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Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Page: 1235

Mr RAMSEY (6:57 PM) —I rise to debate the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and cognate bill. We are here in essence to debate the government’s proposition that it must have a new tax, a new levy, to fund repairs following a natural disaster—something, as far as I know, that has never happened before in this country. Let me be clear, because the government is not clear on this issue, that our opposition to the levy is not about restricting assistance to those who have suffered flood damage but about how the government chooses to foot the bill.

It has become a disappointing habit of this government to paint resistance to their prescriptions for economic problems as opposition to the general premise that help or change is needed. In fact, it is a case of their way or the highway and the flood levy is just another such topic. I give a couple of examples: first, the NBN mark 1 was principally opposed because of the government’s duplicity on the issue. Remember the government promised to build a $9 billion fibre-to-the-home network. It was underfunded, it was taking money from the Future Fund—in this case the telecommunication fund—and, as we pointed out at the time, it was commercially unviable. All of these things have proved to be correct, but that did not mean that we in the Liberal Party, in the opposition, did not believe that Australia needed new broadband networks. That is what the government would have you believe. The government paint the picture that if anyone raises concern with the method then they oppose the premise. That is simply not true.

The CPRS is another example. We did not oppose it because we collectively did not believe we needed to reduce our carbon output; we opposed the CPRS because of the method, because of the enormous potential for economic self-harm. They were proposing to move too far ahead of the rest of the world. We were told by the then Prime Minister and his complete team that the CPRS was the only solution and it must be endorsed before Copenhagen. Remember their cry: ‘Just get out of the way!’ Well, guess what—we were right again. The government now believe not only that the CPRS was too early—they abandoned it eventually—but also that the method was wrong. ‘Just get out of the way!’ they said. Being opposed to the method does not mean one is opposed to the premise. Similarly, when we opposed the stimulus package, which included the home insulation disaster, the wastage on the school halls, the Green Loans debacle and $12 billion in $900 cheques, we were told to ‘get out of the way’. It is a pity we were not successful.

The point is that our opposition to wastage did not mean that we were against a stimulus package; we were opposed to a stimulus package which was too big, was badly targeted and would go for too long. It was, inevitably, appallingly managed. We were right in that instance, too. Our opposition did not mean that we were opposed to a stimulus package; it just meant that we were supportive of a smaller, better targeted and better administered package.

Consistently, at least, we now have a misinformation campaign around the opposition’s disapproval of the flood levy. The rebuilding fee for Queensland’s and Victoria’s public infrastructure will be funded under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements, where the Commonwealth is committed to meeting 75 per cent of the bill. Whether or not we have a flood levy to help pay for this is irrelevant; it is just a matter of how we foot the bill. The government is estimating a total cost of $5.6 billion, but it is early days. They plan to meet around two-thirds from the budget—or from savings, they say—and $1.8 billion from the levy. In total, the government is to raise $350 billion in taxes this year and around $1.4 trillion over the four-year forward estimates, which is likely to match the period it is expected to take to complete and fund the majority of repairs.

I mentioned some examples of their track record of enormous waste, but the big ones are: home insulation, $12 billion in $900 cheques, $6 billion in school halls, Green Loans, GroceryWatch, Fuelwatch, the greater Pacific economic forum—remember that one?—and, now, their intention to spend $50 billion off-budget on the new NBN. Given that record, we in the opposition have no confidence that any new funds raised will be any better spent. The $1.8 billion is just half of one per cent of one year’s budget. Surely any business could recover half of one per cent of budget due to a setback beyond their control. In fact, if we stretch this contribution over the forward estimates, as the spending is likely to go, it will only be a saving of 0.1 per cent. Surely any competent government could meet that infinitesimal saving.

It is often said that a national budget is like a household budget, and the government is very keen on repeatedly saying this levy is only the cost of a cup of coffee a week. They could also have said it is about the price of a light bulb or four rolls of toilet paper. Well, that is right: it is about the price of a cup of coffee, a light bulb or four rolls of toilet paper. But what kind of household are you running if you cannot replace a blown light bulb or buy a four-pack of toilet paper when visitors arrive? That is what this government is incapable of doing. They cannot afford a four-pack of toilet paper for when visitors roll up unexpectedly. It is beyond belief.

In fact, significant natural disasters in Australia are not rare at all. Governments should allow for such events in their contingency funds. Yes, the floods were a very big event. But previous regimes have always managed to meet these kinds of demands without resorting to a new tax. The Labor government inherited a $20 billion surplus and more than $50 billion in savings. They now owe nearly $90 billion, and they blame everyone but themselves.

I recognise the gravity of the Queensland floods. During the condolence debate I chose not to contribute as I believed that those who represented the worst affected areas should be the spokespeople for those affected physically, mentally and economically. I take this moment to pass my condolences to all of those who have been affected. However, I would like to place on the record that the same weather events and, in some cases, the same water has also been impacting on communities in my seat of Grey. I know you are well aware of this, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, as you have travelled into the area with me. In the north of the state, for almost 12 months we have been battling a very wet season. Let me say that, after a decade of drought, it has been more than welcome, but the damage to local roads has been enormous. There have been weeks and sometimes months during which many properties and a number of mining operations have been unable to carry on their business.

The Birdsville Track has been closed almost as often as it has been open. Even when it has been open, it has been impassable for a vehicle of more than 10 tonnes, as that has been the maximum weight of the totally inadequate ferry which crosses the Cooper when it has been in flood, as it was between July and February. Incidentally, the crossing is expected to close again soon as the floodwaters surge in from Queensland—the same floodwaters that have caused the problems in Queensland. The Oodnadatta Track, the Strzelecki Track and myriad other major freight routes have been disrupted, degraded and in some cases totally destroyed by the flooding, and the state government, who has responsibility for these roads, says it has no money to reconstruct them. These roads are now closed after a few millimetres of rain or are so rough as to wreck trucks and equipment. The people that live in this area are also victims of the floods.

Since last November we have seen a spate of flash floods cut a swathe through a number of regional towns and centres in the mid-north of South Australia. The Central Local Government Region of SA Member Councils have confirmed that $20 million to $25 million worth of damage has occurred, the bulk of which is to local roads. Quite simply, these repairs are beyond the capacity of these councils. Without assistance, the repairs will take most of the next decade to complete. While I have not yet witnessed firsthand the latest damage, I intend to do so in the next few weeks and will be assisting the councils in sourcing some essential assistance. While the damage is minor compared with that in Queensland and Victoria, the individual impact on small councils and outback communities is very high.

However, the situation brings into question the South Australian government’s commitment to seek assistance through the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. I have obtained some figures from the National Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements program for the last 10 years. Queensland, before this event, had received more than $310 million; New South Wales had received $194 million; South Australia just $17 million; Western Australia $27 million. Victoria had received $323 million, including relief for the 2009 bushfires, which, at least up until now, had been the most expensive and horrific national disaster—in fact, $270 million of that figure related to the year we responded to the bushfire.

These figures pose a number of questions which I think need answers. Firstly, they suggest that perhaps we live in a very safe spot in South Australia, and that is a very good thing. But the figures also raise the question which others have raised before me—just very recently, here in this place, my friend the member for Moncrieff—and that is the Queensland government’s commitment to insuring its assets. I will leave it to others to explore this issue but I ask that everyone concerned look carefully at the figures I have just quoted and at the relative incentives for state governments to insure.

I also raise the question of just how serious the SA state government is when it comes to accessing federal funds which require them to make a contribution themselves. Further analysis of our local disasters would indicate that most of them have occurred in regional South Australia, where the government seems to have little interest.

In closing, let me say that the possibility of a levy—at this stage I would have to say ‘the probability of a levy’—to help fund repairs is irrelevant to this issue of reconstruction. Whatever method the government chooses to finance its obligations—whether by savings, borrowings or by raising a new tax—the result is the same: the taxpayers foot the bill, and they are becoming very sick of the wastage and excesses of this government. That should not be forgotten.