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Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Page: 803


Senator LUDWIG (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister Assisting the Attorney-General on Queensland Floods Recovery) (1:12 PM) —I rise to support the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood and Cyclone Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood and Cyclone Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011. These bills are important to Queenslanders, but not only to Queenslanders. They are important across all the regions of Australia to which I have travelled recently, all those regions affected by the extraordinary circumstances that have descended upon us—Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, the top end of South Australia and across to the Gascoyne in Western Australia.

In contradistinction to that, the recent political tactics from the opposition on this bill are all too familiar—that is, to oppose, to block and to stop anything the government decides to do that is clearly in the national interest. Rebuilding Queensland is in the national interest, keeping the economy strong is in the national interest and paying as we go while doing the rebuilding is in the national interest. It is easier for Mr Abbott to try and scare Australians than to try and lead. It is easier to exaggerate an issue than use reason and common sense in the debate.

What we are seeing in the Senate in this debate is yet another example of how this opposition leader’s negativity, his complete hollowness as a politician, is permeating through his own parliamentary rabble. It must be difficult for some in the opposition to drag themselves in here each morning knowing that they have nothing constructive or forward thinking to say on this bill or on many of the other matters that are brought here. There is a lot of hyperbole and misrepresentation in this place from those opposite. There has also been, quite frankly, a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the reconstruction effort required and a lack of goodwill towards the people of Queensland and those other parts of Australia where that reconstruction is needed.

We have heard from those opposite about tax grabs and a tax on volunteers. We have heard those opposite attack the member for O’Connor, Mr Crook, for supporting the government’s position. We have heard much from those opposite about the impacts these disasters have had on communities right across Australia and their very significant impacts on Queensland. We have not heard from them how we have to get on with the job of rebuilding disaster affected communities, how we have to rebuild our roads and bridges, and how we need to support our businesses and farmers.

I think it might be appropriate to remind the Senate why this bill is so important. I will focus briefly on my home state of Queensland as an example. The estimated impact of the Queensland floods on Australia has been put at $30 billion not including Yasi. Three-quarters of Queensland has been declared a disaster area. Sixty-seven local government areas have been designated for disaster assistance under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. These areas cover a population of over four million people.

This government is supporting the rebuilding of Queensland, and it is tough work. It involves tough decisions and the government will see the job through. Yesterday was the last day of summer, a summer many of us are glad to see the back of. It has been a dreadful season of natural disasters. I support this levy because I have seen first-hand the devastation of these disaster events and understand the scale of the work that is required. What is clear is that the Commonwealth government must play a leading role in the reconstruction of Queensland and must do so in an economically responsible way.

I have seen floods across the east coast through Toowoomba, floods through Brisbane and a cyclone that ripped across our north. Emerald is a town that I have seen in many states—in the peak of the drought and more recently at the height of the floods. Visiting Emerald on 4 January and again less than 10 days later, I noted the impact of the floods was, in a word, unbelievable. The swiftness of the waters and the impact they had on the countryside, on the railways and on the retail area of Emerald were devastating. The Rocklea markets in Brisbane under water was one of the more frequent images on our television screens during the flooding throughout the Brisbane CBD and surrounding suburbs. At that site entire forklifts were thrown across the markets as the floods ravaged Rocklea and moved through all that area. A challenge that confronted the markets was simply finding and identifying the hardware that was strewn across the side. I was particularly pleased to be able to see the Rocklea markets back in operation a few days later. The spirit was still there to get the markets up and running as soon as possible. When I visited they had just completed their first day of limited trading and many distributors were still cleaning and hosing out sheds, recovering lost property and preparing access routes for the morning’s trucks.

In Dalby I met with the Mayor of the Western Downs Regional Council, Ray Brown, who talked to me about the issues that were confronting his community and the challenges ahead for flood recovery and reconstruction in that region. I had an opportunity to talk to many other mayors, and I will not name them all, across Gatton, Helidon and Grantham and to speak to local residents as well as community groups and organisations in those areas. Amongst the tears that people had, amongst the disappointment that they had having lost loved ones, amongst the disappointment and sadness of their having lost possessions and had houses flooded—or destroyed by Cyclone Yasi—the resilience of the community shone through. In Ipswich I witnessed reactions and emotions familiar to those of many other parts of Queensland as people were slowly, carefully, cleaning up, starting the rebuilding effort, commencing the work that would see them try to bring their life back to some sense of order. I was pleased also to spend Australia Day with communities in and around Toowoomba, including the people of Oakey, Chinchilla and Miles, as they celebrated what they had: their friendship and bond of comradeship in regional and rural communities—each other, in fact. As if this summer of floods was not enough, which I have mentioned, the impact of Cyclone Yasi left a tremendous mark on Far North Queensland. Having visited that region, I saw the devastation across Cardwell, Tully and Innisfail—hit hard by cyclones twice in five years. In these towns people were displaced, main streets impacted and agricultural sheds and crops destroyed. These people, as well as most of my state, require a recovery effort, a rebuilding effort, that is on a scale that we have not seen before in this country.

I detail these visits across Queensland because, as I met with regional councils impacted by floods and cyclones and facing the challenge of their recovery, the government was assessing the role that it could play and the way in which it could support the communities and towns across Queensland. The Gillard government has been clear that its role is to support communities, get them back on their feet and back into work and so recover from the natural disasters. It has involved tough decisions and these were taken by the Prime Minister to tackle head on the challenges of supporting the reconstruction effort. The government has made clear that the responsible course of action is for the government to be directly involved in supporting the rebuilding of Queensland. The scale of this disaster means we have taken difficult decisions to find the necessary funds to rebuild the roads, bridges, ports and community infrastructure that have been damaged by the floods. As part of the $5.6 billion recovery package announced by the Prime Minister, the government will institute a modest one-off levy. For every dollar raised by the levy to fund reconstruction efforts, the Commonwealth will raise $2 through spending cuts.

I turn the attention of the Senate to the nature of this levy and put this policy in context, given what I can only describe as a wall of hysteria that I heard from the coalition opposition yesterday. As I have said, the levy is temporary and modest. Only 46 per cent of taxpayers will pay the levy and 60 per cent of taxpayers will pay less than $1 a week. Further, low-income earners and individuals who have received the Australian government disaster recovery payment will be exempt from the levy. As a progressive levy, it is based on the ability of an individual to pay. Anyone earning under $50,000 will not pay the levy, people earning between $50,000 and $100,000 will pay 0.5 per cent of taxable income in excess of $50,000, people earning over $100,000 will pay 0.5 per cent of taxable income in excess of $50,000 and one per cent of taxable income in excess of $100,000.

The levy will go towards supporting the Queensland Reconstruction Authority to rebuild vital bridges, roads, ports and railways. It is a good and appropriate means of raising the necessary funds to rebuild Queensland. The government has found $2 of savings for every $1 raised by the levy. These were tough cuts to respond to an unprecedented natural disaster. The Commonwealth has identified $2.8 billion in spending cuts to help pay for the flood recovery measure. These will be through abolishing, deferring and capping access to a number of carbon abatement programs. Also, funding under the Building Better Regional Cities and Priority Infrastructure programs will be redirected to flood rebuilding. In order to both manage the capacity of the economy and help the immediate rebuilding efforts, the government will defer some infrastructure projects, saving $1.8 billion.

I also take the opportunity to assist the Senate with what has already been rolled out into these communities or activated by the Commonwealth and jointly with the state government. In response to the natural disasters, the Commonwealth was quick to roll out emergency financial assistance measures to assist in recovery efforts. These included, as I mentioned earlier, the natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements, the Australian government disaster recovery payment and the disaster income subsidy. As at 24 February, approximately 649,531 AGDRP payments had been made across Australia, totalling $754 million. Of these, 376,172 payments worth $442 million related to the Queensland floods. As of 24 February, approximately 56,862 DIRS—which is the income subsidy—had been paid across Australia, totalling $25.3 million. Of these, 50,408 payments worth about $22 million relate to the Queensland floods. A range of cost shared NDRRA relief and recovery systems measures continue to be made available through the Queensland government, including matters such as personal hardship and distress relief assistance such as emergency food, accommodation, clothing and replacement of essential household items; psychological and financial counselling; public infrastructure restoration; concessional loans to small businesses, primary producers, voluntary not-for-profit bodies and needy individuals; and grants of up to $25,000 for small businesses and primary producers.

Further, for the impact of tropical Cyclone Yasi the government has announced a support package and wage subsidy. The government has worked with the Queensland government and the local community on a package that recognises the special characteristics of the region hit by the cyclone. The package, which is in addition to the standard NDRRA assistance, was announced on 16 February and extended on 25 February. It includes measures such as concessional interest rate loans and grants of up to $650,000 with a capped up to $50,000 non-repayable grant for eligible businesses, primary producers and voluntary not-for-profit bodies; a rural resilience fund; and a package of up to $20 million jointly funded by the Australian and the Queensland governments to provide support for a range of community and social support measures for community businesses and primary producers. A wage subsidy has also been made available through the Australian government to employers whose businesses have been directly affected by tropical Cyclone Yasi and who are unable to pay full wages to employees during the recovery phase. Wage assistance will be paid to employers for eligible employees for 13 weeks in total.

A package targeted at supporting local councils impacted by Queensland’s floods has also been announced by the Commonwealth and state governments. The Queensland local council package is a $315 million package to help Queensland local councils repair utilities and infrastructure and support their efforts in recovering from both the floods and Cyclone Yasi. There is $265 million to the Queensland Reconstruction Authority to fast-track the repair of damaged infrastructure across Queensland. This is to repair severely damaged water and sewerage infrastructure owned by local government. It will be prioritised and will also provide up to $145 million to fast-track reconstruction of the Brisbane ferry terminals and the Brisbane River wharf. An upfront payment of $50 million will be made available to help regional and remote councils employ people to perform important clean-up and repair work, with the option to provide further funding for employment if required. Commonwealth funding for the package is $206 million and the contribution from the Queensland government will be $109 million.

Madam Acting Deputy President, what I have outlined to you and the Senate is the scale of not only the beginning of the devastation, the resilience of the community and their ability to engage and start the recovery effort but also their need for government assistance to ensure that recovery continues and that we do see the end where people can have a community—I guess in some respects it will never be the same—restored to a position where they can enjoy the amenities of their local cities and country towns. Of course, the scale of the destruction only really serves to put in context the scale of the reconstruction and recovery effort that now stands before Queensland.

I have made clear in this contribution that the levy is both modest and temporary. It is targeted and scaled to impact those who can pay. I have also taken the opportunity of explaining that the work and support the Commonwealth and state government have made available is flowing across the state already. It is much needed. This levy supports the rebuilding of Queensland infrastructure to get the communities and the state up and running again. This levy, as the Prime Minister has said, is about the Commonwealth standing together with Queensland and supporting it in its task ahead. I commend the bills to the Senate.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hurley)—As Senator Ludwig was speaking as a senator for Queensland rather than as the minister closing the debate, the debate continues with Senator Ronaldson.