I am proud to be part of the government that delivered this year’s budget which clearly reflects Labor’s priorities. It delivers on our commitment to quality schools, roads, hospitals, public transport and community services. It includes, for the first time, a social inclusion and equality statement and a domestic violence statement further underlining this government’s priorities. And it does this despite the hit to our economy by the Abbott government’s two recent federal budgets and the impact of the asbestos eradication scheme. Both have put significant pressure on the territory’s economy and our finances.
This is also a budget that continues to diversify the ACT economy and encourage job creation. Transforming Canberra through major infrastructure projects such as the capital metro project and housing renewal will generate thousands of jobs for Canberrans, stimulate the ACT economy and help reduce the impact of the past commonwealth budget contraction.
As I have often spoken about in the Assembly, Gungahlin is Canberra’s fastest growing region. One of my top priorities for the region I live in and represent is to ensure that the infrastructure and resources provided to our schools keep pace with the demands placed upon them. This budget delivers just that with $31.3 million for new schools. That is $30.3 million for a new north Gungahlin primary school planned to open in 2019 and $1 million for a feasibility study to determine where a new north Gungahlin high school will go.
Additionally, important road infrastructure needs to accommodate our rapidly growing population and in this budget $31.2 million has been committed to start the important duplication of Gundaroo Drive and $17 million for upgrades and the part duplication along with $1 million for the design work for the full duplication of Horse Park Drive.
As always, government budgets are about juggling priorities. We are not in a position to fund or, indeed, build everything right now but I am confident that this funding meets the balance my community needs to continue to evolve and thrive. In addition, a further $8 million has been invested for more frequent suburb maintenance. This funding will help Canberrans see the pride they feel in our city reflected in the way our suburbs look and feel. Our burgeoning suburbs in the north will also receive more attention with an extra mow every year and our waterways will get a spruce up with the cleaning of Yerrabi and Gungahlin ponds.
Madam Speaker, this has been my first ACT estimates as an MLA and it has been enlightening to see just how much work and passion are invested by ministers, directorates, agencies and community organisations in supporting our community to thrive. Canberra is widely regarded as one of the most progressive and livable communities in the world and it is in no small part down to the work of the various bodies that appeared before our committee.
I would like to particularly acknowledge all the ministers for the time they gave to the committee. In no other Australian jurisdiction are ministers responsible for so many portfolios and in no other jurisdiction do they spend so much time before an estimates committee. While the estimates timetable is demanding I do believe that the process is important in providing the level of transparency Canberrans deserve from their Assembly.
I also thank my colleagues, in particular Dr Chris Bourke, Brendan Smyth, Chair, and Ms Nicole Lawder, for their approach to the committee proceedings throughout the period. And, of course, I also thank the committee secretariat. I am very impressed by the professionalism and organisation of the group. Through a mass of evidence, transcripts and draft reports the team, led by Nicola Kosseck, supported by Hamish Finlay, Brian Lloyd, Andrew Snedden and Sarah Redden, retained a sense of composure and willing assistance that has impressed us all.
If I could turn to the recommendations, there were a number of matters arising during the estimates process that I would like to draw your attention to and speak to a few of the 148 recommendations made by the committee. Recommendation 38 is on tax reform. During the hearing the Chief Minister and Treasurer, Mr Barr, was quizzed on the government’s priorities and strategy regarding its significant tax reform agenda.
He explained that his objectives are to have the lowest stamp duty in the country and assist low and middle income households into the housing market. In that context much of the work so far has been at the more affordable end of the housing market. The Treasurer also explained that due to the long-term nature of the reform it can be difficult to give a definitive timetable for the abolition of stamp duty given that future governments will be required to complete the process. However, he also acknowledged that Canberrans will want to know where the government intends to go with tax reform over the next five years and in this context the committee recommends that the ACT government report on the first five-year phase of tax reform and outline its plan for the next five-year phase, in particular its commitment to the principle of revenue neutrality and the long-term goal of abolishing stamp duty over two decades. I am confident that this mechanism will allow prospective buyers and sellers more certainty in coming years.
Recommendation 57 is on Access Canberra. The Chief Minister was asked to outline the purpose and composition of this new organisation, Access Canberra. Access Canberra is an initiative bringing together ACT regulatory services and the former Canberra Connect, allowing Canberrans a single point of engagement with the ACT government.
The committee welcomed the establishment of Access Canberra and acknowledged that such a significant organisational and service delivery reform will present significant opportunities and some risks. In light of this the committee recommended that the government closely monitor the first 12 months of operation and report to the Assembly. This will allow the government to finetune the workings of the operation of the organisation and provide Canberrans with the best service delivery possible. So far I have had many positive reports of Access Canberra’s operations bringing together our hardworking public servants across a range of different functions with a willingness to find a way through problems, to apply common sense, and to help groups, individuals and businesses really get things done. I particularly commend this new initiative.
Recommendation 42 is on Winyu House. In keeping with the theme of service delivery for Canberrans, the committee made inquiries about the recent move of ACT Shared Services to Winyu House in Gungahlin. The executive director explained that the move was well organised with minimal loss of productivity, with staff reporting they were very happy with the new work space. I was pleased to join the Chief Minister at the opening of Winyu House and can say that it appears to be an incredible environment to visit and work in. I particularly also enjoyed my visit to the new onsite childcare centre run by the YWCA. And I also know firsthand from speaking with small business operators in the Gungahlin business district that they have welcomed the influx of 650 new employees into the area during the day. I commend the ACT government for this significant investment in the Gungahlin town centre.
Recommendation 104 is on sustainable health funding. During the hearings we heard from the Minister for Health and the chief financial officer of the Health Directorate about the impact on our healthcare system of the cuts in commonwealth funding. The cuts will particularly affect the ACT in the 2016-17 financial year when the current funding agreement comes to an end. The new agreement moves from activity-based to population-based funding that has no regard for the level of acuity in the community or how sick people are. The budget estimates account for $228 million less funding over the next three years than would have been received under the current agreement.
The Abbott government cuts will have a disastrous effect on our elective surgery rates, our emergency departments and a whole range of other activities. Our state and territory colleagues, no matter their political allegiance, agree. To this effect, the committee recommends that the government continue to work with all first ministers and the commonwealth to ensure sustainable health funding so that we can continue to deliver the high quality health services our community requires.
Recommendation 118 is on child and family friendly space at Clare Holland House. A particular concern raised with me recently is the way that we accommodate and care for paediatric respite patients. At present Clare Holland House does not have a specific paediatric room although families are encouraged to amend the room to make it as comfortable as they wish. The committee notes that there is an opportunity to create a more child and family friendly space and provide specialist paediatric staff at the centre at least when children are being treated. We made a recommendation to that effect.
I have two families in my electorate that have raised these issues with me in my time as an MLA and I know how important it is to these families during such a difficult time. I would like to particularly acknowledge the Anthoney and Wills families for their insight and thoughts on these issues and their commitment to their children, Dainere and Benny, both lost tragically through cancer. Their memories are passionately lived on through the work of the Wills and Anthoney families, and I hope that this recommendation can be agreed to and some work can continue on this front.
Recommendation 132 is on school zones and road safety. School zone safety is an ongoing concern and was highlighted by the Chief Minister, the Minister for Police and Emergency Services and the minister for education again earlier this week at Ainslie school. Minister Burch with both her hats on, as minister for police and also minister for education, outlined the government’s focus on improving road safety in school zones in the recent ACT Policing ministerial direction. Driving behaviours such as the use of mobile phones, not wearing seatbelts and responding inappropriately to parking frustrations can create unsafe conditions for our children around schools.
The minister has advised that there will be a stronger ACT Policing presence around school zones. The committee welcomes this and in response recommends that the government update the Assembly on the outcomes of its revised focus at the start of the next school year.
Recommendation 138, traffic around Burgmann Anglican School, is related to the previous recommendation. The committee also noted that the government should work closely with Burgmann Anglican School in Gungahlin regarding the issues relating to traffic and pedestrian safety around the school. I regularly travel past this school at drop-off and pick-up times and have witnessed the range of issues they face from its proximity to one of the major arterial roads in Gungahlin and the car park across the busy Valley Avenue. I hope that a suitable arrangement can be found soon.
On recommendation 137, Horse Park Drive, the committee explored the issue of road projects relating to land releases. The director-general said that capital works and procurement processes were becoming more integrated across government and cost savings had been seen. This was welcomed.
With regard to the planned suburb of Throsby in Gungahlin, the committee recommended that the government consider beginning the duplication of Horse Park Drive from Majura Parkway to Well Station Drive in conjunction with the duplication funded in this year’s budget between Well Station Drive and Anthony Rolfe Avenue.
Notwithstanding that road projects are hugely expensive and must be graduated, it is hoped that efficiencies achieved by combining the projects will allow for the as yet unfunded segment to proceed sooner rather than later.
Recommendation 145 is on playground spaces. Last but not least I highlight this recommendation made by the committee for the government to engage with the community around playground spaces. Public spaces work best when there is community engagement and I hope that this recommendation will encourage a conversation about how we can develop these playgrounds in more innovative ways. We could look at community involvement in the maintenance and possibly the funding of these spaces and new natural playground looks.
As I mentioned at the outset there are 148 recommendations made by the committee and many of these recommendations contain sensible suggestions that complement the existing budget. They touch upon some important economic development issues such as digital investment and serious social issues such as funding for domestic violence victims support.
I commend the budget and hope that some of the recommendations contained in this report are able to be incorporated into future government policy planning and funding and I look forward to the response next week and to the subsequent following debate.
Again, I would like to thank my colleagues, all ministers, public servants, and the work of the committee secretariat in this endeavour.