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Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Page: 2109

Mr RAMSEY (6:11 PM) —I am proud to come to this House and come to Canberra to represent the electors of Grey. One of the things I need to do as I represent the electors of Grey is put forward their interests. Since I have come to Canberra—and I have only been coming here for a few weeks—I have felt as though my electors are under assault. We have had 115 days of this government, and the government’s attacks on rural and regional Australia are setting a pattern. We have had the termination of the Investing in Our Schools Program. We are in the middle of a $2 billion raid on the Communications Fund put aside for rural Australia. In my electorate, it seems as if we have just lost an Indigenous youth festival called Croc Fest. We have had cuts in Exceptional Circumstances funding. We have had the removal of $10 million of support for agricultural research—support put in place to help alleviate the loss of levies grower organisations have at the moment through the drought. So here we have a government proudly claiming to be delivering on its election agenda, but there is a whole stack of nasties out there as well, a whole heap of nasties that we did not know about before the election; in particular, the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008.

And there is more in the pipeline. We are already talking about what is going to happen to the Australian technical colleges and Regional Partnerships. Let us face it, the government even had a go at trying to cut the carers payment in the last week, but the public outcry was so great they could not proceed. But rural and regional Australia is an easy hit. They have a go at us and they can get away with that.

The previous Prime Minister often said, ‘We will not abandon rural Australia in its hour of need.’ It seems to me that this government cannot get out fast enough. Labor does not understand or care about rural and regional Australia. We are now seeing the product of wall-to-wall Labor. The last time these proposals were put up by the NTC, the Australian Transport Commission rejected them. That was when the coalition still had a seat at the table. We are not seeing that sense of cooperation now—first meeting and the changes go straight through. My office has had numerous contacts on this issue. Figures bandied around suggest that it will add 13c to a $100 grocery bill. Maybe that is the case when your freight is five per cent of the final cost. I might point out that fuel in the northern part of my electorate is over $2 per litre. That would suggest to me—

Mr Katter —Why didn’t you introduce ethanol?

Mr RAMSEY —I was not here then. That price would suggest to me that we have at least a 25 per cent freight component on fuel. It shows that, in the country, freight is a much bigger component, whether it be 10, 15 or 25 per cent. This impost delivers an 80 per cent increase on the registration of a B-double, rising from $8,041 to $14,340. The Australian Transport Commission adopted the higher road fuel user charge. We are going to see not only a rise in the fuel cost of around 1.4c per litre but also the return of indexation, something that we thought we had seen off. This indexation is not going to be linked to CPI, as all other indexations have been before. This indexation will be linked to the road-building indices, which are rising at a far greater rate than the CPI. Since much of the road-building material has to be brought in, the raise in freight rates will naturally raise the price of the roads. Truckers have no choice but to pass on this cost. One medium-sized operator in my electorate estimates that it will cost his business $160,000 to $200,000 a year. He will have no choice but to pass this on. Truck operators tell me that they expect their freight costs to rise by about six per cent.

My electorate runs on freight. Broadacre agriculture involves big tonnages that must be moved to the port. We have the mining industry. We always pay freight two ways in the country. Six per cent will be added to the freight bill of fuel, fertiliser and industrial inputs. Six per cent will be added to the freight bill of groceries. Six per cent will be added to the freight bill of lettuces, toilets, toilet paper and shampoo. Residents of Grey will pay the freight both ways on everything that comes into and out of their electorate. Higher freight rates will mean higher prices. Higher prices will mean higher inflation. This government has done nothing, if it has not talked about inflation. How many times have I heard the word ‘inflation’ in this House in the last three weeks? Possibly about half as many times as I have heard the term ‘working families’. The working families of the electorate of Grey will not appreciate the inflation caused by these higher rate charges.

The increases that were rejected in 2006 as being an unfair slug on rural Australia were deemed unfair because at that time rural Australia was struggling in the grips of a drought. I ask the other side of this House what they think has changed since that time. I would say that nothing has changed. The drought is still there and rural Australia is still struggling. What are we going to do? We are going to hit them with a six per cent rise in freight prices.

Australia is addicted to fuel tax. We pay fuel tax of around $14 billion a year, yet we are still spending less than half of that on the roads in Australia, even allowing for large increases in road funding in the last four years. The road transport industry and the motorists of Australia are paying more than enough tax already to pay for all the repairs on the road. And there is no guarantee that these increases are going to be spent on the road network anyhow. It is within the government’s power to spend it on whatever they wish. Australia consumes around 37,000 megalitres of fuel a year. I do not have the exact calculations on this, but if you assume that 80 per cent of that is for non-export activity that should lead to about another $5 billion worth of GST receipts, which will be going straight to the states. The states are able to spend more on the roads; they do not need this extra registration slug.

Far from the transport industry not paying their way, at this stage they and the motorists of Australia are carrying the load. The Australian Trucking Association claims that the National Transport Commission’s finding that heavy transport are not paying their way is flawed, that they meet more than their costs and that there is little transparency about this increase. In the light of that, it behoves the government to go back and look at those figures and check to see whether they are correct. Heavy imposts on large combination registration will push freight back onto smaller trucks.

I have just been listening to the member for Werriwa talking about the issue of road safety in Australia. I could not agree with him more. Everybody is concerned about road safety. Every year that goes past we see more and more transport movements on the road, yet our road toll is falling. That is a great testament to the people who run the trucks, it is a great testament to the motorists and it is a great testament to the investment of all governments that have improved roads. No-one more than me would like to see the road toll fall further. But we do have to have a sense of reality here. If we are going to push freight back onto smaller trucks—this is the old argument—why not push it around in wheelbarrows? Why not put the freight back onto 14-tonne trucks? That would mean we would only have small trucks on the road and, when you get hit, it will only be a 22-tonne weakling that runs over the top of your car—and we are going to have five times as many of them. That just defies logic. You cannot have more trucks on the road and be safer. We need to push the loads onto the big trucks to keep the traffic density down. More trucks mean more danger, more greenhouse gases and more congestion, and ultimately it will do more damage to the roads. Much has been written and said over the years about Australia being cursed by the tyranny of distance. In this case we tax to our disadvantage. In an economy like Australia’s, it is nonsensical to tax freight over and above what is necessary to achieve the road network that we need. It taxes productivity—the very thing that builds this nation.

I think there was an estimate in 2002 that the road freight task for Australia will double by the year 2020. I point out that in 2008 we are about one-third of the way through, so the increases that you have seen in the last six years will keep happening. And the idea of pushing freight back onto smaller trucks, of using the motorists and the consumers of Australia as a cash cow not just to build highways but to keep putting money back into the rest of the economy, is flawed. We will pay the price for it in the long term. We need to freight more safely on roads; we do not need more trucks. I conclude my remarks by saying that I believe this bill is an unfair attack on rural Australia. The people in the cities may not understand the implications, but you pay freight on everything you consume and then you pay GST on top of the freight. That tax should be part of the accounting plan for the roads but it is not being counted at the moment. Somewhere around $5 billion of fuel tax delivered to the states is not part of the equation. We need to draw attention back to it. We do not need this extra impost.