Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021, Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2020-2021, Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021 – Second Reading

The Treasurer has described the October budget as the most important since the Second World War. In many ways, he is right, because our country faces challenges greater than at any point since that time, and so the test for this budget is whether it meets the moment. Does it do enough to support the millions of people in Australia who need assistance right now, who need a leg-up right now? And does it properly invest in the country so we bounce back from the pandemic as a more vibrant, more prosperous place, taking us to a new future of bold initiatives, of true opportunities?

As an Independent, when I look at the budget it’s not my job to be a cheerleader for the government, nor is it my job to be simply a constant critic. For me, it’s to call things as I see them and to be the voice of my community. And so, over recent weeks, I have conducted a survey of constituents to see how the budget affects them and to understand what they think the recovery priorities should be. From the 1,200 responses I received from right across Indi, the message is clear: though the budget contained some positive measures, it did not meet the moment we’re in.

For regional Australia, this budget is a letdown because it looks backwards, not forwards. It tries to take the country back to the economy we had nine months ago instead of truly finding the window in this disruption, in this once-in-a-generation moment, to take us to a new and better place.

Today in this speech responding to the budget I want to give voice to the people of my electorate, what they need right now and the future that they want to see for their region.

To start with, our small businesses are really hurting, not just from the lockdowns but because, for many, the bushfires had already wiped out the summer trade. The measures for business are really the centrepiece of the budget announcement. While most people in Indi support these measures, many feel that more is needed.

Of the instant asset write-off and loss carry-back scheme, while 48 per cent of people supported these measures, another 23 per cent said they did not go far enough. Many small businesses told me that the instant asset write-off will not make a difference to them, as they are too cash poor to be making investments of any kind.

Many businesses said that these are not the types of supports that they really need. A restaurant owner in Bright told me: ‘Our biggest issue is hiring staff for the summer months. The lack of accommodation in the region makes it almost impossible to get quality employees. Spend money on developing affordable housing.’ Then there are businesses of which these supports simply do not touch the sides, especially sole traders—people like Chris, at The Bright Table.

Many small businesses are still facing an impossible pathway out of the crisis. I look to the travel agency businesses. Frank and Fiona Stephens own Benalla Travel, a nationally renowned travel agency that has been around for decades and is an absolute community institution in Indi. I met with Frank and Fiona a few weeks ago, and their story is a harsh reminder of the brutality of this pandemic and why we need a response that does not leave people behind. As a travel agency, Frank and Fiona were hit harder than most. They are in a business that is impossible to fully hibernate. With national and state borders closed, their revenue has gone to zero. It will remain at zero until our borders reopen, which, on some estimates, could be as much as nine to 12 months away.

But on top of this, Frank and Fiona have spent the last few months refunding trips booked in the year before the pandemic. This means they’ve lost not only this year’s income but last year’s as well. Frank and Fiona did the right thing. They kept on all the staff they could, and they’ve refunded customers that they didn’t need to. They did this because of their commitment to the people they look after in the community. Frank told me, ‘We’re just keeping our heads above water, but we have real fears and concerns post 31 March, when JobKeeper ends, unless we receive additional and ongoing support.’

In our rush to get out of this pandemic, we simply cannot leave behind people like Frank and Fiona. These are the small family owned businesses right across the country that have spent years doing the right thing. They’ve been investing in our community. They’re the businesses that have sponsored community events, that have given a leg-up to so many in their towns. It’s their hour of need right now, and we need to give them a leg-up too. We must not abandon the Franks and Fionas of our business world.

In my survey I heard from too many people who missed out on JobKeeper because it had critical design flaws and because the government repeatedly and inexplicably moved to exclude some sectors.

One person told me: ‘I’m employed at La Trobe University in Wodonga, and I’m disappointed to say I’ve not been able to access the JobKeeper scheme. My salary has been cut by 10 per cent for up to two years and I’m not able to access any other support or supplement payments. I’m a single person with a mortgage at the serviceability of my pre-COVID salary.’ It’s truly alarming that, at a time when we need regional jobs and when we need to upskill our young people for the jobs of tomorrow, we deny regional universities the same supports we make available to other working Australians. It beggars belief to me. For those who find themselves out of work, 70 per cent of people in my electorate believe the JobSeeker rate should not drop below the current $815 per fortnight.

To be sure, there is genuine concern among some people in Indi that we don’t create a system that is a disincentive to work. But I don’t believe it’s beyond us as a nation to design a system that both encourages people to work and provides a safety net worthy of the fundamental decency of Australian people.

Consider some of these stories from Indi. One woman told me: ‘I lost two jobs during COVID and my husband has not been able to find work either. Without the JobSeeker support, we would not have been able to pay our bills, especially our winter heating. We would not have been able to buy substantial food or meet our mortgage repayments. We also would not be able to afford the allied health that our child so desperately needs.’ The government cannot condemn millions of Australians to poverty when the JobSeeker rate is set to be cut again at the end of the year. I implore the government not to cut it.

I spoke yesterday in parliament about the need for a serious overhaul of the aged-care system. A whopping 83 per cent of people in Indi think the government must do more on this issue. I’ve spoken many times in this place about the disastrous impact of the government’s emergency COVID-19 childcare policy on the childcare providers in Indi. The government’s COVID response halved the income of many childcare providers, most of them council-run, at a time when we needed to remove any impediments to people. We needed to make sure that this budget supported our childcare sector, and it simply did not do that in Indi. Quite literally, though, more broadly in this budget, there is nothing for child care.

On mental health, people are telling me loud and clear that, whatever the government is doing now, it’s not working. Just 20 per cent of people in Indi think the government is doing enough on mental health. Too often, it is simply impossible, logistically and financially, to access proper mental health care in regional areas.

Even with Medicare funded places on a mental health plan, the gap fees are often prohibitive. One person from Kinglake told me that, after being isolated at home for six months, they booked to see a psychologist, only to discover that the gap payment was over $200 per session. They couldn’t afford it, so they just didn’t go.

I’ve been a champion of the additional Medicare funded places for psychological support, but I draw the attention of the House to this issue: these gap payments are astronomical and are absolutely keeping people away from services. One mother told me, ‘To help my anxious child, so far we’ve needed five years of going to a psychiatrist, at $450 a visit. So the 10 to 12 Medicare funded visits will help a little, but families such as mine will still be out of pocket.’ In too many cases, the services simply do not exist because we failed as a country to invest properly in the mental health workforce and, most especially, in the mental health workforce of rural, remote and regional Australia.

One person from Benalla wrote to me saying, ‘I’ve been so appalled by the lack of correct support here. The lack of GPs with experience in mental health is heartbreaking. We need a team of specialists in Benalla. Domestic violence, drug use, PTSD, depression and anxiety are huge problems in Benalla. The proper support and care is not there at all. People do need urgent care here and it simply does not exist. It’s heartbreaking and no-one seems to be listening. This is urgent. People are taking their own lives. So many ways to tackle these problems and yet no-one is truly acting on them. Please help. Helen.’

Similarly, a psychologist based in Albury-Wodonga told me: ‘We desperately need additional mental health nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists in the Albury-Wodonga region. There’s extra funding coming up for services in mental health in Albury-Wodonga, but there aren’t the mental health nurses just sitting at home waiting for these positions. Staff will be taken out of already understaffed public and private facilities. As a psychologist, I’m sending suicidal clients home rather than have them being triaged at the emergency departments. And, if you’re young person in the Albury-Wodonga region and you need admission to a subacute mental health unit, you need to drive to Box Hill, 321 kilometres away, or to Orange, 446 kilometres away. It’s not good enough and it needs to change.’

We’ve heard a lot this year that COVID-19 could spark a renaissance for the regions as some people look more at remote working and as we look to rebuild our manufacturing capabilities, but this budget offers no vision for the future of the regions. Adding $10 billion to infrastructure spending nationally across 10 years is good, but that equates to less than $7 million per electorate per year. In Indi, we have 47 shovel-ready projects the government could fund today worth millions of dollars, and these new infrastructure commitments don’t even touch the sides. The budget has an additional $200 million for the Building Better Regions fund, which is great, but that’s spread over five years and is just $270,000 per electorate per year. Overall, the budget papers show that just $58 million of the $553 million set aside specifically for regional Australia, about 10 per cent, will be spent this year. That’s not going to create jobs here and now.

Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister has championed a new $100 million Regional Recovery Partnerships program to support regions hit by bushfires, COVID-19 and drought, yet, inexplicably, Indi was excluded from this fund. We’ve been at the coalface of each of these three crises—drought, bushfires and months of a highly destructive COVID-19 related border closure—and yet we miss out on the funding.

In this budget, regional Australia needed a serious transformational investment to get us out of the economic rut we are now in and to set up the economy for the next decade, but we didn’t get it. The government likes to talk big about the regions but often appears to be more bark than bite. We could be investing in and fixing the glaring problems in our caring sectors—child care, aged care, disability care, mental health care. And we could and should be building the infrastructure that will allow our economies to grow—better rail, better internet, social housing, renewable energy.

I fear that this budget has missed too many of these excellent and incredible opportunities that are in front of us. But we have another budget in seven months’ time, and in that time I am committed to continue to work with my local community to put forward a positive agenda for Indi so that our region has what it needs, not just to be the region it was before but to be a better region to truly thrive into the future.

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