Appropriation (2015-2016) Bill 2015

Mr SCOTT (Minister for Finance) — After that intriguing speech, I want to start my contribution to the debate on the Appropriation (2015–2016) Bill 2015 by referring as Minister for Multicultural Affairs to something I hope all members in this house are strong supporters of: multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is truly the state’s greatest asset. It is a fantastic aspect and traditionally has broad support across this chamber. Long may that be so. This is a fantastic budget for multiculturalism. This budget allocates $74 million over four years to multicultural affairs, which represents the single largest investment in that area in the state’s history. If you factor in what that will mean in terms of the total budget allocation over the four-year estimates period, it is $121.6 million. In that sum all election commitments in multiculturalism have been honoured by the Labor government.

Victoria will continue to lead the way as the multicultural capital of Australia — in fact, perhaps as the multicultural capital of the world. There will be significant funding, including $13.2 million over four years, for community capacity and participation. This is to support ethnic and multicultural organisations to respond to their community’s needs, including settlement and participation of newly arrived migrants and the needs of ageing migrant communities. There is $21 million over four years to promote social cohesion and community harmony. This is to provide support for initiatives that promote intercultural understanding and for cultural events festivals that celebrate and preserve Victoria’s cultural diversity.

There is $2 million over four years for multicultural access programs that provide a range of initiatives that continue to enhance the way government responds to and supports Victorians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD). This is particularly important in terms of those Victorians for whom English is a second language — a large number of Victorians who deserve to participate fully in society like the rest of the community. There is $11.1 million over four years for a Community Infrastructure and Cultural Precincts Fund. This is to refurbish community facilities for improved access by multicultural groups and to enhance cultural precincts to promote local heritage, business activity and tourism. Victoria’s cultural precincts are something we can really be proud of. There are a number close by, including Chinatown, the Greek precinct around Lonsdale Street and a number of other cultural precincts which I will get to in moving to the detail of the budget.

As I said earlier, the total new funding in this budget is $74 million over four years. It is important to note that all lapsing programs which we had been left — there were a large number of lapsing programs of the former government — have been re-funded. Not a single program has been cut in multicultural affairs. That is a very important aspect of our budget. There has been some change in terms of how the funding in grant programs has been represented in the budget, and I think it is useful to put on the record how that has been represented. In promoting social cohesion and community harmony, there is just over $6 million in
2015–16 that rolls together the promoting community harmony grants, which include multifaith and interfaith grants, the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC) festivals and events grants and the Unity Through Partnerships grants funding. Then there is the Community Infrastructure and Cultural Precincts Fund, which is $5 million in 2015–16. That includes the Victorian Multicultural Commission building facilities and improvement grants and the Multicultural Community Infrastructure Fund.

There is also community capacity and participation funding, which includes just under $8 million in the coming financial year. That includes settlement coordination funding, VMC organisational support and education grants and CALD senior organisational grants. Can I just say how important it is for our senior citizen community groups from a non-English-speaking background to have the often small amounts of money that allow participation in social activity. It plays a critical role in preventing social isolation, particularly as people age and lose a second language. Often English is a second language, so as people age they commonly lose their second language and can only communicate in the language of their birth. It is very important to support those senior citizen organisations that provide the wonderful outreach of a place where people can participate, socialise and gain the socialisation we all need.

The VMC community strengthening grants are also included under community capacity and participation. The refugee action program, including its rights and responsibilities seminar program, and the asylum seeker support program, are also included in the community capacity and participation funding of just under $8 million, as are the new and emerging community leadership program, the funding to support programs related to East Timor, the peak multicultural organisations fund and the core grant to the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV).

The EECV has been supported by governments of different persuasions and includes representatives from across the political spectrum. It is an important community organisation that plays a critical role in representing multicultural communities. The VMC has an important representative function, but the ECCV is the most significant non-government agency and plays a role as the peak body representing the wonderful, diverse communities of Victoria.

There is also funding of $835 000 in the upcoming financial year under the multicultural access program, which I previously alluded to, including language services support for the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters, the peak body that regulates the standards around translation and interpretation, cultural competence and cultural diversity plans. If you look at the budget, you see it funds a wonderful is a series of initiatives. I will be openly and specifically bipartisan by saying this builds on a long tradition in Victoria of support for multicultural affairs across governments. It has been an absolutely standout aspect of the Victorian political culture that there has been broad support for multicultural affairs, and I would say that applies to Victorian society. Across community leaders there is strong support for this in Victoria.

The Scanlon Foundation undertakes significant research in this area.

An honourable member interjected.

Mr SCOTT — It is research into social cohesion — although I should not respond to interjections — and the acceptance of diversity and the level of racism in society. It was found that Victoria has the strongest support for multiculturalism of any mainland state in Australia. It is a fantastic tradition that we should all support. We in this place should never take this for granted. It is an absolutely critical part of our community, and one that I hope will bring together members of this house across the political divide, because it is utterly critical to the future success of Victoria, including its economic success.

Part of the success of multiculturalism is the important bridging role that people of a non-English-speaking background play in facilitating trade between this community and other communities. They can play a bridging role across different business cultures and ensure that our economy grows stronger. It is not just a social benefit but a significant economic benefit. However, fundamental to it is a commitment that is reflected not only this budget but also in former budgets — although I would say this budget makes the strongest investment in multicultural affairs — to the common dignity of all human beings.

The people of Victoria and the political system recognise that those of different backgrounds deserve our respect and support. We accept cultural differences as the expression of fundamental human dignity and something to be celebrated. We do not just tolerate diversity in this state — it is not a stone in our shoe which we put up with; it is something we celebrate, love and embrace. This budget reflects that commitment, a commitment that has been shared across the house over a long period of time.

To return to some of the detail of the budget, obviously I also have responsibilities in finance. I will make some broad comments about the macro settings of the budget. As I am sure members are aware, it is delivering a $1.2 billion operating surplus in 2015–16, growing to $1.8 billion in 2018–19, with a reduction of net debt from its June 2014 peak of 6 per cent of gross state product (GSP) down to 4.4 per cent of GSP in 2019. There is some change: it should be noted that there is a commitment of an average investment over the out years of the estimates period that is greater than the average $4.9 billion that has been delivered over the past 10 years.

I must admit I was highly entertained by the contribution of the member for Bass. It seems there is something special about the member for Bass in this place; there is a particular style that is inherent in being the member for Bass. It was an enjoyable contribution. The member noted that the budget forecasts lower operating surpluses than were forecast by the previous government. However, the previous government’s projected surpluses were only achievable by restricting expenditure growth to just 2.5 per cent on average per year over the estimates period in the out years. We need to take into account population growth and inflation, and that figure is significantly below the rate of population growth. This more sustainable level of expenditure growth of 3 per cent will underpin quality services in Victoria.

While I have time left, I will make a couple of comments regarding my electorate, because this is a fantastic budget for Preston, and in particular for students at the William Ruthven Secondary College. I note that the former Minister for Education is in the chair. Members who were in the previous Parliament may recall that school putting on a fantastic show in Queen’s Hall. In fact I have never seen a school put on such a fantastic performance, so to speak, of really targeted lobbying. It was an impressive effort by members of the school community, who really worked hard. They deserve the $10 million in funding in the budget. They have shown fantastic leadership.

The school community worked really hard and significantly increased the participation of its Victorian certificate of education (VCE) graduates in higher levels of education. In fact from memory the levels of university participation of students from that school have just about doubled, and the school has developed special relationships with both La Trobe University and RMIT. Also from memory the percentage of the school’s VCE graduates who go on to university is approaching 80 per cent. We are not talking about a school from a high-income area; we are talking about a school that represents some of the lower socioeconomic groups in Melbourne.

The school has had fantastic leadership, and members of the school community have worked hard to create opportunities for those students. Those students, teachers and parents deserve to have community facilities that match the commitment they have shown. It is fabulous that in this budget we have been able to meet the commitment we made prior to the election of providing $10 million to upgrade the school buildings. It is fantastic that this budget delivers this for my community.

There is also a commitment for a feasibility study on returning the former Preston Girls Secondary College site to public education. That site is centrally located in the heart of Preston, right near train, tram and bus services. I hope to see in the future that facility returned to public education. Prior to the election the Labor Party committed to the feasibility study, and it is fantastic that this budget delivers on that commitment.

I now turn to the finance area. Finance can be a relatively dry area of the budget — —

Mr Pesutto — Really? Not at all!

Mr SCOTT — Not at all.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr SCOTT — I have left the best part until last, yes indeed. I will ignore interjections at this point. Finance is utterly critical to the success of government. Essentially the Treasury has the macro settings, and finance is much more concerned about how successfully within government services are delivered. There are also the large public sector financial corporations. I will touch briefly on WorkSafe. The Labor Party went to the election with a commitment to not take a dividend from WorkSafe but only use funding for certain purposes, and it has honoured that commitment with this budget. I am sure many people thought that would not happen.

I note — and it is in the budget papers — that in future years the government will be utilising the surplus funds out of WorkSafe, but it will only do so for the purposes for which it has allocated. They include things like reducing premiums. There was a strong tradition under the previous Labor government of reducing premiums, which has a benefit of reducing the cost of employment and improving benefits. The Labor Party has already given a commitment within the first 18 months of office to introduce legislation to provide for presumptive rights for firefighters, both career and volunteer, and also to improve occupational health and safety. I note that putting the ‘safe’ back in WorkSafe is something this government is particularly committed to.

I have been lucky enough as minister to attend the graduation of a new group of inspectors — from memory, I think there are 16 occupational health and safety inspectors and 4 return to work inspectors — and we will be working hard in that area. There has also been a commitment to expend funds for the benefit of the health of the Victorian workforce, and announcements have been made about the re-establishment of WorkHealth, which was a fabulous initiative of the previous Labor government. Todd Harper, a very distinguished Victorian, has agreed to chair a working group on that initiative.

In conclusion, I say that this is a fantastic budget. I will return to multiculturalism. This is the strongest ever budget in support of multiculturalism, Victoria’s greatest asset and something I know is supported across this house.