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Noting of the 2021-22 budget

Wednesday 1 September 2021

[12.17 p.m.]

Ms ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr President, I am pleased to speak on the Budget and to see the delivery of election promises as well as increases in health and education funding.

While there are many more areas I would have like to see funded, I appreciate the sustainability of the state's finances. It is not lost on me that much of the funding is with the asterisk ' over four years'.

For the sixth quarter in a row, the CommSec State of the States report from July, indicated that Tasmania had the strongest performing economy in the nation. At the time, the Australian awarded us the dubious honour of "Basket Case to Boom". On four of the eight indicators that CommSec uses to determine economic health, Tasmania led the nation on four: relative population growth; equipment investments; relative unemployment; and dwelling starts. Tasmania was also ranked second on retail trade and third on relative economic growth. An enviable position to be in.

However, I agree with economist Saul Eslake's commentary on the subject, that it is important to understand exactly what is being measured by the State of the States Reports. It is not a ranking of how the states and territories are performing relative to each other, but rather is based on how each state and territory compares on each of the measured indicators with its own decade average performance on each of them.

This is not to say that we should not be pleased about where we are. We have certainly improved our economic position over time and ideally will continue to do so, sustainably, sensibly and by bringing all Tasmanians along. After all, it has taken the whole of the state to keep the COVID-19 pandemic under control. It has taken our businesses adhering to strict requirements, our kids out of school, our adults working from home under trying conditions, all with the uncertainty of what the following weeks and months will bring.

That being said, CommSec reports that Tasmania has the strongest job market, with unemployment at a 12 year low at 4.5 percent. It is undeniable that Tasmania has fared far better than many other states in terms of its handling of COVID-19, avoiding lockdowns and containing outbreaks.

Michael Bailey, CEO of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has argued that we need a clear indication from all the State Premiers about when and how the country will reopen. I have heard Tasmania called the "Gilded Cage". Whether we like it or not, unfortunately it appears that COVID-19 is well and truly here to stay.

Ideally, the Government will soon develop and release a clear plan for how the state will open up, when and under what conditions.

I want to be clear, however, I have nothing but praise for how the Government has handled the pandemic in the past year and a half. Our economic position, unemployment rate and confidence levels are a testament to that. There is still work to be done, but I wish to pause to reflect on the hard work we have all done as a Tasmanian community to prosper and keep well, especially when we can see the absolute devastation the Delta variant has caused on the mainland.

At this time my thoughts are with those on the mainland who are either suffering from the virus or in lockdown. We are seeing, day after day, numbers not going in the direction we want them to and the toll, the uncertainty and lack of normalcy it causes, creating problems of its own for many people. Here in Tasmania, if we can continue to act sensibly and work together, we will manage well during the next pandemic event, possibly even the Delta strain reaching our shores.

I, along with many others, have constituents caught up in the other states wanting to return home. The New South Wales situation is difficult and I can understand constituents feeling aggrieved as they see people in Victoria, possibly in hotspots, being able to quarantine at home whereas from New South Wales it is a hotel quarantine stay - if you can get it - as the order of the day.

Back to the Budget, there were plenty of things to be pleased about for my own electorate of Launceston. The Budget contained a sizeable $66.4 million for the Launceston and Tamar Valley traffic vision over the next four years, with $27.4 million provided for state road upgrades in the northern region also over four years. My understanding is that a key commitment in the vision was the planning, design, costing and stage 1 of building for a bridge across the Tamar. We are all waiting with baited breath to see what happens and if and when a bridge will be built, especially those people who live on the western side of the river and work or study on the other side.

Included, with long-term congestion strategies, is work on the very busy Charles Street Bridge. I have raised my constituents’ concerns with the minister regarding a possible right-hand turn arrow for customers, particularly at Bunning’s turning right off Lindsay Street that might ease frustration, congestion and make it safer. There are few people I speak with who do not have an opinion on the state of our northern roads and the significant usage they endure from year to year.

While on roads, I was pleased to have an on-site meeting with Mr Ferguson at Hadspen recently, whereby he met with myself and road work officers, to look at recent inadequate road patching and advised that a large section of the highway in question would be resealed, come better weather this summer. This advice was received very favourably by residents.

While this is a welcomed budget commitment, there does not appear to be much of a focus on public transport options relating to our area of the state. As urban sprawl in Launceston grows, we will find that congestion will only become worse unless better and more options are provided to people who need to get around Launceston and its outer suburbs. Perhaps, this may be explored in future budgets, Mr President, yourself being an ardent supporter of creative solutions to commuter woes. I am sure you would support a passenger train from Launceston to Hobart.

Mr PRESIDENT - And beyond.

Mr Valentine - A fast one?

Ms ARMITAGE - It would have to be a fast one, a bullet, perhaps. I think Mr President would prefer a steam train or something more along those lines.

I cannot avoid speaking about our Tamar River. I am pleased to see $4 million for the Tamar dredging program and $4 million for the Tamar Estuary governance program. What can I say about the river that has not been said before? It is the lifeblood of a community and, unfortunately, it has a serious illness in Launceston. I am pleased to say it is in the electorate of the member for Rosevears and the member for Windermere. It flows more into their areas than it does into mine. Unfortunately, my constituents have to look at it. I would hope those two Government members do something about it and, perhaps, can make some improvements. I have always felt that the north, Launceston, would be the capital of our state had we had a decent river, not being parochial at all.

Mr PRESIDENT - I am sure we can send some Derwent River water up to you.

Ms ARMITAGE - I am not sure we want to become that ill.

Sport and Recreation and Wellbeing, likewise, received a boost in this Budget through a number of announcements, including $1.5 million to upgrade and reopen Glen Dhu Swimming Pool. In March this year, it was reported in our local newspaper this important piece of educational infrastructure was at risk of moth-balling, so I am pleased to see that happen. With so many Tasmanian children living no more than a few kilometres from a stream, river, lake or the sea, learning to swim is essential and I am delighted to see Glen Dhu pool receiving this money.

There is $1 million to redevelop the Launceston City Football Club which is most welcome, but I must declare an interest here as a member of the Board. It is a wonderful culture at the club with a very large membership and we do need some more money to complete the development. Obviously, it is hoped with the federal election not far off that additional funding will be offered by both parties as sport is so important in people's lives and soccer has an amazing reach through all age groups.

On sport, and together again with the member for Windermere and member for Rosevears at the netball finals on Saturday and, if my memory serves me correctly, they have some funding and need more funding for work they are actually doing. I do not think there is any in this Budget, but hopefully the Government might be able to look towards them favourably, because they already have federal funding and I am sure they are needing a little bit more to complete the works they were speaking to us about.

As I have mentioned sport is so important for all age groups. It does not matter whether you are as old as us or whether you are young it keeps you fit and healthy. Money put into sport certainly takes money from people having to go to hospital. It is almost like preventative health and I encourage the Government to reach out to some of the other sporting groups, such as netball and see what they do need to finish their work.

Pleased to see $1 million provided towards the Karinya young mum's project. Again, over four years, but still very much needed by this wonderful organisation that helps so many people annually.

$750 000 towards the $1.5 redevelopment of the St. Leonard's Hockey Centre, which is well overdue given the centre is over 30 years old and used by dozens of clubs with literally thousands of people and am sure is much appreciated.

There will be many sports people and kids around Launceston who will be absolutely thrilled about the prospect of a refurbished hockey centre.

I have had a bit of involvement with Playgroup of recent times. The Hadspen Playgroup has just become re-established after probably a hiatus of a year or two. It is wonderful to see the confirmation of $350 000 to refurbish the Playgroup Tasmania's Holbrook Street centre. Very welcome news, as is $350 000 to establish a new multicultural hub.

Many of the announcements in the Budget are funding arrangement for the election promises made by the Liberal Party and having this follow through has provided surety for many of the organisations and people who have relied on them.

The importance of looking after our families and children, their ongoing extracurricular wellbeing and ensuring our new migrants have access to the support they need to meaningfully participate in Tasmanian life cannot be understated.

We all welcome securing these funding arrangements. Ensuring ongoing Government support of these services beyond next four years will be a priority for me.

Allocating $5 million to the Silverdome will increase the north's competitive edge when it comes to bidding for and hosting some of the great events we might be seeing in the future.

So, too will the allocation of $80 000 for a new communications system for the Elphin Sports Centre, although I await with anticipation what the Government's plans are to boost accessibility for people with disabilities to venues like these. Ensuring funds to operate these facilities should also mean access is possible for everybody who uses them.

The funding of a Ticket to Play program with $1 million each year over the next three years will also help to lower the barriers for our children to participate in and play sport. Many parents I know absolutely rely on this funding to enable their children to play sport outside of school. There are so many demands on a family's budget that funding such as this is essential and as mentioned earlier, sport and any activities for children certainly pays huge dividends later on.

Earlier this month, our own Shadow Education spokesperson emphasised how important good education input will be for our state. Our future economic performance, health and wellbeing outcomes and opportunities for social mobility are all greatly enhanced in an education system supportive of our children and their families, school communities and most importantly, adequately funded and supported.

Our literacy rates fall well below the national average and our Year 12 attainment rate sits at 58 per cent which is 14 points below the national average of 72 per cent.

These factors are integral to people living longer better and healthier lives. Moreover, the recent preliminary NAPLAN results are less than encouraging. Tasmania's results are the worst of any state across every age group in reading, the second worst in every age group in writing, the worst in every age group in grammar and punctuation and the worst in years 5, 7 and 9 in numeracy. This simply is not good enough.

Plenty of money has been thrown at a number of capital works at schools around the state making good on more election promises. A good example of this is the $624 000 allocation to complete the new kindergarten at East Launceston Primary School, at the time a controversial development, but one that obviously must be completed. Perhaps more importantly, the Government's commitment to bring all year 7 students up to an expected reading level that is above the national minimum by 2029 will be the more powerful policy.

I hope the 40 additional literacy coaches representing a 50 per cent increase will go a long way to improving the results we have recently seen out of NAPLAN. New school facilities and capital works have their place but the policies that will really cut through to improving our children's education are those that target our limited resources to where they are most needed.

Additional support for our children and families outside of school, was a further welcome announcement in this year's Budget. Free access to speech pathologists, psychologists and social workers in child and family learning centres is another approach that the Government has taken to support our community wellbeing. It is hoped that waiting lists for these specialists shorten and that children requiring these services have them in a timely manner as is so very important to their educational outcomes.

Lowering barriers to access for support services such as these has the potential to build better engagement with learning, and build developmentally appropriate behaviours and assist families to support their children on their learning journeys.

As a major policy initiative, the Government seems set on implementing the PESRAC recommendation to re-establish TasTAFE as a government business. I understand that this will place TasTAFE under the control and accountability of its board and directors with authority and power to employ its workforce under the Fair Work Act 2009.

According to budget paper 2, the Government will introduce legislation in the Spring session this year to enact this recommendation. I know there are many Tasmanians who have strong feelings about the direction and governance of TasTAFE and want to see some comprehensive responses from the Government to address and allay people's reservations about this course of action, likely during Estimates next week. I also look forward to the input of other members on this issue when we look at the substantive legislation later this year.

I believe that some concern has been raised about how funding for students with a disability has been treated in this year's Budget. Tasmanian Disability Education Reform spokesperson, Kristen Desmond, last week pointed out that funding for students with a disability has not been listed as a line item for the Budget. Rather, it had been bundled into education funding. While the Budget does state that there will be a $14 million increase in funding for students with a disability, I would ask the Leader how the Government plans to address the issues of accountability and transparency for this sort of funding, especially over the forward Estimates?

Measuring outcomes is important for ensuring that vulnerable Tasmanians are receiving the support they need. I wonder how the Government plans to benchmark this funding without a line item of its own?

An amount of $2 million has been provided in this Budget for the development of a long-term Tasmanian housing strategy which will set a 20-year vision, address future growth, affordability, accessibility, ageing, planning, construction and sustainability. There are so many issues which feed into the scarcity of housing issues that Tasmania currently faces. The development of long-term housing strategy is a very good start but the other factors that need to be addressed include issues like planning schemes and an adequate network of legislation which fairly protects builders, consumers and the housing industry, security of work, facilitating the downward pressure on housing prices and support for young people and families who might be entering the property market for the first time.

Mr Valentine - It is not just a matter of putting up a house is it? To help out.

Ms ARMITAGE - Absolutely, as I have raised many times, I note that the First Home Buyers grant has been raised to $30 000 but that is only for someone building a new home. I cannot let the opportunity go without suggesting to the Government, yet again, that $30 000 for someone buying an already built home is also very useful to these people. Many first home buyers cannot afford to go into debt to purchase a brand-new home and I would much prefer to see my children actually buy a house that is already built, substantially with gardens and paths rather than go into the debt of a new home.

I do not agree with the Government that it increases the price of a house. I do hear that from some members in this place at times when I raise this but having been in real estate, I can never remember if a house was priced at $450 000 or $350 000 that the owner then added an extra $20 000 or $30 000 because someone had a first home buyers grant. It is absolute rubbish. It is not true and I know the economists say it again and again. The only thing that the First Home Buyers grant did was provide a deposit for those people buying a home. I accept that is the view of the economists; perhaps they should start selling houses and they might find it is a bit different.

Mr Valentine - I think the Government sees it as stimulating the economy because it brings in builders and activity. That is their main focus.

Ms ARMITAGE - I understand that but if you try to get a builder now, I am sure most people will find that builders have that much work at the moment. It is impossible to get a builder and I see it as an inequity between a couple, whether they be married with young children or a young couple having to buy a brand-new home or having to buy a home that is already established. I do not believe it is fair and I will raise it at every opportunity.

I know that the strategy will analyse these things but the real crunch will come when we see recommendations implemented and I am not sure how far away that might be. That was with regard to the property market. I did get a little bit confused in the middle there, Mr President, having to be on my 'high horse' about first home buyers grants.

In the meantime, we are seeing runs on the board with a $615 million spend on social and affordable housing; 3500 homes are planned to be built by 2027 which adds to the Government's original promise to deliver 1500 homes by 2023.

People are desperate now for housing and the quicker we can see these homes built and functional, the safer and more functional our communities will be.

There may be further channels the Government can explore to assist with easing pressure for some of our most vulnerable Tasmanians. For example Laurel House, which will receive $250 000 in the next financial year, and Yemaya Women's Support Service, which will receive $100 000, do not have certainty of funding beyond June 2022. These are vital services which need to have adequate funding security for the people who staff them so that the women who rely on them can continue to do so.

As mentioned earlier, the funding of the Karinya Young Mums 'n' Bubs Program over the next four years will most certainly assist young mothers and parents aged 15 and 19 years. It will provide supported accommodation and intensive wraparound support with the opportunity for young parents to look for work, start education and establish a safe environment for their families.

A critical measure in this budget, as with many others before it, has been spending on health. The funds allocated to health make up about one-third of spending, at $10.7 billion over the next four years.

Significantly, $198 million will go towards meeting increasing demand in our hospitals and opening up beds, again over four years. As always, you cannot open extra beds without putting on more nursing staff: $160 million towards bringing down Tasmania's elective surgery wait list and endoscopies is welcome but we must remember that many of these surgeries require beds and opening beds requires staff.

I am pleased to see additional money for scopes, as it is all too well having a positive blood occult tests with the risk of cancer but then not being able to have a colonoscopy for early treatment should the scope come back positive. As always, prevention is better than cure.

As of last week, according the Health System Dashboard there were 11 284 patients on the elective surgery waiting list. I have asked previously about patients over wait times and I know this is considerable, causing much pain and angst for patients. To this end, more than 180 staff across the state will be a part of carrying out the strategy with 112 nurses, 10 doctors, 16 allied health staff and more than 40 hospital support staff to fill the roles, again over a four-year period.

Often, I ask about hospital recruitment and I am advised that we advertise but do not have people apply or fill the roles.

We need to remember that a specialist doctor coming from the mainland will need to take a significant salary cut to work here, not to mention they will likely have a partner who also needs to work and again at possibly less remuneration than on the mainland.

While cost of living may be less and we know that lifestyle is better for them and their families, it is not always easy to convince these doctors that this is the place they should be; that this is where the schools are best and this is where they should work when they are actually having considerably less per year - sometimes $100 000 to $200 000 - without their partner's income as well.

I find it difficult to criticise, when speaking about our hospital. I must reiterate, the staff are amazing and work incredibly hard. To criticise it is a bit of a catch-22, given you do not want potential applicants for positions choosing not to apply because they are reading unfavourable commentary about the hospital, or see that accreditation is at risk, or they may be on call one night in two. I see this as counterproductive and not a way to improve conditions for staff or ease ambulance ramping or bed block, with our amazing Launceston General Hospital catering to two thirds of the state. It is a difficult issue.

We hear about and see problems; but sometimes the more we criticise and call them a crisis the more that people applying for jobs do not want to come. It is difficult getting the message that the staff are working hard, that they are doing an absolutely fabulous job going above and beyond; and that we do need more funding, we do need more help in our hospitals, we do need more beds open. We do not want any more ambulance ramping and bed block. However, on the other hand, the more we accentuate it, the harder it is to get people working there. It really is a catch-22 and I find it very difficult.

As mentioned, it is no secret that our emergency department is bursting at the seams and it is essential that these hard-working doctors, nurses and ancillary staff are supported, as they go above and beyond on a daily basis.

Mr Valentine - It is a wicked problem isn't it; because they increasing the number of ambulances too which means that is going to cause more ramping.

Ms ARMITAGE - Absolutely. So, you want to get the message out there about how hard the staff are working and the conditions they are working under; but is that counterproductive when you are advertising for someone to come and work at that very establishment.

Mr Valentine - I suppose it is better to have people who are sick at least being cared for in an ambulance than not being cared for at all.

Ms ARMITAGE - Absolutely, and I am quite sure that all of our paramedics are very capable people.

Should the COVID-19 Delta variant hit Tasmania, I cannot foresee how our hospitals will cope should numerous beds, ventilators and the like be necessary. As we have seen in New South Wales, patients admitted to intensive care are younger. One quarter of all ICU patients are now aged 40 and under. The majority have not been vaccinated and are staying longer, with many patients on breathing machines and/or heart-lung machines. That is indeed worrying. I am sure $12 million towards a mental health precinct at the Launceston General Hospital will provide a much-needed cushion to an already strained and much-needed service.

Approaching from a different angle, providing $2.2 million to meet increasing demand for community mental health services, $5.1 million to piloting an innovative emergency mental health co-response model and $50 million to fund child and adolescent mental health service reforms and continue the broader roll out of the Tasmanian Mental Health Reform Program, can all hopefully help to ameliorate some of the significant issues surrounding mental health in our communities.

It is also pleasing to see $27.5 million for community-based health care, including hospital and the home services as it is a fact that people often fare better at home.

In conclusion, it is difficult to ascribe a particular theme to this year's Budget. It contains a broad spectrum of spending and perhaps reflects the diversity of promises that were made during the election. I believe I can speak for everyone here when I say we want all Tasmanians to benefit from this Budget, and over the next four years. COVID-19 has presented and continues to present a number of challenges, and there are perhaps some areas where the Government could be capitalising better than it already is. Planning for the state to reopen, how it will handle visitors once we reach an adequate vaccine level and how we manage living with COVID-19 are all questions that would benefit from having an answer by way of a plan. Perhaps this is already in development; but the more resources we put into having a good plan now will pay dividends once we put it into action.

In my commentary on health I have tried to draw down as to how the impressive spending figures will translate into a real difference in our hospitals, in our communities and on actual health outcomes. Significant spending on health, as we well know, does not always have a causal effect on good outcomes. Targeted, strategic and sensible spending, backed by good policy, and with the buy-in of health stakeholders is the only way we can make a real difference.

With this in mind I want to address the spending itself and the notion that the Government is delaying the Budget's return to an operating surplus by one year so that these vital services can be funded. The Government has described this Budget as containing increased investment to health to a record $10.7 billion, making a significant difference to our health system and the health and wellbeing of Tasmanians.

The Fiscal and Sustainability Report prepared by the Department of Treasury and Finance, and released in June, projected scenarios that might impact on the state's net operating balance over the next 15 years.

These scenarios, based on historical trends which are not as useful now given the impact of COVID-19, maintained Forward Estimates, a high expenditure scenario, and a low revenue scenario.

To quote the report:

For all scenarios analysed, the results show projected fiscal outcomes that are manageable in the short to medium-term. However, the size of the corrective action required to maintain fiscal sustainability increases over the projection period.

It goes on to say:

Projected health expenditure is the single most significant driver of the projected future fiscal challenges for the State. It is the largest expenditure category within the Budget and is projected to grow at a significantly greater rate than the projected revenue growth.

The report also correctly states that 'there is a range of drivers behind growth in health expenditure, including continuing medical advances that provide opportunities for improving health outcomes but often at a greater cost'.

There is nothing I can think more worthy of delaying an operational surplus than an investment in our health care system. In this instance while the delay to surplus is not ideal, I believe it is the right thing to do. If nothing else, COVID-19 has highlighted just how vital our health services are and how worthwhile they are of adequate funding and good policy. We cannot be scared to invest in our state's health and wellbeing.

This does not mean that I support irresponsible spending. I simply hope to see solid plans from the Premier, Health Minister and the department about how these significant funds will be spent and managed and the risk mitigated. I support the Budget.


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