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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 593

Senator PRATT (11:27 AM) —We have faced an unimaginable beginning to 2011, with incredible natural disasters taking place around Australia. My home state of Western Australia has not been immune. We saw devastating floods in the Gascoyne region, in December, and severe thunderstorms around various parts of Western Australia, including flooding, and widespread destructive bushfires in Perth’s eastern region. We also watched with grave concern as cyclones circled our coast, near Perth, in the Kimberley, near Karratha and in the Pilbara.

Having seen the tragic loss of life in Queensland I am, at least, thankful that at home in WA we had no fatalities. It was an incredible experience to visit the city of Armadale and speak to those who lost their homes during the fires. It reminded me of what those in Queensland must have gone through. It was incredible to see how quickly those fires—like floods—moved, even on a hot, windy day, swallowing suburban houses on the fringe of bushland in their path. Communities in Queensland have had similar experiences with floods. The spread of fire was rapid and stunning and it is confronting to acknowledge, particularly looking at Queensland, how it could have been so much worse. It is a reminder to all Western Australians to be fire-ready at home, especially those who live near bushland. As someone who grew up in Perth’s hills, I know firsthand that the enjoyment of our local environment’s beauty must be tempered with caution for what nature dishes out.

We know that the Gillard government moved quickly to support storm, flood and bushfire relief for disaster victims right around the country. It is notable that in Western Australia, as in Queensland, in Victoria and in Tasmania, the response to these disasters has been funded by both the Commonwealth and the state governments. The funding has been a part of what is called the natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements, which have been co-funded by state and federal governments on a fifty-fifty basis—a partnership for the relief of our communities—and has included emergency relief for people who have lost their homes, assistance for lost and damaged small businesses and reconstruction funds for community infrastructure. I remember speaking to George, who was washed out in his caravan park in Carnarvon, about the roll out of the $1,000 relief payment. He was very pleased about that payment, and my office was very pleased to assist him in accessing both that funding and relief funding under the NDRRA.

Having seen the devastating impact of storms, floods and fire in WA, I have thought long and hard about the national flood levy. I have concluded that, should Western Australia face widespread devastation like that experienced in Queensland, I would want—and in fact we would need—our nation to lend a hand to help us get back on our feet. It is in our national interest for us to help Queensland get back on its feet. As a strong and prosperous state, Queensland needs a helping hand so it can get back on track; for its people and its economy to flounder on their own would ultimately be a great drain on our nation. Queensland needs to be supported to get back on its feet generating wealth and prosperity for its own people and for the nation. It needs money to rebuild its ports, rail, public facilities and roads. That is a tall order and a significant call on Commonwealth finances. We know the bill will be in the order of $5.6 billion. Significant and critical infrastructure projects must be funded—things like the Bruce Highway between Brisbane and Cairns, the Warrego Highway around Ipswich, the Capricorn Highway around Rockhampton and the Calder and Sturt highways in Victoria.

The coalition leaves us with no plan to address the catastrophes that have befallen our nation’s communities and those critical pieces of economic infrastructure. On the other hand, the measures in the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011, which we have before us, are a balanced package. The package involves the cutting of some spending programs, the deferring of some other pieces of new infrastructure and the applying of a one-off, 12-month, temporary levy for those earning more than $50,000 a year. The levy is critical in fixing essential and vital infrastructure, infrastructure that those opposite have no plan for, because they do not want to introduce a flood levy. They have no plan for this essential infrastructure—for roads, for bridges, for ports or for railways. What would the nation do without a plan for fixing infrastructure? And the plan has a bill that will run into billions of dollars. We must have a flood levy to support the massive rebuilding effort and to help communities that have been torn apart on such a widespread scale get back on their feet. As I said, it is going to cost billions; it is estimated that the government will need to spend about $5.6 billion to rebuild the devastated communities, particularly those in Queensland. It is completely unrealistic to expect the people of Queensland and their government to do that alone. No state should have to face a disaster like this alone.

The federal government will need to meet approximately two-thirds of the costs by identifying budget savings, which is a very difficult task. The remaining funds required for the rebuild will be met through what I think is quite a modest temporary levy, considering the circumstances. The levy will not apply to people who have been victims of the recent floods, the recent bushfires in my home state of WA or cyclones. In fact, people in disaster affected areas who meet the criteria for the Australian government’s disaster recovery payment this year will be exempt from the levy.

Those opposite have no plan to address the crisis that this nation has faced this summer—no plan at all. They are simply trying to score political points, despite the fact that there are so many communities that so desperately need help to rebuild. Time and time again those opposite prove themselves narrow minded and visionless when it comes to the great questions facing this nation. As I said before, this is a temporary levy that will assist the costs of rebuilding vital infrastructure. It is for 2011-12 only, for floods that tore apart people’s lives, homes, businesses, roads, community buildings and vital infrastructure—things that were destroyed during the devastating floods.

I am pleased that the levy recognises the capacity to pay. It has been designed so that low-income earners do not pay anything. Higher income earners will need to pay a bit more. The levy will apply at 0.5 per cent of taxable income in excess of $50,000 and at one per cent of taxable income in excess of $100,000, and no levy is payable where a person has an income of $50,000 or less. As the Prime Minister said:

This is not just a routine piece of legislation, not just a package of measures to restore bridges and roads, but an expression of goodwill between Australians.

It’s an act of faith in the future, a way of honouring the dignity and resilience that Australians have shown throughout this ordeal.

I endorse those remarks and, in doing so, I would like to call on my Western Australian colleagues from all political parties to support this bill and this levy. Western Australia is not immune from the catastrophic potential of floods, cyclones or bushfires. We have had our own experience of this at home with the Gascoyne floods, the destructive south-west bushfires and what was, I think, a lucky escape from Cyclone Bianca. If the unthinkable were to happen in Western Australia, on the scale of the destruction in Queensland, we would need to be confident that the federal government had the capacity to help our communities rebuild. We can see how important this is, as the people of the Gascoyne region and in places like the shire of Armadale come to grips with the devastation and rebuild. Support for this levy is not just in the national interest; it is firmly in Western Australia’s interest. It is time for WA’s Liberals to stand up for what is clearly in both national and state interests and support this levy.