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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1966

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (21:52): I rise to speak on the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Bill 2011 and related legislation. Ensuring a healthy environment and sustainable economic potential for its citizens, now and in the future, should be a key priority for any national government. Despite confected hysteria about sovereign risk and threats that mining companies will decamp to some other mining nirvana, we have before us this legislation, an extremely modest means of taxing some of Australia's precious mineral resources which are being extracted at an unprecedented rate in 2012.

It is with considerable reluctance that I am supporting this legislation which, in essence, is just a first step towards achieving a more efficient tax system so that Australians are able to share fairly in our nation's commonly owned rich mineral wealth. It certainly contains significant deficiencies. A pale shadow of its former manifestation, the resource superprofits tax advocated by the Henry tax review, it contains an effective tax rate of 22½ per cent rather than the originally proposed 40 per cent. And it fails to tax profits on gold, silver, diamonds, uranium, rare earths, nickel, copper, zinc and bauxite.

In Australia we are fortunate to be blessed with mineral resources that have formed part of our environment for billions of years. But the indisputable reality of these resources is that they are finite, non-renewable and can only be dug up once. Taking billions of years to be formed, they can now be mined, using modern machinery and technology, at a speed hitherto unknown to humankind—and, once gone, they are gone for ever.

The resources boom is generating enormous wealth and enormous disparity in its benefits. Who really pays the price? Some are benefiting hugely with billion-dollar profits. A small handful of mining magnates continue to climb the various rich lists and huge profits flow out of Australia to overseas destinations. Some Australians are benefiting moderately, but there are many others who are paying the price of this unprecedented minerals rush. There are those who are adversely affected by the high dollar and workforce pressures threatening their industries—exporters, manufacturing, farming, and tourism—and those who face increased rents, shortages of services and displacement of their communities in towns that have been transformed almost beyond recognition by the mining boom.

At a time when we see a growing divide between the richest and the poorest Australians, there are many Australians who are being left behind in the two-speed economy generated by the mining boom. There are people who are failing to experience even the remotest trickle from the trickle-down effect. For these reasons it is absolutely incumbent on our generation to wisely and prudently manage the current and future windfall coming from the rapid extraction of our mineral wealth. We are but a blink in the history of Australia and we must understand that we hold this wealth, derived from our shared finite resources, not only in trust for this generation but for the future generations who will not have the benefit of these resources once they are gone. A sovereign wealth fund for future needs would be a prudent and fair way to make allowance for the needs of those who come after us, just as we would have wished if our forebears had had the ability to do what we are doing now.

The failure of this bill to include uranium, gold and copper is a particular blow to a South Australian senator who has recently seen the rushed passage of legislation through the South Australian parliament. This legislation will allow the world's richest resource company to dig not just the biggest mine in South Australia but the biggest hole in the ground ever dug on the face of this planet. Copper, uranium, gold and silver—huge predicted profits—and not one of these minerals will be included in the MRRT. The company, BHP Billiton, is smiling all the way to the bank. Its deal with the South Australian government requires pitifully low royalties, with no guarantee of one extra job in South Australia, and the government footing the bill for infrastructure to boot. The net economic return to South Australian coffers in years 10 to 20 of the project could be as low as $10 million a year, and that is even before millions are given back to BHP Billiton through federal subsidies such as the diesel fuel rebate. I believe that future generations will be disgusted with us for giving their resources away for a pittance and leaving them to deal with the enormous toxic legacy of managing the world's largest radioactive waste dump in South Australia.

The sad truth is that this bill is a wasted opportunity, stymied by a ferocious and hugely well-funded advertising campaign against the original RSPT. As a result we have $100 billion in revenue forgone over the next decade, revenue that could have been used to fund a healthier, fairer, smarter Australia through Denticare, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, income support that allows people to live with dignity, and a fairer quality public education system to ensure that all kids have a chance to reach their potential.

This bill is a first step towards creating a more efficient tax system, so that Australians can share the benefits and returns from their national natural resources. However, there is a long way to go. This bill could and ultimately must be strengthened. But in the meantime, on the basis that, this time, something is better than nothing, I commend the bill to the Senate.