that increasing unemployment in this state is a serious and concerning trend and reversing it should be the number 1 priority.
Instead, the Government continues to cut jobs, cut services and cut infrastructure spending while once again displaying a mastery of spin.
Let’s take the pea and thimble trick of budget vs actual spends.
The rules of this are simple.
- Announce a record investment in services.
- Don’t invest it all.
- Then announce a record increase in investment, which is easy because you didn’t spend enough last year.
- Keep repeating each budget…while services decline in every direction.
Madam Speaker, the hypocrisy of this approach is nowhere more evident than in Health.
Last year, the Treasurer celebrated a record Health budget.
The Government promised to spend $17.3 billion on health services.
Remarkably, they then under spent it, even through a time of closed beds, shut wards and cancelled surgeries. Even the brand new operating theatres at Royal North Shore Hospital were being used as storage rooms.
This year, the same fanfare of ‘record health spending’ is splashed across the media releases.
Let’s take the much-trumpeted 10 per cent increase in health capital expenditure, which ran in the Sydney Morning Herald last week.
We had all the usual hallmarks, the Treasurer talked of his phantom “revenue challenge” and “tough decisions”…
….he moaned about “16 years of Labor”, and again, Treasurer, you’ve got to stop looking in the rear view mirror, you’re driving now….
He did all this before announcing a business-as-usual capital commitment that does nothing to address the backlog of patients.
Because that is a question of recurrent funding, and as the AMA has pointed out, this needs a 7% increase per annum or it is going backwards.
That means this Budget’s promised funding increase of 3.4 per cent is a real funding cut.
Meanwhile, NSW Emergency Departments are already failing to meet federal waiting time benchmarks and NSW has the longest wait for elective surgery in mainland Australia.
To invest in hospitals, you also need to invest in the nurses, porters and cleaners to keep them going, because that is what matters at 2am when your child has a fever.
Promising new hospital infrastructure in the distant future, when there are no staff today, is the tail wagging the dog…
It’s giving with one hand while taking away with both.
The Government takes the same approach to Newcastle, offering a much-trumpeted light rail line, but only after the heart of Newcastle has been sold off from under them.
This Government is removing the world’s largest coal port and a key employer in the Hunter from public hands, to fund a light rail line they should have promised to build anyway
We have no costings, no detail – only confirmation the port is being sold off and legislation that has been rammed through the parliament.
This is an appalling strategy to effectively force Novocastrians to accept the sale of their port and loss of local jobs.
And let’s not forget most of the Port sale money is actually bound for Sydney.
It speaks volumes about the respect the O’Farrell Government really has for the region.
And how can Hunter communities trust this Government to deliver on promised infrastructure, when their track record on delivering any infrastructure is abysmal?
Three budgets in and not a single new major project has been started. That’s a fact.
Anything that is actually being built out there, was started by Labor.
Yet, once again, the spin is running way ahead of reality.
In this chamber on Tuesday the Treasurer said, and I quote: “The Government has embraced INSW’s key recommendation, the 33 kilometre WestConnex project. The recent Ports transaction has secured the funding.”
To read that, you’d think WestConnex is a done deal, locked and loaded.
But it isn’t. The funding is not secured.
1% of it is.
There is only $111 million allocated to WestConnex in next financial year.
And meanwhile there is no route, no business case, no start date and no end date.
On Tuesday, the Premier told the Ben Fordham radio program that he had a date on his ‘hard drive’.
Well, that’s all we have to show for three budgets: a date on a hard drive they won’t tell the public about and a blurry line on a map.
Meanwhile, the people of western Sydney continue to stew in ever increasing congestion.
No wonder the Treasurer is trying to hide the lack of achievements by inventing phantom “revenue shortfalls”.
The fact is, that there is plenty of good news for the Government on the revenue front.
Although you wouldn’t think so to hear the Treasurer, GST revenue is up.
The budget papers clearly showed GST revenues are up - and growing at 4 per cent per annum….well beyond inflation.
NSW will receive $942 million in extra Commonwealth funding in 2013/14.
In fact there is $735 million more Commonwealth revenue than forecast in the Treasurer’s own 2012/13 Half Yearly Review, so his talk of “GST write downs” is utter nonsense.
That allergy to transparency flaring up yet again…
And let us not also forget the $1M per day that this Government is raking in through overdue fines.
All in all, it’s a pretty rosy picture for a Treasurer. So why hide it?
Well, the answer to that is plain to any NSW citizen who’s stuck in traffic, or waiting for a train, or for surgery, or trying to get their child ahead through better schooling.
The answer is that, for all the promises of an ‘infrastructure revolution’, for all the times that the Premier’s index finger went up in the air to signal that NSW would be #1 again, for all the promises to fix the problems…there is nothing to show.
The truth is that….three budgets in….in a time of growth….and with a record mandate for change, this is a Government that has fixed nothing.
As I have said many times, the people of NSW never get it wrong.
In 2011 they clearly voted for change. But where is it?
Those opposite promised to “Fix NSW”… to make it #1 again.
What have they delivered?
Firstly, an economy that is slowing and stagnating.
The Treasurer’s budget cuts, higher fees, uncertainty around business tax commitments, and lack of stimulus, are slowing the NSW economy.
Job growth has failed to keep up with population growth in NSW and unemployment is now 5.6%
No wonder that first home buying is at a 20 year low, with new home buyers abandoning the market due to massive cuts to the First Home Buyers Scheme.
How is that making NSW #1?
Meanwhile, the Government is making it harder for families to make ends meet, with massive increases in electricity bills, water bills and public transport fares.
Train fares up by $208 a year, bus fares up by $83 a year, greenslips up 15%, electricity bills up 42% or $629 a year
And there’s more… higher electricity dividends, higher speeding fines and more speed cameras, a new fire services charge to be imposed on households on the cards, public preschool fees levied for the first time ever.
You might ask, for all this largess, have services improved? No they have not.
They have diminished.
Before the election this Premier dismissed Labor’s talk of slashed services as an unfounded ‘scare campaign’.
He said there’d be more public sector workers, not fewer under a coalition.
Yet the Premier will continue cutting jobs – and won’t even come clean on how many public sector workers will lose their jobs next year, hiding instead behind the euphemism of an “efficiency dividend”.
Families should make no mistake. This means further cuts to jobs and services.
The Government has cut $3 billion from our health system, causing hospital waiting lists to blow out, slowing emergency treatment times, and delaying ambulance response times.
Budget cuts are also leading to fire station closures….and critical police shortages on our streets. It’s no wonder gun crime is such a concern for families in south west and western Sydney.
Incredibly, during this period of razor gangs, Government debt has skyrocketed.
Government sector net debt more than doubled to $13 billion (from $6.2 billion in March 2011) Net debt continues to increase despite asset sales and massive cuts
No wonder Standard and Poor’s has placed NSW on negative outlook, and no wonder the Treasurer wants to wipe it from the budget papers.
But the biggest concern, Madam Speaker, is that for all the revenue, for all the pain NSW families have borne, for all the additional debt, there is still nothing to show for it.
And even when this Government claims to be delivering, there is always a catch.
Three budgets in and it’s still all about the varnish.
Three budgets in and both businesses and families alike are asking - where are the results?
Where is the change?
Three budgets in and this Premier would still rather talk than do, still rather consult than decide, still keener on plans than on delivery.
In some cases, he’s even taking funded plans and putting them back on the shelf!
Just look at the disgrace of the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link - a vital project to link west and south-west Sydney with the employment and education centres of Macquarie Park.
The Federal Government offered $2.1 billion.….80% of the funding.
A very generous offer, recognising the critical nature of this link in Sydney’s rail network.
But this Premier knocked it back.
Let the people of western Sydney, who voted in droves on the promise by Barry O’Farrell of a better transport deal for them, never forget that.
They had a new heavy rail line planned, shovel ready, and all but paid for by Canberra….and Barry O’Farrell’s first order of business was to kill it.
So what does Western Sydney get now? Very little.
Meanwhile their one signature project, the North West Rail Link has already become a shadow of its promise.
Not a train to the city, but a train to Chatswood where you can join the crush in an attempt to get a train to the city.
I think it’s time we called it what it is – a privatised North West Shuttle.
And though not a piece of earth has moved for this shuttle, the cost is already blowing out, with tenders for legal, financial and geotechnical services ballooning from $33 million to $68 million.
Madam Speaker, there is a train heading out there all right - a gravy train.
Word of the Transport Minister’s well-known obsession with the North West Shuttle has reached the consultant community with a clear message…”quote what you like, money’s no object!”
And why would they think otherwise, when this Government has this year already spent $83 million on consultants?
Why would they think otherwise, when the NSW Government has now become so bereft of technical expertise that it is regarded as an ‘uninformed buyer?”
This of course has an impact on future project costs as the Government loses technical experience
Engineering consultants know they can charge massive rates and in some cases, Government agencies will receive advice from the same people who were previously employed by the Government.
We need builders, not consultants.
We need construction, not reports.
We need more skilled trades and experts, not more management gurus.
This, after all, is one of the reasons why NSW has the third highest infrastructure cost in the world.
We need more skilled engineering and construction workers in NSW and without action from this government, glossy plans for these projects will suffer from delays and cost blowouts.
And all the while, nothing gets built, and nothing gets fixed for NSW families.
The answer to this is obvious. The true reform needed is clear. To build the state you need to skill the state.
Building NSW Infrastructure over the next 20 years means rapidly investing in skills and expertise today.
Without the right experience in Government, without the right jobs and skills in our State, the consequences will be delays, massive cost blowouts and more ill-conceived plans that go nowhere.
It should be obvious that if a lack of construction skills and expertise is the reason for our infrastructure costs being so high, then addressing this deficit will be the solution.
Yet, incredibly, the O’Farrell Government is deskilling the state.
- Apprenticeship numbers have fallen by 12.5%
- 800 jobs have been cut from TAFE
- The rising cost of TAFE courses has put qualifications out of the reach of many
- Funding for the Joint Group Training Scheme, which supported over 8000 apprentices and trainees, has been abandoned; and
- This government increased fees for apprentices by nearly 10% this year to $478 – four times the rate of inflation.
To be serious about building the economic foundations to promote future sustainable growth, a responsible NSW Government must invest in people and communities.
That is exactly what Labor wants to do.
That is why I have announced that we will hold a Skills Summit, to address the skills issues constricting our economic future and hear from the experts and stakeholders to inform the development of policies we take to the next election.
As part of our consultation with communities, the Skills Summit will allow experts to put forward solutions to:
- Raise the skills level for workers in NSW
- Increase the number of people in NSW with post school qualifications
- Increase employment participation
- Improve hours of work for those who are underemployed
- Ensure we continue to have a high quality public provider of vocational training that can respond to our economic and social priorities.
And, in particular, how NSW addresses the demand for infrastructure delivery and the shortage of engineering and related skills.
I don’t expect those opposite will show any interest. They seem more interested in booking flights to their next interstate sporting event.
But if the Government doesn’t want to help deliver real solutions the least they can do is stop making the problem worse!
That is why today I call on the Government to reverse its funding cuts to TAFE and vocational education.
To increase the use of apprentices in NSW Government building and civil works
To commit to increasing the number of students studying engineering degrees
To recruit experienced engineers, at senior levels, in permanent positions to avoid the massive blowout in consultant costs this Government is already overseeing.
To stop massive fee increases for apprentices to undertake training;
And to restore the Joint Group Training Scheme, which I can today announce Labor will commit $1.7M each year towards, to fund and support.
Supporting programs like the Joint Group Training Scheme, which assists more than 8000 apprentices with training and employment, is vital if we are to build the skills our state needs.
That is why Labor would reinvest the funding that has been ripped out of this program and skills training for apprentices.
We need long-term reform and investment in our people and communities that can truly rebuild NSW.
We need to grow the economy to give people who want to work the opportunity to get a job.
We need the kind of reform that NSW communities are looking for the kind that they gave this Government a mandate for.
We accepted the people’s verdict from 2011 – the question is; has the coalition?
Because they’re continually looking in the rear view mirror still talking about what they’re “going to do” when by now they should be doing it and still too busy criticising a government that is no longer there.
That is not what the people of NSW voted for.
They voted for improved services.
They voted for less talk and more delivery.
They voted for a Government that said it would fix the problems.
To date, they have not got what they ordered.
The Premier may wish to look longingly backwards at his halcyon days of opposition, when he promised anything and was accountable for nothing, but the people of NSW voted otherwise.
So the real questions are; where is the transparency they voted for?
It’s certainly not in this Budget.
Where are the improved frontline services, in everything from our hospitals to public transport system?
Not in this Budget.
Where is the promise of ‘less talk and more delivery’ they were promised?
It is missing as well.
The people of NSW have handed this Government the levers, and they have had them for three budgets, but there is still no sign in this third budget of any of these problems being fixed.