Peter's Blog

What the State Budget means to Flinders

We have heard much about this budget, which has been much spruiked by the government as a jobs budget but, of course, just because you call something by a name, it does not necessarily mean it is so. Unfortunately, South Australia is still coming in with the highest unemployment rate in the country at around 6.9 per cent, our youth unemployment is around 14 per cent and the Treasury’s own forecasts predict just a 0.75 per cent growth in employment in 2016-17, which is less than half the 1.8 per cent predicted by the federal government across the nation.

It is important to talk about the numbers in this budget because, ultimately, that is what budgets are about, and I will spend a little bit of time talking about that before I go on to some issues that relate particularly to my electorate of Flinders. The 2016-17 state budget illustrates just how poorly managed South Australia’s finances are. As a result of this budget, the indications are that net debt will jump more than $2 billion to $6.25 billion, largely due to the new Royal Adelaide Hospital being over budget.

The non-financial public sector debt is forecast to peak at $14.2 billion in 2017-18 and, this financial year, South Australian taxpayers will cough up $638 million in interest payments to service non-financial public sector debt. That is $1.7 million each and every day that South Australians will be paying out, simply servicing the debt. That is interest alone. It is $1.7 million in missed opportunities. Let’s not forget that the Treasurer’s much-vaunted surplus is only made possible by the sale of the Motor Accident Commission worth about $448.5 million. There was also the $624 million payment for 2016-17. The one forecast for next year would not be possible.

So why does the government still need to sell assets to prop up its income revenue? Was it because of the Gillman sale that wasn’t or the payment of taxpayer-funded electricity concessions to almost 4,500 dead people? Maybe it was the $13.6 million spent on public servants at the Investment Attraction Agency to distribute $15 million in grants to businesses that actually cost $13.8 million to administer? That is an indication of how wasteful governments can be.

Perhaps it is due to the likely $245 million cost blowout for the EPAS hospital records project, the $46.5 million added to the budget for the Adelaide Convention Centre renovation, the $30 million in rail electrification assets written off after further delays to the Gawler line modernisation project, the $3 million spent to spruik the government’s changes to the health system, the $236,000 paid by South Australian police to rent vacant stations at Blakeview, Malvern, Newton, North Adelaide and Tea Tree Gully or, of course, the $195,000 spent on an episode of Jay TV. The spending goes on. Unfortunately, in all of this, there is a failure to balance the budget.

In all of that money being spent on health, I can inform the parliament and the minister that, despite the fact that there was $39 million spent at the Port Lincoln Hospital, which we are very grateful for and we attended the opening some few months ago, the outside lift that provides access to the reception area still, after all this time, is not working. Despite correspondence between my office and the department, we have not managed to get that right as yet. I will explain the importance of this lift.

The geography of Port Lincoln is such that the hospital is on quite a steep hill and access to the reception area is up a flight of 10 or so quite steep steps. Alternate access is given via quite a long two-way ramp, and for those who are severely disabled, frail, infirm or otherwise not able to take the ramp or the stairs a lift is to be provided. Unfortunately, for all this time, the lift has not been working. I sincerely hope that somewhere in the country health budget there is money found to make that lift work. We can, after all, put men on the moon.

There seems to be very little relief for households and businesses with regard to cost of living. We have had much talk, even today, in this parliament about electricity prices. The member for Mount Gambier mentioned a number of his dairy farmers and dairy businesses are paying double for electricity compared with their counterparts just a few kilometres across the Victorian border and this is a significant input cost to a business such as a dairy farm and really impacts on their very viability. For anybody contemplating a new business, of course, one would look very seriously about which state and where they might set up.

The emergency services levy, the natural resources management levy and the solid waste levy, of course, have all gone up and have been much discussed in this parliament already, but they continue to be an impost on the cost of living, on families and on businesses right across this state. It is not a good place to do business and it is a very difficult place to raise a family, particularly those on low and limited incomes.

I would like to highlight though—and I am very pleased to be able to do this and give credit where credit is due—the STEM funding that has flowed out right across a number of schools throughout the state. In fact, three schools in the electorate of Flinders, Cummins Area School, Ceduna Area School and Port Lincoln High School, are all sharing in around about $9 million for science, technology, engineering and maths centres, so those schools will be very appreciative of that.

I have done some work with the Port Lincoln High School over recent years in lobbying effort to have some money spent. It was not specifically for a STEM project, but was more to do with the replacement of temporary classrooms. They were placed there some 40 years ago as temporary classrooms and remain there, and are still being used. Unfortunately, they are without air conditioning. I am sure that, despite receiving this very important funding, the Port Lincoln High School will continue to lobby for the replacement of those classrooms, considering that in the seat of Flinders the Port Lincoln High School is the one and only dedicated high school. It is also the largest school in the electorate.

Of course, roads remain a priority for country people, and it would be lovely to think that the government at some point in one of these budgets could begin to address the backlog in road maintenance. Mobile phone towers continue to be an issue. My understanding is that the government intends to make more of a contribution this time than they did last year, which, of course, resulted in just four of the 11 mobile phone towers. I urge the government to continue supporting this. It is dependent on federal funding, and I understand that, but the communication in this day and age is of vital importance, and country people, unfortunately, are missing out.

The coastal conservation zones continue to be an issue, and I will discuss that more in the grievance debate, but I will just flag it at this stage. What has been happening over the previous decade or so is that councils around Eyre Peninsula have been encouraged by the government to put in place coastal conservation zones. It has been a very difficult process. It has not been without its challenges, and it has not been without its concerns from both councils and also landowners, who often are agricultural and farming people who live and work within a coastal environment and all of a sudden have a coastal conservation zone imposed upon them not really knowing what this might mean for them, the future development of their properties, what impact it might have on the value of that property and how it might affect the equity and their long-term planning.

There does not seem to be a lot of effort with regard to the reduction of red tape, and I notice that the Productivity Commission earlier this week released a report highlighting the importance of reducing red tape in agriculture. It would be nice to think that the government could consider that also to be a priority. I know some of the work by the Department of Transport has been done in relation to heavy vehicle transport. It was a 90-day project, initially, and it seems to have dragged out to well over 12 months now, with just one recommendation in relation to farm machinery.

On discussion with the Agricultural Bureau of South Australia, that seems to be unworkable and impractical. It is really important that the department and government recognise that technologies are moving on in industries such as agriculture and that legislation and regulation needs to also move in line with the technological advances that are occurring, otherwise our industries are going to be constrained. On a brighter note, I noticed also last week that there was a very complimentary editorial in The Advertiser in relation to Eyre Peninsula where it was described as an economic powerhouse.

I spoke about this last week, and I think give credit where credit is due. I congratulate all the people who live and work on Eyre Peninsula, particularly those who are involved in primary production because it was on the back of the upcoming Eyre Peninsula field days at Cleve. It highlighted the profitability, and the advances and productive capacity of agriculture on Eyre Peninsula.

That is not to say that our seafood and fishing industries have not also progressed. It is really important that we recognise and support these industries, and the best way I think that support can be given from government, particularly state governments, is to reduce red tape and green tape and streamline some of the regulations that impact on people’s lives.

I would like to talk about the Department of Environment, with regard to an article that I read in last week’s Stock Journal. This matter has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions, particularly in recent times, by constituents of mine, but it goes much further than that. It is in relation to the control of wild dogs, or dingoes, if you like. Pastoralists are calling for more help with the rising wild dog population.

A lot of our pastoral country and much of our agricultural zone here in South Australia is enjoying a good season, but rains in the pastoral country means that the carrying capacity of these pastoral properties is much improved. It also means that there is an increase in wildlife, and amongst that wildlife are the wild dogs or dingoes.

There is a fence that traverses all of South Australia and much of New South Wales and into Queensland, and it separates essentially the sheep country in the south from the cattle country in the north. Sheep and cattle prices are very good at the moment. Meat prices are very good and the wool price is as good as it has been probably since the collapse of the reserve price scheme—when was that?—in 1990, 25 years ago, 26 or 27 years ago even. So things are buoyant, but what has happened as a result of good stocking rates and a good season is that the dog numbers have increased.

I understand that the Dog Fence is in reasonably good condition, and we in this parliament just a few months ago passed legislation, supported by both sides, I might add, that increased the levy that would be paid by landowners and a transaction fee as livestock goes through the saleyards. We supported that. We do not always support levies, but we did support this one because there was a commitment from the government to match always dollar for dollar the moneys raised. This is going to be a significant increase, almost a doubling of moneys that will go into the maintenance of the Dog Fence itself. That is not the only solution.

As dog numbers increase on the outside of the fence, more and more pressure comes on the fence itself. There is a bit of baiting that goes on. Our local NRM boards are responsible for that under the auspices of the Department of Environment, of course, but certainly the suggestion is that much more could be done. More baiting could be done outside the fence to reduce the pressure on the fence and more effort could be made inside the fence with regard to baiting and also trapping.

My understanding is that Victoria, our near neighbour, has 23 dog trappers, all of whom are funded by the state government in Victoria. We had just one trapper until very recently, when the funding for that was pulled, so we have no dedicated dog trapper here in South Australia. As I said, neighbouring Victoria has up to 23. There is a call to reinstate the funding for that dedicated trapper. Trapping dogs is a dying art; it is an antiquated skill. All of this seems a long way away. It is a long way from Victoria Square and it is a long way from North Terrace, but it is so important to these people who live and work in the state’s north, who are busy working in what I would say is one of the highlights of this state’s economy, and that is the agricultural sector.

Part of the Dog Fence extends into my electorate in the far west. It ultimately wanders around the north-west pastoral country and comes down just north of Ceduna and then abuts the Great Australian Bight. Certainly I have constituents who deal with dogs, both inside and outside the fence, and it really is a scourge. I sympathise with them. All they ask for is that it be recognised that this is an issue and that funding be properly allocated so that control can be carried out. It is an ongoing problem and it is not going to go away.

One other matter I would like to talk about while time allows is the issue of land tenure. In the Productivity Commission’s report, which I mentioned earlier, there is also the possibility of changing the type of land tenure and perhaps freeing up equity, especially the pastoral zone. Of course, much of the north of South Australia is managed under pastoral leases. Generally, they are a 42-year lease term with the right of renewal.

Those leases can be bought, sold, borrowed against, and they form a big part of a pastoralist’s equity. However, if the government were to consider freeholding some of these pastoral leases, then that would create much more wealth within that industry. I think it is an idea that is pursuing. There is a boundary area between the wheat zone and the pastoral zone and some of these properties could benefit, I believe, from improved tenure.

The last issue that I would like to talk about, of course, is electricity prices. It has been a big topic today. The spot price I understand moves all over the place. This is a challenge for the government. I am not quite sure how the government is going to find a solution to this but they need to find it very quickly for the benefit of all those households and businesses in South Australia that are burdened by these exorbitant electricity prices far and above what our neighbouring states are paying.