Speeches to Parliament

Kristie Johnston – Budget Reply Speech 2022

Mr Speaker, I have listened carefully to the contribution of members this week and I have been struck by how little concern many here have for the plight of marginalised and vulnerable Tasmanians.

These are the people who come to my office every day in desperate need. People for whom the system works against, not for. People who are confused and intimidated by modern society, internet forms, impenetrable bureaucracy, hoops to jump through … just the daily grind to survive in a society where they feel invisible and abandoned.

And many are in poor health both mentally and physically.

Mr Speaker, you don’t have to look far past the glossy brochures and government rhetoric to see that this budget does very little for homeless, vulnerable and socially isolated Tasmanians. Those that live week-to-week and often don’t know if there’s a bed for them or a meal at the end of the day.

In my response to the budget here today, I want to say a few words about these people and how, as a caring, civil society, we must do more to bring all Tasmanians together.

Mr Speaker, nothing highlights the plight of those at the bottom of our economic-focussed society more than the crisis in housing. Let’s face it, the soaring house prices and private rental market have been hard enough on many we would normally consider affluent or, as we used to say, the middle-class. We all know of young couples who can’t get a start on the property ladder or have found their rents rising to uncomfortable levels.

But, Mr Speaker, it’s the ones really doing it tough I want to highlight today.

I’m hearing constantly from people who cannot keep up because the cost of private rental has sky-rocketed – people who live in fear of rent increases that are coming in the hundreds of dollars. I hear from people where rent takes so much of their income there is nothing left at the end of the week to save for a house deposit, let alone anything else.

They are trapped in poverty.

Mr Speaker, nothing in life is more heartbreaking than listening to the those who are sleeping rough, couch surfing, or being shifted around from shelter to shelter with seemingly no prospect of a home from Housing Tasmania.

These are people who aren’t just feeling the pinch, they are just about down and out. Sometimes it’s a sudden health issue, a loss of a job, a rent increase, domestic violence, family breakdown, or addiction that leads them to homelessness and utter despondency.

The ripple effect of homelessness cannot be under-stated. Someone who is homeless is more likely to have poor health, someone who is homeless is less likely to engage in education and training, and someone who is homeless is more likely to be caught in the criminal justice system. This all takes taxpayers resources – something that is avoidable.

Mr Speaker, this budget should have prioritised social housing.

Treat it as a community problem, not an economic one.

The budget could have included common sense measures like limiting short-stay accommodation to rooms in the owner’s principal place of residence.

Or an empty house tax to incentivise property owners to either sell or rent their empty homes. This is an initiative that has been adopted in cities as diverse as Vancouver and Melbourne, where homes left empty for more than six months without a reasonable excuse are charged 1 per cent of the value of the property.

Mr Speaker, the Tenants’ Union of Tasmania recently released data that identified 192 residential properties across the Hobart City Council municipality that had a “high chance” of vacancy, 115 in the neighbouring Glenorchy City Council and 256 in Launceston City Council.

That is 563 inner-city residential properties that sit empty during a housing crisis. And if you were to conservatively extrapolate these numbers across the state there is potentially almost 2,000 homes sitting empty right now.

As I said, Mr Speaker, if you look at housing solutions from a social perspective, the opportunities open up.

Mr Speaker, I do want to say a few brief words about some of the housing initiatives in the budget that are doomed to failure.

The First Home Owners Grant is simply economic stupidity. And in this budget the government has piled mistake on mistake by extending the $30,000 grant for another year.

As any economist will tell you, these types of “incentives” do little more than inflate property prices by the amount of the grant. In other words, such schemes make housing less accessible, not more, the exact opposite of an affordable housing strategy.

As respected Tasmanian economist Saul Eslake said recently, “… first home buyer incentives do nothing to increase the home ownership rate but inflate the price of existing houses and end up in the pocket of either vendors or in the profit margins of builders and land developers.”

In short, Mr Speaker, the real failure of this budget and of previous budgets from both Labor and Liberal, as that there is insufficient investment in social housing. There’s not enough to assist renters and slow progress on building new homes.

The housing waiting list just grows and grows.

And while I’m on waiting lists, Mr Speaker, let’s touch on hospital and dental waiting lists.

It is those on the bottom rung of society that feel the deficiencies in our health system the most.

Regarding the dental waiting list, I note in the budget funding for 5,350 dental appointments across emergency dental, general dental care and denture clinics, using graduate dentists and graduate oral health therapists. But as far as I can see, this is just for the next two years with nothing for years three and four of the forward estimates.

I hope this program works, but I fear it will treat just the tip of the dental crisis iceberg in Tasmania.

Mr Speaker, we know that regular dental visits can tell a lot about your overall health, including whether or not you may be at risk of chronic disease. Research suggests when your mouth is healthy, this is an indication of good overall health. On the other hand, if you have poor oral health, you may have other health concerns.

So, Mr Speaker, dental health intervention can prevent general health problems from getting established. For example, gingivitis, an early stage of gum disease, is extremely common among individuals. Such mouth infections can affect the heart which may become inflamed by bacterial endocarditis, a condition that affects people with heart disease or anyone with damaged heart tissue.

Likewise, digestion begins with a physical and chemical processes in the mouth, and problems here can lead to intestinal failure, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders.

Mr Speaker, clearly an investment in dental care is an investment in reducing other, cronic health problems in the future, thus relieving the burden on our health infrastructure and services.

I am not confident that the budget or government health planning overall, sufficiently takes this necessary, preventative approach.

Mr Speaker, I also want to touch on elective surgery waiting times, where it seems Tasmania is amongst the worst preforming state in the nation. I am told 19% of elective surgery patients in Tasmania are waiting more than a year, compared to 11% in the next highest jurisdiction, New South Wales.

Further, more than 90% of urgent category one patients are seen on time in Victoria, NSW, ACT and Queensland, whereas more than a third of category one and nearly two thirds of category two and three patients in Tasmania aren’t seen in time.

Mr Speaker, I do acknowledge some of the programs in this budget, such as funding for acute care, birthing suit upgrades and community centres in the north of the state, and an eating disorder clinic in the south. These initiatives may improve waiting times, but I suspect only at the margins.

I saw little in this budget that will bring waiting times down to anywhere near the rest of the country.

Mr Speaker, there are many other shortfalls in the health budget, but time prevents me from going into detail on them all here.

But briefly, there’s not much for easing the shortage of general practitioners in our suburbs: have you tried lately to find a GP who will take on aged care residents?

A constant and persistent complaint I receive in my electoral office is people simply cannot access affordable, GP care. So what do they do?

They suffer. There illnesses grow and get more complex, until they are forced into the hospital system at great cost to the taxpayer.

If the state and government can fix just one thing in health, fix the accessibility of GPs.

Mr Speaker, there’s no plan to mandate two-person crews for all ambulance call-outs, something the paramedic profession has been calling for.

Single-person crews are simply not always safe. Our ambulances regularly have to attend potentially dangerous situations, often where people are violent and affected by drugs or alcohol. Surely our first-responders deserve our protection.

The government must commit to two-person ambulance crews.

We all know the Ambulance Tasmania is under pressure, and matters are not helped by ambulances and their crews languishing while ramping at our over-loaded hospitals.

Mr Speaker, there is clearly a long way to go. Of course health is a bigger and more complex debate than can be allowed for here but it is suffice to say there needs to be an increased focus on community health so that people can be treated in their own home and in their own community. This means promoting wellness, allied health, after-hours GPs, mental health services, addiction counselling – that is, put people at the centre of health policy.

One area of health policy in the budget I will highlight is the apparent recognition that mental health needs a bigger investment and bigger focus. I note the array of programs contained in the budget, including mental health funding for Correctional Primary Health Services, extension of the Emergency Mental Health Co-response model, and additional funding for Rethink 2020-2025, Tasmania’s overarching mental health plan, among other projects and programs.

Mr Speaker, I don’t know if these programs and funding will make a difference – time will tell – but I do acknowledged their inclusion in the budget.

Mr Speaker, in my contribution today I’ve tried to highlight the problems facing poor and marginalised Tasmanians, those who find accessing services a confusing exercise in frustration and disappointment by touching on the two fundamentals for human existence, health and housing.

I will conclude by giving a big shout-out to the not-for-profit, community services sector. The challenge of properly funding community services over the long-term remains, and I didn’t see a great commitment in this budget for sector.

Mr Speaker, make no mistake: the not-for-profits do much of the government’s work for it, on a shoestring budget and a with large dose of goodwill.

As I have pointed out in this place many times, community service organisations play a crucial role keeping people safe, supporting people through hardship, and ultimately helping communities thrive.

Organisations like St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, City Mission, Loaves and Fishers and many more are stretched to their limits. They have more and more people seeking help who are crumbling under cost of living pressures such as soaring rents and. They tell me workers and volunteers are at their wits’ end.

There’s not much in the budget for these groups.

I accept that budgets are about priorities. There is no magic pudding, so the government has to put its money – our money – where it can do the most good for the most people.

There are so many places in this budget where the government has got it so very wrong.

Where do I begin.

For a start, this government refuses to acknowledge the social and economic harm that the rampant poker machine industry causes in this state, and factor that into this budget and the forward estimates.

Let me be clear, Mr Speaker, without real and effective harm minimisation measures, the poker machine industry in Tasmania is not sustainable, either socially or economically.

The social costs of pokies-related problem gambling almost certainly exceeds state revenue from EGM gambling taxes and fees, with the Government collecting just $50 million a year. Independent analysis estimates the economic costs to the state could be twice that figure or more, but unfortunately the Government does not properly account for social costs of poker machines in our society.

However, Mr Speaker, we do know that the Social and Economic Impact Study of Gambling in Tasmania put the social and economic costs of problem gambling including prison, bankruptcy, depression, violence and productivity loss, at up to $144 million every year.

This is a dreadful return on investment for the Tasmanian taxpayer and there can be no doubt that the costs far exceed any benefits, meaning that the poker machine industry in Tasmania is neither economically or socially sustainable.

Mr Speaker, while the Government refuses to adopt real and effective harm minimisation measures, the impost on those least able to pay will continue and returns from the gaming industry will not be shared appropriately.,

The licencing, tax and fees regime for the industry can only be describes as a sweetheart deal. A thank you for bankrolling the government’s election campaign.

The Federal Group benefits from a significant tax cut on their casino poker machines, and hotels and clubs have received a windfall gain in the capital value of their businesses via the machine licences granted.

Mr Speaker, there is no doubt our state would be better off without these rapacious machines.

And, Mr Speaker, we would also be better off without greyhound racing in Tasmania.

Although not clear in this budget, I understand the government provides approximately $10 million dollars annually to prop up the cruel and barbaric, so-called ‘sport’ of greyhound racing.

The Tasmanian public overwhelmingly want an end to public funding of greyhound racing.

Tasmanians have clearly demonstrating their repulsion in their tax dollars going to an industry where hundreds of greyhounds are either maimed, injured or killed each year.

Mr Speaker, our government is blind to the fact that, around the world, many states and countries have either banned or are in the process of banning dog racing. It has all but died in its country of origin, the United States.

Mr Speaker, no amount of sugar-coating and spin around the supposed job and economic benefits can justify why the government openly supports and contributes to greyhound racing in Tasmania.

Now, Mr Speaker, now I want to turn to some of the large spending items in the budget.

Mr Speaker, the new Bridgewater Bridge, that perennial funding announcement for state and federal governments for decades.

An eye-watering $786 million commitment over four years. And we know the budget for these huge projects always blows out: pencil in a billion dollars for this folly by the time the final cement truck leaves.

Mr Speaker, I am not convinced we need to spend anywhere near this amount of money on the Bridgewater Bridge. There’s a perfectly serviceable causeway that could be widened to four lanes, and then a new lift span added to replace the old.

Hundreds of millions of dollars saved that could be spent on housing and health.

Mr Speaker, I see there’s $1.25 million allocated in the coming year for a Stadium Feasibility Study, but nothing for construction of the stadium itself over the forward estimates.

Well, let’s keep it that way.

I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that if you talk to someone sleeping in their car or waiting years to see a medical specialist, a billion dollar football arena is definitely not a priority.

Mr Speaker, nothing demonstrates how out of touch politicians are or how warped their priorities can be than this proposal for a pie-in-the-sky football stadium.

I’m all for Tassie getting an AFL team but certainly not at the expense of vulnerable and needy Tasmanians.

Mr Speaker, I will wind up my contribution on that note.

The need to put vulnerable people at the forefront of all government activity and decision making, including this budget.

Actually, especially this budget.

Mr Speaker, I’ve focussed in on a few key areas where policy reform is needed: housing shortage, homelessness, dental care, surgery waiting times, GP access, the ambulance crisis, mental health and wastage on over-blown infrastructure programs.

Of course there is much I haven’t been able to cover but are in desperate need of reform and refocus by government.

There’s necessary reforms to institutions such as the Public Trustee, the Macquarie Point Development Authority, the Tasmanian Liquor and Gaming Commission, and the Integrity Commission.

There’s a much needed shakeup of transport policy including the re-establishment of light rail on the existing Hobart northern suburbs corridor, universal free bus travel, and a focus on integrated transport solutions.

There’s much more I could have said about health services including nurse recruitment and retention, addiction treatment and counselling services, youth mental health, rehabilitation and convalescence services, and better coordination and cooperation between the public and private health providers.

And then, Mr Speaker, we see consistently over many years a chronic underfunding of public education. We can’t even fully fund the Schooling Resource Standard. That’s not a gold standard either – that’s the bare minimum requirement – and we don’t meet even meet that. It is hardly surprising then that we have poor literacy and numeracy outcomes.

Mr Speaker, what I’ve managed to cover in my contribution today is nowhere near the end of it. There are many more problems we face that desperately need Government attention, including: dysfunction in the aged care and disability sectors; gender equality; election donation reform; and the too-often hidden tragedy of domestic violence.

I’ve made the case that, through under funding and inefficiencies, this Government – and to be fair its Labor predecessors – has allowed too many Tasmanians to fall off the economic bandwagon.

So, Mr Speaker, regrettably this budget is largely an opportunity lost to really recognise the plight of the many Tasmanians who struggle to get by.

My plea to this government is that, in your quest to build the Tasmanian economy, please understand that many need your help right now.

Please don’t leave them behind.

Thank you Mister Speaker.

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