18 April, 2024
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DOORSTOP INTERVIEW: Tolls; grants & pork-barrelling; gaming regulation; unexplained wealth; public sector wages

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CHRIS MINNS: I’m joined with a big number of shadow ministers to speak about issues in the news this morning. First up, I want to acknowledge and respect the Stolen Generations that came to Parliament this morning. It was an important period of bipartisanship, acknowledging the incredible trauma and pain that those people went through. And it was nice for the Parliament to once again step up and speak in a united voice in amnity, in bipartisanship and respect for all that that community has gone through. There’s a long way to go but I believe that when parliaments and all political parties of different political persuasions can speak as one about an issue that’s so important to the history of NSW, it’s an important step in the road to Reconciliation.

Look, I’d like to speak about tolls and in particular the government’s announcement from this morning. This is one step forward, one step backwards for the long suffering motorists of NSW. This is recognition from the NSW Premier, that he created a toll road monster in the most tolled city on the face of the Earth. The NSW Opposition has been telling the government for two years that the people of this state needed toll relief, the government steadfastly stood against any suggestion that toll relief would be coming and coming to the rescue of the motorists of Sydney who have been put in a situation where they now have to use toll roads that have been privatized by the NSW Government. This is a band aid solution for a problem that Mr. Perrottet himself created. Now, if you look at this, I think it’s also a warning for the NSW taxpayers if the government wins the next election in March 2023, asset sales will be back on the table. You’ll see in many respects the money merry go round coming back to consumers. You’ll see assets sold off to the private sector, and those private sector interests push up the user fees, the charges, the tolls on the consumers of NSW. Since the last election, we’ve seen billions of dollars pushed out the door by the NSW Government. The last one was toll roads in NSW. No one on the government benches can say they weren’t warned that pushing out and selling the remaining stake of WestConnex to the private sector would extinguish any leverage that the NSW taxpayer had in reducing the cost and the burden on the toll users of NSW. I think many motorists will be saying today, yes, you’ve you’ve delivered an element of toll relief. But how do we get to this situation in the first place? Why did you progress the privatization knowing that in effect you would create a 100 per cent privately owned toll road monopoly in the most tolled city on the face of the Earth. Now NSW Labor will build on the announcement that’s been announced this morning from the NSW Premier to deliver real toll relief for the motorists of NSW. We will stand up against this ideology of privatization that sees the pushing out of government assets and then the increasing in charges for the users of those assets. Often monopolies, often utilities, often with nowhere else for consumers in this state to go and we will stand up against Mr. Perrottet’s next bright idea, which is distance based tolling for the motorists of Western Sydney. Distance based tolling is a direct hit on the families that live in Western Sydney. It’s a punishment for not living close to the CBD. It’s a bad idea, as was the full sale of WestConnex and NSW Labor will oppose it.

JOHN GRAHAM: Thanks Chris. John Graham, Shadow Minister for Roads and Shadow Special Minister of State. Firstly on tolls. This is a toll prison of the government’s own making. The trouble is there are millions of Sydney drivers trapped inside it. The government’s giving on the one hand here but taking away toll relief today but registration relief toll relief with registration relief gone. So giving on the one hand taking on the other. For some Sydney drivers, this means less than $200 extra in total relief. That’s simply not going to touch the sides, given the scale of the problem. We know some households, some families paying $6,000 a year in tolls, that’s the concern here that this won’t address the very significant issue that we know is going on right across Sydney, a problem of  the government’s making.

Our second concern here, a real policy concern is this: we could have gone so much further. This policy gives additional resources, additional uplift, additional revenue to Transurban. As more people drive on their toll roads, well they’re not being asked to put any of that back into the public purse here and they should be. That’s one of the things that government could have done to drive this further. Get more toll relief to drivers, ask Transurban if they get out revenue windfall or revenue uplift to bring some of that back into toll relief. And we call on the government to have that discussion with Transurban rather than just simply announce these policies that’s in the public interest. We could be getting more bang for our buck here. So those are our two concerns. This by itself, giving on the one hand taking on the other doesn’t go far enough. But secondly, we could have gone further with a good policy here today.

Secondly, on grants, I just want to comment on the government’s grants for response. The government is determined here not to legislate. We have our own bill in the Legislative Assembly under debate at the moment and we’d like that Bill dealt with, we want the government to back that. The government’s own approach doesn’t go far enough on follow the dollar powers for the Auditor General. There’s no mention, no agreement for the government to act, even though that is in place in the Commonwealth, in most jurisdictions around Australia. No follow the dollar powers. On the website the government says well they’re doing this already. Well search up just one of the grant schemes which has come to some attention here. The stronger communities fund. Recall the documents were shredded. Well, you won’t find it on this website. You won’t find it on the government’s website. It doesn’t exist there. The detail on the website at the moment is not at the level that the Commonwealth’s is, we believe our bill would require greater detail.

And finally, we’re calling on the government to act now. Our bill requires ministers to sign and give a reason if they disagree with their department. The government supports that in principle but says they need time to implement it, we’re saying this has to be done before the budget, not after the election. We can’t wait till after the election for there to be grants controls in place in NSW. We know what that’ll mean. It will be a free for all when it comes to grant spending ahead of this election. We want this done before the budget with Labor’s bill, not after the election.

PRUE CAR: Prue Car, Deputy Labor Leader, just a few concerns on behalf of the people of Western Sydney about the toll announcement this morning. The truth is that if you are a working family in an area like Penrith or Marsden Park, working in the city, you are paying at least $6,000 a year in tolls and the government may have announced this rebate while they’ve taken away the free registration. But this won’t even touch the sides of the ever mounting toll bill that people in Western Sydney have to face each and every day just to get to work and home to see their families once again. The reality is that for people living in Western Sydney this is a drop in the ocean. But what would Dominic Perrottet  understand about the pressures on working families at the moment that are only getting worse in areas of Western Sydney, the outer suburbs of Western Sydney because of course, it’s not just the ever increasing tolls that you have to pay every time you jump onto a toll road in Sydney, which is basically everywhere. This comes at a time where we’re about to see interest rate rise at 2.30 this afternoon, where grocery prices are through the roof, where rents are through the roof, where putting petrol in your car is through the roof. It comes at a time where people are really really struggling with the cost of living. And the government announces to big fanfare this toll announcement this morning. But at the same time, they’re actually putting tolls up. They’ve signed a contract and they’re putting tolls up very shortly in a number of weeks. So this is all going to disappear. It is a politically cynical move that will not help families in Western Sydney who were struggling just to make ends meet while they go about the business of earning money to raise their families

DANIEL MOOKHEY: Daniel Mookhey, NSW Shadow Treasurer I just want to make a short announcement. Labor will shortly introduce legislation into the Legislative Assembly to bring forward the operation of the Parliamentary Budget Office to 1 July 2022. Let’s be clear here. We will be going to the next election in March. Offering the people of NSW a clear choice. And as we introduce our fresh ideas for this state, we want to make sure that every single one of our commitments is deliverable. Labor takes responsibility for stewarding the state’s finances responsibly very seriously. We are doing our homework, we’re dotting all the I’s we’re crossing all the T’s so when we make a commitment to the people of NSW, they know it will be delivered. We look forward to the government coming on board and supporting this legislation. And we look forward to engaging with the crossbenchers.

MINNS: We’re all happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: How much toll relief would drivers get under a Chris Minn’s Labor Government?

MINNS: Yeah, well, that’s part of the reason Daniel is bringing forward the parliamentary budget office to July we want to make sure that we’ve got a system in place that people can identify, they know how much they will save as a result of being a motorist. It won’t be easy to do. It’s a difficult set of circumstances, the government has signed contract with a private operator. We are now in the situation in NSW we;re the most tolled city on the face of the Earth and one company owns all or part of the M2, the M4, M5, the M5 East, M7, the M8, The Cross city tunnel, the Lane Cove tunnel, the Eastern distributor and NorthConnex.  So that’s the challenge facing both sides of politics but just make this point. We repeatedly told the NSW Government not to fully privatize WestConnex that it will put too much leverage and power in the hands of a private operator. They did it in any event, and then spent the last two years telling all and sundry that there was no problem with privatization or asset recycling when there clearly was.

JOURNALIST: But if this isn’t enough, if this package isn’t enough for drivers, how is how much is enough in toll relief?

MINNS: Well, I mean, put this in perspective, some families are paying $5,000 to $6,000 a year to use toll roads. If you look at the population growth projections from the NSW Government, you’ll see some council areas grow by several hundred thousand people, which means they have to use these toll roads to get around Sydney, metropolitan Sydney because the public transport links that many of them have been promised are not going to be built in time. So we need to take all of that into consideration. We need to look at what the economic implications of strangling Sydney with toll roads are and I think it’s also a future warning in relation to privatization that ultimately it will be a user pays US style dog ate dog economy, where people are forced to pay more and more and more to use basic utilities and services in Sydney.

JOURNALIST: Chris, would you seek to perhaps make some of these privatized assets state assets again, if you’re elected?

MINNS: No. The privatized assets have gone the NSW Government doesn’t have the balance sheet to buy them back. But many people should be aware that the government still owns half of the electricity assets in NSW. We still own Sydney Water we still own Hunter Water. We still own the rail assets in this state. We still own iCare. There are many things that if the government is reelected, they will be tempted to sell off because ultimately, the premier has never accepted the privatization as an ideology has put taxpayers second and private companies first. So why would he change the habits of a lifetime if he’s reelected in March next year?

JOURNALIST: In essence, what’s happening here? They are giving $750 on one with one hand and but realistically taking $500 away, what’s happening here? What’s the government really doing?
I mean, effectively, that is what it is. It’s for some, for some drivers it’s about $190 extra. Admittedly for other drivers, it’d be between $300 and $400. But for many families, they’re looking at an impost or a cost of over $4,000 as a result of using toll roads in Sydney. Now you put that up against rising interest rates, rising fresh food, rising electricity costs, rising petrol as well as tolls and you have to say that the NSW Government has been at least in part responsible for the cost of living crisis that we currently have in NSW.

JOURNALIST: So what do you make of scrapping the current scheme and replacing it with this new scheme. Do you think it then is a bit of a false economy?

MINNS: Look, I mean, at the end of the day, it’s not enough they’ve had to junk the existing scheme, the free rego scheme for NSW motorists to put a direct cash handout. I don’t know the reason for that. It might be a cynical attempt to say it will seem like a bigger bang for their buck if there’s a big cash handout as opposed to some kind of relief on your registration. The bottom line is it’s not the motorists of NSW’s fault that they live in Western Sydney and governments of both political persuasions haven’t built the public transport infrastructure that they need. But it is the government’s fault that they’ve prioritized new public transport infrastructure for those that live east of Parramatta and brand new toll roads for those that leave west of Parramatta.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there’s any real hope that a tolling reform can address this issue that you’ve described? Or do you think we’re now at the stage where it’s going to be decades and decades of government subsidizing, subsidizing drivers?

MINNS: Look, I mean, at the end of the day, it’ll be difficult for the NSW Government and it will be difficult for the NSW Opposition but we believe that it’s stifling innovation and growth in the economy. It’s particularly hitting infrastructure companies, logistic companies, transport firms, those that have set up manufacturing businesses in Western Sydney, their cost of doing business is going through the roof. Now part of that is petrol, part of it is energy prices. But more and more their number one complaint to us and you in the media has been tolls, entirely entirely predictable catastrophe brought to you by the premier of NSW.

JOURNALIST: It’s up to the government now to to address that, right, like the ships probably sailed on the toll reform?

MINNS: No, give us time. I mean, obviously, we’re working on a toll relief package. We’ve said that we’ll use this as a starting point to deliver real relief for the motorists of NSW. But there are other points here that are important. There are still government assets that are owned by the people of NSW that are effectively monopoly utilities that the government may well put on the chopping block if they win the next election. And we want to stand up against what we regard as a punishment for living in Western Sydney. And that is the Premier’s repeated insistence that he’s looking at distance based tolling for families that live in Western Sydney. That’s simply a punishment for living west of Parramatta.

JOURNALIST: Chris, is he robbing Peter to pay Paul here?

MINNS: Yeah, I mean, obviously he’s taking the money out of the pockets of the motorists of New South Wales and then handing some of it back, but it’s a paltry amount when you consider how much they have to pay to use the roads in Sydney.
Your first your first press conference, Chris, as opposition leader, which is now more than a year ago was on this very issue.

JOURNALIST: You’re telling voters they still need to wait to understand what your policy is going to be? How much longer will they have to wait?

MINNS: Well, let’s put this into perspective. I mean there’s 10 months before the next election. We’ve said to you today that we’re going to bring forward if we can the parliamentary budget office to cost our promises and take it to the next election. There is no legislation that we can bring in as the opposition  today to change the circumstances on the ground, but I’ve committed to bringing in a policy that can be judged by the people of New South Wales in enough time before they vote, and given its 10 months before the next election. I think that that’s reasonable. Now, also, I think, if you consider we’ve been warning the NSW Government that motorists have been hurting particularly in Western Sydney for two years. For two years, the government has been saying there’s been absolutely no problem now. Put that in conjunction with our call for the NSW Premier to step up and provide ambulance officers and paramedics with support which came yesterday. Support for motorists that use toll roads which came today. Support particularly for small businesses in the Northern Rivers and in Lismore. And I do believe we’ve added to the productive debate in NSW trying to drive the NSW Government to make critical changes to their ideology and their orthodoxy to make NSW better.

JOURNALIST: How concerned are you that there will be an under access element because people may not necessarily know about the scheme, the cashback or they may not necessarily apply. We are seeing an underspend and an under access in a lot of these government schemes.

MINNS: Yeah, there’s a I think a bit of a racket going on inside the government where a grant or program is announced by the NSW Government, but it’s not advertised. So thousands of people don’t know that they’re eligible for it. Most recently, we saw the self funded retirees energy rebate, which we’ve discovered 70,000 people didn’t know they were eligible for and therefore didn’t access, now that 70,000 people could have got access to a $200 rebate. And my suspicion is the government loves those headlines that they can issue in media releases announcing a giant package in the knowledge that many people won’t have the access or ability to find out what they’re eligible for. And we need to make sure that that money is in the pockets of the families of NSW for two reasons. Firstly, it’s important to lower their cost of living. And secondly, it’s important to have that money circulating in the economy because in many instances, these programs were about stimulating economic growth as we pulled out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

JOURNALIST: Chris. Do you know what’s going on with the government’s position sorry, on the topic position of Crown casino, all the talk was the cabinet was gonna give it the okay yesterday, Crown has advertised for staff over the weekend now the premier this morning, not wanting to enter into discussion.

MINNS: Yeah, I don’t. I don’t have any inside knowledge in relation to where it’s up to. It’s a complicated issue. It would really depend on what the license restrictions were for the operator. I don’t have a detailed knowledge in relation to that. It’s obviously before the NSW cabinet. They would have cabinet in confidence information about what ILGA has recommended for Crown casino to continue with their license. And I’d like to have that information. In front of you before we made a comment.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible], separate body set up to regulate casinos away from ILGA?

MINNS: Look, I’m not going to make that policy announcement today. Obviously, we want to look at the circumstances in relation to casino licensing the best way of regulation to ensure that we don’t have what we’ve seen over the last two years repeated again and again and again.

JOURNALIST: Further to Lachie’s question on tolls. How much money should people be paying in tolls and how much money is too much to pay in tolls?

MINNS: Yeah, well, look, I’m gonna take you back to my answer of previously. There’s a few things to consider here. We are left with a half done jigsaw puzzle from the NSW Government. We are left with binding contracts entered into by Mr. Perrottet  that we have to deliver and abide by if we form government in March 2023. So any policy that we announce in relation to toll relief for motorists must be consistent with the contractual obligations that the NSW Premier has entered into entered into, as well as the budget situation as it’s presented to us in March 2023. That means we have to go through a process. Now I’ve committed to doing that in time for voters to judge it before March 2023, but it’s going to take time.

JOURNALIST: Would you renegotiate those contracts to make the increase in the tolls smaller?

No, we are going to look at the implications of the contract signed by the NSW Government and look at real relief for Sydney motorists. We don’t have a policy to announce today and I’m not going to speculate on it. We want to do it in a calm, methodical way audited and judged by the NSW parliamentary office. So at the end of the day, the taxpayers of this state know that if we’re elected, we will deliver on the promises that we made in that election.

JOURNALIST: Do you see a bigger role, though, for the government in subsidizing toll roads, like you’re saying this is not enough, is it gonna come from from taxpayer dollars or relief under a government that you lead?

MINNS: Look, I mean, John made the point that one of the things about this policy is that it’s a windfall gain for Transurban, and that needs to be taken into consideration. Again, I point this out in the last two years prior to the full sale of WestConnex the NSW Opposition implored the government not to privatize it, that we had real leverage in any change or any transaction in relation to the sale or even keeping it in taxpayer hands. The government went ahead with that transaction in any event and now another subsidy has to be provided. And Tom, you have to look at it from our point of view. I mean, the NSW Government says to us on the floor of Parliament and in the media, where’s your tolls plan? It’s a little bit like a teenager screaming at us. When are you going to clean our room? I mean, they’re responsible for the mess that they’ve created. We have to look at the policy implications, the budget situation and the contracts we’re determined to do it. But I think it needs to be, it needs to be acknowledged. This is an absolute mess brought to you by Mr. Perrottet.

JOURNALIST: Why don’t have a policy though?

MINNS: I’ve already answered that.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] an extra 300,000 people will benefit from this new relief against the old rebate. So those 300,000 people why do you think that the reliefs not enough?

Well listen to them. I mean, their stories in the media so far today, so far today have been this is not going to go anywhere close to the significant amount of money that we put into the toll road network in NSW and why is it fair that contracts were signed, that will say over $100 billion of motorists money handed to a private operator over the term of the contract of those toll roads, something in the vicinity of $2.3 billion every single 12 months as a result of contracts entered into by Mr. Perrottet and the Liberal government in this state. Their stories to us have been that this is not enough to deal with the crushing toll of tolls on the family budget.

JOURNALIST: Chris, do you do you agree with your Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Sophie Cotsis who said today that the Premier really needs to make it clear why so many other frontline workers are not receiving this $3,000 bonus when the explanation we received this morning from Premier was that essentially there’s always budget pressures and we can all agree that health care workers are heroes.

MINNS: Look, my real concern is for police officers for one example, who were genuinely the heroes of the pandemic. I remember reading about young police officers, female police officers in Western Sydney who was spat on and coughed on enforcing the COVID orders that everybody in this parliament passed and asked the police of this state to enforce. I think many of them are saying we’re struggling with the cost of living as well. We’re now in a situation where our real income is going backwards. And it’s directly as a result of the rising cost of living, petrol, energy, interest rates, tolls, but the NSW Government doesn’t seem to want to come to the party now.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the explanation was satisfactory from the Premier that there are always budget pressures and we can all agree that health care workers were the heroes of the pandemic?

MINNS: I mean, that was his decision to to use to use to single out a different group. I just made this point. There were many heroes in the pandemic. And I think in particular, firies on the north coast who  rescued people in terribly dangerous situations. Police officers enforcing the COVID order during the pandemic are heroes too, and they should be acknowledged.

JOURNALIST: John, can I just ask  another question on tolls. Do you still believe that tolls should go up by CPI?

GRAHAM: The real issue at the moment is that tolls on the 1st of July will go up by double the amount – they usually go up – so six city toll roads won’t go up one per cent. They’ll go up 2.1 per cent. That’s, that is something that is going to diminish the value of this toll relief. In the past we’ve put the view that tolls should not go up by four per cent or inflation, whatever is the highest that’s still our view. You can’t have it both ways. And that’s the view will continue to advocate.

JOURNALIST: So they should still go – they should go up by CPI?

GRAHAM: Yeah, we’ve – what we want to avoid is this double ratchet where they’re either going up four per cent. Or they’re going up by inflation and the toll company wins every time and the driver loses every time, we’ll continue to advocate that position.

JOURNALIST: Daniel just about your PBO, so obviously, you want it by operational by July 1. It’s going to start work then, when does the public gonna see these costings? Because if all the work can be done by the PBO, and you can decide not to not to release it until March 17?

MOOKHEY: Not possible under the parliamentary budget office legislation which I’m sure you’ve all read. So under the parliamentary budget office legislation that PBO comes into existence 1 September, and like, I guess Cinderella disappears June next year. Under that legislation, which is different from the federal legislation, the PBO itself is required by law to publish a budget impact statement on the announcements we make, as well as the announcement that the government makes, it must do so I think five days before the state election. Next year. Now, of course the habbit has been, and you’ll see this from us that as once a PBO comes into operation and as we do make our commitments, we will be making it very clear that every commitment we make is deliberate. Because we have done our hard work, we’ve dotted the I’s, we’ve dotted the T’s and we’re determined to make sure that we are driving maximum bang for buck when it comes to spending the public’s money.

JOURNALIST: So five days before the election, then?

MOOKHEY: That’s the law. And I’ll be honest .That’s the way the law has operated in the 2019 election and 2015 election.

JOURNALIST: Could couldn’t release your costings earlier?

MOOKHEY: And look, we will be very clear here. We will be upfront and aggressive about explaining how we will be making our commitments. But equally, we will be insisting on the government doing the same. Unlike in 2019. We actually want to see the government announce savings measures to pay for the losses. We would want Matt Kean and Dominic Perrottet to answer the question you put to us. Where is the money coming from?

JOURNALIST: Chris, can I just ask about unexplained wealth? What’s wrong with the existing powers [inaudible]?

MINNS: A couple of points there, the NSW Crime Commission budget has been roughly the same today as it was in 2011 and 6’12. We’re hearing firsthand from police officers, they don’t have the powers to go after the drug kingpins, hit them where it hurts, which is the unexplained wealth, the Maseratis, the Ferraris the waterfront homes, now we will give notice of legislation today, we will write to the NSW Government and ask them to provide us with their exposure bill that they’re currently debating for for the NSW Parliament. Fortunately, as a result of the Commonwealth of Australia, we can look to Western Australia and the legislation that they’ve got in place to identify unexplained wealth, but I think this is an important measure. It’s one we want to see utilize in NSW. I think a lot of people say to me often why don’t you go up to the drug kingpins? Why don’t you really go after their sources of wealth? This legislation will do that. And I’d like to see it implemented and enacted in NSW.

JOURNALIST: So how would you see it function [inaudible]

MINNS: At the end of the day, we’re looking closely at the Western Australian model, which sees the DPP or their crime commission on the balance of probabilities for someone who’s involved in criminal networks who can’t explain wealth, seek an order, be provided an order, the freeze on the assets would then take place, it could then be seized if the person involved can’t prove to the court how they came about that ill gotten gain. For example, if they can prove it, then then the property the assets, stay with the individual.

JOURNALIST: So someone other than the police then determines who should be subjected to UWO?

MINNS: I mean, in Western Australia, my understanding is it’s the DPP or the Crime Commission, but they’ve got increased orders and more access to seeking those orders in Western Australia than they do in NSW. Look at the end of the day, we’re hearing from senior people in this state, that we’ve got an organized crime problem and the existing laws that need to be strengthened are not being applied. I’d like to see the NSW Government step up and enact the laws that they’re currently debating. If they don’t, then we’ll pursue our own legislation.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] The AFP is targeting Italian mafia members [inaudible] and they say it’s hard to find because they live modest lives in modest homes. Will these unexplained wealth orders help at all in that regard?

MINNS: Look, I couldn’t comment about operational matters from the AFP I just simply don’t know. What I do know is that we need to provide our law enforcement experts, those that work every single day in this jurisdiction with the tools and legislation and policy they need to tackle organized crime. Organized crime is insidious. Once it gets in the marrow of a community it’s very difficult to remove and we want to get to a situation where we can crush organized crime and organized criminals who flaunt their wealth within our community.

CHRIS MINNS MP
NSW LABOR LEADER

PRUE CAR MP
NSW DEPUTY LABOR LEADER

JOHN GRAHAM MLC
NSW SHADOW MINISTER FOR ROADS
NSW SHADOW SPECIAL MINISTER OF STATE

DANIEL MOOKHEY MLC
NSW SHADOW TREASURER

 

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