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Tuesday, 25 May 2004
Page: 29011

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (6:10 PM) —I rise to contribute to the debate on the Tax Laws Amendment (Personal Income Tax Reduction) Bill 2004. I think it is incumbent upon me to highlight the deficiencies in this bill and, more broadly, in the budget handed down a fortnight ago by the Treasurer. If the member for Aston had any concern for his constituents, he would be honest and indicate to them that four out of every five taxpayers will not receive a tax cut. I know that the member for Aston sees himself as a bit of a hero, having won a by-election some years ago, but he will not hold his seat if he does not honestly explain that four out of five constituents in his own electorate of Aston will not receive a tax cut as a result of the budget.

Not only is the member for Aston deluding himself but members of the government generally are deluding themselves if they believe this budget is good for Australia and for the majority of Australians. This budget is a reflection of a mean and tricky government. On this occasion, I think the Treasurer has been meaner than usual and too tricky by half. He clearly had his hard-headed tacticians and pollsters involved in trying to work out what would deliver votes to the coalition. No doubt, in the way of old politics, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer tried to work out how many votes they could buy with a very niche-targeted approach to taxpayers' money being put into the hands of some Australians. But this was too tricky by half: it was so niche targeted that very few people will get anything as a result of the budget. This was so finely targeted that, as the shadow Treasurer and other speakers have indicated, four out of every five taxpayers will not receive a cent in tax cuts as a result of this budget. In my own electorate, almost nine out of every 10 will not receive an income tax cut. So there are some real problems with this bill and with the budget generally.

It is incumbent upon the government to explain to everybody earning under $52,000 a year in my electorate and in every electorate why they are not going to benefit—why the Treasurer and all members of parliament will receive tax cuts but, as other speakers have indicated, so many Australian workers will not. The fact is—and I have said this many times in this place—that the backbone of our economy is the Australian work force. I have been quick to applaud businesses in our community—we need not only strong and vibrant companies but also Australian workers receiving value for their hard work. One way in which the government can assist is by fairly distributing income tax cuts to those who deserve them.

How am I to explain to the many teachers and nurses, the many people in the hospitality industry and in the retail industry, and the many labourers and gardeners—many occupational groups—who earn below that $52,000 per annum threshold that they do not deserve an income tax cut? I do not know. It seems quite unfair that people at the higher income level have received a benefit from the billions that have been expended by this government on the budget outlays, but there is nothing for those people—those forgotten people, as the member for Rankin referred to them. It is a problem.

I know that government members are scratching their heads, the hard-headed tacticians are scratching their heads and the government pollsters are also scratching their heads and shaking them at the same time, wondering why there was no bounce from the budget, wondering why it was not warmly received by the public at large—

Mr Hockey —You guys are getting a little arrogant—getting a little carried away!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Corcoran)—Order!

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —and I think they have found that the reason for that—

Mr Hockey —Sorry—you guys and girls are getting carried away.


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —The minister interjects, but he is aware that the reason the government have failed to successfully convince the Australian public of this budget's merits is that it is a mean and tricky budget that targets very few people—a mean and tricky government with a mean and tricky budget to boot.

I do not think the Prime Minister is really keeping up with what is happening. He was renowned, apparently, for being such a great barometer of public opinion; he had his finger on the pulse of the Australian public. What is really happening is that we have a Prime Minister with old ideas and old tactics. His tactic here was `we're going to buy our way into another term of government, the way we bought our way in in 2001'. But Australians have moved on. The Australian community have moved on and will not accept a bribe to re-elect this government. It is just another manifestation of a Prime Minister with very old ideas and very conventional tactics, as he would see them. What he should have focused on instead is fairer and broader income tax cuts for those in need. He should also have realised that there was a cry for help from the community about the major services that we require to function properly as a society.

The difference between the Leader of the Opposition holding a public meeting and the Prime Minister holding a public meeting is that all are welcome at the Leader of the Opposition's meetings in the country towns and in the cities that he travels to, but we know that at the Prime Minister's meetings there are bouncers at the door to stop people coming in unless they are on the official guest list of the Prime Minister. That example of bouncers on the door to stop people coming to listen to and speak with the Prime Minister compared with the open-door policy of the Leader of the Opposition is a very important distinction. It symbolises the difference between a government that is losing touch with what people are concerned about and an opposition that is willing to listen to the people in communities throughout Australia. The difference is that the Prime Minister and the frontbench generally have stopped listening—if indeed they ever were—to people's concerns.

People want a decent health system. They are concerned that bulk-billing is declining in many areas in the country and they want to see a government tackle that decline. There are difficulties in getting doctors in certain areas and there is a decline in access to doctors at all times during any given week. They would like to see a government tackle those issues. They would also like to see a government ensure that there is an education system that is built on merit, not on money. They would like to see an education system that is accessible to people based on their ability, not on their wallet or their parents' bank balance. These are the things that are being expressed to the Leader of the Opposition as he travels around the country and that are not being taken up by the government. The government could learn from the Leader of the Opposition—indeed, from the opposition generally—on some of these issues, if they were willing to listen.

Of course, it is not just concern about health and education in broad terms; the community are crying out for a national dental scheme. There are many elderly people in our community who have critical problems with their teeth but do not have the wherewithal to attend to them. I cannot imagine a group more deserving of having their health targeted than the elderly. They are people who have already worked hard for this country and who deserve a decent dental scheme, which only Labor are promising. We know that the government have failed on dental care. They have failed on pneumococcal vaccination. Time and again, they do not listen to the real issues that people are concerned about. Until they do, it will not matter how much money they spend on the niche group they have decided to target; they will not be supported by the electors of Australia. They will not be supported because the Australian community are sick and tired of the government assuming that they will be bought, and they will not.

A number of Labor speakers have raised concerns about the fact that the great majority of Australians miss out on the income tax cuts in this budget. There has been no effort to properly consider the deficiencies in our education and health systems and there is no real concern about dental care and other services that are needed. And then we have one of the cruellest systems of all: the clawback approach to family tax benefits. I think that is a real issue too. I accept that there are two potential payments of $600, but nearly a third of the payment recipients will not receive any of the second $600 instalment because it will be eaten up by existing debt. In my own electorate, the average debt for recipients of family tax benefits who are in debt is around $750. Indeed, after the second instalment is even notionally provided to them, they will still be in debt.

It is all well and good for a government to consider the need to provide money and assistance, but if it does not fix the inherent problem of the family tax benefit system then it is leaving those families vulnerable. Rather than just allow for a one-off payment—which will be paid, coincidentally, before the election—much of which will be eaten up by the existing debt of more than a third of family tax benefit recipients, they should be saying, `How do we devise a system that will not leave those families in the position of having to assess their income in a way that is going to leave a huge proportion of them in debt?' There has been no effort by this government, the minister concerned, the Treasurer or the Prime Minister to turn this around.

The electorate of Burke is no different from any other electorate when it comes to these matters. We are not a very wealthy electorate compared with some, but in every electorate complaints are made by constituents about the problem they have when they open a letter from the Commonwealth explaining to them that they are now in debt. What compounds this inequity or deficiency in the system is that usually those people who are in debt are the ones who have great difficulty in repaying it. We would prefer to see the government trying to solve the problem, not spending money to make the problem go away until after the election and then allowing the cycle to continue.

The problem is that we have a government that has stopped listening—if it ever did listen—to the people and their needs. We have a government that believes that it can target a certain group and all will be well. This is a tired government. This is a government that does not have any answers to the problems in our health and education system. This is a government that is not listening to the concerns of people throughout metropolitan and country Australia. If it does not fix things soon, it is going to have major difficulties at the next election.

I will make a number of further comments. What has been clear today—and it has not been refuted by any serious commentator—is that the tax take of this government has increased each year. It has the dubious distinction of being the highest taxing government in our history. I think it galls the government to realise that. For some time it has managed to convince some people, including some media commentators, that it is a political party and a government that is about lean and mean operations. In fact, it is a high taxing government, one that is inefficient in the way in which it distributes that revenue. That is clearly illustrated by its failure to look after Medicare and other services.

You do not fix Medicare by spending tens of millions of dollars advertising what you are about to do. The government would be better off spending those tens of millions of dollars that are being spent on the Medicare campaign in the actual health budget—not in the propaganda budget. It seems that the government feels the need to expend unprecedented amounts of taxpayers' money on promoting its policies and packages. Clearly it is just an attempt to use taxpayers' money for its own propaganda purposes. It is an outrageous breach of faith for a government to use such outrageous amounts of money, which are clearly being spent just prior to the election to try to affect the ballot on polling day.

I do not think that in the end the Australian people will be fooled. As I have said already—and I think it is important to reiterate this—this Prime Minister has lost touch with the Australian people. This Treasurer, whether or not he was ever in touch at all, has shown through this bill and through the budget of last week that he certainly does not have any regard for the majority of Australians. The old tactics and efforts of this government illustrate that they have no new ideas and no solutions. All they are looking to do now is to use the massive revenue that they have collected through being the highest taxing government in Australia's history to buy another term. I do not think that is going to convince Australians.

I think what Australians will look at is whether this government is fair, and I do not think it has shown that it is fair; whether this government has solutions to fundamental problems affecting our community, and I do not think that it has illustrated any capacity to do that; and whether our government listens to the cries of help expressed by people throughout the community, most notably in many of the public meetings the Leader of the Opposition has held since he has been leader. The government is not listening. The only leader in this chamber that is listening is the Leader of the Opposition, and that is why Labor is delivering policies that are relevant and reflect the needs and aspirations of the Australian public.