Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Statements by Senators
Regional and Remote Australia
Life in regional and remote Australia can be very rewarding. Regional and remote Australia is home to much of our mineral and resources wealth, including agriculture, and many of the great wonders of our natural environment. Regional and remote Australia generates more than half of the nation's export wealth. Northern Australia, with only five per cent of Australia's population, generates more than 50 per cent of Australia's export wealth. Regional and remote Australia is where we find our connection with Indigenous culture and the mythology that informs our national character.
But life in regional and remote Australia can also be very challenging. The tyranny of distance imposes limits on access to essential and emergency services and often translates to inadequate transport infrastructure, fewer educational options and diminished employment opportunities. In regional and remote Australia, access to the full suite of Commonwealth taxpayer funded services and to the lifestyle and recreational pursuits that many Australians take for granted is an aspiration only, not a reality. The Australian Institute of Family Studies reported in 2011 that 23 to 31 per cent of inner regional families and 36 to 43 per cent of outer regional families had trouble accessing private and public services such as social security, infrastructure, health care, financial institutions, telecommunications and disability support. It's likely these rates would have been much higher than that for remote areas. In 1981 the Report of the public inquiry into income tax zone allowances noted:
… people living in remote areas … do not receive the same government services as those living in the main cities.
By any estimation this situation fails the fairness test. It could be concluded that there are two Australias: one for metropolitan citizens and another, far leaner version for regional Australians.
Regrettably this is mirrored in political representation in this parliament. Out of over 250 parliamentarians, very few represent regional and remote Australia, and even fewer represent northern Australia. In my home state of Queensland I have the support of many of my colleagues in this push to get a better deal for regional Australia. I particularly mention the work Senator O'Sullivan does as a fellow Queensland senator, the work of Mr Warren Entsch in representing our northernmost electorate, Mr George Christensen, Michelle Landry, David Littleproud out in the west, Senator Canavan around Rockhampton, Ken O'Dowd around Central Queensland, Keith Pitt around Bundaberg and John McVeigh in the west around Toowoomba. Those colleagues do understand this and work towards it.
One interesting thing about those members that I have just mentioned is that they're all from the Liberal National Party of Queensland, none from the Labor Party. The Labor Party's only representation in regional Queensland and in the north of Queensland is what I often refer to as the 'illegitimate member for Herbert', who won her seat by 37 votes when there were 200 cases of double voting and many examples and evidence of people who wanted to vote and couldn't. The member for Herbert is based in Townsville, as I am. She concentrates on Townsville matters—
Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I would ask you to consider whether or not describing a member in the other place as 'illegitimate' and casting aspersions on the method of their election is consistent with the standing orders.
Madam Acting Deputy President, on the point of order, every time I have mentioned this, which has been several times, I get the same objection and it has been ruled against by presiding officers on all occasions. The 'illegitimate' refers to the manner of her election. It was illegitimate. It is a position I maintain.
I always know that I'm getting somewhere when the Labor Party keep interrupting me, calling quorums and raising points of order that are fallacious. In response to Senator O'Neill's interjection, 'You should take it up with the AEC,' you can be assured that I have, because the AEC didn't bother to tell anybody, including either of the candidates, within the time limit for appeal to the Court of Disputed Returns that there were 200 cases of double voting in the electorate of Herbert. We've all heard the often-mouthed comment of 'vote early and vote often'. You often hear it around union circles.
Getting back to my point: there are very few of us, particularly across Northern Australia. There is Mr Entsch, me, Mr Christensen, Michelle Landry, Senator O'Sullivan, and three from the Northern Territory, including you, Madam Acting Deputy President McCarthy, and Melissa Price from the north of Western Australia. Out of a parliament of 250, that's not many. So you can understand why it's not always front of mind.
In 1945, the then Treasurer, Mr Chifley, introduced amendments to the Income Tax Assessment Act to create a tax zone allowance scheme in an attempt to refer some fairness to the uneven taxation burden borne by regional and non-metropolitan taxpayers. In his remarks to the House of Representatives, after noting that the district and regional allowances provided to workers in rural and regional Australia at the time were designed to address those inadequacies, Mr Chifley said that:
the disabilities of uncongenial climatic conditions, isolation, or relatively high living costs
were some of the disadvantages. He alluded to the fairness test later in the same debate when he detailed the need for the tax zone allowance scheme. He said:
It must be admitted that people living in remote areas incur greater expenditure when they send their children to secondary schools, or when they send their wives and families away for holidays, than are those who live near the coast or in more settled areas. Therefore, I make no apology for recommending the zoning proposal.
In those days, in 1945, the 40 pound and 80 pound allowances given to people living in rural and regional Australia were adequate and did, to a degree, address some of the disadvantages that people living outside of the metropolitan areas suffered. Had those figures been indexed since that time, the allowances would now be something like $5,000 and between $15,000 and $20,000. If those allowances were provided now, they would, in some small way, compensate for the additional cost of living that confronts people living in remote Australia.
I think it is high time that the parliament, in particular, had a look at this proposal, at the disadvantages of living in the 'second Australia', and had another look at that zone tax rebate scheme. It is a matter that I think should be looked at. It could be relatively easily addressed and it could actually provide some real incentive to help those living in regional and remote communities. I was up in the north-west of Queensland the other day and one of the councils was saying that they have a position available but simply could not offer the sort of money to get someone out of Brisbane or Sydney to come right up into the north-west of Queensland to work there. The job is good, and once they got there people would love it, but the cost of living is so much more, so the council, in this instance, would have had to pay an amount for wages that they wouldn't be able to justify. That's where the zone tax scheme originally came in and it should be looked at again.
I've put a proposition to the Prime Minister, and my colleagues have joined me, that the current zone tax rebate scheme should be seriously looked at again. I'm not going to suggest amounts or boundaries, but it really does need a proper investigation by a properly constituted and learned group—a committee, a forum—to see how it could be increased. I would hope that senators who have an interest in remote and regional Australia might join me in this push to try to get some fairness for those who live outside the capital cities.