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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 122


Senator BUCKLAND (9:59 PM) —In question time last Thursday ministers were asked a couple of questions dealing with the high rate of tax increases that Australians are confronted with in comparison with comparable economies such as New Zealand, Britain and the US. These high tax increases, which will continue to confront Australians, are coming from a government that claims to care but shows no sign of caring for the less well off in our society. When you consider that a single person with no children and earning around $90,000 a year has had their tax increased by 1.4 per cent and a single person earning something like $35,000 and supporting two children has been confronted with a tax increase of 9 per cent, you have to ask yourself, ‘Have we got our system of taxation right?’

Of course the Prime Minister and the Treasurer will tell you it is fine but an increasing number of coalition members led by, as I understand it, Senator Fifield’s ginger group, think differently. Senator Fifield, of course, was Peter Costello’s economic adviser and he is a stalking horse for his former boss’s leadership bid. I do not know whether he will turn out to be as good as he was as an adviser but we will see. Despite this outward appearance of loyalty, to the close observer there seems to be a bit of a split on the question of tax rates. But is the system of taxation in Australia right? Can the ginger group do anything to change it? More importantly, do they really have the courage to try? If it causes the less well off to be disadvantaged, it is not right. If it creates hardship for young families, it is not right. If it makes it more difficult for the aged and the sick in the community, it is not right either. If it has the capacity to widen the gap between the well off and the not so well off, it cannot be right; it is simply wrong.

Mr Deputy President, you might think that the disproportionate tax regime we have is bad enough. After all, the OECD’s annual review does not exactly paint a picture of Australia as being in step with its close allies, New Zealand, Britain and America, as I mentioned before. But indeed the future, when you take into account what the government intend to do when they get control of this chamber in July this year, becomes quite frightening. We have the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, refusing to give Australian workers a guarantee that their wages will not be lowered as a result of the government’s proposed changes to the minimum wage arrangements. That should not come as a surprise. After all, the Howard government have not supported one increase in the minimum wage since they came to office in 1996. If the government had been able to have their way in 1996, 1.6 million Australian workers would have been at least $2,300 a year, or about $44 a week, worse off. That is $44 a week that middle income earners and lower wage earners cannot sustain.

The minister’s refusal to guarantee that no individual Australian worker’s wages will be lower as a result of the government’s draconian industrial relations proposals, which are to be forced through the Senate when the government gain the majority in this place after 1 July this year, will lead to severe hardship for many Australian families. So what Australian workers are confronted with is Australia’s highest taxing government who have now been exposed to be asleep at the wheel when they should be protecting the nation from the latest interest rate increases. When the going gets just a little tough the government put a sign on the door, saying, ‘We’re out to lunch.’

They only way the government can deal with the matter is to take a sledgehammer to the most vulnerable in our community: the workers. Getting the economy right by tackling the real issues is far too hard for the Treasurer. He is a man of straw, a good news Treasurer—nothing more—and his colleagues, or at least the ginger group, also think that is all he is. It seems that the member for Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull, is part of the ginger group. He certainly does not appear to be a great supporter of Treasurer Peter Costello’s approach to things economic. Mr Turnbull is actually looking for a long-term solution to the country’s economic future; he is advocating tax reforms that provide relief for the poor—not unlike the Labor Party. Apparently Mr Turnbull does not understand the dangers of speaking against the Liberal leadership, as refreshing as that may be, but I am sure someone will take him aside shortly and explain that it is easier for them to kick workers than to come up with real solutions.

But until there is a change in Liberal Party leadership and until they start listening to their backbench, Australian workers and the less well off in the community will have a very hard time ahead of them. Unless there is change, Australia’s low and middle income earners can expect to be punished by the government and to become their punching bag as they try to get out of the economic mess they have given us. Sadly, there will not only be high taxes that hurt low and middle income earners; there will also be nasty industrial relations laws that whack low- and middle-income earners a second time. That group of workers—the backbone of our nation—will have a second hit, with every likelihood of a further erosion of their incomes. It is no good the government saying that the Labor Party jumps to the tune of the unions. That is not so. But in recent times, whenever the business community has something to say, the government, like a puppet on a string, jump to its demands. That is what we have seen, and that is why we are where we are, thanks to this very lazy, very backward-thinking government.