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Christine Milne: Abbott's fake deficit levy is a fig leaf

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Christine Milne 17 Jun 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, addresses the Senate to explain why the fake deficit levy is a fig leaf to the Abbott government's permanent and cruel cuts to the most vulnerable in our society.


Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (13:07): I rise today to make it clear that the Greens will not be supporting this bill. We will in no shape or form give any credence or credibility to the government's lie that there is a budget emergency in Australia which requires a budget repair levy and which requires the biggest hit on the poor in Australia that we have seen in a very long time. It is a trick, it is a fig leaf, or, as a former Prime Minister has said, it is how do we dress it up to make it look good. That is what this debt repair levy does: it is a temporary measure, a wink wink, nudge nudge to the big end of town, to the extremely wealthy, saying, 'Don't worry about it. We are going to bring this in for a very short time and in the meantime we are going to permanently attack the level of welfare and support in Australia that we have provided.' It is an ideological attack and has zero to do with the budget, zero to do with a budget emergency and everything to do with a long-held, ruthless ideological attack set out by the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, when he made a speech in London in 2012. If you want to know where this was coming from or how it was coming, just go back and look at that. Just go back and look at what Rupert Murdoch has had to say. Look at what the Institute of Public Affairs have had to say. All of these initiatives in the budget that take away welfare, that extend the age of the pension, that attack the universality of Medicare-all of those were there long before any suggestion of a budget emergency.

To buy into a discussion of this levy and to give it any credence suggests you are buying into the frame and the discussion about how the burden should be shared. There is no burden to share, there is no budget emergency. What we need to address is the fundamental issue of income and wealth inequality in Australia. I am very pleased to say that my colleague Senator Siewert will be bringing forward a proposal for a Senate inquiry into just that, because that is one of the major issues the World Economic Forum has identified, that up there with climate change wealth inequality is something that is going to bring incredible disruption around the world and is already doing so. I was pleased to hear Senator Farrell say that this should be a permanent issue, a permanent change. That is what the Greens have said all along: if you are serious about redistribution of wealth then you need to get serious about permanent changes, not a permanent change for the least well-off and a temporary wink wink, nudge nudge change for the big end of town, especially in the light of the fact that the Prime Minister has hinted to make it palatable for the big end of town. Why do you think they not screaming about it, Mr Acting Deputy President? I will tell you why: because they have been told privately and it has been alluded to publicly that from the 2016 election the government is going to bring in a permanent tax cut for the big end of town, with permanent attacks and undermining of support for our whole social fabric, for our whole social contract in Australia. That is what is going on here and that is why the Greens are not going to buy into this in any shape or form.

We are told that the sole purpose of the revenue raised is to pay off the debt. If that was true, why on earth are we buying joint strike fighters? Why did we put $9 billion into the Reserve Bank for a capital buffer that they did not ask for? Why did we do those things? It is a confected situation, a confected 'budget crisis'. There is none, and we still have never had a satisfactory explanation from the Treasurer as to why he put that $9 billion across to the Reserve Bank unasked for. The fact that it is called a budget repair levy proves what I am saying. In terms of the $180,000 threshold, already this weekend's Financial Review had a whole section on how you can salary package, how you can salary sacrifice, how can you can use negative gearing, how you can use your superannuation concessions to get your income down below $180,000 so that you do not have to pay it. Already the loopholes in it mean that for a lot of people it is not even going to be for the length of time that has been suggested. On the one hand you are being told that but on the other hand out there in the wink wink, nod nod, we all know about it, and it is get your tax down, get your income sorted through these salary sacrificing and other provisions, and novated leases are the classic case. Why isn't the government out there explaining to people why they are going to keep on with this rort so that the more expensive the car you buy the more you can bring your income down and get yourself into a lower tax bracket? Like all giveaways, this temporary budget repair levy, the so-called burden, is temporary and more than fully offset by the profits accruing, as I have just said, through superannuation concessions, company tax cuts, ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and the novated leases to minimise taxable income.

While the Greens support the need for good economic management and long-term structural reform, most of the submissions on this bill found that the temporary repair levy as proposed does nothing to address the long-term structural issues of the budget. The gap between those who have and those who have not continues to grow at a fast rate. As I indicated, the World Economic Forum took that view and they have said that a lost generation is looming that will face high unemployment and precarious economic futures, with the systemic risks likely leading to social unrest. That is from the disparity of wealth and income. So while there needs to be structural adjustment so that revenue streams match expenditures into the future, this temporary budget repair levy will do nothing to address that.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill the Grattan Institute argued that 'the levy has no impact on the long-term structural position of the budget as it will cease to exist in 2017-18'. In another submission Saul Eslake raised the point that 'it does not make any lasting contribution to fixing the budget in any structural sense'. So let's just forget all this nonsense about a budget emergency, the levy does not make any lasting contribution to fixing the budget in a structural sense; the fact of the matter is that it is a bit of icing on the top to try and disguise a poisoned cake.

It is clear that shielding the rich from any lasting burden is absolutely on the minds of the Abbott government. It is why they have given an amnesty to people to bring home their billions of dollars from tax havens around the world. They are saying, 'If you bring it home now, before there is a global push on tax evasion at the G20, we'll give you an amnesty; you won' be prosecuted, you won't find yourself in jail.' But go over to the Centrelink offices and you will soon find people who are persecuted if they make mistakes or infringe the rules. If you are a Newstart recipient and you cannot or do not turn up for your requirements, you get punished. But if you have got millions and billions of dollars stuck offshore, deliberately evading tax, you are told you can bring it home in an amnesty and nothing is going to happen to you. I think that gives a pretty good insight into where the Abbott government are coming from.

If you accept the need for a temporary levy, it buys you into the notion that you accept the budget emergency and therefore accept these vicious permanent cuts to the poor. We are not going down that path; we do not believe any of that is necessary; it is just a contrivance. What we do know is that there is a need for permanent structural change to ensure that the rich do pay a permanent new marginal tax rate. That is what the Greens will pursue-a permanent new tax rate-not a con job that sees a tax cut coming forward at a permanent level in 2016. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:
but the Senate calls on the government to:
(a) extend the provisions of the levy beyond the 2016-17 financial year, making the levy permanent; and
(b) guarantee that no tax cuts will be made, or promised, for the top income tax bracket, prior to the 2016 election.
In other words, no tax cut, or promise of one, is permitted before the 2016 election. That would test the mettle of this. If you are serious about a permanent change for those who earn more than $180,000, you would have no concerns at all about supporting this amendment. I call on both the government and the Labor Party to support this amendment. We are not going to let the government off the hook with their temporary levy. We are not going to stand by and watch what is going to happen-that is, everybody else suffers while the rich get ready to organise themselves to not pay it, to minimise their income, and get ready for the tax cut in 2016.

At a recent Senate hearing Senator Cormann said:

We are very conscious of the fact that high-income earners already do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to contributing to Commonwealth revenue. But in the context of this budget we decided and judged that it was necessary to ask everyone across the community to make a contribution, including asking high-income earners to make an additional effort on top of the significant effort that they are already making.
But the Grattan Institute made it clear that 'it does not share the pain very effectively as it will only have a short-term impact on high-income earners; and, by contrast, the spending cuts will have a disproportionately large effect on lower income earners and they are permanent'. And Saul Eslake made the point that 'it will encourage at least some higher income households to take more active steps to engage in tax minimisation or avoidance activities, including by making greater use of the myriad provisions in the income tax system which offer preferential or concessional treatment for particular types of income, forms of business organisation or categories of investment vehicles'. Exactly as I have said. If ever there was a con job on the Australian people, this is it. I am surprised that the Labor Party are falling into it. By buying into the idea that you need a temporary budget repair levy, they are buying into the idea that they somehow left the budget in a state where it needed to be repaired. I reject that absolutely.

But what I do accept is that we need to be able to raise the revenue to pay for the services that we want to deliver. That is exactly why the Greens have stood up throughout this whole budget process and said this is the way you could raise the money and, at the same time, address the issue of inequality when it comes to income and wealth. That is why we have said that, if we fix the mining tax and remove fossil fuel subsidies for the mining industry, the government would find itself an extra $48 billion in revenue over the forward estimates-fixing the mining tax and removing fossil fuel subsidies for the mining industry. Compare that to the $3.1 billion that this temporary budget repair levy is expected to raise over the forward estimates. So why wouldn't you end fossil fuel subsidies to the big miners and improve our response to global warming? Ask yourself the question: 'Why are established businesses that are making superprofits getting a corporate welfare handout?' Really, why is this occurring? They have been in business for a long time and they are making a lot of money. It makes no sense whatsoever to do that.

We also know that current spending is sitting in line with historical levels. We are one of the lowest taxing countries in the OECD. Our debt levels are manageable and they are far below the global averages. Economists are unanimous in their assessment of Australia's economy as fundamentally healthy. However, many of them warn against large and unnecessary budget cuts due to the effect that this could have on the wider economy-and we are already seeing it with reduced consumer and business confidence. Go out there and look at the number of sales that are on earlier than expected. People are really concerned. The people who are going to be impacted most are saying, 'We simply can't afford to consider buying some of the things we might have considered previously.' They are taking a real review of their own personal situations. The Greens are certainly not going to support a measure that will be doing nothing to redistribute wealth or prevent tax evasion due to its temporary nature.

The cuts to the most vulnerable in our society will have long-lasting, permanent impacts, and that is why the Greens will fight against all of the measures that penalise those most in need. We will block the attacks on universal health care and vote against the $7 GP co-payment. We will block the cruel changes to the living and studying allowances for young people and students. We will block the unfair and regressive user-pays model proposed for our universities. We will do everything we can to stop the destruction of our clean energy package, which has delivered help to so many to reduce their energy bills and ecological footprint. And, of course, we will block everything that attacks those who are seeking a job-that is all they are trying to do-many of whom have already done training but live in areas where there are no jobs available.

I think it is cruel indeed for the government to talk to people in north-west Tasmania, for example, where there is a very high level of unemployment and the number of unskilled jobs has fallen, and say, 'You can just do temporary fruit picking somewhere, or you can move to the mainland.' How? On what? How do you move to the mainland? First of all you have to get there, and, when you get there, where are you going to live on no money at all? How are you going to be able to present yourself to secure a job? It shows that the government is completely out of touch with the day-to-day reality for people living in north-west Tasmania, north Adelaide or right around Australia.

People are looking at one another and saying, 'How will we cope?' If you have not got a family who can support you, you are in serious trouble. We are going to be looking at poverty and homelessness on a level that we have not yet seen. It is already bad enough, but it is going to get worse because of this budget. We are not going to buy into tricks that try to pretend that somehow there is an equitable burden shared. As John Hewson recently said:

The budget proposed in simple terms a cut of some 12% to 15% in the disposable income of the lower-income groups, single-income families, families with children, but only less than 1% cut in disposable incomes for those on higher incomes.
What a disgrace.

The Greens want to make sure that the big miners, the bankers and the polluters pay their fair share first. We can raise $79.2 billion in revenue and avoid all of these cruel budget measures and this ideological attack-because that is what it is. It is not about a budget measure; it is an ideological attack by a group of people who have the view that the current safety net needs to go. It is as simple as that. It is an attack on our social contract. That is the fundamental position that you are coming from, and we see you coming from that area very clearly. It is about having a dog-eat-dog world and a divided society. If anyone had any doubts about that, we heard the Treasurer say, 'People are having to pay tax and work for a month in order to keep these people on welfare.' That was a divide-and-rule tactic, saying, 'Why should you have to look after them?'

I want to say that all of us could find ourselves sick, all of us could find ourselves disabled and any of us could find ourselves unemployed. The same applies to our entire families, to the people we know and to communities, and Australia has a sense that we do care about one another. We do understand that at some point any of us could find ourselves in that position, and, as a community, we want to think that we would look after each other. That is where we are coming from, and that is the exact opposite of where the government is coming from. That is why we have said: apply a public insurance levy on the four big banks that are too big to fail, which is $11 billion; impose the $2 levy on thermal coal exports, $929 million; go back to the proper mining tax, $35.58 billion; and so on.

I want to finish with a quote from American Senator Elizabeth Warren. She said:

People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters. That matters because we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people.

The Greens say that we do run this country for people, and 'for people' means getting rid of inequality and stopping this legislation. 



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