Thursday, 15 September 2016
Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016. This bill will unfairly take over $6 billion of benefits and entitlements away from Australia's poor, unemployed, disabled, aged, veterans and university students in the name of budget repair. I will not support it; it is absolute rubbish. There are better ways, which I will detail shortly, to repair the Australian budget than taking money away from Tasmania's and the mainland's poorest battlers.
It appears from media reports, conversations and speeches in this and the other place that Labor members will support this government's legislation. I am terribly saddened by that news but I cannot wait to put it in my newsletter over the next few weeks and give it to every Tasmanian to tell them what the new Labor members they voted for are doing to them down there.
This legislation has the stain and deception of former Treasurer Joe Hockey's and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's horror budget of 2013-14 all over it. Who could forget the budget emergency? That is right: the big budget emergency that wasn't actually a budget emergency; it was just an attempt at a terrible deception of the Australian people that was finally uncovered after the Liberal government handed down their 'disregard-what-we-said-last-time-everything's-okay' budget of 2014-15.
The major parties of this parliament, their supporters and political donors try to make out that budget repair is a difficult thing to do; however, repairing Australia's budget and protecting our credit rating is quite easy. The parliament just has to make the super rich, who hide their wealth in offshore tax havens, and tax-dodging multinationals, who make billions trading in Australia, pay their fair share of tax. This parliament should target those rich individuals and organisations for budget repair, not the poor, the down-and-out, the elderly, the sick, the pensioners, the unemployed or our sure-as-hell struggling uni students. This is not just what I want when it comes to tax and equity; it is what the majority of Australians want.
The Australian National University in April 2016 released Report No. 21, which studied what Australians wanted when it comes to the management of our public moneys. On the question, 'A range of measures exist to reduce government debt in Australia, which of the following policy responses would you prefer?' 37 per cent of respondents said, 'Make cuts to other areas of government spending,' and 23 per cent said, 'Reduce ways to minimise tax, such as negative gearing and superannuation concessions'. Only 15 per cent agreed that welfare payments should be decreased. On the key question, 'Do you agree or disagree that reducing government debt is currently the most important economic issue facing the country?' the report stated:
Australians are split fairly evenly on whether reducing government debt is the most important economic issue facing the country.
Contrasting with the budget emergency rhetoric of the Tony Abbott led federal government, 51 per cent of respondents disagree or strongly disagree that 'debt reduction is the country's most important economic problem'.
The ANU report also notes that Australians show some confusion over the relative cost of different welfare spending programs. Fewer than one in four respondents correctly answered that age pensions are the most expensive government welfare program. Almost 30 per cent incorrectly named disability pensions as the least expensive welfare program. Just to remind the chamber of the annual costs in the 2016 budget: age pensions or income support for seniors was the highest welfare cost, at $44.17 billion, followed by family tax benefit at $20.15 billion. Disability pensions or income support for people with disabilities totalled $17.05 billion, unemployment benefit or jobseeker income support was the second lowest welfare budget item payment at $11.51 billion, and the lowest government welfare payment at $4.67 billion was the single-parent pension.
If you want to know who should be made to repair the budget, look at the long list of donors to our major political parties. That will give you a good whiff! Of course we will only discover those names when the political donation list is made public and—surprise, surprise—in the past both major parties have cooperated to design a political donation system which covers up for a long time the names of people who give money to political parties. They have not got the spine to make real-time disclosure. Oh goodness me—no—that is never going to happen. I did suggest that to the current PM, but he said that until Labor meets his match he is not prepared to do that. I would have thought that if you had leadership built within you, you would make that happen. That would make common sense, and show that you have nothing to hide.
On a per capita basis, Tasmania has the most age pensioners living on or below the poverty line, the most unemployed, the most youth unemployed and struggling small businesses. So I will not be supporting this legislation. It will only make our situation in Tasmania worse and that is why it surprises me that the Tasmanian Labor representatives are supporting this. It makes me sick to the guts.
I am happy to work with the Liberals on budget repair, but it is just that when you say 'budget repair' the Liberals, Nationals and now the Labor Party want to take it away from poor people—the poorest in society. Why can't we repair the budget by taking money from super-rich people and the wealthy multinationals who do not, and have not, paid their fair share of tax?
I have presented a plan to the parliament and to the government which will raise $9.4 billion each year or $94 billion over the next decade. If the government and the opposition are serious about fair budget repair, they will seriously consider the super-rich death tax to raise $5 billion a year, a financial transactions tax to raise a minimum $1.4 billion a year and capping the capital gains tax exemption to raise $3 billion a year. These three revenue-raising provisions are practised in many modern countries. They are not new. They are independently assessed and they are globally accepted as part of a fair and balanced way of raising revenue. So why do our major political parties ignore these obvious budget repair measures? The simple, truthful and sad answer is that these taxes would mean that the big end of town would have to pay their fair share of tax. Hooray! When cash is king regarding political donations, it is always going to be the battlers who end up paying for budget repair in Australia.
There is one example of cover-up which shows how politically protected the big end of town is from paying their fair share of tax. According to ASIC—which is supposed to be Australia's corporate watchdog and which has no teeth—about 30 per cent of Australia's share market trade is controlled by half-a-dozen traders who use super computers and highly advanced computer programs. In America, high-frequency share traders and their super computers control about 70 per cent of the share market. These share traders use advanced technologies and computers to get an unfair advantage over super funds investing for ordinary mum-and-dad investors. In Australia, it is estimated by ASIC that they skim about $4 billion of profits from mum-and-dad investors. So a financial transactions tax ranging from 0.001 per cent to 0.01 per cent could raise up to $2 billion a year.
Even just finding out who those six privileged in-hiding, high-frequency share traders in Australia are is absolutely impossible. A couple of years ago during estimates, I asked the head of ASIC who these companies were. The head of Australia's corporate watchdog, under oath, could not tell me the name of the six companies which account for 30 per cent of Australia's share market. I find that absolutely absurd. How are we supposed to have confidence in our corporate watchdog who can admit to me, 'Yes, we know that they exist and that they control 30 per cent of our financial market trades but we do not know who they are'? This is either incompetence at the highest level or just a plain cover-up. I would go just plain cover-up, to be honest. So perhaps the Minister for Finance, in his summing up, can tell this Senate the names of the half-a-dozen high-frequency share traders, who use super computers and insider knowledge from computers and programs that no-one else has access to and who actually skim $4 billion to $5 billion from mum-and-dad investors? I would like to see that blown out of the water this evening. I will be asking for those six high-frequency share traders. I cannot wait to hear their names. I would like to know why we could not put a FTT on those organisations, as many other OECD countries do with their high-frequency share traders? After I am provided with the names of those six companies, I would also like to know how much money in political donations they give, whether they pay any tax and whether they have offshore accounts in tax havens. I have no doubt those three questions will hit them like a brick. These are the questions that should be answered before we tax the poor Tasmanians for budget repair.
There are a number of provisions, totalling nearly $900, wrapped in this bill that I would support: newly arrived residents' waiting periods, interest charges for outstanding debts, social security debt recovery before overseas travel and fringe benefits reform.
In relation to budget repair and the overall state of our budget, the Prime Minister has lavished praise on former PM Howard and Treasurer Costello for the state of our economy today. Oh dear! In heaping praise on former leaders, the current Liberal leadership forgot a few stunning and sobering facts regarding previous conservative government management of public finances. According to the Walkley Award-winning journalist, local government councillor and shareholder activist Stephen Mayne's Mayne Report when he addressed the matter of Howard-Costello government management of our public moneys, Mr Mayne writes: 'Yes, they inherited $96 billion of outstanding bonds and about $69 billion of unfunded staff super. They left $58 billion of bonds and about $50 billion in unfunded super largely thanks to selling the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and various airports. That's right—selling off our airports. Don't worry about national security.'
According to the Department of Finance and Deregulation, Mr Howard's Liberal-National Party government made a grand total of $59.8 billion from public asset sales, selling off the farm gate. In summary, Mr Howard and Mr Costello sold $59.8 billion of public assets, paid back $57 billion of Labor debt and left us with $108 billion of outstanding bonds and unfunded Public Service super. I would not say that is someone that is economically bloody smart. What if we didn't sell those public assets in the first place and had enjoyed the guaranteed revenue streams from our airports, from Telstra and from the Commonwealth Bank? Imagine if that money had gone back into our health, back into our schools, back into our kids? We would not need to take money. Instead, we take money from the poor to repair our budget now. That is what we do. That is their payback. Your mistakes; they pay it back. Someone more financially qualified can answer that question, but I do know this fact: you can only sell the farm once.
I will now turn to some of the more damaging measures the bill, starting with the changes affecting our uni students. These changes create several disincentives for our young people to gain qualifications to improve themselves and to pursue the career of their choice. We know an educated nation is a progressive and prosperous nation. It follows that so-called 'budget repair' would not include changes to higher education, yet it does. So much for the Liberal government being good money managers! How can the Liberal government expect the Australian economy to excel when only people born with a silver spoon in their hand can afford to attain a bachelor degree or higher?
Australia prides itself on being a classless society and has worked hard to achieve an enviable level of equality, but these changes are just the beginning of a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. It's an age-old story we are all familiar with, but have not until today had to personally live. Many of those who have been through parliament or are still in parliament are the beneficiaries of free university degrees; why shouldn't subsequent generations be granted the same opportunity? We should be offering our children and grandchildren their first degree for free, giving them the opportunity to pursue the career path of their choosing, not the career path their birth determined for them.
If you cannot take my word for it then perhaps you will listen to the coalition of leading Australian universities, the Group of Eight, who said in their submission on this bill, 'The largest risks outlined in the reports referenced above relates to the costs of the VET FEE-HELP loans scheme and not higher education loans.' This begs the question: why is the government choosing to punish uni students when cleaning up the well-documented rorts in the VET FEE-HELP loans scheme would achieve a greater and a fairer outcome? The Group of Eight also recommends against indexing the higher education grants to CPI, stating: 'Annual indexation is required to maintain the accuracy of the costing structure and to prevent real cuts in funding. To that end, the Higher Education Grants Index, designed to reflect the indexation of Higher Education costs, provides more policy coherence than the CPI indexation proposed in the omnibus bill.' The Group of Eight explained in their submission that the higher education grants index is closely linked to the cost of providing an education and as a result does not need to be tinkered with.
In Tasmania, the state government is working to increase the number of people entering tertiary education, because we have a skills shortage in Tasmania. Not enough Tasmanians have the skills or qualifications to fill any job openings that do come around. Tasmanian uni students do not need added barriers to further study.
The job commitment bonus is one of the measures I agree with. The job commitment bonus is inefficient and underutilised and does not address the real issue: a lack of meaningful, long-term job creation or employment. This is why I have proposed that we remove the tax on jobs and Tasmania becomes a payroll tax free state. Payroll tax exemption for Tasmanian businesses would encourage greater investment in our state and increase the opportunity for jobs. The Tasmanian government informs me that, in the 2015-16 financial year, the state government received $400 million in payroll tax. Yet in the 2016 budget, the Tasmanian government proposed a $425 million jobs package, most of which is tied up in administration and infrastructure. Which of the two is the simplest and likely to have an immediate effect? That is right: the payroll tax exemption.
Youth employment could also be increased by introducing voluntary national service. If our kids are leaving school and do not want to study or cannot find work then they need to be doing a year or so in national service, where they can learn employability skills and a trade of their choosing, giving youth the foundation they need to pursue a career after national service.
These policies will encourage greater workforce participation, encourage greater contribution to the tax base and reduce the cost of welfare.
The changes to pensioners and aged care in this bill are just another onslaught they cannot afford. Most of our pensioners are living in poverty, and our aged-care providers are not sure how to handle the sheer number of elderly entering aged-care facilities. Meanwhile, the government is accusing providers of rorting the system. According to the government, one in every eight claims is a rort. Considering the complexity of the aged care funding instrument, these rorts could be simple mistakes—which is the overwhelming response from aged-care providers. Before the government makes devastating cuts to the aged-care sector, the ACFI must be scrapped. We must start again, in consultation with all industry stakeholders. This will give the government and the sector an opportunity to streamline the process and make savings in both administration and mistakes.
The government has also proposed to impose the pension assets test on residential aged-care arrangements, which has made the Australian Council of Social Service, me and many others concerned about how pensioners are going to pay for aged care. ACOSS says that this change further restricts choice for those on low incomes in paying for residential aged care.
In relation to the single appeal pathway, the big problem we have is the veteran suicide crisis. A large reason for that is the way veterans are being treated when they lodge claims for compensation. Veterans would rather return to war than deal with the mess that the claims system is in. Even though it has been amended by Labor, what the government is proposing under the single appeal pathway still means that this bill denies veterans the right to legal representation. That is right—it denies the right of every veteran out there to legal representation when forced to go against a government body that is stacked with government lawyers. Important decisions about veterans entitlements are being made in a situation where a severely damaged veteran and an advocate walk into a room absolutely stacked with government employees holding law degrees. How is that fair? How intimidating is that to our Australian veterans? How intimidating is it for veterans to walk in and take on a government bureaucracy that is overstacked with overeducated bloody lawyers when they cannot take one in themselves! How are they supposed to defend themselves? What you are doing to these veterans is absolutely disgusting—and if you think I was heating up on Tuesday night, wait till the next lot!