A speech given in support of the Appropriation Bill 2014
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK ( 16:59 :49 ): I rise to make some remarks in relation to the budget appropriation and reluctantly support it. It is very disappointing that after 12 years of Labor at the helm we find ourselves in the sort of budgetary situation that we are in. When the Liberal Party was last in office we had returned the budget to surplus. Since that time I think this government has only obtained one surplus and has seen revenues go from $8 billion to $16 billion. It is just beyond belief that they could have got themselves into so much trouble.
We are paying some $2 million in interest every day of the year and the government tries to blame the Abbott government, which was only elected in September last year. They really only have themselves to blame but, as my colleague the Hon. Jing Lee was saying, they seek to blame everybody else.
In my areas of responsibility on behalf of the Liberal Party, it is particularly disappointing that the environment has become the whipping boy of any budget cuts that take place. I have actually done a spreadsheet which goes back to 2008-09, which has been provided to numerous media outlets and has been published in various forms. I should add that the cuts started earlier than that, in 2006-07 when the Hon. Kevin Foley was still the treasurer of this state. He used to be rescued every budget. The government would overspend and it would be rescued by increasing revenues which would come via the GST and property taxes.
Following the GFC, if the government had been able to exercise some restraint, they probably would not have had to go into deficit and they certainly would not find themselves in the phenomenal situation that we are in now, facing some $800 million to be found. The environment portfolio has been the whipping boy of this government. If we go back to 2008-09, the funding collectively for what was then the department of water, land and biodiversity conservation (DEH); NRM funding; the EPA; and Zero Waste SA was some $258 million, which is not a huge amount by any stretch.
In this current budget, 2014-15, the combined appropriation from Treasury towards that set of agencies—there have been a number of amalgamations but the functions should still exist—is $107.5 million. So that has gone from $258.3 million to $107.5 million. I should add that in this current budget some of that is because of the Waste to Resources Fund, which is actually not spent on environmental purposes. It is sitting in an account—some $54 million, I think, as at 1 July—to offset this government’s phenomenal debt. It is a very sad tale.
Over the same period, 2008-09 to 2014-15, the FTE staff working in these areas has gone from 2,236 to 1,709. Environment is getting to the point where there are functions which should be considered core business for this state government which no longer are. I think in all of this the finger certainly needs to be pointed in some way at the Greens. While they profess an environmental agenda, where have they been in this whole issue over these years? In fact, I remember after one of the budget lock-outs, when the budget had been presented to the parliament, the Hon. Mr Parnell was duplicitous in calling divisions which prevented a number of us from actually being able to examine the budget papers. I think their role in this, continuously preferencing the Labor Party when this is what happens, shows a level of political impotence or naivety.
In this most recent budget, we had the combined department, DEWNR as it is known, going from some $170 million to $120 million. The Treasurer (the member for West Torrens), in fact joked at the budget lockup this year that one of the ways he could help fund the black hole would be to shut down the environment department. It was an extraordinary admission, really. When he was questioned about the next day, he tried to make light of it and said, 'I didn't want to do it. It was the first thing that came into my head.' I think that in itself speaks volumes about where the environment department sits in the priorities of this government.
We are facing areas that are very much core business being cut. Through the Budget and Finance Committee and via other ways, people who have contacted the Liberal opposition, we found out that there will be the number of things that will happen. We know that 100 jobs will be lost within DEWNR, and the park ranger position has been pretty untenable for some time.
The government states that it has in the order of 88 rangers; I think that in fact it is a lot fewer than that because they are adding the positions for fire management, which you could argue have some ecological function. However, I think it is more about public safety than it is an environmental importance. When the Liberal Party was last in office—the party the Hon. Mark Parnell claims is less green friendly than the current administration—had 300 park rangers, and we had made promises that we would increase those numbers.
The native vegetation unit is losing a huge number of positions and, through discussions in the media particularly, it has come to light that a lot of those positions are the technical scientific based ones. Associate Professor David Paton I think is to be commended for blowing the whistle on the ABC about the massive cuts to the environment department. He has certainly highlighted this is taking place so that people are coming to realise what is going on.
We are also going to lose the visitor centre at Innes National Park, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority funding, which runs a whole range of environmental programs and protects Adelaide's drinking water quality (and I will talk about that in a moment) is being halved. I understand that the state will have to pick up the tab to fund those and that there is also the likely closure of community-based natural resource centres in the Adelaide Hills.
Over recent years, there has been the loss of expertise from DEWNR, particularly in relation to hydrology, and those positions are important to manage the water side of natural resource management. I predict that there will be great difficulties in managing water allocation plans into the future because the department has just lost so much of its corporate knowledge from that area. It is a problematic area already, particularly when the government has to implement plans for the first time and then, in subsequent plans, when it is reducing allocations to particular irrigators, clearly there will be difficulties, and I think that it will be quite chaotic.
In this current round of cuts, we have also seen the grants program through the NRM axed, and it has been reduced a few times over the last several years. It was actually implemented by the Hon. Jay Weatherill when he was environment minister, so it is ironic that it is now disappearing under his watch.
That funds a range of groups, such as Greening Australia, Trees for Life, Friends of Parks, the NRM LAP groups, Foundation for Australia's Most Endangered and Landcare. While we do have great volunteers—and they are to be commended (the Friends of Parks groups and a lot of the NRM LAP groups all perform an incredibly task in tree planting, weed eradication, and so forth)—they do need assistance from time to time through contract work to do some of the much heavier lifting.
I have been out a couple of times with Friends of Scott Creek, and a number of their volunteers are in their 70s and 80s—very fit and healthy, and they obviously love the outdoors. They have really become the backbone of our conservation efforts in South Australia as the environment department continues to face cuts. Those grants programs have been quite an iconic part of the loss in the agencies that we have seen over these years now that this program is gone.
It speaks volumes too that, while the environment department budget is in such a dire situation, what does the government fund? It funds $600,000—it can find $600,000—for this artificial reef, which while people enjoy them—and that is great when you have lots of money available—in comparison to the NRM grants program this is a very poor priority indeed. The government also has seen fit to return half the funding to what is currently Zero Waste SA. The decision was made in a previous Mid-Year Budget Review to axe that agency effectively, so it is pleasing that it will continue in some form and we will look forward to the legislation coming to this place in due course, and on which I think I have sought a briefing. That is a very common-sense decision that has been made.
In relation to Murray-Darling Basin cuts, we have had much commentary in this place, particularly during question time about that. This government has decided to halve its contribution. It keeps pointing the finger at New South Wales. Once again, it is always someone else's fault, so if you can find yourself a scapegoat you can get away with anything really. The New South Wales government has just reinstated some of its funding—certainly not the full amount—so it will be interesting to see whether the government reinstates its funding, as it said that it would if New South Wales moved, and that it would reconsider its position.
I have received a letter from Mr Neil Schillabeer, a well-known advocate for the Murray-Darling Basin and the Lower Lakes area, who has written in some detail about what the impact of these cuts to the Murray-Darling Basin will result in. He refers to deteriorating water quality as a result of reduced operation of salt interception schemes. I think that will impact on the operations of SA Water if that takes place, and there will probably need to be an increase in the amount of work they are doing as a result of this short-sighted, robbing Peter to pay Paul exercise of cutting MDBA funding. He goes on to say:
Impacts on tourism and recreation as a result of reduced operation of locks and weirs and reduced scrutiny of river operations and water quality as a result of cuts to monitoring and water resource assessment and accounting activities.
He goes on to say:
To minimise these impacts it would be necessary for the South Australian government to undertake and directly fund many of the activities currently funded under the joint programs. It is likely that this will cost more than the savings made by cutting joint funding and will still not deliver the same level of outcomes or benefits. The members of the Lower Lakes and Coorong Tourism and Environment Group are particularly concerned at the potential impacts in their region as the influence of decisions such as these is often magnified as we move downstream.
To that I say, 'Hear, hear!'
I also add that because these impacts are in regional South Australia I think that the government views most of regional South Australia as expendable. That is alright because that is not going to impact on marginal seats in South Australia unless these matters are brought to the attention of people in metropolitan South Australia.
It is a very sad situation that we are in. I have spoken about budget cuts in this place numerous times. I feel like a broken record at times. I am pleased that it has made the mainstream agenda now, and I commend Associate Professor David Paton and Mr John Walmsley for speaking publicly on these issues because I think that is what it has taken.
There are a number of people who work in this field within the department, within NRM and in other areas who would like to speak but I think they have been silenced and feel that they cannot comment or there will be consequences for them. To those people I say, do try to keep the faith; there are still a lot of South Australians who care about this field. With those comments, I support the bill.