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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 2215

Mr WINDSOR (10:16 AM) —I listened very closely to the honourable member for Barker’s contribution to debate on the Interstate Road Transport Charge Amendment Bill 2008 and the Road Transport Charges (Australian Capital Territory) Repeal Bill 2008. I am sure he, like me, was pleased to see so many people in the gallery to listen to his contribution today.

The transport industry is obviously critical to our economy in many areas but none more so than in regional Australia, and the member for Barker spoke of some of the issues in that regard. What I think we are seeing today—I hope we are not but I suspect we are, even though it is under the auspices of the COAG process and a national agreement—is another attempt to extract funding from country people, because that is where the major part of the roads network is, where most of the road transport activity occurs and where the least amount of money has been spent on improving the capacity for roads to handle heavy vehicles. The situation in the country is not the same as in city areas, which have a number of options and distances are obviously much shorter. The trucking industry is absolutely critical not only in terms of exports but also in getting the various imported inputs that are required for our industries into the towns.

There has been much discussion. I am pleased that the Minister for Resources and Energy is at the table today because he has had a great deal of involvement in a number of transport issues and this debate has been more wide-ranging than just this specific issue. I would like to take advantage of that if I could and talk about a few of the other issues in terms of costs, particularly those relating to rail and road.

As you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, there is a truckies memorial in Tamworth. Probably one of the most, if not the most, moving function that I have attended as a member of parliament was the first truckies memorial function when the memorial was first opened. I know there is a memorial at Tarcutta, and I presume there are some in other parts of the state. I would suggest to the minister that it would be well worth attending one of those functions, if he has not done so in the past, because he will see the spirit of the people who drive the trucks and provide that very important artery to our communities, and the relationships they share with their families. I pay tribute to those who have been badly injured or killed in accidents on the road.

Many members of parliament who have spoken in this debate have expressed great concern about this legislation’s impact on country people. I share that concern but I would just reflect on a number of issues: firstly, I do not think this is the time to be changing the status of the charges even though I fully believe that if the Howard government had been re-elected it would have done the same thing. If you look at some of the objectives of the current government’s policy on inflation and interest rates, a change in the charging regime will no doubt have an impact on a range of cost structures in terms of not only the trucking operators—those small business operators—but also the people that they supply. It is not the time to impose that sort of cost impact. Transport costs have a massive impact on the economy. If we are serious about grocery prices and those sorts of things, we should be looking very closely at any impacts that the government’s policy has on the cost structure of those businesses.

Here we see another opportunity taken to garner more funds from an otherwise productive sector. A litany of events have occurred over the last two decades in respect of fuel, which is the lifeblood of many of our productive industries—in fact, all of them—which is now a source of taxation income. Fuel excise was introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser many years ago for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious one at the time was that the government of the day was worried about an oil shock; Australia needed to maintain some sort of parity arrangement so that, when that oil shock arrived, the economy could withstand it. Subsequently, fuel became a source of taxation which was then indexed. Fuel excise has become a massive source of revenue that is running at about $14 billion annually now.

To my knowledge something like $2 billion—maybe $2½ billion, depending on how many railway shelters you take out of the equation—is being spent on roads in some shape or other. Probably one of the better programs of the previous government was the Roads to Recovery program, and that is under some degree of doubt at the moment. I would imagine that the Minister for Resources and Energy, who is at the table, would be very supportive of that particular program. I think many country people are waiting with bated breath, because it is one of the few things where there is a direct link between Canberra and local government decision making. In my view, local governments are far better situated to make some of those decisions, rather than having a centralised basis for decision making in terms of road funding. There is a flow-on effect into communities, so it is not just about 0.8c per litre which goes to Roads to Recovery—which is trivial, when 38c a litre is excise and then another dozen or so cents is GST. Local government almost genuflects for 0.8c. It should be doubled or trebled to really have a significant impact on local roads et cetera. The motorists are paying for it—$14 billion and they are getting about $2 billion back. This is another example of where some degree of extraction from road users will take place again.

I interjected when the member for Barker was speaking, when he was making a point about how the new government was going to extract money from regional people. I would agree with him, but his government was part of what was probably history making when it created a two-tiered tax system in relation to fuel taxation and the way in which country people are taxed. I refer to the Fuel Sales Grants Scheme. If you ever wanted an example of something that has disappeared into a black hole somewhere—or consolidated revenue, as the member for Barker referred to it as—and has never been seen again, have a look at the Fuel Sales Grants Scheme. You were a member of this House when the goods and services tax came in, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, and you would remember that it was shown that, because the retail price of fuel in the country was higher—for a number of reasons, including retail margin, throughput, capacity et cetera—the impact of a 10 per cent charge on a retail price was going to have a disproportionate effect on country road users.

The member for Grey said yesterday—and I agree with him—that some people in the north of South Australia are paying $2 a litre for fuel now whereas in some parts of Sydney they are paying $1.30. There is a 70c disparity. You can just see what a 10 per cent charge on those two numbers means. It is quite a substantial amount. One cent per litre across Australia is equivalent to $360 million of revenue raised. At the time the GST came in, the disparity in retail price was 10c to 30c. Now it is probably 10c to 70c, depending on where you are located in Australia. On top of that is 10 per cent GST. That means that because of the impact of the GST country people are currently paying more fuel tax than their city counterparts.

When the Howard government recognised that particular problem, they said they would implement the Fuel Sales Grants Scheme to compensate for that two-tiered tax system that they were going to impose on those downtrodden country people that they were so sympathetic towards. They did that, and a whole range of statements were made at the time by the Treasurer, by the Leader of the National Party and by others who said, ‘The implementation of our tax reform package will not cause petrol prices to rise.’ John Laws asked the Treasurer at the time, Peter Costello:

Do you still believe that there are limits to compensating country people for the GST hike in fuel?

Mr Costello said:

No, no. What I’ve said in this, the government policy is, the excise will be reduced so that with the application of GST the price is the same.

That did not happen. They introduced a policy to compensate country people for the higher price and then removed the Fuel Sales Grants Scheme sometime later. So to this day, country people, because of their location, suffer a higher taxation regime in terms of fuel than do their city cousins. And here we have a piece of legislation which builds on that. Because country people have to use those road systems, they have to have distance as a disadvantage, they will suffer another double whammy.

Another issue that I would like to raise—and I think the current minister needs to play an active role in this—is climate change, global warming and those sorts of issues. The current government is, to its credit, actually making a lot of noise about these things. Obviously fuel emissions are part of the problem, as are fossil fuels, and there are a whole range of other health and environmental issues that the member for Kennedy is somewhat of an expert on. I am hopeful that he will make a contribution to this debate shortly. The previous government encouraged renewable energy targets, and the reality is that there is less renewable energy now than there was in 2001 when they instigated the program, even though they put in place a series of incentives to create renewable energy.

I think the new government are a bit more serious about it. They are saying that they are going to embark on a whole range of renewable energy targets. I refer the minister at the table, the Minister for Resources and Energy, to the biofuels targets. We have a set of circumstances at the moment where, if you are a biofuels producer, in 2011 you will be taxed at the same rate as for fossil fuels. In 2011, it will start to phase in and, by 2050, the excise paid on biofuels will be the same as that paid on fossil fuels.

I am pleased that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government is here as well, in front of this large gallery, to listen to this because it is very important. The government has to make clear whether or not it is serious about renewable fuels. If it is serious about renewable fuels, particularly about the biofuels contribution that could be made, it cannot use them as a source of tax revenue. The message that is sent in terms of the broader policy is a nonsense, if you maintain the position had by the former government that renewable fuel, biofuel, was seen as a source of taxation. All of those messages that you are trying to send out to the community—whether they be about plastic bags, solar, wind, geothermal, conservation or carbon storage—will be at risk if you use renewable energy as a source of revenue to be used in other areas. So I urge the minister for infrastructure and transport to pay some attention to that anomaly. It was created by the former government but it is still sitting there. People are quite willing to make an investment in a whole range of renewable energy areas, not just in the biofuels area, but they are fearful that, if they do, the dab hand of Treasury will at some time move and use them as a source of revenue.

I would also like to reflect on the inland rail debate. I know that the two ministers at the table are well aware of that debate, and that, as we speak, another study is about to be performed. About seven years ago there was a stake driven into the banks of the Macintyre River near Goondiwindi, which was supposedly the start of the inland rail, and nothing has happened since. It was a lot of hot air. Irrespective of where that actually goes—it should go where it is best for the nation—I encourage both ministers to expedite activity on that. We say we are serious about some of these trucking issues. The member for Barker, who has now assumed the chair, was most concerned about the interaction of the trucking industry and tourism. If we are serious about those issues, we should look at rail. If we are serious about energy usage, carbon emissions et cetera we should look at the rail issue in conjunction with the freight issue.

We have an absurd arrangement in New South Wales at the moment. As we are speaking about changing the Wheat Marketing Act in this parliament, in New South Wales we do not have any trains to cart wheat to the port. We will have a massive influx of trucks to move the next potentially very large harvest in New South Wales to the port. Pacific National has said it will not cart grain anymore. That used to be a publicly owned instrumentality and now it has sold out on the people that the whole network was developed to service, so there will be much more pressure on the trucking industry.

An issue in relation to the transport industry that I reluctantly take the opportunity to raise today is the recently reported incidences of child sex at Moree and Boggabilla. The allegations are that some truck drivers are paying, with either money or drugs, children as young as eight years old for sex in their trucks. The police say they know about this. The local state government member, Kevin Humphries, has said he knew a year ago and reported it to the police. Many community members are saying that they are aware it has been going on for many years. If this is the case, there needs to be an investigation into what these people are saying. How do they know? What have they been told? What reports have actually gone to the police? Some members of the federal opposition have said that we need a Northern Territory style intervention in Moree and Boggabilla. We have the police there, and they are saying that they cannot do anything about it. This is rape. Regardless of whether or not money or drugs are changing hands, it is statutory rape for anybody to interfere with a child given the nature of these allegations which have been made. I urge the federal minister to look closely at this issue and carry out an inquiry into some of the information that has been given to police previously but may not have been taken forward in the appropriate fashion.