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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 2182


Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (20:18): There goes Senator Scullion with his proportion of the $70 billion black hole which the opposition has created and which would translate into a stripping of funding for dental health care, health in general, education and a whole range of public interests if the coalition were to assume government in the future. The Greens' position on the mining tax, far from that which has just been traduced by the previous speaker, is consistent with that of the Henry tax review and the Treasury advice over some years—that is, the recommended superprofits tax on mining ought to have been adopted by the government. It should certainly, when the government faltered, have been adopted by the Abbott opposition. But, in the failure of both the old parties to get a reasoned, Treasury backed return on the mineral wealth of this country, which flows so rapidly to overseas pockets, it has been left to the Greens in the form of the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, in the House and the nine Greens senators here in this chamber to take up the cause of the public interest.

The notable people for failing to act here are the mining party, the National Party, which tugs its forelock all the time to the mining corporations against the interests of rural and regional Australia and is doing so here again tonight. But let me briefly outline—

Senator Nash: Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I ask that you ask Senator Brown to withdraw the previous statement. It was clearly a falsification and the senator was referring to circumstances that are indeed untrue.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Mark Bishop ): Which statement in particular are you referring to, Senator Nash?

Senator Nash: The statements referring to the connection with the mining industry.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Feeney, do you have a contribution to make here?

Senator Feeney: I would only say that I think it is within the parameters of this debate, a reasonable political comment.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I think it was within the normal debating processes here. There is no point of order.

Senator BOB BROWN: Yes, absolutely no point of order; you are absolutely right. Senator Nash's memory is so short that she cannot remember the confession by her leader, Senator Joyce, in here that he had been nobbled overnight by Mitch Hooke, the doyen of the Minerals Council of Australia. He changed his mind on a previous matter to do with rural interests and the investigation of coal seam gas or coal mining in the Namoi Valley overnight, at the Minerals Council's request, and defeated a motion by the Greens in here to go to the aid of those very people. Right under the thumb of the minerals industry council are the National Party, once the representatives of the rural interests in this country, who are now so ably represented by the Greens instead. The Greens would restore the mining tax to very close to that recommended in the Henry report. But we believe that, at an absolute minimum, goldminers, who are garnering windfall profits from an unanticipated near-record price for gold, and uranium miners should be brought under the MRRT along with the coal and iron ore miners. That would bring, over the coming decades, hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, from these largely foreign owned corporations digging up the once-only resources of gold and uranium—and you can add rare earths to that—in this country so that Australians can have proper funding of their needs in the future. That is undeniably what countries such as Norway and Saudi Arabia are doing. But it is not the case here, simply because the Labor Party and, to a greater degree, the coalition are suborned—they are totally influenced, against the public interest—by the power of the big mining corporations.

We do not believe the federal government can provide a blank cheque whereby, when state governments raise royalties, the federal government refunds the companies. We have an amendment on this, and the coalition, which includes the 'National Mining Party', ought to be supporting this. Where royalties are raised by the states, that is a matter for the state; the Commonwealth ought not to intervene in any way. But the proposal in this legislation—and I think we will find that the Liberal and National parties will support it—is that the Australian taxpayer, rather than have their money go to the $5 billion a year that the Gonski report found needs to go into education, will effectively have that money taken from them by the big parties voting later tonight in this place. Instead that money will be given back to Xstrata, BHP, Rio Tinto and the other big mining corporations as a reward for the increase in royalties by the states. And then, in some fashion which is yet to be properly delineated, the Treasurer, Mr Swan; the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard; and cabinet believe they can get that money back from the states.

We have the National Party and the Liberal Party saying they are going to endorse a Labor mechanism in this place to have this money taken out of revenue which would otherwise flow from the Commonwealth to the states. Isn't that extraordinary! The so-called defenders of states' rights in this issue are not in the National Party, they are not in the Liberal Party and they are certainly not in the Labor Party; they are here on the crossbench in the form of the Greens. The Greens do not believe that the states' taxation arrangements should effectively be overwritten in this fashion by this legislation.

The nervous giggle from the coalition members opposite shows exactly how they feel about the failure of their time honoured support of the states in what they are doing here tonight. And it is not a small matter. The Greens are proposing that future increases in mining royalties by the states are a matter for them and that there should be no reimbursement to the mining corporations. There is no sanity or logic in what the National Party and the Liberals are doing in supporting the Labor Party in that arrangement. It will ultimately see a stoush with the states, and one could predict that it may very well end up in the High Court. And what happens if the states prevail? It will mean a further cut in the manner of the Labor Party cuts—supported by the National Party and Liberal Party—to the provision of services to the people of Australia as the states raise their taxes and at the same time the Commonwealth reimburses those taxes to the big corporations. Who wins in this arrangement no matter which way you go? It is the big mining corporations, which have got these old parties will within their keep.

The Greens do not believe the big banks and the mining companies need their tax cut from 30c in the dollar to 29c and instead propose that more benefits be considered for small businesses. We are not going to be dealing with this tax reduction now. But we know it is part of the package, because the Greens got that out of the government last week, and it will be dealt with in the budget session. Let me tell the chamber, as I have said outside this place, that the Greens party room has determined that we will not support a further win for the big mining corporations and a big windfall for the big banks, with their record profits and their massive payouts to the CEOs, at the expense of the Australian taxpayer. That is what it is. However, when it comes to small business—which is being hit hard by the mining boom, the high Australian dollar and high interest rates—we do see the need for some relief.

I note that there has been a lot of howling about this matter—that is, having a two-tiered tax system—not just on the opposition benches but even from the government. In its own proposals before the chamber tonight, the government has a two-tiered system in play for the coming year. When the matter is dealt with in May, the tax deduction will apply as of 1 July for small business, but for big business it will not apply until a year later. Many other countries, such as France, have a two-tiered system. Indeed, in the United States the corporate tax rate is somewhere close to 40c in the dollar, but for small business it is more like 20c in the dollar. We hear that sort of nonsense coming from opinion leader in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Phillip Coorey never spoke to me about this matter—but then why would he? He would not write a column that is fair to the Greens if his life depended on it. Early in his piece he said:

About a year ago, Bob Brown gave up the Greens' bargaining position by declaring that although the renegotiated mining tax was a stinker, it was better than what the Coalition would do—nothing—and therefore should be passed.

Readers of the Sydney Morning Herald may be interested to know that no, I did not do that a year ago. I made it clear in the run-up to the last election. I made it very clear to the Australian people when I was interviewed by Fran Kelly on ABC radio and, in a subsequent interview, in the run-up to that election that that would be our position. But apparently this dill from the Sydney Morning Herald was not listening to that particular part of the election campaign or, if he was, his memory has failed because he has a blackout when it comes to properly reporting on the Greens. A little bit further and he says:

Fair enough, but by imposing a cut-off of $2 million or $5 million—

the Greens are proposing that the government look at lifting the definition of 'small business' to an annual take of $5 million—

… they will create an unworkable, two-tiered corporate tax system open to rorting.

Mr Coorey should have a look at what goes on in the rest of the world. Why does he not comment on the fact that Labor is, through these proposals, bringing in a two-tiered system over the next year? If it is not unworkable and open to rorting under Labor then why is it unworkable for the Greens? I believe this opinion piece is simply a matter of what in good old-fashioned parlance is called 'biased political reporting'. At the end of his piece Phillip Coorey says:

This constant complaining about the mining tax while being in a position of power to exert influence has hung a lantern over where the Greens sit at the moment. They have chosen protest instead of action.

As I said, this partisan reporter nowhere says how he would engineer what he predicts would be the outcome of the Greens taking a different position—and that would be the failure of Labor's mining tax to the great advantage of the Abbott opposition. What I suggest to Phillip Coorey is that, first, he has a look at the journalist code of ethics which says that you should give a balanced view—it is not news, I know; it is an opinion piece, but he is a news writer—and, second, maybe speak to the people involved rather than making quite incorrect opinion pieces like that.

The Greens believe much of the windfall gains from the mining boom should be available after the resources are exhausted, as a means of sharing the benefits with future generations. Recently, I saw a piece by the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, who well understands the term 'intergenerational equity', a term that goes back decades. But his coalition is not going to support this Greens move for a substantial proportion of the proceeds of this tax to go into a sovereign wealth fund; nor will the Labor Party support it. One of the reasons is that this tax is so wanting. I might add, in reference to funding and the $70 billion black hole, that rather than fund the $5 billion recommended injection into our education system which is going to help of the whole of the economy in the future, the proposal by the honourable Leader of the Opposition and the people opposite is to rip $2.8 billion out of education. That is part of the $70 billion black hole.

I am indebted, tonight, for the assistance given to me by Mr John Hawkins, an economist giving good advice to the Greens. When it comes to trying to understand why we should not have a sovereign wealth fund in this country you hear complete silence from both sides. Mr Hawkins effectively came up with the figure for the coalition's black hole as $70 billion last year. I said: 'John, that can't be true. Please have a look because I can't go out to the public and say that.' The very same week the shadow Treasurer, Mr Hockey, had to agree that from the coalition's own papers they did have a $70 billion black hole. I had to, effectively, apologise to our very easygoing but superbly skilled economic adviser and say, 'You were right all the time.'

The Greens believe the increase in the compulsory superannuation guarantee from nine per cent to 12 per cent should be accompanied by reform of the superannuation tax concessions to make them more equitable, such as by replacing the flat 15 per cent tax on superannuation contributions with their being taxed at the individual's marginal rate less a fixed amount such as 15 percentage points. We are keen to see that the superannuation system is made more equitable in the country of a fair go, so that it does not continue to be weighted in favour of the superwealthy against the interests of the rest of the community.

I have put forward a proposal for an amendment, both in the form of a request to the House and as a direct amendment to go before the Senate, on the matter of extending the tax to gold and to uranium. I note that the Clerk has issued a statement to the chamber saying that that is not in order. Let me point the chamber to Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, page 283, which says:

If a bill does not impose taxation, the Senate may amend it, and if a bill does impose taxation the Senate may seek amendments by way of requests.

We are dealing with two bills here. One is the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Bill and the other is the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (Imposition—General) Bill 2011. It is our position that if the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Bill imposes taxation then we can amend it by way of a request as per the Clerk's statement. Alternatively if the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Bill is not a bill imposing taxation, as argued by Clerk, then we can argue that the amendments can be moved as amendments. The MRRT Bill identifies the minerals the tax applies to but is not a bill imposing taxation. The tax is imposed by the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (Imposition—General) Bill 2011 and two other imposition bills, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (Imposition—Excise) bill and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (Imposition—Customs) bills. Therefore identifying three other minerals for the tax to apply to cannot be an imposition of a tax if the original naming of iron ore and coal is not an imposition of a tax. Moreover, the imposition bills do not mention iron ore and coal.

What I want to say here is that the Clerk is there to give us—Senator Ludlam in this case—fair and accurate advice and an alternative when the intent is clear. She has not done that. Instead she, in a Clerk strike in this Senate, refused to allow the promulgation of the wish of senators to have these motions adequately serviced before this Senate, and I object. That is not the proper servicing of senators in this place. When we make a request, sure, that comes with advice, but if there are alternatives then that advice should be fairly given to the senators involved. I might add that she ought to have a look at Senate procedures page 6465 in 1999 where the chairman said this: 'There are three government requests to a bill—GST. The first appears to impose a tax where it was not imposed before and so falls within the first paragraph of section 53 of the Constitution.' That one will be treated as a request. We sought for it to be treated as a request in this exact same case and were told that it could not be done. I seek better advice in the future.