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Monday, 9 November 2015
Page: 8038

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (20:26): The opposition does not support the amendments to the bill that are proposed by the Greens. The measures in the bill are straightforward. They apply the same liabilities to Australians living overseas as they do to Australians at home. Under the current law, Australians living overseas are required to report their income to the Australian Taxation Office. If a person leaves to go overseas and does not earn income above the threshold, they do not pay their HECS liability, so they are not affected, just as the case applies in this country. The effect of the Greens amendments is to provide a tax holiday to students or former students who are earning above the threshold while living overseas.

The Labor Party remains a very strong supporter of HECS. It is a measure that requires defence by this parliament. The integrity of HECS requires the defence of this parliament, because it is a fundamental social contract entered into to preserve the principles of public good in higher education. The Commonwealth helps cover the cost of university education. The individual benefits from that process but does not have to provide a return on the loan until such time as average weekly earnings are achieved. It is a fundamental social justice measure which has led to the mass expansion of higher education in this country, and I think rightfully is regarded as one of the great achievements of the Hawke Labor government. To propose that people be allowed to go offshore and not pay their tax is a fundamental breach of that contract. It is to validate the tax avoider. Why should we support that?

I am concerned about the practicalities of any administrative action. The government tells us that these measures will apply to 46,000 people but also tells us that only 38,000 people are actually expected to make payments. However, I think the administrative difficulties can be resolved, given the time lines that are being proposed in this legislation and given the resources that we have with regard to the cooperation between the tax office and the immigration department.

When students signed up for HECS there was no clause saying, 'If you work overseas, you are not obliged to meet your obligations.' So I cannot fathom why the Greens, who claim to speak for the downtrodden, will stand up for people who go overseas to avoid a modest contribution to our higher education scheme. Frankly, these are measures that are long overdue, and working people of this country have a right to be curious as to why we have not acted on this earlier. Why should working Australians who do the right thing in paying their taxes, effectively subsidise those who are earning above the income of $54,000 a year—which, of course, is above average weekly earnings—and allow them to abrogate their responsibilities to the Australian taxation system?

It is said that the Greens are increasingly representing the more wealthy people in this country. This is one of those cases where I see the Greens fulfilling their new role—that is, the role which says that they want to protect the best social conscience that money can buy. That is exactly what you are doing with these measures, and that is why we will not be supporting them.