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Thursday, 11 February 1999
Page: 2499

Mr SLIPPER (1:30 PM) —One of the many privileges of being a parliamentary secretary in this place is that one gets few opportunities to address the House. At the outset, I would firstly like to express my concern and support for the many south-eastern Queensland families affected by flooding this week. A large number of people have tragically lost their lives over the past five days, and the sympathies of all of us go out to the friends and families of those people who have died. In particular, I would like to mention Aaron Lade from Palmwoods, Harriet Hunter of Closeburn, Peter Muller of Kenilworth and Christopher Miric of Caboolture. There have been other people lost whose names have not as yet been released.

Latest reports from the area indicate that rivers and tributaries south of the Maroochy River have their flood levels subsiding rapidly. However, further north the news is not as good. The Mary River has peaked at its highest level for 100 years in Gympie, leaving a massive clean-up job for local businesses and residents. Maryborough is now bracing itself for the swollen Mary River as the flood peak moves downstream from Gympie. I understand that the flood peak will occur some time this afternoon.

I am very pleased that the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Mr Anderson, accompanied by the Minister for Community Services and the honourable member for Wide Bay, Mr Truss, the honourable member for Fairfax, Mr Somlyay, and the honourable member for Dickson, Mrs Kernot, are on their way to view first-hand the tragedy which is unfolding at this time and to pass on the sympathies and best wishes of all of us. It is an unfortunate reality of living in this wonderful country that we do have at times extreme climatic conditions which can wreak tragedy and destruction when it is least expected. Areas that experience drought one year can be awash with rain the next.

I was talking to one of my colleagues from Victoria, and while much of south-east Queensland is currently being submerged under water, his electorate over the last couple of weeks was threatened with fire. It is, however, a true reflection of the Australian way that in times of adversity the community galvanises together. Right across south-east Queensland, police, ambulance, fire and state emergency personnel and countless volunteers have made a contribution in improving the lot of those residents in need. On behalf of all of us, I reiterate our sympathies and best wishes to those who have lost family members during these floods.

I now turn to the defining issue for Australians this year, 1999—tax reform. This is the government's top priority. Already the government has brought forward a number of initiatives which take effect from 1 January. I refer to the increased eligibility for the Commonwealth seniors health card, which will see those couples with a combined income of $67,000 or less or a single person with an income of $40,000 or less who are not in receipt of a pension and who are of pensionable age able to receive access to pharmaceuticals at the concessional rate.

We also have the extension of the veterans gold card. This will be good news for 50,000 Australian war veterans aged over 70. They will be able to receive free hospital health care. The 30 per cent rebate on private health insurance has also taken effect, and that will deliver a $600 benefit to an average family with a typical $2,000 policy. Unlike Labor, our pledges in the last election will be delivered, and the tax reform we have promised and the tax reform for which we have a mandate we intend to enshrine in law so the benefits flow through to all parts of the community.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Not if we can help it.

Mr SLIPPER —The member for Hunter really ought to be appreciative that we gained a mandate. There was an election. We won and you lost.

The government's tax reform package will see the scrapping of nine Labor taxes, including the dreaded wholesale sales tax, which is currently levied at six levels, with rates as high as 45 per cent. The financial institutions duty and debits tax will be scrapped, along with various stamp duties and bed taxes levied by the states. There will be a dramatic reduction in the personal rate of income tax, and over 80 per cent of taxpayers will face a top marginal tax rate of no more than 30 per cent. The tax-free threshold will increase appropriately from $5,400 to $6,000. The government will crack down on tax rorts and will simplify the tax system. The new tax system will be better for families and simpler for businesses. It will be fairer. There will be extra incentives to work, save and invest. There will be a system which promotes exports and which encourages investments.

At the present time we have Senate inquiries under way into the proposed GST legislation. The tax package is now before four Senate committees and it is very interesting to look at the evidence that is emerging during these Senate inquiries. Much of it is supporting the government's plans to bring in wide-ranging tax reform. Leading economist, Mr Chris Murphy of Econotech Australia, fully endorsed the tax package.

Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting

Mr SLIPPER —He said—and the member for Hunter should listen carefully:

This package is good for the Australian economy and it should be possible to ensure that it leaves most, if not all, people better off.

Notably, Mr Murphy's submission also concluded that the increase in food prices would be only three per cent. The Australian Society of Certified Practising Accountants told the GST inquiry in Melbourne:

It is important that we don't replicate the anomalies of the current wholesale sales tax system in the new tax regime and that means that food must be included in the tax base.

Strikingly, evidence has been brought forward by a full-time practitioner who actually deals with the tax system on a daily basis. The Australian Society of CPAs supported the government's broad based approach to tax reform. It has endorsed the government's view that compensation for low income earners was preferable to GST concessions that would make the tax system only more complex. It also reinforced the need to get on with the job of passing the legislation to enable sufficient time to prepare for its implementation. That, naturally, is the government's preferred alternative.

The Australian Council of Social Service has failed to support the position of the opposition. ACOSS has continued to back the concept of tax reform. ACOSS knows that the current wholesale sales tax system is broken, and the submission of ACOSS to the Senate inquiry was based on research commissioned by the Melbourne Institute, and that shows that welfare recipients will be better off, not worse off, under the tax package. The research shows that, for every category of welfare recipient, people will receive increases in pension which overcompensate for the expected cost of living increases.

Mr Fitzgibbon —You don't even believe that.

Mr SLIPPER —I do believe it, and I support the government's mandate very strongly. We stood up prior to the last election. We announced what our policy would be. We gained the support of the Australian people.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hollis) —The parliamentary secretary knows that he should make his comments through the chair and ignore the member for Hunter.

Mr SLIPPER —We have a mandate, and we are seeking to implement our promises. When the committees from the Senate bring down their reports, we hope that they back what the government is proposing, but we ought to bear in mind that some of those people, the colleagues of those opposite, are from the Labor Party. They are prepared to play politics. They are prepared to deny the fact that the Labor Party in earlier manifestations supported the principle of tax reform. Now, because of cheapjack political opportunism, they are refusing to vote for what they know is good for the Australian economy and the very many benefits that will flow through to all sectors of our Australian nation.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration, I have been privileged to do work in the area of public sector accounting reform. I have also had an interest in the move to accrual budgeting. The 1999-2000 budget to be handed down this year will be the first to report on a fully accrual basis replacing the cash accounting framework. This will greatly improve the quality and usefulness of the information provided to government and its agencies to manage their finances responsibly. The accrual based reporting framework and the whole of government accrual financial statements constitute significant changes to the way that government will make its budgetary decisions, particularly how and what the government measures for assessing performance.

The accrual framework also provides a greater degree of transparency of the government's financial position consistent with the charter of budget honesty. It represents an important and complementary part of the government's reforms to Commonwealth finances designed to improve accountability. The Australian community will benefit from these reforms with greater transparency and improved performance by government agencies. These are landmark reforms that will help ensure that Australian taxpayers receive good government and management to which they are entitled. A public sector which is more performance focused and more accountable will lead generally to better government. Improved reporting information will let the government identify and get on with the job of doing what it does best. It will also enable the government to budget more effectively for changing circumstances as they occur and deliver improved fiscal performance.

There is another defining issue this year, and I move to the question of a referendum on whether or not Australia should become a republic. I fully support the government's announcement that we will, towards the end of this year, give the Australian people the chance of voting to become a republic or to remain a constitutional monarchy. I fully support the promise of the Prime Minister. We are prepared to deliver to the Australian people the form of government they want, not the form of government that the Labor Party sought to impose. We strongly back the right of the Australian people to decide Australia's constitutional future as we approach the next millennium, whereas the Labor Party are not prepared to allow their members to stand up and have a conscience vote.

Mr O'Connor interjecting

Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting

Mr SLIPPER —People in our party have varying views on this issue. We are like the community and have differing views. When the referendum comes along, individual coalition members will be allowed to stand up and express those opinions. There are in our party republicans, monarchists and those who are somewhere in between. The member for Corio, the member for Hunter and other members of the Labor Party have been lined up and told that they have to support a republic. They are not allowed to express their own views. I do not know what their personal views are, but they are monumentally irrelevant to those people who run the Labor Party, because the Labor Party simply is not prepared to allow its members to have a say and speak up.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. The parliamentary secretary is misleading the House. There have been no demands within the party that we should vote in any particular way. What the electorate want to know is how Peter Slipper is going to vote. That is what they want to know, and he should share that with them.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order. The honourable member for Hunter can later on, when he is listed to speak, reply to the parliamentary secretary.

Mr SLIPPER —Mr Deputy Speaker, there are provisions in the standing orders which provide for you to be able to deal with him for raising a frivolous point of order. The member for Hunter has been here long enough to know that he ought not test your patience by standing up and sprouting arrant nonsense. It is obvious that the Labor Party has a policy, and all members of the Labor Party are locked into that policy, even though in the Labor Party, as in other parties, there are varying views on this very important issue.

It should also be noted that some people are suggesting that the change which they advocate is a small yet hugely symbolic step. Whichever way Australians vote in the referendum, it is absolutely vital that they are aware of the issue on which they are voting. They have to sit down and consider the alternatives. We are going to give them that opportunity, but it is important that people are not deceived. It is important that people do have the chance to consider whether Australia should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic and the ramifications of either of those decisions. In other words, people are entitled to know what they are voting on.

It is interesting to see that those supporting the Keating-Turnbull model want us to accept that what is proposed is a change, a perception, a matter of mere symbolism and not a matter of substance. What would occur if the republican referendum is carried is monumental change of very great substance. One simply cannot remove the foundations of a building and expect that it will stand up without massive reconstruction. It is interesting to note that, when one looks at the proposed powers of the president under the republican model under consideration, they would not be justiciable. It is also suggested that the powers would not be enumerated and that the powers of the Governor-General would move across to the new president without change. It ought to be considered that, because those powers are not justiciable, the conventions of constitutional monarchy which currently restrain the use by the Governor-General of his very broad powers in the Constitution will not necessarily restrict the president in the exercise of his powers. If people choose to vote for a republic, it is important to recognise that they might be receiving a president who has not only apparent powers but very real powers.

Mr Fitzgibbon —It is codified.

Mr SLIPPER —Your government when in office said that it would not codify. The Keating-Turnbull model, which will be voted on towards the end of this year, has no proposal for codification either. Consider what eminent jurist Sir Harry Gibbs has said. He has expressed grave concern in one of his many excellent papers about the transfer of powers presently vested in the Governor-General to a president. I share those concerns, and I believe the Australian people prior to a vote are entitled to know what would be the situation.

I am very supportive of the right of the Australian people to decide whether we should be a republic or a constitutional monarchy. It is also important for those people who are republicans to consider very carefully whether they are prepared to junk our present system for any old republic. Bear in mind that it is extraordinarily difficult to change our Constitution. So any republic that comes about, if this referendum is carried towards the end of this year, will be the republic that is enshrined virtually forever. Those who are direct electionists or who have some problem with the Keating-Turnbull model ought to consider carefully whether they are able to vote for the Keating-Turnbull model on the basis that any old republic is better than the system we now have.

I have many friends who are republicans and many who are monarchists, but when I talk to people who are passionately in favour of a republic it is common to hear that while they want a republic it must be the right sort of republic. Many of them say that the Keating-Turnbull model is flawed and that it is nowhere near as good as the current system, which has delivered freedom, stability and the way of life that is the envy of people throughout the world.

What I am pleading for in this debate is an honest debate. It is very important that the people of Australia know that the referendum is a referendum of substance. We are not talking about mere symbolism; we are not talking about perception. What we are talking about are changes of very real substance. There would be very many alternatives to the Australian Constitution and, while we should appreciate that in good times any system of government will work well, we need to guarantee that our Constitution is able to assist Australia in bad times.

I am pleading for an open and honest debate. This government has pledged—and I support this pledge absolutely—the right of the people of Australia to have, as we approach the next millennium, the form of government that they want. We are not going to ram down their throats any particular model. We strongly defend the right of the Australian people, but what I want to happen between now and the referendum is for people who are on both sides of the argument to be up-front and honest. It is erroneous to suggest that what will be on the ballot paper will be a minor symbolic change. If people want to vote for change, that is their right. But they ought to appreciate that, if they do vote yes towards the end of this year, the changes that will be made will be substantial. It is rather like asking people to hop on a cruise boat that is leaving the harbour without any set of maps, without any plans, without any route on the basis that the captain says, as Hawke did, `Trust me.' I commend the appropriation bills to the House.