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Tuesday, 1 February 1994
Page: 18

Mr GEAR (Assistant Treasurer) (3.17 p.m.) —One of the disadvantages of coming all the way from Perth to Canberra is having to listen to a speech like that. It was absolute drivel. On a day when the all-ordinaries hit a new high, what have those opposite been complaining about? They have been complaining about a 1c hike in the price of fuel.

  We have to remember that the honourable member for Mayo (Mr Downer) uses statistics very sparingly. When he does use them, we really have to keep our eyes open. Not all that long ago he put out a press release stating that millionaires pay a lower percentage in tax than people earning $40,000 a year. Of course, he looked at the budget papers, but he did not fully comprehend them—that is the most charitable interpretation one can put on it—because he left out the franking dividends of franked shares. When that was added back into the equation we found that the assertion made by the honourable member for Mayo was totally wrong. He would not stand up here and admit his mistake; we had to point it out to him.

  On another celebrated occasion he went to Liberal Party meetings on a Monday night with a prepared speech—which he must have boxed because we got a copy of it—asserting that 96 per cent of all companies in Australia incurred more costs in complying with the taxation system than they did in actually paying tax. I do not think one honourable member in this place would honestly believe that, but that was the assertion of the honourable member for Mayo. What we heard today was very similar to those rubbery figures and interpretations of the two examples that I have just pointed out.

  Let us look at what the honourable member for Mayo said towards the close of his contribution here today. He said that the cost of fuel over the last 10 years or so had gone up by $10.24 per week. Yet this MPI purportedly shows the impact on low income earners. Not many low income earners would now spend $10.24 on petrol, yet he is saying that we have put it up by more than that. The simple fact is that he is wrong.

  When I was going to the airport in Perth on Sunday—and I have spoken about this to a number of members from other states—I noticed that the price of petrol was 55.9c. I venture to say that is cheaper than it was three years ago. The increase in the price today, even when added to that figure, will not bring the cost back to anywhere near what it was three years ago. One thing this government does believe in is competition. There is more competition in the marketplace now than there ever has been before because of the reforms that we have brought in.

  The last time the Liberal and National parties were in office, it did not matter where people went they paid the same price for petrol. That was the Liberal and National parties' regime. That was how they marketed petroleum products. The simple fact was that it did not matter whether people went to a Shell, a BP or an Ampol station, they all paid the same price for petrol. That was life under the Liberal and National parties.

  Let us look at how Australia stacks up internationally when it comes to petrol prices. Even allowing for the increases that have come from this year's budget, we are still the third lowest taxing country, in terms of petrol prices, in the OECD. Topping the list is Italy, where it costs $1.64 for a litre of petrol. In France it costs $1.41; in Germany, $1.37; and in the UK, $1.15. What was the cost of a litre of petrol in Perth on Sunday? It was 55.9c.

  Let me finish speaking in this discussion. I could do it in just about one sentence. The honourable member for Mayo referred to the impact of the increase in fuel excise on people on low incomes. Even when all of the increases are applied, which is by June 1994, the average weekly cost of petrol will go up by 60c. In this year's budget, we gave $2.88 a week to people on incomes below $20,700.

  The honourable member also mentioned the economy. At question time the Treasurer (Mr Willis) read out the revised forecasts. They are worth looking at again, when we consider the fact that the honourable member for Mayo wanted to roll the economy and the impact that this excise rise may have on the economy into this discussion. The Treasurer said at question time that this year gross domestic product will be 3 1/2 per cent, instead of the modest 2 3/4 per cent in this year's budget. That is not bad when we consider, as the Treasurer pointed out, the OECD average of 1.1 per cent.

  At budget time employment was expected to rise by three-quarters of a per cent or 100,000. We have already exceeded that and it is going to be 200,000. When the Liberal and National parties were kicked out of office in 1983, they left us with a CPI, the measure of the cost of living, of 10 1/2 per cent. That is down to two per cent now. Just as importantly, as the Treasurer pointed out, the expectations are that we will be a low inflation country, notwithstanding the fact that the increases in fuel excise announced in the budget have been included in these figures.

  Let us look at the way in which the opposition may treat people on low incomes. During the last election campaign, the honourable member for Mayo was out there trumpeting the virtues of a 15 per cent tax on goods and services. How would that impact on people on low incomes? How would pensioners get on with a 15 per cent tax on just about everything they buy and every service they consume? At the last election—and I do not think they have walked away from this; I have not heard anything to that effect—members of the opposition were talking about cutting $10 billion of government spending, notwithstanding the fact that this government has reduced government spending to the lowest it has been in the last 30 years. The outlays from this budget are back to 1950s levels. We are the lowest taxing country in the OECD. The opposition talks about us taxing and spending. We are the lowest taxing country in the OECD and we have wound back government spending to 1950s levels.

  Let us look at a few of the things that the opposition promised to do at the last election and the impact that those things could have had on low income earners. The opposition said that it was going to abolish the CES and save itself $160 million a year. If it abolished the CES, where would people go to look for jobs and get advice? The opposition was just going to throw them out. People on low incomes would be adversely affected by that move. It may still be in the opposition's policy.

  The opposition was also going to cut $400 million from the spending on the Commonwealth-state housing agreement—$400 million for housing for people on low incomes. That is the compassion the opposition was going to show to people on low incomes as promised at the last election. What it really means is that people on waiting lists to get into homes, people on low incomes, would have to wait that much longer. There has not been a government in the history of Australia which has put more money into the public housing stock—as far as federal governments go—than this government. The opposition was going to cut that by $400 million.

  If that is not enough, if we were not building houses in the outer suburbs, it was going to abolish the funding for the urban transport program. Who does it think uses public transport? Does it think millionaires use public transport? Of course not. It is the people on low incomes who use it—the sorts of people that the honourable member for Mayo purportedly was crying crocodile tears for when he proposed this matter of public importance here today. How are they going to get on if the opposition is going to slash public transport? Is that the sort of policy it thinks advantages people on low incomes?

  Here is a lulu for everyone. In the last election the opposition, which was going to postpone this by only one year, was going to force unemployed people to run down all their liquid assets before providing the jobsearch allowance. That is the way the opposition looks after people on low incomes. That is the way it looks after people who are disadvantaged: it uses up all their money and does not give them a cracker until they are out on the street. That was going to save the opposition $152 million. It was in the opposition's fightback manifesto. How about that.

  If it is not bad enough for people who are out of work, how about sole parents? Sole parents fall into the category of people on low incomes. What was the opposition going to do to them? It was going to cease their sole parents pension when their youngest child turned 12. It was going to save itself $115 million by taking it off sole parents. Is that compassion? Is that the sort of thing that members opposite want to do to look after people on low incomes? Yet the opposition gets up here today and cries crocodile tears about 60c over the entire range of the increase in the petrol excise for people on low incomes when they are being compensated $2.88 a week. That is the level of debate in the Liberal Party today. If people are looking for a moribund party which is leaderless and without policies then they have to look no further than this MPI that we have here today.

  The MPI said nothing. It used trumped-up figures which were so obviously wrong—we are getting used to the honourable member for Mayo coming in here with these outrageous claims. We are starting to use the saying `Downerisms' because it is the best way to describe some of the interpretations or the spins he puts on the figures. I have already pointed out a couple of them.

  On top of all of those things I have said, the opposition was also going to cut general purpose payments to the states, territories and local government by five per cent. That was going to save it $719 million by its own figurings. Once we start cutting those sorts of outlays out of state governments and local governments, they reduce their services. The people who feel those the most, of course, are people on low incomes.

  In this year's budget the government, for the first time, put in a differential to recognise the harmful effects of lead in petrol. It has not only been recognised here in Australia—we are one of the last countries in the OECD to put this differential in—but the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, by way of trying to cost the impact of lead in petrol, has estimated that reducing lead emissions could yield a community health benefit approaching $4 billion.

  When we are talking about costs we have to start thinking about the costs of having lead in petrol, lead in the air and the impact that has on Australian children. The Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories (Mrs Kelly) held a round table conference with people who had an interest in this area in July of last year. The conference itself endorsed the principle that we should differentiate the price of petrol when we consider unleaded petrol and leaded petrol. If we look at the modest increase that we were proposing in Australia compared with the rest of the world, we notice that in countries such as Austria the differential is about 14 per cent higher.

Mr Cadman —They travel miles from one side to the other!

Mr GEAR —In their major cities they travel just as much as the honourable member does. If we have a look at countries like Denmark and Finland the differential is also up around 13 1/2 per cent and 14 1/2 per cent.

Mr Filing —Stick to this region.

Mr GEAR —Why does the honourable member not jump up and follow me if he knows so much about what we are talking about? The point is that there are good health reasons why there should be a differential between leaded and unleaded petrol. If the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology is even half right in its estimate of $4 billion in health costs to the community—that is, if it was 50 per cent out and it cost $2 billion—the simple fact is that the move itself would be worth it. As the Treasurer rightly pointed out in question time, about half the cars in Australia now use unleaded petrol. Of the other half, many of them could change to unleaded petrol either without any modification whatsoever or with minimum modification. On those grounds alone, I think the move to put a differential into the price of leaded and unleaded petrol serves that useful social function.

  Let me conclude by pointing out that the matter of public importance today really was nothing. Those opposite must have gone around the front benches saying, `Listen, there is nothing around but good news today, who is going to pop their head up and have the MPI?'. There was only one shadow minister dopey enough to do it. It will be interesting to see, as the good news continues into 1994 and 1995, how the tone of these matters of public importance might change because today's one was a fizzer.