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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 844

Senator IAN MACDONALD (6.39 p.m.) —I want to speak very briefly to the States Grants (General Purposes) Bill 1994, supporting the amendments moved by my colleague Senator Short and particularly referring to the item of grants to the states for roads. In listening to the debate earlier, I almost choked when I heard the contribution from Senator Kernot about the supposed concern she and her party have for regional Australia. I could not let go unchallenged some of the things that Senator Kernot was pontificating on.

  Senator Kernot and the Australian Democrats pretend to those people in regional Australia that they have a concern for them; they feign interest in them and pretend to have some policies that might be of benefit to them. Senator Kernot was talking about the payroll tax and what an iniquitous tax it was. Yet at the last federal election, when the coalition indicated the funding for the abolition of payroll tax by the states, what did the Democrats do? Did they support us on that? Did they give any encouragement to the coalition in relation to that? No. They did what they could do to ensure that their friends in the Australian Labor Party were re-elected and that their caucus buddies to the right of them in the Labor Party were returned to government. As the coalition was not elected to government, it was not possible to implement our proposals for the abolition of payroll tax.

  The Democrats pretend that they have an interest in the country. Recently at a rally I happened to pick up the Democrats' policy record for all Australians. In reading through this document, I find that the Democrats want the people of rural and regional Australia to pay an extra 17.5c per litre for fuel. That is the Australian Democrats' commitment to regional Australia.

  An extra 17.5c per litre for all Australians would be a difficult tax. It would be additionally difficult for those of us who live in regional Australia because, as of necessity, we have to use our vehicles over greater distances and time. To get the produce of regional Australia to the ports and to get back into regional Australia some of the necessities of life requires transport—and transport requires fuel. And this crowd, who masquerade as a force in Australian politics, want to increase the price of fuel by 17.5c a litre!

  Fortunately, as we all know, the Democrats will never be in a position to implement these policies. But what concerns me is that this gives encouragement to the highest taxing government in history—the current federal government—to increase taxes yet again and to increase taxes on fuel. If there is one thing that will destroy regional Australia, it is increasing the price of fuel. In the regions I come from—in all parts of Australia—adding 17.5c per litre to the price of fuel would make petrol for the ordinary motorist almost $1 a litre. How could the regions ever be developed if those sorts of taxes on fuel are being imposed on the essential commodity that is needed to live in and develop regional Australia?

  If the Democrats ever want any credibility whatsoever in regional Australia they have to get rid of that policy of an additional 17.5c a litre. I know they will not, because they are engaged in an enormous battle with the Western Australian Greens for the hearts, minds and, more importantly, the votes of the environment movement. They have some agenda that increasing the price of fuel will stop a lot of the pollution problems in the cities—and that may be right. But this sort of policy would just destroy regional Australia.

  I notice that in their policy they say, `We'll compensate regional Australia.' There is no detail of that—and there is never any detail. Of course, that is the luxury of being a minor party representing less than five per cent of Australian opinion. They can say what they like because they will never have to deliver. They can make these vague promises and get away with it.

   I am not concerned that the Democrats are ever likely to be anywhere where they can implement this. But it does give the Labor Party the encouragement to again increase taxes on fuel. The Senate would know that the Labor government continues to rip off Australian motorists with tax. The tax on fuel went up again on 1 August. It did not happen by legislation—nothing went through the parliament—it went up automatically. The highest taxing government in history makes taxes even higher, and it happens automatically. It is the greatest threat one will ever see to the development of regional Australia. So I have those concerns about the government's taxing of fuel.

   I return to the issue that I wanted to briefly mention in relation to the States Grants (General Purposes) Bill 1994. An amount of $350 million has been allocated as identified arterial roads grants to the states. According to the speech of the Minister for Defence (Senator Ray) and to the bill, these funds are to be distributed on the basis of the average of the arterial road allocations over the three years to 1992. In the next two financial years, the aggregate level of funds will be indexed to movements in financial assistance grants, which is almost like the CPI but not quite.

   I notice somewhere in the supporting material that, at the end of the 1996-97 year, there is a suggestion that grants to the states for roads will no longer be identified and that they will be bound up in the general assistance grants to the states. That is as I read it. I hope that the minister will be able to indicate to me that that is not the case and that that has not yet been decided. But if that is this government's policy, I express a concern for the proposal's consideration.

  Hopefully, for Australia's sake, the Labor Party will not be in government at the end of the 1997 financial year. But it is worth considering the impact that might occur if these grants for roads were not separately identified but included in the general purpose grant. We as a parliament should look very seriously at that. As we as a parliament are allocating moneys for roads and giving those allocations to another government—that is, either the state government or local government—we should really insist that they continue to be identified. If they are not identified, it becomes too easy for state and local governments to confuse the issue of what money is spent on roads.

   I suspect that this would not happen with responsible local and state governments. But, as a federal parliament, we should always identify the moneys that are allocated by the federal government for roads to let the Australian public know what moneys are allocated. The roads around Australia are in a shocking condition. Funding from the federal government for roads generally has fallen quite dramatically in the last 10 years since the Fraser government. Money granted for road making has fallen back at a time when money received from fuel excise has increased.

  Madam Acting Deputy President, you would be only too well aware that over $10 billion is now ripped off the Australian motorists in fuel tax. Less than $1 billion—a little over $800 million—is allocated by the federal government for roads. That is simply not good enough. Australia's major infrastructure investment in roads is falling to pieces—it is just collapsing around our ears—and this government does not seem to care.

  If there is one thing that this country desperately needs, it is greater infrastructure spending, particularly in the area of roads—not just so we can have nice roads to drive on but because the wealth of the country is developed in regional Australia and roads are an essential part of getting that wealth to our overseas customers, earning export dollars for Australia and making Australia a better place to live in. I hope that the government will very carefully watch that matter of identification of moneys allocated for roads, pitiful though the amount from this government is. In my view, it should continue to be identified and I ask the government to keep that in mind.