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Wednesday, 28 June 2000
Page: 18443

Mr ALBANESE (1:39 PM) —I am pleased to support the Compensation Measures Legislation Amendment (Rent Assistance Increase) Bill 2000 because the Labor Party is happy to see extra funds going into rent assistance. An increase in the maximum rate of rent assistance is welcome. As members of the government have said, it will provide $33 million in additional rental assistance to low income earners, not that this will go very far. For a single social security recipient with no children, it is worth 16c a day, $1.12 a week. For a single person with no children sharing the rent, it is worth 11c a day. That is 77c a week. In fact, it is only those social security recipients receiving the maximum rate of rental assistance who will receive the increase. As my colleague the member for Lilley has pointed out, that means that fewer than half of the residents of caravan parks and boarding homes will get anything out of this package.

The fact is that this is a dud deal. That is why I seconded the amendment moved by the member for Lilley. It is also consistent—unlike the member for Robertson, who could not last 20 minutes speaking to this bill. It is consistent not just with Labor Party policy, it is consistent with National Party policy. I am pleased that the member for Page is in parliament, because I might like to offer him the opportunity to second the amendment. I would be happy to withdraw my seconding rights to this amendment, because it is consistent with the resolution adopted unanimously at the National Party conference, to which the member for Page was a delegate. The member voted for this amendment in Tweed Heads, as did Larry Anthony and Gary Nehl. All of the National Party members voted for it at their conference but, in here, they are silent; they defend the government's position.

The history of this grubby tax on the most vulnerable people in our community is one that is important not just for what it says about the government being prepared to attack residents of caravan parks and boarding houses but because of what it says about the government's attitude towards the most vulnerable in our community in general. This bill is a miniature replay of the first Democrat-government deal that ensured the passage of the GST. The Democrats got out of that the Econtech report, which they would look at and which the government would consider. An independent review was undertaken by Econtech to consider exactly the impact of the GST on boarding house residents. That was an interesting strategy of the Australian Democrats—to vote for an unfair tax on the basis that there would be a report published later on to show just how unfair it is. The fact is that we repeatedly asked for the Econtech report to be brought forward to us. I raised this issue on 16 February this year. I said in this House:

The government knows that these tenants will be worse off. That is why it is sitting on the report by Econtech into people in boarding houses.

It was raised again on 17 February, 14 March, 30 May, 19 June, 20 June and, of course, we raised it again after the document was leaked on 26 June. We raised it in this House over and over again. My colleague the member for Lilley asked questions. We raised it in Senate estimates. Not once did the government release this report. Between 3 February and June, seven press releases were issued calling for this report to be released. However, the government sat on it, because it is a sorry tale. It shows that boarding house residents will be worse off.

Now, as a result of this deal of extra rent assistance—a deal that leaves the discrimination intact—the Democrats came up with the stroke of genius of halving the GST so that it would be 2.75 per cent. However, that stance did not last long. Within 24 hours, the Democrats had once again folded to the government and settled for this inadequate package that leaves the discrimination. The only way to remove discrimination is to treat all tenants equally by abolishing the GST on all residential rents. Why is that such a radical proposal? After all, the National Party promised that at the last election. Mark Vaile, the member for Lyne, said:

This will be treated in the same way as rental of a house or unit and is GST free.

That was in election material distributed to permanent park residents.

Since then, the government has been in damage control. The fact is that, when the GST was introduced, the government simply forgot that some 160,000 Australians live in this form of accommodation and tens of thousands of Australians live in boarding houses. The government moved only when they realised that so many of those residents lived in marginal seats.

We on this side of the house have other reasons for wanting this tax removed. We want it removed because it is discriminatory and because it affects some of the most vulnerable people in our community. How do we know that? Because the government says that is the case. The government's national homelessness strategy, launched on 25 May, identified families living in caravans and hotels and people living in boarding houses as being at high risk of homelessness. Labor simply believes that millionaires renting property in Kirribilli, Vaucluse or Toorak should be treated the same as people who live in caravan parks in Coffs Harbour, Grafton, the Tweed, Cairns or Kalgoorlie. Why should the only people who pay the GST up front—5.5 per cent—be the very people who are the most vulnerable? It is a fundamental Australian principle that we do not discriminate on the basis of wealth.

In order for them to squeeze every last cent out of these vulnerable people we find that, under the Howard government, even half of 10 per cent—the concessional GST—is no longer five per cent; it is 5.5 per cent. They add on the 10 per cent and then charge the concessional tax of 50 per cent of the GST. So it is a tax on a tax by this miserable, discriminating, reactionary government in order to squeeze out an extra 0.5 per cent. However, no-one has held more positions on this issue than the Minister for Community Services, the minister who could manage to weasel out just 200 words. He had half an hour on the clock in moving this bill, but said only 200 words. And it is not surprising, because the minister has discovered that words can come back to bite him. He said on 7 October 1999:

Site fees are not the same as rent. This whole issue is nothing new.

He kept defending it on 12 October. He said:

As you well know, prior to the last election we were very open and transparent about the GST, particularly the relationship it had to rent and particularly the relationship that it had to mobile home parks.

That is extraordinary when one considers the leaflet distributed by his colleague the member for Lyne and extraordinary given that residents in parks in his electorate were told by him in meetings that the GST would not apply. But then the pressure was put on so that by 9 February of this year he was saying to residents:

But I do hope there can be a change there ... and I hope I can come back to you shortly, and I will, through your representatives, and hopefully there can be a change.

In May he distributed a pamphlet to his electorate which acknowledged that he was aware that park residents are being treated differently from people renting outside parks. It stated:

He has taken this message to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. Most recently he had a robust discussion on this issue with John Howard in his Canberra office.

But it gets worse, because on 15 June in relation to the urgency motion that was coming up before the New South Wales National Party conference he said:

Certainly if that does become policy by the party, then if the National Party have come out in that position, then I think it is appropriate for the government to seriously consider changing this policy. Then the party will be making decisions and so will I.

What courage we have seen from the member for Richmond! While the Labor Party stands for rolling back the GST through our amendment to this bill today, the National Party stands for roll-over, and they have rolled over on this issue. In spite of the rhetoric of the Leader of the National Party, in cabinet not a word was said. In the joint party room not a word was said by the member for Page or the member for Robertson; not one question was asked of the Prime Minister on this issue. What a disgrace! Black Jack McEwen would be rolling in his grave if he could see what the National Party have been reduced to today.

But we are giving them the opportunity. If the New South Wales Nationals—forget about the people in the other states—vote for their party policy and vote for our amendment moved by the member for Lilley, there will be a majority on this side of the House. We will be calling a division and if those eight Nationals vote with the ALP on this issue, they will have their platform adopted—unanimously adopted—by the rank and file. This is a true test of heart and courage. This is a test of whether they represent their electorates or whether they are merely an adjunct to the Melbourne and Sydney Liberal Party machine. We will see how much backbone they have got. Mr Deputy Speaker, you would know how important this issue is. I cannot put it better than how you summed it up on 16 June—

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—If the honourable member for Grayndler wishes to quote something said by the member for Cowper he should identify it, as the chair has said nothing on this issue.

Mr ALBANESE —I cannot put it better than how the member for Cowper put it. On 16 June he made a great statement, a courageous statement. He said:

As far as I'm concerned there is one issue and it affects me very, very personally. But what affects me personally is that my integrity and honour is impugned, as is John Anderson and Larry's and Mark Vaile and the rest of us—everybody—because we went to the people of Australia at the last election and we said there'd be no GST on residential rents. It has an impact on John Howard's integrity and honour and that of the Liberal Party as well.

How right the member for Cowper is. It took the National Party conference for the government to sit up and take notice at least for a couple of days.

Mr Swan —Hours.

Mr ALBANESE —They said they would do something for a couple of days, but they said not a word in this House, not a word when they came to Canberra. Perhaps the most offensive comment on this issue came from Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot, a Liberal senator representing Western Australia, including the electorate of Kalgoorlie, which has some 14,509 permanent park residents. He has not been chastised or criticised by the Prime Minister, by the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party or by the member for Page. I call upon a single member of the government to come out and condemn this senator and dissociate themselves from these comments. Senator Lightfoot said:

These people are lucky. They are no more special than anyone else. It might be an incentive for them to get houses.

The arrogance of these people with their family trusts and their spiv mates from the big cities! They say, `We'll tax you. We'll discriminate against you. We'll put you at risk of homelessness because it is an incentive for you to get out there and get houses.' The fact is that these people do have homes; they are proud of their homes. When you go into residential parks, you do not see many wheels on caravans. What you see is homes with plumbing, with full facilities. This is a government that is totally out of touch.

The National Party concession was to say, `Oh, we're going to get the ACCC to monitor what's happening.' That was the concession from the National Party leader. I will tell members what the ACCC have to say. In a letter to the federal member for Chifley, my colleague Roger Price, Professor Fels said the following:

It is important to note with the second option the GST concessional rate will not apply to additional charges for goods or services provided as part of the accommodation. For example, electricity, gas, mini bar items, laundry bills, meals, phone calls, et cetera. These items will attract the full GST of 10 per cent.

This is how out of touch they are. They actually think that people in residential parks get mini bars filled up at night. They think they get food and phones provided. They get nothing of the sort. By and large, most of the services in these parks are provided by the residents themselves. But why wouldn't Professor Fels be out of touch on this issue, because the government is out of touch as well? On AM on 19 June when dismissing the National Party conference call, the Prime Minister said:

If you pay the half GST, the owner of the caravan park is then able to get a refund of all the input taxes he pays on things like carpets, airconditioning, heating and so forth.

That will be news to the residents. As well as getting their mini bars filled up at night and all these other services provided, they have benevolent owners of caravan parks coming in and putting carpet in their vans for them and providing airconditioning. What a nonsense! This government has no idea whatsoever about the lifestyle of ordinary Australians.

The second part of the deal from the National Party which is even more offensive is that, on top of the $431 million campaign to sell the GST to the electorate, they announced that they will run an education campaign. The money that owners will pay in GST on their site fees and their rent is actually going to be used by the government to send propaganda into residential parks to tell them that they are better off for it. It is no wonder that only one member of the government was prepared to put his or her name on the speakers list for this bill. The Deputy Prime Minister has not had anything to say because he knows that the National Party is completely out of touch on this issue.

People who live in boarding houses are some of the most vulnerable people in our community. I probably have more boarding houses in my electorate than there are in just about any other electorate in Australia. One of my constituents is a Mr Patrick Drage, who lives in Crystal Street, Petersham, in a row of six terraces containing 42 permanent residents. This is what a real battler has to say about the GST on rent:

I go without meals as it is, if it goes up another $14 or so, that's meat and bread I'll have to go without. I go to the [Exodus] Foundation at Ashfield and pretty much everyone else here does, too. I can't read or write, I had silicosis all my life and I couldn't go to school. I didn't vote for the GST, it's going to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Mr Patrick Drage of Petersham has got it right. This is an appalling cave-in by the Democrats. It is an embarrassment for the National Party, whose rank and file will wonder why they bother to go to conferences.

I conclude by asking the National Party to find a spine and find eight of those New South Wales Nationals to vote for the policy that was adopted unanimously by the rank and file at its conference, at which they were all delegates. They voted for it in Tweed Heads. I say: if it is good enough to vote for it in Tweed Heads, it is good enough to vote for it in Canberra.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.