Budgets are about more than figures on a spreadsheet

23 February 2022

Ms JODIE HARRISON (Charlestown): Budgets are about more than figures on a spreadsheet. A budget is the chance for a government to chart a course for the State, set the agenda and priorities, and update the electorates on the progress being made. At their core, budgets are about people.

The State is emerging from one devastating lockdown after another, including the shadow lockdown imposed by the poorly managed Omicron wave. People have suffered. They have lost jobs and have missed opportunities. They have been isolated from friends and family. Stay-at-home orders were necessary for the protection of the public health, particularly in the face of the vicious Delta and Omicron strains, but we cannot ignore the impact that they have had on individuals, families, businesses and the community as a whole. While COVID has presented what will hopefully be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, it also offered what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The 2021-2022 budget could have been about resetting the system, about building a diverse and resilient economy. The budget could have been about properly investing to meet the important social needs of the State, but instead what we got was a small-target budget, a budget of the status quo, not the inspirational or big-picture approach we had the opportunity to take. It is par for the course for the Government and par for the course for the Treasurer who handed it down. That Treasurer is now the Premier and if his budget is any indication of where he intends to take the State, I fear that the course of "steady as she goes" is taking us right towards an iceberg.

The Government's budgets have always been propped up by the sale of State-owned assets. Even as the State has been going through the COVID crisis, the Government has been looking for which pieces of public‑owned treasure it wants to flog off at bargain-basement prices for a quick hit. The Hunter, even as it contributes massively to the State's coffers, is hit time and time again by unwanted asset sales, which are then used to fund overpriced boondoggles in Sydney. Throughout his time as Treasurer, the Premier was the chief architect of the program of asset sales. Even income-generating assets, such as the Port of Newcastle and the poles and wires, have been sold off. This program of robbing Peter to pay Paul has fundamentally undermined our State's capacity to grow in the long term.

Perhaps the most shocking example of the program was the privatisation of Newcastle buses. Instead of the carefully considered timetable restructure the public was crying out for, the Government, driven by the ideology of the Premier, simply sold off public transport, which disadvantaged people across the Charlestown electorate: Some saw their commute times balloon and others lost access to public transport altogether. Even though my colleagues and I presented several 10,000-signature petitions to the Parliament calling for the reinstatement of old routes and a fairer approach for the public, the Government failed to listen, driven by the then Treasurer, now Premier's blinkered ideology.

That ideology was on display again during the recent COVID-19 crisis. The New South Wales Government's support for small business, another policy designed by our new Premier, was almost entirely focused on supporting Sydney businesses through the worst of the lockdowns. While the stay-at-home orders were necessary to save lives and to keep COVID from spreading too widely and too rapidly, it is difficult to overstate the damage that has done to business and workers across the State. That is very keenly felt across the Charlestown electorate. Charlestown is home to the two largest retail precincts in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie and countless small businesses that, even if they did not have to close under the public health orders, were faced with enormous challenges. In the absence of Federal support, businesses were forced to turn to the State Government during the lockdown. Many reported that the application process was confusing and byzantine and that the policy seemed designed not for regional businesses and their needs but to support Sydney businesses.

All of this indicates to me that our new Premier has no interest in taking the needs, the wants and the aspirations of people in my electorate into his consideration. This Premier changed parliamentary seats to cut down his daily commute, so how can he understand the regions? Now we come to what was to be the jewel in our new Premier's crown, Insurance and Care NSW [icare], which has been plagued by scandal. Due to serious financial mismanagement at the highest levels, Treasury warned that icare was heading for disaster. There have been continual losses, even before COVID. Despite that, executives still received bonuses and the Premier is on record as praising the icare board. The chair and co-chair resigned under a cloud but, due to the Premier's staunch support for the board, it was up to the Opposition to introduce the State Insurance and Care Governance Amendment (Employees) Bill, which would have limited the payment of bonuses. That bill passed through the other place with crossbench support.

There have been dodgy dealings galore, with massive contracts handed out to businesses linked to senior managers: an $11 million marketing contract given to a company owned by a manager. There have been questionable tender practices: a $140 million contract handed out after a one week long tender process. There has been nepotism: The CEO had his wife hired at icare. That is compounded by the cosy relationships that icare has enjoyed with Liberal Party donors: $6 million in contracts went to Korn Ferry, a business with close ties to the Liberal Party; $18 million went without tender to IVE Group, the Liberal Party's printing company, which is a major Liberal Party donor and is led by a former State party president. That is not even touching on the other strange staffing arrangements. Political staffers paid by icare were seconded to the Treasurer's office, including a US Republican operative. That operative cost icare nearly $1 million, including the use of a labour hire company and the possible rorting of visa arrangements.

The Premier knew about the rot at the heart of icare for a long time before it was brought to the public's attention and had been made aware of some elements of the problem as early as 2019. His own department abandoned an investigation into icare in September of that year. All of that has been disastrous for injured workers. As many as 52,000 workers were underpaid by as much as $80 million, the largest incidence of government wage theft in Australian history. That paints a picture of someone who is not capable of understanding the lived experiences of those people doing it tough, and the 2021-22 budget reflects that.

The budget does not include enough funding for a State where police respond to more than 140,000 domestic and family violence incidents every year—nowhere near enough when every nine days a woman in Australia is killed by a current or former partner. Frontline domestic and sexual violence services across New South Wales were already stretched to their limits before COVID-19, and the most recent round of lockdowns pushed them to breaking point. Domestic and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children, and yet accessing the Staying Home Leaving Violence funding is still a postcode lottery, with nowhere near enough funding to meet demand.

Where is the recurrent funding to keep domestic and family violence services adequately staffed? The staff are all on short-term contracts. How many refuges will be forced to close down or slash staff to keep operating, as they have to compete for funding time after time? What happens to victim‑survivors then? The sector needs more confidence in long-term funding, and the State needs a more holistic approach to the issue of domestic violence and the prevention of sexual assault. Some of the State's men's behaviour change programs have waiting lists of up to a year. How many perpetrators could have been deterred from committing domestic and family violence but have gone on to offend again while on those waiting lists? When it comes to domestic and family violence, we need deterrence, education and, most importantly, support for victim-survivors. The domestic violence sector is telling the Government what it needs, but is this Premier able to deliver it on an ongoing basis? This budget suggests otherwise.

For another vulnerable population, the State's older persons, things do not look much better. The Regional Seniors Travel Card program has been extended for two years. It helps alleviate the cost of living for older members of our community, enabling them to offset the costs of transportation, but the scheme still leaves out residents of the Newcastle and Wollongong local government areas—much to the dismay of Madam Temporary Speaker, the member for Wallsend, and MPs in my local area. The Charlestown electorate crosses the border between the City of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie City Council. It is absurd that in suburbs like Adamstown, Highfields and Kotara, people on the side of the street that happens to be in Lake Macquarie can access the card and their neighbours across the road in Newcastle cannot. That unfairly divides communities, and it remains unclear why the distinction has been made.

The unfair division of communities seems to characterise the Government's approach to seniors; we need only look at the approach taken to retirement village exit entitlements for proof of that. The pandemic has had an enormous impact on the State's seniors, and the Government's ad hoc approach to this area of policy is only making it worse. The social impacts of stay-at-home orders, which have disproportionately impacted the elderly, have been compounded by a lack of economic support. Less well-off seniors who might be living in public housing are watching their homes decay around them, and others are having to tighten their belts more and more. Social housing is where those two demographics overlap, and building new properties and repairing existing stock presents a way for the Government to both build the State's economy and take care of our most vulnerable.

Housing and homelessness are major issues for the State as a whole and for the Charlestown electorate specifically. Homelessness is on the rise, and the State is in the middle of a housing crisis. Rental vacancies are at historic lows, house prices and rents are skyrocketing and there are reports of people renting cars just to have somewhere to sleep. The past decade has seen a 37 per cent increase in unmet priority social housing demand and a 70 per cent increase in homelessness across New South Wales. It is projected that unmet demand for Aboriginal housing alone will result in an undersupply of more than 12,500 homes by 2031.

The Regional Australia Institute recently commissioned Shelter NSW to provide a report into New South Wales regional housing need, and the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie local government areas were certainly towards the top of that list of areas of housing need. Newcastle, in fact, is the area with the fourth highest level of housing need in New South Wales. The report said that Newcastle has a large proportion of low-income households that are in mortgage and rental stress. In addition to that, the number of people on waiting lists for social housing is high, at 1,911 as at 30 June 2020, and wait times range from five years to 10 years. In relation to Lake Macquarie, the report says that households with a mortgage and those renting are experiencing significant housing stress. Lake Macquarie has the second longest waiting list for social housing, with 2,488 people, and the wait times are again from five to 10 years or more.

With the exception of stay-at-home periods when the contacts made with my office related overwhelmingly to COVID-19 restrictions, the majority of matters that my staff and I assist the electorate with relate to public housing. Reports from residents indicate that many of these properties, which are State assets—they are owned by the people of New South Wales—have not been well maintained by Government. The range of problems brought to my attention is staggering. Some properties are experiencing significant structural issues requiring large-scale remedial works, including houses with leaking roofs, which generate persistent mould and rot issues; properties where under-maintained pipes cause sewage to back up and leak; and aged amenities, such as bathrooms and kitchens, which are no longer fit for purpose. In 2020 I made a submission to the inquiry into public housing maintenance contracts which showcased just a handful of the horror stories I hear from my constituents on a weekly basis.

Providing vulnerable people with a safe and stable place to live is important to enable them to overcome other issues. Stable low-cost housing can be the key to addressing issues such as chronic and/or generational unemployment, mental health or substance abuse issues and support for those escaping traumatic or abusive family situations. I note that the domestic and family violence prevention funding announced on 19 October included $52.5 million over four years for the Community Housing Innovation Fund, which is a partnership with the community housing sector to deliver 200 affordable housing properties for women experiencing domestic and family violence. That investment is welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean of demand for safe, secure and affordable housing.

The NSW Council of Social Service and many in the housing provider sector have been calling for 5,000 new social housing properties to be built every year for the next 10 years, and that is just to meet current demand. That is 100 times more than what is being proposed by this announcement. Again, this Premier's ideology threatens to make a bad situation worse. His commitment to so-called "asset recycling" is well known. In response to questions on notice lodged in the other place last year regarding the sale of public housing stock, the housing Minister replied:

All sales proceeds are reinvested in Land and Housing Corporation's capital programs, including capital maintenance, upgrading and new supply.

But the figures indicated that in every financial year since 2014-15 the revenue generated by the sale of public housing properties has far exceeded the funds invested in new stock. This has to mean that the remainder of revenue generated is being invested in capital maintenance and upgrading, but if properties are being sold at a rate higher than new properties are being built or otherwise acquired, what does the approach to asset recycling championed by the Premier mean for public housing? Looking to the long term, it means that more capital maintenance and upgrade funds will be available for fewer and fewer dwellings—a cycle of diminishing returns until the New South Wales Government will simply no longer maintain a portfolio of public housing properties.

What will happen to stock in areas where property prices have remained stable? Will they be left to decay, as so many homes in Windale have been, because this ideologically driven Premier does not see the point in investing in maintaining an asset he cannot recycle for a high enough price? The funding announced for new properties on 19 October does not come anywhere near the level of investment we need. This is a humanitarian crisis and the Premier's approach to it has so far been abysmal.