Mr NORTHE (Morwell)
I submit some comments in regard to the Appropriation (Interim) Bill 2020, the Appropriation (Parliament) (Interim) Bill 2020 and the State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill 2020.
The Appropriation Interim Bill provides interim budget authority for the ongoing operations of the government for the first six months of the 2020–21 financial year. It also provides appropriation authority for additional amounts to be advanced to the Treasurer to cover the costs of COVID-19 to the state of Victoria:
$10 billion for the remainder of the 2019–20 financial year; and
$14.48 billion in the period commencing 1 July 2020 and ending 31 December 2020.
Similarly, the Appropriation (Parliament) (Interim) Bill gives the authority to fund the operations of the Parliament for the first six months of the new financial year. Within this time there will be a budget bill to cover the whole 2020–21 financial year, and I look forward to these debates later in the year.
But today this is certainly a very different budget than what the Parliament is used to and what we have been accustomed to over the years. Normally there would be announcements, debate and time to review these important bills. None of that applies at this very surreal time, which is replicated across various jurisdictions and indeed right across the world. Digressing, I do commend the Premier, government ministers and their staff for their leadership during these challenging times. I appreciate not all will agree with some decisions made within this extraordinary period, but I do believe everyone is doing their best for all Victorians.
These bills provide for an extraordinary amount of money to be afforded to the government, and it is therefore vitally important the government expends this funding in a manner that provides value and makes a positive difference to Victorians. Unfortunately, the detail on how and where these moneys will be spent is lacking at this point in time. That is not to say the additional funding sought is not necessary, as we do face entirely unprecedented circumstances.
Some elements of this budget are necessary to support our Victorian businesses through what can only be described as a completely catastrophic scenario. COVID-19 has impacted organisations far and wide, with reports citing that over 70 per cent of businesses have seen revenue decline, one in ten have ceased trading altogether and sectors such as hospitality have been entirely decimated, leaving a trail of joblessness, debt and heartbreak behind them. We know that many businesses won’t recover after the threat of coronavirus has finally left us.
Before we even had our first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Latrobe Valley, I was receiving multiple calls daily from panicked, devastated business owners regarding the demise of their cash flow. There is not one sector that I have heard from where the business owners have not had to make agonising, difficult, heartbreaking decisions about their dream, in some cases a dream that has taken years to build and only days to be destroyed. I know it has been awful for many business owners to advise their staff they no longer have a job. It is just heartbreaking for employees and their families as well. Thankfully in some areas the federal government’s JobKeeper and JobSeeker initiatives are helping to some degree.
I would like to talk to some of the specific measures that have been put in place and how these are paramount in my community to get right. The announcement of the state government’s $1.7 billion economic survival and jobs package, whilst seen as overdue in some quarters, was welcomed by those eligible for supports. I had raised in the previous sitting of Parliament the necessity for a business hotline to be established, and I am pleased to see that has now occurred. It is imperative businesses can seek expert advice given the uncertainties that currently exist.
But back to the economic package, and within it the $500 million Business Support Fund that provides one-off $10 000 grants. However, the eligibility of the businesses teamed with the specific ways the funds can be used is very restrictive and prescriptive. Our business community in the Latrobe Valley is vibrant and diverse, and many do not fit into the mould outlined in the eligibility criteria. This has meant that, sadly, many businesses have chosen not to apply.
Similarly, where eligible businesses will have their payroll tax waived for the 2019–20 financial year there are restrictions on the businesses who are able to take advantage of this. I have heard from many businesses who do not fit in under the thresholds, but in other states such as South Australia or New South Wales they would. This is disappointing. There are many medium-sized businesses who pay more than $3 million in wages and who have paid substantial payroll tax over many years, yet at this crucial time when they need support and relief they miss out. I have also received feedback that suggests that whilst a business might be eligible for a payroll tax refund, the refund itself might not occur until July or later. This creates an issue whereby a business needs that relief right now for cash-flow purposes. It would be a crying shame if a business closed its doors in the interim, despite being eligible for payroll tax relief but not being able to receive a refund for a period of months.
One initiative that I am certainly very keen to get working hard in the Latrobe Valley is the $500 million Working for Victoria initiative, where Victorian jobseekers will be eligible to apply for different types of work and Victorian businesses looking for workers can support them. I would like to see any program that can address unemployment—which was an important issue in the Latrobe Valley pre-COVID-19—reach its true potential, and I would be happy to support the government in getting this going in my community. There are a number of organisations and authorities that await announcements on if they will be funded beyond 30 June 2020. The government needs to, as soon as practical provide certainty in this area. For example, what becomes of the Latrobe Valley Authority and its employees? Also the government has made a number of commitments and election promises within the Morwell electorate, so will these same commitments be honoured in the current economic climate?
Finally, I would like to provide my thoughts on what should happen to any surplus funds from these enormous and unprecedented advance payments to the Victorian government. The Andrews government are asking us to vote in favour of providing these additional funds without any normal plans, budgets or the regular scrutiny prior to this debate. I have no doubt that much of this funding will be necessary to support our health system in its preparedness as well as over time as we fight COVID-19. But if there are any surplus funds, I point to the research that tells us:
between 30 March and 3 April, 47 per cent of businesses made changes to their workforce in the previous two weeks in response to COVID-19;
Treasury forecasts that the unemployment rate will reach 10 per cent in the June quarter and as high as 11 per cent in the September quarter; and
this crisis could lead to 270 000 Victorian jobs being lost.
We are fully aware that the economic downturn of this crisis will be nothing short of devastating. Because of this, I would like to see surplus funds be used to undertake projects and infrastructure builds that have been in the pipeline for years, because we know that after all of this we will need to get our economy moving again—and fast. By putting this money into works with an immediate start date we will benefit Victorians and provide much-needed jobs and supplies for the long recovery ahead.
However, we cannot afford to have project budgets being blown, as has constantly been the case in recent years. The waste that currently occurs on government-related projects is appalling, and this needs to change moving forward.
Ultimately current and future generations will have to pay back borrowings that occur now. How that will be done is unknown at this stage, and this is a scary thought for many. By passing this bill there is an extraordinary amount of expectation and faith that the government will spend taxpayer moneys in a manner that provides value for all Victorians, including those of us in regional Victoria.
The State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill provides the state government with its regular taxation, with a continuation of its ordinary revenue sources. It also enacts support for communities greatest hit by the devastating summer bushfires and extends the first home buyers grants as well as other provisions.
Just reflecting back to the devastating Victorian summer bushfires—as it is so important to acknowledge that these catastrophic fires swept across particularly the east of our state only four short months ago—it may not feel like such a small amount of time has passed, but we can all attest that a lot has happened in society since then! But I am sure that those who lost loved ones and livelihoods certainly still feel like the wounds are recent and raw. We must respect and remember that.
I trust that elements of this bill will provide some support and comfort to them as they continue to rebuild in debilitating circumstances. To those who are recovering right now, I extend my heartfelt sympathies for your losses and continued challenges. We all look forward to being able to travel to East Gippsland and support that community when COVID-19 passes.
I will always take the opportunity to thank our emergency services, volunteers and workers. These heroes put their lives on the line every time there is an emergency event in our state in their efforts to save others. What legends. I was in contact with many of our local CFA volunteers over the summer, and quite a few of our local brigades and firefighters were active in fire events not only in East Gippsland but in New South Wales as well. I sincerely and deeply thank all our wonderful local firefighters, SES workers, police officers, defence personnel, ambulance officers, charities, support organisations, council workers and all the volunteers that kept them all going. Their swift and selfless actions never cease to amaze me, and I thank them for their remarkable dedication and service.
As our hardest hit communities recover, the measures in this bill seek to provide assistance to the businesses in the six local government areas that were so heavily impacted.
Firstly, it will provide a 50 per cent concession on transfers of commercial and industrial land in certain areas affected by a state of disaster. The concession applies to transfers where the contract, arrangement or agreement for the transfer was entered into on or after 27 January 2020.
Secondly, it reduces the payroll tax rate for eligible regional employers in certain areas affected by a state of disaster to 1.2125 per cent effective from 1 July 2019.
This will support to some degree businesses in these communities as they recover from the terrible bushfire event and of course with the continued economic downturn—all through no fault of their own.
This bill also extends the $20 000 first home owner grant for purchases of new homes in regional Victoria until 1 July 2021. This is a great initiative to encourage development in our regional areas such as the electorate of Morwell. In the months to come I believe that stimulating development and spending will be a sensible measure. The bill provides meaningful support to those businesses that continue the long, hard road of recovery as well as other sensible measures.