Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016; Second Reading
I wish to speak briefly about the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016. Whilst a deal has been reached between the government and the opposition, it is important that those who did not vote for a major party in the election—almost a quarter of all Australians—have a chance to have their voices heard on this important bill.
I am encouraged by the news that the proposed $1.3 billion cut to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency will not go ahead as planned but I am disheartened that the compromise between the major parties will still see $500 million worth of funding cuts from the agency. Australia, as a leading developed nation, has a responsibility, not only to those of us who live here but as a global citizen, to face the challenges of climate change. ARENA, since its establishment in 2012, has funded a number of worthy renewable energy projects and feasibility studies. One proposal that has been funded for a feasibility study is that of the Repower Port Augusta alliance in South Australia. Replacing the outdated and polluting coal plant dinosaurs with modern solar thermal plants would create 1,800 jobs for my state, and my state needs those jobs. It would save five million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, improve the health of the local community and ensure energy security and stable electricity prices. South Australia has been a leader in embracing renewable energy, and I am proud of how my state has faced the demands of a changing world. It could not do so without the support of bodies such as ARENA.
There is scope to change the way ARENA currently operates. I believe that there should be change in the funding mechanism to ensure that if renewable energy technology has commercial success the grant ought to be repaid, and there ought to be the ability for ARENA to take equity in the project so it can reap the benefit. If the government is fair dinkum about innovation and agility, it would ensure that ARENA remains fully funded into the future.
I would like to talk about the student start-up scholarships. The purpose of the student start-up scholarships is, and was, to help higher education students in need to meet the up-front costs of study. We should not fool ourselves; the students who are receiving this are students on Abstudy, on Austudy and on youth allowance. Many of those students who received the student start-up scholarships were from disadvantaged rural and regional backgrounds and thus faced significant additional costs in commencing study. These included but were not limited to the significant costs of relocating to a major capital or regional city, where they could not rely on local support from family or friends. And that is many people in my community of Mayo.
Many of the 80,000 recipients of the scholarship will have made major and important financial and life decisions based on the knowledge that they were in receipt of such a scholarship. As it currently stands the bill provides students on start-up scholarships less than one year to make the necessary significant adjustments to their financial and life circumstances to compensate for the removal of the scholarship payments. It is unreasonable to provide the proposed short time frame for these students to make such major financial adjustments to their life. The simple solution to this problem is to delay the repeal of the student start-up scholarships by at least 18 months to 1 January 2019.
I would like to briefly talk about the carbon tax compensation. The Nick Xenophon Team recognises that the budget needs to be set on a solid trajectory towards repair; however, repairing the budget should not be achieved off the backs of the poorest in our society. It was encouraging to learn that the deal struck between the government and the opposition allowed compensation for the carbon tax to continue for those on payments like Newstart, youth allowance, the disability support pension and the age pension. It was, on the other hand, so disappointing that it was those doing it the toughest who were so clearly targeted in the first place.
Admittedly, according to simple logic, if there is no longer a carbon tax then the carbon tax compensation—the energy supplement and single income family supplement—should eventually be phased out. However, this simple logic ignores the effect that the removal of these supplement payments would have on our most disadvantaged communities. In addition to the basic social compassion there are also good economic arguments for ensuring that income supplement payments keep Australians out of poverty. Income and wealth inequality is rising in Australia, which is putting pressure on the demand side of the economy. The poorest in our society must by necessity spend a greater proportion of their incomes on goods and services than the richer end of the income distribution.
Businesses also require consumers to purchase their products in order to prosper. Given the continued uncertainty and weakness of global demand, it would seem a highly inauspicious time to be placing more pressure upon Australian businesses by deliberately cutting social security to the poorest and thus domestic demand. This is of particular concern to small businesses which do not enjoy the same economies of scale as large businesses and thus cannot weather adverse conditions for as long. So, whilst I support this bill and acknowledge that the government has a job to do in repairing the budget, I am concerned about how such savings are being achieved.