Statements By Senators - Senate Inquiries

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory): Last night during the adjournment debate I was reflecting on the outrageous decision by the Senate yesterday to inquire into the Queensland government and on what may be done now we have a precedent where the Senate sets up inquiries into other governments on the basis of some senators not liking a particular government or not liking some of the policies or some of the decisions of particular governments. I did make brief mention of this but I have reflected further on it overnight and would like to offer some thoughts if we were to follow this precedent in future either here in the Senate or indeed if the other place were to decide that this precedent of inquiring into other governments was worth following.



I will offer some local thoughts on some aspects of governance by the ACT Labor-Greens government that could be looked into should someone choose to go down this path. We know there have been a lot of concerns in the Canberra community about the way our planning system has been manipulated in various ways, particularly the policy around supermarkets. We had a failed supermarkets policy and there are a lot of outstanding questions that people may like to inquire into. The supermarket policy particularly centred around a part of Canberra called Giralang and the Giralang shops. You would think that would be a fairly minor issue. But we saw a much broader supermarket policy constructed by the Labor-Greens government in the ACT, which was about picking winners.


The chief planner raised serious concerns about the political interference in the planning system. As a result of raising those concerns, that chief planner, Neil Savery, was, unfortunately, pushed out of his job. I think it was an issue that left a bad taste in the mouths of many and left a lot of unanswered questions. Neil Savery warned of frequent political interference. He said in a brief: I find this level of interference, which is occurring on an ever more frequent basis although not always as obviously in this case, has the potential to make the role of ACTPLA as a statutory authority for a range of tasks increasingly difficult and puts the government at risk.


For his troubles, Mr Savery was eventually forced out of his job. I have a lot of time for Mr Savery as do many others. I think there were a lot of outstanding questions about the debacle of the supermarkets policy, which was in many cases about picking winners. It was about picking preferred supermarket operators to get direct land grants without a proper competitive process and without ensuring that best value for money was returned to ACT taxpayers. There were serious issues around that flawed policy, around the circumstances in Giralang, and around the circumstances that led to those decisions and non-decisions. Some of these issues are still playing out in the courts. I would offer that is one issue that could be looked into.


In the ACT you would think, given we are a city state and given we do not have the issues of remoteness that most of our states have, that we would have a health system that was really performing at the top of our nation's health indicators. Unfortunately, that has not been the case under the Labor-Greens government. In fact, the opposite has been true.  On many of the key indicators, we lag behind in our emergency departments and in elective surgery waiting times.


In fact, this issue came to a head in 2012 when it was revealed by the Auditor-General that there had been the deliberate falsification of health records in order to try and improve our health outcomes or improve our health statistics. We saw the large-scale falsification of data within the Department of Health, which was designed to make the government look better. It must be said that, notwithstanding the number of health records that were altered, we were still lagging behind. There was an extraordinary number, 11,700, emergency department records altered or fabricated in order to try and make the government look better. We saw a decline in our numbers so we attempted to fix it up with the falsification of data.


ACT health bureaucrats who altered the fill figures said in the report that they were told to 'fix the numbers to get it done'. There is still a number of outstanding questions around this, which, of course, based on the precedent of yesterday, could be looked at if the Senate or the other place were to choose to follow that precedent and start inquiring into the operations of the territory government in the way that is chosen to look at the operations of the Queensland state government.


Our overall health statistics are still lagging behind. The AIHW report this year shows just 51 per cent of patients in public hospital emergency departments in the ACT were seen within the recommended time frame. That is the worst result of any jurisdiction and well below the national average of 73 per cent. The ACT recorded the nation's worst waiting time in the urgent category, category 3, at just 43 per cent along with just 46 per cent in the semi urgent category, category 4. Only 79 per cent of non-urgent category 5 were seen within the recommended two hours. So we see some serious issues there.


We see the ACT government's budget performance placing serious strain on the people of Canberra as they are asked to pay more and more, particularly through their rates. We saw in the recent ACT budget that the average rates bill will go up over 10 per cent as part of the government's plan to triple everyone's rates, as part of so-called tax reform. So there will be massive increases for households in Canberra, in many cases for households that may be asset rich in older areas but may well be cash poor. They are being asked to pay more and more. I think this is something that needs to be looked at and is certainly something that the ACT government has a lot of questions to answer on.


We are seeing the debt, as we see with so many Labor governments, blow-out and is projected to rise to more than 4 ½ billion dollars over the forward estimates. To put that in context, that is around the annual budget of the ACT government. You start to get into problems when you see the amount of debt you have equal to or more than your annual budget.


In the midst of all this, as Canberrans are being asked to pay more and more and more and are seeing their rates go through the roof, it appears to be all about building a 12-kilometre stretch of light rail line, which is the biggest infrastructure project in the territory's history and one that I believe the community simply does not want. It certainly does not stack up in any way, shape or form—whether it is Infrastructure Australia looking at it. It is projected to cost around $800 million but, knowing this government's record, it is potentially much, much more for a stretch of light rail that will service only a tiny proportion of Canberra residents.


The business case simply does not stack up, yet Canberrans are being asked to foot the bill with massive rates and other tax increases simply to keep one member of the government, the Greens member, happy. That is how the policy is being made here in the nation's capital at a local level.


We have one Greens member, who is now a minister, calling the shots and imposing this $800 million project, which will be a white elephant, on the people of the ACT. Unfortunately, there does not seem much that Canberrans can do about it. They are expressing their views on this proposed project. They do not want it. They are seeing the government deferring other infrastructure projects in order to be able to fund this light-rail project and it is something that they do not want and that does not stack up.



I will conclude by making the point again that there are a number of things that could be looked at when we look at the performance of other governments. Given the precedent set yesterday, I would simply offer up these suggestions to both to the Senate and the other place. (Time expired)