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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1386

Mr SLIPPER (11:29 AM) —I am pleased to be able to join the debate on the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011. Initially, we should recognise that both sides of the parliament do support Commonwealth assistance for those people who have been devastated by the tragedies which have occurred recently in Australia. The flood reconstruction in Queensland has been estimated to cost $5.6 billion. The damage from Cyclone Yasi has been estimated at a further half a billion dollars. I just think that it is appropriate in 2011 for the Australian government, with other governments and the community, to work to make sure that these devastated towns, cities, businesses, families and individuals receive the support that they deserve. The important principle is that both sides of politics recognise that we have Australians in dire straits and in distress—Australians who need assistance. I think that it ought to be made very clear that all sides of the parliament, all members of the parliament, support an appropriate response.

Where we differ is that we believe that the government ought to fund its commitments with respect to reconstruction from consolidated revenue, whereas the government wants to introduce a flood levy which, according to the government’s figures, will raise $1.8 billion—that is, in 2011-12 it will raise $1.560 billion, and in 2012-13 it will raise $235 million. Honourable members representing the government party have pointed out that, in their view, there is hypocrisy in the path of the opposition insofar as the Liberal-National parties in government did, over a number of years, introduce various levies for quite desirable and worthwhile purposes. The difference was outlined very clearly by the Leader of the Opposition in his speech, when he said:

… there is a world of difference between a levy imposed by a government striving to achieve and maintain a budget surplus and a levy imposed by a government which has been recklessly spending taxpayers’ money and has given Australians the biggest deficits on record. There is a world of difference between a levy imposed by a government that could be trusted with the taxpayers’ money and a government that cannot.

That very clearly puts to rest the suggestions made by honourable members of the government party that there is an inconsistency in the approach of the Liberal-National opposition.

Of course, we all know that the Building the Education Revolution program, which has been lauded by government members, has cost the community some $16.2 billion, and we have heard some quite horrendous cases of how the dollars in many situations have not been well spent. Obviously, schools welcome the facilities. As a local member, I am always pleased to see new facilities in schools in the electorate of Fisher on the Sunshine Coast, but I do get concerned when I hear reports that the private school system has been, quite appropriately, permitted to engage with the private market. They have been able to obtain their facilities as commercial transactions, they have been able to get good deals and they have been able to enter into commercial contracts, whereas many schools in the government system have been compelled to deal with layers of bureaucracy, and in various states there have been different rules.

I understand that in some non-government schools they are able to get a building at a cost of about $1,200 a square metre, but some government schools have paid up to $5,000 a square metre, and this is effectively a fraud on the taxpayer. It is also a fraud on the government school communities because, if the same amount of money is given by the federal government to a non-government school as is given to a government school, the non-government school is getting something like three times the facility for the same amount of taxpayers money. I suspect that, if the government were ever to look at a similar program, it would be very tightly managed because, if you are going to spend taxpayers dollars on school halls and other school facilities, it is important that those dollars travel as far as they can and that they do not disappear into the pockets of people who overcharge. As a result, we see some of our more underprivileged schools receiving a third of the value for their money that non-government schools are able to achieve.

There has also been much debate in the community about the home installation program. I am told that so far that program has cost $2.45 billion, and it is continuing to cost. As we know, sadly, there have been four confirmed deaths and some 202 house fires.

We support reconstruction, but we do not support this particular levy. I only have a limited amount of time to speak in this debate. I will come back to some more general principles. I just want to highlight what I see as an anomaly which the government, even if it is determined to pursue this levy, ought to look at. The honourable member for Macarthur, in a question in the House on 10 February, asked about a police officer who resides in his electorate. The police officer mentioned to the member for Macarthur that he would be retiring in the 2011-12 financial year and had calculated that, simply through unfortunate timing, he would be hit with a $6,500 slug on his super payout as a result of the requirements of the flood levy. I am sure that the government did not intend such a consequence and I hope that this matter is looked at very closely.

It is one thing to say that it is not going to cost the average Australian more than a cup of coffee a week, but that is a police officer who, no doubt, has served his community and New South Wales well for many years and is apparently going to be hit to the extent of $6,500. That must surely be an unintended consequence. I would hope that the Treasurer would look at that matter very closely. It is a considerable amount of money for someone who is preparing for life after the workforce. It is unlucky for him because of the timing of both his retirement and the tragedy. Realistically, he is facing a raw deal. I say again that the government really ought to look at that case. I suspect there are similar cases of people in that situation. I do not know whether the police officer has any options, but clearly one option he should look at is deferring his retirement until such time as this levy is out of the way.

As has been pointed out by many members of the opposition, this was a tragedy that engulfed our nation. We looked in horror at what was on the television. All of us were touched in some way either personally or through family and friends or communities we knew well. So many members have assisted in every way that they can, and we have heard many extremely moving contributions from members on both sides of the House. In response to this tragedy, the people of Australia, in an unprecedented way, opened their hearts, their homes and their wallets and they made donations to assist their fellow Australians who had been so seriously disadvantaged as a result of this tragedy. And it does seem a bit rough that those people who have already contributed voluntarily will be slugged again. I know that the government would distinguish between the purposes for which the contributions have already been made by the community and the purposes for which the money raised by the flood levy is to be spent—but, ultimately, there is a double whammy. People voluntarily contributed and then they are being compulsorily required to contribute again.

There is also the issue of the criteria for eligibility to receive assistance from the government. Of course, receipt of assistance exempts a person from paying the flood levy. One has to wonder whether the terms for receiving that assistance have been entirely well thought out. We all know what those provisions are, but I have had some fairly hair-raising examples given to me of people who received the $1,000 and went off to spend it at some big event—Big Day Out or some other major event—and all the while drinking Moet and toasting the Prime Minister and the Queensland Premier. That is clearly something that the government would not have foreseen. I believe it is an indication of somewhat sloppy guidelines, and no doubt there are people who have received assistance who should not have received assistance and there are people who should have received it who indeed have not. I suppose that is always the difficulty that a government has when a program is thrown together quickly—as indeed it had to be because of the exigency of the situation. But it does tend to make a lot of people cynical and somewhat reluctant, having contributed voluntarily, to be required to now contribute compulsorily.

I spoke recently about the tragedy that Cyclone Yasi was for North Queensland and I also spoke about the situation of communities not only in Queensland but also throughout the country that have been affected by the floods. I have family who have been affected. Staff in my office have family who have been affected. One staff member, in fact, had settled on the purchase of a house and five days after the settlement was told to expect seven metres of water through his property. Happily for his sake, only about a foot of water went through the yard and the house was not affected. There have been lots of tragedies. Lots of people know people whose homes have been entirely inundated and, in many cases, entirely destroyed. The resilience of Australians is something which we can only but admire, support and applaud. I believe that we ought to focus on the need to support the Australian people and not on the fact that the government is bringing in a levy—which is not the appropriate way to go.

As I mentioned initially, the flood levy will raise only $1.8 billion and flood damage is estimated at $5.6 billion, with Cyclone Yasi’s additional damage at a further $½ billion. It is pretty clear that most of the reconstruction effort from the Commonwealth will indeed come from consolidated revenue. So you have to ask why they have chosen to bring in this flood levy, which will slug Australians who have already contributed and, in many cases, be imposed in an equitable way. If the government were a sound economic manager, we would not see the government bringing in this legislation to introduce a flood levy. As other members have said, there is no doubt that the Labor Party is a tax and spend government. This is not a desirable situation and it is wrong that the first, knee-jerk, reaction to a community need is that there should be a new tax. It is something to applaud that every member of this House and the other place agree that the Commonwealth needs to be involved—we are the national government. It is a pity, though, that the government have decided to impose this new tax.

In the time remaining I would like to pass on the condolences of the people of Fisher and the Sunshine Coast to all of those people who have been so adversely affected by the Christchurch earthquake. We do live in very strange times. We have had fire, flood and cyclones and now we have got earthquakes—all in this area of Australasia. I ask the government to particularly reconsider the anomaly that I have outlined.