I rise to make a contribution on the State Taxation and Mental Health Acts Amendment Bill 2021. This bill makes amendments to a range of other pieces of legislation. The bill is described by the government as supporting Victoria’s economic recovery, achieving budget revenue, providing some tax relief measures and introducing a mental health and wellbeing levy, which is to be implemented via the payroll surcharge on large employers. While we are hearing the government lauding this budget, we are hearing others who are criticising it as being a very heavy taxing budget that is not going to be welcomed in a number of areas.
The regional community of Shepparton district, which I represent, is like many others across Victoria and no doubt Melbourne as well, where we have seen for many years that mental health services have been crying out for an uplift in the sorts of services available to people. I know that there are very few families in Victoria where mental health has not been an issue at some level, where the family has not been touched by someone—whether it be a family member or someone close to them—who has not been able to access the services they have needed. When the royal commission report was tabled at the exhibition building earlier this year, we heard from two people who recounted their very personal experiences with the mental health system. Both those people were from country communities. One was a farmer and one was a young woman from a community very nearby to my own. Both had been very badly let down by the mental health system as it stands.
I, like many others in this place will have had, have had many people come through my electorate office doors distressed, upset—desperate—trying to access some sort of service for someone having a psychotic breakdown, someone drug affected or someone suffering from severe depression, or people whose daughter is suffering from severe postnatal depression. These sorts of things are absolutely terrifying to a family when they are occurring, and if the only place you can go is an emergency department, where you may have to wait a very long time and ultimately be sent out the door to the car park—as was described by those two people at the launching of the royal commission report—then we are not doing things well enough.
It is, I think, really exacerbated in regional areas by the lack of trained workforce availability. There are many shopfronts and places along the main streets of country towns where people can go to perhaps have a talk about how they are feeling and maybe get a referral, but to get a referral to someone who can provide that sort of therapeutic assistance, provide the treatment that they may need, other than drugs, is incredibly difficult. They simply do not exist. Those who do exist have very long waiting lists, and often people are required to travel to the city to try and find them. We know that even here in metropolitan Melbourne where, generally speaking, I would say most services are readily available to people, mental health services are not—and have not been for a very long time.
The change that is required is really massive, and it will come at a great cost. The levy was hinted at when the royal commission was being talked about over the period of the last few years, and here we have it in this piece of legislation. It is being targeted at large businesses with payrolls of $10 million or more. I guess they are easy targets in a lot of ways. We saw some of these big businesses do incredibly well during the COVID pandemic—I am talking about some of the very large ones—where they received JobKeeper. They had never had business booming better, and they decided to keep JobKeeper. Very few handed it back. Some did; others just passed it on to their shareholders as dividends. It has made them somewhat unpopular, that sort of behaviour during a worldwide pandemic, and I think in some ways that has set them up to be a target. It is a bit out of left field to impose this sort of tax on a particular area, but generally speaking and in other cases where levies have been implemented they have often been on higher income earners.
To that extent I would refer to the fact that back in around 2000 a levy was introduced called the East Timor levy, and that was a levy imposed on higher income earners for the purpose of partially offsetting Australia’s defence costs in East Timor. Again, a flood recovery levy in 2010–11 in Queensland—the flood recovery levy was a temporary reconstruction tax on people earning over $50 000 to fund the reconstruction of Queensland following those dreadful floods that we saw. And of course we all live with the Medicare levy surcharge. That is really designed to encourage people to take out private patient hospital cover and use the private hospital system to reduce the burden on Medicare. So it is not that this is something entirely new. Levies have been introduced before where they have been absolutely seen as necessary to fund a particular service. One would hope that in the state of Victoria a levy like this will not be required on an ongoing basis but that there will be the funds raised to be able to make a very significant difference to mending what we know to be a broken system.
We have heard from the Treasurer that the budget has been lauded by Berry Street and the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia. The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has said it succeeds in areas of job creation, addressing skills gaps, powering innovation and manufacturing. He has gone on to say that Equity Economics believes that ultimately business will benefit from the budget and that Standard & Poor’s describe it as making the state well placed to begin its fiscal repair in coming years. There is no doubt, though, that others will be very unhappy with aspects of these property taxes because of the impact they believe that will occur in relation to them—the increases in stamp duty, land tax and the like.
Offering concessions on land transfers to alleviate the glut of vacant newly built properties that we have here in the City of Melbourne is a practical sort of initiative. It supports the construction industry and may help more people to buy their own homes if they care to live in the inner city. In Shepparton, however, we have quite a different set of circumstances. We have seen more and more people over the last 12 months seeking to move to regional areas, and in our district it is almost impossible to buy a home. If you put your house on the market, it will be sold within a week, if not, two weeks. And of course rentals are scarce beyond all belief at every level—at the high end, at the low end—and homelessness is now being exacerbated more than ever. So there is no glut of housing in the regions. Every day you can pick up a newspaper that will talk about the fact that the regions are suffering from a lack of housing, lack of rental, lack of being able to purchase and a massive skills shortage. We are seeing that reflected in so many ways.
I can see that time is getting away from me. I just wanted to add how very disappointed I am that universities have been a target of this $10 million-plus business payroll tax initiative. I heard the Treasurer yesterday describing the very ample funding that was targeted towards universities. During last year in particular there were a whole range of initiatives, and they were very large ones and very generous and no doubt they have continued to some extent, particularly when it comes to research in relation to COVID-related matters. But universities are a pivotal part of our communities. They have really suffered, dramatically suffered, as a result of foreign students not coming into our communities. In regional areas they are the heartbeat of what makes us tick. La Trobe University and the Melbourne rural school of health associated with Goulburn Valley Health are really pivotal to our communities. I would certainly say that if there has not been a lot of consultation done on some of this legislation, and I believe that is the case, then universities should be looked at very closely because they are so important in every community and they are really the heartbeat of all our knowledge, research and development. I would urge the government to take that up.