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Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Page: 2122

Mr McGAURAN (7:08 PM) —It has not taken the Labor Party very long at all in government to impose its traditional strategy of increasing taxes. Here we are tonight debating the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008, debating taxes. There is no fine way to say it. When you remove the charade of registration fees, the diesel fuel rebate, the diesel fuel excise system and the like, the fact is that these are penalising the transport industry with new taxes. The government are very slow—despite the commentary of many adoring persons in the media—to get up to a level of acceptable competence. They are trotting out long-held beliefs, policies and briefings from many departments. You can see it in their language. It is always a giveaway when a minister at the table, either in a speech or in question time, talks about the need to ensure that an event occurs or a program is implemented, and this is a classic. We rejected in government, as a coalition, similar proposals two years ago because we knew they were a new tax on one of the most important sectors of the economy which has flow-through implications for every person in this country, given that overwhelmingly freight is carried by trucks—up to 75 per cent all up, although we would wish it were not so high and that rail carried a great deal more. So that is what we are debating here tonight: new taxes, taxes that are struck for the convenience of the states.

There is one great way to end the blame game that Prime Minister Rudd has spoken about for so long and so often, and that is to give the states everything they want. These new taxes are designed to make up for the shortfall in the states and territories funding and lack thereof in roads, bridges and highways—to end the blame game by completely conceding or surrendering to the states. Not only has the Commonwealth done that by the unnecessary extent of the increase in registration fees and the diesel fuel excise system but it has locked itself into a majority decision on the Australian Transport Council, which is made up of state and federal ministers. Of course the transport ministers of the Labor states and territories are always going to have a majority, and of course they will caucus before the ministerial meeting and come to an agreed position which is invariably contrary to the interests of the Commonwealth, so much so that the Commonwealth Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government will have to commit the government to an increase in registration fees or to an increase in the diesel fuel excise system anytime the states so deem it. It is beyond me how a self-respecting Commonwealth government, let alone minister, would surrender so much discretion and power to a majority vote of state ministers, whatever the portfolio might be, let alone one where there is no more obvious or shameful dereliction of duty by the states than in the area of roads and bridges.

The state governments have been leeching off the Commonwealth’s generosity for many years now. It is only the coalition government that has invested so heavily in necessary infrastructure. The AusLink program, initiated by the National Party in coalition, had a new funding commitment of $38 billion between the financial year 2004-05 and 2014. It identified freight corridors of national importance and developed long-term plans to develop them for the freight task they will face in 10 or 20 years time. The incoming Rudd Labor government, as they parrot—obviously at the urgings of the federal secretariat—have yet to commit to abiding by that $38 billion investment by the coalition government. We will be watching that extremely closely. AusLink also includes the Roads to Recovery program, which has funded more than 25,000 local council road projects across Australia and an investment of over $2.4 billion in Australia’s interstate rail networks. The Black Spot Program further improved road funding through the elimination of around 300 black spots on Australian roads.

So everyone should be alert to the certainty that the states will further backslide on funding for roads, whether they be local or main roads or highways—or arterial roads, as they are deemed in some states—unless there is a strong Commonwealth minister backed up by his or her government. To roll over so early in your term to the Transport Council is an indication that the minister lacks the intestinal fortitude or backbone—or both—to stand up to the Transport Council. The state ministers could not believe their luck that, having been denied these increases for two years by a resolute coalition government, at the first Transport Council—made up of all jurisdictions’ transport ministers—the Commonwealth minister agreed, and furthermore agreed that in future the Commonwealth will be bound by a majority decision. If there is ever a strong minister in the portfolio, that decision will be reversed. No self-respecting Commonwealth minister, in the interests of the whole nation, would lock themselves into a majority vote of a ministerial council.

It worries me enormously that the costs are going to blow out. For example, the registration fees for B-doubles will increase from $8,041 to $14,340—an extraordinary increase of more than $6,000—and B-triple charges will skyrocket to $20,340. The road user charge, or diesel excise, will increase from 19.6c per litre to 21c per litre. Worse still, this fuel excise will be indexed to the same formula used for heavy vehicle registration charges. In other words, the indexation of fuel excise is back—bigger and better than ever in the eyes of the revenue raisers within the government.

This is a proposal by the central agencies—namely, Treasury, Finance and Prime Minister and Cabinet—and they have found a docile minister for transport or infrastructure to implement it on their behalf, having been denied it for many years by strong and resolute coalition ministers. Really, regardless of the personal regard or affection one might have for the personality and good humour of the minister for infrastructure and transport and other responsibilities, one cannot admire him at all for his weak-kneed response on this vital issue of road funding. Do not ever give in to the states on road funding. Mind you, we should offer that gratuitous advice to the ministers for health, for housing, for disability services and even for agriculture. Of course, you have to cooperate and compromise at times, but there is a difference between capitulation and compromise—a difference the minister for infrastructure and transport fails to appreciate.

I am worried enormously about the effect this will have on ordinary consumers going about their everyday shopping. The inflationary effect is undeniable. How can you increase the diesel fuel excise and registration charges without a cost being imposed at the retail end? It defies basic economics to believe otherwise. In Victoria we are slightly better off than other states because Victorian state governments, of whatever political complexion, have always had a much stronger tradition on road funding, with the portfolio headed by a senior minister—whereas in the other states these ministers are far further down the ministerial pecking order. There have been exceptions in Victoria under Labor governments, to be sure, but overall the transport and roads ministers in Victoria carry political clout—unlike the present incumbent at the federal level, as evidenced by this legislation.

We in Victoria have been further aided by arguably the best of the road agencies in Australia; namely, VicRoads. I have always found them extremely efficient. They have a national and an international reputation for excellence in engineering. They get the best value for taxpayers’ dollars. They respond locally and they are known to build up strong links with communities as well as local government authorities and respond as best as possible on a regional basis. I have always found them supportive—to the greatest extent possible for them within limited state budgets—of local communities, whether remote or central.

No-one, especially someone who represents a rural constituency, could deny the vital importance of road funding. I am very proud to have been part of a government that over several years increased local road funding as well as funding for upgrades of highways. We also invested heavily in bridges and black spot funding. But a great deal more needs to be done, and it would be of enormous reassurance to local government authorities and the communities they represent if the present federal government would commit to at least equalling the coalition government’s forward estimates on all things infrastructure and road funding.

I obviously drive around the Gippsland roads. Gippsland is as mountainous as it is flat, and road funding is essential for the safety of more distant communities. I was reminded on 8 March that I had passed through 25 years of representing Gippsland. So I do know those roads—I cannot say I know them blindfolded, but I do know them backwards—and there has been a great improvement over the years, which brings me a great deal of personal and professional pleasure. Living in my own electorate, one wants to get home quickly from far-flung electorate functions. After 25 years of representing the electorate, one of the benchmarks of one’s contribution has to be an improvement in services, whether it be aged care, community health centres or road funding.

I should pause to thank all those who have contributed with me to this improvement in infrastructure and the overall wellbeing of Gippsland over those 25 years. Obviously a great many people in rural areas feel the community bonds even stronger than metropolitan areas and come together to push causes for the benefit of their whole community. It always gives you a great deal of pride as a local member in a rural electorate to be part and parcel of that community momentum and to see the tangible results of what people working together and pulling in the one direction can truly achieve with the support of governments, whether they be local, state or federal.

I have been very fortunate that my wife, Trudy, has been supportive of me, whether it has been travelling long distances throughout the electorate to cover the length and breadth of Gippsland or further afield. My brother, Senator Julian McGauran, also takes a great interest in Gippsland and supports me when causes need to be pushed. Nobody represents a large rural electorate, with the same intensity and demands of a geographically smaller metropolitan area, without the support of parents, family and extended family. I believe those 25 years have been productive, but that has only been possible because, in discharging the responsibilities and duties of holding office in the federal parliament, there has been support from the community. In country areas, people invariably put aside any political affiliation or views to support the local member, as long as the member is representative of their area, to achieve things for the community as a whole. It is an enormous privilege for any one of us to serve in this federal parliament, let alone to serve for 25 years covering 10 elections. I will be eternally grateful for the confidence and support vested in me by the people of Gippsland.

It is for those reasons that I feel so strongly that the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008 has to be opposed. It raises the cost of transportation, and that is a vital factor for the timber jinkers and the dairy tankers that crisscross my electorate with great frequency. Our grocery prices, and indeed most other household requirements, are more expensive because of the distances travelled to bring them to Gippsland and other rural and regional areas of Australia. We have to be very mindful of the input costs that are reflected in the final price paid by people. We cannot have two classes of citizens in this country: one that lives approximate to the centre of metropolitan Australia and the other that lives further distances away. I oppose this legislation. It is an unnecessary increase in tax.

It has been said by government speakers that industry has been consulted. That may well be true but there is a world of difference between undertaking consultations and actually acting on those consultations or being influenced by the views of those most directly affected. Whilst there might have been consultations with the trucking association and individual trucking companies—and possibly a compromise on the ambit claims of the transport council was reached to get to this point—the general public has not been consulted, and it is for them that the opposition speak during this debate. The public do not want taxes of this kind. They want the state governments to properly share their portion of the burden of road funding. It should be a greater priority for state governments, and then there would be no need to impose these charges on transport companies and individual truckers, and therefore the community at large.