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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5340

Senator MARSHALL (7:01 PM) —I rise this evening having been inspired by the speech that my Victorian colleague Senator Tchen delivered during the last parliamentary sitting fortnight on the issue of the Victorian Federation Square project. I would just like to commence my comments with a quote from that speech delivered on 25 September. Senator Tchen said:

When the Bracks government won office in October 1999, they inherited a state with not only a strong and robust economy but also a series of major projects that would enhance the state's physical infrastructure and sustain the people's pride and vision for their community.

This quote is simply an extension of the spin and illusion that so characterised the Kennett experiment on Victorians. It is funny that Senator Tchen used major projects as the basis for his comparative critique of the Kennett and Bracks governments. As Senator Tchen would be aware, major projects and building works under the Kennett government occurred on relatively the same basis as most service provision did during that era—almost wholly concentrated in the urban and city areas, neglecting rural or country people and their communities. In fact, all of the $2.1 billion worth of projects under the direction of the Kennett Office of Major Projects were within the metro Melbourne area. Rural and regional Victoria, despite comprising a third of the state's population in 1998 under the Kennett government, accounted for only 18.8 per cent of building activity in Victoria, while Melbourne got 81.2 per cent. Public spending on building in rural Victoria comprised less than 14 per cent or $37 million of the total, compared to Melbourne, which received $268 million.

Rural and regional Victoria, including Geelong, received just 10 per cent of commercial building investment, 16 per cent of new retail building investment and only 21 per cent of new industrial building investment in 1998-99. For Senator Tchen to champion the major events and building priorities of the Kennett government as the basis of its supposed good governance is a highly ignorant recollection of events. What Senator Tchen failed to mention is that when the Bracks Government came to power in October 1999 Victoria's basic services— schools, hospitals and community services— had been run down to crisis point.

In education, more than 350 state schools were closed, 9,000 teachers had been removed from schools, student-teacher ratios were higher than the national average, class sizes were nearly the highest in Australia and retention rates were amongst the lowest. In fact, retention rates to year 12 dropped from 77.9 per cent to 69.1 per cent in the public system. Male participation dropped to a rate of only 61.3 per cent. Victoria spent less per student than any other state. In fact, the overall level of spending on education was four per cent lower than the Commonwealth Grants Commission average. Funding of TAFE training had been slashed and was the lowest in Australia, and traditional apprenticeship commencements had declined despite skill shortages. In 1999 all TAFE institutes faced a real cut of seven per cent.

In health, 3,500 nurses and a further 6,500 staff had been retrenched from the Victorian hospital system. Some $900 million had been taken out of hospitals' budgets and 1,400 hospital beds were closed. This was in spite of the fact that there was an ever-increasing list of sick Victorians waiting to get into Victorian hospitals. A total of 12 hospitals had been closed and capital works spending on hospitals was cut by 40 per cent in real terms. The La Trobe Valley and Mildura hospitals had been privatised, and plans were made to sell the Austin and Repatriation Medical Centre. Nursing home beds all around Victoria were privatised and 40 per cent of state owned nursing homes did not meet Commonwealth standards. Forty-three maternal and child health centres were closed. Limits were applied to access to maternal and child-care nurses, directly depriving new mothers and newborn children of the vital support needed during this time. Victoria also spent less on drug and alcohol services than New South Wales, Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory, and the Victorian ambulance system was in complete disarray. Response times had increased and there was chaos in the dispatch system of the private company Intergraph.

Under the Kennett government, waiting times for public housing blew out, with 66.9 per cent of people waiting for longer than two years and 37.5 per cent waiting more than four years for homes to live in. Public housing stock was sold off and the total level of public housing was reduced. Funding on housing fell from $32 per capita to $10. A total of $24.5 million was cut from funding to public housing in 1998-99. Victoria had the highest level of homelessness in the country in 1997-98 and it grew by 6.5 per cent that year.

Support for a multicultural Victoria was abandoned. The Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research were abolished and the budget for multicultural affairs was reduced by 19 per cent. The concessional family category was abolished and the aged parents category was cut and capped, denying reunions for many families. Language other than English programs were starved of funds and staff.

Rural Victoria was left to fend for itself. Twenty-eight per cent of funding, or $8 million, was slashed from country ambulance services; 178 country schools were closed; and six passenger country train lines were shut down, making transport between regional centres more difficult and more expensive—further isolating country people in Victoria. Country Victorians streamed to Melbourne in search of elusive jobs for themselves and for their children. Some 17,500 full-time jobs were lost in country areas over the last year of the Kennett government, and youth unemployment in some regions of Victoria exceeded 50 per cent. Police were leaving the Victorian police service in droves, and recruitment was not sufficient to maintain the force at a viable level to ensure safety and law and order in the community.

Important independent statutory office holders like the Auditor-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions saw their powers reduced and their independence undermined. There was a political culture that excluded community views and stifled public debate. Government planning processes were stacked in favour of developers, and public input was devalued. Waste dumps in Werribee and Niddrie were planned despite community concerns. This leads me to the Kennett government's appalling record with regard to the environment.

Legislation was passed to allow mining in the Grampians National Park and a mining exploration lease was renewed before passing legislation to create the Chiltern Box-Ironbark National Park. Commercial developments in national parks were planned to proceed without proper environmental studies or consultation. For example, a large area of the Alpine National Park at Mt McKay was excised and given to the Falls Creek Ski Resort to develop ski runs, without any environmental effects statement. Victoria was the only state that did not produce a state of the environment report. The Victorian Plantation Corporation was sold off, including over 20,000 hectares of native forests as part of the sale. The Kennett government failed to improve the quality of our rivers and catchments, and proposed to restore only 15 per cent of water flow to the Snowy River.

Industrial relations and WorkCover under the Kennett government were atrocious. All state industrial awards and the state industrial relations system were abolished. After 13 weeks off work, sick or injured workers had the lowest benefits in Australia. Victoria had the worst system of workers' compensation in Australia. The common law right of seriously injured workers to sue negligent employers was abolished. Workers were banned from suing negligent or drunk drivers who had caused them serious injury in the course of the worker's employment, and workers were also banned from suing the manufacturers of defective equipment that caused serious injury. Legislation was passed that meant that, to qualify for the maximum benefit under the Kennett scheme, you had to be a quadriplegic or medically brain dead.

The impact of the Kennett experiment on Victoria has had far reaching consequences. This makes the achievement of the Bracks government in starting to overturn the most disastrous impacts of this legacy in just three years even more remarkable than it is. (Time expired)

Senate adjourned at 7.11 p.m.