Local, Independant and Effective

Government Must Address Results of Indi Budget Survey

Posted June 05, 2018


Cathy is urging the Government to understand the impact of the 2018-19 Budget on those living in Indi. The 998 people who have responded to the Indi Budget survey have highlighted major issues as taxation, education and training, health and aged care, renewable energy and climate change and social security services.

Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (13:00): Colleagues, I rise today to speak about the 2018-19 budget, and in doing so will report on the findings of the Indi budget survey and the budget breakfasts, the impact of the budget on my community, and a call to action to do better in engaging and listening to regional community. I'd also like to welcome into the parliament colleagues and constituents from my electorate. Thank you very much for coming and giving us your time.

Over the past three weeks, 998 people answered my call to tell me what they thought of the budget—'What does it mean to you?'—through online surveys, postcards, listening posts, social media, Facebook, Twitter, emails, letters, supermarket conversations and focus groups. In Mansfield, Wangaratta, Wodonga and Benalla, 134 young people met with me, before they headed to school, university, TAFE and work, to give me their opinions. Thank you, Susila, Kirstin, Amanda, Laura, Jenny, Sal, Lana and Sheridan, for bringing together young people from your communities and your schools. And a special call-out to the schools: FCJ College Benalla, Benalla P-12 College, Mansfield Steiner School, Mansfield Secondary College, Galen Catholic College, Beechworth Secondary College, Mount Beauty Secondary College, Cathedral College Wangaratta, Wangaratta High School, Wodonga TAFE, Catholic College Wodonga, Wodonga Senior Secondary College, Wodonga Middle Years College, Victory Lutheran College and Tallangatta Secondary College.

Across my electorate, every local government was represented and responses were received from over 60 townships. Almost half of the respondents, 49.9 per cent, indicated they were female, 48.7 per cent were male, and 1.34 per cent chose not to identify. Most encouragingly, 19 per cent of the surveys were completed by those aged under 25. To these young people, I say thank you. Thank you for turning up, for having a voice and for making a very clear statement that young people are engaged in politics—they do care, they have a voice and they know that they're part of the solution.

So, to the findings of this mammoth exercise. There were five main concerns. In priority order, they were taxation, education and training, health and aged care, renewable energy and climate change, and social security services. On taxation: overwhelmingly, people were concerned that the tax measures were unfair and would lead to increased inequality. Tax reform, corporate tax or concerns with tax breaks for banks were listed by 23.6 per cent of people as their most important issue, and another 3.3 per cent listed increasing inequality stemming from tax changes as their biggest concern. Research shows that these concerns reflect the income and company turnover rates in Indi. 71.3 per cent of residents in my electorate earn below $52,000, and only six companies—two per cent—have a turnover of more than $50 million. What did my constituents tell me about taxes? One constituent wrote:

There should be no tax concessions for big business. This money can be better spent on education and hospitals/medicine and infrastructure. Low to middle income earners need relief not people earning over 100K. Small business needs the relief; it is hard enough to employ people as it is, so help is needed here - you cannot guarantee that big business such as the banks won't just pass it onto shareholders and they will be the only ones to benefit.

Another constituent, from Mount Beauty, said:

Flattening out our progressive tax rate so that minimum wage earners pay the same rate of tax as high-income earners up to $200,000 is patently unfair. This proposed change will lock in further inequality in the system for decades to come and this is at a time when income inequality is more pronounced than at any other time in living memory.

The second priority is education and training. A lack of funding in the budget for education and training closely followed taxation as a key concern. Young people in particular spoke of a lack of access for people wanting to pursue further training or tertiary education in regional Australia. And for those who want to travel for university or TAFE, there are financial barriers. Nearly one-quarter—23.7 per cent of respondents—listed education and training as the second-most-important issue. Eighty-one per cent of respondents ranked education and training as very important, and this was more than any other issue.

These survey results, as you would know from rural and regional Australia, Deputy Speaker Gee, are no surprise. Regional students remain under-represented in higher education institutions. Only 12.7 per cent are from inner regional areas and 12.5 per cent are from outer regional areas. The impact of this is that only six per cent of Indi residents have a tertiary degree, almost three times lower than the state average of 17.8 per cent, so we're starting way behind the eight ball. To quote from the survey:

Country students are at a distinct disadvantage compared to city students who can stay living at home. Not all courses are available in the country. Much higher living costs, stresses, need to work longer hours and therefore, less time to study. Some 'flow on' effects from this can be seen in less Medical specialists in the country areas.

I have another quote from Wodonga:

The quality of education I receive is important as it shapes my future and opportunities and as such, the government should ensure that every student should receive a world-class standard of education to maximise opportunities and help give students a future they are proud of.

One-fifth, or 20.24 per cent, of respondents listed health and aged care as their highest concern or second-most-important issue. Concerns centred on a lack of access and funding, specifically for aged and mental health care. A constituent from Wodonga says on mental health:

Such a common thing that occurs all the time, all around the world, to almost everyone and there needs to be awareness to the unavoidable issues in today's society that everyone faces at some point in his or her lives.

Sadly, the high rate of suicide in rural and regional Australia supports these words. As the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health reported in April 2017:

In every state in Australia, the rate of suicide among those who live outside the greater capital cities is higher than that for residents that live within them, and the rate has risen much higher in rural areas over the period 2011-2015.

Caring for older people in our community with dignity and compassion is a significant issue for the 39 aged-care facilities in Indi. We know this, and again I quote:

Due to the cutbacks the government have implemented, many, particularly smaller facilities are operating at a loss or have very little financial buffer.

A constituent from Wodonga, who replied to the online survey, said:

We need to allow for equitable living for people with disabilities. This means affordable medication, access to services and well-funded mental health services. My clients need a paediatric appointment and assessment to access support funding and NDIS. But they can't afford a paediatrician appointment and are stuck.

While the pension and increase in the Newstart allowance and access to youth allowance for students moving to the city were core concerns, the overarching concern that the budget will lead to increased inequality and higher reliance on social security services is driven, in part, by personal circumstance. Low levels of personal and household income, as well as high rates of underemployment, all contribute to inequality.

In Indi, 92 per cent of residents earn below $91,000, and the average household income is $1,126. That's approximately 22 per cent lower than the national average. The rate of part-time workers is 33.6 per cent, which is higher than the national average of 32.4 per cent. So this speaks to a level of poverty. Dare I say, in my community, lack of money is certainly an inhibiter to advancement, but we are wealthy in so many other ways. The point I'm trying to make about these statistics is that my community actually understands how important taxation is—how important it is to actually understand that in rural and regional Australia, one size does not fit all. I'm not actually saying that poverty or low incomes lead to greater lack of community; it just expresses the inequality that my community recognises.

A constituent from Chiltern raised the decision not to increase the Newstart allowance as her single most important issue. She says:

It is impossible for those on it to live a satisfactory life—creates a class of people in perpetual poverty—makes one sad to be an Australian—that we treat people this way.

Another constituent, from Beechworth, said:

I am expected to live on approximately $700 a fortnight and actively job search. I work as a casual cleaner, but the government lets me have the first $100 then takes 50c in the $ off me! Some people can't even find menial work, I was lucky, so I have no idea how they manage to pay their rent. This is why homelessness is such an issue.

I understand these issues are not specific to only my community or only rural and regional Australia. But, for me, the impact of the government's health, taxation and education policies very often have a disproportional impact on regional Australia.

If I could reflect on the words of the Treasurer on budget night, he told us that the budget was about: 'A stronger economy. More jobs. Guaranteeing essential services. The Government living within its means.' He also told us Australians wanted to answer these three questions: '"What have you'—being the government—'achieved? What are you going to do now? What does it mean for me?"' Let me say that again: 'What does it mean for me?' It struck me that these questions are part of the problem. The answer to having a common wealth and strong, resilient communities in Australia doesn't only lie with government; it also lies with the community. Strong and resilient communities don't exist because of government programs only, but also because of community leadership, collaboration and a real and genuine commitment to make things better.

Every year that I've been in parliament, I've returned to my community post-budget for feedback, for advice and for solutions. This is how I investigate, how I measure and how I report back to parliament. But this process of engagement, community ownership and responsibility doesn't end with my actions. The next step I do is public the Indi budget report that will report back to my community, to the Prime Minister and to the leaders in this place on what I've heard. I also encourage communities to stand up and fight for their solutions. We call this type of engagement and responsibility the Indi way.

Clearly, it's not the only way. There are mechanisms and frameworks in place to help the government better understand the impact of decisions on rural and regional Australia and to work across portfolios to develop solutions that meet the needs of our communities. One such mechanism is the Regional Ministerial Taskforce. It was established by the government in 2017. We were told that a cross-portfolio task force was the best way to implement good regional policy. It was made up of cabinet ministers, and it would focus on closing the gap between the bush and the city in terms of health, education and infrastructure. But 14 months after it was established, we've yet to see a single report. I suspect its omission from Ministers McCormack and McVeigh's 2018 ministerial budget statement is a sign that we never will. How disappointing. There is nothing in this report, Regional Australia—A stronger economy delivering stronger regions, that tells us that the government has a plan or strategy for regional Australia. There is nothing in this that tells me that the government actually understands the statistics that I have brought to this parliament today.

Another technique that's available to the government is regional impact statements. They first appeared in 1988 as part of the cabinet process, and were designed to mitigate against negative impact to rural Australians. My concern is that this process of regional impact statement linked to cabinet papers is now falling short of the desired outcome. Consequently, I've called on the Australian National Audit Office to investigate.

In closing, Deputy Speaker, colleagues and members of my community, I say to those in my community: there is an absence of government solutions, an absence of recognition that one size does not fit all. But I say to my community: keep going, keep turning up, have your say, use your voice, form a group, create your own solutions and use your members of parliament to represent your concerns in parliament. And I say in closing to the government that the unit of measurement should not be: will someone be worse off? The unit of measurement should be: where is the benefit; where is the opportunity; and how can we support our communities to reach their potential?

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