Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (18:39): I rise to speak to this cognate debate and in doing so respond to the state budget, and I think it is not surprising that the headline issue on this budget is the state’s health system. We know that this budget does go to trying to ease some of those pressure points that the pandemic really brought to the front, but we know that the health system has had those pressure points for a number of years and certainly COVID and this pandemic have exacerbated that. Our healthcare professionals have worked tirelessly through this pandemic—tirelessly—but as we all know and as our constituents tell us day by day, our hospitals are stretched and our staff are absolutely exhausted. Let us not forget the allied health workforce as well. They are working just as hard with the same patients, with the same conditions and with the same PPE, and their contributions are significant.
The $2.9 billion in health infrastructure, the $2.4 billion for emergency staff and new wards, the 7000 healthcare workers, including 5000 nurses, are really good for Victoria. It is probably what the community expected. When I have been out there asking people about the budget I do not think anyone was surprised by it. I do not think anyone was terribly excited, but I do not think anyone was surprised by it, that the budget had a health focus. I think given the last two or three years we have had that is not surprising.
But what was surprising were the cuts in alcohol and other drug services, to the extent of $40 million. We know that during COVID people’s alcohol consumption increased. We know that during COVID people’s drug issues were exacerbated, alongside their mental health issues. We know this, but we saw cuts in this area. I think this is a kind of short-sightedness or—I probably should not mention this—the ambulance being at the bottom of the cliff rather than there being a fence at the top. The alcohol and other drugs sector has been starved of resources. We know the waiting times for people trying to get into treatment. When someone decides that they need help, being told that they have to wait six months for that help is not acceptable. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am and how disappointed the really hardworking, dedicated alcohol and other drug workers are. We do not have enough rehab beds. We do not have enough treatment. We do not have enough counselling.
The killer in this is that when you cut those services, when you cut alcohol and other drug treatment, you exacerbate the problems in our emergency rooms, you exacerbate the problems in our courts and in our mental health facilities. When you cut alcohol and other drug services you send those people back into our mainstream health system. Frankly it lacks reason, and I would really urge the Treasurer to reconsider this and to look at the benefits. We know that when we spend money on harm reduction, harm minimisation, for every $1 we spend we save $27—and that is because we avoid someone needing an ambulance, that is because we avoid someone ending up in an emergency department and that is because we avoid someone ending up in our prisons. Please, Treasurer, these are short-sighted cuts to this budget, and they are things that we need to remedy.
In November I moved a motion in this chamber that called on this government to introduce a dedicated portfolio for loneliness, and that was passed with the government’s support. I am sure that many of you are conscious that loneliness has emerged as one of the most serious public health challenges being faced around the world. Loneliness is a better predictor of premature death than physical inactivity. Obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day—loneliness is a better predictor than those conditions or activities. Lonely Australians have a significantly worse health status than Australians who do not experience loneliness. So I have to say I was really pleased to see the government quite literally put its money where its mouth is and invest directly in loneliness by way of $9 million to establish 10 new social inclusion action groups in local government areas. This will foster connection and reduce social isolation in vulnerable groups. I am really pleased that this is a win for a Reason policy.
The budget has allocated significant resources—$1.8 billion—to building new schools and upgrading existing ones. But again schools in my electorate of Northern Metropolitan have missed out.
Coburg High School—this school has grown exponentially. I remember being there back in 2016 when it was just a newly opened school that was accepting maybe two or three grades. It has now got a population in excess of 1250 students. It is lacking science rooms. Students are now having to take their music lessons in a storeroom. It desperately needs funds, and the picture is no better for nearby schools like Glenroy College and John Fawkner College. If we wanted to tell some of our most disadvantaged communities that we really did not care a fig about them, we would send them to some of those schools. It is reprehensible that we have not invested in those schools but we have invested in far wealthier schools. These deserve funding, and I would urge the Minister for Education to keep this front of mind.
Not only are we seeing these schools being decimated through the lack of funding—literally falling apart around the students’ ears; you look at the results in our primary schools in those areas that feed into those high schools and their results are well above average—these are smart kids—and then if you look at the results at John Fawkner or Glenroy, those results have dropped down. Not surprisingly, parents do not want to send their children to those schools, so we are seeing overcrowding in other schools. We have these schools, we have these growing areas and we need to address this. I implore the government to invest in the north. It has been neglected.
I was in Broadmeadows on the weekend, and you only have to look at Broadmeadows station to see the neglect of the north. I was assured, at a function I was at to celebrate the work of volunteers in the north, that the government had earmarked an upgrade to Broadmeadows station by 2050—2050. Now, this is a place where you do not actually want to walk through that station’s underpasses in daylight, let alone on a winter’s evening. It is absolutely frightful, and it sends a message to my constituents in the north that we just do not care. This is a postcode with some of the most disadvantaged people. This is where we should be investing.
I continue to promote small business and innovation. We know those are the drivers to the future economy. We must be responsive to the start-up sector and emerging industries and nurture those bright new ideas capable of catapulting our economy. We have seen this in Victoria. We are actually responsible for a number of unicorns, and I think we should be proud of that. I have to say that I think the government’s approach to attracting international businesses has been well funded, particularly in the medical research area, and that is in my electorate around Parkville. We have seen some great work in that area. What I particularly endorse is the equity investment pilot fund. This is about providing equity funding to those start-ups. This is really welcome out there in the start-up industry.
Also providing grants to small businesses looking at low-carbon manufacturing—this is something that we in the north used to be very good at. We used to be manufacturers in the north. But we have these opportunities, and I welcome the government’s investment there. I look at things like mineral sands and the opportunities there. I for one drive an electric vehicle. I know that the minerals that made that vehicle are rare and precious, and we have great reserves in Victoria. A shout-out to Manangatang—that is an area where we have some mineral sands. So I look forward to seeing governments invest in those areas, help us and keep that in Australia. Do not allow those big multinationals to come in, reap what they need and then leave—well, for mineral sands—a fairly shallow hole but a hole nonetheless.
Look, there is more we could say about this. I think the other missed opportunity was an investment in hemp. I spoke at length about this last sitting week, so I will not do it again, but we certainly need to invest in areas like hemp. We need to make it easier for hemp growers. We know that these are the types of new crops that will enable new and innovative and low-carbon manufacturing to occur in Australia.
Let us also not forget women’s health. We certainly saw some investment into women’s health; we did not see enough. I think something that I have been trying to highlight in this place has been the issue of endometriosis. We have heard a lot of talk but we have not seen the investment come into play. I thank the government for committing to an endometriosis centre, but we did not see any money for it, so I am hopeful that we will see some announcements and some commitments to that. I hope both sides of this chamber commit to really funding endometriosis research, endometriosis treatment, and most importantly a cure for endometriosis. It is debilitating. It affects one in nine women, yet we spend more money on snoring than we do on endometriosis. We spend more money on sleep apnoea than we do on endometriosis, by a considerable amount. So again it is a call-out that the government commit to significant funding to the various really innovative organisations operating here, whether they are operating out of the Epworth, whether they are operating under Hudson, Monash, the women’s hospital. There are really great, dedicated researchers that just need a little bit of love from the government.
Removing the current land transfer duty exemption applying to the transfer of dutiable properties to an institution with a religious purpose—this is another great way of bringing in some much-needed funds. We understand, and this is through the Parliamentary Budget Office and through other research, this would bring in another $13 million over the next couple of years. We pay transfer duty when we buy and sell our homes, so why shouldn’t religious organisations? It was just a few years ago now that Fairfax revealed that the Catholic Church holds assets in Victoria valued at more than $9 billion, including banks, a superannuation fund, an insurance company, a news service and a telecommunications provider. Properties reportedly include offices, residences, car parks, conference centres, tennis courts, mobile phone towers and a restaurant. They are the largest non-government landholder in the state, so why should that wealth be duty free?
Of course I cannot contribute to a budget debate without mentioning the regulation of cannabis. We spend billions of dollars in prohibiting cannabis.
Mr Finn interjected.
Ms PATTEN: Welcome, Mr Finn. Glad you came in at just the right moment.
Mr Finn: Beautifully timed, wasn’t it?
Ms PATTEN: Perfect timing. We know we could actually earn about $200 million if we regulated cannabis, let alone the savings we could make if we regulated cannabis. You never know, even Mr Finn might investigate that proposition.
A member: I doubt that very much.
Ms PATTEN: It is not a radical policy, Mr Finn, it is happening all over the world. We are seeing it in Canada, France, Germany, Mexico more recently, Malta. We are now up to nearly 50 per cent of the states in the United States now regulating the sale of cannabis rather than prohibiting it. The outcomes, shock horror, have been positive.
The other thing I want to quickly touch on is around the money that we spend on justice issues.
We are not spending enough around the causes of crime. Again, we are spending on the ambulance, not on the fence. Let me give you some examples. Take the capital works: we are spending in this budget $111 million on new justice projects but only $80 million on housing projects. We are spending $27 million on refuge and crisis accommodation. In fact, that is slightly less than what we are spending on the Fawkner cemetery. Now, I am pleased that the Fawkner cemetery got some expansion money; it is needed. However—
Mr Finn interjected.
Ms PATTEN: It is needed. It is still the last tram stop on the line, but really, to be spending more on a cemetery than on refuge and crisis accommodation means that we really do need to have a rethink about that.
Our spend on acute mental health beds is about half of what we spend on prison beds. As some of the people in this chamber know, we did a homelessness report. We understand that preventing homelessness prevents crime. In the homelessness inquiry we saw this; in the justice inquiry we saw this. I would again point out that we are locking people up via refusing bail because they do not have a home. We are effectively locking up people because they are homeless, not because of a crime that would have accounted for a jail term. Look at the awful, awful circumstances of Veronica Nelson. She stole an ice cream; she died in our prison.
The hydromorphone trial for clients of the supervised injecting room—I was very sad to see that that did not get up. Again, we know that by providing hydromorphone to clients at the supervised injecting room we would have reduced crime. We would have engaged those people to come back from where they had been, engaged them back into services, engaged them back into treatment and, more importantly, stopped them having to traffic on the streets or purchase on the streets. We would have reduced the crime enormously, and I will keep on at the government about a hydromorphone trial. We have seen it in other areas.
I would like to also give a shout-out to the Legislative Council. I know that those in the other chamber do not seem to know what we do here, and I have heard them say that more than once—and the budget shows that. We get a tiny amount of the budget, yet this is where law is actually passed. This is where law is reviewed. This is where law is, effectively, made. Our Legislative Council committees, our standing committees, do an enormous body of work in policy. This is about connecting with our community. This is about our transparency and our accountability to our community. This is so important, and yet the Legislative Council gets a tiny proportion—$2 million. So again I would implore the Treasurer and the government to start spending and start valuing the work that this house does.
Finally, measures like the GDP—they are relevant but they are not the whole picture. Other jurisdictions are working into a wellbeing budget, and I think we need to do that. Our constitution says that we are for and on behalf of the people of Victoria now and into the future. We have to be measuring that. The former chair of the United States Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, noted that:
The ultimate purpose of economics … is to understand and promote the enhancement of well-being.
Now, again, I know that the government has shown some interest in this area. I would hope that the next budget that we see here will have some wellbeing indexes. Let us measure that. That is what I would love to see in the next budget: more measurements of our wellbeing. As a fun fact, the GDP went up when we had the Black Saturday bushfires. GDP went up, so as far as the budget was concerned, that was a great result. But we know we need to measure the wellbeing of our community.
That is what they expect us to do, that is what we need to do. It is not my position to oppose a budget bill or a financial bill, so I will leave it there.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Cognate debate 7/6/22