The following statement was given to Parliament this evening by the Member for South West, Hon Dr Steve Thomas MLC.
HON Dr STEVE THOMAS: I thank you, Madam President, for this opportunity to vent some frustration at the process of asking questions in relation to a particular issue, and to update the house on where we are in this rather difficult process. Unlike a lot of members, I spend a fair bit of time browsing the budget papers of this and previous years. I know that is a rather odd thing to do, but I come up with a whole pile of very interesting things. One of the things I did as economics spokesperson for the opposition in the upper house was a comparison of royalties for regions funding between this and previous years to look at particular projects that had been funded and to identify which ones had been shifted. Something I found quite interesting was the volunteer fuel card, which I have been pushing for a few weeks. In my view, it was cut from the 2017–18 budget. In the forward estimates it was down to $1 million a year. The previous government, in its 2016–17 budget, had it at about $1.9 million a year. I assumed that meant a cut, we could narrow it down and identify it, the government would have to acknowledge that it had halved the value of the fuel card and move on; that would be perfectly reasonable, but it did not do that. I have made some comments and asked some questions in the budget estimates hearings and in my budget reply speech and I have tried to find out what exactly has happened.
Let us have two minutes of history here. The volunteer fuel card was put in place in 2015–16, but late in that financial year, so the volunteer fire brigades and other volunteers did not have much capacity to access the card that year. Very little funding was expended in 2015–16; it had all come on too late. It had a budget of $1.9 million but only $300 000 was spent because they could not quite get there. However, in the first full financial year that the fuel card was available to emergency services volunteers in Western Australia, expenditure under royalties for regions for the regional volunteer fuel card, according to the government’s own figures, was $3.2 million. More than an extra $1 million dollars was claimed by volunteer bush fire brigades and volunteer emergency services—those people who protect us out in the regions.
This was a very popular measure, but the government has decided to cut it back. It has saved $4 million in the forward estimates by reducing the amount available and capping it at $1 million a year. If that is what the government decided to do, that would probably be fair enough, but it has been very hard to get it to acknowledge that. The first time I went forward and put it to the media. I said, “I can’t get an answer out of the Minister for Emergency Services. Maybe you can ask why they’ve cut that back to $1 million dollars a year.” The first answer I got was when a journalist came back to me and said, “No, Steve, it’s okay because it hasn’t had much use. We looked at 2015–16 and they’ve only spent $300 000 on it, so nobody’s really taking it up.” I said that was a bit interesting because 2015–16 was the first year it was invented, so they did not realise it was there. The first year that they could actually get the full value out of it, they spent $3.2 million in regional areas. It actually had more use than they budgeted for. The journalist said, “Oh, that’s a bit interesting; we’ll go back and ask the minister again.”
The next thing the minister did was to put out a media release to say that it was not funded in the forward estimates by the previous government and that it only went to 2018–19. The journalist came back to me again and said “You guys didn’t fund it.” I said, “Hang on a minute, go and read the budget papers.” If we look at the 2016–17 budget papers—the last budget of the former government—we see on page 195 an allocation of $1.9 million for the volunteer fuel card for 2019–20. I have seen it recorded in Hansard about six times, when I have tried to get an answer. It was funded.
The Minister for Emergency Services, who launched a lettuce-leaf attack on me a couple of weeks ago in the Legislative Assembly has a problem here, and the way he is trying to get out of it absolutely beggars belief. He is saying that in 2015–16, when the card was first put together, a memorandum of understanding was signed for that year and the four out years, as is quite normal. Royalties for regions developed a four-year memorandum of understanding, and he says that is the only bit that counts. Even though there is $1.9 million in the forward estimates in 2019–20, that bit does not count; we cannot trust the budget papers. It is groundhog day! Forward estimates do not count; we have come full circle. Despite the fact that there is $1.9 million for 2019–20, that bit does not count; cabinet did not tick off on it because it was not included in the original memorandum of understanding. That is probably right, because do members know what happens? We have a memorandum of understanding for a certain period of time and when we get close to the end of that memorandum of understanding and we need to renegotiate it, we negotiate a new one towards the end of the process. But we still put notional budgets in the budget papers if we intend for that process to go forward, and thus my question today: is all royalties for regions expenditure for this year and all forward estimates years, including the last one, 2020–21, covered by memorandum of understanding? The answer was no. The government would not do that, because it absolutely makes sense that it would wait until the previous memorandum of understanding begins to expire and then renegotiate a new one. That does not mean that there was no funding in the budget.
The 2016–17 budget was quoted in the answer I got today, which was that there was a total of $7.37 million in that budget. Guess what? That $7.3 million included the $1.9 million for 2019–20. The government has probably had to shuffle a little bit. As I say, I am prepared to cut the government a bit of slack here because there has obviously been a bit of shuffling going on. We went over budget in 2016–17; the budget set aside by the previous government was $1.9 million and it spent $3.2 million. Okay, maybe there is an issue there, but just remember the stuff that gets hidden. The actual expenditure is found in this government’s own budget papers, on page 225 of budget paper No 3. The budget the previous government originally put in place in 2015–16, its first year, was $1.9 million; the actual expenditure was $0.3 million. It saved $1.6 million in the first year because nobody knew the card was out there to claim. We had to work into that. Once they finally figured it out and decided it was an advantage for those hardworking volunteers all through regional Western Australia, it jumped to $3.2 million.
Let us do some simple maths: $3.2 million minus $1.9 million is less than the $1.6 million the government saved in the first financial year of the card, so the government is a few hundred thousand dollars in front. As it is a few hundred thousand dollars in front, it has decided to slash the card in half for regional emergency volunteers. It has not happened in the metropolitan area; the take-up has been quite small. Only $140 000 has been spent in a metropolitan area, because guess what? They do not have to drive hundreds of kilometres for a training day in the metropolitan area, and surprisingly enough, there is not a huge number of volunteer bush fire brigade fighters in the metropolitan area. It may surprise members to learn—not members from regional areas, of course—that of the 29 000 or so volunteer emergency services workers in Western Australia, 22 000 plus of them are actually volunteer bush fire brigade fighters, and the vast majority of those live in the bush, because that is very convenient when they are trying to get to a fire. The astounding thing is that we have sat here and I have asked question after question about what the real funding is for the volunteer bush fire brigade.
I can tell members that despite what the government has said about the process that has been gone through, and the obfuscation, hidden arguments and absolute nonsense that has been presented, the volunteer fuel card for regional and rural volunteer emergency services has been slashed in half. It is a budget savings measure. The budget papers of the previous government had funding in place for 2019–20, and it is time for the Minister for Emergency Services to fess up and try telling the truth. It would be a very useful exercise. There has been a process of frustration. Despite the best efforts of ministers in this place to provide good answers, we are not getting the truth and the people of Western Australia deserve the truth on this issue.