2016-17 Budget Cuts


October 12, 2016

 

I rise to speak to the appropriations bills 2016-17. It really is an opportunity to highlight a raft of issues in the government’s budget measures that are of incredible importance to not only my constituency but the nation. We are all aware of the Prime Minister’s fascination with innovation and agility—they are very well documented. However, how can the young minds of our children be expected to be innovative and agile when they are not given the greatest chance possible of becoming the best versions of themselves? If the government fails to get the basics right—the basic funding right for schools—how can we expect our children to aspire to be prepared for whatever the future holds for them, let alone be innovative and agile?

I am speaking, of course, of the government’s failure to fund the last two years of the Gonski reforms and of how very sad that fact is. Malcolm Turnbull’s government is short-changing Victorian students $1.1 billion over 2018-19. This is impacting students across our state. Stopping the Gonski reforms part way will lead to entrenching inequality, with many students simply missing out on the support and opportunities available to others. Those with the greatest need stand to lose the most. This is a fact openly acknowledged by Liberal premiers and education ministers. The impact of this can be carried forward through the rest of the child’s education and into the workforce. Failing to invest in education is a poor foundation for a high-skill, high-wage economy. Australia will be the worst for it, thanks to this government. Not only will our students lose but Australia will also lose. The OECD reports show that Australia will miss out on a GDP boost of 2.8 per cent unless every student leaves high school with the basic skills needed for the global economy by 2030. That is $44 billion estimated in GDP that the government is foregoing in today’s terms.

Furthermore, the report titled Australian schooling—the price of failure and reward for success, completed by former World Bank economist Adam Rorris, found that if all Australian children were to achieve basic levels of literacy and numeracy Australia could receive a windfall of up to $2.2 trillion by 2095. There are also problems with proposals to link salary progression to demonstrate competency and achievement. This reeks of performance pay. John Fischetti, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, and Victorian Minister for Education and Deputy Premier James Merlino are amongst many who are critical of performance pay for teachers, pointing to overseas experience that has shown it does not improve student performance. This is corroborated by the finding of the 2012 Productivity Commission report Schools workforce. The major unresolved question, however, is how school funding will be apportioned after 2017 without Gonski, as the minister has made reference to the many funding agreements that exist and to continuing negotiations to reform the school funding system.

This government, however, is not satisfied with just short-changing students as they begin their formal education. It is also intent on gouging them once they enter tertiary education. The suggestion alone that the government wishes to deregulate university fees, which will result in US style $100,000 degrees, shows the true intent of this government. This government wants to maximise profits regardless of how it will impede the ability of those students without the means to pay, so they will have to either forsake their academic potential or submit themselves to crippling debt. This is neither innovative nor agile. Whilst Labor welcomed the government announcement in the 2016-17 budget that the government would abandon its proposal to deregulate tertiary fees, resulting in, as the government said, an estimated saving of $2 billion over five years from 2015-16, it is unclear how the $2 billion in savings has been calculated given the 2014-15 budget did not account for any specific expenses associated with fee deregulation. Make no mistake, if given the chance, the government will float the idea once more. Unfortunately, the government proposes to retain other features of its higher education reform package, including the reduction in the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, CGS, subsidies and the lowering of the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP, repayment threshold.

Labor recognises that the foundation of a strong society is its citizens. As such, Labor will never back away from the commitment that, for our society to be strong and for our economy to be robust, we must have the highest standard of education at all levels. Our children must be given the best start and our university students must not be discouraged from their academic endeavours. Simply, we must allow our students to flourish so that they can indeed innovate in the true sense of the word.

Labor are and always have been the party for the arts and of the arts, and in government we delivered on this mantra. In the 2013-14 budget, the previous Labor government allocated $75.3 million over four years from 2013-14 to the Australia Council in response to the recommendations of the 2012 review of the Australia Council for the Arts. The budget stated that the funding would be provided as follows: $15 million per annum for arts organisations across a range of art forms to address the demand for high-quality creative content from established, emerging and hybrid art forms; $1.25 million per annum to establish a $2.5 million funding pool for major performing arts organisations to access on a competitive basis, subject to matched funding from state and territory governments; $1 million per annum to build the professional capacity of the arts sector by assisting the council to develop formal programs of professional development for arts sector managers and cultural leaders; and $1 million per annum for the council to develop a detailed and systematic program of data collection to produce an annual publication on the arts sector. The 2013-14 budget also provided $9.7 million over four years from 2013-14 to the Australia Council to continue the ArtStart program.

But that was then and this is now. In 2014-15, the Australia Council for the Arts received a total of $211.8 million. In 2015-16, the Australia Council for the Arts was allocated only $184.4 million. Additionally, in the 2015-16 budget, the coalition government announced that $110 million over four years would be redirected from the Australia Council and apportioned to the Ministry for the Arts, within the Attorney-General’s Department. With most relevance to the matters at hand in the chamber today, I note that in the 2016-17 budget the coalition government provided no additional funding to the Australia Council.

That may have been a long-winded explanation of some facts and figures, so I will simplify it. The coalition are bleeding the Australia Council for the Arts dry. Their current budget measures indicate that they have no intention of reversing their decision. Worse still, they have taken away the independent discretion of the Australian government’s principal arts funding and advisory body to distribute funds to the most valuable parts of the arts community in a most objective, judicious and considered fashion. They have arrogated it at various times to senior members of the cabinet. I know who I trust to get it right. A member of my staff used to work in the music industry, in fact, and he has told me stories of artists who sought and received Australia Council grants to fund recordings and tours in the early stages of their careers. Some of them are now some of Australia’s best-known acts, with global fan bases. From little things big things grow indeed!

My electorate of Wills has a magnificent arts community. A walk through the streets of Brunswick will provide you with an opportunity to see edgy street art and acclaimed galleries. At night you will hear the sound of live music coming from the pubs and venues on any night of the week. And many of the creative people, including authors, poets and actors, who give us all so much enjoyment and respite, also reside in the electorate of Wills.

I said in my first speech that a thriving arts sector is the heart and soul of any society. Its benefits cannot always be measured in traditional economic terms. The invaluable social benefits can never truly be captured on any tangible metric. To some extent, though, you can make a salient economic case for investment in the arts. For instance, a July 2011 report by Deloitte Access Economics attempted the novel task of charting the economic, social and cultural contribution of venue based live music in the state of Victoria. Let me provide you one illustrative point from that report. In 2011, on conservative projections, it was demonstrated that more people attended live music performances in Melbourne metropolitan venues than attended the games of the AFL home and away season.

We think of that beloved game, Aussie Rules—and I am a very tragic Collingwood supporter; go Pies—as such an important part of our city, and of course it is. The ancillary economic benefits provided through the employment opportunities created are well understood but they are not so well understood with the arts community. Indeed, the Deloitte report concludes that the findings ‘indicate sizeable economy-wide benefits are derived from the provision of live music in Victorian venues.’ The key difference is that musicians, like most creative artists—but unlike a major sporting code—rarely benefit from corporate sponsorship to fund their pursuits. Hence, government grants and government funding play an enormous role in funding these creative efforts in their very early stages. One mainstay contributor to arts funding has been the Australia Council for the Arts and the grants that they provide to artists deemed by this independent body of experts to be doing things worth supporting.

I want to turn to the challenge of climate change, and most specifically how certain budget measures of this government will impact on Australia’s endeavour to do its part to tackle climate change. Without getting too far beyond the scope of the appropriation bills, I do believe that Australians, broadly speaking, do understand why this issue is so important, save for a small undercurrent of sceptics and deniers. Climate change is indeed a scientific observation and there is indeed a broad scientific consensus that it represents a threat to the future of this planet.

While many in the public have become leaders on tackling climate change, nowhere in Australia is this more apparent than in my electorate, where residents have made sound, moral and prudent financial decisions to line their rooftops with solar panels. I believe that the government has a pivotal role to play in funding and promoting initiatives to curb emissions and advance and promote green technologies. I recall being personally delighted that the former Labor government made such progress in their term of office to create mechanisms for the Australian government to play its role in this space.

One of the several initiatives undertaken was the establishment of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, or ARENA. The Gillard government established ARENA in July 2012 following the passage of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Act 2011. ARENA is a commercially oriented agency of the Commonwealth with a vision to promote an Australian economy and society that is increasingly powered by competitive renewable energy. In short, ARENA aims to reduce the cost and increase the use of renewable energy in Australia. It sought to do this by providing financial support for research, development and demonstration of renewable energy technologies. It continues acting as a conduit for distributing information to all stakeholders in the renewable space. ARENA’s publications have become an authority on the topic in this country. In its history, ARENA has also committed more than $1 billion to more than 230 projects, studies, scholarships and fellowships that are helping reduce the cost and increase the use of renewable energy in Australia. It is easy to understand how this is such an important investment in the future of our planet—one that we owe to our kids and our grandkids and generations beyond.

I note that the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016 originally included a measure to reduce funding to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency by $1.26 billion between 2017-18 and 2021-22. This assault follows the Abbott government’s attempt to kill ARENA in order to realise budget savings in a previous parliament. While they backed away from that idea following a deal with the Palmer United Party in March 2016, the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment announced that they would discontinue ARENA’s grants program. The cuts proposed in this budget were just a reorientation of that earlier strategy, and the $1.26 billion the government sought to slash from ARENA leaves it with only enough money to honour pre-existing commitments.

Like many members and senators, I was subsequently inundated by outraged letters from people concerned about the gutting of ARENA. They saw the government’s substitute for the ARENA grants scheme, the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, as inferior and manifestly inadequate. The outrage spread far and wide, and this is not a niche issue anymore; it is broad. In negotiation with the Labor opposition—work done by our frontbench team, including especially Mark Butler, the shadow minister—the government did capitulate to some extent and agreed to reduce the cut to ARENA by $800 million. This allowed ARENA to continue its important grants work to some extent, albeit in a diminished capacity. So, to this measure, let me say this loud and clear: Labor has saved ARENA.

Labor fought for ARENA because we believe in good environmental policy, and we fought for ARENA because we listened to the public and their uproar at such an egregious act on the part of the government. We know that it is incumbent on the opposition to stand up when we hear that call. Most of all, we fought for ARENA because it was the right thing to do for the sake of future generations. Labor has always been committed to ensuring the health of the Australian people, along with committing to the idea that the quality of care someone receives is not based on how deep their pockets are but is rather because they are Australian. On aged care, when in government Labor put in place a 10-year, $3.7 billion reform program to build a fairer, more sustainable and nationally consistent aged-care system. The budget includes cuts of $1.2 billion over four years through changes to the Aged Care Funding Instrument, a tool used to assess care needs. This is something that the Labor opposition will be reviewing with great urgency.