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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 877


Mr ANTHONY SMITH (12:47 PM) —What we have just witnessed from the Treasurer is another pathetically base attack on the opposition. The Treasurer comes into this House, again, and repeats in robotic style, like some sort of battery-operated kids toy, an attack on the opposition, saying that we don’t support his levy and therefore we don’t support the reconstruction of flood affected areas. He mentioned Queensland a number of times—and rightly so. I would say to the Treasurer, as he scurries out the door: it wouldn’t hurt to mention Victoria and reconstruction in the one sentence one or two times. I think if I had to pay him for every time he had mentioned Victoria in the last four or five weeks I would be lucky to be out of pocket $5.

The Leader of the Opposition and every member of this side of the House has made clear from day one that we support the reconstruction of flood affected areas. The issue is how it is paid for. We think it should be paid for out of the budget and we do not think there should be a levy. The Treasurer might adopt the approach that anyone that disagrees with him is somehow against the reconstruction, but I can tell you that most people see through that. They find it offensive. To repeat it over and over again, like some sort of human jackhammer, does him no service and does the government no service at all.

The shadow Treasurer comprehensively outlined the opposition’s approach to this bill and the reasons for our opposition to it. They were compelling arguments—10 of them. I will not repeat each and every one of them, but what I will focus on, which the Treasurer refuses to go near, is how this government came to the levy. When you listen to the Treasurer and you listen to the Prime Minister, apart from repeating over and over again that anyone who opposes their $1.8 billion levy must therefore be opposed to reconstruction—apart from repeating that over and over again; the only difference between him and the battery-operated toy is that at least with the battery-operated toy the batteries run out—when you go to the heart of this matter and you look at how this $1.8 billion levy was conceived and how it has been defended by the government, it is obvious for all to see that when it comes to the Labor Party and this levy their first instinct was, as the shadow Treasurer said, to tax. With the Prime Minister’s announcement—I think it was the day after Australia Day—we were simultaneously told that the cost of reconstruction, whilst it could not be precise, would be, obviously, of a big magnitude. What the government had decided to do was to identify $3.8 billion worth of cuts and $1.8 billion worth of levy. Immediately on that day, when the question was asked, ‘What will happen if the reconstruction bill is greater than the sum of those two parts which you, Prime Minister, have outlined?’ the answer was, ‘More savings will be found,’ obviously indicating that more savings are there in a budget of around $350 billion.

What the Treasurer would have you believe is that he could find $3.8 billion of savings and not one cent more. In his wrap-up to his speech just a few minutes ago he tried to imply that there was some magical economic formula to his two-thirds split of $3.8 billion and $1.8 billion. But, of course, the fact that a levy of $1.8 billion was decided, according to his two-thirds formula, evaporates immediately on the first question from journalists at the National Press Club about what will happen if the bill is more. What will happen if the bill is more, the Prime Minister said, is that more savings will be found. So the government’s first instinct was to construct a levy, to find some savings and, if the bill is more than the sum of those two parts, to find more savings.

When you look at how the government came to this decision and how they have obfuscated since day one, how they have dodged and weaved, it is very obvious to the Australian public that the rigour of their approach was to decide on a levy, try to find a few spending cuts and then attack anyone who said that there might be a better way to fund the thing we all agree on in this House—that is, the reconstruction of flood affected areas in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. And as I said before, it would not hurt the Treasurer to mention Victoria every now and again. No-one in this House—major parties, minor party, Independents—disagree on the proposition that every dollar should be spent on the reconstruction. And for the Treasurer to take any criticism, any scrutiny of one of the means he is finding as opposition to that reconstruction is something that belittles him and those that sit with him.

We had the announcement the day after Australia Day. We had the Treasurer on the 7.30 Report that very night. He was asked the same question that was obvious. He was asked by Tracy Bowden:

… So you’re suggesting there could be further spending cuts if necessary, so why not make them now? I mean, is there, as the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has said, some fat in the budget?

Answer:

WAYNE SWAN:—

the Treasurer—

Well, because it wouldn’t be wise.

Again, no attempt to answer the question, no attempt to join the dots and provide some level of logic.

But of course with that concession by the Prime Minister that if the bill comes in higher then there will be more spending cuts, we have now seen in the past week, with a deal with those on the crossbenches, that there will be, in the Prime Minister’s words, and reaffirmed yesterday by the Assistant Treasurer, ‘further spending cuts of another $150 million’. Now unlike the $3.8 billion, which was identified outright, this $150 million will be identified in the budget. We had all of this rigour upfront, supposedly, on the spending cuts right down to the last dollar—what the programs would be, what would be delayed—amounting to $3.8 billion. The Treasurer was here not more than 15 minutes ago talking about them, the one-third two-thirds formula, but last week we were told about another $150 million and that we will find out about that in the budget.

At every step it has been obvious, as the shadow Treasurer said, that the first instinct of the Treasurer, the first instinct of the Prime Minister was to impose a $1.8 billion levy. Why $1.8 billion? What happens if the bill is more than the $5.6 billion? But then of course we had the spectacle in the last sitting week of the Treasurer in this House being asked the very reasonable question by the shadow Treasurer: how many people will pay the levy? This question could not be answered by the Treasurer. Again, bluff and bluster could not hide that fact. He stood at the dispatch box and told the shadow Treasurer to go and have a look on the website if he really wanted to know. The truth is the Treasurer himself could not have found it on his website. He had not looked; he did not know. Quite rightly, a great deal was made about this by commentators, who said it was somewhat strange that the Treasurer, who had supposedly been looking at all of the detail and had been working out the $1.8 billion levy, did not know how many people were going to pay this levy.

Of course it is strange, and they were absolutely right, but it is interesting at another level, isn’t it? The Treasurer in his mind could be absolutely sure that the government will collect $1.8 billion—not $1.7 billion, not $1.9 billion; he is absolutely sure how much they will collect—and in this legislation we are debating, in the bills that are before us, in the explanatory memorandum that outlines the mechanics of how that money will be collected and the timing of the collection, the government are absolutely sure of precisely how much they will collect but they cannot be sure how many people will pay it. Now that is odd, isn’t it? That is absolutely odd.


Mr Mitchell —How many people paid the milk levy? You don’t know!


Mr ANTHONY SMITH —The member for McEwen tries to help the Treasurer. The point is the Treasurer had not worked out exactly who was paying it, but he knew $1.8 billion—


Mr Mitchell —How many paid the milk levy? The gun buyback levy? You don’t know!


Mr ANTHONY SMITH —Mr Deputy Speaker, no amount of bluff and bluster from the Treasurer, no amount of interjections can hide this fact from the government. The reconstruction of the flood affected areas should proceed and should proceed, as we have all said, quickly. It should proceed out of existing budget programs. Now for those opposite to argue they can easily identify $3.8 billion worth of savings but not a dollar more, that it is not wise to identify a dollar more, whoops, until we have to find another $150 million, which we cannot identify but we will by budget time—those opposite should look in their heart of hearts, and some of those opposite should look in their heads. Not all of them, I regret to say, but some of them know in their heads that this is a farcical argument. They know deep down, despite the Treasurer’s bluff we had in here about how he saved Australia from the global recession, the waste that the Treasurer and the Prime Minister have presided over. They know that the levy that is being proposed, which will hurt the pay packets of Australians, equates to the waste just from the Orwellian Building the Education Revolution program.

The Prime Minister, when she was education minister, wasted the equivalent of this levy on the Building the Education Revolution school programs, wasted the—


Mr Mitchell —You were there for every BER opening!


Mr ANTHONY SMITH —You know the waste is there. I concede that those opposite may consider $1.8 billion to be a rounding error; that is sort of the Labor way—just a rounding error. But that was just in the program alone, before mentioning the other programs the shadow Treasurer ran through in some detail: ceiling insulation and all the other waste on the solar programs. On 10 February here in this House the Leader of the Opposition outlined the opposition’s position very clearly. As he said, everyone wants to see the reconstruction happen, and they want to see it happen right. The difference between this side of the House and the other is that the government wants to see it funded through an unnecessary new tax, and members of this side of the House want to see it funded through affordable, achievable and sensible savings from unnecessary government expenditure. That is our strong view. Those opposite, from the Treasurer down—


Mr Mitchell interjecting


Mr ANTHONY SMITH —I have to say that the Treasurer is incapable. They should debate the merits, not resort to pathetic, cheap attacks that, if no-one agrees with their levy, therefore they do not agree with the reconstruction. It belittles the Treasurer and it belittles this House, and what this government should do is find the savings that it knows are there in the budget. It has wasted money already, and the Australian public know it. They tell me and they tell every other member of this House. Those opposite hear it as well; they hear about the waste and mismanagement from the Australian public, and they should listen to their electorates and their constituents and stand up to the Treasurer.