Noting of Budget Papers
Mrs ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Madam Acting President, I begin by congratulating the Hodgman Government for achieving a $77 million budget surplus. This is the first time in seven years there has been a surplus, and the achievement occurs three years ahead of schedule. While there are no new taxes, the Government has deferred reductions to motor tax and duty on compulsory third-party premiums. However this relief will not come into effect until the state coffers are in a stronger financial position.
As I have said previously, the Government has had a difficult task to turn our states finances around. That work will continue over the next few years. I commend the Treasurer and the Government for their efforts to date, in turning large deficits they inherited into the surplus we are discussing today.
This financial year though, there are some rather big problems affecting the budget repair program, including the loss of half a billion dollars in GST receipts, over the budget and forward Estimates; $100 million writedown of the revenue for Hydro Tasmania; dividends for Hydro are not expected to be paid until 2019-20; and a $31 million bill from the 2015-16 bushfire season.
This Budget has been described in the media as a 'no cash splash budget'. I note that the Treasurer warned in his Budget speech in parliament about the importance of maintaining a disciplined fiscal approach.
While it may be a no-frills Budget, there are a number of pleasing announcements which affect Launceston. I am pleased to see $90 million has been allocated for the Northern Cities Major Development Initiative. This funding will assist the relocation of the University of Tasmania from Newnham to Inveresk, a project which is keenly anticipated by many in Launceston. This remains one of the biggest opportunities for northern Tasmania's economy and future in a very long time. We must embrace these opportunities so Launceston can become a true university city in every sense of the word. In recent weeks, business leaders and principals from a number of northern Tasmanian schools have come out publicly to demonstrate their support for the relocation.
With the federal seat of Bass always on a knife edge at elections I hope the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will not make us wait too long before revealing whether his government will follow Labor and confirm funding for the project. Many had hoped Mr Turnbull might have made a positive announcement during his recent visit to Launceston. I am encouraged by the comment he made at the time, that he would have more to say on the subject matter later in the federal election campaign. I urge the state Government to stay on the case of their federal counterparts, to ensure they commit to funding this vital project. The potential of this project is incredibly exciting. It promises to create jobs, and provide a massive stimulus to the economy of our beautiful city. Our young people must continue to have the opportunity to study at the very best university without having to leave home. I fear, without a move to Inveresk, the Newnham campus will be allowed to slowly run down leaving our students at a disadvantage.
Further on education, I am delighted that schools in my electorate will benefit from an additional $50 million announced in the Budget for school infrastructure improvements. East Launceston Primary School received $4.5 million over the next two years for new kindergarten facilities, learning areas and a multipurpose facility. Prospect High School is on track with $5.5 million, part of an $8.5 million redevelopment, with some funding already allocated. This covers much of the school including classrooms, art space, dance, drama and gymnasium. This follows on from recent works to their materials design and technology area, outdoor courts and school ovals, which contributes to a modern, comfortable and safe environment for the students.
I am pleased that the Budget includes $4 million, in 2016-17, as part of the $7.2 million refurbishment at Kings Meadows High School. The main building facilities were built in 1960s, and there has been little change to its configuration in that time. This project will modernise existing buildings to create better learning environments. There will be more improvements, including new learning areas for years 8, 9 and 10; relocation of the library and computer area to the southern end of C block; refurbishment of year 7 and 8 toilets; and a minor refurbishment of buildings used for art and materials design and technology classes.
Our community was recently reminded about the importance of investing in education. Launceston-born astrophysicist, Dr David Warren, recently donated $2.6 million to the University of Tasmania, the largest private donation it has ever received. Dr Warren grew up in Launceston, attended Punchbowl Road State Primary School, Kings Meadows High School and Launceston Matriculation College, which is now Launceston College. His generous donation will fund an endowed chair for astrophysics at UTAS and acknowledges the positive difference education has made to his life.
Staying on education, the Government has committed funding to extend year 11 and 12 to a further 18 high schools in regional and rural Tasmania by 2018. This is to be commended. In his Budget speech, the Treasurer said there has been a 57 per cent boost in students doing year 11 and 12 in the first dozen schools where it has been extended. It is very important that the Government maintains its focus on improving year 11 and 12 retention rates. It is good the Government is funding a review of years 9 to 12. However, some experienced teachers and principals have told me they would like to see more focus on the senior primary school and early high school years to understand how and why young people are becoming disengaged from school. They applaud the review of year 11-12 retention rates, but they would like to see the scope broadened to see a really good picture of what is happening for young people across the education system.
Other education highlights include the allocation of $12 million over four years to a disability taskforce to improve the school experience for students with disabilities. Money will be used to improve teaching methods and to work more with communities in this area. The founder of the Tasmanian Disability Education Reform Lobby, Launceston's Kristen Desmond, has welcomed this funding and described it in The Examiner newspaper on 26 May as 'a major first step in Tasmania'. I take this opportunity to congratulate and thank Kristen for the enormous effort she puts into her work for the Tasmanian Disability Education Reform Lobby. Her leadership in this area, and advocacy for children with additional needs, is inspiring.
The head of the Launceston City Mission, Stephen Brown, has welcomed a number of initiatives including $2.6 million allocated for Healthy Tasmania. Funds will be used to promote student health and wellbeing, including drug education. They will also target smoking and obesity. Also there is $4.8 million for Tasmania's strategy for ice and other drugs, an additional $3 million for mental health, and an extra $60 million over three years for affordable housing.
While the Government has allocated $4.8 million over four years to tackle the problem of ice and other drugs in Tasmania, Launceston City Mission was unfortunately unsuccessful in securing funding in this Budget to open more beds at their drug and rehabilitation centre, Missiondale. There are currently 24 beds but there are between 30 and 35 people on a waiting list to access these services. Missiondale is the residential recovery program offering an alternative for those wanting to make positive changes in their lives. It is all about change. The program looks at all areas of a person's life - physical, emotional, social, intellectual, financial and spiritual. Stephen Brown says they hope to be considered for this funding in the next Tasmanian Budget. With the current drug epidemic wreaking havoc on many individuals and families, I am surprised that government funding was not forthcoming, considering the success rate and wonderful work Missiondale does in this area.
This leads me to health. It is pleasing to see new money set aside for the Launceston General Hospital's Children's Ward upgrades, the first major works since it was built over 30 years ago. It is vitally important to meet the needs of acutely ill children and we all know that a better environment aids recovery. I am also pleased to see a high dependency unit for acutely unwell children will be built, with more single rooms and isolation areas for better infection control, all rooms having ensuite bathrooms, as well as enabling younger children and teenagers their own separation. Currently this is difficult for staff to ensure.
For the first time, there will be specialist facilities for child and adolescent mental health patients and this too is an important step. It is also good to see a family area with lounge and kitchen included to provide a more homelike and welcoming environment which all aids in the faster recovery time in keeping families together and feeling connected.
As for our public hospital system, I appreciate the new funding of $1.6 million over four years, primarily for initiatives targeting smoking and obesity, as it is essential that we work on preventative health. It is far more cost-effective to keep people out of hospital.
This leads me to the hospital alternative program, or Hospital in the Home. I note that the four-year funding promise is close to its end. It is hoped that the Government will see the benefit of this program and include it in future budgets.
Unfortunately, funding for our public hospitals is not keeping pace with the increasing costs and the stress on all of our overworked staff, including medical, nursing, ancillary and domestic, should not be overlooked. Governments always like to spend money on capital works which are necessary, but rarely spend money on services or recurrent funding. We have wonderful new theatres at the Launceston General Hospital, for instance, but do we have the necessary staff to man them or the beds to put patients in following that surgery? Instead of sending patients off to the Epworth Hospital in Melbourne, perhaps we could look at the efficiency and long-term benefits of keeping the money in our state.
This leads me to other efficiencies in our health system and I will be asking these questions on the Floor of parliament. I find it hard to understand why our public hospitals do not allow general practitioners, physicians or surgeons seeing patients in their rooms or other settings outside the Tasmanian Health Service to access medical records with patient approval, in particular digital pathology and radiology reports, to avoid unnecessary delays and duplications. Having to write in does not work for most doctors and it is often easier and quicker to just reorder the tests. This is not good for the system, or more particularly, the patients. For example, with a CT of the pelvis being equivalent, I believe, to around 500 chest x-rays, surely the Government would see the sense in conveniently sharing patients' online results with their private medical practitioners to avoid unnecessarily having more tests. I am advised the technology exists within the health system to make this happen and I am hoping that common sense will prevail here in the very near future.
A comment on the hospice that was mentioned. The member for Windermere brought up the hospice situation and the very committed group we have in the north who have worked tirelessly to try to establish a dedicated hospice, either attached or close to the Launceston General Hospital, since the closure of Philip Oakden House. It is unfortunate that the report that came about after the $100 000 the Government provided came back with what I would have to consider rubbery figures. The report constantly refers to 25 dedicated palliative care beds in the north and brushes over the fact that 10 of them are in rural communities, and 11 are private beds in Calvary.
I was not able to determine the occupancy of the beds. The benchmark figure for the north is 9.72 palliative care beds and with 45 per cent private insurance, five or six public beds is probably the desired number. Given a third of the population lives outside greater Launceston, the current four public beds for greater Launceston may not be too far off the mark.
The problem with the whole report is that you cannot tell who was and was not consulted. There is no list of how many health professionals or who they actually spoke to. That is a big problem because normally when we have a report, we certainly have a page that actually states who has been spoken to and it gives a clear indication of those that have been surveyed. In summary, I believe it is a lengthy report, crafted to kill off those arguing for a standalone hospice.
I acknowledge the state Government for recently announcing it would provide almost $500 000 in the state Budget to support some legal centres in Tasmania, particularly the Launceston Community Legal Centre. These centres were facing the prospect of having to reduce staff in response to an imminent reduction in their federal government funding.
I am disappointed to see in this Budget no funding to remove our police from the courts in Launceston. The Examiner on 17 November 2012 stated -
End in sight for police court duties.
Launceston police officers are expected to be freed up from some of their Magistrates Court duties within a fortnight, Northern District Commander Richard Cowling said yesterday.
The state government is expected to announce early this week that from December 1 officers will no longer be required to transport and guard prisoners when they appear in the Magistrates Court, freeing them up for operational duties.
It will be a big win after years of criticism over police resources being tied up in court.
Former Premier David Bartlett had promised police would be removed from court duties in the North and North-West during the 2010 election.
Hobart officers don't perform these duties, with the Justice Department responsible for prisoner transport and guarding.
Commander Cowling said that in peak periods six or eight officers could be tied up between the lower court and the Supreme Court.
'This then means we can remove those police to operational duties where required', Commander Cowling said.
'With the reduction in staffing numbers, anything that moves towards that is a good thing.
'Our discussions are continuing and we expect to make an announcement early next week.'
Commander Cowling said he hoped this would eventually extend to police being released from similar Supreme Court duties.
Police Association of Tasmania president Randolph Wierenga yesterday welcomed the news.
'It's a very welcome move for our members and the public in Northern Tasmania', Sergeant Wierenga said.
'It will release a number of police officers to go about their normal duties rather than babysitting criminals.
'It's long overdue and it will be the first bit of good news we've had from this government in a long time.
'We've been lobbying the government for a considerable amount of time to have this matter resolved and it appears now persistence has paid off.'
Police Minister David O'Byrne said he was 'hopeful of making a positive announcement in the near future'.
'Wherever possible, we want to help free-up police officers for frontline duties, while keeping effective and professional security in our courts', Mr O'Byrne said.
It is disappointing that in 2016 police in northern Tasmania are still babysitting criminals, to use Sergeant Wierenga's words, rather than going about their normal duties. Perhaps this Government will again look at this and find some funding in a future appropriation bill. I am hoping it is not because it was a commitment of a government of a different colour that it has not been followed up by this Government.
Other state Budget highlights for the electorate of Launceston include: $2.7 million for the Silverdome, a key sporting and community asset, for maintenance and building compliance, with $850 000 to be made available in the 2016-17 Budget for important maintenance; seven affordable housing units in Newstead for the elderly; and a multimillion dollar deal for Hawthorn Football Club to play games in Launceston until 2021. Hawthorn has been spectacularly embraced by the people of Launceston. I pay tribute to the club, their players, the Launceston City Council and Aurora Stadium manager Robert Groenewegen, for the wonderful effort they have all put in to bring Hawthorn games to our beautiful city. We are proud to host Hawthorn and it was wonderful seeing the strong support for them in our community. Launceston is extremely happy to be the Tasmanian base for the AFL premiers. The benefit the games bring to our city during the colder months of the year cannot be overstated.
A major northern issue is the need to invest what is required to bring our sewerage infrastructure up to scratch in Launceston. A substantial investment worth many millions of dollars is certainly needed in Launceston, and I expect TasWater will require further government assistance to do so. This will be a challenge in an already tight fiscal environment but it needs to be dealt with as a major priority. It is not appropriate to experience Third World conditions in a First World country, as happened earlier this year when water and sewage overflowed in Invermay during heavy floods. In this day and age, when there are flood alerts and people are told not to touch the water because of contamination by raw sewage, it is very concerning. If you ask the people of Launceston what are the most important issues, they would say health, education and employment. If we are looking at health, surely the health of our people is primary. This also relates to the health of our river. Therefore, it is incumbent upon both our state and federal governments to become involved and ensure adequate funding is available for these necessary upgrades.
I finish with a quote I have used before which is 2071 years old but unfortunately still relevant today -
The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.
Cicero, 55 BC
Mr President, I note the Budget.