Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (11:59): It is a pleasure to rise this afternoon to open the debate on behalf of the opposition on the Marine Safety Amendment (Better Boating Fund) Bill 2020.
The long title suggests that this is a bill to provide for the establishment of the Better Boating Fund—and yes, it certainly is—to facilitate urgent boat ramp upgrades and continual maintenance of Victoria’s boating infrastructure, and to provide funding for related matters.
Well, frankly I think that is a bit of a stretch. No disrespect to the parliamentary draftsmen, but there is nothing in this bill that facilitates urgent boat ramp upgrades.
There is nothing in this bill that will ensure continued maintenance of Victoria’s boating infrastructure. And you only need to look at clause 1 of this bill. The first dot point of the explanatory memorandum says it provides:
… for the establishment of a trust account to be known as the Better Boating Fund …
Yes, it does. And secondly, it provides:
… for certain fees imposed by regulation in respect of marine safety to not be limited to an amount relating to the cost of providing the service.
And that is all the bill does; that is it. It sets up the fund, and it basically provides some certainty with regard to the rate of fees that are charged for licences and registration of recreational vessels, which I think is rather interesting, because when you look at the second-reading speech, the Minister for Fishing and Boating said:
The Andrews Labor Government understands that certainty and transparency are the foundations for developing and maintaining a constructive partnership with the boating industry to improve safety, improve facilities and promote growth.
Well, frankly, I do not think it sets up that constructive partnership. It is actually more in the nature of a confidence trick, this bill. The minister went on to say:
This Bill will establish the Better Boating Fund …
Well, yes, we have already established it will; that is correct. But then it says:
… the Treasurer will transfer the equivalent of all revenue collected from marine licensing and vessel registration fees into the fund.
That is not an accurate statement. You might even say it is a false statement, but I would not go that far in terms of parliamentary language. But to suggest that the Treasurer will transfer that money is not correct.
The Treasurer might transfer the money in the context of the bill. The Treasurer might transfer the money. The Treasurer certainly can transfer the money. The Treasurer may transfer the money. But there is nothing in this bill that says the Treasurer will transfer the money.
So the bill provides no certainty for anyone—certainly not for the boating industry and not even for the Treasurer—and it provides precious little in the way of transparency.
If we turn to the details of the bill, leaving aside clause 1, which I have already touched on, and clause 2, which is a pretty standard commencement clause, we get to clause 3, which is almost the entire substance of this bill—the establishment of the Better Boating Fund.
So the bill establishes the fund, as we have said. The bill establishes that money can be paid into the fund by the Treasurer—money related to marine safety and authorised to be paid into the fund; I am not sure there is any, but that can also be paid into the fund—and money that is appropriated by Parliament can be paid into the fund, and investment proceeds. But of course that is any money authorised to be paid into the fund by the Treasurer or the minister administering part 7 of the Financial Management Act 1994, which of course is normally the Assistant Treasurer and the Treasurer jointly. That is the point.
Now, the Treasurer or the Assistant Treasurer may authorise the $31 million that was referred to in the second-reading speech, but equally they could authorise $31 000, or they might authorise nothing. There is nothing in this bill that says the money that is raised from boating fees, registration fees and licence fees must go into this account.
Subsection (3) to subsection (5) of new section 271G basically set up the purposes for which money may be paid out of the fund, and I think all of those things are reasonable. I am not sure that there is sufficient detail in the reporting, but I will come to that in a minute. But the purposes for which the money may be used is reasonable.
Subsection (5) is in relation to the appropriation of the money, which again is pretty standard.
Then we get to proposed section 271H of the principal act, the financial report of the Better Boating Fund. The bill proposes that the total amount received be reported but not the sources of funds and not the amounts.
It proposes that the total paid out be reported but not any detail, and frankly the detail reported could be something as simple as “payments under section 271G, subsections (3) and (4), of the Marine Safety Act 2010”; it could be that simple. And that is not what was agreed.
What was agreed between the industry and the government was that there would be transparency, and there is nothing in this reporting arrangement to transparency, except for a very slight nod in that the total amount of fees received for registration renewal and transfer of registration of recreational vehicles and the grant renewal and endorsement of the marine licences must also be reported.
But in terms of the projects that are undertaken, the extent of maintenance that is undertaken, the extent of money spent on safety, the extent of money spent on education—none of those things are required to be identified in terms of the reporting.
But the particularly offensive provision here is the suggestion that it is adequate to report expenditure from this sort of fund with a report prepared by the secretary and put on the department website. I mean, that is just complete nonsense—not that I do not have faith in the Secretary of the Department of Transport to prepare the report, clearly.
It has got to be with the approval of the minister, and then it is put on the website. It is not even included in the department’s annual report, so it could go up for one day, 1 hour, 1 minute and be brought down, and the whole requirement is acquitted.
These are not documents placed online as are, for example, the answers to questions on notice, which go on the Parliament’s website and are backed by a resolution of the house and would require a resolution of the house for them to be taken down. All it requires is that the secretary, or whoever is in charge of administering the department’s website, says, ‘Oh, we don’t need that anymore’, and it is gone. There is no guarantee that it will remain published at all.
Clause 4 relates to fees, rates and charges. This is about making sure that it is reasonable to charge more for providing those services than the cost of the service. For the avoidance of doubt, that is fine.
Clause 5(1) wants to substitute ‘from the’ for ‘for the’, which under some circumstances could be a significant change.
I should say, there does not appear to be anyone from the department or the minister’s office in the chamber, but I was fully briefed, and I thank both the minister’s office and the department for the briefing that was received. I was assured during that briefing that this is a correction and not an amendment. That is my language, but that was the substance of the advice: this is a correction, not an amendment, to the bill. And I take that advice on face value.
Subclause 5(2) is again cost of service versus charging for the cost of service—the avoidance of doubt. That is pretty straightforward, and that is it.
That is the bill. That is all seven pages, including the endnotes of this bill. If you had been on Mars for the last two years, you might be wondering why I was harping about the lack of transparency and why it is not acceptable for the Treasurer to have control of the funds that go into the account, so I need to go back a couple of years and just look at where the original commitments came from.
On 9 September 2018 the Liberal and National parties announced that if they formed government they would establish a ‘blue infrastructure fund’ and would return all proceeds of collected boating fees into improving facilities for the boating community.
We made the point at the time that on the basis of the 2016–17 figures, which were the most recent figures available at the time of the announcement, the current government had returned just 11.6 per cent of the total of $27.7 million annual boating revenue that was received—11.6 per cent, so probably around about $3 million. The actual figure is $3.23 million.
Compare that with New South Wales, at the time spending $17 million annually, and Queensland, $15 million annually. We saw there was an issue and we put forward a policy position which was strongly welcomed by the boating community.
Some seven weeks later, on 31 October, the Premier held a press conference—it took him seven weeks to get organised, ramp up the policy reels and work the policy out—and announced a very original policy:
Labor will … make sure that every cent of licencing and registration fees is spent on boating safety and facilities.
Labor will establish a Better Boating Fund …
But the important point here is: ‘every cent of licensing and registration fees is spent on boating safety and facilities’.
That was still the narrative when the bill was introduced. We have the media release from 13 October from the Minister for Fishing and Boating:
The Victorian Government will deliver on its promise to reinvest boating fees directly back into the industry …
It is a shame that the bill does not actually say that. It continues:
The Better Boating Fund will ensure every cent of the approximately $30 million of boat licensing and registration fees collected each year goes towards improving boating for all Victorians.
A very laudable sentiment: every cent goes to the fund. But again, there are no guarantees, and it certainly does not deliver on that very, very clear promise made by the Premier in October 2018.
It is interesting that just three days later the minister wrote to stakeholders. The language had been dialled back significantly because of course by this time the actual bill was out as opposed to the first reading, so people could see exactly what the government intended. The minister said:
I am writing to inform you that we have introduced legislation to Parliament to establish the Better Boating Fund … to ‘allocate proceeds of collected boat licence and registration fees to improve facilities and safety’ and to ‘establish the Better Boating Fund …
Twice in the same paragraph. But what is strikingly absent from this piece of correspondence is the reference to ‘every cent’. There is no mention of ‘every cent’ anymore and not even some of the more overblown claims of the second-reading speech.
All of those are gone from this communication to stakeholders because people can actually see the legislation for what it is, which is a fraud. It is not just me that is saying this; the Boating Industry Association of Victoria last Sunday put out a media release, and I will read a few parts out of it, not the whole release:
The Boating Industry Association of Victoria (BIAV) has rejected the State Government’s Marine Safety Act Amendment (Better Boating Fund) Bill 2020 …
… responded to overwhelming stakeholder alarm … the bill does not fully deliver on the core aspect of the 2018 election commitment.
In the lead-up to the November 2018 election, Premier Andrews stood before boating stakeholders and pledged that every cent of boaters registration and licensing fees will be returned to boaters to be spent on boating safety and facilities. This has been re-affirmed on numerous occasions since, by the Premier as well as by consecutive Ministers.
BIAV President David Meehan said the clear and articulated commitment—made both verbally and in writing—from the Victorian Premier and Ministers, was that all $31m of boating fees collected would flow into the Fund every year.
“There is no mechanism or wording in the actual amendment that guarantees the $31m+ fees collected from boaters will flow directly into the fund. It establishes a fund, however with no guaranteed funding.” Mr Meehan said.
And he is absolutely right—absolutely right.
Frankly, this is classic Labor politics: promise whatever you need to get over the line, to win the election, without ever having the intention of delivering on that promise. You would expect better from a bunch of grifters than we have seen from the government in the way they have handled this legislation.
The boating industry association have, I understand, transmitted earlier in the week a set of proposed amendments to the government that would resolve the situation the way they see it. I am not sure whether there has been any further communication with the minister, but certainly the last time I spoke to them there had been silence from the government.
They are proposing in these amendments in part—and I am not going to go through the detail of all of them, but I want to give a sense of my reaction to them—that all money received from boat registration or marine licence fees for the year should be paid into the fund. In other words, they are proposing a mechanism for hypothecation, which is clearly what the intent of the policy was.
Their proposed amendments would leave the Treasurer far too big a role, from my perspective, and I understand that is probably a reflection of other legislation.
My view is that the Treasurer is not required to have a role with regard to this legislation; you hypothecate the funding and move on and allow the minister to administer her department or her portfolio.
The amendments go on to identify the purposes for which money may be spent. They propose a range of proportions of money to be expended on particular categories: new boating facilities, the marine search and rescue operations and training budget, education—all those sorts of things.
While I totally agree with the hypothecation aspect of it, I am not so enthusiastic about pegging particular proportions of the funding to particular activities. It might be fine in 2020, but it may not be what is required in 2025 or may not be what is required in 2030. And we are not legislating for the next 12 months; we are legislating for the next 20 years, so I think we do need to maintain a lot of flexibility in there.
The way you deal with making sure sufficient funds go to each area of need is by making sure that you are consulting well with the sector—and I understand a round table is in the process of being set up, which could well provide that consultation mechanism—but also by having transparency in reporting so that if as a government you are not putting the money where it needs to go, it is clear to everyone that the money is not being spent where it needs to be spent.
That is the BIAV position. As I say, I agree with some of that, but I do not agree with all of it.
So on the basis that the bill does not in any way, despite the words of the minister, achieve the outcomes that are claimed—effectively implementing the government’s election commitment—I propose a reasoned amendment, which will be:
That all words after ‘That’ be omitted and replaced with the words ‘this bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for:
(1) a mechanism for the hypothecation of all fees relating to the registration, renewal and transfer of registration of recreational vessels to the Better Boating Fund; and
(2) the substitution of the proposed reporting framework with a more robust, accountable framework that includes direct reporting to Parliament.’
And without going too much into the details of that, I do want to just talk about how that might look, should the government take up the very serious suggestions that I am making.
The first point of course is the hypothecation. There is no way you can acquit the promise that the government made to the community without hypothecation of these funds. You just cannot do it in any other way.
To suggest that you can say, ‘Trust me. We’ll rely on the Treasurer to move those funds across’—that is not sensible, and I would say the same thing regardless of who was in government. Treasurers have their own sets of responsibilities, and giving priority to the Better Boating Fund, frankly, is not one of them.
Under the most positive circumstances, they can do it, but otherwise I think we will find the fund will be clipped when times are constrained—and if they are not constrained now, I do not know when they will be. So that is the hypothecation aspect.
I do also want to talk about the reporting arrangements, because I think they are very, very important. We need to know the source, as I mentioned earlier, and the amount of all moneys that are paid into the fund, not just the headline stuff. We need to know where the money is coming from.
We also need to know plenty of detail about how the money is expended. We need to know what the provision of boating facilities has been by project. We need to know how much money is being spent on the maintenance of boating facilities. We need to know how much money is being spent on providing boating services for the public, on boating safety programs to the public, on boating education programs for the public—
Mr T Bull: And where.
Mr MORRIS: and where, as the member for Gippsland East says—on the safe use of recreational vessels and safe use of state waters and on administering the fund.
All of those things are reasonable expenditures, and I do not begrudge any of them, but we need to know how much is being spent on each of them. We also need to know if there are any other moneys being expended from the fund.
And the final point, as I touched on in the reasoned amendment, is: reporting on a department website is not reporting; it is a PR exercise. We need to have this report presented to the house. We need it tabled in Parliament, and we need it to go into the parliamentary records so that there is a long-term record—there is long-term evidence.
Now, 1 October—I think that was the only reasonable date about the proposed reporting, and I think reporting by 1 October would be entirely reasonable. I do not believe that is in conflict with the Financial Management Act, but the Parliament needs to know, and more importantly, the public and the boating community need to know where the money is coming from and where it is going to.
This is an argument that has been going on for 50 or 60 years. We have got an opportunity to fix it. The government had an opportunity to fix it by adopting our policy position, but they have, to put it kindly, a flawed approach to the implementation of this fund.
I think, in conclusion, members today—and the government today—have a very, very simple choice to make: do you support the reasoned amendment and keep the promise that was made to the boating community, or do you persist with the confidence trick that is this bill? It is up to you.