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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6371

Senator JOHNSTON (2:16 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Vanstone. Will the minister inform the Senate how excessive state taxes and charges impact on the most disadvantaged Australians?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank the senator for his question. All of us in this place represent states and territories, and at the moment it happens that everyone on the other side represents states and territories that are in government. But the situation has been different and will be different in the future. It is important that senators always recognise that they are not here as empty vessels to do what their state governments want or ask them to do and that they are not supportive of them when they do the wrong thing.

The federal government has a very important role in assisting disadvantaged and low-income people. That is why people on the family tax benefit, for example—the low-income ones that Senator Bishop was referring to—do not have debts on FTBA, because they get the maximum rate and do not have a problem. When we are talking about low-income people, we need to look at how much money is left in their pockets. We can look at how much income they get from welfare, but how much is taken out by state taxes and charges?

When we have a look at this, we see that state taxes and charges either imposed by them or controlled by them in pricing regimes have been going up substantially. I have not heard a whimper from state media about it or, for that matter, much discussion of it in this parliament, and I think there should be, because these charges make a big difference. The cost of electricity and gas is one example; car registrations are another. Public transport is another, where public transport is so inefficiently provided in urban areas that people on low incomes who have either one car on no car are forced to meet very significant expenses. Of course, there are the levies, taxes or charges—call them what you will—on insurance. These are significant everyday expenditures. There are also gambling taxes that mostly come from pokies, ripping money out of low-income families. There are also, of course, conveyancing taxes that, in effect, mean that where a family wants to have another child and move to another house because they want another room they cannot afford to pay the state for the privilege of doing so. So I think we do need to consider very much the impact that taxes and charges from the states have on low-income Australians.

We are helping low-income Australians. A single-income couple living on a minimum wage with two kids get nearly $10,000— $9,456—in support from this government; that is very significant. But then we see it eaten away by increasing taxes and charges. Too often, the debate on welfare and poverty looks at the amount of money going in and refuses to look at the amount of money taken out by the states. Now the states have got access to GST revenue—Queensland is next year positive; the other states will come on board—it will be even more important for senators in this place to look at and understand state budgets, to look at and understand what the states are doing with their money.

The states will become the major service delivery agents to our constituents, and we should be able to understand their budgets. They should have consistency and transparency at a state level so that not only can the federal parliament understand what is happening with state money but community groups and individuals are able to understand what the states are doing. To be able to understand that is fundamental to a democratic system. In New South Wales, for example, where there was a $39 million underspend, numerous experts have not been able to find how they got away with that and how it could be underspent for so long. Imagine if we tried to not spend $39 million! Imagine if we had a 50 per cent levy on insurance costs in rural Victoria in a year when we have got such drought and such risk of bushfire. Wouldn't you think somebody in this place would raise it? Wouldn't you think somebody over there would be interested? (Time expired)