Wednesday, 24 June 2015
Excise Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, Customs Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015, Fuel Indexation (Road Funding) Special Account Bill 2015, Fuel Indexation (Road Funding) Bill 2015; Second Reading
I rise to speak today about what is an enormous missed opportunity, a missed opportunity to get Australia on track when it comes to taking real action on climate change, a missed opportunity when it comes to addressing the great inequity and unfairness that exists in this country—the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Before I talk about that missed opportunity, let's talk a little about the context here and the history behind this Excise Tariff Amendment (Fuel Indexation) Bill 2015 and related legislation.
In the government's first budget, we saw a budget that attacked almost every group in Australian society: the young, the old, the sick, the poor. It was a budget that attacked the social contract that many generations have fought so hard to create here in Australia: the notion of a fair go, the notion of what it means to be a caring, decent and compassionate society. In among that budget was a budget measure that was to increase the price of fuel for ordinary Australians; alongside a co-payment to go and see a doctor; alongside changes that would make it harder for young students to get a university education; alongside an indexation measure to pensions which would effectively mean a pay cut for almost every pensioner in the country; and alongside a change that would have booted a young person off income support for six months if they were unable to find a job, and they would struggle to feed, clothe and house themselves.
It was also in the context of a big, bold promise that the Prime Minister made to the nation that there would be no new taxes. That is the context in which this announcement was made and that is the context in which the Australian Greens responded, under the leadership of Senator Christine Milne, and supported by each and every member of our party room—that is, that you need to go back to the drawing board. You need to fix that cruel and harsh budget, and if you are to introduce a change to fuel indexation then you need to do it in a way that transforms our economy and starts taking the necessary action we need to take to address climate change.
Instead, what we got from the Prime Minister was the middle-finger salute, saying, 'No. Every cent is going to roads, like it or lump it. If you don't support us then what we are going to do is come up with a sneaky plan to hand back every cent to big oil companies.' I say to the opposition: it is the government that would be making a decision to hand back that money to big oil companies and it would be the government that would wear the consequences of that decision.
If you are to introduce a measure, and in principle we do not oppose measures such as increases to fuel through changes to indexation, you need to do it in a way that allows us to drive the transformation that is necessary to tackle climate change and also address the regressive impacts of those taxes. I point to the shining example of how you introduce a pollution tax and drive that transformation in the example that is the introduction of the price on carbon.
What we saw there was a price on carbon, essentially a pollution tax. What we also saw was one of the biggest changes to taxation in this country with this enormous raising of the tax-free threshold, which meant that the poorest and the most vulnerable people in the Australian community would pay less tax and would be compensated for that decision. We also saw another $10 billion investment through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to enable us to drive the transformation that is necessary. That is the model for how you introduce a measure such as a pollution tax.
Senator Milne made it absolutely clear at the time that we were prepared to negotiate on the basis of that model, which is: let us invest in public transport to drive the transformation and let us deal with some of those equity measures. But what we saw was a government that attempted to bully, hector and use the sneaky mechanism of blackmail, effectively suggesting that money would go back to big oil companies. That is where we were until recently. But there was a change recently. The government has finally recognised that it cannot use a sledgehammer if it wants to get its legislation through the Australian parliament. This is the parliament voted for by the people, and this parliament exists as a check on the otherwise untrammelled power of the executive. So, it is true that the Australian Greens started having some discussions with the government, on both of those measures that were outlined earlier, under the leadership of Christine Milne—investment in public transport and dealing with equity measures. Those talks were constructive and we were making progress.
This nonsense that you cannot pick one the public transport project over another is just that—nonsense. Why can't we have a public transport fund that allows us to pay for those measures that we know will help us drive the change that is necessary? Why can't we have an equity measure in the budget that allows a small compensation payment for some of the most vulnerable members of the community? Despite what Joe Hockey might say, poor people do drive cars, and this is a bigger hit on their budget than it is on the budgets of those people who are at the more wealthy end of the income scale.
What we saw only yesterday was a case of putting politics before good policy. That is what it was, pure and simple—putting politics before good policy. This veil of an excuse that we cannot hand the money back to big oil companies? Give me a break! Up until yesterday we heard comments from the Leader of the Opposition about this being a huge mistake, an attack on poor people, the government using blackmail to try to get its way. Then we have this road to Damascus conversion, conveniently after the Labor Party were shown up to be hypocrites for their decision to oppose pension changes that would benefit those with more modest means ahead of those at the wealthy end of the scale. It was pure politics. Simply, the idea that the Greens would get an outcome that was good for the Australian community was too much to bear. So what do we see? We see the opposition leader and the government do a deal that puts more money into roads, that does nothing to address climate change and the transformation that is necessary in this country, and does nothing to address the inequity that exists in this measure.
The opposition leader went as far as to say that the more you drive, the more you pay, the more roads you can have. Every person in the country who cares about climate change, global warming and the future that our children will inherit will remember those words—get in your car, put the pedal to the metal, pollute the atmosphere and we will build more roads. What does that do in addressing what is the great challenge that lies ahead of us? It does nothing. This is a case of politics being put ahead of policy. We had an outcome that would have meant hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in public transport and some compensation for people on low incomes—that was ripped away from the Australian community because the Labor Party was desperate to do a deal with the government to deny the Greens the opportunity of getting that outcome for the Australian community. That is what this was about, and nothing else—politics ahead of policy.
We could have worked together on this. We could have had a sensible discussion about what was necessary to get this measure over the line to ensure that we saw changes that would set this country up through this century. Instead, again, there is no vision, no forward-thinking: 'How do we ensure that we deny some oxygen to an opponent and ensure that they do not make the evening news?'
That is what is wrong with the political debate in this country. For too long, politics has been put ahead of good policy, and what we need now is for people to recognise that we are here at the service of the Australian people and that our job is to deliver outcomes for them, not outcomes for us.
That is why the Greens express our deepest concerns at a measure that will make pollution worse and will ensure that people at the lower income end are hit hardest and that we do nothing to address the great challenge that lies ahead of us—and that is the challenge of catastrophic climate change. If you ever wanted a clear indication of where this government and the opposition stand on the great challenge that lies ahead of us, look no further than this decision.