Tuesday, 28 March 2006
Questions without Notice
My question without notice is to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister would be aware that an estimated 3,500 of Australia’s estimated 4,500 banana and agricultural workers directly employed will lose their jobs over the ensuing fortnight. Could the Prime Minister assure the people of Far North Queensland that arrangements are being looked at to pay Newstart benefits as a part wage to the reconstruction groups rebuilding housing and other buildings and to the farmers, tourist operators and other people similarly rebuilding the industries of the area? The Prime Minister would also be aware of the guidelines proving overly restrictive. In light of this, could the Prime Minister assure Far North Queensland that they will be looked at and revised? Finally, is the Prime Minister aware that industry and local leaders, while appreciative of the Prime Minister’s assistance, are projecting early estimates that only $30 million of the $100 million will ultimately be provided for what is the worst cyclone in Australia’s history and, in financial terms, now one of the two worst natural disasters in Australian history?
I thank the member for Kennedy for his question. Let me acknowledge the extraordinary effort undertaken by him and by the member for Leichhardt—the two federal members whose areas have been most directly affected by this cyclone. When I visited Innisfail and surrounding areas, I was greatly assisted and advised by both those members. Their constant contact with my office and with me personally since then, I continue to appreciate. In the nature of things, the assistance that the government gives on an occasion such as this must always be seen as a work in progress. You start by providing some initial assistance and, as circumstances are better understood, you make some changes. As my answer will reveal, there are a couple of further things that I can indicate, which I know will be of interest to all members of the House.
The estimate of 3,500 to 4,000 has been made by a number of people. It is perhaps a little early to know whether that is accurate, but certainly jobs are at risk as a result of this natural disaster and the government will do everything it can to ensure that the number of people who lose their positions is kept to a minimum and that opportunities are given for re-employment. The best thing that the two governments can do is to get the private sector in this part of Australia going again because, with small business going again, people will be employed or, alternatively, will not lose their jobs. I can confirm that the government is examining the arrangement involving the Newstart benefit. As indicated in the honourable member’s question, it was a proposition put to me last week by the member for Leichhardt as well and it is an issue that we are looking at closely.
The member for Kennedy suggests that the ultimate amount to be spent—I know it is only an early estimate—might be about $30 million. I have to, with great respect, disagree with that. For example, the federal government has already—and it happened late last week—prepaid to the Queensland government some $40 million as a down payment on its share of the natural disaster arrangements that are going to be picked up. I would estimate conservatively the amount—and this is once again based on the best advice I have at the moment; it can vary and I do not want to be made a hostage to this figure—as far as the federal government is concerned, to be well in excess of $100 million. It may in fact go much higher than that, depending on the duration of the reconstruction period and the extent to which the concessional loans offered by the federal government are taken up.
In relation to the concessional loans, I can indicate that the government is looking at some expansion of the eligibility criteria. These are loans that are made available in cooperation with the state government through the natural disaster relief arrangements. We originally announced $200,000 maximum, of which 25 per cent would be a direct cash grant with no repayments of principal or interest in the first two years, with interest being at four per cent, therefore projecting a repayment period of about nine years. I think in anybody’s language that is a highly concessional loan and will be of enormous value to many hundreds of small businesses in the area. Questions have been raised as to whether the eligibility criteria, which include a ceiling of the equivalent of 20 full-time employees, might be a bit harsh. I am looking at that. I am, in principle, quite open to some change to make that more generous because, although 20 full-time positions—not 20 on a head count—will pick up most of the firms, there could be significant employers of people in the banana industry in particular who might not be helped by that. So I am looking at that and also at whether the principal of the loan might be somewhat higher in certain circumstances than the $200,000.
I also inform the House that we have decided on a refinement to the diesel excise relief that I announced on Sunday. I indicated then that we would rebate in full, subject to an offset for any rebates people currently receive, the excise paid on diesel or petrol for power generation for homes and businesses where normal power supplies have not been restored. I said then that we would pay it on the basis of receipts and, because it was to be dated from the time of the disaster, a statutory declaration in lieu of receipt to cover the period before the announcement of the benefit was made. The government has decided that, while it will be open to people to submit receipts, it would be simpler and it would deliver the assistance more effectively if the payments were made by Centrelink on a fixed monthly basis. The figures decided are $280 a month where a household is without reliable electricity and $560 a month where a business is without reliable electricity. These payments will date with effect from the day the cyclone hit, which was 20 March 2006. These payments will be free of tax and we expect that payments will begin to be made by Friday. People who have a higher rate of claim—they use more fuel than this rebate would recompense—can still claim on the basis of actual fuel usage, but processing will be slower than the flat rate option. I think members will appreciate that this is a speedier way of delivering this assistance, and I am particularly indebted to the member for Leichhardt for the representations that he has made to me on this matter.
I think everybody wants to help in relation to this. Can I record the fact that there has been outstanding cooperation between the federal and the Queensland governments. I have kept in regular touch with the Queensland Premier and he has kept in regular touch with me. I spoke earlier today to General Cosgrove, and I know all Australians will congratulate him on this latest demonstration of what a fine Australian citizen he is and what a great leader of men and women General Cosgrove represents.
It has been a difficult time for the people of Far North Queensland. Providentially, there have been, perhaps except in one instance, no deaths as a result of this cyclone. That speaks volumes for the warnings and it speaks volumes for the commonsense of the people. I hope in the weeks ahead that we will all continue to work together to help our fellow Australians to put this disaster behind them.
My question follows on from the question of the previous member but is addressed to the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer. Would the minister inform the House how the government is providing support to the victims of Cyclone Larry through various forms of assistance, from the Taxation Office specifically?
I thank the member for Leichhardt and I acknowledge his contribution, as the Prime Minister has just outlined, and that of the members for Herbert and Dawson, who I understand have also visited the devastated region. Also to Mr Katter and to people within his electorate, congratulations for the outstanding support you have all provided. Like all Australians, we were touched by the dreadful situation that occurred after Cyclone Larry. The tremendous outpouring of support from many thousands of Australians to help their fellow Australians who were devastated by Cyclone Larry is a great credit to them and underscores the Australian spirit that is alive and well.
The Australian Taxation Office has been supporting people in Far North Queensland and helping to facilitate support to those people who are most in need, in particular small business people who might have difficulty submitting business activity statements and people who may have lost their advice in relation to tax matters or tax records. The Australian Taxation Office has assisted people to reconstruct records. I have instructed the Australian Taxation Office to assist those people wherever possible.
The last thing I want to say is in relation to the announcement last week, to which the Prime Minister alluded earlier, about the ongoing tax deductibility status of the Queensland Premier’s relief fund and the $10,000 tax-free grant to small businesses and farmers. On Sunday the Prime Minister also spoke in some detail—and he clarified this earlier in question time—of the exact assistance we are able to provide to North Queensland people affected by Cyclone Larry with the diesel or petrol fuel rebate. It is a fantastic, collaborative effort. I congratulate all of those involved in both the Australian government and the Queensland government. All of us want to help wherever we can those people who were most adversely affected by Cyclone Larry, and I can assure the Australian people that the Australian Taxation Office and other government instrumentalities will be providing every assistance to them.