I rise to finally give the budget reply on behalf of the Victorian Greens. Obviously, this is the biggest Greens team ever to be elected to this place and this Parliament at a general election. This budget was handed down at an incredibly difficult time for so many Victorians struggling with the skyrocketing cost of living, struggling to pay the rent or afford their own home and struggling to access health care and find a bulk-billing GP. So many people are being pushed to the margins, into poverty and into homelessness, and this was a budget that desperately needed to go to the heart of these massive issues that are affecting so many Victorians, particularly young people – cost of living, poverty, homelessness and disadvantage.
The reality is that Victorians who are already struggling are going to be worse off over the next year. In the lead-up to this budget we were constantly told that the state would need to enter an austerity phase, with some belt-tightening to address debt and address the state’s finances, but this ignored a really critical factor in that people cannot afford for things to get worse before they get better. Here in Victoria the cost-of-living crisis means that basically everyone is feeling the pinch but many are being pushed to the margins, and those who were already on the margins are off the cliff now.
More and more people are having to make the choice between putting food on the table, accessing health care or affording other essentials. Lifeline searches relating to financial issues and homelessness went up 50 per cent in the last year. Renters are facing yet another year of massive rent increases, putting so many people just one rent rise away from homelessness, which is on the rise. Thirty thousand people are experiencing homelessness every single night, sleeping rough, couch surfing or sleeping in overcrowded or unsafe accommodation. Thousands of people are being turned away from homelessness services every single year.
The public housing waiting list continues to grow, up to about 120,000 people, a quarter of them children. The wait times for priority housing applications are 15 months, and for those in public housing homes, many of them are facing crowded and substandard conditions that just are not fit for purpose. People are struggling to access bulk-billing GPs, mental health support and public dental care and are putting off treatment just to save money.
Workers who have already experienced low wage growth for years have received now an effective real wage cut – the biggest on record – and the Labor government has had a policy of deliberately keeping wages low with a public sector wage cap. On top of that, in this budget, 3000 to 4000 public sector workers will be out of a job in the next 12 months. You know, we all said thanks for the incredible work so many in the public sector did during the pandemic. Well, what way of saying thanks is this – cutting their jobs? This is going to have a massive negative impact on service delivery, particularly services for vulnerable Victorians.
All this is on top of Victoria having the lowest national average funding for public education, for public health and for public hospitals, and all these things are just going to get worse under this budget. Without significant government intervention more Victorians are going to be pushed to the margins, pushed into poverty, suffering housing stress, experiencing homelessness and seeking food relief and help at already stretched community services and emergency wards.
In the lead-up to this budget the Greens highlighted the need to make the profiteering corporations – like the big banks, like the property developers and like the gambling industry – pay their fair share of tax to fund more public and affordable housing, to increase wages for workers and to make it easier for people to see a GP, a dentist or a psychologist. Whilst the government did raise revenue from big business and property investors, next to none of that money is actually going towards helping people in need. Quite frankly, it is staggering that this government is planning to raise over $25 billion over the next 10 years with the debt levy and the future fund and at the end of that it is only going to have reduced debt by around 15 per cent and have nothing else to show for it.
That is why we have put forward an alternative proposal that the state government’s COVID debt levy and the future fund should actually be used to tackle poverty and increase public housing. Under what we are putting forward the debt levy would be converted into an ending poverty levy so that some $20 billion – or more than that – of revenue that is raised from taxes would be put towards genuine cost-of-living relief that matches the scale of the problem in programs such as for housing, health, education, justice and employment in Victoria’s most disadvantaged areas. On the future fund, what we tried to do this week was amend that so the funds could only be used to build more public housing across the state and go towards building some 100,000 new public housing homes that Victoria needs over the next decade.
The state’s debt should be better managed by using the economic benefits of reducing poverty and ending homelessness: increased economic growth, improved productivity, improved health, education and employment outcomes for people and lower costs for people in crisis presenting at emergency wards. Poverty is a handbrake to economic growth. Victoria would be much better off managing its finances by tackling entrenched inequality and disadvantage first. Just imagine the impact that over $27 billion would have on people living in poverty, struggling to put food on the table or without a safe place to call home. The reality is with the revenue raised in this budget from the taxes on big business and property investors, the government can tackle poverty, can end homelessness and can create the fair society that we all want to live in.
On top of the cost-of-living crisis the Victorian ecosystem is on the brink. The number of threatened species continues to rise, so we welcome the end of native forest logging, which we have pushed for for so long, in this budget. We are in awe of the activists, the local groups and the traditional owners who have fought so long, for decades, to protect our native forests. This logging has been devastating to ecosystems, putting native plants and animals under threat of extinction – and for what? Woodchips and paper. The state-sponsored logging operation did not stack up. It lost millions of dollars every year despite the government seemingly bending over backwards to prop it up – buying wood mills, making illegal logging legal, putting in anti-protest laws – and it was obvious to all that they had to bring forward the transition support to end native forest logging as soon as possible. But while our state continues to face the extinction crisis the government is cutting $2 billion from the environment department, and they are still funding fossil fuel projects, actually looking to expand the use of coal in Victoria with the coal-to-hydrogen project using carbon capture and storage – absolutely appalling.
In my electorate of Prahran there is so much unmet need that has been neglected in this budget – more and better public housing, including social support for tenants. Residents are feeling ignored and neglected by the government. There needs to be funding to build a community hub at St Kilda Primary School. Stonnington Community Assist need to hire a much-needed paid staff member to help more people who are presenting in need in our community.
When it comes to climate-friendly transport, funding is needed for further upgrades to South Yarra station to meet the needs of the growing South Yarra community and finally to install that second entrance to Windsor station – we had planning money in one budget, but still we have not seen the results yet and it has not come to fruition; to install more EV chargers in Prahran – there is just one public EV charger; and to build separated bike lanes along Chapel Street north – the pop-up bike lanes which had identified Chapel Street north and other areas within Prahran, well, they have been cut. There is the community-developed Greenline project, a fantastic environmental initiative, a community-initiated initiative, that extends the length of the Sandringham line from the Yarra to Gardenvale. Now that the Prahran TAFE site has been acquired, a public, transparent master-planning process needs to take place, and the government will need to commit the funding and support required to realise that long-term vision of a Prahran arts and education precinct.
Victorians in need who are struggling to pay the rent, struggling to put food on the table, being pushed into poverty, just cannot afford for things to get worse before they get better. Every dollar of revenue raised from taxes on big business and property investors should be going to ending poverty and building more public housing homes. The reality is we can have the sort of society we want to live in. We can afford to have the sort of society we want to live in, with an end to poverty and an end to homelessness, where we make sure people can access the health care that they need, make sure that people have well-paid, secure jobs and make sure we have got a planet for everyone to live on. That is why the Greens are here – the biggest Greens team ever elected at a state election.
That is what we are pushing for – pushing the government further and faster for renters, to help people in need and to get out of coal and gas – and certainly it is much better than the alternative approach that has been put forward by the Liberals, which is essentially supercharged austerity across our state. That is what all the Greens in this Parliament are fighting for.