As I tuned into the NSW Government’s Budget 2020-21 announcement on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but hold a level of anticipation. Amid recent announcements that Australia is facing a recession, I needed to know as I scanned the influx of media announcements – was Western Sydney going to be a ‘winner’ in this year’s budget?
In the unprecedented times of managing a global pandemic, control mechanisms curbed the spread in NSW. Social and economic recovery will take years. The record budget deficit of $16 billion attests to that.
We welcome the investment in supporting people to have a home. This budget commits $812 million for social and affordable housing and will deliver more than 1,200 new dwellings, and upgrade over 8,000 more. Home buyers may be given a choice on whether to opt-out of paying stamp duty, and instead pay an annual property tax. The Together Home initiative has been extended for two years and additional funds are provided to deliver stable housing and wrap-around support for people experiencing homelessness. These are very welcome commitments that consider the spectrum of housing priorities. But how far does this commitment go towards addressing the fundamental need for housing? Our work on the Home in Western Sydney report is clear that almost 6,500 dwellings are needed per year to meet the forecast demand for social and affordable housing by 2036, in Western Sydney alone. Within this context, the additional investment continues to be a very small step towards accelerating equitable access to housing in Western Sydney, or beyond, which is fundamental to recovery.
The ‘care economy’ as it is hailed by the NSW Government comprises of early childhood, community services, social housing, aged care, disability care and personal support. We know all too well that this sector has a large proportion of casual, female workers who have been particularly hard hit by recession. To assist in revitalising this sector, it is good news that the NSW Government will increase funding for training and development to strengthen the aged care and disability sectors, including the vision for an aged care centre of excellence, and extend access to free preschool. Extending investment to food security programs and establishing a transformation fund to assist the social sector in responding to the challenges of COVID-19, are certain to assist in responding to increasing demand, albeit for the short term. However, there continues to be a stark difference in the indicative levels of investment per capita for locally based services across Western Sydney, which has resulted in substantial inequities in access. This phenomenon continues to be ignored in the budget.
It is disappointing the budget commits a mere $8.6 million for early intervention programs that help reduce youth crime and divert young people away from the criminal justice system, when $14 million will be spent over four years to increase security in the State’s six youth prisons. I couldn’t find any investment in support programs for young people who keep telling us exactly what they need to thrive. Support services and recreation outlets for young people are vital for any reform strategy that seeks to improve outcomes for our communities. Investing in prevention is commended but we need proactive commitments to the young people of greater Western Sydney who in some communities, cannot even access after-hours basic youth crisis services.
We congratulate the NSW Government for investing in specialist mental health clinicians and virtual services. The investment of $29.3 billion in recurrent and capital funding in the NSW health system is commended, without a doubt. A commitment to 100 more mental health nurses to be funded in schools is a step in the right direction, but it is just the very start of an intervention, with over 3,000 high schools in NSW and Mission Australia’s Annual Youth Report continuing to show mental health as a primary concern facing young people.
There is welcome news for Western Sydney hospital upgrades, where wait times are still dangerously high, including the development of the Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital. I hope that these essential services take into consideration the cultural needs of people who continue to often lack access to mainstream health and mental health services due to cultural or language exclusions. Supporting communities with a good standard of living – in my mind – is the core business of any government. Decent transport options, adequate hospitals and enough schools and homes are part of what contribute to economic and social recovery.
The sale of 49 percent of West Connex is alarming. While it may provide capital for other projects, this sale means that it will mostly be Western Sydney commuters continuing to bear the brunt of the price tag and still not being on par with other parts of Sydney in terms of transport equity. Western Sydney residents already do not have the same level of access to publicly funded transport infrastructure on major thoroughfares that other areas of Sydney enjoy, and this step serves to deepen the socio-spatial divide.
The underground train project, Metro West, and the Sydney Metro West will double the rail capacity between the Sydney and Parramatta central business districts, linking new communities to rail services. Continued investment in the new Western Sydney Airport line is also welcome news, as is the improvements to train stations across the region as part of the Transport Access Program.
The Greater Sydney Commission tells us that an indicator of a liveable place is the 30-minute city. Despite these investments, this is just simply not part of the commuter reality of residents across greater Western Sydney, with the levels of investment continuing to demonstrate a significant lag in keeping pace with demand and growth. The Western City District has the lowest capability for 30-minute access to a metropolitan or strategic centre using current infrastructure and services, and this is simply not good enough. There are still major traffic snarls across the region, which require heavy rail to be prioritised to connect up parts of Western Sydney with each other, not just the City of Sydney. Furthermore, growth areas across South Western Sydney continue to lack basic access to reliable and regular public transport connections. These are fundamental flaws that are issues of equity and significantly impact on social and economic wellbeing and capacity for recovery. Furthermore, they have been perpetuated as a result of under investment across decades of growth.
Now let us discuss poverty. According to the Australian National University in their recent report Impact of Covid19 JobKeeper and JobSeeker measures on Poverty and Financial Stress, rates of poverty across multiple areas of greater Western Sydney were forecast to rise by around 9.5 to 10.5 percent in 2020, as a result of job losses and welfare cuts arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Local communities in Fairfield, Cumberland, Liverpool, Blacktown and Canterbury Bankstown will be the worst off. To address this and increasing unemployment, the budget focuses on creating employment opportunities primarily through the delivery of infrastructure projects, retraining/reskilling programs, and by supporting school leavers entering the workforce. With youth unemployment rates in some areas at very high levels, the addition of 100,000 low cost or fee-free training places with a focus on school leavers disadvantaged by the pandemic, is very welcome, but does it take into account the creative aspirations of our communities?
I think a bold new vision for creating employment opportunities across greater Western Sydney beyond construction is overdue. The 2020 Catalyst West Report produced by Western Sydney University highlights the region as a centre for innovation and creativity. Western Sydney has the solutions and the science for creating vibrant and liveable communities despite urban heat build-up, unsustainable urban design, isolated suburban communities and fractured transport links.
The employment strategies presented across the budget assume job readiness and continue to focus on male-dominated industries such as construction and infrastructure projects. The planned $10 million back-to-work program granting women up to $5000 to help them back into the workforce simply does not go far enough to assist the women and girls made unemployed in NSW following the pandemic. The extraordinary challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created provides governments with unique opportunities for both economic and social recovery. We must invest not only in building more places – but to foster the creative aspiration in the fastest growing region in NSW – Western Sydney.
The $1.6 billion Digital Restart Fund in the budget promotes a whole-of-sector approach to digitisation and service transformation. It seems critical to invest in digital infrastructure for the state but these changes present challenges for people who do not have access to digital technologies, particularly people on low incomes and older people See the ACOSS report here. The culture of undisputed reliance on digital technologies has highlighted some gaping inequities, mainly that not everyone has access to digital spaces or digital technologies. Girls and women are disproportionately affected globally, and locally, there is a rising gap between those with access and those without. We know in Australia that women are less digitally included, particularly older women. Investing in approaches that address the digital divide are critical if our economy is to recover. Inclusive approaches are not simply about ethics and fairness. Ensuring the most vulnerable are resourced for digital resilience will ensure widespread recovery from an economic recession.
The government has announced $104.5 million to an Arts and Maintenance Upgrade Fund and offered every NSW resident $100 worth of vouchers to spend on dining and entertainment forgetting that in some Western Sydney communities there are no cultural or recreation options apart from gambling venues available for recreation. Furthermore, the entertainment vouchers do not respond to the deeply entrenched challenges faced by many in greater Western Sydney where for some families, it might cost more than $25 simply to commute to the local restaurant to spend their $25 voucher.
We know that investing to rejuvenate town centres boosts employment and reduces social isolation. Western Sydney deserves vibrant public places and night-time economies not linked to gambling venues with appropriate seating, outdoor workspaces, toilets, trees and shade and public charging stations.
Economies thrive when communities do. While there are certainly elements within the budget that begin to address some of the key challenges facing Western Sydney, inequities persist. Greater Western Sydney represents half the population of Sydney. We are a diverse community of people with creative ideas, complex cultural knowledges and a set of ethics and values that I did not see reflected in the budget.