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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1378

Mr OAKESHOTT (10:53 AM) —I certainly support Commonwealth engagement in natural disaster relief through natural disaster relief agreements and reconstruction agreements with states, local councils and communities. I also certainly acknowledge the human tragedy of what happened throughout December, January and February in Australia and also what is happening right now to our near neighbours in New Zealand.

With regard to the Queensland floods in particular, some of the stories that made their way through to communities such as mine really did rip deep into the hearts of communities that are a long way from the affected areas. The stories of the four-year-old boy with the life jacket on who was lost at the point of rescue and the older brother asking for his younger brother to be saved first are both tragic and heroic stories at once. We in this chamber must never forget these children and others who were lost as we try and work out the short-term payment structures in reaching agreements with the states as to the best funding model and the longer term issues around how we insure properly in this country for mitigation and emergency works in the future.

Having said that, I also acknowledge that the natural disasters over the Christmas period have to be paid for in some way. But I do not support this process on the grounds that I do not think it is the right way. I do, without sounding too much like a policy wonk, believe in the budget process, and I do think the opportunity for affected groups and bodies who had a surprise thrust upon them the day after Australia Day, with significant savings cuts in a number of areas, is not the way a government should do business in Australia. I think those saving measures deserve to have engagement with the affected parties through a budget process and that the opportunity to argue the merits or otherwise of various cuts should be allowed.

The decision today, therefore, is specifically about the levy. Again, I do not think that in a modern economy like Australia we should go down the path of one-offs, and we should do as much as we can to fight one-offism in Australian public policy. From my perspective, I would have thought a more sensible and sustainable approach would be to combine it into the full context of the budget cycle, which is really only asking for six to eight weeks and for the full consideration in the full story that is the full budget. It is important for people like me to see the flood package in context with the full reform agenda for Australia.

Anyone who is watching public policy closely at the moment will know that the dance card is full. We have some significant public policy issues, whether they are Cooper and FOFA on superannuation, the Henry tax review, the future of nation-building funds and whether we should create new nation-building funds, or whether there are emergency or mitigation funds to deal with issues such as those we are talking about. We have some fascinating work in the tax field, whether it has been the tax expenditure statements that have been put out by Treasury or the offset arrangements that Ken Henry has been talking about in his final days as Treasury Secretary. All of these will be on the agenda in the next six months and all of them interrelate with the flood package in some way.

We can only go to the well of community sentiment so many times, and if someone such as me believes in a reform agenda for the long-term tax arrangements in this country, it should be seen as a negative that we are throwing one-offisms into the tax debate. It is for that reason that I do not support the levy. It is not about going to the community with a levy. I am more than comfortable with that and even, if necessary, a bigger one. But I do not agree with it being outside a budget cycle, where the full context of savings measures is considered and the Australian community sees the full story of the reform agenda of government alongside both an increased income tax through the flood levy and the significant savings cuts that were proposed the day after Australia Day.

I want to raise two other things that I hope in the long term come out of this debate, regardless of whether this is successful on the floor of the House. The member for New England and many other members have talked about longer term natural disaster funds. I support that direction and hope that good work is done by the government to progress that. As I have mentioned before, it is an opportunity for nation building through either emergency or mitigation works. There is no question that, as night follows day, Australia will again be confronted by another natural disaster in some form and this parliament will be dealing with the significant costs as a consequence. We need to build a government insurance scheme against that now and start the hard work of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

I know this conversation is happening with the government and Senator Xenophon in the other place, but we also need to work through the issue of language and semantics and the issue of insurance, reinsurance and self-insurance. The definition of ‘flood’ needs to be resolved, and the help of government will do that. The insurance, reinsurance and self-insurance of all government entities does look to be a mess. To their credit, only the ACT and Victoria have full coverage. Every other state and the Commonwealth have chosen to go in different directions. There is some enormous inconsistency in the area of self-insurance and reinsurance. This is the opportunity for the parliament to do some long-term sustainable consistent work on that. I concur with the concerns Senator Xenophon has been raising and hope that the process of resolving that issue can begin as a consequence of this tragedy.

I also hope this work is about not only government infrastructure but also commercial and residential. There are other models in the world. New Zealand has a program where residential does have some coverage. There are other examples, such as through local government notices, where we could get broader coverage of residential insurance through the method we use to get people insured for their own property. Now is the time to start that conversation to see if there is a better way. If we find it, we should chase it. I certainly hope that through either the Assistant Treasurer or other ministers we do not shirk that responsibility in trying to build a better, more sustainable insurance model for the future.

In conclusion, I acknowledge the human tragedy and natural disasters that have occurred over the Christmas period. I thank those who acted responsibly through that process. I was amazed at the responsible way that communities behaved to the imminent threat of Cyclone Yasi. They deserve to be congratulated for having taken the threat seriously and for having done the right thing by all of us.

I also want to acknowledge and thank those who made personal donations to emergency relief efforts and supported the various lamington drives and tin-shaking exercises that went on around Australia. I have played in a couple of cricket matches to raise money for flood victims, but every community and I am sure every local member has been engaged in some form. This is the opportunity to say thank you to those who have organised those and to everyone who has contributed.

I hope that, if this gets through, the money is spent wisely. I think everyone in Australia will be looking for that. If it does not get through, I hope there is some reconsideration of my view that this should be combined in the budget cycle so we then get the full context of the savings measures and the tax changes alongside the full reform agenda of government.