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Wednesday, 21 June 2000
Page: 15277

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (9:31 AM) —I rise to speak in the debate on the Indirect Tax Legislation Amendment Bill 2000 and to make a number of comments on the GST package overall. When I got home last night after the Senate sittings, I emptied the junk mail out of my letterbox. I was about to dispose of it the way I normally dispose of junk mail when I realised that part of it was the package on tax reform that had been distributed by the Prime Minister under the Prime Minister's signature.

Curiosity got the better of me and, unlike I normally do with junk mail, I decided to open it and read through the pack. More importantly, I read the letter that had been sent from the Prime Minister. It actually had some interesting comments in it. For example, it says in the second paragraph:

The Australian economy is now the strongest it has been in a generation. We have lived within our means and will soon have repaid $50 billion out of a $96 billion Government debt. The budget is back in the black, interest rates are substantially lower, and around 700,000 more Australians are in work.

But we would be failing Australia if we didn't work to address the taxation system which has placed an unfair burden on too many for too long.

It is interesting that the Prime Minister made that comment, made that confession. Here is a Prime Minister who is arguing that we have to have tax reform because our current taxation system is broke and cannot deliver to Australians. Yet in his letter he says that, under the old taxation system, under the wholesale sales tax system, we have had nine years of growth, we now have the strongest economy we have had in a generation, we have been paying off government debt and we have created 700,000 jobs. That is a ringing endorsement of a system that he says is broke. I would have thought, on any common reading of the material, you would have to say that that is a system that is working particularly well. Obviously, no system is perfect and it may have needed a bit of fiddling around the edges to improve it. I think it is a very interesting admission by the Prime Minister that, under this system that he considers is broke, the economy has operated exceedingly well; the best in a generation. His letter then goes on to say:

From July, the Wholesale Sales Tax, with all its complexities and different rates, will be abolished along with other indirect taxes, to be replaced with a simpler and fairer goods and services tax, locked in at 10 per cent.

I thought that those were interesting comments. Then I turned on the television and watched the 7.30 Report and the interview with Mr Anderson, the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party. If that explanation on the 7.30 Report was a simple explanation of a simple taxation system, then I think I need to go back to school. I think I need to go back and take another course in the English language so that I can understand that simple explanation. He lost me about 30 seconds into his explanation. I think he lost every other viewer with what he was trying to say.

The interview was an absolutely pathetic performance by the leader of a party that purports to support and represent the interests of ordinary regional and rural Australians. What was very obvious from the interview is that Mr Anderson does not have a clue, does not understand what is happening to ordinary Australians out in regional and rural Australia. He is totally out of contact with the concerns of those people. The further the interview went on, the further Mr Anderson got himself into more and more trouble in trying to explain or give a rationale for the position his party has adopted in relation to many of these issues.

What is quite clear—and old Black Jack McEwen would turn in his grave if he had seen Mr Anderson's performance last night—is that the leadership of the National Party have abandoned rural and regional Australia. They are now simply another rump of the Liberal Party. Except for perhaps one or two of them whose honesty I will come back to later in these comments, the National Party have abandoned any pretence of representing the interests of country people. After digesting that material, I woke up this morning and went for my normal walk around Red Hill to get my exercise.

Senator Ian Campbell —Very pleasant, wasn't it?

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —It was very lovely this morning, so it was, Senator Ian Campbell, and I came back and switched on the radio while I was having breakfast.

Senator Ian Campbell —What did you have for breakfast?

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —My nor-mal breakfast, Senator Ian Campbell—good porridge, a bit of fruit and not much else. I listened the Treasurer on AM doing an inter-view to try to explain the modelling on rents. I admit that I left school when I was 13. I did not go on to have a secondary edu-ca-tion and all the rest of it. That was not accessible to me when I was growing up. In those days we were educated to the level of being factory fodder in working class Belfast. I did not pride myself on my in-depth under-standing of the English language, so I could be forgiven for not being able to understand the more eloquent way in which Mr Ander-son was explaining the impact of the GST on caravan parks and on regional and rural Australians last night. But when I was at school I did have some competency in mathematics. I was quite good at mathe-matics. I listened intently to the Treasurer's explanation this morning. I thought at the end of the interview that you do not need a degree in mathematics to understand this; you would need some lessons from Einstein. It was the most convoluted, garbled explanation of a set of statistics that was quite simple.

What the statistics were saying is quite simple: the government had fudged the figures in respect of the increases on rents. They had said it was going up by 2.3 per cent, but it was actually going up by 4.7 per cent. They had kept the information secret, but the Treasurer went through this convoluted, detailed explanation of how it really was not what it appeared to be but then it might be something else that you could interpret it to be if you put this sort of interpretation upon it. It was very convoluted. I have to say that there would not be one punter out there in Australia who listened to that program—I think the only thing the Treasurer had going for him was that not too many punters listen to the AM program—who pays rent or who lives in a caravan park who would have sat back, filled up their cup of tea or coffee and said, `Oh, thank goodness the Treasurer understands what is going on with us. We're not being conned here. We'll be all right. We'll be better off under this tax system.' They must have been shaking their heads in absolute amazement at what this government was trying to say on that matter. I think caravan park dwellers in particular will introduce their own song into this tax debate. We have Unchain my heart; I think a lot of them will be unchaining their caravans and moving on to try to avoid having to pay site fees.

Again, you have to come back to the starting point: the constant portrayal by this government that, in the words of the Treasurer, this is a good and simple tax. Let's take the issue of caravan parks. Either this government has practised deceit over a two-year period or National Party politicians must be absolute boneheads and did not understand the GST legislation that the coalition government was putting in place. That is the only conclusion you can come to: they either deliberately went out there to deceive caravan park dwellers in rural and regional Australia or they did not understand what they were voting for in their party room. In September 1998, Mark Vaile, the Minister for Trade, said:

I would like to assure you that residents who occupy accommodation in a caravan park or holiday village on a permanent basis (ie over 28 days) will not have to pay the GST on their site fees. This will be treated in the same way as rental of a house or unit, and is GST free.

That was contained in election material he distributed to permanent park residents in the seat of Lyne. On 9 February, another minister in the government Warren Truss, then Minister for Community Services, said:

What are caravans parks if they are not tourist accommodation?

On 7 October 1999, Larry Anthony, current Minister for Community Services, said:

Site fees are not the same as rent. The whole issue is “nothing new”.

Then on 12 October, five days later, 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 it had to mobile home parks.

On 7 February 2000, Peter Costello said:

An interesting question if you happen to run a caravan park. How many people in Australia run caravan parks, I mean, amongst your listeners there would be some, but I imagine most of your listeners would be in regional businesses or farming businesses where they are totally inside the system. They don't have to worry about esoteric questions like applying the GST to long term rentals in caravan parks.

The government should have been worrying because they did not pick up the political significance of this issue until the past few days, until Larry Anthony actually lobbied the National Party to take their national conference to his electorate of Richmond. They met in Tweed Heads, and he is going to be one sick and sorry member as a result of the outcome of that conference. I think Larry actually lobbied for his own demise, because his friends in the National Party at that conference did not do him any favours in terms of his capacity to hold that seat.

But he shifted a bit on this issue between October and February. On 9 February he said:

But I do hope there can be change there. And I think, I think even some of the park owners would prefer not to have that option, because it is putting the heat on them because they do have an option: whether to charge or not to charge ...

Whether to be or not to be. He continued:

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

Joanna Gash, the member for Gilmore, was actually a bit more honest about what was happening over the caravan debate. She said:

It's a stuff up, there's no other explanation ... I feel it's a discriminatory tax on where you are living.

And so the sorry tale of caravan parks goes on, with quote after quote after quote. Last week, on 15 June, Larry Anthony, the Minister for Community Services, in talking about the urgency motion at the New South Wales National Party conference, 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.

Well I think what it does demonstrate is that if our party, the National Party, has made a very clear policy decision, then it does indicate that there is a large proportion, particularly within the National Party, that would like to see some amendments made here and that needs to be considered by cabinet.

Well, they are fully aware of this issue, as indeed many other members of the government are, but until this motion gets carried or if it is not, we will have to wait until this afternoon and then the party will be making certain decisions, and so will I.

He made the decision to stay. They carried that decision on caravan parks. Did Mr Anthony bring it down and have it debated in cabinet? Not on your life. It never even got to the cabinet room. It did not even get passed the Prime Minister, who was on the radio the next morning saying that it was not on the agenda, that they were not considering it, that it was not unfair and that that was the end of the it. They show no concern at all about the treatment of those caravan park residents, nor in fact do they listen to the substance of their argument on this issue.

It is not the only area where there is confusion in respect of the GST. We have seen the debacle over the past couple of days over the issue of rents, which has emerged out of the debate over caravan parks. The government has now suddenly discovered in the bottom drawer modelling by Chris Murphy of Econtech—the Prime Minister's preferred modeller—on the impact on rents. This is the same company that Treasury engaged when we were going through the GST debate. The Prime Minister and others in this government have held this up as being the real model that will give detailed, factual information on the impact of the GST. It was cited ad nauseam by the Treasurer and the Prime Minister in sustaining their arguments as to why the GST will not do certain things.

Mr Murphy presumably did the modelling at the request of Treasury, although one government minister—I think it was the Treasurer yesterday—was trying to distance Murphy's modelling from the Treasury's modelling by saying that it was not Treasury's modelling, it was Econtech's modelling. But presumably Mr Murphy did not go and do the modelling himself—someone would have commissioned him to do it and presumably that was Treasury. So the government finds out that, in fact, rents were going to be double their figure and that rental increases would be substantially higher than had been projected by the government. What did it do with the information? It did not say to the Australian public: `Look, we have made a bit of an error in calculation here. Mr Murphy has done his modelling. We said rents would rise by 2.3 per cent, but Mr Murphy says they would rise by 4.7 per cent. Now we are going to have to make an adjustment.' It kept it in the bottom drawer until it was actually forced out. It was not given out voluntarily.

It is not the only area, of course, where the government have problems. I wondered why Senator Minchin, the mystery minister for the disappearing Department of Industry, Science and Resources, got on his feet yesterday in a spirit of defence of their car policy. He was defending their treatment of the automotive industry in relation to the GST. It was very unlike Nick. He usually sits there very quietly; he gets one dorothy dixer every two or three months. His department is disappearing from underneath him. He has no platform, no strategy and no programs for industry development in this country, and it has become very apparent. A report in this morning's Financial Review says:

Severe pre-GST nerves in the Federal Government yesterday prompted a bruising backbench attack on the Industry Minister, Senator Nick Minchin, and saw Liberal MPs turn on their National Party Coalition partners. The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard—

Senator Minchin's backer—

was forced to intervene in the fight between Senator Minchin and the backbench over used-car import rules, after government MPs labelled Senator Minchin a “disgrace” and accused him of lying.

The differences in this debate are now not only between us, the government and their junior coalition partners, the Democrats, but also in the government party room between the ministers and the Prime Minister. (Time expired)