Appropriation Bill 2013 - Estimates response

Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (11:57): Sitting through estimates really was a very frustrating time for myself, as it sounds like it was for many opposition members. Sitting through estimates did give me time to ponder what we achieved and what actually came out of estimates. The worth of the process is probably the biggest factor I jotted down when I was twiddling with my pen in absolute dismay at the opening statements and the Dorothy Dixers.

Mr WHETSTONE (Chaffey) (11:57): Sitting through estimates really was a very frustrating time for myself, as it sounds like it was for many opposition members. Sitting through estimates did give me time to ponder what we achieved and what actually came out of estimates. The worth of the process is probably the biggest factor I jotted down when I was twiddling with my pen in absolute dismay at the opening statements and the Dorothy Dixers.

As the member for MacKillop has just said, the opening statements and the Dorothy Dixers are just reannouncing something that has already been announced. It is something that has been on the public agenda for some time. It has been on the front page of the papers, on radio and on TV, but they continue to shine their boots, get up there and really just feel proud of a nothing statement.

I see that the government is making an art form of not answering questions, not dealing with the issues and not giving the information that the estimates process has been designed for. It is really about the government giving away very little so that they cannot be held accountable for their answers and their decisions. In the real world, I wonder how successful the process would be. Having said that, I would like to thank the chairs of both A and B committees. I think they did an outstanding job, as did the acting chairs and their standing up to take up some of the slack is to be admired. The members for Lee and Giles did great jobs as Chair.

I also acknowledge the heads of departments and their devotion to their respective ministers. Obviously those heads of departments have spent many hours, weeks, or in some cases probably months preparing, and I was privileged to speak to a couple of heads of department who said that they had been giving briefings, giving advice to ministers to within an inch of their political lives because the ministers and their departments were very fearful that the real information was going to be leaked out into the public arena. I find that very sad.

What does the estimates process really cost the taxpayer of South Australia? I think we would probably be shocked to know what the dollar value to answer ratio would be. It is something that will go on, and the way the government positions itself through the estimates period is the way the government will do it. The only way that that is going to change is potentially if this side of the house gets into government and really shows some foresight and some real authority about not trying to be such a destructive, proud government without any accountability.

Sitting in estimates, I did have some responsibility for several shadow portfolios. I sat in on estimates to listen in some cases but I also sat on the committee, and I would like to just reflect on particularly the Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Transport and Infrastructure. I think he was quite forthcoming with answers to questions and I think it is out of character for minister Koutsantonis to actually be forthcoming without beating his chest in one way or another, but I considered him to be across his brief and I gave him a pass.

Minister Fox came in as Minister for Transport Services. She had a cold. Minister Fox should have stayed in bed; I think she got a resounding fail. The Minister for Finance—minister O'Brien—seems to be across his brief. He did not come in with opening statements; he did not take Dorothy Dixers; he was honest with his answers. His department was well briefed and they worked well together. If he was not across the answer, his department had the answer and I think he took very few questions on notice. I think that was probably pretty good value for taxpayers' money, so I give him a pass.

Then, moving along, I had the sad displeasure of sitting in for multicultural affairs. Minister Rankine had plenty to hide and there was no doubt about that. She gave a glowing endorsement, as I see it, to the next minister for multicultural affairs, and that would be the Hon. Jing Lee in another place. It was an audition for a local current affairs program on the issue of the Vicki Antoniou show and it really was sad to hear the slanging match across the chamber. It really achieved very little. It is sad to say that I left before the end of the session, because I was absolutely appalled at the slagging, so the minister got a fail.

Members interjecting:


Mr WHETSTONE: The member for MacKillop has just mentioned the Minister for Recreation and Sport. Sadly, I was not part of the committee, but I did observe a very disappointing performance by the minister for sport and rec. He just did not have the answers. He continually relied on his department. Look, I will give him some slack, he has not been the minister in that role for very long, but he is clearly not around the detail of this department. He is very good at giving statements without having to read a prepared paper, but I am not at liberty to give him a grading on recreation and sport because I was not part of that committee.

However, I was part of the committee on tourism. I thought the minister was quite disappointing, particularly in not being able to answer questions on information around visitor information centres, not being able to give any real value or real evidence of what regional tourism means to the South Australian economy and not being able to give any real numbers on just exactly what the cost spend ratio is with metropolitan tourism or with regional tourism. It is my view that the regional tourism brand is what brings this state's tourism industry together. I think that was something that he was not prepared to give any detail on. So, all in all, the minister got a high fail.

We move on to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and Regional Development. This was a very, very sad indictment on what this government's priorities are in regional South Australia. We see what the budget has done to agriculture and regional development and if we look at what the budget lines have said over time, there was this grandiose statement that the department had put more money into biosecurity, it was putting money into clustering, premium food and wine clusters, and yet the minister, who has been briefed, as I said, to within an inch of her political life, was inaccurate, lacked detail and spent more time on cost recovery than on policy.

It was a very sad indictment on something that is probably one of the state's premium economic drivers, and she received an absolute fail. Moving on. We looked at the Minister for Volunteers. As a new minister, I was pleased. He has a department that he has obviously worked with. I guess my view after the process was that perhaps he could learn a lot from the member for Morphett, shadow minister McFetridge. 

I was actually going to give the Minister for Volunteers, Disabilities, Youth and Social Housing a pass. So, I am not here to slag off at everybody. I am giving an honest view of how I thought ministers performed. Moving on. One of my great passions in this place, undeniably, has been the River Murray, water and the environment. I did sit in to listen to minister Hunter give his environment answers, his sustainability and conservation answers, and he crawled across the line. There were some, I guess, highlights in what the commonwealth government has tipped into a large need for a sustainable environment.

Once we got to water, the river, the department for water, SA Water, I thought that the minister, albeit he has been classified as a nice guy, a nice person, is a fairweather water minister. He is definitely not across his brief. Being a water minister for as long as he has he should have a much better knowledge of the basin plan. It is the most important reform package in the history of the River Murray. He gave no detail. He gave no evidence of what the intergovernmental agreement had achieved. It is something that has taken seven long months to put in place and it really was a sad indictment, because, as I hear it, the minister is trying to make the River Murray one of his key priorities in his portfolio, and I, quite rightly, think that he did a very average job. So, I gave him a very, very low pass.

Just moving into some of the issues, particularly, in agriculture, on face value with the announcements on agriculture and biosecurity, we saw this fantastic $1 million fruit fly funding over four years. I went out to the media and said that I thought it was a positive result for biosecurity, but of course we looked into the detail: dollar for dollar. It is all about this cost-recovery mechanism. Not only is it embedded into the minister's DNA but it is also the way that the government is treating agriculture and the way that it is treating the regions. It is all about cost recovery: 'We are not prepared to stand by you and support you as an industry.'

It is not just about standing by the industry with regard to fruit fly but about standing by South Australia. It is not about supporting industry so that they can actually have clean, green, first-class premium food to be exported. Let's face it, has any person in this room who has a peach tree in their backyard ever bitten into a peach and found a mouthful of maggots? Just visualise that. That is what biosecurity is there to prevent: it is about preventing fruit fly coming into this state. I think that South Australia has done a fantastic job in keeping this state fruit fly free. It is about the government putting the priority on cost recovery back on industry.

It is not about giving people freedom to go into their backyard to bite into a peach and know that they are not going to get a mouthful of maggots. The sterile fruit fly program is a $700,000 a year program that was put into place to retrieve sterile fruit flies from Western Australia. Obviously, we are now seeing that we are going to import those flies from overseas. It is a cost-saving measure, but what sort of a risk is it putting this state at to keep our fruit fly free mantle?

We looked at premium food and wine clusters. The minister could not really give us any insight as to what that means to South Australia. The minister was asked the question: 'What is premium?' 'A nice bottle of wine is premium.' But minister, you have to be able to articulate more than what a nice bottle of wine is. I am sure you are well-credentialled to know what a good bottle of wine is.

Could I give you a few tips, minister? It is produce grown in a clean, green environment; it is value-added within this state; it has maximum returns to the local economy; and it is presented as a standout product. It is marketed as something that needs to be put on the top shelf, not the bottom shelf, and not just exported in the hope we have a market for it. It is something that is promoted to the market as the number one product—a go-to product. It was very sad that the minister could not articulate that.

Again, as I have said, it all comes back to cost recovery. In relation to the reprioritisation of service delivery and implementation of administrative efficiencies to eliminate any duplication, there is not much there that you can duplicate, minister, because there are very few people left in the departments that you oversee. Minister, that is why you have to fail.

Concerning regional health, I would like to touch very briefly on the regional upgrade of the Berri hospital in the Riverland which was costed at $41 million. As we saw last year, suddenly they found a $5 million or $6 million saving. How could they find a $5 million saving when it was a costed, tender process? Please tell me that? What has happened is that we now have rooms with no chairs and we have rehabilitation with no pool. We have services that need to be put in place to make a regional hospital work so that people do not have to travel many miles and they do not have to use the PATS. What they need is to go to a one-stop regional hospital.

Mr Speaker, I am grumpy, and the reason for that is that I am participating in Dry July so that I can help raise money to put one chemotherapy chair in our chemotherapy unit—the brand-new unit at the regional hospital that has no chairs! That is absolutely outrageous. I am sure the previous minister for health would understand that those budget savings must have something to do with why there are no chairs and why there is no pool at that hospital. It really does beggar belief.

We also looked at the Health Advisory Councils. Some of those HACs have money within a building fund for those hospitals but they cannot access the money. They cannot spend the money that has been fundraised by the community or bequeathed to the hospital. Why can't they do that? Because that money has to be used as a budget bottom-line exercise. That is just such a sad indictment. That money should be used to better the hospital, it should be used to put better facilities in the hospital. I understand that the health budget is under pressure, but there is money there that could be for the betterment of the hospital.

That money has been put there by the community, it has been bequeathed to the hospital, yet it is sending the message to the fundraisers, to the elderly people and to the people who want leave in something of memory of their contribution to a community, and they are saying to me, 'Why should we fundraise? Why should we bequeath money to that hospital when the government is just going to scoop in and use it as a budget bottom line?' It really is a sad indictment of what this government is doing with our health system in regional South Australia.

Obviously, regional development is something that is very important to the regions of South Australia. We have seen the state government redraw its funding to the RDAs. Obviously, once the state government withdraws its funding, there is some commonwealth money that is put there, but all of a sudden the RDAs are almost that cash strapped they have to go to local government to get the money to put into the Regional Development Australia bodies.

When they go to local government, and they need some funding to keep them afloat, where do you think that money is coming from? That's right, Mr Speaker, it is coming from the ratepayers. Again, that is putting more pressure on ratepayers, and the reason it is putting more pressure on ratepayers is that the councils are having to dish out money to the RDAs to keep them afloat, so rates go up. So, that is cost of living. Again, that is sending a very cynical message to the people of South Australia that the regions are not quite as important as they could be.

We looked at the Riverland Sustainable Futures Fund, and the Minister for Regional Development even got her facts and figures wrong there. We have $5.1 million remaining in that fund. She initially said that that money would be used to leverage out of a Murray-Darling Basin Regional Economic Diversification program. During estimates, she said that it was going to be leveraged out of a Water Industry Alliance program. That is wrong—that is absolutely wrong. So, the minister needs to get a brief—let me tell you, she really needs to get a brief. It is a sad indictment on agriculture.

I know my time is running out, but before I sit down I want to talk about the intergovernmental agreement. What a sham! Seven long months we have been waiting for that, yet we still cannot get any guidelines of how we are going to access that money. We still cannot get any information on what the Premier signed. The Premier signed an intergovernmental agreement that is going to make huge difference to the sustainability of this river. Still no information.