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Wednesday, 27 May 1998
Page: 3848

Mr TANNER (10:47 AM) —I wish to make some observations on the federal budget and what it has done in the transport area, which is my shadow portfolio, particularly with respect to the areas of road and rail. I will also make some comments on the stevedoring levy bill and the off-budget attempts to raise money with respect to redundancies in the stevedoring sector. I will conclude by making some observations about the missing item in the budget, the bit that made it a phantom budget, not a real budget—namely, the tax package and the GST.

This government came to office with a lot of very overblown promises with respect to road funding, always portraying themselves as the party of the road transport sector, as the party of regional Australia, as the party that would deliver more on roads. We had the promise to maintain Labor's funding in real terms on roads, and in addition to reintroduce the black spots program and also fund the Pacific Highway to the tune of an additional $65 million per annum. Unfortunately, the delivery has fallen well short of the promise, as has been the case in so many other areas of this government.

In the budget a couple of weeks ago, we saw yet again further cuts to road funding. Against their own forward estimates from the previous budget, road funding was cut by a total of $28 million in the current financial year. We have seen in particular further cuts to the national highway to the tune of $12 million against their own estimates, the bulk of which, over 55 per cent, is to be borne by Tasmania, whose funding will go down from $28 million of national highway funding last year to $21 million of national highway funding, and a further approximately $17 million worth of cuts to the grants for road funding to the states and to local government. These figures for the national highway look even more stark when you look at the actual expenditure that has occurred in recent years in that area. In the last Labor budget, the figure for the national highway was $834 million. By the 1997 Costello budget, that figure had diminished to $697 million. In the budget two weeks ago, that figure had again diminished to $675 million. So we have gone down from $834 million to $675 million within the space of three budgets.

That is a massive reduction in anybody's terms. But to compound that reduction, what we have, on their estimates, is a reduction in the funding for maintenance of the national highway, over a period of four years, of virtually half the budget. The maintenance budget for the national highway for the year 2000-2001 is expected to be roughly half of what it was only four years earlier—in other words, a couple of years ago. Half the maintenance budget has been cut.

The implications of that will be borne by the road transport industry, by users of the roads, by regional Australia, in years to come, as that national highway continues to deteriorate. That is the price that the Australian people are paying for electing a coalition government which conned them on road funding, which said, `We are the friends of the road transport industry, we will help you, we will look after you.' In fact, a simple analysis of the figures across Labor's period in office compared with the first couple of years of the coalition government and their projections for the out-years indicates the lie in that claim.

Under Labor, in 1995-96 dollars, average road funding from the federal government was $1.7 billion over its 13 years in office. That was the average in 1995-96 dollars. Look at the actual expenditure by the coalition government and its projections in the forward estimates, convert that to 1995-96 dollars and what you get is an average of $1.5 billion—in other words, an average in 1995-96 dollars of a $200 million per year cut in road funding from this government. To add to that outrage is the fact that they have substantially besmirched the model of objectivity and transparency that was introduced by the Hawke government in 1991-92, with the agreement of all of the state premiers, to finally introduce some rationality and objectivity into road funding in Australia.

The Hawke government introduced the model whereby the national highway was directly funded and maintained by the Commonwealth government and the balance of road funding handed over to the states and local governments for them to make the decisions about how that money should be allocated. The current government has introduced the roads of national importance category which, as some members will know, we have tagged the `roads of National Party importance category'. We have recently seen the extent to which this is degenerating into pork-barrelling and misuse of government money for the purposes of seeking electoral advantage.

Main road 92 in the electorate of Gilmore is to have up to $70 million of federal money poured in to upgrade it. Parts of it are currently gravel road. It is a significant road and it needs upgrading—there is no question about that—but it is not a road that the federal government should be funding, based on the criteria that this government adheres to. You have the absurd situation where this government is proposing to pour money into that road, and not a cent for the Geelong road—the Westgate Freeway—which is desperately in need of upgrading, not a cent for the Great Western Highway which has similar problems, and not a cent yet—and maybe not at all—for the western orbital project. All of those roads are major, critical national economic roads and are far more important to the nation's economy than main road 92, yet the government can find money to pork-barrel in a marginal electorate.

I turn now to the area of rail funding, where the record is no better. The Minister for Transport and Regional Development (Mr Vaile), in the wake of this budget, possibly set a new record for the number of times that a funding initiative has been announced. After the budget, he put out yet another press release saying `Government announces new infrastructure funding initiate in the rail industry'. What he was announcing was the same thing that John Sharp announced after the 1997 budget, which in turn was the same thing that the same John Sharp announced after the 1996 budget, which in turn was a scaled down model of what Laurie Brereton, as the then Minister for Transport, announced in the 1995 budget. So we are looking forward to the 1999 budget—if by some mischance these people should actually get back into office—to see what they are going to announce then.

They have offered the people of Australia and the rail industry of Australia too little and too late. Under the Brereton proposal in 1995, $370 million was to be spent on upgrading the interstate rail infrastructure of Australia through the means of a new organisation called Track Australia. The new government has broadly picked up on this concept, but it has cut the funding. In fact, John Sharp as minister managed the spectacular achievement of announcing that he was going to continue with this funding but cut it—less money was going to be put in—and proclaim that this was something both new and good. In fact, he was simply reannouncing established policy that was already provided for in the forward estimates. The reality is that none of those figures I have quoted are sufficient to tackle the enormous problem we face with the interstate rail infrastructure. The amount that is required to fix our interstate rail track is in the billions—not in the hundreds of millions—but certainly a few hundred million is a pretty good start. Unfortunately, it has taken two years for anything to be done.

We are finally seeing some agreement being reached between the Commonwealth and the states with respect to how this money should be dealt with and what can be done to start the process of fixing the track. The problems are many: speed restrictions in many parts of the track; you do not have the ability to double-stack containers in most parts of the interstate rail track, the main exception being the Adelaide to Perth link; 19th century alignments that have been built around steam trains and their ability to go up hills and the like; all sorts of labyrinthine curves in parts of the Melbourne to Brisbane alignment—and a host of other problems. Concrete sleepers that were funded by the One Nation project are still lying next to the track near Ararat because the Victorian government is refusing to pick up the tab to insert those sleepers. There is a long list of problems.

The minister has congratulated the government yet again on its performance, even though its performance is sadly inferior to that of the previous government and that it has taken it a couple of years to get anything done. The sad thing is that now that that money is finally starting to flow, the government has failed to put the initial amount of money at the place where it needs to go most, which is the Adelaide to Melbourne connection. That is where you can get a pretty good bang for your buck fairly quickly—by getting rid of the speed restrictions and by changing some of the configuration in the infrastructure such as the bridges, the tunnels and the like in order to allow the double-stacking of containers.

As far as Labor is concerned, our first priority is to fix up that link. Unfortunately, this government has chosen not to do that. As a result, the Overland passenger service, which was privatised as part of Australian National privatisation a year or so ago, is now under threat. And this government is not doing anything to protect it; it is not doing anything to save the Overland. A relatively limited amount of investment in that track would substantially reduce the time it takes for the Overland to travel between Melbourne and Adelaide, which in turn would obviously improve its attractiveness to customers, not to mention the benefits that would flow into the freight rail sector as well.

It is estimated that getting rid of those speed restrictions by upgrading the track would cut the time of the journey between Melbourne and Adelaide by two or three hours. These are obvious benefits, particularly for the people of Adelaide who rely heavily on that service and on the tourism and freight services that it brings. That is a double disappointment.

Finally, in the transport area, I reiterate the opposition's concern about the stevedoring levy that the government is attempting to impose upon stevedoring companies. Our objections to it are various. First, and most obvious, this is a substantial part of what is found to be prima facie an unlawful conspiracy involving the federal government, Patrick Stevedoring, the National Farmers Federation and various others in an attempt to sack 2,000 Australian workers for no other reason than that they belong to a particular union, without any reference to their individual characteristics, their work performance or the like.

We object to the bill because stevedores who have no involvement in the current dispute, such as Strang and Sealand, who do not wish to make workers redundant, are being forced to pay that levy. We object to the bill because it creates a situation where the major stevedores are saying, `We will absorb the $6 and $12 levies,' yet no question is being raised by Professor Fels of the ACCC or, indeed, the government, as to why, if the major stevedores can absorb that levy, the equivalent amount is not being passed on to their customers already. If they can wear the $6 and the $12 per car or per container, why are they not doing that already? Why is the ACCC not investigating these things?

These are all issues as to why we object to this legislation. We object to the fact that the government is basically trying to blackmail the workers and the MUA into giving up substantial numbers of jobs, the bulk of the employment in the industry for its members, or putting them in a position where they face companies that have been artificially created with no assets and are being liquidated, therefore creating a situation where large numbers of people lose their jobs with no access to normal redundancy entitlements or their accrued entitlements with respect to long service leave, annual leave and the like.

This is essentially what the government is doing: it is trying to blackmail people into copping its political agenda by misusing this stevedoring levy, which in turn is a clear breach of the government's commitment to no new taxes. It is a tax. It is an indirect tax. It is an indirect tax on the users of a particular service; it is not a levy on the industry.

In conclusion, on the matter of tax, let me restate both my personal perspective and the opposition's view on the GST. It is amusing to see the frozen faces and the fear in the eyes of members opposite as they start to realise the implications of the GST proposal. It is regressive, it is inflationary, it threatens thousands of small businesses with additional paperwork and bureaucracy and it is grossly unfair.

At the moment, we are in a phoney war situation. Every interest group and every commentator out there thinks that their pet hate is going to be solved by the GST: payroll tax is going to be wiped out, the fuel excise levy is going to be wiped out, we are going to get income tax cuts, and so the list goes on. Everybody thinks that their problem is going to be solved. The anomalies in the wholesale sales tax system are all going to be swept away by a GST. At this rate, the GST will be 25 per cent.

Of course, the reality is that that is not going to happen; that is not what will occur with a GST. What we will see is all the bad bits. We will see the regressive shift away from income taxation, which means that people on very high incomes will pay the same amount of tax on an item of clothing, a loaf of bread, a trip to the pictures or whatever the case may be as people on a very low income. And, as a result of those things being taxed, there will be less tax on incomes and, in particular, there will be less tax on people on higher incomes. The ordinary people in this country understand that, because opinion polling demonstrates that there is a stark difference in attitude to the GST according to your income. If you are on a low to middle income, you oppose it. If you are on a high income, you support it. That means that the people of Australia understand what a GST is about: it is about redistribution away from people on low and middle incomes in favour of the wealthy. That is what a GST means, and there is simply no way around that fact. That is what this government stands for, that is whom it represents, that is whom it wants to help and that is whom it wants to advantage. That is why it is putting forward a GST.

This is not tax reform; this is tax redistribution. It is tax redistribution in a regressive direction. It is tax redistribution in favour of the wealthy. There is no way around it, and the people of Australia will recognise that, as they have recognised it before, and will vote these people out of office accordingly.