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Friday, 14 May 1999
Page: 5070

Senator BROWN (9:58 AM) —The Greens totally oppose the GST right across the board, and the argument used by Senator Murray about the indefensibility of having a GST on fresh food also applies to many other items on which a GST will apply and on which the Democrats agree that a GST should apply.

A difficulty arises here because, once you start supporting a GST, you run into the problem of where to draw the line. Senator Murray quite correctly says that the government has changed tack on the food issue, but so have the Democrats. The Democrats went to the last election on a policy of exempting food, but since then have changed that policy to exempting fresh food, but not processed food.

The problem still arises for the populace that there is a trend in Australia—right across the income spectrum—towards all of us eating more processed food. This does not just mean food that has been cooked in expensive restaurants, but such things as breakfast, lunch and dinner for families. I accept Senator Murray's asseveration yesterday that it is beyond the Democrats to do modelling on this matter; it is the same with the Greens. Nevertheless, the reality is that Australians, like the rest of the world, are moving more and more towards eating outside their own kitchens. As this process proceeds, the GST formulation that the Democrats are putting forward will catch more and more people paying GST on what they consume—on the food they eat in their ordinary lives—into the future. In other words, the Democrats' formulation is regressive in that it would see the GST place more and more of a burden on the pockets of all Australians—that includes poor Australians as well as wealthy Australians—if the current trend towards eating more processed or cooked foods proceeds, and everything points to that being the case.

The Greens have opposed this GST legislation because of those difficulties. Before the last election we did a lot of work on the GST and its impact on society. In fact, we had already put a year's study into the GST before the election and we went into the election quite firmly opposed to the GST—as did the Labor Party at the time. But, as I said yesterday, a problem has arisen in that the Democrats have said, `We can effectively make the GST consumer-friendly. We can reformulate it so that it will be easier on the average Australian—particularly those on low incomes.' The problem is that I do not think you can do that. The real difficulty with this process is that that allowed the electorate to believe during the election that a nice GST, which was not going to hurt the pocket, could be formulated in the Senate after the election. We clearly see here today that that is not the outcome that we are going to get.

Without reflecting on this place, we are here debating the GST this morning in the absence of the Independent senators. It may be that they are having a cup of tea. I do not know. But, in reality, I would think that the lines are running hot between the Prime Minister's office and other ministerial offices and those of Senator Harradine, if not Senator Colston. The minister might be able to confirm whether that is the case or not—although I think he may be out of the loop, because there are bigger things at stake.

But here we are having a GST formulation at least mooted between entities outside this chamber, which means that whatever agreement is being made out there is going to be the one adopted in this chamber, regardless of the debate we are entering into at the moment. That is the problem for the Democrats, because that was always going to be the case. Having effectively said to the Australian people, `We can make the GST friendly to you,' the reality is that that is not the case today when we are facing an outcome on the GST. We will see what happens to the GST on food. But I want the Democrats to accept the responsibility if we get a package in which the GST is on food but there is some other compensatory measure negotiated with the government by Senator Harradine and Senator Colston. That is an outcome that they will have helped de facto to produce.

The Greens' record will always be clear as having opposed this process from the outset because we could see not only the alternatives but the political dynamic that once you put your toe in the water by saying, `Let us try to have a GST that applies to this or that,' you will ultimately end up with a GST whether you like it or not. The Australian population will then pay the penalty, and what a penalty it will be. It is going to mean an across-the-board tax inevitably increasing on many of the basic necessities of life, while the wealthy and powerful escape the consequences.

There is no debate taking place in here today about the fact that 50 per cent of the multinational corporations in this country pay no tax. If we were debating that, and if that is what the government were proposing, then I, as an Australian Green, would be in full support. I would go to the Prime Minister's office to debate and endorse such a move any day.

Senator Murray —He can serve you green tea.

Senator BROWN —Yes; and we will have a cup of green tea, if necessary, to move towards such an objective. I can tell the Prime Minister that that would be a very popular move with the Australian electorate. It may not be popular with the people who fund the Liberal Party, but it would be popular with 18 million Australians. Today, however, we have got a situation where 18 million Australians are going to pay this new tax impost while those people who fund the Liberal Party are going to continue to find ways of getting around it—and they will find the means of getting around the GST.

I have spoken with people in the Taxation Office about this. There is a general belief that the GST is going to end tax avoidance and catch those people who do not pay taxes. That is not the case. Tax systems are inherently able to be circumvented, one way or another, to some degree or other. But the people who best circumvent them are the people who have the money and the smart lawyers. Average people, who are going to pay GST on their cooked food at the local cafe or store are the very people who will be caught, even by the Democrat amendments that we have before us today.

The other problem that is inherent in this for the Democrats is how do you ensure, if you support a GST being brought in on most things, as the Democrats do, that you will not then have a future government moving to extend the GST to the very things that you are keeping clear of it in these amendments, such as fresh food? I would certainly welcome Senator Lees or Senator Murray giving some assurance to the chamber that they know how to stop a future government from putting the GST onto fresh food, even if we did have the legislation altered so that fresh food would be zero rated according to this amendment. You cannot, of course, give such an assurance.

Once you undertake this process, you are on the slippery slope of a future government being able to put the GST on fresh food and also a future government being able to raise the rate of the GST with the states wanting an extra slice further down the line—they would be quite ready and complicit in such a move. That is why the Greens have opposed the GST all the way down the line. All the accolades that Senator Woodley read out from various groups saying that it would be great were milk not GST rated, and so on, apply to a much wider range of primary producers and manufacturers in supporting the Greens' stand, which is similar to that of the ALP.

The one difference is that never, under any circumstances, have we entertained having the real policy of a GST because right from the outset our studies said that it would be an unfair tax and out of date. We ought to be debating more modern alternatives, particularly catching the multinationals. We should be looking at the Greens' alternative which is up with modern European practice of ecotaxes. This is a much better and fairer way of raising revenue, contributing not only to a fairer society in the future but to a much better lifestyle for the average Australian.