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Monday, 18 June 2018
Page: 4


Senator STOKER (Queensland) (10:19): I rise today to debate the question of what is being colloquially called the tampon tax. Of course, it isn't just a tax on tampons; it represents the application of the goods and services tax to almost all items that are for sale for consumption in this country. One will recall that at the time it was passed, back in 2000, it was intended to be a tax that applied across the board, but there was a process of negotiation which meant that certain items were excluded.

Now, that was a necessity to get the deal done at the time. But I'm not ashamed to say the tax would have been better if it had applied to all goods, and that's because a broad based consumption tax is what is fairest for all Australians; it is what is simplest for all Australians; and it is what makes the compliance burden of taxation easiest for our small, medium-sized and big businesses. When we reduce the cost of that administrative burden, we do a service to all Australians because the efficiency that arises from it is sounded out in more jobs and better wages for Australians. It's sometimes hard to understand that because it's a benefit that is seen a few steps down the path, but we should not lose sight of the importance of keeping a GST spread along a broad base. Nevertheless, I understand that this is a sensitive matter for many women in our community.

Under the Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations and Commonwealth legislation, a change to the rate or the base of GST requires the support of all of the states and territories, as well as the passage of legislation by both houses of this parliament. It's easy for the Greens to come into this chamber and ask for the tax to be removed from sanitary products, and it's easy for my Labor colleagues to jump on the bandwagon. But the reality is that there are five state governments that are controlled by Labor—five—and they have not provided their support for or assent to such a change. Indeed, at the most recent opportunity to raise that, at the meeting of state and territory treasurers in Melbourne, not a single state or territory raised this as an issue with the Treasurer and not one of them indicated that they as a jurisdiction had changed their point of view.

There is a good reason for that. For every product that has a tax reduced or removed, there is less revenue available in GST for that state or territory to be able to spend. It's a simple maths scenario. So we aren't surprised to find that the state governments who depend on the GST are not advocating this change. They require the consistency of revenue that comes from a broad based GST, and they are not going to be making arguments that single products here and there should be exempt from the tax, based on short-term political expediency. The reality is that if we want to be as fair as we can to all Australians, including those who are doing it tough, then the GST needs to have a broad and consistent base.

The Turnbull government has been taking action to address the problem of a narrowing GST base to assist the states and territories, and it is doing that through increased integrity measures—an expansion of the GST into digital services and low-value goods. That's expected to yield an additional $1.9 billion next year. That will mean more funds are available for state and territory governments to allocate to their ordinary responsibilities, such as hospitals, schools and police services. It may increase the political will of those state and territory governments to consent to the removal of the GST from sanitary goods, but that political will is not there today. While Senator Rice's intent is good, it is simply not borne out in the actions or words of the state and territory governments, in particular the Labor controlled state and territory governments, of this country.

This chamber might recall that at the tax summit in 1985 former Prime Minister Paul Keating attempted to introduce a consumption tax, but withdrew the proposal following pressure from the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The influence of unions has increased in the succeeding 33 years. Those unions have certainly got richer from their business-like activities in the areas of superannuation, training, insurance and other activities. We might also recall that the wholesale sales tax on sanitary products was increased during Prime Minister Keating's time.

So, while we're debating the GST on sanitary products—tampons—perhaps we also need to have a debate on why the union movement and its commercial activities are exempt from the GST. There is no rational reason why unions are allowed to grow their businesses behind the protection of a non-taxing status. Unions exist either to specifically focus on their members' needs or to operate as businesses. Despite their accumulation of millions of dollars, not a jot has been contributed to the GST. Is this really fair? There hasn't been a corresponding offset in the fees charged to members, despite the influx of these millions of dollars. What is the purpose of this huge accumulation of money when it doesn't seem to be passed on to members? It does, interestingly, manage to pay the fines of those unionists who engage in lawless behaviour and who flout the laws that apply across Australia. That's been recognised across many courts, but most recently by the Federal Circuit Court's Judge Vasta, who acknowledged the recidivism of some union members.

A major selling point of the GST was that the Commonwealth Grants Commission would adjust payments to the states and territories as part of a progressive removal of state taxes, duties and levies. That was foreshadowed as part of the quid pro quo for the introduction of the GST. I can tell you that, now, in my own state that just hasn't happened. In fact, the recent state budget brought down by the Palaszczuk Labor government has imposed five new taxes, driven largely by the need to deal with an ever-increasing appetite for funds, which is also driven by their incompetent financial management. So, on the one hand we have the imposition of new taxes by a state and on the other hand we have the same party in a different chamber making a politically-motivated demand for the reduction of tax. I would say that we must call that out for what it is: contrary behaviour, reflecting political expediency, that could not be characterised as much more than a hypocritical act.

More concerning, on the broad issues of taxes and financial management not only has my own state of Queensland decided that feeding from the tax trough is the answer to poor management but the Treasury has revealed an embarrassing black hole of $10 billion in federal Labor's retiree plan. That's a plan to slug all of those people who have made the effort throughout their working lifetime to make provision to support themselves in their older years. We on the coalition side know that numeracy and the management of other people's money have never been strong suits for the Labor Party—but then how could you calculate your revenue from Labor's retiree tax proposal to start with $59 billion, then recalculate it to be $55.7 billion, only to later land on the number of $45.8 billion. The constant shifting in numbers is quite frightening, particularly to those people who depend on the extra dollars they have saved to enjoy life after years of personal endeavour.

Labor excels at taxing. If there were an Olympics for it, Labor would always be the odds-on favourite. The retiree tax that has been put up by Labor is by far the biggest item over the forward estimates and it will hit retirees and small businesses to the tune of almost $5 billion per year. The really concerning question is: what new taxes will Labor look to to make up for this shortfall? In this context it makes today's debate over the relatively small sums involved in the tampon tax interesting. Labor promoting a reduction in tax on sanitary items while needing to cast around for other means to fill the black hole in its budget is almost a Shakespearean plot in its complexity. As concerning as the Treasury's exposure of a $10 billion black hole in Labor's costings must be, the suspicion that Labor always has over its shoulder is there because its figures never really do add up. Why hasn't Labor released its own costings from the independent Parliamentary Budget Office? There's an unsettling essence to all of this. If ever there were an Olympics for obfuscation, Labor would again be the odds-on favourite.

The people who are in the firing line of Labor's discriminatory and punitive tax are the people who have battled all their lives to save, to support themselves and who have worked to climb, throughout their lives, to improve their personal circumstances. Why would you want to punish the people who have been the bedrock of Australia's success, socially and financially, by being able to carry themselves throughout? It just beggars belief.

Of course, this mess-up is not unique. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era of financial mismanagement had its own memorable moments. The persistent overestimation of revenue and the expenditure of non-existent money were the hallmarks of their financial and fiscal ineptitude. Sadly, it's in Labor's DNA to nail Australians on the tax front to make up for their management deficiencies. So, when they come into this chamber and criticise the implementation of a broad based consumption tax, one that is applied at point of consumption to all Australians on the broadest possible base, that criticism rings hollow.

The application of the goods and services tax to sanitary products raises about $40 million a year. If the tax were removed from those products, that shortfall would need to be made up by the states and territories or by this parliament. And, honestly, I just can't see the states and territories, particularly those that are run by Labor governments, having cash to spare to be able to do without that $40 million. Again, in Queensland, the budget has never looked worse, and for them to do without their share of the GST raised from sanitary products would only shift more burden onto future generations, and Queensland's children would bear a disproportionate share of government debt.

It is really good that this government has been looking at other arrangements to deal with a narrowing GST base, but, speaking for myself, I'd like to see it applied across the board in the way that it was intended—in the way that it delivers the most possible value for Australians and the most possible fairness for those who are doing it tough.

Of all the issues that face women in this country today, what can we say are the most important ones? You might say it's the increasing participation of women in the workforce that's front of mind—some very good news on the women's front. You might say that ongoing concern about domestic violence is something that is front of mind for Australia's women. You might think that Australia's women are interested in the improvements that are being made to the provision of education in this country, because as a mother I know the education of our children is always front of mind for women in this country. What's not front of mind for women in this country is the approximate $11 a year they pay in GST on tampons. It makes a nice political gesture, a nice symbol, a nice little political point to be scored but, ultimately, when we think about the things that are facing women in this country, this is not the most important issue they face. Indeed, the costs that would be faced by women as a consequence of the GST not having the broad base it was intended to have would hurt women more than the gain of $11 a year if this tax were removed.

There are a small number of women who are doing it tough and who might find that $11 a year a stretch, but, for most Australians, and indeed most of the Australians who are campaigning most loudly for this measure, that $11 is not the most pressing amount they face. For those who do struggle with the $11-a-year cost, I commend the work of groups like Share the Dignity, who do what they can to supply these products to those who need them. The number of people who are being pushed into poverty because of this $11 slug is small, but we should never turn a blind eye to people in need in this country. That's why I'm so pleased to see so many measures in this budget that are designed to help people doing it tough to get into work, get into stable, full-time jobs and get the kind of consistent income that will mean they don't need to be so concerned about the sum of $11. I look forward to the day when the people doing it tough can reap the advantages of the coalition's budget and the coalition's plan for jobs. The one million jobs that have been created by this government since it came to power is something to commend, and 75 per cent of those jobs are full-time.

Women's participation in the workforce has never been higher. The coalition government is doing all it can to make sure women across Australia have the kind of stable income and wealth that they yearn to have, so that the $11 a year that this tax costs them is not the pressing issue that it might seem. I look forward to all women in Australia reaping the benefits of the coalition's plan for more jobs. I am sure it will deliver wealth to women across this country, especially to women who are the most in need, so that this $11 cost is not something that becomes too much to bear.

Ultimately, the barrier to reducing taxes on tampons in this country does not rest with the coalition. I'm sure that if the respective state treasurers brought it to the treasurers' meeting and lobbied for it, this government would consider what it could do to try to make it work—but, you know what, that's not what's happening. Not a single state or territory treasurer has asked for this tax to be reduced, or for it to be removed from sanitary products—not a single one. So it rings hollow to hear members of the opposition talk about it here, as though it's an idea they have been fighting for since day dot. It just isn't. It's empty talk, the kind of empty talk we've come to expect. The only team you can count on to be working hard for women, and working hard to make all women wealthier, is the coalition. I oppose the bill.