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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 8835

Senator ALLISON (4:50 PM) —The result of the Victorian state election last Saturday took most Victorians by surprise. Jeff Kennett said it was a protest vote. It was indeed a protest vote but not in the way he suggested. Victorians, in my view, were not just saying, `We want to give Jeff a bit of a scare.' They were saying, `We've had enough of a government and a Premier which couldn't care less about democracy, the community, decent health and education services.' They said, `We've had enough of an arrogant Premier who can never get enough power.'

At this election, he had the hide to stop his ministers and candidates speaking out about their policies and their record. They could not even attend forums set up in local halls in their communities. This was as stupid as it was arrogant, and anyone could have told the Premier that there would be a reaction to this kind of attitude. This is not a Premier inclined to welcome criticism or advice, and I am told he keeps control of his troops just like any schoolyard bully. The Herald Sun said last Sunday that the bullying is over. They said that his graceless speech on Saturday night showed he may not be up to the job: too inflexible, too angry, too limited, and too bored. In that speech, he said:

We Victorians have lost the advantage of giving to government the opportunity to govern.

What he really meant was that his government could no longer push through legislation without any scrutiny, no longer stitch up cosy deals in secret with mates and no longer treat the parliament with contempt. I do not recall any other period in Victoria's history in which such serious conflicts of interest, contractual bungling and destruction of the cornerstones of our democracy have put good governments at such risk.

Jeff Kennett has divided Victorians into winners and losers, and it is clear who the winners are. It has been a government that has been too closely linked with the Crown Casino and Hudson Conway. The minister for planning intervention, Mr Maclellan, has made decisions which have directly benefited the cosy Hudson Conway/Crown Casino/Grand Prix group. The Grand Prix Corporation got legal immunity from damage that was done to houses in Albert Park and by formula 1 cars. Yet Ron Walker had the gall to complain about the decision of voters in Victoria last Saturday when he said that, after all he has done for the state, this was the thanks he got. The thanks the Liberal Party has got from the likes of Mr Walker are huge dollars in their coffers, as we all know.

This is a government that has also been too dependent on gambling and too unwilling to look at the enormous problems that poker machines have caused in areas which are economically vulnerable. I was astonished, I must say, to hear Steve Bracks, the opposition leader, say that he would pay for his election promises by increasing taxes on gambling. I hope that was a mistake. I hope I misheard him.

It was all the more surprising and worrying coming, as it did, just weeks after a report by the Productivity Commission which drew attention to the unhealthy link between government facilitation of gambling and the central part that gambling taxes have played in paying for government services. Do we really want to reinforce the dependence of government on gambling money? This is a really bad sign from Mr Bracks and indicates that he has not yet grasped the fact that the culture of gambling becomes an addiction not just for the punter but for the public purse, and we can and must learn to do without it.

Who can forget in Melbourne the sudden erection of hundreds of road signs directing people towards the Crown Casino? Who can forget the bus service—and no doubt it still runs—which took people directly from suburbs like Footscray to the casino; the Premier's personal endorsement of the casino; the public underwriting of the Grand Prix in a park that would cost Victorians around $100 million; the more than 1,000 trees which were cut down in Albert Park to facilitate those formula 1 cars; and the concrete barriers and the stands occupying the park for more than three months of every year? I hope Mr Bracks takes a more enlightened view of this Grand Prix Corporation's assault on a public park in Port Melbourne when and if he comes to office.

Many Victorians were fearful when Joan Kirner first introduced poker machines into Victoria. They rightly argued that they were likely to have a huge impact on people in low income areas, and that is exactly what happened. About $921 a year was gambled for every adult in Victoria. Apparently Australians are the world's heaviest gamblers, according to the Productivity Commission's report.

Both parties in Victoria say that they will cap poker machines at $27,500 and introduce advertising rules, disclosure of the odds on machines, clocks to remind punters that they have stayed too long and a restriction on ATMs at venues. But Victorians ask the question: why should we have to wait until we have an election for these kinds of sensible measures to be put in place? I look forward to whichever party is in government delivering on those promises, and more, in relation to gambling.

Victorians said last Saturday: we are frightened of the fact that we may not get a hospital bed when we are most in need. Casemix funding, introduced in Victoria some years ago, should have been an administrative tool, but it has been used to run down hospital services and to encourage hospitals to send patients home too soon. Why is it that we have patients on trolleys in corridors for days on end when wards in those same hospitals are closed? It makes no sense, and it made Victorians very angry.

Regional hospital networking has seen important hospitals close in Victoria. The Preston and Northcote Community Hospital closed like so many others. The Mildura, Moe and Traralgon hospitals closed to make way for private hospitals. Country Victorians have seen their efforts in building up their hospitals come to nothing, just real estate to be sold off to the highest bidder, although even that is debatable. We do not even know if it is the highest bidder. The Kennett government has put its cronies into positions of power in all of these networks and into the boards which run hospitals. They have turned out to be puppets of the Victorian state government, unable to speak up and unable to protect the services of the communities that they are supposed to represent.

The closure of schools and the sacking of teachers are legendary in Victoria. Mr Kennett even changed the Constitution to stop any legal action being taken against school closures. The heavy hand of economic rationalism has been felt in education much more than any other service in Victoria, and Victorians are very deeply angry at the fact that this state now spends less than any other in this country on schools and, as a result, class sizes have risen alarmingly. The vast majority of our public schools are still dependent on old decrepit portable classrooms. They are in no sense portable. Many are 25 years old and more, relics of the sudden entry of baby boomers into schools.

We have the highest percentage of students in private schools in Victoria. Senator Troeth says that is a matter of choice, but I think it is more likely that parents see how few resources there are in government schools. Those who can pay, those who have the resources to pay, will do so in order to make sure that their children have available to them good resources. I have been into many private schools, and portable classrooms are virtually unknown in these places. Principals in government schools rightly complain to me that it seems that there is an unlimited flow of dollars for capital works for neighbouring private schools where they still depend on these old structures.

The alienation of young people in our school system is a very serious problem, but any alternative schools with more suitable programs for such young people have been scrapped. We can blame the Kennett and Kemp ideology for the growing inequity in our education system, but I think we should not forget that our education system has been underfunded for a good deal longer than the time we have had coalition governments. We have the Labor Party under Whitlam to thank for giving people access to university education, but I think we can also thank them for HECS, which has started to seriously bite into notions of equity in access to tertiary education. The shrinking dollar has as much to do with Labor as it does the coalition.

The most galling and dangerous aspect of the Kennett government's reign over Victoria is the progressive demolition of accountability mechanisms which have taken years to build in that state. Ches Baragwanath, a former Victorian Auditor-General, has been a fearless watchdog over the financial doings of the coalition and Labor governments in Victoria. He was successfully nobbled by Mr Kennett two years ago. He said the other day that he shared the views of the New South Wales Auditor-General, Tony Harris, who said that changes to the Victorian Auditor-General had set the state up for a WA Inc. style corruption scandal. Mr Baragwanath said:

I've always maintained that full light is a prerequisite to good order, that corruption flourishes behind closed doors and in the dark . . .

I remind the Senate that on two occasions in this place two years ago I put amendments to legislation which would have insisted that before federal funds were spent in Victoria there would be an independent Auditor-General in place. I also remind the Senate that neither party supported those amendments at the time.

For a long time the Democrats have been warning about the lack of accountability surrounding government outsourcing and tricks being played to stop parliament and the people knowing what is going on. The Kennett government has outsourced, privatised and corporatised to the point where financial and contractual information is almost impossible to access. We have sold off in Victoria 10 times as much as other states—$28 billion worth of public transport, electricity, the TAB, research laboratories, ports, prisons, plantations, forests and the list goes on and on and on. The Kennett government has used the national competition policy introduced by the Keating government as a tool to reduce the public sector to a shadow of its former self and spent $200 million on consultants in its first two years of office. One contract worth $24 million was recently awarded without going to tender.

All of this suggests that the Victorian parliament is just not working. In fact, in many respects, that is the case. It sat for just 20 days this year. It is not working because the upper house is simply a rubber stamp for the government. I want to take the opportunity today to say to the Senate that we should be sending a very strong message to the Victorian ALP and the coalition that it is time to reform the upper house. I will be introducing amendments to this motion to do just that, and I look forward to both parties supporting those amendments.

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator ALLISON —Senator Conroy interjects and says that the Democrats would be in parliament. Indeed they would. With proportional representation similar to that of the New South Wales and South Australian governments, the Democrats would have two members in the upper house as a result of the last election. Let us have a referendum in Victoria if necessary. I believe that Victorians have had enough of unaccountable government. I think it is time we offered voters the choice of an upper house which properly scrutinises government. Reform of the upper house some years ago—in fact, many years ago—would have stopped what we now find very difficult to undo. Sure, we can have royal commissions into Intergraph and into the casino scandals, but in reality the horse has already bolted. What we need is a stitch in time, an assurance that the checks and balances are in place—a watchdog over the executive of government.

I personally would have enjoyed the sight of the all-powerful Jeff Kennett having to use good argument to persuade the upper house to support his legislation, but it is not too late for us to bring in that reform. I call on the major parties—whoever is in power and whoever has the numbers in the upper house—to commit to this. Let us do it in the first term of the new government. Let us restore democracy and decency to Victoria. I move:

Omit all words after "That", substitute:

"the Senate:

(a) notes the disturbing parallel between the uncaring and arrogant policies of the Kennett and Howard Governments which have seen a dramatic decline in the quality of services in Victoria; and

(b) calls on both the Liberal and Labor leaders in Victoria to urgently introduce legislation to reform the Victorian Upper House electoral system so it may become a true house of review and thereby act as a guard against future episodes of mismanagement, and to ensure the legislation is passed within a year".