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Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Page: 1141

Mr BANDT (12:38 PM) —The recent extreme weather events across the country, particularly in Queensland, have been unprecedented in their force, scope and damage. The loss of life, harm to livestock and damage to buildings and infrastructure has been appalling. In my own state of Victoria, as in Queensland, there has been enormous damage to agricultural land and to current crops. Unfortunately, as we have seen this week in Western Australia, in the Northern Territory and again in Queensland, damage from extreme weather continues and is likely to continue throughout the wet season. We know, because the climate scientists tell us, that these types of extreme weather events are only going to become more frequent and more severe as global warming exacerbates storm systems, fuelling them with more moisture and energy. It is possible that the unprecedented warming in our oceans has supercharged the recent storms—storms that are triggered by the La Nina period, which always brings greater rain and storms—and has made them worse and full of more energy.

Australia has always been a land of extremes, but what the climate scientists are telling us is that these extremes are likely to become more frequent and more severe. Certainly, there is growing evidence that climate change and extreme flooding are linked. Two recent studies, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, laid out the empirical evidence for linking flooding and global warming. One study looked at the whole of the Northern Hemisphere and another examined a specific weather event in Wales. We will need to continue to monitor the scientific research that is developing in this area but, for now, we can say with certainty, although we may not be able to link specific events here in Australia to climate change, that we will face more and worse extreme weather in the future because of climate change.

It may be, as I have said in this place before, that soon the term ‘natural disaster’ will no longer describe what is happening, that in fact something very unnatural and human-made is occurring. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it is absolutely clear that there is now extensive established scientific research, looking at the whole of Australia as well as particular regions, which points towards extreme weather because of climate change. In my own electorate of Melbourne, I received a briefing from Melbourne Water about a study that they had released which suggests that some areas—even in the inner city of Melbourne—may be facing up to a 30 per cent increase in flooding because of climate change. At the same time, other studies point to increased extreme weather events in South-East Queensland.

How we respond to this current emergency and how we deal with reconstruction is important not only because we are dealing with the desperate needs of the families, individuals, communities and businesses who have suffered so much but also because it may establish a template for our future actions. That is why it is so important that we get this task right. That is why we, the Australian Greens, support the move towards an extreme weather or disaster fund. We also believe that we need to get to a situation where the insurance question is resolved. I welcome the move by the Queensland government on this issue and the move by the federal government to begin to address the problem.

For now, the immediate task of reconstruction and recovery must begin, and this is an enormous task. The rebuilding of infrastructure and community facilities and the provision of assistance to residents and businesses will require significant resources. It will be important for this parliament to closely examine how those resources are spent, to make sure there is value for money. There is no doubt that the requirement for reconstruction placed a particular stress on the budget and required the government to define a strategy for financing the reconstruction. The government, as we know, has adopted the strategy of a one-off levy and making certain cuts. It is this strategy that I want to discuss today in debating the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011.

Faced with the task of financing the reconstruction, the government has put on a self-imposed political straightjacket designed by the doctors of neoliberalism. The obvious alternative strategy—and that is supported by many businesses, union leaders and economists—was to allow a short-term nominal increase in the budget deficit. This would have allowed the reconstruction to proceed quickly and the target of returning the budget to surplus could have been extended by a year. This would have enabled the reconstruction to proceed without the requirement of a levy or cuts to programs. But a government caught in this arbitrary, economically unfounded and unnecessary promise made at the last election has lacked the political courage to say that the changed circumstances mean this goal should be pushed back. The Greens, along with many in the business community and many economists, would have supported such an approach. Another approach would have been to say, ‘Because of these extraordinary circumstances we need to revisit the original proposed mining superprofits tax.’ As we have seen in recent weeks, by revising the original superprofits tax the Australian taxpayer is standing to lose in the order of $60 billion that would otherwise have been raised by the tax over the coming decade.

This means that, because of the government’s backdown and its failure to use this very real and very legitimate opportunity to reconsider the question, $60 billion a year is going to have to be found by ordinary Australian taxpayers to fund education, climate change programs and schools, while the mining companies will continue to enjoy superprofits by selling off minerals, which we only get to sell once, without a fair return to the Australian taxpayer. We the Greens are very pleased to see that our proposal to have some of this money put into a sovereign fund that could be used for spending on infrastructure and projects like this is now being picked up by business leaders around the country.

Another option that was open to the government but again rejected out of hand was the proposal from the Greens to delay tax cuts for the big end of town. This government is proposing to introduce tax cuts that will apply from 2013-14 to Australia’s biggest businesses. On our figures, which have not been refuted by the government, these tax cuts are going to cost Australian taxpayers—the rest of us—somewhere in the order of $1.7 billion in the budget bottom line. We could have deferred these cuts for a year or two and said it was time for the top end of town in Australia to make a substantial contribution to reconstruction, but the Labor government failed to do that.

Adopting any combination of these strategies would have meant that the flood levy and the cuts to programs adopted were unnecessary. Unfortunately, as we know, the government has refused to take off this self-imposed political straitjacket. The government is unwilling to deal with the reality of the incredible mining boom and has been scared into an emaciated mining resources tax by a campaign from the big miners. It seems it will not defer tax cuts for big business, preferring to impose a flood levy on middle-income and higher income Australians.

Given the situation across the country and the need to move ahead with reconstruction, the Greens have been unwilling to hold up this levy; therefore, we are supporting this legislation. We do so in the knowledge that the structure of the levy will be progressively imposed, in part because of the position of the Greens that lower income earners should not be hit and those who can afford to do so should mainly shoulder the burden.

We have heard a lot from the coalition about how unfairly this tax is going to be imposed. What that shows is whose interests in particular the coalition really has at heart, because the figures show that nearly half of the money, 49.1 per cent, that will be raised from the levy is going to be raised from people who are earning over $200,000 a year, while people who are on less than $80,000 a year will contribute only around 10 per cent to the money raised. It is a progressively imposed levy, consistent with the principles of progressive taxation, and that goes a very long way towards explaining why the Greens will be supporting this. It also goes, as I said, a very long way towards explaining on whose behalf the coalition is opposing this flood levy. It is this principle of progressive taxation that should be the foundation on which the upcoming tax summit is centred.

The levy is temporary and will not be imposed on those impacted by the disasters. It will not affect the poor and the vulnerable, and it will not unduly affect those on middle-level incomes. It is not the best way to fund reconstruction. But, given that the government has gone down this route, the manner in which it has been reformulated reflects the Greens’ approach to progressive taxation and it is therefore something we can support.

However, in announcing this levy, the government also announced cuts to programs as part of the reconstruction package—in particular, cuts to climate programs, housing measures and higher education. The Greens said at the outset that such cuts could not be justified, particularly when there are other funding alternatives. It made no sense to us—nor, I think, to most Australians—to cut climate programs at the same time that scientists are telling us that these kinds of extreme weather events are likely to happen more often and are likely to be more severe.

For instance, the scrapping of the National Rental Affordability Scheme, NRAS, could not be justified given the housing crisis we face in this country, particularly for those on low incomes and the homeless. So we entered into discussions and negotiations with the government and, thankfully, we were able to reach an agreement on a number of these programs.

A hundred million dollars in funding was restored to the Solar Flagships program, and a number of measures, including industry consultation, will be put in place to ensure that we can have in this country the development of a large-scale solar power industry and that the program will do what it was designed to do. That is a significant win for common sense and the recognition that, in addition to putting a price tag on pollution, government investment in research, development and .commercialisation of renewable energy technologies is a necessary part of a pathway to a clean energy economy.

We were also able to help save the NRAS, with funding deferred until after the forward estimates but still able to be allocated to new projects, and get a commitment from the government that the scheme would continue and the original number of dwellings would be built.

As part of the agreement, we were also able to secure a guarantee that the core functions of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, the ALTC, remain separate from the government’s proposed quality framework. This is important because, following the government’s announcement that it planned to roll the ALTC into its proposed Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, TEQSA, many leading academics and universities expressed concern that the core functions of the ALTC would no longer be able to be performed separately. It is our view that it is not appropriate for academics to lose the scope to encourage excellence through a review and awards program that was at arm’s length from the government’s proposed regulator; these are two separate functions. We strongly oppose the key functions of the ALTC, such as citations for excellence in teaching and peer review acknowledgements, becoming absorbed by TEQSA. So we are happy that, through our negotiations with the government, we have ensured that peer review and the fostering of excellence are not simply rolled into the government’s quality standards body. Rather, they will remain separate functions, performed under the administration of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

So, as a result of these discussions and the government’s adoption of the Greens’ proposal for a progressive levy, we are able to support the bill. The repair and reconstruction tasks facing the nation are enormous, and the Greens are right behind the federal government and state governments as they proceed with these efforts. We will continue to urge all governments and all Australians to heed the warning that these latest weather events represent what could be our future if we do not take drastic action on climate change.

We need to see these disasters as an opportunity to prepare for what is coming for Australia down the line. We also need to put in place better arrangements for funding the response to and reconstruction following such disasters in the future. It is disappointing that the opportunity the government had to shrug off its self-imposed political straitjacket on the budget surplus and big business tax has not been taken. It is with some irony that in the case of a financial crisis the government is prepared to throw out its commitment to neoliberalism and economic rationalism and rediscover the Keynesianism that once beat at the heart of the Labor Party, but when faced with a climate crisis they are not willing to do so. Nevertheless, this levy is a step towards a progressive approach to taxation. So the Greens will support this levy going forward through this place and we will focus our attention on ensuring the money is properly spent. I commend the bills to the House.