Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) (11:50): I rise to speak on the Appropriation (Interim) Bill 2020, the Appropriation (Parliament) (Interim) Bill 2020 and the State Taxation Acts Amendment (Relief Measures) Bill 2020. As our lead speaker, the Shadow Treasurer, the member for Ripon, said, I will speak particularly on the bushfire component of the state taxation bill.
It seems a long time ago that we had the bushfires of this recent summer here in Victoria, both in East Gippsland and in north-east Victoria, but for those that are still living with the consequences of those fires, it is still very, very real. Our hearts go out to those people who lost their homes, who lost property and who, as I said, are still suffering.
We also make sure that we thank the CFA—the CFA volunteers, the CFA staff—and the other emergency services who put in an absolutely outstanding effort in assisting those communities through that time. Can I also mention on the record the local members, the member for Gippsland East; the member for Gippsland South; Darren Chester, the federal member; the member for Benambra; and Melina Bath, an upper house member for Eastern Victoria Region, who were absolute towers of strength in assisting their communities through that time. Can I also thank the overwhelming generosity of all Victorians who donated to the bushfire appeals and the support that came through for those communities.
A lot of businesses—tourism businesses, hospitality businesses, businesses in both the north east and in East Gippsland—lost a whole summer of revenue. At a time when they would actually make a lot of their income, they lost a whole summer of revenue. Post the bushfires there was, I think, a real, genuine desire from Victorians to visit those areas and restart the hospitality and tourism industries in those areas, but we now have COVID-19. Those businesses were hoping, with the Labor Day March long weekend, with Easter, with the Anzac weekend and with the school holidays that have just finished, to reboot their businesses and get Victorians coming back into those areas. Unfortunately that has not happened because of COVID-19, and that is having a huge impact on their businesses.
Both the Leader of the Opposition and I visited those areas a number of times. One of the things that we said was that, ‘As time goes on, we will make sure that the issues you have to deal with will not be forgotten. We want to make sure that your issues are brought to the fore all the time’. That is what we have been doing since that time and that is what we will continue to do into the future. One of those issues that we did bring to the fore in this house when we sat recently was that there was a subsidy to cart donated hay to those bushfire-affected areas. The Lions clubs did a lot of work in coordinating that, but there were a number of Lions clubs that were not going to be paid the money for that carting of hay. The Heyfield Lions Club, or the contractors, were out of pocket for $140 000. The Timboon Lions Club and their contractors were going to be out of pocket for $280 000, a huge amount of money for those clubs and those businesses that helped cart that donated hay to both north-east Victoria and East Gippsland.
If it had not been for the opportunity to ask a question of the Premier in this house about that—and I must say the Premier was not happy about being asked about that particular issue—if the Parliament had not been sitting and we had not had the chance to ask that question, those Lions clubs and those contractors would still not have received that money, because the government was not going to do anything about it. It was only because of the fact that they were embarrassed into that happening that it actually came about. That is why we need the Parliament to sit more often. Obviously there were some reasons for today’s sitting, but there is a very important imperative that the Parliament start to sit more, so the government of the day can be held to account on a whole range of issues.
The two bushfire measures that are in this bill are around payroll tax reduction—a halving of the regional payroll tax rate for businesses in the bushfire-disaster-declared areas.
That is worth about $14 million to those businesses over the next four years. About 500 businesses will benefit from that. But I suppose the thing I would like to put on the record is that there are a lot more businesses in those communities who do not pay payroll tax who are still hurting very, very hard—the mum and dad businesses through those particular areas. The other concession is a 50 per cent concession on land transfer for commercial and industrial land in those areas for the next five years, and that is worth about $34 million to those particular areas. So there is some support for those businesses that qualify in those areas, but we need to make sure that all those that have not qualified, who are still hurting, get some support into the future.
The government did have a program of assistance with rebuilding fences. We know a lot of people are of the view that the fires were more intense and more widespread because of the lack of management of fuel load on public land and the issue around the boundary fencing between the public land interface and private land. The government, to their credit, did have a program where they were paying 50 per cent of the capital cost of rebuilding a fence—$5 a kilometre—although there is some debate as to whether that is a full 50 per cent now, because the cost of fencing is now higher and the cost of replacing particularly wild dog fences is substantially more than that again.
But what has really intrigued some of the people who have applied for that grant was: yes, they got the grant; yes, they got the cheque; and then they got a letter from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning for a bill for the GST. It just defies logic. Historically grants, like the money that was going to help people with the replacement of fencing, were GST inclusive. All of a sudden some bright spark somewhere dreamed up that these grants were going to change to being GST exclusive and started sending farmers bills for the GST component of those grants. So instead of getting $5 a kilometre, by the time they had paid the GST they were effectively only getting $4.50. That has created a lot of confusion, a lot of anger, with those farmers who are in this category, and they could not get answers out of the department.
One of the things that any government department has to do if it is actually going to have a customer interface is it actually has to have some customer service. For those people, they were quite confused. They did not know where to go. They were told, ‘Just pay this bill and shut up’, which is just not good enough. So again the government has done some good things, but it falls down so often on the fact of how it actually relates to people, how it assists people through things and how it actually responds when there are questions or when there is something that is actually done wrong. The best thing to do if there is a mistake made, if it is of the view that it should have stayed as GST inclusive, is why not just say. ‘We got it wrong’, withdraw that bill and let the person get on with their life and rebuild those fences rather than actually having to have those people fight with the department and still struggle to get any answers out of those particular issues.
The last one I will briefly touch on is the issue of the clean-up. A lot of people are very frustrated that the clean-up is going far too slowly. There are farmers in the north-east—the member for Benambra has put some information through to me—where they have got literally truckloads and truckloads of old burnt wire and fences stacked up on their property. They put the new fences up, because you have to to control your livestock, but they have got truckloads and truckloads of old wire and old burnt fencing material that no-one is coming to pick up at this stage. So there is a lot of work to do on the clean-up. Yes, they have given these tax concessions, but I would encourage the government to make sure they actually get back and get focused on delivering on the things that they actually promised they would deliver on, rather than just ignoring it and hoping it will all go away. But, as I said, both the Leader of the Opposition and I have promised those people they will not be forgotten, and we will continue to raise these issues into the future.
The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Kilkenny): The time set down for consideration of items on the government business program has arrived, and I am required to interrupt business.
Motions agreed to.
Read second time.