The Hon. D.W. RIDGWAY (Leader of the Opposition) ( 12:11 :00 ): I rise to speak to the Appropriation Bill 2014. As we know, this recently arrived in this place from the House of Assembly and it was some weeks ago that the Treasurer introduced the Appropriation Bill along with all the other budget measures. While it is always our duty to support the Appropriation Bill, as it is imperative that oppositions allow governments to do the job, this does not mean that the Liberal Party supports much of what is contained within the budget. It is unfortunate that after so long the state of South Australia finds itself in this position of debt, debt and more debt. While other states around Australia recover from the financial ineptitude of previous Labor governments, South Australia is once again saddled with the lamest horse carrying the most baggage.
It is no surprise that in practically every fiscal outlook around the nation, South Australia sits dead last, even now behind Tasmania, whether it be unemployment, annual GDP growth, business activity or business confidence. Unfortunately we are falling further and further behind and our national share of GDP has been steadily shrinking under the leadership, or lack thereof, of this Labor government.
We have to also remember that we went through some of the very best economic times this nation has seen in the postwar period. I note the Hon. Gerry Kandelaars is hell-bent on not talking so much about this budget but attacking the federal Liberal government budget. I do not ever remember them congratulating John Howard and Peter Costello on the great work they did when they spent the rivers of gold and squandered the opportunities. Of course, the Hon. Gerry Kandelaars was not in this place at that time but, nonetheless, it is his team, his party, that had the very best of economic times, had revenue way above what we budgeted on, yet it was all squandered, gone and lost. We find that this Labor government has now accrued a staggering $14.3 billion of debt come the 2015-16 budget year and we will have a deficit of $1.2 billion, yet if this government is to be believed, we will see it returned to a surplus in just a few short years.
When I mentioned the rivers of gold from years gone by, I am very sceptical about this budget returning to surplus when they predict because never in the 12½ years that I have been here, and this is the 13th budget that I have seen come and go, has this government ever been able to hold itself to its budget expenditure. Of course, in those days they got more revenue than they expected, but they have never ever been able to deliver in those 13 budgets on the promises they made, and I do not expect them to do it this year. In fact, in South Australia no-one expects Labor to keep any of their promises—12 years of broken promises has put rest to that—but I do not think there is anyone who is delusional enough to believe the Labor government's promise of 100,000 new jobs or their projected surplus will ever come to fruition. It will not happen. We know it, they know it, the public knows it, and saying otherwise is just insulting people's intelligence.
The government has also promised no privatisation, then it went and privatised the Motor Accident Commission, the sale of which it expects to raise almost $500 million which will go straight into paying off the enormous debt this government has accrued. We saw in the last term of this government the sale of the forests and the sale of the Lotteries Commission. The sale of the forests was born some years prior. There was a lot of speculation in the end that it was to keep the AAA credit rating. Of course, we lost the AAA credit rating. It was to pay off debt, and the debt ballooned out of control and I think the figure that we have for the forests is pretty much what the government spent on Adelaide Oval.
People say, 'Adelaide Oval is a great new addition to the city skyline.' It certainly is, but if you look back to the rivers of gold that the government had in previous years, we could easily have built a new Adelaide Oval every year if they had stuck to their budget and invested that surplus and the rivers of gold that we had in productive infrastructure. We would all argue, probably, that bringing footy to the city is productive infrastructure; it is one of the things that the Liberal opposition spoke strongly about.
All the fiscal problems that this government faces cannot be of its own making, and it continues to point the finger at the federal government at every turn instead of taking responsibility for its own actions. Gerry Kandelaars spent most of his contribution attacking the federal government rather than looking at their own problems.
I think it emphasises how delusional this government is, when they have embarked on a shameful smear campaign against the federal government which is hypocritical to say the least. The cost of that campaign was well over $1 million, with no constructive purpose for South Australia other than wasting money. At a time when we are in such a perilous and precarious financial situation, it is embarrassing for our government to be throwing money away on political scare campaigns when the money is so desperately needed to fund health, education and welfare programs.
That is all about priorities. I think about $1.2 million was spent there, and a couple of million dollars was spent to equip the office for the member for Waite when he decided to become an Independent and join the Labor government. Again, there is three and a bit million dollars that was not budgeted on and was not on the forward estimates, it was just plucked out of fresh air. That is probably an amount close to $10 million, with the $1.2 and the $8 million for the member for Waite's office. I think it just emphasises that it is all about priorities. This government has long had its priorities in the wrong place, and I do not see that, sadly, changing any time soon.
Here in South Australia we enjoy the wonderful perks of the highest electricity prices, the highest gas prices, the highest business taxes and the highest water prices. A recent report into water pricing structure in South Australia found that the majority of the price hike in water bills is entirely down to state government policy, but they tend to ignore that fact and continue to reap enormous dividends from SA Water.
Then again, why should we worry about utility charges and business confidence when we have other things to look at? I mentioned Adelaide Oval. We have a new oval there, but never mind, it was minted out of the livelihoods of the South-East forestry workers. After all, they do not need jobs, a stable income or a growing economy. As long as they have a new oval some 400 kilometres away, everything else in their lives seems chipper. The constituents in Troy Bell's electorate in Mount Gambier would think otherwise.
We heard the government say that there would be no job losses. Premier Weatherill said that measures were being put in place to secure all the jobs. I think treasurer Snelling at the time said the same. I think a number of government ministers have reiterated that, but in the end, of course, we have seen a number of job cuts. minister Bignell now says these are not forced, these are voluntary packages. At the end of the day, a job loss, whether it is a voluntary or a forced redundancy, is a job loss for that community and so I think minister Bignell is playing with words when he says, 'We're not breaking our commitment.' Their commitment was that there would be no job losses, full stop. There were no qualifying statements around whether it was voluntary or not, so I think the government has been playing with its words there.
Under this government we are told the people of South Australia will enjoy a period of sustained prosperity, job growth, city vibrancy, regional boom times and only run into debt and deficit for a few short years. We have been waiting for more than a decade for that promise to be delivered upon, and I have a suspicion that we might be waiting for another four years at least. Call me a pessimist, but when you are constantly being let down you cannot help but feel that any promise, no matter how grand, is going to fall spectacularly short.
I would like to talk a little about some of my portfolios now. Minister Gago says the opposition always talks this place down, and she did it again yesterday. She is always claiming that we are being negative and talking the state down, whether it is in question time or in the public debate, but after it has been driven into the ground for 12 long years under Labor and we are now at the bottom of the stats nationally, whether it is employment, economic growth or any of these key economic indicators, there is only one person to blame. They talk it down themselves. The facts themselves prove that they have failed as a government and that our economy is the worst in the nation.
In a pretty cheap and almost lazy way the minister will say, 'Oh, it's just the opposition,' and it is a trend that you hear from a lot of other ministers, that the opposition just talks the state down. We are just telling the truth: the state is down on its knees because of this government's mismanagement.
I want to make a few comments about some of my portfolios. PIRSA has had to bear the brunt of many budget cuts over past years, and this budget is no different. PIRSA's budget for 2014‑15 stands at an abysmal $59.8 million, down $26.5 million alone in one year, and this is the food and wine component of the budget. It is the lowest budget for PIRSA in over a decade. Funding has fallen spectacularly to only 35 per cent of the level it was in 2010-11. With one hand, this government is spruiking the potential of our primary industries and, with the other hand, it is ripping away funding at drastic levels, where vital staff will need to be shed just to keep the department afloat.
I think that the minister will be speaking at the Royal Show, at the rural media breakfast, and he will be talking about his first 170 days as minister, and the title of his talk will be, 'A strategy to build rural South Australia'. You would think that, after 12 years of this government, with all of their promises and all of their rhetoric and this current passion for premium food and wine from a clean environment, that it would be built and that we would not be talking about a strategy to build it, but that the discussion he would be having would be talking about the great achievements of the Labor government and not talking about a strategy to build South Australia. I think that is a recognition that the Labor government has failed the rural community.
Of course, SARDI, despite my protests year after year, has again been in the budget firing line. The South Australian Research and Development Institute is one of the integral centres underpinning the great work undertaken at the Waite Institute, which, if members are interested, I may speak about later this evening. SARDI cannot afford to lose any more funding or staff but, unfortunately, with the formidable mismanagement of the state's finances under this government, vital programs have been cut, and SARDI is one of the many which have had to face the chop.
The Waite Institute is doing its very best to remain one of the greatest research centres around the globe, but it is very hard to do so when its own government continues to withdraw support from the industry. As a world leader, Waite needs more support to continue developing its programs but, instead of funding, it gets more cuts, which leads to the department shedding more core staff, who are desperately needed by the industry.
It is interesting to note that the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics used to have a budget well in excess of $1½ million; it is now down to around about $200,000. As we all know, the Waite Research Institute (the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics is located there) is in the electorate of Waite. When the member for Waite was a minister in the last few months of the Kerin government, the funding for the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics was something he took through the Liberal Party room and also through the Liberal cabinet, and he provided the funding for it.
It is rather ironic that, now he has made the decision to become an Independent and to cosy up with the Labor Party in government, the amount of money that is being spent on his ministerial office—some $2 million—would more than keep the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics funded and operating. I think that some of his comments, when he made that decision, related to the fact that he felt that he could better represent the people of Waite in government than in opposition and that he would make a strong contribution to that community. Yet this is one of the first examples where the government has turned its back on it, and the member for Waite has been silent on that issue.
SARDI is not the only department losing significant funding and staff. Biosecurity will lose some 13 full-time employees and its budget will drop by $5½ million. With two recent outbreaks of fruit fly, it seems almost incredibly ignorant for the government to be cutting a program that is responsible for keeping our state fruit fly free. We know how important that is, but the government obviously thinks that it knows better. I truly hope that there is a provision in place and that it is enough to stop the spread of fruit fly; if not, the industry will suffer a spectacularly unpleasant result.
Exports also have stagnated significantly, dropping by 13 per cent in 2012 alone. I know that the minister was talking in this place yesterday about the fact that state exports had gone up. I suspect that does not include agricultural exports. Agricultural exports have grown by only a measly 1 per cent, on average, over the past decade. Compared to other states, this is an embarrassment. It just reflects the priorities of this Labor government.
Livestock exports have decreased by 10 per cent over the same period, dairy exports have decreased by 10 per cent, and seafood exports have decreased by 5 per cent. For a state that relies heavily on primary production and the exports they create, these statistics are incredibly disappointing. In budget estimates a week ago, minister Bignell was unable to explain the drop in exports and how he plans to reverse this downward trend. It is interesting that at the time premier Rann came to office with the launch shortly thereafter of the State Strategic Plan, they had a plan to grow our exports to $25 billion by 2013. Of course, that was last year.
I think the minister yesterday was saying that exports are now, from my recollection, at $12.1 billion or $12.3 billion. It is not even half of the target they set more than 11 years ago that we were to have achieved yesterday. They will always say, 'Oh, it was the global financial crisis,' but the strategic planning was never in place. They plucked a figure out of the air. I think they looked back over the decade of Liberal government and saw that exports had gone from $3 billion to $9 billion and thought, 'Well, that's easy. The Liberals trebled it. We'll almost treble it from $9 billion to $25 billion.'
What they did not understand is that you actually have to have a long-term partnership with industry, agriculture and food, especially, and this is just something that this government has neglected until just very recently, when they have talked about this strategic priority of premium food and wine from a clean environment, but you have to question some of the strategies there. The government is trying to spruik some of its achievements in its relationship with China, but there is little to show for that at this stage in our export figures.
The Leader of the Government in this place was the minister for agriculture at the time that we were going to have these two fresh food centres in the province of Fujian, in Nanping and Zhuangzhou, which were promoted by the government, and minister Gago was actually very upset when I criticised it. She said I would insult the Chinese partners. In fact, she called me to an urgent briefing with her departmental head and some of the guys from the Australia-China chamber of commerce, I think it was, in her leader's office, just outside in the corridor here. She reprimanded me for being outspoken about this project and assured me that everything was on track, and her chief executive of the time said, 'No, no, these will be built and we will have South Australian produce in those centres within 18 months.'
That was about two years or maybe 2½ years ago now and, in estimates, when I had my colleagues in the House of Assembly ask the current minister, minister Bignell virtually washed his hands of it and said that it really was not the government's responsibility. The developers are yet to build the buildings that these food centres are going in and they have not actually been realised. It is quite sad, and there were some millions of dollars put towards that program. I am not quite sure where it has gone—
Agriculture remains one of the biggest earners in this state and employs roughly one-fifth of the state, yet it faces its smallest operating budget in over a decade. It is a truly sad picture for our world-renowned agricultural sector. Labor has so spectacularly botched its policy, particularly on things like marine parks, deciding to pursue a political agenda rather than a sensible, logical policy that does not send our fisherman to the wall. I am hoping this government will wake up to itself and shelve that particular policy.
It is also interesting that minister Bignell and the government have committed to a moratorium on GM crops until 2019 and they always spruik how much better off our producers are and that we get a premium for all our food and wine. It is not a premium from just our grain but also our food and wine, so I assume that is our livestock, our cheese, our wine, our seafood. During budget estimates, we asked minister Bignell to actually try to quantify that and his only answer was that he had evidence that was anecdotal.
We support our moratorium, but we also believe we need to be able to measure those benefits. You do not have a policy and say, 'Well, we have a policy and we think that it's a good policy.' You actually need to be able to measure those benefits. So, again I ask the minister to actually start doing some work around where we get premiums, and not just in grain. When they talk about our premium food and wine, in what markets do we command a higher price for our products and in what markets do we have easier access?
I know there is some interest in non-GM canola in Japan, but I am told that GM canola is brought out of other states and goes into Europe and, while it is banned in Europe, it is used for making ethanol, for industrial purposes. I am interested to know exactly what benefits we get and what market access we have been able to get over our competitors in Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland, because at the end of the day we will be the first ones to say that this is a great policy. That is why we supported it at the election; so we could actually do that work in government if we were fortunate enough to be elected, and measure the benefits and base those policies on fact rather than just hearsay and rumours.
Also in estimates we had the minister contradict his own policies on food branding. The budget document clearly outlines a new program for branding quality food as a new regulatory standard. In fact, it was an announcement prior to the election, but the minister then came out and said that it was not. The minister needs to clarify the purpose of this policy and explain why taxpayers are spending $2 million on more branding and regulation when we already have Brand SA. That $2 million would be much of much greater use to the industry if it were spent on research and development or biosecurity. These are areas that require more funding and not branding and regulation. It will only duplicate services we have already seen.
It is interesting to look at that particular budget measure. The branding program that the minister spoke about he said was voluntary, that it did not need legislation but that it would be introduced. I have the notes from estimates. He said that in the budget papers it was new initiative funding for a regulatory standard for premium South Australian food, an introduction of a symbol to certify top quality South Australian produce. When he was asked to explain it, the minister said that we have a range of diverse premium food and that to support this future growth South Australia needs to achieve premium prices in these key markets. He then goes on to talk about what he would do. He said that the first step will be consultation with industry and sector groups to identify how such a system could be designed and implemented to best support South Australian businesses and key markets. I guess what it will actually look like will be determined through consultation with industry.
It is interesting that the minister and the government has allocated all this extra money for new branding, but the minister does not actually know what it is. He says that they have to consult with industry and sector groups to identify how such a system could be designed and implemented. I do not understand how you can go to an election with a policy that clearly has not been thought through, nobody knows exactly what it will cost and, a few months after the election, after the budget, come into estimates and say that the first thing they are going to do is consult and then we will see how a system could work.
This was a Labor Party policy, a thought bubble. When asked how it would interact with current food safety codes and regulations, and how would it add to what was there, the minister said that all the existing stuff will remain in place, it is just another level of marketing to reinforce to our consumers what they are buying has great providence and is a quality product. South Australian, and perhaps even more broadly Australian, food already has a wonderful standing internationally for being quality, safe produce. It makes no sense whatsoever to have another level of not necessarily regulation, but it appears that it could be a little more red tape.
It is interesting to know that with the Brand SA, the doorway in South Australia, a lot of producers still have not taken up because you have to change all your packaging, and to display it it has to be printed on there, so now the minister is talking about yet another regulatory standard and he does not know how it will work. I suspect that there will have to be compliance officers and interaction. It would be interesting to know exactly what the minister was referring to.
We also have had the Buy SA campaign, and my understanding is that the website for that has been taken down. I think there were some issues around legal liability when it comes to abuses of standards and the symbol. It is interesting that that has been pulled down, although tragically the other day I saw on the way to the airport Buy SA flags on some of the light poles and they were in shreds, in tatters. They are not boldly presented, they have been there flying in the breeze and have been ripped apart by the strong winds.
That is indicative of the government's policies: they are falling apart, they are just thought bubbles with no long-term strategic plan to grow our agricultural sector. We have to remember that our state was founded on an agricultural company, the South Australian Company. It was the biggest business in town 175 years ago and it is still the biggest business in town, yet it receives a diminishing amount of financial support.
It is interesting to note some of the other issues that were brought up during estimates. Of particular interest to me was the sale of a couple of research centres: the Lenswood facility and also the Flaxley facility. Flaxley was decommissioned some time ago. I think it was in minister Gago's time that plans were made to sell it. We are yet to see any evidence of that being sold. There is $680,000 in the budget this year for asset sales but Flaxley is worth significantly more than that. Minister Bignell tells us that it will be going on the market in the next few months but I am at a bit of a loss in knowing where the financial gain from the sale of that asset will come and why we only see $680,000 in the budget from the sale of assets.
There is also the facility at Lenswood. We understand that we are part of a national research framework around the nation and we look after dryland agriculture, pork, poultry and wine. However, we have the Lenswood facility and I know there has been some community interest in taking over that facility. What I would like to know is: has the minister gone to industry?
We have facilities in which taxpayers have invested over many years. Particularly in places like Lenswood, there are trees in the ground and stuff growing in the ground. One can understand that with a dairy or livestock research facility, the stock can be sold, they can be moved on, but we have trees and plants in the ground. Clearly, you are going to have some issues there because you cannot just shift them—and so that is all lost. I would be interested in hearing from minister Bignell—but I expect I will not get a response—because he said:
Yes, we have received a lot of feedback, and we are listening to the industry and having discussions with a whole range of people about what the future will be not just for the site but for research in the horticultural industry.
The Adelaide Hills region is, I think, being promoted to be included in the World Heritage List and I am not quite sure how that is going to impact on primary production up there. We have a research facility in the middle of it now that really could underpin agricultural development in that region. It is a bit unique from the rest of South Australia because the Hills are in a higher altitude and higher rainfall area. There are many hundreds of thousands of hectares of dryland agriculture so I think that is a little bit like cutting off our nose to spite our face.
I know some of the cool climate horticultural research is done in Victoria but we are different from Victoria. I think it would be foolish to see that facility go unless industry had an opportunity to put up some sort of proposal to take it on.