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Monday, 7 December 1998
Page: 1537

Mrs IRWIN (10:01 PM) —I would like to remind the honourable member for Dawson who has just spoken that something else came out of the 1930s. John Howard was born in 1939.

A new tax system bill. What a joke of a title. It is as if Moses has just walked off the mountain, with the stone tablets in his hands, and is delivering a message from God to the chosen people. The fanfare and headlines given to these bills far outweigh their true character. These bills do one thing—they change the way the federal government collects revenue. They change it from income to expenditure. That is it. It is not the Sermon on the Mount. It is not the Gettysburg address. It is definitely not Martin Luther King's `I have a dream' speech. And this government is trumpeting the news as if we are all being saved from the damnation of economic hell.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have constantly claimed that this tax package is the economic panacea for all the ills of this nation. They claim that the only way forward for this economy is for this tax package to be endorsed by this parliament. They are wrong.

The Treasurer must think that his job is pretty easy. He inherited an economy vastly different from the one the Labor Party was left in 1983, when the current Prime Minister was then the outgoing Treasurer. Back in 1983, the budget deficit was enormous, interest rates and inflation were high, manufacturing was in a slump and the unemployment rate was appalling.

In the years that followed Labor's win in 1983, there was a wholesale reform of this nation's economy that the members on the other side of the chamber have ignored. Under the leadership of former prime ministers Hawke and Keating, this country saw dramatic changes not just economically but socially. Exporting became a mantra, companies looked to diversify and value add, and tertiary industries and services boomed in the new wave of development that washed over our shores. You would think that the Labor government had slept for 13 years or had sold out the country. If that was the case, why were they elected five times?

Now the Treasurer claims that the great things that are happening are all his achievements and that all the problems are ours. With that in mind, the government now claims that the GST will solve all of our nation's ills—they campaigned on that fact. Well, we did not. We campaigned on the issues that concern the people of this nation: health, aged care, education, child care, unemployment, racial tolerance, and the list goes on. This government had only one issue—tax.

If you listen to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, the GST will solve all of our problems: health care, unemployment, exports, wool prices and probably hangnails and haemorrhoids. But there are two arguments against theirs. Not all countries have a GST. The United States does not and it is the strongest economy in the world. China does not and it has a huge economy. A GST does not mean success.

As I mentioned before, this is about changing revenue collection. While that may seem an innocuous statement, the implications for people are far worse. Everyone is a winner— that is the message that the government would like us all to believe. But the people of my electorate of Fowler are, for good reason, more than a little sceptical of the Treasurer's cry. Perhaps they have been ripped off once too often—dudded by a spiv when they were sold a lemon of a used car; promised the world but delivered nothing. Too often they have bought the lucky dip only to win the useless toy. But wait, there is more. Just when they begin to think the package is too good to be true, along comes another bonus. Everyone is a winner—families, singles, exporters, farmers and miners. The longer the list gets the more unbelievable it becomes. People are used to seeing a full-page list of winning lottery ticket numbers, but somehow their ticket number is never there.

When it is all said and done, the people of the Fowler electorate were not taken in by the Prime Minister or his fast-talking Treasurer. At the 3 October election, fewer than one voter in five cast a primary vote for the Liberal Party. What does that say for the government's mandate for a goods and services tax? It certainly says a lot about the misgivings that people have about changes to the tax system. The suspicion is that, whatever changes are made, people will be worse off. No matter how many times the Treasurer cries, `Everyone is a winner,' the people of Fowler just do not believe him—and for good reason.

The majority of families in the Fowler electorate struggle to make ends meet. They have to balance their mortgage or rent payments and their transport, gas and electricity costs, as well as meet the food and clothing needs of growing families. All of their income is expended. Indeed, as many borrow to meet the cost of major items of expenditure, they actually spend more than they earn. That spending, in most cases, will attract a GST.

The unfairness of the GST can best be seen in its application to food. The estimates of Professor Neil Warren suggest that, in the poorest 20 per cent of households, 40 per cent of income is spent on food compared with 11 per cent in the richest households. Yet the government insists on applying a GST to basic food items. A GST on food slugs poorer families more than it does richer ones.

Families in Fowler also face the added expense of a GST on clothing. While it may be claimed that rich families spend more on clothing, families with growing children spend a high proportion of their income on clothing. With growing children you have no choice—children grow out of school uniforms and they need new shoes. A GST is totally unfair to families with young children. Living in the outer suburbs of Sydney, families have high gas, electricity and transport costs, all of which will attract a GST. These are extra costs for families that can least afford them. What then of the government's promised trade-offs and compensation? For pensioners, we have already seen how the government's supposed compensation is nothing more than increases which would have come through adjustments in the near future anyway.

For taxpayers in Fowler, you cannot escape the conclusion that what the government is offering by way of tax cuts will go nowhere near making up for the added costs to the family budget of a GST. Indeed, a taxpayer on the median income in Fowler—around $30,000—can expect a tax cut of a mere 2.8c in the dollar while someone on $75,000 per year gets a cut of 6c in the dollar. How fair is that? Is it any wonder that people in the Fowler electorate do not want a bar of the GST? When taken with other measures which disadvantage two income families with children, cuts to services over the past two years which have placed great strain on families and threats to employment security, you can see why the people of Fowler voted against a GST.

It is hard to find many winners in Fowler under the government's GST, so you have to wonder where all the winners are. The people of Fowler know all too well that they are getting the rough end of the stick. They know that higher income earners will benefit most from the tax cuts. They know that the buyers of luxury cars will get the biggest savings from a flat-rate GST. They know that a tax on food and clothing hits them harder than high income earners. Call it the politics of envy if you will, but the people on Struggle Street know that they will be worse off under a GST.

Finally, I would like to turn to mandates. I know the Prime Minister likes to rabbit on about them, so I would like to talk about my mandate. I was elected to represent the wonderful people of Fowler. I have spoken many times before in this chamber about what a privilege it is to represent these people. During the campaign I went to those people with a very clear platform. One of the issues I raised was `no GST'. I made it clear for all of the electorate to see what stance I was taking. They had no doubt as to what the different positions were. That was obvious, considering all the material sent to them by the government just prior to the election.

The government did all it could to spread the message of the GST. Just prior to the election they spent taxpayers' money to the tune of about $17 million. They ran a negative advertisement campaign on Labor during the election, rather than inform voters how the GST would affect them. They sent appalling material from the government members secretariat, a group set up by this government not to assist backbenchers in their official duties but to provide grubby political material at taxpayers' expense. It does not even pretend to be non-partisan. On top of that, they even had a spin doctor on Sydney radio as a spokesperson on all government policies.

If we look at a few examples of Howard cabinet ministers, what can we see in terms of their mandates? The Prime Minister lost four per cent of his vote. The Deputy Prime Minister lost 6.5 per cent. The Treasurer lost one per cent. The Minister for Transport and Regional Services lost five per cent; the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, six per cent; the Minister for Defence, seven per cent; the Minister for Finance and Administration, five per cent; and the Minister for Health and Aged Care, who had to run away from his seat of Chisholm—which, might I add, was won by Labor—lost two per cent in Casey. Wherever you look, members on the other side of the chamber lost votes.

But in Fowler the people of my electorate saw the campaign and rejected the govern ment's agenda. They rejected it like they have never done before. Fowler now has a margin of 26.33 per cent. That is my mandate, a mandate to oppose this unfair and retrograde attack on the people of my electorate. So my mandate is to ask questions like: will a GST fix the problems in the Job Network, in nursing homes or with reconciliation? Will it fix the drug problem? The answer is no. Only leadership can fix those problems, and the Prime Minister has shown precious little of that in the last three years.

I would like to end with a quote made in this House with which I agree:

Let us look at the position: the Government is exposed by the facts, exposed on a policy front, exposed by the backbench, and exposed by its own incompetence on the frontbench. We might stop and ask ourselves what has changed? There are a few new ties, a few new dresses and a few new suits but, fundamentally, nothing else. It is just the same old tired lot over there. They have no direction, no policies, no mandate, no sense of direction for Australia, and no capacity to put in place, if it did have them, the policies that are required to deal with our very deep-seated economic circumstances as they have emerged and are still emerging.

These words were said at the wrong time for the wrong government but they seem very apt now for this government, and I must thank Dr John Hewson for saying them.