Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (15:58): I rise to speak to the Appropriation (2020–21) Bill 2020, and in doing so I would like to respond to the state budget. This year has been quite a year. It has been one of grief, isolation and emotional and economic hardship but also of collective resilience, and it is a year that has been described as unprecedented on an unprecedented number of occasions. So fittingly this is a pretty unprecedented budget.
Never before have we seen stimulus on this scale, but equally never before have we had the opportunity to benefit from record-breaking low interest rates and hopefully jolt the Victorian economy back to life. It is an aggressive program of borrowing and spending, but I believe with good reason. It is a strategy that leading economists and the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia have endorsed and a path that is being walked, although perhaps a little less stridently, by our federal government and many other jurisdictions here and abroad. It is reasonable that the government is using its balance sheet to protect the balance sheets of Victorian households and small businesses. In my view it is a sound strategy, given the proximity of a vaccine—and the chief health officer told us just this week that he expects a vaccine to be available in Victoria in March 2021. But as we speak, the vaccine is being made available and being administered across the UK and across Canada, and we know for sure that a vaccine will be a trampoline for our economy.
Noting of course that our national economy has emerged from recession, and as Australian states less affected by COVID are already bouncing back, I am pretty confident that we will be right behind them as we move out of our own COVID restrictions. I honestly think that there is genuine cause for optimism, but it does not mean that it is going to be easy. The City of Melbourne, in my electorate, faces particular challenges, with our city offices having been empty for so long and to remain at reduced capacity for the foreseeable future. I genuinely feel for all of those ancillary businesses—the cafes, the restaurants, the shops and the bars—that are so reliant on a busy and bustling city full of workers. If we are not careful, Melbourne could lose its character, its heartbeat, and I urge this government to do everything they can to protect it, to protect the heartbeat of our city. There is $17 million in the budget for Save Our Scene. That is the kind of investment we are looking for, and I thank the government for that start.
This is a budget that delivers on many of my budget submissions and many Reason policies. In February this year the Parliament debated my bill to extend the out-of-home care leaving age to 21, and I was extremely pleased to see that in this budget the government has delivered on the promise they made at the time to fund this important change for vulnerable children in this state. Eleven thousand young Victorians live in out-of-home care because they are at risk of harm or neglect in their homes. Most of these kids are in foster care, but without the funding delivered in this budget they would have left their care at the age of 18. That is around 800 young people every year, and while 85 per cent of 18 to 21-year-olds in Victoria are still living at home with either one or both parents, our foster kids, who are vulnerable and may have already experienced significant trauma in their young lives, had to go it alone. It is no surprise that within 12 months of leaving care 50 per cent of our care leavers were homeless, in jail or unemployed. Those statistics change markedly if you extend the care-leaving age to 21, and that is what the budget delivers—$75 million to extend the Home Stretch program. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Paul McDonald from Anglicare in particular for his hard work in this space. This is a win for reasoned, evidence-based policy, and I am pleased that I have played some role in changing the lives of so many young people.
In October I am sure I was not alone but I was publicly very disappointed in the federal budget in that it failed women and, as my colleague Ms Watt pointed out, women were most affected by COVID, more affected than our male colleagues, but then if you take that down to, as Ms Watt very eloquently put and recognised, particularly young women. At the time of the federal budget we called on the Victorian Treasurer to pick up those pieces because women carried this country through the first stage of the pandemic. It was our teachers, our nurses, our aged-care professionals.
It is why in our budget submission we called it a caring budget. We focused on women, with priorities around social housing, community mental health, family violence and alcohol and other drug specialists, and this budget has delivered in many of those areas—$250 million for women, including $150 million for wage subsidies for over 6000 women, at least one-third of whom are 45 and older. We know that older women are the fastest growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness, so this is so important. That leads onto the $5.3 billion to be spent on building 12 000 new public housing homes in the next four years, 1000 of which will be reserved for Indigenous Australians, 1000 for victims of family violence and 2000 for people with mental illness.
This is a huge but necessary investment and, as many speakers before have said, well overdue. As the chair of the homelessness inquiry, I know that the public housing waitlists are somewhere around 100 000, so we know we have got more work to do. But this is a good start, and it is the first time we have seen this type of investment in social housing for a very long time.
I would like to reiterate some of the points that my colleague Mr Meddick made, also linked to homelessness and housing affordability. I thank Prosper Australia for providing these statistics. It found that 69 000 properties were likely to be vacant in Victoria. Of these, 24 000 properties consumed zero litres of water per day on average over a 12-month period. So they are either very dirty and very dehydrated people, or those houses are empty. I suspect it is the latter. Now, we instituted a vacant residential property tax. I remember debating it in this house. I understand that only 587 properties in Victoria have been declared vacant, yet we see 24 000 properties have used zero water for 12 months. So I would suggest to the Treasurer and to Treasury that there is significant lost revenue available here and if the enforcement mechanisms were improved, we may in fact incentivise a whole lot of rental stock back onto the market.
I was also thrilled to see the government adopt a unique policy of Reason’s that we had pushed for in 2018, and that was to fund startups in exchange for an equity share. It is a win-win that makes so much more sense than just giving away grants. The prospect of a return on investment that could be used to grow other Victorian startups and small businesses is something that just makes so much sense to me. This is the government literally investing in small businesses, and hopefully recouping some benefit from the success of those businesses. This is where we will find the next Victorian unicorn.
There is almost $800 million for clean power and a further $1.6 billion to build renewable energy hubs across the state, with $108 million to help Victoria prepare for other clean energy projects, including an offshore wind generator. It is forward-looking investment. It is what we should be doing and it is what we must be doing. We need to address the existential threat of climate change. The forecasts are compelling and frightening, the scenarios are devastating. We cannot forget for a second that the most important question of our time is how to restore a safe climate, and we have to do it now. This will be a fast transition to zero emissions. This budget assists us in doing that.
Spending more than $8 billion in regional Victoria is positive, and I know my colleague in the lower house Ms Cupper has been successfully lobbying the government for nearly $150 million in projects across Mildura and the Mallee. There are, however, some missed opportunities too. Despite investments in mental health, loneliness has been neglected again. We know from Harvard University that the health outcomes of social isolation and loneliness are worse than obesity and have the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. COVID lockdowns can only have magnified the issue for so many Victorians, and we just cannot keep ignoring this fact. I would also have welcomed greater spending on early intervention around mental health. I do acknowledge that the government has invested substantially in alcohol and other drug services. We are seeing more treatment beds being built not just in metro but also in regional areas. We will see a second injecting room opened. That again will assist people who often also have combined mental health issues to find a path to recovery and find a path back to families, back to community and back to health.
I believe that we have missed an opportunity to measure wellbeing. Assessing wellbeing by reference to overall income measures like the gross state product, or GSP, is a proxy measurement at best. We saw that New Zealand has taken on a wellbeing budget and the formal Treasury framework for assessing wellbeing impacts in decision-making known as the living standards framework. This is said to embody decades of domestic and international evidence on wellbeing. Sure, we measure GSP, but we do not measure if the economic activity is actually improving our lives. ‘This budget will increase our wellbeing’. Will it? I do not know. We do not measure it. I would like to measure how much it is improving our wellbeing. We say it is. The rhetoric from the government says it is—and I actually sincerely hope it will. Certainly, when you look at some of the innovations and the spends, I have no doubt that it will. But we should be measuring that. Next year we should be saying how well this budget did to help the wellbeing of all Victorians.
We can also learn from the way in which we have had to adapt during COVID and keep the good that has come from the experience, and nothing has been more obvious than in the way we can work more flexibly. We have known for a long time that the majority of Australian employees would have preferred greater flexibility, but uptake has been hindered by unclear workplace policies, the expectation that productivity or workplace culture would be diminished and gendered perceptions of flexible work as predominantly for women. But COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdown have forced a change to the normal way of work. Flexible work has been rapidly adopted and in doing so has demonstrated that the barriers to widespread flexibility have been largely those of an inflexible culture.
There have been so many benefits. Flexible work arrangements can distribute peak-hour traffic across a longer period of time and reduce congestion on roads and public transport systems. A 30 per cent increase in teleworking could reduce the average number of daily commuters from 550 000 to 394 000 a day, and congestion has a number of implications for emission production, commuter wellbeing, productivity, costs and employment and accessibility. Congested traffic increases the production of carbon emissions, obviously. Reducing congestion can therefore assist the Victorian government’s goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The average time Australians spend travelling to and from work each day is 4½ hours and has lengthened 23 per cent since 2002. The variability in the length of travel increases lateness, stress and absenteeism and negatively impacts on productivity. Congestion cost Australia $16.5 billion in 2015. This includes time impact, pollution and operating costs. Compared to the other major Australian cities, Melbourne’s average speeds have experienced the largest decline and Melbourne recorded the worst road variability in Australia. Congestion is expected to cost Melburnians an extra $1700 per person per year by 2030.
The obvious benefit to business of course is reduced overheads and reduced operating costs. If half your workforce is working from home on any given day, then conceivably your business might only require half the workspace. The caveat of course is that only applies to certain sectors, but this certainly could be a game changer. COVID-19 has challenged the normal model of work and has shown that we can do things differently. If the drop-off in traffic that we would ordinarily see during school holidays, for example, became permanent, then it might be that we could save millions on new road infrastructure, for example. It gives me some cause to think that we could do things more sensibly and more reasonably.
Finally, I think it is an opportune time to remind this government that Colorado, a state very similar in size to Victoria, generates over $200 million a year in tax revenue by taxing and regulating cannabis. In addition, decriminalisation alone would release pressure on the criminal justice system and save something in the order of $80 million a year in law and order costs.
With these points made, I note that as leader of the Reason Party it is not my prerogative to interfere with supply. I lend my support to this bill, as does my colleague Ms Cupper in the other house, and I commend the bill to the house.