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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 614

Senator POLLEY (1:12 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood and Cyclone Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the related bill. During the past few weeks and months the devastation caused by a series of natural disasters has been enormous. This has been aptly described by a number of people as a summer of misery, anguish and pain. Unless you have been directly affected or have actually seen the devastation, imagining the scale of this calamity is nigh on impossible. Certainly the graphic scenes on television, on the internet and on Facebook provide some insight, but the combined efforts of the floods and Cyclone Yasi, and on top of that the bushfires in Western Australia and floods further north in that state, have created a disaster almost beyond imagination. The floods in Queensland alone covered an area described as five times the size of Victoria or, as depicted by another, as large as the combined areas of the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. And that does not reflect the destruction in New South Wales and the ongoing floods in Victoria. Even in my home state of Tasmania serious damage was caused by flooding. It was not on the scale of Queensland, but nevertheless this has been serious and has had a serious impact on many families, businesses and communities in Tasmania. So it is evident that many in this chamber know—either personally through family members, friends and neighbours or through constituents—people who have been affected by these disasters.

However, the worst aspect of these disasters is the loss of life—grandparents, parents, children, even babies. Families have been torn apart by these bizarre and horrific events. Australians are a stoic lot but the grief that has been felt across Australia is enormous. While we can rebuild after the damage, recover the property and allow life to eventually return to normal, lives are gone forever and it will have an enduring effect on those families and communities.

Millions of Australians have been affected not only directly by the loss of homes, businesses and properties but through hospitals which once cared for the people but are no longer there. Where do the children go to school in the short term? When roads are destroyed how do they get anywhere? The rail lines, which took produce to and from the markets, have also gone. Indirectly this will have an impact on all Australians. Huge production areas in the flood regions will take time to return to producing food and other commodities for all Australians. I do not wish to downplay the extraordinary emer-gency services that have provided shelter, food and support in these communities, but the long-term task of rebuilding has only just started. It will take months, even years. To date Australians have been extremely generous with their donations—approxi-mately $200 million—and there has been assistance from various other state service organisations and individual efforts.

Australians have a long tradition of helping each other in times of adversity. I do not recall anyone refusing to assist in managing the recent bushfires in New South Wales or, more recently, in Victoria. The reverse is what I remember. There were offers of assistance from across Australia. If this were not true we would not have the substantial public donations that have been received to date. I know many such individual donations from Tasmania. For example, the mother of one of my staff, a pensioner, donated $1,000 of her meagre savings. This desire of Australians to pull together is something that the coalition just simply do not understand. The true Aussie spirit has emerged stronger than ever for the majority of Australians. There is so much to do—schools to be rebuilt, roads to be repaired or reconstructed, rail lines to be re-established, and hospitals to be returned to operational status to provide care in their communities. There is a seemingly endless list of what has to be done. There is emergency relief in place. The Australian Taxation Office is implementing support strategies such as allowing extra time to lodge tax statements, providing payments, and even helping to reconstruct tax records that have been lost. Centrelink has sent thousands of extra staff to assist families affected by the devastation to at least begin to manage their situations and start the long process of recovery.

As I said earlier, this is only the start. How do we manage the estimated recovery cost of $5.6 billion? A responsible government cannot throw its hands in the air and cry, ‘Disaster, disaster—let’s stop managing the country; forget about the future,’ because that is what I hear from those opposite. Mind you, it is hardly surprising. Australia is lucky that the Labor government, with the assistance of Independent members and the Greens, are collectively able to see the rabble that the coalition are. We are managing this country. If the coalition had been left to manage the global financial crisis, Australia would have had another type of disaster, and certainly not one caused by natural events but by a monetary incapacity. Australia would have been in recession and the very low levels of unemployment would have been much higher instead of the current high employment levels we are now experiencing. We would have been poorly positioned to recover and compete internationally. If you recall it was those opposite who said, ‘Put your head in the sand, sit back and let’s wait and see what happens.’ That is their record.

The government’s response to the current situation is balanced. We recognise the need to rebuild large parts of this country and we are also aware of the present and future needs of the Australian economy. Sound business practices say that we should pay as we go in an economy that is growing strongly. Despite the damage caused by these disasters the economy will be returning to capacity in 2011-12. As an example, there are $360 billion in mining projects for the future and wages are at healthy levels. Realistically, skills shortages will be an issue, especially with the recovery program that will be necessary. As we enter 2012-13 these pressures will continue to exist, which is why it is important that it be a return-to-surplus year. We do not intend to make the same mistakes of the Howard government between 2004 and 2007. The demand for labour and materials for reconstruction will increase the need for fiscal moderation in the coming years. That is why the solution being provided by the Labor government is what Australians need—and it is balanced.

Some spending programs will be cut. From time to time priorities do need to be reassessed. This is one of these times. Programs cannot be set in concrete because times and circumstances change. There is always a need to deal with such changes. Some infrastructure programs are being deferred—not scrapped, deferred; they do not mean the same thing. Once again there is a need to reprioritise our spending and to recognise that there is not an infinite number of skilled workers who can perform magic by working in more than one place at a time. Reconstruction and recovery must occur, not just for the families, the businesses and the communities that have been affected but for the benefit of all Australians.

Applying a one-off, 12-month, temporary levy is to raise $1.8 billion to assist with the recovery. It is approximately one-third of the cost of the recovery program. This is part of the balanced approach reported earlier. It takes into consideration the current economic circumstances, expectations of the future and the immediate need to get Australia fully functioning again. The levy has received most of its attention from the coalition. I have not had one person from the community, not one fair-minded Australian, complain about this levy. Why? Because politicking is the sole concern of those opposite. They are not even worried about the hypocrisy, the double standards and their inability to count. They do not care when their single concern is opposing everything.

The Labor government has recognised that there is not an equal ability of all Australians to contribute to the recovery at the same rate. It is called fairness, which is not a word in the vocabulary of those opposite. That is why there are exemptions for some people such as those who have received an Australian government disaster payment, and those who were affected by a declared disaster and meet at least one of the eligibility criteria for an Australian disaster recovery payment, even if they have not received a payment. Also exempt are New Zealand special class visa holders who have been technically ineligible for Australian government disaster recovery payments but who have received an ex gratia natural disaster payment.

But we have not forgotten about the Australian population. Remember, we are talking about taxable annual income in 2011 and 2012. This levy targets those who can afford to pay to ensure that unnecessary cuts are not made to important programs. These are not draconian imposts. About 50 per cent of taxpayers will pay nothing, over 60 per cent will pay less than $1 per week, over 70 per cent will pay less than $2 per week and over 85 per cent will pay less than $5 per week.

What do we hear from our opponents? ‘Australians can’t afford levies. Levies are not economically responsible. We can make other savings in our economy.’ This seems to be a new tune that the opposition are playing. I remind you that, during the Howard years, in 1996-97 we had the firearms buyback levy and the introduction of the superannuation surcharge, in 1998-99 the stevedoring levy, in 1999-2000 the dairy industry levy, in 2001 and 2002 the Ansett levy, in 2003-04 the sugar levy, and in 2004-05 the Newcastle disaster levy. Were they concerned about the financial implications for the Australian community then? No, absolutely not.

Let us just look at the levies year by year. In 1996, we had the firearms levy and the superannuation surcharge; in 1997, the firearms levy and the superannuation surcharge; in 1998, the superannuation surcharge; in 1999, the stevedoring levy and the superannuation surcharge; in 2000, the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the East Timor levy and the superannuation surcharge; in 2001, the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the East Timor levy, the Ansett levy and the superannuation levy; in 2002, the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the Ansett levy and the superannuation surcharge; and, in 2003, the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the Ansett levy, the sugar levy and the superannuation surcharge. In 2004, what did we have? We had the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the sugar levy and the superannuation levy. In 2005, we had the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the sugar levy and the superannuation levy. In 2006—oh, we only had three levies. We had the stevedoring levy, the milk levy and the sugar levy. In 2007 we only had one levy, and that was the milk levy.

Were these levies one-offs? No, not all of them—rarely. Was the budget ever in surplus other than in 1996-97? It was always in surplus, but we still had the levies. Were any of these levies in response to a natural disaster affecting thousands of people? No, no and no. In fairness, I would agree that the motivation for the firearms buyback levy and the Ansett levy could be considered altruistic. The others were driven by political ideology with no regard for the Australian community and its financial capacity. Mind you, they did contribute to funds for the election pork-barrelling of the Howard years. However, the list does not end there. How were the coalition going to fund their parental leave program? With a $6 billion levy over two years!

Here is a quick summary of the litany of economic opposition for purely political purposes. First, there are those proposed election campaign promises: a $10.6 billion black hole. Then there are savings of $5.2 billion blocked in both houses, close to $2 billion in savings blocked by opposing Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme reforms, and $700 million of savings double-counted in their flood response. After weeks of claiming that the NBN could provide savings, it did not appear in their list of savings. Did someone tell them that there were not real savings, or did they work it out for themselves? There were two private senators’ bills in the Senate that would have cost $500 million if passed. The politicians who are now vehemently opposing this levy are predominantly the same politicians who showed absolutely no concern during the 11 long years of the Howard government. Have they changed? I cannot see any signs of that, and I do not believe the Australian public can.

The Liberal Premier of Western Australia said:

I believe most Australians, most West Australians, are willing to contribute a little bit more to help Queensland get back on its feet.

The Australian Council of Social Service said:

Overall we are pleased that the Federal Government has acted quickly to support the vital reconstruction efforts of the Queensland Government and support the idea that all Australians with the means to contribute to this effort do so through a flood disaster levy …

The Salvation Army said:

All Australians need to share something of the burden and the horror that’s happened to so many in Queensland, and the way that the levy has been established, it takes the burden away from low-income earners.

The President of AgForce in Queensland said:

… given the enormity of what’s happened, with this natural disaster, anything that can help to get rural and regional Queensland, back up and running, we would support …

Finally, an editorial in the Australian newspaper—and we on this side know how much the opposition rely on the Australian for their political motivations, particularly in their strategies during question times here in the Senate—said:

… the imposition of the levy is reasonable and responsible.

You cannot get any more categorical an endorsement than the support of the Australian newspaper. I know there are other issues that require consideration—the handling of future natural disasters, insurance practices, different jurisdictions and others—but these bills need to be passed and they need to be passed now.

As someone who was affected, not as directly as some in this chamber, as I had family involved in the cyclone and affected by the flooding in Queensland, I think it is important that we acknowledge all of those who rallied and demonstrated the very true Aussie spirit of getting together. I noted the call from the Brisbane mayor calling for support and the thousands of people who put on their gumboots, sunscreen and insect repellent and picked up their brooms and shovels and went to the aid of their fellow neighbours. To me that is what the Australian community spirit is all about. I want to place on record my appreciation as I had a daughter, her husband and their two little children survive the cyclone. Thank goodness they were not as affected as some others, but their home and property did suffer structural damage. That neighbourly spirit—that spirit that Australians demonstrate over and over again when there is a natural disaster—was there at the forefront when we had our young people looking out for our old, when we had neighbour looking out for neighbour. These are the great qualities that we as Australians should all be immensely proud of. So I urge those opposite to reconsider their position on this very important legislation and to demonstrate they are not just knockers and they are not in the mode of opposition that opposes everything that comes into this chamber. I urge those on the other side to do the right thing and support this legislation, to help the government take the action that is needed. I highly commend it to this chamber.