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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 465

Mr ABBOTT (Leader of the Opposition) (3:35 PM) —Over the last few weeks, every Australian has witnessed the devastation that so many regions of this country have suffered because of the summer of disaster. We have all seen the devastation. We have all felt for the people impacted. All of us, right around Australia, obviously want everything that is humanly possible to be done as quickly as possible to help those people bring their lives together again in the wake of these terrible disasters.

Everyone wants to see the reconstruction happen soon. Everyone wants to see the reconstruction happen right. Everyone wants to see the reconstruction properly funded. The difference between this side of the House and the other side of the House is that the government wants to see it funded through an unnecessary new tax and members on this side of the House want to see it funded through affordable, achievable, sensible savings from unnecessary government expenditure.

We have had a tough summer and we need a strong government to respond. A strong government should expect at least as much of itself as it does of its citizens. A strong and brave people, as Australians are, deserve a strong government not an indulgent one. That is why the Prime Minister should be putting her hand into the government’s pockets to meet the cost of flood reconstruction. She should not be putting her hand yet again deeper into the pockets of struggling Australian families.

But this is not the last raid on the Australian people that this government will be perpetrating this year; it is but the first attempt by this government to pick the pockets of the Australian people in what will be the year of the big new taxes, if this government has its way. There is the mining tax, there is the carbon tax and there is the higher tax on people with private health insurance. The Prime Minister says, ‘Oh no, you don’t need to worry, it’s just a temporary tax; trust me,’ just like she asked us before the election to trust her that there would be no carbon tax and to trust her that there would be a climate change people’s assembly. We simply cannot trust this government when it comes to tax because this is a government which cannot cut its own spending and, because it cannot cut its own spending, it now wants the Australian people to cut their spending. It is just wrong.

The Prime Minister was at pains to say that the cost of reconstruction would be very high, that the government was facing a very big bill—$5.6 billion. I agree: that is a big bill. But it is just 1½ per cent of the government’s annual income. It is about 10 per cent of what the government is gladly spending on the National Broadband Network. It is just 30 per cent of what the government has spent—and in many cases wasted—on the Building the Education Revolution program. In fact, the $1.8 billion that the Prime Minister’s new tax will raise is about the same as the cost blow-out that this incompetent and extravagant government perpetrated in the school halls program and it is even less than the $2.4 billion that the government completely wasted in the pink batts program. It did not hit us with a levy for the National Broadband Network. It did not hit us with a levy for the BER. Now it is hitting us with a levy because it has been so wasteful and extravagant in the past. The government should pay for its mistakes. It should not try to make the people pay for its mistakes, which is why we have this unnecessary new tax.

There have been cyclones before in this country, there have been floods before in this country, but never before has there been this kind of unnecessary new tax because there has never before been a government of quite this level of waste and incompetence. Why should the Australian people be hit with a levy to meet expenses which a competent, adult, prudent government should be able to cover from the ordinary revenues of government? It raises $350 billion a year and it cannot find $1.8 billion to meet what should be something that a prudent government could find out of its ordinary revenues.

There are people in Queensland and Victoria today—tens of thousands of them, in fact—many of them on low incomes, who have to spend tens of thousands of dollars just to make their flood and storm impacted homes habitable. They will get no insurance payouts. They will get precious little assistance from government. People earning less than $50,000 a year will be expected to spend far more than $50,000 just to make their homes liveable. They will not be putting their hand out to anyone else, yet this government cannot do the minimum that it is doing without putting its hand deep into the pockets of Australian taxpayers. This is a government with an income of $350 billion a year that cannot find $1l.8 billion without a new tax. To put that into perspective, it is like someone with $350 in his pocket who cannot find $1.80 for a good cause. The Australian people know what it is like to have to tighten their belts in tough times and they deserve a government which is capable of tightening its belt when it faces unforeseen extra expenses.

It is true that the Prime Minister did announce as part of this package some cuts. She announced cuts to programs that should never have been announced in the first place, like the cash-for-clunkers programs. She announced cuts to programs which the coalition had already committed to cutting and which it was roundly criticised for by the government. This government should not be given any credit for reversing decisions that should never have been made in the first place, and certainly this government should get no credit whatsoever for cuts to flood mitigation works on the Bruce Highway. What sort of a government, in responding to a flood disaster, would cut spending on flood mitigation works? At the heart of the government’s response is a new tax. This is not just any new tax. According to the Prime Minister in this very House this morning, the new tax at the heart of this government’s flood response is ‘an expression of goodwill between Australians’. This is a tax and a half—it is an expression of goodwill. It is ‘a way of honouring the dignity and resilience that Australians have shown throughout this ordeal’. Isn’t that fantastic! The next lot of people to get gongs will be hit with a new tax because that is how this government thinks you should honour people—by hitting them with a new tax.

I said this week that the Prime Minister has a decent heart, but I tell you what: she has got a tin ear. She sure does not understand anything about mateship, because if she understood anything about mateship at all she would know that mateship is not taxing people; mateship is helping people. She would know that mateship is not what you are taxed to give; mateship is what you choose to give. She would know that mateship does not come from governments; it comes from people and communities.

It is true, as the Prime Minister has also said, that the Howard government did impose some levies, but the Howard government did not turn a $20 billion surplus into a $50 billion deficit. People trusted the Howard government with money, and the only way the current government thinks it might be trusted with money is by appointing a Howard government minister to oversee it. The only person in the Gillard government who could be trusted with money was in fact the former member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, and he is gone because he did not trust the Prime Minister and he would not come back—and she would not even ask him to come back; instead, she turned to John Fahey.

We know that there is fat in this budget because the Prime Minister keeps telling us that if the bill is more than $5.6 billion there will be more savings. If more than $5.6 billion is needed, there will be more savings, she says, not more taxes. Well, if there are more savings to be had, let us take them now. If there are more savings to be had, let us take the fat off government, let us not take ‘the lean’ off citizens.

This week the shadow Treasurer and I put forward a raft of further savings, real savings over the forward estimates, real savings to eliminate the need for real tax increases. These are the proposals that I would like to sit down with the Prime Minister and discuss in a spirit of bipartisanship. These are the proposals that I would like to discuss with her in a spirit of national unity brought on by this flood crisis. If she really does want to bring the nation together—to ‘get them through this together’ as she said to the parliament today—she would take up this offer to sit down and negotiate savings in a spirit of national unity. If she has got more savings, if she has got better savings, I am only too happy to agree to those extra savings in a spirit of national unity. As things stand, people have suffered enough, and they do not deserve to suffer through a new tax. The one thing that they will never have to suffer under a coalition government is an unnecessary new tax, a tax that could easily be replaced by savings found from the budget.

I fear that we are already seeing signs from this government of the same kind of incompetence and ineptitude which blighted its delivery of so many programs in the past, such as the school halls and pink batts programs. The Treasurer says that his tax will raise $1.8 billion, but he cannot say how many people will actually pay it. The Prime Minister says that she will pay $5.6 billion out, but she cannot say what it will actually be spent on. The Prime Minister tells us that this new tax is just a cup of coffee a week, but what we heard today was that the cup of coffee a week becomes a coffee machine a week in the case of some taxpayers. The Prime Minister says that flood victims will not pay the tax. That is simply wrong. Donors will pay, volunteers will pay and victims will pay. People who have lost their businesses but not their homes will pay this new tax.

The task of government is to respond intelligently to the problems of the nation. The task of leaders is not just to feel people’s pain; it is to solve their problems. I hope that the Prime Minister, in the weeks and months ahead, can confidently address the people’s problems despite her previous failings, but I know that, unless she changes her mind, she will add to their pain with this unnecessary tax. As far as this government is concerned, 2011 is the year of new taxes; as far as this opposition is concerned, it should be the year in which governments finally start to live within their means.