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The state of our Territory remains bright

June 17, 2020

Today I delivered the annual state of the Territory address. below is my speech in full.

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This is not the State of the Territory address we would have envisaged at the beginning of the year.

Today, we are months into a public health emergency and rolling, global health and economic crisis. At this stage, it is impossible to accurately quantify the full impact of the continuing pandemic, but the economic ramifications and personal toll will be immense.

The pain has been felt by everyone.

Here in the ACT, we are in one of the strongest positions around the world, due to our decisive early steps to reduce the risk of transmission, while supporting our economy and protecting jobs.

The Government acted quickly to support our health system, our businesses and our households.

The response of the broader community over the past three months has been critical to our success so far.

And it will be our joint action over the next few years that will determine how the ACT fares in the next decade.

Now is the time for considered Government investment, so that the ACT emerges from this unprecedented time even stronger, without compromising our hard work so far. Moments like this count.

Throughout modern history, it is times like these when actions taken by government really count. These times require an absolute focus on public health, jobs and economic recovery.

Pre-COVID 19

In last year’s address I spoke about the ACT’s robust and stable economic position, driven by population growth, low unemployment and ongoing investment.

The economic outlook at that time was positive – and it remained positive over many months.

In 2018-19, our economy was one of the strongest economic performers in Australia, with economic growth of 3 per cent, well above the national growth rate.

We had the lowest unemployment rate in the country, at 2.9 per cent per cent, the fastest rate of employment growth at 4.3 per cent, and a record level of employment, with 240,000 jobs, adding 6,900 jobs over the 2019 calendar year.

The ACT had become Australia’s leader in services exports, increasing by 24.1 per cent since 2015-16, with the international education sector alone contributing almost $1 billion annually to our economy.

The ACT had also diversified its economic base, with the establishment of almost 1,500 new businesses in the 2018-19 financial year.

We reached our target of powering the ACT with 100 per cent renewable electricity.

We had set out a record pipeline of city-shaping and job-creating infrastructure projects, such as a new hospital and the second stage of light rail.

And we introduced the ACT Wellbeing Framework to ensure Canberra continues to be one of the world’s most liveable cities and an inclusive and vibrant community.

 

Early 2020 challenges

A year ago, the ACT was well placed to face any challenges that lay ahead.

These challenges have truly come – overwhelming nations around the world.

We are an open knowledge, services-based economy and we’re not immune to this uncertainty.

The devastating 2003 Canberra fires weren’t far from our minds as our emergency services personnel spent tireless hours, days and weeks bravely protecting our city throughout January and February. 

When the smoke had settled, Canberra was battered with a freak hailstorm, causing a billion dollars of damage.

There were early fiscal challenges facing us too.

The Commonwealth Grants Commission released its five-yearly review and reduced the ACT’s GST relativity by $100 million in 2020-21 and $433 million across the Budget estimates.

 

COVID-19

Now, we are grappling with a global public health emergency and resulting global recession.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge the ACT has ever faced in the self-government era.

Businesses have been forced to rapidly adjust to physical distancing measures and complete sector shutdowns.

The accommodation, hospitality, entertainment and retail sectors have been particularly hard hit.

Our universities have also been significantly affected by the pandemic, with early travel restrictions preventing over 3500 international students from embarking on their studies in Canberra.

Canberra’s vibrant arts and cultural scene has cancelled exhibitions and performances; galleries, museums and other venues forced to close their doors.

Only recently have we seen visitors return to some of Canberra’s beloved institutions.

Although we still have the lowest unemployment rate in the country, COVID-19 has also placed increased pressure on Canberra households due to reduced income, lower hours or lost jobs.

Often those most affected were Canberrans already struggling prior to the pandemic, living with chronic health issues, mental health issues or a disability, students and migrant workers.

It is important to also recognise the intergenerational impacts of this virus.

Young people may be, to an extent, somewhat more resilient to COVID-19.

But they will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic ramifications, including on the job market, higher education and vocational training sectors, and housing.

We must also acknowledge and address the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women, who continue to bear most of the load of unpaid domestic labour and child-rearing responsibilities, and who are most affected by domestic and family violence.

 

ACT economic measures

Throughout this crisis, the ACT Government has put the health and welfare of Canberrans first.

We’ve listened to the experts on how to keep our community safe, and sector representatives on what immediate and medium-term support was required to cut costs and keep businesses afloat.

Our economic survival package supported the areas that most needed them: businesses, jobs, households.

We fast-tracked small infrastructure projects across the city to support local businesses and local jobs.

We have postponed, rebated or waived a variety of Government fees, taxes and charges for industries hardest hit.

The majority of our concessions have been applied automatically, not requiring an onerous (or confusing) application process.

We expanded the pool of temporary jobs in the ACT public service, supporting Canberrans that were ineligible for the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper assistance program and keeping money flowing through the economy.

There has been targeted support for particular industries, and a $150 residential rates rebate for Canberra households.

The Government is continuing to reform the tax system.

We’ve removed a significant barrier to home owner entry, making it easier for Canberrans to buy their first home with both our reductions in stamp duty and the introduction of the Home Buyer Concession Scheme.

We will continue reducing stamp duty in the ACT in a measured and targeted way.

Recently, I announced significant reductions on stamp duty for new land and off the plan units, a measure which will provide a significant boost to our local construction sector.

Right now, we also need to inject more cash into our economy. So that means no increases to the majority of Government fees and charges and no increases in residential rates for the majority of households.

This commitment, combined with our $150 residential rates relief, provides an actual rates reduction next year for over 110,000 Canberra households and 4,600 Commercial property owners, in a year where they will need it most.

Thousands more will see effectively no increase in their rates next financial year.

Alongside our direct support, households and businesses can expect to see a drop in their electricity bills next month.

As the only jurisdiction powered by 100% renewable electricity, the ACT is demonstrating that a transition away from fossil fuel generated electricity can be achieved in a way that drives prices down.

This Government takes climate change seriously – and we will continue our nation- and world-leading sustainability and environmental agenda, as we implement our plan to reach zero net emissions by 2045.

 

Fiscal position

Of course, like every other government around Australia and the world, our fiscal position will deteriorate, and Net Debt will rise.

In times of economic contraction, a temporary increase in Government spending is an important and powerful tool.

Right now, economic and support and growth is the priority, not chasing budget surpluses. I will provide a detailed statement on the budget outlook for the Territory in late August.

That statement will set out our up-to-date fiscal position, and next steps in the long term economic and fiscal recovery pathway for Canberra.

 

Health

We are only in a relatively strong economic position because we listened to and implemented expert public health advice, and acted to ensure our hospitals and healthcare services were equipped to deal with COVID-19.

It was impossible to predict the pervasiveness of this virus when the pandemic reached Australia earlier this year. 

But evidence from other countries showed that if we did not flatten the curve, hospitals around the country would be overwhelmed, more people would die, and stricter lockdown measures enforced.

It’s why we went so hard early: to build a surge centre, buy personal protective equipment and ventilators, establish specialist respiratory clinics, undertake thousands of COVID-19 tests, and exhaustively trace every positive case contact.

None of this has been easy, as Minister Stephen-Smith can attest.

But it has ensured the ACT effectively minimised the spread, to become the first Australian jurisdiction to have zero active confirmed cases.

 

Responsible recovery

It is this strong position that has allowed the Territory to release and implement Canberra’s Recovery Plan.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

What we now need to do is responsibly manage the health risks, while driving the recovery of our city, our economy, and Canberrans’ personal wellbeing.

There will be no greater priority for the ACT Government in the months and years ahead – if granted the opportunity by Canberrans in October – than the delivery of our recovery plan.

It’s a plan that aligns the ACT’s roadmap on easing of restrictions, with ongoing support for our industries as they ramp back up. That started with the announcement of the Government’s hotels and hospitality package.

With cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs starting to reopen – the Government introduced more targeted tax concessions, utilities rebates and a new national recognised infection control training program for workers.

To further support our hospitality sector, as well as local retailers, the Government has just launched a major ‘Buy Local’ advertising campaign over the coming months, across all media.

 

As part of the ACT’s Recovery plan, the ACT Government is also putting our city forward to be a pilot city for the return of both international flights and international students.

Canberra is a knowledge city, and rebuilding our higher education sector will be a crucial tool in our pathway out of the pandemic.

There is no doubt public sector employment has kept many Canberrans in secure work.

However, Government’s role over coming months is to provide an environment to support secure job creation in the private sector.

We’ll do this by providing incentives, making the right investments, at the right time, to return confidence in our local economy.

The Infrastructure Plan that we released last year is a key part of our Recovery Plan. That means that we will be pressing ahead with the major expansion of the Canberra Hospital – the largest healthcare infrastructure project in ACT self-government history.

And we will continue working on extending our light rail network –creating thousands of new jobs in our city over the coming decade.

In Higher Education and Training, we will construct a new state-of-the-art CIT campus in the Woden Town Centre; now more than ever, it’s important to ensure Canberrans can skill and re-skill into needed vocations.

We will continue to support the University sector by helping ANU and UC deal with short-term pressures, allowing them to further expand and modernise their world-class campuses when right for them to do so.

The UNSW Canberra City campus is another significant example of government and university investment in the ACT economy.

Just this month, we have introduced legislation to establish a UNSW Canberra City campus. UNSW is pushing ahead with the development of a master plan for the precinct, which will attract up to 6000 students and create about 2000 jobs.

And the ACT Government will continue to deliver our $570 million public housing growth and renewal program and social and community housing projects – keeping thousands of hard working Canberrans in jobs, while getting more vulnerable Canberrans into dignified and modern housing.

 

Community recovery

Canberra’s Recovery Plan is much more than an economic response. It needs to be a community-led response.

Our plan won’t leave Canberrans behind, and it won’t let people slip through the cracks.

I look forward to announcing our Community Recovery Plan later this week with Minister for Community Services and Facilities Suzanne Orr.

This Plan will outline how the Government will work from our community services sector to ensure the right support is made available across the city to those who need it most.

 

Conclusion

The last few months have been very hard for everyone: business owners who have worked so hard to build their business from scratch; workers let go from jobs they need.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and what the future holds is unclear.

But what Canberrans can be clear on is that the ACT government has a credible, responsible, sustainable plan to weather the economic storm and rebuild our economy.

We will continue to invest in our public health system. We will continue to invest in education and training.

We will continue to create and protect secure jobs.

We will keep working with the community sector to ensure vulnerable Canberrans are not left behind, particularly as Federal support is cut back.

It will not be easy.

But when we look across Australia and overseas, it is clear we are in a better position than many other places.

The state of our Territory remains bright.

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