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Tuesday, 25 March 2014
Page: 1920


Senator FARRELL (South Australia) (13:22): I rise to speak on the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Repeal and Other Measures Bill 2013 and indicate that I oppose this legislation that is being introduced by the government. I have had the opportunity of listening to both Senator Urquhart and Senator Thorp and find myself in furious agreement with them on the reasons for opposing this very bad piece of public policy.

I think it is worth starting my contribution to this debate by pointing out that the legislation which this bill seeks to repeal was one of the really terrific things that the former Gillard government was able to do in its time in government. I personally am very proud to have been part of a government that introduced that legislation and that got it through the parliament. We as a country are now seeing the financial benefits of that legislation in our tax system. It was a controversial piece of legislation at the time. It took the tremendous negotiating skills and talents of former Prime Minister Gillard to reach an outcome. She sat down with senior officials in the mining industry and negotiated an outcome. I guess it is true to say that the money that we thought was going to come from that legislation has not yet arrived—

Senator Back: Didn't!

Senator FARRELL: in the federal Treasury. Senator Back laughs at that. Mr Acting Deputy President, as I am sure you would know, there was an opportunity at the time of a massive boom in the price of our minerals that we were exporting overseas to ensure that not just the shareholders of some of the biggest and wealthiest companies in the world but all Australians got to benefit by sharing the wealth that this mining boom had produced for Australia. That was exactly the intent and purpose of the legislation and that is exactly what the legislation has started to achieve.

Why has the tax not delivered as much revenue as people might have expected? Of course, the huge prices of some of the commodities that were taxed by this legislation have come down. It was always expected that the income from the tax would rise and fall along with the price of these minerals. So it is not unexpected that, when the price of commodities goes down, that also affects the tax. That was how the legislation was designed in the first place. I thought it was a terrific piece of legislation. I am bitterly disappointed that the then opposition, now government, is opposed to the legislation and is seeking to repeal it.

Some of the beneficiaries of this legislation are in the area that I am responsible for—that is, veterans. And, for the life of me, I cannot understand why this government is saying to the children of veterans, 'We're going to replace this tax and, as a result, we're going to take away from you the $211 per year that, under this legislation, you receive as a benefit.' I cannot work out why the government is proposing to do that. You may know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that I am seeking to permanently reverse that decision later on this afternoon. But I cannot work out why this government is being so callous and heartless to the children of our veterans by seeking to take away that benefit. It does not cost a lot—in the vicinity of a quarter of a million dollars a year. To this government, that is chickenfeed. It is a fraction of the benefit that high-paid women will receive from the federal government's paid maternity leave provisions. I cannot understand why this government wants to penalise that class of person in our country. But there are many other people who will be penalised. We heard from both Senator Urquhart and Senator Thorp about some of the other people—for example, superannuants were going to receive a benefit from this legislation. If this legislation is repealed—and I am hopeful it will not be repealed—then of course they will lose that benefit. Also, the low paid—women in particular—are vulnerable to missing out if this legislation is passed.

We have heard from Senator Thorp. She talked about developing so-called hot rocks. That was one thing the former government sought to support. I know there are hot rock projects in Western Australia, but the bulk of them, you would be interested to know, Acting Deputy President Fawcett—and I am sure you do know—are in South Australia. South Australia was going to be one of the very big beneficiaries. We know that some of the hottest places on earth are under the northern part of South Australia.

The funds that were raised by this tax were going to develop projects seeking to exploit that energy. It is clean and green energy, it is a very good source of energy, and it is an almost indefinite source of energy. If this legislation goes through, the companies that were benefiting from the contribution from the federal government will find themselves in a much more difficult situation and a potentially game-changing industry will not get the support from the government that it ought to.

It is probably not surprising when you think about it. If you listened to Senator Ryan's contribution—I am sorry he is not in the chamber—he made pretty clear the hard-line economic plan of this government. We have already seen it in his home state with the Toyota closures. We have certainly seen the consequence of this hard-line economic approach to our economy in the old seat that you used to represent in South Australia, Acting Deputy President Fawcett, in the future job losses at Holden. It was a terrible decision which was symptomatic of a government that is not interested in providing assistance the way governments ought to to solve problems in our community.

The MRRT legislation did that. It was finely balanced. It took income from a part of the community which was doing particularly well and sought to spread the benefit around the community. The more I think about it and the more I listen to Senator Ryan's contribution, that is not the approach that this government is taking, but you are wrong about it. I have already indicated some groups of people who are going to be particularly hard hit if this legislation comes through.

You want to take away this tax. I understand that; it is part of your proposal. But what I cannot understand—and this is an issue that I know you have been involved in, Acting Deputy President Fawcett—is that you have been so slow in opening up the Woomera defence area to mining. You have been involved in some of the discussions, Acting Deputy President Fawcett, and are fully aware that the former Labor government had a piece of legislation which it was ready to push through the Senate just before we rose for the election.

That legislation could have been supported by the then opposition. It had been supported in the lower house of the parliament, and no issues had ever been raised. Of course, you sided with the Greens and referred the issue to a committee, which then meant that the legislation was not passed. I was told that it was going to be one of your priority issues and that as soon as the parliament came back you were going to rush it back in and pass it before Christmas. Of course, that did not happen.

I was then forced to introduce a private member's bill to get the issue moving. We were again told that you would come forward with the legislation after Christmas, but that did not happen. We debated the bill and it is still sitting there; it has not been voted on. You have managed to talk it out. I think it is fair to say that South Australians believe that they are being punished by the new government because you are not supporting the legislation. You could have supported it in the last session of the parliament, but you punished South Australians because they did not vote the way you expected them to vote at the state election.

More than nine months have now gone by. You could have introduced that legislation. In fact, you could have supported us last year. That would have been the ideal situation. For nine months we could have been doing things in the minerals area to explore and get mining moving in South Australia. You have left it for nine months, so an opportunity has been lost in those nine months to seek, explore and get a benefit for my home state of South Australia and the country generally. We could have been out there finding minerals, exploiting them and selling them overseas. And we could have been raising taxes as a result of all of those things. For nine months this government has sat on its hands.

I hope that by introducing my private member's bill on this issue I will eventually embarrass you into introducing your own legislation on it, because we do not have a moment to lose in South Australia. I can see you are nodding, Acting Deputy President Fawcett, because I know that you know I am right on this issue. We do not have a moment to lose. You have dropped the ball on Holden; you have dropped the ball on Woomera. I desperately hope that in the very near future we are going to see your own piece of legislation that can deal with this issue.

If we do see that, we can start exploration and find minerals. As you know, there is an expectation of that in all the information from Geoscience Australia, which is a terrific organisation. Interestingly, every time somebody drills in a mine, Geoscience Australia get a sample, and you can go and have a look at all of the products of that exploration here in Canberra.

Had you done what we wanted you to do last year, people would be out there; they would be making money; they would be making discoveries—and, of course, all of the benefit of that income would be flowing into the federal Treasury right now. On the one hand, you are desperate to remove this relatively small tax, but you are so slow to go out there and exploit our minerals, particularly in South Australia, which would have resulted in some new wealth being generated for this country. I personally cannot understand your thinking on this. I just cannot understand.

You could be out there. You could leave the legislation as it is, and you could be out there generating new wealth by discoveries in the Gawler Craton in South Australia, and you would not need to do what you are doing. You would not need to punish the children of veterans. You would not need to take superannuation away from low-income earners and women. You would not need to abandon the research in the hot rocks area which has the tremendous potential to change energy delivery in this country. I just think it is a mystery that your priorities are all skewed.

We should be raising income. We should be encouraging mining. We should be out there encouraging exploration. That is the way to build our country and to build our wealth. In that way, you get the money that you need to run this country, and you do not need to take this away.

As we have heard on a number of occasions, the government has not worked out why it does not like this legislation. On the one hand it says, 'Well, it's not raising enough money,' and on the other hand it says, 'But it's an impediment to mining.' It cannot be both. You have to pick one or the other and you have to settle on it, but it cannot be both of those arguments. And yet those are the two arguments that this government has been using—but they cannot both be right.

The reality is that neither of those arguments is correct. The legislation being repealed is a piece of legislation which fairly distributes wealth in this country. It is a good piece of legislation, and we should not be here today seeking to repeal or overturn it. There are lots of other ways to deal with the issues. Obviously there have been some delays from the government side in terms of preparation for their budget. We do not know why they are keeping so much information under wraps. We thought it was because of the Tasmanian and South Australian elections, but they were two weeks ago. Perhaps it is because there is an election on in a couple of weeks in Western Australia. The government do not want to tell us what they are proposing to do in terms of dealing with the budget and raising all of those issues that are associated with the budget. They are not telling us.

But, whatever their plan to deal with the issue of the deficit is, this is the wrong way of going about it. You do not improve your bottom line in a deficit situation by removing part of your income. You just do not do it. It just does not make sense. If they are right that this is not raising as much money as people thought, then really it is not an issue to leave it as it is and to keep all of those associated benefits that Senator Thorp mentioned—she is not in the chamber now—that flow to the Australian people from the revenue that is raised in the piece of legislation.

So I oppose this legislation. I believe the government is heading in the wrong direction in this legislation. I can see Senator Fifield—

Senator Fifield: Really? Really? Really?

Senator FARRELL: Yes, I do. You have not heard all of my contribution, Senator Fifield, but I think I have very—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Fawcett ): Senator Farrell, I remind you to make your remarks through the chair.

Senator FARRELL: I am very sorry about that. Senator Fifield sought to distract me, but future comments will be made through the chair, Acting Deputy President.

Senator Cameron interjecting

Senator FARRELL: No, he did distract me, I am afraid to say, but I shall ensure that any future comments are made through the chair.

I oppose this legislation. I oppose it on very good public policy grounds. The repeal of the legislation is a mistake. Over time—and I am hopeful that the legislation will not be repealed, but if it is repealed—I think this government will come to understand in the future what a dreadful, dreadful mistake it has made.