The Victorian opposition has pledged to bring the budget back into the black within five years and cut spending on huge infrastructure projects if the Coalition wins next year’s election.
Shadow treasurer Louise Staley warned if the state government failed to haul the Victorian economy out of a budget deficit, future governments would need to make tough decisions on cutting services and reduce spending on critical services.
Shadow treasurer Louise Staley warns the debt “day of reckoning” is much closer than we think. Credit:Jason South
“Now, if you’re paying interest year in, year out, that means you’re not spending it on hospital waiting lists, you’re not spending it on fixing potholes on country roads, you are constrained in your infrastructure capital spend,” Ms Staley said.
“We’ve overspent, we’ve taken from the future and said we’ll have it all now, and that day of reckoning is much closer that it was.”
The MP – who was the only Liberal to take a seat from Labor at the last election and who holds her marginal country seat, Ripon, with just a 15-vote margin – told The Age a Coalition government would bring the budget back to balance by 2026 through “aggressively” lobbying the Commonwealth for Victoria to get a greater share of the GST, by trimming fat in the public service, and by banking on economic growth.
When asked if those three levers were sufficient to achieve a balanced budget, Ms Staley insisted it was possible.
“Every other state is doing it,” she said. “It’s 2021 right now, and I’m talking about five years’ time – six budgets’ time. This is not next week, this is possible.
“The thing I won’t be doing is cutting services.”
Treasurer Tim Pallas unveiled a big-spending budget in November to drag the state out of the coronavirus-induced economic downturn, flagging an unprecedented $23.3 billion budget deficit next financial year – with net debt expected to blow out to $155 billion within three years – and a major infrastructure program. The state’s deficits are then projected to reduce over coming years.
Ms Staley said that, while some infrastructure projects were necessary, “there comes a point where you do have to make some choices”, and state governments should not be about spending money on “flashy” projects at the expense of providing key services, including education and health.
The Andrews government’s $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop.Credit:
“Having lived through COVID, and all of the lockdowns, and the changes we’ve all faced, whether we’re working from home, whether we have reassessed where we’re going to live, all of those things are going to mean Victoria has the potential to be a different place over the next few years than the trajectory it was on,” she said.
“As an alternative government, we need to be really clear in saying to Victorians that we recognise that many people are making different choices and we want to enable those choices. For me, state government is about service delivery: it’s about the health, the education, the transport, all of those key service delivery areas.
“State government is not flashy; it’s service delivery. People want their kids educated, they want their roads fixed.”
The Coalition this month recommitted to building the East West Link, one of its signature infrastructure policies heading into the 2014 election. Ms Staley argues it remains a necessary project, and with federal government spending of $4 billion and private sector input, it would cost Victorian taxpayers nothing.
“My view on the East West Link is that it is so blindingly obvious that it’s needed,” she said. “Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure Victoria say it’s needed. Everybody from the eastern suburbs who sits in the car park there every day knows it’s needed, so I don’t accept the narrative that somehow it’s not needed or we lost an election because of it.”
The shadow treasurer said she wanted Victorians to apply the same rationale to the state budget as they do to their household budgets.
“[It boils down to] would you like a new hospital, would you look like a new road, or would you like something [the $50 billion Suburban Rail Loop] you don’t know the dollar cost or the houses that will be acquired, the environmental costs and the opportunity cost,” she said.
“If you’re going to spend that kind of money, that means you cannot spend it on other things.”
Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien has framed the state election next year as a contest between which party would better manage the state’s finances. He has also spruiked his credentials as former treasurer of the state.
An Ipsos poll commissioned by The Age and Nine News in October – at the tail end of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic – found 52 per cent of Victorians surveyed approved of the way Premier Daniel Andrews had performed his role, with 33 per cent disapproving.
Only 15 per cent approved of Mr O’Brien’s performance during the pandemic. His approval rating among even Coalition supporters surveyed was just 27 per cent.
The Coalition has been in power in Victoria for only four of the past 22 years.
“I accept what John Howard and others have said: voters don’t get it wrong,” Ms Staley said.
“We live in a democracy, and if the voters are not electing my party then my party needs to think strongly about why that is.
“I know [me talking about service delivery] is not razzmatazz … But this government is very tired, it’s not getting the basics right.
“That means there are lots of Victorians languishing on hospital waiting lists, kids are not coming out with the education they need, or at the really vulnerable end, children who are just not being protected.”
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