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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 304

Senator RICE (Victoria) (18:48): I want to start by reflecting on what a great privilege it is to be re-elected to the Senate and to be back here representing the people of Victoria. I really do want to thank the voters of Victoria who have given me the privilege to be here representing them. I am going to do my best in this term of parliament to work hard for all Victorians, for all Australians, and for all the other species that we share our planet with and for all the people of the future as well, and to not just focus on what can be quite short-term interests of small sections of the community.

In thinking about the Governor-General's speech and reflecting on what I wanted to say tonight, my first thought was that I really felt for the Governor-General. He was required to read out a speech that was written by government ideologues which was, frankly, rather uninspiring. It was full of platitudes, nice sounding words, but nothing that really gave you that sense of, 'Yeah, here is a strong agenda with a strong drive and a determination to really knuckle down and do the hard work and really tackle the serious problems that Australia faces'. It was uninspiring and I do not blame anyone in the chamber for falling asleep during it.

Today we have heard a number of speeches in reply saying what a centrepiece for our future the Governor-General's speech was. Senator Brandis, for example, in question time today took the opportunity to repeat that the core theme of Governor-General's speech was that we were building a strong, prosperous and secure Australia. Again, nice sounding, and who would be against having a strong, prosperous and secure Australia? It sounds great. But what was outlined in that speech is not going to deliver a strong, prosperous and secure Australia.

Senator Brandis today went on to say that 'the heart of the plan is the plan for jobs, growth and investment'. So we have added an extra word. Rather than jobs and growth being a three-word slogan, we now a four-word slogan: jobs, growth and investment. But where is the detail, the crux, of how that is going to be delivered? During the election campaign we heard so much about jobs and growth, but the only bit of the agenda that we really had given to us was that $50 billion worth of tax cuts was going to magically produce great amounts of jobs and growth. It was this belief in the thoroughly discredited economic theory of trickle-down economics—that that was going to transform Australia. We have had 50 years of trickle-down economics, of neoliberal economics, and we have more than enough evidence to show that it does not work—$50 billion worth of tax cuts is not going to deliver jobs and growth and investment and it is not going to deliver a strong, prosperous and secure Australia.

But at the heart of what the government is talking about is that we need to have a balanced budget. On the need for a balanced budget, of not living beyond our needs for the everyday operational expenses of running the government, we can agree. Yes, we need to not be living beyond our needs. It would of course be refreshing and constructive if the government were equally concerned about government debt and the massive private debt that is amassing in this country and, in particular, recognised the difference between debt being taken on for the day-to-day and the year-to-year expenses of running the country and the debt which is from borrowing money for productive infrastructure, to invest in infrastructure that will have lasting value, and to improve our economic efficiency, which has lasting social benefit and lasting benefit in reducing our environmental footprint. We need to be able to differentiate between these two types of debt. In fact, in the Greens' election platform we did that and said, 'Look, it has been supported by economists around the world that there is such value in borrowing to invest in that infrastructure and being able to deliver the type of Australia that we want to be living in.'

If we get back to tackling the balance sheet, keeping our budget in check and balancing our day-to-day, year-to-year budget: accepting that as something that you want to do, there are very different ways of going about it. In the Greens, we say we do not balance the budget by cutting services and cutting benefits from those who can least afford to pay or by increasing the taxes on those who can least afford to pay, such as the prospect of increasing the GST that was being put around. We know that increasing the GST will impact on the people with the least amount of money in our society, who spend every dollar they have and pay GST on it. So we can do as the government wants—tackle balancing our budget by attacking those with the least in our society—or we can ask those who can afford to pay their fair share to do so, actually implement progressive taxation and get rid of the tax breaks that are currently enjoyed at the big end of town. Yet again, this is not the direction that the government is heading in. It really shows, once again, that this government simply does not get the idea of fairness.

You would think that after everything we went through in the 2014 budget—after all the backlash and the rejection from experts, economists, the community and this Senate—the government would try something different. But, no, their new progressive, innovative, forward-looking agenda is to try again with the same unfair measures. Senator Cormann now has a new cigar buddy in Treasurer Morrison. Joe Hockey might have taken one for the nation—sent to the other side of the world—but the government seem to want to have another go. It is not lifters and leaners now but the taxed and the taxed-nots, which is an atrocious, even worse metaphor than the first. It is now completely clear who the government are governing for. The government are here to make life easier for the haves and harder for the have-nots.

Yes, we need to have a balanced budget, but we are not going to get there by targeting those who can least afford it, and we are definitely not going to get there with tax cuts for massive corporations. The Greens know that we have to tackle our revenue problem. We have to be raising revenue rather than going on cutting splurges for the big end of town. We took to the election a vision to raise revenue with a whole range of measures that would give us the revenue to spend on the initiatives that we know this country needs. In fact, over the forward estimates, we put together a list of revenue measures that came in at over $100 billion, and these were revenue measures that would deliver us a fairer, more equitable and more sustainable society.

I have the list here of the measures that we took to the election. Ending fossil fuel subsidies is a big one. If we ended those fossil fuel subsidies and the mining companies had to pay the same tax on their petrol as you and I need to, it would raise $24 billion over the next four years. That is $24 billion that we could do an awful lot with. I can think of a huge number of projects that we could be spending $24 billion on—whether increasing equality, increasing Newstart or investing in public transport infrastructure; $24 billion is not to be sneezed at.

We suggested amendments to make our superannuation system much fairer with progressive superannuation taxation, so that rather than people paying very little tax as they put money into their super, virtually everybody would receive a 15 per cent concession on the tax they had to pay on contributions. So if your marginal tax rate was 47 per cent, then you would pay 32 per cent on your super contributions. It seems pretty fair that if you can afford to put that amount of money in super then you can afford to pay a progressive rate of tax on it. These sorts of changes to our superannuation system would raise $10 billion over the next four years. These are not small amounts of money.

We also suggested introducing a 'too big to fail' bank levy. We know that the big four banks can get their money cheaper because everyone knows they have such security and such dominance in the market. If the government, who actually give them that security, actually made them pay for that rather than giving them a discount on what they can get their money for, the revenue passed over to the taxpayer would be almost $15 billion. We also suggested a Buffett rule, which basically says that if you earn over $1 million you need to be paying at least 30 per cent of your income in tax. That seems fair enough to me. If you are earning that much money, you should not be able to use tax avoidance schemes left, right and centre to reduce your tax to next to nothing. Go and ask virtually any Australian if it is fair that if you are earning over $1 million you should be paying at least 30 cents in the dollar—what ordinary people are paying in tax. That measure would raise over $8 billion over the next four years.

The list goes on. Phasing out private health insurance rebates is another measure. This is a massive subsidy to middle- and high-income earners in this country, at the expense of money going into our hospitals so that all of us can benefit from it and we can have a public health system that we can all be really proud of and that we know is going to meet our needs. That measure would save $13 billion.

Then there are the big ones: phasing out negative gearing and phasing out the capital gains tax discounts, which, between the two of them, amount to an extra $30 billion. We have the most generous concessions for property investment anywhere in the world, and they are not delivering the benefits to society that they should. We know that our housing is massively expensive. We know that we have huge issues with lack of affordability in housing and huge issues of homelessness. That $30 billion could be spent in a much more constructive and valuable way.

The platform that we put together said: 'Look, we've got huge problems with unaffordable housing. We've got huge problems of homelessness. How about if we phase out negative gearing and the capital gains tax discounts and invest all of that money into housing programs? Do you know that, if you did that, instead of giving that money to people as a discount on perhaps their fifth, sixth or 10th property, we could end homelessness in Australia?' Think of the transformation we would make to Australia by ending homelessness. And it would have huge economic benefits as well, because of the amount of social housing that would be unlocked through investment in construction of that social and public housing, and because of the huge social value of giving people a safe home, a roof over their head, thus giving them the ability to get on and live productive lives and be able to contribute to society and to the economy. You cannot do that if you are homeless. If you do not know where you are going to be sleeping that night, you cannot get the rest of your life in order. It is a fundamental thing that we should be able to do in Australia. It is a basic human right to have a roof over your head. And it is a choice: we can spend the money on giving discounts to people who have already got a lot, or we can spend the money on making sure that everybody can afford to have a roof over their head.

These are the sorts of measures that the Greens propose to bring to Australia, to restore fairness to the way that we are doing business. These are investments in our future that will reduce inequality.

There are other big investments that are, we know, where money needs to be spent. I have already touched on the need to invest in infrastructure and that we put up a proposal to say, 'As a country with a AAA credit rating, we can afford to borrow $80 billion to invest in productive infrastructure—the infrastructure that we need to transform our cities, particularly the infrastructure that is needed in renewable energy and public and sustainable transport.' If we spent that money, those are the sorts of things that would enable people to travel around our cities efficiently. They would give people the option of fast, frequent, affordable, reliable and safe public transport. We could afford to invest in airport rail in Melbourne. We could afford to invest in cross-city rail in Brisbane. We could afford to invest in light rail systems in all of our capital cities. These would give people the choice to get out of their polluting motor cars. They would tackle fairness, in giving people the opportunity to do that and a clean way of travelling as well—giving them the option of fast, frequent, reliable, affordable and safe public transport.

Of course, the economic benefits of doing that would be immense. We know that we have the opportunity now to have those environmental, economic and employment benefits of that investment in infrastructure. The construction boom from investing in public transport is very substantial.

The other really positive and constructive thing about these city-transforming public transport investments is that we know that, overall, they are not controversial. Everybody agrees that they are what is needed to transform our cities. Instead of focusing on massive, polluting tollways—the benefits of which are going to go to big private companies that are already getting billions of dollars out of us, and which are inevitably going to be controversial—let us focus on the projects which everybody knows are really good ideas.

Airport rail in Melbourne is a classic case in point. We have the absolutely clogged Tullamarine Freeway, where they are currently building an extra lane along each side. We know that, by the time those lanes have been completed, the freeway will be filled up with traffic. It is just a never-ending cycle of continuing waste of billions of dollars. If you put that same level of investment into the public transport project of airport rail, giving people the option of getting to the airport not on the Tullamarine Freeway, that would really transform and unclog our city.

We heard, in the Governor-General's speech, a commitment to inland rail. Again, that is another project of which I think there would be hardly a person across the country who would not say, 'That's a good project.' Let's get on with it! We have government saying, 'All right, yes, it's a good project,' and, so far, there is a commitment to half a billion dollars. Half a billion dollars, I hate to tell the government, is not going to build us the inland rail. The cost of the inland rail is more of the scale of $10 billion. We should be saying, 'Yep, we're going to spend it,' because the benefits to the country of spending it are worth so much. These are the nation-changing infrastructure projects that we need to invest in.

The other critical thing with the infrastructure investments that we need, is that we have to make sure that the decisions that are being made about them and where the money is being invested are in the public interest. In order to ensure that, we need to make sure that we have transparency and accountability as to where that money is being spent. We have a big problem when the infrastructure projects are those market-led proposals, such as the Western Distributor Project proposed by Transurban in Victoria, where, because there is private sector involvement, there is opacity. We have not got transparency. Of the business case, the transport modelling and the economic modelling, serious chunks have been redacted. I got a copy of a freedom of information request about some information about the Western Distributor recently, and, on page after page after page, there were big black squares. So the critical information we need, to know whether that project is in the public interest, is just not available to us. We have to make sure that for any of these infrastructure projects we have transparency and that they are being undertaken in the public interest.

I just want to finish on the final thing which hardly rated a mention in the Prime Minister's speech and which is the most fundamental issue facing us in Australia, and that is the threat of dangerous global warming. We know that unless we tackle global warming it is going to have a massive environmental, social and economic impact on us. We know what we need to do. We know the investment in renewable energy that we could have that would generate tens of thousands of jobs in Australia. They are the directions we need to be going in, tackling the big issues in Australia, and that is the biggest one. We know that if we do not tackle it we do not have much future as a country. Australia can be a global leader. We have the ability. We have the richness of the nation to be able to be a leader in tackling global warming, yet we are being left behind. That is the direction we need to be going in as a country.