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Wednesday, 23 February 2011
Page: 1100

Mr ABBOTT (Leader of the Opposition) (9:46 AM) —It is good to have the chance to discuss this important piece of legislation and also to place this legislation in the context of the terrible disaster which has befallen so many areas of our country. Over this summer of disasters we have seen appalling damage first to the crops and settlements of the Riverina before Christmas, then in Central Queensland in the early part of the new year we saw the explosive floods in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley behind Brisbane. Brisbane itself along with Ipswich suffered major inundation and much of northern Victoria was an inland sea in the middle of January. Finally, we had the devastation of Cyclone Yasi, which almost blew to bits the town of Tully and other settlements in Far North Queensland.

It has been a shocking summer. In addition to the disasters that I have mentioned there has been serious flooding in Western Australia and significant flooding in northern New South Wales and in other parts of the Murray-Darling Basin as the floodwaters pass from Queensland over the border. But, while we saw terrible damage from nature, as always we saw the grit and the stoicism of the Australian people and we saw the professionalism of the emergency services aided and assisted by various municipal offices and the city and local councils of the affected areas. It has well been said that, over this summer of disasters, we saw the worst from Mother Nature but we saw the best from human nature.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the disaster we have also seen a federal government acting in character. The character of this government is when it sees a problem to reach for a tax. Plainly, the Commonwealth government must spend what is reasonably necessary to assist flood reconstruction and to assist the victims of these terrible floods and storms. On that point this House is entirely united. We must spend the money. The only difference between the government and the opposition is over how that money is raised. The government believes that the money should be raised through a tax—a new levy to raise $1.8 billion. The opposition believes that the money should be raised through additional savings. Plainly, savings are available. When the Prime Minister went to the National Press Club to first announce this measure she conceded when asked a question by a journalist that, if the costs ultimately were more than $5.6 billion, further savings would be found. So there is a clear admission by the Prime Minister and other senior members of the government that there is scope for further savings.

The coalition did not shrink from the task of identifying savings that would have saved Australians from this additional tax. We were criticised for it but still we held firm in our resolve to find the appropriate savings. The government was not so resolved. As soon as people started to criticise the savings measures that the government had announced, they were dumped. On the one hand, you have an opposition which does not shirk the task of finding savings and having found savings sticks with them; on the other hand, you have a government which will not find the full quantum of savings and the instant it is subjected to pressure goes to water and dumps the relevant savings.

One of the worst aspects of this tax is that it came in the wake of the most impassioned pleas by the Prime Minister to millions of Australians to give generously. She asked the Australian people to give of their hearts to the suffering people of Queensland. Having told them that they should give generously, she then proposes to coerce them with a new tax. That is so contrary to the normal Australian spirit. The concept of mateship that the Prime Minister evoked was simply out of place in the consideration of a new tax. Mates help each other; they do not tax each other. Mateship comes from people; it does not come from governments. Mateship is what people choose to do; it is not what they are forced to do.

I would be the last person to attribute bad faith to any member of this parliament. I would be the last person to bandy accusations of bad faith against the government. But it is hard to avoid, in this case, the suspicion that what the government has tried to do is exploit people’s goodwill towards flood victims to help it out of a fiscal hole. If there is any grounds to that suspicion, it demonstrates that this is a government that is not worthy of the trust and confidence of the Australian people.

The Prime Minister’s speech introducing this new tax was really quite remarkable. She claimed that in some way this new tax was honouring the victims of the floods. Really and truly, we honour the victims of the floods by rebuilding Queensland and the other states and the other communities that have been impacted. We honour the victims of the floods by being a competent parliament and a competent government. We do not honour them by imposing an unnecessary new tax. The Prime Minister in her speech spoke of the levies that had been introduced by a former government. Let me say this: there is a world of difference between a levy imposed by a government striving to achieve and maintain a budget surplus and a levy imposed by a government which has been recklessly spending taxpayers’ money and has given Australians the biggest deficits on record. There is a world of difference between a levy imposed by a government that could be trusted with the taxpayers’ money and a government that cannot.

This is a government which is already notorious for its waste of public money. The blow-out in the school halls program exceeds the total quantum to be raised by this new tax. This government has become an absolute byword for waste and mismanagement, and it knows it. That is why, along with announcing this new levy, the government announced the appointment of former finance minister in the Howard government Mr Fahey to oversee the spending of this money. They knew that the Australian public would not trust them to handle money, so what did they do? They resorted to appointing a Howard government minister to lend some respectability to their spending program. What is wrong with Lindsay Tanner? What is wrong with another former Labor finance minister to help—

Mr Hockey —Ralph Willis!

Mr ABBOTT —Ralph Willis: he must be one of the most humiliated men in the country, passed over—Peter Walsh; all of them—by his current parliamentary colleagues because the gold standard for fiscal responsibility was the Howard government. The gold standard for fiscal responsibility is provided by this coalition.

Obviously in most parts of Australia the floodwaters have receded, the clean-up has been largely completed, the reconstruction is underway. But the emotional scars will remain with the people who have been through this experience for many a long time. The physical scars on the land may be healing, but the emotional scars remain. It is important that members of this parliament do not forget the people who have suffered just because the cameras have moved on. And we will not forget them. We on this side of the parliament will not forget them. If there is any difficulty that people are having accessing reconstruction grants, we want to know about it. If there is any difficulty that they are having accessing the reconstruction loans, we are with them in pleading for justice. If they are having trouble with their insurers, we are on their side because it is very important that all institutions work with people rather than against them at a time like this. People are understandably conscious at a time like this of just how unfair life can be, and we do not want any sense of unfairness made worse by an unfeeling or an uncaring government, unfeeling or uncaring financial institutions.

While the opposition have naturally supported relief measures by all levels of government, we think this government could have gone further to assist people. We particularly think that this government could have gone further to assist the small businesses which are the lifeblood of our economy. You cannot have a community without a strong economy to sustain it, and when communities are suffering then it is urgent and important that the small businesses that are the lifeblood of their economies are succoured and sustained.

In order to help the small businesses of flood ravaged areas we have proposed a three-month tax holiday. I call on the government, even at this late stage, to adopt that idea of the coalition. We have also called for the extension of concessional loans to businesses that have been flood impacted but not actually physically damaged. We all know that there are many, many businesses in flood impacted areas that have not been physically damaged. Their premises were not inundated. They did not lose their roofs. Still they have lost business. There is no produce for them to carry. There are no customers for them to serve. Those businesses should also be assisted and that is why it is very important that those concessional loans be made available to them.

The problem with this tax is that it hurts people who have already suffered enough. The tax will fall on the shoulders of donors; the tax will fall on the shoulders of the volunteers who flocked to help their friends, their neighbours, their fellow Queenslanders and Victorians in trouble. And, despite the denials of the Prime Minister, this tax will also fall on victims. There are many people who have lost property, who have had loved ones placed into all sorts of difficult circumstances who are still paying this tax. The only people who will not pay this tax are people whose homes have been impacted and therefore are getting the Centrelink payment. So this is a fundamentally unfair tax as well as being wrong in principle, as well as being bad public policy.

This legislation and the respective attitudes of government and opposition to Queensland flood reconstruction has yet again highlighted a fundamental difference between the two sides of this parliament. We think that government should live within its means; members opposite think that government should put its hand deeper and deeper into the people’s pockets. This is not the way to go. On this bill, as so often will happen in the course of the coming year as the government bids in this parliament to impose tax after tax, the battle lines will be drawn between a government which is addicted to tax and a coalition which is always searching to ensure that government lives within its means. As each day passes, it is clearer and clearer that we have a Prime Minister who has never seen a tax she did not like and never had a tax she would not hike. That is the truth and that is why we should oppose this bill.