Natural Resources Committee: Levy Proposals 2016-17
Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart) (11:56:47): I rise to speak on the 109th to 115th reports of the Natural Resources Committee. I listened very closely to the member for Ashford, the Chair of that committee. She is a person I have a great deal of respect for, and in fact I gained a lot of that respect while I was on the committee myself. I appreciate the thoughtful way in which she described the way in which the committee’s final decision was arrived at.
Let me make it clear to the house that I certainly made a very brief but direct submission to the committee, asking the committee that it not support any levy increases in excess of CPI. The committee as a whole decided to go in a different direction, and I note that certain members of the committee voted one way and certain members voted another, but at the end of the day majority rules with regard to the committee position.
Let me also say very clearly that I am not an NRM board basher. I do actually value the work of the boards. We have very capable, decent and skilful people as board members and I value, in the overwhelming majority, the work that the staff do as well. What I do not agree with is the fact that they can ask the public for more and more money every year in excess of CPI. The reason for that is because, as I have said in this place many times before—and when I was on the committee myself I spoke to this effect and voted against levies in excess of CPI.
The reason I do not support the levy increases in excess of CPI is not that I do not value the work that the boards do. Certainly, efficiencies could be found. There is no organisation that could not do its work better, or could not do its work more efficiently, particularly under the broad government umbrella. I am not saying that they could not find ways to use the money more effectively, but that is not my main focus.
My main focus is the fact that the work that these NRM boards are expected to do is, essentially, endless. There is no shortage of projects that could come forward from within government, or from the public asking the board, ‘Could you do this work? If you had some extra money, could you do this work, and, yes, it would benefit the community. Could you do this other work, and, yes, it would benefit the community.’ It is a never-ending list.
Essentially, you have to cut the take from the taxpayer somewhere and I think that CPI is the appropriate place. I say that because of the fact that four out of the eight NRM boards in the state share an overlap with my electorate of Stuart. I am engaged with four of these boards all the time in my work as the member for Stuart, and, of course, I also take interest in what the other four are doing.
Let me also say that I disagree with the choice that the government has made over the last few years to absorb what were, essentially, fairly independent NRM boards operating around the state back into government control under the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. That has been a retrograde step, and I think that most NRM board members (and most NRM board staff) would agree with me in that regard, that they were more effective, more efficient and more linked into their local communities when they had that arm’s-length relationship with the government department rather than all being government employees now.
That has not been a positive step, and I say that for several reasons. In the context of this debate, specifically, I say it because what we have seen is that the government contribution to the boards has decreased very, very significantly in the last few years. Particularly, in this request (going from 2015-16 to 2016-17) the actual direct funding contribution from the government via the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources to the NRM boards has dropped dramatically. At the same time, the charges from the government (from the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources) to the boards has increased significantly. So, bringing the boards back in under government control has not helped the boards at all from a financial perspective.
The reason that the boards overwhelmingly have had to come to the Natural Resources Committee of parliament and ask for these levy increases in excess of CPI is that the state government has said that it was going to contribute less money to them directly and it was actually going to charge these boards more money for their own cost recovery purposes, so the poor old boards are really stuck. It is not because they are wasting their money or being inefficient or that they cannot manage the budgets they have; it is because the state government has charged them extra and provided them less funding than they have over a period of time. I think that is incredibly disappointing.
The state government is saying to the boards, ‘We do not value your work highly enough to want to continue supporting you financially; in fact, we place a value on the work that the boards do such that we, as a state government, are going to reduce the funding that we give you.’ I think that is a great shame. Also, what the state government is then saying to the boards is, ‘Not only are we going to give you less direct funding, charge you more for what we provide to you, we want you to go and get the difference from the taxpayer.’
In short, the government is saying, ‘We are going to contribute less but just go and get the difference from the taxpayer,’ and that is a very fundamental part of my logic for saying that is unfair. It is not reasonable for the government to force the boards to seek more from the taxpayer, purely because the government does not want to provide the funding itself that it typically has in the past. I think out of all of that, where are you going to find a point to say what is the maximum acceptable increase to the levy? There is not one perfect answer to that question, but in my mind I think then we should just leave it at CPI.
We also have the situation whereby councils, which collect the levy on behalf of the government from the levy payers, essentially the public, are now so frustrated and so angry with this situation that the government has put them in that they have now said that they do not want to collect the levy any longer. They have said that they feel so exposed to the opinions of their own ratepayers by what the government has done that they do not want to collect the levy because they think it reflects badly on the councils.
The government is trying to have everything its own way. It is trying to drag the boards back in under the department so that the boards do not operate at the arm’s-length relationship that they used to. They want to charge the boards more for their own cost recovery purposes. They want to contribute less money to the boards with regard to a contribution that is essentially on behalf of the taxpayer, and they want the boards then to charge the taxpayer more direct.
That is not a workable solution, that is not fair for the taxpayer, who of course does not get a reduction in any other taxes but is now asked to pay a greater share of tax through the NRM levy. It is not fair to the councils, which have to collect the levy to the government, and it is certainly not fair on behalf of the NRM boards and their staff who are really squeezed in this financial model and cannot get on and do the work they need to do. They are suffering in regard to short-term contracts; many of their staff are working without a contract, just extended month-by-month because they do not have the funding to offer a significant three, four or five-year contract to really quality people doing really good work. It is not fair to the environment either.