There are moments when you know the opposition just want to play politics, when they oppose for opposition’s sake, as they have constantly been doing, or because they think they can make some political gain out of an issue. When they argue against a sensible proposal for a modest temporary levy that will contribute to the plan of the government to rebuild after the devastation that has hit Queensland, we know that this is one of those moments. I can tell you now that the people of Australia are much smarter than that. They will see—and have seen—right through the opportunism of Tony Abbott because they can see the cracks that are already appearing in the coalition ranks over this issue. Australia has just gone through one of the biggest natural disasters in its history, if not the biggest. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has shown strength and leadership and responded decisively to the crisis and those on the other side are just playing politics once again, even though it involves the loss of the worldly goods of people, their homes, their businesses, all their infrastructure and government infrastructure. The coalition do not care. They are just off having a good time playing politics and opposing for the sake of opposing
The Australian government has already provided $400 million in disaster assistance. We estimate that the total cost of recovery and rebuilding will be in the order $5.6 billion. That consists of $5 billion for rebuilding essential infrastructure—the word there being essential—and $600 million in Australian government disaster recovery payments to be paid to nearly half a million Australians, including people in my home state of Tasmania who have been affected by floods on the east and north-west coasts. Also important to my home state, given the fact that a number of farmers have been affected by the floods, are payments under the disaster income recovery subsidy. This will provide $120 million in assistance to around 70,000 workers, small businesses and farmers who have lost income through the floods.
I just take this opportunity to thank the Tasmanian government for their hardship assistance through grants to help with temporary living expenses, the replacement of damaged and destroyed household items and the re-establishment of homes for people in Tasmania. The Australian government is also assisting employers in flood affected areas by fast-tracking employer sponsored temporary visas and doubling the number of places in the job seeker relocation pilot program. Two-thirds of the cost borne by the government will be met through budget savings and the remainder through a modest, temporary levy.
The coalition are linking this levy to cost-of-living pressures to try to make out that it is going to be some huge impost on Australian taxpayers. They know full well that 50 per cent of taxpayers will pay nothing, including people earning under $50,000 a year, and people who are paid or are eligible for an Australian government disaster relief payment will pay nothing. As for those who do pay the levy, a person on average full-time earnings—or $68,125 per year—will pay only an extra $1.74 per week. The same people have had their income tax bill cut by $20 per week by this government. Even those on $80,000 a year will pay about $2.80 per week, which is less than the cost of a cup of coffee. So this levy is modest, it is progressive, and surely it is a small price to pay to ensure that we rebuild our vital infrastructure destroyed by natural disasters.
If there is any better indication that those opposite are playing politics on this issue it is their record in government. Where does this sudden opposition to levies come from? After all, the Howard government introduced no more than six special levies during its time in power. As Senator Cormann said himself, if a government can manage its budgets it does not have to introduce these new levies. But it had no problem in introducing six special levies during its time in power. For those on the other side of the chamber with short memories, I will remind you what they were: the aircraft noise levy, introduced in the 1995-96 budget to fund amelioration of noise at airports; a 0.2 per cent increase in the Medicare levy to fund the firearms buyback scheme in 1996-97; the stevedoring levy in the 1998-99 budget applying to the loading and unloading of containers to ensure that employees made redundant under the Maritime Restructuring Facilitation Scheme received their full entitlements; the dairy industry adjustment levy to provide assistance to the industry to cope with deregulation; the Ansett levy imposed on air passenger tickets to fund a special entitlements scheme for former Ansett employees; and the sugar industry levy to fund industry assistance programs for the sugar industry.
In fact I think the memories of those opposite are especially short because it was only during the last federal election that the Leader of the Opposition proposed a levy to fund their maternity leave scheme. It was a scheme that they were happy to support, mind you, that would pay the wages of women on incomes of $150,000 a year in full. They were happy to support that but not happy to help out their fellow Australians in times of natural crises. I find it very funny how that was deemed worthy of a levy back in 2010, but now that we are in 2011 the coalition opposes a levy to help rebuild infrastructure following—from what we have heard today and as we all know—what is arguably Australia’s biggest natural disaster. The coalition obviously thought levies were okay in 1996 and 2001 and even as late as in 2010. But now that we are in 2011 the coalition has somehow decided that they are opposed to levies.
What is the coalition’s alternative? They are going to come up with a proposal for another $1.8 billion worth of savings, or so they say. But why would you trust them when it comes to budget management? They are the same group that, if they had formed government, would have left Australia with an $11 billion budget black hole. You would not put that lot in charge of the cash tin at the local bridge club let alone the federal Treasury. Let’s look at who is in charge of budget policy in the coalition: the opposition leader, Tony Abbott; the shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey; and the shadow finance minister, Andrew Robb. They are the same three stooges who blew out their 2010 election costings by $11 billion. I think the coalition could have got better advice from their family accountant than from Messrs Abbott, Hockey or Robb.
As a further demonstration of Mr Abbott’s ignorance of fiscal policy he suggested that scrapping the National Broadband Network would help pay for the cost of recovery and rebuilding. He had to back down and concede that one pretty quickly as his argument was flawed because he did not take into account the financial returns from the NBN investment. Mr Abbott’s next gaffe was to claim, on 28 January, that there is $8 billion available in various funds including the Building Australia Fund which is currently uncommitted. This was exposed as a con, and rightly so. But the absolute height of Mr Abbott’s gall was when he emailed Liberal Party supporters and called for donations to fight the flood tax. At a time when many Australians are digging deep to help those suffering from natural disasters Mr Abbott was thinking about what to do to fill the Liberal Party coffers. Where are his priorities?
The coalition have now said they will identify $1.8 billion worth of savings. Since that announcement they have spent a fortnight squabbling over what to cut. In their press conference yesterday Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey could not even agree on the numbers. Their ridiculous savings policy is already unravelling. For example, the Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, rejected all of the deferred infrastructure programs in Queensland as pork-barrelling, yet Tony Abbott supported the deferral of three of these projects. It is becoming increasingly obvious to all Australians that the biggest risk to our policy of achieving a budget surplus by 2012-13 would be in accepting any suggestions put forward by those fiscal dunces opposite.
The rhetoric of Mr Abbott and his coalition colleagues is highly hypocritical. If they want to point to a high-taxing, high-spending government then they should take a good look at themselves. This financial year our tax take is only 20.9 per cent of gross domestic product. In not one single financial year of the 11 years of the Howard government did the tax take drop below 22.1 per cent of GDP. The opposition should stop making petty political points and they should get on and support this levy because it is in the interests of the nation. If they continue to cling to their dodgy accounting it will only serve to demonstrate one thing.