APPROPRIATION BILL 2016 - Estimates Committees

Mr DULUK (Davenport) (16:40): I rise today to also speak on the Appropriation Bill reports to estimates committees. 

Last week, I read an article following the first day of estimates proceedings. It is fair to say that the author was not too impressed with the process, questioning the rationale for estimates, stating:

The Groundhog day familiarity of the Estimates treadmill…leads inevitably to the annual observations that the system needs an overhaul.

 No-one likes estimates—not the ministers, not the advisers, not the media and not even the opposition. I beg to differ because I love estimates — it is the inner accountant in me. As the member for Schubert referred to in his contribution, I think between us we sat on 44 estimates committees. It is actually a very interesting process, and it is actually a very important process. It is an important process that is critical to our parliamentary proceedings. It is an important process, and whether or not it is entertaining to the media or whether it is too burdensome for ministers and their staff is not really the responsibility or the concern of the parliament.

As, Deputy Speaker, you and I were just having a conversation offline, parliament is sovereign, and our responsibility as a parliament is to the people of South Australia. As parliamentarians, especially here in the lower house where government is formed, our responsibility as members of parliament is to keep the government honest. Budget estimates is an opportunity for the parliament to scrutinise ministers and their agencies about the decisions they have made on behalf of the people of South Australia.

To question ministers on the way they have chosen to spend taxpayer funds and the way they have chosen to raise those funds in the first instance is an opportunity to scrutinise the government's expenditure and performance as well as the effectiveness of ministers and their agencies. To me, it is an integral part of accountability and transparency of the wheels of government in South Australia. Perhaps sometimes parliament does not use estimates to its full opportunity. Opposition members certainly ask the government the tough questions.

Perhaps, though, to make parliament a more efficient and a more effective tool of scrutiny, government backbenchers could also scrutinise government ministers and really be representatives of the parliament and of their electorates, instead of providing Dorothy Dixers to some ministers to protect them from the questioning of the opposition. Beginning last Thursday at 9am on day one with the Attorney-General and concluding last night at 5.30pm with the Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, I certainly did enjoy my estimates process.

In between last Thursday and yesterday afternoon, there have been many hours spent exploring much of the content of the budget papers but also much of what was not in the budget papers. I would like to take this opportunity this afternoon to thank the ministers for their contributions. I would especially like to thank the many departmental and agency staff for their time and candour as well. You certainly get to know the feeling of which ministers are controlled by the department and which ministers control their department.

I would also like to take this opportunity to outline what we learned or, perhaps more meaningfully, what we did not learn from the estimates proceedings. The budget papers told us that this government will introduce a $50 million South Australian Venture Capital Fund to partner with private sector financiers to support innovation and help build high-growth companies in South Australia—a very noble policy position—with $750,000 allocated to the 2016-17 budget and through the forward estimates for administration costs of this Venture Capital Fund.

Naturally, being such a big ticket item and a key plank of the Treasurer's initiatives to support innovation and develop future industries, the opposition was keen and eager to know more about the Venture Capital Fund. In fact, I flagged last week in my budget reply speech that I would be seeking details around the fund, the source of the funds, its governance, management and the investment process.

One week on, and having gone through estimates, what do I know now? I know that the funds manager is yet to be determined. I know that the types of projects that will qualify for funding are yet to be determined. I know that the governance structure is yet to be determined. I know that FTEs are yet to be determined. I also know that the forecast of high-growth companies is yet to be determined. What can be determined, though, is that the Treasurer does not know how the $750,000 appropriation for the administration cost was determined. He and his advisers will do 'the very best to estimate what we think it will cost'.

One thing is for sure, and the one thing that the Treasurer was certain of, is that the taxpayer exposure under this $50 million fund will be a lot and the taxpayers will be exposed to the investments of the government. So, yes, we could indeed lose the lot was an answer that the Treasurer provided in his estimates. That was on Monday. This is only my second estimates and I know there are many more people who have gone through a lot more process than I have, but I find it very interesting.

I think the leader was on a roll against the Treasurer last week. The Treasurer knew so much on so many topics and then suddenly had to take advice on so many other matters, even though they were closely related. The decision that the executive, or the ministers, choose to provide information to the parliament and ultimately to the people on the decisions they make is probably one part of estimates which is lacking.

I was very pleased to see that as part of the STEM funding announcement by the government that there would be a $2.5 million funding injection for STEM to Blackwood High School, which is in my electorate of Devonport. I was eager, as I am sure the staff and students of Blackwood High School are, to know more about the allocation of this funding and the time line of when any capital works would be completed. I would like to thank the minister for answering my questions and enlightening me.

I know that, wait for it, it is yet to be determined in terms of how that $2.5 million will be spent. The government has made an announcement, allocated funding but is unable to provide any detail on which schools will be in the first tranche of funding or how the funds will be spent. In response to my question, the minister stated:

Part of the process that we are working through at the moment is which schools are in the first tranche and, of course, also working with them about how they best spend that money.

I need to highlight that last part about how the school best spend that money. That sum of $2.5 million is a lot of taxpayer money to be allocated to one school, and I know the school community in Blackwood is very grateful and the funding is extremely welcome. However, surely it makes good economic sense to base that amount of funding around some type of plan, some type of data modelling, some type of needs allocation.

The $250 million STEM funding is aimed at increasing the number of students in both primary and secondary schools who choose STEM subjects—a very noble goal. So, I asked: what is the government's target in how many additional students the government is hoping will choose STEM subjects because of the investment? Essentially, we want to know what the return to this state on the $250 million investment we are expecting. The answer: 'we have not articulated that target yet.' Certainly it is a policy that we support on this side of the house, and I note the shadow minister for education is in the chamber this afternoon. It is a good policy, but let's have some targets around it.

Let's see what it is trying to achieve. Let's see how we can benchmark it, and let's also see, once the policy is implemented, once $250 million of taxpayer money is spent, how we come back in several years time and evaluate if that was a good use of taxpayer money. This type of analysis should be provided through the estimates committee so that, as a parliament and as a people, we can judge if the government is acting in the best interests of the people and is accountable for its decisions, so ultimately the people then can pass verdict on the government. As we know, it is very important for the people of South Australia, Australia and all across the world to have a belief that the institutions that serve them serve them well and serve their best interests. So, I found that quite interesting.

As I said, and I will not take up the house's time for too long, I sat through quite a few estimates hearings, and you certainly know which ministers are the performing ministers in the government and which ministers choose longwinded opening statements. I have to acknowledge the Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, who did not make an opening statement or take any government questions. She sat in the committee, she fronted the music and she performed to the best of her abilities in that regard, but that cannot be said of all ministers.

I do not want to steal the thunder of the member for Schubert, but I think we both had the same experience when we were in the committee with the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation. I have never heard a more longwinded opening statement from a minister in the five days of estimates. Minister Hunter, in his committee, also probably took the most amount of Dorothy Dixers as well. What was quite enlightening though was that the Dorothy Dixers that he took when I was in committee were from the former environment minister, the member for Colton. I think, within the Dorothy Dixer, the member for Colton knew more about the answer than the minister did at the time.

One thing that struck me in that committee as well, and given that I think that portfolio of sustainability, environment and conservation is meant to be setting the environmental agenda for the state and looking forward to how the city of Adelaide and South Australia can be a carbon-neutral city, was how much paper the advisers in that department and the minister had. They were very well organised and, I assume, very well-briefed.

It occurred to me that I was sitting there in the 21st century. There is no reason why all of that paperwork cannot be uploaded onto an iPad with an index to all of the perceived answers that will be provided, not that any answers were actually provided in that committee. There is no reason why the minister and his advisers and team could not have all of the data easily accessible on an iPad with an index that can be easily returned to.

The technology is there so, for next year, I would probably like to see us, starting in that department anyway, moving to a paperless estimates, which would be very novel. Even with the way we sign in an out of estimates, we could trial a paperless estimates where we just type our name into an iPad and use an electronic signature, to sign in and out as well. It would save the whips countless hours of signing pre-estimates to get along. Another one of the estimates which I unfortunately could not sit in on was the transport and infrastructure estimates committee. I looked at the transport and infrastructure budget very closely because it is a very exciting budget, and I think transport and infrastructure is a key budget for economic growth in this state.

One thing that struck me that was not in the budget was any funding from the state Labor government for the upgrade of the Oaklands crossing. We had the Premier in the chamber today in question time talking about how the state government is getting right behind Oaklands crossing, which is a most noble project indeed and one that will benefit many commuters. It will benefit commuters in the seats of the member for Elder, the member for Bright, the member for Mitchell and those in the inner south.

There was not a single dollar in this year's state budget for the Oaklands crossing. The member for Elder and the Premier were out at the crossing, I think on Monday of last week, and then the Premier again today, in his contribution to the house, was right behind this project, yet there was not a single dollar in the budget, not a scoping study nor any plan on how the state Labor government will be investing in the Oaklands crossing. The federal government has $40 million on the table, thanks to the new member for Boothby and her work during the federal election, but there is not a single dollar yet from the state Labor government.

So, I look forward to, in next year's state budget, seeing the line item for the Oaklands crossing from the state Labor government if they are serious about that funding project. Some of the other departments were telling as well, in terms of the attention that they have within government and their effectiveness as well. I would like to talk a little bit about a portfolio issue that is close to my heart and that I have a strong interest in, and that is around mental health and substance abuse, which of course was in the budget estimates yesterday.

One thing we did learn from this year's budget is about activity indicators. We have seen almost a 30 per cent increase in the number of drug diversions recorded, as well as a significant increase in drug driver detections. It was very disappointing to have the police commissioner confirm, in his contribution to estimates on Monday, that 'there is an increased incidence of the presence of illicit substances within the community'. This is particularly disappointing given that we are in the final year of the government's five-year Alcohol and Other Drug Strategy.

It is even more alarming that the Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse believes the strategy has been largely successful, despite the police commissioner's comments. As we saw in the budget, drug driver detections are up and drug diversions are up. The National Ice Taskforce report found that South Australia has the second highest rate of ice usage in the country and that usage in this state is above that average.

In today's paper there was another report on drug use in South Australia. The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report notes that illicit use of any drug by people aged 14 years and older has increased steadily since 2007, yet the minister considers the five-year strategy to have been successful.

If only I was able to read the 2015 annual progress report that the minister says she is sitting on, but eight months into the year it has not been made publicly available. But, minister, once you have moved it onto your desk, I look forward to reading it in this house.

The minister was also able to confirm—and this is, I suppose, a process of estimates that I do like, or the irony in it—that South Australia received $20.104 million in commonwealth government payments in 2015-16 under the National Partnership Agreement relating to mental health. Indeed, the minister had this figure on the tip of her tongue, but just as you would expect, given that she has been passing the buck on all mental health funding responsibilities for months now, in the media, in the house, and at question time, every failing in the mental health sphere has been, according to the minister, the fault of the commonwealth government.

This is despite the fact that the National Partnership Agreement was always due to expire and despite the fact that the commonwealth government has committed to a reorganisation of health funding under the new Primary Health Networks model, a model supported by the National Mental Health Commission. What really surprised me was not how quickly the minister spat out the amount of commonwealth funding South Australia was to receive under the agreement, it was that she could not answer the following question:

How much did the state co-contribute to mental health services under the National Partnership Agreement [in 2015-16]?

There was no answer on the amount the state contributed under the agreement. The minister did not know how much the state government was making under the National Partnership Agreement, her own portfolio, her own position, but she certainly knew what the commonwealth government was providing.

That is the estimates process that always highlights to me how ministers are so knowledgeable in some areas of the department but in other areas they are not. That question was taken on notice and I look forward to receiving that response from the minister. I just hope I do not have to wait until July 2017, as was the case with the planning minister, who took about eight months to reply to questions that I raised in last year's budget estimates.

Going through the estimates process, one thing that came to me was around the portfolios within DSD around small business and job creation. The Treasurer is responsible, the Minister for Small Business is responsible, the Minister for Science and Information Technology is responsible, the Minister for Manufacturing and Innovation is responsible, and the Minister for Employment is also responsible for this portfolio. They are all different ministers, and in each estimates committee they all said, 'That part of small business employment is not my portfolio area, that belongs to another minister. Ask that in estimates.'

When it comes to small business, job creation and unemployment in this state, not a single minister in a single department wants to take any responsibility for any budget item with regard to helping small business and dealing with unemployment in South Australia.