Emergency Services Levy 2015-16 | SPEECH


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 11:50 :40 ): I commend the new member for Davenport for putting so many issues so succinctly and so accurately into his speech. As a member of the Economic and Finance Committee, of course I played quite a role in this, as did my colleagues on the committee. I would like to start by thanking all the chief officers who came to present to our committee. They are all very capable and highly regarded people and I appreciate the information they provided to us.

I would also like to note that the report that the committee has put forward is almost exactly the same as the report that was provided by the government department to the committee. While I agree with everything that is in the report, I think it is a bit unfortunate that there is so little difference between those two reports, because there was actually a great deal of information that was gained by the chief officers, their support staff and SAFECOM representatives coming to present to the committee and answer our questions. I encourage anybody who is interested in this issue to read the transcript of that inquiry, because it was quite informative.

I, like all members of this house, appreciate the very good work that all the emergency services workers out there, both professionals and volunteers, do for us, but none of us are happy with the increase in the emergency services levy. Last year the government increased the ESL by removing the remissions, and that was essentially just a transfer of money straight from the taxpayer to Treasury. The emergency services sector did not get any extra funding whatsoever, it was just purely removing the remissions, charging the public more money and that additional money going straight to Treasury, because the government has got itself in all sorts of bother trying to balance the books.

We are told that the reason for the second increase in the emergency services levy, which is an increased charge to the taxpayer which will go on to the emergency services sector, is that the Sampson Flat bushfire effort, which of course was necessary and of course was valiantly fought as efficiently as possible, requires approximately a $10 million shortfall to be recovered. We were also told that there is a budget of approximately $800,000 set aside in the emergency services sector for such events, yet we have had a significant bushfire every year for the last five years, and in some years we have had more than one significant bushfire.

So I suggest that the money set aside needs to be significantly greater, since it seems that the average amount of money required is about $10 million per year—it certainly was at Sampson Flat and it certainly was at Bangor. If that is the reason for the increase in the emergency services levy then we will have to expect more of them, because unfortunately we have to expect more disasters of this type that the emergency services sector has to pursue.

It was also interesting to find out during the questioning of witnesses that the rate on the dollar has gone up in the emergency services charge because property values have not increased as much as they were expected to. I can understand that the government, in this sector, needs to target a certain total amount of money that it needs to gain from the taxpayer to provide the service. but I would certainly hope that, when we get into flusher economic times and property values increase quicker than expected, the government will remember this and then reduce the rate on the dollar and not just sneakily accept windfall gains, as they have over many years in the past 12 years with regard to stamp duties on properties, for example.

When properties were increasing in value very significantly, without changing the rate on stamp duty, the stamp duty dollar take to the government increased very significantly. So, if the government is saying that at the moment they have increased the rate on the dollar because property values are not increasing at the predicted rate, I certainly hope that, when they do increase greater than the predicted rate, the government will decrease the rate on the dollar.

One of the most instructive pieces of information which came out of the hearing with witnesses was that in the past year the government has spent approximately $550,000 of taxpayer money to fund the failed attempt by the Minister for Emergency Services to restructure the emergency services sector. The minister and the government were told loud and clear by the overwhelming majority of people within the emergency services sector—whether they be volunteers, all the way through to senior leaders—that what the minister was trying to do was not going to work, was going to be ineffective and inefficient and would waste money.

I suppose better late than never, the minister did, after approximately a year, decide that he would abandon his effort to restructure the sector in the way that he wanted to, but along the way he spent over half a million dollars. We are told that this is just the money that he spent in the past year, and that there will actually be more money added to that total in the current year. We are also told that, unfortunately, some of that money is going to be spent because of the review of the review.

The minister established a review to restructure the emergency services sector. He abandoned that, having spent, we are told, approximately $550,000, but now there is going to be more money spent by the minister and the government in reviewing the failed review. It is so incredibly frustrating because the minister was told, loud and clear, not to even embark upon this process. He was told loud and clear that, yes, of course there is room for efficiency improvements, and that, yes, of course there is a willingness across the sector to try to look for better ways—more effective and potentially cost-saving ways—of doing what they do, but that combining the services under one overall leadership model was not going to be the solution. They were right; they were absolutely right.

To be spending however many multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars it is going to end up being, only to end up agreeing with what the emergency services participants at all levels told the minister up-front, is a terrible shame, particularly when we are told that another reason for having to increase the emergency services levy is that it is necessary to train new volunteers and that it costs approximately $1,500 per volunteer to train new volunteers.

So, $550,000 plus whatever else is still to come would go an enormous way to training new volunteers and could have in fact led to the emergency services levy not having to be increased nearly as steeply as it has been. There was a lot of important information that was provided honestly by witnesses which is not included in this report, and I encourage anybody who is interested to go and read the transcript of the committee hearing.

In conclusion, I would just like to put on the record my very personal thanks to all the volunteers and full-time and part-time professionals who contribute to keeping us safe through the emergency services sector. I would also like to thank Mr David Place for his tremendous work as the head of SAFECOM over the last several years. I wish him very well in his move to heading up the SA Ambulance Service, which is where he came from before going to SAFECOM, and I wish Mr Malcolm Jackman all the very best as the new head of SAFECOM and his move away from Defence SA.

Debate adjourned on motion of Mr Gardner.