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Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Page: 1238

Ms SMYTH (7:09 PM) —I am grateful to be able to add my remarks to what is certainly a very important debate for our community—the second reading debate on Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the cognate bill.

I realise that many speakers have contributed to this debate before me—and rightly so. It is one of the starkest expressions of the difference between the Labor Party and the coalition. The difference is not really about the merits of a levy or whether to impose a levy or not—because we all know very well that the Liberals have supported levies before. We did not seem to go for much more than a year of the Howard government’s period in office without seeing at least one levy being proposed or imposed. We saw the gun buyback levy in 1996, the East Timor levy in 1999, the milk levy in 2000, the Ansett levy in 2001, the sugar levy in 2003 and the stevedoring levy in 2006. Indeed, it was this government which lifted the operation of the last of those levies during its first term. The coalition’s tradition continued last year during the federal election campaign, when the opposition leader discovered a new-found interest in paid parental leave and grasped for a levy in order to fund it. So, no, the difference between the parties is not about whether to impose a levy; the difference between the parties that this debate bears out is that we know that there is a limit to politics—we know when to put politics aside; it is a question of judgment—while those opposite play extreme politics. There are no limits to which those opposite will not go and no depths that they will not plumb. They have no idea about when to say, ‘This is a matter about which we should be making a bipartisan commitment.’ There is a state to rebuild. There are people who are living with devastation and loss who need some practical assistance to recover. Let’s get on with supporting the rebuilding of infrastructure so that they can do just that.

Most of those opposite have no instinct for when it is in the national interest to work cooperatively in this place, and I hope and I trust that this absence of judgment will ultimately be their undoing. The test for all of us in this place is to work out what our limits are—what we are prepared to stand for and what we are not prepared to do irrespective of the political opportunities that may be presented. That is particularly pertinent in this parliament, with its fine balance of representation and the heightened expectations of our respective constituencies that we will work constructively together for the good of the nation.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union has had some fairly useful things to say about the responsible role of an opposition in its Guidelines on the rights and duties of the opposition in parliament. It notes:

… the opposition in parliament must show itself to be responsible and be able to act in a statesmanlike manner … In its action, the opposition must not seek to hinder pointlessly the action of the government …

I cannot think of a better description for this debate, and for the bulk of the recent actions of the present opposition, than an endeavour to hinder pointlessly the action of the government. We have seen the opposition’s displays of opportunism in this debate and in other very important contemporary debates, and it is time for those right-thinking people in the coalition to put the nation’s interests before their party’s interests. I know that there are members of the coalition who are having their limits sorely tested by their parties’ leadership on a variety of issues. It is time for them to consider whether that is why they have struggled so hard to be in this place and to represent their communities.

It is not the case that the Leader of the Opposition has not ever considered what the national interest might mean; it is just that he puts the blinkers on when it suits him. The opposition’s insatiable desire for political relevance—their sound and fury—seems to have overpowered any sense of rational judgment. We heard the Leader of the Opposition remark during the election campaign, in relation to his own paid parental leave levy:

… sometimes for very, very important social reasons, for national interest reasons you have got to say we need the money and we can’t summon the money out of thin air …

So the question for all of us is: is the government’s response to natural disasters such as those that we have seen during this summer in the national interest according to the Leader of the Opposition’s test? Is it a very important social reason? I think that most right-thinking people would probably say yes. Most of us might just consider it the most important current social reason for the introduction of a levy. These bills deal with the consequences of an event that could not be forecast in budget measures and which requires an extraordinary and timely response from government.

I have listened bemusedly to some of the speakers on the opposite side of this debate as they have, so very earnestly, tried to manufacture a logical rationale for not supporting a flood levy. I find it particularly curious that certain of our parliamentary colleagues from Queensland are amongst those opposing this important recovery measure. I think they almost believe their own confection, but then I remember that to believe in the worth and merit of their own position they would need to have in fact reached a consensus position.

This debate is not a true debate—that would imply that an alternative case has been put, a substantive case, something that presented some meaningful way of funding the flood recovery. But there is not one, because the coalition is so desperately divided over the nature of the budget cuts it has cobbled together in a politically opportunistic way that there is no meaningful alternative proposal.

When pressed to reveal budget cuts to fund the flood recovery, it should come as no surprise that the first places the coalition looks to are things such as: capital expenditure on schools, local schools programs, GP superclinics and aid commitments within our region. The look to the wholesale slashing of funding to the automotive industry and putting reform of the Murray-Darling onto the long finger—yet again—after they failed to give effect to any meaningful reforms after more than a decade in office. This is a piecemeal approach, which confirms precisely what we have always thought about this opposition: given half a chance they will look to cuts and deferrals in education, health and progressive policies that better support our industries, our environment and our water security.

Still they do not seem to have reached a consensus position about some of these cuts with dissension against the will of the opposition leader coming almost daily and from all angles. Its jumbled approach to cuts and its well reported track record of miscalculating budget cuts means that in effect the opposition is simply saying no to the prompt rebuilding of infrastructure. I hope that all of those who have been affected by the wrath of floods over this summer remember just that.

Paying for the reconstruction as we go is the right thing to do. The scale of rebuilding as a consequence of the floods will mean that there is an added demand on our capacity, our available skills and our resources. It is for this reason that this government has created room in the budget through spending cuts and has proposed the temporary levy to fund the enormous rebuild.

I believe that most Australians recognise that this is the right thing to do. They know that this is to be a temporary levy with a prescribed end date. They know that it is being applied in a way that is calibrated according to the earnings of each individual and that it is progressive. We know that around 50 per cent of Australian taxpayers will pay nothing additional under the levy proposal. We know that over 60 per cent of taxpayers will pay less than $1 per week. We know that about 70 per cent of taxpayers will pay less than $2 per week and that over 85 per cent of taxpayers will pay less than $5 per week. We know that those people who receive an Australian government disaster recovery payment for a flood event in 2010-11 will be exempt from the levy.

So the levy is appropriate, it is targeted, it is sufficient, it is timely and importantly it is temporary. But it is not just the government which is making those kinds of observations. The levy proposed by the bills before us has been very well received by many in the finance sector and many more in our community generally. CommSec’s Craig James, for instance, has remarked that this is ‘the right levy for the times, modest in size, temporary, progressive and applying to those on higher incomes’.

We know that the damage caused by recent flooding is unprecedented, and the task of rebuilding is significant. We know that the recent floods may well end up being the most costly disaster in Australian history. Now is not the time for opportunism. It is a time to exercise judgment in the interests of the nation. Labor’s package, including the flood levy, has been proposed to respond to the needs of those affected by the natural disasters we have faced while preserving the underlying strength of our economy. It is time that all members in this place put the national interest first.