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Tuesday, 1 February 1994
Page: 23

Mr TANNER (3.42 p.m.) —This initiative to increase the price of leaded fuel was launched in my electorate on Sunday by the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories (Mrs Kelly). I was very honoured to be associated with that launch. Contrary to what the honourable member for Mayo (Mr Downer) said, this issue is about the question of kids' health, particularly in the inner city areas.

  This problem was first identified in my electorate in the early 1980s. It may not mean much to people like those opposite, but it has been demonstrated that there are roughly half a million children in this country who have lead levels in their blood that are higher than is acceptable in terms of potential risk of intellectual impairment. Judging by those on the opposition benches, it looks like a few of them must have grown up in my electorate.

  This is an extremely serious health issue. We are lagging well behind the rest of the OECD countries in tackling this issue. After having eliminated in 1986 the manufacture of cars that run on leaded petrol, we are finally taking the necessary steps to create a price differential that will ensure that those very large numbers of people who can convert to unleaded petrol will start to do so. Ninety per cent of the lead in the atmosphere, which is the problem, comes from cars.

  As I indicated, the Collingwood health centre in my electorate was a pioneer in the early 1980s in producing data indicating that there are children in inner city areas who have up to four times the safe level of lead in their blood as a result of vehicle emissions. In other Western nations, lead has been eliminated. There are other OECD countries in which leaded petrol is not sold at all. So Australia is clearly lagging behind the rest of the world with regard to this issue. We have a clear health threat and something has to be done about it.

  I find it extremely significant that in the speech made by the honourable member for Mayo not one mention was made of this issue, not one suggestion was made about how a Liberal government would tackle the problem. I heard lots of whingeing about taxing at the pump and so forth but not one suggestion about how a Liberal government would tackle the problem.

  The problem with the contribution made by the honourable member for Wide Bay (Mr Truss) is that he quoted statistics about lead in the atmosphere, not about where it is ending up—not about the problems with lead in children's blood. He was correct to say that the lead levels are declining. The reason for the decline is that since 1986 new cars are all lead free. The problem is that the decline is not happening quick enough. When we compare this with the fact that in other OECD countries no lead is going into the atmosphere from vehicle emissions, we have clearly got a long way to go.

Mr Atkinson —What about Asia?

Mr TANNER —The honourable member opposite should go to Bangkok and see what the air is like there. It is quite true that there are revenue measures associated with this. Obviously the excise duty on unleaded petrol has gone up as well. This is an attempt to restore the indirect tax base.

  If honourable members opposite actually look at the figures they will see that the proportion of the total tax take, as the honourable member for Canning (Mr Gear) indicated, is at its lowest level for 30 years and the proportion of the indirect tax take has been maintained at a static level as a result of these measures. Members of the opposition, bleating with their new found concern for lower income Australians, ignore the $150 rebate, the seniors health card, the relaxation of the pensioners assets test, the $6 per fortnight increase in the level of unemployment benefits for single unemployment beneficiaries and the dental scheme for low income earners, just to cite some examples. This is the broad picture of what this government does for low income earners.

  We still have the third lowest priced petrol and the third lowest taxed petrol in the western world. Canada is roughly equivalent. The United States is cheaper. Petrol in all other countries in the OECD is substantially more expensive and substantially higher taxed. Our petrol prices now are lower in real terms than they were in 1983. The honourable member for Wide Bay made some comments about what has happened in terms of the level of taxation since 1983. In real terms, the price of petrol is lower than it was in 1983. So much for the bleating. So much for all the nonsense about taxing everybody to death.

  To illustrate the opposition's claims about the effect on the industry, I will cite one example that was mentioned in question time today by the Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Anderson). He suggested that this tax change will have an impact of $9 million on the forestry industry. To cite one example, the Victorian Auditor-General recently found that last financial year the forestry industry in East Gippsland alone, which is the area I come from, was subsidised by the Victorianm taxpayer to the tune of $7

million for costs for such things as road damage. Let us look at the broad picture and recognise that, in many instances, we are talking about clawing back many hidden subsidies that are not even widely recognised in public debate.

  The excise duty comparison with road funding which the honourable member for Mayo put forward is a false comparison. He produces these little graphs but they do not show the full cost of roads. They do not take into account the burden of road trauma in this country, which is estimated to be in the vicinity of $5 billion a year.

  Where does the money come from to pay those sorts of costs? That is a cost of roads as well as the obvious direct cost of building them. The narrow-minded parochial mentality that honourable members opposite put forward fails to recognise that there are many other costs associated with road transport, including pollution, contribution to the greenhouse effect and road trauma. It is those sorts of costs that are paid for by such charges as the fuel excise.

Mr Filing —Come on! Do you believe that?

Mr TANNER —Where do honourable members opposite think the money for the public health system comes from? It is those types of costs, including the cost of building and maintaining roads, that add up to a greater burden on the community than that imposed on road users in terms of fuel excise.

  Finally, I turn to the new found concern of the Liberal Party for the poor and impoverished. I must confess that I thought I was dreaming when I heard the honourable member for Mayo get up and give us a lecture on the authorship of the opera Carmen. It is condescending to tell the plebs—I think the word is `oiks'—about some of these cultural events that we on this side of the House and some of the people in our electorates have not had the good fortune to be exposed to.

  The hypocrisy is blatant; it is extraordinary. If honourable members opposite want to find out what it is like for low income people under a Liberal government, come to Victoria. Stop all this nonsense and bleeding heart rhetoric that it is terrible for some people to pay a few dollars more per week in petrol. They are getting that and more money back in other initiatives, such as the tax rebate.

  Let us look at the impact of industrial relations changes. People can be wiped out by as much as $100 a week by losing penalty rates. Let us look at high rise estates where people's rents have increased by $25 to $30 a week. They are all low income workers under the Kennett government. Let us look at people having their community health centres and their schools closed down. These are the real problems facing low income Australians. An extra couple of dollars a week added on to the price of their petrol pales into insignificance beside those matters.

  The impact of the fuel excise will be more than counterbalanced by initiatives such as the changes to the dental scheme, an increase in unemployment benefits and the tax rebate. When considering these factors, people can realise the hypocrisy of the opposition in seeking to come in here and bleat about what it says are the problems of low income Australians.

  The opposition has never represented low income or working-class Australians. That is why those people in Labor electorates keep voting for Labor governments. The opposition does not represent them and never will represent them. This is a good initiative. It is an initiative designed to protect the health of Australian children. It is a worthwhile and necessary approach by the government to this matter, and it follows the path of virtually every other major country in the Western world. I support the initiative and reject the motion.

  Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The discussion is now concluded.