For the last two weeks I have been sitting in a room asking ministers and government officials questions. This ritual known as Budget Estimates is designed to examine the expenditure proposals contained in the 2015-16 ACT Budget and any revenue estimates proposed by the Government. A report is then prepared for the Assembly.
This has been my first taste of Estimates, and it’s been a great opportunity for me, and the other committee members, to get a better understanding of the Budget, the ACT Government’s policies and how government issues impact on the people we represent.
I’ve been able to directly raise a number of issues with relevant ministers that my constituents have asked me about. Things like mowing and weeding, road works, local schools and community facilities.
We’ve also heard from industry and community groups, the Auditor General, Ombudsman and ACT Electoral Commissioner about issues they have been dealing with – like the new electoral boundaries.
I learnt a lot, but here are six specific things I learnt in Estimates during the past two weeks!
1. Winyu House in Gungahlin
People love the new Access Canberra shopfront in Winyu House, which makes it even easier to do business in the ACT. I asked Shared Services about the experience of public servants moving into the new Gungahlin office block, as well as progress of a level crossing for pedestrians so it is easier to get from Winyu House to the Market Place.
According to Shared Services, the move has been fabulous and everyone is incredibly happy. The move went swimmingly, with very little loss of productivity, which is great considering it happened during a busy time of year! Travel times are not as bad as some people thought they would be and there is plenty of car parking, which is great. People love their space and the fit-out of the office. They also said they have been made to feel very welcome in Gungahlin (we are a friendly bunch).
As for the pedestrian level crossing, there is a case for it to be established in the next three to four months, along with some lighting to increase safety at the intersections outside the office. This is great news.
2. North Gungahlin schools
I asked about plans to build two new schools in north Gungahlin.
Minister Burch provided details of the two new schools to be built in north Gungahlin, to meet the needs of families moving into our newest suburbs. A new P-6 primary school will be built in the new north Gungahlin suburb of Taylor, to open in 2019. It will have three streams and cater for approximately 540 students.
Construction of a new high school was also confirmed and a study has been funded to look at the timing and location of this new school. The schools will have nation leading facilities, including digital infrastructure.
The Minister also reassured me about the model for projecting school numbers and confirmed that although there is strong growth in Gungahlin (not surprisingly), no schools are over capacity and all can meet growth.
3. Duplication of roads
I thanked the Minister for Roads and the Chief Minister for the funding commitment to begin the duplication of Gundaroo Dr and Horse Park Drive in this year’s budget. I let them know that I would continue to advocate for both roads to be fully duplicated.
In particular I asked that, given we had evidence that the Economic Development arm of Government has had recent successes in saving on some major roads works and therefore the capacity to accelerate other projects, could they strongly consider funding the full duplication of the Majura Parkway – Well Station Road section of Horse Park drive ASAP. They said they would consider it.
I also raised the Katherine Ave and Horse Park Dr intersection and the Minister for Roads and TAMS officials assured me that they have it on their radar, and it will continue to be monitored and the duplication design work will get underway.
4. Mental Health Services for Gungahlin
I asked about funding for enhanced mental health services in the Budget for Gungahlin.
According to the Minister for Health, Simon Corbell, this funding will have a particular focus on improving community services for mental health clients. There will be a new multi-disciplinary team established at Gungahlin across medical, nursing, allied health and support services to establish a dedicated community mental health service for the Gungahlin region with 6.4 full-time equivalent staff.
Previously the district of Gungahlin has been serviced out of Belconnen, but this will provide a dedicated service for Gungahlin. That is a very, very important investment.
5. Capital Metro
We had a long discussion about light rail. For me it reinforced the transport, economic and community case for it, and I reiterate it’s an affordable project.
I asked how the light rail experience differs for commuters compared to the bus experience
The Capital Metro Agency said light rail would be a much nicer experience for commuters. The entry is level with the platform, so instead of stepping up into a bus which can sometimes be slow, the entry and exit of passengers is much quicker and easier. There are anywhere from four to six doors that all open at the same time, more like a train, so people can get on and off much faster than they can with a traditional bus.
On top of that, the boarding process of tagging on and tagging off (as with MyWay) will happen on the platform rather than on the vehicle, so that makes it a much faster ride as well. No more having to stand in that long queue while everyone goes through the process of tagging their MyWay card!
And once you enter the tram, you are in a much more open environment, with much better accessibility for people requiring mobility devices or using prams.
The Capital Metro Agency Director-General, a former head of the South Australian Department of Transport (which included buses, light and heavy rail) told us some cities, such as Nantes in France, are finding their bus rapid transit systems are exceeding capacity almost as soon as they’re built. In Nantes, they are running buses every 3 minutes during the peak and are considering transferring to a light rail system!
6. Pedestrian zone in Hibberson Street
I asked what the likelihood is of Hibberson Street in Gungahlin being closed off to cars, which a lot of people have been asking me about.
This is something that cities grapple with it seems, and originally Gungahlin was designed to try to break out of the mould of an enclosed mall and actually have much livelier streets. So there was a very deliberate decision of the government at the time, to actually have a different model, which we see today.
When light rail is established, there will be a small part of road that is closed to traffic, with car traffic still able to access Hibberson Street at the south end. So only the part of Hibberson Street that is most heavily used by pedestrians will potentially be blocked off to cars.
I think it’s important we get the balance right in the Town Centre so businesses can continue to flourish and people can get around safely. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts too!
So that was a taste of my fortnight in Estimates. If you are interested in seeing what was said, you can find it all online here: http://bit.ly/1Hk1NGP
My colleagues on Estimates Chris Bourke, Brendan Smyth and Nicole Lawder and I will be working on a report with recommendations over the next six weeks. I will keep you posted on the outcomes.