Budget Reply

COUNCIL - Tuesday, 10 August 2010]

HON LYNN MacLAREN (South Metropolitan) [3.16 pm]: I will not take up too much of the house’s time talking about the state budget. We have had a break since we last considered this matter. I would like to review the key budget initiatives of the Barnett government, consider the challenge to create prosperity in Western Australia’s two-speed economy, examine what a budget of the Greens (WA) would look like, and specifically look at how we can “green” WA’s budget.

I begin by reminding members that the key budget initiatives of the Barnett government included a big spend on health, education and major infrastructure. The $1.3 billion allocation over five years is the state’s biggest ever injection into the health system. The Greens are not saying that that expenditure is unnecessary. However, except for the community and child health services, the health funding will merely serve to cope with higher demands and costs for hospitals and treatment. It does not focus adequately on preventative measures. Another of the Barnett government’s initiatives was the increased expenditure on housing. However, when one looks at that in detail, it is mainly directed at government workers. Government workers are desperately needed in the boom towns in order to continue to provide government services. However, we know that social housing is in desperate need precisely because of the impact of the high-waged boom industry workers, who have driven house and rental prices up. Social housing received significantly less in this year’s budget.

I note that there were attempts by the Barnett government to address our two-speed economy with expanded funding for the hardship utility grant scheme. That is helpful for those who are in desperate need. However, a large number of middle-income earners and families continue to feel the pain of the utility price shocks. It is fair to say that not everyone is benefiting from this boom.

I reflect on the challenge to create prosperity in WA’s two-speed economy. The question that is often asked in this place is: are we happier now that we have a boom state? We know that family breakdowns are on the increase; that fly in, fly out workers suffer from social isolation; and that consumerism is fuelled by “cashed-up bogans”, as some people refer to them. The challenge is to keep up with the Joneses. I question whether that leads us any closer to what we aspire to, which is prosperity. This is obviously an issue of global significance. Prominent world thinkers and economists, such as Tim Jackson, who is the Economics Commissioner of the Sustainable Development Commission in the United Kingdom, have posed the question: can we achieve prosperity without growth?

More locally, I will quote from one of our own Australian commentators, namely Clive Hamilton. He questions whether we can return to a more balanced notion of social progress. Many have noted the shortcomings of the existing measures of prosperity and how we look at the economy. I will quote from Clive Hamilton’s paper “Growth fetishism and public policy”. He harks back to someone who is well known on a world scale and is particularly significant to American history, Robert F. Kennedy, who said that GNP “measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”. I think that is relevant to us when we are reflecting on the state budget, because the things that the government chooses to fund may well fuel a growth in GNP and miss entirely the point about what the economy is there to serve. Clive Hamilton goes on to say —

… that there is more to life than economic growth; that some things should not be sacrificed to the Economy; that we need to return to a more balanced notion of social progress—and accept that these ideas are not merely an invitation for whimsical reflection on how life could be in a perfect world, but provide a guide as to how we must act.

Looking at how we must act, I will say that I found some guidance in Tim Jackson’s work. He recently visited Australia and gave an inspiring speech in Melbourne. In that speech, in which he quoted from his paper “Prosperity without growth?”, which documents ways in which we can transition to a sustainable economy, he said —

Economic recovery demands investment. Targeting that investment carefully towards energy security,low-carbon infrastructures and ecological protection offers multiple benefits. These benefits include:

  • freeing up resources for household spending and productive investment by reducing energy and material costs

  • reducing our reliance on imports and our exposure to the fragile geopolitics of energy supply

  •  providing a much-needed boost to employment in the expanding ‘environmental industries’ sector

  • making progress towards demanding global carbon reduction targets

  •  protecting valuable ecological assets and improving the quality of our living environment for

Hon Michael Mischin: How much? 

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: Hon Michael Mischin asked me how much; I charge the cabinet to come up with that figure. The cabinet has the resources to come up with that figure, and I am sure the Western Australian public would like to see it work on that.

The fifth way is greater funding for health prevention.

Hon Michael Mischin: interjected.

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: If Hon Michael Mischin would like to offer me some resources to draw up a budget, I would be happy to accept that—no worries!

The PRESIDENT: Order! I suggest that the honourable member address her remarks through the Chair and disregard those unruly interjections!

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: Thank you, Mr President; I will take your guidance on that. The fifth of the eight measures I have identified to green the budget is increased funding for health prevention and significant investment in programs that prevent health conditions. Rather than putting the money into acute health care, we should be putting more money into health prevention. One of the programs that really works is Living Longer Living Stronger, which is a Council on the Ageing program. It can prevent a wide range of health conditions, such as sarcopenia, osteoporosis, arthritis, hypertension and diabetes. Living Longer Living Stronger is an example of a health prevention program that should have very good funding; and this budget has provided funding for another year. We would like to see more stable and consistent funding for that, because that is a very good, worthwhile program. Over 6 000 people are enrolled in it across WA. Participants have to be over 50 years of age, and they participate in this individually supervised strength training program in over 70 locations. The benefits of this kind of investment are not just a reduction in long-term acute health costs, but also a reduction in social isolation and improvement in the quality of life and fitness. That is the kind of prosperity that Western Australians deserve.

Health prevention reduces the funding required for our hospitals by avoiding expensive medical treatment for preventive conditions and supporting people in being active participants in community and family life. The Minister for Health and Ageing, Hon Nicola Roxon, put out a Preventative Health Taskforce discussion paper, which articulated that prevention can reduce the personal, family and community burden of disease, injury and disability; allow better use of health system resources; generate substantial economic benefits that, although not immediate, are tangible and significant over time; and produce a healthier workforce, which, in turn, boosts economic performance and productivity. The paper cited a recent United States study, “Prevention for a Healthier America”, that showed that for each US dollar invested in proven community-based disease prevention programs that increased physical activity, improved nutrition and reduced smoking, the return on investment over and above the cost of the program would be $US5.60 within five years. A significant investment in preventive health is needed, and I would like next year’s budget to include a bit more money for preventive programs and some stability in that funding for preventive programs. We will lobby for that.

We also require a significant investment in mental health and mental health early intervention programs. The Greens (WA) note the $60 million investment in the new Mental Health Commission, which was welcomed by the sector and was a very good move by this government. It is important to acknowledge this government making a really good decision about how to spend our money wisely.

I have only three more points. We would like to see a greater investment in habitat protection. The WWF Australia Fund is currently campaigning—members may have been approached—to double the available funding for on-ground conservation action. It would be great if this government could find money to do that, as well as protect wildlife corridors through programs to compensate private landholders, such as farmers, for permanently conserving parts of their land. That is a direction that this state government must take towards protecting threatened species. When we first started sitting, the Auditor General handed down a report that was quite damning of the inaction of this state government on the protection of threatened species. When we are living in a boom time, it is important to invest in setting aside these really important wildlife corridors so that threatened species do not go onto the endangered list and possibly into extinction.

Of course the gender pay gap should be addressed. We need to implement policy to ensure that women workers are fairly paid and to reduce the gender pay gap.

The final point I want to make about the Greens’ view of the state budget is that we would really like to see investment in a new transport plan for Perth. There would be so many benefits if we shifted away from freeways to a transit shared-traffic approach and there would be cost savings. The state government has, as we know, budgeted $550 million for the proposed 5.5-kilometre freeway extension through the Beeliar wetlands, and we should compare that with the cost of a light rail system in Perth, which we have estimated at $15 million a kilometre. If we established a light rail network that really did answer some transport needs in this state, it would benefit not only consumers and commuters, but also the environment, as there would be no need to build roads through wetlands. The Greens would like to see the state government fund a feasibility study into light rail and prepare a submission for federal infrastructure funding to build this rail system.

I have identified these initiatives from a relatively cursory glance at the WA state budget. They show that there are ways that we can improve the budget for sustainability purposes that will lead us to greater prosperity in this state, a prosperity not just based on the exploitation of minerals and the export of our tremendous wealth, but one in which there is investment in social infrastructure. These initiatives would make Western Australia a place where people feel prosperous and are not on that treadmill of making money to pay the bills and put food on the table and getting really tired with their efforts in doing so.

I will finish on those comments and say that this is a great opportunity in our state to look at our finite resources and make really careful decisions about how we spend money to benefit all Western Australians and ensure a sustainable future without losing wealth, threatening our plant or animal species, or allowing human beings to fall by the wayside due to homelessness or the lack of health and wellbeing, and aim to ensure that our children have a positive future in Western Australia. Thank you.