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Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Page: 1126

Ms BRODTMANN (11:38 AM) —I rise today to speak in favour of the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and a related bill. Before I start to talk about that, I would like to express the sympathies of the people of Canberra for those in Christchurch. It has been dubbed the darkest of days, and I would just like the people of Christchurch and New Zealand to know that the thoughts and prayers of Canberrans are with them today and over the coming weeks as they work through the rubble and destruction and try to come to terms with their loss.

In speaking in favour of the bill, I want to acknowledge that most of the people I have spoken to in my electorate support the levy. They embrace the spirit of mateship. They support the rebuilding, they support their fellow Australians and they want to help them succeed in the future.

What we have seen in recent months has been disaster on a scale unprecedented in our nation’s history: three-quarters of a state underwater, dozens killed and many thousands of people whose homes have been destroyed or damaged. Vital infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged—the roads, rail and ports that literally feed and power this nation. The scale of damage to infrastructure is also enormous. Ninety thousand kilometres of road are in need of repair. Queensland is in need of help. This is a fact beyond any debate; both sides of the House agree. What is being debated is how best to respond to this disaster.

On one side, you have a proposal to introduce a limited short-term levy to pay for a reconstruction effort—I say ‘reconstruction effort’ because those on the other side do not seem to understand what that means—so that we can address the issues of the destruction on a scale that could not be planned for. This is brought to you by a government that steered this nation away from the massive economic downturn that was felt so intensely by almost all other nations.

On the other side you have a proposal to cut or defer $2 billion of expenditure from vital programs, brought to you by people who failed to notice an $11 billion black hole in their so-called election spending cuts. These cuts include a decision to end a program to fund schools in Indonesia. These are cuts that are against our national security and economic interests, against the future interests of thousands of Indonesian children, and against the right thing to do.

This short-sighted approach to foreign and defence policy is truly gobsmacking, because it overlooks the fact that we are a wealthy nation. It overlooks the fact that, as a wealthy nation, we can support those in need in Australia and at the same time support those in need in our region. It also overlooks the fact that poverty breeds terrorism. What is the best way of eliminating poverty and the cycle of disadvantage? It is education. Education is the great empowerer. It opens up opportunities like nothing else. It builds self-esteem. It provides choice. Not that that is a message terribly dear to the coalition’s heart, given its track record in education when it was in government.

On one side you have a government that is prepared to make the tough decisions—decisions that may not be popular at the time but are nonetheless absolutely vital to the national interest. I commend the Prime Minister for having the commitment to make that tough decision. On the other side you have an opposition that is prepared to say and do anything to win. No three-word slogan or one-line sound bite is off limits to win their game. The problem is: their slogans are without policy backbone, they are uncosted and possess no vision beyond tomorrow’s headlines. To every problem they have an answer which is quick, easy to understand and ultimately wrong. That is what we have been presented with by the opposition: a quick, populist answer which is just plain wrong—wrong for Queensland and wrong for Australia.

The opposition stands here and speaks about the cost of living and the effect on families. This is rich coming from a side of politics that was the highest taxing government in history and that has previously proposed no less than six levies. Tony Abbott went to the last election promising a $3 billion a year levy on business to pay for its parental leave scheme. Contrast that with our parental leave scheme: introduced on 1 January, fully funded by the government without slugging business or taxpayers. Two thousand new parents are now receiving the benefit and there are 22,000 applications waiting.

Then there was the Howard government’s addiction to levies. I find it interesting when members opposite suggest that they have difficulty in understanding the word ‘levy’, given their addiction to it in the past. There was the gun buyback levy, the Ansett levy, the East Timor levy, the milk levy and the sugar levy. Let us explore a few of these. The gun buyback scheme started in October 1996 and ended in September 1997. The Commonwealth funded the scheme through a one-off 0.2 per cent increase in the Medicare levy to raise about $500 million.

Then there was the milk levy of 11c a litre that raised $240 million a year to fund the industry’s adjustment to deregulation. It lasted eight years and was abolished by Labor in 2008. Then there was the Ansett levy, which was imposed after the collapse of that airline in 2001. The $10 levy was imposed on plane tickets in October 2001 to help recoup worker entitlements after the airline’s collapse a month earlier. It was scrapped in June last year after nearly $300 million was collected—but not before the Howard government used $100 million of that money to pay for aviation security before many former workers had received their full entitlements.

The criticism of this temporary, one-off levy, which does not affect anyone earning less than $50,000 and does not affect those who have been affected by the floods, is a bit rich—because, in government, this opposition was absolutely addicted to levies. It is also a bit rich that the opposition criticises the levy because it says it is concerned about the lives of Australian families—this, from the architects of Work Choices, the worst piece of legislation to hit Australian families. Where is the consistency? Where is the long-term vision? Put simply: there is none.

This temporary, one-off levy is a limited and responsible response to the issue before us. It will apply only to incomes over $50,000. In fact, 60 per cent of taxpayers will only pay an extra dollar a week, which will contribute directly to the cost of rebuilding the damaged infrastructure—the roads, the bridges, the rail and the ports. It will directly contribute to rebuilding Queensland and the basic fundamentals of the economic fabric and productivity of the country. It is not a frivolous expense to rebuild the foundations on which we feed and power the nation. It is not a frivolous expense. We are talking about the underpinnings vital to the survival of our exports, industry and trade, and the framework for Queensland’s growth and prosperity in the future—and through it our nation’s.

Let me turn to those opposite again. What is the essence of the opposition’s argument—if we can dignify their claims with this term? Essentially, all the opposition can do, like a toddler in a tantrum, is bang away on its toy drum pretending horror at the idea of the levy. Childish exaggeration is very much a central characteristic of the sloganeering of the opposition. But, back in the adult world—where we, the Gillard government operate—we do not have to look far to find independent commentary endorsing the flood levy as economically responsible, and we particularly get that from the Australian. The levy is widely recognised for what it is: modest, temporary and progressive. And it is the right thing to do—the right thing for a government that is serious about bringing the budget back into surplus. But, like those little toddlers, the opposition cannot even put forward an alternative without holding their breath until they are blue or descending into bickering, as we saw last week. Their sad efforts at scaremongering have no credibility.

Putting forward a new levy, no matter how modest it is, does invite the risk of unpopularity. But this government does not count the polls or shy away from tough decisions when it comes to doing the right thing. In the last week we have seen the opposition attempt to pander to what it shamefully thought would be xenophobic and selfish instincts by making much of cutting aid to Indonesian schools—an attempt, I am happy to see, that was completely ill-founded in its contemptuous and cynical view of the tolerance of the Australian people. You think the opposition would have learnt after Lindsay. The opposition does not truly seek to make the right decisions; it seeks only to scaremonger, to appeal to what it hopes are prejudice and mistrust.

The devastation wrought in Queensland will not be easy to redress—nor does the government try to pretend it will be. But the bills we are debating are part of its careful, responsible and measured response. I call on all members, including those opposite, to support these bills.