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Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Page: 873

Mr SWAN (Treasurer) (12:31 PM) —We have just had 30 long minutes from the shadow Treasurer demonstrating yet again how unqualified he is when it comes to economic policy and how out of touch the federal coalition are when it comes to the needs of rebuilding Queensland and other parts of this nation which have suffered from natural disasters over the past couple of months. What we got was 30 minutes of politics. We did not get 30 minutes about the people and what they need—yet another demonstration of how the coalition have been prepared to play politics with this issue rather than responding to the needs of the people of Queensland and putting the national interest ahead of their own immediate political self-interest.

I can tell you that I was in Brisbane and in Queensland the whole time of these events. Before the floodwaters had risen to their peak in Brisbane, the Leader of the Opposition was in Queensland playing politics with this issue, playing politics with the lives of the people that were being devastated at that very time, when his thoughts should have been for the people themselves and what we needed to do as a nation to rebuild that state and help all of those people whose lives have been shattered. I could see the embarrassment on the faces of some Queensland backbench members here today as the shadow Treasurer yet again put politics first rather than the national interest and rather than the needs of Queenslanders, because the devastation of these natural disasters has been immense. They have touched every Australian. The loss of life is seared into our memory. We mourn for those who are lost, and our sympathies go with those who will now go through the terrible task of rebuilding their lives.

We hear yet again today further evidence of natural disasters in New Zealand, and our thoughts go out to all of those people. We hope that there is good news as they go through those events in New Zealand.

Mother Nature in this country has been particularly cruel this summer. It has tested our nation. It has tested us in flood, it has tested us in cyclone and, of course, it has tested us in fire, all in a relatively short period of time. I believe that our people and the nation have risen to the tests of these events. Part of rising to deal with these events is to show the political maturity to put in place the policies that are required not just to deal with these events on the ground but also to strengthen our economy for the long term. We have to do both.

I think Australians understand the need for this. We have seen extraordinary acts of bravery. We have seen the extraordinary acts of people volunteering, travelling thousands of miles to communities to help their fellow citizens. We have seen strangers turning up in gumboots to the houses of people they have never met, and at times they have come a very long distance to do that. But coalition members in this House simply do not get that. The whole nation wants to pull together as we deal with this question, but what we get is the further politics of division from those opposite, putting politics ahead of the interests of all of those people in Queensland.

Yes, there have been extraordinary acts of generosity. Something like $200 million has been raised on a voluntary basis to help people. The generosity here has been overwhelming. It has been an important part of our response. But we are dealing here with a natural disaster which is unprecedented in our history, and I am sure this is not clearly understood by those opposite. Something like three-quarters of Queensland was declared a disaster area. Put that into perspective. That is more than five times the size of the state of Victoria. So what we are dealing with here, in comparison to other events like Cyclone Tracy or the Black Saturday bushfires or the Newcastle earthquake, is something that is quite extraordinary.

We cannot yet say what the full impact is but we do know it is significant. We know, for example, that it will take about half a percentage point off growth in 2010-11. That is about $6 billion stripped out of the real economy. That is no small beer. Queensland’s key economic sectors have been dealt a massive blow, and that does not take into account the critical public and community infrastructure that has been smashed to pieces. We have rail lines to reopen, ports to dredge, bridges to build—a huge amount of rebuilding of public infrastructure. That is why Treasury estimates that repairs to public infrastructure and disaster recovery payments for individuals will cost around $5.6 billion—and that is before the impact of Cyclone Yasi. That is why there has been such extraordinary generosity from Australians. That is why we have responded with emergency support payments.

The fact is that we have to rebuild the critical economic infrastructure of such a large part of Australia. Under our national disaster relief arrangements the Commonwealth rightly picks up 75 per cent of the bill. This is the responsibility of the national government. We have to do this to back up all of the actions of volunteers, all of that community effort and all of the donations that are coming from the business community. We have to be there with our 75 per cent for this critical public infrastructure, because that is what makes the community work. The disaster does not stop at the front gate; it does not stop at the farm gate. What we have to deal with is the essential community infrastructure that makes these communities go around. That is why we have put forward our $5.6 billion package, through the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011, to rebuild the essential public infrastructure.

In doing that we also have to be cognisant of where the economy is. We are now dealing with the very important challenges of mining boom mark 2. That is why we decided to fund two-thirds of the $5.6 billion from savings within the budget. More than $2½ billion will come from cuts to other programs, and about a billion dollars has been identified in other infrastructure projects that can be delayed.

The opposition go on as if finding savings in a budget is really easy and as if they are somehow capable of just magically producing $5 billion or $10 billion. They claimed during the election campaign that they had found savings of $50 billion. Their $11 billion costings con job was exposed by the Treasury. They simply are not up to the task of finding savings and we found that out during the election campaign. The next thing we heard from them was, ‘We could fund all of this by stopping the NBN.’ Did you know that when they produced their savings the other day they did not do anything about the NBN? This is because there are no savings that will come from altering the NBN.

When it comes to savings, this government has runs on the board. We understand that as we go through the budget process we will have to make further savings in addition to the savings that we have made in this package. We said that at the time, because we understand that we have to meet our fiscal targets. We do that not for political reasons but because the economy is growing strongly from the mining boom mark 2. As we go through the next couple of years there will be capacity constraints in our economy, so we have to make room to do the rebuilding on the one hand and to make sure that essential investment is going into areas that will increase the capacity to cope with the mining boom mark 2. So we are doing both and we will be finding further savings as we go forward. That is why we need a temporary levy and why we have moved for a temporary levy starting on 1 July this year. It is the responsible thing to do in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

I am just gobsmacked when I sit in this House and listen to all of the rhetoric from those opposite about how bad a levy is and about how the government always turns to taxing. When they were in government they were the highest taxing government in Australia’s history. On six occasions they found levies that they could support. In fact, they have never seen a levy that they did not support—up until a couple of weeks ago. They had the gun levy and the Timor levy—all of which were much bigger than this. So I am gobsmacked when I listen to them in this House claiming that somehow they can never support a levy even though they supported six levies in their 12 years of government.

What is completely mind-boggling and what demonstrates just how ridiculous, bizarre and crazy the opposition have become is that in the last election they went around Australia campaigning for a $6 billion levy over two years. It was $3 billion per year to fund parental leave. Suddenly, they expect the public to believe that they do not like levies. They do not like this levy because they want to play politics with the reconstruction in Queensland and they think it is in their political interest to do that. But I have a message for them and they ought to hear this loud and clear, particularly all of the Queensland backbenchers over there: Queenslanders do understand the need for this levy. They absolutely support this levy. Australians understand the need for this levy and they support it. What they do not support is the way in which those opposite are trying to be populist about this measure.

It is a modest levy. For a person on average full-time wages of $68,000 the levy amounts to $1.74 per week. This is less than a tenth of the tax cuts that they have received over the past three years. Let’s just put that into perspective: it is less than a bus ticket, less than a packet of Burger Rings, less than a weekend newspaper and less than a cup of coffee.

Mr Laming —It is hardly worth having a levy, then.

Mr SWAN —No, this is where you do not understand it and this is where you will be punished by the people in Queensland for playing politics with this: it is the sum of the parts that is important. All of these small amounts of money add up to a substantial amount of money that can rebuild our state. That is the case for this levy. Everybody is contributing. Everybody understands the size and magnitude of the task. If it was good enough to have a levy for Timor or for the gun buyback, why isn’t it good enough to have a levy to rebuild Queensland? They cannot answer that question and it exposes just how bizarre, out of touch and irresponsible each and every one of those members of the opposition is on this issue, particularly the members of the opposition from Queensland.

We are coming at this from the perspective of responsible economic management. We are a government that have got the big economic decisions right. Did you hear the shadow Treasurer go on and on earlier about how we handled the global recession? We absolutely got it right. If those opposite had had their way Australia would have been in recession. Unemployment would be far higher now and we would be in a much weaker position to deal with these natural disasters had they been in government during the global financial crisis.

I have just come from a meeting of G20 finance ministers. They understand how important the response of Australia was to growth in this country compared to what is going on in other developed economies. Go to the eurozone. Unemployment across the eurozone is 10 per cent. Unemployment in this country is five per cent. Part of the reason for that was the very quick response that we put in place to support small businesses, to support employment and to support confidence in our economy. The outcome has been a far stronger economy and one of the strongest developed economies in the Western world.

But of course all of this is opposed by those opposite, because they do not know how to behave when there are big challenges or when there is a crisis. They did not know how to behave during the global financial crisis. They came in here and hacked away at the bank guarantee; they came in here and opposed the second stimulus package. They did all those things because they could not live up to their responsibilities. They cannot live up to their responsibilities because they do not know how to behave in a crisis.

This was demonstrated yet again in their response to the floods in Queensland. They just decided to play politics from the very beginning. This government will deal with this in the way we must deal with it: we are going to deal with it in a responsible way. The responsible way is to put in place a levy which is modest but will fund, along with our savings, a package which will support the people of Queensland and the rest of the country. Paying as you go is the responsible thing to do. The irresponsible thing to do is what the opposition is doing.

With each and every one of us pulling our own weight, we will be back to surplus in a couple of years, we will be setting our economy up for the future, we will be doing the right thing by the people of Queensland, we will be making our economy stronger and we will be helping out all those people who need a helping hand. That is why a modest levy is the responsible thing to do. Those opposite will be condemned by their electorates for not behaving in a responsible way, which is what their electorates expect of them. (Time expired)