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Thursday, 4 September 2014
Page: 6554


Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (17:46): I rise today to speak about the proposal for a levy on the big four banks. This debate is not only about whether we are prepared as a nation to impose a levy on one of the most profitable industries anywhere in the world but also about the sort of country we want to be. It is a debate about our national priorities. It is a debate about whether we truly believe in the fair go. It is a debate about political courage and vested interests. It is a debate about whether we want to continue to attack the poor, the sick, the old, the young or whether we want to address the revenue side of the ledger in this country. We have a choice. We are faced with the choice now. The choice is: are we going to cut spending—and what goes along with that is cuts to some of the vital services and supports that make this the country it is today—or are we going to radically alter what it means to live in a modern, prosperous Australia? I understand that if you believe that we are indeed faced with a budget emergency, that there is very little role for government, that people are slackers and that they do not have a job because they lack initiative and drive, then you would choose the path of cutting spending. I, personally, do not take that view and neither do my colleagues in the Greens.

Before we look at whether we need to cut spending, let us look at a few facts. I was fortunate to chair the Commission of Audit inquiry. As a result of the evidence that we took from academics, economists, unionists, business leaders and so on about the state of the nation's finances, spending and revenue, a very clear picture emerged. The picture is that, for two decades now, Commonwealth spending has been very stable. Far from being bloated and inefficient, our Public Service is very lean and efficient. The number of public servants in this country has been decreasing steadily over the years.

Our spending as a proportion of GDP is lower than it has ever been. I will say that again: the amount of money we spend through the services and supports that we provide to people is lower than it has ever been. In fact, it is lower than most other comparable countries. The same is true of our tax take. We are a very low taxing country. As a proportion of GDP, we are one of the lowest taxing countries anywhere in the world. At the moment, our tax take is lower than what it was under the Howard government.

The issue here is: are we prepared to take a sober look at these facts and recognise that far from the requirement to slash spending—because of some confected budget emergency—we need to look at the revenue side of the ledger. There are a number of areas that we could do that on. Before I get to the issue of a levy on the big four banks, why not take on the issue of huge subsidies to the fossil fuel industry: the $8 billion subsidy in the form of the diesel fuel rebate—that is, $8 billion over the forward estimates, a huge handout to the big end of town; the depreciation benefit is worth billions. There are a number of other areas that people have mentioned, such as the super tax concessions and the huge subsidies to the private health insurance industry. We are now seeing the proposal to float Medibank Private. There are a number of areas where savings are to be made and they do not involve cutting the services and supports that define who we are as a modern nation.

So the facts say that the spending is under control and the problem is on the revenue side of the ledger. That is why we have adopted a policy to impose a small, a modest, levy on the big four banks. Let us be very clear about this. These are some of the most profitable banks anywhere in the world. We have got a forecast of a $30 billion profit by the end of this financial year. Let us not forget that that is underwritten by the taxpayer, because the big four banks know that, if they were to achieve serious losses, it is the taxpayer who would make up the shortfall

It is effectively a huge subsidy and, as we heard earlier, it is a subsidy that is worth somewhere in the vicinity of $4 billion. The result of that guarantee, that subsidy underwritten by the taxpayer, is that the big four banks dominate our market. It means that the smaller banks do not have the capacity to borrow money as cheaply as the big four banks.

So why not impose a very small, 20-basis-point levy on the assets of the big four banks? If the choice is between a modest levy—recovering, in a sense, some of the cost of the effective subsidy being provided to the big four banks—and slashing spending on health, slashing spending on education, depriving young people who are unable to find a job of income support when they most need it, attacking superannuation and so on, why not choose to impose the levy? That is what this is about. This is not just a debate about a levy on the big four banks; it is about the choices we face as a nation. It is about what the role of government should be.

The Greens believe that there is a role for fair and just taxation and we believe that the role of government is to invest in education, not to strip money away from health care. We think the role of government is to invest in our young people, in skills and training, and to ensure that they have the support they need when they are unable to find a job. That is the role of government. If it is not, what are we doing here?

A levy would be win-win. It would not just be of benefit in raising revenue; it would be good for the banking sector itself. It is in line with Australian values, it gives customers a fair go and it is in line with what has been done right around the world—a similar levy has been implemented in the UK and in other European countries. It would give us better competition in the banking sector. It would go some way—not all the way, but some way—towards equalising the wholesale funding advantage that government gives to this hugely profitable sector.

Like anybody, I want a strong financial sector, a strong banking sector, because I know that is important for our future prosperity. This proposal is no threat to that. It just says that, due to the current economic environment, and because we have such dominant players in the market—where their dominance is being underwritten by, effectively, a cheque from each and every one of us—it is about time they paid a little back. It is win-win: more competition in the banking sector and more revenue to pay for the services we want. If we are talking about an end to the age of entitlement, an end to corporate welfare, why not do this? Why not acknowledge that the subsidy exists? We should recognise it and take steps to ensure that our banks are no longer the beneficiary of this corporate largesse—the same way we should be eliminating the enormous subsidies to fossil fuel industries, to private health insurance companies and to other areas of the economy.

One of the problems with proposals like this—and this has become true of many other reforms—is that it will evoke a concerted campaign from the banking sector telling us why the sky is going to fall in, why this reform is going to send mum-and-dad shareholders to the wall, why it is not possible. That says everything about the role of vested interests in this place. Australian democracy faces a huge issue at the moment. We are seeing it play out with the state government in New South Wales—this nexus between vested interests, the big end of town and decision makers. Decision making has been clouded by those relationships and it means that, when faced with choices—between, say, introducing a barrier to someone going to see their doctor and a reasonable revenue measure—governments, and particularly this government, will always side with the big end of town ahead of the ordinary person. That is one of the great tragedies we saw with this budget.

We are being told that government cannot afford to do the things that people want. We are being told that health care needs to be cut. We are being told that young people need to pay more for a university education. We are being told that we cannot afford to contribute as much into our superannuation as we were promised. We are being told that somebody who cannot find a job should be cut off income support for six months. We are being told that, if you need to have a blood test, the only way you can get it is by making a co-payment. We are being told that, if you want to see a radiologist, you are now going to have to pay for it—even if the doctor orders the test and insists that it is urgent. But none of that is written in stone. There is no law of nature that says that the only way you can balance the nation's books is by slashing spending and by continuing this sustained attack on the people who can least afford it. There is no law of nature that says that.

We are faced with choices. This government is making the choice to ignore the great opportunity it has at the moment to impose a very small revenue-raising measure on the big banks. In doing so, it is choosing not to side with the ordinary people. We will not stand for it; the Australian Greens will not stand for it. The reason we are having this debate at the moment is to demonstrate that there are choices, that there are constructive alternative proposals that could move this country in a fairer, more caring and more compassionate direction. Do you know what the good news is? The good news is that is exactly what people want.

The reason this government did not put its proposals to cut health care, education and so on in front of the Australian people before the last election is that it knew those things would be deeply unpopular. That is why it did not have the courage to forewarn the Australian people that it had this budget lined up—one of most brutal, vicious and cruel assaults imaginable on the most vulnerable people in our society: the poor, the young, the sick and the old. That is why we are having this debate at the moment: to show that we have a choice, to show that, in a caring Australia, we have a choice. Our choice should be to impose a levy on the big four banks.

The PRESIDENT: Order! The time for the consideration of general business has expired.