Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria) — I am pleased to rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Fire Services Levy Monitor Amendment (Ensuring Fair and Equitable Levies) Bill 2013. The bill before us seeks to amend the Fire Services Levy Monitor Act 2012 in response to the government’s botched attempts to implement the fire services property levy. It addresses issues of accountability by providing the fire services levy monitor with responsibility for the fair and equitable operation of the fire services property levy.
What does this private members bill do? Firstly, it introduces the means by which a range of problems can be investigated and resolved, and I believe Mr Lenders, who originally introduced this bill, should be congratulated. I will go into the reasons why he should be congratulated later in my contribution. The bill seeks to expand the capacity of the fire services levy monitor to oversee the operation of the new levy in its entirety and allows the monitor to recommend improvements to the levy and assess the equity of its impact.
Going into the history of the bill, the Napthine government promised the introduction of a fire services levy, as did Labor, prior to the last election. On 13 May the Treasurer, Michael O’Brien, referred to the scheme as a tax cut that would result in savings of around 20 per cent for Victorian households or around $100 million a year for Victorian households and businesses.
Former Treasurer Kim Wells, the member for Scoresby in the other place, also said in a media release dated 14 November 2012 that the new scheme would lower the cost of insurance. However, the situation is quite different from what the government says it is. The reality is the removal of the previous fire services levy has not reduced insurance premiums. The previous fire services levy has not been removed from insurance premiums on a pro rata basis, and this has left insurers feeling like they are having to pay twice. That is certainly the mindset in the community.
Furthermore, some properties, including not-for-profit community housing organisations and units, have been classified as commercial operations and have been charged at commercial rates, and of course we have heard from other speakers about the absurdity of the fire services property levy being charged to car parks and ATMs — who would have ever thought that? The government knows about it but has made no attempts to rectify this absurdity. We also have a situation where property owners who have bushland on their property, from which they are not making a profit, have been charged as primary producers. There are also businesses in the designated Country Fire Authority zone which are disadvantaged by having to pay higher rates than those businesses in the designated Metropolitan Fire Brigade zone across the road.
We can look at the media releases from the government that were distributed in November and May, but the reality in the community is quite different on a whole range of issues. In terms of the issues that I have confronted in my electorate, Western Victoria Region, the complaints about the implementation of the fire services levy have been wide, varied and very intense. There has not been one particular group of people that has had difficulties with this levy; rather, a myriad of groups have had difficulties with it. Our local newspapers have provided a fair bit of coverage on the issue. When I tour regional Victoria, it is one of the first things that people talk about — as well as the lack of funding for regional roads. At my annual stall at Sheepvention, it was one of the two most controversial issues that people wanted to talk to me about.
Often during the three-day Sheepvention the staff at my stall felt as if they were traffic wardens directing people to the National Party stall and the Liberal Party tent so that these people could discuss this issue with the appropriate coalition members, some of whom are in this house and others are in the lower house.
The previous opposition speaker, Mr Cesar Melhem, stated that the Timboon branch of the Liberal Party has raised issues regarding the fire services levy with the government. I mention this because Timboon is in my electorate. I would encourage those Liberal Party members to continue to raise these issues, along with other issues that they constantly raise with this government about the lack of funding for the Timboon P-12 School. I ask them not to give up. They need to be proactive, whether this means knocking on people’s doors or being public about it in other ways. Do not be taken for granted.
The complaints in western Victoria have been in small rural areas but also in the regional centres of Geelong, Ballarat and Warrnambool. Recently, central Geelong property owners have questioned the fairness of the levy. These property owners include Brian Perry, who owns his own small office in the Geelong CBD. He has seen his fire services levy triple in price. Mr Perry is quoted in the Geelong Advertiser as saying:
‘Mine is only small beer — there are probably people affected who are up for many thousands of dollars’ …
‘The poor old city of Geelong, you’ve got some people who would have a building worth $5 million.
‘There’s enough trouble in Geelong now without 300 per cent increases. I can’t see it justified in any shape or form’.
In the same article, a former mayor of Geelong, Hayden Spurling, said that this new levy was yet another impost on businesses and came on top of a 7 per cent rate rise. Mr Spurling went on to say:
‘The differential rate makes a huge difference between residential and business and, in this economic downturn, it will affect many businesses’ …
‘It’s another impost on business when they certainly can’t afford it at this point in time.
‘Businesses are either closing or shedding staff, and it’s another impediment to employing people’.
Warrnambool-based Real Estate Institute of Victoria delegate Bruce Ludeman echoed the sentiments of Geelong property owners, stating that property owners and business proprietors have been slugged with bills three times larger than they had previously. Mr Ludeman was quoted in the Warrnambool Standard as saying:
“‘Things are tough enough now in the commercial world without having to cop an extra $1000 or so for the fire levy plus a 4.5 (per cent) increase in rates.
‘I don’t know how some businesses will absorb this’.”
The article went on to state:
“Mr Ludeman said one Liebig Street commercial property had copped three separate fire insurance levies, totalling about $3000, compared to the previous bill of $1400.”
This has been echoed right across the tourist industry, particularly amongst B & B operators. They have been slugged with massive increases. A number of B & Bs have effectively had to shut their doors; this is particularly so of small B & Bs. Some of those which have not closed their doors are continuing to operate but are doing so under the lap. This is a retrograde step. The government is attempting to regulate an important area of accommodation such as B & Bs under the umbrella of the tourism industry. It beggars belief that the true bread-and-butter of the tourism industry is being undermined.
We have also heard from the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), which also believes that the Napthine government has botched the implementation process. The Weekly Times has published a number of stories relating to the rules around which properties are connected as a single enterprise and charged with a single levy. For example, an article in the Weekly Times of 6 March reports Peter Tuohey, the president of the VFF, as stating that he believed:
“… the levy was ‘inequitable’ because it ‘forces farmers to pay more than four times the rate levied on residential ratepayers’.”
An article in the Weekly Times of 28 August quotes Mr Tuohey as saying that he:
“… would like to see more transparency in the cost of administration of the levy and also more rigour in the development of the CFA budget.”
So we have got many groups agitating: we have got farmers; we have got the organisation that represents farmers, the VFF; we have got businesses in the CBDs of regional centres; we have got people with a granny flat at the back of their property getting two sets of levies and also complaining; we have got ordinary citizens who have had their levies increased dramatically in this last round of accounts. I think it is one of the most significant issues out there, particularly in regional Victoria. This government needs to address it, and fairly quickly.
We have also got the local government areas, which have had the misfortune of being told that they have to be the administrators of the levy.
It is the local councils that have been dealt a raw deal in having to send out the bills, with the good news — or rather the very bad news — to ratepayers that this state government is now hitting them — —
Mr Lenders — Michael O’Brien’s human shields.
Ms TIERNEY — I thank Mr Lenders. So the councils are considering this to be a massive impost. It is not just a cost-shifting exercise; they are actually performing a role of the state government and not getting paid for it. They have got no way of appealing it or arguing their case. They have been mandated to fill this role, and they have not been compensated for it. Not only that, they also have to bear the brunt of their staff being quite frankly abused on a daily basis by ratepayers when they receive their bills — which are extraordinary — in the post. Quite rightly, the ratepayers do not know that it is a state government levy and not a local council levy.
Council staff are getting a lot of stress and many problems over the phone, but people are also coming in and causing problems with staff, wanting to pursue justice with substantial rigour in council offices right across the electorate.
There is not one council in my electorate that has not complained to me about the role it has to play in relation to the administration of this levy. As recently as last week councils continued to report that it is a major cost and also an imposition on council staff that they do not believe is fair.
Mr Koch — Why aren’t they telling me?
Ms TIERNEY — Probably because they understand that you are not listening, because you have not listened so far, Mr Koch.
In closing, I do commend the bill before the house because something has to be done to clean up the mess, the confusion and the inequity this government has created in implementing this scheme in this way. The actions proposed in this bill will ensure that that can be done. I say for the record that I am also concerned that not one government member has requested to be briefed on this bill, which demonstrates that they continue to have a lack of concern about issues raised in the electorate.
I want to thank the Leader of the Opposition in this house, John Lenders, for sponsoring this private members bill and bringing it into this house, because it has given members the opportunity to outline many of the issues raised by constituents concerning this government’s botched attempt to implement the fire services levy.