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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1389

Ms LIVERMORE (11:44 AM) —Today I want to put on the record my total and strong support for the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011.

The last time we were here in parliament, just a couple of weeks ago, members tried to put into words our shock and sorrow for what so many communities had suffered as a result of the flooding and other disasters that wreaked havoc on our country over the summer. As local members we tried to put into words our admiration for the acts of courage and community spirit that we saw time and again throughout those weeks when ordinary Australians, emergency services workers and governments were put to the test. Through those words we tried to give comfort and reassurance to people who had lost loved ones or lost their homes or businesses or the foundations of their community life. I think we would all agree that that was an important thing for the parliament to do. But now it is time for words to give way to action, and that is what this legislation is all about. It delivers on the means to rebuild flood affected regions.

People have been out there cleaning up the mess and getting their lives back together. Councils have been assessing the damage to roads and buildings and counting the cost of the initial emergency response and the repair work to come. They need us here in this parliament to do our bit and provide certainty that the money needed to rebuild Queensland, northern New South Wales, Victoria and the other states that have been affected will be there.

That is exactly what the government has been doing. We have been making the tough decisions, finding savings in the budget—already $3.8 billion of savings to put towards the reconstruction effort—and now we are asking those Australians who can afford to do so to make a modest contribution through this flood levy towards the cost of rebuilding our country. That cost is enormous and growing by the day.

For a while there, back in January, when the floodwaters were peaking in the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton, it looked like this was a rerun of floods we had seen in recent years. Places like Emerald, Theodore and other parts of Central Queensland were facing a massive clean-up and starting to talk to state and federal governments about what was available under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. At that time, back in early January, the cost looked big but manageable under the normal arrangements between the state and federal governments that carry us through these times of natural disaster. Then Bundaberg flooded. And then Dalby and Condamine. Then came those dramatic days when whole towns in the Lockyer Valley were washed away and tens of thousands of people had to abandon their homes in Ipswich and Brisbane. Of course that was not the end of it. It went on into New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. There were unbelievable scenes—washed out bridges, ruined roads, buckled railway lines—everywhere you looked.

The nation and this government are facing a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions, possibly the biggest in our nation’s history. The scale of damage and destruction is beyond anything that could be foreseen by government or funded out of the normal NDRRA processes. So what does one do in these circumstances? Apparently, if you are in the Liberal or National parties, you look to exploit any political opportunities that the situation might present and oppose for opposition’s sake. And we have seen that time after time as opposition members have contributed to this debate. You look to further your own party political interests ahead of the national interests and the needs of those people affected by floods, even as communities are picking up the pieces after the floods and wondering how long their future has to stay on hold. Well there are no surprises there.

But what would you do if you cared about those flood affected communities and were economically responsible and focused on what is the best for this country and those parts of it that want to get back to normal as quickly as possible? The government did what a constructive and responsible government should do. We immediately committed ourselves to the rebuilding task. You can see the commitment there in the Prime Minister’s speech on 27 January, just a day after she witnessed the damage to Toowoomba, one of the worst-affected communities. The Prime Minister said: ‘I see what needs to be done and I will do it. We will rebuild.’ Right there is the commitment, the pledge to Queenslanders and other states, that we will stand beside them while they get back to full strength, which is where our nation needs Queensland and its growing industries to be. We cannot afford for Queensland—with its agricultural industries, resource industries and tourism industries—to be held back by damaged infrastructure. That does not serve the national interest in any way.

This debate today is now the chance for individual members to commit to that rebuilding task. By supporting this legislation, this fair and modest levy, members are saying that we get it—we get the size of the rebuilding job and we get the importance of the rebuilding job.

It is important to note, as many speakers on the government side have already noted, that this levy that we are asking taxpayers to pay is temporary. It is from July 2011 to June 2012, just that one year. It is also important to note that it is only one part of the government’s floods package that has been announced so far. The government did the hard work. People are talking about knee-jerk reactions when that is clearly not the case. The government sat down and went through the budget program by program to see where savings could be found and where priorities could be changed to get this reconstruction effort underway. As part of that $5.6 billion package, we are asking taxpayers to make a modest contribution towards it. The savings so far are $3.8 billion. That is a big slab of savings in anyone’s language and this levy on top of that is $1.8 billion.

This levy is a fair levy. We are asking people to pay according to their capacity to pay. It is a progressive levy. It is an amount of money that we are asking people to pay only where they are earning over $50,000 in the next year, from July 2011 to June 2012. So about 60 per cent of taxpayers will be paying only $1 each week towards this reconstructive effort. In detail, it is 0.5 per cent of earnings between $50,000 and $100,000 and then one per cent applied to earnings over $100,000. Someone on the average income of $68,000 per year will pay $1.74 per week.

Members on the other side have talked quite a bit about the fact that people have spontaneously and generously given to the flood and disaster relief appeals around the country, and no-one is denying that. Every member in this House is proud of the way our fellow Australians have responded to these disasters. We are proud of the way that people have voluntarily and immediately given of themselves both in time and money to their fellow Australians who have been affected by the floods.

But the money that we are talking about here today, the money from the flood levy and the savings that the government has identified and will continue to identify to put towards the reconstruction effort, is of a completely different magnitude and will serve a completely different purpose. Those donations have, quite rightly, gone to people to rebuild or to get their households back together. It has gone to replace those very personal things that matter to a family and a household. No-one can seriously suggest that we are going to rebuild highways and railway lines and bridges and town halls and community sports centres off the back of volunteer effort and donations. That is a furphy really on the part of the opposition, just another excuse. The government has been seriously addressing the needs that our country and particularly those flood-affected communities face, and we are getting down and finding the savings and seeing how we are going to find the money in our budget to do what needs to be done. That is the task the government has been about. In the meantime, the opposition has really been all about finding excuses, putting up the furphy that somehow donations are capable of meeting this task, and putting up the usual sham savings measures. I think they ran around for three weeks saying, ‘Well, you just do it out of savings. You do not need a levy, you just to get it out of savings.’ When they actually came forward with their package, there was nothing like the genuine savings that would get this work done. So the opposition has been behaving very irresponsibly and opportunistically.

A classic example, when talking about behaving opportunistically, was the Liberal Party email that was going around asking people to donate to the Liberal Party in the midst of all this. On the one hand the opposition want to hold up the virtues of the millions of Australians who have donated in good faith to the flood appeal, but at the same time they want to milk that kind of spirit for their own purposes in getting people to donate to them in the midst of this time of great need for our nation.

As I said, it is a fair levy and a progressive levy. People will pay as they have capacity to pay. Importantly for people in my electorate, there will also be an exemption for those people who have been most directly affected by these floods. So people receiving an Australian government disaster recovery payment, and others who while not actually accepting that relief payment are nonetheless eligible on the eligibility criteria, will not have to pay this levy. That is a fair and reasonable way to do it.

I have already talked about the furphy and the excuses that the opposition have put up, and certainly in this debate so far the opposition have not been able to argue against this very fair and reasonable and responsible flood levy on the basis of any principle or logic. We know as a fact that the opposition, the Liberal and National parties, are not opposed to levies. We saw them impose levies on the Australian people time and time and time again during the course of the Howard government. It is important to note—and I noticed in one of my colleague’s speeches that he went through it in greater detail—that there were times when those levies were imposed when the government budget was actually in surplus. We hear the opposition giving us lectures about finding savings and making tough decisions, while they in their time during the Howard government were imposing levies when the budget was in fact in surplus. So it is a classic example of them giving lectures, very opportunistic lectures, and when they were given the chance they dodged any kind of hard decision and just put it back onto taxpayers.

In contrast, here we are facing what is the biggest series of natural disasters and the biggest reconstruction task that our country has faced at a time when we are not even three years on from the global financial crisis. In the space of three or four years the government has had to steer the country through the global financial crisis, which everyone acknowledges around the world we did better than any other advanced economy, and now, less than three years later, we are being asked as a government to stand by flood-affected communities and people to rebuild this country. This legislation is asking Australian taxpayers who earn over $50,000 a year to make a modest contribution towards that. I think it is in the spirit of the Australian people to understand that and to want to be part of the reconstruction of our country in that way over the next year. So far all we have had from the opposition are excuses, sham savings and a continual seeking of political opportunity. We are serious about rebuilding. This legislation is part of that. I support it and I ask members of the opposition to go back to their electorates, particularly those members from Queensland, and explain why they do not have any answers for the reconstruction of this country.