House debates

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Matters of Public Importance

Flood Levy

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable the Leader of the Opposition proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The adverse effect of the flood levy on Australians.

I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

3:35 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the last few weeks, every Australian has witnessed the devastation that so many regions of this country have suffered because of the summer of disaster. We have all seen the devastation. We have all felt for the people impacted. All of us, right around Australia, obviously want everything that is humanly possible to be done as quickly as possible to help those people bring their lives together again in the wake of these terrible disasters.

Everyone wants to see the reconstruction happen soon. Everyone wants to see the reconstruction happen right. Everyone wants to see the reconstruction properly funded. The difference between this side of the House and the other side of the House is that the government wants to see it funded through an unnecessary new tax and members on this side of the House want to see it funded through affordable, achievable, sensible savings from unnecessary government expenditure.

We have had a tough summer and we need a strong government to respond. A strong government should expect at least as much of itself as it does of its citizens. A strong and brave people, as Australians are, deserve a strong government not an indulgent one. That is why the Prime Minister should be putting her hand into the government’s pockets to meet the cost of flood reconstruction. She should not be putting her hand yet again deeper into the pockets of struggling Australian families.

But this is not the last raid on the Australian people that this government will be perpetrating this year; it is but the first attempt by this government to pick the pockets of the Australian people in what will be the year of the big new taxes, if this government has its way. There is the mining tax, there is the carbon tax and there is the higher tax on people with private health insurance. The Prime Minister says, ‘Oh no, you don’t need to worry, it’s just a temporary tax; trust me,’ just like she asked us before the election to trust her that there would be no carbon tax and to trust her that there would be a climate change people’s assembly. We simply cannot trust this government when it comes to tax because this is a government which cannot cut its own spending and, because it cannot cut its own spending, it now wants the Australian people to cut their spending. It is just wrong.

The Prime Minister was at pains to say that the cost of reconstruction would be very high, that the government was facing a very big bill—$5.6 billion. I agree: that is a big bill. But it is just 1½ per cent of the government’s annual income. It is about 10 per cent of what the government is gladly spending on the National Broadband Network. It is just 30 per cent of what the government has spent—and in many cases wasted—on the Building the Education Revolution program. In fact, the $1.8 billion that the Prime Minister’s new tax will raise is about the same as the cost blow-out that this incompetent and extravagant government perpetrated in the school halls program and it is even less than the $2.4 billion that the government completely wasted in the pink batts program. It did not hit us with a levy for the National Broadband Network. It did not hit us with a levy for the BER. Now it is hitting us with a levy because it has been so wasteful and extravagant in the past. The government should pay for its mistakes. It should not try to make the people pay for its mistakes, which is why we have this unnecessary new tax.

There have been cyclones before in this country, there have been floods before in this country, but never before has there been this kind of unnecessary new tax because there has never before been a government of quite this level of waste and incompetence. Why should the Australian people be hit with a levy to meet expenses which a competent, adult, prudent government should be able to cover from the ordinary revenues of government? It raises $350 billion a year and it cannot find $1.8 billion to meet what should be something that a prudent government could find out of its ordinary revenues.

There are people in Queensland and Victoria today—tens of thousands of them, in fact—many of them on low incomes, who have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to make their flood and storm impacted homes habitable. They will get no insurance payouts. They will get precious little assistance from government. People earning less than $50,000 a year will be expected to spend far more than $50,000 just to make their homes liveable. They will not be putting their hand out to anyone else, yet this government cannot do the minimum that it is doing without putting its hand deep into the pockets of Australian taxpayers. This is a government with an income of $350 billion a year that cannot find $1l.8 billion without a new tax. To put that into perspective, it is like someone with $350 in his pocket who cannot find $1.80 for a good cause. The Australian people know what it is like to have to tighten their belts in tough times and they deserve a government which is capable of tightening its belt when it faces unforeseen extra expenses.

It is true that the Prime Minister did announce as part of this package some cuts. She announced cuts to programs that should never have been announced in the first place, like the cash-for-clunkers programs. She announced cuts to programs which the coalition had already committed to cutting and which it was roundly criticised for by the government. This government should not be given any credit for reversing decisions that should never have been made in the first place, and certainly this government should get no credit whatsoever for cuts to flood mitigation works on the Bruce Highway. What sort of a government, in responding to a flood disaster, would cut spending on flood mitigation works? At the heart of the government’s response is a new tax. This is not just any new tax. According to the Prime Minister in this very House this morning, the new tax at the heart of this government’s flood response is ‘an expression of goodwill between Australians’. This is a tax and a half—it is an expression of goodwill. It is ‘a way of honouring the dignity and resilience that Australians have shown throughout this ordeal’. Isn’t that fantastic! The next lot of people to get gongs will be hit with a new tax because that is how this government thinks you should honour people—by hitting them with a new tax.

I said this week that the Prime Minister has a decent heart, but I tell you what: she has got a tin ear. She sure does not understand anything about mateship, because if she understood anything about mateship at all she would know that mateship is not taxing people; mateship is helping people. She would know that mateship is not what you are taxed to give; mateship is what you choose to give. She would know that mateship does not come from governments; it comes from people and communities.

It is true, as the Prime Minister has also said, that the Howard government did impose some levies, but the Howard government did not turn a $20 billion surplus into a $50 billion deficit. People trusted the Howard government with money, and the only way the current government thinks it might be trusted with money is by appointing a Howard government minister to oversee it. The only person in the Gillard government who could be trusted with money was in fact the former member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, and he is gone because he did not trust the Prime Minister and he would not come back—and she would not even ask him to come back; instead, she turned to John Fahey.

We know that there is fat in this budget because the Prime Minister keeps telling us that if the bill is more than $5.6 billion there will be more savings. If more than $5.6 billion is needed, there will be more savings, she says, not more taxes. Well, if there are more savings to be had, let us take them now. If there are more savings to be had, let us take the fat off government, let us not take ‘the lean’ off citizens.

This week the shadow Treasurer and I put forward a raft of further savings, real savings over the forward estimates, real savings to eliminate the need for real tax increases. These are the proposals that I would like to sit down with the Prime Minister and discuss in a spirit of bipartisanship. These are the proposals that I would like to discuss with her in a spirit of national unity brought on by this flood crisis. If she really does want to bring the nation together—to ‘get them through this together’ as she said to the parliament today—she would take up this offer to sit down and negotiate savings in a spirit of national unity. If she has got more savings, if she has got better savings, I am only too happy to agree to those extra savings in a spirit of national unity. As things stand, people have suffered enough, and they do not deserve to suffer through a new tax. The one thing that they will never have to suffer under a coalition government is an unnecessary new tax, a tax that could easily be replaced by savings found from the budget.

I fear that we are already seeing signs from this government of the same kind of incompetence and ineptitude which blighted its delivery of so many programs in the past, such as the school halls and pink batts programs. The Treasurer says that his tax will raise $1.8 billion, but he cannot say how many people will actually pay it. The Prime Minister says that she will pay $5.6 billion out, but she cannot say what it will actually be spent on. The Prime Minister tells us that this new tax is just a cup of coffee a week, but what we heard today was that the cup of coffee a week becomes a coffee machine a week in the case of some taxpayers. The Prime Minister says that flood victims will not pay the tax. That is simply wrong. Donors will pay, volunteers will pay and victims will pay. People who have lost their businesses but not their homes will pay this new tax.

The task of government is to respond intelligently to the problems of the nation. The task of leaders is not just to feel people’s pain; it is to solve their problems. I hope that the Prime Minister, in the weeks and months ahead, can confidently address the people’s problems despite her previous failings, but I know that, unless she changes her mind, she will add to their pain with this unnecessary tax. As far as this government is concerned, 2011 is the year of new taxes; as far as this opposition is concerned, it should be the year in which governments finally start to live within their means.

3:50 pm

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

We have been through a dreadful summer, a summer where Australians have turned to each other, a summer where Australians have shown that they want to look after each other. Australians have acted to help each other. Australians are now looking to this parliament to give them the leadership the nation deserves at this time. Australians know that the nation needs to rebuild from the devastating summer that was. When Australians turn to this parliament they do not expect to see this tragedy being used for cheap politicking. They do not expect to see this parliament degenerate into a rabble around what needs to be done to rebuild the nation. Instead, they expect decisions to be made and action to be taken, and as Prime Minister I am going to do just that.

That is why I have outlined a $5.6 billion funding package. That is why I have outlined plans to start the rebuilding now. That is why we are prepared to make a $2 billion payment available to Queensland. That is why we have set in place measures to make sure value for money is obtained, including a reconstruction inspectorate, including audited accounts, including a national partnership arrangement and including the involvement of people like Mr John Fahey and Mr Brad Orgill. We want to get on with the job of rebuilding the nation. That is what the national interest requires. And the national interest requires this burden to be shared. Yes, the government have to make room for it in their budget—and we have. We have done it through making some tough and difficult decisions. We have done it through reprioritising infrastructure to deal with questions of capacity constraints. We have done it by making sure we streamline the skilled migration we may need to build the nation. We have done it by making the decisions necessary to get unemployed people to step up to the jobs they can get in rebuilding the nation. We have put together a comprehensive package and, yes, it includes asking Australians for a contribution too. That is the right thing to do at a time when the nation needs it. At every point we have been motivated by the national interest.

Unfortunately, what we have seen on every occasion from the Leader of the Opposition is the national interest cast aside in pursuit of narrow political interests. At a time when Australians were turning to each other, urging each other to dig deeper for flood victims, the Leader of the Opposition was out there asking them to dig deeper to fund the Liberal Party. The Leader of the Opposition is very keen to throw insults around; let me say this: I have never seen such a tin heart. Of course, the Leader of the Opposition may have been let down by his party organisation, but what he needed to then do was say they had done the wrong thing. But he was asked by Barrie Cassidy:

But to do it in that way, to attach it—

the fundraising request—

to a letter detailing information about the floods—you don’t think that was just a little insensitive and in poor taste on the part of the party?

And the Leader of the Opposition replied:

Well people will make their own judgements.

Never a truer word was spoken. People will make their own judgments on a man who did not condemn fundraising for the Liberal Party when the nation was turning to fundraising for flood victims.

On the question of the national interest versus narrow political interest, what we have seen on each and every occasion is the Leader of the Opposition out there seeking to pursue narrow political interest. Did you hear his speech at the Gold Coast to a group of Young Liberals, when the nation was still reeling from the shock of these natural disasters, before we were even touched by the cyclone and there was more devastation to come, when the people of Queensland and Brisbane were looking at their houses filled with filthy floodwaters and wondering how they were ever going to clean up? There was the Leader of the Opposition on the Gold Coast in front of the Liberal Party faithful, trying to work out how he could surf these floodwaters into Kirribilli. That was the main thing on his mind—all about his political interest. Could he use this somehow to put pressure on the Independents to make a different decision about the composition of the government? It is narrow political interest every step of the way.

I say to the Leader of the Opposition: people would take him more seriously if the narrow political interest had also not been on display in putting together his so-called alternative package. When we laboured over the $5.6 billion funding package, we laboured in the interests of the nation. The Leader of the Opposition and his team laboured over the reports of focus groups to help them work out what was in their political interest, as reported in the newspaper. Were they studying documents to work out the national interest or studying documents to work out his political interest? We all know the answer to that.

Let’s just go through the hypocrisy that is driving the Leader of the Opposition’s campaign. He is not opposed to tax. He was a member of a government whose tax as a share of GDP was as follows. The tax to GDP figure of the Howard government when they left office was 23.5 per cent.

Photo of Craig EmersonCraig Emerson (Rankin, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

A record.

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a man who is not opposed to tax. Someone just said it was a record; actually, it was not the Howard government’s record, I dread to correct. Actually, the Howard government record was at 24.1 per cent. This is a man not opposed to tax. Currently, tax as a share of GDP is 20.9 per cent. This is a man not opposed to tax. The Leader of the Opposition is out there saying he cannot support the levy because he does not like burdens and he worries about all of this. That was his track record on tax when he was in government.

What is his track record on supporting levies? The most remarkable thing—or probably not the most remarkable; one of the most remarkable things—about the few weeks that have been is that, before I was talking about a levy, it was supported by members of the coalition. Senator Joyce and Senator Ron Boswell were out there supporting levies. As soon as I announced the levy, the coalition was opposed to it. What does that tell you? That is telling you it is all about them working out the politics, not working out the nation’s interest. When the Leader of the Opposition was in government, he was very, very pleased to support levies. He gave the superannuation surcharge levy the tick. He gave the gun buyback levy the tick, though someone on $60,000 paying that levy in 1996-97 was being asked for a bigger dollar contribution than we are asking them for today. Have a think about that—a bigger dollar contribution than we are asking them for today, but he gave that one the tick. He gave the stevedoring levy a tick, the milk levy a tick, the sugar levy a tick, the Ansett Airlines levy a tick and the proposed East Timor levy a tick. Indeed, he was so fond of levies that he went to the last election promising a $6 billion levy to fund his election promises.

Now, of course, he comes into this parliament and says he could not contemplate a levy to rebuild the nation. What hypocrisy is this? It was good enough for the Leader of the Opposition to propose a levy to fund his election promises but it is not good enough for him to support a levy to rebuild the nation. It is all about the political interest, not about the national interest—not at any point.

Then the Leader of the Opposition says, ‘Savings should be made on the budget.’ Savings have been made on the budget—hard savings; proper savings; properly costed savings. The Leader of the Opposition never understands that because he has never made a hard saving or a properly costed saving. We know one of the single biggest reasons he is sitting in the chair of the Leader of the Opposition is that, when he was called on to deal with financial questions during the election campaign, he created an $11 billion black hole. This is his track record when it comes to financial management questions: no expertise; no track record; no idea.

So, against this backdrop, you would have thought the Leader of the Opposition might have thought to himself, ‘It can be a bit hard to do all of this—work the budget out.’ But, no, he was out there on 27 January saying, ‘It’s easy enough to find savings; it’s easy enough.’ Then there were days and days and days and days of delay. What finally came out of the process, quickly cobbled together, with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition desperately fighting back against cutbacks she did not agree with? What has come out is a package that does not stand up to any scrutiny.

Let us just go through it. It delays funding under the BER. They want tradespeople to walk off half-completed jobs in schools. I say to that: give us the list. Let us know which schools. You should do that if you are a decent person. They, of course, have succumbed to an email campaign. So desperate were they for savings that someone scrabbled through their deleted emails and found a campaign about cutting $500 million to Indonesian schools, and they all looked at each other in their desperation and division and said: ‘That’ll be good enough. Why don’t we whack that in there?’ But no-one bothered to tell the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. She knows this is wrong, she knows this is against the national interest and she should be saying it loud and long.

Then, of course, they said they are going to cut back water entitlement purchasing through the Murray-Darling Basin. What an act of contempt for the people of Adelaide! What an act of contempt to say that they are not worth the reform that the Murray-Darling Basin requires! The Leader of the Opposition has never found a good day to buy back water entitlements. When the river is in drought, no, you cannot buy them then, because the river is in drought. When the river is in flood, you cannot buy them then. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: if we are going to do this long-term reform, we need to buy back water entitlements. He should not treat the people of Adelaide with this kind of contempt.

Then, of course, there are GP superclinics. The Leader of the Opposition has never found a healthcare cutback he did not love, so we are not surprised that is on the list. Then he wants to rip money off disadvantaged schools around the country. There’s a smart one: get the most impoverished kids with the fewest life opportunities in the nation and make sure they continue to have the fewest life opportunities in the nation! What an offensive suggestion from a man who was a member of a government that never bothered to do anything about disadvantage in schools! Of course, this list of shabby opportunism just goes on. It does not add up. It does not make sense.

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I say to the Leader of the Opposition that he has the ability to show that he can rise above the persona that he has developed so far. He has the ability to show he can rise above the three-word slogans. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: now is the time to put down the polling. Now is the time to cut out the scare campaign. Now is the time to toss away the lines document his advisers have given him and do something in the national interest, and that is to support the government in rebuilding the nation, including the levy. That is the right thing to do. It is what people are looking at this parliament to do.

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

This levy is responsible, it is fair, it is temporary, it is in the national interest and I support it. I believe the Australian people will understand why we are asking them to make this contribution. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that he should support it too. He has no alternative. He has no credibility. His own frontbench do not agree with the figures he put out earlier this week. In those circumstances, it is time for the Leader of the Opposition to say: ‘I made an error on this one, I am a man capable of acknowledging that and I will support the federal government’s levy. I will support rebuilding the nation.’ That is the right thing to do. It is what Australians are looking for. Do not go mining for the political interest; act in the national interests. Australians are better than the Leader of the Opposition thinks. They will support this levy—it is the right thing to do—and so should he. (Time expired)

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before calling the honourable member for Flinders, I remind honourable members that they are not supposed to interject from their seats.

4:05 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to table the Prime Minister’s statement on the Queensland floods on the ALP website dated 2 February, accompanied by a green dollar sign requesting contributions to the ALP, including $10,000 for television advertising and $50 for 30 calls for election advertising.

Leave not granted.

Why not? That’s a little embarrassing, isn’t it?

Photo of Ms Julie BishopMs Julie Bishop (Curtin, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister continues to disappoint. She continues to disappoint those who expect better from the occupants of the high office of Prime Minister. At a time when this country is looking for leadership, the Prime Minister becomes a partisan point-scorer. We disagree on the tax; we disagree on how reconstruction should be funded; but we do not impute bad motives to the government. Yet the Prime Minister, in her speech to the House just now, made it personal. She suggested bad faith. She suggested bad motives. She has impugned the reputation of members on this side of the House. She continues to disappoint. She is unable to reach the high standard that is expected of a Prime Minister of this country.

Photo of Gary GrayGary Gray (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Public Service and Integrity) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I ask the speaker to refer to the Prime Minister as the Prime Minister.

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am sure the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is aware of the provisions of standing order 64. The Prime Minister should be referred to as the Prime Minister.

Photo of Ms Julie BishopMs Julie Bishop (Curtin, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I do note that the Prime Minister now has a penchant for the personal pronoun at every turn.

May I suggest that it is time for the Prime Minister to take a reality check on the current debate in this country on how to fund reconstruction necessary after the recent natural disasters? There are three undeniable facts. First, it is true that an individual instance of a natural disaster may be unforeseen; that is a fact. However, secondly—and this is a very important point—natural disaster as a policy issue is not unforeseen. That, too, is a fact. We know that a natural disaster happens in some form, and probably occurs, every month of the year in Australia, whether it be drought, storms, floods or bushfires. You do not have to be Nostradamus to be able to predict that. Donald Rumsfield would probably call it, ‘an unforeseen foreseen event’.

That then leads to the third undeniable fact: governments should always be ready for natural disasters. Natural disasters are not uncommon in Australia. Indeed, every federal budget must make contingencies to meet the government’s obligations to rebuild in the face of natural disasters. However, the government—in the long tradition of Labor governments—has opted for the tax route—the lazy way out—to raise a special tax to undertake one of its core responsibilities. Instead of funding it from the money it has already extracted from the Australian people by way of taxes it is going to impose yet another tax.

It is a core responsibility of government to be ready for such events. However, because in the space of three years Labor have squandered the magnificent financial position created by the Howard government over 11½ years, they have to resort to a new tax. Previous governments did not require a new tax to fund the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy; the previous government did not need a new tax to repair the damage after Cyclone Larry; there was no special tax to fund the needs of a 10-year drought; and there was no special tax to deal with the floods of 1974. Good budget management tells you that you should not rely on one-off tax rises every time a natural disaster occurs.

It is like taking out insurance; it is a prudent financial decision that should be written into any risk assessment. Instead, the sad fact is that the government is still recklessly borrowing $100 million a day to feed its spending binge. As the shadow Treasurer said yesterday that the government is spending $45 billion on interest repayments over the next four years alone.

That is $45 billion on the debt it has run up because it cannot manage a budget. It would not know a surplus if it fell over one. Over the next four years the government intends to spend $1.5 trillion, and we should not underestimate the long-term damage that Australians will have to wear because of Labor’s economic mismanagement.

It cannot organise itself, with the huge revenues it already collects, to finance one of its core responsibilities. Instead, Labor defaults to a new tax. It is part of its pavlovian response: tax and spend, tax and spend. Over the last three years Labor has increased taxes on cars, it has increased taxes on alcohol and increased tax on cigarettes. Its history of waste is just appalling. The waste flagship is the Building the Education Revolution. This Prime Minister’s legacy from her days as the education minister is billions of dollars wasted under ministerial incompetence that we have not seen before in this country. It is a shameful record. Then there were the home insulation programs—massive waste—the solar heating program and the laptops in schools program. Labor has wasted multiple times the amount of money it hopes to collect from the flood tax.

The government has a budget of $350 billion every year, but it cannot find $1.8 billion to repair the country after the natural disasters we have experienced. It cannot find $1.8 billion without Australians having to pay another tax. Labor has actually been exposed on this one because, in a moment of candour, the Prime Minister admitted that if the reconstruction costs were in excess of the estimate she could find the necessary cuts. We plead with the Prime Minister: identify those cuts now. It is not the time to raise the cost of living by slugging Australians with new taxes. People have been hit hard by the floods, Australians are already experiencing rising interest rates, the cost of living is on the rise, electricity prices are rising, schooling costs are rising, transport costs are rising, Labor’s National Broadband Network will result in higher costs for basic communications and the government plans to introduce this year not only a flood tax but a carbon tax and a mining tax.

What is quite extraordinary, though, is that yesterday in question time the Treasurer could not tell us how many people are going to be hit by the flood tax. He could come up with the final number of $1.8 billion but he had no idea how many people would be paying it.

Photo of Simon CreanSimon Crean (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

In question time yesterday he gave the answer.

Photo of Ms Julie BishopMs Julie Bishop (Curtin, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

In question time yesterday he had no idea. This will be a kick in the guts to small business people. There are no exemptions for small business from the tax, even if their commercial properties were hit by the floods or cyclones. In a very telling exchange yesterday, the member for Brisbane noted that a small business in her electorate was flooded up to its ceiling, lost vital equipment, suffered $200,000 worth of damage and was out of business for two weeks but had to pay the tax. We asked the Prime Minister about it and her response was—and I ask members to listen to this:

On the question of payment of the levy, the exemptions for payment of the levy, because we are talking about personal income taxation, are being figured off the personal arrangements that we have under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements—that is, eligibility for the emergency money under the Australian government disaster relief payment and associated payments.

And, this is the point:

So the aim here in making those exemptions has been to exempt from paying the levy people who have been immediately impacted personally by natural disaster.

Impacted personally—as a product of the Labor machine, the Prime Minister does not understand that when you are a small business person your business absorbs your life. You are impacted personally. In fact, the response from the Prime Minister just demonstrates that the Labor Party has no concept of small business and how they are constantly propped up by family budgets to keep those businesses afloat.

All in all, this tax is an increased cost burden on the Australian people and the government should be doing everything it can to relieve cost burdens on the Australian people. This is not leadership; this is a lazy response from a lazy government. Its first response is always a tax. It is a shame that the Labor Party does not have robust policy debates within its cabinet, but the self-described zombies accept the lazy public policy efforts of the Prime Minister, whose policy record is a shambles on Medicare Gold, on cash for clunkers, on the citizens assembly and on the East Timor processing centre. This Prime Minister has no public policy feel. Her response is a tax. The government is incapable of showing any discipline when it comes to fiscal management. It cannot manage the money it already extracts from the Australian people. It will not be able to manage the tax it raises from this levy. The government should show some discipline. The government should not impose a tax on the Australian people. (Time expired)

4:16 pm

Photo of Simon CreanSimon Crean (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I think from this matter of public importance we have just seen why Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, is not fit to be Prime Minister of this country— because he has failed the leadership test. At a time when the country is seeking unity after the greatest natural disaster ever to hit us, he seeks to divide the community for his own political ambition, not because he has a credible alternative but for his own grubby political ambition. That is not leadership; that is shameful.

This is a nation that is in mourning, it is a nation that has been devastated, but it is also a nation that came together when it mattered. It came together in grief, it came together in emergency, it came together in its relief efforts and it came together in the clean-up. What people expect of us as a parliament is that we come together in helping them to rebuild. That is why we have sought to get bipartisan support for this position. Those who are the victims and those who have helped would ask nothing less than for us as a parliament to demonstrate a preparedness to work together. Of the members that I have been around with who said that same thing to me on the ground when I visited their electorates, inspected the devastation and talked about the need for a partnership and urged me that we have to work together, I cannot believe that they have allowed their leader, with very little internal debate, as I understand it, to announce this decision to oppose the levy.

The truth is that this is going to require a massive rebuild. This is something the country has not experienced before and, quite frankly, if we can get our act together, we can generate opportunity, we can generate hope and we can generate a rebuild which is stronger than that which was devastated. But it does require us to do it together. Everywhere that I have visited I have heard positive responses to our calls for the need for a national partnership to be involved in this rebuild. With the mayors that I have spoken with and the involvement of the regional development bodies—I see a member of the opposition laughs at the suggestion of the mayors being involved—I made the point that the mayors have a critical involvement in this selection because they will help us determine the priorities. We need to have that local input, we need to have their engagement and we need to have their commitment. That is why we have been out there engaging with them to achieve that very purpose. But we also need cooperation across the shires. That is why we need to look at the impact, particularly of the infrastructure losses, to see how the communities can be connected.

We have talked about the partnership not just with local government but also with state government, because the national disaster relief arrangements require that partnership by legislation. But it also has to be a partnership that involves the private sector, the insurance sector and NGOs. If we are to drive the partnership, we have to show the leadership. That is what this exercise is about. It is about this government, our Prime Minister, demonstrating that we are prepared to stump up, that we do appreciate the magnitude of the problem and that we are prepared to make a commitment, but it is a commitment that has to be achieved through a number of different mechanisms from our point of view. One of them is the levy, but the levy involves in a two-to-one ratio what we are prepared to put in through savings in the budget. In other words, the savings measures that we have announced to fund this effort contribute twice as much as that which would be raised by the levy.

Let me come to the levy question. I have talked about the lack of leadership demonstrated by the Leader of the Opposition, but his hypocrisy is breathtaking. This is a leader and an opposition—and I heard the interjections across the table during question time, particularly from the shadow minister for finance—who say that tax is not leadership. I think you had better go and talk to the former Prime Minister and the former Treasurer about that test. Weren’t they the ones that introduced to the nation the mother of all taxes, the GST, on the basis of their saying, ‘This requires leadership and we are showing leadership’? They criticised us as an opposition for opposing them and said that we would not join them in that leadership. What cant; what hypocrisy. So don’t come in here and talk about that.

Quite apart from the GST, the mother of all taxes in this country, we have six levies that they introduced, including an 11c levy on milk. That raised $2 billion whilst it was in operation. Milk is basic food and they put a levy on it to fund the restructuring of the dairy industry. They talk about us not planning properly for natural disasters. Who could have planned for the one of the magnitude we have just had, I might add. But what about planning for the restructuring of an industry as important as the dairy industry? What was the solution? A tax on every Australian for every litre of milk that they purchased.

Then there was a 3c levy on every kilogram of sugar. Why? Because they failed so miserably in their negotiations for a free trade agreement with the United States that they left sugar out, sold the National Party down the drain and made the Australian public pay for it. Then there were the guns levy buyback and East Timor levy, both of those precisely the same formula as the levy we are proposing. So, for all the argument about the superannuation and the compensation, the levy that you imposed for the guns buyback and the East Timor levy would have applied exactly the same way. Do not give us any more of your cant and hypocrisy.

Then we had a levy for the bailout of Ansett. They refused to step in and try to save the airline. When the thing collapsed in front of them because of inaction, they put another levy on. Then there was the levy for the response to terrorism—a levy on reinsurance. That is six levies and a GST. This was a government that, when it was in under John Howard, became the highest taxing government in the history of the country and still retains the highest tax-to-GDP ratio that this country has ever experienced. Do not talk to us about taxation. Do not talk to us about tax not being leadership. By your own definition you fail the leadership test. They should get out of the way of this initiative.

Then they go on to say that they can do this without the levy. They say that they can do it by further cuts to the budget. Let us go to that. First of all, they delayed their announcement of what the savings were because they could not get their act together. Then they had squabbling amongst themselves about what was in and what was out. When they turned up to announce it, it was attended by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Treasurer but not, I note, the shadow finance minister, who is back in the chamber. He would not give it ownership. He would not dignify it, because he knew it was shonky in the same way as when they went to the last election with the promises of savings and we exposed an $11 billion hole in those savings. Now they say they want to build on it. I tell you what. Of the savings they put out the other day, $700 million was double counted. They had pocketed the savings before and already spent them. There is a pretty fundamental message in this: when you are looking to pay for something, you cannot spend money twice. If you do not understand that, it is another reason why you do not deserve to be in.

Not only was there $700 million that was double counted, $480 million of it was opposed by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who just spoke in the seconding of it. This is an opposition that has no credibility whatsoever. This is an opposition that is hypocritical. This is an opposition that is divided. What we have is a Leader of the Opposition desperately scrambling to shore up his leadership credentials, but he is doing it to try to drive disunity in the Australian public. What this nation requires is unity. It wants us to pull together. I suggest the Leader of the Opposition should drop his opposition to this tax or, at the appropriate time when asked, maintain a dignified silence. (Time expired)

4:26 pm

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In the wake of the massive disasters that we have had in my home state of Queensland—disasters which have impacted or will impact on just about every Queenslander in one way, shape or form, the answer that this Labor government has given is an answer that only a Labor government could give: ‘Let’s have a tax to solve the problem.’ It comes on top of the mining tax that they plan to introduce, which is going to impact on Queensland, particularly regional Queensland, where the mining industry is most active in employment. It is also going to come on top of the planned carbon tax, a tax which will hit every family through the power point and a tax which will again impact on regional Queensland, where mining creates jobs.

This year is truly going to be the year of the big taxes under the Labor government. When people are doing it tough in the community with the rising cost of living, these guys are going to slug them yet again. This Labor government think that people are earning too much and have to be taxed to pay for the government’s stuff-ups eroding the surplus that this side of the House left them. The people do not have the spare change or time to buy the proverbial coffee or cake a week that these people talk about when they talk about this tax. They are too busy paying off bills. They are too busy dealing with price rises. They are too busy trying to make ends meet. But what I find very shocking is that this Labor government has tried to tie their planned flood tax to the human misery that is associated with the widespread flood disaster in Queensland and now the Cyclone Yasi disaster in north Queensland.

The Treasurer bumbled about yesterday but eventually admitted that not one cent of the money from this flood tax is going to fix destroyed homes or property. Despite this, there is no doubt that the Treasurer, like the rest of the tax peddlers opposite, were trying to promote this flood tax as something that was going to help families rebuild their homes. While he denied saying such a thing in this chamber yesterday, the quote was in black and white. It said, ‘as we rebuild infrastructure and homes’. ‘We’ was the word he said—the government, not anyone else. He has tried to make this inference in selling this tax. The problem is he knows that the disaster payments that flow that he bumbled on about yesterday always flow from the federal government in times of disaster without a need for a tax. He knows that disaster payments have the support of both sides of politics.

The fact is the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the rest of this Labor government have been out there trying to con Australians into believing this flood tax is all about mateship. But the people out there demonstrated mateship in the weeks preceding the Prime Minister’s announcement of a tax when they donated hand over fist for flood victims. People in my electorate responded overwhelmingly, turning up to hand over money at charity concerts, at small fundraisers or by donating directly to a flood appeal. The local newspaper, the Daily Mercury, on the inspiration of its editor, David Fisher, decided to forgo profits for one weekend, donating it all to the flood appeal. So we have demonstrated mateship ourselves without compulsion. But they think this tax is all about mateship. Really? This tax is about a ship, but it ain’t mateship. It is about the sinking ship of debt that this lot has racked up in the last three years, leaving this nation not a zack to pay for rebuilding after these natural disasters.

4:29 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would give some advice to those opposite about floods in Queensland—

Photo of Patrick SeckerPatrick Secker (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You’ve got about six seconds!

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh, are there only six seconds?

Debate interrupted.