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Janet speaks to the government's tax cuts bill

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 19 Jun 2018

The Treasury Laws Amendment (Personal Income Tax Plan) Bill 2018 and the tax cuts proposed within it are framed by this government as a bonus to Australians, a gift, but this bill and these tax cuts would strip away so much of what makes Australia great as a society, widening the gap between the rich and the rest of us. It's a gap that we know is growing. It would take away essentials like health services, educational opportunities, public infrastructure and community services. It's dressing up these tax cuts as a sugar hit for us all when really it delivers most of these cuts to the wealthiest people like the investment bankers and the hedge fund managers who live in the Prime Minister's own electorate, while simultaneously severely undermining our capacity as a nation to get the services we need and to look after each other.

The Greens oppose this bill in its entirety, and I welcome the chance to lay out why. The Greens want to see an Australia where our hospitals are properly funded so that, if you're a pensioner who needs a hip replacement, you don't need to wait 18 months. The Greens want to see an Australia where every single child, whether they live in inner city Melbourne or Mount Isa, has access to a world-class education and can choose to continue that education right through from preschool to TAFE and university. The Greens want to see an Australia where, by addressing the chronic underinvestment in the essential infrastructure we need as our population grows, people aren't packed in like sardines on public transport or stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. In short, these tax cuts are not just tax cuts; they're cuts to schools, hospitals, infrastructure, scientific research and our beloved ABC. The Turnbull government in proposing these tax cuts is telling Australians that what they're getting from government at the moment is more than they need.

The Turnbull government is trying to tell people surviving on Newstart, who are already living massively under the poverty line, that they don't deserve the first rise in Newstart in real terms since 1994, that they're already getting too much, but that someone earning $200,000 needs a tax cut. Instead of tax cuts the Turnbull government should be helping young people living on youth allowance to have enough income to actually look for work and study. These people are saddled with HECS and TAFE debt, can hardly afford to rent a crappy room in a share house, let alone afford to buy a house, and absolutely can't find a job. The Turnbull government should be helping carers who are slogging away caring for their loved ones. The Turnbull government should be helping those locked out of the housing market or languishing on a minimum wage as the cost of living goes up and up. These Turnbull tax cuts offer nothing at all to these people. These tax cuts are just another leg up for the rich.

The Greens believe in quality public services that are accessible to everyone, not a privatised dystopia where your parents' income determines your lot in life. Every Australian should be able to share in what makes this country great, not just the select few wealthy people and multinational corporations who are writing the government's policy and demanding a tax cut. The Greens stand for investment in people's health and education. We want to see proper investment in critical infrastructure to modernise our cities and regions, to shift to a clean economy and to look to a future that's innovative and progressive. These tax cuts will do nothing to further that vision. They will hold us back. They will trap us in an outdated 'dig it up, chop it down' economy.

Over the last 10 years Australians have been sold the lie by politicians on both sides of this chamber that we can't afford to properly act on climate change or protect endangered species, that we can't afford to properly fund shelters, refuges and legal services to help women fleeing from family violence, or programs that would prevent violence against women—while more than one woman a week is killed. We've been told that we can't afford to pay people on Newstart, who rely on $38 a day—many of whom live in areas where there is massive unemployment and where they have no chance of landing a job—and are absolutely struggling to make ends meet, an increase of $75 a week for the costs of housing, food, transport, bills, mobile phones, clothing, and sanitary items like tampons and pads.

And yet, in the face of this inequality, at the first chance they get, the coalition and Labor are in yet another race to the bottom over who can give the biggest tax cuts. Australia is already a low-taxing country. How much lower do they want to drag us? Our Public Service is so understaffed that people are waiting hours and hours on the phone trying to get through to Centrelink to find out why their welfare payment has been cancelled.

The Greens will not join in this race to the bottom, a race that will only end up in the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, a race that will leave millions of Australians struggling, locked out of secure housing, stuck in traffic on their way to an insecure job. No, the Greens will not join this race to buy votes by dishing out billions for a short-term sugar hit. The Greens want to face the challenges in a way that doesn't leave any Australian struggling to make ends meet, stuck in poverty. We can show you how we can afford to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to live a happy, healthy and productive life and to have access to the same essential services regardless of people's income, regardless of where they live.

How can Prime Minister Turnbull look Australians in the eye and say that we can afford to give people earning well above the average wage a massive tax cut and we can afford to give multinational corporations billions in tax cuts but we can't afford to give someone living on Newstart or youth allowance a $75-a-week increase to lift them out of poverty or we can't afford to give people a minimum wage, a wage that's supposed to be a baseline for someone to be able to afford basic necessities and not be in poverty—we can't afford to increase that to an income that's pegged to 60 per cent of the median wage? We can afford it, but these tax cuts will mean we are further away from affording it than ever.

There's nothing more Australian than a fair go. Real Australians believe in the fair go, but not this government. The Prime Minister and the coalition need an education in what the fair go means. They need an education on what it means to be Australian, because their backwards policies that belong in the last century are un-Australian.

When this plan was handed down on budget night, it immediately became clear that the big winners were the high earners in Australia. That means, for the most part, blokes. On budget night, in my office, we used Australian Taxation Office statistics to highlight that the Turnbull government's tax cuts for high-income earners will disproportionately benefit men and leave women in low- and middle-income jobs at a comparative disadvantage. We know that women are much more likely to be on a lower income, and the budget's disproportionately higher tax handouts to high-income earners show just where this government prioritises the equality of women.

This stuff matters. Gender equality matters. Choosing to give tax cuts to high-income earners is unfair. Seventy per cent of the beneficiaries of the abolition of the 37.5 per cent marginal tax rate will be men. Coupled with inadequate funding to address family and domestic violence, cuts to foreign aid, nothing to address housing affordability and no further detail about its women's economic security commitments, this government's income tax plan and its budget are making inequality worse for women.

I can tell you that, like many Australians, I've been closely reflecting on the challenges that we face as a nation when it comes to the equality, wellbeing and safety of our women and girls. It's been devastating to bear witness to the growing death toll from gendered violence, harassment and abuse. It makes me recommit to the challenge of setting in place meaningful, impactful policy to address this crisis.

I hope this government is thinking about this crisis too, but I despair when faced with a bill like this, because what this bill is saying is, 'We don't prioritise funding and resourcing for essential services like violence prevention programs or crisis services for women.'

Instead, it says: 'We are happy to erode the funding base for these programs. Even if you value them as a society, we are going to give the top end of town a big tax handout.'

This year's budget has a pretty pathetic offering when it comes to addressing violence against women. This government talks a lot about safety and security but is apparently happy to put a tax cut for the big end of town before the core business of fixing the biggest safety threats to Australian women: domestic violence and sexual abuse. I want to credit the National Foundation for Australian Women, who off their own bat applied a gender lens to this year's budget and produced a detailed report responding to the government's budget. They noted that, if this government is going to meet its own objectives in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children:

There is a need for significantly greater funding across the nation including for primary prevention, one-stop-shop support and safety hubs, victim assistance, support and counselling, specialist family violence courts, and an expansion of legal assistance for victims, locationally, culturally, and age specific strategies and support services, emergency and longer term accommodation, services for children, specialist legal services, reforms to family law, better policing, improved court supports, improved perpetrator accountability initiatives, and programs in prisons.

That's the challenge. We need to step up to it. That means not cutting our revenue base away. It fundamentally conflicts with the Australian values that so many of us hold so dear to hack away at the community services that women and children need and that ultimately benefit us all. Indeed, we all benefit when violence is reduced, when harassment is addressed and when our streets and homes are safe.

As well as women, when I look at this bill, I reflect on what it means for our children and our grandchildren. These tax cuts are setting up the next generation for more inequality, more of a dog-eat-dog-world and less opportunity. These tax cuts mean that our kids and our grandkids are going to spend more time battling congestion in our cities, with abysmal public transport infrastructure. They'll have even worse internet connections than they do now, if that's possible, while our global neighbours and competitors steam ahead. While we hack away at the funding base for environmental protection and restoration, our next generation will be left with polluted skies, a dead reef, horrific water scarcity and Australian native species consigned to the history books. This bill represents a choice being made by this government to divvy up our kids' future and give it away in short-term sugar-hit tax cuts. It's fundamentally inefficient. Individual tax cuts do not allow us as a nation to maintain clean air, clean water and liveable cities. There's a point at which we say, 'Yes, that's a job for government.' But if the government is intent on shooting itself in the foot by cutting away the revenue streams that manage our society, our economy and our environment then that's when the Greens will stand up and say, 'No.' 

I work a lot on public transport issues as the Greens spokesperson for transport, and I'm regularly presented with the evidence. It is very, very clear that growing urbanised communities need efficient, smart public transport if we're going to get from A to B without being caught up and jammed in traffic for hours every day. People want quick, safe, efficient public transport. When we build it, they do come. The issue is: we're not building it. People are stranded and left with only the car to commute with, and many can't even afford that. Again, there's that equality gap continuing to widen under this government. The absolute shame here is that this government isn't even spending what it trumpets it's spending on its transport infrastructure. When I asked the government about the budget spending on transport during estimates—its $75 billion spend—and I finally got a breakdown, I was shocked that infrastructure spending is actually declining over the next decade not just on a per capita basis but on a real-dollar-value basis. 

It has nothing to do with equity investment versus grant investment or any of the other sleights of hand that the government performs to cover its lack of spending. The department actually admitted that the average spend will go from $8 billion a year in the decade to 2021-22 to less than $6.4 billion a year in the second half of the next decade. In the period when the full weight of these tax cuts will cut in, we will see the real value of infrastructure spending at its lowest point since 2012. We went away further, after learning that, and looked at the numbers and the projected population growth, and we found that real spending per person will go from $379 a person in the 2016-17 financial year to only $226 per person in the years from 2022 to 2028. This is a 40 per cent cut in per capita spending.

That is what we need to overcome. We need more revenue. We need more investment in our public transport, not less—not $144 billion less in revenue over the next decade. Imagine what we could do with $144 billion in revenue if we decided to spend it on public transport. We would transform our cities. We would be able to afford every public transport project. That would mean that our cities would be able to function well—whether it was airport rail, Doncaster rail or the Melbourne's Metro 2 underground. These sorts of projects are what would transform our cities, creating a huge amount of employment, investment—economic activity—as well as creating the sort of society and the sorts of liveable cities that we know we need. That is what we need government revenue to be spent on—projects like this. We need smart, substantial investment in our cities and in public transport. Tax cuts do not help gridlock. Do you know what does? It's smart government investment with a vision for our kids' future. And these tax cuts in this bill would prevent this investment.

The Greens' opposition to this bill, the Greens' commitment to us having enough money to spend on essential services, to spend on housing, on schools, on education, on health services and on infrastructure, is not some whacky vision of the future. This view—that we need to be able to maintain those quality services—is supported by mainstream Australia. Peter Lewis wrote in The Guardian last week, as part of its series of 'Life on the Breadline', that 92 per cent of Australians agree with the proposition that no-one should go without basic essentials like food, health care, transport and power—92 per cent. Yet people today are in that position of having to go without those basic essentials. But the vast majority of Australians want to see a society and an Australia that is fairer and better than that. As Peter Lewis said:

It is enough to make you think people are starting to look at themselves as part of a society, rather than just the economy.

We do live in a society. Taxes that are imposed progressively and the spending of them determined in a transparent, accountable, equitable way are an absolute cornerstone of that society. We need to be maintaining our tax base to be able to pay for the things that make Australia a great country. It still is a great country, but it has been going in the wrong direction for many years, particularly under this last government. We need to be maintaining our tax base to be able to pay for those services, to be making Australia that place that we can be proud of calling our home, where we can be proud to be together as an Australian society. So I urge all members of this place to join the Greens in rejecting this regressive, harmful legislation.

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